Yesterday, I decided to play The Bookstore Game at home. Due to Oregon’s coronavirus shelter-in-place order, I haven’t been to an actual bookstore or library since March 10, when Claire Graman and I gave our presentation for Women’s History Month at the Eugene Public Library. I realize that plenty of people, perhaps the majority, don’t visit a bookstore or library very often, but for me, two-and-a-half months is a very long time.
At random, I selected the Library of America’s Walt Whitman, Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, which my father gave me years ago. Strictly adhering to the rules of The Bookstore Game, I opened the book at random, which happened to be on page 1130. There I found “Talk to an Art-Union (A Brooklyn fragment),” where I read these words:
“It is a beautiful truth that all men contain something of the artist in them. And perhaps it is the case that the greatest artists live and die, the world and themselves alike ignorant of what they possess…I think of few heroic acts, which cannot be traced to the artistic impulse. He who does great deeds, does them from his innate sensitiveness to moral beauty. Such men are not merely artists, they are also artistic material.”
This reminded me of something my son recently said: that prayer is not just sitting down and asking God for something. “The truest form of prayer is living your life as a prayer, in view of the spiritual. Prayer is a way of communication: you speak to God, who spoke you into existence.”
Thinking of our lives as art or as prayer reminds us that we are the raw material from which art arises, whatever the outcome, whether painting, sculpture, music, or literature. Each person is a moving, breathing, work of art, one that is ever-changing; to paraphrase Whitman, we all contain that beautiful truth.
Early in Leaves of Grass, he writes:
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
In this time when our environments have shrunk, when we are doing everything from home, we need big thinkers like Walt Whitman, who reminds us that no matter where we are, no matter our age, ability, or belief system, we are individual works of art.
Sunday, May 31st is Walt Whitman’s 201st birthday. If you’re able, go outdoors, and, as he advises,
Loafe with me on the grass…loose the stop from your throat.