When I was a senior in college, I traveled to the Bronx, NY, to interview for a job as a community organizer. During the interview process (which lasted all weekend), one of the organizers spoke to us about why she left her career as a stage manager to become an organizer. She said something that made such a huge impression on me that I re-evaluated everything I knew to be true.
“Art doesn’t bring social justice.”
This put two of my most cherished ideals in conflict. I was the English major who’d devoted time each summer since the age of 13 to ending hunger and homelessness. I read poetry and I gleaned corn. I studied Shakespeare and the reasons for domestic and global hunger. I became a vegetarian. I recycled. I volunteered at the local homeless shelter when I could.
I also auditioned (unsuccessfully) for plays, read my poems at open mic nights, and took in all the live music I could get my ears on. I decided to major in English while loving every last word of a mythology poem. If I could savor each word so specifically, what was I doing majoring in psychology or sociology? Even after I declared, I had no real plan. Someone just said, “major in the thing you love the most.” When you make it that simple, it becomes an easy choice. I finally decided to be a teacher while reading a book. Every decision I’ve made that seems to fit me has come from following my heart.
Being a community organizer was something I felt like I should try. It seemed like a tough but important opportunity. So when that woman said art didn’t change anything, I took it personally. Not because I owned art or even considered myself a part of art, but I definitely believed art changed people because it changed me.
But I was 21 years old, optimistic and impressionable, and I thought this meant that I couldn’t have it both ways: I couldn’t pursue feats of imagination when people lacked food and shelter. If I was serious about wanting to “change the world,” I had to choose.
Dear 21-year-old me: That woman lied!
The only thing that changes complicated political/cultural/social barriers is Art.
Art and service to each other.
It’s not partisan activist groups.
It’s not unions.
It’s not xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, or tribalism.
It’s not gun control Facebook fights.
It’s not passive aggressive gratitude posts.
It’s not gloating after your side wins an election.
It’s not a lot of things that pretend to change the world.
The world is changed one person at a time, over long periods of time.
Back in May of 2011, comedian Marc Maron interviewed Garry Shandling on his podcast and the two were discussing solutions to political and spiritual dilemmas. Maron, who once worked for the now-defunct Air America talk radio, speaks about turning away from politics because he came to believe people’s real problems were more existential than political. I take that to mean that we need to grapple with our own decision-making (free will) versus picking a side or a team.
Garry Shandling said maybe the only thing that could transcend those differences is art.
Marc Maron said maybe the only thing that could change things is heart.
“I think it’s heart,” Maron repeated softly, with a vulnerability that makes you listen closer.
Others might say faith.
I was taken right back to that moment of truth from my youth when I thought I had to pick a side.
It’s a false choice.
I didn’t end up getting that job as an organizer. Thank goodness. I would have spent that entire year trying to be someone I am not. Someone too cynical about “reality” to honor the power creativity has in lifting the most burdened body or soul.
“We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”
If ever a person was in love with the world, it was our recently departed Bradbury. He put a microscope on the truth, then he moved forward in pursuit of joy.
The fire was gone, then back again, like a winking eye. He stopped, afraid he might blow the fire out with a single breath. But the fire was there and he approached warily, from a long way off. It took the better part of fifteen minutes before he drew very close indeed to it, and then he stood looking at it from cover. That small motion, the white and red color, a strange fire because it meant a different thing to him.
It was not burning. It was warming.
He saw many hands held to its warmth, hands without arms, hidden in darkness. Above the hands, motionless faces that were only moved and tossed and flickered with firelight. He hadn’t known fire could look this way. He had never thought in his life that it could give as well as take.
There was a silence gathered all about that fire and the silence was in the men’s faces, and time was there, time enough to sit by this rusting track under the trees and look at the world and turn it over with the eyes, as if it were held to the center of the bonfire, a piece of steel these men were all shaping. It was not only the fire that was different. It was the silence.
–Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
There is too much talking right now and not enough silence. In honor of those 20 children in Connecticut, and the adults who tried desperately to save them, I choose to listen before I speak. I choose to celebrate service before I give an audience to hatred. Those teachers, among whom could have been my own sister and one of my dearest friends, did what teachers do every day. They protect their students, they expose them to art, history, science, math, literature: they give them a glance into something bigger than themselves.
When I was in second grade, my teacher said to me: “You like writing, don’t you?”
Yes, yes I do.