The Ballast of Beauty. This phrase skipped across my rabbit trail in a search for, I don't remember what, (but on a site for an organisation in Virginia called Coracle). Since I saw it, I can't forget it. Ballast. The weight of the word, a stone, a stability. The intentional collection of that which is real and concrete and dependable, and not just holding it but holding it in the heart, in the depth of being, so that it becomes a type of gravity in the storm. A counterbalance to all the world throws at us; a centring that keeps the course through a million trials. Picture a boat, a lake, a storm, and a man in the hold asleep who turns out to be the ultimate ballast, the cornerstone of creation. The person in whom the word of truth takes form, in whom beauty has been personified.
Yes, beauty. Because the attention, the intentional attention, to beauty is a kind of ballast. We live in a place that has known war, poverty, fatal epidemics, injustice, hunger. And yet. We live in a place where beauty surrounds us every day. This morning I watched a thrush preening feathery orange flanks on a branch heavy with avocados, melodically welcoming light. Bright gold weavers swoop from the palms; snow dusts the craggy Rwenzori peaks. Faces beautiful with experience and hope, fabrics beautiful with colour, hairstyles beautiful with intricacy. Music, light, food, community, trees, children rolling down the grassy embankment, paintings and photos. All that beauty makes a direct soul connection to something larger. Something expansive. Something real that challenges the discouraging bombardment of problems.
Everything's goin' to be alright, the beauty says.
And that is a ballast that does not remove us from the dark seas, but gives us a course through them.
Yesterday, after being called upon (surprise) to give a CME teaching and a Bible teaching for 40 hospital staff in our morning meeting, after working my way through a dozen-plus babies in NICU punching in numbers to calculate percentage weight gains and target feeds, after reviewing a death and finding the lab results on a baby whose brain damage I had thought was all from a tragic arm presentation and emergency took-too-long C section actually had a gram negative meningitis, just after I did a lumbar puncture on a similar very sick newborn . . . I walked into the Paediatric ward hoping to find that our new interns from the highest mortality country in Africa had been preparing for rounds. Instead I found chaos. Over the next few hours, it seemed like every minute another person was asking for attention, putting a chart in front of my face, interrupting one problem with another, and most of them deeply intractable and potentially fatal. Trying to extract a history of a mother who was in denial focusing on her seizing unconscious hypoxic child's issue as malaria because that's what another clinic told her, but when I turned his head to the side I saw a huge healing gash, and it turned out that two weeks ago someone had ?accidentally hit him with a hoe with great force TWO WEEKS ago and he'd been in trouble ever since. Then there were the twins whose grandmother's main concern was that especially one didn't produce enough stool so she was giving them enemas, but they were not pooping because they were starving. And on and on. Not trivial inconveniences, real brokenness.
Into all that, we need Beauty.
The world is broken, the world is beautiful. Both are true. No averaging, no cancelling, no explaining, but two grasps onto two parts of paradox.
Which brings us to Juneteenth. Until everyone's free, it's not really freedom. The USA just decided to recognise June 19th as a national Independence holiday, the day that a group of enslaved people in Galvaston, TX, finally got the good news that the emancipation proclamation applied to them. The final reach of the new legal reality, even though we are still on the path to liberty and justice for all. Those Americans, or their ancestors, reached the continent on ships from Africa. Not on the deck, but in the hold. Human ballast. I just read Barracoon, the publication of Zora Neale Hurston's anthropologic account interviewing Cudjo Lewis/Oluale Kossola, the last survivor of the last ship of African human cargo shipped from Benin to Alabama. Much can be said about this book, much is a punch in the gut and a wound in the heart, but what I was left with was the humanity. Hurston manages to paint a real person, in a complexly appealing and recognisable way. And his memories of his childhood in West Africa included some cultural rites of passage details that he told as great delights, and which were so similar to Bundibugyo that I nearly gasped out loud. The transcontinental weaving of story by the ocean passages, the suffering but also the survival. And not just survival, but admirable spirit, creativity, transcendence. Remarkable.
On our first national Juneteenth, let us remember with grief the unpardonable cramming of humans into ships as ballast for the purpose of profit. But let us also recognise the ballast was of inestimable non-monetary value as beauty that has kept America and the world afloat. Beauty seen in faith, in Gospel and jazz, in painting and dancing and poetry, in theology and science and speed and skill, in determination and laughter and courage in the face of death.
Maybe one day we'll have vaccinteenth. Because we're not done with COVID until everyone's done with COVID. Here in the land of <1% vaccine access, 18 months into the pandemic, the worst is yet to come. Uganda is seeing one of the highest rates of new infection in the world. Our president announced a school-closure limited-to-your-district lockdown less than 24 hours after we landed from Home Assignment; now 12 days later he tightened that down to the intense stay-at-home lockdown we had last year. No driving except cargo and essential medical. No gatherings. People are afraid. (Note, unlike last year, the airport is still open and vaccinated tourists are still welcome to move exclusively to tourist destinations in registered tourist vehicles and spend their tourist dollars). Freedom from enslavement and freedom from pandemics falls unevenly over the world, and once again Africans and their descendants get stuck waiting.
So as we navigate the latest storms, pray for the ballast of beauty to keep us on course, afloat, hopeful, alert.