A few weeks ago, I ran into an acquaintance who mentioned he’d been reading my blog. To which, I quickly demurred, “It’s just a little thing I’m doing.”
“The stories show you’re looking for connection,” he replied, and my cheeks began to burn.
It’s true. I’m a writer, after all; my job is to look for connections and to connect. What else is metaphor but a line drawn from one thing to another? But, I’m writing more publically now—about myself—which can be a little scary. And having myself reflected back at me by someone I only sort of know—I felt like a found-out child.
So, yes, I confess to looking for connection—between myself and readers, a would-be partner, the planet, the community, etc. And like all great characters in books and in life, through connection, I want to be loved, supported, understood, and know that my life on this planet matters.
One way I’ve been working with this idea is through sharing stories where food and wine intersect with my daily life in complementary and productive ways and where eating and drinking act as connective tissue. I’ve always been interested in fresh, nutritious food and in wine and spirits, but now, for whatever reason, I feel compelled to take my interest beyond the recreational and into the sincere.
And then, this summer, as if the connection gods were speaking to me, I had a radical experience with a bottle of wine. Seriously. A few sips in, and I became aware of something I had never considered: a wine can love the person who is drinking it.
Here. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with MS. It was a blow, but not a total shock. My body had been telling me something was wrong for most of my adult life. In my late twenties, I became one of those young mothers—frazzled, ill-prepared, worried—who never felt good. I walked around in constant pain from a series of seemingly random symptoms and saw doctors of all feathers to no avail. I was told I was “highly sensitive” and what other people could “shake off,” I felt to the extreme. The cure? “Keep yourself busy.” So, on top of working, mothering, and wife-ing my way through my thirties and forties, I also became my own private investigator, watching and listening to my body with obsessive focus—taking notes, keeping records, and testing theories. I learned a lot. But I also lived like a school marm hid inside me, slapping my own knuckles every time I reached for a piece of bread, a hunk of cheese, or a glass of wine. It was exhausting and anxiety-producing.
Who knows? Maybe the fasting helped me get as far as I did without a major MS episode. But around the time my dad died, the ingredients for that first attack arranged themselves like water molecules before the boil. In one year, I left my husband and became a full-time single mom of two kids; my father, suffering from long-term dementia, was put into a home; my mother, in her own grief about my father’s illness, lost touch with reality and railed against me in horrific explosions of hatred; I lost a good friend; my kids suffered desperately the loss of their intact family and threw their pain at me like snowballs at the kid with glasses; and I met a guy who broke my heart. I could barely see straight. And then—intense, halting pain in my head. It wasn’t until the right side of my body went numb—I could literally draw a line from the top of my head to my mid chest—and my father died, that a sports medicine doctor found several lesions at the base of my skull on my spinal cord. It was an unconventional place for MS, but not unheard of, and the reason why it was so difficult to diagnose.
Luckily, the prognosis was good. This was a slowly progressive form; the numbness would ease, and with the right medication, I should be ok. I joked that I was half the person I used to be, that the metaphor of going numb was not lost on me, the poet. But humor nor poetry could mask the truth. I was devastated.
An ever-welling grief filled me and would spill over without provocation in the small moments I had with myself throughout the days: in the car, the shower, sometimes right before I called down the kids for dinner. Usually able to negotiate life’s stuck-out foot with some reserve, this was more than I could temper.
By some kindness, both kids were going to overnight camp for three weeks that summer, so I quickly got in touch with my friend Midge Guerrera and her husband Jack, who live in a small village in the Italian countryside half the year. “I’m thinking of going to Italy,” I told them, “got any good tips?” “Of course!” Midge said, “Stay with us!” A few weeks later, I landed in Milan.
Midge and Jack were excellent hosts, and their small hometown in the Benevento region was a dream. They didn’t ask me many questions about my dad, the boyfriend, or my MS and allowed me to stare out over the quilted hills from the balcony of their home for as long as I liked. They cooked peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini from the large garden adjacent to their place, drove me through colorful villages tucked into craggy hill sides, and took me to al fresco theater and music in the town square with the enthusiasm and pride of perfect guides. There was no shortage of wine either. The two got theirs from the village next door, whose winery had what Midge called a “gas pump wine dispenser” where they’d drive the car up, pay the meter, and wine would come rushing out, filling large jugs for the week.
