Sanctuary

Saturdays offer a strange kind of sanctuary, especially for graduate students, for whom the notion of a weekend can be rather alien (though not entirely unnecessary). There’s the promise of rest, of course, of sleeping in, a late brunch, doing not much else for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon too. More than that, there is the chance to step back from the world, to stand one apart from everything that you’ve done and that has happened over the course of the week. This does not mean that you do nothing, that you spend the day asleep or in a haze, letting the day pass you by in a blur. No, carpe diem applies just as well to Saturdays, but in a different way.

There is the brunch, by yourself, at home or at a cafe. Your plate and your coffee take up part of the table, but the rest is taken up by a book. It’s a book of fiction, or maybe non-fiction written as fiction, blurring the lines between the two by being, in some parts, completely unbelievable. The table, the plate and the surroundings create a sanctuary for you and your book. They’re a sign to the world that you’re a part of it, somewhat, but that the rest of you is away — wandering somewhere in the world of the book in front of you. You’re consuming, but gently, both the food and the book. But in the same breath, you’re also creating. You read of Paris, and men and women, and the often tender, sometimes cruel things they do to each other, and as you do you can’t help but construct those scenes, those places, those dialogues in your mind, in a slightly different way from everyone else who’s read that same book.

And when you’re done, it’s late, or at least, later. It’s past noon, perhaps, you’re slow and sluggish, but that’s ok. Saturday is also a sanctuary for the weary. And as you’re lying in bed (or couch, or hammock) and drifting off to sleep, you realize something about the nature of life, and days, and work. In many ways, the world works in cycles, in ebbs and flows, in alternating bursts. And perhaps, when we speak of balance, we’re not really talking about balancing everything at every moment. That only works for food, and even then, not always. No, maybe what we’re talking about is balance spread across time and space. What we’re talking about is learning to live and work with the ebb and flow, to play with the pulses, and ride the highs and lows instead of trying to flatten them out to a smooth, but dull plain. The sanctuary is meaningless without the perilous journey and the wearying voyage. And when we look to live our lives, perhaps we should not treat one to be welcomed and the other to be avoided, but rather we should embrace both, in due measure, at different times.

Saturday is only meaningful in contrast to the week that came before (and the one that will come after). 

To rust unburnished

It’s a strange and difficult thing to be broken. It’s even stranger to be broken not because of excess, but because of too little. It’s strange, as Lord Tennyson says (or Ulysses if you prefer) “To rust unburnished, not to shine in use”. It’s difficult, shameful even, to know that the strength you once had, you have lost.

You never felt your muscles atrophy and die. How could you? After all, you were never using them, which is exactly the point. And then, all of a sudden, when you did go to perform some act of exertion, you realized that you couldn’t. Or maybe, it wasn’t even that. Maybe you were idle so long that you forget exertion was even a possibility, or at least, a possibility for you. Maybe, what finally opened your eyes was someone else, someone exercising the very faculties that you were once proud to possess, that you were once known for. And you thought to yourself, “Hey, I could do that too”. Or did you think, “I could do have done that once, but no more”.

And how, exactly, did you feel then? Did you feel ashamed? Enraged? Weak? Foolish? Did you feel a crushing sense of regret and self-loathing at all the days you had let pass, at all the chances you had to actually do something, and proceeded in due course to squander without so much as a second thought? More importantly, what did you do then?

Did you realize that it was vile to hoard and store yourself and your potential? Did you wallow in self-pity, waiting and hoping for things to change, magically by themselves. Or did you then start to actually do something, to flex those old and unused muscles? Did you start on some work of perhaps noble note? Did you realize that even though you are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven (at least in your own eyes), that what you are, you are. You have been made weak by time and fate, and more so by your own negligence and callousness. But maybe, just maybe, you are still strong enough in will to turn your ship around.

It will not be easy, it will not be clear cut and simple, there is probably not a 12-step program (though if there is, please use it). But you have already come a long way. You were lower still, and now you are slightly less so. The first step, as they say, is accepting that you have a problem, now all you have to do is fix it. Sounds simple enough, yes?

Michaelangelo’s David

I’ve been asked what my favorite thing to see in Italy was. That’s a hard question because there was so much to see and a lot of it was really impressive. But one of the things that did impress me a lot was Michaelangelo’s David. We’ve all seen pictures and images and it’s become in many ways an icon of the Renaissance, but looking at it close up in real life is quite a different experience. There’s a difference in seeing something on a small book page and in seeing it in 14-foot white marble.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/63/Michelangelos_David.jpg

Since we couldn’t take pictures inside the Accademia (where the David is located) the above image from Wikipedia will have to do. As I was saying, there’s a lot you don’t see in a picture. You don’t see the exquisitely small details like the veins in the arms or the fact that even the finger and toenails are accurate. All this even when Michaelangelo knew that the statue would be on top of the Duomo and none of these details would be visible from afar. You also notice that his hands and feet are unusually large for the same reason.

Looking at the David, I saw a work of art but I also saw a glimpse of Michaelangelo’s passion, commitment and expertise. It’s easy to look at pieces like that the David and not really think about the artist behind it. But it’s worth remembering that these works that we venerate and love are the result of hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours of human labor. And you can’t fake dedication like that. I can imagine the love of his art that must have driven Michaelangelo to make something so exquisite.

Being an engineer, I can relate to Michaelangelo in some way. often when making a design I have a certain specification to follow but I often find myself going above and beyond what is needed to build something that doesn’t just work, but works well. Of course, I haven’t made anything remotely close to the David, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling a sort of kinship with Michaelangelo and his contemporaries. In an age where so much emphasis is placed on speed and deadlines at the cost of everything else, it’s good to look on works like the David and be reminded that there is something to be said for quality and the pursuit of excellence.

