Author: Etta Madden (Page 1 of 4)

Utopian and Dystopian Visions: Sicily and Engaging Italy

Monte Argentario, off the coast of southern Tuscany

Emeralds in a sea of sapphire—gems among gemstones—to a romantic dreamer. To those who have removed the rose-colored glasses, perhaps they emerge more like mounds of painted papermâché, conjuring memories of childhood social studies projects.  Or maybe other memories come into focus—the 1970s TV drama Fantasy Islandwhere Ricardo Montalban welcomed guests seeking secret desires. For one who lives most days in a landlocked state, visions of islands promise a bit of the utopian.  As I see them surging up from the blue, I sense my spirits quicken with the mysteriousness of the unknown. A magical world of possibilities seems to lie beneath me. 

For Herman Melville, it was the Marquesas on the horizon. They became the setting of his first novel, Typee (1846). Sick of the ship on which he labored, and even more tired of the tyrannical leadership he abhorred, he set off with a willing comrade upon an adventure he thought would be idyllic.* For me—no reaction to tyranny–merely a spirit of adventure married to the fatigue of campus life led me to my first island experience in 2009.

Sicily’s Catania—under the shadow of the volcanic Mount Etna—promised an escape from the Ozarks during my sabbatical year. To be a bit more specific, I’d gambled and won with a Fulbright application—awarded a teaching position abroad.   

Zoom in to see Sicily’s Mount Etna with smoke rising

The Aeolian Islands, enchanting to Odysseus, rising from the sea near Sicily

Mt. Etna


Utopias Devolve into Dystopias

But like Melville and his autobiographical narrator, Tommo, I learned in the days after landing that island life for a non-native Anglo visitor possessed other than the utopian dreams that had filled my sleeping and waking hours for almost a year. Certainly, didn’t face indigenous peoples described as “cannibals” and “savages, as Tommo did. It wasn’t simply that prior language studies and short stints elsewhere in Italy limited my communications with locals. They spoke, I told my husband by phone before he arrived to join meas if they were rolling rocks around their tongues—as if they had grabbed a handful of the stony seacoast to stave off their morning hunger. In fact, they were no different in their speaking than Ozarkers with chews of tobacco. Easy enough for another local to understand—but for an outsider—not at all.

Black stones, formerly molten lava, on the seaside at San Giovanni li Cuti, on Catania’s outskirts

Inadequate preparation for the January rainy season added to my misery. My clothes were for milder weather, and my apartment’s heat supply would not knock off the damp chill. (A friend later told me that he, likewise unprepared, had been miserable during the winter months on Crete.)

The term “utopia,” dating back to Thomas More’s 16thcentury work of that title, is a pun on Greek words signifying the good place that is no place.

And iwasn’t simply that the city lacked verdure—void of almost any vegetation. Certainly, Sicily rightfully boasts more than its share of natural beauty—be it bright snow on Etna, the Turkish Steps rising up from the sun-sparkled southern coast, or the flowers that bloom even in winter.

Turkish Steps on Sicily’s southern coast

The problem was not Sicily—it was me.

I held my utopian visions tightly. To relinquish them would disturb manticipated experiences of the semester abroad in what I had imagined as a tropical paradise. Irony of ironies! I was teaching “Utopian Visions” to university students. I knew that the term “utopia,” dating back to Thomas More’s 16thcentury work of that title, is a pun on Greek words signifying the good place that is no place. By definition, utopia never exists—except in the imagination. My challenge, then—a taxing one for planners and control freaks—was to let go. 

The problem was not Sicily—it was me. I held my utopian visions tightly.

Rather than smother the serendipitousI needed to let the unexpected experiences live. In short, they did more than live. They pulsed and throve. 

Among these vibrant experiences, the festival of Sant’Agata in early February and, following on its heels, Carnivale, exploded like the swollen orange and almond blossoms. They helped me see Sicily beyond the university classroom. But my courses helped. Students eager to offer insights suggested where I should go, what we should see. (My husband and sons had joined me after my first month).

Confetti and Costumes to Celebrate Carnivale in Acireale, not far from Catania

Carnivale at Acrireale 2009

A colleague invited us to a party with a balcony view of the Sant’Agata parade—during which members of the local guilds carried huge candles hoisting them up and down for moments of rest through their lengthy, overnight circuit of the city. Almost miraculously, as they rested and gasped for breath, they chanted their adoration for Catania’s patron saint.

Members of a guild surround a “candelora” before the festivities begin, Catania  Wikimedia Commons

C[andolore] C[atania] BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

Agatha, a devout early Christian, had her breasts cut off by a Roman leader who wanted to take her virginity. Then, the story goes, she had to carry them on a platter.  Locals now consume sweetened ricotta breasts, each garnished with cherry, during this period. (Let Google help you find images of these “minni” or “minne”–or look at these links from loveSicily and ItalyMagazine. )

But what also happened during my work time abroad—yes, I was working—was that the classes on utopian visions in American literature and culture and on women’s travel writing laid the foundation for an idea which would become a book project: Engaging Italy: American Women’s Utopian Visions and Transnational Networks. 

How, exactly, did that happenHere’s one account.

