Survival is insuf­fi­cient. ~Emily St. John Mandel, by way of Star Trek: Voyager

When I was young, my broth­er Ian and I had a secret lair and a code for entry. Our den was Ian’s clos­et, where we would some­times pile up our blan­kets and pil­lows to cre­ate a cozy sleep­ing fort. Some nights, Ian would yell, “Goodnight Heather,” – he has always called me by my mid­dle name – which was code for, “You can come to the closet.” 

Good things hap­pened in the clos­et. Sometimes we sang songs we learned at church camp. Sometimes we turned on flash­lights and played backgam­mon or worked on our ongo­ing com­ic about an inept rac­coon that always got caught steal­ing food (I wrote the sto­ry and Ian act­ed as graph­ic design­er). Occasionally we would just lie in the dark and talk.

One night, my broth­er need­ed to talk. Or par­ents had been called in for yet anoth­er par­ent-teacher con­fer­ence about Ian’s behav­ior. It would be years before Ian would be diag­nosed with both ADHD and dyslex­ia, but dur­ing ele­men­tary school, he was con­stant­ly sent to the principal’s office for not pay­ing atten­tion in class. Earlier that day, Ian had received a pad­dling (yes, cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was alive and well in the 1980s Kentucky school sys­tem) for draw­ing dur­ing class. 

Ian couldn’t care less about the pad­dling. “But she threw my draw­ings away,” he lament­ed. Even in the dark, I could tell he was cry­ing. “I final­ly got the raccoon’s tail per­fect and she threw it in the trash! And…,” His voice dropped to a whis­per. “She said draw­ing wasn’t … use­ful.” He spat this last word out, poi­son in his mouth. 

I was remind­ed of this moment recent­ly when I read Emily St. John Mandel’s incred­i­ble Station Eleven (HBO’s adap­ta­tion is get­ting rave reviews, but I have a life rule to nev­er watch any adap­ta­tion until I have read the book). The book is a time hop­per about a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world, bounc­ing between the character’s before, dur­ing, and after lives. 

This book, writ­ten in 2014, is osten­si­bly about a super virus that wipes out 99% of the peo­ple on earth. A friend gift­ed it to me in 2019, but by the time I got around to read­ing it, I found myself in the midst of an actu­al pan­dem­ic and felt drawn to books that helped me escape my real­i­ty, not mir­ror it. 

Too bad for me. This isn’t your stan­dard “the world is end­ing, so it’s every man for him­self” dystopi­an sto­ry. There’s some vio­lence and trau­ma, sure. But it’s the most uplift­ing lens on an after I have ever encountered. 

The book fol­lows The Symphony, a group of actors and musi­cians 20 years in the after. The Symphony trav­els around the Great Lakes region play­ing music and per­form­ing the works of Shakespeare. On the side of one of their bug­gies is paint­ed the line, “sur­vival is insuf­fi­cient.” The quote, which orig­i­nates from Star Trek: Voyager, per­fect­ly encap­su­lates St. John Mandel’s belief that, even when the chips are down, humans require more than safe­ty and shel­ter and food. In the bleak, post-apoc­a­lyp­tic world of Station Eleven, there are plen­ty of rea­sons to die. Art gives the char­ac­ters a rea­son to live. 

Ian’s teacher was so, so wrong. Drawing isn’t use­less. There is a dif­fer­ence between being alive and liv­ing. Art helps us inter­pret our world so that we can live. Never is that more nec­es­sary than when noth­ing else seems to make sense. When the world is careen­ing out of con­trol, we can turn to Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Taylor Swift, and Mary Oliver for guid­ance. For con­nec­tion. For hope. Life with­out the human­i­ties is mere sleep­walk­ing. In fact, it’s called the human­i­ties because it defines the human expe­ri­ence. Kunst, the German word for art, orig­i­nal­ly meant “knowl­edge of God.” 

In this uncer­tain world, I find myself seek­ing solace in art more than ever. In great fic­tion. Music. Dance. Writing. Drawing. Art-view­ing reminds me that we share a uni­ver­sal human expe­ri­ence. Art-mak­ing gives me a place to put my anger, sad­ness, frus­tra­tion, and con­fu­sion. I pick up my pen or my gui­tar and the world comes into clear­er focus. It soft­ens my heart and gives me words when mine come halt­ing­ly or not at all. It is a lodestar, guid­ing me back to the best ver­sion of myself. 

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.