I have a new lesson from the fire this week. I learned what I already know.
Sometimes it is easy to think that a great life drama is the only thing that has an extraordinary effect on what we know. Most of us, even those of us who lost our homes to the drama of the Western Wildfires in the summer of 2012, are not living every moment in a great drama. Most of our lives are lived in what is called “ordinary time” in the theological calendar of Christian churches who follow a seasonal lectionary.
I have always found it amusing to know when we are in “ordinary time.” By exclusion it is the time not spent preparing for and celebrating the Christ Child’s birth and preparing for and celebrating Christ’s death and resurrection. The rest of the liturgical year is ordinary. By comparison to having angle choirs and being seen as a resurrected Christ, days in November are pretty ordinary.
In the midst of our own individual ordinary time we learn extraordinary things. The simplest and the most complex lessons are the same yet we forget over and over. In the forgetting we are able to learn extraordinary things in ordinary times.
It is hard to think about learning what we already know. We think of forgetting as being absolute. If you forget you forget. You may remember but at the time you forget it is gone. Sometimes what is forgotten is truly gone; we may not remember a particular mathematical equation that went rusty with disuse. Sometimes what we forget is immediately available if we take a moment to actually look rather than assume that whatever we want to think will automatically present itself without any effort on our part. Mostly, memory is contextual. We remember things when we are reminded of them by our context. When we go to the grocery store we remember that we needed bread. When we head home and see the “Drink Milk” bill board we are reminded by that context that we needed bread, which we got and we needed milk, which we forgot.
Changing the context changes the knowledge of what we know. I learn what seem to be new things only to discover that I knew them already but I not in context of the ashes of the fire. It is like coming upon a loaf of bread when you are at the opera. It just does not make sense. It is confusing and it demands your attention.
I think that is what happens to us during ordinary time. We encounter things that are confusing and demand our attention but that are not high drama. They may be as significant but they are of a quieter sort thing. Making sense of the loaf of bread at the opera requires sifting through our repository of life’s thoughts to arrive at a few that seem to work together in an explanatory way.
It is in this searching through the attic of our life’s thoughts that we discover things we knew but that we forgot. After using them, we set them down in the attic and there they stay until we go searching for understanding again. It is like Harry Potter’s Room of Necessity. You don’t know where it is unless it is necessary and what is in the room is different depending on what is necessary.
This week I struggled with my own serving of confusing issues and finally understood my loaf of bread at the opera was about straight and sinuous lines. It was as simple as that. Some lines are straight and some are not. All lines are good and all have their uses. Some people like straight lines, some like ones that bend.
The first inkling of the lesson came by thinking abstractly but with interest about the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. It dawned slowly on me that the building was sinuous. It had curves. It is designed to represent movement.
Straight lines have a different voice. Because my mind was already traveling among the museums and monuments of the United States, I brought to mind the prototype of straight lines, the Washington Monument. The stark, clean lines of the monument stand in relief against the sky. They can be statements of the X and Y planes and how things are defined in space. The strong lines are stalwart.
One would imagine in a storm the Washington Monument would stand strong in the wind full face taking the worst as it came. The NMAI building seems to me would hunker down in the storm and let the wind pass by swirling around the edges and the shapes of her walls. At the end of the storm both would be there but the experience of each would be different.
That is what I learned this week that I had forgotten. Some people like straight lines and some like lines that bend. Both straight and sinuous are good lines.
Our land is sinuous. Our land is straight. The land borders on federal land. That boundary line is straight as a die. It runs true and clean from under the hill over the top, across and back down again creating what is effectively a third of a circle that has been cut as if it were a square. That other edge, the part of a circle, is sinuous. Our house was a rectangle and the hole that was the foundation is no longer only square. It is sinuous. The weather and time and the fire itself have changed the land and I did not see that until this week. I had to learn what I forgot to understand that the change happened and that both straight and sinuous lines are good.
I have understood some lines are straight and some are sinuous since I was in kindergarten but I did not understand what it meant in this ordinary time after the extraordinary time of the fire. Learning again what we already know is good. It is a lesson worthy of ordinary time. Perhaps if it were extraordinary time we could not learn what we already know.