I had emptied my suitcase, washed my clothes, and in less than 12 hours of coming home from an eight-state tour of the South, I was packed again and locking the door behind me. My wife, Angela, had lost a dear aunt to cancer, and we were returning to her hometown, Roxboro, North Carolina, for the funeral.
Angela’s aunt had been diagnosed just a month or two earlier. To listen to her aunt’s description of the illness, you’d think she had a sore throat or a tummy ache. Maybe she didn’t appreciate the severity of her situation or maybe she didn’t want to upset anyone. The truth of her illness, though, hadn’t been realized until Angela’s other aunt went to the doctor with her sister. It was bad. Cancer was everywhere. And it was unstoppable.
But even with this news, no one knew it would be only a week.
Angela and I arrived at Roxboro, checked into the hotel, and collapsed on the bed. The next day would start the visitation with the family. And the day after that would be the funeral. There would be plenty of time in between, so Angela had carried some work and I had brought my camera. Early the next morning, I left the hotel and drove twenty-five minutes north to Virginia.
The rolling pastureland was pocked with abandoned farmhouses and deteriorating barns. Two or three generations, I guessed, had died since these barns and homes were filled with life. They were irreversibly deteriorating. Vinelike-tree branches jutted out of partially opened doors, split cracks wider, and creeped up the side of the barns. The sides of houses were missing slates, and the white paint had peeled away. The wood was too old, too frail, too forgotten to be reclaimed or repurposed. Slowly falling to the ground. Imbibed by the earth. Sinking deeper into that nowhere, nothingness from where they first grew hundreds of years ago as beautiful trees. In a few more generations, there will be nothing left save their stone and cinderblock bases.
Lots of people enjoy photographing old barns. Many will say that it is like looking back in time. And I get it. I do. There’s a sense in which, if you look just right, you can imagine what it was like generations ago. But that’s not what I saw in the old barns and farmhouses. I saw the inevitable. Not what was but what’s left. I saw a mailbox emptied of letters, bills, or Christmas catalogues. A metal roof that stopped marching rainwater from the house. A window hanging curtains that haven’t been pulled back in a life time for someone to check the weather.
I pulled off the side of the road and took pictures of an old house separated from its barn by a row of pine trees. I attached my 18 to 140mm lens, stood on the road, and zoomed past the barbwire fence with the no trespassing sign. A frumpy man with a mustache yanked his truck behind my car and jumped out screaming.
“What’rr you doing?”
“I’m taking pictures. Is this your barn?” I asked knowing the answer.
“Yeah, this is my barn,” he said clenching his teeth. “Don’t you think it is rude to take pictures of it?”
“No,” I said. It hadn’t crossed my mind that taking a picture of a barn could be considered rude. But whether it was rude or not didn’t matter. This guy needed a sedative before something popped.
“How would you like it if someone took pictures of your house?”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know you lived here.”
“I don’t live in a barn,” he said.
“Yeah, okay, I didn’t think so. But you said… never mind. I would be flattered,” I said. “To have someone admire my house and take photos of it.” I walked up to the man and shook his hand and told him he could call me Brent. He took my hand and mumbled his name in return. I was trying to talk slowly with a kind of breezy indifference for the man’s ire. “Yeah, you know,” I said, “if someone saw my house and thought it was something worth photographing, I’d be delighted.”
“You would?” he said. He sounded stymied and slightly off balance by my apparently unexpected answer.
“Oh yeah. Neighbors come by every now and then and take pictures of my flowers. I’m happy they do it.”
This line of thinking seemed to undermine his golden rule argument. He just stood there without much to say. Fully convinced he had a gun on him and probably three more in his truck, I thanked him for letting me photograph his barn and farm house and quickly drove away.
I thought a good deal about whether or not it was rude to photograph his barn from the road. I honestly didn’t believe it was rude, but rudeness is not a universal quality. Rudeness bends and curves to fit the sensibilities of particular cultures and individuals. I’m not too keen on taking pictures of people without their permission, but that’s where I draw the line. Other photographers feel differently. And some of it is just practical. If I asked permission from every barn owner before snapping a picture from the roadside, I wouldn’t get much done.
