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Locked down but not out in Italy

Singing from the balconies! One nice thing about this crisis ... solidarity! “Guess you’re not living like a tourist anymore,” was the funny, truthful and somewhat gut-wrenching message of a friend the day the lockdown in Italy began. Today is day 6. My beloved Italia has been hit hard with the COVID19 epidemic. With the second largest elderly population in the world, the epidemic has meant a disproportionate amount of deaths in the country. So though I haven’t been worried about contracting it myself, this isn’t about me or someone like me who, if contracted it would probably have a sucky couple of weeks and then recover. It is about if someone like me contracted it and then spread it to a person with a complicated health history or an elderly person with a weakened immune system. Eerily orderly: Lines for the grocery store, each person one meter apart In a country with no concept (and no physical room really) for personal space, and in a city with reproachable hygie

Even in total silence, time flies

Lately, “Time flies” and “I have been so busy” are quite possibly the most common phrases that I say or hear. In fact, it seems to be the root of many conversations: explaining why we haven’t been in touch, why I haven’t returned your call, why I haven’t seen you in weeks, why I didn’t know about your latest news… it all starts with, “Oh, I have been so busy lately… ” and “Wow, I can’t believe it has been 3 weeks/3 months/3 years! Time really does fly.” All of my conversations seem to gravitate around these two points.

We know that the world has gotten more scattered and frantic. People are available 24 hours a day on 6-10 different channels: 2+ email accounts, FB messenger, What’s app, SMS, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram... All of these notifications pop up on your phone by the minute, urging you to check them constantly in between everything else you are doing: getting dressed while checking the phone, drinking coffee while checking phone, running to catch the bus while checking phone, meeting with friends while checking phone, even meetings at work now happen while half of the people are checking their phones.

Even Facebook thinks it! As I was posting this,
Facebook made a Time Flies video for my "faceaversary
Everything is done frantically, instantaneously, halfheartedly, so messages are easily overlooked or forgotten; phone calls are rarely accepted and in-person meetings are increasingly sparse. I am too busy. Everyone feels it, so it is always a valid excuse. And no one can complain about it because it is always true. We are all too busy. Too busy for human interaction because we are now 24-7 interacting with humans and we are overloaded.

So sometimes we all need to lose, or at least lose track of, our phones. Oops, it was on silent. Oh, I went for a run. Oh, I was cooking dinner. Oh, I was on the phone… In truth, the phone pretty much participates in all of these activities, but we need to say we were unavailable, even if we weren’t because, we can’t do it anymore. We need some time for silence, even if it is forced.

These thoughts were even more striking to me this weekend as we went to a place of total silence, a site of practically no human interaction: Certosa di Trisulti. It is a 12th century monastery/hermitage in the hills of Lazio, 1.5 hours from Rome, where currently only 2, but up to 60 monks, have lived their lives in total silence. The rule of the land was quiet. No one spoke to the other, and human interaction was usually limited to mass. Wooden boards replaced spoken words for logistical purposes, assigning daily chores. Some kept to their rooms entirely and never left, not even to eat. A private garden offered them the sustenance they needed.

13th Century Chore Board
In this setting of utter quiet and basic human interaction, the floor of the resident pharmacy (which they needed because, even in sickness, you never left the monastery) displays a mosaic picture of an hour glass with wings: time flies. The 13th century version literally translated from the Latin: memini volat irreparabile tempus reads "Remember, time flies irreparably." Written in a dead language, in a secluded setting such as this, silent monks coexisting peacefully in their own worlds, were still reminding each other through art that time flies and you better make the most of it.

"Remember, time flies irreparably"
I wonder how many of us overstimulated human beings would find that time flies when living in utter silence, in one setting, day in and day out, closed off in one place for all our needs. This scenario is almost our modern definition of boredom. But this message was part of their experience. One of the few that are engraved throughout the site. It would seem that these monks did find that time flew. Even in solitude, in quiet, with no interaction, time flew. Someone thought this an important enough message to remember along with other sayings around the Monastery: One does not live on bread alone and Better to prevent than to cure. Time flies was a part of their existence. It was a truth they faced.

One does not live on bread alone
How interesting that no matter what the circumstance, no matter how quiet a life might seem to an outsider, how slow an existence might be to an external person, the person living it still feels like life is fleeting.

In some ways it makes me feel better. It makes me feel like even if I threw my smart phone into a well and lived in a village outside of the maddening pace of a big city, I would still feel like life is too short. That even if I lived in a village and stayed inside all day every day, I might be the one commissioned to write a saying on the floor of my village and I would choose to say that time flies. It is comforting to know that this is a human experience that cannot be avoided no matter our life choices.

The amazing pharmacy
On the other hand, it is a little sad. I acknowledge that it is I who have attached this melancholy feeling to that artwork. I don’t know if it was at all intended. But what I am pretty sure was intended, what is always intended, is the feeling of “Open your eyes”/“Be in the present.” This idea that we are here but not here is the part that is scary. We live each day, but do not experience each day. We go through the motions, do everything we have and want to do, we eat and sleep and exercise, answer all our messages and do all that we should and at the end of the day we barely remember the motions of that day. We are never mindful because our minds are too full. No wonder carpe diem and mindfulness are such trendy terms.

Photo Credit: Adam Koford
My life is not going to slow down. In fact, if I believe my elders, it is only going to speed up. I am not going to throw my cell phone down a well. I am not going to move into a remote village or even a suburb. I am not going to renounce speaking to humans (though sometimes it is tempting). I will continue my busy, city, digital life because I like it and because life works this way now. But what I will try to do more is to be present, to be indeed more mindful.

In fact, that is what Living like a Tourist is all about: to live each day, wherever you are, as if you might never come back tomorrow. To treat each day like you are on holiday. I am good at doing this when I am touring my city or traveling, but I am not so good at this in mundane tasks of “ordinary”, non-touristic life.

I want to remember to put away my phone when listening to friends, to finish loading the laundry machine before I start reorganizing the cleaning products, to finish writing one email before looking at the new one that pops up. I want to be fully present, because even more than remembering that time flies, I have to remember: the present is all there is. That is what I want to hear myself say more often.