Lessons in Listening & Uniqueness at Sicily’s Valley of the Temple

Since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of time,
you are incomparable.
– Brenda Ueland, 1891-1985

Agrigento, Sicily

Agrigento, Sicily

This image was taken at Agrigento’s “Valley of the Temples” on the southern coast of Sicily. Sprawling across what is actually an elevated ridge are seven majestic temples. Some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself, these monuments in Sicily were constructed during the 6th and 5th century B.C., in the Doric style of the day. Now excavated and partially restored, they are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tom and I splurged on a private tour guide, wanting to extract everything we could from the experience of visiting here. Guiseppe Pace was nicknamed “the Professor,” and like pupils of philosophers of old, we listened attentively as he shared his knowledge and insights. He regaled us with tales of the history of the city of Akragas, as this sacred area was known in its hey-day, one of the leading cities of Magna Graecia during the golden age of Ancient Greece.  Guiseppe spoke of how Sicily endured centuries of conquest by neighboring civilizations covetous of its natural abundance and strategic location.

Like any good teacher, he gave us time and space to digest his morsels of days past, letting us linger at each ruin, while he walked ahead.  The complex was largely deserted as Tom and I ambled along the dusty road leading from one of these wonders to the next.  The pale and chalky landscape warmed in the glow of late afternoon, and the occasional olive or palm tree provided a contrasting lushness to the landscape.  Amidst the grandeur of such massive monuments to the passage of time, we both felt an air of awe and mystery.

And while slowly circling one of the temples, inspecting it from all angles, Tom saw this instant in eternity arrested in stone, depicted above.  This relic of a humble clam shell gave perspective to the immense scale of the towering stone sanctuaries standing sentinel atop the heights of the plateau.  Overlooking the sea from which it had come, the fossil was memorialized in the bedrock below the Temple of Concordia.  Its delicate lines had withstood the elements here for eons even before these ancient temples had been erected.

Empedocles (c. 490–430 BC) was a Greek philosopher and a citizen of Agrigento, best known for citing the four elements–earth, water, air and fire–as the origins of life, and part of the history of the universe. He suggested the powers of Love and Strife act as forces mixing and separating those elements.

During our travels throughout Sicily, we found the island to be a cultural mosaic of moods, attitudes, architecture, cuisine, and local lore.  Greater than the sum of its varied ethnic ancestries is Sicily’s pride in its diverse heritage.

“Sicily is like insalata mista!” said Guiseppe.  He explained that Sicilians have inherited customs and characteristics from the many civilizations to claim the island for their own, citing communicating with their hands as a reflex dating to the miming of Greek theater, the practice of midday siesta from the Spanish, the churches with beautifully colored stained-glass from the Byzantines, and empathy for the poor from the Normans. He added, “From the Arabs, we got jealousy–that’s why I’m not married!”

Brenda Ueland, quoted above, was actually married, and divorced, three times. Probably not terribly surprising, for someone who is said to have lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.  She was a freelance journalist, animal rights activist, and set an international swimming record for people over 80 years old.

Ueland is the author of If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, first published in 1938. In it she postulates that “Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.” Carl Sandburg called If You Want to Write “the best book ever written on how to write.”

She espoused the importance of a strong sense of self, and called modesty a form of conceit, but believed one’s spirit should be what she called centrifugal, or generous, and not centripetal, or greedy.  And, at the core of Ueland’s philosophy was a belief that listening was love.  She made a distinction between critical and creative listening, seeing the former as bound to draw dull drivel from people and the latter able to elicit the speaker’s very essence.

Ueland says in If You Want To Write “…the moment I read Van Gogh’s letter I knew what art was, and the creative impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others, by drawing it.”

In his own inimitable style, Guiseppe Pace gave Tom and I such a gift, and we listened in a manner that would have made Ueland proud.  And the tiny shell in the Valley of the Temples taught another lesson, that by being exactly what one is, your essence is eternally preserved, and endures in some elemental form.

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