Fathom Mag

Blessed Unrest

Life and art are hard and demanding. Neither are to be entered into lightly.

Published on:
December 1, 2022
Read time:
7 min.
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I often hear, “You’re so grounded and calm.” In reality, a near-constant storm of energy swirls at the center of my being. And its relentless presence animates so much of what I do—writing, yoga, walking in the woods. One particular day, the storm felt more alive than usual, and the only way I could live with it was to let its forces move me where they pleased. They took me to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

Art has a way of showing me I’m not alone. It’s been like that for me for as long as I can remember. Spending time with an artist’s work reminds there are others who have attempted to answer the deep and roiling call of taking life and making meaning. As the psalmist says, “Deep calls to deep in the roar.”

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Finding Martha

After parking in the shade on a side street, I stepped into the spacious entryway of the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I’d crossed the MIA threshold many times before, but that may have been the first time I’d entered that space without an agenda. I climbed the first set of stairs, wondering where the museum would pull me.

The card informed me this was a sculpture of Martha Graham, the woman who broke all the rules in the dancing world.

I barely glanced at whatever that breathtaking blue is in the Renaissance room where saints and martyrs are routinely tortured. As I passed, I remembered how a friend had told me about a painting she once saw of some martyr who’d been blinded in life. The painting showed this woman carrying her eyes on a silver platter—in heaven.

“She didn’t look like she was in pain,” my friend had told me. “She looked more . . . inconvenienced.” To be blessed is a kind of hell, then?

I kept walking and soon I felt pulled into the European and American rooms, but even there I was in for a surprise. I usually ignore the portraits and get lost in the depths and dramas of the landscapes. But that day, I ignored the moors and moons and found myself drawn to people’s eyes.

Every time I stopped before a compelling portrait, transfixed by the gaze, I heard the same question in my mind: Are you ready? 

Ready for what?

I continued to be pulled from this portrait to that one, almost as if each was guiding me where I needed to go, which turned out to be a round couch. I lowered myself onto the cushion and faced an elegant wooden chair. I locked eyes with the sculpture sitting there as if she were sitting on a throne. Her head sat huge and pocked, her eyes piercing points of white light. The torso, dressed in shining black, looked like a block of wood. Flat feet and on her “knees” rested small bound fingers. I could almost feel the thin cords cutting the flesh.

The figure looked huge and small, commanding and trapped, radiant and frozen. The card informed me this was a sculpture of Martha Graham, the woman who broke all the rules in the dancing world.


Why would the artist render her this way?

Taking Care with Mystery

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was a theologian from Scotland. His brogue combined with his intelligence meant I could have listened to him for hours. I only got to hear him lecture a few times, though, because he was dying of cancer. On those rare times when he had the energy to teach, he stood in front of us, five foot two in a three-piece suit. Much like the atomic energy of this Martha statue, he demanded our attention as he stood at the podium and shuffled his notes.

When we consider the ways of the divine, it is easy to brush off any complications and complexities by simply saying, “It’s a mystery.”

In one lecture, he warned us to take care with mystery. He argued that many people invoke mystery too soon. When we consider the ways of the divine, it is easy to brush off any complications and complexities by simply saying, “It’s a mystery.” As soon as we do that, he said, we excuse ourselves from the work.

Take Jacob. He wrestled with the angel all night long before he received his blessing—and his wound. He didn’t just throw up his hands and say, “Who you are is a mystery” and grab a hot dog from the concessions stand. He stayed on that desert floor, wrestling without end until he was sweaty, dirty, broken.

And so ‘effin alive.

Invoking mystery too soon can cover a whole host of sins: laziness, cowardice, and a narcissistic need for power and acclamation rather than a real and humble wrestling with the Greater Than.

But my professor didn’t let the cognitive warriors off the hook either. He posited that we cannot not invoke mystery. There comes a point when we have to admit we do not know. We can never know, and to say otherwise is hubris of the highest order. There are things we cannot explain. 

I had breast cancer, chemo, radiation, and a divorce I didn’t want all in the same year. I am now dating a man I went to high school with because he had three dreams about me (well, my feet actually), and he decided to reach out.

How in the hell can you explain that?

My partner would say it was his buddy, the Holy Spirit, whispering in his ear at night.

I would say that’s ridiculous—that which is to be ridiculed, that which can mean something is unbelievably good.

