My mother died this week. It happened suddenly and peacefully. Her cancer, which had spread from the lungs to the bones to the spine, finally won the battle. The passing was a difficult time for my father. He was mom’s caretaker for the past ten years as she had succumbed to alcohol-induced dementia a decade before. The passing was numbing for me. One day early this week, I sat in a restaurant for three hours numb and in what I would describe as a “state of non-emotion.” The same death, but different interpretations of that death. Mom is gone – but her memory remains. But the memories are different for my father and me, and they are different for my two older sisters. The paintings in our minds are each unique; even the colors are not the same. So, what does my picture look like?
I have never been an art fan. I do not love museums or art exhibits. Perhaps the main reason for this is that I am not a visual artist. I have never had a natural proclivity toward drawing or painting, unless it was “paint by numbers.” I cannot draw to save my life. Even as a college teacher I am afraid to illustrate something on the board for fear of being laughed at. When I do draw on the board, the students often have no idea what I just drew. No wonder I am not an art fan. But is it that I am fated to be a lousy artist or is there still hope for a 58-year-old professor? Is art something one can learn to do, or is it a gift that one is born with? Could I paint a decent piece of art if I had to?
In this week’s text, William Dyrness says of art, “Art, then is that human activity that goes beyond the useful to embody in allusive color, shape, or sound the joy or pain of being human. [Italics mine]” There is more to art than meets the eye – or the ear. This might be common knowledge for some, but it was a revelation for me. The question is not, “What does art look like or sound like?” The better question is, “What does the art mean?”
I teach cultural studies, writing, and religion classes. And as I was reading our text for the week, I was reminded of how art, according to the definition above, is connected to these three disciplines. In Western culture, art is generally found in museums, places that the masses come to observe art that has made the grade. Many kinds of art decorate the walls and floors of these institutions. And each piece cries out the same question, “What is my meaning?” Some of us can interpret the work; some of us walk away dazzled, but puzzled. I fit better with the latter group. In many other cultures, however, art has a more functional purpose. Art forms are used in everyday life both for daily tasks and for religious purposes. Religion and life are unashamedly intermingled. Art, then, touches the human condition all the time, not just on the occasional journey to the art museum. Art has a place in all of life.
In his important book On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that good writing consists of four elements: Clarity, Brevity, Simplicity, and Humanity. Good writing, like good art, speaks to the deeper human condition. Good writing, even prose, is to connect clearly with the human heart, not just to the human intellect. I teach this early on in my classes. I wish every writer knew this truth, especially the authors of textbooks. The writing would then be, at the very least, more readable.
Last night while on the phone with my sister, the one planning the memorial service, I was tasked with writing a blurb on my mother’s life. As the youngest child and only son in the family, I am not so sure I was the best choice. You see, I do not have good memories of Mom. In fact, I don’t have many memories at all, particularly of my early childhood. I was raised more by my best friend’s Mexican family and by my grandparents than by my mom. Mom was not present. She spent a lot of time alone in her room. She was not nurturing. She was sad. She was drunk. But none of us knew it; it was her secret – for decades. Even as I am writing though, I am experiencing compassion. Everybody hurts once in a while. But some hurt and suffer more than others. Some cope in healthy ways; others don’t cope at all. But these folks have reasons for their pain. Pain does not come to us without a cause. Perhaps my mother had a hard past or a chemical imbalance – or both. There were reasons for her pain and for her chosen coping strategies. Perhaps a better response by me is to try to understand Mom’s human condition. I know this is better than bitterness and blame. Those are not healthy responses. So what will I write? And if I were a painter, what would I put on my canvas?
First of all, I will not write all the truth. I will write what is appropriate for the occasion. I am confident that I will do a good job with this. But it will take days to write. And my writing will be clear, concise, simple, and will speak to the grieving humans who are present. And the painting? It would have to have a dark background, very dark. But it would also have smiling middle-school children (mom worked there). It would also have books (she worked in a library – and now that I think about it – I remember that she took us kids to the library. These were good memories). There would also be a cross in the painting, a large one. The cross would not only symbolize her pain, but it would also show that she had at one time committed her life to Jesus – and He turns no one away. I am not sure what else my art would have in it. Perhaps I will paint a little more each year. And perhaps, eventually, I would paint myself there. After all, this is a piece of my story as well.
Last of all, I have been asked to sing worship choruses at the memorial service. I do not like to sing in front of others, but I will do this for Dad. When mom was in her comatose last few hours, I played and sang to her and my dad. Dad cried the whole time. Mom just lay there, seemingly unaware. But I am told that people can hear while in a coma, so maybe she did. If so, worship and music would be among her last memories on earth. Maybe it was practice for the next life? It just dawned on me that music is also a type of art. Maybe I am an artist after all.
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 99.
 William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York: Collins, 2006)