An Artful Summer: My Favorite Books, Music, & Shows Of The Season

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” –Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island 

“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” –Pablo Picasso

Hello friend,

Remember those first many months of the pandemic, when we all wondered about the future of Art and artists?  Broadway shut down.  TV and movie sets were abandoned.  Galleries shuttered.  Concert venues and recording studios went dark, so much so that we relished those rare splashes of generosity when our favorite musicians played a few songs live from their homes for us on Youtube, Facebook, or Instagram.  Writers, at least, were seemingly allowed to keep writing, though journalists were severely limited in where and how they could travel and cover stories.

In many ways, though, even then, Art saved us.  Videos went viral of the people in Italy, in total lockdown, opening their windows to the street in the evening and playing music from their balconies to feel some sense of community with their neighbors.  Art galleries and museums provided us with virtual tours.  We used our time stuck at home to binge upon all of the amazing offerings that Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, Sling, HBO Max, Disney+, ESPN+, Apple TV+, and so many more streaming services and cable channels had built up in this recent golden age of television and movies.  And yes, we clamored for those live-from-home musical performances (I treasured each of Matt Nathanson’s “Quarantine Livestreams” and some Indigo Girls sessions).

But even as I relied on Art and artists to keep my spirits afloat and my own creative juices flowing, I worried for everyone working in the business of bringing that Art to us, not just the artists but the promoters, technicians, vendors, and ushers.  So many lives and livelihoods.  Art gives us life.  In so many ways, Art is Life.

I entered this Summer thinking it would almost be a total break from Art for me.  I had been vaccinated in the Spring along with my family, and I had expectations that everyone else would do the same and that I could be out in the world.  More than that, though, I was going to be outside on adventures.  It was going to be all fresh air and activity.  I was ready not just to break out of COVID, but also to break out of Winter’s hibernation.

There is nothing I look forward to more than a Summer with my kids.  We all do our work in the schools, and that means when June rolls around, we bang the drum and run out the door for three solid months of freedom and fun: lots of swimming, riding, and running around.  Playing!

So it was that on the first day out of school, I loaded our bikes onto the back of the car and headed for the mountain biking park.  Before we were to go out into the forest, my son asked me if I would go on the short skills course with him: basically a bunch of bumps, logs, and rocks to navigate along a narrow dirt path.  I hopped on my bike and turned onto the path.  Five seconds later, my Summer of Play was over.  I had fallen off a raised log and caught my foot on a pile of other logs, tearing a large hole in my shoe, my sock, and my tender flesh.  I wrapped my bleeding foot in my sock, dropped the kids and bikes at home, and headed for the emergency room, all the while vowing that I would never again attempt to balance a moving bicycle on a long, above-ground log (and other such foolishness).

I couldn’t think of a worse time to hurt myself.  The beginning of Summer is my absolute favorite moment of the year, oozing potential and excitement.  Even coming home from the hospital with my foot swollen and stitched together, I convinced myself it was a minor, two-week hiccup.  A bummer, for sure, but not catastrophic.  It was still definitely going to be a Summer of Action, I declared, full of optimism.  Had I known it would become a couple of months instead of weeks, I would have been inconsolable.  In hindsight, though, I would probably have switched into Arts & Writing Mode immediately, hoping to take advantage of the downtime by consuming and producing as much Art as possible in the unexpected window.  Instead, by clinging to the hope that it was only a minor delay, my mind remained on vacation.

But even though I followed through on my permission to take a writing break, thankfully I decided to keep reading and searching for quality television and film offerings.  And I never let go of Music, my companion for all seasons.  These art forms have filled my mind and my spirit, even as my body has failed to fill the Summer with the joys and thrills I had promised myself it would.  I am so grateful for the gems that I have been blessed to consume.

It would be an overstatement to say that the only thing better than experiencing the art form itself is sharing it with others.  Of course experiencing it is better!  However, even though I am about the least social guy around, I get excited to talk Art recommendations.  When I find something that stirs my soul, I feel like I owe it to the artist to tell friends about it.  As far as I am concerned, the more high-quality inspiration in the world, the better.

