Monday, October 1, 2012

Saturday Living, Part I

This past April, Patrick was out of town during Holy Week for his cousins' Confirmation, and I was in town working on a deadline. Most years, Triduum (the stretch from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday) is a rush of different services as we try to make observances with both of our churches.

But this year was quiet, slow, deliberate. On Holy Saturday, I had nowhere to be. So I went to the National Mall, to the National Gallery of Art, to look at Crucifixion images.

I had moved into the second trimester of my pregnancy. Now was the settling-in, trying to get used to the sudden and dramatic changes to my body, looking ahead to the changes to my life. Asking, "Is that all-- is my life somebody else's story now? Did I never get around to telling my own story?"

Knowing that something about my life had ended, was lost forever, and waiting for something mysterious and a long way off, something I couldn't understand from here.

In this morbid and melancholy state, I walked to the Metro. There is no place to be alone like a crowded WMATA train. People step on, find a place to stand, and immediately lock their eyes onto something-- a newspaper, a Kindle, the post they are clinging to-- and never look at anything else until they reach their destination. If they have nothing to look at, they close their eyes. A person can get a lot of philosphising done on a Metro car, or at least work herself into a good funk.

I took the train through the long dark tunnels into DC, wrapped up in a tiny world of my own, and stepped out--

--into the middle of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

Well, blast. I pushed through hundreds of sticky tourists and climbed the long stone steps the National Gallery. The heavy doors closed and sealed out the heat and sound, replacing soft warm bodies with cold sculpted stone. The monolithic columns in the entry lobby rose yard after yard to the domed ceiling. I placed a hand on the surface of a column, rested my head against it, and felt small and lost, a human visitor out of scale with the mass of the museum. A tourist in short shorts ran around the next column twice, giggling, then pulled out her camera and frantically took shot after shot, randomly twitching the camera left and right, up and down.

Down the hall and into a gallery of Renaissance art, where a high school group stepped in, loudly complained "Why is all of this stuff religious?" and stepped out again. I sat on a bench and looked at a Pieta, rubbing my belly. Two little boys tried to climb a sculpture while the guard told their father, in a monotone, not to touch the artwork. 

In the next room, half a dozen Italian and Spanish crucifixion paintings, each artist using the opportunity to show off his skill at depicting human anatomy. Bronzed skin, rippling muscles, hips slung in a casual contrapposto, Jesus as the perfect man posed and pinned on display like a butterfly collection. In the corner, Nicodemus wrapped the body in grave-clothes, a peacefully-smiling Christ appearing to graciously oblige by lifting his arms slightly. The guard told a woman, in a monotone, not to use the flash on her camera.

Downstairs, in a small room tucked away in a back corner of the museum, I found an alabaster sculpture of an angel holding the body of Christ. His limbs were fragile, his body bent toward the earth. I'd seen something like that before, lying on the side of the road. A bird. Something alive and perfect, now broken and empty; something that was supposed to be moving and breathing, forever silent, wadded up and discarded. The grotesque end of every story. Something wrong, wrong down to the core of reality, telling us that the world is warped, askew, out of balance, the wrong scale.

I left the museum thinking about the disciples, orphaned and abandoned, and about Mary, the failed mother. They went through Saturday, knowing that something about their lives had ended, was lost forever, and they didn't know what it meant, except that they were waiting for something mysterious and a long way off, something they couldn't understand from here. On Holy Saturday, the only sure thing is that, in a world where birds can die and sons can die, gods can die too.

The Festival was in full swing. Strange to spend an ancient day of mourning and waiting surrounded by a crowd of sugar-charged partiers in neon-colored summer clothing. Strange to walk down Constitution Avenue and get the sensation that the street was teetering between Heaven and Hell, between the children skipping around majestic marble columns and the old men crouched on the curb, shaking coffee cups full of spare change. Strange to feel the weight of my belly and look at the world this baby would enter, this off-kilter world that lives somewhere between Friday and Sunday.

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