Encounter: Your Art, My Self

“Art, at its most potent, springs from the artist’s longing to bridge her private truth with the truth of the universe and transmute it into a public form that beckons forth the private truth of the viewer.”   — Maria Popova, Brainpickings

I trudged in the front door and dropped the two heavy bags I carry back and forth to work every day. I dragged myself up the stairs, where I changed out of my sweaty workout clothes into comfy fleece from head to toe. Downstairs once again, I put a serving of homemade soup in the microwave to warm up and turned on my computer.

It was just after 8:00 p.m. when the microwave dinged, letting me know my soup was ready. I sat at the table, dog-tired, eating soup and browsing through social media trying to decide whether I would do any of the things on my evening to-do list or give up and go to bed.

That’s when I came upon my friend C’s post announcing that she was about to do a radio show. At first, I assumed the show had something to do with her job, which was a fair assumption given C’s occupation. However, I soon realized the topic was poetry – not her line of work. I clicked on the link and started listening to the live community radio feed.

The show just coming to an end involved a woman reading a book, stopping to compare the current edition with the previous edition of the same volume. I wasn’t really listening, as I quickly made a cup of hot tea. I then ensconced myself on a chair with my feet up, a blanket over me, and a heating pad warming my back – I was in serious comfort mode and ready for some poetry. I didn’t know if my friend would be sharing her favorite poems by other poets, or whether C. would read some of her own poems. Either way, I expected it to be worth listening: many years ago, when we first met in graduate school, poetry was one of the things C. and I had bonded over.

The show began with the usual chit-chatty introductions. C.’s daughter, a senior in high school, was also in the studio and said hello. It was very sweet and a little awkward, the way on-air “spontenaiety” often comes across. And then C. began reading her first poem.

Suddenly, I was transported to a farm outside Kalona, Iowa: the fields and timber, a weathered old man, bees buzzing in and out of the story of a life – of a death – sweetened with a little wild honey.

The second poem had harder edges, but a softer core.  At its surfaces were a father, a husband, a doctor – their words, their actions, their betrayals. Inside, the pain and self-doubts and aching loneliness of surviving it all, unsure of anything other than that life goes on – and that is enough, somehow.

C.’s voice, as she read, was unwavering. Clear and strong. Her life experiences, lined up and revealed to anyone who happened to be listening, rolled from her tongue with just the right cadence and inflection. I don’t know how she did it – only listening, I was a puddle of emotions.

It’s funny: art has the power to touch us in unexpected ways at the oddest moments. What it takes, I think, is a shared agreement between the artist and the viewer (or listener) to bring their own vulnerability to the interaction. C. chose powerful, emotionally risky, poems to share. I had to be willing to open myself to those emotions, to the commonality of our human experience, in order to be moved by them. This is why art, in all its forms, is so important. It teaches us how to have moments of shared vulnerability – how to speak directly from what is deepest in one person to what is deepest in another. The vastness of this interaction, happening in many cases between souls separated by time, by geography, by lifetimes, is part of how we understand ourselves as members of the larger community of humanity.

To all the artists out there, known and unknown, striving to open yourselves to the power of creating, I want to offer a sincere thank you. Thank you for making yourselves vulnerable so I may better understand myself. Thank you for creating bridges that allow us to cross the chasms separating us from one another; for painstakingly crafting a way for us to meet outside our own cultures and times. Thank you for helping us all more deeply understand our shared humanity.



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