It was perfect there, but after two weeks, I left and traveled to Rome to spend some time alone and see the sights. Rome is a city of giants. The Vatican, the coliseum, the sculptures, and the theaters were more arresting than I could have imagined. I stood in awe before them, humbled, amazed. But instead of feeling insignificant, I felt as if those skyward characters looked down on me with a kindness I hadn’t known in a long time. Let me be okay, I’d whisper to them at every street corner. Let me make it through this.
In response, Rome gave me every freedom I craved. I woke up when I wanted to, ate when I wanted, read in café’s, walked for hours lost in neighborhoods and parks, went to operas, galleries, sat in a plaza while music played, and ate pasta like it was the last food on earth. I cried freely too. I’d arrive at some extraordinary cobblestone courtyard, the crowds buzzing around me, an ancient church covered in murals beckoning me in, and before I took another step, I’d be weeping.
A week later, I traveled to Florence and immediately rented a Fiat Mini to drive through the Tuscan countryside, visiting wineries and tasting rooms for three days. Having a car was equal to having wings. I drove with the windows wide and leaned out over the sea of vineyards as if I was a bird. The Tuscan countryside is a cognizant creature, communicative and kind with its sewn dress of red soil, grape vines, and olive trees, a light mist lazing between its thighs. Like with the gods of Rome, I felt cared for and watched over by that landscape. I’d stop the car at one of the many vistas, step out on the edge overlooking the hills, and almost hear the words Lay your heart over these fields in the wind.
The wines fueled me too, but never in a desperate or drunken way. In fact, they grounded me. And from small patios overlooking the hills to cafés in medieval villages, I let myself drink and sink into a comfort my body had forgotten—no one and nothing tugged at my sleeve or nagged my mind, and my body felt just fine, giving me space to come to terms with the MS, the loss of my parents, and the new life ahead.
A week later, I went back home to the kids, to my mourning mother, to a series of MS treatments. But I was much more relaxed than when I left, which helped me to stand in the still-ruddy surf more steadily. I eased up on all the food restrictions, drank more wine, and let life to take its course. Some people attributed my feeling better to being out of a bad marriage, others to the relief that my dad had passed on. I felt the change was my Tuscan wings still intact. Life was still tough, but the waves of grief had subsided, replaced by a cautious optimism, curiosity, and eventual, yet still precarious, happiness.
Exactly two years later, the sommelier at my favorite wine shop invited me to a Tuscan wine class. Tuscany, I thought, when the teacher brought out the sampling wines for the evening, how I’ve missed you.
Part of my earlier investigation revealed that I am sensitive to red grapes, so I have become a white wine connoisseur. But in Tuscany, I can drink both reds and whites without fear because most wines are produced naturally by small producers more interested in letting nature speak for itself than applying chemicals and techniques that burden the drinker.
One of those producers is Elisabetta Faguilo, a veteran winemaker behind Montenidoli, the mountain of the little nests, 24 hectares of vineyards and 200 hectares of woods just outside the ancient village of San Gimignano, where I had heard groups of old men singing deep into the night. She and her husband Sergio, a philosopher and teacher, purchased Montenidoli in 1969 with the vision of starting a vineyard, which she ran with a reverence and respect akin to a spiritual practice. Fifty years and nine children later, Elisabetta is a well-known producer with a reputation as a fierce proponent of not just natural winemaking but of human connection. This quote from her website says as much:
We all feel a strong need of unity and comprehension.
We want to break our solitude, opening to a wider vision of friendship and common feelings. Seeking for the same sensibility towards the concrete and mystical world of our human condition.
(click here to watch a video of this amazing woman as she speaks about her work, her philosphies, and her land)
And now that Sergio has passed and Elisabetta is well into her seventies, she has started a foundation in his honor that invites elderly and young people in need of help to come stay at the winery and reap the benefits of the land. First farmed by the Eutruscans, followed by the Romans and the Knights of Templar, in Elisabetta’s eyes, Montenidoli is a sacred place where history and the calcium-rich soil left by the Ligurian Seacan can heal those who walk upon it in addition to creating perfect grapes.
