Smooth StonesAli Dipp (BFA Painting 2022)
A collection of words for the smoothest stones I have met along the road so far. Written by a pitiable rock.
The following blurbs comprise a rosary.
Beads in a strand spoken out loud as an ode. A prayer for something not yet touched but
forevermore in reach. A smooth stone, as banal as it sounds, is as rare as gold. Sure, rocks abound, but sometimes it is just a fool’s gold glimmer. For a rock to become a stone, you have to parse it for many miles. Walk with it in your shoe until it whittles down into a less cantankerous rock. It implores us to see a ground, corroded, absolving into a flat resolute. Turning this rock into a stone requires great friction and some fiction. So long must this rubbing sustain that most people surrender their pursuit of stones. Settling on a rock—an easy surrender. Alas, how many licks does it take to reach the middle of a lollipop? An unknowable number, as of right now. How long does it take to walk with a rock until it becomes a stone? That’s only for the mature to know. And I understand right well that I am as folly as I am a fool. Maybe there’s something redeeming in recognizing oneself as a fool, rather than humoring the idiot we all continue to be. Certainly, a fool. Hopefully, this fool can one day parse the path that rubs a rock into a stone. But this is a proposed hope, and as with most hopes, proves about as worthless as a dime-a-dreamed hope. Hope in abundance. But to get to this hope is where the story writes itself.
Many miles await before reaching the smoothest stone. While in search of this stone,
sometimes you come across those who already hold plenty of them. Though you can see the stones, it doesn’t mean that hands unmarred can hold those smooth pebbles. Those who consecrate stones wax rocks for such a time—they are bound to become a bit wiser. Maybe, in turn, a bit quieter. The virtues of smooth things can’t be understood or appreciated by the loud-talking, all-knowing, god-imitating bombastic audacity of a rock. For the rock, blind arrogance sings a sonorous song, so loud it deafens its own ears from hearing whispers. Any rock can sing, but few find virtue in listening. Stones, on the other hand, declare lessons softly. Their whispers transpire in the hush of smooth silence.
Surely, attending to hope, one day the rocks I carry will graduate into stones. Not today. Not yet. Maybe to come. But until then, my trifling ways can’t bear light on a quarry’s deep alchemy, much less certify how many miles of rubbing it takes to sculpt a stone.
1. “You’ll know one day what a stone feels like.”
“What if I can’t touch it?”
“Never said you had to,” the driver said.
Driving over Concordia, tombs sat long forsaken. A host of many unremarked tombs. She held her breath every time they glided the slope of the overpass. As they drove on the curved concrete path, the dirt territory whistled past. The windows of the car amplified the slicing air. In July, no flag swayed—the air stood still unless a body in motion ran through it. The car windows hummed as they sliced the thick air. A car held a chopping noise as its passage blurred minutes into movement. After so many miles of its persistence, the noise colored itself white. Before she had a word for clear, she decreed the color of glass as “white.” Only later did she find a way to articulate “transparency.” The white noise brought movement, a transparent glide, into articulation. And while it remained a hum so persistent it could be ignored after a while, the white noise brought awareness to the fleeting trespass.
For thirty seconds, she held her breath as the overpass arched over the extent of Concordia Cemetery. The living had a lot of gall to breathe when driving past the dead. With a reverence lingering from catechism days, she didn’t dare transgress when they traversed over the plots. But even after they ventured past the cemetery, the rest of the car ride proved an exercise in holding breath. They passed on, quiet with a stillness belonging to death. The entire conversation held itself stilted on perilous quiet. Never said you had to. Her mom always found a way to sneak a prophecy to her daughter. A prophecy between and separating generations. Years between generations remained transparent, as if to be nearly invisible. But whenever her mom talked about what she, the passenger, “would come to know,” her mother’s maturity articulated itself in a thick white. A beaming awareness that a young person still didn’t know, but would grow to know one day. The “would” blared as a deficit, making the daughter aware of her insufficiency. Her greenness peaking.
