Photo by Susan Pohlman

by Susan Pohlman

The manager of the Hotel Astor eyed me with suspicion as I walked through the lobby buttoning my coat. I nodded and smiled, knowing he must wonder where I could possibly be headed at 4:45 a.m. on a misty February morning. A combination of excitement and jet lag made sleep impossible, so I decided to watch the sun rise on the Mediterranean, for old time’s sake.

Nervi, Italy is famous for the winding and breathtaking Passeggiata Anita Garibaldi, a wide brick walkway that hugs the rocky coastline. It had been an intimate part of my life when I lived here—a safe place to wander, wonder, and while away many an afternoon. I knew that the sloping path at the end of the street was an entrance to it.

The wind bit my nose and cheeks as I stepped onto the passeggiata and shuffled across the red brick to claim a weathered blue bench beneath the dim glow of a gas lamp. I folded my arms against the ocean spray, my face frozen into a grimace, but despite the temperature, I was warm with memory. I missed my life here in Nervi, the surge and crash of waves and the briny scent of the air. I thought of the countless times I strolled here with my family and swam in the shallows that revealed themselves at low tide.

With a deep sigh, I looked to the distant horizon and drank in 180 degrees of the quiet, silvery beauty of the gray dawn. Whitecaps, like fingernails, scratched the surface of the water, dark as slate under a clouded sky that was slowly transforming into a mosaic of old nickels and new dimes with the first light.

There was a time when I loathed gray days. Saw them as the guest who ruined the party. Gray was dented steel and slush, pollution spewing from smokestacks, the howl of the preying coyote. Gray was trouble; it meant you were lost. As a young woman, I refused to live in shades of gray. I wanted street signs and carefully marked routes through life. I wanted clarity, reds and blues and fiery oranges all the time. Colors that knew what they were.

A gull appeared and dipped toward the water where a seal raised its head to greet it. In the distance a lightening in the cloud cover hinted of the sun hiking up the back side of the Portofino promontory. At the suggestion of daybreak, the hues of the morning changed, and the dance of metals invited other colors to the waltz. The tones deepened with greens and purples, and the sky grabbed a soft bruised yellow and tucked it among its folds.

Such were the limits of the youthful me. Time reveals new definitions about the matters of color, and I now understood that gray carries a heavenly weight. The color of courage and wisdom, it is the anchor in the storm, the soldier’s uniform, the surgeon’s tools, and a grandmother’s hair curled for Easter Sunday. Now, at midlife, I am sensing a spiritual shift from needing absolutes to craving mystery. I find myself looking forward to gray periods of disequilibrium as opportunities for growth and adventure. The word adventure, finding its root in the Latin word adventura, means “about to happen.” I am intrigued and excited about being open to that which is about to happen.

I discovered the transformational power of gray right here on this coast when, one crazy day, my husband and I signed a lease to an apartment in Nervi rather than divorce papers in California. We were both lost in our lives and our children were suffering as a result. Knowing it was a Hail Mary pass, we sold our home and moved our children here to see if we could find our way back to each other. We had no idea how to solve our issues, we only knew that we needed to turn in the same direction and search, together. Take ourselves out of our dysfunctional little box of a life, climb into a boat and drift on a sea of question marks until we found our answers. Like Columbus, who fearlessly set sail from these very waters, we chanced a great journey in hopes of personal and family transformation. Our year of wandering and adventure created the soul space for quiet reflection and the time to listen to our own hearts and to each other’s. We learned that being lost can be an invitation to forging a new, more vibrant life together.

Hugging my knees against my chest, I savored the rush of wind through the trees, the thrust of the sea against jagged black rock, and the distant moan of a steamship in Genoa’s harbor down the coast. The round disc of the sun pressed into the clouds like a flashlight behind a white sheet. My buddy the seal awakened a friend, and now there were two heads bobbing in the waves. An early riser jogged by with a rhythmic slap of his running shoes against the brick walkway, and we nodded to each other, knowing we were sharing this moment of grace.

The light in the sky increased, and an unexpected strip of blue appeared through a parting of clouds. The sound of voices and the aroma of coffee found their way on the breeze, and the hum of a distant train announced that the day had begun. I rose from the bench as golden rays pierced the cloud cover at last, blew a kiss to my beautiful sea, and walked happily up the brick  path toward the unknown.