Sunday, September 4, 2011

Gleaning the Meaning

I am sitting in an austere classroom, devoid of pictures, color and warmth in a cold, red brick school house at the top of a narrow cobblestone street. There is a high, black iron fence around it with a “playground” in the back, paved over--no greenery, flowers or beauty anywhere, inside or out.

A bell rings out, calling the children in from recess into the dark halls, up the creaky wooden steps into rooms where a stern nun stands at the front of the classroom to continue the lessons, which often turn into an admonishment or humiliation of one or another of the students or the class as a whole. Yet, there is one shining lesson which rays out—I suppose my first memory of being transported in an instant away from the ordinary, and, in this case of that school, perfectly deadening to the spirit.

Once, a small paper book was given out to the children with cream-colored, newsprint pages filled with poetry and reproductions of paintings in sepia tones. This must have been a rare event; maybe happening only this once. Even though the book itself was plain, without color, I remember taking it into my hands with reverence and anticipation. Looking through that book was nourishment for a hungry soul, strength for a growing child, fresh air, light and warmth in the midst of a cold, dark winter. Such are the gifts of beauty.

In this book were paintings and poems:  Rembrandt’s King Solomon in a gesture of sadness and grief, which I somehow recognized; Figures bent over with scythes working in a field—The Gleaners by Millet. There was a softness in the strength of the workers’ bodies, purpose in their efforts, and in the curvature of the lines.  These images and the poems awakened something in me. One of the poems was lovely, and I had the first stanza by heart the moment I read it.

     Hope is a thing with feathers
     That perches in the soul
     And sings the tune without the words
     And never stops at all. (Emily Dickinson)

These images and words were speaking to me from a place that was not here, and through them, I could enter that place. 

I found then, and since then, that the arts are rain and sun surrounding and penetrating the shell that threatens to form around the seed of soul…a seed that is meant to sprout, stem, leaf, bud and bloom. It seems that so much in life would have the shell harden and become impenetrable. That potential blossoming, however, becomes more probable with nurturing love and kindness, but it happens most immediately and mysteriously through the arts, which are the essence of life; expressions of the human experience, collectively and individually, of what we see, intuit, remember, and all that can be felt imagined and dreamed--filling the world with all forms of color, light, music and meaning.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How Do I Love Thee?

Let Me Count the Ways

While reminiscing about a long-ago stay in Florence, Italy, iI decided to attempt  to describe, if I ever could, the ways in which I loved the city. 

After we have traveled to a new place, memories of it can last a lifetime. Many years ago, my husband Robert and I went to Florence to live for one year. We left after only a few months discouraged and sad. Our money had ran out; I could not find a job, and Robert's plan to work with another artist fell through. When I look back, however, it is not the failed plan I remember most; it is the Being of Florence--a masterpiece itself--offering rich treasures for the soul. The impressions and memories of that time, I took with me and cherish them to this day.

As young people, just married, our lives ahead of us, it was a great adventure. We found a tiny, lovely apartment with a little fireplace on via di San Giuseppe. It was across from a side entrance to the Basilica of Santa Croce, with its green and white checkered limestone facade rising in busy, sunlit Piazza di Santa Croce. From our widow, we had a view of the figure Dante standing watch in the square.

When we first entered the church, I was in awe of its exquisite architecture and embellishments—the columns, statuary, stenciling, paintings, sculpture and the ornate marble tombs of the three masters of art, astronomy and politics: Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Exploration of the art and history in this one Florentine church alone could occupy a person for a lifetime. 

Every day and night was a sensual feast in Florence: the aromas of espresso and roasting meats in wood-fired ovens; the shop windows with dreamy, creamy pastries, and the power and resonant beauty of bells ringing out all over the city. Then there was the music in the language of passers-by and the calls of the vendors at open-air markets. A sculpture by Verrocchio in a niche here, or in a garden there; the vines and blossoms dotting buildings high and low. 

And, oh! just down that street, the apartment where Victorian lovers and poets, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, lived and wrote.

There is a special kind of light in Florence, too—golden light falling on red tile roofs, filtering down to the muted, worn finish on ancient stone and marble, creating such color and mood that a wanderer stopping on a tiny street, or overlooking the city high on one of its hills, might feel herself to be in a Renaissance painting. Then there is the Ponte Trinita (where Dante's eyes first fell on  the immortal Beatrice) crossing the green Arno River meandering through the valley from the hills—the hills, with tall, straight cypress, orchards and vineyards under azure blue skies. 

How do I love thee, Florence? Let me count the ways!

These experiences live on as treasures in my life—even if only a very brief part of it, filling my heart, mind and senses again with the memories of Florence—a city alive with color, light, sound, warmth, movement and meaning—and beauty of a rare kind.