Serpentine 9/11/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Today on my social media page, I read an interesting article about “crinckle crankle” walls in England, sometimes also known as serpentine walls. I prefer the name “serpentine” as they remind me of a serpent. These short brick walls wave along their path in a sinusoidal like design, like waves on the surface of calm water.

Apparently, they build in this design to save bricks, making these walls less expensive than straight. No, this isn’t like an Einstein kind of concept, who proved that space is actually curved and, as such, for long distances the shortest distance is a curve rather than a straight line. In this case it’s a simple reality that brick walls are rather brittle and not as strong as you might think. These walls, maybe three or so feet high, usually are a couple of layers thick to prevent them from being knocked over prematurely as opposed to decorative wood or steel fences that have flexibility to add to their strength.

This sinusoidal shape reminds me, if you look at a small portion of it, of a series of triangles that are so common in construction. When you look at a construction with an open truss, like a bridge, or the wood frame in a barn raising, it’s easy to see that the steel or wood beams are not parallel or square, but rather are set up to create triangle designs, usually equilateral triangles specifically. This is not aesthetic, but rather, are created in this manner for the strength. If you think about one side as the base, then the other two sides basically push against and support each other. In a square, the angles are such that the beams are standing straight up and therefore are not supporting each other; only the brackets holding the structure together is keeping it from collapsing.

A serpentine structure is smoother as it waves to and fro, elegantly and gracefully like a snake winding its way along sand. Yet, if you overlay equilateral triangles over the sinusoidal waves, you see the similarity. The sides are equal, self-supporting, giving each other strength. Push on one side and the opposing side pushes back and the same strength is found.

As a Mason, we like to find analogies in the art of working masons for guidance and lessons in life. Here we have a structure rich in such analogies some of which I will try to unwind. In the Masons, for example, triangles appear regularly. It teaches the importance of balance in our lives, breaking up the day into three eight-hour segments, one dedicated to work, one to family and one to rest. These segments all support one another, and when they are out of balance, we are weakened. Lack of sleep and we lose the ability to focus. Too much work and our family suffers. Each side holds up and supports the others. If you add too much to your plate, the triangle becomes a square and weakens. Too many understand this as recent studies have demonstrated that Americans typically fail to get sufficient sleep as we tend to work too hard, making our psychological and family health suffer.

We are complete beings, with three critical aspects of our lives: mind, body, spirit. Like our days, each supports the other. These are out of order for me, as they are for most of us. As a chemistry professor, I’m constantly sharpening my mind in intellectual pursuits. For me, that’s just a given. Unfortunately, I tend to neglect my body and spirit. I don’t get the exercise I should, which is unfortunate since I do enjoy many activities that would go far in this area, such as bicycling and hiking, for example. These same exercises would help me feel more connected to the world around me helping to feel more spiritual and connected to God. Because my life is out of balance in this triad, my brain produces insufficient dopamine which is the cause of my depression. Exercise and connectivity would go far in restoring this balance, but unfortunately, I have to overcome my depression to start down this path which I find I cannot do alone.

But life is probably more like a sinusoidal wave than equilateral triangles. Life rarely comes at us in sharp angles, but it ebbs and flows more like a serpentine wall. The Tao te Ching discusses how good times and bad flow into each other, like being on the rim of a wagon wheel. One moment up, the next down. The wise man recognizes that good times won’t last forever, and that the bad will come to an end, and yet, in a strange way, they reinforce each other. I’ve been down for a long time, but things are looking up. I’ll come out of this dark period stronger, wiser and very much a different man than I was when I entered it.

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