The Gift of Limits

It’s now been quite some time since I last posted. April was the climax of a ridiculously busy spring, and the downslope toward a saner, more manageable schedule has been long and slow. The whole, mad, busy time, however, got me thinking about art, obstacles, and the nature of creativity.

Early in May, on a rare night when my wife and I were in the same city and otherwise unscheduled, we heard the Cincinnati May Festival performance of Mozart’s Requiem, that astonishing work commissioned in strange fashion and left unfinished at Mozart’s deathbed, circumstances that have inspired two centuries of speculation. What is now known of the Requiem’s history is rather less the stuff of film noir than Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus makes out, but the fact remains that Mozart, whose pen flowed so effortlessly across the staved page, completed or revised two great operatic works, La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute, as well as the luminous A major Concerto for (basset) clarinet in the six months following the mysterious commissioning, yet died with half the Requiem unwritten, his last additions sketched out on his bed the night before he succumbed. His widow, who desperately needed the money due on completion, turned to other composers to finish it. My wife and I heard the Sussmayer version, familiar to anyone who pays attention to such details.

The performance was as moving as ever – the orchestra focused and ever so slightly restrained, the chorus a mighty unified instrument, the soloists expressive but not showy. Conductor Robert Conlon lowered his baton at the end of the Lacrimosa, the last partially-completed section of the Requiem, and stood stooped shouldered and unmoving long enough for everyone to reflect that precisely here, Mozart ran out of time.

I’ll never have a thimbleful of Mozart’s talent or productivity – by the time Mozart was my age, he’d been dead for years. This cautionary tale about the exhaustibility of time is, however, a reminder of one’s responsibility to a calling, the necessary habits one must cultivate to accomplish anything that aspires to the word “art.”

But amid all this pondering of creative responsibility and productive habits, I’ve also been tending the backyard garden. Yes, there’s been work to do and still more to be done, but the lesson of the soil is not scarcity, but bounty. It’s mid-June, and I’ve harvested all the spring greens and radishes, and picked strawberries by the gallon, relishing the decisive “thwup” when a ripe berry is pulled from the plant. We’ve already enjoyed salads of sorrel, chard, and kale, and look forward to more. Snow peas and snap beans have come in after a slow start. The raspberries are ripening and the garlic will be ready for pulling in July. Pole beans twirl up their lattices, bush beans are coming to a stand, and tomatoes and basil, peppers and zucchini look forward to late summer.

I’m on the Navajo Reservation as I finish this post, the arid landscape of my heart where gardens are, if it’s at all possible, even more precious plots of sacred ground than in the Midwest of my birth. My home garden is on a watering timer and a friend will pick raspberries and snip garlic scapes until my return. Yes, there’s much to be done to keep a garden, but that human effort is far more a matter of cooperation with nature than the controlling power dreamed of by Francis Bacon and his Enlightenment inheritors. Some say there’s no real difference between a vegetable genetically modified in the laboratory and an heirloom selectively bred over many generations, but I’ve watched and talked with farmers on the Hopi Reservation and Henry County, Kentucky, and I know where I stand on this. There was a time when cooperation with nature’s limits was better understood, indeed taken for granted. We have learned much since then, but we have also forgotten much we might do well to recover.

I’m grateful to live in the twenty-first century, with its ready access to cultural resources and material comforts. I’m grateful to live in a time when long-distance transportation, communication, antibiotics, and pain control make my life far less unpleasant than it could be. The past has its charms (think of Midnight in Paris), but I wouldn’t be at home there.

But – at the risk of abruptly asking enormous questions – what does “art” look like when understood as cooperation with what is, accepting the shape of what’s given, rather than an individual’s personal expression? What if what we now call science were seen as primarily about wonder and less about control power?

I’ve used visual language here because that’s my default means of engaging the world. Music helps immeasurably – Mozart, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, and especially JS Bach, just to name a few – and I marvel at but don’t quite envy musical synesthetes like composers Amy Beach and Duke Ellington, who experienced and described music in colors. But it’s more often what and how I see that makes its way into my words, and the way of seeing toward which I am beckoned sees the limits of the world as gifts to be received, not problems to be solved. I’m not there yet. I’ll fail often. And when I do, I hope to revisit my garden and see again what bounty springs from the ground on which I stand.