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.