Thursday, September 11, 2014


Today I am thinking about wholeness, and I am surprised that what pops up is a memory of the Parthenon from this summer.  Many people have asked me what Greece was like and I have pleasantly told them how delicious the food was, or how wonderful it was to have a cultural experience combined with time at the beach.  What I haven’t been able to express in casual conversation is how moved I was while there, especially by the Parthenon.

I want to take you inside the new Acropolis Museum with me.  I want you to feel the relief of dim lighting and cool air, the way that the back of your neck is finally  free from the sweaty hair that has clung to your skin for what feels like hours.  I want you to come take your seat next to me on a gray marble ledge.  In front of you is the restored pediment of the Parthenon, and over your right shoulder, you see through clean glass, all the way to the Acropolis, where the skeleton of the Parthenon stands overlooking Athens.

How carefully someone has imagined us here, looking over our shoulders.  Our back and forth gaze from the indoor restoration to the Acropolis across the way reminds us over and over again of the tenderness of their work.  How real people called us forth, before we even knew we were on our way.   How much they wanted to show us the very thing we see right now, sitting here on this bench.

Suddenly tears come, because the most obvious thing from here, is how broken the Parthenon is.  Entire slabs of her marble skin and the accompanying sculptural work are missing.  Dismembered body parts are frozen in time:  a goddess’s hand gently draped, the foot of a soldier planted, liquid folds of robes standing in headless columns.  Each stone shard lovingly placed in it’s right relationship to the monument as she stood in her heyday, so that when you see her remains, you also see the ghost of what she once was.

What floods up is a heave of emotion, right there in the museum, for every broken thing, for each separation as it has occurred.  For the crumbling twin towers on 9/11, for your parents' divorce, for the friend you treated badly in seventh grade, for the thousand ways you fail to be the parent you aspire to be.  All the falling apart is right there in front of you, mixed up with the Parthenon's rubble--a heap of irreparable damage.  

And then you look one more time over your shoulder, back and forth between the Acropolis and the museum, and you realize that not all has been lost.  After generations of religious war and political infighting, the Parthenon has been released into the care of the New Acropolis Museum (opened in 2009).  Her remains have found their way to the hands of curators, whose life work has been to put the pieces back in order.  

The care of this work has ushered the Parthenon into a new chapter that might be called the age of restoration, where the tasks at hand include cataloging the remains, figuring out where they belong, and laying them out in an order that will tell her story over and over again for all time.    Sitting on the cold marble bench, you wake up to the notion that this where wholeness appears--in the age of restoration.  It is not in the original undamaged structure.  Wholeness is not about perfection, it is not as rigid as a single form.  It rises out of the rubble and the falling apart, the longing for peace that comes from the wreckage, the desire to be part of the team who puts the remains back to rights.  Wholeness is the holding, the moment to glance at the ruin, to feel the pang, and to recommit to gently loving the remains.

On that note, I am off to the archive at Stanford today, where I will don white gloves and sort through ephemera from the University's very first president, David Starr Jordan, in hopes of encountering any bit or scrap of information I can find about my great-grandfather Camillo, who was employed by the University in 1894.  May I move forward gently.

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