I had an especially peculiar seventh grade Social Studies class. On many occasions, my (single) teacher would wander off with another section’s (married) teacher in objectively suspicious circumstances (involving exaggerated body language and eye contact)–even to eleven and twelve year-olds.
The two of them would leave all of us behind in the classroom with a bizarre assortment of unconnected tasks to occupy our time: mimeographed sheets to be filled in, based on appalling films of igloo-building and seal-skinning; completely unrelated mapping exercises; and the infamous group projects.
One of these was to assemble in gangs of six and decide whether, with a nuclear holocaust coming and only a few safe slots to fill, our group could agree on whose survival was most important.
We were given nuance-bereft categories from which to sort the dispensable from the valuable and allocate our golden tickets. Doctor? Lawyer? Scientist? Teacher? Chef? Philosopher? Musician? Historian? Writer? Artist? Dancer? (It was assumed that no one multi-tasked or possessed more than one skill, although perhaps whoever designed this exercise didn’t even give it that much thought.)
Even then, I animatedly argued. Because I could.
I began with what I considered (and still consider) the obvious choices. Then I very deliberately persuaded my group members to discard them, one by one, and trade out the wisely chosen for what I considered increasingly dumb–approaching asinine–picks.
I couldn’t believe they were going along with this. Seriously, people, you’re letting me talk you into trading the only trained physician left on Earth for an artist who could well be on the verge of madness from licking lead paint-tipped brushes into tiny points?
Showing glimmers of a prosecutor-to-be, I probably could have persuaded my group to give up the doctor for a circus clown.
Of course I thought Plan A would be to preserve a vast body of useful, concrete knowledge and logic. (Personally, a mathematician would have been one of my first-draft picks if available.)
As much as I regretted tossing the hypothetical artists and musicians and writers overboard (some of my family and best friends fall into one or more of those categories), I would have done it in a heartbeat because I viewed their skills as so personal, so non-transferrable, so other-worldly–so unessential to societal survival itself, our given goal.
And, to be fair, I was a kid.
Then as now, arts have been strictly sidelines, while providing a strange and unique solace when nothing else could. My children all play a variety of instruments. They paint and draw and take gorgeous photographs. They write in their varied voices.
I sewed quilts by my husband’s side as he slept in hospital beds. I interpreted his last wish to do something for our beloved Doctor Bob as translating some of their memories together into a seascape. And I write this blog as a form of therapy.
But in the darkest days I have abandoned not every person, but every thing, even art. At times this is grief’s kedge: after an overwhelming loss, what’s the point? What’s the point of reading books, of heading out to work, of balancing the checkbook, of shopping for food or eating, of unpacking boxes, of looking at or creating or collecting beautiful things?
As with so many things, perhaps only in its stark absence could I begin to fully appreciate art’s beauty and worth.
This morning my friend Elizabeth shared a Kurt Vonnegut letter to high school students:
“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”
“Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives.”
Something enduringly precious is grasped by those, Donna Tartt wrote in The Goldfinch, who have loved “beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”
Feeding a soul–which I now know endures everything–can never be beside the point.