The Divine Octave

Several mornings of my recent retreat were spent on a wharf in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. I was drawn there for the spacious quiet, for the water, the horizon, the creak of the pilings and cries of the birds, and, honestly, the comfortable chairs close enough to the edge to prop up my short legs and with arms wide enough for a notebook. The sun was warm, the boat traffic local, the peace expansive… It was a satisfying perch. The pleasing “protractor gone mad” angles of the boats, their masts, and their rigging; the angles of the wharf itself, the size and bright colours of the chairs, the warmth in which I was steeping…it all served to both ground and free me. This was helped along by the book I was reading—Saudade by Anik See. So far, each one of these beautifully bound essays has reminded me of the smooth pocket-stones I carry with me. Weighty, present, solid, company. Each one has a story to go with it, each one has its place. Just as my hand is sometimes drawn to hold a particular one of the stones at a given moment, I selected a particular essay to read one of the mornings at the wharf. Little could I have known ahead of time the ache of beauty and aha and YES! that would tumble my heart like ocean water burnishing sea glass. 

The essay, “Squeezing a Spiral into a Square Hole,” has to do with proportion, design, what is organically pleasing, and the artistry of that.

The easiest way to picture the golden section in nature is to imagine the cross-section of a nautilus shell, growing outward neatly; beautifully in proportion to the previous later of spiral. It is this relationship that is ever appealing to us, wither in the form of the human body or in musical scales, or in the relationship of text to a page. Bringhurst’s discussion of the golden section is crucial to the understanding of design, and why certain things work and others don’t. In other words, if double-square books (i.e. books whose width-length proportion us 1:2) look good to you, it’s probably because the relationship of proportion is the same relationship as found between the notes of a simple octave: a primary ‘visual chord’ has been created, according to Bringhurst. Anik See, “Squeezing a Spiral into a Square Hole” Saudade, P. 67-8

A ‘primary visual chord!’ How I delight in the mixing of the senses there! And, how easy to translate that into primary flavour chords in cooking; primary rhythmic chords created through sentence structure; primary aural chords in line break choices when writing poetry…. Again and again, the call to pay attention. To be absolutely present and keenly aware of the effect desired, the effect achieved… yet, 
In choosing the proportions of type and spacing, as well as the proportions of the page, a harmony should be suggestive, not obvious. Anik See, “Squeezing a Spiral into a Square Hole” Saudade, P. 69

Again, so broadly applicable. I think there’s a reason limericks are only five lines long. They can be wonderful nuggets of humour and yet are also exceedingly obvious in rhythm and rhyme scheme. Milk and mashed potatoes harmonize obviously. Paprika and balsamic vinegar in right relationship—who’d have guessed?? Yet, beautiful flavour emerges from that dance.

The key…the struggle…the fun of the process…is the right relationship piece of artistic creation…
A good design will mix math and spontaneity, exactness and free-hand proportions, because the eye needs to be directed, but it also needs to have room to wander so it doesn’t feel manipulated or stuck. Anik See, “Squeezing a Spiral into a Square Hole,” Saudade, P. 69

So too the ear, the tastebuds…and it occurred to me out there on the wharf…so too the heart, the Spirit…And Glory, doesn’t God provide for that…the golden section that is the spiralling out of life, of gift, of experience, wonder, awe, challenge, Love, pain, suffering, discovery, revelation, giving, receiving, dying, rising…. And sometimes we need to find ourselves somewhere other than where we usually are to notice, to take that in…to again tune our senses to the divine octave at play in creation.

This came to me just before I put the bookmark in, packed my bag, rose from the bright green chair on the wharf and noticed that there was a jellyfish in the water…. I can’t tell you for exactly how long I knelt there, captivated, watching it pulse, scrunch, move…pulse, scrunch, move…rest…rest…rest…pulse, scrunch, move… making music I could see and making it with calculation and grace alike…with no discernible direction and undeniable purpose.

The precision has to slip away so that what matters most is the text or image on the page. It is exactly like jazz. It bops and squeals and roils and you play or listen and beam, but you never, ever, ask how it’s done. That knowledge—that part of the process is long past and you are entirely satisfied just being there to put your fingers on it, to listen, or look, or read: to appreciate it. Anik See, “Squeezing a Spiral into a Square Hole” Saudade, P. 71-2

And I thought about the Psalmist who wrote of the Inescapable God… What I know is that you made me, you are with me, you encircle me, no matter where, no matter what, you Are…the holy and mysterious golden proportion of Love…and that knowledge is beautiful and just a bit overwhelming. And I am grateful.

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