Staying Upright, Moving Forward, Part Three
Image by Andy M. from Pixabay

Staying Upright, Moving Forward, Part Three

The final chapter in our series of starting a business in Sicily shares how we are trying to stay in the zone despite a serious setback.

Steven Lee Gilbert


When you limit your possessions to only what can be carried you have to be selective. To a traveler, those items must each serve a purpose. Books, if there are any, must di not only that—that is educate, entertain, inspire, et cetera—but go beyond. They must be, as the author Anna Quindlen once said: “the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”

I came to Sicily with just one book. (Three actually if you count my Italian dictionary and grammar book, but setting those aside , I came with just one).

Granted, it was the only book I was still reading at the time of departure, so there’s that. But there were so many books I loved from so many beloved authors I had to choose from; many more that I hadn’t yet read but would have liked to. Why this particular one?

At the time, I couldn’t say. I only knew that what we were about to do was a thing outside the realm of any possibility I’d ever realized before and a book, this one particular book, written about optimizing experience, might be useful. It might make the challenges, worries, fears and any future regrets I might eventually associate with this high-stakes endeavor a bit less unsettling and a lot more achievable.

I had come to this book, titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, the Hungarian-American psychologist noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, through a podcast we used to listen to in the early mornings at the bakery we owned and operated prior to leaving the US. You may know of it, No Stupid Questions.

Sometime back in the spring the question they asked was how valuable was enthusiasm and in their response, one of the co-hosts, Angela Duckworth, mentioned an unnamed book she had recently read that had caused her, because of her deep interest in the material (resilience), to want to do nothing else but read it. No bathroom breaks, no phone calls, nothing. In her setup to the rest of the story, she briefly mentioned that she must have been in a state of flow.

I had no idea what that meant, flow. Perhaps I should have, being both creative and harboring a desire to be happy (I know, creative and happy? Please.). So I went where everyone goes when they want to find out something. I googled it. Wikipedia provided:

In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one's sense of time.

Okay, so I knew flow. Had experienced flow. My wife and children certainly had known me at times to exhibit the less sociable, more annoying (to them) characteristics of flow. I simply had not heard it called that. The article mentions Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-High Chick-Sent-Me-High) and his work, which led me, of course, to his book.

This, from the back cover: During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life…Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance… [and] teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness and greatly improve the quality of our lives.”

Perhaps it was my deep conscious mind speaking, but I felt like having a resource such as this (Csikszentmihalyi cautions it is not a how-to manual) as we undertook this enormous undertaking, this revolution, with all of its many disruptions, and distractions, and uncertainties, a book like this could be useful. It might provide some valuable psychological insight into our dismantling of lives in America and re-assembling of them in Sicily.

As I’ve alluded to in Parts One and Two of this story, we shared a nagging suspicion that things would not work out with R—. His arrogance. His inaccessibility. The way in which, when he did communicate, he spoke of himself and only of his needs, which on the surface seemed to align with ours but in reality were cast, it seems now, to deceive and manipulate. Trickery by a privileged, lonely man intent on having his way. Whatever their purpose they were warning signs and we knew they were warning signs.

And yet we chose to ignore them.


Who knows. There’s a saying here in Sicily that goes Chista è a zita, cu ‘a voli sa marita.

Literally: This is the fiancé, who wants if she marries her, which doesn’t really make much sense in translation, but in practice it means that sometimes the die is cast and there’s nothing you can do to change a situation. Accept it as it is or give up. Here’s the girl, if she suits you marry her, otherwise don’t.

Coming to Vizzini was our plan and our proposal. We owned it. Like buying a used car. We thought we got a pretty good deal. Saved ourselves some money and, more importantly, spared ourselves the anxious question of finding some other place else to land. But then, like a used car, one day soon after you get home with it, one little thing breaks. Nothing too serious, the turn signal say. And you ignore it because after all it’s only a turn signal and used only occasionally, and then all the lights on one side of the car fail to light, a shorted wire, perhaps, but then the skylight won’t open and you think damned if things aren’t now starting to add up, until finally, one day—you’re probably in a hurry for something important—you jab the key in the ignition and nothing. Silence. Not even that disheartening clicking sound. R— was like that lemon, one tiny, annoying failure at a time until the one thing we really needed him to be, the activating source to our engine, just suddenly quit working.

So, what does Csikszentmihalyi have to say about it when calamity strikes?

First, he reminds us that “subjective experience is not just one of the dimensions of life, it is life itself.” Tangible, material events are secondary and only affect us indirectly, whereas flow, that is any inner, psychic, emotional experience that provides us pleasure, benefits the quality of life directly.

In his words:

It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt—sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile.

Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable, in fact it’s just the opposite with the best moments in life often happening when our minds or bodies are stretched to their limits in an effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile, although these moments might not feel pleasant at the time. Flow, as Csikszentmihalyi defines it, is the “state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

This is just me, but that sure sounds like us having just moved to Sicily.

When life doesn’t go the way we want it to and are working toward, as it will inevitably do, as R— so effectively proved, Csikszentmihalyi suggests we have a choice between two paths. The first path is to “erect a barrier around the remaining goals, defending them against further onslaughts of fate”, or we can take the alternative route and create a new, more urgent goal: To overcome the challenges created by the defeat.

And so that is what will do, what we are doing. Pilgrims still, following a new map and forging a better way forward, without the wayward intentions of another to misdirect us. Fortunately, we’re carrying with us in our packs a pretty damn good guidebook.

While we’re on the topic:

In addition to Flow, I’ve been reading a lot lately about a number of topics all of which seem somehow to apply to our move to Sicily (via an eReader, alas). Nature and reciprocity. Education and the coddling of the human experience. Stories of midlife crisis, migration, and yes, on Sicily itself. Each, which I expect to share with you over time, has provided me helpful reflection on this 100% immersive, new(er) experience, and all have helped me to realize that arriving at a place is not the same as being in a place. Ask the questions, and maybe as Rilke suggests, you will one day find that you’ve wandered into the answer.