When I told my friend our family was taking a quick day trip to Milan, she clucked, “Ooooo, Milan! Shopping, right?”
Milan is known throughout the world as one of the major fashion pulse centers. Over the last few decades, this northern Italian city has become a formidable haute couture-opolis, one that makes Parisians quake in their Louboutins, Londoners tip their Vivienne Westwood hats, and New Yorkers bend a Donna Karan knee or two.
But fashion was the last thing on my mind when I traveled there on Friday.
Well, you and Emily Dickinson.
Alright. You, Dickinson, and all of humanity.
Okay. You, Dickinson, all of humanity, and the cathedral of Milan.
Il duomo, as this famous cathedral is known, put Milan on the map long before the Prada brothers Mario and Martino opened a leather goods shop in 1913 in the famous Galleria Vittoria Emanuel II, one of the world’s original shopping malls dating from the 1860’s.
As a matter of fact, the cathedral’s unparalleled architectural phantasmagoria dates to the 1300’s, when its nearly six centuries of construction began.
It’s true; while traveling to Milan, I was thinking of you and the recent discussion we’ve been having in this blog about types of grief. Dickinson called these variations on sorrow the “fashions of the cross” in her poem on grief I shared in a recent post.
It was these fashions, and not fashion-fashion that preoccupied my thoughts as Randall, Luc and I boarded our crack-of-dawn train and chugged from Switzerland into neighboring Italy.
Along the way, and while anticipating visiting il duomo, I quizzed Randall on all we knew personally about various “fashions of the cross”. Specifically, we discussed varieties of suffering we’re acquainted with close-up, from within our two combined families, the Daltons and the Bradfords, and from our most intimate circle of friends.
Because I’ve been writing about “sorrow that the eye can’t see”, we two were concentrating on those sorrows which, for whatever reasons, are grieved privately, sorrows no casual outside observer could necessarily identify or would even recognize without some guidance, sorrows which are sometimes intentionally shrouded in secrecy.
By the time we reached Milan’s stazione centrale, we’d had a sobering conversation. We’d also compiled quite the list. What hidden or unspeakable sorrows have marked our two families and our closest circle of friends? What private crosses are being born within a community of responsible citizens, solid families, folks with access to education, running water, vitamin supplements, several pairs of shoes? People who stay out of the tabloids, off of the Most Wanted wall in the post office, well under any FBI radar?
As I said, the list is sobering. Still, I’m convinced we’re what you’d call a normal bunch. Maybe your normal bunch is a little like ours.
I mentally scrolled through this long list of sorrows as we made our pilgrimage all the way from the central train station to this, the city’s heart.
Here, at the piazza del duomo, or the place of the cathedral, we came upon a kind of buzzing epicenter. The cathedral, which dominates and draws everyone to this open place is symbolic of paradise – entering its huge carved doors and crossing over its threshold into its cross-shaped floor plan is supposed to symbolize approaching God’s throne.
Now here it stands like so many cathedrals today, like the celestial city of God right in the core of the urban city of man. Three steps out its front door is a bustling commons where all of humanity seems to be sharing in one big party.
It’s here where I, list in mind and camera at eye, watched this human pageant. I had one question in mind: who here might be bearing invisible sorrows like those from my list?
Fraud, larceny, imprisonment
Falsified credentials, falsified identity
Substance abuse or addiction
Borderline personality disorder
Eating disorders that flourish in secrecy like anorexia, bulimia
Bipolar disorder, depression, manic depression
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Uncertainty of sexual orientation
Chronic and/or terminal illness
Incontinence, bladder or bowel
A loved one with dementia
Spiritual decline or apostasy
Unforgiveness, grudges, vengeance
Somewhere around my hundredth photo, all this sorrow I was imagining started pressing on me. I felt its cold weight. I stopped shooting and let my camera dangle on its strap around my neck. For a moment I stood still.
Then came a minuscule epiphany – an epiphanette – scratching on my spirit, gerbil-like.
Or maybe it wasn’t a scratch as much as it was the itch that comes with the thaw of cold.
Was I smiling? I know I was. I sensed warmth seeping from the cathedral out over the plaza, radiating in an astral pattern like the roads do from the piazza del duomo itself. The warmth moved in all directions over the milling human bodies spinning and toitering like asteroids in some inscrutably ordered chaos. Bumping. Fumbling. Stumbling across the square. The too-brief moment on this crowded mortal square.
It was there, a humming warmth, and it saturated all this jumbled humanness. From its darkest secret sorrows to its brightest hopes for relief, everything was accounted for, comprehended, absorbed.
With noontime clarity, I understood this is the nature of things. Holy presence. Human Plaza. The two indissoluble. Eternally one.
The late afternoon crowd wasn’t transformed by what I was sensing in the moment. But my experience was. The hundreds remained hunched inward, backs close to but turned away from the cathedral entry. Every last one seated right on the verge. Less than a hair’s breadth from that blazing, light-gushing threshold.
“Hey,” Luc hopped onto my train of thought, “You ever coming inside to see your cathedral? We’ve already done the whole tour.”
“Coming,” I said, replacing the lens cap and reentering reality. “Whew, sorry! I just got a little carried–”
“While you go check out the stained glass and the statue of that one Saint guy who was skinned alive, we’re going shopping, kay?”
He lifted his eyebrows and half-smiled while reaching over and removing the lens cap I’d just clicked into place. “You’ll want to take lots of pictures in there. Lots. Like for at least an hour, right?”
Next post, I’ll take you on that tour.