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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Pure grief



Minimum. I take it from the bookshelf with the hallowed circumspection I’d devote to touching a Torah.

From cover to cover of this thick, coffee table and coffee-cup-soiled book, the architect/author John Pawson shows how diverse and ancient our taste for the simple, iterative, unadorned and streamlined actually is. A favorite of Pawson himself is the Romanesque abbey of Le Thonet in France. Sparse as a Hemingway verb. The stovetop espresso maker on our kitchen counter, ziggurat-shaped, begins in Mesopotamia, passes by Egypt, through the austerities of Le Thonet, the peeled-away unornamentation of post-war Italian design all the way to a nakedly simple house at 6 Club St in Asheville. 5000 years of simple. Good coffee to boot.

In America––as Lynne cautioned, three paragraphs of your favorite minimal things is hardly minimal––the Shakers, Johnny Cash, the IBM logo. In class I always showed the Apple logo next to Dürer’s Adam and Eve.

But I never saw, before inauguration eve, how deeply apt that austerity could be for both the evocation and consolation of grief. Like the simple crosses on soldiers’ graves in France and England (my uncle among them), or the names on the Viet Nam War Memorial, the flags and lanterns erected for the inauguration stood, in their serene and anonymous dignity, for the nearly half million souls we have lost. Thousands of uniform flags rustled in the wind like a dense, reverential crop, filling a large quadrant of the mall. Each flag identical, and identically spaced, yet blowing with its own unique music. Souls, so recently winded away.

Those who know my work know that I always point to light as my primary medium, whether it glows from within, or floats, rattles and ruptures over a surface. So to see hundreds of simple, cubic lanterns set along both sides of the reflecting pool, voicing forth their light as synonyms of all that was unsaid in that beautiful memorial rite—how f••• overdue!––brought Lynne and myself to tears. No tumult. Just the praying of silence, the pure, luminous, blood-pulse repeating of being.

One must mention the Lincoln Memorial itself. Yes, Neo-classical, but still so spare, so rhythmical, like the plowman beat of Lincoln’s own prose––yet another volume of that hushed, memorial poise. We all, I believe, were penning the word relief on the palms of our hands.

After last week’s column, a friend posted another Merton quote and I’ll wrap up with that: "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender oneself to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence."

Minimum: a sublime quietude on a winter, Washington night, and also, it seems, a cautionary ethic for a crazy, delusional, down-the-snakes-and-up-the-the-ladders world.

Image: Stephanie Keith