Rome. Florence. Budapest. Vienna. In the last several weeks, I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have traveled to such diverse and fascinating places. I’ve been awed, humbled, inspired; I’ve been treated beautifully by the strangers I’ve encountered, and embraced by the numerous friends and family members I’ve visited. It’s been nothing short of beautiful.
And yet. The whole time I’ve been away, I’ve been somewhat held back from fully enjoying myself because of one constant worry that’s been needling at me, as persistent as a fly: I need to get back to my Real Life.
Although I’m originally from Italy, where we’re guided in large part by our pursuit of pleasure, I’ve lived in the United States for the past few decades and like many Americans, I’ve been conditioned into thinking that we must consistently strive for more. Everything we have must be bigger and better; we must keep going for the best. This pattern of thinking seeps under our skin and defines how we spend our days. If we must get ahead, achieve more, and possess more, how dare we pause? How can we realize perfection and success if we’re out having a good time? How can we maintain our devotion to our work if we’re distracted by the joys of sensory pleasures?
This began to eat away at me. I found myself growing antsy during the long and delightful meals that define the European culture—my knees tapping under the table, my hands reaching for my phone, my mind elsewhere. I cut coffee dates short. Conversations went unfulfilled. Sights so stunning they should have stopped me in my tracks weren’t given the time and attention they deserved. Moments that should have been relished with family and friends were tainted by an undercurrent of pressing anxiety. I had emails waiting for me. Messages that needed replies. Social media to check. Phone calls to make. Writing to do. Reading to catch up on. A to-do list to get back to. My mind rushed ahead of me, leaving me spent and restless in its wake.
And then while alone one morning, I stopped for an espresso. I sat at a table outside, and pulled my phone out of my handbag as soon as I was served. Certainly I was missing out on something critical from back home, and it was necessary—no, vital—that I check my email immediately. Before I glanced at the screen of my phone, I heard a whistle. Lovely and low, but just loud enough for me to lift my head. A small, exquisite bird was perched on a leg of oleander. Its tiny eyes took in the sights around the café as it sang, and I followed its line of vision, absorbing it all. The way the sunlight hit a hanging basket of bougainvillea, the fuschia petals bright, boastful in their beauty. The water cascading in the fountain in the square. The carefree gait of a young couple walking by, and a toddler girl with fat curls enamored with her shadow. I closed my eyes and breathed in the aromas around me—freshly-ground coffee beans, yeast rising in a loaf of a bread, jasmine from the nearby gardens. I let the sun spill over me as I took my time with my espresso. I was reminded of Ekhart Tolle’s path towards spiritual enlightenment, which began with absorbing the sensory world around him. “Everything was fresh and pristine,” he writes in his incredibly popular and influential book, The Power of Now, “as if it had just come into existence.” Like Tolle, I gave into the sensations around me. I gave in, and let go, until my body thrummed with warmth and pleasure, my mind cleared and sharpened at once, and all I felt was bliss. Pure, unadulterated bliss.
I’ve long emphasized the importance of being present at all times; I do my best to practice it, but find that it can be simple to ignore when burdened by stress. With the tiny bird still perched nearby, I promised myself anew that I would devote myself to the present, to the right here, to the right now.
I lingered over my espresso. I ordered a croissant, and enjoyed every luscious, buttery bite. I listened to the claps of laughter from the table next to mine, stretched my arms towards the pale blue sky, smiled at passersby. The bird gave a final chirp, and flew towards higher ground. I took my time walking back to the apartment we’d rented. I spent the day wholly engaged with the people I love—listening intently to my stepmother as she recounted stories of my father, feeling the immense comfort and pleasure of my husband’s hand in mine, relishing the sweet scent of my cousin’s baby as I held her in my arms. That evening, we dawdled over a five-course meal. Did I think about the emails I needed to tend to after dinner? Yes. Did I have a flash of worry when I thought about all of the appointments I’d have to make when I returned home? Of course. But I thought of these things with far less urgency, for I reminded myself that when it came time to handling those matters, I’d devote the effort and attention they’d need then. For now, I had risotto to savor, a glass of pinot to appreciate, a conversation to cherish, relationships to treasure. Because if this isn’t Real Life, what is?
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