Coming home from the Calexico concert the other night, the moon was a grinning Cheshire cat, mocking me with his over-large smile from a perch in the sky-soup of stars and darkness. That blackness resonates with me, especially on these short winter days, but music soothes my dark inner beast.
A few days later, I headed south for a warm respite in Blythe, to warm my bones and hear some bluegrass. Through the late afternoon and into the evening, I traveled south through the desert, then headed west for the state line. In my rearview mirror, the reflective highrise towers in downtown Phoenix made the city look like a refinery on fire.
I picked up a signal for KJZZ and listened to Run Boy Run make their debut performance on Prairie Home Companion. That young band took the audience by the shoulders and shook them awake with powerful harmonies and twin fiddles, punctuated by cello and upright bass. I grinned to myself, turning the radio up loud for their parts, and singing along on the tunes I knew.
These young performers and songwriters have been working hard at music, and were poised for exactly this sort of break. They won the 2009 band contest at Pickin’ in the Pines, and have played every year since then, so we’ve watched them develop over the past few years. I’m genuinely pleased for them. I think it was Albert Einstein who said success is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Someone else said chance favors the prepared mind. It’s all true.
After, I ruminated about success and failure, ambition and contentment.
The Dalai Lama suggests that the true antidote for greed is contentment, and that’s part of my practice: I walk around feeling grateful for a multitude of blessings, large and small: a cottonwood leaf floating from the sky, harmonies blending in a familiar song, a jet trail across the sky on a cloudless day and familiar constellations in the night sky.
But in practicing contentment, I struggle with how to meet a universe that is constantly deconstructing and rebuilding, as million-year-old carbon atoms blow apart and recombine. Is contentment the equivalent of atrophy? Is ambition just the ego rationalizing its existence?
I’ve volunteered a lot of time to non-profits over the past 30 years, because I believed in the organizations’ missions. I knew where my next meal was coming from. I had a roof over my head, so I was able to give a lot of time away.
There were also years when I was more ambitious, when I made fair sums of money from art and writing.
To some folks my uneven earning history might label me a dilettante, not a serious and successful artist. I admit that over the years I’ve struggled with wanting to earn more, just because our culture equates money with overall value. But lately, after lots of thought and many conversations, I’ve come to a different truth: what connects contentment with ambition is meaningful work, work you’re meant to do, work you love.
I’ve taken the path of passion over the road to self-sufficiency, at least as far as money is concerned. For some folks – like Run Boy Run – those roads successfully converge.
A young woman I know started working in an office about six months ago. Instead of being trained, she was launched into the position with almost no guidance. The job has turned into work out of context, just an exchange of money for time. She’s terribly unhappy there, not because the work is inherently meaningless, but because it’s not meaningful to her.
Last night, we strolled under the stars through a sea of RVs in search of a good jam. Between two rigs some folks had set up a tarp with heaters and we stepped into their “living room” out of the cold to play a few tunes. An older man with a baseball cap picked a tune on the mandolin, along with a banjo player and a couple of guitarists.
They finished one song, and someone called out, “Red Rose, White Carnation”. Jay from Wickenburg, the mandolin player, switched to a guitar to play and sing the request. After the song was over, someone commented that he’d never heard that song before. “Well that’s because he wrote it,” said one of the other players. It was a well-written melody with a memorable storyline, genuine and sweet, and played just for the pleasure of it.