Never said you had to. Those were the last words they spoke for the remaining twenty minutes. They kept quiet, as taut as tension holds. Synonyms for quiet come in the form of “peace” and all that cliché butter. This silence was not of sanctuary, but a lacerated burn. No butter to coax cracked skin. Young people never appreciate a wise slap.
The young passenger resisted against the truths of age. Yet the 1995 brown-gold Suburban couldn’t pass through distance without the sound of movement. The exterior of the car grated against wind, saw the wind for what it was, accepted its noise. The car had to compromise if it was to move and couldn’t shush the white noise. White noise as it seeped, penetrating the car’s encasement. Noise made the metal of the car seem more like cardboard than impenetrable steel. In the white noise hum, every mile hauled in horsepower. While in transit, the Suburban’s efficacy nevertheless wheezed with every mile, on the cusp of death, close to exhaustion, trudging along the Styx. Even the freeway, truncating the time it took to breach miles, couldn’t be too smooth. The white noise from a scarred road resonated ceaselessly. A road with so many snakes tarred in the cement. All the cracks mended with the stringy wires of black asphalt. Bandaging the wounds. No silence would come; even if the road was as smooth as it could be.
2. The other appeared peevishly uncomfortable. Was it that the words misplaced something? Distorting? Fetching? Too far fetching? (Also, to what distance does ‘far’ allude? A quantity? In miles? Oh, all this speculation could kill the most curious cat.) The words contorted obtusely. Meaning wacked out like the hereditary line of bad backs on her father’s side. Obtuse like a damned tostada wedged in the esophagus threatening death. Until the tostada breaks with enough saliva after a minute of holding still, life holds in question. No way to round such perplexing angles. Words impervious, impressing themselves without keys or a forging tunnel.
Words sitting blankly after being heard. It was then that a simple truth revealed itself: a language that doesn’t speak has no power—a smooth epiphany amidst a towering Babel. Babbling and rambling on, you might just refrain from hearing the small statement that “a language that doesn’t speak has no power.” An aphorism that slides through undigested like lentils (obtuse statements tend to whip past unmarred, untouched). She said it again in her mind to remember, but the words already presented their worthlessness. So again, she reminded herself, “a language that doesn’t speak has no power.” A simple sentence acknowledged by a person whose tongue splits splayed. A broken tongue. A polyglot speaking without transmittable meaning. All the words in the world amounted to little value. Only meaning can give penniless tokens the weight of gravity.
In this crossroads of many languages, she had to come to terms with a line. A line. What a direct and concise entity. Novel, to say the least. Her language long diverted from lines—perhaps statements were too declarative. Ambivalence allowed the roamer to drift. But a smooth line abhors mud and doesn’t condone slippery sand. Therefore, how could the person rolling around in the dirt ever accept declarations so clean and very clear? After all, a line, leaden in dividing open space, cuts through thick cream. Cutting as a knife, pronouncing itself with certainty. For the ambivalent—the edge glider, tilter, cosmic tight-rope flirt—altogether unfamiliar with two sides of a line, found smoothness a stranger.
3. The sun spread itself over the scene like water falling during spring. No water in the dead of this afternoon. The white light glistened generously. And the old man and a young girl spoke on grounded terms.
“I didn’t leave them. They left me.”
They moved on, transgressing. And he lived to speak the tale; him, a stranger estranged. The blatant honesty reflected, and she heard it for what it was. Starched with the truth of something simple. Simple not by default, but instead arrived at after a long embroilment. She had been picking the grass from his well-kept lawn during this entire conversation. A grave travesty. Especially ironic and extra grave because he was hosting the funeral reception. But how could she stop compulsively breaking the stringy greens? Prying the blades so they snapped. She consumed herself with the blades, rubber stiffening once estranged from the ground.
“Not meaning to demolish your yard.”
He chuckled without opening his mouth. This resembled and registered as laughter. The noise heaved under his breath, a muffled acceptance. Hopefully, it was laughter. But the noise had many possible reads. They kept the silence for a minute. She continued picking the grass, inconsequentially.
“You know, Ali.” He always said her name with a long “A.” Most of the time this made the name sound more pompous than necessary. But in this case, she didn’t mind the long “A.”