Beginnings of a Book  

I had been teaching nineteenth-century American literature for years, and I knew many authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote about Americans in Italy based on their time abroad. I became troubled by the language James and Twain used to describe Americans abroad—as part of a “museum” or “spectacle.” While I could visualize American tourists in that light, I also knew that there were American women such as war correspondent Margaret Fuller who had different experiences in Italy—they were more “engaged” than disengaged from the local culture. And so the work for Engaging Italy began. 

I began to explore the stories of women who were more than tourists abroad. I settled upon three now-little-known women—Caroline Crane Marsh, Anne Hampton Brewster and Emily Bliss Gould—who each lived abroad for more than fifteen years and seized opportunities to be engaged in the Italian political changes of the 1860s and 70s known as Unification.

Caroline Crane Marsh, ca. 1866, from Silver Special Collections Library, University of Vermont

Brewster wrote weekly for US newspapers in Boston, Philadelphia, and across the country. (See another post about Brewster here). Gould wrote for two before devoting her attention fully to establishing an industrial school and orphanage and fundraising for it. Marsh, the US ambassador George Perkins Marsh’s wife, oversaw teachers for a girls’ school and orphanage, chaired committees affiliated with it, and managed a household full of family and guests.  (See another post about Marsh here).

These women chose to act abroad, even as they realized that life in Italy was not the utopia they first envisioned. Their stories do not speak simply of an easy escape by white women of privilege who chosto live in Italy during an era when the Civil War raged in the US and later during the nation’s reconstruction. None resembles the women James and Hawthorne depicted. They were not simply sipping fine wine and eating excellent bread and cheese. Instead, they wrestled with letting go of their utopian visions and determining how to live amid conditions that were, if not dystopian, more challenging for them than life in the US. 

Of coursemy interest in these women and the topic was prompted by my own experiences abroad, my prior teaching and writing in American literature, and many questions about my position at mid-life as a woman with a career and family. I did not resolve all those questions, but drafting the pages of Engaging Italy helped me work through many of them. I’ll be sharing more on the research and production process during the months to come–with tidbits about Italy which may interest you.  This post provides a small sampling.

What’s Next?

I hope you’ll follow along through this blog or by subscribing to my newsletter. (What’s the difference between the two? Blog posts generally are shorter and you receive notification when they appear on the website. The newsletter, generally longer, will arrive straight to your inbox. It will include connections to what I am reading and teaching and to talks outside the university classroom). I promise not to inundate you—only once or twice monthly. And you can unsubscribe at any time. 

As always, I am happy to respond to your comments and questions. Happy winter dreaming and armchair traveling!

*For a fun read on a recent travel experience see this article on Melville & the Marquesas from Smithsonian Magazine 2019

A Sicilian Memoir: Simeti’s On Persephone’s Island

Mandarins and pears at an open market in Sicily. Photo: Andrew Malone , Wikimedia Commons via Flickr

Mary Taylor Simeti’s memoir of Sicily as an American expat will not be for everyone. But if you like poetic prose, peppered with references to classical Greece –think, Persephone, of the book’s title, or Pindar’s odes, from which the epigraph is drawn—this book’s for you 

  • If you like rich descriptions of rustic, rural life, even with the realism of how they are overcome by creeping urban conventions 
  • If you dream of harvesting, preserving and eating local produce—not merely olives and tomatoes, but lesser-known perazzoli and quinces 
  • If your curiosity draws you to details of centuries-old village feast days—from the panelli of St. Lucy’s Day in Palermo to the ornate bread sculptures of St. Joseph’s Day 
  • If you fantasize about ancient farmhouses awaiting renovation for habitation and family gatherings 
  • If the mafia intrigues you 
  • If you want to witness the annual vendemmia but can’t afford to be abroad for the grape harvest and wine production– 
  • If you want to know about the cycle of the seasons on this paradisal island, ruled over at times by Greeks, NormansArabics and others–

–this book’s definitely for you.

Altar decorated with bread for celebrating St. Joseph’s Day, Salemi, Sicily

I picked up a library copy of Simeti’s book on the recommendation of food writer Elatia Harris. (Harris possesses encyclopedic knowledge of Italian and French foodways. See the FB group, Writing the Kitchen). How had I missed it while living five months in Sicily as a Fulbright professor? I suppose I was too busy experiencing the culture first-hand and preparing for my classes rather than reading about it. 

Now, though, this tale of a year of seasonal farming, feasts and family life meets my needs. From the bustling Palermo, to the village of Alcamo, and the nearby family farm called “Bosco,” Simeti’s account opens up avenues of Sicily I never knew, and it guides me down other alleys and paths I passed too quickly to comprehend in 2009. 

Simeti’s purpose, however, is to introduce potential travelers to the Sicily they might experience something as she did—with bits and pieces here and there, finally a kaleidoscope of intricate beauty. 

As she writes in the author’s note, which reveals her attitude toward writing, gardening and time travel:  

“I have approached the thorny issue of relating contemporary Sicilian folklore to classical Greek rites with the same blithe ignorance with which I approach my garden, putting in bits and pieces that appeal to me, with little regard for any theoretical framework. This journal has no scholarly pretensions and is not intended for those who debate the question professionally. I hope only to entertain those who know nothing of Sicily and to make their visit here more rewarding.” 

