‘A Calm Heart Is Valuable’: Life in Italy Under Coronavirus Lockdown
I was starting to feel drained. I sorely needed a good hard workout and a walk in the woods.
I packed up my bike and put my “hall pass” in my jacket in case the police stopped me. Movement for “health reasons” is allowed. Grocery shopping, traveling for necessary work, or coming home from another area is also allowed. People are out walking their dogs and doing maintenance work along the roads. Generally, riding a bike or walking along a trail seems to be allowed. The carabinieri have driven by me when I’m out to stretch my legs without so much as a glance.
My first stop was Alessandra’s house, a neighbor. We’d picked up a few groceries for her in our last delivery. First thing she asked was if I was over my cold. I was. She maintained a distance from me and refrained from giving me the usual cheek kiss — the new normal. No eye rolls, no griping about the rules or the lockdown. She was out gardening and happy for the time off. We chatted for a while. The girlfriend of the guy next door had been sick with a fever for two days, so there was concern about exposure.
I stopped up the road to visit another neighbor, a fellow Americano named James. Like Alessandra, he respectfully maintained a good meter of distance. He also had been out gardening, and felt productive about his yard work. He had a relaxed sense of humor and a “this too shall pass” attitude about the quarantine.
I headed out along a bike path that borders the Adda River, and wound my way through the Pian di Spagna nature preserve. I noticed a hunched, frail-looking woman up ahead — marching to the clicking rhythm of her trekking poles. She turned around when I approached. Despite nothing but cows and sheep for half a mile in any direction, she wore a full surgical mask. She glanced at me furtively. Paura! Fear etched her face. She quickly looked back at the ground and didn’t answer my greeting.
A calm presence and open heart is currency in a time of crisis.
Two vehicles passed me on the way up. One driver wore a mask, the other did not. Workers with chainsaws, cutting trees along the roadside, waved and yelled salve as I rode past.
Albonico was a ghost town. The sole coffee bar where the few locals gather was dark. I muscled the bike up the steep grade. Near an ancient church, the road stops and a walking trail begins. I chained my bike and headed for the tree line.
The vista, far above the lake, is stunning. I could hear dry leaves rustling. Water splashed down a spillway.
As I walked, I realized the critical importance of taking care of myself at this time. A calm presence and open heart is currency in a time of crisis. I need to stay strong and be available for people — as there is no shortage of panic.
The other night a young man came over — the son of a neighbor. It took courage for him to reach out, but he was desperate. He’d been listening to a lot of fearful YouTube videos and a constant stream of Covid-19 news. He’d barely slept in three days. His mind was a battleground of conflicting thoughts and he was losing track of what was real.
I sat and listened to him while my wife made tea and crêpes. I was able to extend a deeply still place within myself toward him. I didn’t offer advice or try to cajole some sense into him. I just listened. After a while he closed his eyes and I entered into a meditative space with him. I told him how much people loved him and needed him. I reassured him. He started talking and poured out all of his worries. He said his body kept vibrating and he had bad thoughts in his head. I did my best to help him open up and make room for all he was feeling, making peace (as best he could) with so much uncertainty. Then we ate, and he left. I was worried about him. He had been close to the edge.
The next day he came back, excited. He’d had a profound experience the night before, sitting outside and looking at the stars. He felt enveloped in love. He was no longer afraid. He slept peacefully. He wanted to tell us what he had realized: that he could manage the fear when it arose. I felt grateful, and I thanked him.
Today it was my turn to take care of myself and let nature soothe and heal me. Biking and hiking in the mountains for hours, enveloped in silence and beauty, felt good.
Lately, my energy levels have been remarkable. I’ve been thinking with greater clarity. I’ve doubled down on optimizing my health. For the month of March I’m eliminating grains, dairy, and sugar and eating only lean protein and vegetables. I’m also becoming hyper aware of distractions, and making a point to avoid things that drain me. Some hyperbolic videos filled with lurid claims that the virus is part of a grand nefarious plan have flitted across my Facebook feed. When I catch even a whisper of these, my energy drops like a stone.
I am meditating more often, and I often experience a subtle sense that something new, powerful, and exciting is dawning. A global reset. Rather than trying to grok the flood of data about Covid-19, I feel content with uncertainty, leaning into what’s emerging right now, moment by moment.
A calm heart is valuable. In a time of unrest and unease, we all crave a broader purpose. The job of holding open a space for myself and others where possibilities can emerge is something I can do, and I feel grateful for that.
UPDATE: Since this piece was written on March 18, the quarantine restrictions in Italy have tightened. People are to stay close to their homes except for necessary supplies or going to work.
UPDATE #2: May 18, 2020, restaurants, coffee bars, hair salons, and other businesses will be allowed to open. Updates in English can be found at The Local.it.
UPDATE #3: See Covid Drags On, an update from November 30, 2020. Things haven’t changed much since then. The level of restriction changes some, but generally restaurants are take-out only. Travel is within the region only unless there’s a compelling reason.