Every Tuesday night, after I have faced an entire Monday and the First Day That is Not Monday and therefore basically a holiday, I collapse exhausted in front of our television for the one and only night each week that I get control of the remote. I go to my DVR list and push play on the previous night’s episode of Dancing With the Stars. And I am surprised and delighted and deeply moved every single time. No matter how many times this happens, I never expect the show will draw such an emotional response from me. And then it always does. I am moved by the production quality of the dances and the way the camera moves around them. I am inspired by the hard work, the learning process of the stars and what they have accomplished. Most of all, I fold into a mess of joy and awe and renewed inspiration. Art makes us feel.
Looking back on my teen and young adult years, I notice something about my love for film. My circle of teens lived by a no-dating philosophy so thorough you probably can’t even fathom it. You couldn’t date until 16? We’re not even in the same conversation. Our no-dating didn’t even have a number assigned to it. It was not a rule, it was a philosophy. And I believed in it and found it perfectly endurable until Robin Hood Prince of Thieves came along, and I realized I would absolutely fight, lie, walk the wire, and die to have someone look at me like Robin looked at Marian.
Similarly, in those years I developed a very consistent belief that life is about what you put into it, not what you get out. The joy is in our effort and our passion, not in the reward. Then in those last few minutes before the credits, a bunch of fictional characters onscreen who seemed to be headed toward sorrow or separation or defeat totally overcame, and I realized I wanted my happy ending so much that it hurt. Art seeks the authentic in me like a heat missile.
Every time I have seen a musical on-stage, I cry. And I am so swept away by the power of art that I start plotting my future foundation. It’s for the uninspired and underprivileged in any community. And it gives them this experience of a live performance in a beautiful theater with an epic story perfectly executed in live action around them, where the actors periodically sing and dance about the stage. I want to do this because I believe: Art lifts us higher.
You can find it in every happiness study on the planet. Experiences are better than things. It is with all this lit up inside me that I take my mother to a high school musical tonight and celebrate the person who taught me all these things and more about the power, the discipline required, the great reward, the gift to others, and the sheer deep-down joy of art. Mom turns a very even, very swirly, precious decade today, and so my foundation will have to wait. Tonight, the inspiration is for the person who most inspires me.
Last night, I stood backstage as the play’s directors reminded these high school artists why they have worked so hard to bring this happy musical to a community stage even as the world continues to carry the weight of terror, war, and heartbreak. You do it for the widow, they said, who last saw Hello Dolly! when Carol Channing played the starring role. She saw it with her husband then and tonight will watch it without him after losing him less than one year ago. You do it because art makes us feel. It seeks the authentic in us like a heat missile, and it lifts us higher.
I heard them describe this sense of giving joy to the widow, and I thought of my mother. I could not wait to bring her into a room prepped with that much love for people, for storytelling, and for all the things she’s taught me from the beginning. She made room in our lives for art. And because of her, and partly because of that, my world is brighter, richer, and true.
I hope it’s a happy birthday, Mama. I hope you feel inspired.