Learning self-kindness on the Amalfi Coast

September 11, 2018

There’s something undeniably intimate about spending half an hour with my face crammed into a stranger’s armpit in an old, graffiti-covered commuter train as it chugs along the coast of the Bay of Naples. I try not to make eye contact with the person who’s uncomfortably close to me while holding onto my bags with such a fierce grip that my hand freezes into a claw for hours afterward. I watch the early-summer sun set behind Mount Vesuvius, casting a glow onto the villages I pass — a moment of unfiltered beauty shared with a cattle-car full of strangers.

It’s the kind of intimacy that makes me let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding when I finally step onto the platform in Sant’Agnello, a village just outside Sorrento. The station is quiet this late in the evening. After a seven-hour flight from Toronto to Rome, a half-hour train from the airport to the central station, a three-hour train to Naples, and an hour-long train to Sant’Agnello, I am now just a fifteen-minute, rain-soaked walk away from my hostel.

When I planned this trip, I was looking for a way to heal myself. I had been dealing with a year and a half of escalating health problems: a bad case of mono that kick-started months of fatigue and depression. Trying to balance getting healthy again with working on the first year of my Masters degree felt like a losing battle. My natural states of being became exhaustion and self-pity. Neither of those felt like me.

I decided that going away would bring me back to myself. After all, isn’t that what happened in Under the Tuscan Sun? Eat Pray Love? Maybe if I show myself all the love that I’m looking for, I thought, I could be well again. Surrounding myself with beauty, quiet, and good food. Italy would do the trick for my solo romantic vacation.

Self-pity wasn’t working out very well. Self-love was worth a try.

For me, that meant getting on a boat tour around Capri and not feeling guilty about falling asleep. That meant buying the most perfect caprese sandwich from a hole-in-the-wall salumeria, with tomatoes that had been marinating in olive oil and basil all morning; fresh mozzarella; and prosciutto sliced from an almost comically large pork leg. That meant eating said sandwich, surrounded by strangers, on said boat. With too much sun on my face. A view of Pablo Neruda’s orange house nestled into the cliffs of Capri.

This was exactly the kind of moment I had imagined would revive me. Spending time on the water, taking in the rugged beauty of the Sorrentine Peninsula. But in that moment, I didn’t come to any sort of life-changing, transcendental realization. I didn’t even feel better — in fact, I felt worse. I was jet-lagged and a little seasick. And then, I felt angry that I wasn’t feeling better or happier. That I wasn’t instantaneously cured by a change in scenery.

Nonetheless, as my trip progressed, I continued to go through the motions of doing little acts of kindness for myself. On my last night in Sorrento I went up to the rooftop bar of a hotel overlooking the water and ordered an Aperol Spritz. The waiter brought me a bowl of olives — salty, fresh, and plump. I finished them quickly and the waiter continued refreshing the bowl.

The slowly setting solstice sun filtered through my glass, making a little rainbow on the open page of my journal. I could again see Mount Vesuvius on the horizon, and clouds — like puffs of cigarette smoke — over the bay. The scent of lemons and night-blooming blossoms wafted up from below. The clock tower bells chimed as a haze begins to form around the mountain. I had eaten two dozen olives.

In Judaism, there’s a concept around observing the commandments that deals with intention. In high school, I learned that the holiest way to follow the commandments is to do them with love in your heart and with the desire to honour God. But even if you don’t have that kind of intention, you’re supposed to follow the commandments anyway, repeatedly, and the intention will develop eventually. I never really understood this — if you couldn’t follow the commandments with the right intention, why not focus your energy on doing something that you actually care about?

That night on the hotel rooftop, almost sick from the olives, I finally understood what it means to practice something until you feel the intention. Going away itself would not be the thing that would make me feel like myself again. It was performing the acts of kindness to myself —something as simple as carving out time to watch the sunset, as eating as many olives as I wanted, as noticing the shape of the clouds — that I began to remember what it feels like to love myself.

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