I’ve turned into my grandmother. And I owe her an apology.
Now, this was not my aim. In my youthful arrogance I judged her, the mother of three, who’d seen her family through the Depression and WWII, as a dabbler. She painted, she wrote and she was extraordinaryily gifted in music. I would focus on one thing, I thought, and do it well. Not dissipate my energies in all those different disciplines.
However, I find my self in middle-age, a middling chorister in a community choir, an amateur painter, as well as a scribbling woman.
A professional painter friend of mine, with a family, money struggles and all the rest, said to me the other day, “We have to take in sometimes, we can’t always give out.” I think that is what I’m doing this year, having cleared the space to work on my own healing. I’m playing. Because I don’t have too much ego attachment to painting or singing, I can be (somewhat) humble, have beginners mind. The learning curve is huge, but because I’m not so serious about these activities, I can relax and have fun. There is effort involved, sure, but that is part of the fun. I have to think this loosening up feeds back into the writing and also, subconsciously, I’m taking in strategies of sound and image that will ultimately make me a better writer.
Here’s one experience I’ve had that has made a huge impression. I left one choir because the conductor was so grim and punitive. I only learned to sing in my early forties, and I’ve always been uncertain in my sight reading. I would position myself next to strong singers and lean on them. We were marched through our songs as if in a death march, and there was no time for jokes or talking. Our conductor would be livid when we hit a wrong note, and so I found that, more and more, I was dreading choir practice. I called it my exercise in humility. I would leave each practice feeling defeated. I finally left.
I thought I was done with singing when a friend invited me to her community choir. I was amazed at how friendly they all were, and how relaxed. The spring concert was all Schubert, and I was intimidated by the music, but because there was no audition to get in, I thought I’d give it a try, hide behind some strong singer. I was very surprised at our first practice when the conductor started cracking jokes and everyone laughed. I was even more surprised when he had us sight read and sing, cold, but he said ” you’ll hit wrong notes, don’t worry about it, just get the feel for the music.” He was giving us permission to make mistakes. Wow. I was terrified when he forbade us to sit with our section. We had to read and sing our parts without the comfort of support. I strained to hear other sopranos, but found I had to rely on myself. The first few practices I sweated it out, but by the third time, with new music, the alto next to me turned and said, that sounded good. I felt my confidence surge, and actually enjoyed tackling a new piece. I found out I could sing, given the right conditions. And the right conditions are not fear. This conductor is all about possibility, all about encouragement. I feel myself reaching for higher ground because of that support. He and the group have created a safe space in which to play. Bravo!
I think as writers and facilitators we can keep the idea of the two conductors in mind. We all have the grim conductor, ready to pounce on us for not being good enough. But we also can conjure the happy conductor, who encourages to have fun, to challenge ourselves. We can imagine an inner audience full of competitive, striving choristers, or we can imagine an inner audience of supportive peers who want us to do our best. In our workshops, we can create safe places for people to play, remembering that laughter is indeed, the best medicine.
On my computer I have pasted a quote which has not attribution: “Live as thought you are enough, as if the joy is in the journey, as if life is a happy playground.”
Which is what my grandmother, Sally McCabe, did.