I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why art matters. Ironic, since I spent all of graduate school rebelling against the imperative to address aesthetic theory (probably because “aesthetics” to the professors I knew meant pure, in other words white and male). Really, I think about aesthetics because I’m grappling with my shift to stay-at-home-mom (work-at-home but people do NOT get this in US culture, they only get it as an acknowledgment, a tolerance, an exception), and what I do for myself as I spend most of my days with a toddler, babbling and cleaning. Of course, unschooling parents/writers talk about how learning with your child can be incredibly fulfilling. It’s fulfilling in so many ways. Yet here I am, writing a blog for adults in the in-between time, doing focused writing that would make my daughter panic because I’m not focused on her.
I got to watch a movie on a plane ride yesterday because my husband sat between me and my daughter, and because she enjoys her own screen-time. When I looked around and saw that everyone had screens, nearly everyone was watching them, and nearly all of them were some kind of art (film, music, games), I thought: art matters. But like being a stay-at-home mom it just doesn’t (usually) pay. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s anger at the “damned mob of scribbling women” distracting the public from real writing is so often quoted because it rings true now. Mommy blogger is something I am self-conscious about, something I feel I need to explain, dissect, and legitimate. This art matters.
More than art matters though. The curating matters, and it means a lot both culturally and personally. Blogs curate by linking; bookstores curate by display, purchase, offering, orientation. On this same trip we got stuck in Minneapolis, and due to a really fortunate turn of events I ended up driving with a friend to Birchbark Books, the bookstore run by Louise Erdrich. I’d been dreaming of going there ever since reading Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. Like the meditative, forest-like depths of that book, the store was a beautiful place. As a feminist working on my own decolonial, anti-racist perspective and practice, it’s hard to find a place both peaceful and rich. In Books and Islands, Erdrich asks repeatedly: “Books. Why?” Because art matters. Because they save our lives, shift our consciousness, offer reflection, affirmation, and challenge. Because they inspire. Especially when they are chosen for you, as these books on nature, beauty, geography, feminism, and indigeneity seemed to be. I broke our tight budget on buying books there, knowing that that money might sit on the credit card for a good long while. But even more than the tension and fretting money causes in our household monthly, these books are a buoy. They center my values as I get tossed about. They help me find peace and presence. I don’t need to own them all (as I lectured myself after being inspired by a gift card to overfill an amazon shopping cart earlier this month). I love the library too. But the curation of this place led me to so much joy and peace and hope that I needed to take some of it home with me.
One of the things I like about unschooling is the idea that your child’s passions are not your own. My daughter loves reading, but she loves puzzles more. Walking by a toy store one day, I pointed out the huge picture of a dog in the window, made from a completed nearly 1,000-piece puzzle. I simply said, “look, a doggy!” She corrected me to say “puzzle doggy!” I’m amazed that she could tell these tiny pieces together were a puzzle, and I know I need to listen. I hate doing puzzles, and I tolerate board games. I am repelled by science, math, engineering, any structuring and channeling of thought; I love association, poetry, nature. But my daughter may be different. I have a feeling that curating for her, offering the rich environment needed for unschooling, will involve a doggy puzzle in the near future. She’s already happy to do a 25-piece jigsaw puzzle over and over, and I’ll be on the lookout for ways to access more, perhaps splurge on a new doggy puzzle sometime soon. I’ll have to be flexible and find new value in a practice I have avoided for so long.
That’s why I write here I guess: I learn a lot from being a mother, staying at home, and unschooling. But it’s work: my job is to listen, watch, know how to curate for her and provide the experiences, books, games, adventures that bring a spark to her eye, leave her looking for more, deepen her knowledge, and lead to that look of peaceful satisfaction she gets after a day at the pool or a hike in the woods. But my pleasure is to browse and curate for myself. “Books. Why?” Erdrich asks. Because they are a personal, moving invitation into the world.