An extravagance of beauty blows the heart wide open

It is the poem that always finds me, the words a whisper of a reminder that some moments are meant simply to be savored — though we may try to burn images to memory or digital catalog, to latch onto words that will fail to convey the ineffable.

We were skimming the Venetian Lagoon, our boat making its way to the historic city under a night sky, with the illuminated windows from the elegant buildings bordering the shoreline setting the waterway aflame, when something shifted inside. I couldn’t name it, even as a sense of awe washed over me, but only felt it as a soft letting-go, a quiet opening that released the shadowed to a fierce and forgiving embrace.

My mom and I were more than a week into our group tour of Italy and Austria, a vacation we’d planned with family friends to supplant the heaviness of grief with the flourishing of joy and discovery. We’d come, too, as an early celebration of a birthday she would celebrate next year, but even with all the excitement of our first trip to Europe together girding our days, the loss of Lou, my mom’s companion of 18 years, who’d passed away suddenly in the spring of 2011, was still a plaintive fold pressed into our suitcase of hope.

Not long before we’d arrived in Venice, I’d stood on a balcony in Sorrento in southern Italy, tears streaming down my face as an unexpected fireworks display illuminated the sky above the Bay of Naples. Our group, 48 of us in all, had been finishing dinner when the first boom went off and as some of us hastily made our way outside, it felt surreal that our first day in the rustic allure of this seaside town would be capped off with such a glittering finale. Watching the lustrous streaks across the darkness, I felt Lou close by and could almost hear him chuckle at my tear-filled astonishment, hear his low rasp teasing: “You didn’t think it could get any better, did you? I put in a special order for you and your mama.”

And that was the marvel of the trip. Despite the tedium of some of the longer bus rides, ferrying us from one locale to another, it did get better, with the dawn of every day. Just when I thought no splendor could compare or no greater happiness could flood an already-brimming heart, the favorite highlight I’d claimed would be capsized in favor of another glimpse of a festooned, overhanging balcony, this time from my perch on the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, or the craggy cliffs of the Amalfi Coast stretching toward the skyline, or the pristine charms of Mondsee, an impossibly quaint lakeside town in Austria where men and women walked to Sunday services in their traditional lederhosen and dirndl and a farmers market tempted with local treats.

Even on our first day, as we took in the historical sights of Rome, I felt a giddiness walking the streets with my mom, and our friends Julie and Garth, and Barb and Mike, as we stopped for cappuccinos and gelatos and traded “buongiornos” and “grazies” with gusto.

For all that enraptured, however, there were moments when the look of pleasure on my mom’s face was all I needed to see. During those two weeks, I saw her laugh more than she’s done in months, and years from now, when I recall some of the best evenings of my life, I know among them will be our farm-to-table dinner in the Tuscan countryside, where everything from the wine to the olive oil was locally made, and we ate and danced in a rip-roaring euphoria, with her unbridled exuberance the brightest of beacons that night.

We had traveled far to seize such heady freedom.

But it was in Venice, a few days later, that it found me, that elusive thing I imagine so many travelers take off in search of, carrying their sorrows, their dreams, their longings and all that’s conflicted within them to far-flung ports where they can surrender them to the calling of something greater or lose themselves in the salve of the exotic and unfamiliar. I, too, had come with a desire for renewal and perhaps even transformation. But I didn’t know how or when they would come.

And then our group traded our motor boat for a cluster of gondolas in Venice, my mom and I settling across from an accordion player and singer whose sonorous voice would serenade the night with a lush and romantic yearning. Slipping through the canals, with the streets emptied of the cacophonic crowds of daylight, it felt like we were drifting in another world, tunneling through a dimly lit labyrinth of majestic decay and old-world charm, enfolded by a serenity we would find glaringly absent upon our return the following day.

My heart, already unmoored by this glimpse of the ethereal as we’d cruised the lagoon, became even more pliant. Once we’d arrived at the Piazza San Marco and begun making our way to our waiting gondoliers, my mom, noting my eager straining to absorb all the sights and sounds around me, said with a laugh, “You’re like a kid.” And often, throughout our trip, that was exactly how I felt, as if I’d been set free in a vibrant wonderland whose treasures were beyond my imaginings.

At times, I could barely believe where I walked, whether it was under the sheltering frescoes of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, in the formidable shadows of the Tower of Pisa, where hundreds of hands tilted toward the sky pretending to hold it up amid the click of cameras, or through the bright blooms of Salzburg’s Mirabell Gardens, where Maria had cavorted with the von Trapp children after teaching them how to sing “Do-Re-Mi” in “The Sound of Music.”

But that night, I felt more than the bubbling elation that had accompanied me thus far, which is where the words of Seamus Heaney found me, though the Irish poet was referring to driving along Flaggy Shore in County Clare when he expressed what I at that moment couldn’t. Heaney, in his poem “Postscript,” talks about the uselessness of thinking one can more thoroughly capture such moments of surprising and incandescent grandeur, which I briefly tried to do with my camera before tucking it away to take in what our tour guide had promised would be a magical experience.

“You are neither here nor there,” he writes, “A hurry through which known and strange things pass … And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

In the days since I’ve been back, it is this awareness that continues to expand, the sense that, on that night, I’d awakened to something new, become attuned to a sacred aliveness, that would carry me home from that place.

The next day over lunch at a small café in the back alleys of the canals, my mom and I talked about how much we missed Lou, and let the tears flow. It was a fleeting indulgence in our wondrous, sun-drenched parade. Now, with our hearts blown open, our feet planted back on U.S. soil, that sadness is still a companion, but so, too, are an incorruptible joy, a renewed willingness to thrust ourselves into this life. For though it will disappoint and defeat and sunder the dreams we hold dear, it promises to love us all the same with full and equal measure of the love we give in return.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times