Interview: Ellen Urbani

Ellen Urbani“Show up thoughtfully. Maintain hope. Extend a hand. Believe in second chances. Search relentlessly for the small, simple acts that might make a difference. Let that be enough.” — Ellen Urbani 3/19/23


Who is Ellen Urbani?

Ellen Urbani is an author, speaker, counselor, farmer, and activist, among other things. Her books include the award-winning novel, Landfall, and the memoir, When I Was Elena, recounting her Peace Corps work in Guatemala during the final years of that country’s civil war. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, TIME magazine, and numerous anthologies. Following her Peace Corps work, she spent over a decade in oncology counseling and program planning. She also finds time to grow hay on her horse farm located near Portland and do what she can to save animals, both tame and wild, from Oregon wildfires. I met Ellen when I recruited her to speak at a writing conference I was directing, and experienced firsthand her intelligence and compassion. 


The Interview… 

J: Where are you from originally… where’d you grow up and what was it like growing up? 

E: I was born in a small town on the gritty edge of Philadelphia in a hospital tiny enough that the boy in the bassinet beside me in the nursery grew up to be my best friend, where the neighborhood kids raced BigWheels through the streets on the way to the corner store to buy cigarettes for our dads while our moms polished our saddle-shoes nightly and each morning packed us Wonder bread sandwiches in Star Wars or Little House on the Prairie-themed metal lunchboxes. 

My wardrobe consisted of two staples — play clothes and Catholic school uniforms — and I wore a set of each daily, with pockets stuffed to overflowing with Kleenex; my mother never could abide children with runny noses. Half of my primary school classmates sported the same red-headed, freckle-faced, blue-eyed Irish visage as I, but I’m the only one who didn’t realize I was Irish until adulthood, as in my family Italians ruled the roost. 

Every Irish girl who married into the crew of Italian men (who emigrated recently enough from Italy that I have dual US/Italian citizenship) got an engagement ring and cooking lessons from her husband’s Italian mothers & sisters so that the three-nights per week meatballs and gravy tradition they were accustomed to might be maintained. Everyone I knew ate what I ate, believed what I was taught to believe, vacationed together in the same two places — the Poconos or the Jersey shore — and remained deeply rooted to each other from birth until death. 

My world was stable, and it was small. Yet it overflowed with abundant celebration, raging tempers, relentless storytelling, and love that gushed as easily — and as frequently — as the booze. Many people sacrificed much so that I might believe I had plenty. It worked. I am grateful. 

J: I’m shocked to hear that you hail from Philadelphia (though I’m still smiling at the wonderful scenes you painted)… I thought you were an Alabama girl. You did go to college there, right? So I guess that’s my next question… how did you end up at the University of Alabama? But before leaving this part of your life behind, I’ve got to tell you how much I enjoyed your description of an Irish/Italian urban upbringing. 

It called up a few memories for me… for a while in college I dated a girl from Chicago who had an Irish mother and an Italian father (that was a tempestuous household, very much ruled by the Irish component), and, during my corporate travel days, I had a friend named Charlie O’Reilly who had lived his whole life in the Boston suburb of Woburn — a blue-collar railroad worker neighborhood where the Irish and Italians came together is how he described it. Charlie shared a lot of stories that sound very similar to yours. And on a completely unrelated note, Charlie always had access to front row seats at the Garden and took me to several Celtics games in the waning days of that great facility. 

But getting back to your formative days, what took you south? And was that a culture shock?

E: Although I grew up in a working-class Philly family born of recent immigrant stock, by the time I hit high school my father had followed a job to Leesburg, Virginia. Where once my classroom windows looked out onto concrete and broken basketball rims, I now gazed upon cud-chewing cows and rolling cornfields. Leesburg is an historic equestrian town and a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., situated in what was at the time the most moneyed county in the country, and nowhere were the rapidly re-entrenching Reagan-era class distinctions on more comprehensive display. 

In the myopic way of teenagers, I remember much personal “hardship” (it is admittedly no fun being among the least affluent of one’s peers during those self-conscious, uber-comparative/competitive adolescent years). But I also reaped many benefits from such proximity to privilege and chief among them is this: college was a given among my new peer group. So despite the fact that no one on either side of my family had ever left home for university, I simply presumed that was the natural next step for me. That said, paying for it was going to be tricky. But here’s where two mindsets merged in a blessed way:

1. I had a deeply-rooted sense that I’d spent my whole early life living, essentially, within my own backyard, surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted so similarly that it would be rather too easy to keep believing my way was the only way. I suspected that immersing myself in an unfamiliar culture might be an antidote to that.

2. I didn’t want to go into debt. I worked full time in summers and part-time throughout the school years, saving every dime, and my parents generously offered me assistance of an amount that was significant to them but not sufficient to cover costs at most schools, so I had to find the cheapest good school possible. 

