Saturday, February 12, 2011

With The Love That Moves The Sun And All The Other Stars

Dante loved Beatrice. Dante, of course, was the famous Italian poet. Beatrice Portinari was his muse. He loved her so much that he wrote is two most famous works about her. The first was La Vida Nuova (“The New Life”), a collection of sonnets and other musings Dante wrote about Beatrice. The other, and most famous of all, was La Comida Divina (“The Divine Comedy), an epic poem broken up into three canticles – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso – about Dante’s imagined journey through Hell and Purgatory to meet his Beatrice so that she could guide him through Heaven. These works are pillars in the world of literature, and they’re about one woman, a woman who Dante only met twice and probably only said about six words to. Her name is one of the most recognizable in all of literature, and she probably never knew the name of the poet who etched her into immortality before she died at the age of twenty four.


(Dante's Dream At The Time of Beatrice's Death by Dante Ganriele Rossetti, 1841)


If you look at the history surrounding Dante at the time he wrote his Comedy, you will see a Florence, Italy that was sharply divided politically. On one hand, you have the Black Guelphs, who are a faction of “old school” political thinkers. These men had close ties to the church and wanted to the Church to have a continued role in Florentine affairs. They were typically old men who liked things they way they were. The problem was that their numbers were shrinking. On the other side of the fence you had the White Guelphs, of which Dante was a member, who were forward thinkers. They wanted to see a Florence that wasn’t bound by the will and desire of the Catholic Church. Many White Guelphs were devout Catholics (Dante included) who, despite their pious attitude toward their faith, still saw the danger in a government by the Church and for the Church. Many, like Dante, believed that a system where the Church and State commingled only created conditions for rampant corruption in both systems. Dante loved the Church and loved Florence, and wanted both to be pure. The White Guelphs had numbers and influence, but the Black Guelphs had the Church, and as you might expect, the Church was called to Florence to put an end to the White Guelph power. In 1301, Pope Boniface VIII exiled all members of the White Guelph party from Florence, Dante included.

***

Love, or at least my understanding of it, began in kindergarten. True, there were a few small crushes before kindergarten. There was a girl named Amy from Little Folks preschool whose face has all but dissipated from my memory, and whose pink jacket is the only tangible memory of her I can recollect. There was also a girl named Laura who I went to St. Anthony’s Preschool with, and whose soft red hair would initiate my lifelong weakness for red haired women. However sweet and innocent these crushes may have been, they didn’t amount to love. No, love for me began in kindergarten. It walked into the classroom at the start of the year and smiled at me everyday, a familiar face in the form of another red haired girl from St. Anthony’s. At that time she was not the object of my affections, but Laura was gone with the past and this was the present. Yes, love began for me on that first day of kindergarten, and would stretch along a path like telephone wire toward the end of the year then further along beyond the outer reaches of all my days to come. Love began in kindergarten…and her name was Mandy Jefferies.

Mandy Jefferies was short like me. If I stood on my toes I could look her in the eyes. She had deep red hair, dark eyes, and freckles. She talked and laughed with a raspy voice like Peppermint Patty, and I liked her from the moment I saw her that first day of kindergarten. Mandy Jefferies marked the first time in my life I felt what I could later call “the heat,” that little tinge of heat that would start at the tip of your ears and spread to the very pit of your stomach when you were in the presence of someone or something that completely awe struck you. Often, while the class was busy doing work, I would look up from my coloring and spy across the room at her, hoping she would not sense me peering and look up and catch me. She was always so pensive, taking great care to keep her crayons within the lines. Her coloring always impressed me, so neat, so precise, so unlike my own. She never knew that I liked her. She never really knew anything about me. Beyond the generic brand of kindergarten small talk, we didn’t converse, or run with the same friends, or play with each other on the playground. She, like so may of my other classmates, indulged in the daily instant gratification of the merry-go-round. They all dreamed, with far off looks, about first grade and the possibility of three recesses which amounted to 45 solid minutes of merry-go-round. Going in circles always made me nauseous. The slide was more my thing. Waiting in line, climbing the ladder which was like scaling the peaks of Everest, and sliding down at break neck speeds, that was my idea of fun. I didn’t spend all my time on the slide, though. I also enjoyed the individual appeal of the swings, and I loved playing pretend with Greg Faucett. I would be Superman, he would be Batman, and the two of us would combine forces to defeat the world against some immediate evil. Mountains shook at our sheer power. Trees were uprooted. Buildings and whole cities were reduced to rubble, but we always saved the world. In my imagination, I was always saving Mandy Jefferies from the clutches of some evil scheme, and in the ash and cinder of a world once again safe from evil, she was always grateful.

