In Judith Kitchen’s essay “Direction,” she writes of traveling with a friend in Greece and being asked to step out of her cab on a dark road by a driver she doesn’t trust. She and her friend refuse to get out, not by saying no, but by huddling in the back seat and crying thalassa, thalassa. Ocean, ocean.
Crying direction and saving themselves.
I split this past summer between residencies in Minnesota and Nebraska, writing, thinking about ocean and about salvation. About what’s inside us—how the matter of our origins can save us. About love for the how of creation and a God who deserves to be loved for the how. About crying thalassa, saying “I am ocean and worth saving.”
I was writing about dance and thinking about bones, calcium, carbonate of lime. Calcium comes from water. When mammals were just a dream on a volcanic and shifting earth, bones were made by water. I’m water, carbonate of lime, the memory of a tide. I was formed by wetness and rolling wave. I’m light and breakable as heaven.
I’m taking some poetic license here. I’m also trying to take a little salvation where I can find it.
Last fall I was on Whidbey Island for the Image/BioLogos colloquy. The ocean was a five-minute walk from my little house at Camp Casey. I wrapped my scarf around my head and face and walked to the shore every morning, prayed a little, but mostly just watched the waves and listened, thought about God and skeletons, tried to press my nose to creation and figure out who both of us are.
I was nervous about the colloquy, not knowing what to expect from this small group of artists come together to talk about art, faith, and evolution. I attended a conservative parochial school until I was sixteen, where we learned that we lived in a 4,000-year-old universe, and evolutionary beliefs were the fallback for those who couldn’t muddle their way through a proper idea.
But I also grew up with a physicist father who took me on car rides to tell me about the seven dimensions that coiled themselves around our known four after the Big Bang. My father told me that God wears a lab coat, and that after we die, we get to tour the lab and ask any questions we want. He taught me that science is about showing love by looking closer. I came to believe that valuing mystery was essential to loving and learning about the universe and its creation, but that mystery at the deliberate expense and shunning of knowledge is abominable.
On Whidbey Island, I didn’t find a group of dogmatists. I found a people governed by love. I found artists and scientists whose work, by looking closer, tries to patch brokenness with beauty. Biologist Cal Dewitt showed us how to pay attention to what forms our world by pointing out how trees rotting unseen under the soil create geometries of mushrooms.
Painters Linnea Spransy, Kim Alexander, Mark Sprinkle, and Alfonse Borysewicz showed pieces of artwork that probed humanity’s experience with God via formulae and mythmaking. Writers Suzanne Antonetta, Kathleen Housley, and Jeanne Murray Walker read work that held all nature, diverse human culture, and our “little sister” Homo floresiensis in careful, praising hands. Composers Toby Twining and Jeremy Begbie used the mathematical manipulations of sound to create space for considering the divine.
I came to Whidbey worried about bodies—all kinds. I’d spent the last year writing about dance and injury, about an incarnate God and a dancing God, about pain, about hurting human bodies yearning for grace. So much of how we degrade each other and the planet is through the body, mocking movement and desire and hunger and difference, emptying it, making it something to be used.
My Christ is rarely on the cross; he’s learning to walk, inhabiting a leg and pelvis and ribcage, figuring out how to give the guy in the lab coat the one thing he’s always lacked. He’s hurting and awkward and making attempts at grace.
I’ve become increasingly convinced that merging art and science, particularly evolutionary science, fights degradation of the human and earth body. For if you can study and write and paint and compose and look closer and love the hell out of whatever you look at, you know there is nothing wrong with you, you are not irrevocably broken or ruined, you belong here as much as everyone and everything else.
In the beginning, there was God and also nothing. If the Big Bang was the start of expansion, compression might be God, God the great squeezing smallness at the center, God what happens before it unfurls.
The miracle at the beginning was hydrogen, helium, carbon. The preacher at the gravesite makes a terrible underestimation when he releases his handful of soil. The gentle man with the gentle eyes smudging your forehead on Ash Wednesday misspeaks the same when the miracle is as close as his fingertip. From dust you came, and to dust you shall return, but we can eschew dust for now and call it carbon and call it a blessing, miracle, holy, humble, perfect as anything that is almost everything.
Every piece of art I saw or heard on Whidbey confirmed it: we are the how of creation. We are lush protoplasm, bones made by ocean, the memory of Homo erectus’ bony brow and forward tilting skull, two hearts merged into one and formed from that first fishy creature born with a dilated blood vessel in its chest that received electricity and began to beat, beat, beat.
We are parts formed by formulae, we are spillage from the lab in the sky. We are adored, children of miracle, carbon, and the God that unfurls equations into moving, changing life.
Natalie Vestin is a writer and health researcher from Saint Paul. Her essays have been published in The Iowa Review, Puerto del Sol, Bellingham Review, Chautauqua, and elsewhere. She is the winner of the 2013 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Award, the Prairie Schooner 2012 Creative Nonfiction Prize, and the 2012 Sonora Review Essay Prize. She’s currently working on a project exploring the female gaze in astronomy.
This post was made possible through the support of a grant from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution and Christian Faith program. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BioLogos.
Image used: Alfonse Borysewicz, Iconostatis/Cor Unum #3, paint on canvas, 2004