I came home from work one night to find my office had become an art gallery.
Construction paper of red, blue and yellow festooned the walls, covered with paint, with stickers, with bits of tape. “Bowling got canceled today,” my wife Heather offered by way of explanation.
And it did explain.
Regular readers may remember that Missy, our developmentally disabled ward, loves bowling over almost anything else in life, with the possible exception of a car radio set to ’11’ blaring the greatest hits of Face. Long before her Wednesday trips to the alley, “I wan’ go bowling” will be heard at regular intervals.
So with a bowling date foiled, something else had to take its place. For Heather and Missy, it was an “art afternoon.”
The result was simple joy, both in the making and in the seeing.
Obviously, Missy’s not the first person to channel frustration into art. It’s well known, for example, that Beethoven’s “Pathetique” came to be after the composer failed to bowl 300 in a crucial league game (the fact that his biographers blame instead his disgust at his hearing loss is clearly a cover-up). You use what you have, transmuting pain or intransigence into beauty.
It’s something I got to see at very close range, a few years back.
In Emporia, Kansas, there’s a coffee shop called the Javacat-5. Local artists decorate the walls with their work, which can be just about any medium, just about any style. One day, the paintings were a vivid, piercing form of abstract art I had never seen, slashes of blue or of red, a sharp internal rhythm made visible to all.
I interviewed the artist, a young woman who had never really considered a career in art before going to school on an athletic scholarship. Her life probably would have stayed a series of win-loss records for the next few years except for one thing.
Team sports were out of the question. Any sports were out of the question. And so, she decided to paint out her pain – to take the lights and colors that assaulted her at regular intervals and put them onto canvas.
The results were staggering.
It struck me – and it strikes me now – that if that can become something striking and awe-inspiring, anything can.
Life gives us a lot of excuses to quit. Often very legitimate ones. Physical pain, emotional stress, loss beyond what any person should be asked to endure. Even minor frustrations can add up into something seemingly unbearable, where we want to become 9 years old again and hide under the covers for a couple of hours.
But there’s a power in those moments, too. And if we can find a way to use that power, however difficult it may seem, the moment can be transformed.
The science fiction author Spider Robinson once cited the Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy: “Neither can ever be created or destroyed. But one can be converted into the other.”
No one says it’s easy, any more than smashing atoms is easy. But it starts by not stopping. By finding somewhere else, anywhere else, for the hurt of the moment to go.
That’s how you get piercing beauty on a canvas. Or enduring music from a piano.
Or, once in a while, innocent and vivid strokes of paint on sheets of construction paper.
It’s an experience not to be missed. Especially if it’s been Missy’d.