(from her novel Elizabeth Street, 1905)
Thin drops of hail were hitting the tall back windows in Miss Amadeo’s apartment. When she had looked out the window an hour ago a strong wind had been blowing heavy snow into the alley, covering everything even the gas lamp at the head of the Alley. It was going to be a long night. Eugenia Amadeo picked up her notebook to write something that had just come to her, something she had just remembered, something that before this minute had been long gone.
“I was once a teacher,” my Mother used to say, “I forget now for whom or exactly where.” I never believed that she had forgotten, but she had her reasons for saying this. Both my mother and father were students who ‘walked,’ one didn’t say ‘studied,’ with the philosopher, Musonius Rufus, a Stoic. Perhaps he was her grandfather or her great uncle or someone like that. The school was in the same place where my mother lived, but for my father getting to the celebrated, but quite hidden, villa was another matter. “I had to travel the length of Sicily twice, before I found it,” he always began, and then he would tell us stories of adventures and misadventures that we children loved, stories about Cyclopes and shepherds, sailors and flying machines, lost children and treasure boxes at the bottom of dried wells. Although it took him years to find the ancient villa, when he arrived the Teacher was waiting for him on the porch steps as if he were receiving a son that he had been expecting. Father had no introductions or credentials of any kind. “No one was ever sent away for foolish reasons,” Mother said and then added, “Besides he came like all travelers, tired and alert with a Black Bear huffing at his back.”
Now this detail about the Black Bear is strange, but every time I remind my brother of this Bear, he says he never heard my Mother say such a thing, not even once. But she did say it to me a number of times. Once preparing dinner, while I was watching her go about her business, with that absolute ease she had when working, out of the blue she turned to me and said quite deliberately,
“Did you know that Father came to our school with a Black Bear close at his heels?”
“Really? A Black Bear? I didn’t know we had Black Bears.”
“It was showing him the way.”
“Showing him the way? You said it was close on Father’s heels.”
“It turned out to be the same thing.”
In this way meaning and stories made a repository in my mind and Memory became my treasure box.
They said the school was a nice enough place, a falling apart Sicilian country villa, old fashioned, all on one floor, with inner gardens and courtyards. It was there over dinner or when walking in the mountain pastures with the goats that our parents were educated. “Soberly you understand, soberly. Dressed simply,” my father used to say, “dressed in coarse linen.” “Not to give ourselves airs,” my Mother would add. “It made us properly humble to know that we are all paltry in the face of such great dimensions.”
Over the years our parents often brought up the question of work. There is another side to the work question that appears once one has satisfied the landlord and the grocer. Our parents taught us that the Hebrew word for work, slaving, serving, and worshipping is one and the same. “So when the condition is no longer literal one must make the distinctions intimately.” Then our parents asked, ‘What are the differences in how we look at these three? What is work really? What purpose does it serve?’ Our parents encouraged more questions and answers for, as in their own studies, there can be no written texts, which might be later misinterpreted, but only questions and lively discussion with what passed as answers for the moment. The eternal part of our studies we would understand in our hearts. These discussions encouraged us to use intelligence to further our understanding,” not to prove your brain capacity, but to increase your humanity. The good mind is at the service of the heart which is what connects village with stranger, neighbor with neighbor.”
‘To work’ is another way of saying ‘to live,’ as animals forage or scamper all day or night to keep themselves alive, they are working for the entire family, for the den, for themselves- as- the- den. When one worked it was always for the art of life itself, which for my Father was ‘essential and joyous’ and for my Mother ‘difficult and satisfying.’ They believed in excellence, in the beauty of yearning, and the necessity of stories.
How one gets work is a story. Whom you love is another story. ‘The human story is simple: We are born, we fortunately and joyously live and then die. Ah but allowing the joy in ‘we live.’ What does it mean to ‘live?’ to be truly alive? We owe allegiance to the beautiful body and its senses and the spirit which lives within. There she would stop and smile, breathe in and say “but that most important place that has no words you must find for yourself.” Were the ellipses ‘ love and work’ with its place in the material world and its essence in the spirit?
“… there is always one’s real work. Knowing the difference between the hand that makes or the knowledge that serves is one thing, but what of the other? Where is joy or beauty? What brings you to your work? To your heart’s desire? A major part of what you do is not measurable for pay.” Then, by way of inspiration, our Father would tell a story about the innocent third brother, the girl finding her way out in the world, the poor, abandoned children, and those amazing tales left us with our mouths opened. They were real and we felt them so.
“This part that is ineffable comes from the spirit and no one can ever pay you for that.”
“‘Do you mean like inspiration?” I once asked clumsily.
“‘Yes, sometimes, sometime,” he would encourage, “it always depends.”
Apropos of this my Mother once showed us something she had found in an old mouse nest. “Look! What a mouse saved in her tiny nest. It must have worked very hard to get it there. Many would ask what ‘use’ was it to the mouse. “Then she opened her palm to reveal a beautiful turquoise bead.
My dear Father was a commentator on modern times. All the talk about ‘progress’ that was declared at the turn of the century he believed would bring humans to complete ruin. “Good change happens but not in laying steel ladders down covering the earth.” (His view of railroads) “Nowadays the world has gone mad with made things and goods and possessions, so that the wise and compassionate are laughed at and put on the margin of ‘important’ activity. Many people foolishly believe everything can be made into coin, but that is because they do not ‘see’ the invisible worth of every created thing. Remember, the invisible part that you serve by work cannot be accomplished by machines.” At which point he would laugh at the thought.
“It is essential not to become discouraged, but instead to hold the power of this invisible sight steady in front of you for we all have real work that is ours, truly so. Since all work must serve it is essential that you know who it is you are serving with your work. But like the seasons this work can and often does change. Ah! To live one’s own real life. I remember what our teacher Epictetus taught:
‘If you are zealous about that which you have been given freely, it is yours unhindered and unhampered. Hold fast to your own life- everything which is truly your own – do not covet those things that are alien to your real life. Then faithfulness is yours, and reverence is yours. Who then can rob you of these things? Who can stop you from using them, if not yourself? Only you yourself can hinder you. How? When you are zealous about things not your own, and have cast away the things that are.'”
In this dark night when ice covers the snow that covered the hard moss ground and finally covers everything we saw and thought we understood. Is it harder to track in ice than snow, harder to see inside the course and blunt weight that makes the new ghostly step deep and sharp where the snow was once at least soft and subtle?
– Eugenia Amadeo December 8, 1905
No one has come or gone for hours now, nothing moves outside in the alley or in this quiet room nothing except for the spirit’s invitation to hope – speranza – “Speranza,” Miss Amadeo writes, “in calm hope, waiting for the lover, who always comes in the eleventh hour to open our eyes and keep us from falling back into sleep.
Gioia Timpanelli is the author of Sometimes the Soul, two novellas of Sicily (WW Norton, 1998) and What Makes A Child Lucky (WW Norton, 2008). One of the founders of the current world wide revival of storytelling, she received a Maharishi Award for “…enlivening within the listener that field of pure consciousness that is the source of all stories.” Currently she is broadcasting Story Traveler for North Country Public Radio, http://www.northcountrypublicradio.org.