Writ in Water: Ephemerality, Invisibility, and Creativity
Recently we had cause to think of John Keats, the British Romantic poet (1795-1821) who wrote a mere 53 poems and died at the age of 25, making Mozart (aged 35) look like a venerable grandfather.
I love these lines from Keats:
I am certain of nothing
But the holiness of the hearts affections
And the truth
Of the imagination.
Keats’ most famous creation, at least at this point in history, is Ode on a Grecian Urn.
I say “at this point” because history is always being rewritten and re-remembered. It is not some Platonic ideal, eternal and unchanging, but perhaps more like a piece of sheet music, endlessly reinterpreted by generations of new musicians playing new instruments.
In relation to these thoughts about the nature of history, an expression I have been aware of most of my life comes from Keats’ gravestone in Rome, where he died of (probably) tuberculosis. His gravestone reads:
This grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.
Writ in Water
The expression writ in Water, expresses to me the ephemerality of life, something Keats was obsessed with during his short and fraught life.
We are doomed to be forgotten, misinterpreted if briefly remembered, and generally lost to the roiling chaos of time and memory.
This all sounds fatalistic and depressing, but there are other interpretations.
Water also hides mistakes and allows for do-overs, things literally are not “written in stone,” and that can be advantageous and even essential.
In Keats’ story, a young man full of hope and promise dies of a terrible disease in Italy.
Almost a century later, another young man full of possibility, dies on a grand tour railcar expedition in Italy with his parents at the age of 16. His parents, grief stricken at the loss of their only child, decide to enshrine his memory in a new university.
Who could have predicted that their creation, the Leland Stanford, Jr. University would be the agent of bringing Bruce and I together? This institution is now more commonly known as Stanford University.
Bruce’s Story: The Music Of Water
I had an opportunity to revisit this concept recently. As anyone who knows me knows, I am obsessed with water.
In nursery school, I locked myself in the bathroom in order to play with water, uninterrupted. Filling and emptying the sink, filling and pouring cups of water, listening to its sound for what seemed like hours, I was in heaven.
Now, as a physicist and only slightly more socialized than then, I realize the music of water enfolds many voices in the complexity of its turbulence, as anyone who has listened to a burbling stream long enough can attest.
I recently acquired a GPS watch, an amazing bit of technology that can infer your heart rate, ambient temperature, blood oxygen, altitude, location, etc.
I’m sure a future software update will allow it to give motherly advice or maybe tell you what to say on a date, beeped to your wrist via Morse code or sent to a chip in your ear so as to avoid the obvious social faux pas of looking at your watch every few seconds.
A Chance Observation
A few weeks ago I saw a small airplane practicing skywriting above the ocean, trailing a whitish plume. The pilot didn’t write any messages, but made nice curvy patterns.
It gave me an idea.
On Tuesday, wearing only suit and goggles and neoprene cap, I strode into the water at the cove and activated my watch.
I carefully counted strokes, changing direction often, lining up with landmarks on shore, feeling the pulse and surge of the water and the sunlight shafting into the depths.
When I got home, I downloaded the following:
Name Writ in Water
My name is officially ‘writ in Water,’ in something like 250,000 point font. Perhaps I will call the font Acquerelle.
I wonder what Keats would say?
Even though nobody on shore could see what I wrote, (though they may have wondered about my sense of direction, arcing and changing directions seemingly randomly) the action of writing in the ocean has changed my life in some subtle way.
I mean besides 2,000 views on LinkedIn.
Influence radiates outwards, in ways that are hard if not impossible to predict.
The Hidden Possible
Nothing happens in a vacuum, because even the vacuum of space is not “nothing,” Quantum field theory tells us that it is the sum of all unrealized possibilities. From electron-positron pairs to all the works Shakespeare might have written, admittedly with very low probability.
It makes me wonder just how inevitable is history?
How much has that which was writ in Water affected what we see and experience?
Abstract Art Writ in Water
Perhaps an interesting experiment to explore for abstract painters would be activating a surface with one’s name.
As layers of paint get applied, the substructure of the name might well disappear, but its influence is still there.
The fact that something vanishes and is ephemeral does not mean it is unimportant. Its affects may be beneath the surface, invisible, but radiating outward nonetheless.
With gratitude from my studio to yours,
P.S. Last week, I showed you a series of colorful paintings inspired by spring and the creative impulse to explore big, gestural brushstrokes employing a red/pink palette.
If you love color, you’ll love the sweet deal I have on my Experimenting With Color course. This 6 module course simplifies the complex world of color and delivers stunning results as you experiment with color combinations and experience joy and confidence as you create.
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Laying out the palette.
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