I shudder to think what I would do without my women friends. They totally keep me sane. I'll never forget the time about ten years ago when, as happens to young expats in Florence, one by one the members of my social circle left. For the few months that passed before I was introduced to a new group--that fortunately remains to this day--I was utterly lost.
Incidentally, my mother was very different. Growing up I only ever met a handful of her friends, whom she rarely kept in touch with. My dad and I instead both thrived on our friendships and could not understand how she could be OK like that.
Lately I've been bonding with American Molly McIlwrath, who leads art historical tours in and around Florence and lives in Pistoia with her husband and four-year-old daughter. We are on exactly the same wavelength when it comes to feminism, motherhood, art-making, etc. Maybe it's because we share a birthday!
After I organized a gathering of women back in December Molly sent me a suggestion for this series: Mariotto Albertinelli's Visitation at the Uffizi. Although our exchange was personal--and dashed off in that quick, wonderful way busy mums still manage to connect meaningfully with each other online--she gave me permission to quote her.
The moment of those words "tu sei benedetta fra le donne" [you are blessed among women] whispered quietly between two mothers to be, from Elizabeth to Mary. I just love this painting! And even for me, not religious or "credente" this image and those words say so much in a universal way!
Also this for you after discussions today, from the book "Women who Run With the Wolves" by Pinkola Estes. I was randomly flipping through it the other day since every once in awhile it inspires me (I'd read it so many years ago) and was talking to a friend in Pistoia about this part on changes in values, etc with each age. This part on ages 32-42 (our ages!) says: "Age of the seeker/learning to mother self/seeking the self" Mothering ourselves is part of motherhood, too, no? So thanks so much again for today and being a "leader" in organizing it!
That's one of the best things about friends, how they can pump you up and help you think about things differently. I had been talking about how, having seen what leadership entails from up close as the assistant to the (female) manager of a mid-sized organization, I didn't think I was cut out for it. It just seems so stressful and I'm not even sure it's in my personality to be effective in that kind of role. Molly immediately pointed out that leadership can in fact take many forms. And she's right: I shouldn't sell myself so short.
Only a few days before this I had noticed Pinkola Estes' book on my shelf. It was my mother's, and she had just loved it, but I'd never read it. Then a few weeks later on the terrific site Everyday Feminism I came across Akilah S. Richards' appealing concept of radical self-expression, which coincides with the Pinkola Estes line of thought. It all felt serendipitous and like something was coming full circle, and I felt so grateful for this connection with a friend.
A couple hectic months passed, I never got around to posting about the painting, and Molly wrote me again.
You popped into my head because of all the discussions on motherhood and art and I kept thinking of that Visitation painting too, which is funny because yesterday I had a Vasari Corridor tour for Context for an art critic and 3 friends of hers. They had been to Florence about 15 times they said and know the Uffizi well, just not the Corridor, and before entering we spent a little bit of time in the Michelangelo room. One of them said "Oh, we HAVE to go up and see Albertinelli's Visitation!" I was delighted. It was so fun because they knew so much about it and art in general, so it was great just talking to them about it and going deeper into the meaning and what it conveys to the viewer. I loved it.
And one of the reasons I kept thinking about the Visitation again when talking to Lyall, and thought of you, was because we were sitting there talking about very deep issues about motherhood and Sylvia Plath and her views and the darker side of it all, how only mothers know how it feels to stand on the brink of sanity and insanity sometimes! And some eventually cross those boundaries with infanticide or even suicide (since we were talking about Plath).
So all this hard talk about Plath, the darker side of motherhood, the joys of it even, our own feelings about it all, we were sitting there speaking English in an Italian cafe, so we didn't need to whisper (like Elizabeth does to Mary in Albertinelli's work) but I'm sure we would have been whispering if we'd been in an English speaking environment knowing people could hear us!
So, here's a quote for you since I've been reading Plath (and discovering her children's stories too) and so interested in her work again (just like Pinkola Estes's book), re-reading these things as an older adult now at this stage in life: "I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by richocheting in between." (Sylvia Plath)
It's interesting because Molly never explicitly mentions women's friendships, yet that was overwhelmingly what the painting and her comments sparked for me. While Mary and Elizabeth were cousins, I think the solemn intimacy between them in this painting effectively represents female kinship in a powerfully universal way, as Molly says. And there's nothing quite like it.