The Beauty of Being Slow

A few years ago my husband and I went to see a traditional Japanese Noh play at Carnegie Hall. To say we were completely mesmerized would be an understatement. Besides the main character’s elaborate makeup and gorgeous costumes, the incredibly slow motion of the play struck a chord with both of us. The stage was plain, and there were no large, overt movements, nor great dramatic climaxes throughout. Every movement from the actor was quiet, deliberate, refined and subtle.

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We were told that well-trained eyes could tell a lot about the masked actor’s character while watching him walk across the empty stage. But we were not such skilled connoisseurs by any stretch. At best we could probably understand only a small portion of the play’s storyline, and yet, we came out feeling incredibly refreshed and spiritually energized.

For quite some time after that I kept wondering why I could be so enamored of a play of which I had so little understanding. I realized that it was not so much of the play’s storyline that had captured my imagination, but rather the setting. The stripped down stage, in my opinion, symbolized one of our greatest luxuries–empty space. It helped amplify the silence and stillness the Noh actor brought into his deliberate and refined movements. Later I learned that in Noh, dance flows organically from an inner spirit; it is as much about stillness as it is about movement.

What a remarkable concept, I thought. In today’s world of hustle and bustle, we all unwittingly fall victim to our beeping phones and blinking machines, which fill every moment with noises. If we can take conscious measures to try to open up a space inside our lives, we may bring a sense of tranquility and gain clarity and calm in an otherwise accelerated and rowdy world.

Perhaps with a strong desire to cultivate a sense of slowness and even stillness in our daily lives, my husband and I decided to apply this Noh ethos to our family trips. While we would continue to broaden our travel horizons by visiting more new countries with action-packed itineraries, we also wanted to root ourselves in a place that we could all enjoy going back to every couple of years, creating a home away from home. This would allow us to omit the need to run around and see new things, but focus on the familiar territory and dive deeper into our surroundings, so that we could unwind and recharge, and perhaps live like the locals for a few days. Italy, a place that we have been to many times, came to the top of our list that we thought we might be able to try out our goal to find stillness in travel.

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One day I came across an ad in my school’s alumni magazine for a private villa rental in Tuscany. By its short description, the place seemed to be a perfect spot for us. It was situated in Rufina, a small town nestled in the outskirts of Florence. I fell in love with Florence during our first family trip in 2005. My husband on the other hand, has an even deeper emotional connection to Florence; he spent his senior year in architecture school in Florence, living with an Italian family and learning how to speak Italian fluently.

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So I called the owner, a 70+-year-old American whose wife is a native Florentine. He explained that they spent most wintertime in their Tuscany villa and summertime back in the US, so the villa would be available for us to rent when we wanted it in early June. He sent me some material to read about the local towns of Rufina and Castiglioni, a hilltop hamlet in which his villa was physically located. Along with his material was a clip of a New York Time article written by one of its editors a few years back about her joyful stay in the villa while touring around Florence with her family. A photo of her young daughter having breakfast in a large rustic sun-lit country-style kitchen sold on me almost instantaneously.

That summer, we flew to Florence, hopped onto a rental car, and drove about an hour to our destination—Villa Castiglioni. We fell in love with it right away.

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Perched in the natural landscape and with a sweeping view of the Tuscan mountains, Villa Castiglioni stands on fifty-six sprawling acres, and fifteen hundred feet above the sea level. It is surrounded by flower-covered meadows, fruit orchards, olive groves and a large vineyard. A stone driveway leads up to a two-story ocher colored square stone house. It has four double bedrooms and a large country-style kitchen. French doors lead to the garden under the shade of mature cherry trees. A beautiful outdoor terrace has a brick pizza oven and a cast iron grill for cooking and entertaining; it is the perfect spot to watch sunrises and sunsets or enjoy a glass of Chianti in the stillness of the gorgeous Tuscan landscape. The villa has two large wells on its property to allow it to be situated far away from the city services. A long, narrow and winding country road is the villa’s only connection to the town at the foot of the mountain.

