I’ve just come back from the NAMM Show in Anaheim, the largest musical trade show in the world. After four straight days of listening to an incessant cacophony of electric guitars, orchestral instruments, drums and percussion, and mind-bending electronica, I’m enjoying a day of silence. Silence in the house and in my soul. In these last four days, I’ve seen literally thousands of musical performers dressed in full rock regalia, outlandish punk leather, country blue jeans, baggy rap pants, unwieldy anime costumes, skimpy revealing dresses, and one guy dressed like Buddy the Elf. Big hair, no hair, green hair, tattoos and piercings, face paint, lots of bling. Thousands of people seeking attention and fame and spotlight.
In the postlude, as I reflected on the last few days, I remembered a short story I had written for Imagine That that might be an appropriate response. As artists of faith, perhaps you might relate to this story in some way. I reprint it here for your amusement and reflection. Enjoy.
A Parable of the Possibility
There once lived a man, neither young nor old, but in the middle of life, at the age when one measures heavily the cost of mortality. He measured his life not by the length of the day or the coming of the seasons, but by the death of his dreams. He was—once in his lifetime—a dreamer of dreams, inspired by Creation, excited by the Possibility.
But those days were long past. Now, there were only artifacts of his creative power—a faded painting of him on the wall, a rusty compass on his desk (for he traveled much in his younger days), a brass trumpet carefully packed in a calfskin case which lay by the large brick fireplace. No longer did the muse visit him. No longer was there a glint in his eyes. No longer did he stare into the night sky and dream. His vocation now was more grounded, more pragmatic. He was, officially, the keeper of goats.
It was not always this way. Early as a child, he showed the promise of Possibility, for the sound of this trumpet in the hands of the boy would make toes tap and people dance. All who heard him were amazed. He was proclaimed a prodigy, a wonder, a genius. They showered him with praise and sought him for his gift. It was exciting to him, to feel the power of the horn, this ability to create smiles and laughter and longing among all the people in his village.
But as he grew, the excitement turned into intoxication, and the intoxication eventually became addiction. He threw himself into his craft, disciplined himself to be the best he could be. Every day and every night, he would play his horn, learning to push the boundaries of his abilities further and further. It eventually became not just something he did, but a part of his identity. For better and for worse, he no longer saw himself as a part of the whole, but as something separate, something other, something special.
By the time of his turning, when boys become men, his frustrations had become too much for him to bear. He had determined to set out for the mainland, away from his village, away from the island entirely. There he felt he would find fulfillment and happiness, where his horn would bring him the accolades and fame he truly deserved. He sought passage on a sailing ship for the far away big city, trumpet tucked deeply in its case, waiting to be heard by the world.
Thus began a journey of spirals. He was indeed gifted, and with the displays of his giftedness came his spiral toward fame. He toured as far as his compass would take him, seeing things and doing things he never would have done in the smaller world of his village. He played for princes and popes, for generals and presidents, for the famous and the infamous. He met painters and poets, dancers and debutantes, sages and charlatans, the hopeful and the heartless.
And this apex was the beginning of his spiral downward. For the lifestyle of fame comes with a price. There were lost days and dark nights during this turbulent time of his life, a period that he does not speak of except in moments of stark self-awareness and transparency. For the spiral took him down, down, to the depths of the worst he could be. And the lingering shame is a hard thing to shake.
But there was good that came from this time too. An awareness of himself. An awareness of what is true. A humility that is neither false nor inflated. And a longing for those who loved him. But too late. In the recesses of his heart, he had purposed to put away his horn, put away the gift. For he believed that it was his path back to the dark spiral which almost took him away. So this is where he is—back in the village, living with his artifacts and memories and goats. Living. But not truly being.
Until everything changed.
A ferry began to operate between his island and the mainland. Every weekend, the white billowed sails of the ferry would pop over the horizon, transporting people and merchandise and news from the mainland right to the island, right to his very village. Some thought it a good thing, opening up commerce and communication. Others thought it terrible, for change would occur—social and economic and moral changes—and change can be very painful. Regardless, it was progress. And progress stops for no man.
People began to travel to and fro freely. The world suddenly was at their doorstep. And the changes began. There were new ideas, new ways of doing things, new possibilities. It was exciting. But not all of it. For eventually, a trend surfaced. People began to travel away, but not travel back. One at a time, friends and neighbors would buy their tickets, pack their bags, and say their goodbyes. An exodus began to erode the island of its people, its culture, its being.
For good or for bad, this too was progress. But for the man who knew the danger, it was a warning bell. Not that going to the mainland was an evil thing, but he knew the evil inherent in each of us and the temptations which the mainland extolled. And he believed that through it all, people had lost sight of what was good and real and pure of their ways, their traditions. They had lost sight of the narrative of their community. They had lost sight of their being.
The man struggled with this. His mind could rationalize and justify and minimize, but his heart would not stop the pounding in his chest. He loved his village, loved what it stood for, and loved its people. And they had loved him, through thick and thin. In his internal struggle, he began to understand. He began to see himself now not only as an individual, but as a part of this greater whole. One sunny morning, as he herded his goats to the meadow above the village, he was struck by an uncommon clarity of vision.
Quickly, he ran down to his home, abandoning the bleating of his flock. He picked up the calfskin case, carefully popped the lock, and pulled the horn to his mouth. The cold metal felt good against his lips, and he blew a large breath through the instrument, warming it up, as if to say hello. His fingers fell onto the valve keys like a wallet falls into the back pocket of an old pair of pants. The familiarity of the instrument in his hands brought waves of memories to him, and he closed his eyes as if to embrace some and reject others. Then he put the trumpet back in its case, clasped the lock, and ran back to his flock.
The grassy meadow lay on a gently sloping bluff above the village. It was not far; he could see the roofs of the buildings, see the outlines of village hubbub below. Once again, he took out his horn, brought the mouthpiece to his lips, warmed the tubes, worked loose the valves. And then he began to play.
The familiar melody seemed to awaken the town to a sense of awareness it had forgotten. There were stirrings below, as his townspeople came out of their homes and shops. A crowd gathered in the town centre. And still he continued to play.
He was rusty; there was no doubt. But as he played, as the melody became more clear and sure, he suddenly had an awareness of the Source of his gift, the Possibility of what was once his, but had been lost and forgotten. This was unexpected. And it made him smile. And play on.
The townsfolk greeted him on the meadow. Laughing, cheering, clapping, even dancing. Little children and the old ones. Teenagers who remembered the songs as a child. Even other musicians who brought their guitars and tambourines. Soon a party had broken out, with people bringing food and drink—pastries from the bakery, milk from the dairy, wine from the store. There was a sense of oneness, of community, as the man’s trumpet retold the story of their village, the narrative of their lives together.
The man’s lips ached from lack of practice. He had played seemingly for hours. But the joy was overwhelming. For he did not realize how much he missed these moments, these songs, these people. And neither did anyone else.
And then it hit him. In his life, he had made his gift, his Possibility, the basis for his identity and his worth. But that was wrong. His sudden realization was this: His identity was in the community he loved, and in the Creator who made Him. It was not in the gift, but in the Gift-Giver, and in those with whom he shared the gift.
By the time he put his horn back in the case, he knew that this was the first step in a new journey. Another spiral upward. Soon there would be people coming fro, and not just to. Soon there would be singing and laughter every week, and at every gathering. Soon the village would be alive with the sounds of life and energy and renewal. Soon the trumpet would blow again.
And for that, he thanked God.