Last week I opened a two-months-fermented word-document [rexiled_definitive] titled “Reverse Exiled”, like the name of this WordPress outlet. The Reverse Exiled blog materialized from the great visa-excursion of 2012, as I tried to return to my position at Wi’am. The blog shared a common purpose with the journey across Asia and back, which I understood to be navigating life from a new, multicultural perspective. Like this flagship entry, though, Reverse Exiled and all its predecessors are about the search for significance. The past ten years have been characterized by vocational crises whose genesis, ironically, is in the fear of failure and the outgrowth of warped, rushed plans wrought from wanting only excellence amid struggle. Sand-blast with personal struggle and compulsive coping mechanisms: it’s a search for significance that goes from Detroit to Davao. No negative stage has passed without some attempt to redeem the experience in my imagination — rationalizations, perhaps.
The outline I composed on the airplane between Chicago and DC this June is concerned with vocation:
-reversing exile; on my way home
-Quarter-life Crisis at Starbucks
-All of my recent challenges – interruptions to the story
-Retracing back to Mindanao/Bethlehem/sense-making. Things stopped making sense in Uncle Tom’s laboratory (should have been an ecologist) – society is made of systems of its own.
-One Love: MUSIC – then the blown audition. Never any hope… the drift away from myself
-Then came the Writing Center position?
-Then came the crash in the later years of college and just out of college
-Real-world woes… relearning life when I never learned the life I had been in…
-Coming to the yellow park-bench: having let go of music, found the deepest solace in playing
-Playing in caves
-Moving to DC; therapists;
-“What’s stopping you from writing?”
-“What’s stopping me from playing?”
-Musicianship as the underlying identity…
-…and yet: The Writer
-“Seriously… what is stopping me from writing?”
-(overkill: acknowledging the addictions)
The crisis in Starbucks is not hard to unravel: when I saw the price-tag on a graduate education I started to reconsider studying conflict resolution; the ‘man in the mirror’ is not a mediator. My work supporting Wi’am Center was indicative of my values and interests… but not necessarily my talents…
I am no stranger to vocational crises; my career as a biochemist trickled to a hault in the back laboratories of Notre Dame. My uncle showed me his neurological work zebra-fish eyes and, though animals fascinated me, the process failed to resonate in me — that kind of scientific research is something I love to read, not do. I enjoy unraveling systemic relationships; I realized this January that I could have been a wetland ecologist working in the muddy waters around this world. I might expose the subtle stitches in the changing tapestry of our world from tiny strands: the gills of mayflies or the mating habits of frogs. I could have flourished, with the right guidance…
Trumpet resonated. My dreams of playing and composing jazz hovered high above my musical foundations — I lacked sufficient training. My entire, teenage sense of significance coiled itself around a few music program auditions. Too much was at stake —my very self— and I was so far behind the musical curve that could not even acknowledge the coming turn of fortune. I lost the will to practice in the Autumn of my senior year of high school, hoping for a precipitous moment of genius that never appeared in my adult life. What even many in my family do not know is that I would have dropped out of Michigan State University and tried to audition at a smaller school had it not been for John T. Madden, director of MSU’s athletic bands. Based on the essays in my application to the marching band he encouraged me to stay in the English program, at least until I was ready to audition again. Five years later, I left with two BAs — neither of them in Music. Also, neither of them necessarily more lucrative.
When my grandfather had told me that music was an avocation, which confused and angered me. He and Grams bought most of my hardware (horns), paid for lessons, and came to concerts. Young men hate to fall passionate in love with something or someone and then be told they are “too serious”; I was the same way with ladies. Shabaab (an Arabic word — the only fitting term for that season in life) struggle to manage that kind of relationship and not lose themselves in the horror of loving without mastering, of practicing without possessing. I interred my horn in the space behind a couch and pretended to be an intentional English major. Yet my music rebounds, no matter what mode or stage of decay I reach. The avocation illuminates The Way to Vocation, no matter how long the dream remains deferred.
I developed the uncanny urge to sneak under the Bogue Street Bridge on campus and play trumpet (badly) — eventually, my tone was better than ever. Sometimes I would entertain ambitions but I mostly used my practice time as personal therapy. I learned to use a practice room when I moved across campus but I made weekend migrations there. That space was held together with graffiti and spiderwebs, held aloft over the limitless, contradictory depths of mud-steeped water running through the brewing night. Someday I want and even need to write more about the uncanny ways that alcove by the Red Ceder River worked, not just acoustically but as an expression of psyche — a motif.
The first lesson is that a true vocation — even an avocation — will keep finding ways to manifest itself; my musical experience is one of recurring ‘reverse exile’. Music creates a an irregular hollow in the quest for significance because my practice exists mostly for myself, to stave off despair and keep my prowess at a satisfactory point. Music demonstrates both that the unexercised talent becomes dull and unfulfilling but also that enough exercise revives the vocation to previous levels ~ or adds new dimensions. The unsteady love affair with the trumpet traveled to dormitory lounges, park benches, church sanctuaries, and cavernous basements (literally, caves beneath houses). My last week in my old apartment building, in DC, I haunted the vacant room downstairs and disinterred the same sweet sound that keeps saving my sanity, the sound of dreams bridled into a regulated longing, the distillation of “what-if” — a consolation. I did have the raw gifts… but to what end?
The previous ‘all time low’ in my quest for significance came in the wake of my final relationship. I started going to Riverside Park (Grand Rapids, MI) every day to riff for a while and soak in a sunset. The process of making music offered too much and the prospect of suicide too little. The hurt of the (true) blues is transcendent beyond despair because it takes us beyond shame to expression, again. Quality became irrelevant for a while. Instead of leaving the world with my give-a-damn still in it I decided to just live and not give-a-damn. I became truly process-oriented about music.
I speculated that my music would lead the way for my writing but my career interrupted my development. Last week, I kept getting to this point in the essay and freezing. My writer’s block developed into an impossible bind. Always at this point because I never succeeded — I never moved beyond that point. I walked away from my creative self to become an activist for a multitude of reasons and tonight I need to confess that I second-guess that regularly and have since I discovered, in France, that no one wants to listen to prophets. Now, I am becoming tired of listening too. Rather than believing I have a mission, I have begun to believe that the mission grew from that desire for significance — if there is a God, that God made good use of that urge but it seems all but expended as I start avoiding the constant stream of progressive news reports, longing for more beautiful things again… wishing I could braid them together because the most gorgeous facets of life — love, expression, resilience — are in real danger.
—and I’m learning this just as I write, trying to be honest instead of crafty. I want to say that the activist interceded to rescue the artist before he starved or finally had that date with the toilet-bowl cleaner (or the watermelon knife, or a half-frozen lake, or…). The activist grew not only out of that selfish longing for significance but also of preservation, a defense mechanism. I failed to launch in many ways for a complicated suite of reasons (that is putting it simply, since there is a memoir lurking in these words). More than merely saving my life, the activist in me wanted to save my existence by making my soul part of a movement toward a better society. Tonight, my optimism was challenged by a close friend, who seems content to keep doing good despite her belief that things are inevitably getting worse. One a decade-long scale, she is right. On a century-long scale, I believe she is wrong but, through the millennia, neither of us can know the prevailing arc or our species. What I do know is that I did it again: I fell in love with a vocation that I will never master. It is another element in my true vocation, another part that became a mask when it should have been an appendage.
I am a writer. I am a writer among many writers. I am not especially notable, thus not significant. I wish I could be something else. On the other hand, perhaps only the artist in me can rescue what is left of a very harrowed activist.