I was asked by my sculpture teacher to make a monument. “A monument to what,” I asked? “Anything,” he answered. The only parameter seemed to be that the work was produced in wood. Having seen some interesting stone and marbleizing paints, I had the immediate idea to transform the wood into a marble-like appearance. Marble, for some reason, probably because it is the cemetery standard, seemed like the right medium for a monument to me.
All the students in the class intuitively thought of death-related concepts. A monument to death itself was suggested. A monument to failed works of art, another student offered. A monument to broken tools. Several students suggested something like coffins, since, well, they are made of wood. I thought of death too at first. I asked myself whom was I wanting to pedestalize, monumentalize, and memorialize.
At first, I was conflating all of these intentions, as though memorializing and pedastalizing were one and the same. I thought of my dead relatives. I thought of dead musicians and writers whose works touched and formed me. I thought of litanies of saints and my own personal pantheon of the dearly departed. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that making a monument was really about my making something important to me. It was not so much about the thing or person lost or remembered or even celebrated as it became a process of discernment about what I felt compelled to hold up in a monumental way.
As I mused over the idea, it came to me that all the things and people I celebrated reflected works of creative making, whether in some art or in some inspiration of artful being. After careful consideration about how best to capture this sort of inspiration in a wood monument, I suggested somewhat to the consternation of my teacher, that I make a representation of a marble frieze of the muses. “Huh?” This was about the response I received, but I was not entirely surprised since I have come to learn that between artists and art historians there is often a divide greater than that which separates East Egg from West Egg (or, for Cleveland natives, the land hither or thither on either side of the Cuyahoga). I explained what I meant and my reference points, offered a rudimentary sketch, sweetened by a hopeful grin, only to be discouraged. It seems my carving skills for such an ambitious task were in doubt.
Ah, but what he did not know, I have the muses on my side.
You see, one thing I love most about this Feminism and Religion blog is that it provides a forum of inspiration to think out loud. It doesn’t have to be a book, vetted by a team of reviewers and editors. It is, rather, a community based on dialogue and the free exchange of thoughts, feelings, insights, hopes, frustrations, and so much more. In all of that, it becomes a place of discovery, and I find for myself that when I look back over the collection of essays I have contributed over the years, I see a trajectory of inspired discovery and growth. I often hear or see the voice of someone waking up to her own reality, as if from that dogmatic slumber, where I had learned and learned and learned again but never really understood.
What had I not understood? Church, family, marriage, sexuality, religion, music, art? Probably all of it. I had and have been busy being a very good girl, and the great irony for my own life has been the manner of being good. I’ve been a good thinker. I’ve been a solid academic; well-read; self-educating; and always on the move. It surprises me that I have kept my mind so busy at times that I did not take a moment to explore the nagging feeling that something was always wrong. Something was off with my voice, a little flat or tinge sharp. Something was always limping in my rhythm while I looked for the right mate to dance alongside, while I was raced through phrases, skipped the tenutos, and simply held onto notes too long.
There are moments, too many and too often, when I blame myself for missing the beats and key changes. I had so few real teachers that I barely could discern what I was searching. On many occasions I interpreted a score too liberally, couldn’t conform to text, and resultingly rendered something very messy that no one could even recognize. I recall a piano recital once where I lost the music entirely, yet for the sake of the concert, I just kept playing until I hit an acceptable resolution. It reminds me of those life-changing conversations when one’s goal ceases to be communication and transforms into the simple challenge of walking away with any illusion that your head, heart, or self-esteem remains intact.
How much of life becomes a noble and brave performance, sometimes for others, often for the self? How often have I felt-clown like in my effort to make others happy while keeping on with my own smile. Through my processes of discovery, laid so bare in these writings, I see that I have spun precariously on a top, generating my own gravity with a tentative and fumbling balance in a nebulous universe. I tried the fool’s task of working a magic act, becoming the punch line, and hoping that my odd charm and poise would make sense and beauty out of this life as long as love could just sit at the circus long enough.
Those inspiring muses lead one all over the place, and I am not sure whether they have lead me into heart-warming courage or mere heartbreak. I’m not sure, for example, about this curious self-portrait: tragedy or victory? Folly or wisdom? Idiocy or sagacity? She’s falling and no one in the universe is there to catch her… so, fool perhaps? Yet, I recognize that in some sense, all she has is performance. That is, all we have is the choice to perform our own being, to create a work of living. There is something of the fool’s errand even in this because each person knows natural and imposed limits. In the light of those limits, joy and gratitude are ridiculous. When things are broken, impassible, impossible, painful, it would be a fool’s play to say, “nevertheless, I am grateful.” Yet, true gratitude in the face of those things is maybe all one can muster positively, creating an occasion to laugh anew, to appreciate the unexpected gift, and to discover that delightful new being may be found in the absurd.
The illuminating arts of those graceful muses continue to open gates to labyrinthine mazes for me from which there may be no exit even as there is assuredly no return. I have already followed their lead clumsily and naively, even while I’m not sure what it has meant to carve them wood, burn offerings at their feet, write poems about the mysteries of their love, tender songs to curry their favor, chomp pomegranates so they see my lips redden, set precious stones for their adornment, or howl at the moon on their behalf. I am pretty confident, however, that they listen. I mean, in the end, I had a whole sculpture class (who had sadly not studied the muses before) decorating the hems of their skirts with gifts and slurping seeds from their hands. (Take that, Teach!)
What is more important, I hear that I listen to them in myself. I am both Illuminated and grateful by and for their summons. And, if and when I find them to go quiet, I’ll talk to Sappho. In their company, I shall continue to carve until I make a monument truly worthy of the name it bears.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.
6 thoughts on “At the Altar of the Muses by Natalie Weaver”
Flow, rhythm, poise, joy – the words that came to mind at looking at the figures. The combination of contemporary art and aspects of the ancient work well.
Thought you would enjoy this ancient hymn to the Muses, Natalie.
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Thanks for your musings on muses. The following sequence of poems about the muses might interest you. Written in part in response to the election of ‘you know who’.
It is half of the sequence, the other half are poems to the nine muses and Sappho as the tenth, but they are not yet on an eqsily accessible website!
Totally agree with your insight Natalie where you say: “You see, one thing I love most about this Feminism and Religion blog is that it provides a forum of inspiration to think out loud.” And thanks Carol for sharing that fascinating music from ancient Greece — also so deeply provocative. FAR truly is for us all a wonderland of amazing insight and inspiration.
The faces in the first picture are blurred and unknown, leaving me free to remember my own “saints”, those people in my life who have helped create who I am. So I had a wonderful time yesterday remembering, being grateful, being awed. Thank you Natalie! – and all my muses at FAR!