For love has more power and less mercy than fate,
to make us see ruin, and love those that hate.
I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly in vain,
since I am myself my own fever and pain.
– – John Dryden
She tells herself it’s all her fault
She doesn’t love she just devours.
– – Kate Tempest, “Grubby”
Florence for the historian, Florence for the aesthete, Florence for the newly rich Chinese, Florence for those who use the phrase “bucket list” (and therefore do not deserve to be in Florence); Florence for the High Romantic, Florence for the poet, the musician, the teenage hippie traveler. Florence for the Texan gold addict, the Ponte Vecchio her dealer, Florence for Italians on holiday, Florence for lovers, Florence for those who wish that all the world looked and smelled like the Mercado Centrale on a rainy day.
Yesterday I saw the tomb of Donatello, and above him, in the perfect cube of a Brunelleschi basilica, a high arced ceiling depicting an early July night in 1442. Running through the middle seam of the fresco, a lively crab with the eye of a diamond sun, a writhing serpent beneath her. If the gaze can stay steady and long enough, the body slips away, and becomes, for a time, a Florentine, 600 years old, at rest from a day’s work in mid-summer, staring up at the midnight sky.
The sky is a secret vortex, like all art of the finest sort: one looks and looks, and the trance that results removes the noose of time and boundary. The sensation of immortality imbues the skin, the very cells, and time steps away, the river stills. This, then, is the gift of art and observation.
There is no where in the central part of this city to go without being offered an embarrassing abundance of time’s gifts, and the still perfect, matchless art that was the cultural standard here for hundreds of years. Today I spent a long time in a bistro that utilizes as its space the double arched ceilings and tile flooring that were in place four hundred years ago. It was a bit like eating in a cathedral, which of course is appropriate for the hand made bread and Tuscan specialties (no thank you to the tripe) coming out of the open kitchen. In the next room there were vendors selling flowers. Scent of rose, scent of basil, of lilac and warm bread, taste of sea salt on the tongue.
Almost two years ago I came here as a sort of celebration: I was alive, with an actual pulse, after a long, long period of sickness. The sickness was in the brain, like some sort of inoperable tumor, and the diagnosis, at times, was fatal. Even with my children, I often didn’t know if I could pull through. With drugs, time, a shrink who is more like a surgeon than a therapist, and my children, particularly baby Isadora, I saw glimmers of light that occasionally turned to sun.
So on one cloudless day I took a plane. Here, to Florence. And then a train to Venice. I listened to the Well-Tempered Clavier and read a fine translation of Petrarch’s sonnets. I had the Italian next to the English, and would try to make out the words, line by line; just seeing their rapid confident beauty gave me shivers of pleasure. During those days I knew more joy, more awakening, passion, curiosity, rest, gratitude and relief than any single person has a right to in one lifetime. The deluge. That, really, is what it was: the deluge of Life coursing through and back into me.
Now, less than 24 months later, I am here in heartbreak. The cells that were mainly killed off, or at least shriveled to inconsequence during the healing of my breakdown, have shown troubling signs of reemergence. Depression can often metastasize, and although it might be weakened, a drastic change in one’s life can resurrect the demon, and one doesn’t know the creature’s strength until the middle of the battle.
Florence is still Florence: perfect. And perfectly held in time, or out of time, like a frozen kingdom in a fairy tale, a raindrop in hardened amber. It is of course what one brings to perfection that can change the view, or even the sense of place. I still wander around in a stupor of wonder, but the stupor is accompanied by hugely rolling tears, and a loneliness well beyond my usual romantic ennui.
I realized suddenly today, while watching a new-to-love, beautiful couple in front of the facade of the Duomo, that I have never been alone. The lovers were in the addict’s stage of erotic love, that part of love that causes the world to pale, making even the Duomo invisible, as the beloved is placed in a sharpened, charged central focus. Most of us know this part of love, its beautiful illusion, the way it feeds us until we come up empty, realizing that our sustenance was, after all, just another person, a mirage of one’s own hopes and needs, and not truly a divine being or saving saint. But during the period of intoxication no drug can equal love’s pleasure: the shiver on the skin, that empty feeling in one’s core, from spine to loins, the brightness of color in winter trees.
