Status Update

First-place recipient of the 2011 Jerry B. Jenkins Writer Award.

8:26.

That’s time for a shower and a quick shave, I think, eying the red digits of the clock radio conveniently placed at the foot of my bed.   I massage my temples and widen my eyes, willing myself to wake up as my feet find the floor.  I have just achieved a grand total of four snooze sessions, waking every few minutes to check that I wouldn’t be late to my first class.  I have a couple extra minutes (I usually get up at quarter-till), but my mind is strangely alert this morning.

I make the six-step journey across my dorm room to my computer, turn it on, and head for the bathroom with my towel over my shoulder.  My computer always takes forever to warm up.  I’m counting the days till it dies and I can buy a Mac.

When I return, I pull up iTunes, Gmail, and Facebook.  I glance at the computer screen between pulling on articles of clothing to check the subject lines in my inbox.  Don’t want to miss anything important.  Ah, there’s the email from Facebook saying that seven of my five-hundred-some friends have birthdays this week.  #32’s birthday is on Thursday, should probably plan something for it.  I peruse the newsfeed, noticing that #211 has posted new pictures of our date last night, and skim past the verse #78 posted on his status (he’s always doing that).  Looks like #432 will be in Chicago next week – we should plan a get-together.

Several minutes later, I’m feeling pretty good about remembering to brush my teeth as I stride across the plaza heading for Music Theory III.  I see #330 and fall into step beside him.

“How’s it going, man?”

“Alright. You?”

“Not too shabby.  What class are you heading to?”

“Hymnology.  What about you?”

“Music Theory with Denison.”

“Good class.  I enjoyed that one.”

“Yeah, he runs a tight ship.”

“Enjoy.  See you later!”

“Have a good one, man.”

I fob into the music building, wave my ID cheerfully at #17 at the desk, and check my mailbox.  Sight-singing test results.  Ick.  I frown melodramatically at #17.

“Ah, the bane of my life!”  I intone in a tragic voice, indicating the sheet of paper.  She smiles.

“Don’t worry, this is your last year of it, right?”

I nod assent.

“I keep reminding myself of that.  How are you this morning?”

“Kind of tired, actually.  I want coffee.”

“Don’t we all.  Have a good one!”

It briefly registers in the back of my mind that I just said that to #330, but I don’t think about it too much.  On to theory!

I sit next to #46 in theory.  Resting my backpack against the seat in front of me, I clap him on the back and ask him how he’s doing.  He grunts something that sounds somewhat congenial for the time of the morning.  He seems to be preoccupied with filling in the last few answers on his homework, so I turn to #6, who just came in.

“How was the concert last night?  How’d your duet with what’s-his-face go?”

She throws her hands in the air.

“Totally missed the harmony on the third stanza, but he sounded great.”

“Wish I could have been there.  Had a date with you-know-who.”

“Ha, I see where your priorities lie!” she shoots back, petulantly waving her hand in my face but unable to stop herself from grinning.  #6 is always fun to banter with.  I think momentarily about the comment wars we get into on Facebook and smile in amusement.

The rest of the morning moves along at a good clip.  I sit with #211, #2, and #501 during chapel, make some plans behind #32’s back for his birthday, and joke with #460 and #93 behind us about #345’s new hairstyle.

As I enter the elevator on the fourth floor of the music building to go visit #2 at work I notice I have just said “have a good one” for the sixth time.  As the elevator slowly rumbles down the shaft, I question myself.  Where is that phrase coming from?  What do I mean by it?  I remember #22, whom I met my freshman year.  He once said that he sometimes wanted to shock people who asked him how he was by telling them how he really was.  Sometimes he just wanted to say, well, I feel like crap.  I absentmindedly pull a push pin out of the fabric-covered board and insert it back into its hole.  Do I really care that people have a “good one,” whatever that is?  Do I really want to know how people are doing when I ask them how they are?

The elevator door opens on the first floor.  I walk up to the desk where #2 is sitting, guarding the premises from identification-less trespassers.  He starts telling me about the coffee dates he’s having with several of his friends.  I pretend to be interested.

“I’m trying to figure out how to be more intentional with my conversations.  One part of me really wants to tell them that I understand what they’re feeling, that I’ve been through it before…”

Shoot, I still have to finish studying for that test on Monday.

“…But I also realize that when I do that, I risk pulling the conversation around on myself.  I want to focus on them, on listening to them, on ditching the shallow stuff and going deeper with them, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I think so,” I say, looking thoughtful.  If I skip that recital tonight I can get another hour of studying in, or I could even bring my notes with me and pretend to listen.

“Speaking of which, I feel like I haven’t had a real conversation with you in a while.  Want to do coffee sometime?”

“Um, sure, I’ll check my schedule and get back to you on that…”

Just then, #250 stops by the desk, and I remember that I need to confirm a practice with her.

“Hey, we still good for tomorrow around two?”

A couple minutes later I’m on my way back to my dorm room, absorbed in planning out my day tomorrow.  On the elevator up to the fourth floor of the dormitory, I exchange pleasantries with #137, commenting on the weather and my plans to go rollerblading later.

