The story that Itzhak Perlman played a concert on a violin with only three strings appeared years ago. A string snapped and he finished the piece, “modulating and recomposing” in his head. Afterwards, Perlman was said to have offered this insight: “It’s the artist’s task to see what music you can still make with what you have left.”*
I think we find ourselves at times improvising with “what we have left.” We may have based a task or goal on certain emotional, mental or spiritual habits. They change. We find ourselves with only “three strings.” So how do we improvise with “what we have left” to stay focused on our goals?
I’m finding out. I have to admit a lot of bravado in my approach to water sports. I would boast to friends that if I ever capsized sailing, I would eventually drift to shore and get poison ivy. Kayaking? Who capsizes doing that?
Once I launched my sailboat when the wind was too strong, convinced I could handle it. The feeling of being on the edge of capsizing was terrifying. I made it, but that feeling hasn’t left me. Then I capsized my kayak, twice in deep water. Both times I scrambled to safety, but I remember panic as I fell into the river.
I’ve overcome those feelings to kayak regularly, but getting out my sailboat has been harder. I can’t blame the lousy weather totally…I have to admit my bravado is gone. Other life events have increased my feelings of vulnerability.
I’ll sail again, but I’ll have to improvise on three strings.
So, Lora, what ‘cha got left?
* There may be issues with this story. See Snopes.com for their research.
I checked my dignity at the beach before taking an advanced kayaking class offered by Pymatuning State Park. The challenge was to learn how to rescue someone (yourself or others) after capsizing in deep water.
There are several techniques, and to dump into the water, then hoist yourself onto a light, narrow boat is a feat, especially for us 50 somethings. Even with someone holding your kayak (from their kayak), even with a hand up. You slide onto the boat facing the stern, then turn, stuffing your limbs into the cockpit, and oh, by the way, maintaining balance while you’re at it. (Where did my paddle go?)
You couldn’t worry about how you looked. Our movements were awkward and decidedly ungraceful.
I tried different techniques: a “T” rescue, using a paddle float, and a strap. I accomplished two of the three, with leg cramps and lack of upper body strength prohibiting success in the other. The next day I was feelin’ it, limping around the house nursing bumps and bruises and stretched muscles. And that’s after six years of paddling.
What I learned mostly was what it feels like to be in that situation. How hard it is to rescue. To trust my life jacket to do its job so I could focus on other tasks. But maybe the most important of all: what to expect from myself if the worst happens.
We can find grace in awkward situations, when we’re caught in a hard place. It’s not always pretty. But who ever said grace is?
I’m not very good at “improv” games. I’ve heard it said that writers usually aren’t because they’re trained in careful, disciplined choices of language and “improv” encourages spontaneous dialogue and interaction. “Improv” doesn’t have rules, or judgment, or make room for “error” because there isn’t any. There are no criteria to live up to or judge by. The only requirement is the willingness to participate and openness to spontaneity.
But it takes courage to play “improv.” You have put away self-consciousness, trust yourself and the other players, “be present” in the moment, and follow the process where it leads. It’s also not a “secret” process or one accomplished in your prayer closet. It’s out in the open, public, usually with an audience who participates and responds by approving (or not) through clapping, hooting, laughing, friendly yells, yawning in boredom or checking their cell phones.
I am a good audience for “improv.” I usually catch a joke, or see the possibility of one when it wasn’t intended. I laugh well. But I can also see where I can add some “improv” to my life. I can recognize the many areas of life where I can be spontaneous and make decisions purely for the enjoyment and pleasure they offer. Not everything in life bears a heavy moral or ethical dilemma or is reason to be “outraged.” I’ve blogged about Eric Liddell and feeling God’s pleasure. Maybe it’s time for me to discover more of my own!
Recently I was faced with a decision: I could adopt the attitude, “I have to trust the Lord,” or choose instead “I will trust the Lord.” “Have to” strikes me as begrudging and willful, a reluctant acceptance of an undesirable situation. Too often I plant myself firmly in that mindset. “I will trust” seems confident and assured, a moving forward in relationship.
I checked in the dictionary for the denotative meanings of “have” and “will,” and lo and behold, found some insight into this dilemma. (Often I look up familiar words to discover the “third” and “fourth” meanings because they often provide the nuance I want in my writing.)
The meaning of “have” includes owning, possessing, consuming, to hold mentally, to engage in. “Will” indicates habit, determination, expectation, or possibility. “Have” seems to anchor us in the present. “Will” points to the future.
I wonder if we can apply this outlook to our work in the arts. If I approach a chance to be creative with the “I have to trust” attitude, I anchor myself in the present, which may prevent me from moving forward imaginatively. (Admittedly, many of us could stand to be more attuned to the present moment, so this sure isn’t a rule!) If I adopt a “will”ingness to trust, I am more open to what is possible in creativity, more willing to experiment with new ideas to see where they lead.
Perhaps with this trusting confidence I can glide more smoothly into my writing, art, and life. I am more open to an imaginative relationship with God.
My blog last week sounded a resonating chord with some readers. There is much more to explore with “trust issues” and our work in art.
When the Psalmist David declared, “I will trust in You,” his confidence in God inspired him to take on challenges and responsibilities others recoiled from. We remember his confrontation with Goliath, the boy facing the giant with the future of Israel riding on his small shoulders. We study his troubled relationship with Saul and the threats Saul made on his life. We admire his courage and grace under pressure.
I think the same trust that compelled David to face adversity functioned in other ways, namely, inspiring him to create many of the Psalms in the beloved hymnbook of the Bible. I wonder if David prayed “I will trust in You” before he wrote poetry for worship as well as before he led his troops into battle. If we have faced down giants in our own lives, if we have led others into battle, why not honor that gift of trust by extending it into our artistic work? We just might meet God in our art again.
When teaching at writers’ conferences I used to rather cavalierly declare that I didn’t believe in writers’ block. Oh, I did until I wrote for pay and under an editor’s deadline. “Writer’s block” was a luxury enjoyed by hobbyists; professionals couldn’t let it happen and expect another assignment.
A rather uncharitable point of view, isn’t it?
I wonder if “Writer’s Block” (or any other lack of engagement) is merely lack of trust. After his conversion to Christianity, artist Makoto Fujimura realized how trust was an integral part of creating art. “There was a reality [grounded in Christ that] I could trust and that I could also trust what was inside of me to express it.” (Chuck Colson in “Real Art,” breakpoint.org)
So if we can’t “express” ourselves through our art, perhaps something has shaken us or caused us to doubt. We lack trust in our gifts, lack trust that when we sit down and stare at a screen or hold a paint brush or a guitar that God will show up. Does He only appear in approval, applause, and sales? He might come in scribbled or typed drivel, or, as Anne Lamott says, “sh**** first drafts.” But I won’t know until I trust again, enough to face the blank screen and create another day.