I have been thinking a lot about scale. Mostly thanks to John D’Agata’s About A Mountain (which utilizes scale in terms of size, space and story), but also for more personal reasons.
But first, D’Agata, who writes of the spectacle that is Las Vegas, and more specifically, the spectacle that is our country’s half-baked effort at disposing of nuclear waste. I’m speaking of Yucca Mountain (D’Agata’s mountain in question), as well as the Department of Energy’s initial decision to store 77,000 tons of radioactive waste inside the mountain’s bowels. As D’Agata argues, it seems a dangerously simplistic solution to a complex problem: bury what you cannot fix. Out of sight, out of mind, in a mountain.
But D’Agata writes of more than a mountain, and more than the specter of nuclear waste. He writes also of the Stratosphere Tower (our country’s tallest freestanding tower), as well as Las Vegas’s overwrought parades and oversized birthday cakes—both of which point to the boisterousness of the city. But for me, the takeaway beyond the mountain’s mayhem and the city’s glitz was the idea of scale itself.
The idea (one which D’Agata dismisses) is that big things last forever. (I refer you to Shelley’s “Ozymandias”). Because, of course, big things do not last forever. No matter how well we reinforce reinforced steel, we can never escape the rust. Everything—big and small—is always at risk, though the risks vary. Ask Goliath, he’ll tell you: it’s not the size of the rock in the sling, but the aim of the guy who slings it.
Which brings me back to the personal reason why I’ve been thinking about scale: because today we had our ultrasound. When M. and I walked into the hospital, I thought not of big things, but of small ones, and in particular, the special vulnerability that comes with being small. Of course, I had no control of what that ultrasound might reveal, and yet that hardly kept me from slipping into the bathroom in the moments prior, of pressing my hands to the countertop and staring into the mirror to whisper my amateurish prayer. Two and a half years prior, I’d performed the same ritual for H.’s ultrasound, and as I returned to that mirror, that countertop, I found myself thinking of scale differently. I was no longer thinking in terms of physical size, but emotional weight. I began thinking of scale in terms of perspective. Which is, of course, a primary reason for bothering with scale at all. What is scale but a means to help us fathom the unfathomable? A tool to assist us in wrapping our heads around something beyond our understanding.
Throughout the road trips of my youth, I’d sit in the backseat, stare at the atlas, and wonder: How did we fit the entire country into these pages? How did we take such a big thing and make it small? The maps’ scale helped me sort out my bafflement, but just as I began to understand that an inch could represent a hundred miles, I started to wonder if it might work in the reverse as well; if perhaps we might make a small thing big?
Now I know you can. That is, assuming the bigger body intuits how to build a smaller one. And the prayer whispered in a hospital mirror doesn’t get lost in the mail.
The odd thing about that prayer is that it wasn’t the only prayer I prayed that day. In fact, just an hour or so after the ultrasound, I found myself praying again--or being prayed to--while waiting my turn to speak at a Catholic middle school’s career day. As I skimmed over a few of my notes, a pair of students’ voices hovered across the PA, asking us to rise in prayer.
I admit, Friend, that I’ve never before been asked to rise in prayer. I’ve been asked to kneel, of course, but never to stand. I was alone in the room—no witness to rat me out—and yet I did stand, and then, out of habit, rather comically put my hand over my heart as if reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Though, truth be told, I suppose I did make a kind of pledge in that moment. Or a bargain, at least. Blasphemous as it might be, in exchange for a favorable ultrasound, I was ready and willing to pledge allegiance to any god who might parlay my prayer into a promise. Would have sacrificed any lamb upon any alter. For me, it wasn’t even a matter of faith, but a matter of scale: I could still fathom life, but a life without life seemed unfathomable.
All right, I’ll spare you any more melodrama. (After all, this letter was supposed to be about D'Agata's book, remember?) In any case, feel free to shoot me some melodrama sometime soon so we can balance out the universe a bit.
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B.J. Hollars is a writer and a teacher.