A few days back, Emily made a provocative statement about adult beginners of cello. I prided myself on being able to look at any aspect of myself, no matter how jarring.
I prepared a comment back, trying to hide my wounded pride, saying that this was not true at all. Insofar as all middle age people have neuroses and regrets, it was only natural that she would observe such a thing from her middle age students. Satisfied, I let the matter sit. But something unfinished was nagging at me. The whole reply had a “lady doth protest too much” feel to it, and it was clearly meant as a defense mechanism. But against what?
The resolution in question was “adults take up the cello to run away from something”. The implication is that once one discovers the neurosis, that the urge to play cello might disappear. However, what is more likely is that the urge for miracles will disappear and I can get to the real work, as Emily often puts it, of chopping wood and carrying water. As an aside, I don’t know if most of you realize that chopping wood isn’t really all that trivial. In fact, the first time I tried, I missed the log and hit my knee with the blunt end of the ax and nearly passed out. I think playing cello will be less traumatic than that.
To get back on topic, what I am I running away from? As with most cases of denial, the answer is really right in front of us, and we have to be willing to look at the evidence. I was moving from day to day without any real highs or lows. What I was running way from was Mediocrity.
I never really accomplished what I wanted to accomplish because at some point, I gave up and tuned out when things turned out to be different than expected. I’m not saying more difficult, necessarily. I like difficulty. I’m saying different. A Math Ph.D. turned sour because the thesis problem looked interesting but the tactics for getting the proof done were very dry. My actuarial career didn’t go anywhere because instead of being what I thought it was about – statistical modeling of business risks – my early career turned out to be about clerical accuracy, and I was sub-par at that. I could have the greatest idea but it wouldn’t matter if I mislabeled the spreadsheet, or some totals didn’t match up. The more I tried to keep things organized, the more my career became an attempt to battle myself and less about thinking at a higher analytical level. As a result, I was not able to perform at “5 exam level” to earn the appropriate salary. My exams said the profession was about one thing – my day to day life emphasized something else. And that something else was what i was not very good at.
It’s not that the work ethic was missing, it was that I did not want to risk going astray by learning a whole new subtopic in order to continue with my field, or master something that I was traditionally ‘bad at’. I think Cello might be about self-expression,but it’s seems to be about really about balance, posture, breathing, and minute adjustments of the arm and fingers. Again – not bad – just very different than I expected. I was about seeking enlightenment, but being told my duties were carrying water and chopping wood.
If my hopes were with the cello to lift me out of mediocrity, I think the odds are against it. Unless, of course, I give up all my serious involvement with other hobbies. Chess, Go, Cello Playing – are these things I do because I want to feel smart or look smart or because I like the process? Am I trying to be as good as somebody against whom I am comparing myself?
Sometimes I must be humble and realize that my cello education may not be what I expected. A Buddhist story related by Anthony deMello (Taking Flight p. 166):
Jitoku was a fine poet and he had made up is mind to study Zen. So, he got himself an appointment with the Master Ekkei in Kyoto. He went to the Master full of expectations, but as soon as he entered, he had received a whack….
He went over to where Dokuon, the chief disciple lived, told him the whole story and also his intention to challenge the master to a duel.
“But the master was being kind to you”, said Dokuon. Throw yourself into the practice of zazen and you will see that for yourself”
Once again, Jitoku called on Dokuon, thanked him for his advice and said: “If it hadn’t been for your good sense, I would never have had this transforming experience. And as for the Master, I see now that his blow wasn’t hard enough”
Thus, the practice is already different than I thought. But then, what else could it be?
In the meantime, carry water, and be careful with that ax.