Monday, April 29, 2019

Sing a song (failure immaturity)

The Searing Beauty of Failing (CAI2019)
Singing may be the most difficult thing I’ve let myself do.

I’m mostly a coward, afraid of the searing pain of failure. For me, failure is like getting a tattoo. Just like it. You want the outcome, but that doesn’t change the experience of the pain. I only ever got one tattoo. Failure, I’ve tried on many times. I know I have to risk it, again and again, because I’m too stubborn or stupid to even know what I’m trying to learn by following my nose. And because I want success, whatever that means when I’m trying. 

When I think of success I tend to think it means earning enough at a comfortable pace, enjoying this life more hours and days than I don’t, developing myself joyfully through creation and exploration. Deepening with the humility and compassion failure has taught me; chastened, maybe, by the caution. Mitigated by my ever-sharpening empathy. Success, for me, would be a combination of having the life I want, and supporting systemic and individual change that lets other people have the lives they want, so I can enjoy mine in peace, sharing the world.

I’m good at a lot of things, so it’s been easy for me to avoid the things I’m not good at. I just fill my time and days with things I am good at, or love doing enough that concepts of “good” and “not good” don’t hold sway. Time slipped, and after awhile I found I never really had to test my weak muscles, since my strong muscles lifted all the loads I asked. I have artificially inflated my success by simply pushing only in successful directions. Therefore, I remained immature at failure.

Luckily I’ve used the last ten years to remedy that, trying and falling short of whatever definition of success I had, often enough that I started to believe that failure is the natural consequence of attempt.

Given the opportunity this year, I’ve succumbed to the temptation of running back into my comfort space, to focus all my time and attention where I feel I can succeed, on other people’s problems rather than something too close to skin. I’ve been doing that for months. In many ways it’s been a sweet relief, not to strive, to know how to tackle a problem and then just tackle it, maybe even doing some good. To feel competent, useful.  But my restless soul holds me to account for the things left untried, which matter so much I become truly terrified to fail. Yet I fail anyway, by not engaging them, by staying safe in what I know I can do well, walking the clear path to security. And isn’t that happy pace my goal of success, after all?

If I’m honest, that’s not all there is. That success I described, the comfortable pace and joyous exploration and support of peace - those pieces are important. They are the goal, but not without the Other Thing. The Thing I’m Meant to Do. Which feels ridiculous to say, arrogance and wishful thinking all rolled together into platitude.

The Thing I’m Meant to Do requires me to risk the searing pain of failure, to sit in the chair for it, to ask that it be embedded into my body and mark me forever. I don’t feel ready to take that risk.

So I’ve decided to try to learn to sing.

I can’t hear my own voice. It’s hard to explain, but it’s always been this way for me. I can hear that my voice makes a sound, but I can’t tell what I sound like, what key or pitch or whatever is coming out of my mouth. I have worked very hard my whole life, since I was a very small child, to learn to modulate my speaking into tones people expect and want to hear, appropriate to a situation. I know what it feels like in my chest, throat, tongue, nose, eyes, lips. But I can’t tell what it sounds like. So I don’t know what other people are hearing, I just gauge from their reaction. And that’s talking. Singing is a whole other ballgame.

If talking is like swimming, singing is like diving. You need control, but you also need to open up, let gravity take you, trust your body and muscle memory in a kind of freefall that has little to do with thinking but is based on real learning. My wild voice has no training, to control, and I don’t know how to get her to emit the sounds in my mind into the real world. Nor can I tell if she’s done so, not really. I gauge by feel, in my chest, throat, tongue, nose, eyes, lips. But I don’t know for sure what’s coming out, whether it’s as expected, on key, whether it’s beautiful or painful to the ear of the beholder.

It’s embarrassing to get it so wrong, even when I’m the only one around, even when it’s just a recorder and a deleted file that hears me. Embarrassment is repulsive to me, even though I desperately want to be one of those people who let the water run off their back. I have a crazy-rigid standard for singing that only a few people in the world have met to my ear’s satisfaction, and anything short of that feels embarrassing to me.

Which is unbalanced, of course. If I applied a standard of perfection to everything I do I would fail. I wouldn’t paint, or take nature photos, or parent, if I held myself to the standards of those I admire most, and I would always feel like I was falling short. I don’t do that in other parts of my life. So why is singing different?

I’m not sure yet, but it is.

I do laugh at myself, mostly, and I’ve been enjoying learning what it is to have breath and stamina, finding where my voice comes from in my body when I try to sing along with a Goddess. I feel like I’m breaking through something important. And, also, it’s incredibly daunting, and I wonder if I will ever find the strength and trust to sing for real as if no one is listening. To not care that I don’t get it right, and be satisfied with the progress that’s possible for me.

But if not, this failure feels manageable. If I can keep with it, move through it, maybe I can build my muscles and maturity enough to stop sabotaging myself through neglect of What I’m Meant to Do. And there’s that little chance, that feeling that if I actually succeed in bringing myself to sing, openly and without fear, that maybe not all attempt at overcoming weakness is doomed to failure, after all - so maybe, just maybe, the attempt that matters can succeed.

When the mountain is high, maybe some climbing training is in order.