History class in middle school: at the time, I didn’t see much use in it. My teacher was round and monotonous, unable to make much of anything stick in my head. We started a new chapter – Hitler. That stuck. I grew up in a middle class family, well protected from the atrocities of the world. We went to church. We had Sunday dinners. We felt safe and loved.
Hitler shattered my naive mind. I did not believe it at first. I thought it was a story. I did not understand that such cruelty was possible in this world. It was beyond the boundaries of my young bucolic mind. I moved through the chapter with sustained disbelief, slowly accepting that this was not just a tale. People lived it, and they surely died it. I thanked a god I was not certain I believed in that it was history, and I went about my creative way, seeking…something.
Tenacity kept me focused on my art. At the time it didn’t matter how skilled I was, only that I was determined to follow nothing else. I avoided politics at all cost, asserting that it was all theatrics and that there was no way of telling the sinner from the saint. I told myself that I would affect the world in other ways – the political pulpit was not for me.
Conversely, I’ve been married to a man for nearly 20 years who read voraciously about it. He’s passionate about the debacle we call democracy. On any given day, I could have been exposed to the footnotes of current events from an opinion I well respected and enjoyed robust conversations about the nasty state of the world and the hand that our politicians have played in creating it. But I chose to remain focused on joy, beauty, and laughter… every time. He doesn’t discuss politics with me anymore, unless I pose the occasional question “what’s messed up in the world today Tommy?”, then he’s glad to share.
Last week, on way home from a FingerSmear™ project in Disney World, I picked up a New York Times in the airport. I read about random killings around the world perpetrated by men in the name of god, slaughtering humanitarians, teachers, tourists, and children. My tired, rose-colored bubble went grey. I held off the tears in the Orlando airport, and I can’t seem to see the world in the same way anymore.
A few weeks earlier I’d just returned from Uganda. It was an amazing trip that I was hesitant to take considering the state of the world. Leading up to the trip I’d heard of the attacks in Paris, Mali, and Turkey. I knew there was unrest in parts of Uganda, but I wanted to go so I skimmed past the headlines and my husband’s suggestions to “skip this one”, and I went. It was everything I hoped for, and I’m happy that fear did not stop me.
My flight home through Istanbul missed another attack by only a few days. The Ugandan village I’d worked in soon buried a pregnant woman beaten to death by her husband. He still roams free while four motherless children try to work out their fate. Syrian refugees walk their malnourished and dehydrated children across deserts to escape the war. Girls in so many parts of the world still fight for education and access to basic human rights. We try to feel safe at home in America while clowns take over our political system, ignorance spreads hate like a red tide, and we raise a generation of children addicted to media, porn, and digital battlefields, too many without a basic understanding of ethics and compassion for their fellow human beings.
Most of my adult life I’ve been looking for beauty. I try to see it in everything I paint. I find it because I’m looking for it, and I tell my students that it’s there for the taking. We are surrounded by it, especially if our bubbles are well protected. My bubbles have been through some stress testing the past couple of years and its skin has grown thin. I feed it, I try to nurture it. I want it to be hardy and strong. I want to be safe. I want to see only beauty, but I don’t anymore.
My blind faith in ‘those with powerful positions’ has allowed me to be lazy, though it has not served me well. I believe that the work I’ve done has offered some good to the world and that I have not wasted my time here, but I no longer only want to paint the beauty – because it’s only half the equation. I have a growing sadness for those that have had to live such suffering at the hands of mankind, then, and now. And I’m still suffering from that sustained disbelief that humans can be so cruel to each other, and juggling all of it against a god I’m still not sure I believe in.
My rose-colored bubble has turned gray. I still look for beauty every day, and I find it, somewhere. I know that the richness of color is only made more brilliant by the balance of grays. I believe that the world needs art today more than ever and that an understanding of its power is so critical in this delicate and brutal world. But the world is not always pretty, and if art is to be truthful, it cannot be either.