Could art have saved Clare’s poor brother? If he had been given the power of expression in some imaginative form, if he had been able to impose unity and coherence on his life through a creative enterprise, would he have been alive today? from Southern Family, by Gail Godwin
Re-reading books is always interesting. On one hand, you recall the general aura of your impression, you remember certain passages and can greet them as you would an old acquaintance whom you hadn’t seen in a long time. On the other, the experiences you’ve lived through in the time between readings give you a new perspective, make some parts of the book either more or less appealing.
And so it is as I re-read Southern Family. The passage above is one of many that has struck a new chord with me since I first immersed myself in the lives of the Quick family back in 1987. To read those words this morning is doubly intriguing ~ just yesterday a similar topic came up on several occasions, all in different venues, and when an idea swirls around in your life like that, you cannot help but think there’s an important message from the universe there somewhere.
The lines above refer to poor Theo Quick, the 28-year-old man whose violent death is at the centerpiece of Godwin’s story. Aimless and lost, he never quite finds his place within his own dysfunctional family or the world around him. The reader learns about Theo through all the other members of his family, as they react to his death and recall his life. It’s Theo’s brother-in-law, Felix, who shares the thought above, a thought that comes to him as he listens to the legendary pianist Claudio Arrau, perform Brahms Sonata in F minor, a hauntingly rich piece of music. Felix’s wife, Clare (who is Theo’s sister and a novelist) has once told an audience of writer’s that if she “hadn’t been able to be a writer, I would probably be in jail – or worse.” Felix believes this to be true, for when she was “not being successful, she was the unhappiest of creatures. She hated herself at such times and couldn’t understand how anyone could love her.”
I think there are two important points to consider here. First, recognizing one’s passion, what one is meant to be doing (which may indeed be of an artistic nature, but might just as well be statistical analysis or brick laying or farming the land or playing basketball.) This very topic came up in conversation with a colleague, whose son has just returned for his junior year of college. He decided to declare a major in education, although his father had been “trying to steer him into business.” This young man has spent his summers teaching at summer camp in downtown Detroit, and on his last day actually shed tears because he was going to “miss those kids.” I don’t even know Rob, but I can tell there must be a sense of calling, a feeling of rightness about teaching, to engender that kind of response in a 21 year old.
And then, dinner with two former colleagues, one who left the world of office work to return to her original field – nannying. A woman with no children of her own, with a childhood from hell in her background, nevertheless, she is one of the most loving, nurturing people I’ve ever met. She was so clearly in her element as she talked about her young charges and the things they were doing, so relaxed and calm. How lucky for them, and for her, to have found this “sweet spot” for her life.
So yes, finding your passion can save you. But obviously most importantly, one must be able to do it. Clare says that if she “hadn’t been able to be a writer,” if something or someone stopped her from practicing her art, she would “probably be in jail.” Modern life can play horrible tricks on people, snatch away their ability to do the things that matter most to them. Perhaps family pressures, or financial circumstances, or locations – any number of obstacles can prevent us from doing what we love and are best suited to do.
I think “art” (at least in the form of music and writing) has saved me a myriad of times in just as many ways. It hasn’t brought me fame or fortune – far from it – but that really isn’t the point. “Not everyone can be a Künstler,” Felix’s Uncle Hermann used to say, “but many of us, fortunately, can be Teilnehmer in Kunst. We can be partners in art.”
I strongly believe every person has within them something that will incite those feelings, something about which they can be passionate, something that will make “life seem a finer, mysterious thing.”
And I believe it can save you.