“I think everything in life is art. What you do. How you dress. The way you love someone and how you talk. Your smile and your personality. What you believe in and all your dreams. Life is art.” So says actress Helena Bonham Carter, known for her roles in Harry Potter and The Crown, among others.
Contrast that quote with a dictionary definition:” Art is the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a form like such as painting, music, literature, and dance.”
I vote for Ms. Carter’s depiction. For too many, art is what other people do, the creative ones, with a paint-smeared smock or pottery clay on the floor. It is the stack of papers that represent an 85,000-word novel. Art is a photograph of a sunset behind the mountains that takes your breath away or a ballerina able to spin on her toes flawlessly during Swan Lake.
True, all those examples represent art. Each shows a particular talent or skill that results in a physical or visual outcome. Our world is better for every one of those examples. Yet, they are such a small segment of what makes art in our world, so limiting in how we tend to see our lives.
Let me take a detour for a moment and see if this new thought connects with what I have just said. If you read a book, watch a movie, even read a magazine article, it will have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. This was a lesson you likely learned in English class while writing an essay or book report.
Something must set the scene to grab your attention, to pull you into whatever you are reading or watching. Then, a story unfolds that motivates you to stay with it. Finally, a conclusion brings all the loose ends to a satisfying conclusion.
Again, not a lightning bolt of awareness. The parallel between this basic concept and living is evident, too. We are born, we fill the years with everything that makes up our life on earth, and then all of it ends. We hope that the memories that linger bring smiles to the faces of those still here. We hope that we left something behind that made another human life better.
A morning meditation not long ago brought all this to mind; the subject was impermanence. Our thoughts come and go, relationships, too. A loved dog or cat is part of our life for maybe a dozen years and then lives in our memories. Nothing we touch, experience, create, hold, build, paint, or love is permanent. All are fleeting in the grand scheme of things.
Just like the last amazing book you read or movie that melted your heart, our life is built around the same model: we had a beginning, we are living in the middle, and at some time, we end. We don’t control the beginning; we usually have little control over how our story ends.
Sure, circumstances of where and how our story begins do matter, but we can’t affect that. The mortality of all living things means we can’t just decide to live another 10 or 20 years if that isn’t in our genetic makeup. It is the middle that is really up to us.
So, to loop back to the opening quote, the creative part of life that Ms. Carter is talking about is the middle. This is where the uniqueness of you happens. Whether that middle is meaningful, is satisfying, leaves a positive mark, and is more than just bridging the gap from the beginning to the endpoint is, to a degree, our story to write. Even if the circumstances of someone’s life have been difficult, filled with struggle and loss, the way that person reacts to the hand dealt them makes all the difference.
And, I contend that how you fill your middle is what makes you both creative and artistic, it is what makes you fully human and irreplaceable. Not permanent, very much impermanent, but with an ability unique among living creatures to express yourself in ways that no other human ever created can replicate.
Life is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is what we do in the middle that makes it distinctive.