Vandagriff_onlywaytoparadise

When I began writing my twelfth book, The Crazy Ladies of Oakwood, I didn’t know if it would be literary fiction or chick-lit. I knew only that it would be about four troubled women on a “healing journey” to Florence, Italy. I had no idea what the Lord had in store for me.

My husband accompanied me on two research trips, and I enjoyed visiting a cooking school, a spa–all the places my “Crazy Ladies” would go.  I didn’t realize the potential of my writing. These first two trips gave me plenty of atmosphere, but I was completely blinded by the art and countryside. I failed to see Italy’s true treasure. My book remained superficial. I was very dissatisfied with it.  As a dedicated Christian, all my books have some relationship to the Savior.

 Then in the middle of the winter, I got a strong impression to go back to Florence, this time on my own, and for the period of three weeks. I made my airline reservations and e-mailed my beloved “Italian family” at their B & B about when to expect me. Then I told my husband. For various reasons (well-founded), I thought he would object, but he graciously agreed that I should go.

The first week I raced around in a frenzy, exhausting myself and not really learning anything new.  Finally, I spent a long time in prayer, asking the Lord for guidance.

It was at that time that the extraordinary things began to happen. I became acquainted with agape. This is how I described the first episode in my blog:

From Florence: God Had Other Plans

I was exhausted; there is no other way to say it.  But, having to take a day off is something I never plan on.  The face is, I needed some perspective.  I came to Florence to “do a job” and I wasn’t doing it.  I had this “scared little girl” feeling that I had come over here with the specific intention of doing away with. (There’s something wrong with that sentence, but you get the idea.)

I knew that my mantra “Have Confidence in Your Competence,” was not leading my actions.  Nothig was.  I was just reacting—mostly to pain.  After a day in bed, the pain was finally gone, so I regrouped, wrote down my research goals, and then consulted my handy-dancy Rick Steve’s guidebook and a map. This morning I consulted with Elisabetta (my Italian “mother”) on some vital questions, and I had my day planned down to the minute in a way that would not tax my strength and result in renewed pain.  I felt competent once again.  In control.

Don’t ever say that.  Despite what you may think, you are NOT in control.

Scarcely was I out the door this morning than I saw my bus pulling away.  In an attempt to catch it while it stopped for traffic, I tripped and fell flat on my face.  My glasses miraculously survived (they are held together by super glue at this moment, and I am blind without them), but I sustained a real whack to my right hand, shoulder and knee.  The wind was knocked out of me, and despite the wonderful Florentines that instantly surrounded me with solicitude, I couldn’t get up right away, though I kept reassuring them that I was fine.

That is when God opened the windows of Heaven and endowed me with the sweetest experience I have had since I last held a grandchild. A young man, not more than thirty, (I am sixty-three)stayed by me, gathered my scattered belongings, and coaxed me off the sidewalk a little at a time, finally hoisting me all the way.  Then he put my hand through his arm and insisted on getting me to the corner where there was a cafe where I could sit down.

Overcome by his kindness, I was bowled over when he asked me what I would like to drink. I asked for a Coke and went for my purse to get the money (they are expensive over here).  He waved me off and went for my Coke and coffee for himself.  Then he sat with me, calming me.

We were soon talking about the genius of Brunelleschi (who invented the first dome, seemingly brick by brick) and how it gives him such joy every time he passes the Duomo.  He went on to say how much he loves seeing views of it from high places.  I have not yet been to Fiesole (the town perched in the Tuscan hills over Florence), but he drew me a map with roads, showing me the best place to walk for a good view.  We talked for approximately 45 minutes.  He got my website address because he was curious about my books.  Then he went to pay the bill.  To my surprise, he returned to the table with a ticket for four bus rides!  I thanked him over and over in English and Italian.  He was the Good Samaritan to the nth degree.  And the thing that is beautiful about it is that he is not alone. The Italians are just like that. (Elisabetta was not at all impressed by this story, only by the fact that I denied her a chance to mother me and went with a stranger instead.)

I have been reminded that that kind of selfless love is what my characters are moving towards in the book I came here to write.  This young man was a reminder of why I had to come to Italy to write it.

Vague remembrances of my Western Civilizations class stirred, and I recalled Plato’s word for this amazing kind of caring that I hadn’t ever met with before. Agape. I looked it up on line and found many definitions, which really boiled down to “Christ-like love.” I had to fall on my face before I understood the theme of my book–that agape or charity is the ultimate healer.

