A Piece of Chalk – G. K. Chesterton

This lovely meandering essay is really a good example of the style of reflection that both reflects the way the mind works, as well as shows us how formal the informal method of writing was in the 1800’s. After going on a nice walk in the Sussex countryside with him, I think we decided that he was either funny and odd, or super bizarre and you wished your time with him was long gone. But, even though Chesterton (1874-1936) was an odd duck, his reflections were worth note. Both this and Dillard’s essays encourage us to do one thing: observe. Though we are probably sick of being told to observe more (this is not really a cell phone issue with me, but a seeing issue) it is something that we need to constantly be reminded to do though we become complacent.

I remember when I was deployed to the Middle East. When we left the base we were on (whatever it happened to be) there was always a large sign on the way out. It had spray painted words and a skull drawn with various levels of skill and gore. The words were: Complacency Kills. If we did not observe, it had every chance of killing us because we may miss a roadside bomb or sunlight glinting off a sniper’s scope. The stakes are much lower for us here, but the implication is the same. If we do not observe what is around us, we run the risk of not living in the world we live in.

Chesterton prepares for his walk well. He grabs his chalk including the all-important white chalk, the losing of which becomes a distressing problem that allows us to explore his mind. Chesterton was a devout Catholic, but one that believes that the church didn’t need to be stuffy or snooty to accomplish its meaning. It’s important to realize that in his time, the institutions of the church were very focused on the act of church over the content of church. The meaning was often lost in the bowing and scraping of the liturgy. When he spends his time describing the power of the color white, not just the absence of color, but the essential meaning of all color, and most powerful of the bunch of colors in his mind, he seems to check himself.

We saw this deep into the short essay when he reflects on white reflecting that of Joan of Arc and the power of white within sexuality and the gorgiocity of white then when he seems to get too high and mighty brings himself down to our level once again so we are not lost. “Meanwhile I could not find my chalk.” Chesterton is playing with us and bringing us along on his walk, and into his mind. For better and worse, but it really is relatable since we often think in jumps and turns moving from something important to some other thing that is not important at all.

Ultimately the digression trying to find the missing chalk leads Chesterton to the realization that what he really wanted was underneath him all along. If he would simply just look around him and notice what he was sitting on, he would not have had to discuss all the matters he spent the time doing. We could have just drawn the soul of the cow.

Considering the soul of the cow I am left with this: Plato wrote that there were essentially various forms of things, the form we see, and that which is its true form, the one we can only see if we think and consider. This is what we think of as the soul of the thing. It is the aspect we can only imagine and consider rather than know.

When we write, we attempt to get to the soul of the matter. For Chesterton, the soul of the countryside was a divide between the chalk at his feet and the slow meandering way we can experience it all if we only try. What is the soul of what you write about? What is the soul of where you live?

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