Tuesday, January 09, 2007

and the noise was heard afar off


I watched Rivers and Tides last night, the Andy Goldsworthy documentary. At one point the decidedly soft-spoken artist cursed because the elliptical cairn of piled rocks he was constructing kept falling in on itself. He was working just feet from the ocean and his sculpture would be destroyed by the incoming tide in a few hours. I asked myself, as I watched him rebuild, what did it matter whether or not he wooed rock into a fragile egg-shaped form when soon it would be rendered a fallen-in pile of rocks regardless? I was struck by his burning need to keep trying, restarting the creation process in the face of imminent destruction. And if all goes well, Goldsworthy steps back and takes a photograph of his work before it is consumed.

It seems a lot like life.

The urge to live, to create, to love and be loved, burns within us even in the worst of circumstances. We don't give up because we cannot guarantee the results, or because someday we--and everyone we know--will die. Or maybe we don't give up because we are unaware of the incoming tide; when it does wash in we are devastated because our work ends in a pile of rubble. But then we get up, aware now of the ocean at our ankles, and once again start piling up the rocks. And it seems to me that to do anything well we have to remember the ocean, and work in spite of it, work--in fact--with it.

When I was in college in Portland, studying in the library, I came across a passage in the Old Testament which has long been my favorite:
But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: So that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off. Ezra 3:12-13
I wrote it down in my journal at a desk next to the window, rain streaking down over the gray UofP parking lot. The passage has stayed with me, not only because the image is both true and beautiful, because it continues to work itself out in my life. What makes me joyful also has the power to make me weep, and vice versa,--and ultimately these two different reactions make one thing. In the verse the unity was the noise. And the noise was heard afar off.

I cannot "shout for joy" unless I acknowledge also the weeping, and acknowledging the weeping gives me joy. I look at the ocean moving toward me and keep piling on my rocks. I absorb myself in their shape and weight, knowing that I cannot really possess them or even the fragile finished structure. If they collapse due to my error I curse, but I pick them up again. Stack them a little differently. Building in spite of the waves, hoping to finish in time, hoping to get a photo, knowing the sea is moving in. Goldsworthy said he does not create for destruction, but with the knowledge that the ocean will take his work and make something more of it, something better of it.

We work and then we give that work to life--to God, to the ocean--to do with it what she or he or it will. Our joys and sorrows come together; we build and be unbuilt, we step back and take a photo before the waves come in, as our structure crashes down, and the noise is heard afar off.

2 comments:

Michael Anthony said...

Goldsworthy is the link that led me to your page, and this posting. God is the spirit that used your heart and words, laid here on the electric page, to encourage me and shore up a bit of what feels crumbly to me this morning. I praise God for that, I am glad Andy is making his sculptures and talking about that work, and I wanted to take the briefest moment to thank you for shouting here today.

I am far off, and I hear your noise. Drawing close to my monitor, squinting at your subtext, the things between your lines -- I begin to hear song though -- joyful, weeping song. And I join in with you, too.

You stand there and sing, and I'll stand here and sing, and the God that stands between us will bind them both together and we'll both join the chorus and refrain that rises out of all this rubble.

Amen?

Anonymous said...

Nice post. It evokes a couple of things for me:

1. The story in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers about a disciple who asks his elder why he should keep reading the Bible when he cannot remember anything he reads. The elder tells him to take two buckets and put them outside of his door. Each day, the elder says, the monk should take one of them (the same one) down to the well, fill it up with water and dump it out, and put the bucket back. The other remains sitting where it is. A few months go by, and the elder returns. He takes the monk out to see the two buckets. One is filled with cobwebs and dust, the other is shining clean and empty. The elder's lesson is not about the buckets, or fulfilling some task, but about the state of what is happening inside.

2. More directly related, the Zen and Buddhist sand mandalas. See, e.g. http://www.artsmia.org/art-of-asia/buddhism/the-story.cfm .

A couple of other links:

* Katrina's Lesson of Impermanence

* Noteworthy sand sculptures

- J