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Life as Art

We have a message board in our kitchen that we’ve had fun with since we bought it, crafting our own pithy reminders about life. But, we’ve both been so busy that the same note has been up there for weeks: “Make more art,” it says quietly in black and white plastic letters. On many days, this might inspire me to work on my writing. But when I have a lot going on, as I do right now, it feels a bit more like chiding. I read this between those lines: “You’re wasting your time doing mundane things when the truly important work is art.” Just making breakfast in the morning, I get pangs of feeling that I’m not really living my life as fully as I could.

I felt that way again yesterday when I read a line of Mary Oliver’s from an essay called “Upstream.” In it, she talks about being alone on a walk in the woods as a young girl and remembering how that solitude helped her to focus on what was around her. And then, this: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I feel such a longing for that kind of quiet and focus, but instead there are dozens of layers between me and actually just paying attention to what is around me. Those are the days when I’m too crazy-busy to do anything but put one foot in front of the other and march forward.

Witnessing humility, grace and empathy in a friend is as moving as any work of art that I can fathom.

But in optimistic moments, I realize there is art and attention everywhere, depending on my perspective. I get up early every morning because I relish so much of what exists in my life at that time of day. Jodi is next to me in the bed as we drink strong coffee, enjoy our silly dogs, and watch the early pink tones of sunrise out our bedroom window. One of my favorite parts of this ritual is reading The New York Times. I don’t have time to read it cover to cover, but I peruse what appeals to me and I find myself in awe of humans who can put this together every single day. They are just words and images on off-white newsprint, but practically every day, I fold some part of it and stack it on my desk to look at again, to lose myself in something so simple, yet rich.

There is art everywhere in our home—real art on the walls, along with designs Jodi has made and words I’ve written. But there is the way that pillow sits just so; the shadows along the gray wall; the smooth tan wood of the bed. It’s all human creation, an idea brought to life. The newly mown grass in front of the house draws my eye on my way out the door to run. The puffy baby ducks next to the path in the canal make me stop and stare. The sun is higher in the sky now, slanting toward me at the end of the path and I hear Paul Simon singing “Further to Fly” in my headphones. It’s art—everywhere.

I may not be making art at this moment, but it stays in me, reminding me of the ways that the world is constantly unfolding. It gives me hope—prompts me to remember that things change, people move and shift, and that we are all traveling toward something that has drawn our attention and eventually our devotion. I see art in the way a younger runner outpaces me in a flash, the arc of his arm majestic as it pushes him forward.

Even on really busy days, when I feel a million miles from my own creativity, there is art in watching someone handle a tough problem or navigate a hard conversation. It is not going to a museum to look at a painting, or sitting in a comfortable chair reading a novel, but witnessing humility, grace and empathy in a friend is as moving as any actual work of art that I can fathom.

This is not an argument that we should forego seeking art as we know it—I would never suggest that. But in between a powerful mural and a poetry slam, we are all creating, solving, making, and connecting. On days when I need a reminder to pay attention to this moment just as it is, simply opening my eyes and listening is about as great a gift as I could ask for.

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