Simeti sets up her story of a year of life in the 1980s with a prologue—the arrival of a young American woman alone, in 1962, in Palermo, to work at the Dolci Center—focused on social reform of Sicily’s widespread and well-known poverty. After this brief introduction to her personal past, the account moves forward quickly, blending her life with her family’s—a Sicilian husband, their son and daughter, and her husband’s family. Most importantly, she situates them within the Sicilian seasons and their traditions, which she explains begin with winter: “November is a time of beginnings in the double calendar that we follow in our family. The grape and olive harvests have ended and school life has begun. 

Fonachelli-Fantina in Winter. This community lies between Catania and Messina, not too far from where some of The Godfather was filmed–but on the other side of the island from Simeti’s book’s setting. As Simeti notes, each of Sicily’s three parts has a different feel and a slightly different heritage.  Photo: Shifegu, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Simeti’s opening and the book’s structure resonate with two other memoir-type tales of the natural world—both now much more famous among American readers: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007). Both call readers, as Simeti does, to consider a life closer to the earth’s natural seasons and cycles. Thoreau began with “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” and explained that he declared his independence on July 4, when he went to the woods to “live deliberately.” His two years, two months and two days on Walden Pond, not far from the center of Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau collapsed into a one-year cyclecaptured in the book’s structureThoreau chose to end with spring and rebirth. Kingsolver, writing of a year in which her family left the arid southwest of Arizona to live and eat locally in Appalachia, began with Spring and took her family’s food year successfully through the winter (Acknowledgement due: Kingsolver co-authored with her husband, Steven L. Hopp,  and daughter Camille Kingsolver).

Although Kingsolver’s, Thoreau’s, and Simeti’s approaches and points are similar, their stories differ greatly. Just as not everyone loves Thoreau’s and Kingsolver’s works, certainly not everyone will care for Taylor’s. There are many of us, however, who thrive (and even survive!) on the attention to nature, food, family, and the poetic. I have decided to buy a copy and return the book on my desk to my local library. Someone else may be waiting for it.   


I’ll be writing more about how Sicily and my Fulbright teaching months influenced my book project Engaging Italy in my upcoming newsletters and blogs. I would love to have you subscribe, if you have not already. Use the subscription box here, or send me a message through social media , and l’ll add you to the list.

A Past January Inauguration Day in Sicily Spurs Hope for Future

Gray skies above Catania, Sicily, in January

A few years back–twelve, to be exact–I was adjusting to an unfamiliar climate and culture. Less than two weeks off the plane in Catania, I was still in shock at Sicily–a far cry from any Italy I had known. When the dark clouds blew in, carrying with them sands from northern Africa, and the gray skies let loose a deluge–well, it was wet. But not wintery.

Only I, the crazy American with a bright purple umbrella, was out and about when Sicilians were inside.

Gray skies above the Chiesa di San Benedetto, Catania, Sicily, in January

My mission at the end of the teaching day, representing the US in higher education as a Fulbrighter: to find a gym and a public television. The first was for indoor exercise. The second–more important and much more memorable–to catch a glimpse of Barak Obama’s inauguration.

Leather boots and wool pants soaked, and smelling only as wet leather and wet wool do, I made my way into the first lit establishment amenable to women and with a screen on the world news.

The energy in DC as Obama spoke swept through the airwaves as easily as the Sciroccan sands. In a word–electrifying.

I sat mesmerized, eyes on the screen in amazement and almost disbelief. A few locals could tell. Of course, they had heard me order (and likely pitied my forlorn, lonely, wet dog look), but I recall how they took liberty to break my rapture. What did I think of Obama and his election?

There is hope, I responded in my poor Italian. There is hope for the future.

There is hope, I responded in my poor Italian. There is hope for the future. They understand those simple words better than the barista understood my drink order.

Indeed, the question was posed repeatedly in the days that followed. And my response remained the same.

But the January rains, fortunately, changed. And the sun shone brilliantly on the snows of Etna. I hope the clouds hanging over today’s inauguration soon pass as well and that the sun will shine with warmth and peace among us.

Sunshine on Mt. Etna, January view from Catania

I’ll be writing more about how Sicily and the Fulbright teaching months influenced my book project Engaging Italy in my upcoming newsletters and blogs. I would love to have you subscribe, if you have not already. Use the subscription box here, or send me a message through social media, and l’ll add you to the list.

Riding the Winter Waves: Reading for Health 

Elizabeth Blackwell writing on happiness in 1845

Here’s the second part to a post from just after Thanksgiving 2020, “Riding the Holiday Waves: Writing for Health.” Because some consider early January as post-holiday, have changed the title slightly to “Winter Waves. Certainly, the waves of winter weather and emotion are here. I am feeling them. You? 

Since that postprompted by Janice Nimura’s PBS News Hour video on the topicand in which I confessed my own fraught history with daily diary entries, I have decided to feature another—somewhat easier—method for “riding the waves.”  


As you likely know, reading can be the ultimate spa treatment.  
In fact, in contrast to writing about yourself through journaling, reading may take you out of yourself in a healthy way. Writing, on the other hand, may bring on too much self-focus. 

“self-consciousness” is “the disease of the present day. . . . Whatever becomes the object of constant thought or attention becomes unduly magnified. The individual’s own importance is thus greatly increased in his own estimation”*    British and Foreign Medical Review, 1844

As aOctober 1844 British and Foreign Medical Review author wrote of that era, “self-consciousness” is “the disease of the present day. The author continued: “Whatever becomes the object of constant thought or attention becomes unduly magnified. The individual’s own importance is thus greatly increased in his own estimation”* 

Eerie, huh, in this age of social media and ill health among young people?

