The trouble with people is that even among peaceful groups, we struggle.
Locally, there are two painting groups, each doing their thing separately. If you ask one group, the larger one that I had joined by chance, about the smaller group, you get very cryptic answers indicating they know nothing of the other group. You get the impression that they are rogue, somehow sinister.
So, of course, I went to visit them. I am curious and the forbidden is more exciting than anything. I feared my groups reaction to my seeking them out, and when I mentioned that I might, I got the raised eyebrows of indignation. But not the impression that the gossip about them would be rejected upon my return. People are like that, unwilling to take risks themselves but curious about the outcomes. That is why reality tv is popular, vicarious thrills for the risk averse, validation that taking those chances is foolish and that it is wiser to stay away from the hot boys on the Jersey Shore. The boys are wild and dangerous and foolish. And the sea itself is a danger. But their allure fascinates and beckons.
When I met them, they were only three. A woman and two men. They welcomed me and we talked about their work. They asked me about mine, I asked them about theirs. Their work was beautiful and wild. They had worked for decades together and you could see the bits of each other in their own styles, yet each was unique. My group had a teacher and we practiced roughly the same thing in almost unison, going from idea to idea together. But these three worked independently of one another, coming together to seek out classes and bring back the information for the others. It was very clear that their foundation was the same and rock hard, though. It was beautiful.
And they let me in. Without any question about why I was there although they were curious. They talked openly about my group. They knew that we were all doing it dependently, following the teacher exactly, not expanding individually as they were. I explained that there were a lot of us and that to keep us together, we had to sacrifice individuality in order to keep us moving along at a similar pace. They understood and marvelled at the size of our group. They offered to show me some of what they knew about our style, things they had learned from other teachers and brought back.
They showed me and it was beautiful. I fell in with them immediately and comfortably. I showed them our version of what they were doing. We talked about the variances between them and the similarities. I asked them why they had diverged from this, as they had originally started with the same way of learning and at that time, their group was much larger. They understood our group because they had once been like us! They had been forced to change.
Ther teacher had pushed them to seek other teachers, even with our larger group that practiced in the same space at the local rec center. But they had resisted that in favor of seeking workshops with teachers from far away, sometimes in small groups, sometimes with a lone forward observer coming back with the information and new materials and sharing.
But they wouldn't see the other local teacher. Their styles had made them wild and they did not want to conform to the more rigid larger group. We had worked together for a large part of the day on our style. They liked it, knew it by heart in intricate detail with variations that can only have emerged from long years of study. Their mastery of it as a whole was obvious and watching them do it was beautiful. They would fit seemlessly into the larger group if they wanted to.
Their teacher was dying. Suddenly, of a rare form of cancer. It had taken about a year for them to descend into this wildness. She had struggled to pass them on to the other teacher, but they would not give her up for another mother. Instead, they found others, temporary instructors and huddled together over DVD's, watching and discussing. Or went off and brought back the ideas that kept them bonded in their art, and shared with each other, visiting their teacher and showing their new ideas to her. She enjoyed them and critiqued from her bed and helped show them how it fit into what she had led them to discover as a group. Their relationship was long and truly beautiful. But their teacher could no longer even feed herself and they knew she would pass soon. They were grieving.
They did not tell me this directly. It emerged in pieces as they reminisced and talked about how class used to be with their old teacher, obviously loved and respected. I asked why she had stopped coming and the details emerged softly. They were brave children mourning the loss of their comrades who had given up the group when the teacher had to pull back. Another teacher among them was emerging, but it was a completely different style, a completely different manner of teaching. Only a few of them were willing to follow the new way and so their whole world was changing and they were quietly working to accept the changes forced onto them.
I told them that they were all welcome to come practice with us, but that their wildness would have to be tamed to respect our teacher, that they would essentially have to convert. Our group had its own ways and they would have to flow into it, rather than have it grow wild like them. They knew. Their teacher had talked about this with them. They nodded and appreciated the offer but I knew by the sadness in their smiles that they would not come to us. She was not dead, yet. The decision could simply not be made until then and even then would be difficult. Many of them would simply stop making art without her to guide them. Some already had. Others will form new groups. Some may even struggle along until the need for fellowship overcomes their grief and they reach out to the other teacher. I know the other teacher and that she will accept them warmly and help them shift into the new style, whose conformity is quiet and comforting. It is exhausting to be wild and beautiful.
And that is the trouble with people. We resist compassion in the face of grief. Our loyalty is stronger than our need to grow. We don't share our suffering openly unless an individual reaches out to us first. Being wild and free and beautiful is also lonely and scary. So we hide our tears in actions that others do not understand. And even among peaceful groups, we struggle.