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Hearing Martha

Sitting in front of a statue, wrestling with mystery, might sound noble. In truth, it was awkward. The same docent kept walking past, and even though my eyes never strayed from Martha’s, I knew he was looking at me. I felt like a bust, naked and on display, as he watched me watching her.

Martha couldn’t have cared less. I could see it in the vehement glint in her eye. The docent circled around again.

Sit. Stay. Now see the pain. Those hands. I began to wonder about this woman. 

What bound her?

What cut into her spirit?

Was it the critics, or even loved ones, who questioned what she did and wondered why she couldn’t be nice and behave?

What wounds did she create?

What did she have to answer for?

Her glinting eyes cut through me, accusingly, as in, Those are your questions. Not mine.

This pass, the docent quipped, “Martha sure has a lot to say, doesn’t she?”

And as I held Martha’s gaze, one thought wouldn’t let me go—"There is no dance in her, only discipline." 

The longer I sat with her the quieter my questions became and the louder she seemed to speak for herself: Life and art are hard and demanding. Neither are to be entered into lightly. Be spirited and brave or get thee to the nearest all-you-can-eat buffet so you can try and feel full.

(I love all-all-you-can-eat buffets.)

Speaking with Martha

Martha once said to the choreographer and dancer Agnes de Mille, “[There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Blessed unrest? This restlessness, this dissatisfaction is no gift, Martha. It hooks. It amplifies the hiss of longing until a spirit can hear nothing else.

So invoke mystery, her eyes seemed to taunt. Stop the struggle before it starts. Live beige. Live the bumper-pad life. Doing that might keep you safe for a while. You’ll likely even be rewarded.

“That’s not fair,” I wanted to shout. “You lived your life of blessed unrest, and look at you now, frozen, bound, hopeless.”

The white light in her eyes flared, and then I would have sworn that she smiled, ever so slightly and enigmatically, as she repeated, Are you ready?

I longed to answer I was tired. Tired of living in chaos. That I wanted to drink tea like the quiet people and yes, live the beige and bumper-padded life, where I was guided gently and safely along my obvious path.

I longed to be rewarded, longed to tell her I was tired of being pierced and patched, mangled and torn like her.

I longed to say, “Look, I get it. This matters. How we live matters. Cancer kills (my seminary professor died at the height of his career), and while mine seems to be gone, who knows, so it’s no wonder my life has an even greater sense of urgency than it did before.”

She knew the cost of saying yes.  Yes to the cost of risking it all, of seeing it all as holy—and how that can leave you crumpled, spent.

She almost nodded, as if I were finally getting somewhere, and where I was getting was knowing—knowing that her path promised little, if any, success and certainly no ease; knowing that giving all my longing, even giving all my discipline, to art would not save me—and it could leave me just like her—frozen, bound, hopeless. But she also knew that art and passion are our best chances to let the raw cry out, the one that lives inside, the one that demands you be ready to dance with passion and pain, lust and longing, and put them out there for all to see.

Why does it have to be like this?

That’s the question that cannot be answered. Only lived.

Are you ready?

Martha’s eyes seemed to soften. She knew the cost of saying yes. Yes to the wild energy that maddens and gladdens the brain and leads who knows where. Yes to the cost of risking it all, of seeing it all as holy—and how that can leave you crumpled, spent.

As I looked back at Martha after our conversation, she looked small, tired. She knew that a person has to live ready to enter into the cage match with mystery. No rules. No certainties except that when the sun comes up you will end up exhausted and broken and so alive with light at the center of your being . . . until you aren’t, and then there is quiet and rest.

She seemed to gather herself, as if for one last effort.

Are you ready, child?
Are you ready to receive the blessing and the wound?
Are you ready to live the storm and let the light flash forth from your eyes?

She didn’t wait for my answer. She went dark and quiet as an empty stage.

I gave in to the undeniable pull to put my hands to my heart and whisper, “Amen,” as if this had been one long battlefield of prayer and I had only just surrendered.

“What was that?” the docent asked as he passed by.

It’s common to say, “Oh, nothing,” in a situation like this. I rose, looked into his eyes, and said, “Everything.”

Betsy Johnson
Betsy Johnson lives in Minnesota, and her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Boulevard, and North American Review.

Cover image by Jonas Smith.

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