When I reach my room I toss my backpack to the floor and flop onto the sofa.  I’m kind of glad my roommate isn’t back yet; I need to plan out my schedule and sort through some of these thoughts flying around inside my head.

I slide my computer onto my lap and open up Facebook again.  I sink back into the cushions, not really looking at the login screen.  I wish I could just talk out all the things I’m thinking right now with someone who cares about me, all of the anxieties about school and relationships and all that.  It just isn’t convenient to do that, though, not with all the homework and practicing I have to do.  And besides, which of my friends would I talk to?  I mean, I can’t just focus in on one relationship when I have so many.

I glance out the window at the clock across the plaza.  Only about a half hour until the student dining room opens.

I want to be known, to be told by someone observing my life that I’m doing all right, that all the seemingly mindless little things I’m involved in actually add up to something important.  But if I actually find someone interested in listening to me, I know I would have to listen to them too, and I’m way too busy to start a deeper relationship with one of my friends.  Besides, I have too many people to keep up with as it is.

I sit for a while, feeling rather alone.  Ironic, that I would feel this way when I have so many friends.

I find myself wondering what it must feel like to actually pay attention to someone with the goal of knowing them better.  Not knowing about them, knowing them.  Maybe that’s what #2 was talking about.  What was it he had said again?  I hadn’t really been paying attention.  Maybe I should have been.

I sigh and turn back to my computer.  Time to put up a new status.

I pause with my fingers poised over the keys.  For a second, I wonder if anyone reading my status will ever really know what I’m trying to say, will ever really know me.  What’s the point?

“Test, three papers and a Schubert piece due on Monday.  Wish I had more time to spend with friends, but such is the life of a 21st-century college student…”

Five friends “like” my status within three hours.

I can’t even remember how I know three of them.

excellence | identity

Originally published on www.madenewblog.com.

All I really remember about my first few years of lessons is that I wanted to play.   My brother and sister both played, and it looked like fun.  When I started it was the pure joy of creating something beautiful and meaningful out of nothing.  Poof – Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”  Just by pressing down white and black keys, I could make tears come to my mom’s eyes.  How cool is that?

During my teen years, I got serious.  As a teenager and college student, I entered wholeheartedly into my craft.  I was good at piano, people liked it when I played, and I had fun doing it.  Everybody told me I should pursue it as far as I could go, educationally and otherwise; that I had a career ahead of me.  So I pushed ahead.  Possibly due to the trauma of puberty (or something more inherent), I began placing higher and higher value on the affirmation and criticism of others.  I began to fear performing.  I began to stress out about recitals and competitions and master classes.

To avoid what I perceived as the cardinal sin of the musician – messing up in performance – I pushed myself harder, practiced more, made sure every note was as perfect as possible, every page memorized.  I Christianized this concoction of pride and fear by labeling it “pursuing excellence”.  That somehow rang better in my ears than “self-aggrandizing” or “wildly afraid of failing”.  In fact, I think that’s where it all intersected – concurrently in my teenage Christian life,  I was struggling deeply with the shame of sins I couldn’t shake, and the desire to be admired for my holiness in front of my peers.  Naturally, this spilled into my musical life.

As a young pianist, if I didn’t do well on a performance I blamed it on everything from letting my pride get in the way to not practicing hard enough.  It most certainly would have been wiser to memorize Bach than memorize the Lost Woods maze sequence from Ocarina of Time (a hypothetical situation, of course… but if you’re interested: right, left, right, left, straight, left, right). The point is that it came down, somehow, to not loving the Lord enough to discipline myself and work hard.  Because after all, He’s the one who gave me my abilities, and wouldn’t it be a waste of those God-given gifts to not work hard(er) on them?  And isn’t that what God wants – for us to hone our talents for His glory?

We are given such good gifts in the arts.  The ability to manipulate sound into exquisite sonic patterns that can rip a soul apart or mend it.  The opportunity to mix and match colors, lines, textures and shapes to represent something of profound meaning.  Communicating depth of feeling and truth with little black lines and arcs on a blank page.  These are neither small nor simple gifts, and therefore not easily mastered, if ever.  Thus, we have a joyous responsibility to play skillfully, to seek excellence in our craft, because honestly – such truth and beauty are worth pursuing.

But my heart in this matter was centering my pursuit of excellence on who I was and hoped to someday be, rather than being made new (shameless, I know) in Jesus Christ.

Fast-forward to my first few years of college, and I was optimistically wrapping my dreams for the future around my craft, like overstuffing a flimsy flour tortilla with taco ingredients (something I still struggle with).

I think the breaking point was when I performed rather abysmally during a master class for a visiting pianist my senior year.  I remember vividly the anger and disillusionment I felt afterward.  I felt that I was simply not good enough, to make a living, to get noticed, to be famous, whatever it was I was searching for – I didn’t really know what that was anyway.  At that moment I just felt lost.  If I didn’t have my musical ability, what did I have?  I had poured my heart and soul into every aspect of this artistic endeavor, seeking to make it the best it could be, and then (cue sad violin music) tossed it out into a cold, cruel world, where critics and misunderstandings and the mediocrity of mass culture at large ripped it apart.