The University of Alabama fit both bills. Out-of-state tuition there was significantly less expensive than in-state tuition in my home state, and the Deep South was certainly a unique and unexplored culture for me. It didn’t hurt that a good friend’s dad was the head of student recruitment there, and flew me down for a visit. One weekend wandering among those gorgeous southern oaks, across a quad crowned by a clock tower and surrounded by the Antebellum architecture of brick buildings, Corinthian columns, Byzantine domes, and deep-set porches, and I was in love with the gentility of the place. The Deep South is, in so very many ways, so beautiful … and so brutal. But at first flush, it was only the beauty I recognized, and the beauty drew me in.

J: I love the way you write. And having had the opportunity to see first hand the gritty concrete of Philly, the pastoral beauty of Virginia, and the expansive grace of the oaks in the Deep South, I find your descriptions carrying me back through my own cache of memories. Thanks for that brief vacation. 🙂 I think your story captures both the opening heart and the informed naiveté so common among highly intelligent teenagers. Within that context, Alabama makes perfect sense. And I love that it was beauty that touched you most deeply. I wonder, has beauty, or a sense of beauty, always held a strong emotional appeal for you? I guess I’m asking what your strongest influences are… what is it about life that touches you most deeply?

E: Ah, beauty. It is as a salve to me: it stills my soul, and grounds me amid chaos, and helps anchor my focus on that from which I might summon joy even when joy is in short supply. But let it be simple, small, and natural. Give me a rowboat not a yacht, a treehouse not a penthouse, an old wooden swing hanging from a gnarled maple in a field of dog flower. I once lived in a mud hut in Guatemala’s high desert (Peace Corps, 1991-93) without electricity or water, with scorpions nesting in the walls, yet I was as happy there as I have been anywhere … for the schoolchildren brought me handfuls of yucca blossoms every morning, the scent of jacaranda rode in on the night breeze, and the tamarind pods that fell through the holes in my roof could be crushed into the sweetest juice. 

It is, perhaps, the habit of seeing beyond hardship to find and amplify beauty that inspires me most; a trait I aspire to cultivate and one relentlessly modeled for me by resilient friends and neighbors ranging from Blacks persisting in the South (persisting everywhere!) to indigenous Guatemalans fleeing genocide to single moms shouldering too many responsibilities solo to LGBTQ+ community members insisting on the right to live as their own perfect and authentic selves. Nearly two decades ago, before I turned my attention to writing, I used to work as a cancer counselor and grief & trauma specialist, specifically tending to the needs of children whose parents were dying. People often remark that it must have been a hard job, and certainly there were difficult aspects, but I was consistently awed by the beauty people managed to manifest in their lives even in the most abysmal of circumstances. I have seen so much kindness birthed by the vulnerable; so much generosity blossom from the obliterated places in people. My patients taught me to prioritize joy in my life, and while I regularly need reminding I have, by and large, endeavored to follow their teachings. 

Which is why I can’t close a conversation about beauty without celebrating the gift my current farm life offers me: the chance to provide shelter to wounded and orphaned wildlife. For a girl who grew up in a city, dreaming of horses and wild creatures, the chance to welcome hurting animals into my life, tend to their needs, and then usher them back out into good and wild lives is an immeasurable blessing. To be trusted by such vulnerable spirits — from blind fawns to orphaned opossums to injured livestock and wildfire evacuees — is perhaps one of the most beautiful things I have ever known. To me, even in her darkest moments, this world is a dazzling and a wondrous thing. 

Ellen Urbani animals saved from wildfires

Some of Ellen’s temporary, and beloved, animal family, clockwise from Top Left: Fiona, a blind piebald fawn; Dot, an orphaned opossum; Nellie, a blind Holstein; and Adler, an orphaned squirrel. The squirrel, opossum and fawn – who with daily doctoring regained her sight – were all reintegrated into the wild. The cow moved on to her forever home at a sanctuary.

J: Such moving words, and there’s so much truth in them. Your effort to live a loving, full-hearted life is inspiring. As I read through your experiences, I was struck by the way beauty and joy consistently seemed to emerge from pain and hardship. And now I’m wondering, do you think one is required by the other? Does the absence of joy create the space that allows it to enter in? Is the heat of pain needed to kindle the kindness that soothes it? Or is it simply that the most dire times make it easier to recognize the beauty that may have been there all along? 

E: I could fill pages and pages full of words, circling around your questions, zooming in, panning out, trying to discern why, exactly, it is that beauty & joy so often cozy up closely to pain & hardship. There are certainly those much more learned than I who have devoted whole books — and canvases, and careers — to the topic. You’re undoubtedly correct that the mere apposition of opposites has an amplifying effect. But perhaps the best I can add, personally, is to say this: how lucky I am to have been raised up believing I am lucky; believing that good things are coming my way even under duress; looking always for silver linings. 