With that said, I offer you a sampling of the fruits of my injured Summer:

Let’s start with Books!  I had fallen into a slow pace of reading earlier in the year, but I got back to being productive this Summer.  I would like to say it was because of my boundless ambition and efficient use of time.  However, I must admit that much of it was due to library deadlines and the timing of my books on hold becoming available.  I simply had to finish them before they were due or lose them for many months to come.  It was good for me, though.  I’ve been on a good run lately.

It started with the absolutely brilliant and moving When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, who was dying (young) as he wrote.  This guy became a neurosurgeon just to get closer to Death to understand its complexities, only to learn it best by being diagnosed with late-stage cancer.  I am always drawn to these books about Death (and strangely, often about cancer).  This one was singularly wonderful in its pondering of the delicate dance of living beautifully in close proximity to Death.  It was magnificent and inspirational and sad all at once, my favorite memoir in a while, for sure.  I highly recommend it.

Memoirs are generally my favorites, but I also like a regular nonfiction tale of someone’s life, especially when it uses the subject as primary source material, becoming like a long magazine article.  This was the case in my next book: Michael Finkel’s The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.  This is the nearly unbelievable true story of Christopher Knight, who walked away from his life into the Maine woods, found a miraculously camouflaged space in the forest near a populated lake, and successfully hid himself for the next 27 years, never speaking to a soul but living by burglarizing homes in the area in order to survive outdoors in brutal conditions.  When captured, he was willing to speak to only one reporter, who went on to write the book.  It is a story almost impossible to believe.  I connected with it probably because I have been lightheartedly accused of being a hermit in my past and can empathize with Knight’s desire to withdraw from society.  The book gave me a lot to think about, something I always appreciate.

My hot streak continued with my next book, Broken Horses, a memoir by the musician Brandi Carlile.  I love musicians and I love unique life stories, so this book was right up my alley.  Carlile grew up in poverty and was the only out gay person in her school, eventually dropping out without finishing high school.  All of this made her journey to multi-Grammy winner all the more amazing.  I also appreciate a regular reminder to be more compassionate toward people in oppressed groups.  Carlile’s stories of growing up gay, along with those I read in another interesting memoir from earlier in the Summer, Lauren Hough’s Leaving Isn’t The Hardest Thing, reminded me what a nightmare we make it for LGBTQ people throughout their lives, but especially in adolescence.  I have so much respect for people with the courage to live their truth, but even more so for those who do it in the face of rampant ignorance and bigotry.  This book had a lot of heart in it, much like Brandi Carlile and her music.

My end-of-Summer reading hot streak concluded this week with a more light-hearted memoir, Seth Rogen’s Yearbook.  Other than some chuckles, my biggest takeaway is just how fascinating people’s life stories are, especially when told straight from their own memory.  I also realized that when it comes to these celebrity memoirs, I often find myself more captivated by the stories of their childhoods than their tales of fame and rubbing shoulders with other celebrities.  I definitely found that earlier this year in reading Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights, which I thought was excellent overall, but so much more his childhood adventures.  Oh, I just love books!  I have also consumed a ton of good journalism, too, and it would be wrong to not mention the wonderful work that so many writers are doing to help us to see and understand the wild and beautiful world we live in.  I adore the written word.

But the screen is a fantastic thing, too, as it requires a fine blend of so many different art forms—writing, acting, directing, set design, music, lighting, editing, etc.—that I must marvel at the length of the credits after everything I watch.  Strangely, as much as I love and admire it, I never really sit down on the sofa just to watch things for pure pleasure anymore unless I am with my kids.  Instead, I allow myself to watch only if I am riding my stationary bicycle, which I could ride even during much of my injured Summer, thankfully.  That allowed me a taste of some wonderful stories and performances, which were a necessary escape from the frustrations of my forced inactivity.  Movies have always been, by far, my preference over television shows, which I have tended to view as more frivolous.   But the bicycle has made movie-watching a less intimate and moving experience for me, as I rarely ride long enough to watch an entire film.  Watching a singular piece of art, created to be watched in one sitting, over two or three rides makes me feel like I am cheating both the creators and myself out of the true cinematic experience (an experience I have always held sacred).  So, I watch more series than I ever have before.  But how fortunate I am to be in this amazing age of so many streaming platforms and such high quality work, when “movie stars” (and writers and directors) aren’t too cool to do television.  For my money, the rise of the limited series is an advancement on par with the smallpox vaccine and the telephone.

