This evening I was listening to the Paul McCartney song Maybe I'm Amazed and my son Evan sent me a version that he wanted me to hear. It was a beautiful and different rendition. I'd blogged about the song in writing about my wife Linda, who passed away from cancer on March 26 of this year. So I got back into the groove and I listened to McCartney original again and was shaking my fists in the air at the sheer intensity of that song.
"Right me when I'm wrong..." goes one of the lyrics.
We all need someone to help us out in that category. But I have to tell you something funny about what Linda said to me about a month ago. Something true. Something funny and true.
She was never too impressed with my musical capabilities. It's not my key strength. My son and daughter are far more knowledgeable and musical. My sister-in-law plays for the CSO. What am I supposed to do, comp ete with that?
Linda also knew a fair number of other musicians earlier in life and I think they actually knew how to play the guitar. Whereas I only strum and sing. And not all that well at either one of those.
So I'll tell you what she said about my musical efforts, but first there's a little story to preface her advice on me and music.
A few months ago I was looking to buy a simple cross to wear, and of all places I went to Wild Roots in Geneva, Illinois to see what they had. What I picked out might have been a little young in some respects, but it works for me. Just a metal outline and a cord necklace. I like it.
While there I got talking with the owner--as I am wont to do in many retail situations--and we chatted about the Beatles posters in his store and how we never thought our music from youth would last this long. I asked him if he plays guitar and he said, "Oh, I'm not really a guitarist. I just play songs."
That's me t oo, I thought. It was satisfying to hear someone describe it that way.
I've even written a few songs, which were played incessantly as I struggled to perfect them and never really did. Linda had to listen to that practice through the floor of our house. Sound travels up through the floor with no problem. It's one of the quirks of the Cudworth manse, of which there are many, since as I've told you before, just about everything I've installed from doorknobs to light switches has been put in backwards. Not my strength, those fix-it things.
So about a month ago she told me, "Chris, I have to tell you something. Music isn't your strength."
I knew what she meant. It's not my strength. I don't have a naturally beautiful voice. I've sung in many choirs and have learned to discipline my tone and fit in well, but solo work is not my forte. I'm decent at fitting in, but one time a church choir director asked me to sing the tenor part solo when no one in my secti on showed up and I barked back, "I think not." The whole choir cracked up. They knew the drill...
Still, while leading a praise worship a few months ago there was one song on which I felt confident to sing the lead part into the microphone and after the service a noted happy critic of the group--husband of one of the female singers--told me, "You should have sung more."
Wow! I thought. That's a triumph of a sort. I've heard my voice on recordings and know there are a few moments when I don't sound too bad. But there are many times when I do miss notes or get out of my range. But I'm smart enough never to have been tempted--if I were much younger--to audition for American Idol, The Voice or anything else. I'm not delusional. I know my limits when it comes to music.
So, in a key respect, my wife's advice was music to my ears. She was never one to give a ton of advice, for one thing. Not her style, really. Usually she tried to encourage me or others in a better direction if it was possible. It took her a long time to come out with something direct like that. In my case, it took 28 years. Ha ha. God Bless Her. She put up with a lot from me.
Yet she did not foster false hopes, either. When the parent of a child in her Pre-K class needed to hear about a learning challenge with their young one, Linda found ways to communicate the need and the truth. It was hard for her, but that's a gift. It's hard to give difficult news like that to someone else, but at the same time it is a gift just the same. I'm not sure how many people see it that way, as a matter of practice. But a great many people suffer through things needlessly as a matter of practice, as well. A certain guy named Jesus was good at pointing that out. And many wise men and women since have helped the human race see clear of their own foibles. Heck, Aesop's Fables used animals to teach people lessons about life. Tortoise and the Hare, anyone. I've always thought the mo ral of that story was that there might be too much sugar in carrots, but what do I know? I'm just a dumb jock who doesn't eat right. The rabbit and I have much in common.
But getting back to the matter at hand, a husband of a teacher hears many tales of how children acted up that day in school. Some days Linda would come home frantic after having a roomful of kids acting up from too much sugar, the moon, the local flu or whatever else addles their little brains and big hearts. Did you know that little children sometimes turn into holy demons? It's true. Yet Linda loved them nonetheless, and I know that most sincerely. Some of her greatest joys were children with the greatest challenges. She started her career teaching the profoundly disabled at Mades Johnstone school, no easy gig. Her compassion for those with physical and mental challenges was most profound.
But it's all a question of degrees, is it not? What we can do and can't do is all so personal.
That's what I mean about the music thing, and me. She meant her advice most kindly, and I will take it, and what a parting gift, in a way, delivered with love and affection.
So Okay, I'm not the greatest singer or guitarist. I can deal with that.
But honey, I'm going to keep on singing. And she knew that too. What are we practicing in that regard, bad habits? It's hilarious, in a way. Yet serious business to the soul.
As you can tell, I really do love to write, and thank you for your patience in receiving all these messages over the years. It's been my way of coping and maybe sharing in the process.
Linda understood my need to write but found it confounding in some ways. She claimed to hate writing yet was so succinct when she did write that I would sometimes grow frustrated when she begged me to help her write a note to the preschool parents or address some other communication. Usually if left alone she'd come out with this nugget in that handwriting I love (it's Linda!) and read it aloud, yet apologetically.
I'd usually say, "It's perfect" and she'd groan, walking around the kitchen like she'd just spoiled a cake. I'd take it and tweak it if she liked but usually it was fine the way she wrote it. It just took some re-arranging on occasion.
Which makes me think about her gardening, where I'd try to help, but not always helpfully. I'd pushed her once to take her skills to a commercial level because she was really, really good with plants. She read them like people, it seemed, and people often begged her to come analyze their gardens and fix what they'd done. Over the years she'd read zillions of magazines on the subject. She knew her stuff, yet she didn't want to turn it into a vocation. I get that too.
This weekend some close friends and I were discussing Linda's ability with plants, especially in pots, and I told them I was going to try to replicate her efforts. "Good luck," they chortled. "We've been trying for years."
Indeed. They are good gardeners. But they appreciated that Linda had a gift and an eye for what needed to happen. She also kept a secret stash of cash to support her love of gardening. We all laughed that she would emerge come spring with that wad of cash and go shopping in the most interesting and distinctive gardening greenhouses across our area. I can tell you I never, ever questioned where that money came from. For all I cared, it grew on trees. I wanted her to be happy and I knew, after all, that I ranked #5 or so on the list. God. The kids. Her garden. Chuck. Then I rolled in. And was happy to be there. She smiled at me. We laughed together. She was a good cook, and I'm not. And those gin and tonics on summer nights. The fireflies looked brighter, for sure.
But her gardening was pretty distinctive. She could even walk through Home Depot or Menards (both gross commodifiers of garden plants, she contended, but necessary, she guessed...) and find the one strange little plant that might fit into her plans. In that way she was a Ghandi of the Garden. Full of peace and wisdom, yet not afraid to wade through the awful truth of life to find the good stuff.
That's why her words of advice about my music were music to my ears. In some sense, she was simply trying to save me trouble, help me concentrate on what was most important. Not spend too much time on things that were destined to go nowhere.
But damn I still like to pick up that guitar now and then, and try my hand and voice at making music.
So forgive me darling. I did listen to you, and heard your good intentions. I know my music career isn't going anywhere. But it was never meant to be a career anyway. I'll leave that to others.
But now it's time for bed and the sound of Paul McCartney singing "Maybe I'm Amazed" is still running through my head. Again, music to my ears.
And still wor th my singing for no other reason than it makes me feel better about life in general.
Well, I know she liked that. She often told me so.
Anyone want to sing along?