A Turning Point

At the start of the school year – and the start of my Div III – I had decided that I was going to do a lot of reading and research on Fascist-era Italy, on Italian farmers, on the Southern Question, on tarantism, etc.  I took a load of books out of the library (many of which I still have…), and I started the process of self-educating.  I figured, if I was going to really claim to understand Italian folk culture and folklore studies, I had to do me some book-learning.  In the academic world, this is kind of a disease, trusting the books over the experience.  Don’t get me wrong – the research was fascinating and informative, and I really do feel like I understand a lot of things more than I did at the beginning.

But it completely stifled my creative process.  I met with my committee chair, and he asked me about my reading.  I was thinking about it all too much.  He told me that I wasn’t allowed to do any research until after Thanksgiving (this was right before or right after Halloween, I think).  He told me to make things for the sake of making them, even if they didn’t have anything to do with my Div III, even if they ended up being complete and utter crap.  The process was the important thing – making, building, creating.  This was a great help, and I felt myself stretching my creative muscles and getting back into a groove.

And now!  Since winter break, I’ve been feeling a little stuck again, like I should be doing more work, but I’m not sure what work to do.  I had purchased a novel from the Rockville Library down in Maryland for a couple bucks – Christopher Castellani’s The Saint of Lost Things.  The book is about, among other things, Italian immigrants in Wilmington, Delaware, in the 1950s.  It is completely baffling to me that I can identify so well with these immigrants; I’m second generation Italian-American (and only half Italian, at that), but I realize now that I have lived the Italian immigrant experience.

Of course, I never faced the hardships of my grandparents, great-grandparents, or other myriad ancestors – and I certainly didn’t grow up in a village in Italy.  But last night as I was reading in bed, I found that, from the description of Christmas 1953, nothing had changed for Italian Christmases (at least in my experience) until around when I reached puberty in the early 2000s.  The dozens of relatives, both immediate and extended, the fish, the wine, the Tombola, the cards, the torrone – I could feel the warmth and nostalgia.  I understood that Christmas tradition.  The descriptions were so beautiful to me – and a huge amount of credit goes to Mr. Castellani for being a great writer certainly – but I wonder if someone without the same experience could feel as emotional about it as I do.

I told my boyfriend today that I miss my family, but that it’s become a different family.  Growth and change is completely and totally expected and encouraged; I am not bitter toward the facts of life.  But every day in my family I see a little more America and a little less Italy, and it just makes me realize how important my cultural identity has been.  I had no idea.  And these seeds of nostalgia had been planted around Christmastime.

I spent winter break with James’s family in Maryland.  I found myself missing my family, especially my grandmother, mother, and sister, but realizing that I wasn’t actually enthusiastic about the festivities in which they were partaking.  I think partially I missed the innocence and mystery of the Christmases of my childhood – but I realized that it went beyond that.  I missed the kinds of celebrations that existed during my childhood.  Sure, they were busy and loud, and I find myself less able to tolerate such things since I’ve moved out – but it was warm and delicious and it helped me to understand who I was and where I came from.  I think a huge part of the appeal of spending Christmas with James’s family is that the celebration has more or less remained the same over the last couple decades, and it’s always about spending time with family.

This novel, more than the fact-seeking research, has really influenced the way I want to handle my Div III show.  From the start, I have been thinking about why I’m doing this Div III in the first place, and I’ve come to a place where I understand my reasoning.  It stems from a desire to honor my past, my cultural memory – and a desire to make sure that no one forgets this past.  Italians have more or less completely assimilated into American culture.  The generation of immigrants is dying out, and though their children and grandchildren might identify as Italian, I wonder if they know what that means.  I wonder if they think about their cultural identity beyond the word “Italian,” I wonder if they know what towns their families come from, if they know that the north and the south are like night and day.

This isn’t something that’s applicable only to Italians; in America, everyone wants to live the American dream (and why not, it’s a pretty decent dream) – but they seem to think that means they need to assimilate.  Slowly, over the generations, the cultural memory fades and becomes lost.  America is wonderful and beautiful in so many ways, but I think that there is value to knowing and understanding where you come from.  In some cases, a family might very well be entirely American for the last couple hundred years – and it’s important to know that history, as well.  This country is a melting pot, and that’s a huge advantage in so many ways.  But the melting pot should be about educating each other about our cultures and celebrating those differences, not melting away the differences in order to fit in to a new culture.

And it’s very important, too, to identify one’s personal culture – which is completely different for every single person, and which we all carry around with us all the time.  I think the last year and a half or so have been really important for me in terms of self-identifying and assessing who I am, what my values are, and how I want to pass myself and my values on to future generations in my family.


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