What Will Your Theme Be?

Own me.

Chapter 47

In the room of toys and dolls, a ponderous panda sat with open arms on the polished wooden floor and stared lifelessly at Dusty with big button eyes the same color as her own. He had a pink tongue poking out a smiling mouth and was flanked on either side by freckle-faced ventriloquist dolls with carmine lips. A life-sized zebra flashed behind. A row of large green wine bottles stood under the windows, and a living cat of butterscotch-and-black lay couchant on the floor beneath. The room glowed like a jewel. Beautiful piano music seeped into the room from unseen speakers.

Dusty watched as Sheila with a supple wrist animated an ostrich-marionette made of styrofoam and wires but plumed with real feathers. Dusty watched as Sheila brought the bird to life and marched it right up to Dusty and then made the ostrich rub its feathered forehead across Dusty’s fingers.

“I brought you here to illustrate for you again the essential principle of life,” Sheila said, “to tell you again that the energy of life is the impulse to motion and activity, which in living things is self-generated and which in humans begins in the brain. What is the mind if not motion in the mental realm?”

Dusty did not answer. She narrowed her eyes on the brainless marionette of wires and styrofoam.

“The essence of thought, as the essence of life, is growth,” Sheila said. “And the opposite of growth is stillness. Death is inertia. Creative expression is a natural extension of one’s enthusiasm for movement and life. And ballet is movement made into an art and a science.”

Who was this splendid woman, Dusty thought, with such deep green eyes and vivid vital presence — such an abounding interest and with an aura of self-contained isolation, who sought to uplift her?

Sheila told Dusty that people can easily hide or keep private who they really are or facets of who they really are and that this is not necessarily a bad thing, but that in both the act of creative expression and also the response to creative expression, the total personality is exactly revealed and cannot be hidden.

Sheila said furthermore that the choice of subject-matter in both the creator and also the viewer, whether the subject-matter be joyful, degenerate, redemptive, cruel, boring, beautiful, debased, immature, inspirational, macabre, silly, smart, vain, or anything else or any combination, it unswervingly reveals what things both the creator and also the person who responds to this artwork regard as significant in life and in the universe — while the style, Sheila said, whether clear, convoluted, crisp, unfocused, clean, confusing, elegant, sloppy, sophisticated, vulgar, noetic, poetic, or any cross-combination, reveals precisely the way both the creator and also the approving viewer think. She said this was as true for pictures and paintings and posters as it was for music and movies and books and sculpture and dance.

“Style reveals the mind in motion,” Sheila said. “It shows how the mind moves and how the consciousness operates. Style is How. Subject is What. Style is technique, and technique is personality. What does that personality regard as important, and how does that personality express it? Subject and style are united by a theme. Theme is meaning.”

At that moment, the little living black-and-butterscotch cat rose and stretched, hind-leg and foreleg simultaneously, and then leapt up to the windowsill and from here stepped down onto the row of wine bottles and walked lightly across them. The bottles did not move.

Dusty watched.

Sheila watched her watch.

The cat walked across all the bottles and then slid like water back onto the floor and rested.

“What will your theme be, Dusty May?”

Dusty looked from the cat to Sheila.

“Can I just choose?” Dusty said. “Just like that, I mean?” And softly, softly Dusty snapped her fingers next to her own ear.

“Yes,” Sheila said.

Dusty didn’t reply. Her eyes went back to the couchant cat.

“Passion is willed,” Sheila said. “It’s not inborn. Talent is learned. Talent, like passion, is developed. The word passion comes from the Latin word pati, which means ‘to suffer.’ Talent requires dedication, which, as you of all people know, is difficult. But no matter the endeavor, the process is identical: you decide and then you act. You learn and then you do. Do you know the fundamental mistake most people make?”


“They don’t choose their theme. A central purpose is a unifying theme.”

“What do they do instead?”

“They let outside forces choose it for them.”


“By not thinking for themselves, by uncritically accepting what they’ve been brought up among, by following whatever stimulus happens to attract them or give them immediate gratification, until those things progress into vice. Their theme is in this way determined by something other than their own fundamental will.”

Dusty was silent. The sunlight poured into the room, igniting the agate eyes of the stuffed zebra, so that those two eyes flickered purple and blue.

“He once brought me back to life,” Dusty said. She was staring not at Sheila but at the sunlight burning life-like in the zebra’s eyes.

“Who?” Sheila said.

“Kenneth Dvorak, my foster father.”

“What happened?”

“I was twelve. I was wading across the river, and the current was too strong. It swept me under — under a tangle of sticks — and I drowned. He dove in and pulled me out, but my heart had stopped.”

Only now did Dusty look from the sunlight back to Sheila.

“I was dead,” Dusty said, “and he revivified me. He breathed life back into me. A part of me will always love him more than I love anyone — not because of this alone but because he gave me so much life in so many different ways, and he taught me so many things, and he loved me properly in return. I felt the genuineness of his love for me, and it meant the world to me.”

Sheila was silent. She regarded Dusty for a long time. The sunlight fell around them like pollen. The piano music pulsed rhythmically. Sheila reached over and turned up the volume, and then she put her hand out, and Dusty gripped Sheila’s hand in her own.

“The dance is life,” Sheila said. “Death, violation: where is thy sting?”

Then Sheila danced Dusty across the gorgeous glowing floor of wood, through this sunlit space, where the zebra and the panda and the dummies stared mutely from their situated place, and the living kitten watched so alert and curious with those jeweled eyes in that mottled face.

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