“Blessed are they that see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.”—Camille Pissarro
By Kelly Bargabos
My youngest nephew was five years old when we boarded the elevator in my building and stared up at the lit numbers counting down from the fourth floor to the first and he blurted, “I love the city. I want to marry it.”
He and I had just spent a day hanging out at my condo that was in an old brick building where workers once left their sweat on the factory floor and now the place breathed new life filled with mostly childless couples of varying ages who had time and money to walk to restaurants, hip new bars and lounges, and all the festivals and events held in the city’s downtown square.
That day, my nephew saw a different life up close as we roamed the streets and walked the gritty landscape of a northeast post-industrial city on a Saturday. Even with his limited life experience, he could sense how different it was from his suburban, predictable, daycare-to-private-school-life. His five-year-old brain didn’t have the language to articulate the strong emotion bubbling up in his chest, so he used what he knew.
My aunt Sharon died last July after fighting cancer for a few years. She was eighty-one and the last time I visited her, I was awestruck at her peace with knowing the end was near. I wish that same peace for myself someday. Her funeral was held a few days later in the place she came from. She was born on a farm in a one-intersection town that didn’t even warrant a stoplight. The service was held in the Town’s only church, located on the Northwest corner of that intersection. It was a modest white building with a small steeple and a sign out front that told of the next church supper and the summer field days. I sat with my brothers and sisters in wooden pews behind my parents while they greeted old men and women who they had been in grade school with, others they had known when they were just starting out as a married couple and some they met when their kids were little at the same time as us. There were others they hadn’t known at all but they were associated with the familial names of the town. My parents whispered with cupped hands around their mouths and pointed—“He’s a Kincaid.” “Oh, she’s a Miller, I knew her brother.” “Oh, I know her … what is her name? She used to work at the dentist’s office. It’s going to drive me crazy,” and then they’d smile and say hello like they knew exactly who she was.
I was happy just to be there that day with my mom and dad, sitting behind them as if it was forty-five years earlier and we were getting ready for a Sunday church service. I watched people filter through the receiving line to greet my aunt’s children and their families with stories of how they knew her and what she meant to them. This community knew hard work and tough times and you saw the battle lines in their faces and eyes and felt it in their strong, muscular hands that had worked them through this life. They were proud, not victims. They were old but satisfied to still be here. They were slower to think and speak but quick to share a handshake or a hug and were genuinely happy to see their people come together in this place.
As I watched this unfold, I was struck with an overwhelming desire to capture this scene. I needed to figure out a way to write about it. I had to find just the right words to describe the smell of old hymnals and church basements, to articulate what it is like to watch your parents greet old friends and grieve the loss of someone who stood with them at their wedding. I wanted to tell how the light broke through the stained glass and for a moment bathed us all in its glow.
Yes, I know this is the very thing that makes us writers, but why? What is it that makes me want to write about it? What is the purpose? What am I trying to achieve? I also realize that the desire to capture moments that touch our souls is not unique to writers. Writing is just one form of Art. But what is the phenomenon that makes us want to write about these moments, or depict them in a photograph, or a painting, or a song lyric or movie plot? Why are some of us convicted with that thought of “I need to write this” or “I need to paint that?”
That urge or compulsion to document, to capture, to witness, to share because it touches us so deeply, is at the core of being human. This is what separates us from other creatures and living things on the earth. Art separates us. Art is the language we use to convey moments like these to others. Art is created when a moment, an experience, a sunset, a landscape, a person, overwhelms your senses and compels you to capture the feeling, the emotion, the connection to other humans, in whatever your medium is—words, paint, music, theater, film, pictures, poetry, voice.
This is why art matters. Artists have something they need to say. Most of us do not commit to our work or our craft in lust of notoriety, fame and fortune. No, we do it because we love what we see so much we are compelled, driven and harassed by our inner voice until we put pen to paper or until we draw or paint or create. We cannot rest until we’ve done what we can to capture and record, to preserve the moments and share them in the only way we know how.
Artists work to hold on to real life, in its most raw state, so that we can all remember this day, this sunlight, this cathedral, this heroine, or that farmer in my aunt’s hometown. We are so in love with this beautiful life and all of its pain and glory, its aching sadness and joy, the people who inhabit our generation, the ones who’ve come before us and the ones we will leave behind. We love it all so much we want to marry it.
Kelly Bargabos is currently hosting two podcasts, All There Is and Here to LEAD, and the author of Chasing the Merry-Go-Round: Holding on to Hope & Home When the World Moves Too Fast, a 2018 Nautilus Book Award Silver winner and a finalist in the National Indie Excellence Awards. She is currently serving as a board member for the SDWEG and finishing a nonfiction book on mastering the art of leadership.