When I was four, my parents took me to some elderly relative’s house for god knows what special occasion, and on that day, changed my life.
I’m not sure if it's this way for everyone, but I have only a few memories from my toddlerhood. These are precious little snippets here and there – eating cereal with my cousin in matching pajamas, playing dress-up at preschool, spilling ice cream in the car. Most of these don’t change your life, but this one moment actually did.
Back to the middle-of-wherever-we-were-Saskatchewan, in a basement that had (as tiny me recalls) some toys, perhaps a television… who cares. All I remember is the piano.
It was one of those old upright pianos with the short top – not a black shiny thing like in a piano store or a music conservatory, but a faded brown wooden thing, like one plays for choir practice in a musty church basement. I was bewitched by it. Obsessed even. I plinked. I plonked. I played notes close together and far apart. I mashed my whole hand down. I played one note over and over. I rumbled the very lowest notes and flicked the ultra-high. I was in heaven.
I always thought I had shelved that memory neatly on the Pre-K shelf in my brain because I went on to study piano and, ultimately, to become an opera singer. This was the beginning of all that, so my brain must have said “aha! The genesis story! We’ll need this later,” earmarked it, and tucked it away for safekeeping.
Now, I think the real reason that memory burns so brightly is because something in my little soul that day said “oh, well done! You have found me.” I felt like I opened up a door in my wee little heart and let the light in.
Maybe you have a similar early artistic or creative memory as well. Maybe it’s a memory of dancing, or of drawing, or making something really crazy and original out of lego or playdough or sand. Maybe it’s the first school play you were in, or the first solo you sang at church. Or maybe it was the first time you saw someone do something really fantastically artistic. Maybe you saw Whitney Houston rip it up singing the national anthem and something about it lit your ever-loving soul on fire.
I’ve found that most people have an early artistic memory of some kind. Unfortunately, we also know that many people have a painful memory from their childhood about their creativity, self-expression, or artistic interest. Perhaps you brought home a picture you made at school and a parent said it wasn’t very good. Or someone told you you couldn’t dance. Or you flubbed a line in the Christmas pageant and people laughed. Many people have a searing memory like that which, unfortunately, closed that door they had just opened – closed it so tight no more light could get in.
When I touched that piano that day, I was fully alive. That’s how you were when you first twirled around the room with your arms in the air like the ballerina on Sesame Street, or discovered how to layer different colours of paint on the page, or felt the thrill of dressing up and playing a silly character. Those are spiritual experiences. Hell, when Whitney frickin’ nailed the Star Spangled Banner that day, people wept. I still cry when I see it. Not because her technique is flawless (it is). Not because her artistry is unique and powerful and moving (check check check). But because, if I am totally in the moment watching it, the fully awake and alive part of me connects with the fully alive and awake part of her. The aliveness in me sees the aliveness in her.
Being open to artistic creativity, whether it’s our own or that of another person, is spiritual. And if that spiritual part of ourselves was hurt at some point, it can be hard to open that door to ourselves again. If our teacher once told us that our art sucked, maybe all art sucks. If our parent once told us that singing is a stupid hobby and isn’t a real job, it’s a lot easier to not be willing to be vulnerable and soft and open and connect to someone who is singing.
Art is not only fun and cool and interesting and entertaining, it’s also profoundly spiritual. Perhaps people don’t love the fine arts anymore not just because they don’t know how, but also because they feel (even subconsciously) that art isn’t for them, because someone once told them so.