I have always chased this drug, partly because of the sheer joy it brings, but also, perhaps mainly, out of what I fear constitutes Love’s opposite: isolation, joylessness, not just a loveless life but an unlovable soul. So the seeking became, as it does for many, the search for a kind of triage.
Picture yourself in a kitchen. It is late on a Friday night. Bright lights overhead, no music on, and you are alone in a new apartment, hardly unpacked. You are making a soup, and chopping the onions that bring blurring tears. Suddenly, the mild shock, then a distant awareness of the surprisingly quiet, deep slice of your thumb; the onions slowly turn red with warm blood. What ensues, of course, is the frantic run to the linen closet, then the bathroom, then back to the kitchen to wrap the thumb to stop the bleeding while you look for band-aids that may or may not be there. You just moved in, after all, and you are alone and not totally prepared.
The search for love, or companionship, can feel like this. We will do anything to stop the bleeding.
These are the thoughts that came to me as I wandered from the Basilica of San Lorenzo to the Ponte Vecchio and up toward the gardens holding the unbearable majesty of the Michelangelo sculptures. Night fell, I looked at the stars. A winter sky. A Christmas sky. All around me, silence. This, then, is “alone,” I thought. It is an aloneness of my own making: the search and need to stop one’s own pain and blood letting must eventually slow, must eventually turn inward, so that a beloved, were one to ever know this drug again, is only the beloved, and not nurse, handmaiden, and protective keeper of the gate.
I ruined my marriage with my neurotic need for protection, my loneliness, and my quixotic ideals that fall hopelessly out of step with the forward march of the rest of humanity. The loss of A, of my family in its completeness, has brought me to a grief I’ve not known since my sweet sister died, many years ago.
The end of a marriage, particularly one with children, is a living death. We must drag the corpse of our love behind us as we make room for an inherently false cordiality involving the well being of our children, the innocent recipients of our anger, of my ridiculous standards and expectations. We love our children, this we share as one body. And now, as every parent who has divorced knows, our work lies in creating two new families, and somehow splitting the single seed that was meant to support only one tree.
In Florence I was exhausted. One day I slept 13 hours and missed my bus to Sienna. By the second day I began to wonder if it had been a mistake; why am I here, I thought, if I am fated to sleep the sleep of myth and fairytale? My body was dipped in Lethe, the sleep was drenching, it was storm and foreign irresistible muscle. Fatigue, heartbreak, the isolation of looking into a future without support, friends, lovers, husband, a complete family – I was a wounded animal, like a deer shot through with a fine arrow in a Renaissance tapestry.
There is Mercy in the world, Mercy in the heart.
On my third day in the singular city, I was walking down Via de’ Ginori, a busy lane close to the Duomo. The sun emerged from all cloud cover. It was a brilliant sun, unadorned, almost painfully naked in its intensity. A summer sun, maybe as the Florentines knew it that July day in 1442.
I felt the penetrating warmth and light on my chilled face. I felt the warmth travel over my always-cold limbs. Apollo paused his chariot, stilled his horses, and reached his tapered fingertips, white and hot, to my cheek: I woke. I woke up to the sounds, the smell of leather and meat and spice, so wonderfully particular to Florence, all around me; I stopped in the middle of the street to feel the pure pleasure of travel, the too often wasted gifts of time and health.
Travel is a Mercy. The mind absorbed with the freshness, the otherness, the open world of travel – this is a Great Mercy.
It is a beautiful word, a word one intuits carries within it the richness of a complex, even cruel history. Mercy. From Old French, as far back as the 12th Century, “mercit,” meaning a gift, or, beautifully, pity. (Does this make the Blake poem a redundancy? Mercy, Pity, Peace, Love… all the same..) Or from the Latin “mercedum,” which has as one of its meanings, appropriately, “wages.”
The payment for our suffering, for submitting to suffering, accepting it without filter, is Mercy. This is a Catholic belief; it is also a Buddhist one. Perhaps it is just a human one.
The source, finally doesn’t matter. Mercy fell on me, I knew the brief visitation of a tender god. A god of pity, certainly, a god of Mercy. I am a solitary wounded animal, and the touch of a pure, mysterious love brought me back to my children, so that with them, when needed, I morph from blooded doe to woman, Madre, strong bone, unbroken flesh. Mercy gives them exactly what they need.