Heights

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On top of the Marjan in Southwest Croatia—10,000 steps above the city of Split—I realize, when it came to you, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Whether or not I could’ve is an equation I still remain unable to solve. Too many variables, even now. But to know I wouldn’t have seems to be enough.

I am always somewhere else. On the bus to the Split airport, my mind is back inside the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, climbing the clock tower of St. Domnius’s Cathedral. Perhaps not as high as the Marjan, but made a thousand times scarier for the narrow winding stairs, the flimsy railing—the sharp drop, should I fall.

I am petrified of heights, but abhor being seen as a coward, a wuss, or maybe missing a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and besides, my brother adores this sort of thing. So I climb, and cling to the center line as best I can, and curse the whole way up and down—my brother laughing all the while. The things we do for love.

Now, we’re at the airport. Going back to Rome. All roads lead to it, right? But it will be good to hear Italian again, after so much Croatian. It’s funny, the things we miss. After Rome, will come L.A., then Fountain Valley, then Portland. I feel neither ready nor unready to return to my life. It’s funny, the things we don’t miss.

Down from the clock tower, we enter the Temple of Jupiter, converted in the Middle Ages to the Baptistery of St. John, but still boasting art dedicated to both. You climb the tower? asks the man who takes our tickets. Yes, I say. Oh, bravo! he replies. I laugh, say, Thank you. That was all I wanted—recognition for what I’d done.

When Moses asked God to show him His ways, that he might know Him and continue to please Him, God replied, My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. I think I feel that. I think I understand it now, such as I can—that rest is not just where I lay my head, though this can make a considerable difference.

In the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, I have trouble breathing. The centuries-old air clings to my lungs, will not make room for fresher oxygen, which is nowhere to be found regardless. My brother says, I don’t miss being a teenager, but I miss how simple things were then. I say, I don’t ever remember things being simple.

I leave you on the Marjan, let you go as I descend those 10,000 steps. Zig-zag down the uneven rock and feel you detach from my side, like a weight I scarcely knew I carried until it was gone. But then, it is. I walk and think how I might not be here, in Split, if I’d stayed with you. How I might not be here if I’d never met you.

There will come a day when I will no longer hear your voice in my head. Can’t even remember what it sounds like, and don’t want to. When it won’t be you I’m thinking of when I wander below the earth or travel far above it. It won’t be the first time any of this has happened. I’ve scaled heights I can scarcely imagine.

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Worship

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEaster Sunday in Zadar is running in the rain—sound of water on water as it hits the Adriatic. Sound of church bell after church bell clanging at odd intervals for minutes at a time. The sea organ slowed to a moaning hush.

The night before, my brother and I in our hotel room, lying flat and winding down after the day, when we start to hear faint singing. I get up, push back the curtain, open the window to the night—the sound heightens. Below is a procession moving slowly, filling up the narrow street. Led by priests, interspersed by nuns, but mostly ordinary people, singing hymns to the Lord.

I hold my breath. I watch them pass, feel the hum of their voices reverberate off road and walls and into my sternum. I want to catch this moment like a firefly and put it in a jar, keep it by my bedside, let it light my dreams. A man looks up and sees me staring. I back away, let the curtain fall. But I keep watching through the scrim until they’re gone.

The next morning, I’m nearly the only one out, except for a few dog walkers and an old lady who smiles at my brazen, drenched stupidity. Running in the rain. No, I’m not at church. I’m not Catholic, and I don’t speak the language, but that doesn’t keep me from being haunted by the bells. Clang, clang, clang.

Though I know, of course, that Jesus sees me anyway, huffing and puffing by the sea, stubborn and sweating in the storm, and that He died and rose for me just the same as every other sinner. Every other sinner not in church this day, trying not to slip on sopping cobblestone, or yes, in fact, sitting in a St. Somebody’s cathedral, singing a hallelujah in a language I don’t know.

I think of the procession, their voices ringing through me just the same as the sea organ. The waves rush inside the pipes and out comes music. Just like that. We return again and again because I want to listen to how it changes with the weather. But every time, I swear, I still hear Sara Bareilles singing in my head, “It’s taken all my life to hear the sacred sound / Of sweet simplicity.”

Wind on my face as I run and run, the spray from the waves that come colliding with the rocks. I think about where I am—and what it took to get here—and then I think, maybe, this is it. This is nothing. This is everything. This is rushing against the wind. And the answer to the question, Why did you run so far? is, So I would be forced to run just as far back.

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Transit

A ferry was supposed to take us across the sea between Italy and Croatia, but as is often the case when traveling, it doesn’t start running until three days after we need it. So up and around we go on train and bus to get to Porec, the port where we’ve already booked a night’s stay. How this happens, I do not know. I may or may not have food poisoning and haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in days, and it’s all I can do to gum a Nutella and banana sandwich while sitting on my suitcase in Trieste, the last Italian town before Slovenia.

What I love about travel is knowing where I’m going. What I hate about travel is getting to where I’m going.

I guess we board the right bus because, after winding through the countryside, we stumble into Porec. We find our hotel, drop off our luggage, and go for a slow walk along the coast—all sky and sea and seven shades of blue. My brother jumps from rock to rock. I choose a single outcropping, walk out as far as it will let me, and stop. The waves approach and ask, What do you want to know? I tell them, Everything. They pull away, and for a moment, in that pause between out and in, I think they’re going to give me an answer.

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Light

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What I love most about a space or a place is the way it fills with light, and the sunsets in Venice are so unreal, we don’t even try to capture them on film. Before I came here, I was told navigating the floating city is next to impossible. Just throw the map away, a friend advised, but I hadn’t believed her. She was right, though. The street signs are nonexistent. The dead-ends are rampant. The only way to get where you are going is to follow the crowd. And the churches—of which there are too many to count—become your beacons, your guideposts, your landmarks.

