On March 19th, 2003 the United States invaded Iraq. It was several hours before my 21st birthday when I heard the news in Italy and the people were already in the streets. One of the girls from the house and I met with some Italian friends and we walked together quietly towards the river.
I grew up in two worlds. My parents divorced when I was still a baby and I spent the rest of my childhood riding my bike or being shuttled between two very different houses. The community of one house demanded that I reflect on and contemplate my choices, how they affected other people and how they impacted the general harmony of the household. We discussed politics and ethics and we read a lot; I read every night with my mother until I was an early teenager. One of the books she bought me was called “The Big Book of Peace” and it was a collection of stories about war from children’s perspectives, I read it several times. There was no hitting or violence at my mother’s house, ever. When my little brother and I fought we were forced to sit down, hold hands and come up with three things we respected about each other. My father’s house was very different. That household valued physical strength and ingenuity. Above all things my father respected production and skill and he wanted to see results. The three brothers I grew up with in his house were builders, inventors, craftsmen. My father spent most of his time in his workshop using powerful equipment, teaching us to use saws and drills. When camped, he built the table we used on-the-spot and preferred duct tape and paper towels to band-aides. There was a lot of fighting and also a lot of creativity.
I learned to transition weekly between different realities. Each time I arrived at the front door, I had to switch between my two selves. Sometimes I slipped, forgetting which Sienna I was expected to be that day and confused my family. I was never very successful at transforming completely. I am emotional, borderline dramatic, and have always found that the events around me inevitably filter through a primary lens before I can relate to them at all. Standing on the Ponte Santa Trinita in the middle of the Arno River in Florence I experienced the effect of that lens as tangibly as I had ever felt it before. Later, my father would support the military as one of my brothers would join and my mother would want to discuss the reasons for why we were taking action, but before I came to either of those dinner tables… I knew that I disagreed with the decision my country was making that night.
The people I joined on the bridge were illuminated with hundreds of candles and looking into the night down the river, all of the bridges in succession were glowing and filled with protesters. We pressed our way through them, passing groups of musicians, groups of people holding hands and people crying, and at the other end of the bridge an ambulance was stopped with its lights flashing – the paramedics were lighting candles; pledging their services to both sides of the new war. The next day I bought the flag that had begun circulating Florence, it was a rainbow with large white letters reading “PACE” meaning Peace in Italian. I hung it outside my window and as a result I had the first conversation of my life about patriotism. One of the girls in the house was concerned that the flag symbolized my hatred of the United States and therefore cast an anti-patriotic shadow on the house itself. Regardless of our opposing views on the US invasion, we set a time to sit at the kitchen table together and share our feelings. I have always honored this moment as a triumph for the two of us and if a small one, an example of the potential for successful and emotional communication. Neither of us left the table changed or with a new magical understanding of the other side, but we were able to stand firm and present our beliefs in a way that the other person could hear them. In many ways I wish I had been able to accomplish that within myself while I sat at the two tables of my childhood.