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Contemporary living is not quite up-to-date in the villa, as it has no Wi-Fi or cable TV. Instead it has an abundance of fresh air, blue skies, red twilights, starry nights, and stunningly beautiful views. With layers of pastel colors on the surrounding Tuscan mountains, all one can hear are birds chirping, roosters crowing, dogs barking and the wind whistling through the Cyprus trees. At night when lights are turned off, the bedrooms become pitch dark and completely silent. I remember the first night in the villa, my son, seven at the time, who had never encountered nighttime without streetlights in his life, was literally terrified, even if my husband and I were both by his side. Fortunately, he quickly adapted to his new surroundings.

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The interior of the villa is nothing fancy, but rather more like a farmhouse. A large country-style kitchen takes center space of the villa. Copper pots and pans and ceramic platters adorn the walls, filling the house with a touch of rustic vitality. In the morning the kitchen became filled with the tantalizing aroma of freshly made Italian espresso that my husband loved to brew every day. In the evening the wonderful aroma of fresh tomato sauce, warm bread and olive oil permeated the air. To three urban New Yorkers, this kitchen became a happy reminder for what authentic homemade meals could be like—simple and intimate where the quality of the freshly grown local produce became a sumptuous treat for both the eyes and the taste buds.

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Our connection to life at the villa extended beyond its ocher colored walls and stone terraces. Down the hill from our villa was a small farm where a friendly donkey lived in a shed. Every morning on our way down the mountain to the town, we would make a point to stop to greet him. As if anticipating our arrival, the friendly creature would walk up slowly to the gate upon seeing our car. My son would feed him with apples or hay every time we stopped by, much to the delight of both of them. These special moments of the sweet interactions between an urban boy and a farm animal linger in our memories till this day. They were wonderful celebrations of an otherwise rapidly disappearing rural world. I often marvel at how profoundly that lovely gentle donkey and our simple interactions with him have touched our lives.

IMG_7441IMG_7442At Villa Castiglioni, there was no sense of hustle-bustle, and our world of day-to-day tasks and chores felt like a universe away. In New York, I am always rushing–to catch a train, to go to a meeting, or to pick up my son from school. A part of me is always somewhere else, thinking about what the next task I need to take on. At Villa Castiglioni, I found that I almost never thought of Grand Central Station or Whole Foods Market. Instead, my whole existence focused on being in the presence. It was liberating.

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Every morning we got up in a civilized hour. While my husband was brewing his beloved Italian espresso, I would warm up my body and soul with a few simple Yoga poses, jog or run a few miles up and down the narrow winding country road. Through forests, past olive groves and alongside grassy hills dotted with grazing sheep, I was always in the intimate company of the brilliant Tuscan sun. In the evening, I often carved out some time to put on my writer’s hat, dropping down a few lines of my random thoughts. With the gorgeous Tuscan mountains unfolding before my eyes, I was creating my own moments of  “Under the Tuscan Sun.”

IMG_7474Interestingly a simple and un-hurried life did not bring boredom to us; rather, we became more engaged and creative. We did not crave our electronic devices, not even for a single moment. We read books, played card games, engaged in sprinkler water fights, strolled along the olive groves, and watched sunsets and sunrises from our bedroom. My son often sifted through the small treasures he collected during our daily exploration: olive tree branches, used train tickets, museum brochures, or unusually shaped rocks. In the evening we often finished our meals by eating fresh watermelons and having seed spitting contests on the terrace. Our giggles and laughers echoed along the layers of Tuscan mountains.

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This is the story of our life at Villa Castiglioni, our home away from home, and our humble attempt to lead a simple and quiet life—a slower life.

