Sunday, August 12, 2018

2018.08.12 Art Is Memory

"Art is memory. It is the excavation of so many memories we have had - of our mothers, our best and worst moments, of glorious experiences we have had with friends or films or music or dance or a lovely afternoon on a sloping, green hill. All of this enters us and, if we are artists, must be shared, handed over to others. This is why it is so important to know what came before you. It is also important to understand that things will follow you, and they may come along and make your work look pedestrian and silly. This is fine; this is progress. We have to work with what life presents to us, and we have to work as well as we can while we can.”  Martha Graham, modern dance artist (1894-1991). Photo portrait by Yousuf Karsh, 1948.
We are in Nantucket, a place of memory—over 50 years of it. Everyone’s memories are different. Everyone’s creative expression is unique. Everything passes into memory. Nothing will ever be the same. Graham calls this progress. I call it the way of the Spirit—creating, re-creating, re-membering, over and over and over again in multiple shapes and sizes.

Isn’t this what the art of Scripture is—re-member, re-create, re-call, re-invite?  Nothing is new and everything is new, generation by generation of interpretation. Know where you came from and hand it all over to others. That’s how it lasts. Graham sank into a major depression after she left ballet. Her wisdom came out of this darkness; she re-created her art and her life in choreography until her death in 1991. 

Is this what Mary of Nazareth did when she found herself pregnant? She raced off alone to see her cousin Elizabeth. What woman would set off on such a difficult and arduous journey in that vulnerable condition? Wasn’t Joseph available? Oh, that’s right he didn't know yet. This unbidden state of affairs had to be frightening. We don't know if Mary was depressed, but the story tells us she felt a familiar spiritual assurance before she fled into the hills.

I remember a time when I thought I was pregnant and wanted to flee like Mary. I was in high school. I was going steady with the man who in time became my first husband. We shivered in fear—together. He would call me every single day to check on my menstrual status. Our code was: “Are there carp in the H’s pool?” Really! No meant I had not gotten my period, and yes that I had. If I answered yes we planned to sneak into the H’s pool, a neighborhood rarity in the 1950s, and take a big fat illegal bloody swim—quietly in the dark.

That’s how crazy we felt at the prospect of our tender young lives being possibly over, or at least so disrupted that we would be rent asunder by parental rage, or worse, divine wrath. My mother caught me sobbing, so I confessed my fear. She sent us to the local GP who told us the facts of life—again. Then he suggested that our fears had caused us to imagine a scientific impossibility. (We hadn’t even had intercourse, just got overheated, and imagined the worst, something like the sin of the biblical Onan who spilled some sperm, but in our case we imagined that such spillage could defy the law of gravity and travel upward and into my womb.) 

The kindly doctor might as well have been God, because his word alone dispelled our fears, and, miraculously, induced my menstrual blood the very next day. Mary of Nazareth discovered that Joseph would marry her, and that her elderly cousin had an irregular, postmenopausal, pregnancy.

My story isn’t the same as Mary’s, but I re-membered hers and re-created it in my own. As Graham wrote:  “Art is memory. Artists have to work with what life presents to us, and we have to work as well as we can while we can.”  That’s what God the Artist does.

Scripture is art, and art is memory, and memory keeps us alive and dancing.