Back in the US of A

I’m back. After 3 weeks touring across Italy looking at wonderful art and walking for hours and hours a day, it’s good to be back at Lafayette. After Florence we made our way to Assisi and then to Rome. Assisi looks like a place straight out of the Lord of the Rings and when you walk through Rome you walk through thousands of years of history. There is a lot to say about both these places (and a lot more to show) but that’ll have to wait until after I get settled back in and pull all 3GB of photos off my memory cards.

There is a lot that I’ve learned on this trip and a lot of new friends and experiences. In many ways, going to Italy was one of the best decisions of my life. The second last day we went to the Trevi Fountain in Rome and I threw a coin in. Apparently if you throw a coin in and make a wish, someday you’ll come back to Rome. But I can safely say that even if I didn’t throw in that coin, I would have been making my way back. Every place I’ve been to, including the small towns of Gubbio and Montefalco could easily take a lifetime to explore.

I never quite appreciated the importance of travel until this trip (even though I’ve been all over the place). But I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Pribic that travel is important. It opens the mind and teaches you a lot about new people, new places, new cultures and it teaches you so much about yourself. Personally, I knew that learning about Italy and art would be an interesting experience and was reading to learn a lot. What I wasn’t ready for was the change in myself that the trip would inspire. I feel braver and more open to trying new things. When you start college they tell you how much you’ll learn and change over the next four years. The last three weeks was the whole college experience accelerated many times.

Though I’m back on campus and getting ready to start my research work for the rest of summer, I still have a lot of thinking (and a lot of writing) to do about Italy and my experiences. The Italy trip will be staying with me for a while and that’s a good thing.

A Firenz

It’s been a while. I blame the crappy hotel wireless that I had to pay for. Anyways, Florence. It’s another amazing city. Not quite as unreal as Venice, but definitely not your run-of-the-mill metropolitan city. Every street has a piece of history on it and you can turn a completely unassuming street corner and find yourself face-to-face with a work of art. Whether it be the Piazza del Signorio (with the replica of David) or the breathtaking Basilica with its famous dome, this city has art built into it at a very deep level. It is really quite amazing and I could easily imagine myself spending a whole year just getting a basic idea of what amazing stuff is where.

The days and nights spent here have been amazing so far. The mornings are packed with looking at art and learning so much about them. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so fast about anything in my life. It would have been impossible without the two awesome professors who are here with us. They’ve spent significant amounts of time here before and have a really good feel for the city and what it has to offer. Whether it be where to find the best art, the best food, the cheapest shopping or the most flavors of gelato, the professors have been amazing.

Of all I’ve seen, gazing upon the David has been almost a spiritual experience. Seeing the thought and detail Michaelangelo put into this work is breathtaking. I could easily write a whole book on how it makes me feel and how it relates to my life. But that will have to wait.

But with the art-seeing in the morning and the shopping/exploring/partying in the afternoons and evenings, that leaves precious little time for journaling and sleeping. I’ve never slept so little for so long in my life, but I certainly do not regret it (though physically it does take a toll). I’ll certainly have more stories to tell, but they will have to wait. I’m sitting in the hotel lobby which is getting progressively louder and I have a paper to write for tomorrow. I have one more day in Florence and I plan to enjoy it.

So it’s not built on water after all

It turns out that Venice is not built on top of water after all. We met with this very nice tour guide today called Fiona who’s from Venice but spoke perfect British English (and German) and she told us about the history of Venice and then led us around the city. Venice is composed of  number of small islands and city is built by placing wood and stone on top of those islands to make them better suited for carrying buildings. Ironically enough, the part of Venice that was once the highest point in the city, the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) is now the lowest inhabited part of the city and regularly gets flooded.

After another full day of walking around Venice, I can safely say that it is one of the most amazing cities on the planet. Florence may be considered the birthplace of the Renaissance but Venice is truly amazing. It’s really wonderful when you find yourself walking through these narrow streets and suddenly you’re in an open courtyard (a campo) surrounded by beautiful buildings and architecture from different periods. And that is just the beginning of it.

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance period Venice has been a center of both trade and military activity (especially naval conquests throughout the Mediterranean). The results of this are obvious everywhere, especially in the art and architecture. When visiting the largest Franciscan church in Italy, the Santa Maria dei Frari, it is possible to get a glimpse of the evolution of Venetian art and architecture gathered under a single roof, albeit a rather large roof constructed over 150 years. The church looks large, but very unassuming from the outside and gives absolutely no indication of the wealth of art and history that it holds within.

In many ways this is perhaps similar to Franciscan ethos of service without pomp and grandeur, reserving wealth and richness for the inside rather than external display. However, the wealth and splendor on display on the inside does make one question why an order of friars vowed to poverty would accept such immensely expensive additions to their church, even if technically they owned none of it. At the same time, it’s probably a testament to the fact that the world is so much complicated than simply right and wrong and that sometimes you simply have to accept the system and bend it to your purpose than fight against it.

I’m currently fighting against my camera and trying to figure out whether to keep a paper journal or just spend money and print out my blog posts later. Tomorrow is yet another jam packed day with a boat tour out to more Venetian islands and a Vivaldi concert in the evening. The day after we leave Venice for Florence and I don’t know what the Internet situation will be then. It might be a few days till my next post so till then I’ll keep journaling, reading, writing and paying attention to two awesome professor and a bunch of interesting fellow students.