I finally figured out what life is all about.
The other night I was at Fenix, a nightclub in San Rafael, listening to the Derek Evans Band, when it hit me. Derek was singing Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” and as he did, he took me to the highest ground. I was transported, but not out of this world. My soul was touched right here, on earth. Derek’s music gave me another chance.
The band’s interpretation of “Compared to What,” the Eugene McDaniels’s song made famous by Les McCann, was another moment of pure magic. You could see it in the faces of the musicians, smiling like children hearing their favorite lullaby. They were like members of a gospel choir, spirit-filled, or an athlete who, after decades of work, achieves the dream she set for herself on a summer day when she was only seven years old.
You may be wondering if you missed the greatest show ever; or why you’ve never heard of the Derek Evans Band (or the Fenix nightclub); or what I was drinking. The truth is, these guys are journeymen musicians laboring in obscurity; the club may be gone in a year; and I had a pint of Belgian wheat beer. But if those mundane details sidetrack you, you’re missing the point. Because Fenix was the place to be that night, and what I saw there was the human spirit at its creative peak.
After the show, while I was thanking the band, I overheard one member grumbling about money. No surprise; many musicians of this caliber aren’t paid a tenth of their value in skill and talent. The rewards of life are not fairly distributed, and a person who does something exquisite can also be a grouch. The sublime coexists with the tedious. What matters is that it was a wonderful show. I was lucky to be there.
But music, potent though it may be, has its limits. I wish it was more powerful, because I love it and I can sing and I can play, and I can get you to sing, too. However, sometimes singing’s not enough.
When I was young, I thought that if I managed to live to the age I am now I would have life figured out, like I said in the first sentence of this piece. But the truth is, the mystery abides. I have gained a measure of wisdom and perspective. But selfishness, and misunderstandings, and fear of loss and failure—the whole list of human weaknesses and faults—are still there, ready to assail and sabotage my best efforts, just as they were when I was young. I see it in my own life, and I see it in other people’s lives. I wish it wasn’t so. And then, after all that, death gets the last word.
But here’s the thing: there is more to life, and more to us, than frailty and mortality.
Artists have no monopoly on creativity, and art is only one of a multitude of ways in which the best of the human spirit is expressed. When I pay attention, I see that spirit expressed everywhere. I hear it in the kind words of a friend; in a healing touch; in an act of generosity. I see it in the eyes of someone I love; I see it in my children. When I pay attention, I am a witness to the power of love; I am connected to other people, and I am called back to my better self.
I am no theologian. I don’t qualify as a Christian. I know more about singing gospel than I do about any creed or great, all-encompassing truth. But I am here, now, to testify to the power of forgiveness, hope, and love. Especially love.
These gifts have been given to me again and again—in the faces of Derek and his band; in the thoughtful words of my 20-year-old daughter, no longer a child and wise beyond her years; in my son’s thirst for knowledge and understanding; in the patience and kindness of my friends, my family, and many years ago my mother and father, as weak and as strong as anyone, and stardust now.
The word for these gifts is grace. Grace, not doled out by some institution or holy man, but freely and generously shared by flawed, wonderful people, one to another. It turns out fear and death don’t get the last word. Love is bigger than that. Together, we are bigger than that.
That’s what it’s all about.