Let it Shine

Art lives in acts of generous connection. The question is how to protect the tiny flame of a precious and individual life from being snuffed out.

​Lately, I am obsessed with noticing how the forces that are detrimental to the creation of art run parallel to the forces that threaten the species of the planet, populations of people deemed disposable, and the viability of life for anyone who needs to breathe. This is why I am going to commit to meeting anyone who wishes to join me, everyday, in this space where I will be publicly doing the work that I consider the work of my life, and if you are reading this, it most likely runs parallel to the work that you do, whether you presume to call it “art,” or not. Capital-A art is a loaded word  for good reason, most of which is co-optation of something human by a greedy machine and/ or elitist. I’m a fan of lowercase art, the kind that is something we all recognize by the way it makes us feel moved, because it calls us to notice something we value, which we might have lost the name for. It lives in acts of generous connection, and often revolves around the question of how to protect the tiny flame of a precious and individual life from being snuffed out.

About five years ago, I saw the 2006 film Black Snake Moan  In it, a Blues Musician (played by Samuel L. Jackson) develops a friendship with a woman (played by Christina Ricci) who is fighting for her life. She is beautiful, sensitive, and abused: a condition common to most life forms today, except for the one-to-ten percenters who are feeding off the lives of the beautiful and abused. The plot is complicated and interesting in ways that deserve your full attention, and since I haven’t seen it since 2016, I won’t try to get into it here. I am only going to share one of my favorite scenes of all time, in which this woman, waking on the couch where she has found refuge, in the home of the bluesman, has picked up a guitar and started strumming. The scene that follows goes like this.

    “Look like somebody know a song.”

    “No, you know, I got the words in my head. . . I don’t know where I learned it, you know, but I can’t play.”

    “How you feel?”

    “You know how you feel when you come out of a bad hangover, you know? Like you could open your eyes a little more?”

    “Oh, I’m there.”

    “Well,  got up real early this morning, sun was shining’, I thought, well maybe I thought, you know, maybe I’d see if I could play that split.”

What happens next is beautiful. He plays: she sings. He nods encouragement; she closes her eyes, finding the song. I had almost forgotten this element that makes it even more so, because it speaks to the precious fragility of what they are making. As they are singing, she has her eyes closed and Samuel L. Jackson’s character has his back to the door, and for much of the last verse, her abusive and frightened boyfriend, Ronnie, is entering the home extending a pistol, aiming it at the place where they are singing. I can’t do it justice. You can watch it here:

It’s like that, the endeavor of making art. You are doing it to save your life while someone with a loaded weapon is trying to kill you because it scares them to see you so raw and honest.

In this spirit, I am moved to share an occasional series of raw cuts, by an artist with no musical training, whose medium is decidedly NOT music, who just found a random five minutes to sing. I do this not because I am comfortable with the idea (I’m not. I’m a writer, not a musician. But, like many of my fellow humans, I sing in my car and in the shower)––but because I appreciate and love art in the raw. I met a wonderful white-haired woman years ago at a dinner party. She was a fifth-grade teacher and she spoke about her willingness “to be silly and weird so that they (her students) feel it’s okay, and they don’t have to be afraid of being weird.” The first name I was called was alien, and like many such names, it stuck with me for life. Lately, I have been embracing it, lovingly, in recognition of countless other fellow humans who are labeled as such, most in ways that are vastly more cruel and dehumanizing than my own childhood slight.  Life doesn’t have a time minimum when it comes to breathing, and we owe it to one another: to seize every breath we can find and offer it back up to one another, in honor of what my favorite philosopher, Achille Mbembe calls, “The Universal Right to Breathe,” a sentiment which has resounded with more depth and meaning every day of this past year. It is good to be here, breathing with you. The exercise of this right comes with a responsibility: to breathe publicly, to call each other out, the names of the living and the dead, and the song that is waiting to come, through our collective hope and grief: Let it shine.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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