Once upon a time, in a life not so long ago, I went back to school to audit classes. That means I attended lectures and read the material and no one held me accountable. No papers to write, no exams to sit through- just the unsullied experience of learning for learning’s sake. Of the few classes I audited, the one that still whispers to me occasionally was the one in which we studied the art of Thomas Doran. Doran painted gargantuan canvases of America’s most breathtaking scenes: oceans, mountain ranges and the Grand Canyon. He brought Mother Nature’s most violent palette and ambitious silhouettes to audiences who would never witness the beauty themselves. But the beauty he depicts cradles terror in her arms. This duality of nature, the awe-inspiring beauty and terror is sublime.
I am not using hyperbole when I describe his art as sublime, but am referring to the definition of sublime as Edmund Burke expressed it. When something has the ability to hold the light and the dark simultaneously, the beauty and the danger, it is said to be sublime.
Why has the concept of sublimity taken root this morning? Certainly the weather has something to do with it. Tulsa has a way of lulling us into an idyllic state of mind. One in which we plant a myriad of flowering shrubs, trees and plants. While intoxicated by the heady fragrances of our newly mowed and landscaped Edens, we furnish our outdoor spaces with furniture and kitchens. We sip our chilled Chardonnay and thank the heavens that we live somewhere like Tulsa. We think we will spend the season outdoors, like those folks in California. But the tornado sirens break our reverie, and the deafening buzz of a hundred winged needles inking our bodies in itchy red welts hastens our retreat to the artificially cooled confines of our living rooms where Netflix and reality television faithfully await our return.
I think the real reason I am contemplating the sublime today has nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with my telephone. It rang once yesterday. Once. I spent my day painting and caulking, and I washed a couple loads of laundry. I watched a portion of my online art class.
So while sipping this morning’s latte and taking measure of the golden silences I have enjoyed this past week I also recalled the deafening aspect of silence. When the silence is so loud we will say or do anything to shatter it. I experienced one of those insignificant but awkward silences at a party recently. A woman I know in passing saw me and our eyes locked. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came forth. I feel sure my lower jay dropped as if to speak. But my brain supplied no words. Like two fish we stood gaping at one another for a moment. Then we closed our mouths, smiled at one another, and moved on. The commentator sitting just above my right temple shrieked, “Awkward!” I can live with that. I am learning to sit with the awkward silence.
There is also the immobilizing aspect of silence, the one that paralyzes us in bouts of depression or loss. Hopefully it is an aspect of silence we encounter only rarely. But its duality, the ability to terrify and immobilize or elate and inspire us, confers sublimity to silence.
So today, I am giving Silence its due. Thank you silence.
But anyone who knows me knows that I can’t be silent long.