Saturday, May 06, 2006

At the Canvas of Infinity


When Wayne and I want to treat good friends or guests to a memorable night out in Houston, our venue of choice is the Live Oak Friends Meeting House Skyscape designed by James Turrell. I was adamant that this was one place that was not going to be neglected on my “one last time before we leave” list. It had been awhile since I’d last visited: the Meeting House is a house of worship, the skyscape is only made available for public viewing on Friday evenings at sunset when the weather cooperates. Last night it did.

I’d scheduled a babysitter, made dinner reservations, and to make my cup truly run over, I had invited my writing comrades, Mark Bertrand and Deeanne Gist, to come along with their spouses, Laurie and Greg. To make matters even better, it was to be their first visit. We’ve been reading, critiquing, recommending, inspiring, encouraging, linking, joking, scheming, sharing couch space and the occasional dessert at Taft for awhile now. It’s been a deep privilege to work with writers as devoted as they are to their craft and as generous with they are with their gifts. I owe them many thanks. We arranged to meet outside the space around 7:30. Sunset was scheduled for 8:03.

There is not really an accurate way to describe to someone what they’re coming to “see”. This Quaker Meeting House is a wholly unique space: to my mind, a perfectly designed convergence of art and worship, of the man made and the God made, a fully human structure as conduit for awe. We enter a square room. People are scattered among the pews, four-squared to the center, heads tilted skyward. 30 minutes before sunset, the roof retracts and exposes a perfect square cut into the center of the roof of the slightly arced ceiling. Over the course of the next hour or so, we will witness every subtle blend and nuance of color and cloud highlighted in that seamless aperature until we are mesmerized by its slightest shift. Though it’s the very same sky we just relinquished outside without a thought, it has now become a compelling canvas, never the same from visit to visit, or even from moment to moment. Small, dark birds pass overhead. A contrail chalks a tiny streak in the bottom right corner. A dog barks.

It takes awhile for the fidgeting, rustling and murmuring of the viewers to calm. We are not used to stillness, to waiting, to looking. To seeing. We’re conditioned to action, “What does it do?” When we begin watching the sky, it is brighter than the ceiling that frames it. Clouds slowly shift past, now darker,now lighter, than the sky they move in. As the sun lowers and the sky darkens, ever so gradually, the values of the ceiling come closer to those of the sky until the sky becomes darker than the ceiling. Suddenly we can’t tell if we are looking out or looking in, which plane, ceiling or sky, is nearer or further, which the chasm and which the surface. The sounds in the room have hushed. One tiny star flicks on and I feel the urge to clap. We’ve succumbed to the awe, our eyes going again and again to the edges where ceiling and sky meet in an Escher-like illusion. The blue is electric, vibrating, too vivid for our spectrum, and how had we ever not noticed? Infinite depth, infinite emptiness, the other side of the looking glass. Where does the sky end? It’s not even the whole big sky, it’s just a tiny a piece of it, but it’s bigger and deeper than any sky we’ve ever seen. Presented to us as a gift, a masterpiece— and ours all along, had we ever looked to see it.

And so it is this that I leave my good friends, knowing them enough to know that when they look up into the sky, they see, and will keep on seeing.

6 comments:

karen Miedrich-Luo said...

Thank you.

Jenni said...

I didn't even know this place existed in Houston. Sunsets are my favorite time of day, so Johnny and I will have to pay a visit.

Allison said...

Jenni,

Then I'm glad to be the one to present this place to you! A word of advice: take something to lean your neck on. It doesn't take long for your neck to feel you are at the hair salon undergoing a very long hair wash. On her last visit, Karen gave me a beautiful shawl which I'd brought along as a wrap. I rolled it into a log shape and it was just the right thickness to set between me and the pew and keep me from being distracted by neck ache.

Let me know what you think when you go!

laurie said...

If you forget your shawl I highly recommend trying a corner seat - a little less neck strain. (I think this photo is from the corner?) Oh, and towards the end I watched the man who works there to see where he stood. I figured he'd had some experience and was curious about which spots he'd choose. He seemed to prefer the center of either doorway but that might have just been out of convenience.

Deeanne said...

What made this so unique was the frameless hole through which we were viewing the sunset. It was as if we'd hit the "zoom in" button on our computers and watched the unfolding of a teeny little piece of God's creation--up close and personal.

Never the same. Never still. Always changing. Yet, soothingly familar. The verse that comes to mind is: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--His eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Rom 1:20)

Somehow this experience is going to find its way into my novel. It is just too amazing not to share.

Thanks, Allison, for gifting me with a spectacular evening. This one goes in the treasure box, to be taken out and comtemplated over for many a year to come. Not just the sunset, but the solidifying of friendships.

Anthony said...

Dyan and I went one Friday night, while we members there ever so briefly... It truly is an amazing sight, and you've captured it perfectly.

I ended up reclining lengthwise on a pew to ease neck-strain. I took my shoes off.

Now, I lay on the grass and form a picture frame with my fingers to get that little piece of heaven.