The drive up the mountain takes place at dusk, the jagged foothills of western Sicily jutting up alongside the road, looming ochre and then blue in the fading light. We rock from side to side as the taxi hits each new switchback, and I marvel that I’m not carsick. Instead, I’m filled with jittery excitement; an entire week alone stretches out before me, a sweeping vista of time. The driver listens to a radio station that plays a weird mixture of Italian music along with American songs by artists like Celine Dion and Eminem. My taxi companion—a man named Irvin who lives in Brooklyn and who is attending the same writing conference I am—chats with me about the writing life until suddenly, the taxi downshifts into park and we are on top of the mountain.
I am here. Erice. The name means “mountain of God.”
After dropping off our bags in each of our rooms, Irvin and I join Cristoforo, the hotel employee who will walk us to dinner at a local restaurant where the rest of the conference-goers await. We are the final guests; the conference group is now complete.
“Andiamo,” I say at the front door, and Cristoforo turns to me in surprise. He says, in Italian, that I speak the language, his eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Un po’,” I say. A little. This is not entirely truthful. I understand only the smallest fragment of Italian. But already, I am someone new here—I am without my husband, without my young children—and I’ve only just arrived.
I am a fearful person. I do not want to admit this, to attach this label to myself, but it seems an undeniable truth. I am terrified of looking stupid, of not knowing something in front of other people. I didn’t use the bank drive-through until I was thirty, because I didn’t know how to and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to figure it out. I imagined myself stuck in the drive-through lane, a line of angry drivers behind me while I fiddled with that tube thing, and so for years I just parked my car and walked inside, until one day I didn’t any more.
There are a lot of reasons I’m like this—my genetic makeup of anxiety-addled forebears, an abusive childhood, a cloistered and risk-avoidant life—but none of them matter now. On this journey, I’ve left my family behind in northern Italy. My husband and two sons—ages five and twenty months—will stay in Rimini, near the beach and near my husband’s Italian family, while I go to my conference in Sicily alone.
Before we left the U.S., I expected departure day to near with building anticipation; I assumed I would have to hide my growing excitement to leave. So desperate was I for respite from five straight years of stay-at-home mothering (including an oldest child with special needs) that I foresaw myself skipping into the Bologna airport without looking back, waving as I ran ever faster so I could get myself onto the plane and just flip through a damn magazine in peace. Instead, I could barely sleep the night before my flight. The thought of impending separation from my children for an entire week, the very purpose of this entire trip, filled me with a terrible sadness. This was not how it was supposed to go. Mother love, it turns out, is a many-tentacled beast. At home I spend days—no, whole weeks—wanting release from the burdens of motherhood, only to find that I don’t want to leave when I’m finally able.
And now that it’s here, I feel as if someone has sawed off one of my feet with a nail file. During my four-hour layover in Rome, during which I planned to leave the airport and go wander the city, I instead slump in a seat near my gate and anesthetize myself with a novel. I choke back tears all day as I think of my toddler’s chipmunk voice saying, “Pun-een! Pun-een!” every time he sees or hears an airplane. For months—no, years—I have wanted even a small break from the daily demands of motherhood, and now that I have it, I am at loose ends.
Erice is situated 2,464 feet above the Mediterranean Sea, which it overlooks. The morning after I arrive, when I get my first astonishing view of the valley and the sea and the uninhabited mountains to the east, I am struck by the fact that the horizon is invisible. It is impossible to tell where the sky ends and the sea begins. Clouds float past my head, and I laugh a little; I’m in the clouds. My chest expands to fill with mountain air and I stare, for a very long time, at the panorama of Sicilian landscape and seascape. Something like lightness starts to grasp at me.
My palms are damp during my first workshop. Our instructor has asked us to give a brief introduction of ourselves.
This is the part I always hate, the part I’ve been dreading. When our workshop submissions were sent to us a month before the conference so that we could read everyone’s work prior to arriving, all six names were printed on the first page of the packet. I immediately Googled everyone, and to my horror, I realized that I am the least educated person in our group. I have a bachelor’s degree, but one man has two PhDs and a master’s. One woman was an Obama appointee and is a nationally-recognized visual artist. One just retired from Proctor & Gamble as a high-level executive. Three are professors.
I’ve taken to introducing myself at home as a writer—a title I’m proud of, finally able to own—but here, that is beside the point. We are all writers.
“I’m a mother,” I say, then hasten to add that I’m a personal essayist and that I’ve written a novel. Why does “mother” always seem to fall flat when I tell people what I do? Why does it end conversations instead of begin them? Why do I always feel like it’s not enough when it is how I fill all my minutes, hours, days?
On the second day, I’m sitting on the stoop of an ancient church, facing the center of the piazza as I scribble in a journal. My concentration is interrupted by the plaintive crying of a child.
