Part 2 came after we’d had our first wired afternoon/evening in Florence running on a few hours of sleep, crashed at 9pm, and woke up at 4am rip-roaring and READ’TOGOYA’LL. Jet lag.
We were staying right by the Florence Duomo. No. Like RIGHT by it (see picture below of my tiny head to the left) for SO cheap. Thanks Airbnb.
The night before, in the golden-y light from the city street lamps, this thing was mind-blowing. (Ahhh. Trying so hard not to write every detail of our days there. But like I said, another post. This post is about a life lesson I needed). Like I could not fathom the immensity, the intricacy, THE SIZE. I could not wait to go inside.
The Florentine skyline is pretty once-in-a-lifetime, and the best way to see it is to climb the Cupola (the Dome) of the Florence Cathedral. Which in theory, I was totally planning on, but because of our last-minute itinerary changes, we didn’t do much research until arrival. So let me paint you a picture. I’m on the website at 4am, and I see this advisory that says that while it’s absolutely incredible, the climb to the top (463 tiny steps, yo) is through the original worker passageways not designed to accommodate the public, so if you struggle at all with heights and claustrophobia, it may not be the best choice for you.
All right, bye.
My little clammy hands on the laptop started sweating right then and there. Cody was confident I could do it, but I really had my doubts. I never really had anything but a healthy respect for heights until after my mission. I don’t know if it was living somewhere so flat for so long, or so long without hiking, or what, but for some reason they give me the shakes SO BAD now. It’s frustrating to me and I’m still working on it. Let me paint you another picture. Me, in a two man tent with Cody in the Uintahs a year ago, having a full-on panic-attack while still half asleep because I try to sit up, can’t, and believe I’m actually being BURIED ALIVE. The claustrophobia is real. :/
The thing is, too, I knew that once you got in those passageways, it’s not really a matter of, “This is as far as I wanna go.” THIS WAS A ONE WAY TICKET, FOLKS. You can’t go back once you board this train. There is just no room with the continuous flow of traffic to backtrack. (If you want some reference, HERE is a random tall man’s Gopro Headlamp video on YouTube. The background music is my gift to you.)
We walked to get our tickets for the climb, and I alternated between staring in silence at the sheer height of that dang beautiful dome and getting all kinds of goofy to play off my horror.
The line moved fast, and before I knew it, we were inside the Duomo and at the turnpike to start up the passageway. And at the beginning, I was so pleasantly surprised like, “All right, all right. I can do this!” Small staircase, square passageway, low ceiling, but nothing to write home about. I thought, why the heck did they freak me out so bad online?
Then the passageway turned into a spiral staircase, winding tightly, with tiny stairs, in the smallest hallway, just going up, and up, and up. It was so dark and so tight, and Cody was right behind me, and someone was right in front of me. Sometimes the person in front of me would just stop abruptly, and I’d brace a hand on the stone on either side of me and just breathe. It wasn’t all about the amount of space, it just started to be how long we’d been in there, and how far it was both ways to get out. It was no bueno mentally.
Every time my legs were shaking too bad, or I felt too dizzy, or just on the edge of full-blown panic, there would be some tiny crack of sunlight. I mean just the smallest window to remind me that the world was still out there, we were still in beautiful Florence, and that I would get beyond this stairwell.
But there were several times in those tighter spots that my breath just stopped, and I thought, this is it. I am stuck here. This is it.
(Also, I realize if you don’t struggle with claustrophobia you will maybe climb/have climbed this stairwell, and consider this nbd. I respect that but also you’re wrong and I hate you. Just kidding. I love you! But it was hard for me and that’s cool, too.)
