Tonight I had a frustrating (and still somehow fulfilling) conversation with a musician friend about the difficulties of our vocation, performing arts. It’s not a new problem, not a new story. We don’t even think about being able to retire someday because we are just scraping by. We work long hours. Self-employed musicians have terrible health care. We live paycheck to paycheck and sometimes feel like we manage from month to month because someone is handing us money. We teach private lessons and wonder what in the world we are doing. We feel like taking a teaching job is “selling out” of our need to perform.
We wonder if it matters.
I completely related to what he was saying. I never wanted to teach—never. Not only that, I actively wanted to NOT teach. I said I would do anything BUT teach. (I think my 13 years in landscaping proved that I was serious about not teaching.) I went to Nashville because I wanted to be a studio musician. I never was interested in being famous, and I’m not a competitive person, but I thought that playing on albums or even touring would matter. It would mean that I did something important, right? That’s what I figured, anyway.
It’s not that I didn’t think that teachers mattered, either. I was one of those kids who adored my teachers. (If any of you are reading this, I hope you always knew that. I’m honored that as an adult I can call you my friends.) I just wanted to do something Important with a capital I, and teaching was only important with a lower-case i.
I’ve said it before: Life is nothing like I expected it to be.
In my first blog I explained the title, “Grow Where You Have Room.” It was something my brother said when he was just a kid, and something I adopted as a mantra: “Bloom where you are planted, but grow where you have room.” The older I get, the more powerful it seems.
We aren’t always where we thought we would be. We aren’t planted in the garden we dreamed of when we were young and had endless possibilities in front of us. We’ve had to learn to bloom where we are planted.
When I was in landscaping, though, I learned that the flowers that bloomed the most were the ones that didn’t live very long. Flowers fade, and then they die. It takes a lot of work to get a flashy flower to bloom more than once, even if it’s in the perfect spot.
But a plant that grows where it has room is one that earns my respect, even if it doesn’t always earn my love. I made the mistake of planting some native trumpet creeper along the edge of my garage. (My infamous garage…the theme of this summer’s self-punishment/home improvement project.) One little plant spread all the way around the edge of the garage. It grew through the siding, under the corner trim, and even beneath the foundation blocks. Now the darned thing is growing INSIDE the garage—where there is no light or water. Why? Don’t ask me. I don’t understand it. It’s just growing, and I expect I’ll never be able to stop it.
And yes, even though I’m talking about an annoying weed, the metaphor is a strong one (and terribly obvious, I’m sure.) Through a series of what may seem like random catastrophes or even the misguided work of others, we end up in a dark, dry, and sometimes ugly and rat-infested place, and we still grow. We dig in. Faulkner said that we don’t merely endure, but we prevail:
It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
I said I would never teach. I especially didn’t plan to be an old maid schoolteacher living in my grandmother’s house, literally within a stone’s throw of where I grew up. I didn’t expect to be childless and working long hours.
I certainly didn’t expect that at this age I would still be learning wonderful things every day. I didn’t expect that I would have so many students in my life that I would love so fiercely. I didn’t expect that I would still be meeting people so frequently who turn out to be such delightful, beloved, and meaningful additions to my life.
What I wish my friend could see about himself is that his work matters right now, as is. Not only is he very good at what he does (so good that it doesn’t even challenge him sometimes) but he’s good at the things he probably doesn’t know he is doing. I hired him for a couple of gigs not because he played the snot out of an exceptionally difficult show when I first met him, but because he impressed me without ever playing a note. Before I even knew his name, he was making sure I had a place to plug in my laptop, that I was set up, and generally making me feel less frazzled about running in for a rehearsal that I wasn’t quite prepared for. He was notably kind. I wanted him to play for my shows because I watched how he worked with the other people in our pit. He didn’t just do his job; he made everyone else’s job a bit better. How he does his job matters, but not nearly as much about how much he means to the people around him. What really matters is who he is, not what he does.
There are so many people like him in my life. Several years ago, I met a kid who was one of the most effective stage managers I’ve ever seen in a high school. She was organized, diplomatic with her peers and adults, and absolutely competent in every aspect of her job. She pursued theatre in college, but a series of events “transplanted” her out of drama and into special education. She matters tremendously to the students in her class, to those who named her as this year’s Teacher of the Year at her school, to the community where she lives and serves and ministers.
Another teacher friend is also dealing with being “transplanted” out of where she was planted for twenty years, out of her marriage, out of her home. I know that lately she is walking a line, trying to figure out how best to grow and bloom. Her friendship has mattered to me, and I’m little more than an acquaintance in many ways. She matters to a lot of people, in fact.
I could go on and on, but you can think of those people, too. They’re the ones who lived humbly, loved consistently, and who inspired you to work harder without ever knowing they were doing it.
The stay-at-home moms. The dads who sit in cubicles day after day. The people who work at thankless jobs, or those who are trying to find any job at all. Kids who struggled to finish high school and don’t know what in the world they can do now. Kids who finished college and have no idea where to go next. PhDs who are beat out of jobs by people who were just in the right place at the right time. The student who took a minute to be kind when it was easier to walk by. The stranger who asks how you are, and waits for your answer. It’s so easy to feel like you don’t matter when it feels like the world is trying to run you over.
Bloom where you are planted. Grow where you have room. You may feel like you mean very little to the world, but you mean the world to someone.
It’s not about money. It’s not about being important. It’s still about love. Love God, love your neighbor, and love the corner where you are.
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sakes.
(from Two Tramps in Mud Time, by Robert Frost)