Starting Over

My son flubbed another school band audition, even though he played well in the practice room just before. Nerves. Before bedtime, I told him the story of why I quit playing the piano:

The last time I performed on the piano was a lovely spring day in April 1988. Fifty or so music professors, music majors, and assorted music lovers gathered in the small, old chapel at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where I was a freshman majoring in English Literature and Communication Studies.

Having played piano since the age of five, I continued lessons in college to keep music in my life. I’d enjoyed a companionable relationship with my home piano teacher who watched me grow up under her tutelage. I didn’t jive with this music professor, however; I was Grieg and Chopin (romantics) and she was Bach (mathematics); I was pop and she was do re mi.

Since I played well enough for a non-major, she put me in the spring recital playing, you guessed it, a Bach piece. I worked through my initial disdain, eventually moved the music into my heart, and the afternoon of the recital I played it perfectly.

In the practice rooms. Not in recital.

The nerves of playing for a room of professionals and professionals-to-be broke me down. I lost my place and then my mind. My roommate, an organ major, ran my sheet music to me; she sat on the bench and held her finger to my place in the piece. I never regained my composure.

That was the end of that.

At the time I operated as a fully-entrenched perfectionist and I wouldn’t do something I couldn’t do perfectly. Clearly, my failure indicated that I should not be a musician (despite my years of devotion and joy), so I let it go. I poured myself into classes and friends and moved on. Occasionally I dabbled with a song or two, just for fun. Until enough time  passed and knowledge eroded that it wasn’t fun. I tried giving my younger son lessons until he decided he’d rather play on his own.

I let go of something I loved because I caved under pressure. It makes me sad.

Long ago my mom told me that she wouldn’t be surprised to someday find a grand piano in my home but no furniture, that art meant more to me than practicality. Accurate. We’ve hauled my upright piano up and down the state of California—from San Diego to Ventura and back, then to NorCal. All the while it has sat against a wall, collecting dust, beautiful…and sadly, unconsciously, a symbol of my failure.

My son plays it more than I do. He can’t read piano music; he plays by ear. For his sake, I’m glad we still have it. Last night, I shared my experience to encourage him to keep going. Not that his pursuit of music was ever in doubt, but I wanted him to know that I regret having given it up. That a botched audition or performance doesn’t define you. That he can be stronger in spirit than I was, and music will take him farther than it took me.

With the house all to myself today, maybe this recovering perfectionist will toodle around on the piano… And how interesting that I found this piece to bring me back to my love!

 

Cover photo credit: Image by PublicDomainArchive from Pixabay

Free to Fail

My younger son is a musician. He’s played trumpet for six years and picked up the tuba a year ago. As a high school sophomore, he registered for two music classes: Jazz and Symphonic Bands. Music is his happy place, the band room his safety zone.

His private instructor also works at the school; he asked to chat. Apparently, my kiddo did not do well on his jazz audition. But his instructor wanted me to know all the ways I could encourage him:

He did better on the harder of two pieces.
He persevered when he lost his place.
When he finished, the whole room broke out in applause rather than their normal toe tapping, understanding the struggle and the grit.
He did not have the worst audition in the group.
This was the hardest piece of music he will encounter all year,
and now auditions are over until next year.

No accident that I’ve been reading about creative risks and failure and how to go on when you feel discouraged.

Thing is, he knew the audition had been a mess, but he didn’t let it flatten him; he let it go. I reminded him that everyone will blow it from time to time, everyone fails, but that creates an opportunity for growth. And that artists may fail even more so because artists have to take risks, the nature of the creative game. I told him that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly so that you can get better. That everyone is a beginner, and even with experience, we face many, many, many beginnings (like, every new piece of music).

Yes, he agreed. Wise kid. How does he know all this when I’m still learning?

Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet about receiving a rejection letter on her fortieth birthday. She put the cover on her typewriter in a dramatic gesture to mark the end of her writing career; she walked circles around her writing room, sobbing, until she realized that already in her head she was writing a story about failure. She uncovered her typewriter and got back to work.

Failure requires a response of swift, gracious action. Instead of asking the pityingly poor question, “Why me?” we ask, “What next?” For my son, next meant more music, Symphonic Band, followed by geometry. He kept his head up and kept moving. For Madeleine, it was making the decision to keep pecking away at her typewriter. We do the next right thing, however small and seemingly insignificant.

The creative road can be scary, but we keep walking, step by step. We speak kindly to ourselves, not berating ourselves for failure but commending ourselves for the courage to risk. We may feel sore, like sore muscles after a hard workout, but we persist, assuring ourselves that as we keep at it those creative muscles will also grow stronger.

The next morning as I dropped my son off at the band room, I asked how he was feeling; I knew that morning’s class involved sight reading, not his strength. He said he felt fine, and he was. Having gotten through one difficult scene in the band room, he knew he could do it again. And this time, it was even easier. Next time will be easier still. He’s getting stronger.

