Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Sunday in Florence, Italy

Today is Easter Sunday in Florence. We arrived two days prior and found our apartment down a narrow cobble-stoned street lined with restaurants and shops. Florence is a magical city, the heart of the Tuscan world where art, architecture, food and wine are bountiful and magnificent. We rose early, dressed in Sunday clothes and walked a short ways to the Piazza del Duomo, home of the biggest church in the city, the Santa Maria del Fiore, or "Duomo."

The big event in Florence for Easter is the Scoppio del Carro, or the "explosion of the cart" which takes place in front of the Duomo. For over 300 years the Easter celebration has included this ritual, during which an elaborate cart standing three stories high, is dragged into the square behind a fleet of white oxen decorated in garlands.

The origin and historical value of this tradition is fascinating. A young Florentine named Passino, a member of the noble Pazzi family, apparently took part in the First Crusade in the Holy Land, where he gave ample proof of his courage (he was the first to scale the walls of Jerusalem and raise the Christian banner). When he came home, he brought back three flints from the Holy Sepulchre that he received for his act of courage. This reliquary, today preserved in the church of Saint Apostoli, lies behind the Florentine celebration for the Resurrection of Christ. For centuries, the Florentines used these flints to light the "Holy Fire" which was distributed once a year, to every household in the city. The cart was used to pick up the consecrated fire and "cart" them around town, so to speak. Over the years, the cart's decorations grew more and more elaborate, as did the fireworks.

Outside the Duomo, crowds of people, mostly Italian tourists who come to Florence especially for the celebration, wait in anticipation of the Scoppio del Carro. Mass is heard in Latin (I am a "lapsed" Catholic and the flow of priests, bishops, altar boys, palm fronds, olive branches and the call and response of this ancient language floods me with memories). An eloquent choir is broadcast over loudspeakers, followed by the sound of chiming churchbells cascading through the air from Giotti's Bell Tower. There is a parade of medieval characters in Renaissance dress, leotard-clad drummers, a band of men waving huge banner flags with family  crests, and women in long flowing velvet dresses with flowers in their hair (think "Shakespeare in Love"). Then the climax begins: an Archbishop lights a small dove-shaped rocket which is shot from the cathedral to the huge cart at which time the cart "explodes" into fireworks and the square becomes alive with a sequence of booms, smoke, sparks and wide-eyed people.

After the festivities, people disperse into the streets and squares around the city. The thunderous chiming of church bells continues throughout the day and night, reminding everyone that Easter Sunday is indeed a very holy day for Catholics around the world. Piu straordinario.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Fear of Beauty?

Wednesday we leave for a month-long trip to Europe and Morocco. Hopefully, we'll have many opportunities to duck into internet cafes. They seem to be in some of the most far flung places around the globe, we've discovered, but one time, on a road trip in the good ole' US of A, we couldn't find one in Provo, Utah. Hmm. I'll be blogging weekly, as per usual.

I'm fulfilling a wish to see some of the greatest art in the world before I die (not that I'm dying anytime soon, but still...). Marble cathedrals built in the 11th century, Michelangelo's sculpture of David, scores of tapestries and paintings from medieval to modern times. I hope I don't faint. I kid you not, this is a reality...fainting in the face of great art.

I have studied yoga for over 20 years, and in the early nineties attended a retreat at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lennox, Massachusetts. One evening, Yogi Amrit Desai, founder of Kripalu Yoga demonstrated a "meditation in motion yoga flow." The energy in the room was palpable and electric. About a hundred people stood in a big circle and Desai was in the middle, slowly executing a palette of beautifully linked movements. I was spellbound by what I was seeing, a complete defiance of gravity in a on-going flow of yoga that left me breathless. Some people had tears running down their cheeks. A couple people fainted. Later that evening, I questioned exactly what had happened there.  How could he move with such amazing grace and how did he elicit such intense feelings in people? It was the most beautiful, radiant, energetic performance I had ever seen from a human being. There are many pathways to the Divine, and this was his expression through the portal of meditation, breathing and movement.

I came to the conclusion that I was in the presence of great art that night. Sometimes beauty throws you for a loop! Florence, Italy has some of the richest treasures of art in the world, and this is a fact: oftentimes, foreign museum go-ers are plagued with a rare psychological disorder while standing in the presence of outrageous BEAUTY...yes, they faint, or collapse, or have panic attacks and have to be rushed to the  the city's Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. These outbursts have a name: Stendahl Syndrome, named after a French novelist who in 1817, wrote about his breakdown while viewing masterpieces of art.

Oh, please Lord, don't let me faint in front of Benini's statue of Saint Theresa...I promise five Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers...I swear on the name of the cross!

Just breathe deep and you'll get through it, my yoga training tells me.

After being immersed in great art, we're headed to Morocco to catch the view from the backs of horses. I hope to keep in touch via some far flung internet cafe in the Sahara Desert.  Ciao.