The show I was most impressed with this Summer was “Mare of Easttown” on HBO Max.  It was taut and emotional, thought-provoking and, well, movie-like.  I will sign up for seven hours of Kate Winslet’s brilliance any day of the week!  Having just finished that, I am on the lookout for more like it.  Just this week, I started “Sharp Objects” with Amy Adams on HBO Max, which also seems quite intense (and also creepy).  On a lighter note, I have loved the wit and sincerity of Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso.”  In documentary, I was quite taken by the series “1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything.”  Even in television, music rules.

Speaking of music, I have been lifted by so many wonderful artists all Summer long.  The “1971” documentary inspired me to dig into many of the artists from that time, including The Who, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, Queen, Cat Stevens, David Bowie, and The Rolling Stones.  That has been fun.  And while COVID has limited the number of new releases and certainly shut down concert-going, I have enjoyed taking a deeper dive into the collections of some of my more recent favorites, like Matt Nathanson, The Head & The Heart, and The Decemberists.  I am inspired every day by their brilliance and the absolute glow that is Music.

There is so much fantastic Art out there in the world today.  COVID-19 has crushed so much about what we love, but artists keep finding ways to make the beauty in our lives shine through.  They bring us through our hardest days and bring us together in ways we can’t seem to do on our own anymore.  And for me, a guy with a bunch of stitches in his foot, those artists found a way to save my Summer.  I cannot find the words to share how much I appreciate them and all of their brave creations.

How about you?  What is the best Art that you have consumed in recent months?  Open up your journal and acknowledge the greatness and inspiration around you.  What creations have moved you the most?  Let’s start with books and reading?  Have you found yourself recommending any book or article that you have read lately?  What was it about the story?  Was its effect on you more of teaching you something knew, making you laugh, inspiring a life change, allowing you to escape “real life,” thrilling and captivating you, or something else?  Was it right up your usual alley or something new for you?  What about movies?  Is the best film you have seen lately actually something new, or is it something you just haven’t seen before?  Have you re-watched something lately and only now realized how brilliant it is?  Which one do you feel compelled to recommend to others?  How about television?  With so many services and so many shows, which type are you typically drawn to?  Are you a diehard fan of some long-running series?  Are you enchanted by the limited series like I am?  What do you recommend for someone like me who is just getting back into television?  What about music?  Are there new artists you have discovered during the lull of the pandemic, or have you simply loved harder on the ones you have always loved?  Are there new albums that have been released lately that deserve a listen?  If you are a lover of other mediums, like painting, ballet, opera, or other, how have you gotten your fix?  Do you tend to stick with one medium, or do you consume Art from across a broad spectrum?  What have you missed about not being able to attend live performances?  Is it the community that is built around the Art itself, one that transcends the usual divides in our lives?  Is it possible to achieve that sense of community without live public performances?  Are you one who loves to talk books, movies, music, and the like, comparing notes and keeping a running list of what to watch, read, or listen to next?  Who are your favorite sources for gabbing about this fun stuff?  Do you tend to withdraw from them during your toughest times or lean on them even harder?  What is the best recommendation you have received lately?  If you could give me just one recommendation from any art form or platform right now, what would it be?  Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the best Art you have taken in lately?

Be inspired every day,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with your community.  Inspiration is not meant only for ourselves; we must share it!

P.P.S. If this type of self-examination appeals to you, consider buying my book, Journal Of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers.  Namaste.

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