Creativity Series: “Altars” by Diana Huey

The Bereshit Bara Creativity Series asks 13 Creatives to wrestle with how they make the first move, write the first word, fling the first brush stroke, peel back the first layer of clay? What inspires them, what moves them, what drives them? I’d also like to hear from YOU. Send me your thoughts or a link to your post wrestling with these questions at rossgale4@gmail.com.

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The first altar described in the Bible comes after mass destruction. When the floodwaters subside, Noah gets off his homemade cruise ship with his family, lets the animals out, and builds an altar. Then he sacrifices some of the animals on the altar. I wonder if it’s sorrow or relief driving him to create this monument, or something else entirely.

A few days ago, I was driving west over the St. Johns Bridge in Portland on my way to work. Since I am a server at a restaurant downtown, I leave for my shift when everyone else is leaving their shifts. The sun was overhead, the sky dotted with unmenacing clouds, and though I didn’t know I was heading toward adventure, I felt all the excitement of a good story purely because of the view before my eyes.

The St. Johns Bridge is my favorite bridge in this town. It’s painted green the color of the Statue of Liberty, as though it were not painted at all, but instead wearing a matted patina. Its two arches pierce the sky with spires—two apiece—making the whole thing reminiscent of a castle. The Castle Bridge. That’s what we used to call it as kids.

When you go west over the Castle Bridge, you face the West Hills. This time of year they are mottled in two distinct shades of green—dark for the older growth on the evergreens, and bright for the new sprouts and deciduous leaves. The West Hills harbor apartments, houses, and the Pittock Mansion, but also and more importantly, Forest Park, the largest city park in the country. Miles and miles of lush running trails. I like a good run as much as a good novel.

When I drive under a castle bridge and face a forest, I feel a certain thrum inside me. I remember good runs and good fairy tales I’ve read about forests and adventures like A.S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest”, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Colin Meloy’s new YA novel, Wildwood, and Christopher McDougall’s well-wrought Born to Run (a kind of non-fiction fairy tale for crazies like me). Sometimes when I am running underneath that mottled canopy of trees, I pretend I am inside one of these stories.

Getting scheduled for a shift on the patio in Portland means being uncertain whether you will work at all, and uncertain whether, if you do work, the weather will be nice enough for people to actually want to sit outside, let alone tip you. But once you get started, most shifts are just like the others: nothing to write home about.

We had fourteen tables set up on the patio that evening, seven were mine, and of those seven, five were seated at just before eight when the clouds changed from unmenacing to menacing.Three tables were nearly finished. Another asked to move inside to the bar, and the two men at the last table, as I took their drink orders asked if it was going to rain. “I don’t know,” I said evasively. I should have said, “Remember Noah? He pulled in the plank on the ark when the sky looked like that.”

I moved the one table inside with the first roll of thunder, and was printing checks for the other three as the rain began streaking the windows. The Is-it-going-to-rain men had ordered Tableside Guacamole which involves a server or expo and a tray filled with ramekins, a heavy black mortar and pestle, two avocados, and half a lime. It takes a few minutes to makeguacamole at a table, and I always feel like Rachael Ray in front of a studio audience when I do it. Is-it-going-to-rain was sitting under a giant striped canvas umbrella, but my guac-making coworker was not. He got soaked by the time he set the chips and green dip on their table.

As I headed back outside, the downpour escalated to “torrential”by Portland standards—as heavy as I’ve seen in this town—a steady rush of gray, sloshing in the streets and cascading out of full gutters. I covered my head with my little brown tray and made a run for my tables. I cashed them out and checked in with the two guys under the umbrella. “We’ll stay here,” they said. “We’ve got our food.” Wet through, I covered my head with the tray again and ran back inside through the front door.

When I came around through the restaurant, four or five of the staff were clustered at the top of the steps by the side door. The north wall of the restaurant is on a slope, and the rain, having filled the storm drains, was rushing and rolling over the sidewalks and into the lower entry of the restaurant. The dining room staff was having a good laugh at those of us working outside. We got over an inch of rain in that hour. It was all kind of thrilling, running from table to table, huddling under a canvas umbrella with strangers and wet credit card slips.

The menus were ruined, our wooden host stand was swollen, and the linen wrapped silverware in the bucket had to be washed and rewrapped. But I didn’t mind. It was new and raw and exhilarating—an aberration from all other shifts I’ve worked—a story to text to my brother, to call and tell my mom.

Noah had it worse. He had to deal with humiliation from the neighbors before the rains arrived, and a cruise ship full of turd-producing animals to feed during and afterward. Forty days of rain and six months of cabin fever until he could land his vessel and fall to his knees on dry ground. Was he more thankful to be off the boat or to have survived on it?

I wonder if his soul marveled within him as he dug his hands into the soil, ran his fingers the length of an olive leaf, or tested the weight of a rock in his hand. Throwing one rock as far as he could, he launched another and another as he realized somewhere down in the receding waters were bodies of men he’d known and animals he’d hunted. Noah could feel the eyes of his living wife, his sons, his sons’ wives, his grandchildren as he launched each stone, and finally kneeling down for another, he instead set it alongside a boulder. He gathered stones, one for each dead man he knew, and finally he’d built an altar.

There are lots of reasons why I write stories and make paintings and play the piano, and almost all of them are because some impulse of response forces me into it. Creation becomes this thing that I must do in order to maintain sanity—equal and opposite reactions—the world comes into my senses, and I have to let something out in order to make room for it. Maybe Noah made the altar out of gratitude for his survival, or maybe it was a sculpture marking his sorrow. I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t throw rocks when he got off the ark. Maybe he went for a run.

I write and I run for the same reasons: 1. I like doing both things. 2. If I don’t do them, I get depressed or anxious or listless and sometimes I forget why. I wonder if I have to earn my right to have this body or this brain by using them. It seems backward to say I do things because not doing them is a worse alternative. Often the first few miles or sentences are excruciating, but once I get warmed up, it feels like I was made for them. It feels like I am more alive than I’ve ever been.

I tell stories about life when it deviates from the norm, and I have to share them with someone else. And sometimes I gather words together because I’ve read good stories that are not quite satisfying because they are someone else’s, so I need to relive them by writing my own. I do know that some of my best writing and art have come out of the most painful periods of my life when I’ve been either flooded by relational disasters or poverty or circumstances out of my control. And in those moments I write or paint little altars, giving thanks when I am done that pain is a thorough teacher.


Diana Huey studied Printmaking at Whitworth University where she wrestled with the desire to litter her art with text. When she began writing fiction, she wrestled with how to form visual art with words. As she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University, the tension between the two media became a driving force toward the act of creation–toward fleshing out the ether between her art and life and faith.

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5 thoughts on “Creativity Series: “Altars” by Diana Huey

  1. Diana, I’m really sorry I missed the local flood, or rather, your “wading in the water”–A wonderful essay.

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