On Fire with Dante and His Inferno



So here I sit, in the middle of the night, in my room at Malispina Castle, Fosdinovo, Italy. Yes I just said that. This has been a long time coming, longer I think even than the few months ago when I actually made plans to come here . . . I can just feel it. Not to mention that the sound of my fingers tapping my keyboard keys among all this silence—not just any kind of silence but almost all alone in a medieval castle silence—is reminiscent of a home I never left. Was this my actual room at one time? Weird and creepy as that sounds, something is going on here.

Allow me to share the story about how I ended up here in the first place. A few months ago, shortly after things got rolling in terms of my two-month European trip, a college friend private messaged me asking if I was making a trip to Italy (she had seen on Facebook that I was learning how to speak Italian). I told her I was, and she excitedly informed me that she would be in Tuscany in June. Of course my response was, “Let’s reunite in Tuscany!” She thought that sounded like a fabulous idea, and we agreed to meet up in the land of the bright red Poppies and the Cyprus Trees. Several days later I was clearing out some notes from my phone. I happened upon an old note from 2014 that read “Castle Malispuna, Tuscany.” (It actually does read “Malispuna” with a “u,” rather than the correct spelling of Malispina). When I came upon that note, it was one of those twilight zone moments that struck me really funny, and my self said to my self, “I wonder if they rent out rooms there.” I quickly brushed off that thought and went on with life. A couple of weeks later I was on “Booking.com” making reservations for my hotel for when I arrived in Rome. At that time it crossed my mind again, “I wonder if they book rooms in that castle??” Right away I went to my phone notes to check the spelling of the castle’s name. Just below the castle name in my notes was this:

If Not Now, When—Incubus”

Apparently, the same day upon which I put the name of the castle in my phone (which, by the way, I have no recollection whatsoever of doing), I also put the name of that song (aka message from the Universe)! In the same note?! Really?! Honestly, truly . . . talk about a moment in my life where I literally felt like God dropped me a letter via sky mail. I was stunned. Within moments, I had this very castle—the one where, right now, I’m curled up beneath sheets and a bedspread listening to the haunting echo of these keys across the room.


Speaking of haunting and keys, here’s one for you . . . so my second night at the castle I met a couple in the common room, and we hung out for a while. During our conversation, I learned that Castello Malispina is haunted: this did not totally surprise me as it just looks and feels like Spirits are lingering in every room. While I was okay with this on one hand, I was totally creeped out on the other. At around 1:00 a.m., the couple walked me back to my room so that I would not have to brave the lonely, eerily quiet walk by myself. When I got into my room, I locked the door and left the old-fashioned set of keys in the lock. I proceeded to the bathroom to get ready for bed. About five minutes later, I walked out of the bathroom only to witness the keys swaying gently and steadily back and forth in the lock like a pendulum. Ummmmmm . . . yeah . . . did I recently volunteer for “Ghost Hunters” without realizing it? I literally asked myself aloud, “Why would they be doing that?” Trick keys? A draft? My mind playing tricks on me? I got into bed . . . no wifi (I wanted to look up “trick keys”), nobody anywhere near my “quarters” (I had been given the room of the original Malispina’s because my key wouldn’t work in the lock of my first room), no open reception desk (only an elusive night watch person) and no idea as to whether or not my phone would work for calling and/or texting. Let me just say this: this was the mother of all opportunities for me to face my fears . . . reminded me of one time I was convinced there was a bear outside my tent while camping . . . but I digress. I must also say that it felt good, empowering, relieving even to face the fear head-on and also to embrace the after-life. Still, I did crawl under the covers (funny how it feels like they can protect us, huh?) and text my friend, Tracey, who was available to . . . to . . . to do what from across the world?! Anyway, it helped until I finally collapsed into sleep . . . with the light on.

Daylight the next day I was fine: I guess that’s when the ghosts decide to rest. I spent a large portion of the day obsessing a bit, not about the ghost but about the shadows that linger in my own castle. I spent the other portion of the day writing at the desk in my room. I mean, I’m in a medieval castle which I came to learn– after I booked it–is use for writer’s retreats and Dante Aliegheri stayed there. I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly sure what Dante’s Inferno was all about so I googled it to find out. I’ll sum up my opinion by saying I have mixed feelings. I’m a  huge fan of anyone who real talks about a felt, palpable transformative experience of heaven, hell and so-called purgatory . . . so long as they’re not relating it to the only God or religion or dogma or detrimental, ridiculous, destructive things like that. What I don’t like and simply cannot choose to support is anything that guilts people into to staying behind bars and demands that we think of our bodies and our very earthly existence as sinful. I also have a hard time stomaching how, so often in history, we’ve given all the spiritual say-so and wisdom to the male species. I am stating all of this having no real idea where Dante was coming from: still I feel compelled to put it out there.