 

Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

Creativity as Spiritual Practice

I read in The Artist’s Way:

Are you contemplative? Yes.
Do you allow yourself to go on retreat? Oh, well…

Shortly thereafter, I saw a magazine ad for a nearby retreat center. An ad for the same center popped up on social media a few days after that; I clicked, and Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, would be speaking there soon. It was expensive.

A week later, I randomly received a yoga catalog in the mail. I flipped through, and saw that Cameron would be leading a retreat at a yoga center on the East Coast. Even more expensive.

Interesting: I’d considered retreat-ing, and opportunities popped into view.

About a week later, another ad appeared on social media: a FREE online retreat with Cameron and one of my favorite artists, SARK, plus five others. The topic: Creativity as Spiritual Practice. In my wheelhouse, do at my own speed, and free? Sign me up!

I’ve listened to two of the seven speakers so far and gained wisdom from both. As I took notes on the second speaker, though, a rather obvious thought grabbed me:

Creativity is a spiritual practice.

The speaker talked about being told as a child that she couldn’t draw, so she should find something else to do in life. She cut herself off from creativity and became a successful doctor instead. But she wasn’t whole until she recovered her creative self.

I want to write, “Who tells a child they can’t draw, so find another career?” Except, how many of us heard the same message? Art’s just not your thing, honey. You’ll find your thing, don’t worry.

Hogwash.

First of all, Art and Creativity aren’t necessarily the same thing. Too often we get all high and mighty about Art. Art hangs in museums, so the average human can’t make Art. Maybe not, but we can all create. And it doesn’t have to be your career, although it might be. It can be a hobby that fulfills you in ways you never imagined and influences who you are in all spheres.

Secondly, creativity is spiritual. At the least, it connects us to our own spirits. Creative activity is pure self-expression. As a Christian, I believe that humans have been created in the image of the Great Creator. We join God in co-creating our lives, and we image God most fully as we engage with Him in body, mind and spirit. I regularly practice my faith, praying/meditating, worship, etc. Why not fold creativity into that mix? I connect with God in new ways as I create.

Whatever you believe, creative work is less work than flow, getting things down rather than thinking them up. Receiving, not straining, and expressing. Poet Jon Fosse said, “To compose poetry,” he might have said, to create, “is about listening…it is, so to speak, about bringing forth something that already exists…”

Thirdly, creativity is about practice, not necessarily mastery. It’s not something you do just like anyone else. You do you. Not everyone can be Picasso, Matisse, O’Keefe, but everyone can express themselves. It doesn’t have to look like anything specific, and it doesn’t have to look like anything else anyone has made.

When I practice yoga, it’s my practice. I don’t have to do it perfectly, because the best I can do is breathe and stretch my own body, imperfect and healing and differently balanced each day. I don’t compare, because someone else’s breath and stretch makes for their practice. I don’t practice towards an end, but for the sake of my presence in the process.

When our kids were young, we expected them to participate in a sport most seasons: soccer, basketball, baseball, swim. Hiking and biking with family and friends on weekends. We didn’t expect them to be champions, but to enjoy movement, play a game, be active, learn good sportsmanship. Eventually, they’d tried enough sports to know what they liked and didn’t. They understand that physical exercise is a practice, a discipline for overall health.

Why don’t we treat creativity similarly? So what if you can’t draw, try painting. If not painting, ceramics. Try music or writing or collage, mosaic or poetry, jewelry making or sewing or cooking or…

Why oh why do so many young children hear the message that they’re just not creative, especially at, arguably, the most creative stage of their lives? No wonder so many adults don’t believe they are creative. We lose part of our humanness when we cut off our creativity.

Like playing sports, we can play at creativity. And like anything you practice, it gets easier over time.

Creativity is a spiritual practice. I’m all in. How about you?

When One Word Won’t Cut It

My One Word for 2015 was a phrase: Put yourself in the way of beauty. It required action on my part (put) and a goal (beauty).

In 2016, I chose Create, which led to a series of connections and blog posts on creativity from various creative friends, many of whom stretched to embrace the creativity I recognized in them.

In 2017, I decided I wasn’t done with Create, so I circled re:create recess, focusing on the connection between creativity and play. Unintentionally, I happened on the reality that recreation often involves taking things apart, stripping down before putting back together, and that can be (was) painful.

That led me to Connect in 2018, a word I hoped would restore some joy to my life and yet, at the end of 2018 I felt less connected than ever. At least, differently connected.

Two discouraging years in a row had me carefully pondering the word I’d choose to guide me through 2019.

Yes and… has been a helpful motivator to get beyond my comfort zone. This year, along with Connect, it led me to an eye-opening and life-giving retreat I might not otherwise have attended. But boundaries are important, and I suspect I will continue to need to practice saying No this year, so Yes and…//No has been a contender.