There’s a break from these passageways right before you enter the little walkway around the inner cupola, a landing area with some caged stone statues of scary-looking popes. It was pretty incredible. AND SPACIOUS AS SIN, PRAISE BE. Insert relieved hyperventilating
But listen. Right after that landing, you go out to the little walkway, which is about a two foot wide ledge, with a waist high solid wall and plexi-glass above. And you are IN that dang dome. You are staring Brunelleschi’s murals in the FACE. So I walked out quick, looked up at the incredible masterpiece, looked down through the glass at how high up we were above the interior duomo, and my legs (which were probably feeling the previous couple hundred stairs) just started to SHIVER ME TIMBERS, man. (That first walkway is pictured below, right under the stained glass windows at the very top of the frame for height reference)
I looked at Cody and told him, “I have to stop here. I have to stop here. It’s been so cool, and I saw the murals, and there’s a good landing for me to wait for you and I have to stop here. I have to stop.”
And Code, looking at me with equal parts compassion and understanding and plain logic, said, “You can’t. You can’t just stop. Other people are following behind. We have to keep going.”
I argued, but I knew he was right, and I’d known it the second I pushed through that turnstile and took my first step. I had to keep walking. So I went back out on that very tiny, very high walkway. I looked up at that beautiful painting. And I took a deep breath.
And all the sudden, tears filled my eyes. Because it was so beautiful, and I did want to see it closer. I wanted to make it to that higher, equally tiny walkway further on and get a better look, even though every step there scared me to death.
I made my shaky legs take me all the way around the walkway. I made myself look up, around, and down, at all the open space. I kept breathing. My shaking legs took me into the next set of dark, tiny stairs, and I kept thinking about getting closer to that masterpiece – that incredible art.
It got me through. As we worked our way up the next set of stairs, and the walls became closer and more crooked, I found myself touching the stone close on either side of me, almost for comfort. When I did, I felt the spots in the stone that had been worn shiny-smooth by the hands of other nervous climbers, and it filled me with almost an electric energy. Other people have been nervous too. Other people have braced themselves in this same way, in this same place, against these same feelings. It was, for me, holy. It was like touching hands with history.
After a closer view of Brunelleschi’s work (unreal!!!), I knew we were in our final ascent.
And even though my legs were shaking and that panicky feeling was still sitting on my chest, I knew I was going to make it. So I took one last look outside, through one of those peeks of sunlight, and plunged into our last, darkest, steepest, and twistiest climb to the top.
Here, the walls were more rough, and the passageway seemed like it’d been drafted and redrafted. Stairs were very tall and shallow, more like footholds for a climb, ceilings were slanted, and there were metal bars to hold keep you from falling back.
Right in this, the very tiniest part, where my chest felt the tightest, a group of people from above started pushing their way back down. And at that point, I think even Cody was feeling the squeeze. People kept looking at each other anxiously, because we felt we had absolutely no room to accommodate this group. But also, we had no choice, you feel? It was just stone walls and a sea of humanity. (More like a stream).
An elderly woman caught my eye as we both grabbed the railing at the exact same moment, both taking overly deep breaths to brace ourselves and nervously laughing together. She was scared, too. She was doing this, too.
So then, something happened. Something I always, always, always want to remember.
I know I tend to write sporadically, and tend to only share these big aha moments after lots of struggle. That’s not to say life is hard all the time, or that I only want to share like… I don’t know, “impressive” insights. It’s just that those are some of the life-changers that motivate me to actually get off my butt and write.
January this year brought something that for me, has been my hardest mountain to climb – the most difficult personal trial I’ve yet to experience in my life. And I know that’s real vague for someone who just wrote four paragraphs about how cold a plane was, but I’m an extremely private person when it comes to my struggles. And my hope in sharing this is that it can not just be about THIS moment in my life, but many. Maybe some in yours, too? Idk, I mostly write this stuff for future babies.
So as I sat there, legs shaking, pinned to the wall as people pushed past me, I closed my eyes and tried not to think about the lack of space, and instead thought of the last three months.
There have been so many times in this particular trial where I thought, this is it. I’m there, in the middle of this thing, clammy hands, legs shaking on the steps, saying I can’t handle this. I can’t go any further. Someone else could do this, but not me. I have to stop here. And everyday, it’s just been one shaky step after another in the dark. But everyday, I know there is no stopping. And every time I’ve felt stuck – like this is the end of this situation, I can’t go any further, there’s some brilliant, glimmering beam of goodness – of LIGHT – that breaks up the dark and gives me just enough to make it to the next break of fresh air and light, just like on this climb.
