Into the first days of spring, I’ve carried a slender volume, called “Grumbling At Large,” that had landed under last year’s Christmas tree. It’s a small collection of writings by Englishman J.B. Priestley, who was nearly 90 when he died in 1984.
As the title suggests, Priestley was, by his own admission, a champion grumbler. “What was not quite so bad yesterday will be much worse tomorrow,” he groused in 1972.
But if he occasionally dipped his toe into world-weariness, Priestley wasn’t willing to wallow in it. He knew that he was at his best when he was keen to the continuing possibilities of his century, whatever its challenges. It’s what kept him at his desk until the end.
In a 1966 piece called “The Moments,” Priestley recalled the times “that have always seemed to me magical” when he felt that he was connecting with something larger than himself. The prospect of such moments drew him from bed each morning.
“It is my experience that these moments arrive as and when they choose,” he told readers. “They cannot be summoned, nor even induced, beckoned. But of course some circumstances are more favorable than others. It is just possible that I might be visited by one of these moments while reading a report on the tin-plate industry … but all odds are heavily against it. On the other hand, I have found the arts most generous with these magical moments, and this is one good reason … for hanging around with them.”
I thought about all of this recently when business briefly took our family to Atlanta, where our 16-year-old son asked if we could pass some time at an art museum. That’s how we landed at the High Museum of Art, which is hosting an exhibit of paintings and photographs called “Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art,” through May 7.
The exhibit explores the ways in which artists found beauty and wonder in places beyond the big cities where painters and poets so often look for inspiration.
There’s a 1945 photograph by Wynn Bullock of clouds as textured as tea leaves against a dark sky. You wonder what you’ve been missing all these years, trudging through the day without glancing up. In an Ansel Adams photograph called “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” the moon hovers like a wraith above a southwestern village.
A closer look reveals a companion graveyard, the tombstones dwarfed by the evening horizon. I thought about the lives buried there beneath the stars. Had the departed, in the course of working each day, raising kids and keeping households together, paid much attention to the moon?
Travel can help you look at the home you’ve left with fresh eyes. I drove back to Louisiana hoping to see it a little differently, maybe catching one of those moments that kept J.B. Priestley young at heart.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.