I look up, blinking in the thin mountaintop sunlight, and I see a toddler trailing her parents by a few steps as they wander through the piazza. Her parents are jabbering at one another in Italian. I can see in an instant that the child is exhausted.
I wasn’t supposed to be a mother. I spent all of my twenties and a portion of my thirties married to my first husband, and I was resolutely childless by choice. Children annoyed me. Their cries and their needs and their noise drew my glare if their parents were unfortunate enough to be within a hundred feet of the child-free bubble I created for myself. I was also certain that, were I to have children of my own, I would unlock a secret password that would turn me into my own mother: enraged, disdainful, desperate to get away from her own children at every moment.
I hardly babysat as a teenager, and the cousins in my family were all either older or close to the same age I was. I could not change a diaper or feed a baby. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know these things. I assumed knowledge of babies, for women, was innate. I was, therefore, deeply flawed on many levels.
Deliberate childlessness seemed like a safe bet.
I look at the little girl in the piazza now; her mother has picked her up. I feel a sense of relief and also astonishment at my own reaction. Because while she was crying, while I was staring at her intently, I wanted to go to her. I wanted to feed her and then put her down for a nap in a cool, darkened room. I didn’t think any of this logically. Rather, my body thought it for me. It responded involuntarily.
“Nobody likes to talk about how so much of motherhood is drudgery,” my therapist tells me a few months before I leave for Italy, when I tell her I am desperate to leave my children but also terrified. The terrorist attacks in France and Brussels have me panicked; what if my trip puts my children at risk for leaving them motherless? I imagine horrifying scenarios, accidents, tragedies. I tell my therapist all of this, and she shrugs it off. “You’ll be fine. You need this,” she says. “It’ll be good for you, and good for them.”
And when she tells me this, when I think of the trillion times I have wiped up cereal from the floor, when I think of my daily imprisonment in my kitchen—making snacks and meals and cleaning up the aftermath, over and over like a Victorian dog chained to a turnspit—I don’t feel despair. I feel only relief. I am being given permission to not love every moment of motherhood, and I seize it with both hands.
During my week in Erice, I eat mostly bread, pasta, and cheese, sometimes at every meal. Vegetables are scarce—this is an arid climate—but when they appear, they are generally very thin slices of eggplant or zucchini roasted into a leathery texture. I don’t eat meat or fish, so while my fellow conference attendees feast each night on Sicilian specialties like swordfish and calamari and tuna, I dine mostly on pasta. The first night I’m there, I order a disgusting-sounding dish called busiate alla pesto Trapanese. Named for the port city of Trapani at the bottom of the mountain, the pesto is comprised of eggplant, tomatoes, ground almonds and garlic. It sounds awful; I hate eggplant, but I don’t have a wealth of choices on the seafood-heavy menu. This is my only option, and someone at the table recommends it.
The dish arrives, and there’s no other way to describe it: it’s ugly. It looks like someone threw up on my plate. I spear a piece of pasta and sigh, then put it in my mouth…and it is one of the most delightful, odd, delicious combinations of foods I’ve ever eaten. Even though there are more courses to come, I eat every last piece of pasta on my plate. All that’s left is a smear of that ugly brown sauce when I’m finished. Long after I leave this place, I will still be able to taste that busiate.
Nothing is ever what it first appears to be.
Erice is the highest point in western Sicily. For millennia it has been seized by anyone who can overtake it: the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, the Normans. Even the Hapsburgs hung out here for a while and slapped their crest on the entrance to the old Norman castle, where it can still be seen today.
I stare at the valley below, the breeze on my cheeks, the blueness of the sea matching the blueness of my eyes. I wander the 800-year-old castle ruins, built atop the ruins of the Temple of Venus, and I feel a longing to connect with the spirits of the priestesses who lived here so long ago. In ancient times, the art of sacred prostitution was practiced here in the Temple of Venus. Sailors coming in from the the Mediterranean climbed the side of the mountain with their hands, bearing gifts, and any man who succeeded in making it up the mountainside was rewarded with the attentions of a high priestess. Children born in the temple as a result of these relations were raised by the community of women; the priestesses then bestowed blessings upon the sailors for safe travels.
I watch a young couple kiss as they stand on the turret that overlooks the mountainside. They twine their arms around each other, their noses nuzzling as they gasp for breath—do they feel it, this ancient eros, still inhabiting the air around us? I feel a pang of longing for my husband, for what we had before we had children, when we could go on vacation and make out like teenagers and sleep until 10:00 in the morning.
My conference-mates actually seem to like me. This embarrasses me and also warms me to my fingertips, brings life back into the parts of me that motherhood has numbed. I had forgotten I could be likable, that other people might enjoy and value my company, that I could converse intelligently with adults. When I tell one of the women in my workshop why I loved her piece, she grins at me during lunch and says to everyone around us, “You are just the best, isn’t she the best?” Later she gives me a hug and my eyes fill with tears. I hadn’t realized how little value I’d felt as a human being because of my withdrawal from the world. I feel like I am suddenly me again for the first time in a very long time.
