This Thing I'm Doing: Putting Myself in the Way of Art
It's a heavy season in our country right now. We are struggling, friends, with an ugly presidential election, a scourge of racist police brutality, and a very virulent questioning of our national identity. The American Experiment is struggling within a crucible of (hopefully) growth, and its violent rhetoric and actions seep into our daily lives in large and small amounts. My family and I are lucky, so privileged, so blessed, that the incursion of this unrest into our lives is very small. And it is still exhausting. I am glad to participate in the struggle to come out on the right side of history, the right side of humanity, and, sometimes, I - and all of us - need a goddamn break.
Because of the ubiquity of information, of chatter, of exposure to constant online arguments, we must intentionally seek the rest that we need to renew ourselves and re-engage refreshed. I've attempted to intentionally disengage from ugliness by purposefully seeking beauty.
Cheryl Strayed frequently quotes her mother as reminding her that twice a day, at sunrise and sunset, Strayed could "put [her]self in the way of beauty." It was a reminder that, regardless of how terrible circumstances may become, there is always beauty in the world, and that we just have to seek it to soothe and uplift ourselves. Like her mother before her, Strayed finds this beauty in nature. And so, during a long week this summer of being sick, housebound, and over-saturated with the pain of terrible news, I decided to put myself in the way of beauty to find some solace and some peace.
Still racked with coughs and sweating out a mild fever in the summer heat, I carted the Smartlings to a local nursery and loaded up on a cartoonishly abundant quantity of rowdy, raucous, and wild plants. We worked together* to clear our front yard of weeds and overgrown bushes, and then planted our bounty in the cleared ground. With sun, and water, care, and time, our flower garden grew into a lush border inside of which we spread blankets and books for quiet summertime reading among the flowers. It's gorgeous. It's a tonic. And it's not enough.
Nature is always going to be gorgeous, even as it is brutal. It is the way of nature to be so, regardless of us. It is us - we humans and our brutality - that are breaking my heart - our hearts. I love my flower garden, and I love its gorgeousness. But its beauty and our human ugliness are unrelated. It's like trying to cure a headache with a Band-aid. It's a useful tool but not the right one for the job.
I need a different kind of beauty to put myself in the way of. I need to remind myself of how beautiful humans can be, of what loveliness we can create even in the midst of the ugliness we invent. This is why I'm endeavoring to put myself in the way of human beauty - in the way of art.
So far, I've only managed to do this in small, at-home ways. I've been watching excellent movies at night after bedtime rather than forgettable, cheap, escapist TV. My Smartner and I just splurged on season tickets to the theater. Hot on the heels of our Patti Smith summer, the Smartlings and I have been seeking out and trying new music to explore.**
Now as our fall schedule solidifies into a comfortable routine, we're going to take our art-seeking on the road. This year we're becoming members of the Seattle Art Museum, a great time given their coming Jacob Lawrence*** and Yayoi Kusama exhibitions. This membership will allow us to casually go and experience great art in manageable and repeatable "sips" since we can always return, rather than the forced-march "gulps" we've previously done to get the most for our one-time admission money. It is reasonable to plan a morning at the museum while my kids are at school and a return in time to pick up my younger Smartling for lunch, and kid-length visits are so much more doable with a guaranteed return ticket for future perusals.
We here in Seattle are lucky, too, to have an excellent free art museum, the Frye, to enjoy, too. And a recent article in our free quarterly arts magazine, Seattle Arts and Performance, whose excellent title asks the question "Why Are You Ignoring Art Galleries? Art Galleries Love You. Yes, You. No, Really" has inspired me to seek out local galleries. I plan on taking the daughters out on gallery excursions with me, too. It seems that an empty gallery might be even more kid-friendly than a more crowded museum, as my loud, inquisitive chatterboxes will require fewer reminders to use their non-existent inside voices.
Will putting myself and my kids' selves in the way of art solve the problems plaguing our country and all of humanity? No. But it can heal us for the moment so that we can better tackle the struggles ahead of us. And it can nourish our empathy and encourage us to be more compassionate to all people, both known friends and perceived foes. And it can remind us of how beautiful we humans can be, what beauty we can create, and what value there is in working to create a world in which we can all realize our own most beautiful potential.
*You all know this is a lie, right? They sat in the shade on the porch and chattered at me while I sweated, dirt-covered and coughing into my gardening gloves.
**Smartling-the-elder has discovered that she loves liner notes. She often requests that I look up or find lyrics so that she can read and sing along while listening.
***One of our favorite board books from both girls' babyhoods is Jacob Lawrence In the City. I'm so excited for them to see his work in person.