The medical author wrote in response to the highly popular Life in the Sick-Room (1844), a memoir in which then-chronicinvalid Harriet Martineau obsessed over her ill health. Although Martineau wrote in a pattern typical of narratives of suffering endured with spiritual ends, and although she later recovered enough to call herself “cured” of her prior “feminine” ills, the medical author’s point is clear—writing intensively about oneself, and constantly looking inward, could contribute to illness. 

Rather than journaling for your health, then, perhaps reading would suit you better?  

Since my own reading lately has been focused on health (and women’s health in the nineteenth-century, in particular), I thought I’d share a few thoughts gleaned from readings on those topics and my experiences through the years.  

Read to Escape    

Pick up a book that takes you completely out of where you are now. Could be a different time, or place, or both. Escape to a warm southern climate in a past century, or time travel forward to a futuristic world in another universe. Reading is a healthier escape than most mind-numbing drugs, and engages the imagination in a way that film does notA fun title that took me across time and space and found me smiling at unexpected moments is Juliet Grames’s The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna.

Cover of Juliet Grames’s The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna

The characters move from Calabria (in Southern Italy) to Connecticut, from the early twentieth-century to the present. The title should tell you that this novel is not merely fact-based historical fiction but a fun romp with a magical character. 

Read for Stimulation

Let a book take you out of the doldrums by prompting you to see in new ways. Choose a title that takes you into a new arena, a new world of experience.  I’ve started Molly McCully Brown’s Places I’ve Taken My Body.

Molly McCully Brown’s Places I’ve Taken My Body

It’s a collection of essays that foregrounds her experiences as a disabled woman, traveling in the American south and in Italy. It takes me out of myself (escape!) but also stimulates me to think about how others live. Poignant and painful moments—most of her lived experience—with cerebral palsy differ immensely from mine. And yet some of her insights—about anger and love, for example—speak to me, with my healthy spine and nervous system. 

And for those who want a little more “exercise” to maintain their health: 

Read and Highlight 

Undergraduate students do this deed too much (and often do nothing else). But as you read you can underline, highlight, check the margin, or place a sticky-note on the page (depending upon who owns the book and the approach toward the page as sacred) – when you come across a line, a sentence, a paragraph or passage that speaks to you. Confession: I am far from an undergraduate student, but I do sometimes fall prey to marking too much.

Nell Painter’s Old in Art School

See the field of blue flags I stuck in Nell Painter’s Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over! This book, an unexpected gift from my sister, surprised and stimulated me to mark many moving passages. This step was the start of thoughtful reflection. The next step is more challenging.  

Read and Reflect in Writing  

Take up paper or keyboard—or talk-to-text through a transcription app. Ask yourself what triggered you in the marked passages, and then answer the questions. Start writing, typing or talking. It might be that the ideas or character actions resonate with what you already believe, or it might be the opposite. Perhaps you see something completely new. The answers are only for you—not for any teacher or external critic. 

These written reflections circle back to journaling, of course, but with a different spinA reading journal—notes about reactions to what you’re reading—provides direction and emotional health in a way that open-ended journaling does not.  

Nimura’s book on 19th-century physicians, Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell

As an example and a closing, I leave you with a passage I read recently in Janice Nimura’s The Doctor’s Blackwell. Elizabeth Blackwell, in Asheville, North Carolina, wrote home to her mother, Hannah, in Ohio: “I feel very wakeful, just at present . . . . My brain is as busy as it can be, & consequently I’m happy.” ** (33).  Otherwise disconnected – from family and from any she might deem friends, Elizabeth grounded herself by reading. Perhaps you may similarly find yourself “wakeful” and “happy” by reading this winter . . . and throughout 2021.  

Thanks for reading along and, as always, let me know your thoughts. You can share your response here, or send me a message through social media.  

And as a bonus this month, I’m offering a list of my ten books of life writing–memoir and biography–which moved me most in 2020. Let me know if you’d like a copy. 

Meanwhile, happy reading! 



Quoted by Beth Torgerson in an essay on Harriet Martineau’s writings (Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, Number 135, Summer 2019, p. 14). 

**Quoted by Nimura (p. 33). 

Coincidence or Signs? Waldensians in the News

Twice in less than 24 hours—actually, within about 12 hours—I received notice from two friends* of two recent but very different news stories about the Waldensians. One was in here, in Friday’s New York Times, and the other was in here, in Ozarks Alive, only a few days before.  Coincidence or signs? To me, it was a double-sized sign—time to share.

Who, perhaps you ask, are the Waldensians? And why care to share?

A view of Torre Pellice, home of the Waldenisians, in Italy’s Piedmont

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Both of these stories tell you who they are (a religious group who has fought for independence of thought and practice, often in the face of persecution) and their history and origins (12th century France and, later, Italy). The Ozarks Alive article speaks of some Waldensians’ 19th-century migration westward. One of two locales where Waldensians settled in the US is Monett, Missouri.

Both stories also celebrate the Waldensians strong beliefs in religious freedom and in social activism. The Times story points to contemporary Waldensians in Italy’s Piedmont helping with the resettling of Syrian refugees. The Ozarks Alive story focuses more on the history of those who migrated and the Ozarks’ settlement.

