In Florence. Italianate facades. Espresso on Magenta and Corso Italia and a boy with a harmonica

Kids are beautiful in cities. They ain’t been ground up yet. There’s harmonicas. After grueling San Francisco-Paris-Florence flight we ride the tiny Pensione Crocini elevator to the tall windows on the courtyard, wash, nap, then espresso at the cafe and luxuriating in the beautiful visual rhythm of the Italianate style, the beautiful rhythm of spring on the Arno, which is rushing past the American Consulate now with the heavy spring rains (spotty snow still on the Alps as we flew from Paris), art students in retro ’80s T-shirts and Deloitte employees in white shirts and black ties on motos, and the carabarini with their carbines guarding the embassy down Corso Italia a block from the Arno, golden buildings in blue light, our tiny cage elevator with the seat where the operator used to sit, our courtyard with the magnolia tree in flower, the salmon-colored apartment block sprouting satellite antennas and bedsheets drying in the warm May air and laundry and awnings and the ubiquitous shutters. A city like a painting, pretty in its particulars, well composed, holding together, yielding up its treasure as long as one cares to keep looking, flowing past on bicycles and Maseratis and scooters. Three euros for two espressos at a red metal table under an awning in the breeze off the river. High walls. High fashion. Mysteries behind towering doors.

Saturday we meet Janet Shepard and Joya Cory and her husband Richard here at the Crocini and Sunday we take the train south from Florence to Castiglion Fiorentino and start the first of two nine-day writing workshops at the Le Santucce residence, looking forward to seeing our hosts Alfeo and Miranda and Luisella and Luca .

Why the Creative Getaway is so great

Yesterday in my intro to the column I mentioned “how we need to fill the January getaway,” and that apparently set off some worries, like, it won’t be cancelled, will it?

Of course not. The Creative Getaway Jan. 17-20, 2014 at Marconi Conference Center is definitely happening. It’s just that some people who were hoping to make it found they couldn’t come, so there are some open slots.

Norma said to me, What will we do if there are only 5 people? And I said, Well, they’ll get a very good workshop! They’ll get a lot of attention and will have a lot of time to write! And what if there was only one person? Then we might lose money! It would never occur to me to cancel.

And then I thought, why is that? Why would it never even occur to me to cancel? Am I not thinking enough about the bottom line? And I realized: I’ve never been motivated by money — even when doing business. Business is just a way to make great things happen.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s what it comes down: I don’t do things for money. I do things for their social utility, or for their beauty, or for love. And then I try to figure out how to make the money work. Usually if something is socially useful or beautiful or if there is love involved the money part can be made to work.

It’s so funny what you think of as business expertise — the other night I was at a dinner in San Francisco with some experienced, cosmopolitan people from the world of business journalism — much more sophisticated in the world than I am — a speechwriter for the head of the Federal Reserve, a business editor for a major metropolitan daily newspaper and now for the Wall Street Journal, that kind of person.

You should have seen them trying to figure out the check.

Heck, I can do the arithmetic. But that’s not what the getaway is about. The getaway, if I may be so bold, is really a spiritual and aesthetic experience.

So why is Marconi so special?

Come to think of it, what happens at Marconi fulfills all three of my values mentioned above: It is socially useful, it is beautiful, and it is done with love. That’s why we do it.

It is also a response, a critical response, to contemporary American culture. It is a brief respite from life in America. Most of the time it is like we live in pressure cookers. We run around taking care of business and then we sleep. Underneath all this frenetic activity, our best and highest thoughts, our creative dreams, and our deep pains — the stuff of our souls, basically — simmer, shut off, made to wait. As what is delayed or put aside for later or repressed continues to press against us, at times will become a shadow, threatening and perverse. And that is how we live in America day to day: overworked, insecure, unloved, delaying the best parts of ourselves, hindered in our dreams. And yes, I say, unloved in a way. Unloved for that creative part: the part that dreams.

I feel this. I feel it intensely. But because of the unusual, countercultural way I grew up, because I always assumed I would be an artist, an outsider, mostly broke, because it never occurred to me that I might have a comfortable and secure life, because I never worried about that so much, I take material deprivations with good cheer, feeling essentially taken care of and lucky to live amidst so much luxury and splendor in the U.S. I always go for the risky but true aspiration, the dream that is underneath the daily grind. That seems the natural path. But it is a different path.