Essay on Fear of Beauty:

Visit Kripalu's website: for yoga-living classes and residential retreats. (Desai is no longer there, but Kripalu is one of the most successful retreat centers in the U.S. with a host of first-rate teachers)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Impermanence, or Memoir Note #2

Nothing changes.  The bones of the mammoth are still in the earth.
-Adrienne Rich

As I was reaching for the sweet potatoes this evening at dinner, I glimpsed my hand and felt an inner stirring, an uneasy jolt of recognition. I saw my mother’s hand in the creased knuckles and bulging veins, the long fingers with squarely clipped nails.  She has been gone for a number of years, and though intellectually I understand she is dead I still wonder, where is she? Vanished? Disappeared? Is that all? My grief over her death is mixed with my own inevitable non-existence; someday I’ll be dead and gone for eternity. When is eternity? Is it now, or does it begin after you die? I’m nearing 60 years old and I still ask childish questions.
I think of the scores of innocent people born into the world who are subjected to horrific abuse every single day of their lives.  A baby tossed out a third story window. A woman raped with a rifle. A child held by the ankles and slammed against a concrete floor. All true stories…and scores more, day after day in this crazy complicated world. Why? Someone once said there are horrors that surpass religion…and even abolish it. 
I experience sudden jolts of non-existence frequently. Logic does not deter me from understanding them in a satisfactory way; neither does faith. Likewise, I also cannot explain the sudden jolts of Transcendence felt in the presence of great art and beauty. Standing before the Raven Glacier or viewing an abstract painting, I’m instantaneously shot out of present time and the world shimmers. Temporarily. And the rest of my waking hours, if I am inclined to think about it…death…nothingness, I still feel separate and afraid.

Time is a great teacher but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.
-Hector Berlioz

We scattered my mother’s ashes in Eagle River, just as she had requested. I read “Cabin Poem” by Jim Harrison:

I’ve decided to make up my mind about nothing,
to assume the water mask,
to finish my life disguised as a creek, an eddy,
Joining at night the full sweet flow,
to absorb the sky,
to swallow the heat and cold,
the moon,
and the stars, to swallow myself
in ceaseless flow.

It was a bright spring day, with Eagle Glacier reflected perfectly off the river like a negative photo image. I thought of the oneness then, and the paradoxical nature of human existence. Again, beauty saved me. Nature gave me comfort.
And I remembered mom telling me, it’s not that you ask the wrong questions, Monica; rather, you ask ones that have no answers. Stop asking and be at peace; but simply, I cannot.
Or I can. Temporarily.
My four siblings and I split up all of her belongings, one by one. We sat on the living room floor and as each object (my mother lived simply) was passed around, a story was told or a memory reflected. After the last piece of furniture was hauled away, we scanned the empty rooms and readied to leave.  As I shut the door behind me, my sister turned and clutched my arm. “Wait, where’s mother?” she said. 
“She’s in my purse,” I said innocently. Laughter burst forth like popping balloons.
 In my purse, my mother was ashes in a box, she was in my purse, and we were laughing. It felt natural and right and so perfect.
And it still does.
The happiness of the drop is to die in the river.
-Al Ghazali

Monday, April 4, 2011

Apprenticeships...or Life Swaps?

Over 500 years ago, Leonardo daVinci spent six years of his life as an apprentice to Veracchio who was an experienced sculptor, painter and goldsmith. Veracchio had many students whose main responsibilities were grinding and mixing pigments, preparing panels for painting (before canvas), and working with clay and bronze. daVinci's interests were incredibly far-reaching.  He was a great engineer and architect, designing many of the main structures in Milan. He invented the parachute (who knew?), designed the first cannon, created the turnspit for roasting meat, canal systems to irrigate fields, a well pump for water. He made maps of Europe, and the first accurate drawings of the human anatomy (we're all familiar with that one), invented scissors, made a machine to produce concave mirrors, designed a revolving stage for plays, and oh, in his spare time, created some of the most beautiful paintings known to man. He also designed the first bicycle, some 300 years before the first one was seen on the road!

I mention this for two reasons. One, I'll be spending a month in Italy and Morocco this spring, and am bursting with joy just thinking about all the great art, food and culture I'll experience in Tuscany and Umbria. And the tiled designs in Moroccan architecture, and the argan oil (from a rare thorned tree in SW Morocco), which I plan to bring back by the gallon! And two, I am very interested in exploring the possibility of exchanging experiences with other everyday people, both here in the U.S. and abroad. Conducting an apprenticeship, like they used to do in Europe.  Here in the US, most non-paying apprenticeship programs are offered in the building trades (housing construction, framing, electrical trades, etc.) but why not expand that to any area of interest? Like pottery, glass blowing, hiking, painting, music, agriculture, writing, sculpture, Indian cooking... or simply exchanging locations and cultures for a few weeks. One of my favorite artists learned to sculpt by being a "gopher" for a more experienced artist in California who taught him the basics; from there he moved on to his own creations. You don't need to be an "expert"; just willing to have an open mind and share the ebbs and flows of your own experiences.

Remember when Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy exchanged life experiences in the movie Trading Places? The storyline was referred to as a modern take on Mark Twain's novel, The Prince and the Pauper. A homeless street hustler and an upper class commodities broker cross paths and craziness ensues. Or the true story by Nancy Weber who in 1973, writes about how she completely swaps lives...clothes, jobs, names, lovers....everything....with another woman for a month?

OK, both of these examples are extreme but, I don't know...follow around a pig farmer in Idaho? Pick grapes and make wine in the Pacific Northwest? It doesn't have to be extravagant; there's much to learn through engagement in another's daily activities and life story, if even for a short while.

If I could become an apprentice and if there was a "directory of apprenticeship opportunities" (sort of like a Craigslist), here are my top three: horsemanship, painting, and Tai Chi.

What would you choose?

My friend Lucy has learned how to savor a perfectly roasted marshmallow