Resolution Check-In

It’s been almost a month since I last wrote my intent to embrace the philosophy that we are human beings not human doings (an idea I gleaned from someone long ago). This has been harder than I anticipated, but I continually gently remind myself to return to this idea. We fall victim to measuring our worth in all the things we do, our accomplishments, degrees, publications, musical pieces learned, prestige, income, and all kinds of other activities which we do, instead of experiencing the simple act of existence.

I’ve made many goals in the last few weeks, but I have discarded them as well. I’ve filled up my calendar with plans and covered it up with scrap paper, writing down only appointments. I planned on taking music exams, and then gently returned back to reminding myself that what is meant to happen will happen in its own time, without extra pushing.

We are like a harmonic oscillator. Imagine a parabolic container with a ball in it. You hold the ball on one of the hills of the well and let it go. It will pass through the bottom (ground state) and then roll up the other hill. It will oscillate around the ground state. Eventually due to friction it will settle at the lowest point. I think making a change is like that. And my natural ground state is not one of a peaceful position, but one of high energy and an impulse to do.

The question is, can we really accept ourselves without accomplishments? For many, a job title is a vital constituent of identity. The first thing anyone asks you when you meet them is what you do for a living. I’ve listened a lot to the teachings of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who discusses how our actions define us, or at least are our only belongings. In an acting class this week, the teacher said actions, otherwise known as behavior or the actor’s business, are what makes a scene interesting. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting this, but I’d like to suggest that just being is also fascinating. Maybe our pets are the truly enlightened ones. My cat doesn’t make a to-do list or schedule how productive she will be in a day. She is loved unconditionally, has no possessions besides some catnip toys, and spends her days doing what comes naturally to her.

Of course, as adults we have responsibilities too, so we cannot spend our days sleeping, licking catnip pillows, or sitting in people’s laps, nor would we want to. But so many of us take on so much extra, rather than gently seeing what we feel inspired to do. There are so many quotes from Mahatma Gandhi to Marcus Aurelius that distill into the advice to live for today because there might not be a tomorrow. Apparently I misunderstood these instructions, as I felt it suggested I had to cram a life-time of accomplishments into a day. But I think it really means to live a life of quality, incorporating the precious moments of true beauty into each day rather than living as an automaton making to-do lists and scheduling and accomplishing goals.

So how am I doing with my New Year’s Un-Resolution? I am a work in progress. But I keep settling back to that state of not aiming for music exams or a certain amount of music practice and not aiming for certain writing word-counts a day. I am settling into removing schedules and making it my aim to be.

And I did not schedule writing this blog.

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Somewhere in Winnipeg

When Sammy Cahn wrote the lyrics about “frightful” weather in his iconic song with composer Jule Styne, he must have been writing about Winnipeg. Today the high was -23 degrees Celsius with a low of -29 degrees. The ten minute walk from home to the bus was fine, as was the wait. The bus ride to my weekly piano lesson at the University of Manitoba was productive, as I drafted an article for Wellesley Underground. My piano lesson was delightful as usual; I spent most of the time tackling the right hand of Debussy’s Little Shepherd which was technically stimulating (interesting rhythms, lots of chords with a fraction of the notes held, and interesting fingering to achieve legato). I practiced my Bach a few times and realized I need to work on starting spots (like restarts in numerical programming) to avoid memory hiccups during my masterclass tomorrow.

Then I ventured to walk to my accompanist’s house for a rehearsal for my vocal masterclass piece for tomorrow, Somewhere, from the musical West Side Story, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein. It was a thirty minute walk, but the sidewalks didn’t seem to be completely free of snow, and I would have to walk on a path through a field and woods. First, I became a little lost about which gate entrance to enter, and then on the path (while on the phone with Andrew who is used to my being prone to becoming lost), as I became increasingly late, I ran/stumbled through the snow. Cold pained my legs, my icy hands fumbled with the phone and gloves, my exposed nose I worried would fall off. I panted while I stomped through the snow, having to yell into the phone to be heard as I tried to navigate the path. I was late, which stressed me out, as I was paying by the minute, cold, and out of breath.

I arrived at my accompanist’s home eventually, put the phone away, and she welcomed me into her cozy abode. She was all warmth and graciousness, as I coughed, sputtered, and gagged from my half running tromp through the snow for the previous half an hour. I removed my coat and deposited my bag. We warmed up with major and minor arpeggios and scales. Still I felt distraught. She suggested we warm up with my piece.

With the opening bars, I calmed down and felt soothed by the musical piece. It is a song longing for peace, compassion, and forgiveness. The song resonates with words full of hope and companionship, about finding space to exist in harmony. I used to be conditioned to feel tense when I sing, striving to stay in tune, but with my current teacher my conditioning has been reversed, and I relax while my voice naturally falls into place. Singing is somewhere I find the ideals suggested in the piece. Music is therapeutic and healing, as well as the kindness my accompanist administered who gave me as much time as I needed and even walked me to an easier bus stop to return home.

We live in a world whose currency is profit and success. But in the music studios, rehearsal halls, and living rooms of many, there is a place for music and art, whose value might not be much to the big banks and industry, but which can warm the frozen and give an ineffable quality to all involved in the music making, including an audience if there is one. Money might pay the rent and put bread on the table, but music and art nourish the soul.