Anyhow: from my standpoint the only thing—if you’re some sort of artist—is to work a little harder than you can at being who you are. While if you’re an unartist nothing but big and quick recognition matters.
e.e. cummings, in a letter to his daughter
When my aunt was single and in her early twenties, she worked as a flight attendant. No one in the family today can recall the airlines, but knowing how glamorous she was, I am going to put her in a Pan Am uniform for the sake of the story. In any case, she flew a transatlantic airline for a few years in the 1950’s.
As a child I adored the collection of vintage figurines my aunt brought back from abroad. German alpine woodcarvings, handcrafted and handpainted, which my grandmother displayed on a shelf in her home in Connecticut. I was asked not to play with them, so I sat and sketched them, filling notebooks with those folkloric characters.
Years later my aunt told of a time when one of her planes was grounded, in Germany I believe, and a passenger, a renowned composer and Soviet Jew, was ordered to be removed. She and the staff stood helpless, passengers sat frozen in their seats, for they all could guess where he was going… the 1950’s was still a time of remote forced labor camps in Siberia.
I was fourteen or fifteen when she told the story, tangled in adolescent angst, and I’m sure I gasped, saying something like, “Oh no, not an artist… how could they take an artist!”
I know this because I remember my uncle’s reaction. “What do you mean?” he turned and asked me. “Are you saying that an artist’s life is more valuable than say, a tree surgeon’s (what he happened to be), or anything else?”
And I believe I was unable to answer him, for my answer would have had to have been, “yes…”
Random, remembered scenes like this often contain larger truths. Perhaps that is why they linger, as it can take a lifetime to figure them out. Am I really an elitist? In this regard, it would seem so. An elitist about the arts. This is for those of us who grew up under the sheets and blankets with a flashlight, reading throughout the nights of our childhood. I don’t know how else to say it, but I loved my time alone.
Our house today is all about books and candles and music. Oh, and food. Walking by at night you won’t see the blue tint and quiver of a television light in our windows. “I have always imagined,” Jorge Luis Borges stated, “that paradise will be a kind of library.” Well I am making mine now. The dining room doubles as a library, the living room, a salon. I remember standing and applauding after reading The Third and Final Continent by Jhumpa Lahiri. So swept away was I, my living room became a Carnegie Hall for her debut collection of short stories that evening. It welcomes many such writers, though not always with a standing ovation.
Regularly, Benaroya Symphony Hall is filled to near capacity for visiting authors at Seattle Arts and Lectures. And when Anne Lamott came to town on book tour with her novel, Imperfect Birds, it seemed half the city’s population tried to squeeze into a smaller hall to see and hear her. We were there early and it was standing room only. Suddenly it reminded me of attending mass on an important religious holiday, say Palm Sunday, long ago. Looking around at the literary community on such a night, I thought, this is the new church.
For me it is and always has been. When I first began to lapse as a Catholic, my glamorous, Pan Am aunt tried to interest me in coming back. She was my godmother afterall and had a vested interest, by suggesting I might prefer High Mass. “The music, the vestments, why it’s like opera!” she exclaimed.
So I light every candle and dim the Venetian chandelier in my high-ceilinged living room and play Andrea Bocelli, and I am at church. In any case, I feel grace. Call it a Creative Force, a Creative Being, or The Great Creator, it’s the arts I worship. All of them.