A week ago, I set out for Cedar Point, about an hour north, to photograph birds. About halfway there, the banality of bird photography frustrated me. What would I find? Another egret? A blue heron? Don’t get me wrong. I love birds and bird photography, especially the lanky, stock-still wading birds fishing up breakfast. But the torpor of a passing nihilistic trough begged unwelcomed questions. What does a bird photograph mean? Even if I took the world’s greatest bird photograph, would beauty stand apart from meaning, divorced by meaning’s caprice, and flitter away like a flame extinguished to a greater degree of existence? Or is beauty contingent on meaning, the way an idea is buttressed by the firing of billions of neurons?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do (and still don’t) with my esoteric moodiness. All I knew was that I loved the bible – that gated retreat moated by bread and circuses. Not so much the shopworn chestnuts passed around by sentinel pink clouders, memes, and evangelical Pollyannas, I love the gritty desperation of people seeking God and finding silence, absence, and worse, dereliction.
It is an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with, writes the Teacher. And what business is it that God has set us on? The Teacher seems to believe that our business is finding meaning, and, in this patch of toil, the Teacher’s job has been downsized. All is vanity and a chasing after wind. That’s how I know scripture is true. It isn’t all rainbows and halleluiahs. Entire books dispatch winsome spirituality and dedicate the spiritually grouchy to justification. So I hated life…for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.
The beauty of the world seems absence, not because things aren’t pretty. Even the pretty and delightful, with all their emotional evocations, never merit beauty without the companionship of meaning. The tears of joy, the anguish of grief, thigh-slapping laughter, we are nothing more that chemical computers hashing out some preordained program when all is vanity. Those who increase knowledge increase sorrow, he wrote.
I whiled away miles, lapping up broke white lines. Can a bird mean anything more than just a bird? Do I?
When I found a bird, I wanted to challenge the surface, to look beyond. I wanted the bird to be something more; I wanted my time away from the house to be something other than chemical relief for a stir-crazed brain. I knew the material world alone couldn’t give me truth or goodness, anima or art, honesty, ideas, or inspiration that comingle with brain and mind. Human invention alone cannot fathom imagination, the number 2, purpose, the sublime, or intuition. Maybe it is a statement of faith to say the random troughs and crest of sea water paint God’s image. Maybe it is true but unverifiable that my feelings cannot be stretched and measured, quantified or explained; but when I saw the egret hiding behind cordgrass, stalking prey, I knew a contentment unwarranted by a chain of circumstance. God is the subjective beauty imposing numinous meaning on an otherwise meaningless existence. And this meaning cannot be described or pointed at as well as it can be simply experienced – and one rises up at the sound of a bird.
Life is more than physics and chemistry, more than biology and cognitive processes. It is a knotted metaphor of choice and self-understanding, arching chasms, tunneling sundries, well-considered and never-arriving pursuit. What the Teacher said with ire, I repeat with conviction: What is crooked cannot be made straight.