There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, claims Martha Graham, that is translated through you into action. “Because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.” This idea – through our actions we give expression to a life force that is unique and therefore necessary – makes sense when you’re talking about interpretive dance. But what about everyday life?
Late July. Loire Valley, France. Okay, everyday life for some. My wife, ten year old son and I are on the second day of a five-day bicycle tour of chateau, vineyards, sunflower fields, and green river valleys. Pedaling roads hardly more than tractor paths. Enjoying the quaintness of endless medieval stone structures, so crumbling, often, and overgrown with ivy they seem to be amiably returning to the bucolic nature from which they’d sprung. Okay, that’s the context. A vacation we’ve looked forward to for a long time.
Cut to today. Our ride ends in the city of Tours. Easy ride day. No obstacles. Well, there was one unseemly moment. Midday, armed with baguette, sliced ham, cheese, and chocolate, we detoured down a sandy path under a thick canopy of hardwoods into the Loire flood plain. Choosing a log for our bench, we were passed on this nowhere path by three men. They seemed quite surprised to find us there, the third in particular. He’d stripped off his shorts but pulled them hurriedly back on, seeing us. You would think this would be a defining moment. That some action on our son’s part would reveal his unique life force in what could have been a coming of age moment. No. He merely issued an expression of mock disgust, ate his baguette, and no further mention was made of this incident.
Cut to evening. The old part of Tours. Narrow streets, some still cobbled. Blonde stone buildings centuries old behind high walls. Hungry for dinner, we are walking along Rue Jules Simon when Dain insists we detour into Cathedral Saint Gatien, his first ever sight of a gothic cathedral. We are not a family that goes to church. Not that long ago my son had to ask who was that bearded guy hanging so dejectedly on that cross and why was he hanging? This cathedral is impressive with its twin tower façade and flying buttresses and roseate stained glass windows, but inside not much is authentic to any given period, a blessing perhaps. It is not overrun by art lovers and tourists, leaving worshipers in peace to fulfill the actions that reveal part of their life force.
Dain disappears into the gloomy interior. We find him in a side chapel, kneeling on a one-person kneeler as though he’d been trained to it. About to say hurry up and let’s go eat, we both notice the turn of his gaze and fall silent. Mounted above the chapel’s altar is a marble statue of a saint whose name we could not find in any credits. Arms braced over the kneeler’s rest, hands folded together, our son is staring at this saint. The man looks down with an expression at once stern and disapproving. An authoritarian figure who’d lecture rather than listen sympathetically.
Why my son’s fascination? He couldn’t, or wouldn’t say. The next morning, a long ride looming (32 miles, no big deal, but he was on a big-wheeled mountain bike and couldn’t resist bouncing over stones and roots like an eager puppy), he led us back to the cathedral and went straight to that kneeler and resumed his contemplation of that frowny saint. His actions were unscripted. He wanted some knowledge and his assumption of the kneeler before this saint somehow bore him down that path.
I remembered feeling something like this at Kostel Panny Marie vitezne, a German Lutheran built cathedral in the Mala Strana district of Prague. Unremarkable on the outside. Spare of adornment. But inside is a famous chapel where the sick and lame and suffering pray to the Bambino for miraculous cures. (See my novel Better You Go Home for more on this.) I was instructed to kneel and to recite the given prayer by the friend who’d guided me. It did not matter that you were a practicing Christian. All that mattered was that your heart was seeking and your soul troubled. So, yes, I said that prayer.
Our son did not pray. After a silence that was lengthy for him, he said: “Wow, that dude is kind of creepy.” Whatever that unique life force was that was channeled through his actions that evening in the cathedral, it taught me a lesson I’ve had to learn over and again, to keep an open heart and listen to desires and take action because you must, because you know that your unique life force will be lessened if you don’t.