There were only about 6 or 7 people in the theater waiting to watch Monty Python Live (Mostly) a few months ago. I arrived extra early to get good seats, and I was excited. I’ve been a Monty Python fan since my teens, when my father introduced me to And Now for Something Completely Different. Since then, refrains from songs and snippets of scenes have crept into my consciousness and put a smile on my face at random moments and sometimes even inappropriate occasions.
It soon became clear that the theater was going to remain almost empty, so I decided to pull out my phone and check the movie reviews. I was hoping I wouldn’t regret talking my husband and older son into watching the 3 hour recorded stage performance (though both are fans). I introduced my 16 year old to Monty Python with a “movie marathon” when he turned 13, considering it a rite of passage into teenagerhood.
After a quick look at critics’ comments, I admit, I got worried. There were complaints about “no new material” and the phrase “lazy performance” raised a red flag.
But it was too late. The room darkened. And I was transported.
Not just to Q2 Arena in London, but back to the living room where my brother and I used to watch hours of Monty Python in our teenagerhood. Kurt, a tray on his lap overflowing with savory snacks and me jealously eyeing his feast while lying on the ground doing Jane Fonda exercises.
All distractions, however, would disappear quickly as our grins dissolved into laughter when the actors pushed past comedy to the outright absurd.
The dialogue of these quirky, brilliant sketches soon became an underlying thread in my evolving communication with my brother. Just one word could evoke hysterical laughter. And when life’s various crises came to overly dramatic crescendos as we matured, comparisons with different Monty Python scenes would bring us giggling back to reality.
This weird and wonderful subtext connected my brother and me to our parallel universes as we increasingly moved about in our worlds – independently.
As 30 years have now passed, it’s no surprise that in their reunion movie the Monty Python actors came across a little stiffer – but lazy? Sure, John Cleese missed a few lines, but it was authentic and entertaining. Honestly, it’s just a marvel to me that they were able to sustain such an enthusiastic, energetic performance for hours. I had just returned from visiting my father, who has now reached 77. As fit as he is, it was fresh in my mind how much day-to-day life alone can be a challenge.
When the movie finally ended, with the classic “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, I did something I didn’t expect – broke down in tears. I could sense the end of an era…
Then, I got angry.
What right have critics, or any of us, to judge the nature of creativity? If creativity were something to be called up at will and produced consistently – both in content and quality – creatives through the centuries wouldn’t have given credit to their “muses”. Modern artists are equally at the mercy of creative whims, as Elizabeth Gilbert so eloquently describes in her passionate TED Talk about the “glimpses of God” she calls creativity.
Just look at a list of Literary One Hit Wonders compiled by The Huffington Post. Are classics like Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to be judged as “less than”? If an artist produces just one masterpiece, is that art any less worthwhile than another masterpiece? What about the artist? Is one wiser, more talented if he or she is able to harness the muse, and has the capacity to focus that energy? Or just lucky?
And does this apply only to artists? What about human beings – and the creative process that weaves its way through our lives? We tend to judge each other just as harshly.
A few weeks after seeing the movie, I Skyped with my brother – to talk about Monty Python and the nature of creativity. I’d found yet another comparison to one of our real-life challenges. I was about to help Kurt set up a website to showcase and sell some of his woodwork, but we had to find a way to manage expectations that he might be able to produce more. Kurt had suffered from a bad back injury that made the physical process of creating his art impossible for him to sustain.
His art was was all about bringing new life to trees at the end of their life cycle.
As he said, “When a tree falls, a new dance begins.” Kurt would tenderly salvage fallen or dying trees “destined for the burn pile or landfill” and reinvent them. He describes his process this way:
“I “buck” the living tree into one or several project pieces, each suggested by the tree’s form, flesh, and integrity. Through investigation, conversations (with loggers, park managers, neighbors, or scientists), photography, and a forensic use of the chainsaw, I learn of the tree’s history and environment, including its human community.”
Kurt would then begin a “scavenger’s journey” and rework walnut, maple, cherry, oak – some woods beyond recognition on the outside, with their scars and lesions – into visions of strength and beauty: woodturnings, two-dimensional wall hangings, organic furniture, or abstract sculpture.
His works, Kurt wrote, would still be “breathing” long after he signed them, so when you saw his art you would also be unwittingly “witnessing an imperceptibly slow, botanical performance art” in one suspended snapshot absorbing its “growth, defeat, success, movement, and death.”
His creative journey demands some explanation.
