The old joke goes like this: A visitor stops a local on the streets of New York and asks, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The New Yorker replies, “Practice.”
Every morning before school, Gwyn practices piano. She’s a musical kid; when she was four she begged for lessons and we made a family commitment: Piano would be our means for nurturing Gwyn’s natural interest. But Gwyn’s enjoyment of music, her inherent musicality, and her fantastic ear don’t add up to a love of practice. Practicing is hard, so we routinely endure the pre-practice, baby buffalo huffing with arms crossed. Practice is Gwyn’s means to screen time (read: bribery), and most days she needs our physical proximity on the piano bench in order to stay there.
Why bother with all this effort? (“Why do I have to?” Gwyn whines.) None of us have any interest in Carnegie Hall. What Gwyn wants (and gets just enough of to keep going) is to impress her friends by pounding out “The Halls of Montezuma.” She wants to fill the house with the gloom of Chopin’s “Funeral March”, “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you,” especially when she’s mad. She wants to pick out the chords to the pop song, “Zombie.” Despite her resistance, music brings her alive.
What Emily and I want for Gwyn is all that practice teaches: How with every new piece we’re a beginner, how repetition builds skill, how persistence pays off, how talent amounts to nothing without hard work, how to foster a work ethic, how to make mistakes and keep going, how over time and effort what seems impossible becomes possible. How any discipline (music, science, language, faith) opens into ever greater possibilities the deeper we go. How real transformation only happens with practice. How practice becomes the whole point.
I’m thinking about Gwyn’s piano playing because, after a life-time of habitual church-going and an adulthood of being on a spiritual quest, finally, finally, I’m engaged in a genuine spiritual practice. I can tell it’s genuine because every morning part of me metaphorically crosses my arms and huffs. It’s hard—very hard. I need others to hold me accountable, to remind me of the value of sitting with silence when it seems insane, and to teach me, over and over again, how to do this. Religion has given me a moral code, a community, a culture, a language, a tradition, and a slew of hang-ups. Buried deep within my religion, as in all major traditions, there’s a practice. It’s a path of transformation. I may never get to the holy equivalent of Carnegie Hall, whatever that might be, but I have a renewed sense that any goal misses the point. Life, love, and meaning? They all come with practice. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Only two more opportunities before winter break! But Wisdom Ways spiritual memoir sessions continue on the second Fridays through the new year. Please drop in!
November 16: Living Revision: The Writer’s Craft as a Practice of Transformation at the Loft Literary Center, 10am-4pm.
December 14, 1:30-3:30: Re-Imagining Revision with spiritual memoir, Wisdom Ways drop-in session.
February 9, 2019, 9:00am-12:00pm: Writing the Sacred Journey: An introduction to writing spiritual memoir at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.