by Jenna Kalinsky.
It feels extremely odd to feel grateful for a pandemic, or at least for aspects of it. So many people are suffering, grieving, and exhausted or sick; families and individuals have been tested, uprooted, and torn apart. Businesses are collapsing and countless have lost their jobs.
Yet as much as it feels strange, indulgent, to feel intense gratitude for the very thing tearing the world into shreds, the glimmering efforts writers, musicians, and dancers are making to cope, help others, and provide joy as a result of it, are all deeply beautiful, made yet more so against the backdrop of a dark situation rife with despair.
The ideas of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has famously disseminated the idea that art isn’t art unless it’s shared and “caught” by a recipient, are perpetuated by artists whose entire raison d’être is to operate under this imperative. Knowing the purpose of art is to inspire, foster connection, engender conversation and invite healing, over the last months, artists around the world have fought, sweated, and tirelessly strived- largely without pay- to pivot their work in order to manifest this idea and serve their communities.
Arts organizations and individuals that normally provide live paid programming to local audiences have used technology to open up their concerts, readings, talks, interviews, performances, and conferences into the online space, making these events open to the public and often free.
Last month, I made an apple crumble while watching Maggie Nelson speak from her bedroom, darted in and out of a talk with four prominent nonfiction writers as I tended to my kids, and got to sit with Wynton Marsalis and his band in their homes as they played “Walkin” from Jazz at Home, his “energized, socially distanced take on the classic tune made famous by Miles Davis.”
Dancers have had to re-define “company” by creating ensemble pieces involving dancers working together from across the continents. Alvin Ailey put together an excerpt from their famous “Revelations,” and this 27-dancer bathtub Swan Lake (yes, you read that right) is extraordinary, relying on the dancers themselves to film their parts in addition to dance- from their own bathtubs.
My husband who is a symphonic musician and artistic director and his colleagues along with thousands of other performing arts peers from around the world have worked at full speed throughout the pandemic to shift, so they can still perform and share what they do on porches, in parks, in their living rooms to click-tracks, and behind plexiglass to live-stream and record in order to keep the music alive. [This distanced video of Aria from Goldberg Variations, by JS Bach is definitely worth a listen].
These are people who have lost their jobs (in a low moment, my husband called them collectively “FGEM”: (Formerly Gainfully Employed Musicians) (*you really have to read the acronym out loud for it to have the full effect), but as performing artists, their entire lives are built on the procreative circle that art needs its audience as much as an audience needs its art.
Members of communities have reached to art to get themselves through in small and gentle ways; outpourings of love and support have come in the form of neighbors banging pots and pans together- for months on end- every night at 7:30 for the workers at our nearby hospital, making homemade Black Lives Matter signs and rainbow flags, and children’s sidewalk chalk messages of hope and peace.
Then there are the creative ways people are supporting one another by putting food, paper products, and books in local little street libraries, standing in distanced clusters on weekend mornings to cheer on casual runners as if it were a marathon, and stringing Halloween candy on clotheslines with homemade signs that said “Take as much as you like! Stay safe!”
And time, that rigid beast with whom we’re in constant battle, has become drunk: wobbly with elasticity to the point of it being almost unrecognizable from its former self: there’s both less of it and more of it; there’s none, but it’s interminable; everything is the same, but nothing is the same.
Seeing how writers in particular, whose ability to produce is directly connected to the hours available to them, are using their time is deeply inspiring: now aware of how time can be reinvented or re-devised, writers both emerging and professional are embarking on writing projects they been carrying around in their minds and hearts for years, changing genres, and seizing on trying new ways of using their time by waking early to write, taking classes, finally giving themselves the opportunity to receive personal support from a coach, and holding one another up as they strive for publication and other literary, academic, and business goals.
For them, taking these creative risks, and for the work they do, I am grateful. During times of loss and challenge, books have the singular comforting effect of always providing solace, community, and a whole new world to inform my own or into which to escape.
Those writers who have experienced plunging book sales, cancelled book tours, and book launches hurriedly turned into online events, have been forced to pivot, often in difficult ways.
But writers write because we’re called to it, and despite these often intense professional challenges during this time, those who have fought to continued their work will leave their mark both in the legacy of their stories and in the psychic imprint of continuing to serve the public with those ideas, reflections of humanity, and conversations.
This year, amid the fear, the difficulties, and the stress, I feel more grateful than ever for the people who recognize how vital art is and how much it does to knit the world more closely together. I am grateful that I am able to be grateful, that the darkness doesn’t subsume everything, but in fact, serves to amplify the light.
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