In recent years I have attended a show which features a killer whale. Twice, in fact. And, while I’m sure this wasn’t the intention, it left me with an insatiable desire to correct the errant messages that were communicated via the jumping skills of this large mammal. Allow me to explain.
As the show opens, the audience sits with bated breath while gigantic video screens move into place. We see a boy. He’s probably 10. Nice young lad. He’s whittling. He whittles a perfect whale tail.
Now, children, just a moment. Let me clarify something for you: you cannot whittle a perfect whale tail. Don’t worry, that kid couldn’t do it, either. That’s what we call “movie magic”. If you try that at home you will, without fail, cut your opposing thumbs off. Just FYI. Moving on…
The young lad peers out the window with the introspection of a wise old soul. In the distance…the ocean. What’s that? A splash! Could it be…? Yes, by all means, lad, go! Find out what’s out there!
Moments later, the boy is on the beach. Alone. With a kayak. Now, children: no. This is not allowed. You cannot go to a vacant beach unsupervised. Where are this kid’s parents?! But never mind that, for…what is that? A splash! Could it be…?
At this point, the boy gets in the kayak. WHAT? For real? Paddle, paddle, paddle…out to the ocean. THE. OCEAN. Alone. And what is he pursuing? A whale! That’s your reaction, kid? Oooh…a whale! I should go get it alone in my tiny kayak so it can jump on me and I can die! Children, this is a bad idea. A very, very bad idea. Don’t do this. Your parents will crap their pants out of fear. Literally crap their pants. Just imagine how long you will be grounded if you are the cause of pants-crapping.
But not in the movie. No sir-ee. The lad believes in his destiny to kayak right next to a whale and—SPLASH! It jumps out of the water like it’s putting on a show just for him! Amazing!
So, you know—tada. That’s the end of the movie that is, apparently, about the dumbest latchkey kid to ever have wizard-level whittling skills. But wait. What’s this? It’s a real, live whale here in the whale tank! Yay! Look at it swim about and such! And here comes a dude! And that dude is RIDING THE FREAKING WHALE! Oh, man. That’s super cool. But whaaaa? What is that on his neck? Could it be…? It’s the whale tail on a necklace!
Now, children. Let’s reach back to that lesson about movie magic we learned earlier. This is not real, live, grown-up, dummy latchkey kid. It just isn’t. And that dude didn’t whittle that whale tail, either. He got it from the gift shop. It was made in China. Possibly by a 10 year-old, actually, but that’s another topic.
What they’re trying to say to you, young lambs, is that if you sucker your parents into buying you that whale tail, and if you come back to this bedazzled place 800 times, and if you run about with reckless abandon trying to get eaten by a whale, you will end up riding a killer whale for a living. This is not true. Not even in the slightest.
Now, I’m a big fan of dreaming. You absolutely should dream. Lots of people dream to be, and then become, teachers. Or an accountants. Or truck drivers. Or: secretaries; store clerks; general managers; or customer service representatives. Or probably 1000 other things that aren’t dude-that-rides-a-whale-for-a-living-at-an-emotionally-manipulative-theme-park. And—now this is the key—there’s nothing wrong with that.
Please, children, ignore all this silliness. Go be awesome and sensible and grow up to be the best derned office clerks you can be.
Last night, we got the very unique pleasure of attending a benefit concert for Promises 2 Kids, featuring The [fabulous] Doobie Brothers. Now, I’m 31 and not quite in the generation that remembers their music as the soundtrack of their lives, but man, oh, man…they are good! So many bands/artists/musicians these days are all about pyro and dancers and all that fancy business, but when it comes down to actual performance they’re not that hot. Not The Doobie Brothers, no sir. Each musician was just totally, 100% on it. Perfect rhythm. Perfect pitch. Impeccable guitar licks. John McFee (whom I got to meet!) was whipping out a new instrument every other song (banjo, mandolin, guitar, harmonica, & more!). A-maz-ing.
Somewhere in the middle of the set, I just thought to myself, “Screw it, Imma be a musician.”
Enough with writing and whatever other stuff I’m working on. Enough with my career ambiguity. There’s just something so crystalline, magical, and sacred about music. Live music brings people together, tears down our insecurities, and draws us in to the inner sanctum of the shared human experience. I smashed my self right up against the stage, clapped with the beat until my hands were numb and smiled until my cheeks were sore.
And you know what? The band smiled back.