That path is what Marconi is about: It is about taking this chance, for just a few days, to live in the realm of the creative, the possible, and the true.

What we do at Marconi is provide a setting in which one can put one’s inchoate dreams first. When that happens energy is released. People make plans and change their lives.

Last year was amazing. Seven women — yes, it was economically perilous, like this one because there were only seven participants; I think we made a profit of $24 but that is the nature of the thing. Sometimes we do well; sometimes we make $24. But what made it socially useful, beautiful and full of love was how the seven women (and yes, it happened to be all women, but it is not by any means always women) bonded and shared their stories, which were amazing and inspiring and at times full of pain and doubt and longing. I won’t go into details but I am looking forward to the return of some of them, to try and shepherd along the stories that began to take shape last year. But not all seven can make it. One, on the strength of her experience last year, entered an MFA program in poetry and is taking up seriously her calling, so she is otherwise engaged this year. She’s very talented. But she found the courage to pursue it at Marconi, in our workshops and in our private conversations. She was clearly a person deeply literate, steeped in the American tradition of poetry. But it was sitting in McCargo Hall, with the freedom to improvise and let her voice rise naturally, like that voice of the baby in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song” — “And now you try/Your handful of notes;/The clear vowels rise like balloons.” So we’re happy that she is able to do that. People go back to their lives changed in fundamental ways, renewed, ready to be more authentic and to take some chances, awakened to the fragility and brevity of life and determined to be more alive.

People come and they bond with each other and then go on to do things in their lives with more passion and clarity. Like one of our “people of the week,” Amy Souza. Like Bill Kerr, who is organizing writers workshops in Baltimore to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans speak their war-torn truths to power. Like Brian Herrera, who dazzled us with his voice and his performances and is now teaching drama at Princeton. Like Mary Burnham, who found her voice and style and is writing books about wine. Like Lisa Eldridge and Kathy Doran and Gil Schwartz and Gil Gallagher and many, many others. Something starts at Marconi and it echoes and ripples outward into the culture and that is why we do it.

Meanwhile, in the weeks running up to it, I belly-ache. I kvetch. I pace and worry and pace. So what if we make only $24 or even if we lose money? That’s not why we do it. We do it because it is one of the few things in this world that is socially useful, beautiful to behold, and full of love.

It is also a really enjoyable time for me personally. The people at the front desk who run Marconi — Margaret, Julie, Venta and James — are really sweet, kind and likable people, and we love to see them whenever we come up. And the food is outstanding. It is really, really good to eat.

Here’s one other interesting thing about Marconi, which I just realized it has in common with Burning Man: Basically, you don’t spend any money there. Everything is already paid for. It’s subtle, but I think there is something about being liberated from paying for things that releases one more strand of worry, one more little link to the everyday grind. We just go and eat breakfast and then write. Then we eat lunch and write. Then we eat dinner and gather to read and tell jokes or perform or sing, or just crawl into bed in the great, serene, quiet darkness of Tomales Bay, West Marin, the Point Reyes Peninsula a dark finger jutting north into the Pacific.

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

There might be a better place than Marconi to do these things, but for the price I haven’t seen it. And we looked around. I mean, when we started out in 2008 we looked around. And we looked around again last year when we thought we might not be getting the best deal, or that people might be tired of Marconi. We looked at retreat centers in Napa and up the coast and down the coast; we looked at a number of well-known and well-regarded centers. But nothing beat Marconi. We just love it. The serenity of the location. I mean, you just have to go there and walk about in the morning and you get it. Or at night, walk up Tower Hill — where the first trans-Pacific wireless receiving station stood in the early 20th century (yes, it’s named for that Marconi), and look up at the sky, or down at the few lights twinkling on the bay.

It is always memorable. So that’s why we do it. There’s no better way to start a new year, in my opinion.

And it’s easy. Whatever needs to be done payment-wise, we’ll do. We’re revamping our Internet store but meanwhile, if you want to go, and you’re not sure about the payment options or how to proceed, or how to get there from the airport, just email info@carytennis.com, or just phone. We’ll work it out. We can run your card, or we can take a check. There are no real barriers.

See you there.

CT