Both stories merit reading—they are heartwarming accounts for this dark time of year.

They tell us about long traditions of people trying to do right, in whatever ways they can. Sometimes the results flourish. Sometimes the small steps take people many miles.

They tell us about long traditions of people trying to do right, in whatever ways they can. Sometimes the results flourish. Sometimes the small steps take people many miles.

I learned about the Monett Waldensians in a weird way – sitting in the archives in Torre Pellice—a small community in the mountains of northern Italy. I had arrived during a sabbatical semester in 2015, driven to locate letters to and from a New Yorker named Emily Bliss Gould. Gould joined forces with Waldensian leaders after seeing their schools in the mountain villages near Turin in the 1860s. Drawn up in their beliefs in widespread education (as opposed to believing education was a privilege of the elite), Gould became a fundraiser among the wealthy back in New York. Funds she raised, sent to Italy, supported schools in Florence and in Rome. But Gould’s activism in Italy is another story for another place.**

Taking a break from my research in 2015, while I chatted with the archivist over coffee, he asked me whether I knew of the Waldensians in Missouri. I don’t know whether he or I was more surprised—that I knew nothing of them and yet lived less than an hour from Monett and frequently passed through it in route to northwest Arkansas!

Etta Madden in front of Waldensian library archive Italy

Here I am in front of the Waldensian library and archives, Torre Pellice, Italy

I wish I had read an article like Kaitlyn’s in Ozarks Alive before I arrived in Torre Pellice. Since that 2015 trip, I have met the historian and professor, Mark McMeley, mentioned in the article, who grew up in Monett, has lived in Torre Pellice, and frequently leads tour groups there. In fact, two years ago I had the privilege of visiting Torre Pellice again, this time with Mark’s guidance, and joined by a fantastic group of fellow travelers interested in “off the beaten path” sites and spiritual communities. Mark’s exuberant spirit and brilliant language skills added to the fun and uplifting learning. I’m sharing a few photos from those visits.

Enjoy the two linked stories above and the photos they provide as well.  And do let me know if you’re interested in a future trip to Torre Pellice. As always, you can sign up to follow my blog through my website. You’ll receive notifications in your email of new posts, rather than rely upon the whims of social media.

**Emily Bliss Gould and her work will be the star of a later letter.

*Thanks to Mark McMeley and Renee Arnaud Fogle. Both are from Monett and of Waldensian heritage.

Mark McMeley, left, with other group members, waiting for the cattle to pass before finishing our descent

Our group in front of a monument to the Waldensians’ heritage, on the hillside above Torre Pellice


Riding the Holiday Waves: Writing for Health

Hello, friends.

How have the first of the holidays been for you? Have the emotions of 2020’s elections and COVID caused these past few days to seem calm, by comparison? Or are you riding those holiday waves that are common to many of us? Do you slide from peak to valley, with ups and downs ranging from anticipation and jubilation to dread and despair?

For me, the rough riding usually begins with the change from Daylight Savings time to November’s extra early darkness. The days seem way too short, and the list of holiday “to dos” way too long. This year–so far–has felt slightly different. I’m not sure exactly why, but I have a few hunches. One is that a bunch of us women were able to check out from some of the holiday hosting stresses. But for me there’s a little more to it than that.  In short, I’m advocating more regular reading and writing for health. Today I’m sharing a bit more about writing (the reading part will follow at a later date).

Last week I shared on social media a moving  article by Janice Nimura on “Wingtips and Shell-Toes.” It’s a beautifully crafted essay on what she gained from her father as well as on how she differs from him. (You can read that essay here.) When I shared the story, I promised to write more about Nimura and her work. Here’s the follow through — and it’s about her journaling.

Author Janice Nimura (Photo Credit: Lucy Schaeffer)

Just a few days after Nimura’s essay about her father appeared, the PBS News Hour  ran a video with her: “The Value of Writing our Way through a Tumultuous 2020.”  You can watch the video and get Nimura’s advice here.  If you don’t have the three minutes it takes to watch the video, you can read the transcription at the same link. Basically, she encourages people to write:

  • for posterity’s sake
  • for their own health and wellness

She says it more more beautifully than these bullet points summarize.  And she does so by sharing a bit about her own journaling habits.

Nimura explains that her research (recently on the 19th-century Blackwell sisters, the subject of her forthcoming book) depends upon journals and diaries.  She asks, how will future researchers know anything about life during COVID, if some people aren’t writing about it??? And what about your children and their children, Nimura asks, when they want to know about your life in the first part of the 21st century??

Nimura’s forthcoming book on 19th-century physicians, Emily and Elizabeth Blackwell

Regarding health and wellness, she explains from her own experience through the years that she has written in her journals to figure things out. She puts down on paper thoughts that need sorting. And she has done so for years–going way back to her adolescence.

Nimura’s interview, on the heels of that beautiful essay about her father, made me feel a little “lesser than” (a little “crestfallen” –to continue the wave imagery). I

have never been one to keep a journal. That is, until recently. In 2019 I began writing morning pages.

So Nimura’s account also gave me a lift of affirmation. And it made me determine to share her account with you.

If you’re already a journaling enthusiast, you can stop reading now. If you’ve tried to keep a journal but never been successful, don’t give up trying. There’s hope.

