Last weekend, my husband and I were doing the holiday rounds —getting in much neglected time with relatives in the Sacramento Valley. The way the geographical scope of our daily lives goes these days, the place where I did most of my growing up, amongst the track homes, the expansive flat farmland, ancient Valley Oaks, and crisscrossing rivers, feels increasingly distant. And if there is one thing that is clear every time I leave and return, it is the fact that while the place always remains somewhat familiar, life continues to progress—babies grow into toddling kids, parents settle deeper into their daily lives in their empty nests, and perhaps most profoundly, our elders become radically ancient, overnight.
We decided to devote a full day to visiting a dear family relative that lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in the Sacramento suburb of Citrus Heights. A couple of months ago she had her 80th birthday and a few years ago, she lost her husband whom she was married to for over half a century. After a lifetime of solid health, assured by a scrupulous adherence to a strict regiment of daily exercise, unprocessed foods, and whole grains; the aging process has taken hold. As happens with so many elderly, things changed after she took a rough spill. And since that day, our relative must cope with near constant physical pain and dwindling strength.
As one might imagine, the pain, paired with newly accelerated aging, and the loss of her life partner, seems to be taking a toll on her psyche. Perhaps more striking than her softened gate and increasingly hunched posture is the fact that a woman, once so full of passionate opinions about politics and health, routinely sighting articles she’d read in the Sacramento Bee, had very little to say. In fact, after our initial greetings, she politely excused herself and busied with dusting, polishing silverware and generally straightening up her immaculate home.
Justin and I made ourselves comfortable in the living room, resigned to just hanging out without much conversation. Justin began sifting through the record collection stowed away in her media console and pulled out a dusty record illustrated with an Italian Flag and a handsome man in a fitted brown suit: The Italian Voice of Al Martino. He put the record on the platter and set the needle down. “La Strata del Bosco” or “The Road through the Woods” was the first song to play. The voice was a strong and melodic baritone, full of confidence and warmth. And in just moments after the music began the wash through the house, our relative came to join us, her face flush and smiling, her body animated and strong.
She began to sing along to the words, exclaiming her Joy periodically, “Wow, this is so beautiful! I haven’t heard this in years.”
She was beaming.
The evening progressed and we continued to listen to her old records, eventually moving onto the famous French opera, Carmen, which had all of us moved near tears.
In reflection, what seemed most profound about that experience was the power of art to breathe meaning and reverence into a seemingly ordinary moment –the ability of an old stack of records to illuminate what’s really important. For a while and without many words, we were transported to an unexpected place where collectively we could experience beauty, understand the transcendent quality of the past, and get closer to an awareness of the value of the present moment.
It was serendipitous that Justin chose to pull out some of the old records from the console. And for me, it was one more powerful reminder of the transformative power of the arts. Be it in the living room of an elderly relative, witnessing a great dance performance, a writer scrolling at her desk, or the experience of high-quality and inspired art instruction; art’s power is its ability to shift perspective and get us all closer to understanding what it means to be a human being –in all its nuance, beauty, and hardship. This holiday season and always, I am thankful for these moments. And for me, this is one of many reasons why art matters.