“Publishing a book is like birthing a baby,” I used to tell my authors who were feeling raw and worn-out by the energy required to take an idea from manuscript to print. By the time they were routed to me, their publicist, many of them were willing to sign the adoption papers over: I have carried this book to term. You take it from here. I began thinking of myself as a midwife to these harried parents, sympathetic to their vulnerability, forgiving of their lash-outs, but also firm that they had better start pushing if they wanted to see their baby grow up good and proper.
These same feelings of sympathy and tenderness and eagerness arise in me when I see artists of other kinds – painters, musicians, small business owners, and pastors – using their gifts and asking me, without really asking me, to bear witness to them. This requires my attention to things that I might not naturally be drawn by, and sometimes even my money to things I might not actually need. (I’ve nearly convinced myself that shopping at local boutiques is a form of tithing, but that’s another blog post, literally.)
I remember the first time I was paid for my art. I was in elementary school, and I loved those “water color” paint books where the tiny dots of blue and green and yellow and orange were somehow already implanted into the page, and all I had to do was dip a brush into a plastic cup of water and in a stroke the image of Woody the Woodpecker or Dennis the Menace would become saturated. It didn’t take much skill, of course, but I marveled at my ability to create such pretty pictures – especially since those drawn free-hand always ended up a misshapen series of girls with lollipop-sized heads and triangles for noses.
Bolstered by an artist’s overblown confidence, I dragged my Playskool crafts table down to the end of our condominium driveway and started selling the amateur art for five cents. I think I only sold one; actually, I’m almost sure of it. It was to a neighbor, a gruff old man, named Donald. I remember his name still because it was his justification for buying my representation of Donald Duck. He was my first patron, my first indication that someone other than my mom thought my art was worth something, or at the very least noticed me sitting at the table all stupidly hopeful and felt some pity. I didn’t care which.
Last week, I was at a house concert for an artist named Alice Calvery, a beautiful songstress with Ariel-like hair down to where her shimmery mermaid tale should have started. She sang tenderly and hauntingly about a mother’s fiancé lost in the war, about a neighbor named Darwin who had a secret admirer, about two trees that liked to kiss. I was so delighted by her performance that I walked up to her after the show to purchase one of her EP’s. After all, she had shown up in this place to share art, and I had shown up to bear witness.
But in the end it was I who left, too, with the gift of being seen. As I was praising her for her gift and shoving $5 into her hands, she thanked me for the small gift of my sustained smile during the concert; she had witnessed the art of my midwife’s heart.
I felt like running home in my jellies to tell Mom.