Before I had my first son, I owned a dog-training business for eleven years. I worked with owners in their homes, solving everything from housetraining problems to aggression issues, and I also taught group obedience classes; I loved helping people with their animals. I closed my business because I was burned out, but also because it was arduous, balancing marriage, children and job. Without fully understanding what I was leaving behind, I gave up being of value and service, using my intellect to problem-solve, to connect with and move among people.
This part of me, the part that is something other than mother to my children, has been squeezed smaller and smaller, condensed and concentrated down to a hardened onyx bead I carry inside me, rattling, all but forgotten. But not entirely.
On Wednesday, the day when we’re on our own for dinner instead of dining in large groups with our fellow conference attendees, I amble into a little restaurant facing a small piazza. I’ve seen their sign advertising arancine. After eating so much pasta and bread, I am eager for something different, even if rice balls mean that I am only trading one starch for another.
I’m the only one in the restaurant; it’s 7:00, early for dinner in Italy. I see the glorious arancine, big as softballs and golden as a Sicilian sunset, arranged on white platters behind the deli case glass. I ask the man at the counter if he speaks English, and he answers yes, he does, with an unmistakable African lilt.
We begin to talk as he prepares my food, and he tells me he is from Ghana. His name is Raman and he has a brilliant, wide smile.
“When I came here seven years ago, I speak no Italian at all. Now, everything in this kitchen is made by my hands.”
He smiles, waving his hand over the deli case. I ask him if his family still lives in Ghana. Does he get to see them?
“My mother and sister. I can go back only every three years. It is too hard, too many airplanes to get to my village, and very expensive.”
I ask him where he goes during the winter if he doesn’t go home, and he laughs.
“I stay here! I have an apartment up here on the mountain and I read books all winter.” Wintah. “At home I was in school to be a journalist. I want to be a writer.”
Raman is young, twenty-six. Young enough that he could be my own son. I tell him I’m here for a writer’s conference and he manages to smile even as he looks sad. I ask him if he still writes and he tells me yes, but only for himself and only sometimes. I ask if he had to leave Ghana.
He thinks for a moment, trying to find the right words in English, and then he finally says, “In Ghana, there is violence. Religious violence.”
In an instant, I see his mother back in Ghana, worrying about him every single day, wondering if her child is safe or if he gets enough to eat or when will she get to place her hands on his cheeks again and look him in the eye. I feel the punch of her ache, sharp and hollow.
“Your mother must miss you very much,” I say to Raman, and he nods, that wide smile taking up his entire face. “She must be proud of what you’ve done.” He looks at once both boy and man, and I can see on his face—bashful, shaking his head a little—that he knows he is loved. I feel an urge to hug him, to tell him everything will be alright. I feel a distinctly maternal pull toward this young stranger.
I say goodnight to Raman and wish him well. I walk out into the cool Sicilian night, the cobblestone-lined streets narrowed further by darkness, and I think again of Raman visiting his mother once every three years. I wish that I could write to her, tell her that her boy is safe and happy and living on top of the Mountain of God. I send those wishes out, hoping they reach her, hoping that the shared language and understanding of mothers somehow brings her comfort.
On my last afternoon in Erice, I stroll around with my backpack, looking for a place to sit and sketch. I like to draw and paint, and I’ve brought my sketchbook and watercolors to Erice. I find a narrow walkway that leads down into an arch, intersecting with another walkway. I sit on someone’s doorstep and uncap my Copic multiliner, looking at the shape of the arch as I place black ink on paper. The breeze shifts around me; I’m in the clouds again today, the narrow slice of sky over my head the color of porcelain. I pause in my drawing to swat at the passel of flies who have come to keep me company.
I can already feel myself shifting away from this place, moving my gears back toward home. I have begun to imagine the feel of my boys, their warm, soft bodies in my arms, their damp breath in my ear as they whisper to me. I stare at the arch, trying to capture its shape on the page of my sketchbook, and I’m aware that I’m not quite in either world right now. I am soon to leave this place, but I am not gone yet. I am still here, for just a short while longer. I want to bottle the quiet magic that is Erice and take it home with me. Can I keep it? Can I sustain what I have found here?
Someone is baking bread nearby. I breathe in the scent of garlic as it makes its way down my little lane. Hunger blooms inside me.
A few friends from the conference spy me sitting on the stoop; they call up to me from down below, from where they stand beneath the stone arch. They join me and we talk for a while, conference gossip about the instructors, and then we make our way through the streets, back in the direction of the hotel. I silently bid goodbye to this place. I send up a prayer of thanks to someone—Venus?—for being gifted with this time, for this reminder of what still exists inside me. And then I go get ready for dinner.