Please Don’t Hate Me (I Live in Rome)
Posted on October 28, 2013
Let’s just get down to business. I’m writing to you from Rome. I’m in Rome because I live here. And I’ll continue living here for the next 9 months.
To me, this fact is amazing. So astounding that I couldn’t believe I had physically arrived at the American Academy in Rome on September 16, even though I was staring its beautiful fountain right in the face (no amount of pinching helped). My disbelief carried on until, well… right about now.
I could continue to live my life in this strange waking dream. Walking and talking and eating untold Italian delights all the while not feeling wholly present. But I realize this is dumb. I live here! This is my life! If I don’t own this precious time here, if I don’t accept the basic fact that I belong, then I would be a fool.
It’s funny, though, how you can be astonished into silence. I’d never experienced that before. Have you ever felt like you needed some time—maybe many months—to really let something sink in? On March 1, 2013, that’s what happened to me.
We toasted the possibility of an adventure so grand that the dream itself was enough to satisfy us.
In early winter, Peter was nominated for the Rome Prize in literature—a yearlong fellowship to live and work at the American Academy in Rome. He was on the long list of nominees. Never knowing just how long a list, we didn’t dare to dream it might actually happen. Well, maybe for one day and one night we dreamt. We toasted the possibility of an adventure so grand that the dream itself was enough to satisfy us. After that the subject only bubbled up in conversation a few times. Without ever agreeing to do so, we simply stopped talking about it. Our hope went underground—silent, but still very present.
The winter wore on, until one March morning I stepped outside and pulled a thin envelope from our mailbox. It was addressed to Peter from the American Academy. The letter was practically weightless, like the dreaded envelopes circulated during college application days, the kind of mail that could not possibly contain good news.
I carried the letter upstairs. I may have even laughed a little. It felt like the inevitable had occurred. This thin envelope was actually doing important work—setting the world back on its proper course. Time to stop dreaming about languid afternoons spent sipping prosecco in sun-speckled piazzas (who does that anyway?). Time to step back into my real life.
I handed the envelope to Peter with a sad smile. I said, “My heart is sinking… but just a little.” When he opened the letter and started reading, I could see his eyes skip quickly over the words. He looked disappointed, but not devastated.
What happened next is very strange. It’s the exact moment, I think, that I stopped living in reality. Peter let out a little yelp—a choked laugh, a sound of disbelief. He shoved the letter into my hands and made me read it aloud:
“Dear Mr. Bognanni,
We are pleased to inform you….”
And this is the point when I couldn’t bear to write a single word about my life. I couldn’t even think about it concretely, much less write about it. I didn’t know it until I experienced it, but sometimes there is news so unbelievably good that your mind just doesn’t accept it as true. Maybe this is the happy corollary to receiving terrible news? A kind of shock sets in. And then, there quickly follows an intense feeling of guilt.
So, back to this Please Don’t Hate Me thing.
Guilt. What’s the deal with that anyway? Is it a product of being Midwestern? Was it something I learned growing up? The moment I learned that we were in fact moving to Rome, something went numb inside me. When it happened, I jumped from elation right into shock, anxiety and dumbfoundedness. That’s no way to embrace good news, I know. But I felt fundamentally guilty. Like I was the recipient of too much good fortune, way more than my fair share. If I was able to share some of my luck with others, I would, but how do you share a yearlong fellowship to Rome? I don’t even understand how Peter is sharing it with me. So how am I supposed to take this experience and talk about it with others in a way that feels right?
I am so free here. I am more free than I ever have been and possibly ever will be, until I’m old and retired and nearing the end of my life.
More than feeling guilty about Rome, this incredible place where we’re living and this food we’re eating (more about all of that later), I feel guilty about the time. I am so free here. I am more free than I ever have been and possibly ever will be, until I’m old and retired and nearing the end of my life. This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to someone so young. So average. Someone who didn’t lift a finger to ask for this time off.
But herein lies the problem. To feel like I don’t deserve to be here is doing nobody any good. That ugly feeling is certainly not helping me. And to waste such a colossal bit of good fortune is insulting to all the people who don’t get to be here (and who probably know precisely what they would do with all of this time).
The trick is to accept this wonderful gift. To look it right in the eye and simply say YES. And THANK YOU.
Someday I may not be so lucky, but for whatever reason, right now I am. No one’s checking up on me. No one cares how I spend my days. Since I have a chance to do anything, I should do what I most dream of doing. If only I could tune out every last voice, especially my own negative one, and get down to doing something I love….. so what is that?
The answer for the moment is writing. Outside of work, I haven’t devoted serious time or attention to it since I was in college, yet it’s something I care a lot about. I want to devote part of this year to writing for no other purpose than to explore subjects that interest me. So, welcome to my new blog. It will most definitely be about my and Peter’s year in Rome and beyond, but it will also be a more personal account of what’s swirling around my head.
I want to thank my friend Susan for inspiring me to get more personal. She’s been writing a brave and hilarious blog about her life called Brand New Sour Milk. I admire her talent for writing honestly, but critically about her own life in such an artful way. I hope to do the same here!