Eventually, Mandy Jefferies began to notice me. As kindergarten crawled along and became the cold months of winter, I grew bolder. I talked to her more. Our conversations became more than idle chit-chat while we put our coats away. During weekly gym class, we’d do our running together. She laughed at things I said. I giggled at her jokes. There was a lot of smiling between the two of us. As winter melted and spring came around, we found ourselves playing on the same soccer team. Our mothers would get together for lunch on occasion, allowing us to spend time with each other outside the purview of school. When we got our school pictures back we gave each other one – her and her dark red hair and smiling, me in my rainbow striped shirt, straight blond hair and smirking, the two of us wallet sized and frozen in time. My grandfather had given me a wallet for Christmas that year. I knew exactly where her picture was going. By the end of the year I seemed to have everything in front of me. There was a girl who I liked to smile with and a whole summer of learning how to ride bikes and taking my first crack at little league to look forward to. It was good to be five, and it was good to be alive. Then everything changed.

At the dawn of great happenings, we lie to ourselves to get through them. When we are faced with something that is about to profoundly change who we are, and how we see the world, and how we interact with everything, an inner struggle takes place. Behind us is the life we have known and all the experiences we have had, before us is the life getting ready to happen, and we are stuck in the middle. We’re scared of what is about to happen, so we cling to what has already been. We’re like soldiers staring at the exploding coast of Omaha Beach. We quiver at the thought of the days ahead in war-ravaged Europe, so we comfort ourselves with thoughts of home, of our girlfriends and boyfriends, our families. “If I can just get through this,” we whisper to ourselves. “If I can just get home,” our utterances like the percussion of mantra. “Then everything will be okay.” It’s a lie we tell ourselves, but it gets us through.

In the first days and weeks of being sick, I spent the better part of the summer of 1986 in the hospital. There wasn’t much to do besides draw, watch old episodes of I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show, and think. Being sick, to the point of death, going through tests and procedures that test the limit of what you can endure mentally and physically, has one major effect on young people: it makes them grow up fast. My mother and father (when he could spare the time to get off work and come see me) were fixtures at my bedside, but they weren’t always there. Hunger would take them to the cafeteria to eat the hospital’s debatable idea of food. Their addiction would take them outside to smoke. The mental strain of seeing their son tied to his bed with tubes would take them on long walks through the bowels of the hospital to clear their heads. I had a lot of time to myself to think. I thought a lot about the smell of glue and the waxy smoothness of big blocky crayons. I thought about the slide and swings of Pleasant Valley Elementary School, the smell of mashed potatoes cooking in the school kitchen, the soapy cinnamon of urinal cakes in the bathrooms. I thought about fighting crime with Greg Faucett, and how when the fall wind caught my windbreaker just right it almost looked like I was wearing a cape in my shadow. I thought about all my friends, and of course, Mandy Jefferies. It had only been a few months since that life ended, and I found myself in this new one. Everything seemed to be falling away from me and toward me at the same rate of speed. I wanted to cling to the familiar. I told myself I just had to get through this little bit then I could go back to school in the fall, and everything would be fine. This was the lie that got me through.

In the first days and weeks of being sick, I spent the better part of the summer of 1986 in the hospital. There wasn’t much to do besides draw, watch old episodes of I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show, and think. Being sick, to the point of death, going through tests and procedures that test the limit of what you can endure mentally and physically, has one major effect on young people: it makes them grow up fast. My mother and father (when he could spare the time to get off work and come see me) were fixtures at my bedside, but they weren’t always there. Hunger would take them to the cafeteria to eat the hospital’s debatable idea of food. Their addiction would take them outside to smoke. The mental strain of seeing their son tied to his bed with tubes would take them on long walks through the bowels of the hospital to clear their heads. I had a lot of time to myself to think. I thought a lot about the smell of glue and the waxy smoothness of big blocky crayons. I thought about the slide and swings of Pleasant Valley Elementary School, the smell of mashed potatoes cooking in the school kitchen, the soapy cinnamon of urinal cakes in the bathrooms. I thought about fighting crime with Greg Faucett, and how when the fall wind caught my windbreaker just right it almost looked like I was wearing a cape in my shadow. I thought about all my friends, and of course, Mandy Jefferies. It had only been a few months since that life ended, and I found myself in this new one. Everything seemed to be falling away from me and toward me at the same rate of speed. I wanted to cling to the familiar. I told myself I just had to get through this little bit then I could go back to school in the fall, and everything would be fine. This was the lie that got me through.

I recall once, after a brief visit home, I had to go back to Kansas City for more tests. It was going to be a long stint in the hospital, at least a month. My mother told me I could take some of my things with me to pass the time and make me feel a little more at home. I took my action figures – Superman, Batman, and the rest of the gang had to go with me for sure. I took my little bean bag Kermit the Frog doll I’d had since I was born. I picked out some coloring books and crayons. And as I was looking through the top drawer of my dresser (where I kept my knick knacks and keepsakes) I saw the wallet my grandfather had given me, the one I had put Mandy Jefferies picture in. I opened it up, and there she was, smiling at me just like all the times before. I flipped the plastic page and looked at the other side – “To: Ross Love: Mandy” was written on the back. It had only been a few months since I’d seen her face, but it seemed like years. I could feel my throat tightening and my eyes beginning to fill with moisture. I put the wallet in my duffle bag. Amongst the clutter of plastic superheroes and waxy color sticks, Mandy Jefferies was coming with me to the hospital.

