One of the perks of having spent so much of my life traveling is that I have friends all over the world. This past week in New York, I had the pleasure of visiting a number of them -- and even introducing a few of them to one another. On Thursday, I met with a friend whom I have known since elementary school, and then introduced her to a new friend from seminary. It was so much fun seeing them connect -- and to have two ends of the timeline of my life meet in a new middle!
On Friday evening, I had another opportunity to introduce another dear old friend to a wonderful new friend. Because of the snowstorm and a busy week of meetings, I hadn't had much of an opportunity to enjoy all of the cultural bounty the that New York has to offer -- so I invited my friend to meet me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my favorite museums in the world. The Met stays open late on Friday nights, which was perfect for me. But I sensed a slight resistance when I suggested going there, and I wasn't quite sure why. So I asked: Was it Friday night traffic? Exhaustion at the end of a long week? The answer I received felt very vulnerable and true. Turns out that my friend had been subjected to a form of abuse (a term which I hope by the end of this blog you will agree is not too strident a term) about which I have very strong feelings.
But before I share more about that, I want to take you on a quick trip down memory lane. I had the glorious good fortune to grow up with a man who was more passionate about the arts than anything in the whole wide world. He dedicated his life to being a cultural ambassador, a patron of the arts, and lifelong learner, a cheerleader and supporter of young artists of all kinda, and perhaps most importantly, an enthusiast par excellence! Which meant that, when he had a daughter, he wanted to share his passion with her.
So, how do you get a little girl to become interested in art, in theatre, in museums, in opera, in all things cultural? You make it fun! Now, in this endeavor, my dad had a leg up on most people, because honestly taking out the garbage with my dad was fun! He exuded more joy than almost anyone I have ever known.
So, OF COURSE, looking at art with someone whose greatest joy was art became one of the most joyous experiences I could have. Small wonder then that I ended up becoming an art historian and later a gallerist. But it was then that something happened, which almost broke my heart. I was in the business of selling art to people, many of whom were not buying art because they loved it, but because they felt they "should". To have art on their walls signified some kind of status rather than expressed their joy in a particular piece. I ended up being unable to stay in that world as a profession, because I found it too hard to "sell" people art. I wanted them to buy from their hearts, not from their pocketbooks. Which was not a particularly great business model. But it was the only thing that felt true to me.
You know, whenever I went to a museum with my parents, we played a game. The game was to choose the one piece that we would want to "live" with. I loved that, because it allowed me to choose "my piece" from my heart. I wasn't ever worried about impressing anyone with my choice, about finding the "right" one. I just chose the one that I wanted to imagine waking up to every morning. Come to think of it, that game was a precursor to my daily practice of joy.
So back to my friend. Turns out she had been subjected to some pretty severe cultural "shoulding". She wanted to surround herself with people from whom she could learn about art, but she ended up with a few key people in her life who had the complete opposite effect. And some of the worst "shoulding" had happened at the Met. There is nothing more disheartening than coming to a learning experience with an open heart and eager mind and being bludgeoned with what you don't know. There is no worse answer to a sincere "Why?" than a disdainful "Because." And nothing else! Her eagerness to learn about art quickly devolved into a flinch mechanism about museums. Fortunately, she found a wonderful best friend who is an artist, and on a recent visit to Philadelphia's glorious Barnes Collection, some much-needed healing started to happen. So, she was wiling to take a chance on the Met with me.
What she didn't know is that I had a secret weapon. One of my oldest and dearest friends. A man whom I absolutely adore, about whom I have written quite a bit, and whom I visit every time I go to New York. His name is Juan de Pareja.
I was first introduced to Juan by my father, when I was a little girl. When I started to visit New York when I was in college back East, my father urged me to rekindle our acquaintance. So, I did. And for over thirty years now, I have held Juan near and dear to my heart.
I knew that meeting Juan was just the Met magic my friend needed. So, we climbed up the majestic stairs lined with the etched names of over a hundred years of art lover patrons, and headed into the European painting section. The moment we entered the gallery, I knew we were in for a special treat. On Friday nights, there is live music at the Met. We could hear it echoing down the halls. Most of the museum patrons were there, so the galleries themselves were almost empty.
You see, Juan is a very very popular man. On most days, I have to share him with his countless other friends. But that night, we had him all to ourselves.