These ponderings wandered through my mind, and I found myself at the desk writing to Dante about his Inferno. Here’s what I wrote:

I want to write about Dante’s Inferno in a rebellious sort of way. Since when does the masculine have all the say? . . . it has all but destroyed us. Hey, Dante . . . ‘sup? You’ve got it all wrong. Things of the flesh are not to be denied or called sinful. They are to be embraced, savored and enjoyed. I am on red, hot, holy fire with you and your inferno! When did we become do sterile, so proper, so covered and so shamed? Yes, I need to write about being shunned by a friend for expressing my sensuality and sexuality . . . oh, and sorry, Castle, for the red spot of wine on the desk cloth (I had just spilled some red wine, and I have to say, looking back, the timing of that spill seems exquisite).

Anyway, again, I’m not really sure what Dante was attempting to say or not (I should probably look it up and sort it out before publishing this but, hey, this is only a personal blog) but this is what got stirred up in me. It’s been present for years, since my own breakdown/breakthrough/breakdancing my way through all this conditioned muck, and it’s been triggered by so many things, not the least of which is all the religious symbols I’ve seen on this trip.

Believe me when I tell you, I get the true meaning of heaven and hell and purgatory . . . I get it like all the witches (wise women), the mystics and the saints, many of whom were burned at the stake, beheaded, crucified and what-not. And the true meaning has nothing to do with all the patriarchal, manipulative, controlling, dogmatic bull-shit.

So I rebelled alright: I pleasured myself in all sorts of ways as the judgmental eyes from old portraits watched. I dared the painted man with the cross around his neck to admonish me. I summoned the man and woman, in whose room I slept, and I asked them, “Do you get it now? What the hell were you thinking?!” (They had locked their daughter up in the castle prison/torture chamber with a wild boar and a dog because she loved a man from a lesser class). So many people reading that will gasp and say, “How could they?!” . . . but we do it all the time. We do it with our rules, our list of sins, our punishments and our status quo. We do it with our judging, our shaming, our gender biases and our discrimination. We do it with the shadows in our minds and in our hearts, the ones that we fear, the ones that control us because we don’t see them for the illusions for which they are.

To illustrate this, allow me to share Ghost Story Number Two. After all this writing I went for a walk. I visited an empty church, and I sat there for a while, curious what I might feel (as much as I am against so much of what “The Church” represents, I have had profound experiences during so-called religious ceremonies from various religions). I sat near the statue of Mary and Jesus (I’m a huge fan of both of them but not for reasons one might think). I took pictures of the old-school confessionals and became physically sick remembering when I used to participate in the guilt-ridden ritual that they house (mind you, I think something of this sort can be useful but not in the way it’s been implemented). I noticed the skull and bones throughout the church and became curious, and I felt a whole lot of nothing. I went home to my medieval sanctuary and got in bed to write the acknowledgments for the book I’m currently finishing. As I sat in my bed, a shadow presented itself on the ceiling. It was huge, and it was moving! It flitted in and out of existence, worked its way around the perimeter of the chandelier shadow and even swirled itself around my body a few times. At first, I was shocked: I thought, “What in the world is that?!” Could it be a bird shadow even though it’s dark outside? Could it be the flickering light on my laptop (no, it’s not that because it’s still there when I cover the light). Could I possibly see an animal through these incredibly thick walls? What in the world is it?! It wasn’t long before I became certain that it was Maria’s (the daughter who had been tortured) ghost. I sat there wondering what I should do. It was late. It was dark. Even if I did get up and wander the castle, I wasn’t guaranteed to come upon a person and my cell phone (flashlight) was almost dead. There’s nothing to the town that surrounds the castle so no luck there. And I don’t have wifi in my room. I crossed my fingers, and started dialing. I ended up getting my son, sister and some family and friends on the phone. We were all convinced it was Maria’s ghost. Some were scared for me, and others were jealous. I was freaked out and calm (somehow that is possible), and I was seeing myself on the next episode of Ghost Hunters. Between the key incident, the website description of the haunting, the fact that I had learned Ghost Hunter’s International had in fact detected paranormal activity in this castle and just the vibe I had had since I’d gotten there, I was totally and utterly convinced that I was being visited by a ghost. An hour and a half and probably $90 later, I realized it was a bug in the chandelier. A bug. So I slept . . .

First of all, I know that is all pretty hilarious . . .  but also I want to share what I took from that experience: facing our shadows and feeling our fears is worth it. Running from them does no good. Believing they are real only scares us and causes us to act from fear. Being with them, looking at them, embracing them, sharing our fears with trusted loved ones . . . that is how we get to where the shadows don’t control or scare us anymore.

This castle experience was so right for me but not in the way that I expected . . . then again life never is. Exploring the rooms was a living metaphor as I most certainly visited the rooms inside myself while I was there. I lived for a while in the prison and the torture chamber, for a while in the common room, for a while in the tower, for a while in the master’s suite. I viewed the deep, dark dungeon and the panoramic landscape. I relaxed in the marble tub and huffed and puffed up the many secluded stairwells. I was the queen, the jester and the peasant. I was the daughter, the ghost.

My last night there, I wrote to a friend,

I am so freaking bored in this castle. If I hear one more bird chirp I swear I’ll puke. Nothing against birds but I need dancing and singing and wine and food . . . and people!

Lo and behold, my prayers were answered. I ended up having unexpected and spontaneous girlfriend time with a real, live person! And we’re pretty sure Maria was there, too . . .


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