On November 13, 2011, I read the following paragraph by John Banville in the New York Times Book Review section. He was reviewing Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, a memoir of the heartbreaking loss of her daughter, following close upon the sudden death of her husband.
“Certainly as a testament of suffering nobly borne, which is what it will be generally taken for, it is exemplary. However, it is most profound and provocative at another level, the level at which the author comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.”
I read this paragraph over and over again pondering Banville’s words regarding Ms. Didion’s conclusions. That in the face of devastating loss or whatever horrors with which we are presented in life, ‘nothing avails…especially not art.’ My immediate head shaking response was no, that isn’t true…at least not true in my own life experience. And so I sought to define why that is not true for me.
Can anything bring us back to the time before all the heartache? No. Are we often inconsolable? Yes. Do we wish we hadn’t been handed what we have been? Yes. Those are immutable facts. So, then, to what can we turn, or, perhaps, run for consolation and solace? For me, it is art. In any of its forms. As defined by one online dictionary (Dictionary.com), art is ‘the quality, production, expression or realm, according to aesthetic principles of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.’
If one is an artist, writer, musician, so much the better. But, one does not have to be creatively artistic because opening up to others’ creative work can make us understand more fully: one, that we are not alone, two that there is always beauty to be seen, heard, read, that can lift us above our individual pain if we are at a point in our grieving to be able to take it in.
In 2003, after my husband entered a dementia facility, I came to New York City. I took a huge leap of faith to land in a place where I had no friends, where I hadn’t visited since the early ‘60s. I needed what this great city could offer me: Art, Music, Theater, the excitement of taxi cab dodging. I was energized each day as I made my way into the life of the city. But, I was also still depressed at what had befallen my husband and me and the awareness that, most probably, I would be alone for the rest of my life. To dispel the dark days, I would take myself to the Metropolitan Museum and sit in front of some of the grandest paintings ever created, knowing that the artist was translating his life through his art. The pain, the love, the loneliness. Everything. That is what artists do and that is what art does for us…it makes us aware that we are a part of it all. Hand and hand with pain is beauty. Art is created in spite of ourselves. And we can be elevated by it in spite of our circumstances.
And, as the days moved on, to get myself out of the house, as my love of writing and practicing the piano are solitary ventures, I became a docent at Carnegie Hall, one of the best things I have ever done for myself. It was a kind of renewal of my awareness of how important music is and has been in my life. To be able to learn the history of one of the most famous music venues in the world and to help others appreciate its greatness took me and still takes me completely out of myself and my personal trials and woes.
Classical music, especially, has been a lifeline. Playing it, hearing it has been an ‘avail’ for me. But, I could not listen to a note of it for a very long time after my husband was diagnosed and I began my journey alone. There were so many memories of the two of us, from the very beginning of our love affair when we were teens, listening to classical music together, attending concerts. And more, the music itself, deep, often dark, revealing the depth of the composer’s sadness, longing, tragedy, resonated too profoundly with my own pain. Even joyful music was impossible to hear because I could not feel any joy in the moment. And, too, my piano lid stayed closed. Eventually, the veil of grief lifted and revealed to me once more the comfort of all that I had loved and turned to in the difficult times of my life.
And then, I found a most amazing ‘avail.’
One day, I was lying quite still, eyes closed, in a kind of meditative state, hoping to hear some consolation from my active inner voices. For awhile all I got was the static of sporadic nonsense. And, then, suddenly, I heard a tune begin…in my head… the first notes, then a phrase and then another. I sprang to the piano, opened the lid and sat down, closed my eyes and held my breath while I put my hands on the keys and began to play the notes. The entire song came through quickly and I played it over and over, trying to burn it into my brain until I could feel safe enough to grab some manuscript paper and write it down. I’ve had the experience many times, as most writers do, of being in a place where there is no pen, paper, recorder or computer and having words pour forth and by the time I got to a place where I could write them down…gone!! I played and revised my little song over and over again, until I was satisfied. When I was done, I realized that I had not thought of anything but the music while I was in the act of composing or rather recreating, and that whatever I had given myself over to, when I tried to meditate, had enabled me to ‘hear’ the gift I was being given.
From that day forward I have had more songs (9 to be exact) come to me during depressive episodes. It may be strange to say that depression can be a gift. But that is true for me. To know that something so filled with light can come from such a dark place, makes me unafraid that depression will come again. Because if it does, I will make more music. And when it goes, I will, once again, bless its gift to me.
And something else in terms of art avails for me. Nature. Walking in the park. Seeing the pink explosion of cherry blossoms, ducks floating on the Reservoir pond where I take my walks, the denuded trees in winter, outlined in white over a snow covered lawn. I lose my personal sadness among the incredible beauty of Nature. No matter what hour I choose to walk, there is something there that catches my attention, a bird, the sound of the wind, the feel of snowflakes on my skin and I am out of my egocentric self and into something much bigger and more important than I.
So, for me, there is ‘avail.’ In Art. In Music. In Nature. In Life. And as long as I am able I will give myself over to all of it. My sorrows are my sorrows. My history is uniquely mine. But I decline to let it define me. I choose to see myself as part of a much grander world.
What, if anything, is your ‘avail,’ or do you agree with Mr. Banville that in the face of ‘life’s worst onslaughts’ there is none?