Yonder caught my imagination right at the 2018/2019 transition, that I can’t move forward if I keep looking backward. Or Forward, but Yonder holds more appeal as an unusual term.

I’m still drawn to Beauty and Create, and to their interplay. Play could be fun, as could Happiness, but neither hits the right note on their own. Hope and Delight have shown up, too, reminding me of the optimist I have been and would like to rediscover. And Brave. Yesterday I heard myself say, “I braved up and…” I know that’s not correct usage, yet that’s the joy of language; it felt good to make it a verb for something I’d done that felt intimidating but turned out well.

So I’ve decided to take on a few words, to play with as I need them. I suspect Create will be their ringleader as I Create Happiness (January’s focus) or Create Connection (February?), for example. And I’m looking forward to seeing which words crystallize something I haven’t yet discovered. Hmm, come to think of it, Discover or Adventure might need to be on the list as well!

2018 Word: Connect

I first chose a word to guide my year in 2015. More accurately, I chose a phrase: Put yourself in the way of beauty. It required intention, getting up and going out in pursuit of beautiful occasions with beautiful people. So different from any resolution I’d tried before, it changed the way I moved through my days which changed my weeks, months, year.

In 2016, I chose create as my word, and mostly it led to a lovely guest blog series on how others are involved in acts of creativity. I curated, (lightly) edited, and shared guest posts, while dabbling in my own creativity.

Sensing that I had not done justice to my 2016 word, I vowed to keep at it in 2017 with re:create, a play on words, meaning to continue creating with an eye toward playfulness.

But 2017 wasn’t playing around. Sure, I re-created myself and my relationships in various contexts, with more mess and tenderness than anticipated. I played less and hurt more. I turned inward. When I did reach out I did so with one friend at a time. Fewer parties, more quiet conversations.

Over a pre-holidays lunch, a friend asked: “With all this [fill in the blank with your own yuck] going on, how do you continue to connect?”

There it was: Connect.

We need healthy connection—with families, friends, neighbors, coworkers. But we can also connect with ourselves. With God. With beauty, creativity, play. With our faith and our values. With our bodies. With our neighborhoods, communities, country, and world. With a cause, passion project, volunteer opportunity.

Some might say that to be fully alive is to connect in meaningful ways with ourselves, others, and the world.

How do you connect? Or, with whom and in what ways would you like to grow your connections?

If you would like to write a 2018 guest post, post a comment and I’ll send you an email with the details. Let’s connect, shall we?

Comfort in Creation

Today’s post comes from a beautiful person who creates beautiful art. English is not her first language, but the way she uses the language strikes me as poetic. Here she writes about the healing power of nature, and I feel as if we are meandering together along a path through the woods.

re:create recess #20: Michelle Prinz

re:create recess
A refreshment for the soul by means of relaxation with a sizable dose of enjoyment.
Reenacting memories of a pleasant nature, unwinding to a state of bliss.
Performing an act to comfort the surrounding world.

Again and again in times of weariness and exhaustion, the natural world that created me leads me back to it.

It is a time to rejuvenate and feel acceptance by restoring one’s self-worth in the creation enveloping us.
Ideally this essential endeavor will show us an awareness of his purpose,

namely, to put our universal body into a state of bliss by finding comfort in His creation.

Recreation spruces up mind and soul.
This has always meant to me being in a scape wide open, be it rugged or smooth, where I can joyfully climb or meander and feel the universal self, down to the bone.
In this landscape I always find a smaller or larger oasis offering shelter and protection.

This environment is without limit, filled with opportunities to find caressing solitude and to reflect on life’s gift.
It certainly will lead to a less worrisome load we choose to carry as our yolk.

This feeling of our body and soul against the bare elements—in all their freshness and decay—keeps me growing fonder of the life given to me.
Wouldn’t this force show us how much we are part of his works and feeling the balance of his waves…?

Nature’s gift, no matter how barren it seems, gives us the cup to replenish and recreate ourselves. Our time for recess in comforting solitude seems of the essence.

I can only imagine that everyone under the sun, at least once, gets to grasp the everlasting “lifeline” that beats our hearts and calms our souls.

Retreat
Realign
Replenish
Rejuvenate

Michelle Prinz is a native of Munich and has lived in the SF Bay Area since the early 80s. After her education in Art & Design, she also gained experience in Western Bookbinding and the Restoration of Paintings before earning a BFA in Illustration.

She has worked on logos, posters, spot illustrations and was honored to create images for a documentary about The Untold Story of Black New Orleans.

 

“I am so grateful to my sister in Christ for giving me the chance to recreate time out. I began retracing times spent with family outside of home. I realized how my father had a big role in offering us time to appreciate new environments, to discover our sense of rest and play outdoors. No road was too tiny or too winding for him to eventually find us a new path that gave us a chance to also find ourselves.