If you’re already a journaling enthusiast, you can stop reading now. If you’ve tried to keep a journal but never been successful, don’t give up trying. There’s hope.

I’ve never been one for morning activities.  Yes, as some of you know, I’ve long been an exercise enthusiast–swimming, cycling, jogging, walking. But I’ve NEVER been one for morning physical exercise. At least, not until I’ve been upright for at least an hour or two and consumed at least that many cups of coffee.

Morning coffee, black

I kid you not. I only began journaling regularly in 2019.

But you’re a writer, you say. Surely–haven’t you kept journals for years? You travel. Haven’t you kept travel journals?

The answer is yes and no, but mostly no. Someone brought me a diary for a birthday gift when I was still in elementary school. A couple of family members gave me travel journals when I was in college, preparing for a study abroad semester. At least one professor assigned a teaching journal, as I began my career (and I have assigned them to my students). A good friend gave me a journal when I became a mom, to record thoughts about motherhood. But in each case my journaling was short-lived, an enterprise encouraged by someone else.

And in each instance, the brevity of the practice meant the return on investment was less than that first savings account my parents helped me open with my babysitting money. Then, as an adolescent girl, I quickly learned that my immediate needs –make up, jewelry, after school outings–far outweighed savings for the future! Until recently, keeping a journal or a diary was similar–less important than what I deemed my immediate needs. How could I keep a journal as a new mom when I could barely care for my baby and myself??? And when I was traveling, so busy out and about, seeing and experiencing new sights–how could I find time to write?

Now, though, I find myself in a different spot. In fact, I realize now that the daily journaling is as important as the morning coffee. (Well, almost.)

Photo of cover of book by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way advocates daily journaling

The tipping point? Not one factor but several came together in what might be called “a perfect storm.”  A long-time friend and advocate of “morning pages,” Deborah Cox, directed me to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Her book’s subtitle says much:  “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.” Deborah and I used the book in a writing workshop we ran in February 2019. Knowing Deborah and her habits of creativity and self-care, and then reading this book, were the trigger I needed.

Writing “on task” while I was a college student

After years of daily writing “on task” for specific book and article assignments, I found something both soothing and energizing in this new “free” writing.  Being less-focused and not “on deadline,” this writing allows me to release concerns and anxieties that are on my mind. Issues surfacing in my crazy dreams go right on the page, and I often generate new ideas for the “on task” writing as well. As Cameron explains in her book, this daily discipline–disciplined in routine but not in content–causes creative juices to flow. And these same juices contribute to mental health.

Of course, none of these insights are anything new. Advocates of journaling have voiced them for years. But if you have not tried some daily writing for your mental health–do it!

2020 isn’t over yet, nor is COVID. You still have time to write for your health and your posterity.  Pick up a journal. Pick up a pen. Give it a try.


If writing doesn’t seem to be for you, then consider reading. Reading practices and some recommended titles will be the topic of a future letter. Social media, as we know, uses unpredictable algorithms. So be sure to subscribe to receive notifications by email when new letter appears.

I’ll also keep you updated on events, such as writing and health workshops with Deborah Cox,  or virtual talks on any of my writing projects.

As always, I’m happy to respond directly to messages as well.

Meanwhile, may you have a happy and healthy holiday season!


The Past Hauntingly Repeats Itself? National Elections of 1844

George Perkins Marsh portrait engraving by H. B. Hall, reprinted in Life & Letters (1888) 







As presidential election news was pouring into Washington, DC,  in early November, 1844, a junior US congressman captured visions of the city:

“The excitement was intense. Torch-light processions paraded the streets with wild hurrahs; heavy guns were firing, now by one party, now by another, according to the latest news received. At last, an hour after midnight, a yell of triumph, protracted, hideous, demoniac, rang out from one end of the city to the other. There was no occasion to ask questions. Everybody knew what it meant.”

“Early the next morning,” the congressman, George Perkins Marsh of Vermont, “called a friend to the window and pointed out a huge flag floating over a distant quarter of the town. ‘Do you know what that flag is waving over?’ he asked, with an excitement of manner very rare with him. ‘There is the Slave Market of Washington! and that flag means Texas; and Texas means civil war, before we have done with it.'”

Marsh had spoken out against slavery and the annexation of the Republic of Texas in the period leading up to the election. As this passage from his biography records the events, Marsh appears to have been a bit in shock and dismay at the nation’s division and the election results.

It would be more than a decade before the Civil War would officially erupt, but Marsh was prophetic in his prediction.

Let’s hope that our coming election night is not so fierce and that the past does not repeat itself.


Marsh’s political career and his years as an early environmentalist, a co-founder of the Smithsonian Institution, a scholar of languages and as  a US ambassador abroad in the Ottoman Empire were recorded first in The Life and Letters of George Perkins Marsh (1888) a biography composed by his wife, Caroline. The second volume she composed, never published, includes the record of his twenty-year career as US Minister Plenipotentiary to Italy.

See more Caroline Crane Marsh on the New York Public Library Archives website and in Transatlantica.

Follow me on social medial or subscribe to my website blog for more entries on American women writers such as Caroline and their relevance to contemporary culture.

