Friday, February 10, 2006

La Nonna

When Grandma said "You don' know-a nuthin' a yet" she usually meant that our young lives lacked a range of experiences that would teach important lessons and that, in time, we would live them and learn them. She would always add, (depending on her age at the time), "And I'm-a eighty years old-a and I don' know-a nuthin' -a yet." She had that Southern Italian accent that made her seem so ancient, so wise, so venerable. When once we questioned why she would say that even she knew nothing, Grandma told us a story that went something like this:

A long time ago in Italy there was an old woman who was dying. She had always been a very beautiful woman from the time she was young even until then in her old age. And because she was a good and devout woman she prayed, thanking God for a good life and good fortune, for her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. "Dio mio", she prayed, "I am dying and I am ready to join my husband and the saints in heaven. I thank you for sparing me the awful death of my sister's husband Salvatore, who was crushed by falling stones in the earthquake, or the unthinkable death of Zi' Maria who was burned in the fire so badly that her family could not know her face in the casket. I am thankful to be dying here, my body, old, but still without a blemish. Grazie, Dio." And after a little while she passed peacefully as the priest performed the rites and her family kept vigil.

The old woman's funeral began with a procession from her home to the church. In the hills of Calabria the churches were often built on the highest hill in town and have many stairs leading up to the entrance. And so it happened that while ascending the steep steps to the church, quite near the top, one of the pallbearers tripped and sent the rest of the men off balance as well. The casket was let go and went tumbling down the stone steps, expelling the body of the old woman, whose flesh was torn and whose bones were now broken and twisted from the mishap.

"You see-a," Grandma concluded her fable, "even aft-a you dead-a, you don' know-a nuthin'-a yet," thereby proving her hypothesis beyond further argument.

Was it just an obvious lesson? Even a good old woman can be guilty of hubris. I am reminded each day that at any moment, within the space of seconds, lives can be, and are, regularly altered, changed forever: either by personal folly or by fate, or because of the compulsions of others.

As I write this I reflect on whether it was by folly or fate that events conspired last week that may result in my losing my job. My life could be altered, changed significantly if I lose my job.

I see myself a kind of "post-existentialist" (is there such a thing?) and as having less in common with Satre than with Sophocles: my perceptions have shifted from the sense of being “thrown into a random world” to that of the world (or everyone else’s worlds) “being thrown at me" with an inevitability that defies randomness. Truly, at this moment, despite the double negative, “I don’t know nothing yet”.

My ancestors, more ancient than Grandma, sitting in amphitheaters at Paestum or Agrigentum understood the inevitability of fate as they experienced the pathos and tragedy of Oedipus dramatically portrayed: how the Scheme to thwart his fate as foretold by the oracle puts into motion the very events that lead inevitably to his fate's fulfillment. My folly and my fate may seem insignificant next to men who, like Oedipus, or presidents, wield power: men who are compelled by their own hubris to set events into motion; men who, unlike Oedipus, experience no angst or honesty. Will the gods take notice?

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