But I didn’t know all this when I walked into the wine class. When the instructor poured a taste of the Montenidoli Fiore, a white wine made with vernaccia grapes, I thought, yay, white. But as soon as I tasted it, I had to stop and recalculate. The wine was delicious, but it was more than that. Lightly imbued with gold, it has the distinct smell of marijuana, pineapple, mango and green grass. Robust, complex, and more full-bodied than an average white, it held layers of earthy and fruity depth that—well, there is no other way to describe it—as I sipped, it was as if someone was reaching out to me from the other side of the glass. You are part of the earth, it said, and from the earth, you shall blossom. After the third taste, I got up, went to the ladies’ room, and wept.
All the difficulty of the past few years spilled out of me again, but not because I was overwhelmed by the pain but because I was overcome by my own strength to have moved through it alone. I know it sounds crazy, but Elisabetta and her determined, kind spirit mixed with the ancient and profound energy of the Tuscan soil held me like one might need their mother to hold them. From inside the glass, they whispered to me like the wind had whispered to me during my trip and like I had wanted the statues of Rome to respond. It was a profound and eye-opening moment. Connection exists. Food and wine is connective tissue when created in harmony with nature, with the love and determination of the farmer, and the reverence and deft hand of the winemaker, the chef.
Let me wax philosophical. If we believe the earth has the power and the selfless desire to feed those creatures who live upon it (and who, essentially, are part of it), and we believe that a soil in balance with nature will produce a fruit embedded with the same power and desire, and we agree that a master winemaker who cherishes the earth and what it offers can transform that fruit, with her own sense of love and understanding, into a beautiful wine, then we must believe that the wine itself is imbued with the same capacity to love those who drink it.
So, there is Elisabetta. There is her land, the Eutruscans, the Ligurion Sea, her nine children raised on that land, her love, her Sergio, her desire for peace. And here is me, cautiously optimistic, becoming aware of my need for connection, opening up, letting go, listening, and raising children too. We are sisters on this planet. And between us, a glass of wine.
That’s a neat little bow isn’t it?
But that isn’t the complete story. After the class, I bought a bottle of the Fiore, excited to invite friends over for a dinner so I could share this wine and spread the word. But as life goes, no one was around, the kids didn’t want to have a bunch of adults over, and I was tired and busy. I ended up settling for a plate of homemade potato salad in the back yard with a glass on my own in the dead of summer. I could still feel the expression of Elisabetta’s love and work, but this time, after drinking a glass, I got a huge headache and felt like crap.
Which leads me to the problem of disconnection and a sense of powerlessness that comes with it. I have a chronic illness. Somewhere along the line, something in my system went off balance. Maybe I made connection with something unsavory. Maybe I was too busy too many times to meet the points of positive connection in my life. Maybe I fell off a swing and never truly recovered. Or maybe there is no reason. Regardless, the road back is nearly impossible, and sometimes I wonder why even try? Today, I heard on the radio, a young man in the deep south explaining why he didn’t vote—because it doesn’t matter, he said. I heard my daughter talk about how reading a book twice was a waste of time. I totally understand. It’s so easy to be stuck in places where we can’t imagine the benefits of reaching toward something or being open enough to reckon with a piece of art of any form.
Even though I try, I only sometimes get it right. I chase things that can’t connect, I stop short of true connections, I eat food that is made without care. Balance and harmony are so hard to come by, we have whole fields of science and mysticism devoted to them, and still I fail. But how else will we know that a story about how a grape in Tuscany meets a woman writing in Massachusetts means a line on page 70, read twice, wriggles its way deeper into your consciousness, means a single vote matters, and means a disease can be cured?
I don’t know how else. Yes, I am finding connection in a bottle of wine and in many other places as well. When I find it, the skies light up and suddenly I live in a place so much more magnificent. Being open, or as Elisabetta says, emptying ourselves, is all any of us can do.
Oh, and try the Montenidoli Fiore. I highly recommend it.