I recently went on a family vacation to Italy. This feels somewhat strange to say as a person in their late thirties, but I’m owning it!
I have not gone on a family vacation since 2007. I have hosted my family in different countries where I have lived, and I visit them every one or two years in the US. But to pack up and travel somewhere with them? It almost felt like being a kid again, back when we would fly to Texas every few summers to visit our relatives.
However, vacationing with family as an unattached person in their thirties is very different from what it was like when I was, say, ten. Now, my brother has children of his own – one, three, and nine years in age. As logic would have it, my parents are older than they once were and don’t do all of the things they once did. They are still healthy, thankfully, but they’re not the ones making the decisions or figuring out our movements. They are more set in their ways, and the eccentricities and unpredictability that come with international travel are not always welcomed.
When we were at the booking stage, my mother said I could room with her and my father at the various hotels we were staying at to save money. “We can order you a cot!” I imagined what that would be like. A thirty-eight-year-old staring at the ceiling from a creaking cot as my father snored and my mother sighed a few feet away. Thankfully, I chose to splurge and had my own rooms throughout.
As the guncle, my role was a balancing act of entertaining children, buying gifts and gelato, ensuring my parents’ needs were met, helping my brother and sister-in-law with a select few of the hundreds of daily tasks they take on as parents, and making sure everyone was hydrated under a blistering summer sun. Amid it all, I had to remember to find some me time to embrace the Italian experience on my terms without isolating myself completely (which I can easily do).
In Florence, we navigated much of the Uffizi Gallery on a guided tour. The two little ones were passed out in a double stroller, and even the adults’ energy was flagging by the time we had gotten through the Leonardo da Vinchi paintings. Collectively, the group decided to end the tour, but I couldn’t leave without seeing Caravaggio’s Medusa. For a moment, I forgot I had a family, and I dashed through the labyrinth of rooms to the other side of the museum, in search of a treasure I had traveled from Kenya to behold. My nephew followed me, the way a curious kid might in a young adult mystery. Together, we found the shield with the face of Medusa. I fell into the spell of her eyes, which were wide with shock at the realization of her death at the hands of Perseus. They seemed to be asking how and why, simultaneously.
I felt for Medusa. She had a tough life as a Gorgon. She was raped by Poseidon and subsequently cursed by a wrathful Athena, who transformed Medusa into a monster with snake hair and eyes that could petrify anyone who stared into them. Some say she did this to protect Medusa from future assaults. After Perseus decapitated her, he used her head to turn King Polydectes and his supporters into stone. Though Medusa lived a tormented and isolated existence, her death contributed to heroic acts that helped liberate other women, including Perseus’s mother, Danaë, and the Ethiopian princess, Andromeda.
And here I was, staring into her eyes. Frozen in place. Still as stone.
Later that day, my family and I went to the Accademia Gallery, which houses many Renaissance sculptures, including the famous Statue of David.
When I turned the corner to view the statue, I knew I’d come across something astounding, but I was not prepared for the flood of light. David was perfectly white, practically glowing beneath the sunbeams that entered through the domed ceiling. He stood coquettishly, his hip set to the side in his victory stance shortly after he slayed the giant, Goliath, with a slingshot.
I viewed the statue from various angles, circling it again and again, my jaw collapsed in my state of absolute awe. I took in the contours of the muscular chest. The firmness of his stomach. The rounded shoulders. The taught obliques and V-line descending into the exposed penis. The quadriceps and touching of the inner thighs. The veins protruding from the arms and hands – large, strong, beautiful hands. I could see so vividly how this was the statue of statues – a representation of masculine youth and beauty in epic proportion.
I stared at the statue long after my family moved on. In it, I saw life restored from death. I thought of my own youth and past relationships. Of men who looked like David, who I attributed to David, at one point in time. I thought of my father, who forty years ago wrestled with Andre the Giant. Today, at 70, he has a bad knee and struggles with steps. I recall him asking a friend once, “Why do we have to get old?”
I reflected on the gift of youth and how it is as much of a curse as those found in any of the Greek myths – the splendor of health and beauty that we hold within ourselves and behold in others, but only for a time. I mourned what aspects of youth have already vanished from my life, and I was grateful for those I still possessed. Above all, I was grateful to have ever experienced youth at all. Yet, I never stopped to reflect on it or its nature. I don’t think we are equipped to realize how precious and fleeting it is, quick as we are to critique and self loathe. Tricked as we are into failing to see the beauty of our blossoming and to understand that we must one day wither.
There are certain creations, both natural and human-made, that feel like they derive from another realm, like you’re in the presence of something so impossibly beautiful that they can only be divine in origin. This statue is one of those creations. Whatever was going through the 26-year-old Michelangelo at the time of bringing this sculpture into being (1501-1504), it worked wonders. Viewing the Statue of David was the closest thing I have felt to magic in a long time. It was like being in the presence of perfection, something I am told does not exist, but here it was, existing.
Parting from David was a sorrowful but enchanting goodbye. He had given me so much, simply by looking at him. A marble statue that shook me from within, causing me to lament but also to celebrate. I left with tears welling in my eyes, inspired to create more art of my own in the short spell of time I have on this planet. It may not be anything that approximates the perfection of this statue, but that’s okay. I’m tapping into the same source. Divine energy that manifests in different ways, for those of us who are willing to explore it.
I looked with a mixture of pride and envy at my niece and nephews who have the period of youthful splendor waiting for them. Will having seen David encourage them to stop and take notice of it while it lasts? Or will they need to return in thirty or forty-years’ time to understand it more fully, after youth has taken flight on its hummingbird wings? Wings we wish would stop and stay for just a little while longer.