As I write this blog about our travels to Villa Castiglioni, I have to admit, I sometimes feel like an idealistic fool. After all, we have chosen to live in a world where our days are structured towards racing and speeding from one thing to the next in order to achieve more and have more. One of the beauties of getting away and traveling is that it allows us to escape the motion and commotion of the world. It is much harder to achieve such tranquility in our daily lives. But if we can turn off our TVs and computers, put down our phones, take pleasure in simple family meals around the table, look up at the night sky to see the moon, listen to the birds chirping at sunrise, and walk through the soft grass of the park instead of the unresponsive concrete of the sidewalk, then we can wake up much refreshed.

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Going back to the Japanese Noh play. Though the actor did not utter a word, and for the most part, just sat still or moved slowly across the empty stage, something in that stillness imparted a sense of his clarity and calm to me, and I found a sense of intimacy and depth that I would not have gotten from any other form of theater.

If we listen to music carefully, we may also notice that in many pieces of music, it is the pause and rest that gives the piece its beauty and its shape. So is in life.

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While a world of silence and stillness may have become something of the past, or at best, is rapidly disappearing in the onslaught of electronic devices, finding ways to cultivate the sense of slowness has become vital. As George Santayana, the Harvard philosopher, once wrote: We “need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.”

Perhaps we can all take conscious measures to try to open up a space inside our lives—to slow down and embrace the emptiness. The world could be much better and our lives could be much happier.

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Summer’s First Family Letters

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dear Ben,                                                                                                                                                             

                 By the time you read this letter, you may have already settled in with your awesome summer camp: you may have made cool friends, done cool things, and been to cool places, but you may still miss home–Daddy, Ollie, Ducky, and me. I miss you tons already!

                  I am super proud of you, buddy! Remember I told you? Being able to do things on your own and away from Mommy and Daddy is part of your growing up. It is not easy at the beginning and being homesick is part of the process. I totally get it. Right now you may only see the bad part of this whole thing, but I can guarantee you that you will have lots of fun at the camp. By the time you are ready to come home, you may not want to leave your awesome camp at all.

                  I hope you will write to me a lot sharing your experience at your camp. I will also write to you everyday letting you know what is happening on the home front—how Ollie is doing, what and when I feed him…I cannot wait to receive your letters and hear your adventures. I miss you tons and wish you were here, but remember I love you!

                  Buddy, I love you!!

P.S., I wish I could draw as well as you do to show you how much I miss you!!

                 XOXO, Mommy

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Hi Buddy!                                                                                                                                                             

                  Right now, it’s early morning on your first full day at camp. You should be waking up right now and looking out there the trees at the rising sun. I’ll bet that it’s really pretty. I hope that your first night at camp went OK. I’ll bet that it was a bit tough to be away from home. I wish that I were there to give you a good morning hug!

                  Mommy and I had a pretty good trip home last night. There were no events like flat tires and police cars on the way back (Author’s note: we had both on our way to the camp)! We got home about 8:30 in the evening, and it felt very quiet in the house without you—not nearly as much fun as it is when you’re around.

                  I cleaned out Ollie’s cage last night and gave him a very long scratch. He liked that—happy bunny! You’ll be glad to know that we also clipped his nails, so he’s in good shape now. I gave him a treat, too!

                  I thought that you’d like to know that finally after all of our searching, I saw my first firefly last night! I was bummed that you weren’t with me to see it together, but I’m happy firefly season has finally arrived. When you get back, we’ll have to do some good firefly catching together. I hope that you can see and catch some fireflies at camp, too!

                  I was really happy to get a chance to see your camp yesterday when we dropped you off. I thought that the setting was really beautiful. I liked your cabin—you’ll have to tell us which bunk you’re in so that I can picture you there. I think that the best part of the camp for me is the lake front area with the dock, the boats, and the swimming. That looks like so much fun! I can’t wait until I hear about some of the things that you do there! I also think that everyone that we met was really nice—the camp directors, nurses and your counselor Jeremy. I’m sure that they’ll all take really good care of you!

