When I was very young, there was a song that played often on the radio called “The Most Beautiful Girl” by Charlie Rich. The narrator had lost the love of his life through his own bad behavior and asked the listener to keep an eye out for her. If we saw her, we were to tell her he was sorry, that he needed her, and that he loved her. That song would come on, and I’d pummel my mother with questions: “What did he say to drive her away? Where did she go? Could that pretty lady over there be the one he’s looking for? Should we tell her?” My poor mom would say, “Don’t point at people, Teresa. Stop worrying. It’s just a song.”
In my room, my mother had hung prints of the Northern Tissue Girls, close-ups of cherubic darlings in sweet poses and soft lighting. I’d talk to those girls before I went to sleep. I’d named each of them, of course. I’d tell some or all of them my secrets, and they would share theirs. “They’re not alive. They’re just pictures,” my cousin would insist.
I watched a lot of TV with my dad. I’m sure he wished there was a way to pause shows back then, because my questions and outbursts ruined many a scene. When Charlotte died in Charlotte’s Web, I was inconsolable. “It’s okay, Teresa,” my dad would say. “It’s not real. It’s just a movie.”
He was wrong, of course. They all were. There is no “just” when it comes to art, because art is never just the picture on the page or the words in a story, art is us and how we feel, think, and react to what we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing.
Art comes from us and is there for us. It transports and transforms us. We can get lost in it, but also find ourselves there. It can feel familiar and foreign at once. The same work can make us laugh one year and cry the next. Art teaches us how to love, how to dare, how to overcome, what to fear, and how to grieve. Mostly, though, like the examples I mentioned earlier, art teaches us how to long for something, either for ourselves or for others. And that longing ties us to the past and takes us into the future. Art is magic because it is real in the way that only fantasy can be.
It comes to life in us. Any child knows that.
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