JULIE POINTER ADAMS
“Home is where one starts from,” according to T.S. Eliot in The Four Quartets. I’ve come to believe that if we’re paying attention, at some point in our lives we experience something of a spiritual home—a place we start from—or start over from—that gives us grounding, moral courage, and keen sensitivity to the world around us. A place that instills a humble sense of self as gifted to us by God, and, perhaps more importantly, gives us the ability to love and accept ourselves so as to better love those around us. In many ways, Orvieto represents this place for me. My experiences in this ancient hilltop town, draped across a mesa in central Italy, have provided deep awakening and enlivening; a place to “be still and still moving” towards who I want to be. Though my sojourns in Orvieto have been relatively brief, the lessons I have learned there have held fast through all seasons, enriching my understanding of what’s worth seeking after and clinging to in life.
In the spring of 2011, I completed a graduate thesis project called “Take Root” in order to earn my MFA from a joint craft and design program in Portland, Oregon. The thesis paper and accompanying project centered around the idea of what it looks like, practically, to sink roots into our home environment, our neighborhoods, and to invest in that ever-moving target we call “community.” The project had many different layers and elements, but it culminated in a neighborhood potluck that brought together the people living on my block and in the surrounding area, many of whom had lived there for years but had never met. This final gathering involved months of lead-up on my part, reaching out to my neighbors (who had been complete strangers to me until that point), giving them opportunities to interact with me and other neighbors in various ways, and trying to create tangible motivation for them to participate both on the day of the potluck and in the months prior to it.
To my surprise, the afternoon gathering held on May Day was a huge success, with many more people in attendance than I had dared hoped for (though it would have been equally a success in my mind had it been more intimate and tight-knit). New friends lingered around the 60-foot makeshift table I had cobbled together, many asking each other why something of this nature had never happened before. I came away from the project feeling emboldened, inspired, and newly released from my quiet, introverted shell. Because of my investment of time and a little bit of effort, I came to know the names of nearly everyone on my street; I knew their faces and at least a shadow of each of their stories. Such knowledge and the small spark of relationship gave me an overwhelming sense of safety, belonging, and comfort, especially given the fact that Portland was still a relatively new home for me as a single person living alone.
More than anything, this project provoked me to take root in my community, helping me transcend my sense of shyness and fear of approaching strangers in favor of creating something bigger than myself. I came to experience a greater sense of connectedness simply by choosing vulnerability and opening myself up to my neighbors. I lived in that same home for six years—an unprecedented length of time compared with that of my fellow transient 20-something Portlanders, who seemed to uproot to another part of town at least once a year. In trying to inspire others to sink deeply into their chosen places, I inadvertently found I had done so myself.
In hindsight, I know that a huge, albeit-subconscious influence in sculpting and shaping that project was my time in the spring of 2006 as a student in Gordon College’s semester program in Orvieto, founded by John Skillen. I recall how often we discussed the importance of settling into the rhythms and rituals of life while in Orvieto, getting to know the alleyways, churches, history, nearby monastery grounds, the café owners and village locals. This was considered important and valuable in spite of only being there a brief four months. We came to understand that this intentionality was founded on the belief that rooting yourself in this fashion gives you freedom to experience community in a way impossible if you function only as a tourist, a passing visitor, a removed voyeur of the lives of others. In order to taste the genuine joys of home and experience honest relationship, you must submit yourself to being generous with your time and attention towards others. It means accepting the imperfection of any place or set of people, and choosing to find the beauty in them rather than giving in to criticism or cynicism. It also means accepting your own imperfections and shortcomings, and not letting those deter you from becoming available to others.
In choosing to trust and adopt this wisdom (even shoddily), I came to experience a true home in Orvieto, finding a place that fostered and encouraged a better, more whole and content version of myself than I had ever known. For years afterwards, my aunt, who doubles as a trusted friend and mentor, would regularly remind me to tap into my “Orvieto self.” I’m aware this transformation was only possible because I arrived at a time when I was vulnerable and eager to change, newly off of a breakup back home I hadn’t seen coming. Through gentle prodding towards rootedness, primarily from John, my heartsick—and at times, exceedingly lonely—self, began to blossom.
