Recently, I played the cello in front of a couple of hundred people.
Which statement probably doesn’t nudge your pulse up a notch or two, but that’s only because you don’t know the cello.
And you don’t know me.
First: The Cello
It’s difficult to play at all. It’s a crucible to play well.
I’m a striver. I like to reach far and push myself into discomfort. That’s on my best days.
On my not-so-best days, I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, the personality type marked by the “setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”
Thank you, Mr. Webster, for that brisk insight.
(And while we’re here, your dictionary was really never all that perfect, either. So…)
Third: The Cello and Me
Did I mention that until a month ago, I hadn’t laid a bow on a cello string in thirty years?
Four with my first cello. All photos David Dalton archive ©
Fourth: What the…?
Oh, I grew up playing the cello, sure. Thanks to professional musician parents, we kids all sang and played instruments. The result is that all four adult children— everyone but myself, that is — still are, to one extent or another, hardcore (lessons began at the age of four), trained (by the world’s best and in the best conservatories), professional (professors, performers, pedagogues), classical (does solfège mean anything to you?) musicians.
A blessing and a curse. Because that kind of upbringing can cause one to have certain standards regarding music, you know? Like, I know how a cello should sound. No – I know how a perfect cellist should sound. Which gets complicated when you’re to play the cello and remember you can’t do it perfectly. Or really all that well.
Or really at all.
Fifth: Calluses and Panic
For background: When the musical director in our congregation wanted this lovely cello solo performed during the holidays, she asked if anyone played. I waited for someone else to pipe up. No one did. I waited longer. Still no volunteers. So in a moment of forgetfulness, I said, “I do!”
Forgetful, because I used to play. I really did. Never brilliantly, and with varying degrees of commitment and artistry, but I played for many years. Still, as with tightrope walking or karate chopping through stacks of reinforced concrete with one bare hand, if you haven’t brushed up on your technique recently, best to not volunteer.
Not, at least, unless you expect some pain, both physical and emotional. Physical: aching shoulders; cramped hands; blistered, then bloodied and then peeling fingertips in order to develop calluses. Emotional: nausea; what-have-I-done midday panic attacks; what-were-you-thinking night terrors; tears. Shingles. Hives. Scratching and oozing.
Real cellists have callused fingertips. But calluses don’t necessarily guarantee beautiful playing. And as I kept practicing, finding the notes again, massaging out my jackhammer vibrato, I was increasingly aware that no callus in the world was going to be thick enough to protect me from myself. Here crept those unrealistic demands again. There was the faint whip-whip-whip of self-flagellation. In my lower back was the clenching of a vise grip of not achieving my goal, and– oh brother – that neon blinking “sign of personal worthlessness.”
Failure. Submediocre. No Yo-Yo Ma.
Sixth: Oh, No Ya Don’t.
I’m too old for that stuff. I was working through that mini psycho-drama when something shifted one chilly late morning. I was sitting in my bedroom wrapped around an old borrowed cello, running scales and arpeggios. Suddenly, I wanted to cry. Not out of pain (although my fingertips are still recovering even as I type this), and not out of anxiety or despair. I was suddenly moved to near-tears by the pure intoxication of making music. The melody thrummed through me in all its amber-toned cello-ness, making me sway with the sensuous drag of my bow arm. And while the sound was warbled and scratchy to be sure, the basics still worked! The tune was recognizable. Not gorgeous, and a Mahler symphony away from perfect, but just fine. Adequate. Okay. Good enough.
(My Inner Perfectionist winced and smacked her flat hand on her forehead. How she hates those ^ words.)
And then, before the Inner Perfectionist could roll her eyes or pretend to stick her finger down her throat in disgust, a thought swept in:
“The fear of flaws is not going keep me from sharing what God has given me to share.”
Maybe an obvious thought for you, but a mini-revelation for me. And with it, release, liberty, a trampoline flip of delight.
And then came a whispered little P.S.:
“Play badly. Go ahead. But at least do so lovingly.”
I nearly crushed the cello into splinters as I hugged it like an old friend. “We’ll do this,” I mumbled, “You and I. I loooove you.”
The wooden instrument didn’t talk back. Not because it couldn’t, but because it was wise enough to know I was actually addressing myself.
Seventh: Stressing, Impressing, Blessing
Perfectionism is exhausting, stressful. Author and lecturer Brené Brown calls it “a hustle.” It’s also a waste. It wastes not only time and energy, but robs you (and potentially those within the reach of your influence) of everything from a good night’s sleep to creativity to ambition to true success. Perfectionism is linked in research to addictions of all sorts and to a lack of true intimacy in relationships, either with others or with yourself, and even, if you are a believer as I am, to a lack of connecting with God.
Why does perfectionism block intimacy, even –or especially – with God? For obvious reasons. Do whatever you want, buddy, to impress others. But you can’t impress God. Furthermore, perfectionism throws up these Plexiglas walls through which you think you are seeing the real thing, or, conversely, through which you think you will be seen. But from a distance, please, because being known implies breaking through walls and being exposed as you really, truly are. Throw up all the walls you want for thick protection, but God wants you as you are, you in all of what I call your irresistable flawfulness.
