A trip to Siena stokes my curiosity about the experience of resistance


dodge puddles as I walk to the Piazza Garibaldi bus stop (in Cortona, Italy) and arrive at 7:12 AM. We’re the only ones here. I start questioning Terry’s choice to be forty-five minutes early even though, logically, I understand. We almost missed the bus last week because we took the wrong via.

I notice I’m resisting what is: we’re early, it’s raining, a vista is in view.

I’m grateful to remember teacher  Pema Chödrön's words, “When there is time to wait, take a John Cage moment.” 

(Musician and artist John Cage did a performance piece for a huge audience. He sat quietly at a piano not touching the keys. For 4 minutes, 33 seconds. Here is a performance of that piece. People were outraged to pay money for this. If attendees were able to calm their minds, however, they heard that there is no such thing as silence. Now that’s something to listen to.)

I take a breath and look out over the Tuscan valley.

But soon I’m distracted by my cold feet. I begin to dread the day and start talking to myself: “Why rain? It’s so cold. Damn that early bird, Terry.”

I’m grateful the bus arrives. And for the warmth of Terry’s body as I scooch next to him looking out an expansive window on a curvy, hilly, scenic ride.

We head to Siena.

The bus stops about a mile from the first sight we’ll explore: San Domenico, a church honoring Saint Catherine, the youngest of twenty-five children born to wool dyers. Once inside, I see two relics. Yep. Her right thumb and her head. 

I cringe. Tighten up. Icky thoughts come to mind. (Like who cut her head off? And why?) And then a memory.

I think about a visit to my grandparent’s house as a young child when my sisters and I found my grandfather’s left index finger in a jar of formaldehyde. In the basement. (I later learned that he accidentally cut off his finger. He was a mechanic.)

I wonder if my grandparents knew about Saint Catherine. 

(Saint Catherine wrote letters to popes and and heads of states pleading peace for a war-ravaged Italy. She is known for the saying, “The world is not a gift from our fathers, but a loan from our children,” an idea I try not to forget as I live my days. I have a thought that the relic that ought to be on display is Catherine’s heart.)

I leave San Domenico and walk fast with our group for a couple miles heading for the Duomo (Siena Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta). A delizioso view and smell wafts my way: a half-block-long window displays rows of leviti (literally "yeasteds" or "risens," meaning pastries with a yeasted dough), curd-stuffed pastries, eclairs, and fruit-topped tarts. Terry takes a photograph. With a smile, I call out to the art historian, “Is this pastry shop on the itinerary? I want to hear what you have to say about cappuccino and pasticceria.” 

It’s not.

We arrive at the Duomo. I stand outside and listen for a half hour to art historical information about what I cannot yet see. I begin to form the opinion that this talk is not necessary. I long for quiet so that I can notice what I notice. I realize I have a choice: I can turn off my ear phones. Instead I keep them on and continue listening. 

I feel exhausted and realize how much space and energy words take. I challenge myself to sum-up what I’ve heard as if each word cost ten dollars. (Let me get back to you on that. Right now, I’m unable to sift out a couple hundred dollars from the thousands spent.) 

I’m grateful that I’m aware that cognition is a field of study and that humans process information in various ways. Listening to historical facts about wars, this pope and that pope, this conqueror and that, this stylistic feature and that one, is not how I learn. I resist. Then, I realize I’m resisting and allow this thought: it might be how the person next to me gains awareness.

I remember things don’t always have to be my way. Oh my goodness, that’s right.

I enter the enormity of the Duomo. I feel small and insignificant. A thousand years of sculpted terra-cotta pope heads look down on me. Terry whispers in my ear, “This architecture is about power.” I think, “Yes!” The size and scale is intentional. I know who has the power and who doesn't. (It’s not me.) I realize I’m subconsciously defending myself.

Being in the Duomo stokes my curiosity about the experience of resistance. My resistance.

And how resisting makes me feel stuck. Sticky-stuck. Solid as the terra-cotta heads and marble statues.

Pema says—and I sum up her thoughts as if they’re mine while standing in the Duomo—standing with uncomfortable feelings in my heart and mind is a chance to just experience. Of course, feeling and experiencing what is doesn’t make discomfort go away. But it removes the resistance. 

So, if I experience and feel my discomfort (Pema calls it weather, which is perfetto for today’s rainy day), I’m not solid like those statues. I’m not constrained by the Duomo’s domed ceiling. 

I stop fighting the cold, the rain, the information, the relics, the power-over, my thinking, whatever is happening that is not what I want or like or my habitual way of being in my life. I just stand in this day getting friendly with every part of it. I flow with what is right now just as it is.

And guess what? Flowing with what is helps: I don’t feel separate and caught or needing to maintain “the big ME” (Pema Chödrön).

Instead, I’m part of life. Wait, that’s not quite it. I’m here. I’m really here.