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Good Letters

Neither of us are great sightseers, but Bernie, my partner of twenty years, and I couldn’t come to Barcelona without visiting the Sagrada Familia, the modernist cathedral designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi at the turn of the twentieth century. We’d planned the trip to see a soccer game of Barcelona Football Club, a fascination of mine, before her breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent lumpectomy six months earlier. She insisted on following through, in part for me, but also because she’d decided to do it in the first place.

Opting for naturopathic treatment rather than chemo, she never really got sick, but suffered fear and self-recrimination. I supplied a ready flow of encouragement, which she soaked in willingly, but she is the bravest person I know, and at times her fears metastasized into me, and the threat of losing her appeared, a specter summoned out of the alchemy of our intimacy.

Now, though all the indicators were of absence, the cancer still muted excitement in favor of bland basic survival and self-protection. For Bernie, who can light up over a plate of good pancakes, this ran totally against her nature. My tendency was to downplay excitement anyway, which probably went all the way back to wildly deflating childhood birthdays — dreams of Matchbox car racing rigs crushed beneath the weight of Victorian novels. Though I didn’t show much, I thought I felt it; but what is not shown and shared becomes an idea, and there is nothing further from excitement than the idea of it.

Perhaps in compensation for all that, as our line approached the entry to the Sagrada Familia, with its wildly textured steeples soaring above like some child giant’s mad mud towers, I started getting giddy excited. Inside, massive pillars rose to panels of stained glass glittering like impossibly bejeweled fruit. If God is in the details, then this house was truly holy, with traditional iconography playfully counter-posed against modern geometries, garnished with outright idiosyncrasy too many of each to account for, a structure beyond summary.

Like cancer, there is no one reliable cure for self-consciousness. I’d grown up an editor of silences, organizing and categorizing what not to say to such a degree that it left little to speak out loud. But Bernie says everything, and listens with the same generosity, which at times left me straining to de-classify material from the “too trivial” or “too personal” or “too complicated” files in time to keep up with conversation. She also helped by being oblivious when I considered myself too much, which showed how skewed my internal metering was with false positives of excess.

Now, I let myself cry a few tears, not just for the splendor of sculpture and color, but for the sheer scope of Gaudi’s accomplishment; for the awe it stirred in me, which was hard to explain to Bernie, standing in a sea of sightseers. She didn’t need me to explain in any case.

What moved me most was that the Gaudi did this. He not only conceived this cathedral down to the finest and weirdest details, like the sculptured bronze butterflies and ladybugs wandering over ivy-covered doors showing that nature is God’s canvas, or something to that effect; but he had the sheer force and virtuosity of vision to engage others enough to make it happen, to get Barcelona, a city of merchants, to buy in and build this enormous, expensive, even blasphemously beautiful structure. Not in the Middle Ages, but in the twentieth century and beyond. So vast was Gaudi’s vision that the Sagrada Familia is still partly under construction after more than 100 years of building. Yet they are still working away.

So much of being an artist today seems to be trained towards smallness. Publish essays only peers will read and be grateful for it. Eventually, pull together a collection into a book that will sell in the hundreds. Write plays with six characters or less to make it practical for production. Get a teaching gig somewhere, to pass on this logic of low expectations to the next generation. And be grateful for that too. None of it is easily accomplished, so why not?

But if our art is to respond to our times, then it must be said, death’s destroying shadow looms larger than ever, and we need cathedrals of creation at least as large in defiance. For me, cancer’s emotional oppression had no power in the face of Gaudi’s impiously maximalist expression. This is the wakeup call that big art brings, piercing the tyranny of the status quo, that even in the face of life-denying disease, time and space is waiting to be shaped by us.

Image: Sagrada Familia by Antonio Gaudi, via Creative Commons

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Joe Bardin

Joe Bardin is a writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals including Louisville Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Superstition Review, Eclectica, and Rock & Sling, among others. His plays have been performed both domestically and abroad. A scholarship alumni of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, he is a member of the Dramatists Guild. He is also Director of Communications for the Coalition for Radical Life Extension and RAADfest. FInd out more at

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