Venice is magic, said the same friend. And it is, but it’s also a hotel right on the street, walls thin as foil, which shake into the night with every passing bus. The window falls out on top of me, then won’t go back up. The toilet stops working. The metro is running late. At breakfast, two cups of coffee and four shots of espresso are at once too much and not enough. But it’s already mid-day, and Venice is sinking, so onward we go from Venezia Mestre (the mainland) to Venezia Lucia (the island) on a train that implausibly runs right over the water. Okay, so Venice is still sort of magic.

We disembark and cross canals and jump into the herd moving up and around the island, in search of St. Mark’s. On the way, we pass a shop that sells melting clocks a la Salvador Dalí, and more papier-mâché opera masks than I’ve ever seen, and when we come upon a window display of Betty Crocker cake mixes, I have to stop and take a picture. My brother asks me why, and I say, Because it’s funny, while I think, Because here, this is the strange thing. When we get to St. Mark’s Square, after being so long in the shadows of narrow streets, the amount of sunlight in the open is blinding.

St. Mark’s Basilica is nothing but gold, and entering, I suddenly feel thrust into Byzantium. I look at the swarms of people all around me, and I wonder why they’ve come here, what they feel about God—if they feel anything at all. As has become my habit in cathedrals, I crane my neck to stare and stare at the ceilings, and I understand how they could make someone feel closer to heaven. Even as we move forward, I stare up, note the rays of light that come pouring in the high side windows. And I wonder how anyone could be in a place like this and not feel something about God.

We step outside, into the blinding bright, once more. One of the countless churches, San Giorgio Maggiore, is on an island off the island, accessible only by water bus. I’d had it on my list of sites to visit, but when it comes to it, we’re too worn and weary to figure out yet another mode of transportation. So we walk around the Doge’s Palace, sit on the edge of the water, and look across the Adriatic, across a cluster of blue boats, to the church that houses Tintoretto’s Last Supper. The late-day sun bounces off the white marble walls. I tell myself, This is enough, and somehow, it becomes true.

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Up

IMG_0661The Duomo in Florence sneak attacks you like a spring storm. You’re walking down the cobblestone, turn a corner, and bam—you get blindsided by white and green and red, a cathedral so expansive it takes four separate shots to capture it on film. Inside, the arches dazzle like umbrellas, the domed ceiling pulling you heavenward: Christ in glory, in precious metal glow, surrounded by everyone under the sun.

In Orsanmichele, the tabernacle that houses the Madonna and Child is spindly as lace, looks delicate and ornate as a faberge egg. It takes half a day of entering churches and seeing leafy branches lying on altars before we realize it’s Palm Sunday. Everyone is carrying sprigs of green. Everywhere we go, even the Palazzo Vecchio, there’s so much God and so much gold, I lose myself in a whirl of Gothic and Baroque.

A baby starts having a fit in Santa Maria Novella, the screams echoing from front to back, top to bottom, shrill cries ricocheting from stone to space to stone. They let us inside the cloister of the convent—I don’t know why—but we have to check the backpack, and we can’t take pictures, and a guard stands watch at each corner, eyeing our steps. We make a game of pointing out the grumps in every fresco.

The morning we leave, I run alone, my brother too exhausted from the crowds, the streets, the everything. I get lost, but find my way back by finding the Duomo, forced to sprint—Scusi! Scusi!—through the very masses I’d designed my out-of-the-way route to avoid. At dinner the night before, a waiter led a group of American women to a table, and as he left, one said, “Grah-zee,” like topsy, like she wasn’t even trying.

In the beginning, the train out of Florence is ninety percent tunnel. Through my headphones, Hayley Reardon sings, “So don’t ask me what I did with all that freedom / ‘Cause there were nights I couldn’t breathe.” We surface only long enough to get glimpses of pure green country, before being sucked back into the dark. Hayley also sings, “I’m gonna make some good of who you’ve made me.” After Bologna, the ride is nothing but sky.

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Ashes

IMG_0395The train to Pompeii takes us through Naples, where the men stare at me without blinking, and I wish I’d put my long blonde hair up in a bun before leaving the hotel. You wouldn’t have cared if I got stared at (add that to our list of problems). On the metro, my brother steps in front of me to shield their view.

At the ruins, we get taken in by a tourism hustler and wind up buying a useless guidebook, complete with useless map. I trudge through dust and stone, book tucked under an arm, and pout for a solid hour. Last night, I dreamt of you and your wife. I woke up and thought, Even here.

Near the Garden of the Fugitives, where thirteen victims are forever preserved in casts of volcanic debris, I overhear a guide telling some girls that the villagers had warnings there would be an eruption. “There were earthquakes,” he says. “But of course, they didn’t know these were coming from the mountain.”

What we do not know, I think, and I press my face into the glass that separates me from the bodies. As we walk on, I fall into a rhythm of peeking into every gap and crevice, just to see what I might find on the other side. More than once, I’m startled by grassy fields and red flowers, popping up among the ruins.

This place is not what I expected, but then again, what is? Researchers are experimenting with regrowing vineyards in the same places the ancient Pompeiians did, using the same varieties of grapes. It’s unnerving to stumble upon these, as though life has carried on all this time.

On the way back to Naples, the sun is in my face, and I shut my eyes and so can’t see if anyone is gaping. I think, One day, I won’t wonder if you would’ve let me come here. If I would’ve wanted to. And why. One day, something else will erupt, and you’ll slip beneath the ashfall of fresher memories.

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