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The Art of Transformation

Mary Davenport Davis
February 28, 2017

The final Saturday of Epiphany is a warm, spring-like day. I’ve spent the morning completing a sequence of 108 Sun Salutations in an Epiphany Yoga Retreat at Trinity, and my body feels lithe and capable in a way that’s rare for me. I’m aware both of the hard work I’ve done and of the reserves of strength that my frame still holds. I feel perfectly alive, sated and hungry together.

 

The only adequate response I could imagine is a picnic. I’m sitting in a little park near my apartment, eating almonds and wrinkled black olives and an exquisite runny cheese. My discreetly tinted water bottle holds a glass of rosé, and I’m devouring a book by Ali Smith, a narrative-lecture hybrid called Artful. It’s one of those books whose wit and precision go straight to one’s head, like wine on a sunny spring afternoon. And the season of Epiphany is almost over. Soon it will be Ash Wednesday, and then Lent.

 

The first chapter of Artful is entitled “On Time.” “Is it time that translates our lives into sequence, into meaning?” Smith’s narrator asks. “Does sequence mean that things mean?”

 

It is difficult, at this moment, with sun on my face and warm wind ruffling my short hair, to remember that I am dust, to imagine that to dust I shall return. “Decay is the beginning of all birth, the midwife of very great things,” (says the narrator, quoting Paracelsus), and my own life shows the truth of this. Take, as a whimsical example, the lovely little blooming cheese I’m eating: it owes its very existence to a graceful process of decay, and soon it will be transmuted further, just a spring in my step and a memory of gastronomic pleasure. Yet it’s been called out of cow’s milk into a taste like sunrise, so fresh that I can scarcely imagine a past or a future for it. “This is how it works,” sings Regina Spektor in “On the Radio.” “You’re young until you’re not…And everyone must breathe / Until their dying breath.” But today my lungs are full of air; I am young and I will never be old.

 

I don't think I’m ready yet for Ash Wednesday and Lent. Last year, when I wrote about the importance of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, it was cold and wretched outside, and inside it was easy for me to step into a posture of penitence and the contemplation of mortality. This year I am intent on growth and spring, cheese and wine, the gracious sunlight of the senses. A day spent in mourning feels like too jagged a break from all this. I don’t want it.

 

The (at least partly fictional) narrator of Artful is writing after, and out of, the death of her partner. Her lecture on time is framed by an account of her lover’s ghostly return, as wry as it is sorrowful. She’s not standing a safe distance away from decay and loss, but right within their chilly embrace; and the author’s artistry closes that gap for me, too. With ruthless power the narrator seizes me by the throat, breathes into my face, thrusts her grief upon me. I am grateful for the gift: to mourn, because I can share, an extraordinary love.

 

“Art itself is a broken thing if it’s anything,” says the narrator. “The act of remaking, or imagining, or imaginative involvement, is what makes the difference….It’s the act of making it up, from the combination of what we’ve got and what we haven’t, that makes the human, makes the art, makes this transformation possible.” This fictional, beloved ghost becomes utterly real as I fill in her gaps with my own lost loves. My capacity for empathy constructs her for me, the object of my love and grief. In the keenness with which I live another’s loss, I come to know that I’m alive.

 

A few years ago, after a time of great loss, I began to translate the Book of Job. Even then it felt like a self-conscious and slightly maudlin project. But it was good for me to encounter this ancient poem of sorrow, within the gentle discipline which translation entails.

 

Job said:

“Blot out the day that I was born,

The night they said, ‘we’re having a boy!’

On that day, let there have been darkness.

Let God not look for it from on high;

No day should cast its light upon it.

May dark and pitch black be a spreading stain,

A cloud of gloom settle down over it,

Dimness of day terrify it.

 

Why didn't I die before I was born?

Why couldn't I come from the womb and perish?

Why did the midwives’ knees meet me,

Why were there breasts for me to nurse at?

If I’d lain down then, now I’d have quiet;

Had I fallen asleep, now I’d have rest.

 

For my weeping comes before my meal,

My wailing gushes out like water.

What I most feared has come to me.

What terrifies me is happening now.

I never relaxed, never let down my guard,

Never let myself rest—but the storm still came." (Job 3:2-5, 11-13, 24-26)

 

Translating these words allowed me to claim their despair as my own; and claiming it allowed me to transform that despair into something bearable, even something with its own dark beauty.

 

Someone—I think Patrick, in a Forum talk—once pointed out something about Job’s friends that has since stuck with me. These three friends, who come to try to help Job in his grief and loss, get almost everything as wrong as they possibly could. But they do one thing exactly right: when they hear of Job’s suffering, they come to be with him. “When they raised their eyes from far off, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept. All of them tore their clothes and threw dirt over their heads to the sky. They sat with him in the dust seven days and seven nights, without saying a word to him; since they could see that he was in very great pain” (Job 2:12). The first thing his friends do is to sit with him in the ashes and allow time to pass. They share Job’s mourning, which is a way of sharing Job’s love.

 

I think this is the way into Ash Wednesday for me. I won’t try to force myself into emotions of sorrow or guilt; I won’t hold myself over a (metaphorical) ledge in order to taste my own mortality. But our church’s liturgy, like Ali Smith’s art, is an ancient thing that’s constantly being remade and reimagined. I’ll go to a service, or two, despite the voice in my head that tells me always to be busier. I’ll set myself outside of the ordinary current of time in order to reflect on time’s midwifery. I’ll sit in the dust alongside the rest of you, and we’ll hold one another’s sorrow through ancient words, gestures, symbols and song. Somehow an impossible translation, or transformation, will begin: tomorrow our sin and death will begin slowly to ripen into a joy that tastes as fresh as a spring sunrise.

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At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!