Coffee Passions: One of These Things is Not Like the Other

A cup of coffee in a clear mug next to a breakfast cookie with a glass of water and a small pitcher of milk in the backgroun

Double espresso and breakfast cookie in Rome

A paper cup from Starbucks with a lid

Cappuccino from Starbucks, small

One afternoon this week my desk work demanded a break. A good strong coffee called to me, as I sat staring at the computer. I had skipped my usual morning dose — two strong cups of bold espresso to fulfill my passions. “Un doppio,” I would order in Italy, usually “macchiato”–stained with milk. In Missouri, instead of Rome, I moved to the closest coffee spot around and ordered an afternoon brew.

Why? I wondered once again. Why? What is it about American coffee shops–independent or otherwise–that causes the cost to be twice as much as the near twin abroad? (This question is not a rhetorical one. Please clue me in!)

Am I paying for a personalized cup, with my name scribbled onto the paper takeaway-and-throw away? Is it real estate, insurance, advertising, and/or other overhead?

No complaints about the taste of what I consumed from that paper cup–except that everything tastes better in a glass, pottery or porcelain vessel.

Notice the clear glass cup from which I sipped an espresso doppio in Rome (yeah, sometime back before Covid). (Notice, too, the little pitcher of milk–the barista knew I was an American and suspected I would want more milk!) This delightful beverage, served at a table and with a healthy breakfast cookie–and a healthy serving of water–cost the equivalent of that single takeaway liquid treat in Springfield.

Yes, I’m longing for those Italian treats I miss: the coffee that soothes my passions, the many places in Rome and elsewhere that serve it up quickly and well.

Anyone else hoping that memories and what’s nearby will be enough to satisfy?

Food Memories: Utopian Visions?

I missed June’s blog. I’m making up for it by referring here to a short blog that appeared elsewhere last month. I wrote “Koulourakia Cravings” for a website called  Historians Cooking the Past.  I, like most other contributors, wrote of a strong food memory. It simmers up at certain seasons. When the light, the weather, the smells–all the senses–send me back to another place and time. And then, I reconnect to that past place by recreating that food with my own hands. In this case, it was the Greek sweetbread, koulourakia, that I wrote about, after baking a batch this spring.

Since first writing about utopian foodways before Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias appeared, I’ve thought and taught about them often. But what I’ve not asked anyone is this:  how are food memories utopian? And how is nostalgia connected to utopianism?

Generally, utopia, or the perfect place that is no place, is in an imaginary elsewhere in time and space. Often, visions of utopia are futuristic. Utopians seek to make the world a better place. They are forward-looking rather than past-gazing, right?

Actually, no. It’s past experiences–memories of them–and the current conditions–often dystopian–that motivate dreamers to visualize utopia.

What was it that I was trying to recreate when I made koulourakia last spring? What was it that I was craving that went beyond butter and sugar?

As the blog explains, I associate those sweet treats with time abroad in Greece, younger days of marriage and motherhood in New Hampshire, and even my early career in Missouri. Certainly those days were not all utopian bliss. I was not living in a utopian world. But the conditions of the current moment–amidst the Covid pandemic, sheltering in place, and teaching online–pushed me to recreate cookies that I associated with moments of sheer pleasure. Consuming cookies, shared with friends, neighbors and family, speak to me of a perfect place. Nostalgia is more than longing for the past. In the best cases, and in the healthiest conditions, it can be a stepping stone for moving forward in community. In the worst, nostalgia can be holding on to something unhealthy that should only be remembered for what it can teach us about how we may move forward differently.




As Italy crawls back to life, many of us mourn the loss of trips planned and cancelled. This week-after-semester’s-end at the university often finds me in flight across the Atlantic. For most of the last decade, returning to the peninsula I fell in love with during a study abroad semester has been an end-of-term ritual. Often those trips to Italy are with others–sometimes university students, sometimes life-long learners like me. This year was to be no different.

Image from a plane of Italian coast north of Rome

Nearing Rome in 2019

But the change of plans became official a couple of weeks ago. When the airlines sent the flight cancellation notice, I wiped off my calendar a group trip scheduled for late June. Our small group had anticipated the change, discussing it even in early March. Nonetheless, the message still delivered a sting of reality.

The trip would have been my fourth with a group of curious adults willing to follow my lead. Our goals?

  • Personal pilgrimages to lesser-known sites, but with a small group flair
  • Fun with a few others willing to explore “off the beaten path”
  • A schedule with time and room to explore individually
  • Daily reflections on the unexpected and serendipitous.

Rome would have been a starting point. The Colosseum and St. Peter’s were to be mere touchstones, as these spots famous for early Christian martyrdom create the context for thinking about the ways in which religious life and cultures change over time.

Connecting Spiritual Sites to Personal Journeys

Considering our own paths, our journeys would intertwine with what we would witness.  Passersby in the popular Piazza Barberini, for example, often miss the bones encasing the crypt of the Cappucin church in Via Veneto. Nathaniel Hawthorne twisted these into an evil scene in the Marble Faun. Yet we  would consider how they reflect a reverence for life and for death, admonishing us to think about our places in this Great Circle.

Another stop, Santa Pudenziana, originally a Roman bath house, is now a thriving Filipino congregation. Visit on a Sunday to experience a lively mass that exhibits ever-changing church life, but another morning allows a close up view of the apse mosaics. These date from the fourth century, demonstrating visions of Jesus and his disciples as Roman rulers–not uncommon imagery in these early Christian worship sites. Nearby, for example, the church of Santa Pressede offers similar mosaics and cool silence among central Rome’s heat.