His phonetics carried decades of living in Houston. The Texan diction stilted the “A” into a humble penchant, courtesy of sweet Southern tea (“T:s) and the specks above eyes (“I”s). “I don’t expect to roll over the stone this time.”
Despite being his mother’s funeral, this was the first time he referred to death. Before then, he had buried the whole ordeal of the occasion. This marked the first time he even mentioned the death at play. She refrained from picking the grass and faced him, accepted, fully, a friend far exceeding her years. He sat unmoved, poker-cold, stone-faced, reconciling mortality as a permanent line. The rock concealing the grave of his mother, alive for one hundred years. She rested, embossed in, rather into, sleep. One hundred years was a good number. A hard number to reach. She didn’t say this to him. A lifetime is the largest metric a human knows. But even this feat, a life of one hundred rolling years, seemed a small fact. Not a large question.
4. Dead of the afternoon. Between light and the surface it emboldened, a benighted middle lived. Preserving night in the hottest hour, night right there in the dead of the day. She didn’t know where precisely he looked or what he saw. She didn’t care to anticipate or ponder such unassailable questions of the world. All she knew was that they could share that backyard together, while at very different places in the world. The mind flew faster than dreams at times. Yet as vast as that sounds, she didn’t have the curiosity to marvel at this aloneness—a solitude shared. She didn’t care to humor this situation. It was there, in the dead of the afternoon, where the world didn’t lead a life of profundity. Time didn’t dare glisten in the unbrilliant light. For a resting while, they sat amongst each other. Not a stone turned. They didn’t care if all stones remained unturned. Certainly, if they paused still enough and for such a length, they too might feel the way that the earth turned.
Twelve years ago, when she was eight, the phenomenon of this turning earth first presented itself in her second-grade class. The entire class feigned the ability to feel the world shifting under their feet, catalyzing classmates to spin vertiginously across the room. All tempered civility running amuck at the mere fact that the earth was and had been turning all this time beneath their feet. A second-grade teacher beholds such folly when presenting the basic principles of the universe. A fiction sure enough, so certain it becomes a truth. And when spoken loudly to a group, the fiction becomes the making of myth.
But there was no fiction here in the dense light. Bleak it sat across the scene. The old man and the girl sitting on the cinderblock edge of his backyard. A spring day where the world still turned, turned still, still turning, the same way a diaphragm undulates and clay pigeons sing through the air, cutting with a line of voice. But they sat, unmoving, thinking about the stagnancy of actions. “Stagnancy” and “action” being two words that rarely go together. Moving stillness.
They dared not price the cost of fatality. What both ceased and existed after life resembled a coin that twirled until it sat flat on its head. It raged a river through their breathing world. He wondered the direction of currents. Where the river went as his mother succeeded into unknown territory. The land uninhabitable to those who breathe. Even the curious mortals couldn’t feign death. And perhaps for those between life and death, in this teetering “moving stillness,” there came an honesty. Any human in their hubris could lie to a god. Hell always presented itself as viable. But only one lie could see past the face of death. This “lie” came merely in the act of “lying down.” “Laying down,” on the other hand, spoke of birth. Perhaps his mom attested that in death came growth. To know her answer—fatality bears a cost. All the two people on the ground had was their unannounced twilight.
No stone turning, but the world still moving, even if all is still.
5. Before the old man bade farewell, a tease presented itself, tongue-in-cheek, as does most of the universe’s humor. While he didn’t say a word for five years, he was not silent. It is important that he was described as quiet. For, to know quiet, you must first know sound. A quiet implies how he settled, a retiring of sorts. Half dead and fully alive. Quiet as a ghost of itself, a carrier of its imitable character—the very voice that makes it speak.
Silence, thick in its independence, stands alone without a history. A freedom bereaved, quiet tells the story of what is no longer here. What was. Quiet never forgets the sound that mothered it.
Quiet, in this case, resolves mutely. He sat right in front of her on wrought-iron chairs, mint green, but not nearly as fresh as the flavor. It is a cunning fate who leaves a man without his emancipating voice. But alas, fate persists neutrally. No mortal can scorn a fate so far. Blame dwells on, not named to fate. With this unnamed blame, she refused to accept quiet as silence. If fate isn’t to blame for the carnage, maybe we must point at wavering clouds. But the person on the ground waves these hypotheticals away. Past and beyond. The old man at the end, without voice, a speechless peace—or rather, piece.
