Posts tagged ‘growth’

February 28, 2011

More about my mediocre oud skills

I’ve already lamented my lack of steady progress at learning how to play the oud so I won’t dwell on that. What I’m sharing today is the aha! moment I had while reading through some blogs this afternoon. Today’s inspiration came from Pete the Planner who was actually quoting someone else:

There is a difference between interest and commitment. When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient. When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results. (Ken Blanchard)

It’s no mystery that the reason my oud skills are lagging is because I’m not committed. But here’s the real secret: I didn’t want to learn how to play it because I think the oud is the most beautiful instrument in the world (that spot is taken by the mbira and the kora) but because I want to use it as a means to claim a share of my culture.

I’m of Arabic descent and grew up in Europe without learning how to speak the language. As a result, whenever I travel to Lebanon, I always feel like an outsider and somewhat diminished because I can’t partake in elaborate discourse. My family and friends have to translate a lot of things for me and I find that both frustrating and humiliating. I’ve tried learning Arabic numerous times but do not feel any connection to the language to keep my interest sustained.

Last summer, while I was in the mountains in Ehden, I listened to a man play some beautiful oud and was so moved by it when I realized I could connect to my roots through music. The fact that nobody in my immediate entourage (except an uncle) plays the instrument, or any music for that matter, was an added benefit: with everyone to support me (my parents are my cheerleading squad) and no one to patronize me, I would be free to forge my own path and build my own relationship with my “Arabism”.

The clip above is of a song I’ve been working on since the fall and that I’m still not good at.

Having said all that, I resolve and commit to play at least 30 minutes of oud on a given day before I’ll allow myself to pick up my beloved mbira. That ought to keep me accountable and focused. And, who knows, maybe one day playing the oud will feel like its own reward.

February 27, 2011

Book review: Let’s Take the Long Way Home

Just finished reading “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship” by Gail Caldwell. It’s the story of her close friendship with Caroline Knapp and of her grief after she lost her to cancer. I started reading it shortly before the third anniversary of my best friend’s passing and finished it last night. Am still not over it. Her relationship was vastly different from mine but the way she wrote about her grief really struck a chord. I’ve never been able to put my feelings into words but recognized them in Caldwell’s writing.

The same shock and feeling of unpreparedness (felt like getting the wind knocked out of me – every single time I thought of what had happened):

The only education in grief that any of us ever gets is a crash course.

The same disbelief:

But no one I had loved—no one I counted among the necessary pillars of life—had died suddenly, too young, full of determination not to go.

The same dreams, reaching out for them in vain, imploring the dead to come back (in one of my dreams, she looked annoyed because I was making her late for her lunch date with God and his girlfriend):

In the dream I knew she was dead, and I reached out for her and said, “But you’re coming back, right?” She smiled but shook her head; her face was a well of sadness.

The same fierce attachment to material things that belonged to them (I have a pair of her shoes that’s half a size too small and a sweater that itches awfully – they’re treasures):

I wanted to claim whatever of her was left. I’d always heard stories about grief-stricken families arguing over ugly lamps or cheap coffeemakers; now I understood. The frantic hunger I felt was not trivial or greedy; it was possessive, in the most primal sense. I still have her gym bag and her rain jacket, and for a while I even tried to wear her winter boots, an entire size too big, which was absurd but comforting. Memento mori: reminders of the dead. I think we must long for these signatures of history (…) because they take up the space left by the departed.

The same perspective and outlook shift:

What if dying weren’t a bad thing? Caroline’s death had left me with a great and terrible gift: how to live in a world where loss, some of it unbearable, is as common as dust or moonlight.

The same inner transformation (The day she passed was like having my drive formatted. For the following months, I was a blank slate with all my limitations temporarily wiped away):

Grief is what tells you who you are alone.

The same hole in the heart:

Caroline’s death was a vacancy in the heart, a place I neither could nor wished to fill. (…) her goneness was a thing unto itself, a memory outlined by crime tape it would be an outrage to remove. Now here was Neruda, entreating mourners to inhabit death as though it were a dwelling: Absence is a house so vast that inside you will pass through its walls and hang pictures on the air.

The same reification of her death, now an integral component of life:

I knew I would never have another friend like Caroline (…). That she was irreplaceable became a bittersweet loyalty: Her death was what I had now instead of her.

I’m quoting the book extensively because I still don’t feel comfortable writing about all this. My life still feels split in two parts: the one before her death and the one after. Processing the fact that she’s gone is a continual work in progress.

I’ve read a whole bunch of books about loss and grieving but none hit the mark like this one. The other books tell you pseudo-scientifically what you’re supposed to feel with the caveat that everyone feels things differently. This book is raw: the author puts all her thoughts and emotions out there and you can’t help but connect and relate. Self-help books make you think grieving is a set of phases you have to go through in order to heal; this author shows you there is no such thing as healing because there is no sickness to heal from. The pain may ease with time but you will continue to grieve because it is now part of your life. And that is okay.

The book will also appeal to dog lovers, recovering alcoholics and people who simply enjoy beautiful writing.

December 31, 2010

On Mediocrity and Excellence

New Year’s Eve is a great time to reflect on existential matters. Such as the brand of champagne we’re going to drink tonight or the most efficient way to attend three parties in one evening.

It’s also a time to look back at what we’ve accomplished during the past year and weep. And try to become better.

What’s weighed heavily on me lately (besides the chocolate on my hips) is the inversely proportional relationship between the number of my interests and the time available to pursue them. Especially in the musical field. I’ve been learning and playing the mbira for two and a half years now and recently started learning how to play the oud. Am I happier as a result? If music is my passion, more music should result in more happy, right? No.

I’ve been consumed with guilt for the past four months because each time I pick up an instrument, I feel bad for not playing the other. It is such a frustrating feeling and the amount of progress I’ve made with each instrument since September is tell-tale sign that the multiplication of my activities inevitably leads to the fragmentation of my skills. It’s not rocket science: to become excellent at something, you have to give it your all.

When I took up the mbira back in 2008, I gave up horse riding. I miss horses a lot but still feel I made the right decision. To be a good rider, you have to keep your mind on riding mode even when you’re nowhere near a horse. Your posture, the way you walk, what you read, your exercise routine, and everything else you do daily is part of the training to become a better rider. All of that changes when you want to become a good musician. Horsemanship is about detail and precision. Mbira playing – to me – is about transcendence and abandon. I ride better when I’m “on” at all times, and play better when I get my mind out of the way.

When I embarked on the oud learning journey, I thought I’d be able to fit this new activity smoothly into my life because it was already consumed by music. I was so wrong. Music instruments are not interchangeable. They require different physical skills (mbira is percussive, oud is stringed), they are windows into different cultures (mbira is Zimbabwean, oud is Middle Eastern) and song patterns are different (mbira is polyrythmic and cyclical, oud follows a bunch of different scales and has more melodic variety). The differences are mind blowing and becoming familiar with them is mind consuming.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, developed this happiness formula:

To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

So my hopes for 2011 are:

  • to recognize I don’t have infinite amounts of time,
  • to accept I can’t become an expert at everything,
  • to continue playing both instruments,
  • to allow myself to favor one over the other,
  • to seek growth, regardless of its speed,
  • to enjoy the music, no matter what.

That seems doable.