This is Juan:
I brought my friend over to him and introduced them, and then suggested we sit down on a bench so the three of us could spend some time together.
I guess it's time I tell you a little about Juan. His full name was Juan de Pareja, and he was a Moorish slave in the mid-1600s, the assistant to the great Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez, who brought Juan with him when he went to Rome to paint in 1650. Velazquez eventually freed Juan from slavery while they were in Rome, and Juan went on to become a well-known painter in his own right.
This portrait, painted while they were in Rome, became famous the moment the first person saw it. No one had ever seen anything like it -- the expression in his eyes, the dignity and humanity he captured, the physical beauty and the sense of immediacy. It is said that when the Roman painters saw this portrait, they said, "This alone is truth."
The more I have visited Juan, the more alive he becomes to me. He connects with me through his eyes, and I often have the sense that he is just about to speak. I never try to imagine our conversation, but I know it would reflect our years of friendship and the love I have in my heart for him. I shared all that with my friend, who spent a long time looking at him, and then quietly said, "He looks like someone you could see now, right outside on the street." I just smiled, for I have long felt that perhaps at night, Juan does walk out of his canvas and stroll the streets of New York. But I didn't want to say anything. I just wanted them to have a chance to get to know one another.
The three of us sat together, and my friend gradually began to share what she was feeling sitting there. Less and less self-consciously, less worried being met with with any "shoulding". Slowly I felt her relax into the joy of art and making it your own.
And that's Juan's magic. He disarms everyone he meets with his soul-filled gaze, his anticipatory smile, his immense dignity. He welcomes them into his world and then sends them away carrying him in their hearts.
For the rest of the evening, we leisurely strolled through almost empty galleries. I felt not only Juan, but also my father with us, as both of us enjoyed sharing whatever it was that struck our hearts, our eyes, our joy. My dad used to say that he felt like one of those guys from the Salvation Army, except the drum he beat his whole life was art. He felt that art had saved his life and given him hope in humanity, joy in creation, a glimpse of the wide wonderful world he otherwise never would have had -- and he felt that everyone should have the same opportunity to be so blessed. I know he would have loved that I introduced my two friends to one another. He would have loved the easy joy we shared spending an evening in the company of art. But he also would have loved what happened for me that night in front of Rembrandt's famous painting, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.
Once again, we were the only people in the gallery, and we had Aristotle all to ourselves. So, we sat down on a bench and spent some time with him. I'll admit: I have a bad habit of whizzing past some of the "greatest hits" in favor of the little treasures I like to think of as my own. But as I was chatting a bit about Rembrandt, I found myself looking much more deeply at this uber-famous painting and finding a connection to it that I had never ever had. I saw the soul in Aristotle's gaze and thought about his feelings about the blind poet Homer, whose own gaze came not from his eyes, but from his imagination -- a gaze that continues to shape the world even today. Suddenly I realized that I hadn't looked, I mean really looked at that painting, for decades. In fact, I found myself wondering if I had ever really looked at it -- I mean from my heart. And that's when the lightbulb went off. It's a lot easier to see the ways other people aren't feeling joy, when you're outside the circumference of their shoulds. But deep in the inner sanctum of our own silent but deadly shoulds, we are far more blind than Homer. I saw that I had been missing out on some incredible joy because I had created an alternate universe of shoulds -- that the greatest hits are too obvious, that I need to forge my own path instead of following the beaten track, that I had "been there done that". . . How silly of me!
As Homer wrote, "Even a fool learns something once it hits him." There I was, hoping to help my friend heal from the wounds of some pretty awful shoulding, and turns out that I, in my own way, had been shoulding all over myself, too.
Isn't that the beauty of healing though? I've come to believe that the only true healing happens when we are connected to our own hearts, to one another, to love and joy, trust and truth, to the basic human kindness in us all. That is to say, the only true healing is shared by equals. Or as Trent Dabbs perfectly captures it in his gorgeous song, Nobody's Stranger Anymore: "There's no such thing as a one-sided rescue; sometimes it's hard to tell which side you're on. . .It's the same song we're all looking for: To be nobody's stranger anymore."
On Friday night, I spent a truly beautiful evening with new, old and forgotten friends -- each of us nobody's stranger anymore. Because healing happens when you realize that we've all always been on the same side -- the side of love. That is the joy of art, and the art of joy!