Obviously,  I’m poking fun at my younger self and how devastatingly serious I was about this moment.  I even wrote a blog post shortly thereafter entitled: “The Moulder of Dreams” which was meant to be a broodingly brilliant pun.  The editors changed it to “Molder of Dreams” because they didn’t think anyone would catch the British spelling.  How primitive of them.  But I’m thankful for the angst because it pushed me to a living truth; I’m not sure how else I would have received it.

I associated doing the best that I could at my craft with who I was.  In this vein, my struggle to perfect my art mirrored my struggle to perfect myself.

This slowly became evident to me.  Accumulated shame, disillusionment, and a class about unity with Christ converged and I realized what I had been avoiding all along – that in Christ, my identity is not mine to form or control (thank God!), but in Him, through Him, and because of Him.  I remember actually crying from the relief of this truth finally penetrating my heart.

It’s often difficult to put feet to this.  I can realize I’m out of shape, but until I get up off the couch and exercise, there will not be a transformation.  Again, hypothetical.  And that is where I am now – ironically, sitting on the couch typing this post, but that’s not what I mean.  I am struggling to relinquish control while striving to live a holy life.  Seems like an oxymoron, but mostly what it’s done is to bring this moron to his knees a lot.

So, with all of that said, what about excellence in art?

I speak this to my forgetful self:

Excellence is not beating myself up until I get it right.

Excellence is not what defines the success of my art.

Excellence is not an indicator of how much I love God.

Excellence is not designed to impress Christ enough that He loves me.

Choosing to pursue that which excels – the joyous, the peaceful, the living, the holy, the viscerally true – is a real thing, motivated by real love.  That all-too-familiar maxim of the apostle Paul takes on an identity focus:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Excellence denotes that which excels, is above, is high and lifted up, lofty and beyond our understanding.  Paul placed it in a litany of words such as true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy.  We know of only one Artist deserving of such language.  And that Artist has chosen to reflect His excellence in His Art.  He has created, on and in and around this world, things breathtaking, arresting, terrifying, beyond comprehension in their power, beyond understanding in their delicacy.

And in this, true excellence in [anything] is linked, finally, to identity – not to a what or a how, but a Who. Excellence in art-life should be an outpouring of worship to Him, crafted thoughtfully and with truly high standards because of who we are in Christ.

Oof.  Now to get up off the couch and, trusting Christ for the results, see it through.

Autumn Rains

Fall is beautiful enough without being rained on.

As I walk home from work, my head is down against the wind and my thoughts are plugged in to the Prairie Home Companion podcast.  But look, the rain is a steady drizzle, fogging the lights flashing back and forth on the road to my left.  I can distinguish individual raindrops in each passing headlight, and the reflections splatter across the vision – sparks from a welder’s flame.

The fallen leaves are pasted as in a scrapbook, some curling at the edges as if the glue was not spread with enough care.  Others simply cling to the pavement for dear life – a panoply of oviod, hexagonal, and arciform stencils with stems stubbornly sticking upright.  The leaves that have held on longer sway precariously, perching on wrinkled branches, moments from the plunge.  It must be a hell of a life for a leaf – you bud, blossom, fade, and fall the one year you exist; and from there it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to fertilizer or fire-fodder.  The only consolation is going out in a blaze of glory.

The rain collecting on my hat swings around the brim and hesitates at the edge before leaping to the ground.  Some daredevil drops hang bare-knuckled, waiting for the jolts from my movement to leap into the abyss, but they all eventually join their comrades in the rush to the lower ground.  The carpets of leaves become streams, nudged by the water into long wavy lines.  Playful jostling is all part of the final act.

Why is decay so beautiful?

There are slim green-veined hands, yellow-rimmed with orange fingers and bright red nails.  There are brown-stained fat hands with tattered edges.  There are perfectly tiny bejeweled fingers, mirroring the larger.  There are gangly mustard hands, graceful copper hands, flaming cubist hands, pointed black claws – all drenched and dripping and rearing up from the grassy cemeteries on right and left, grasping and gripping for what?

I scatter rain from my coat as I enter 5585 Clarendon Hills Road.  I scrape the persistent mud from my shoes; the fragments of leaves smear on the mat, shredded flesh mixed with mud.  I drop my keys on the faded and stained carpet, and reach for them as I silence Garrison’s sultry voice.  There is the smell of garlic from Apt. 104, where undoubtedly my wife has cooked up something wondrous in the kitchen and my daughter has cooked up something wondrous in her diaper.

I enter to crying baby, smiling wife, spicy pumpkin candle and warm incandescence.  Those blue eyes and a new haircut from the neighbor upstairs; chubby limbs and tiny toes – and yes, it looks like Nadia’s got something special for me.  My girls are here, my home is here, my life is here – and such life.  Linnea’s made a butternut squash shepherd’s pie which is autumn on the tongue, and there’s Trader Joe’s pumpkin ice cream for afters.  And the sentiment is rooted in the joy of changing seasons, the agony of withering life, the hope of rebirth two seasons hence, and what it all means to my spirit; and it all occurs within a penumbra of brilliant colors.

What delight there is in death.