If she noticed the naivete under the brave face I wore, she never let on.
Our work together was one bright spot from that chapter of my life, which was otherwise a bundle of conundrums. I felt like I could relax my vigilance around her, a veteran single mom. I don’t recall how much I shared, but it must have been enough for her to know I’d love the film she recommended.
“You have got to see ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’” she said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.
I wonder, for a moment, about the collective impact of encounters like that. Almost as soon as I form the question, I think the answer would flip that saying—the one about death by a thousand paper cuts—on its behind.
Those moments when my path crossed with another’s in just the right way to generate honest conversation have made such a difference. Safe spaces to speak taboo truths out loud become sacred containers, crucibles for changes that are too big to hold alone.
I lost touch and never got to thank her, but I’ll pay the favor forward to anyone navigating the whirlwind of divorce, brave on the outside, bewildered on the inside.
Frances Mays, played so relatably by Diane Lane, is my divorce role model. “Under the Tuscan Sun” just might turn any sour grapes you’re choking on into transcendent wine.
I’ll share a few of my favorite takeaways; I bet if you watch it, you’ll find some of your own:
1. Make nasty people footnotes.
Early in the film, a sneering man takes pleasure in delivering some shattering news to Frances. In the credits, he is identified simply as Nasty Man. I love that.
To quote Brené Brown, “When someone spews something really hurtful, don’t pick it up and hold it and rub it into your heart and snuggle with it and carry it around for a long time. Don’t even put energy into kicking it to the curb. You gotta see it and step over it or go around it and keep going.”
That sounds great, probably because it is so hard to do. How do we demote those nasty main characters to mere footnotes?
2. Find the right encouragement.
Imagine for a moment the perspective of your future self on who you are today. What if she knows the beautiful mess is necessary for something wonderful to happen? Just before the encounter with Nasty Man, a former student thanks Frances for some advice that helped him through his writer’s block.
“Terrible ideas are like playground scapegoats. Given the right encouragement, they grow up to be geniuses.”
Ah, right. Encouragement is the elixir for turning a hot mess into a sense of direction or hope. It helps us distinguish what to weed out and what to water.
3. Listen for whispers of hope.
Right encouragement can be the still, small voice within, the one lying quietly under all the noise of an inner critic or the echoes of things playground bullies said.
Psychologist Carl Rogers wrote about the actualizing tendency in all living organisms, which is basically a free and accessible birthright. When our lives are in turmoil, that voice of hope might seem simple or childlike. That’s what makes it hard—but even more important—to allow ourselves to listen to it and lean in the direction of what we really long for, as naturally as the tiny sprouts of new growth lean toward the sun.
We might try quieting our overthinking mind, settling into our hearts, and remembering Rumi’s words: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”
4. Hope sometimes requires tough love.
If we miss the still, small voice, the universe may be forced to send us a less subtle form of encouragement. Frances initially says no when her friend Patti, played by Sandra Oh, offers her a ticket to Tuscany she’s not using because she’s pregnant.
Patti launches into her like a sassy sage, admonishing her about becoming an “empty shell of a person” if she doesn’t find a way to live through and beyond her grief and depression.
The phrase often misattributed to Winston Churchill applies here: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” From the name of the film, I supposed you can surmise that Frances accepts the ticket.
Without a Patti in our lives, we might have to call BS on ourselves. Byron Katie outlines a whole process for challenging one’s own thinking in her book, Loving What Is.
One step I find especially useful is the question, “Who would I be without this thought?” If I would have a brighter outlook on life without a particular thought, hmm, well that’s a bit of a red flag. I might want to refrain from entertaining limiting, depressing thoughts that predictably inflict pain upon myself.
5. Be alert for synchronicity.
By happenstance, the bus tour in Tuscany is held up by flock of sheep at a villa Frances realizes she’d just seen listed for sale. Earlier, she’d said buying it was a “terrible idea” to a woman who noticed her noticing the ad. The woman Katharine’s response is like an echo of Frances’ advice to her student “Terrible ideas. Don’t you just love those?”
