To you all,
One of my most treasured possessions is a book of photographs by the American photographer, Lee Friedlander. If my house were burning down and I could save just one possession, I think it would be this book. (Or perhaps my Panasonic RC 80 alarm clock/radio from 1980 – still going strong.)
Unlike most books of photographs, Letters from the People is to be read rather than looked at. The book begins with photographs of letters of the alphabet, from A to Z, which Friedlander has come across on his travels around the US. Letters from road signs, adverts, shop window displays, chalked-up menus, painted on subway walls, or scratched into paintwork. Letters in spray paint, in neon, chiselled into marble, in moulded metal.
Gradually, as you ‘read’ on, the letters and numbers combine to form words: CA$H, STEAM, SIN, JESUS. (There’s a double page of JESUSes.) And these single words, in turn, start to form more complex sentences – political slogans, advertisements, prohibitions, invitations.
And finally, amidst all the jumble and the muddle, there emerge some very personal messages, sometimes quite… primal, shall I say; sometimes poignant, quietly tragic. I find this book almost impossibly moving.
Towards the end, there’s a photograph of a city. Round the edge of a shadow-bisected wall, you can see a busy parking lot, a grim tower block, a merciless summer sky. And written in quite neat, small letters on the wall is the line:
Ring it a 100 times if necessary
I feel there’s something indescribably lonely and desperate in that instruction. Don’t give up. Please.
The final photograph in the book is again of a city. Skyscrapers in the distance – slightly out of focus, along a shoreline. A river full of tug boats and ferries and barges. And in the foreground, written on a cement barrier or retaining wall:
Everyday I calls a phone to her
Every night I dreams for her
Why does it make me weep? Like many of you, I’ve spent countless hours the last few weeks in front of a computer screen, waving and smiling to postage stamp-sized faces of parishioners, friends and family. And although we can see each other, we know we’re not really looking at each other; we remain looking at a screen throughout. The digital bridge on which we meet (Zoom or Skype or Facetime or whatever) only serves to emphasise the gulf between us.
Despite all that separates us at the moment, when we meet online we are trying to do the most human thing of all – to communicate. Lee Friedlander’s book is a hymn to that human need to communicate, sometimes in the face of heartbreak and loss and separation. Especially in those circumstances. One of my parishioners has been anxiously trying to find a way to get a phone charger to her husband in hospital – not easy these days – just so they can text each other.
Everyday I calls a phone to her
Every night I dreams for her
The letters in Friedlander’s book – even the single, isolated letters of the alphabet – are somehow infused with this ‘reaching out’ quality, this anxious desire. All our speech, all our writing, the very fact of language itself is full of yearninig. I LOVE AND MISS TONY 04 MARCH 1976
Whatever the medium, digital or physical, Facebook or spray paint on a wall, the aim is to communicate a message, to hear and be heard. This, as I said above, is a core human need. But what if it’s more than that? What if the need to communicate is coded into the cosmos itself?
The heavens are telling the glory of God;Psalm 19:1-4
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
There is no speech, there are no words; and yet a voice goes out through all the earth, words to the end of the world. The universe itself is a pouring forth, a ‘telling’ The cosmos is a story. And it is told – everything is told – in a Word:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.John 1:1-5
That’s 58 words. The whole of creation. In one Word.
Right at the beginning of one of contemporary cinema’s masterpieces, Under the Skin directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson, we hear – over a series of abstract images – muttered syllables, repeated vowel sounds and consonant clusters, the sound of language emerging. The phonemes evolve into gabble, then into recognisable words in the same way the letters in Friedlander’s book come slowly to form words. It’s a creation story. In the beginning…
In Glazer’s film, a predatory alien learns how to use language in order to lure human prey to an unpleasant fate. While the heartless alien is able to use language, it doesn’t have language. Over the course of the film, the alien – like Captain Smith in the Pocahontas stories – becomes less alien, and more human. Ultimately, for the alien, it’s a case of learnng how to inhabit a language, to share it, not just to use it: the language of us. The language is us.
Whether or not we can speak a language or write one is not my point; we are language. We are – from start to finish – being told, we are being spoken. Our names on the breath of God.
I am the Alpha and Omega.Revelation 21:6
The following song opens with a clattering typewriter – not a sound you hear very often any more. Tom Tom Club’s Wordy Rappinghood from 1981 (same vintage as my alarm clock/radio, and just as loved) is a brilliantly literate, witty song about words. ‘What are words worth?’ But it’s more than that. Part instruction manual, part nursery rhyme, part game, it plays with language even as it describes it. It is its own subject. That’s human. Joyous.
open our ears to the Word speaking
at the heart of all things:
in the majesty of creation
and in the minutiae of our lives:
one still, small voice;
so even when we’re apart,
we are all one in the Word,
your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
Lord, just say the Word,
and we shall be healed.