Cancerland, like Italy, is pockmarked with a certain strange and wonderful variety of shrine. If you’ve been to any hill town in Tuscany, you know the sort I mean. Not elaborate, church-sanctioned shrines, not tourist attractions full of guidebook-endorsed art, but the equivalent of unfired pottery: crude, spontaneous-seeming, offhand, blatantly made by someone suddenly and inexplicably seized with the desire to leave a little something behind, anything at all, after a glorious dinner or night of love, and never mind that they have no proper tools or paints with them.
So on the one street of these hill towns, at night, there are generally two sources of light: the neon from the bar/tabacchi and, in the distance, a flicker, which, if you are curious enough to close in on it, you find comes from a fat candle set into a shallow scallop-shaped niche in a plaster wall, with perhaps a rose-colored bottle to keep it company, or a gaudy polychrome toy-like statuette of a saint, silly, fierce and impressive all at once, a divine action-figure.
These shrines are almost meant not to be seen. They tend to be above eye level, catty-corner to the lone streetlight, secrets betrayed by the pulse of their candles. They are shrines that happened, in short, as much a surprise to those who made them as to those who subsequently stumble upon them.
I’ve always wondered how that could possibly be, how someone might unwittingly make a shrine. But now I know because, mirabile dictu, I discover that I have recently been doing exactly that myself. Didn’t know I was doing it, as perhaps the grappa-happy grandfathers of Italy also don’t know they are doing it, late in the warm dark, fishing in their commodious pockets, for…for…for…ah, here, yes, a beautiful marrow bone, yes, and now, in the bone, a candle, and then…then…
Mine started with my son’s fusbol table. Its legs had rotted, so i took them off, intending to get a couple of portable sawhorses to support the thing when we wanted to play. Meantime, I mounted it on the concrete wall out back, to get it off the ground.
I discovered that i liked the way it looked; it put me in mind of an antique vending machine; drop a nickle, pull a lever, get a pack of cigarettes…or a toy soccer player.
Then I wanted to be able make the thing out better in the dark.
Well hell; I happened to have gotten a dozen LED tea-lights at a good price down at the local U-doan-Needit, so I figured they’d do the job and maybe look cool too. I spread the tea-lights out under the soccer players and walked away. When I turned back to guage the effect of the lights, I saw…
Very Tuscan, very hilltown, very crude, very clearly made by someone who had no bloody idea at all that he was making a shrine.
Cancerland is full of these things. Their details are different, of course. But they all have the same distinctive hallmark, of being constructions that started out as something else, but that overmastered the putterer putting them together, took themselves into their own hands, as it were, and became shrines because that is what they themselves wanted to be.
A photo is on its way at some point to serve as proof. This astonishing display was made by yours truly, who voluntarily goes into a house of worship only as a tourist and/or art-lover.
Tell me this isn’t a shrine.
And why am I making shrines? Or, more accurately, why are shrines using me, of all people, to bring themselves into the world?
Does the grappa-happy grandpa ask himself that question too? Or does he just wobble home to bed, and forget forever putting his thumbprint below the candle balanced on a silver saucer in an inset in a crumbling wall round the corner from the front door of Da Lorenzo?
And what is mine a shrine to?
Put another way: if, as I currently believe, a shrine is a small mumbling prayer that has grown tired of words and has translated itself into objects instead, what is this a prayer for?
As I say, Cancerland is pocked with such handmade prayers: soupcans scrubbed clean and punched with holes, so as to serve as little lanterns…exotic potion boxes turned into frames for tiny photos…bars of sandalwood soap with profiles carved into them.
And every one of them marked by a flicker of light.
An extraordinary place at night, this Cancerland.