A River to Wash the Pain

I feel like I need to get this off of my chest: I lacked courage all along. Just now I asked myself “why don’t I feel like writing even though I know I want to be an author?” yet another instance in scores of times. This time I answered myself honestly: “because I don’t want to feel how far from excellent, perfect, and totally confident I am at that art.” I know that I need to go through an awkward, even repulsive exploratory stage and I do fear that time will soon be biting my heels, since I could have chanced writing garbage in my teens and twenties rather than waiting for a Light from Heaven to make the task easy. I did not suffer from lack of encouragement. I suffered from always finding some cramp or another in my life to rob me of extra energy, and therefore provide me with endless excuses, distractions, and even responsibilities. The final category is most insidious because those things are easily mistaken for things I ‘should’ be doing. All the while, I’ve often kicked myself both for not reading enough and not writing enough, for not reviewing what I’ve already done enough and for not doing new things enough. I’ve been like an overly strict parent to myself.

Not so with music. My passion burned hot at a tender age, then slackened under the corrosive influence of my teenage days. At only seventeen or eighteen I had to shoulder the heartbreak of not being good enough for the two schools of music I auditioned for– yes, I only auditioned at two schools and expected life to hand me a success. I failed in auditions and excelled at application essays. Dr. John T. Madden, then director of athletic bands, urged me to continue at Michigan State University… as an English major because I wrote eloquently. Yet when I spent a month away from the trumpet, I swear to you that an alcove under a bridge enticed my sixth sense. I knew its acoustics would be exquisite; I went beneath the bridge to nurse the musician in me who would not die. In Creative Writing classes I did well but was plagued by the need for deadlines, sometimes even for whiskey, to get me over my speed-bumps. Meanwhile, I found even more nooks in which to keep my embouchure dredged, toned, and ready in case I miraculously returned to music as a career.

Reality eventually hit me hard. After my undergraduate days, my writing became inconsistent — as it is to this day. My personal life collapsed, which is an inevitability in life. Something remarkable happened: I gave myself permission to be the shitty musician who plays in a riverside park every day. Again, some space was calling to the musician in me. This time, I gave myself wholly to the notion that I had no future — I was only playing to be playing. Fully present with the instrument, I could be absent to the rest of my failings. Despite or even because of having less talent and promise as a musician than as a writer, I became a musician in the truest sense: I’d rather die than not play, I’d rather not die so I could keep playing. The voice of the inner musician saved me at age 24 and then again just a few weeks ago– I play at a blues jam. The funniest part is that I am a better musician after seven years. I knew it was possible but I could not set my sights on something that took so long. I had to close my eyes to the future because I lacked that kind of patience… yet the patience to be imperfect on my instrument, in the present moment, was something that I gained automatically.

I never stopped believing in myself, neither as a writer nor a musician. As a musician, I stopped worrying about myself as much. The black dots and lines of classical training went away and I relied wholly on my ears, probing for sounds, and getting better at improvising… rehearsing the feeling of getting lost and finding my way in scales, lately in blues chord progressions or attempted variants of familiar tunes. There were no more ‘mistakes’, as if I were performing for invisible audiences, as whatever I played would go forward and backward in imagined time like tides rising and falling– trying this combination of notes, then another, then changing the inflection again…

…it’s easy to forget how difficult it used to be. Those first few weeks by the river, with a broken heart, hearing my mistakes on trumpet was still painful. My resolution was to feel the pain in the presence of the river and my music, feel the pain of my imperfections on trumpet along with the rest of my decaying life. Practice makes happy, as music students sometimes say, and I gave myself the gift of a facet of life that I could improve upon. Moreover, I am so much an audiophile that I eventually became my own supporter; who else but me can play me what I am feeling? I can play you all what I am feeling without feeling as vulnerable, since my faults are transliterated in music; listeners are free to interpret.

Here, in ink, I am still my own biggest critic and I fear my words are less elastic. Glancing at my guitar, the one I can’t actually play, I am reminded of how much striving goes into art. Terms like “process-oriented” versus “product-oriented” are missing the crucial dialectics of art. Is the art a module to add on top of yourself, to try to stretch your outline bigger in this world, or is it an emulsifier — something you use to blur that outline and transform?

 

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