13 February 2015

Breathe in, breathe out

My friend Keely recently wrote a speech on art, which won first place at our last tournament in Mr. Vernon (woot woot!)

Anyway, it got me thinking about art. (Not that I need much provocation to dwell on the subject.)

Her thesis is that the purpose of art is to "give a voice to our longings." While I've always known this intellectually, I'd like to share with you how I learned that it was true. It was only just a few years ago when I one day discovered that I actually enjoyed making things that I liked. Kind of a shocker, right? I rank it among my other great epiphanies such as "you should be nice to people" and "vegetables are good for you".

I distinctly remember the day. I was sitting in the library, unabashedly neglecting even the feeblest attempt at my homework, because I was absorbed in writing a poem about Peter Pan. In retrospect, the poem wasn't that good, but it was the first time I wrote something without trying to subscribe to some preconceived notion of what my art ought to look like. Not long after that I wrote a poem that was literally nothing else than a list of things I liked--and I was shocked by how...eminently happy it made me. I felt the same thrill I had as a kid when I went to the beach for the first time--like I was being dropped into a picture. It was like when I took off my training wheels and suddenly realized that I was riding on my own. It was like getting handed keys to a car. It was like falling in love.  I cast one incredulous look at God like a child who can't believe his parents are letting him keep the stray dog he found off the street. Really? I can write about gods and prophecies and fairies and the wayward fancies of childhood? About warriors and magic kisses and impossible adventures? About the maidens with bare feet and flower crowns that dance around in the woods of my imagination? It took me years to discover this fact: that all I had to do to create art that satisfied me was to write and draw the beautiful pictures I saw in my head. It was such a wonderful feeling that for months I don't think I could have stopped myself from creating if I tried.

But it didn't last. Soon it started feeling like a drug. I began to enjoy songwriting less and less for no other reason than because at some point the song would have to end, and I was back in the real world again where I had to take out the garbage and turn in my lousy homework and beat myself up for saying stupid things in front of pretty girls. I tried to drown the stress and conjure up those old pictures of barefoot maidens with flower crowns, but the harder I tried, the fainter it all became, just how dreams slip out of your memory the moment you try to remember exactly how it went.

I remember when I was hiking around Mt. Rainier looking at a grey craggy rock mixed with iron sediment and sprinkled with violets. A dark shadow passed over it that reminded me of a cave, and I think there was a spring running past it, but my imagination may have added that. And I remember standing there and thinking about how forever it all felt, and how I wished I was born right into that picture where the summer air was fresh and warm and the birds were singing like rippling water. I remember feeling--and being surprised at feeling--a sense of an inarticulate injustice, because I wanted to be "dropped into the picture" again like the time I went to the beach, but the thrill refused to resurface. I was just a bystander, an observer, a cosmic tourist of everything beautiful.

My friend Jared once asked me "do you ever look at a mountain and feel like you can't get enough of it? Like you just want to put the mountain inside you?" I exploded "yes! I know exactly what you're talking about!" I guess that's what Keely means when she says art gives a voice to our longings. Jared had just created a work of art, because I had never realized until that moment that those were the precise words I was looking for: to put a mountain inside of me.

That's when I learned the second important truth about art: God never lets you hold it in. Take breathing, for example.  Seriously, why do we have to exhale the smell of freshly baked bread? It’s so unfair! Sometimes, when I take my dog for a walk in the mornings, the air tastes so good I wish I could just keep on breathing in forever. I breathe in deeper, deeper, hoping that at the next breath I will breathe in deep enough to taste that Thing at the end, whatever it is, but I never get to it, because I always have to breathe out.

I get the same feeling when making art. Writing a story is breathing in, finishing a story is breathing out. It's like an itch you have to scratch--and like itches, the more you scratch it, the more it itches. At some point you find that writing a song does not really satisfy you but only makes you want to write more songs, to the point where you almost want to pick up the pen again and start a new song the second you finish the one before it. I suppose you could call it a vicious circle, but it's a vicious circle that spirals outwards. The more you create the pictures in your mind, the more beautiful the pictures become, the more beautiful they become, the more deeply you desire to create them.

Lewis spent nearly his whole life writing about this mysterious longing, but I think he said it most succinctly in the voice of Psyche from Till We have Faces: "For indeed it does not feel like going, but like going back."

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.”  

Maybe if I continue making art, I will gradually get closer and closer to the impenetrable Thing that I long for, but when I die I will shake off my piles and piles of stories and paintings and poems and leave them behind without even looking back. As for what happens to them afterwards--I'm not sure I care at all. I am a cartographer of invisible lands, but I would gladly throw the map away the moment I saw the land with my own eyes. Oh God, I'm so homesick. Just give me something I can hold onto until I come back. Something real and tangible, with a warm chest and a beating heart. Oh God, I want to go home.

-The Minstrel Boy

1 comment:

  1. It's pretty glorious reading your own thoughts in someone else's words, only much more inspiringly and eloquently put. When making art, creating something beautiful is always when I feel most satisfied. But it has to end and it does end. And I'm left with a finished piece of art that doesn't satisfy. God has simultaneously doomed and blessed us to live in constant dissatisfaction, but only because there is a thing coming that WILL satisfy.

    "....cartographer of invisible lands ...." Aaaaggg! That is such an awesome phrase. I know people tell you this a lot, but dude, keep writing. Your art may not eternally satisfy your soul, but that doesn't make it not worth making.