When my parents weren’t around, and I was left to my own thoughts, I would get my wallet out and look at her picture. I told myself it was for her – seeing her again, laughing with her again, just being with her again – that’s what I would be working toward. I know it sounds like a bunch of sappy cliché dribble to say this girl’s picture, and the idea of being with her, is what got me through the tough times, but it’s true (and I was six after all). I carried that picture with me through all that first year (first in the wallet and later in a heart shaped picture frame). When the physical therapy was exhaustive, I would look at the picture and draw strength. When the pain was intense, I would look at the picture and grit my teeth. When I felt like I was at the end of my rope and I wanted to die, I would just look at the picture and go on. And while this whole drama took place, and I was shedding the skin of my innocence, Mandy Jefferies childhood went on, and she sat in her home at night and was none the wiser (and probably still is until now).

By the time school started again I was home, but I couldn’t physically go to school. The chemo I’d been through severely compromised my immune system, and I had to receive special homeschooling the entire year. I wasn’t going to get to see Mandy Jefferies liked I’d planned. I was devastated. Mrs. Bastin’s first grade class routinely sent me care packages with handmade get well cards from my friends. Sam Sampson sent me one where he and I were kicking a soccer ball around. Greg Faucett had drawn Superman and Batman on his. And, of course, I received a heart-shaped one from Mandy. It was simple, her and I sitting on a crayon green hill eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together (I know this because the words “Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches” was written in first grade black crayon with an arrow pointing at what was in our hands). The words “miss you” were written on the back. I could tell it was made with the most love and sincerity a six year old child could muster. Every month, I would get one of these care packages, and I would get something from Mandy Jefferies. It was the highlight of those dark times. Then all of a sudden, I didn’t.

“They moved to Kansas City,” I remember my sister telling me. I asked her if she had seen Mandy’s older brother in class recently, and this was the only explanation I got. I never got a chance to say goodbye to her, or to thank her for the cards, or to tell her about the strength she had given me in dark times. I doubt she would have understood what I was trying to tell her, but I wanted to say it anyway, and now I wouldn’t be able to. All I had was her picture in a frame and memories, a picture I would go to often in the times ahead, a face I would dream of nearly every night. I never thought I’d see her again, but I did get to see her again when were both seven. It was a very brief encounter. Her family came back to Carthage for a visit, and they stayed with my middle sister’s friend. This friend lived very close to us, and when Mandy Jefferies found this out she wanted to come see me. I had changed though. I looked different. I sounded different. I even thought different. I was still nervous though, and when I saw them walk around the corner and up to my house, my stomach leapt forward and I was a giddy little school boy. When we finally met face to face we didn’t say much. She smiled and I blushed and that was about the extent of it. All those things I wanted to say to her never came out. In all, our visit lasted about twenty minutes before my sister’s friend had to take Mandy back. In that time, I think we both said hi, she asked me if I was better, and I asked her if she liked Kansas City. Then she was gone, and I never saw her again.

***
He spent the next few years before his death in exile. Many critics believe those were dark days for Dante. He felt betrayed by his church, by his homeland, and often thought about suicide. They believe much of the imagery and themes of the first few cantos of the Inferno deal specifically with his contemplation of suicide. Lines like, "Midway in the journey of our life/I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost," and scenarios like Dante's reaction to the sinners in the Forest of Suicide where the punishment is being rooted to the ground and frozen like a tree, serve to illustrate Dante's inner struggle. It’s only the intervention of Beatrice, who is an angel in Heaven, that saves him. She pulls some strings and has Dante go on this journey so that he can see his possible future should he continue down his dark path in life. She saves his soul, and shows him the awesome power pure love can have. But we forget something when we're traveling with Dante. It's not really her.


(Dante and Virgil Suicide Forest by Gustave Dore')

I never bought Dante’s love as real love, and in fact, neither did Dante. When he finally reaches the top of the mountain in Purgatory and Beatrice comes to him she chastises him, and basically tells him he doesn't know jack about true love. See, Dante was a poet, a philosopher, a thinker. Poets and writers in the 1300’s weren’t much different than poets are today. Poets like to exaggerate. They like to put people and things on pedestals and romanticize about them. They like to sit around all day and envision ideal worlds and situations, places where the objects of their desires coexist in harmony with their notion of what reality should be. They like to fall in love with their ideas. The problem is that while they do this, actual reality happens around them, and they miss things. They forget the people they pine for are real and separate and exist outside their artful minds. They rarely ever know the actual person they muse about, and in so doing, end up falling in love with the idea of that person. I believe Dante loved Beatrice once, but I think he loved the idea of Beatrice more. When Dante was at the end of his rope, he conjured this idea in his mind of this woman he loved, and that idea got him through the darkness. Poets and artists do this, the try to find light in their dark times. Whether it's a recollection or an actual picture in a frame, they do what they can to get by.





2 comments:

Melissa said...

This is lovely. Thanks, Ross. Xoxo

FushigiFox said...

this is one of the best blogs I have ever read. beautiful, so much heart and thought into it. thank you for this post