I’d like to continue on about my early memory of church. I think I’ve mentioned before how my recollections of life in the parsonage merge with church memories. As the minister’s son, I was there so much of the time that life in the church and at the home were for me all one thing.
What don’t I remember, however? What didn’t I notice? What do grown-ups generally concern themselves with? The mechanics of things, various mature mutterings and soft-spoken consultations. There were also manifold unspoken exchanges.
I thrived in the atmosphere. I’d say that there was a generous amount of genuine goodwill spread about, but unfortunately, there were also other things afoot..tensions, innuendos, furtive glances. Today I’m thinking how glad I am that I didn’t notice this sort of thing. But I did notice a whole lot, and it could have been because I wasn’t geared to being cognizant of the other stuff.
Oh, MAYBE I picked up on it. Although, like I said, I was mostly conscious of the beauty I encountered, perhaps I felt the ugly goings-on subconsciously. It must be said that my parents, especially my mother, worked very hard to shield us from unpleasant things. Besides, they weren’t the things that I really wanted to think about. I was taking in something else.
It hurts to say it, but, while the adults busied themselves with grown-up concerns, I think maybe I was noticing what many of them were beginning to stop noticing. As we “progress” onward in life we start to forget the realm of light we used to know. It’s like drifting to another side of knowing. We accumulate different data. Wordsworth said it well: “Wonder is exchanged for common day.” I’m glad now for those early years, when I wasn’t yet snarled in commonplace concerns.
After all, it wasn’t up to me to keep everything running. Like my wife says to me now, “You didn’t have to do anything. The adults did all the work.” It’s true. It takes a lot of work keeping a church going. I did have a few jobs, although they weren’t much. I mowed the church lawn when I was about 12. Big deal. Concerning the everyday operations of both the church and home, all was pretty much taken care of.
Meanwhile, I just drank in the rich presence of the place. Bear with me. I’ll try to get to the heart of the matter: my being drawn to beauty and how it nurtured my calling as an artist. To speak more adequately of this, Nicolas Berdyaev once said, “Beauty is not only the aim of art - it is the aim of life. And the final aim is not beauty as cultural value, but beauty as being itself, that is the transformation of the chaotic deformity of the world into the beauty of the cosmos.”
One of my favorite things to do, was to slip inside the sanctuary when it was empty. I’d talk quietly to myself in the palpable hush, saying things like, “This is my father’s church and I am his son. This is MY church.” One day I clambered up the inside of the steeple and wrote my name on a spot as high up as I could climb.
I guess this all might sound a bit self-involved, but please be patient with me. I’m trying to examine what my experience was from a perspective that might shed light on something which continues to be a persistent dilemma to me. Why is it that we take these deep draughts of primal reality less and less as we get older? Is it simply because we get busy with other things, things it seems like we have to get busy with, because we feel like we “need” to take on more and more responsibility? It’s like we’re putting on big, cumbersome suits we weren't really meant to wear.
I still hear voices like “Why don’t you help? Can’t you see the world needs to be fixed? Why don’t you take some responsibility for it? How can you justify spending so much of your time painting or playing music?” I'm grateful that Berdyaev spoke of how creativity is in itself justifying, rather than something which needs justification.
Today my wife was backing out of our driveway and she almost ran over our lawnmower. I’d been getting ready to mow the front lawn and left it too near the back of our car. She asked me to please not ever do it again. In situations like this, she’ll often say to me, “You’re not very observant, you know.” And I have to admit, in one sense she’s right. In that one sense, there’s no excuse for it. I don’t notice a LOT of stuff. But, in another sense, and in order to tell the whole story, I need to emphasize something: when you’re a person called to creative work, you tend to linger on certain things and remain singularly oblivious to a multitude of other things.
Now that I’m reflecting back on how I developed as an artist, I’m seeing that there have always been things which I’ve been subconsciously more than willing to NOT notice. I think now that maybe this not-noticing, this oblivion, if you will, has allowed me to remain in a state of unsullied confidence in God my entire life.
How so? I think it’s because what I WAS absorbed in were the wonders of life and the creativity these compelling thing drew out of me. It had to do with the kind, magnificent Spirit, with whom I was very familiar. It was the poetry of the Spirit which kept my attention.
Meanwhile, the things I remained incognizant of didn’t trip me up. Sad to say, they’re the concerns that do so often stumble people, and keep them from noticing what I’d like to call the reality behind the noise.
When they only notice the dissonant aspects of life, they often just get angry. They take offense. It’s tragic that they often lose their trust in God in these situations, rather than just learn how repellent, as well as noble, the acts of free men can be. As the years go by, and a person inevitably encounters the antinomies of life, they either learn wisdom and accept the inevitable paradox of existence in this world, or they join the many who opt for a less painful path. As is aptly described by the following phrase, they often take a simple-minded approach to the quandary and “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
It’s amazing to me how much knowledge my wife has. She’s an incredibly intelligent person, And she also remembers a lot from her childhood. She’ll often tell me about something she recalls, and then turn to me asking, “What do YOU remember about blah blah blah?” Often I’ll turn to her and say, “I don’t remember anything about that.” Then she’ll say, “Boy, you don’t remember much, do you?” There have been times when this really bothered me. It made me wonder if part of my memory bank was eroding, from having taken too many drugs during the sixties, perhaps. Or I mutter, “It’s just because I’m an artist.”
Wow. What a cop-out this declaration feels like to me now. Maybe it’s because it's altogether too succinct a summary, or, it's because, more and more I’m thinking how glad I am..to be able to remember what I remember, and glad that there’s also a lot I’ve either forgotten or never knew in the first place.
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.