Last evening I was enjoying a meal with my wife on the back patio. On a third glass of wine, after a grilled steak and acorn squash, we changed gears from descriptions of our day’s activity –Nancy had worked at the library and I was finishing the repair of a leaky bay window -and wandered down the road of theoretical speculation. I offered an affirmation of my general theory of life: I love doing projects where I have no idea of “how you do it”. She reminded me that I have often said that I learned this from my father. I was his assistant when he worked on his house.
The problem with being seduced by the latest challenge, the new problem to be solved, is that you do not refine and hone any one skill. This was brought home to me after I finished my work on the bay window. I remembered that a friend had asked me to tell a story at a party on Saturday night. In choosing a story, I did what I often do, I went back to the filing cabinet where I store scripts written over the past forty years. This pile is a foot thick. None of them is indexed and properly placed in a folder by the year of creation. As usual, I rooted through the pile looking for the right story to tell. I remembered one, but the written form was not in the pile; at least, I could not find it. Then I remembered, or thought I remembered, that it was on the first audio tape of stories I recorded twenty-five years ago. Luckily, my good friend, Bill Wood, had transferred this old audio tape format to CD for me.
I made a cup of tea and popped the CD into the computer. The story was not on the CD, but I did discover some things about myself, about how my life has changed over the past twenty-five years. Here is an excerpt of the tape.
At the time that this recording was made, I was presenting approximately two hundred elementary school assembly programs each year. The stories created for these programs fit into four categories: fairytales and fables for primary grades, and folk and historical stories for intermediate grades.
Listening to the performance on this CD –which I still enjoy hearing- I barely remember the stories. It would take a lot of work to recreate them today –and maybe be impossible.
There are a lot of reasons for why this part of my work has disappeared. First, and most practically, the school assembly business turned sour in the last eight to ten years. Schools have lost interest in storytelling, at least in my form of the art. But more importantly during these years, I lost interest in telling stories to children in schools, and discovered a new interest in creating stories for the last third of life. This blog is one result of following this new interest.
Back to the “how you do it” comment from the beginning of this essay: here are a few of the positive results of my projects. Nancy is right, I did learn a lesson from my father, and maybe more than one: do not be afraid of trying new things; trust your instincts over directions from a teacher, whether in person or on the page of a book. And most importantly, learn the pleasure of completing a task and taking time to stand back and admire a job done well.
There are negative results of this “how you do it” approach to life: some jobs probably should left to more qualified workers. I remember a project to install a bathroom on the second floor. Water and sewer pipes had to be installed. Five years after I sold the house, the new owner complained because they had a water leak in the downstairs bathroom wall. He wanted me to pay for repairs. I did not accept responsibility, but I felt a little guilty knowing that I may have been responsible.
There are times when we should be willing to listen to a teacher, to take instructions from someone who knows more. There is a reason for my resistance to being taught. From an early age dyslexia made reading difficult for me. Teachers often measure me based on my handicap, and I naturally resented their judgment. I was combative with teachers, and I am still not very good at taking directions from others.
Curiosity can exacerbate an unwillingness to take direction and practice a skill. To a fault I lose interest in an activity when something new catches my attention. I have a friend who talks about unconscious competence. His example is seeing Arthur Rubinstein play a very difficult piece of music. He said that Rubinstein competency with the piano had “become so unconscious by then that he seemed to be just having a grand time enjoying the difficult music that he himself was playing”. Making the difficult seem easy is the result of long hours of work to achieve unconscious competency. The violinist, Jascha Heifetz, said it a little differently, “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” I will never perform at the level of Rubinstein and Heifetz. But also true, I would guess, Heifetz and Rubinstein could not do the plumbing for a bathroom or fix a leaky bay window.
Our purpose in life is not to become who our parents and teachers think we should be. It is not even to become who we want to be. It is to become who we truly are: Carl Jung called this individuation. I would describe the purpose of this blog, this shadow dancing that I have engaged in for nearly two years, as my attempt to discover how I should do it before my time on earth is over.
Jung, who incidentally I do think of as my teacher, suggested that we should not think about dying. We should live as if we are immortal. I disagree with him on the subject of death. I think there are good reasons to anticipate our end –but I will leave that for another blog.