Dear Sor Juana,
This letter is being written in Rome, where the crisp air of late winter is refreshing. From my window I can see the Coloseum, an icon of imperialism being restored, this generation of artisans preserving the building for future generations to catch the audacity of Ancient Rome at its peak.
The city is down on its luck and signs of recession are all around with waste piling up in the laneways and benches covered in cardboard cartons await their tenants to arrive at dusk. Rome peaked early and has been trading on its past ever since.
One imperial regime after another, Roman gods replaced by the Christian God, and judging by the number of selfie sticks I’ve seen so far Narcissus seems to have found a home again in Rome.
Trading on early success, the beauty of youth and young ideas brings its own burden. The need to keep living up to your past may mean you miss the mark from time to time. There are exceptions of course, and Michaelangelo comes to mind – at 24 created The Pieta and was still creative five decades more. Sor Juana you would have been moved by the limp body frozen in the solid rock, still, forever. How does a young artist know what it is like to be held and to hold unless he has had that intimate and intense experience himself – a love without the boundary of time or place? He was just six years old when his mother died. An early peak experience that perhaps offered an entry to emotion? Deaths of parents present and re-present themselves throughout our lives.
Last time I was in Rome, I was about nine years old, in part a consequence of my father peaking early in his career as a psychologist. We were on a family summer holiday. I have a few fragments of memory that connect me to that time. Jumping off a bus and then trying to jump back on while it was still moving is the main one – it is a defining intense memory of separation and desperation. In my recollection there is a hand from a stranger pulling me up and back into my place to the relief of all. I always feel close to my father when travelling. And I am regularly pulled back into place by strangers. Acts of kindness and compassion are bestowed as I have fallen off the bus many times over the years.
Having peaked early, Rome needs a hand to help it back onto the bus. As a tourist, my humble and modest contribution is just one pair of hands caressing the Italian economy back into the black and giving back to Rome what it paid forward centuries ago.