I played in a concert yesterday evening and stuffed up so completely that I find myself seriously contemplating the merits of never, ever leaving the house again. At this precise moment, if you could guarantee me that Heaven consists of sitting on a white cloud playing the harp for eternity, I’d take it. The cloud would be a long, long way away from the church, from anyone who might been in it at the time, and more importantly, from the person I was accompanying, (whose reaction afterwards was generosity itself). If I keeled over right now, I’d never have to face anyone who might have heard me play. With a celestial instrument and an eternity to practise, I might just get to a point where I could play a simple accompaniment to a song without faltering, stopping, losing my place in the music and only finding my way back three bars before the end.
I know why it went wrong. It was because I started learning too late, at a time when my life is full of more important things. My children all have music lessons; if they ever sit down to practise, every demand on them stops. I want them to be able to play; to have an understanding of music making and to have some command of this universal language that brings people together. But I’m an adult; I have responsibilities. I don’t have the luxury of ringfenced time, and the weeks since I agreed to play have been particularly demanding. There’s a level of busy in which time can be made, and a level of busy which leaves you exhausted at the end of every day, frightened of tomorrow’s firefighting.
Failure is excruciating. To put yourself out there, in front of an audience, to do something in which you’re inexperienced and unpractised, is both stupid and brave. As a teacher, I don’t let it happen. As a parent, I protect my children from it as much as I can, with support and time and suggestions. But as an adult wading into to something new, I’m supported by little more than my vision of what might be.
Those visions are important. Dreams and aspirations are part of what makes us human; they should be cherished. They don’t stop existing when we fail. We owe it to ourselves and our potential to hear the impossible. And, however hard it hurts and humiliates, every failure is a step forwards. The two minutes and twenty three seconds of dead air on my first community radio show; the confused fingers and lost time of my performance last night; the fact that I’m writing this on the morning I should be posting it. My poor, beloved second novel and so many writing projects since. The many times I snap at the children instead of hearing them.
Kindness has to be practised. There are so many distractions – so many immediate needs, professional and personal, our own and other’s. And other people have a ghastly tendency to be themselves – they don’t fit the mould we create for them in our own narratives. I will never forget crossing the Thames with the screams of a homeless person to whom I’d given money following me. ‘What the fuck difference? What the fuck difference?’ It was dark, it was raining, I was scared; I didn’t stay to talk, and the memory still sends waves of burning shame over me. It’s the same sensation as I experienced last night, unable to find my notes. The sense of something right and beautiful, striven for then slipping away.
But the beauty is there. The vision exists. At the most unexpected times, it touches you. A sunset. A loaf of bread. A cup of tea with time to drink it; an unexpected cuddle. If it didn’t, failure would have no value and life would be unremittingly dark.
Over the next ten days, I’m going to post ten things that help me to see these sparks as signposts to a kinder life. Join me.