Maybe I’m just being naïve, but I don’t think they were faking it, either. I think they smiled back because they like playing music as much as I like hearing it. As a musician, when you see the love you’re pouring in to your music weave around the audience and get them drunk on happiness, well, that’s a pretty damn good feeling. I miss that feeling—that connection. I miss being a musician.
Now, at 10:30 the next morning as I get ready to resume working on the screenplay Stephen and I are writing, my inclination to pack our lives in to a van and play every bar from here to Poughkeepsie has decidedly vanished. And that’s okay. But the reminder of how much I love music is still there. So maybe we’ll hit up an open mic night soon. And we’ll try to see a few more shows this year. I’ll turn on Pandora, turn it up, and thank the Lord for the magic of music.
As adults, we frequently find ourselves smashing our lives into the moulds we think we should be in. We take a job at 21, or graduate with a certain degree; we decide at a young age that we’re outgoing, or shy, or brash, or funny; we dream of a certain future and our fate hangs in the balance as we make our way toward it. If we fail, we’ve failed at life. If we succeed, we find ourselves thinking that we’ve found the only thing we’re good at.
This was never the case as children. Nope, you never heard the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Jenny?” answered with “A mid-level manager at a small company in Des Moines, paid slightly more than minimum wage.” The only acceptable answers were things like astronaut, firefighter, ballet dancer, teacher, artist—in short, the most brilliant you you could imagine.
[Note: There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a mid-level manager. I love the idea of dedicating yourself to being a good worker, and allowing that consistent centerpiece of life to make room for a flourishing personal life. I think it’s great, in fact. Just for the record.]
But now that you’re old and crotchety and you think you should be succeeding and climbing and all those other adult things, it feels a bit embarrassing to admit that maybe the 21 year-old you didn’t predict the future perfectly (shocking!), and that maybe you should try something else on for size. Or maybe fear gets you: just as you decide to get wild and dream big, you trip over your kid’s sippy cup and decide that maybe you could have dreamed big and made changes before you were responsible for other small humans, but now…now you have to think of them.
Let’s press pause on that line of thinking for a teensy weensy moment.
If you find yourself wanting a different path in your 30s (or 40s or 50s, etc.), I say you should sit yourself down and ask that little person that used to be in you to dream once again. Take off the limits and blow off the ceiling. Open your mind’s eye as wide as it can go and let your imagination take you on a tour of the world you used to think was possible. Just for a second, stop being so damned responsible and logical and sensible. Let that little giddy ember of hope go nuts and set your insides ablaze. Just go and go and enjoy the respite from all the furrowed brows that we have so expertly cultivated.
Think about what you would say to a child, and say it to yourself. If little Jenny told you she wanted to be an astronaut, you wouldn’t answer back, “Well, really I think the best you can hope for is a dental assistant. It’s a sensible job.” (If you would say that, I don’t want to be friends with you. You’re an a-hole. Might want to reflect on that.) No, you’d say, “That’s awesome! We should go to the library and learn more about space! And math and science—those will be important! Woo hoo!”
So, this very moment you should do this: tell your crotchety self to cram it for a second and, instead, fan the flames. Because we need to keep growing! We need to keep dreaming. We need to open our arms wide to the possibilities in this great, big, magical world. And about those kids: keep in mind that, just like you taught them to tie their shoes, you’re teaching them to dream. No kid can truly and deeply believe in their own unbridled possibility when they search their parents’ eyes only to find doubt, fear, and regret. Teach them (and teach yourself) that we need to open our ears to the whispers on the wind saying that there are great things to be done and that we’re just the people to do them.
Over the past 24 hours, my new neighbors downstairs, the musicians, have been experimenting with the electric organ and its possibilities in the landscape of their music. Primarily, this has consisted of two chords being played one after another, over and over in a sort of trance-like repetition. They worked with these two chords for many hours last night. Then again, today in the morning. And right now, they’re still playing the two chords.And they’ve added a very 90s-esque electric guitar.It’s not terrible, it’s just part of being a musician. I get it. Sounds like crap to everyone who has to hear the process, but that’s how music is written. It’s just that most of the time we don’t have to hear the rough sketch.
But now…now they’ve added bad electric drums. And the synthetic bass drum is buzzing in my ears, threatening to drive me insane or wake my napping child (or likely a combination of the two). It’s taking everything in me to not go down there, channel my inner 85 year old woman, and tell them to, “keep that derned racket down!”