The unrealistic demands a perfectionist makes on herself often fill her with shame and an unwillingness– a fear, even– to share her sludgy, tired, incapable, at times unpleasant, always utterly human self with others. She’s convinced that only the perfect version of herself is lovable; that perfection in whatever form it assumes is the only version deserving of love.
And so the perfectionist will run herself ragged trying in vain to attain an unattainable standard in order to “earn” adulation, which she mistakenly thinks is love, but which in fact is no more than a cheap and shallow quick-fix facsimile for the real thing. Re-cognition is not cognition, or knowing in the truest sense. Knowing is real contact with the real thing, and the root of true love.
To my point, perfectionism keeps us from being happy and good and plain, or just plain good ‘n’ happy. Who out there is not a little (or a lot) threadbare, floppy, sloppy, but a basically good soul? Who’s not rough on every edge and fractured in parts, but basically means well, wants to do good things? Like playing the darned Christmas cello solo in church, for heaven’s sake?! Then we must learn that…
Cello, viola, violin, piano. Later, sopranos and a bass-baritone prince not shown. (All photos David Dalton archive ©)
Eighth: Le Mieux est le Mortel Ennemi du Bien
The best is the mortal enemy of the good. (It takes Montesquieu, a Frenchman, to nail it. Like so many of the French I know, he knows perfection! ) Always holding out for the ultimate best –for “le mieux”, for perfection – we pass by the daily, hourly, ravishing yet fleeting opportunities to grasp and luxuriate in what’s given us. To take full part in the everyday, mysterious, generic, supernatural human condition.
- We don’t say the simple, kind phrase because we were hoping to write it up in an Elizabethan sonnet.
- We don’t call on Dad’s birthday because we really wanted to send him an ice sculpture of Genghis Kahn.
- We don’t kiss our lover because he has Gandhi’s sandal breath. Or we’ve got shin stubble. Or someone is jet-lagged, crusty, non-glam.
- We don’t raise our voice to make the comment in class because it’s not brilliant, worthy of general stunned awe, or up for the Nobel.
- We don’t commit because the man that flips our switch doesn’t have a PhD. (Or condo. Six-pack. Life all figured out. Eyes like Clooney. A list of accomplishments. The perfect background. The perfect anything. Except love, good humor and all else, maybe. But…meh.)
- We don’t pray because God doesn’t approve of us anyway. (Honestly, who would?)
- We don’t dive in the ocean because we don’t want anyone to see our stretch marks or that we put on 10 kilos since last time (was that 1993?) when we dove in the ocean. Wearing a full length terry cloth cover-up.
- We don’t laugh because, what if someone thought we were actually happy and content and not seriously pursuing something grand and unattainable, because underneath the thick lamination of harried ambition, we don’t want others to see that we’re just as much an average slouch –tired and overdrawn and messed up – as the next tired, overdrawn and messed up slouch?
- We hold back. We keep quiet. We side-step by open doors. We shut ourselves down. We agonize over errors. We live tiny and tortured.
In short, perfectionism paralyzes us, as Brené Brown writes, and locks us into a glove box of smallness, or, as Anne Lamott says, “cramped and insane your whole life.”
A writing guru, Julia Cameron, adds this:
“Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly–and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner’s work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn’t know how to say, “Good try,” or “Job well done.” The critic does not believe in creative glee–or any glee at all, for that matter. No, perfectionism is a serious matter.”
When reflecting on the iterations of perfectionism that used to plague my life (the teen years when I nearly died of eating disorders; the spells of anxiety-induced depression that took me to teetering emotional ledges; other forms of the beast…), I mourn.
Fourteen with anorexia. My cello was much bigger than I was and weighed more, too. (All photos David Dalton archive ©)
But I don’t stay mourning very long. I quickly remind myself that those years, they were practice shots! And hey, life itself is one epic practice shot. I can learn from those mistakes and redirect my now-mature energies and gifts and garden-variety normalcy to playing whatever song I can play– not perfectly, maybe awkwardly, and at times outright badly– but at least I’m playing.
Ninth: Play Lovingly
My ear for intonation and harmony and my gut for rhythm and phrasing run through me like my DNA. My eye for beauty, my mind for language and cadence and lyricism in literature are equally strong currents. My passion for people, for the spiritual webwork that connects us all, for the mystical and the unseen that throbs through humanity and propels us forward, upward –these are the drivers I want at the center of my life, not some “voice of the oppressor,” as Anne Lamott calls perfectionism, “which [is the] enemy of the people.”
No. I want a friend – a loving, merciful, forgiving, magnanimous, all-heart, all-in Friend, or even a couple of friends – at the center of my life. Shouldn’t one of those friends be myself?
These ideas sort of coalesced when, on your average pre-Christmas Sunday at church I took a borrowed cello to my heart, pressed it there lovingly, and then with all the tender self-embracing I have in my bones, I let. that. baby. ring. In that moment, I couldn’t suppress thinking through the text as I played:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Who can ruin such beauty? Well, to be honest, I might have. It was pretty average cello-playing on all counts, I think, and there might have been some outstanding flubs of intonation. But you know, I was so good with that. No one saw the alchemy as it lay total siege on me, but I swear my whole body and soul resonated. As I write this, they’re resonating, still.