Sunday, June 18, 2017

Freeing the Angel

We'd already been to St. Peter's where Michaelangelo's "Pieta" is safely ensconced behind glass. We'd also gazed in wonder at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and frankly, we'd seen a lot of master works by the time we walked into San Domenico's in the heart of Bologna's city center.
The Angel freed

On our previous trip to Bologna, we walked right past this (relatively) humble church without giving it a second glance. Let me clarify that the humblest churches in Italy would be considered magnificent cathedrals in the US.

San Domenico's (Saint Dominic) was consecrated in 1251 and its simple brownstone facade belies the treasures inside. These include three sculptures by Michaelangelo completed in 1495 that guard Saint Dominic's tomb, which is a wildly ornate and amazing collection of art onto itself, within St. Dominic's chapel — one of numerous chapels in this cavernous basilica.

We were planning our return trip to Bolonga when I stumbled upon information about Saint Dominic's.  I was writing a presentation about the nature of essence, and was reminded of a quote attributed to Michaelangelo about his process for sculpture:

 "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." 

(This reductive process is the same for us when we hit that point in our lives — usually at mid-life — when our ego's strategies and motives are no longer effective in protecting us from whatever it is we fear and we begin to long for the true self that lies hidden inside of us.)

San Domenico's unassuming facade belies what's inside.
To make sure I had the quote right — and that Michaelangelo did indeed say it — I did what I always do when I'm fact checking: I Googled. Sure enough the quote popped up with numerous sources confirming its origin. Along with the quote were images of the angel.

I always thought the "freed angel" was in the Vatican or some important basilica in Rome or Florence. But after doing a little research, I discovered that it was actually in the Basilica of San Domenico. Another quick Google revealed that — to my amazement —San Domenico's was two blocks from the Air B&B apartment we were renting! So along with eating prosciutto and cheese and sampling balsamic vinegar, The Angel went on the list of things to see and do.

Upon entering the vast church, I expected to see signs, arrows, flashing lights pointing the way, but there were none. In fact, when we entered the basilica at about 10 a.m. on a Monday, there mass was being held in the very ornate chapel that held the priceless sculptures. The angel remained hidden. We decided to come back after the service concluded.

That afternoon we were not disappointed. The chapel was open and empty. Soaring above the final resting place of St. Dominic was a cupola that could rival anything we saw in Rome. The frescos were amazing too, but below them on the altar was the Angel exposed for all to see. I could have touched it! (But I didn't.) It was awesome to stand so close to such a master work.

According the to account I read, Michaelangelo traveled through Bologna after the death of his Venetian patron, Lorenzo De Medici. He was only 19 years old when commissioned to sculpt The Angel and two other pieces for the chapel. Four years later, while in Rome, he would be commissioned to sculpt The Pieta.

I love to plan our trips. I take a lot of pleasure finding the ideal Air B&B accommodation or great local restaurant, but the best experiences I have in my travels are the ones that occur through a culmination of happenstances. Like the Angel in the marble, the opportunity to see a masterwork in such an intimate manner had been there all along. I just had to be willing to seek it out.
San Proclus by Michaelangelo, adorns the tomb of San Domenico
San Petronios by Michaelangelo in the Basilica of San Domenico

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Boy Band Next Door

I love my neighbors. They have a band. They like to party. They particularly like to sit on their front porch and smoke and talk loudly. I love my neighbors. I love them so much that I called the police the other night — correction, at 2 a.m. — to let them know just how much I care.

We live (by choice) in an eclectic neighborhood a few blocks from UAB campus. The house next to ours has been rented by students since I purchased my home more than five years ago. Last year, new tenants moved in. I soon met a nice young woman who walked her little dog in the mornings. I exchanged "Hey!"s with the 20-something guy who became her roommate. A few months later, on a warm Sunday afternoon when strains of acoustic guitar wafted from next door, I thought, "Cool!"

But as the days (and nights) went on and the concert continued with amplifiers and percussion, my thoughts changed. Band members came and went. None of them said "hey" or even made eye contact.

After four days straight of "band practice" that lasted from 10 a.m. to well into the evening, I cracked. That evening, at 9 p.m. I walked next door and pounded until the guys took a smoke break and heard me. I smiled and introduced myself.

"I'm sure you don't realize how loud you are," I said. "But I can hear you playing inside my house."

"OK," the band leader said, in classic single syllabic, text response.

"You've been playing all day ... and I work at home ..." I said, " and you've been playing every day this week."

