There's a moment in the new film The Dig that tore me down. I don't want to give too much away, but it involves a line about a queen sailing through space on a ship. The scene moved me so much because it so perfectly captured the way I've often felt about death involving my loved ones: that deep hope and faith that I will see them again, in some form, although most likely in one that our human minds cannot comprehend. Lately I keep going back again and again to why art matters the way it does: because it works the best when it manages to articulate the abstract notions that seem impossible to articulate.
I had a similar experience earlier this week when I read "A Death in the Family", a long short story by Billy O'Callaghan that is one of the best pieces of literature I've ever read. This story manages to capture the way it feels to be at a death bed, how the waiting feels, how the mystery of it all feels. Anyone who has experienced the loss of someone they loved profoundly will relate.
Earlier this month I read the novel Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart. This is a heavy book about alcoholism and its effects on an entire family. But at its heart it is more about the unbreakable bond and love between a gay son and his mother. There's more than one scene in that book where the humanity on the page is so strong that everything else around me fell away--the walls of my own house, the worries I possess for people going through hard times in my family, the uncertainty of the pandemic. After one particularly effective scene I had to put the book down for a few minutes to collect myself.
These are not easy things to manifest on the page, yet the the writer of "A Death in the Family" manages to do it in such a shattering way that I will never forget that story, the writer of Shuggie Bain did it in such a way that I was there with them, in 1990s Scotland, grieving with them. The creators of The Dig did it so beautifully that I was not only under those big starry skies of Suffolk in 1939 but I also somehow felt some kind of balm in the most open wound of my own grief, a loss of a family member nearly six years ago that is still as raw now as it was in February of 2015.
This same power of art occurred for me earlier this week when I heard--for likely the hundredth time--the song "Take Me Home, Jesus" by Link Wray. Early on in that song the lines "I been in the city for awhile/but my soul's still countrified" always manage to give voice to the homesickness I feel everyday for the land where I grew up (specifically, one stand of pines on the ridge behind my parents' home), a place where I can no longer live.
Last week, when I heard that Cloris Leachman died, I immediately re-watched one of my favorite scenes in cinema. This is the five minute tour de force (captured in one take) of Leachman going through a barrage of different emotions--from supplication to raw anger to nurturing--in The Last Picture Show. I love this scene not only because it's such an effective look at the way love and sadness can so often be tangled together, but also because it's a marvel of acting. I'm moved not only by what is going on within the context of the film but also by the artistry on display. To know that somebody can possess such talent and empathy and display it in a piece of art--that bowls me over just as much as what is happening in the scene.
The next day, Cicely Tyson died and I remembered the exhilarating experience of seeing her in my favorite play, The Trip to Bountiful, on Broadway. The entire play she went nonstop, running back and forth from one side of the stage to the other, hardly ever still, all the while delivering a masterful performance that caused us all to jump to our feet at the end for the longest standing ovation I've ever witnessed. Many of the audience members had tears running down our faces because we knew what we had just witnessed (not to mention that we were in the same room with her). The applause was thunderous when she took her bows.
The time I spent with these pieces or art were often transcendent. That is the power of art that really works for the consumer of the art: to be transported beyond the normal range of human experience.
I can first remember this happening to me when I was ten years old and saw the film E.T. The pivotal moment for me was when E.T. dies. A piece of art had never made me feel like this before. I couldn't help it: I sat right there in the theater and cried. The movie got to me, yes, but perhaps even more powerful was that among the two hundred or so people around me in that sold-out audience at the Corbin Cinema Four, most of them were crying, too. And minutes later, amazingly, everyone was happy and applauding when we were shown that E.T. was miraculously alive. The clapping and hoots of joy among the audience seeing this film for the first time made me so happy that I felt the strange sensation of wanting to cry from happiness. The only thing I love more than a communal cry is a communal celebration.
Thinking of that makes me so thankful for the people I grew up around. I was taken to that showing of E.T. by my cousin, Eleshia, who took me to lots of movies (legend has it that we went to see Grease a total of seventeen times when you count trips to the theater and to the drive-in; I don't know if we went that many times, but we saw it so much that both of us knew every word of dialogue and lyrics). I'm so thankful that Eleshia didn't lean over and say something like "Boys don't cry" or make fun of me later, on the way home. Eleshia let me be who I was. Few things are more important to a child. While I felt at the time that the whole audience was in mourning for E.T. with me, I'm betting there were some boys there who refused to let their emotions overcome them because they had been raised to think they weren't allowed to do that. I was brought up in a very traditional and strict home but I was never told to keep my emotions in check just because of my gender. I was never taught that I shouldn't be moved by pieces of art. I was fortunate to grow up around people who did not bury their emotions. Men and women alike in my family displayed their emotions openly in church, at funerals, in talking about the dead or the past.
This is often surprising for people. Being from a rural, working class background is not the most common experience in the literary world. After twenty years of being published, I'm still surprised by some of the things other writers or readers will say to me at literary gatherings. Very often there is the expectation that it was an uphill battle for me to be a writer because of where I'm from. While there are particular difficulties of being an artist in my culture (being vocally liberal will take you down a notch or two in my hometown), the truth is that I felt very supported as a young person who possessed the empathy necessary to be a writer. Yes, there was the homophobic elementary math teacher who once made fun of me in front of the whole class for using the word "beautiful" in an article I wrote for the school newspaper (his words were something along the lines of "Only a sissy would use the word 'beautiful'") but there was also the English teacher I had who shed tears while reading an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem to us ("O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!"), thereby putting on full display that it was not only permissible to be moved by art, but by sharing her love for poetry and her own poetry with us, she showed that it was also okay to identify as an artist.
I've had people say to me that it's highfalutin to identify myself as "an artist". I think that in a world that so easily negates the arts it's more important than ever to use that word when we are creators of art, whether it be music, novels, films, dances, quilts, or whatever makes you feel as if you are putting art into the world. I've been loving the Fran Lebowitz docuseries "Pretend It's a City" on Netflix but I was miffed when she snarked "If you can eat it, it's not art" in one of the episodes. Clearly she's never had my mother's chicken dumplings or my mamaw's divinity: both examples of perfection that are among the most transcendent things I've ever experienced.
All of this is simply to say that I'm thankful for art that moves me. I'm thankful that people like my cousin cried along with me when I was moved by art as a child. Pieces of art have always been salvation for me, and they've always especially carried me through hard times (like these last four years--Lord have mercy). I completed a novel this past spring, just as the pandemic was hitting full steam. For each book I write, I draw on a host of different pieces of art, whether it be music, paintings, photographs, films, poetry, or whatever works. That new novel's touchstone was the first stanza from the poem "In a Dark Time", by Theodore Roethke, which always reminds me that in times of darkness, or in all times, really, art can be the light: