Carmen Sivers and I live in the same Massachussetts town, far from her native Italy. After hearing Carmen speak and tell stories about the importance of connection, I asked her if she would guest blog. Her voice is distinctive and thoughtful.
After more than eighteen years in North America, my most distinct struggle is to establish deep, long lasting friendships. Interactions with others simply entangle me in a web of superficial politeness and sweetness with no depth or roots. Every time I try to support a friend in need, I am always dismissed with the same tone and words: “Oh, we are fine! Everything is under control” and in the true Bostonian spirit, “We are all set, thanks”. And, so, unless my help consists of authentic home made Italian food, I hit a solid wall of pretensions every time I try to deepen my connections.
When interviewing his guests, a famous Italian TV journalist, always concludes with the following “ Ask your self a question, and give yourself an answer”. I’d like to do the same in regards to the topic of relationships: my question is “How smart is it to pretend that all is well, to shut people out of our most intimate and complicated life’s struggles and to create a facade of artificial happiness and perfection, while telling everyone “Don’t worry, I am all set”?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “One of the most beautiful compensations in life is that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself”. There is real power that comes from sharing our frustrations, fears, struggles, and failures, just as there is enormous inspiration derived from sharing our dreams, achievements and successes.
When dealing with a problem, I have found the best solutions come from talking to others who are or have been in the same situation. By exchanging ideas and points of view, we help each other and ourselves gain a new and better perspective. Realizing that our circumstances are not so unique and others share the same fate and misfortunes, is a source of great comfort. Somehow we are blessed with the ability to gather the strength necessary to carry our burden just one more day, until we meet our friend again, when their words and actions will one more time renew our hope in a brighter future.
One of my grandparents’ neighbor, la Signora Carmela, used to be the cook for a wealthy family in my hometown, in Italy. She spent long hours in their kitchen, creating the most amazing and succulent dishes. Then she would come home, and continue to cook for her family and friends, as she would often delight us with her creations. I still remember the scrumptious coconut cake cake she made one year for my birthday! With time and age, she started running into health issues, namely bad knees. The situation got so out of control that she was forced to quit her job. Rather quickly, and after a few bad surgeries, she also became unable to climb three flights of stairs that separated her apartment on the ground floor from my grandparents’ on the third floor.
All of a sudden, Carmela went from a full and busy life of cooking, people, and relationships to having to be confined to her small apartment because her knees would not allow her to climb stairs and walk long distances. Even the simple daily task of grocery shopping had become and still is impossible for her. And having being so independent all her life, she now needs the help of her sister 24/7, to be able to accomplish even the most menial tasks.
During the years, I had heard that she had become sad, even depressed due her condition and the new static lifestyle. This went on for a while. She had to go under the care doctors and take medications for her depression, while being confined to the perimeter of her one bedroom and tiny kitchen apartment.
Upon my visit back home two years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that things had changed: Carmela had taken matters into her own hands and had decided to switch things around in order to regain her life back. How did she do it? Surgery? Nursing home? More pills? Therapy? No! None of those. She simply opened her front door!
By keeping the door of her apartment open all the time during the day, all those who enter or leave the building must go by her place and whether they like it or not, they are forced to at least wave, if not actually step in and talk to her. And so the interrogation begins: “How are you? Where are you going? Where have you been? How is work? And the children? And your husband? Have a cup of coffee, I just made it! Sit down, I have ice cream for the kids. I made some tomato sauce, put some in a container and bring it home. Call your mother and have her come. Tell me, where is life better, here or in America?”
Carmela has found a way to enrich her life through relationships with her neighbors – regardless of their preferences, they have to stop in because she is a sentinel on duty and if they don’t, they will be labeled as rude and impolite. And who would want to have that reputation? During the years, things have actually evolved so much that she has set a new trend: the other doors on the ground floor are also open, so that now we have to greet not just Carmela but two additional neighbors. And Carmela now also has pedicure and manicure parties, coffee breaks and even her own counseling sessions for friends who are experiencing serious challenges. She has saved a few with her experience, love and compassion.
And so I wonder, how do people who have only created superficial relationships cope? How do they find the strength, the courage, the push, to face their challenges and persevere, if they are alone? Who consoles them? Who protects them? Who hugs them? Who or what gives them hope? Is there anyone out there for them? A Carmela who can read the pain in their faces, who can wipe away the tears from their eyes, who will greet them with a smile or who will simply hold their hand? They go on in solitude, and they go, on and on, they keep everything inside, until…
Unable to create meaningful relationships, many end up at the therapist, forced to pay for the human connections they are unable to find elsewhere. They share their struggles, uncertainties and fears with the hope that the professional will listen and possibly provide the tools necessary to cope. While some people may benefit from the care and guidance of a professional, I often wonder if most could get through life’s challenges if they simply shared their struggles with others. So the answer to “ How smart is it to pretend that all is well ?” is that it is not very smart to want to isolate ourselves and pretend that all is well in our little world of imperfections. The price to pay is simply too high.
But, I can’t change a culture.
So, every Winter, when whether conditions deteriorate and keep us more indoors, and isolation becomes an even fiercer reality, I find myself begging my husband and children not to let me get old in this country but to take me back to my Mediterranean roots, where like my grandparents, I will be able to gracefully age in the sweet company of friends that I will gather everyday at the benches on the promenade along the sea. We will watch the waves crash on the rocks, and eat lemon sorbet, while the warm sun will gracefully sculpt more wrinkles on our aging dark skin. We will share the menu of the day, talk about our children and our husbands, our aching bodies, our memories and our dreams for the future. Life will seem lighter and laughter together will fill it up.
Carmen Conte Sivers is part of the crowd of professional foreigners residing in the US. After over 18 years in this country, she holds strong to her Italian roots, teaching Italian and working on translation and voice projects in the Boston area. Her favorite past time is to sit on the steps of the Cathedral in Amalfi, eating gelato and watching the locals go about their daily life or better yet, talking to them and listening to their stories.