My brother had a life-long love of the environment. He started his journey not as an artist, but with a Master’s degree from Duke University in Environmental Management. Kurt worked with Land Trusts and environmental experts, helping to craft policy, to fuel research and to plan forest management. With a focus on strategic and compelling messaging, his mission was to build awareness and commitment. He worked to persuade individuals, power brokers and communities to recognize the value of our world’s forests and work to save them, as we are their “beneficiaries and neighbors”.
Later, disillusioned by lack of action, he shifted his focus directly to “individuated trees”. But eventually, his creativity was impacted by a bicycle accident – the one that damaged his back, leaving him no longer able to manage the “back-breaking labor” of transporting and transforming green, uncured wood into big, bold statements. He was forced to work smaller. He began crafting bowls and candle holders, gnarled with burl or punctured with character.
Like a tree, as one branch of talents was cut off, Kurt always found a way to grow in another direction. Ending up not as a traditional-looking specimen, but one shaped by the elements in its environment.
Shaped, or stunted?
Over a long decade, as I raised my own family thousands of miles away from my brother, I slowly and painfully realized that my boys would never know Kurt’s sharp intelligence and wry sense of humor. I began to lose my close connection with my brother as I watched his personality begin to morph like his art. It took a while to understand why – to recognize the twists and turns he was going through inside.
Another branch on his tree had started to die and fall away: his executive function.
It turns out that bike accident didn’t just damage Kurt’s back, but also his brain. Killing off a part of his frontal lobe. He was finding it hard to comprehend what he read, and make even simple decisions. He’d fall into circular, confused thought patterns that only added to the pain of his his physical afflictions. This led to despair, anger and even shame. Perforating and draining his life force and energy.
It was often painful to communicate with him.
But there were still moments – flashes of his wit and brilliance. That’s why I was so excited about our Monty Python conversation. We both passionately agreed that instead of judging the movie as evidence that Monty Python’s creativity was stunted, it actually crystallized that moment-in-time quality made that often makes art and any creative expression more rare and therefore valuable.
I remember seeing a shadow of pain cross his face while we were talking, but Kurt carried on our conversation.
Now a long way from his original artistic vision, Kurt knew that his current artistic expression wasn’t as publicly lauded, nor as personally satisfying as what he used to create.
Neither was he.
He was desperate for a sanctuary. Selling his art was a way to help fund a move to family land in the McKenzie Valley in Oregon – a lush, green place that fed his soul, where he didn’t feel judged, but free to just be and live among the trees.
I felt heartened and hopeful after that Skype conversation. Our connection was momentarily restored. But it turned out to be our last time we’d ever talk face to face.
About one month later, under the majestic trees on that family land, I was accompanied by my mother and father, Kurt’s soulmate, one of his dearest friends – and Kurt’s ashes.
Together, we climbed a steep slope, thick with underbrush and a carpet of decomposing wood and mosses, to find a spot to bury my brother, close to where his beloved dogs already lay at rest.
When we reached the spot, we realized that we hadn’t brought a shovel. So, doing just what Kurt had done hundreds of times on this land, we got on our knees and started digging into the rich dark soil with our hands.
We spread his ashes under the roots of a Bonsai Cedar, close to a rough wooden cross a fellow woodworker had crafted, using Kurt’s salvaged wood and generously shared artistic wisdom.
Numb, but strong, we worked in silence.
My body moved purposefully as my brain struggled to keep up the pace. Finally, a whispered thought broke through my internal silence, “I am digging my brother’s grave”. Inevitably, and as if to prove we won’t ever lose our special connection, my next thought was the final strain of the Monty Python song: “Always look at the bright side of death…”
Rise above heartbreak and tragedy. Find the wisdom and peace, camouflaged in pain or even inappropriate wit.
Kurt chose to leave this earth.
As close as I tried to be to him, I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t fathom the true depth of the ruptures and transformations occurring inside him. I knew I couldn’t heal his hurts. I could only remind him that his scars were part of his evolution. Although I tried to help – as did my family and his closest companions – we were all witnessing his “imperceptibly slow, botanical performance art.’
And even though Kurt’s life I see as a piece now “signed” like his art, it still breathes. I can still absorb both his pain and his brilliance as I examine it like one of his woodworkings.
Life is art. A creative journey that one day, each in its own way, must end.
For those who demand more than is possible for some of us, I challenge them to look more deeply. Recognize the value in the art produced, the life lived, the contribution made.
Even if it’s limited in space, time, quantity or quality.
And then grow in your own direction.
Create new wit, wisdom and inspiration.
“When a tree falls, a new dance begins.”
Let it begin.