And just like when I saw Brunelleschi, when I just take a moment to breathe, I can see the picture. Not the whole thing, not perfectly, but part of it. Enough. And it’s breathtaking. And more than worth the climb. And the further I go, the more clear it becomes.
When I walk through this trial purposefully, I can see the love and help and sameness all around. I can feel the metaphorical smoothness where other worrying hands have been, I can feel the strength in those around me, in those who love me, because we are all struggling to get there – to get through it – whatever IT may be.
At this point, the crowd had dispersed and the traffic started haltingly forward again. The climb only became more difficult and narrow, and thinking of the metaphor of this climb and my last three months just filled me. I felt such empowered adrenaline. I felt exhilarated by the difficult steps and so excited to reach the top. I relished the push.
When we made that last ladder climb out into the bright sunshine, to the highest point in Florence, I cried.
I cried because it was so beautiful and because so is struggle.
So is every difficult climb, every final heave into the blaring sunlight of clarity and peace. I laughed and cried when my elderly friend from below waved and squeezed my arm as if to say, “We were scared, but we MADE it.”
I smiled and smiled as we looked over the incredible red rooftops and old, colorful buildings of this beautiful city – this place that has held, and holds, so much angst and art and struggle and creation and hope and hurt and love.
I was so, so happy.
And I never, ever wanted to leave. And I know we’re pretty set on Jordin Sparks in these entries, but let’s take it to my girl Miley. Just kidding, I can’t. But I know you will after this next sentence. If the Cupola had just been an easy stop – an elevator ride and then an incredible view, I don’t think it would have meant near as much or taught me all that it did. I don’t think I would have sat in awe as long as I did. It was the nerves and the struggle and the perseverance and the human connection and the love and help that made me appreciate the perspective!
Fine. I’ll do it.
IT’S THE CLIMB.
When we finally did come down, I felt giddy and grateful for every part of the journey up. It didn’t feel silly or dramatic to me because it was my struggle – and someone else’s might look silly to me or feel overly-dramatic, but the thing is – God gives us each what we need. I thought about that in light of this year’s trials. It’s not what I want, but it’s what I need, and God will give me enough light, enough strength, enough support, to make it. As long as I keep moving forward, one step at a time. Because otherwise I’ll never get a chance to see the full picture or to have a full perspective – like we did atop the dome.
Our group terrorized another in the same spot we’d been stuck, pressing down past people coming up because frankly, we had no other option. One teenage boy, on spring break with his school group, was visibly shuddering with panic. He was so, so nervous and so embarrassed to be losing it in front of his friends. My heart just went out to him, man. I squeezed his arm and promised him he’d be okay, and that I understood. I thought about making eye contact earlier with that beautiful elderly woman, about how we are all more on the same page than we realize – we’re all nervous about something. I thought about how if I’d never been scared on the way up, I’d never have been able to connect with her on the way up and celebrate together at the top, and I’d never have been able to empathize with him on the way down.
So when you’re climbing, and it hurts, and you’re scared, and you’re stuck, and you think you have to stop there here’s Part 2) “You can’t. You can’t just stop. Other people are following behind. We have to keep going.”
Because the views of the masterpiece mural God is working in our own life are only found on the other side of those feelings and experiences. That panoramic perspective of all around us is only found on the other side of struggle. And when we see it, we are changed. Utterly transformed.
We have to keep moving forward, one step at a time.
On the way down, I felt no nerves, no claustrophobia, no fear of heights. They had to hurry me along at the scary, higher-than-high plexiglass because I couldn’t stop staring up and down, and grinning. I felt changed, and so proud of myself. So grateful to have done that thing.
Climbing the dome of the Florence Cathedral gave me courage to keep climbing at home, and I’m so glad we did.
P.s. LOOK WHERE WE WERE STANDING AT THE END OF THAT.