Maybe it was the cello music on NPR—Rachmaninoff piece—played by a seventeen-year-old from Ohio, accompanied by the show’s host on piano. It was moving, to say the least, and the maturity of this young man, his kindness, his gratitude for being on the show, was refreshing, especially after I had just left the local fish store where some punk seemed bothered to no end that I actually wanted to order, you know, fish. I don’t know why rude people, especially when their job is to be helpful, spike my blood pressure, make me feel lightheaded, as if I take it personally. I’ve read of others like that—van Gogh, William Styron, Keats, Churchill, Dickens—people whose reaction to injustice and simple unkindness in society pushed them to the edge of stroke. I’m sure it’s chemical; some people have trouble shrugging off some things. But I got back in the car and a high school viola player played, again with the host on piano, and a wave of peace rolled through me as if I’d suddenly been immersed in some sort of peace-fluid. This one made the viola with his dad; he is attending Stanford next year. The fish store punk should be in juvie by then.
Or maybe it was the rain. It is soft today, with deep grey skies that threaten nothing more, but certainly nothing less. But on the way home I listened to a piano player from California, sixteen, and the hairs on my arms raised at her simplicity, her mastery, and I thought of the work she must have done to make it sound so simple. “When did you start playing?” he asked, and she said ten years old.
Okay, I thought. That means if I start now, I can play like that when I’m sixty-seven. That’s cool.
Not so much. There’s the talent part.
I used to do that a lot, but not enough. I used to think if I start playing piano now, in five years I’ll….or…if I start working on that book now, by this time next year…
Well, I did, in fact, “start.” I spent the better part of my younger years “starting.” It was always “continuing” I had issues with, and most definitely “finishing” was never a close friend of mine. But “starting”? Hell, I can start damn near anything, really.
Maybe it was a combination, the cello and piano music in the background as I drove along a country road where a neighbor has been harvesting corn, and a light rain fell, and dark clouds stretched out across the bay as if they were never going to give way, and I thought about things I started but didn’t finish—tennis, guitar—or simply stopped doing at all, since the vast majority of life is never about finishing anything.
A friend with degrees in such matters says I have “Hamlet syndrome.” “I want to kill my uncle?” I asked. “No,” she said. “You want to be or not be; you want to excel or not bother.”
Flashback: Michael and I were walking through St Petersburg, Russia, and we looked up at the giant and insanely beautiful mosaic on the top of the Church of the Spilled Blood. “Seeing that makes me want to make mosaics,” I told him. “Oh great,” he said, “like those tables we see at markets.” And I said, “No, like that one; I want to make something like that for the side of a cathedral.”
All or nothing.
How quickly do we decide we can’t do something? Or, perhaps better stated, can’t excel at something? As a professor of art appreciation, and writing, I’ve explained the extremes—that some of the greatest artists in history were obsessive about getting it right or trashing the entire project. Van Gogh is a fine example; Wagner another, who threw out a cartload of compositions because they would dilute the quality of his entire catalog. DaVinci reportedly walked around for years with Mona Lisa unfinished because he was never pleased with it. But in writing I emphasize it is never finished, you have to keep going back, again, readdressing it, showing it to people, and to stop the damn “measuring.” It isn’t a competition, of course, but when we dream, ah, when we dream we dream of completeness, of something undefinably satisfying, and that can be problematic.
Well, there it is. It is a competition in the artist’s mind, between what it is and what it should be, and as Rocky says when asked to fight Apollo Creed, “No, I don’t want to be humiliated.”
Maybe it was the walk in the light rain under dark clouds, cello music still whispering in my mind, thrashers darting from bush to birdbath and back. Or it might have been that eternal sign of autumn—a field being harvested, half golden half gone, a tumultuous bay in the background. I walked along the marsh and a heron stood still in the reeds, and I thought now nature always sees things through, doesn’t stop growing and changing just because it may not be a good season. Like any artist, it does what it does for the sake of doing; there is no “goal.” It just is.
That’s what the cello player said when asked why he plays. “I like the feel of playing, of learning a new piece all the way through.” He never mentioned how well he played—that was the result of it.
Hell, even Rocky didn’t care if he won. He says that to Adrian a few days before the fight. “I don’t care if I beat Apollo, you know? I just want to go the distance.”
Finishing, for him, was winning.
So to the point of the unkindness, the rudeness, the common carelessness toward others; the spike in blood pressure at such fleeting moments that simply do not matter. Psycho friend thinks I’m afraid I’ll finish without having ever started. I laughed. “So I’m fixated on Thoreau’s ‘I don’t want to reach the point of death only to find out that I never lived’?”
“Exactly,” she said, “and you’re looking for imperfections—in your work, even in your fish store lackeys who just want to know what you want.”
“It’s okay to be pissed off he works in public service and is an asshole,” I told her.
“You’re missing the point.”
“Who gives a shit?”
“So what the hell do I do now?” I asked, thinking of three different, half-done book projects, a three-quarters finished one-man play, a dozen essays, a brand new used twelve string guitar, and a pile of bricks in a field on my property, all waiting for some sort of perfect completion to be released from my insecurity.
“Go take a nap,” she said. “Lay in that hammock of yours and close the flaps, put some cello music on your headphones, listen to the rain on the screen, and sleep.”
perchance to dream.