We went back to Pittsburgh one more time.
Our memberships will last for a year– the zoo, the Carnegie museums, the Phipps Conservatory. Even though the April money ran out, we can go whenever we have enough gas now, at least until next April. We decided to spend Mother’s Day in a place less triggering than Mother’s Day always is for me, and go to Mass in a church less likely to give me a panic attack.
I was trapped in Steubenville for fourteen years, poor, disabled from an improperly diagnosed chronic illness, and without a car. Now I’m a little less poor, the chronic illness is in treatment so the fatigue is gone, and I have a car. For over a decade I could only go to the city less than once a year, for a special treat, if I could find a ride with anyone. Now I can go when I want to. Maybe someday, driving through that suffocating tunnel and popping out on the bright yellow bridge will seem ordinary. It might become routine, like memorizing the one-way streets in LaBelle, but I hope not. I want to always feel that shudder of excitement when I get to the city. I never want to fail to notice that beautiful things are beautiful.
We were going to spend the afternoon at the conservatory before church. But through a series of wrong turns in the glorious Oakland district, we ended up at the Carnegie Museums again. Rose loves the natural history section, so we changed plans. We let her give Michael and me another tour of the African and American animal dioramas, patiently educating us on biomes and habitats and the kinds of food a bear eats. After that, we split up. Rose and Michael went to the dinosaurs, and I got an hour on the art and architecture side of the museum. One day I will take Rose and force her to be interested, for homeschooling purposes. But today was my trip, to enjoy things by myself.
I sat on a bench gazing on a Van Gogh landscape for a time. And then I leaned in way too close, until the trees turned into squiggles and the grass was just scratches of dark green in light green. I stared at the clouds until all I could see was drips of white and cracks in the gesso. And then I backed up, and sat on the bench, and it was a landscape again– a serene, blue and green, comforting landscape. Most of Van Gogh’s paintings aren’t serene, but this one was. I could feel the breeze of a soothing afternoon in early May, when the frost is gone for the year but the heat hasn’t come yet. I could smell the afternoon rain coming in, but it wasn’t raining yet.
How could a tortured man, a failure who had never sold a painting, dying a slow death from the agony of depression, smear pigment on a canvas and create a place of absolute peace?
Was he doing what I do when I am overwhelmed by anxiety and panic attacks, and go stim up and down a hallway in quiet, telling myself stories, imagining Rivendell or Narnia or a trip to the Louvre? Was he creating the comforting place where he wanted to be, because otherwise the place wouldn’t exist?
Do we all imagine a glorious peace, and do the people who suffer the most imagine it best of all?
After the museum we had dinner and went for a walk, and then it was time for Mass at the cathedral. Saint Paul’s cathedral is like the cathedral in Columbus where I was baptized: a Gothic-style building with lots of nooks and crannies and architectural delights. During the homily I had a sudden attack of my PCOS ovary pain shooting up my back. It’s hard to take that sitting down on a wooden bench, so I paced back and forth in the foyer. The staircase to the choir loft is fun to lean back and look at, though it must be torture to actually climb.
Across the foyer from the staircase was a shrine, with a statue of a kneeling young person who might have been male or female, gazing at the ceiling–someone I didn’t instantly recognize. Then I saw the fleur de lis on the androgynous figure’s tunic and realized that this was Saint Joan of Arc. She was kneeling on a mosaic of gray and brown fish– I thought this was because they threw her unburnt heart in the river, but I found out later it was because the room used to be the baptistry.
I almost took Joan as my confirmation saint, two dozen years ago. After being pressured by my family, I ended up with Therese of Lisieux, who also admired Saint Joan. But I wanted to be a Joan and not a Therese. I didn’t want to be the kind of saint who sat in a convent and meditated all day. I didn’t like to sit still. I wanted to be the kind of saint who ran around breaking things. I wanted to fight. I wanted to change the world.
At the same time I admired her, Saint Joan made me nervous– partly because the hagiographies seemed at odds with the historians as to whether she was a mystic getting her instructions from Saint Michael or an eccentric girl suffering from a mental illness. Partly because the worst thing I could think of, was that the church I’d been taught to believe and obey without question as my only hope could excommunicate a young woman and burn her to death, believing themselves righteous for doing so, only to realize later that they’d gotten it all wrong and she was a saint.
Now, of course, I realize there is no contradiction there. The Church murders righteous people, figuratively and literally, and calls herself holy for doing so all the time. And it’s entirely possible to be both mentally ill and a saint who fights on the side of the angels.
As the homily went on and my ovaries twisted and throbbed, I gazed on Saint Joan, and she gazed at the firmament– seeing, or imagining, that glorious peace.
I thought about these things all the way back from Pittsburgh, in the dark.
I thought about them when I woke up the next morning, beset by my usual anxiety.
We all imagine a glorious peace.
One day I hope to see it for myself.
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