Visual Art 1-6-2021

A Room with an Ocean View: A Meditation on Art as an Empath’s Path

Writer David Grant reflects on the thin line between reality and imagination, where stories become manifest and empathy begins to move.

A square, blond wooden box holds brown clay, compost, and shredded paper. The lid of the box is printed with the words, “We Shall Never Stop Planting”.
1Seitu Jones, We Shall Never Stop Planting (2017). Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

On the way home from work one evening, I stopped by for a quick visit with my father at his apartment. He was, by this time, quite far along on his dark walk with Alzheimer’s. For a couple of years, we’d watched, helpless, while dementia’s relentless march erased his memory—his personhood—bit by bit. His disease had now reached a critical point. One day soon, all the resources we’d helped establish for him—the daily delivered meals, the visiting nurses, the case management provided by the County, follow-up appointments at the V.A…. One day, all of this would no longer be enough, and we’d have to move him into nursing home care. We’d all done our best to keep him comfortable and safe in his own assisted living space, all the while knowing that each time I visited, as eldest son and principal caregiver, my agenda included an assessment of his ability to stay relatively independent. Every day I stopped by to check on him, I had to think it through: Is today the day?

His door wasn’t locked. When I entered, I found him quietly sitting by the window, looking out. “Hello, son,” he said, without even turning around. “What’re you looking at out there?” I asked. He motioned for me to come closer. There was something about the light—there’s most always something magical about the light during that golden interval just before sundown—that made his distant view of the Mississippi from the eighth floor look truly spectacular just now. The river had an odd sheen to it…a glow. It seemed bigger and wider than normal. Closer.

“Wow,” I said. “You’re lucky. The sky and the river…they’re putting on one hell of a show for you this evening.” He looked confused. I pointed. “The Mississippi. The light tonight makes it look so magical…don’t you think?”

“Mississippi? Son, that’s not the Mississippi. That’s the St. Lawrence Seaway. And see out there?” I strained to look, but he was vexed that I wasn’t looking hard or far enough. “Out…out…way out there. See, now? There’s the ocean.”

I’m a map nerd like my father. And there were classic, illustrated maps of the great St. Lawrence Seaway that looked very much like the vista that stretched out to the horizon before our eyes just then. But out in the far distance, where he saw a magical light shimmering on the surface of the deep, blue Atlantic, I saw the lights of St. Paul.

That’s why he’d seemed so completely transfixed by the view when I’d first come in. It was blowing his mind that, after all these months of living here, he was only just now noticing that he’d somehow lucked out and gotten a room with an ocean view.

I had an opportunity to enjoy a “moment” with him there, but, like a fool, I blew it. I argued with him instead…about how he had his rivers confused. He was agitated for a little while, but after he calmed down, we chatted about other things and parted on amiable terms.

Still, I was troubled in mind all the way home—full of regret over having failed to give him the empathy and respect he’d deserved. But I was also wrestling with the ideas that had emerged from my recent research into neurology, in an effort to better understand Alzheimer’s. I’d begun to viscerally understand something that had only been an intellectual understanding before: that as far as the brain is concerned, the line between a real memory and a false memory—between “reality” and fantasy—is often paper-thin…if the brain perceives a line at all. That’s precisely what’s so magical about the power of imagination and creation that artists hold in their hands. A powerful bit of alchemy happens. An artist has a thought, an idea, that through whichever craft or artistic discipline he or she practices, the artist makes manifest out here in the world. “Here’s this thing I created because I had too. The making of it has meant something to me. My hope is that enjoying it will mean something to you.” That transaction is a very real form of empathy…of Grace. Because an encounter with a good piece of art challenges you…changes you…sticks with you…makes you see the world a little differently. 

Artists who walk the Empath’s Path quickly discover that the walk is a kind of feedback loop—a serendipitous upward spiral. The vibrant, life-affirming presence of empathy at the center of your life tends to add character and depth to your work: the kind that moves and cracks people open when they encounter it. The kind that cracks you open when you create it, enabling further growth as a person, and as an artist. But to walk this path is a choice.

There’s an ancient Hindu saying: “Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger.” There’s a lot of art out there in every genre that’s the aesthetic equivalent of junked-up fast food and sugary sweets. Sometimes, for whatever combination of reasons, something like this may be exactly what you want: the big-ass, day-glo colored, triple-scoop cone of cotton candy; the mega-platter of nachos smothered in gooey, radioactive yellow pseudo-cheese. There’s no shame in that at all: either in creating or consuming it.

But great art is always soul food. A real meal that satisfies.

The next time I had a meal with my father, it was at his little table by the window. Why grab a bite alone at a table on Nicollet, when less than five minutes away I could enjoy the old man’s company and the best ocean view in South Minneapolis? I brought seafood. Guys like us, men from the North Carolina Tidewater, we need to be fed from time to time on oysters and fresh crab…need a whiff of salt water in our noses and on our tongues. I understood why his Spirit had needed to conjure up an ocean that was almost close enough smell and touch. The moment was sweet, but over much too soon. Ephemeral. But then, all of creation, even the realest of the things we call real, is ephemeral.

To quote poet Muriel Rukeyser, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Everything in the Universe, seen and unseen, is vibration—nothing more: the Word made manifest. We ourselves are, literally, the Word made flesh. So, there’s profound poetry in the fact that, in the end, our stories are all we have. They’re all we are.

This piece is part of the series by guest editor Sun Yung Shin.   

David Grant

David Grant is a Twin Cities-based writer. As a playwright, he has been commissioned to write new work for the Minnesota Science Museum, the Minnesota Historical Society, Mixed Blood Theater (in conjunction with Bedlam Theater and Voices of Cedar-Riverside), VocalEssence, The Playwrights’ Center, and The History Theatre. As a screenwriter, a sampling of his work includes “The Screenplay Project: Four Shorts” for Twin Cities Public Television (KTCA TV), the feature film scripts, “Fast …   read more