Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Coming of Age, Part Four: An Artistic Life

Songs from my youth and college years in particular bring memories, pleasant and painful, back to life with present-moment emotions. This has contributed toward a weird but humorous talent, particularly with 1980s pop, for recalling not only the year a song came out but what specifically was going on in my life at the time. People often try to stump me or challenge the veracity of my claims, but the vast majority of the time I am right. Once while on a convention trip in the Music City of Nashville (before it became my home), a record label publicist challenged my answer of a certain song’s debut year. I dared her to walk next door to a large music store, where I pointed out the correct date on the CD in front of an entire group of colleagues and she had to concede defeat.

I often find that my favorite songs on a CD are the ones that were not considered “commercial” enough to be released to radio. These tend to be the longer, ballad-like and introspective cuts, where the artist is most vulnerable. On these tracks I feel the artist or band is singing to me, because in essence they are.

The fact that these tunes tend not to be popularized is just one example of how I have felt like a misfit in a world that typically devalues artists in general. Many will nod admiration at their talents, but simultaneously casts aside their relevance with a smile; a roll of the eyes; a silence; or even a harshness.

Perhaps this is the best that most people can muster, in a society where each breaking dawn demands of us the tasks we must accomplish, the problems we must solve, and the relationships we must manage. This grind leaves little space for the reflections offered by true artistry. Without intentionally seeking to stem this tyranny of the urgent (and the urgency of well-meaning tyrants), such demands gradually erode the remnants of our childlike desires to dream, imagine and soar.

So caught up in doing that there is little room for being, we gradually lose our appetite for those eternal truths. Instead, we settle for the cheap, fleeting imitations of what we assume to be a fulfilling life because no one else is particularly alarmed by its shallow waters.

Hints of eternal truths are found, I believe, when the soul of another touches our own. Truth is calling when tears spring up in our eyes, when our hearts race, when chills traverse along our spines. Truth invades us when we create space for critical thinking, and no longer suppress for the sake of blind duty the natural flow of emotions.

In my lifelong quest to unveil the deeper dimensions of such truth, I have observed that few things communicate it as powerfully and effectively as not just music but all forms of art. Without the regular nourishment of creative expressions, I feel starved into mediocrity. I descend into bitter normalcy. Life feels bordered by zero lot lines; a sprawling, generic suburbia. It becomes reduced to “a walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare’s King Lear gloomily expressed.

But when I give myself permission to catch but a glimpse of the eternal truths and be changed, I sense new vitality and energy.

The artists of times past and present stand ready to speak vestiges of eternal truths to each of us. We must, I assert, accept their generous invitation while cautiously sorting these vestiges from the brokenness.

When we creak open the shutters of drudgery, we blink our eyes and see ourselves in the pale, horrified yearning of the androgen portrayed by Edvard Munch in his painting The Scream. The cry appears much more than an expression of individual discontent and mourning. It seems to penetrate all of surrounding nature, perhaps all of society. It is a silent plea for people to recognize each other’s humanity, embrace justice, choose love, care for children, refuse to miss life passing by. It is the scream of each of our hearts, and remains silent as long as we are anesthetized by apathy, mediocrity and duty.

Upon taking the risk of dreaming again, we drink in the majesty of Michelangelo’s magnum opus sculpture David. Israel’s greatest king stands poised for battle, geared for love, contemplative of his self-doubts and mistakes. He stands before history as Every Person, embodying the best and worst of the human heart. We stare at David and see ourselves, teeming with unrealized and actualized potential, amazed at how we can hold aspirations for heaven and hell in such dynamic tension.

When we glance up from the want ads or Horoscopes long enough to roll our eyes across Dylan Thomas’ immortal poem Fern Hill, we travel back to the time when we too were green and unaware of our gradual dying. We slowly recognize aspects we have allowed to slouch toward an early demise, and also see what remains green, untapped, virgin, hopeful, exploding with the ability to be recreated.

As we get past our tacit approval of the ignorance that reduces life to a cacophony of role-playing, we embrace the skeptical eyes of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, and allow the simple best of life to be our goal. We are less and less tolerant of facade and pretense and sheer human greed. We desire to prevent our children from careening off of fields of hope into caverns of cynicism.

When we duck out of the office and into the theater, we yearn with Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables for fate to “Bring Him Home.” We share his love for Cosette and his desire to outrace his sins and become a new person. When we watch The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock float meaninglessly in the pool to the words of Simon and Garfunkel, we too refuse to be painted into a corner or boarded up in a box.

When we allow it to be more than a temporary panacea to loneliness, music connects one heart to another. “Evergreen” and “The Rose” remind us of love’s pain and deliverance, while “My Heart Will Go On” and “Georgia” drive home its transcendence. As I have said, the music of our upbringing still delivers the lessons and emotions of its initial hearing when we stumble across it decades later. It flavors the epochs of our lives, causing us to yearn for “Seasons in the Sun.” Even if the Italian language escapes us, an operatic solo touches something beyond verbal and cultural barriers, as effectively as a smile or a hug.

We are not all artists in the same regard as those who give us such lasting works via the toil of talents mixed with passion, sweat, pain and contradictions. We can all, however, live an artistic life, leaving just enough space for art to touch and transform us. Perhaps it is not a question of “can” but “must,” in order to remain fully alive before we have been buried.

The arts round us out as individuals. They engrave our distinctions. They shout fragments of truth to us when we have grown dull in hearing it for ourselves.

And in a world of descending grays and irrelevancy, we are desperately in need of authenticity. Hopefully, we gradually learn to place artistic influences into the context of what our thirst for truth ultimately represents.

As a child, then a teenager and finally as a college student, I tried myself to write lyrics that conveyed a sense of truth and a desire to fully love; rather just than a passion for self. I wrote hundreds of them, and still have them in my attic.

No one has ever heard these songs performed. The fact that they exist on paper, however, gives me a certain satisfaction that I had the perseverance to own the inner melodies and write them down; that I had the hope to help people push through the irrelevancy and taste something real. To taste a love more lasting than a sexual high.

These youthful lyrics reveal, I hope, that just enough residue of the image of God remained within me while coming of age to enable grace to persevere. That someday I would more fully trade desire for what was fleeting for surrender to what is eternal.


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