Synchronicity is like a drunken travel guide. The coincidence may be uncanny, like God is winking directly at you, but giving you no direction whatsoever.
Another person’s perspective may help with interpreting signs. When a pigeon poops on Frances’s head, for instance, her realtor explains that’s “a very good sign” in Italy, in fact one that convinces the ambivalent villa owner to sell because she believes in signs too.
I happen to have a knack for finding four-leaf clovers. They’re always good signs. I do look for them a lot, but sometimes, they seem to find me.
Hint: If you find one, it’s not unusual to find more nearby. I guess oddballs stick together in nature too.
6. Lean toward the light.
The name of the villa Frances buys is Bramasole, which means “to yearn for the sun.” I sheepishly just learned that it is an actual villa in Tuscany, she is an actual writer who still lives there, and the film is based on her memoir.
I can’t believe I didn’t know that. I love it even more. Yearning for the sun is closely related to her friend Katharine’s advice, repeated a few times for emphasis: “Never lose your childish enthusiasm.” The enthusiasm of a cat chasing the little red dot of a laser pointer strikes me as an excellent example worth aspiring to.
If you tend to stifle your childlike yearning and enthusiasm for fear of repeating past mistakes, your inner child might need to give your inner critical parent a little talking-to. The messiest of mistakes are the very best teachers.
As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
One more thing about light. The Italian word for giving birth means “to give to the light.” Isn’t that beautiful? I think that can extend to giving ourselves to the light as many times as necessary, whatever our age.
7. Connect with the life you have.
Alone in the house, frightened by a powerful storm, Frances draws comfort from what’s right in front of her: an image of Mary on her bedframe and talking to an owl that flies into her room. Her advice for overcoming buyer’s remorse is striking in its simplicity, “Go slowly through the house, be polite, introduce yourself, so it can introduce itself to you.”
Houses might become homes. Strangers might become friends or lovers. You don’t know but beginning with “hello” is a nice step toward finding out.
Max Ehrmann’s words from Desiderata come to mind. “Neither be cynical about love, for it is as perennial as the grass.” The film reminds me that love doesn’t necessarily bloom again when or how we imagine or expect it to, so it’s probably best to open our minds, and then open them a lot wider, to love’s mysteries.
8. Be specific about the life you want.
Specificity and mystery aren’t mutually exclusive. Dreaming in detail plants seeds of possibility. When her realtor Senor Martini comes to meet with contractors after the storm, Frances expresses some of her raw emotion about buying a house for a life she wants but doesn’t have, one with a wedding, a family, and people to cook for.
He later gives her a gift symbolic of those longings: a small statue of Saint Lorenzo, patron saint of chefs. Before long, she realizes she indeed has people to cook for—the contractors restoring the villa and the family working on the vineyards.
He also tells her a story about the train tracks through the Semmering, a particularly steep section of the Alps on the border of Austria and Italy, connecting Vienna and Venice. They were built before a train existed that could traverse it “because they knew some day, the train would come.”
I don’t long to cook for people in the same way she does, so Saint Lorenzo doesn’t resonate with me. Oh, but maybe, he could symbolize someone to cook for me. I have other symbols of hope specific to my life. One is a peace crane. On my first date after my divorce, I kid you not, there was a neon peace crane on the wall of the coffee shop where we met. In retrospect, I think it simply signified that it was okay to be dating, not necessarily that this date would become a lasting part of my life.
9. Be creative.
Creativity has been one of my go-to coping skills during times of stress and change. It could be tie-dying a piece of clothing, rearranging a room, learning how to cook differently, watching Bob Ross on YouTube and embracing my happy little accidents, writing for Elephant Journal, folding peace cranes, or playing guitar. The creative process soothes me and instills hope.
Frances comes up with a most creative self-defense maneuver when some shady men begin following her in public. She greets someone, pretending to know him, with a kiss.
I probably won’t be trying that one myself, any more than I will be buying a villa in Tuscany, but I have to admire her creativity. I also can’t help noticing how creative acts often have ripple effects and benefits for others as well.
In the words of Jonathan Larson: “The opposite of war is not peace, it’s creation!”