He stared at me and I realized I was now "the old woman" who shook her fist at the kids and tried to spoil their fun.

"I get it, you're just having fun," I said. "But just please, consider your neighbors."

"We're winding it down," he said. "We'll stop at 9:30."

And they did. But a few weeks later, the band started in at 1 a.m. The drums and base guitar were pounding so loud it woke Jack, who, in turn, woke me from a very deep sleep.

I pulled on a pair of jeans and a jacket and marched next door. I had to pounded on the door before anyone answered.

"I told them not to play!" said the band leader.

"Please tell them again," I said. 

That was six months ago.

Since then, we've called the police twice when the parties and music went on well after midnight — once on a weeknight, and after one particular inebriated guest mistook our azalea bushes for a urinal.

Although they probably think me very intolerant, calling the police and filing a disturbance report is actually a compassionate thing to do.

I love my neighbors — all my neighbors, including the elderly Vietnam vet who lives across the street and takes care of stray cats and a funny little dog. I love the autistic man who lives a few houses down and who quotes baseball statistics as he walks to and from the bus stop on the corner. I don't know every person on my street but I love them all enough to not want their property — or lives— destroyed by drunken drivers.

The Boy Band Next Door may think I should mind my own business, but when their friends wake me up at 1:30 a.m. because they are yelling across the street, they become my business. Ignoring their insensitivity or chalking it up to "youth" isn't going to help anyone. I am quite certain that the consequences of their choices will catch up to them. If I hasten the process along, so be it.

And let me be clear: I do not like confrontation. I will avoid conflict as much as possible. So for me to go next door and ask people I barely know to stop making so much noise, is not a natural response for me. And yes, writing this essay is my way of processing it after the fact, because I now feel weird and awkward and vulnerable having shared my feelings with these kids — knowing that they could retaliate and do any number of distasteful things to my home.

I don't like confrontation one bit, but I look at it as practice, because there is a lot of noise in this world right now that is disruptive to our collective peace. Non-action is action. And not taking action — allowing someone to piss in your azaleas — becomes complicity after a point. I have to learn to stand up against the things that disturb me and use the resources that are provided to not only take care of myself, but to help take care of my community.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Holding the Tension ... on Social Media

There's never been a better time to practice mindfulness. In fact, lately, I'm getting lots of opportunities. I don't even have to leave the comfort of my home — or even sit in meditation. Every time I go on Facebook, there's a new chance to hold the tension with those who have differing opinions to my own.

Some people might just defriend those who don't agree with their politics. Others might just hide or stop following social media trolls and toads. But I'm finding it a great practice to sit with the comments, memes, videos and headlines that push my buttons. What better way to practice awareness of dualistic thoughts than while scrolling through the daily news feed?

It's interesting to sit with the feelings that arise when I read a post or statement that I find offensive, ignorant or hateful and try to define exactly what the emotion is. Fear? Indignation? Righteousness? Anger? Loathing? Hatred?

Often my first reaction is to reply with a pithy argument or roll my eyes as I hide their feed. Then, I start to make up a story about how backward and ignorant the person is. I want to place as much space between me and them as I can.

But this is Facebook! And I've know a lot of these friends for a long time. They are well-educated, successful, and smart. They are good mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. I've "loved" the posts of their dogs, cats and grandchildren. I've "wowed" their vacation photos and "LOL'd"at their jokes. Just because they have a different idea of who should be the Secretary of Education than I do, they aren't insane or evil. They may hold different political and social values, but they are still my friends.

I am grateful that I have friends who hold differing opinions than my own. If not for them, I wouldn't know the truth depth and meaning of my convictions. Left unchallenged by a tightly knit cohort of like-minded Facebook pals, I would be lulled into thinking that everyone in the whole, wide world agrees with me and my politics. In fact, I would be practicing the very same exclusion and segregation that I abhor in others.

Holding a space for opposing views is really difficult right now, but that's the point. If I can't hold the tension between myself and a friend who has a differing opinion to my own, what kind of world can I hope to live in?

In that space of tension lies something great. In that space of not responding in anger and fear lies a tremendous opportunity to cultivate compassion. How can I help create a more peaceful, loving world if I am so completely undone by an insensitive meme?

If I really want to practice loving kindness and compassion, I need to friend those who do not share my point of view. If I really want to follow the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha, I have to open my heart to those who think/look/act different than me. I don't have to "like" everything they post. All I have to do is follow the greatest commandment: Love your neighbor as you love your selfie.