This post is dedicated to and in memory of my Papa Kurt. You see him here in his mid-80’s, joyfully stomping on the local redwood trails.”

The Sad Song

I had a rare treat last weekend: a Barnes & Noble sat across the street from the hotel where we stayed. Since most bookstores in our area have closed, I relished the opportunity to spend an hour meandering, collecting a stack of books that attracted my attention for various reasons, and sitting in a corner with them, slowly turning pages.

One book addressed our fear response to life’s hard times. The author wrote, “We habitually spin off and freak out when there’s even the merest hint of fear. We feel it coming and we check out…The most heartbreaking thing of all is how we cheat ourselves of the present moment” (Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart).

Yes, and yes. Life is hard. We feel badly. We check out and cheat ourselves.

Or we could not. Listen to my friend Mike advocate for a different approach…

re:create recess #19: Mike Loretto

I might be a little bit odd.

I had this thought recently when I was feeling the need for a break–for recreation–and my first impulse was to reach for…

…the saddest music I could put on.

I love sad songs. I love them. And I love them because–hang with me now–they make me feel sad. I actually love feeling sad. I know. It’s weird.

When I’m in the thick of the busyness of life and feel that internal prick of “I need to recreate, to play,” I have learned that some of the things that felt like recreation when I was younger don’t call to me as much. In those needful moments, I still might reach for the remote control, a tennis racket, a video game, a drink, a book, or any number of other things. Some of the time those things are the right decision; some times they’re really not. Most of them have no inherent goodness or badness. They all have the potential to be informative or celebratory or good exercise or just plain fun. They all also have the potential to be avenues for escape.

And I’m prone to escapism. Some combination of my personality, my experiences, and the myriad ways that modern culture offers us to escape our reality have, for me, led to 37 years worth of finding creative ways to escape. To not be present to what’s really going on in my life. To not be attentive. To not, in all honesty, be fully alive in many moments.

Sadness and grief can be paralyzing. Depression is no joke. I say all of this from experience. Intentionally diving into the waters of sadness isn’t always the right move, either–sometimes escape is a survival technique. Everything in its season, and everything in moderation. But I find that my default setting is one in which I’m not really letting myself grieve the big or small rips in the fabric of life that I encounter. The ways I’m broken. The ways the world is broken. The pain of people I love. The pain of people I’ll never meet. And I need regular doses of art, conversation, experiences that will prod me to do that grieving.

That’s where, for me, sad songs come in. A well-written, well-performed sad song has the capability to take me right to the core (or at least to dig into the mantle) of feelings I’ve been avoiding. When I turn on Patty Griffin’s “Rain,” or the soundtrack of the musical “The Last Five Years,” I access the pain and grief of relationships not going like we thought they would, hoped they would, needed them to. When I listen to Jason Isbell’s “Elephant,” I’m seared by the sadness of death and dying and of loving someone deeply. I remember in college listening to David Crowder’s “All I Can Say” on repeat, and feeling the desperation of spiritual longing, of the “dark night of the soul.”

Sometimes the sad song might end on a hopeful note. Many of the best don’t. The hope is found in the alchemy of turning grief into beauty, and in the “Oh, you too?” recognition that breaks us out of our isolation. There is something incredibly moving to me about a piece of art that tells the truth about the hard parts of life and somehow begins to redeem it in the beauty of the telling. The craft of the lyrics, the choices of instrumentation and rhythms and chord progressions, the sigh of a steel guitar line or the weeping of a mandolin, the voice soaked in the waters of experience–the right combination of these things cracks me open and brings me to my knees.

My faith and my experience tell me that the world is (and that I am) flawed and broken, and also that even good things must eventually burn down to let something better rise from the ashes. Being intentional about accessing sadness is, for me, a way of sifting through those ashes and finding the building blocks of new creation. As an (often frustrated) songwriter, I find that listening to a song that gets me in touch with my sadness is one of the best avenues for finding the head- and heart-space in which I do my best creative work. It’s a way of touching the live rail that energizes creativity. It hurts, but the hurt motivates and animates.

So here’s to the sad song. Turn it up and cry it out, my friends.

Mike Loretto (@mikeloretto on Twitter/IG) is a songwriter, worship leader, husband to Sarah, and feeder of dogs Bristow and Jed Bartlet. He and Sarah write and perform music under the name Truesdell and are hoping to release an album this year. (Find Truesdell on Facebook or @truesdellmusic on Twitter). Mike is passionate about the intersection of art & spirituality, contemplative prayer, good food & drink, Kansas Jayhawks basketball, and Kansas City Royals baseball. He almost never blogs at mikeloretto.tumblr.com. Email: mikeloretto at gmail dot com