I told him that in English we sometimes say, "I've been there." This was unclear to him at first - I've been where? But I explained that deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time.
"So sadness is a place?" Giovanni asked.
"Sometimes people live there for years," I said.
In return, Giovanni told me that empathizing Italians say L'ho provato sulla mia pelle, which means "I have experienced that on my own skin." Meaning, I have also been burned or scarred in this way, and I know exactly what you're going through.
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
I don't know if you've read Gilbert's book or not. I'm coming to it rather late. Or maybe right on time. Books have a way of finding me when I need them. Peace Like A River was that way.
If you keep your clock wound pretty tight, I'm gonna say you won't like Eat, Pray, Love. But if you, like me, sometimes forget to wind your clock, maybe even for days, then I believe you'll find a friend in Gilbert.
The passage above struck me when I read it. By that I mean when I read those words for the first time, it was as if they reached up off the page and thumped my nose, as if to say pay attention, son. And what, you gently ask, was so striking about those words? Allow me to gently respond.
Did you hear the nuance of difference when Gilbert and Giovanni spoke of sadness? In English: "I've been there, I've visited that place." In Italian: "I've felt that, I've been burned or scarred in this way." As with our respective continents, there are miles between those two approaches to sadness. Many, many miles. It would be like someone telling me about their trip to the Grand Canyon and pulling out a key chain from the gift shop near the South Rim and then someone else telling me about their trip to the Grand Canyon and rolling up their shirtsleeve to show me the huge gash they received when they did a headfirst down the Bill Hall trail. One visited. The other felt. One was a tourist. The other? A witness.
It'd be kinda like Jesus and the angels all sitting around during siesta time and one of the angels talking about the visit he made to earth the previous year, hitting the big spots: Rome, Sydney, Estes Park. He's passing around postcards and all the other angels are saying yeah, that's next on my list too. And as one of the angels leans over to place the postcards in Jesus' open hands, he notices the holes near the wrists, healed but ever obvious. And all the angels in that circle get real quiet because they're not so impressed anymore with the one who visited. They're in the presence of one who L'ho provato sulla mia pelle.