A number of years ago, while I was in the process of writing my mother’s memoir, I spent five summers attending the Iowa Summer Writers’ Festival in Iowa City. One of those visits occurred just after a major flood had decimated the campus, leaving piles of sandbags stacked everywhere. That particular year, my husband, who had gone through much of the grief and loss I was writing about, had sent me off with the hope that I would find something more pleasant to write about.
Returning home, along with the folder of my writing, I brought some empty sandbags that had been decorated as handbags by community artists and sold to raise money for the cleanup. Laying my writing folder and the sandbags side by side on the bed I told my husband, “My writings are my sandbags. We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least something useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”
The other day, following this notion of art and life, I came across the advice Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave his students, “The meaning of life is to live life as if it were a work of art.” This led me to the word “curate,” which of course comes from what art museum professionals do–carefully select and arrange the right assortment of objects and images to create experiences. According to Merriam Webster, you can curate a library, an art show, a lineup of inspirational speakers, or a collection of fashion. But Webster warns that the overuse of this word has created a potential for it to “illicit teeth-gnashing rage in your audience.”
I wonder if this relates to a commonly held belief that art and artmaking are reserved for especially talented and trained individuals, not for just us plain folk. Not my take on it, which is why, in spite of just learning of the controversy over the word, I like the notion that part of living a creative and balanced life involves taking charge of what we can have some say over. We can let social media curate what we learn and care about and “influencers” tell us what’s cool or we can curate our own lives and our own experiences.
Since the ending of life as we knew it a year ago March it seems to me, we have all been attempting to accept and make the best of, a lifestyle we did not pick as our first, second, or even third choice. Yet, we have proceeded to select and create experiences from whatever array of possibilities have been available to us. If we think of our lives as a work of art, then we are artists, often engaging in ordinary activities as art. The closing of restaurants propelled many of us to approach cooking and baking with the focused attention required to engage in something as art. Difficulty in securing fresh food and herbs inspired some people to start their own deck or rooftop gardens, a great introduction to the art of gardening. And these efforts have led to the satisfaction that comes with engaging mindfully in such endeavors.
The restrictions of social distancing have elicited new ways to “make love visible,” which is my favorite definition of ritual. We’ve curated, designed, and executed, artistic on-line birthday parties, holiday celebrations, and candlelight memorial services. We’ve arranged drive-by parades of banner decorated cars and parking lot gatherings to celebrate graduations, retirements, and other milestones.
Artists often become activists. Looking at the world through lenses of truth, beauty, and right order heighten our awareness of the connection between the personal and large-scale societal issues and events. Many of us signed up to make a difference in the body politic during this tumultuous time – learning more about racism, voter suppression, and income inequality and ways to overcome it. One of the best parts of these dark days has been using platforms new to us to offer our own classes and presentations on-line. We’ve supported one another through the many rising and falling episodes and seasons of fear and loss, uncertainty and grief.
It’s hard to tell how much longer it will be before the big world opens up again and becomes our new normal. As that is becoming likely I’m noticing a feeling of sadness, a sense of dread, a reluctance to leave this sheltered place of loss and longing. As when I had to let go of the difficult yet transformative time of companioning a loved one through their illness and death, there is much about this time that I will miss, and much I hope that I take with me as a part of who I’ve become.