Piano, Piano

June 19, 2024
Lesa, Northern Italy
My Magnolia tree

Every morning I walk 30 minutes from my little apartment on the hill in Lesa to visit a Magnolia tree. Down the mossy stairs, I turn left from the house and stop by a dog named Sansone (“sun” in Italian), a big Malamute who sits in his concrete front patio, barking at everyone who walks past. My hosts Jasper and Sarvie told me that he’s more bark than bite, and easily bribed. I’ll give him one or two treats, an exchange for his increased affection and intimacy. Today, he let me scratch him behind his ears. I’ve been here for a week. Like I said, easily bribed. 

I’ll take a left at the fork and walk through a few narrow alleyways flanked by homes. On sunny days I will hear the sound of Italian flitting out of windows above. Gates might be open, to reveal two baby scooters parked inside next to each other, or a woman hanging her laundry out to dry, shower cap still on. Laundry will be gently lifted in the breeze off the side of balconies, something I can’t help but take photos of despite the cliche. On rainy days, everything is still, all the doors and windows are shut to the world. I can do this entire walk and see nobody else. 

I’ll walk past Jasper and Sarvie’s house, down a cobblestone alleyway with the names of Italian families written on the letterboxes in fancy script. Past the multiple gardens owned by Angelo, who sometimes I see walking with his cane between his tomatoes and flowers, up and down the hill despite his bad knee. At this point, I can see the lake. On clear days I can see the Swiss alps in the distance.

  The path will pass a small creek running across it and down into town. Further along, there are two dogs who work themselves into a frenzy barking at me, running back and forth. I’ve started to throw them treats too, picking them up and trying again if my aim is off and it bounces off the chain link fence, sometimes back onto my face.

The path ahead becomes narrow and bushy, overgrown and shaded, the buzz of mosquitoes in the air. After particularly heavy rainfall, I caught the frozen eyes of two deers staring at me from some distance as I rounded the corner. We stared at each other for a moment before they leapt out of sight. 

It goes for about five minutes more, passing a lone deck chair facing the lake past a single chain that says “private property” (begging for me to trespass, which I did once— it took me about ten minutes before I got too nervous and had to leave). 

Finally, it opens up to the view of the mountains, the lake, and a giant magnolia tree in someone’s yard that hangs over the public path. On a sunny Thursday morning in mid-March, she was fully in bloom. The grass is overgrown underneath her, and enclosed by an uneven stone wall that is high in places and low in others. I was told it was built by the Romans. I leave my bag on the wall and load my camera, walking on the stones to take photos of her from every angle. 

When I first saw the tree on my first day in Lesa, it was about to burst, its branches covered in tiny green buds. It had rained non-stop for the entire first week I was there, the promise of a month stretching beyond me like an eternity. By the time I saw her bloom, I had shot 10 series of portraits, printed them all in a frenzy in Milan and was about to exhibit them in the town community center, marking the end of my residency. 

As I finish this essay now, it’s the end of June and two more trips between Lesa and now have come and gone. To age is to experience time out of order, to jump between then and now and later. Going on a trip that felt like it would last forever and then cutting to months later, writing the summary of it in a few paragraphs at my dining room table. 

My twenties felt like a flurry of activity, pointed towards the false idol of security and success, a frantic race to a place I had run for so long to reach, only to bail at the last minute. I was in a very long relationship, one that felt final and forever. Now I couldn’t describe to you what it felt like to kiss him. I was flying at the speed of trauma, all of life an endless race against myself and everyone else. Everything was urgent, everything was important. Maybe that’s just what being alive feels like, or being young.  

  I was looking at all the wrong things: the urgency of getting promoted, of making more money, of impressing people, of getting more abs and lifting heavier. Now, I’m almost blindsided by what feels urgent: the passing of time that indicates the aging of my parents, the people around me pairing up, getting married, moving away, having children, my own body changing and ageing. 
I’m still adjusting to experiencing time in the marrow of it, the actual fact of it. Not dictated by the artificial rhythm of the churn of capitalism, but by the growing and dying of all things. Sometimes I catch myself mixed up in the stream of two times: capitalism time and real time, confusing one for the other.

When I’m in capitalism time, I feel shame at starting a creative career so late, worry that I am not doing or achieving or being recognized enough. I forget that I chose to be self employed, to follow a path that has no guidelines or markers of advancement other than a ~vibe~. I get caught up in playing the same games I used to play as a full time member of the corporate dream, in the dogged pursuit of a promotion, a fatter pay check, a bigger title. In capitalism time, I forget that I’ve made choices about what I want and how I want to get there, I slip back into the same robotic fear and desire for more. Decolonizing my time may be a life long practice. 

Sometimes, fleetingly, I manage to wriggle out of the iron grip of capitalism time, and I experience real time, time time. The time of growing and dying. It’s when I’m with my family and noticing how they’ve shrunk, how they’ve softened with age. It’s sitting in front of a magnolia tree every day in the sun and the rain and crying at the bottomless gratitude I feel at the sight of it. I feel it when my dog jumps into bed at 6am and wakes me by gently licking my toe, when I watch my psoriasis come and go, come and go, healing and appearing like an endless video playing out on my skin. I feel it when I think about the ten long months of genocide that has unfolded on our screens, the months of inaction and death.

There’s an Italian expression: Piano, Piano. It means little by little, or step by step. It’s taking things slowly, letting them unfold in time. A man at my exhibition said that to me in response to me sharing that I was going through at least one block of Gorgonzola cheese every two days. I needed to hear it at 20 years old, about to attempt to shove the rest of my life into the next ten years in a desperate attempt to get ahead, to be safe.

Magnolias only bloom one week of the year. Jasper told me that March in Lesa is the time of change, and I had his words in my head during the last few precious day that the tree was in full bloom. I was in Milan to print photos at a darkroom, staying overnight at a hotel. I was worried I’d miss it, willing the train home to go faster, like I was missing my favorite band headlining at a festival. I had waited all month to see her bloom. The flowers were still there when I got there.

I came home to New York at the beginning of April, having skipped the uncertain time where Spring has not yet broken and all of us are losing our minds. The magnolia trees and cherry trees were just starting to sprout in Brooklyn, the process beginning all over again. It felt like a tape rewind, a gentle reminder that things move at different speeds depending on where you are.

I took long walks around the neighborhood the first few weeks I was back, missing the green hills of Lesa. I worked on these photos in the darkroom, photos that were evidence of the same thing having happened on the other side of the world a month before. The Magnolia tree in Lesa has long shed her flowers, but the ones here in Brooklyn, at home, had just started to show.