A Year in an Insane Asylum - My Family Travels

At the conclusion of my four years of study as an undergraduate piano major at the University of Southern California, my instructor summoned for me privately and suggested that I spend the following year in an insane asylum. Of course, those were not the exact words she used. “Katherine,” she said, “there is a program that I think would be perfect for you It is a six month self-directed arts residency up at the Banff Centre; it would be the ideal environment for you to focus on your upcoming auditions for your master’s of music degree.”  A bunch of artists, placed in a rural mountain outpost that was hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world for an entire half year. 

     A graveyard for sanity. 
     But I am in a profession in which people dedicate their hearts, their minds, their entire being to a wooden box so that they can someday sit in the corner of somebody’s house with their box to fill in the awkward silences of dinner conversations.  If I possessed any shred of logic at all, I would not be in this profession. So I did not see the blaring, neon warning signs.  With the blissful oblivion of a child, I applied to the program.  The gladly accepted me, and when the wind stirred the golden autumn leaves from their branches, I drifted away from home as well.
            The town of Banff is in the province of Alberta, tucked away in the very heart of the Canadian Rockies.  It is situated in the Banff National Park, surrounded by rolling acres of jagged cliffs and trees as far as the eye can see.  Banff itself is incredibly small, a quaint, charming town in which the streets are frequented by a uniquely eclectic amalgamation of people and wildlife, ranging from the more docile specimens of deer and the busloads of hat-wearing, camera-touting tourists, to the more dangerous denizens of bears, moose, cougars, and the young intoxicated drifters that emerge from the bars and pubs in the unquiet hours of the night. 
            As if the town itself was not secluded enough, the Banff Centre is further removed from the rest of settlement; one would have to venture upward into the neighboring Tunnel Mountain on a solitary, lonely road alongside the Bow River before the Centre unfolds before the eyes.  We were, indeed, successfully quarantined from the outside world, surrounded by nothing but pure, unadulterated nature. 
            It was as if I had fallen into a postcard, an airbrushed world in which colors had been intensified and images had been sharpened, meticulously edited so that every pixel was a paragon of scenic perfection.  The sky was blue, not a shade of blue nor a variation of blue but a true, deep cerulean blue, an inebriating hue that I never before fathomed to have existed in the natural world.  On warmer days in which there was no snow, the world was a fresh breast of green, and I gazed around me with the same reverent wonder of that of a newborn, seeing the world for the first time.  As the days grew shorter, the green faded into a silent shroud of white, and in the late afternoon sunlight the world glittered like a jewel so that it was painful to look upon.  But I stared on anyway.
            There were fifty some-odd musicians in the program, as well as our visual arts and literary colleagues.  The program was simple enough; each artist was issued his own private studio space, and given all the time to pursue a creative project which was highly encouraged to remain open to infinite permutations as he moves and explores the artistic environment and its counterparts.  However, I had no interest in embarking on a noble quest to chase down these elusive changes in the original master plan.  I had a very specific purpose to my being in the program – preparing my master’s of music audition, and, with the splendor of nature backing me up, I felt impregnable in my ability to focus on my carefully calculated and calibrated goal. 
            I had not bargained for the Centre to be an asylum of the mentally insane.
            Indeed, as I progressed throughout the program though, realization slowly dawned upon me.  Every one of the artists at the Centre was completely and certifiably mad.  And as the weeks turned into months, this madness, combined with the inexorable source of energy that was emitted from the convergence of the Rocky Mountains, fed off of one another and multiplied exponentially.  In every way possible, my previous concept of normality and the very definition of what I knew to be art and music were challenged.  I was constantly presented with new ways of looking at reality, both externally and internally.  All of a sudden, I became an infant in my comprehension of the world around me, and with it came the apprehension of facing the unknown, but also a sense of excitement and a horizon containing an infinite amount of knowledge and possibilities.  For the first time in twenty-three years, I knew absolutely nothing.  It was utterly frightening and horrific.  It was completely liberating.

            And in this spaceship that was the Banff Centre, I rediscovered life for a second time, with these fellow musicians, asylum mates, whom I came not only to respect for their distinct individualities, but also to love.  Formerly, my education in the arts had always been regulated and structured, either by some sort of teacher or an organized institution.  There were always rules, grades, and validations.  However, in this free environment in which we were allowed to seek creativity that was unfettered by the confines of any sort of stifling precedence, we were given the extraordinary power to make art on our own terms, to be the potter instead of the clay.  It forced us to think outside the box, to be innovative, to question the status quo, to go out on a limb, and to be completely crazy.  But in the most interesting and remarkably paradoxical way, in all this chaos, this insanity, I found my sanity.  I discovered the true meaning of art, as an instrument of self-expression and creation, a wildly insane saving grace that keeps the world and those that it touches sane. 

            The very last week of my stay in Banff, a couple of friends from Los Angeles came up and visited and took me on a road trip to Jasper, another neighboring town.  It was my first time leaving the Centre in six months; I was beside myself with elation.  The drive from Banff to Jasper is reputed to be one of the most beautiful, scenic drives in North America, cutting through the national park and through the rugged passes of the Rockies.  After a couple of hours in the car, we rounded a bend, and I found myself confronted with the magnificent splendor of glacier country.  We were currently listening to Morten Lauridsen’s sacred choral composition, O Magnum Mysterium, and at that moment, I burst into tears.  For indeed, I was greatly overwhelmed by this great and awesome mystery that was far beyond my human comprehension, utterly humbled by the presence of something greater than I could ever hope to grasp.  And this was what was so beautiful about the experience, about my entire experience at Banff, this return of innocence, to a nascent state of complete surrender and openness.  And as we drove on, I recalled something that the great Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky, once penned.

Let everything that has been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion, is not actually some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible, when he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it is tender and pliant, but when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.”

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