Incongruent. It means incompatible, out of place, “not in harmony or keeping with the surroundings.” It is, strangely, one of my favorite words, despite the difficulty that my thick Southern tongue has in articulating all four of its syllables.
In the presence of incongruence, I sit up straight, stand at attention, widen my eyes. Confronted with a sight, a sound, a feeling that is out of place, my eyes widen, my ears perk up. I experience awareness, a sensitivity that makes me rethink my prejudices.
Incongruence is salt on watermelon, flowers growing through cracks in sidewalks, a female umpire.
One morning last week, incongruence met me on the dirt road.
It was early. The sun had not yet broken the horizon, but the sky was lightening. It was still mostly silver, but I could see the slightest blush, the slightest bruise just above the tops of the trees. Approaching the crossroads, I was struck by a sense of the ethereal, as though my heart had taken a breath. So, as we do these days, I took out my phone, hoping I could capture the evanescence through the windshield.
Just as I pressed the button, a pair of headlights appeared over the crest of the hill. The brightness of halogen pierced the mist through which morning was making its slow gambol and the bucolic scene I had hoped to capture was morphed into something different. Incongruence.
I took a quick look at the image saved in pixels. My first thought was of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” The painting and my photograph had in common a periphery of darkness and an off-center source of light, but other than that, there was no obvious reason why my image of early morning in the country would have reminded me of a painting of late night in the city.
My second thought was, like the eternal student I shall always be, to compare and contrast. How are they alike? How are they different? What evoked the memory of one from the experience of the other?
It took me days to figure it out. Days in which I kept imagining the headlights and the silver sky in the photograph, the empty streets and the lonely diners in the painting. Days before the word “incongruent” appeared unbidden in my thoughts and set me on an extended contemplation of the idea that beauty and purpose and meaning can exist only within the experience of the opposite.
Despite whining about the relatively mild winter that is just gone, I would not be able to luxuriate in the warmth of spring had I not shivered in the wind on the way to the mailbox. I had no idea how much I loved the farm until I’d left for college and was told I couldn’t come home for six weeks, six weeks in which I heard not a single low moan of a single cow. And that photograph? It would have become just another of the hundreds on the camera roll on my phone had those headlights not cut through the dawn.
I like consistency and predictability. I depend on dependability. I function best in a state of fulfilled expectations. But incongruence is what keeps me tender to beauty and receptive to the gift of change. And incongruence is one of my favorite words.