It has helped me arrive at a peaceful stage of maturity. As I crossed over onto the back side of life, I struggled, as most of us do, with my mortality and how to avoid it. It had become clear that I was not going to establish my immortality in the business world. I’m no Ted Turner or Bill Gates or Richard Branson. Clearly, my mid-life crisis had arrived. Maybe the time had come to take up the painting or sculpting I’ve dreamt of for years. Or not. Or, I could finally settle down to write that Great American Novel whose opening sentences have revealed themselves to me in the middle of the night so many times. Or not. The prospect of starting from scratch was too daunting.
In the midst of these ruminations, I decided to strum a few chords on my old guitar. And then I remembered the magic that happens when a guitar or any stringed instrument produces a note that resonates with overtones and clarity so pure and beautiful that it stops all other conscious activity. This was wonderful. This was it. But, wait, I thought, these notes are ephemeral and will not give me immortality. They evaporate into the air the instant they are produced and leave no traces, like the brushstrokes of painters or the sculptor’s clay. They will not survive to tell the generations to come how brilliant was my life, how great was my artistic expanse. This was a big problem. My ego was in crisis and I could hear death’s footsteps in the distance. Nevertheless, I decided to commit myself to the guitar for a while to see if I could chase away the mid-life blues or at least learn to play them well.
And so, I started taking lessons from a player young enough to be my son. (I was pretty good; but like millions of others – and there are millions of us – I had skipped a few of the basics.) I tackled this new learning with enthusiasm, and mounted and crossed plateau after plateau of music theory and skill development in recent years, all the while resisting the devil’s taunt in the back of my mind each time I reached a new challenge – “Why are you wasting your time at this? You’ll never be as good as this player or that player. Where are the products of your labor? Don’t you have more important things to do with your time?”
But through the hours of practice I have grown dramatically as a musician and, in the process, developed an appreciation and acceptance of human limitations – a reality that teenage boys, as I recall, do not comprehend at all, and that most men accept slowly, if ever. Not all things are possible in my lifetime; and I cannot have it all. Having less than half your life left to live sharpens one’s focus in this area.
Along the way I have measured my progress as a musician first against the time I hope I have left in which to play, and then against the brilliance of great musicians and my guestimate of how long it will take for me to play like them. I’ve been gaining on them, but there appears to remain a considerable gap. So why keep going if you can’t be the best? Isn’t that what America’s all about – reaching the “top of the heap,” being A-number one?
I heard that one of the great pedal steel players who died recently practiced three hours a day up until the day he died. I doubt that he worried about how he was spending his time. He must have understood, as I have finally come to, that total mastery is an illusion; and that we are all on paths to different degrees of perfection in whatever pursuit we have undertaken. That life can only be taken only one step at a time. Even those who seem to take giant leaps and achieve global fame and fortune early in life are still only stepping heel to toe on whatever path it is they are on. And only if they are thoughtful, deliberate and graceful do they avoid stumbling and falling.
He probably also understood, as I have come to, that some things are worth doing just for their momentary beauty, like gardening, tea ceremonies, conversation, and making music no one else will ever hear. This is a wisdom that comes to some early in life; others, like me, take a while to learn the rewards that come from simple meditations, whatever form they take, and how they can suffuse and enrich your whole life. Through disciplined study, my meditation, my playing has improved greatly, and so has my enjoyment of everything else in my life. This has enabled me to approach life more calmly, with clearer goals and more realistic views of what is achievable. My wife and kids have noticed; and my friends and co-workers have noticed.
I now feel really lucky to have this guitar in my lap. Whenever I need to relax or refocus, I just pluck its magic strings and I can usually regain my balance and direction in a very short time. I immerse myself in the warm bubble of beauty that is a note eminating from a beautiful box of wood or from a chord ringing, bell-like, from an amplifier, and my physical being is unified with my mind in a clear space defined by the movement of beautiful sounds through time. My breathing returns to the deep, full, relaxed state that existed in my infancy, before anxiety became my normal state of existence. Often when I cannot sleep I meditate on the simple mantra of a seven note scale and find calmness and an elemental state that puts the previous day’s chatter and stress into perspective. Then, I can see the next steps on my path more clearly; the next day’s list of things to do becomes a simpler and better list; and sleep comes more easily. Through music I find inner peace and beauty. These are things we can all use more of. This I believe.
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