I’m a big fan of Annie Dillard. I read most of her work in the 1980s, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and “Teaching a Stone to Talk”, to name a few. I really was fond of her short stories, never quite sure that she was just fortunate to document some interesting people, or that she just brought out their interesting sides. And of course, as a writer she could have simply invented the entire character.
One particular short story was abou a man, I think living alone in a cabin, that had found an interesting stone on one of his walks, (it may have been down by the river). He brought the stone back to his house and put it on his mantle. Then he studied the stone, the more he pondered, the idea began to take shape that he would begin a process of teaching the stone to talk.
Each time he would take ten minutes to vocalize sounds and syllables, building up to words and sentences. He was at it for quite awhile. The story stuck with me for years. I’m not sure the person was real, or that he really tried to teach a stone to speak. The idea of it delighted me. I was thirty.
Now, forty years later, I have other thoughts. I still appreciate the unique “out of the box” thinking, but it comes through a filter. The dedication, or discipline, to start a process of teaching a stone to talk without considering the possibility of success is admirable. Assuming that the stone wants to communicate with us is slightly egocentric. It seems to me now, that the stone is an unwilling participant. In protest, I might not speak as well.
The next thought I have is on whether the stone is already communicating, but we are not going to listen until it speaks our language. More ego-centric concerns.
This morning I followed a thread. I would like to describe thread to you. I have a tool box, filled with files, chisels, implements to shape objects. I had left the toolbox in torrential rain, and now I paid the price. Everything had soaked in water for days and was now fully in the process of rust. The first part of the thread is that I really liked these tools and had used each one in various projects. So I patiently cleaned and re-oiled each one. I haven’t found a new toolbox yet.
The second part of the thread is that I thought about how I had used these tools in the past. The list went on for a while, but I lingered over how I had used these tools to sculpt small pieces of soapstone.
The third part of the thread was my recent study of the Second Commandment, “thou shall not have graven images of anything above the earth, on the earth, or in the sea.” Well, that seems specific. In fact, there has not been one example of a Jewish statue found it antiquity. Lots of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Assyrian, Canaanite… but nothing in Israel.
Clearly statues of people can become idols, but so can some animals/objects. And forty years after the commandment was given, God told Moses to put a “fiery serpent” on a staff for all to see, and to cure them of snakebite. I’m pretty sure this was a graven image, so did God change his mind?
This thread challenged my self identity. I had always thought of myself as a maker of graven images. Sometimes using only my hands with clay, mostly using stone with hand tools.
The fourth part of the thread is going to the front porch to find that chunk of soapstone that had been there for at least five years. There it was, hiding under the table. So then, I carry it to the back porch where all my resurrected tools are waiting, and I prepare to make something.
My process is to look very carefully at the stone, turning it around several times in my hands. I’m looking for any cracks or veins that stand out. How solid is this piece, how stable? Then, I ponder about what figure is hidden within the stone? The famous Michelangelo statement. what is the stone saying to me?
This is when the thread comes back to Dillard’s teaching the stone to talk.
So, I start to use the tools to begin shaping something. I’m really not sure what it might be. I’m making some very general reductions, I’ve determined a base, and now I’m beginning to rough out an object, nothing defined, not man, women or boy. Not plant or animal. So far, just an object connected to a base. I’m using s small hammer, a saw, and a “pointing” chisel. Tapping the chisel gently removes small chunks. Filing or carving, creates tons of dust and takes a long time to rough out an object.
I’ve got about an hour into the project, and I was just about to chip off a small piece that would give the final edge to help define the future object. One small tap, and the piece broke off, then the entire cube of soapstone also fractured right down the middle, creating two almost equal pieces. The stone had spoken, I was not going to have enough real estate to make any of the future objects I was contemplating.
The stone had communicated with some finality. I didn’t like it, and at first I was a little miffed that I had not seen the “flaw” that created the fracture. That is some more ego-centric based thought. It was a flaw because it foiled my predetermined plan to make something. It wasn’t a flaw to the stone, it was just a line of fracture should there come a time when the stone was turning into dust. Very natural.
The final thread was to revisit Annie Dillard and her story of stones that refused to talk. But maybe I just heard one this morning.