Looking Within for a Safe Haven
When Italians shuttered their windows and the singing stopped, this mystic mother went in search of solace.
Not too many weeks ago, papers and social media channels from all over the world were sharing videos of Italians leaning out of windows, singing from their balconies at 6 p.m. every evening.
Anyone who has ever visited Italy understands that this is a country of humans unafraid to savor the richness and beauty in life. They are known to have a unique and passionate spirit—warm, emotionally eruptive, and undeniably affectionate. As an American living in Italy, this is one of the things I love most about the people I am coming slowly to call my own.
Six p.m. has become a dreaded time over the last month in all parts of the country. Many have nicknamed it “the dark hour.”
As Angelo Borelli, the head of the Civil Protection Department, reads aloud the daily national numbers (of new infections, deaths, the healed, hospitalizations, and ICU admissions), a black cloud passes over the battered and bruised hearts that listen. I imagine it feels something similar to a war-time radio broadcast, only now we are huddled in front of our high definition screens. The fatigue and concern in the eyes of “those who know” is all too visible.
I was one of them. One of the many who sang on the balconies. I will never forget dancing with my two and a half year old son, with tears in my eyes, as one of our neighbors blasted the Italian classic Volare from his rooftop balcony.
This is written in past tense because, at least on my street (which is lined with balconies), it all stopped one day.
I don’t remember exactly when. But I opened my balcony door just before 6 p.m. one evening to find a vast and chilling silence. My first response was one of damp sadness. I had come to cherish this small ritual. It was a shared moment of beauty—a savored distraction from the dismal news awaiting us.
But, deep within, I knew it would stop.
And I knew it had to.
A Time to Go Within
As the death toll and infections rose to unimaginable levels, Italy was running a marathon—up a steep and slippery mountain. This was a time to save our breath; to put our heads down; to put one foot in front of the other; to grieve; to pull within and build a cocoon.
There would come again a time for singing, but the magic of Italian voices comes from their gaping, wide open, and passionate heart. I imagined this unguarded heart now terribly weighted and damp with grief. I nodded somewhere deep inside of myself. There is great healing and wisdom in song. But there is also great healing and wisdom in silence.
When COVID-19 erupted here, I spent days wondering if we should leave. But we are not Americans spending an extended period of time abroad. This is our permanent place of residence. But each day, something would pull at me, telling me to get out, to leave. I’d speak to my husband about it, and he would listen. Somewhat baffled. "We have a safe home here. We are all well and healthy. Where would we go? Why would we go? Especially if it meant exposing ourselves to air travel, potentially being quarantined, etc."
These would be among his daily, loving responses. All valid. All completely correct.
So, I was left with no choice but to look deeper. When situations become daunting and unfamiliar, we humans like to flee. I didn’t want to leave Italy necessarily, I just wanted to leave. Period. It is a nervous system response, of course. But, I have come to realize, mainly through this crisis, that it is also a symptom of great, spiritual distress.
We are looking for home.
I was looking for home. For a safe haven. A place to feel protected and warm.
The Goddess Who Guides You In
In the Greek mythological tradition, the goddess of home and hearth is Hestia. I knew she and I had to talk.
According to the father of archetypal psychology, James Hillman (whose work greatly influenced my doctoral journey in depth psychology), ancient myths can provide invaluable insight to the struggles and triumphs of the modern psyche. He wrote a brilliant essay called In: Hestia’s Preposition.
The title says it all. Hestia—the goddess of home—proposes one main directional movement. The movement in. Her image is the glowing, warmth-emitting hearth. According to Hillman, her embodiment is the living flame, “the centering attention that warms to life all that comes within its radius.”
This sounds strikingly similar to the spiritual idea of taking refuge, finding a spiritual home—not in a particular city or between any four walls—but deep within oneself.
I thought I had done this. Spiritual mistake #50,786.
But, to be kind to myself ... perhaps, I have never been so desperate for safety and shelter as I have been during this pandemic. Just as I have felt the Italians pull deep inside of themselves these past few weeks, I, too, have desperately needed the centering, circular force of Hestia to keep me from evaporating in a world where we are so obsessed with connecting “out there.”
“In here” has become my new mantra. Build a home, “in here.” This is my work. Because once it has been built, that glowing ember, that living flame cannot help but provide life-giving warmth and safety to those who come within its radius. This is the wisdom of Hestia, who is always the first of all immortals to be honored in libations and processions.
What is she saying to us all as we are “forced” into her sacred domain, forced to stay home?