Sunday, April 13, 2014

Under the Madison Sun

Sometimes, when you least expect it, you stumble across something that touches you deeply and resonates with you to your very core. It's not something you were looking for, and that makes it all the sweeter.

That something for me happened in 1996, when I was preparing to chaperone a hundred high school students for a weekend choral music retreat. Nicole was going into the tenth grade, and the weekend before school started, the choir at Madison Central was to spend a weekend at the Duncan Gray Center north of Canton to be introduced to the pieces they'd be learning during the year, and the ones they'd be performing in competition. I went to Kroger to stock up on snacks for the weekend, and as an after thought, I picked up a book to read while the students were rehearsing.

The book was "Under the Tuscan Sun" by Frances Mayes. Most people are familiar with it because of the movie starring Diane Lane. (See the movie trailer here.)

When I bought the book, I had never heard of it, never heard of Frances Mayes. It just looked interesting.

We got to Duncan Gray and I settled in on the back pew of the chapel where the students were singing. I pulled the book out of my purse and started reading. Early on, page three in the preface, to be exact, the hair stood up on my arms. Mayes wrote: "A Chinese poet many centuries ago noticed that to re-create something in words is like being alive twice." I quickly fished a pen out of my purse and underlined her words.

As I read on, I learned about her adventures in buying a home in Italy. And then, on page 19, I was sucked completely into the book. "I lean over the wide sill just as the first gilded mauve light of sunrise begins...The undulant landscape looks serene in every direction. Honey-colored farmhouses, gently placed in hollows, rise like thick loaves of bread set out to cool. I know some Jurassic upheaval violently tossed up the hills, but they appear rounded as though by a big hand. As the sun brightens, the land spreads out a soft spectrum: the green of a dollar bill gone through the wash, old cream, blue sky like a blind person's eye. The Renaissance painters had it just right."

Frances Mayes had always been a poet before moving to Italy. She said in an interview that while living in Italy, she began to write longer format, mostly due to her experiences there. If you have a half hour to really learn about living in Tuscany, listen to this interview with Frances Mayes for the National Geographic channel. WARNING: You will want to book a trip to Italy...or at the very least eat some antipasti and drink some good Italian wine.

I had the good fortune of meeting Frances Mayes last week in my favorite bookstore, Lemuria in Banner Hall. She was there signing her memoir, Under Magnolia, about her coming of age in southern Georgia.

She also did a reading--a rather long one--and I enjoyed every word of it.

Through her book, Under The Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, Frances Mayes made me believe that traveling was possible for anyone who wanted to explore. Her next book, A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveler, once again drove that idea home.

At Lemuria last week, I didn't buy her memoir. Instead, I bought the cookbook that she and her husband, Edward, wrote together. They both signed it for me, and Ed told me he personally cooked each recipe in the book. I told him I only wish I had been an official taster.

That's Ed, on the left, and Frances, on the right. Wouldn't you love to be sitting at that table? The recipes are amazing. Some of them can found on her web site.

I still dream of going to Italy one day...and when I do, I want to eat with the locals, soak in Tuscan culture, explore and absorb and savor each sight, smell, sound and taste. Until then, I am again inspired to be happy where I am, in my own home, sharing good food and wine with friends and family on my own patio, under the Madison sun.

Blessings to all who read this!