What a Field of Sunflowers in Umbria Taught me About my Poor Bruised Soul

Let's just say it's been a rough couple of weeks. For all of us.

Taken on the aggregate, Americans are an incurious lot. Typical response to discovering that I live in Italy: “Cool!” But that’s as far as it goes. There are never any follow-up questions, and over this past decade, I have learned not to expect any. I’m not one to yammer on about myself, but especially when I know the person in front of me has not one clue what I’m talking about.

Never waste time trying to explain yourself to someone who (either willfully or through sheer indifference) refuses to understand you. That’s time you can never get back again.

But the one thing some Americans have been known to say that sticks like a burr under my saddle is: “Why do you care so much about American politics? You don’t live here anymore.”

And that’s about the most pig ignorant thing you can say to a person like me. I care deeply about my country. I have two adult children who live there. Believe me, I got skin in the game. Just because I can no longer afford to live there on my freelancer salary doesn’t mean I renounced my citizenship. If anything, seeing the U.S. at a remove has given me greater clarity.

One thing conservatives consistently get wrong about left-leaners like me is the idea that because we criticize our country, we don’t love it. When I’m not mildly annoyed at their short-sightedness, I’m amused by their hypocrisy. Who criticizes America more rabidly than those flag-waving, Funyun-eating, AR-15-shooting, Fox News-watching, Trump-loving folk?

Here’s the difference. I’m not criticizing my country. I’m criticizing them. And heaven knows, they’re criticizing me. American politics isn’t even about the issues anymore. It’s about “owning the libs”, and yes, sometimes they have good reason for that.

I often wonder what might happen if we outlawed political parties. Would the electorate then be forced to actually research the politicians they’re voting for? What if instead of pressing the lever for any bozo with an R by his name, we had access to a candidate’s platform or voting record right there in the voting booth? Would we start voting the issues and stop voting the party?

Silly, silly me. No one in power wants people making informed decisions. I keep thinking this is a democracy!

If we lived by majority rule instead of sharia law and judicial fiat, abortion would still be available to all American women. A ten-year-old rape victim wouldn’t have had to recently travel from Ohio to Indiana to obtain an abortion. There would already be a nationwide ban on assault rifles—something the vast majority of Americans are begging for. Instead, two-year-old Aiden McCarthy was found alone in bloody clothes after both his parents were ripped to shreds right in front of him at the Fourth of July Highland Park shooting.

It’s a lot—a lot—to process.

And it takes a huge toll on you, me, on all of us who care, especially when we know the lunatics are officially running the asylum. It feels a bit like trying to come to terms with a death sentence. You know how this is going to end, you hope it’s not years of protracted misery, and you wonder if a steady regimen of drinking might help. Your brain is crowded with paranoid contingency scenarios that don’t sound so paranoid anymore: what will you do if some lout knocks up your daughter? What if an armed madman kills someone you love in cold blood?

It hurts, carrying this weight on my heart everywhere I go. Sleeping or awake, I feel the heaviness. My dreams are haunted by it.

Then a darling friend of mine took me to the Umbrian countryside around our village to see the Helianthus. Sunflowers. Umbria is covered in them, and for all of July until the beginning of August, they blanket the undulating hills of Italy, row after row of bright yellow petals. Like me, sunflowers are heliotropic. Before blooming, they turn their beautiful faces in the direction of the sun. After blooming, they face east.

And here I was bearing witness to fields of sunflowers as far as the eye could see. The air smelled of parched grasses, and a haze of dust stood on the horizon. A lone shepherd’s cottage, snugged up next to a hill, made me long to know the people who lived there. Did they wake up every morning and go rushing out to see the sunflowers?

I would.

For the first time since Covid began and the world around us officially went mad, my heart swelled with real joy because of those sunflowers. The Japanese call it kame, “spiritual energy”. They reminded me that a calm and humble life brings more happiness than realized ambition, and that the deepest source of my misery is not wanting or accepting the world the way it is.

The French writer Voltaire said, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” We must cultivate our own gardens and keep our distance from the world, living in our own small plots, never in the minds of men. Oh, how tempting that is! But I’m not sure we can afford to keep our distance from the world. Not now.

That doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes walk among the sunflowers, in whatever way you define them. Time must be made for this. I know how easy it is to skip the relaxing soak in the tub, blow off friends so you can get more work done, put money aside for anyone but yourself. But you can’t keep coasting on fumes indefinitely. At some point, you will have to put fuel in your engine, and that involves seeking beauty wherever you can find it.

Because if we can’t find a way to keep our souls intact in a world that is doing everything it can to rip them apart, we have already lost this war.

Make beauty a priority. Find your sunflowers.


Sunflowers in Umbria, Italy
The 3-D fairytale that is Amelia. Photo by Stacey Eskelin.

Sunflowers in Umbria, Italy.
Moments before dusk. Photo by Stacey Eskelin.

Sunflower in Umbria, Italy.
Photo by John B. Arnold

Amelia, Italy, sunflowers, Umbria
View of Amelia. Photo by Stacey Eskelin.

Dirt road in Umbria, Italy
An enticing road. Photo by Stacey Eskelin.

Country house in Umbria, Italy
There’s that shepherd’s cottage. Photo by Stacey Eskelin.

Italian soda Terni Italy
After a long hot day of tramping around the countryside, THIS.