The Joy Menu #21: Audience
Your author contends with the ghosts who have commissioned this project, and who wait patiently for this art to come into being.
Like anyone lost in the middle, I spend a great deal of time looking back and wondering how I ended up here.
This is not meant to be snide or sarcastic — or even, really, metaphorical.
I think: you can love art, and not make art. That’s a natural, healthy position. Perhaps even the default. Art is meant to...what? Enrich our human experience? Celebrate, soothe, accompany, rile, report?
Still, for those of us hooked on it — who prefer to Netflix and Netflix, if you will — it can feel like an addiction to enrichment, to living multiple lives alongside this quotidien (actual) one, to an abundance of extra: extra enjambments, extra engagements, extra condiments, extra pickles. If we needed a metaphor here (and when don’t we?).
That some of us identify so greatly with this experience — this artistic abundance — that the only choice seems to be to join the chain of making, rather than staying content in the clear-cut role of audience, appreciator, or public; why is that?
I can’t say writ-large across humankind. But I can try to speak for myself, as I sit here in the middle and look back on my own.
The story of my paternal grandmother is one of bucking forms, conventions, and norms. As a young woman, in 1940s Johannesburg, she decided to go to college to study “gym” (as she called it); to become a physical education teacher, though it was not quite fitness that called to her, but movement, dance. A type of artistic expression so immersive that you yourself become the vessel, the container, the form.
I think of the rural, shtetl life of her parents, and grandparents, in Seiseikei, Lithuania. I see it in sepia, hardly clear: a bar with wood-chipped floors, the spectre of war, of political abuse, the lopsided, leaky structures, the seriousness of worship, the long winters, the looming poverty, or worse. And then: her busy life in a quickly developing Johannesburg, opportunities for emerging affluence, education, enrichment, international participation, access to culture, to artistry, or more. The different challenges required for living, for living well; such a departure from what came before.
If I grew up surrounded by art, engaged in its enjoyment and creation, it was — as far as I can tell — because of Bluma.
I don’t know how she discovered such a relationship. Was it imported from Lithuania — sewn like family treasure in the hems of her dresses and socks? Or was it discovered in the new country, like the gold that was rumoured to be littered in the freshly paved streets?
What I do know is she was a part of a generation who were given the freedom to discover it; like a collective organism carrying inside it centuries of hunger they were finally able nourish with this homespun artistic source. Many of them grasped at and swallowed it entirely — like my grandmother — not to become famous, or wealthy; not to originate a movement or a school. But just because it was there for them, because it resonated; because it carried meaning in and of itself, and provided a template for lives which were being newly invented in an unfamiliar country, continent, language, home.
At least this is how I see it, looking back at Bluma and her suburban, Jewish, South African community, eighty years and 7,000 miles away: painters, poets, dancers, body builders, and the doctors, dentists, accountants and shopkeepers who supported those arts and those artists, who attended their shows, relished their creations, and made taking part in art more than aberration, more than hobby, but an essential part of their twentieth century lives.
I have this image of Bluma: a young fitness teacher, riding into the Black townships in a rattling tram — crossing a color line every bit as taboo as was the cultural one she crossed when, as a Jewish teen, she sought to become a fitness educator — to teach, and learn, to share movement, and humanity, with that most essential of human expressions, dance.
And then sixty years later: lying in her floral-scented bed in her upper-floor flat in Antwerp, Belgium, stretching her broad arms, flexing her strong legs, moving with exquisite control beneath her nightgown, already in her early 80s, already a widow, three-times an immigrant, three times a mother and grandmother of seven — before rising from bed to lay out the breakfast spread, make tea, and wake us with an inexplicably soothing yet unavoidable trill: “Coo-coo, coo-coo.”
How do I explain this to you?
You’re reading from a computer, or perhaps from the palm of your hand.
Maybe you knew Bluma — or your own Bluma — and loved her in your own unique and meaningful way. Maybe you’ve never met her, or one of her ilk, and have no idea to what I refer.
By the time I was old enough to visit Bluma on my own, as an adult, she was far into her 80s, and long past the age of dancing, writing choreography, even teaching. Yet every engagement with her was a creative one; her coffee table was piled with art books, her walls covered in art she’d chosen, framed, and carried across the world.
When she put on music, it wasn’t without purpose — and explanation — as were the myriad trips to museums, sculpture gardens, and symphony halls.
Was this not normal? What did other people talk about with their grandmothers? Not Matisse’s cutouts? Or Rostropovich’s bent endpin? Or Martha Graham’s contraction and release?
When she had a stroke on the morning of my 29th birthday, we flew across the world to see her in the hospital (a bitter birthday coffee during the Frankfurt airport layover is emblematic of the experience). We crowded around her bedside, before there was a clear prognosis. She looked up at me and said:
“Why are you here?”
The familiar edges of her South African English — hardly bent by the strain of the hospital equipment, the discomfort of laying still, the hemorrhage in her brain.
“Why aren’t you at home working on your novel?”
Then she fell asleep. We never spoke again.
Hear her now: “Coo-coo, coo-coo.”
She was not only an audience, Bluma; she spoke back to the creators with her own creations, her own creativity.
Thus her words were not meant to shame; they were an honest question. “This is an unplanned trip, and you have work to do.” It was an appropriate inquiry. A meaningful farewell.
I think my ambition to create was understandable to her; perhaps the only part of my life which was. It was artistic living, and artistic living was what she knew, what she taught, what she left us.
Also: it shows how seriously she took my art, and by consequence, me.
I think, now, that maybe art was all she could make of such a variable and discordant life: from unfinished basement bars in Lithuanian shtetls, to school gyms in Johannesburg townships, to suburban dance troupes in Kfar Shmaryahu backyards, to children’s cello lessons in Anaheim living rooms, to tours of sculpture gardens in Dutch countryside estates. A series of worlds as fluid and unaccountable as any artistic sensibility, any desire to take motion and make it into art.
To tell your story. To move through it. To live creatively enough to take meaning and make, from all of it, something more than sense.
It doesn’t make it easy. To know the ghosts are waiting. That they are asking for me to write.
That they love me in this way; that they push me.
I see them patiently seated on that soft, half-collapsed couch, sipping a freshly brewed pot of tea, watching Jacqueline Dupre perform “The Trout” on TV, listening to Philip Roth explain the formative influences of New Jersey on his themes, tracking the thick-twack of Wimbleton as if it too is prance, pirouette, prose.
Watching, listening, waiting — with expectation, with clarity, with poise.
“Come now, Joey. Coo-coo.”
Time to get up.
Hoping you find yourself surrounded by love and/or chocolate today, creators. Thank you for joining me for this bit.
Onward toward creative joy,