The most perfect stone perhaps drifts on for miles and miles. Objects at rest stay at rest, and to end this motion requires interruption. But what is there to interrupt when the silence had always been there? An orphan without history? Independent of its forerunners? The stone was always rolling. The stone just rolled and rolled on until it finally grew (or waned) into a little grain of sand. Standing sand as it sits. Balloons do the same when you them let go. As they go to a place inscrutable to the keenest of eyes. They float far to the sky itself. Removed, green balloons become but a white speck into the deep cream of a clear blue. In this twilight of his own life, he saw that he was indeed speechless. As the fear of God is not awe, but fear, as a person gets closer and closer to where the balloon disappeared. The speechless does indeed see where the balloon transcends sky. Faced with a god, the second that the sand grain turns into nothingness. All reveals itself as clear as the day brings. But he can’t tell anybody, as much like these other manifesting events, he has lost the very vehicle moving him. And this turning remains only for him, a collector of many precious stones.
6. Even when the stone finally becomes smooth, it doesn’t make holding it any easier. A procession, a mass marching across a mountain. Rolling until it twirls down the hill. A new day once more. Humoring those who live forever, this proposition exists eternally. A grating flaw, cemented into a great fate.
Sisyphus is by no means a god. Yet, while a god, his fate resounds eternally. This is what makes his ode a truly tragic tale. Hoping to reach the top of the mountain, an aspiration remains forevermore. A mere quest without end. He must believe in what betrays him every day. When one really believes in what they are doing, the way that a zealot adheres to religion, the capacity for tragedy broadens. Betraying days stack up. How many times does the rock have to cut the mountain? Will it ever reach a point where an abrasion opens to another side of the world? Sisyphus intends to reconcile all these questions. But he remains adrift, a query without question. For an answer is the stillest of deaths.
Someone cast into a fate with the word “forever” doesn’t see questions close into certainty. Unlike the air of gods, there is little levity. Stones are heavy in their weight. Going, going … gone? No, not gone, just arrived. And the furthest he stands from arrival, the most removed he is from the beginning of the day. But the sun comes up again, as seamless as the stitched line lacerating the mountain after the toil of bearing a rock. A rosary chant, over and through once more and again. This dance commanded by the sky to keep the ground busy burying its own hole. If the objective is to surpass the tip of the mountain, even closest to it and furthest away from arrival, there remain so many miles. Sometimes when you look outside, you can see the farthest. And in this vastness, you see the minute (regardless of the seconds' count)—beyond furthest and widest, you can see the least. And just as close as we are to rolling the rock up to the ultimatum, we are so very far forever, even when close. If it is true that Sisyphus can just appease his need to roll the rock, then perhaps we are freed from fate. But maybe Camus is just as he claims he is—absurd in too many ways past Sunday.
She, a person I try to be, a bearer of stones, she, a third person, estranged from here as of right now. She, an arrival in reach: incipience and promise. She, an implied future, yet inscribed in a tense already used, a past disclose. She understood no religion to be absurd. She only found it a folly of the fool she very well was. Seeing religion not in rebellion, instead of a pursuit of the implausible. “Implausible,” a sliver away from “impossible.” But the distance between these words makes all the difference. As if both words didn’t even need writing out, already stilted so loud. There’s no reason to feel stones for yourself. It might be easier to stop believing in what isn’t here (yet). There are a million reasons under the moon to stop wishing for rocks to matriculate into stones. Winding around and around, no stone quite round enough. A clicking clank, a chipping chirp. The knife dulling at each pass of a scrape.
“Could this be done forever?”
A question like that had enough fear to make a person dizzy, inebriated, as to drink a goblet full of fate.
“Forever” signified the worst of the words in a question.
“No.” An easy answer.
But what was the closest thing to forever? Maybe then?
Making metaphors and pursuing paradigms between theater, writing, and visual arts, Ali Dipp believes in bridges.