Between the Lake and the Castle
On the top of the hill, above the Villa Serbelloni, lie the skeletal remains of a stone castle. They are gorgeous and haunting, as many ruins are. To get there, you wind up a gentle sloping path, surrounded by lush foliage, steps preceded by lizards dashing here and there. Lake Como glitters below, anchored by postcard towns and snow-dusted mountains. It is near impossible to describe The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center without sounding hyperbolic. While full of splendor from the art to the furnishings, the atmosphere is ultimately one of friendliness, and—against all odds—largely devoid of pretension. There are multiple factors that contribute to this, not the least of which is the equanimity and grace of the center’s director and the loveliness of everyone who works there.
“Many of my fellow residents at Bellagio were people I would unlikely meet… The challenge to my introversion aside, the interactions sparked novel conversations and new ways of thinking.”
Many of my fellow residents at Bellagio were people I would unlikely meet, let alone interact with over days. The first night I arrived, a writer from Denmark shared her novel in progress, about a Danish woman who makes the reverse migration of a young refugee who had settled in her town and then died. Written in Danish, the author translated three pages into English to share with us; even in this second language it is a glorious piece of work. Two modern composers made music in the evenings, using the piano in ways I had not seen before. Some nights, a dancer / choreographer put movement to their notes. These expressions, a welcome release from thought, held us in rapt attention. A leftist writer from the UK pushed my politics in the places where I have gotten lazy. There was camaraderie and good will, whether solemnly walking with hundreds of others and the body of Christ for the town’s Good Friday procession, playing croquet, or engaging in robust dialogue. Worlds opened to subjects I had considered but not enough, like the linguistics of social justice, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, carbon markets on a global scale, the plight of adolescent girls. Or things I knew absolutely nothing about: the transportation system in Accra, humanely-scaled architecture in China, how to keep seeds dry in the developing world. The challenge to my introversion aside, the interactions sparked novel conversations and new ways of thinking.
Sixteenth-century mystic Saint Teresa of Avila used the castle as a metaphor for the inner sanctuary—entering more deeply into oneself and union with God. Which means one must first find the door, and then the key. The very nature of my writing project wasn’t viable without consistent inward reflection; it was part of the heartbeat, its backbone. When I presented the nascent work to my fellow residents halfway through I wanted feedback around questions of voice and form. The essays pulled so much from my experience on the spiritual and activist paths that the writing was unavoidably drifting into some memoir as well. Was this… okay? Was it…. good? The collective response from my peers was yes, it was both, and in fact absent the particularity it would be too much abstraction. This clarity was a huge gift, even if I am still discerning how to operationalize it. I am resigned, almost happily, to the probability this book will be a long and slow process. There were stretches of time when I simply sat on the balcony and willed a merging with the lake, a visual arm’s length away. Eventually my days came to revolve around the work and the lake, and how one talked to and fed the other. The work with its predictable walls and demons could not exist without the refuge, even salvation, of the water.
Leaving at the end of my month at Bellagio was like leaving a lover, or the womb: warm amniotic fluid with its constant nourishment, the unpreventable exit.