On growing the soul

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When I was a child, our family had a piano in the upstairs of our house. We had just one large sunny room with windows all around it. If you took piano lessons like I did, you may have had this sort of experience. First my mom forces me to go to lessons, and I learn how to play chords and scales. I use an egg timer from the kitchen and a detailed chart to write down exactly how many minutes I play. A wonderful teacher, who thinks that I have some talent, encourages me. Then, after a year or two, I begin to play music, real music. Music that I love to hear.

And I no longer use the timer and the chart, but I sneak up into the room upstairs. Then I open all the windows and let the breeze from the ocean billow through, and the metal blinds begin to clang. I sit down at the keys and practice until I can recognize all the notes without having to say “all cars eat gas” and “every good bird does fly” over in my head a hundred times. And then, if I really love the piece, I play it so much that I don’t even need to look at the music.

It’s at that point that something happens. I begin to get a sense of the history of the piece. I’m not sure if it’s the emotion of the melody, or just knowing that so many people played the notes before me, but I have this feeling like I’m a small part of a flowing river that moves around me, even through me. Somehow the tips of my fingers start to funnel the feeling that’s in my confused and ever-changing body, the almost manic emotions that I have as a preteen: the excitement, the anger, the fear, and the hope, it ebbs around me.

I’m making it sound like I was some great pianist. I wasn’t. In fact my next piano teacher made a point of telling me how awful I was. She was very concerned with the egg timer and the chart. I didn’t tell her about the banging blinds that kept my rhythm, because she wanted a tightly wound metronome keeping me on track. I didn’t last long with her. I think my lessons ended within a year or two. That certainly stunted my growth as a pianist, but it didn’t keep me from sneaking away into that breezy upstairs. I think it’s because I was drawn by something within myself and outside of myself.

God creates us. Everyday our bodies change. Our minds transform, too: We begin to think of things differently. We learn from our perspective and experience, from our tragedies and celebrations. And when we make things, we become a part of the creative energy of God. Because we have been created by God, we’re drawn by God to create. And many people feel a divine connection in the process.

Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by what happens when we create something. I love to read about artists and writers, especially when they talk about when they first got into the habit of painting or typing. The stories often begin with insomnia, the need for money, or some sort of tragedy. Often, they end with a greater sense of knowing God.

William Blake, the artist and poet said, “I myself do nothing. The Holy Spirit accomplishes all through me.”

The painter, Piet Mondrian, said, “The position of the artist is humble, he [sic] is essentially a channel.”

The composer, Johannes Brahms explained, “Straightaway the ideas flow in upon me, directly from God.”

The surrealist painter, Rene-Francois-Ghislain Magritte pronounced that “art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”

And for those of us who may not be able to craft poems like Blake or compose like Brahms, there’s hope for us too. Kurt Vonnegut, the novelist and humanist, came out with another book at the age of eighty-four, complete with his own drawings. When he was asked about his artwork, he said: “Everybody should paint…. The arts are not a way to make a living, or to become famous or rich, they’re a way to make the soul grow. If you practice them badly, that’s fine. Everybody should be painting, or drawing, or dancing, badly, because it makes the soul grow.”

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