RAISE A GLASS TO OLD ITALIAN CHURCHES
When I go to a party, which isn’t too often on account of, you know, hives, people will often ask what I, as a writer, do for inspiration. This question is put to many novelists, although for anyone writing against a deadline, inspiration isn’t always an option on the menu. But you will find Panic there. I like to pair mine with a nice white wine, a side dish of denial, and a Netflix binge.
Yet I do have a secret, never-ending supply of inspiration. It’s where I always go to top up. And it never fails me.
I live in Italy.
My love affair with Italy began on a writer’s retreat in 2012. The minute I set foot on terra italiana, I knew I was home. Italy is a land of artichokes, grapes, roses, oleanders and palms. Cypress trees create dark, candle-shaped silhouettes against a lilac sky.
The entire country is ramshackle, just as it was three thousand years ago, which is when the medieval town I live in, Civita Castellana, first gained a foothold on its chalky soil. The Italians built churches—nine-hundred in Rome alone—as a hedge against war, plague, famine and death. Death came anyway, usually in the form of blood-thirsty marauders.
One of those marvelous churches, La Chiesa di San Gregorio, sits directly in front of my house. It’s my secret source of inspiration.
San Gregorio was built in the 12th century. Its dark, vaulted interior smells of mold, incense and wet rock. It’s usually empty. Little Catholic nonnas, with their head scarves, house slippers and rosaries, prefer the nearby Duomo where Mozart once played. Sometimes one of the village cats will wander inside, blink at me sleepily, and then commence to licking its paws.
The word inspiration means to “breathe into”, which is exactly what happens when I take my notebook and my pen and write inside San Gregorio. Nearly a thousand years of prayers were offered here. Now I am lucky enough to feel their collective yearning breathing into my heart and through my pen.
If the walls of San Gregorio could talk, I would have more than inspiration; I would have stories. Think of all the human courage and human frailty these walls have been witness to—young priests dispatched from medieval Rome to lead the faithful. Lovers stealing forbidden kisses. The outrage of selling indulgences—or God’s forgiveness. So much life has been lived beneath this luminous window. It reminds me in a comforting way not to waste any time. Death never takes a holiday.
So when you think of me writing stories about my native Texas, stories like DREAM ON, SWEET DREAMS and DREAM LOVER, know that I am here, dwarfed by history, scribbling beneath the dusty rafters of San Gregorio.
I draw from a rich store of Texas memories, but the breath of inspiration comes from an old stone church, half-abandoned, that sits in on an Italian hill.
San Gregorio is imprinted upon my soul.