Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Change and decay in all around I see...

...O Thou who changest not, abide with me. ~ Henry Lyte, 1847 
In the midst of life we are in death. ~ Book of Common Prayer, 1552
Rust never sleeps. ~ Neil Young, 1979
Oxford University Church of St. Mary the Virgin.
Behind scaffolding (off-and-on) since 1258
The last time we were in Oxford (I have friends who will accuse me of writing this post just so I can use that phrase) it occurred to me that if one were not employed in Oxford’s primary occupation -- the pursuit of study both arcane and lively -- the business to be in would be the scaffold business.

Scaffolding, that is to say, and related construction and remodeling trades. As we sat in one 800-year old pub (a pub or ale house had existed in that location since the thirteenth century), I peered over the rim of my pint to look around the pleasant room and wonder what had been involved over the centuries in the conversion from candles to gas lighting and from gas to electricity. What duct-work and cabling within the thick walls? What tunneling under? What scaffolding on the exterior?

As we walked the winding streets (stepping reverently over the black cross embedded in the cobblestone to mark the site of the 1556 burning of the martyrs), my gaze traveled downward from the “dreaming spires” to ground level.  Building after building, tower after tower were enveloped in scaffolding. The effect of the whole was a sort of lattice-work, an almost delicate-looking exoskeleton that existed to silently and steadfastly prop up the bustle of life and community within.

In a sort of algebraic equation, the age of Oxford + the unremitting processes of decay + the ever-changing applications of construction technology = an almost constant need for upgrading = scaffolding.

Age and dignified beauty only serve to make Oxford a telling example of the rule that affects everything—and everyone: In the words of the Poet Rainer Rilke, “All have this falling sickness none withstands.” In buildings, this sickness is wind, water, ice, the shifting of the earth. In us: Well, as my late friend and colleague Gerhard Frost used to put it, “Ah, yes, Richard, it is true; we are all very busy dying.”

Jorgensen Manor.
Propping up ladders since 1929.

Our house has the “falling sickness.” (So does yours.) Not as grand as an Oxford edifice, but within the last year it was surrounded by scaffolds and ladders for much-needed carpentry and painting – part of our effort to prepare for a possible sale. The result is that we like it so much (we’ve always liked it), we’re considering staying. But then we think of those elements of entropy: wind, water, ice; and it occurs to us that perhaps getting out while the getting is good is another way of saying that the next owners can be the ones who hire the next scaffold-erectors. 

And each of us? Our scaffolding is exercise, pills, the latest diet -- the lattice of  support that enables us to carry on the “inner life,” of love, relationship, and meaning in which we live. But rust never sleeps; in the midst of life we are in death. As an old friend said, of his impending death, “This is the end of the road upon which we all travel. The only alternative would be to never have taken the journey at all. And who would want that?”

There would be no journeying to Oxford—no pints in ancient pubs, no evensong in sunlit chapels—without the centuries of scaffolding lining the path. I now think of the scaffolds of Oxford as part of the beauty of the place. I haven't, however, had such a romantic notion about the ladders and paint brushes needed to stave off the ravages of weather on my own house. Why? Could it be that the failure of most of us to include the practicalities of forward-looking maintenance in our budgets and calendars is not so much a matter of procrastination and forgetfulness as it is a subtle but deep-seated denial of death? Averting one's eyes from the creeping, sleepless rust? But the vitality of places like Oxford are an architecturally poetic expression of the truth that ladders and scaffolds are not signs of death, but life!

In the thirty-eighth chapter of Job, God is described as erecting "bars and gates" to hold back the chaos of the sea so that life can flourish. Deuteronomy assures us that underneath this transitory life are "the everlasting arms." Scaffolding.

     The leaves are falling;
     this hand is falling, too.
     All have this falling sickness none withstands.
     Yet there is one whose ever-holding hands
     this everlasting falling
     can't fall through.

                             ~ Rainer Maria Rilke, d. 1926

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