                  I have to tell you, Buddy, that I’m really proud of you. I know that it was really hard for you to have Mommy and I drop you off and then leave you there by yourself. Like everything that you do, though, you handled the challenge of it incredibly well. I’m sure that it’s going to be hard sometimes, and sometimes you’ll be missing home a lot, but I know that you can handle it. You’ve also got a lot of people there with you who want to help and support you any way they can.

                  In a short while, Robert will be here to pick me up and take me to the airport. By the time you get this letter, I’ll probably be in Hong Kong. I’ll take a Star Ferry ride for you! I’ll also take some pictures, and I’ll send them to you since we won’t be able to do our usual Skype calls.

                  Again, Buddy, I miss you so much, and I love you even more! I hope that camp goes great and that you have tons of fun! I’ll write again as soon as I land in China.

                  Love always, Daddy

IMG_3056Monday, June 27, 2016

Dear Mommy and Daddy,                                                                                                                         

                  I am having fun at camp so far. We have done archery, baseball and swimming. Later we will see the horses. Sleeping in the cabin is okay. The food is great, and it’s sort of like Hackley. I miss you a lot, and I’ll write to you a lot more. One thing I forgot we also made a fire and we heard a loon singing. Tell Daddy I am on the Yule Ball in “Harry Porter.”

                   Love, Ben (Heart and smiley face drawn by him)

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These are the first sets of paper-pen letters my husband, my son and I wrote to each other as a family. What a treat to still be able to communicate the old-fashioned way!

Last Sunday we dropped off our 11-year-old son, for the first time, at a sleep away summer camp, five hours away from us. We would not be able to see, hear or talk to him for 3-5 weeks. The only way to keep in touch with him was through mails. It was hard for all of us. Before we started the journey, we had promised him that we would write to him every day and hoped that he would write back to us whenever he could. Then on the fourth day into his camp, we received his first letter to us. Short yet sweet, his letter gave us a glimpse of all the activities he did on his first camp day. Just like that, our son has set out for his first solo adventure, away from us, away from home. I am proud of him more than I can say!

IMG_3058While I am writing this blog, my thoughts are scattered, searching for the right words to describe our motivation to send him away. Like many other working parents in this country, the summer’s long break has created both a bliss and trepidation for us. On the one hand, we are extremely happy that we don’t need to rush out of the door every morning to send him to school, and I am particularly grateful for not being like a time bomb sometimes to storm out of my office, run to the subway station only to watch the train slowly pulling out of the station right in front of my eyes. But on the other hand, in a culture that everything happens with an incredible velocity and competitiveness, summer has lost its magical touch where doing nothing means doing everything. Parents are inundated with the infinite choices of summer camps, from sports camps to music camps, from art camps to pseudo outdoor camps. Many still feel like an extension of the already cramped school year, highly structured and hurried. Don’t all our children these days already have enough of a programmed life, from academic classes, to organized sports, to music lessons?

So our primary motivation to send our son to a sleep away camp is not to cultivate a strong character in him—of course, self-reliance, resourcefulness, corporation will come with the experience; but rather, we want to send him to a place where he can have real adventure and fun—out in the woods, get hands dirty, and learn by participation. To us summer should be winding down time when life is dynamic and purposeful, yet unstructured and unhurried. Children can find their own style and self-worth without excessive competitive tension. They develop their skills and interests at their own pace. If gazing at stars, catching fireflies, hatching eggs, riding horses, jumping in and out of water are all that our son wants to do, that’s wonderful. If by the end of the summer, he forgets that 1+1=2 or adverbs modify verbs, so be it. There is always time to catch up, but creating unforgettable memories comes and goes. I believe we have found what we are looking for in the camp we send him to. Though too early to tell how he feels about the camp, I hope he will have the time of his life!

Of course, I miss him terribly, constantly wondering what he is doing or how he is coping with his homesickness. I then think of the many trips we have taken together as a family:  all these long lasting happy memories we have created with him—the sparkle in his eyes, the ear-to-ear grin on his face, his looks of wonder, his giggles of joy…I trust that he can handle any challenge well, because he knows by heart that we have his back, as always!