February 19, 2011

Quiet and commotion

Don't make a mistake.  There's nothing wrong with commotion when it's important to make a commotion. The citizens of Egypt couldn't wait any longer to proclaim their independence.  Similar uprisings seem to be happening in many places:  Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Iran, and Madison, Wisconsin.  No doubt other states in the US will join in soon.  Sometimes making a commotion is what is necessary.

So I was juxtaposing this to a place of utter quiet that I visited recently, right near my house, at the entrance to the cemetery on my regular walk.  Do forgive me for seeming to often be on the subject of cemeteries, bones, and ashes.  It's just part of my current neighborhood.  It can't be helped.  It's part of life.  I'm thinking specifically of the Chapel of Chimes, a massive building that is a columbarium, a structure for holding ashes, cremains.

This California style building was designed by Julia Morgan, the first woman licensed to practice architecture in California.  She is the architect of Hearst Castle among the other 400 or so buildings she designed.  The crematorium had already existed in 1909 when Morgan was commissioned in 1926 to design an expansion of the existing facility.  A week or so ago, I finally entered an open door on my return walk, curious about what the inside of this beautiful building looked like.

As nothing retarded my entrance, no receptionist, no human to question me, I simply walked deeper and deeper into the interior of this remarkable place.  If I could imagine going into the pyramids in Egypt, it would be something like this.  Or a tiny bit the way I felt entering the megalithic tomb at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland.   I was completely alone on the inside with only light and the sound of my own movements and occasional water features in garden rooms.  Granted, none of the ashes are as old as the Iron Age, but the atmosphere was as sacred and held the stories of our past.

It was like entering an ancient library, with stacks and stacks of ashes placed in thick book-like containers behind glass cases as high as 15 or 20 feet. From the Gregorian cloister entry, I had taken a small staircase that led into various rooms and alcoves, cloisters, small chapels, curved recesses, niches and hallways with moulded doorways. Then there were three levels that held the other mysterious rooms and passageways. All was beautifully lighted by large skylights that kept a soft illumination over all the areas.

Numerous artifacts appear there too.  There's a display of illuminated parchment manuscripts from the 1500s, a lapis lazuli inlaid table with the Medici Crest circa 1500 and other Italian influenced treasures.  The City of Oakland named this Chapel a Distinguished Landmark of the area.

But it was the silence of the place, the space, its careful beauty that struck me; it can't be captured in snapshots.  Thousands of stacks of ashes of those who had thrived in the surrounding hills of California, those who had made a commotion in one way or another, who had made a river of life, a library of events and experience, who had shouted out and demonstrated for or against one thing or another, or some who had remained silent.  I sensed no ghosts, just a feeling of how life continues in all its aspects.  We who acknowledge these shelves of ashes standing in the river of life now, either in the thrumming crowd or solitary, will enter the library at whatever time we do.   This is not sad or morbid, it's just how life is and has always been.