My summer internship with Americans for the Arts has regrettably come to an end. If I knew an inch about marriage, I’d say this feels a lot like the ride back from the honeymoon. Which I mention only to suggest how uneasy I feel saying farewell to ten weeks worth of swimming through everything art. With people who love it so tremendously, they fight for it each day.
It’s times like this when every instruction kneaded into my writing toolbox knocks on my door and offers itself to me—mostly to make sure each emotional simile this blog post doesn’t need can be prevented, like overlooked leaks beneath the kitchen sink (they persist, nonetheless).
At any rate, the advice knocking today is this: “Kiss the beginning.” And I think it’s only right to revisit the very first question I posed this summer (presented to you in the title), to see what many experiences I’m able to offer at its side.
As I mull everything over now, though, I’ll present just a couple. These two ideas, I hope, should suffice.
So to begin with a lesson I’ve learned on this journey, which is less about art and more about being human: I am small. This is not a commentary on my physical stature, but more on my existence and each of our lives. We are unfathomably small.
It’s hard for me to grapple with this truth, because since conception we’ve been taught and treated otherwise. The idea of our singular importance persists by way of talent shows, academic ceremonies, sporting and artistic competitions, promotions, and so on. And it’s not my wish to attack the way our societies reward this measure of our own greatness. If anything, with the Olympics as a perfect example, a single person’s achievements help to heal and unite an entire nation.
Yet, this summer has also seen its fair share of division. In the wake of political and social controversies, violent attacks on innocent lives, and downright horrifying news, quite literally every day I sunk into a moment of shock and fear. Not only is our world spiraling, I thought, but I’m too small to do anything about it.
The recognition of my own miniaturization has not prevented me from standing up for what I believe. I wrote to my legislators last month in a plea to save the South Carolina Arts Commission, as well as the funding for other organizations of importance in my home state.
And I’m not suggesting we should all sink into despair by knowing we can’t move mountains. We’ve simply just forgotten that most things are not designed to be done alone. Yes, it’s a sentimental statement, but I’m also not going to apologize for its simplicity.
I believe our smallness is a testament to our flawed beauty. It is a sign of humility and strength. It is the very being of our humanity. We should be taught how small we are in the same ways we are influenced to adore the infinite power we possess.
This power I’m mentioning brings me to my second lesson, which is more an anecdote than a bullet point.
A week and a half ago, my summer host parents and I drove into downtown Silver Spring, MD for a local concert. Nothing overtly extraordinary happened that night: we sat in our picnic chairs a short distance from the stage, listened as the band covered a number of country and pop songs, and then left to return to our quiet beds.
By my estimation, around 150 people attended that night. People of many different ages, races, religions, shoe sizes, sexualities, and food preferences. And these people danced together and held hands and petted each other’s lovely dogs. All across the street from a recent controversial fast food restaurant, no less. Still, I supposed this wouldn’t convince me this event was laudable enough for an epiphany.
Then, a week passed and I found myself visiting a good friend, someone who is wise beyond his years. It was then in conversation that he’d said the most profound thing I’ve heard about the power of art:
“We live in a world that moves exponentially fast. So to know that people still choose to purchase tickets for some two hours or more, to sit in complete silence and just listen to someone else—it’s incredible. With that type of power, if you’re the person on that stage, you better have something worth saying.”
And to you, reader, this may just seem a simple observation. But if you’ll allow me to let you enter the childlike wonderment I still keep tucked in my head, then that concert was less an event than it was our country in love with herself. And the songs the band played were more an allegiance we chanted back, defending the right to accept our differences for the sake of a single song.
And the entire audience was really just a baby girl on the sidewalk. The one dancing by herself and everyone’s looking at her move. She’s a tiny little thing, but has enough authority to hold our attention, to make us quiet enough to believe there’s something out there worth listening to beyond ourselves.
And finally, I felt small and I felt powerful. That was extraordinary.