where life lives

by pieces of moments

So it continues to be freezing cold in Chicago. I had forgotten this in all my years away. In Boston people would inevitably ask me, “what are the winters like in Chicago?” (in that usual initiating trading of war stories kind of way) and I would inevitably respond, “oh, about the same as they are here.” Wrong. I lied. But it was a sin of omission—I had apparently selectively removed the memory of a Chicago winter from my mind. So to all y’all who asked me what the winters are like in Chicago over the past 5 years, I rescind my statement and say unto you: “winters in Chicago are much, much worse than winters in Boston.”

Such extremity of cold preserves the layers of ice and makes you think the entire world is a brittle thing that cracks and pops under your feet, or falls like crystal torpedoes from the roofs above you. I wore my brass dangly circular earrings today because they emit a gentle jingle into my ear whenever I move my head. Seemed to be the right soundtrack for this season of hard filigree.

I’m writing to you from the field today, also known as the public library, and there’s this high school girl at the table next to me doing that classic writer dance with her hands (fingers approach the keyboard, hover, type lightly, pull away, stare at screen as if you might miss a message from outer space if you look away, repeat step one), and inside her book bag I can see Anne Lamont’s book Bird by Bird, which expounds on the process of becoming a writer, peaking out from amongst the textbooks. Putting two and two together, I’m making the assumption that she’s a creative. I remember so clearly being her age. I remember feeling an uneasy balance between that youthful arrogance of thinking I had everything figured out, but realizing I didn’t really know anything at all. I read classic book after book (Tolstoy, Austen, Brontë, James, Wharton, etc.) mesmerized that anyone could have such a firm grip on language. I listened to recording after recording (Horowitz, Rubenstein, Gould, Cliburn, Ax, etc.) and wondered further how to get my fingers to produce in reality the sound I heard in my dreams—how did they do it? You might as well have asked me to explain how it is all those blond girls I envied seemed to have sunny glints of gold woven into their hair whilst mine was the earthly equivalent to a black hole.

I think what we discover as we mature and grow in a particular field of study is process, and discipline within and for that process. At 16-years-old I was highly talented in music, but certainly not a prodigy by any standards. I felt like I had this wild beast that lived inside of me, something powerful, something that could be my ticket to great things, but I had to learn how to coax it and discipline it. It has occurred to me that when you are talented specifically (as opposed to generally) you can assume a pressure of responsibility that you are not equipped to control as a high school kid. I felt the weight of needing to be great now, and often envied my friends who were just enjoying the trip and trying a little of this or a little of that. Of course, they envied my singular trajectory, assuming that I somehow had it easier because I didn’t have to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had always known, it’s true, that my life would be in music, but a life in music can be a lot of different things. Really, we were all in the same boat underneath appearances.

If I could travel back in time and tell my 16-year-old-self a few things that I know now, I would tell her to enjoy the process more thoroughly. I would tell her that there is plenty of time for achievement. It means just as much to be accomplished and successful at any age, and you don’t get extra credit for becoming great before age 21. The old school adage is true after all: it’s about the journey, not the destination. I would have told myself to trust who I was, that life isn’t a race but a process, and we’re not contestants but participants, and that’s where the real beauty of your life lives.

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