Wednesday, November 3, 2010

This I Believe (Babble)

This is sort of a moment of shameless self-promotion, but I don’t profit from it so I don’t feel too weird.

Five years ago I was inspired to try my hand at writing by the ‘This I Believe’ project on public radio.  I’ve heard some fascinating essays on that segment, and have even printed out a few so I can revisit them when I like.  I’ve always enjoyed writing and missed not having an excuse to do it since college, and I’ve always regretted the essay I submitted with my school applications.  I was overly influenced by suggestions I’d read and didn’t write the essay that I should have.  I decided to write the essay over and put it into the ‘This I Believe’ format and submit it.

They loved the essay, but it didn’t make the final cut to go on the radio.  The local paper in Milwaukee picked it up and ran it on Christmas Eve and it got a very nice response.  After that, other than the link on my website to the archive of the This I Believe project, I didn’t think about it anymore.

But I got a nice surprise earlier this year when an editor from This I Believe tracked me down and asked if they could include my essay in a collection they were putting together specifically about love.  All proceeds from the book go to continue collecting stories for the project, and my compensation was a single copy of the book, but I was honored to be included.  I got my copy in the mail the other day and it’s still sort of unreal to me that I can open up something off my bookshelf and see my words in print.  With my name in a table of contents like a real writer.

In any case, there are some surprising and touching essays in the book which is called “This I Believe: On Love”, and is available to order now, as well as many interesting essays in the This I Believe archive.

Amazing Grace

My grandfather died twenty years ago. I was fifteen. He was kind, strong, fair, and very funny. When I was a young musician, he was my biggest fan. My grandpa used to applaud when I tuned, and I would roll my eyes and shrug off his enthusiasm as too biased. I played my violin for him when he visited, and he loved everything, but each time he had one request. “Could you play ‘Amazing Grace’?” he asked, full of hope and with a twinkle in his eye, because he knew my answer was always, “I don’t know that one!” We went through this routine at every major holiday, and I always figured I’d have time to learn it for him later.

About the time I entered high school and had switched to viola and started guitar, Grandpa got cancer. The last time I saw him alive was Thanksgiving weekend in 1985. My mom warned us when we turned onto the familiar street that Grandpa didn’t look the same anymore and that we should prepare ourselves. For a moment I didn’t recognize him. He looked so small among all the white sheets, and I had never thought of my grandpa as small in any sense. We had all gathered in Ohio for the holiday, and I’m sure we all knew we were there to say good-bye. I can see now that Grandpa held on long enough to see us each one more time. I remember how we ate in the dining room and laughed and talked while Grandpa rested in his hospital bed set up in the den. I wonder if it was sad for him to be alone with our voices and laughter. Knowing Grandpa, he was probably content.

The next morning I found my moment alone with him. I pulled out my guitar, tuned to his appreciative gaze, and finally played for him “Amazing Grace.” I had worked on it for weeks, knowing it never mattered if I actually played it well and choosing not to believe as I played that it was my last concert for my biggest fan. The cancer had stolen his smile, but I saw joy in his eyes and he held my hand afterward, and I knew I had done something important.

I argued with people all through college about my music major. I was told by strangers that music wouldn’t make me any money and it wasn’t useful like being a doctor. But I know firsthand that with music I was able to give my grandpa something at a point when no one else could. Food didn’t taste good, doctors couldn’t help, and his body had betrayed him and left him helpless. But for a few minutes listening to me with my guitar, he seemed to find beauty and love and escape. At its best music is the highest expression of humanity’s better nature, and I’m privileged to contribute to such a profound tradition.
So, this I believe: Love matters. Music matters. And in our best moments they are one and the same.

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