Every day at noon there is a performance. A daily action, the artist calls it. Every day since October she has come, bearing a small white box of 100 stones. Sometimes the stones have been donated by supporters, collected from railroad beds or beaches. Every day—every single day—at noon she places the stones, one at a time, onto a growing pile. It waits for her during all but the appointed hour, a lithic curiosity for passersby, and myriad things for those who have stopped to watch, who know its aim.
At least it is for me.
When she is there, a white piece of paper on the ground gives explanation: The performance is called “The Human Cost of War.” Each stone is a remembrance for an individual killed by war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Each stone is paused over and placed reverently. One hundred each day. She moves slowly, my observations suggest too slowly for the surrounding city. An audience that won’t be held captive.
So few pause for longer than a few seconds.
But to watch is to witness. I noticed first in January, the artist’s boots tracking a deep groove in the snow. Blizzards came and blanketed the stones. Then one spring morning a scene of destruction: the pile decimated during the night, stones scattered everywhere. I stopped abruptly and stared, anger welling, weighing whether I could take time to put it all right again. I didn’t, and by evening it was restored.
Another day a female police officer strode up and barely glanced at the paper before calling to the artist to stop. Someone quickly intervened and explained that the performance is hosted by the church that owns the grounds. On June 19th, the stones were placed amidst the chaos and euphoria of a parade celebrating the National Basketball Association Championship.
I go and I watch, maybe once every week or two. I marshal my thoughts on the reality of war, though workday stress often seizes my focus. It is difficult to slow down—mentally and physically—and match her pace. My mind wanders, my knee jiggles. I note the subtly changing placement of the noon sun, the angles of the shadows.
I wonder if her knees ache from the repeated kneeling, whether she counts out the stones the night before, and I marvel at the fact that she will continue through another series of seasons, for the performance will go until October 6, 2009. There will be over 70,000 stones by then if the site goes undisturbed. I watch long enough to regain control of my focus. I meditate on names and faces.
I think about Josh Ritter’s ‘girl in the war’ from the song by the same name. Could this be her? In the song, apostles Peter and Paul exchange viewpoints on a crisis. “But I got a girl in the war,” Peter insists in the chorus, seeming to reject some of Paul’s recommendations either out of principle or desperate grief.
But I got a girl in the war, Paul
The only thing I know to do
is turn up the music
and pray that she makes it through
A pile of stones grows beside a well-trod path, and the music gets louder for me. I sense myself ready to grab the dial and twist it up on some others. I look toward a November election and I bear witness, pondering the power of keeping present, of daily action, resolving to take more myself.
For starters, Scott and I made a video.