It’s been eleven years since my time as a student in Orvieto, but last summer (July 2016) I returned, led there with the intent of taking photographs for a personal book project. The book is inherently tied to concepts of home, hospitality, and community, though for clarity’s sake it is simply described as a lifestyle book. In many ways, the book carries on the work begun with my “Take Root” project in graduate school—itself inspired by my time in Orvieto. The completed project, soon to be published in June 2017, is called Wabi-Sabi Welcome: Learning to Embrace the Imperfect and Entertain with Thoughtfulness and Ease.
For those unfamiliar with the term (as are most people I know), wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept that honors the beauty of natural imperfection and a life of chosen simplicity. The book employs the principles of wabi-sabi to show how welcoming people into our homes and lives can be much simpler, more relaxed, and altogether more fulfilling when we step away from conventional ideas of how to entertain, and focus on how to make our guests feel a genuine sense of warmth, comfort, and ease in our spaces. The book is founded on the importance of cultivating honest relationships; it centers on the belief that life is made rich by planting roots and investing deeply in sharing whatever we have with others.
I chose Italy generally, and Orvieto specifically, as one of my locations to photograph because my time there years before had allowed me to experience elements of Italian culture and everyday life rife with the kinds of beauty and hospitality that I reference in the book. John Skillen was gracious enough to organize a handful of “real” gatherings (that is, with purposes and motivations beyond just being a believable photo-shoot) that might also be usable as content for the book.
Photo credit to Julie Pointer Adams
One of these get-togethers included a dinner gathering at the home of Federico and Hannah Armbrust Badia, located outside of Orvieto in a tiny medieval borgo on a vineyard-covered bluff with a view of Lake Corbara in the distance. The story of Federico and Hannah hardly seems real. Hannah was a student in the Orvieto program, later invited back by the director to be the residence assistant, during which time she fell in love with the local shoemaker, Federico Badia. Since then, the two have married and purchased a considerably-dilapidated house in the Umbrian countryside, which they are gradually renovating. Hannah is a writer, with an MFA in poetry, but has also begun working alongside Federico in his atelier, crafting leather bags and small goods to sell along with his gorgeous custom-made shoes.
Though my personal interaction with Hannah was brief, her story helps illustrate my “take root” experience coming full circle during my visit last summer. Hannah and Federico arranged a New Roof Supper—literally, a dinner party to celebrate the recent completion of their completely-rebuilt roof. Finishing this project was a big deal. Not only was it a huge undertaking for the couple themselves, but it required extensive coordination and collaboration with the other owners whose apartments shared a single roof as well as a common courtyard in the middle. For a renovation of this nature, various neighbors must agree to share the financial burden of the repair and work together to get the task completed. Accomplishing such a feat was worth celebrating.
We gathered in the central courtyard around another makeshift table—wooden planks carried from the garden and balanced on sawhorses. A variety of family members and friends, young and old, locals along with Italians from other regions, Italians and Americans, some living there permanently and some just visiting, came together to break bread and share wine together.
What struck me was how very deeply Hannah has taken root in this community. Not only has she married an Italian man, but she has learned the language, bought a house, begun a career, learned to cooperate with neighbors and developed a community of her own that exudes generous warmth and gracious hospitality. In the same way that I had carried the wisdom I received there away from Orvieto with me into the other towns and places I would come to live, Hannah has, instead, taken it to heart precisely where she is. Her chosen life embodies those principles so deeply engrained within me all those years ago; principles that have buoyed me and driven me forward in every personal, creative, and work-related endeavor ever since. In essence, the little I know of her story perfectly illustrates so much of what I’ve spent years investigating and trying to practice myself: the truth that home—as community, sanctuary, and gift to share—can be entirely of one’s own making.
Casa è il luogo onde si parte. Incidentally, the portion of Eliot’s Four Quartets I opened with that so beautifully encapsulates my experience of Orvieto also happens to be the segment of writing I chose to memorize in Italian while I was studying there as a 20-year-old. Although most of the translated phrases elude me at this point, the one that resounds and repeats in my mind in rolling Italian words is the one I’ve shared here. If “home is where one starts from,” then I have started anew many times, ever awakening to the joys, surprises, and contentment that rooting oneself in the comforts of community can bring. I feel privileged to consider Orvieto one of my several homelands—and perhaps the first that gave me the words and the wisdom to call it so.
Photo credit to Gianna Scavo