Elaine and I were sitting alone at a large teak table on Allison’s patio in Syracusa, Sicily. An awning protected us from the hot rays of the early afternoon sun. Allison had caught a morning flight to Switzerland to visit relatives so we had the place all to ourselves. We were halfway through a good bottle of Sicilian wine and recovering from the jet lag as a steady stream of Sunday strollers walked past us along the quay.
I talked to Elaine about my morning stroll, the fisherman and his wife, how they got me thinking about love and fear and how we needed to get out into the world to experience both, to appreciate both. Occasionally a couple would pause in front of us to admire Allison’s huge array of potted plants. They were so dense and varied that we blended in with our environment and it would take several seconds before the onlookers would notice our presence at the table and politely nod in our direction before walking on.
Dorothy didn’t walk on. She paused at the entrance of our urban garden and noticed her reflection in the dark windows of Allison’s apartment. It was a perfect setting. The ancient walls, the flowering plants, the bay and the distant mountains reflected in the background. She smiled over at us and then reached into her shoulder bag to pull out a camera. There was no shyness, hesitation or embarrassment; she was just reacting to the beautiful scene as we watched. “Here, let me take your picture.” I stood up and approached her. “No, look!” as she points to the windows. I looked back to see our perfect reflections in the dark glass. She said, “It’s such a perfectly framed picture.” Dorothy held her camera at waist level, pointed it in the direction of the glass and snapped a picture. I smiled in acknowledgement and returned to my seat, expecting her to walk on. Dorothy put her camera back into her bag and stood there admiring the flowers for a while longer. She was in no rush to move on, she lacked that common bit of uncomfortableness that occurs when passing strangers watch each other without a word being said. She looked at the variety of plants, she looked at Elaine then at me, then she looked up toward the sun, squinting her sky-blue eyes.
I glanced at Elaine, shrugged my shoulders and smiled. I reached for the bottle of wine and held up an empty glass. “Would you like to share some Chianti with us?” Dorothy tensed a bit. She was taken aback from the sudden and unexpected offer. We could practically watch all the little fears going through her head. This simple offer meant a change in her plans, of her idea of what the afternoon would look like…who are these strangers and why are they inviting me onto their secluded hideaway? Is it safe? Do they want something? Are they just trying to be polite? I then saw her shoulders relax as suddenly as they had tensed and her smile broadened. “Why not!” She stepped into our little slice of heaven and introduced herself. “I’m Dorothy!” I stood up from my chair and offered her a seat on the bench next to Elaine. “Hi!, I’m Joe and this is my wife, Elaine.”
My intuition was right. Dorothy was a bit out of the ordinary. It showed in the way she responded to her environment. She wasn’t observing the world as it passed by, like some passenger on a speeding train. She wasn’t just walking along the quay snapping pictures, she was interacting with her environment, savoring it, experiencing it. My sudden offer might of caught her of guard for a second, but only for a second.
We all sat and talked and told our individual stories. Dorothy had been a lawyer in Hamburg, Germany. She’d spent most of her life dressed in formal business clothes, rushing to meetings, talking with clients and living the life of what I could see was a high powered attorney. Several years ago that all changed. Both her parents died, within six months of each other. They’d been diagnosed at the same time, her Dad with prostate cancer and her Mom with stomach cancer. They’d had a thriving nursery business and after their traumatic death, Dorothy changed. She walked away from her law practice and took over the family business. She explained how she manages the business with a hands-off approach and travels, primarily by herself. She was proud to explain that although she could afford to stay at five-star hotels she keeps a tent and a sleeping bag in the trunk of her aging BMW 530i. She’ll camp out for a few nights, jump from hostel to hostel a few more nights and then go to the five-star to clean up and get a little luxury. She’s traveled all over the world, including countries that don’t favor solo women traveling in such rugged conditions. She said, “I’ve been scared to death several times but then I realize, most of the fear is my own and there is no greater threat than being locked up in my apartment afraid of life and of death. I love my life!” Dorothy has created a bucket list and she lives because she realizes that life is fleeting.
We all realized we were kindred spirits as we sat and talked around the table. No, we all VERIFIED in our left brain that we were kindred spirits. We KNEW we were kindred spirits the moment she walked up to the patio staring at her own reflection in the hot afternoon sun. Our left brain just needed to catch up to what our right brain had immediately recognized.
We are all going to die, and much quicker than most would wish. The sooner we accept this the better off we’ll be. The biggest risk, the biggest fear for us is that we won’t live a full and free life. Dorothy experienced a huge, life-changing event with the death of her parents. Their deaths saved her. She is living; experiencing love every day. Love of life, love of adventure, love of explorations, love of new friends, new food… beauty in the world.
She also faces her fears everyday. Some are minor: “where will I be laying my head tonight?” Some are major:”will I be able to get out of this situation in one piece?”
Regardless of the risks she takes it‘s all a dance, a dance no different than the one the fisherman and his wife attend to. There is a price to pay and there is a reward. You can never have one without the other.
As Kahlil Gibran wrote so eloquently:
“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.”