Then there was the shrunken little Italian at his booth in the outdoor market, who at the conclusion of my purchases (and his excessive flattery and discounts) said, “You, you are like family to me, so I give you this ring.  For free.” It was a valuable turquoise and sterling silver ring, the size of a robin’s egg. I was speechless.

There were too many instances of agape to count. My Italian family drew me close to them, inviting me to a family birthday party in their apartment, taking care of my health, buying special foods for me, and charging me only a fourth the cost of my room.

Perhaps the most amazing experience with these Italian angels came the night I thought I was going to the Opera. Again, an excerpt from my blog:

Why All Florentines Will Go To Heaven

This blog has been full of posts about the kindness of strangers that I have met with in Florence, but I think that last night must take the cake.

It started with the opera that didn’t happen. The taxi dropped me at Senshall Theater in a part of Florence that is new and chic, where I have never been.  The theater looked like a Nuclear Power plant, which should have been my first clue that something was “off.


 

 

”  My second clue was that the stage was filled with all the instruments of a rock band and a very advanced technical system was on display immediately inside the doors to the theater.  Clue #3: Everyone was dressed for a rock concert.  This wasn’t going to be The Magic Flute as I knew it, that was for certain.

 

Then I remembered that nothing about Mozart had been mentioned anywhere.  It was very late for me.  I nearly dozed off, despite the chatter.  When the concert or whatever it was, still hadn’t commenced thirty minutes late, I obeyed the little voice in my head which had been telling me to go home to bed.  I was feeling steadily unwell, and the idea of a rock concert was not at all appealing to me at that moment.

So I went out to the lobby to ask for a taxi to be called.  Well, you never saw such a furor.  Italians:  “Why do you want to leave the concert?”  Me:  “I’m not feeling well.”  Italians:  “Ah!  You need a doctor!  We will call a doctor.” Me:  “No, no, please no.  I will get better.  I just need to sleep.”  Reluctant promise to call a taxi.  A few moments later, beaming Italian approaches me. “You go outside to wait! I get for you Milano 25!”  “Milano 25?” I repeat.  “Si Si!  Go. Go.”

Milano 25 turns out to be the most famous taxi in the world.  Before you find out more, let me just say that that little Italian man at the concert hall gave me the best gift he could under the circumstances, all because he was so terribly concerned about the Signora who was too unwell to go to the concert.  It is a gesture I will never forget.

My latest Florentine angel proved to be called Catarina.  She bowled me over in her enormous pink hat with flowers that looked like something from Alice in Wonderland when combined with her purple cape and her gracious bow.  I really thought I’d gone “through the looking glass” when I entered her cab: plush pink upholstery, video screens on the seat backs and dashboard showing Bugs Bunny cartoons in Italian, an overpowering smell of roses, and at least a dozen footlong pink plastic pigs!

I, of course, pretended like I rode in taxis like this every day. Caterina, spoke to me in soothing if sparse English, “We will get you to your home. You will lie down on your bed.  In the morning you will feel all better.”  When we arrived at my B & B, the fare was half what my government-controlled taxi fare had been on the way to the “opera.”

I told my Italian “son” Cosimo about the extraordinary experience.  “Oh, you have been very lucky. Catarina is on TV, on the Internet, even they make a movie about her.  She get the taxi from her fiance when he die of the cancer.  She use it all the time, every day to help people.  Children who are sick with the cancer and must go to the hospital for treatment.  Anyone with a problem, Catarina will make them feel better.”

I went to bed with my mind in a whirl.  What would it be like to be young and beautiful and to choose to live such a life?  The Lord had unmistakably let his wishes for my writing be known.  Agape is the balm that would be applied gently into the weary souls of my Crazy Ladies.  Slowly, they would transform while embracing this virtue. It would bind them together and put them on the road to recovery.

In the night, I received the title to my Crazy Ladies Book: “The Only Way to Paradise.” In the last chapter, MacKenzie (my alter-ego) will say for me, “There is only one way to Paradise and that is love.  I found love in Italy.”

If you’d like the full story, you can sample the first three chapters of The Only Way to Paradise on your Kindle or Nook by going to Amazon  or Barnes & Noble.com.   The book can also be found on Amazon.