My sisters and I relentlessly tease my mother for what we call her “pink bunny” view of the world. (I have no recollection anymore where the term came from, but it’s akin to this: instead of seeing a raging red devil barreling down the road toward her, my mother would, for instance, see a pink bunny hopping toward her in the friendliest of manners.) She consistently finds something to celebrate in every situation. This is perhaps best illustrated by her interpretation of the final scene in Charles Frazier’s National Book Award-winning Cold Mountain, wherein the two female protagonists are picnicking with their chosen family some years after the death of the soldier they loved. “What do you mean, ‘after the death of the soldier they loved?’” my mother asked when she heard me describe this chapter. “That solider didn’t die!” she said. To be clear: the soldier died. Bled out all over a forest path. You don’t get more dead than the dude in Cold Mountain. But not in my mother’s world. In my mother’s world, the soldier is in attendance at the final scene’s picnic; Charles Frazier simply neglected to mention he was lounging there, out of sight. 

You can see how the teenaged and young-adult daughters of such a woman — who believes so sincerely in happy endings that she will override an author’s intentions — might be driven mad by their mom’s relentless optimism. But perhaps you can also imagine how often that optimism spirited us through tempests, riding waves gamely, as if we were on surfboards and not drowning in the riptides. We may mock our mother on occasion, still, but she taught us to wonder at the magnificence of lightning rather than run cowering from it. She taught us that when we’re driven to our knees, we might glimpse tiny beautiful things on the ground that we wouldn’t have seen had we not stumbled. She taught us to be grateful for hardship, that it might lead to the light.

J: Optimism, coupled with a need to help, seems to be a crucial element of your life… your path. You’ve served in the Peace Corps, which I would think requires a high degree of optimism. You’ve written a successful novel about Hurricane Katrina that had to work hard to do it, but did eventually find its way to an optimistic end. You’ve protested unjust civil actions despite dangers and injuries. You’ve rescued animals from wildfires, nursing them back to health and freedom and forever homes. 

All of this has happened, and continues to happen, during a time when many would say that the world has been sliding, inexorably, toward the dark and away from the light. How have you managed to maintain the level of energy you bring to each day? Do you sincerely believe the world can be saved? And what words of encouragement can you share with others who aspire to follow your path?

E: Are you familiar with the parable of the starfish? Imagine a young child wandering along a sandy shore littered with the bodies of thousands of beached starfish. With each step, the child bends down, picks up a single starfish, and tosses it back into the sea. Step, toss. Step, toss. Step, toss. An old man walking past stops and says to the child, “What are you doing?” and the child responds, “I’m saving starfish.” At which point the old man begins to laugh, and in a mocking tone says, “And what do you think you are capable of accomplishing? There are thousands and thousands of dying starfish, and you are only one small child. What possible difference do you think you can make?” In response, the child takes a step, picks up a starfish, tosses it into the ocean, and says, “I made a difference to that one.”

There was a time I might have said I felt called to play a part in saving the world. Better stated: I felt destined to bold things. I felt an outsized sense of purpose. And now? I don’t know if the world can be, or need be, saved. I don’t know if the people occupying it, as a collective, require or deserve saving. And I accept that my sphere of influence will never be as wide as I once vainly presumed it might grow to be. And yet: I am called to kindness. To care. To compassion. 

I don’t have it in me to commit the rest of my life to solving the houseless crisis, but I can carry around a basket of chewy granola bars in my car and hand them to elderly women on street corners, thereby ensuring they will not be hungry for the next hour. I can intervene to ensure that one injured, newborn fawn does not die on the side of the road but instead grows into a deer who will know what it is to run wild in a green forest under the summer sun. I can stand beside a Black man on a protest line and admit I have next to nothing to offer him that will be sufficient to his needs, but offer to stand with him anyway if my presence can be of any small service. One life at a time. Not saved, necessarily, but supported. 

Letting that be good enough is, perhaps, what sustains me; what keeps me turning toward the light on dark days. For, make no mistake, I have met with my fair share of hardship, like everyone has. As I write this, in fact, I am divorcing; I took a break writing these comments to finalize the edits on the dissolution judgment sent over by the court and likely will sign away my marriage before nightfall. I am no more or less heartbroken in this moment than anyone with a dream that has been dashed. There are so many proverbial paths one can take through such proceedings, and I choose to balance my grief with optimism, deliberately. 

To look for beauty even in the broken places is to give beauty a better chance of being found. So I will love my husband in marriage, and in divorce. I will hold his heart and mine gently, whether we are married or not, and I will live with him in friendship and treat him with tenderness even as we disentangle our lives. I will repeat to us, as many times as is necessary, that I believe there is joy out there awaiting us still, and when he finds it — and I find it — even apart from each other, I will celebrate for the both of us. Sincerely. 

Which is to say, I suppose, in answer to your questions, that the best I can recommend is this: Treat yourself and the people around you like stranded starfish. Show up thoughtfully. Maintain hope. Extend a hand. Believe in second chances. Search relentlessly for the small, simple acts that might “make a difference to that one.” Let that be enough.