I started a speech in my head. It went something like, “Hey guys, can you keep it down a little? Maybe plug in some earphones? I mean, I’m a musician…I get it, but…”
I had hit a sticking point in my imaginary speech. “I’m a musician?” I asked myself. I mean, I am. I think. The thing is, I haven’t written anything new or recorded anything new in many years now, so I’m getting dangerously close to the phrase “I was a musician.” Now that my mind had unearthed this little insecurity, I had to grab it. Pick at it. Figure it out.
Am I really so out of practice that I can no longer be called a musician? Was I ever good enough to make that claim to begin with? What makes you a musician? What makes you anything?
In the end, the thing that makes my noisy neighbors musicians is this: they are actively playing music. Right now their fingers are pressing down on those same two chords, searching for something to come out in just the right way. They are playing music. They are being musicians. And that’s it.
When my older brother and I were in high school he got on the tennis team. He wasn’t the school champion or anything, but he worked hard and he was steadily improving. One day, he came home after tennis and made a bold proclamation: “I’ve figured out the key to playing tennis!”
I had no real interest in playing tennis, let alone being any good at it, but it’s hard for me to pass up the key to anything, so I asked him what it was. “You just hit the ball over the net,” he said. He gazed out the window with a quiet reverence as if he had just discovered string theory. I thought he was a little bonkers. I wondered what he had been trying to do with the ball up until that point.
Looking back, though, I think he’s kinda right. Getting the ball over the net really is the whole goal, right? Maybe the key to being a musician is just to play. And the key to being a writer is just to slam your fingers against the keyboard relentlessly until the words pour out.
Get the ball over the net. Let the notes ring out. Get some words on the page. Sooner or later you’ll get the ball over the net more times than not. And you’ll have a 45 minute set. You’ll have a book, or a memoir, or a journal, or a screenplay. And then maybe you’ll be what you set out to be.
A calling, in the religious sense of the word, is a religious vocation (which comes from the Latin for “call”) that may be professional or voluntary and, idiosyncratic to different religions, may come from another person, from a divine messenger, or from within oneself.
There are some fortunate folks who, while wide-eyed and bushy-tailed in the springtime of their lives, looked to the horizon and felt a pull in the center of their being. They squinted their eyes ever so slightly at the rising sun and heard a whisper in their hearts. “This, young soul,” the whisper said, “is your calling.”
I would like to take a moment to tell those fortunate folks to take their clairvoyance and shove it.
That’s a touch on the bitter side, I suppose. I’ll settle with simply stating that I cannot, and do not understand how they came to be the way they are. I don’t know how it is that some people set a course, follow it unwaveringly, and find a quiet perseverance through the troubling bits in life due to the overwhelming conviction that they are following their calling. It must be nice. Like a cozy blanket.
I was raised in a Christian home—Nazarene, to be exact—and the notion that you have a specific purpose in life always hung around me like too much perfume sprayed in the ladies’ room. I was followed, dogged, by this suspicion that while some had meaning, I had none. Of course I did my best to deny that suspicion. I searched my heart and soul, looking for bread crumbs that would lead me back to the core of who I am—to the core of who I was to be.
Initially, I just wanted to be good. I did well in school. Got a job and kept my grades up until graduation, then headed off to college. After attending a couple of private schools I found myself still undecided in my major. It seemed that every topic was equally appealing and unappealing at the same time. The idea of pursuing one field at the exclusion of another scratched at me. The commitment to leave all those possibilities on the roadside of my life’s highway seemed wrong. I couldn’t do it. Wanting to enjoy all fields and all areas of knowledge, I embraced none. I was buying Legos a piece at a time, but they’d never make a castle or a plane or anything awesome. So, I quit.
That was many, many years ago. Now I’m 31. Not much has changed.
Today, I work in starts and fits, chasing after all the beautiful and exciting things to be done. Photography. Writing. Singing and songwriting. Knitting. Crochet. Sewing. Graphic design. Filmmaking. Each project brings challenge, life, satisfaction. Each new goal sparks a little something in me. Each challenge threatens to break me, but I press forward. I learn and grow and truly enjoy myself. But what comes next?
What comes next?
Now that question—that question is what scratches at me. All these many years later, all these challenges met, skills acquired and beauty made and still I have no course to follow. It’s as if my ship continues to find sand bars, but never finds land. My oar has slammed in to the sandy ocean floor and the sun has set. It’s disturbing. And a little chilly.
I’m still open to the idea that one day a fog will be lifted and I’ll have a comforting definition of what I am meant to be. Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I should embrace the fact that I’m a vocational gypsy. Maybe I am called to nothing. Or to everything. Maybe those are the same thing.