Venice: a city much visited yet rarely enjoyed.
At least for the average day-tripper caught in the piazza of San Marco. Tourists push each other in languages that here sound ugly. Pigeons, overfed and entitled, strut like the doges of old and pose for photographs. Locals serving cappuccino in the square wear masks of indulgent but malicious smiles as they dodge the bird shit the unwelcome visitors have created. The square for most of the day becomes a ghetto. Humans and birds must look left, look right, front and back, always vigilant for fear of being jostled, kicked, pickpocketed or crapped on. Only in the briefest of moments stolen away, can a visitor ever look up at one of the most beautiful facades in the world: the Basilica of San Marco. It is only in the pictures viewed afterward that the tourist notices what was missed: marble in shades of white and gray, so sturdy it seems the arms of God placed it en masse; statues of long-forgotten importance weighed down by gothic spires; and gold mosaics whose gleam sometimes steals the breath and other times seems almost wicked with the movement of the too bright and liquid Venetian sun. A gorgeous experience only in hindsight. While in San Marco, a person might as well be one in a giant box of marbles moved by unseen hands; it becomes difficult to believe that this is actually a place of worship.
I was lucky: I lived only an hour away by train from Venice. I got to shake off that initial crazy tourist introduction and give the city a second chance. I ate where the locals did, gorging on morrone, a chocolate scone filled with pistachios and golden raisins or bread stuffed with cheese and green olives. Some days, I arrived early when the vaporetti, the water taxis, contained only a few Venetian commuters heading to work on the mainland or when small boats loaded with fruits and vegetables docked next to a morning market. I visited each area of Venice: Arsenale, with its naval museum showcasing the maritime strength that once was with ships and gondole in ancient black lacquer bearing the colors of prominent families. The Jewish Ghetto which despite its name and history seemed the only cool and quiet meditative place in the entire city. Or Giardini, the Gardens, which hosted both the Biennale and many of my crazy and profound memories.
The Biennale is an international art exposition held every two years. No matter the theme, the driving force of the chosen artists is to shock. Sometimes that shock is just gross. Others, it is hilarious. One of my favorite exhibits was a padded room designed by a woman; on closer inspection, the room was lined in maxi-pads. My friend and I almost fell down laughing. Another exhibit hung large sacks of spices at varying heights from the rafters. The spices were earthy, almost smelling of human musk: cumin, pepper, cloves, perhaps curry. The effect was testicular; as if the visitor was repeatedly tea-bagged by giants. Yet, in spite of its superficial ridiculousness, the room was almost sensual. Yes, I went back for a second sniff.
But then, one exhibit stopped me for a very long time. My body prickled with a cold that seemed a precursor to passing out. This was the work of an artist named Anur and was labeled Human Condition. In front of me was a photograph of a purse called Made in Bosnia. On that well-designed couture purse was hair—human hair—and the nipple of a man. My morning coffee threatens to come up even as I write this. Ethnic cleansing, genocide, holocaust: here was a photograph in black and white that told the story of every man, woman and child throughout history who was killed for being one of them. Who was less than human. Tears filled my eyes then as they do now. Standing there, I surrendered myself to this sick truth of humanity, this pain I chose to own.
Then I noticed the companion photograph. Not gross this one, no, but cold. So much colder. A hand held four cards: one with the Star of David, one with the Roman Cross, another with a Greek Cross, the final with a Crescent. It was called, simply enough, “With God on Our Side.” Given that I stood here in Venice, only one month and thirteen days after 9/11, this photograph surpassed the horror of the first: the self-destruction we force God to own!
Religious intolerance, and all of the despicable actions that are born bloody from it, connect to the infant part of my soul. Raised Catholic, I have often been one of them.
My father’s Lutheran family despised Catholics. Family history told of a great-aunt knocked up by a Catholic boy; she died after a botched illegal abortion. Ever since, Catholics were hated. Years later, I discovered the aunt actually died of a ruptured appendix in a Catholic hospital; but why bother with the truth when hate and blame are such delicious things? The family never accepted my mother or her offspring. My religion trumped our shared blood. Catholics were stupid and inferior. To half of my family, I was stupid and inferior.
Then young adulthood brought its own little cruelties. The Baptist church that changed its sign weekly to reflect its anti-Catholic stance: Those who worship those who wear robes are going straight to hell. The pop group brought into perform at my public high school; when I asked for an autograph from the bassist, he asked if I was a Christian and then told me with a pitying smile, Catholics aren’t Christian. There was the valedictorian who condemned me in twelfth grade English class. Or the boyfriend whose fundamentalist church screamed at me for three hours how my kind and I were going to hell. Or the Lutheran boyfriend whose pastor told me his was the True Religion and everyone else was misguided. The Methodist boyfriend who told me outright he hated the Catholic Church. And on it went. The funny thing is, I was questioning my place within my religion: its views in regards to my gender, my reproductive system, and its condemnation of the divorced had replaced my childhood connection to a higher power with rules that made no sense and seemed to damn me for being born a girl. But like a father who is so against his daughter’s boyfriend he ends up pushing her closer, in those hateful moments caused by little men, I never felt more Catholic. I never felt more the outsider or burdened by what seemed like a religious truth: Protestants hate Catholics. And this was Michigan, not Belfast.
Yes, when it comes to religious hate, this is a sensitivity from which I have a difficult time separating my emotions. When I see it or hear of it, my heart sighs heavy. I know Jews who have been spit upon or had pennies rolled their way…as children! I know Muslims, who in coming to this country to make a new life just like my great grandparents, have had to wear an almost unapproachable veneer just to get through the day without breaking down. And even in my own family, the Catholic one, as Christianity has become polarized and politicized, there is a growing disparity between those who are conservative and those who are liberal. There have been fights at the worst times and condescending judgment when we’re being polite.
But God is God, right?
I think as soon as we humans codify God, then God has already gone. We tell each other what God believes and how God condemns. We pick and choose phrases from our various holy books to justify our own fear and hatred. Instead of allowing for the possibility that God just may have created every one of us as is with our genders, sexual orientations, colors, races or ethnicities as nothing more than beautiful and varied ribbons on the gift that is our souls, we limit God. How arrogant are we humans to speak for God? How afraid are we? Why can’t we just acknowledge the mystery of it all? Acknowledge that God is defined for those who believe in nearly six billion different, personal and good ways. Why can’t what we believe individually just be enough? Why force our beliefs on others?
Because we allow fear to dictate religion. We’re all scared. And so what? It’s normal to be frightened. That’s the power and glory, the heartache, of being human. But instead of surrendering to the fear and rising above it, we just create more. On a good day, that looks like a judgmental pastor. On a bad, it’s human skin made into something “useful.”
Like the pigeons of Venice, we humans too often shit on each other. We’re so afraid of ourselves, so afraid of the faces looking back at us, that very few of us every truly look up.
My God, how much divine beauty we allow ourselves to miss.