We are back in Pittsburgh again.
Our membership will last for one year – the Zoo, Carnegie Museums, Phipps Conservatory. Even though we ran out of April money, we can go whenever we have enough gas now, at least until next April. We decided to spend Mother’s Day somewhere less exciting than Mother’s Day for me always, and go to mass in a church less likely to cause me a panic attack.
I was trapped in Steubenville for fourteen years, poor, handicapped from an incorrectly diagnosed chronic disease, and without a car. I am now less poor, the chronic illness is undergoing treatment, so the fatigue is gone, and I have a car. For over a decade I could go into town 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. Perhaps one day, driving through this stifling tunnel and appearing on the bright yellow bridge will feel normal. It might become routine, like keeping one-way streets in La Belle, but I hope it doesn’t. I always want to get a goosebump of excitement when I get to town. 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 wonderful area of Oakland, we ended up at the Carnegie Museums once again. Rose loves the natural history department, so we changed plans. We let her give Michael and I another tour of the African and American animal dioramas, patiently teaching us about the biomes, habitats, and types of food the bear eats. After that, we broke up. Rose and Michael went to dinosaurs, and I got an hour into the art and architecture side of the museum. One day I’ll take Rose and force her to care, for homeschooling purposes. But today was my journey, to enjoy things by myself.
I sat on a bench staring at a Van Gogh landscape for a while. Then I bent over very soon, until the trees turned swaying and the grass was just scratches of dark green in light green. I stared at the clouds until all I could see were white drops and cracks in the gesso. And then I made a backup, sat down on the bench, and the scenery was normal again – a calm, blue-green, relaxing landscape. Most of Van Gogh’s paintings are not quiet, but this one was. I could feel the cool afternoon breeze in early May, when the frost had gone all year but the heat had not yet come. I could smell the afternoon rain coming, but it hadn’t rained yet.
How can a tormented, loser who has never sold a painting before, die a slow death from the pain of depression, smear dye on canvas and create a place of absolute peace?
Was he doing what I do when my anxiety and panic attacks overwhelm me, and I calmly go up and down the hallway, tell myself stories, and fantasize about Rivendell or Narnia or a trip to the Louvre? Was he creating the comfortable place he wanted to be in, or else the place wouldn’t exist?
Do we all imagine a glorious peace, and do those who suffer the most imagine it?
After the museum, we had dinner and went for a walk, and then it was time for mass in the cathedral. St. Paul’s Cathedral is similar to the cathedral in Columbus where I was baptized: a Gothic-style building with many nooks, crevices, and architectural flats. During the sermon, I had a sudden attack of PCOS ovarian pain that hit my back. It’s hard to take that sitting on a wooden bench, so I’ve been walking back and forth in the hallway. The stairs to the upper floor of the choir are fun to bend back and look at, although actually going up must have been torture.
Across the hall from the stairs was a shrine, with a statue of a kneeling young man who might be male or female, staring at the ceiling – someone I didn’t immediately recognize. Then I saw a lily on the tunic of an androgynous person 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 had thrown her unburned heart into the river, but I later found out it was because the room was the baptismal room.
I almost considered Joan the Confirmation Saint twenty years ago. After the pressures of my family, I ended up with Therese de Lisieux, who also admired Saint Joan. But I wanted to be Joan, not Therese. I didn’t want to be the kind of saint who would sit in a convent and meditate all day. I didn’t like to sit still. I wanted to be the kind of saint who would run around smashing things. I wanted to fight. I wanted to change the world.
At the same time that I admired her, Saint Joan made me nervous—partly because the biographers seemed to be at odds with historians as to whether Mystic was instructed by Saint Michael or an eccentric girl with mental illness. Partly because the worst thing I can think of, is that a church I’ve learned to believe in and obey without question because my only hope is to excommunicate and burn a young woman to death, thinking they are good to do so, only to realize it. After that they got everything wrong and she was a saint.
Now, of course, I realize that there is no contradiction there. The Church kills the righteous, both figuratively and literally, and calls itself holy because it does so all the time. It is entirely possible that you are mentally ill and a saint fighting alongside angels.
As the cues and ovarian twisting and throbbing continued, I stared at Saint Joan, and I stared up at the sky—seeing, or imagining, that glorious peace.
I thought about these things all the way back from Pittsburgh, in the dark.
I thought of them when I woke up the next morning, suffering from my usual anxiety.
We all imagine a glorious peace.
One day I hope to see it for myself.
Image via Wikimedia Commons