Photographs do appropriate their subject to the photographer, which is a form of taking. But who is it taking from? The barn hasn’t lost anything, nor has the owner. In much the same way God has given us all that we have without losing anything, art gives without loss. A poet cannot exhaust a word. A painter cannot deplete a color. A musician cannot fritter away notes. The substance of art is inexhaustible. That is to say, art is a means and form of giving that isn’t transactional in nature. The barn, without the expenditure of effort or erosion of substance gave itself away through art, just as God, in Christ Jesus, was given to the world.
The frumpy man jumping out of his truck, though, had different sensibilities. He wasn’t concerned about art theory or ethereal blog fodder. His world seemed concrete, the intersection of here, now, and then, mine and yours. I wondered if the old barns and farmhouses were reminders of vanished lives, branches on the family tree that no longer grew leaves. Maybe my taking a picture of his barn felt to him as though I were photographing his grandfather’s grave. Or, maybe, his offence was a form of denial; one day the old barn would symbolize his perished life – his gravestone.
The family gathered at Angela’s aunt’s house in the afternoon. The cool air inside the house felt permanent but faint. Decisions were being made as to what to do with clothes, furniture, and the house itself. But I noticed the little things. There were unheard messages blinking on the answering machine. Cat food sat on the kitchen counter inside a Food Lion grocery bag as though someone walked in just five minutes before. Left overs were in the fridge. A life had ended.
The next day the funeral packed the church. Family and friends gathered in the fellowship hall. I slipped over to the sanctuary with my stepson. He said goodbye to his aunt by placing a Walmart gift card in her casket. (She had always given him Walmart gift cards for birthdays and Christmas presents. And the card had a two-dollar balance, so if there’s a Walmart in heaven, she’ll be ready to shop.) Angela came in the sanctuary and folded in her aunt’s hands a pack of Juicy Fruit and Life Savers, both of which she always carried in abundant supply. At the graveside, the minister said those lines, Ashes to ashes… Then there was a good deal of handshaking and hugs and tears, which carried on until the casket lowered into the ground.
And that was it.
“If anyone wants to master the art of living well and dying well, let him not follow the crowd which believes in or values only what is seen, but let him follow Christ,” writes Robert Bellarmine a 16th-century member of the Counter-Reformation. Bellarmine carries on a good deal in the spirit of Paul by saying we should count everything of this world as naught or contemptable. As someone who takes pictures, I disagree. I think the things that we see in this world hold immense value. (To be fair to Bellarmine, he did write “values only what is seen.”) But what is seen holds value only in as much as it is self-giving and somehow transcendent. The life of my wife’s aunt, the barn in the field, the abandoned farmhouse are memorials as much as they are foyers to that inexhaustible divinity penetrating this world as art, giving everything but losing nothing.
If the history of the universe were one year, the lifespan of a single human being would be such a small fraction of a second that we would blink in and out of existence without being detected. We are inconceivably small and insignificant. Yet, creation is ordered in such a manner that it could be argued, and frequently is, that our flash of existence articulates all meaning and purpose. From the grand structure of the universe and the cobbled web gravitationally binding galaxy to galaxy to the intricate lacing of moons to planets and planets to stars to the chemical reactions of atoms and molecules to the root of life and emergent properties capable of naming beauty and truth, we are, in our twinkling existence, the reason and cause.
My death and your death, the death of every single living thing is inevitable. Each year we pass by the date of our death in silence. “Divine providence willed that nothing be more uncertain than the hour of death,” Bellarmine wrote. “Some die in their mother’s womb, others shortly after birth; some in extreme old age; others in the flower of youth. Again, some languish for a long time; others die suddenly. Some recover from a very serious and nearly incurable disease; others are only slightly ill, yet, when they seem safe from death, the strength of the disease grows and kills them.”
Every day we come to death, come closer to what seems like a certain end. Each day marks off one less day, the ticking clock winding down to its own extinction – that time that has no time and that place that cannot be imagined. And, I think, if I didn’t live in my world of denial, I’d scrub my heart and cleanse my thoughts; I’d be more concerned with standing at the foot of the cross and enter that pain with the faith of an empty tomb. What’s really inside an empty tomb cannot be known, but the tomb’s foyer is inevitable.
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