Artist Alexander Calder is the subject of a homegrown musical—written, choreographed, designed and directed by local talent. Calder was an artist who played with movement—in wire figures, sculptures, and mobiles. His whimsical work brought joy and wonder to people in troubled times, particularly during the Depression.
I absolutely loved the uplift of the musical, which was fun and campy as well as inspiring. The show offered a celebration of artistic commitment.
Here’s something that struck me as I watched the show: Calder (as depicted onstage) feared his work was juvenile, and at times he internalized other people’s disdain. Self-doubt, the enemy of creativity. A state familiar to many of us.
What struck me also was the way the co-directors of this musical framed our evening as an “escape” from today’s tense times. When I thought about it later, this felt like an extension of the “juvenile” indictment.
I felt that by connecting Calder—and this gorgeous production—to escapism, we did him and his art an injustice. I thought to myself: Joy is not an escape. Joy is fuel. And wonder is not distraction. Wonder is an engine.
I wanted to declare that art is not optional, nor is wonder, nor is joy, nor is love. That these are essential pieces in an activated human’s soul.
The next morning I read Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Poets” in Chasing Utopia. It says in part:
Poets shouldn’t commit suicide. That would leave the world to those without imaginations or hearts. That would bequeath to the world a mangled syntax and no love of champagne…
I thought, yes! For a poet, certain activities are suicide.
My mind went to a sentiment I’ve seen expressed: “People need to stop complaining and run for office if they are serious about change.” For some of us, running for office—let alone holding an office—would be death.
My inner argument ended up here: There are many ways to make change, and we all have our part to play. Some of us will create art that brings joy, or show people a different way of living. Let’s respect and praise and enjoy each other for the countless ways our souls shine while we do our best work, whatever that may be.
Interestingly, after I drafted this argument, I mentioned my thoughts to my spouse on the dismissiveness of the term “escape.” (“Escapist drivel” is what I judgmentally “heard.”)
She responded that she doesn’t think of escape in that vein at all. To her, it evokes a pleasant place to go in one’s mind. Nothing negative or demeaning about it.
Apparently I got all up in arms over something that was in my own head. There I go again, doing battle when there’s nothing to battle.
Now, of course, I realize that this internal argument has everything to do with feeling OK about myself and the level of activism I choose to undertake. With the new administration in the White House, every day there are new actions that pain me. And I want to take part in righting wrongs.
The many requests to call decision-makers…flat out drain me. It’s been tricky to figure out where to direct my time and energy. And I’m constantly judging and pressuring myself.
An underlying story informs my need to prove that I’m good enough through activism. It’s what Charles Eisenstein calls the cultural myth of Separation. The story that says I’m separate from you (whether better—if I make more calls than you!—or worse—if you are one of my many super-engaged friends whose activism goes beyond a mere phone call).
This idea of “I’m bad/wrong for not doing x” leads to …
“I’ll force myself and then I will be worthwhile” which leads to…
“I’m better than you because I care more, and look at what I forced myself to do.”
Basically, I’ve been using the master’s tools (of domination, control, force, separation) in an attempt to bring down the master’s house, to paraphrase Audre Lorde.
This underlying Story of Separation, Eisenstein would say, gets to the root of the interlocked problems we face. It’s the same root that underlies the very problems I do or don’t call about. A sense of humanity as separate from nature, from each other, from the magic of an intelligent cosmos. Which we know now isn’t true.
Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re talking about a cultural shift from old story to new story.
It’s funny how keying into this bigger picture brings me back to a place of joy, wonder, and activation. So that even if I choose do the exact same actions I previously forced myself to do, the energy behind the tasks feels different. More spacious.