Image of early mosaics in church of Santa Pressede in Rome

Mosaic in Santa Pressede, early Christian church in Rome

Image of mosaics in dome of chapel in Santa Pressede, Rome

Dome mosaics in chapel of Santa Pressede, Rome

Other early imagery decorates the mausoleum of Santa Costanza, outside the city’s walls. Our group would travel east on the Via Nomentana to experience the explosive floral and organic imagery inside this burial site of Constantine’s daughter. An effusion of flowers and abundant grapes combine to create an almost Bacchanalian aura. They evoke celebrations a far cry from Victorian pearly gates, golden streets, and singing seraphim and cherubim. On the same campus, the body of Saint Agnes lies entombed, at the entrance to the underground catacombs that provide insights to other ancient burial practices.

These three ancient sites are not secret–certainly others visit them–but they are far from the madding crowds of central Rome, thronging the piazzas and streets winding from the Colosseum and the Campidoglio through the Campo dei Fiori, the Trevi Fountain and the Piazza Navona. We would visit these–Saint Agnes’s head is in the church bearing her name in the Piazza Navona–along with other “not secret sites” in the city. All ask the thoughtful to reflect on their own journeys within this larger context.

From Rome to Umbria and Arezzo

Umbrian verdure from heights of La Verna

Our group after a few days would have escaped the urban hubub to the cool heights of La Verna. Perched aside a hilltop northeast of Arezzo, the village of La Verna sits sleepily. I learned of it while reading On Journey, the autobiography of social activist Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), who visited regularly as she wrote a history of Saint Francis and his early followers. Further above the village, at the end of a drive that veers off a windy mountain road, the Franciscan Sanctuary that arose in the saint’s honor lies almost hidden in a thick forest. Arriving at the monastic sanctuary and guest house, I sense I’m following not only Francis’s footsteps but also Scudder’s.

Buffered by the dense foliage, the monastery and its inviting guest spaces inspire rather than intimidate. Of immediate note, the birds’ mesmerizing songs send spirits soaring. They speak the language of Francis’s life, known for a connection to animals. And they remind visitors of nature’s bounty, a far cry from the sounds of urban traffic. Rome’s sounds and diesel smells are also dissipated, as forest paths underfoot release their damp, earthy pungency. The paths, part of the larger system of The Way of St. Francis, lead to the nearby spot where the saint is said to have received his stigmata. Here our group would spend part of two days in times of silence, walking the trails and mediation. (Thanks to friend and former traveler Deborah Cox for giving me permission to share these four photos she took a few summers ago.)

Along one of the paths at the Franciscan Sanctuary above La Verna

Franciscan Sanctuary La Verna


Other Sites of the Saints

Other sites associated with Francis would dot our travel. Lodging two nights in another monastic site in Assisi would allow us to begin and end our days with views that stimulate and stir the senses. Later, an easy morning’s drive would take us to Siena. Although both Siena and Assisi are thick with tourists, we would add some lesser seen sites to our days–like the home of Anne Hampton Brewster, Philadelphia journalist who died in Siena, after writing from Rome for twenty years. And of course we would visit sites associated with Saint Catherine, whose life also motivated Scudder’s writings and social activism.

Assisi in the evening, when most tourists have vacated the streets


Siena’s campo, famed for its annual horse race, has fewer visitors after dark

A quiet corner in Siena, near the final home of American journalist Anne Hampton Brewster

Siena’s Basilica of San Francesco, slighted by visitors who opt for San Dominco, associated with Saint Catherine


Along the Tuscan Coast and South

After Siena, a short stop in Porto Santo Stefano, would precede a longer pause in Tarquinia. In this ancient Roman town, an Etruscan necropolis reminds visitors that other civilizations predated the Romans. And Tarquinia’s peaceful streets speak to most travelers’ needs for time outside of tourist centers.

We would end our trip with another site similar in its beauty, history and distance from the crowds. Ostia Antica lies near Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport in Fiumicino, yet far away from its bustle. A national historic cite, the grand park offers an expanse of ruins that exhibit an almost pristine amphitheater, ancient toilets, and rich mosaics. The remnants of former worship sites, such as the Jewish synagogue, would remind us once again of how ancient Rome embraced diverse religions. Ostia also boasts beaches–so some of our group would stroll the lungomare, or venture into the sand to dip their toes into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Perhaps this touch, like throwing coins in the Trevi Fountain, would signify a journey that they hope to remember, if not repeat.


Image of the amphitheater at Ostia Antica, Italy

Amphitheater at Ostia Antica

Remnant from the Jewish Synagogue, Ostia Antica

Restructured toilet fragments, Ostia Antica

View of the Sea from Lodging in Ostia

The Tyrrhenian Sea at Ostia


What’s Next?

None of us knows what the future holds for us, but we plan nonetheless.  As far as travel is concerned, we wonder what’s next.  Some trips have been cancelled–others have been postponed. Our group trip is a mixture of the two. With the indefinite future ahead, we hope to know more by fall. Then, if possible, we’ll plan more specifics–new dates, new times, new itineraries. And perhaps even a few new travelers. Maybe you would be interested in joining the group? Or maybe you are part of another small group–a few couples, a few single friends–with whom you’d like to travel? If so, let me know.  One of my passions is advising, planning, and sometimes leading such small group trips. Contact me here or through Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.


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