Teaching and the Seasons of Time:
The Final Days of an Art Class
For everything its season, and for every activity under heaven its time:
a time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot…1
One oppressively sticky summer evening years ago, my husband, two of our friends, and I were having supper in our cramped 1870’s farmhouse dining room. Over potato salad, iced tea, and barbequed chicken our lazy talk of gardens, small town life, and recent adventures turned to the little church in the countryside west of town for which Bob, one of our guests, was minister. The plain white church on the top of a small rise was built in the last half of the nineteenth century in the rolling landscape of Eastern Iowa; however, unlike its earlier years, it no longer served a large vibrant local farming community. Young people had moved away; other community members had left their land to find work elsewhere; and only a handful of older parishioners appeared for services on Sunday mornings. According to Bob, his job, aside from fulfilling his role as minister, was to convince the few remaining members that it was time to close the church and to find new religious homes. Everything has a life he explained—a birth, a vigorous middle period, and, finally, a death. As darkness fell and crickets sang under the windows in the thick night air we considered this proposition, what it meant for the elderly parishioners, what it meant for the community and the old church building itself, what it meant for each of the four of us.
The memories of that night have remained with me, for it illustrates, I believe, two of life’s most difficult and important lessons. First, nothing lasts forever; that is in the way of things. Second, plans must be made in advance for the end of life’s undertakings to ease the inevitable leave taking--to enable people to celebrate the past, to deal with the present, to envision the future, to begin anew.
The memory of the small country church brings me to my current concern, the last portion of the arc of life of the Expressive Arts Class for people with HIV/AIDS that I have taught for the last seven years at a local hospital. The class, like many such groups, started with a carefully planned beginning and included a period of rich vigorous middle years. Now it has come to its end, overcome by entropy and increasing tensions among members that have been exacerbated by outside forces.
In order to glimpse the original significance of the class, a brief overview of its history is essential; for without understanding the class’s story, its place in the lives of its members cannot be fully grasped. A short description of the place of art in human experience is also included, for that knowledge, too, will enrich understanding of the value of the creative act and the art group’s significant social value to its members.
Next, the natural alternation of opposites in life (night/day, safety/danger, joy/sorrow), recognition of the rhythm such pairs produce, and the necessity for each will be examined; for in order to create sense from the flow of experience, one must apprehend life’s interrelationships as well as find a means to move from one state to another in a balanced manner. Finally, exemplars of such states--beginning, ending, transition--will be explored; for though celebrations marking and ritualizing beginnings
are familiar enough (naming ceremonies, christenings, weddings, for example) their ritual relationship to other transitional moments are not necessarily clear, nor are such other states—endings and periods of pure metamorphosis—understood to be also worthy of attention.2
Finally, since there is no doubt that just as certainly as a people come together in joy and excitement in a new undertaking, the reason that it developed in the first place will eventually end (a club will no longer be of interest to younger people, the school year will end, living things will die, and so forth). This time of completion, too, will be addressed; and the demise of the art group will be considered as an event that, like its beginning, also requires celebration and reflection.