Ex Nihilo

“No chaos, damn it! There is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end,” says the man bent toward the raw canvas, stretched and nailed to his studio floor. A critic once described Jackson Pollock’s work as “chaos, absolute lack of harmony, complete lack of structural organization, total absence of technique, however rudimentary. Once again, chaos.”

But you have watched the recordings of his work. He waves his right arm, down, side to side, his body sways, dipping a paint stirrer into an aluminum can of paint that he holds in his left hand, his thumb sticky from gripping the inside of the can. His lips hold a cigarette in his mouth. He steps left, right, forward; his legs stretch and his head bows. His wrist snaps and the paint falls in long ribbons, dribbling from the stirrer in his hand onto the canvas beneath his feet. He seems to dance across the canvas, light-footed as he moves, perhaps performing a more ancient act than he knows.

He says, “Because a painting has a life of its own, I try to let it live.” You agree: this is not chaos; this is animation, pattern, meaning.


The larvae emerges, a wiggling mess, from the mass of eggs on the ocean floor. You wonder, does it see the gradation of light above or feel the swooshing of water and sand against its flesh? Slow, so slow, it begins, sucking water and minerals through its tube mouth and then secreting the proteins to create its home. The calcium deposits around the worm’s body, coiling, creating spirals as it hardens, iridescent, ever growing as the worm matures, until the day when the shell, voluptuous and strong, is discarded, to be washed by the ocean until it reaches a shore, the very beach where you, at this moment, walk without shoes, studying the sand until you see and you bend and you hold this shell in your hand, wondering at its design.


So, too, a connection, an ejection, a journey, a union creates a beginning, not yet conscious but pulsing and breathing and changing, as life is apt to do. Tissues multiply as the cascading and lengthening strands of DNA take shape. His eye color is already set: blue. An organ grows inside you, ex nihilo, “out of nothing”; an organ bumps violently, 150 beats per minute, a functioning heart for a mass of protein the size of a sesame seed. Buds emerge and expand into eyes, a nose, arms, legs.

By week 10, hands, fingers, fingernails. And then, at 11 weeks, air traps in his throat, and he hiccups. By the 14th week, he can grimace and smile and suck his thumb, curled in his mouth. His cord twirls at his belly. And then you feel a flutter from the inside, and then a rapping, and later, a punch to the bladder. At 19 weeks, he hears you sing and jumps at the rumble of the trash truck’s arrival at your house. Then, he could, if he wanted to, appreciate a bite of strawberry, a twinge of lemon. You could brush his brown hair, if you could get at it. And he loves to feel you dance. At 27 weeks, he cracks open his eyes, and at 28, he can dream.

At last, when this squirming, incubating human opts to meet you, finally, after all the praying and grumbling and pacing, when the squeezing of your uterus pushes your child down and out your opening, and you reach to feel the arrival: first, you can only finger the tip of a scalp. It moves forward and then hair, ears, eyebrows, a nose, and those squishy lips, as you groan, pant, crane, release until that wail makes you cry with relief: “My baby!” His life begins in your arms: this is not chaos, damn it, this is life.


This essay was originally published by Mama Liberada, in their fourth volume (Spring 2016).

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About Liz Grant

Published author. Married to an artist. Two kids. Lives in a brick house in Denver, Colorado. Follower of Jesus. Find me on Instagram @elizcharlottegrant.

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