Everyone has a life’s work, a thing they are destined to do for all their days on earth. Unfortunately, most people don’t figure out what this is until they’re dead.
My brother was a cellist and a poet. I’m sure that the latter was his life’s work. I’m not so sure about the former, because he gave it up in young adulthood. It may have been, though. He had only two teachers, Paula Baker and David Boyle. You can find Boyle’s name in these old programs from the Houston Symphony Orchestra, along with my old flute teacher, David Colvig.
I never met Mr. Boyle, but I met Ms. Baker a lot. She had two very pretty daughters.
Did I mention she had two daughters?
A life’s work is something that drives you. When you are doing it you have no eyes or mind for anything but that. When you’re done with it for the day, before long you start thinking about it again.
A life’s work isn’t a hobby or a job, although it can be both. It’s certainly not appearance or success or money, although all three of those can come along with it, or even be part of it. A life’s work always leaves something behind for other people. It’s something they look at after you’re dead and say, “Wow, she did that.” But in addition to earning recognition, your life’s work makes someone better. It enhances their moment. They breathe more freely, with a bit of wonder, than they did before.
My brother loved Pablo Casals. I didn’t know much about this nonpareil cellist, and what I did know what wrong. I thought he was Puerto Rican; he was Spanish. I thought his name was Pablo, it was technically “Pau.” I vaguely thought that he was a great musician. I didn’t know that he was the greatest cellist ever.
The first time I really listened to the music was at my brother’s funeral, when they played Casals’s rendition of the prelude to Bach’s Cello Suite No 1. It is one of the most soulful, deep, and beautiful pieces of music ever written.
A couple of days ago I was riding along Golden Meadow and I saw this bumper sticker.
It made me think of Casals so I looked him up on Wikipedia. He lived to be 96, and was a lifelong opponent of the Franco regime. He was also extraordinarily funny, as you’d expect from a brilliant musician. My two favorite quotes, maybe ever, are his.
The first was when he was asked about the 60-year age gap between him and his new wife, whom he married when he was 93. “I look at it like this. If she dies, she dies,” he said.
The second was his response to being asked why he still practiced three hours a day though he was in his 90’s. “Well,” he said, “I seem to be noticing some improvement.”
This struck me hard, first with laughter and then with reflection, reflection that great musicians, and indeed great anything, spend hours a day practicing. Six to eight hours day is standard fare for anyone aspiring to be a concert pianist. I remember that it was pulling teeth to get me to practice piano, and later flute, for even an hour a day, or often even an hour a week. It’s no surprise that I was pretty rotten at both.
On the other hand, it never took much to get me to ride my bike for seven or eight hours at a pop. In college I rode 500-600 miles a week and don’t think I ever missed a class. My grades were pretty good, too. Even later it was never especially hard to convince myself to go out for a long ride. But is riding a bike a life’s work? No. No way. How do I know? Because it doesn’t leave anything behind for anybody else. It’s simply another form of selfishness, albeit it one that is relatively easy on the environment.
On Jan. 28 of last year I started memorizing Chaucer. I’m now up to over 3,000 lines and am 3/4 of the way through the third part of the Knight’s Tale. Sometimes I spend five or six hours a day memorizing and reciting. I wake up in the morning and rip off a few hundred lines as I’m waiting for the water to boil and the bread to toast. The problem with memorizing Chaucer is that it seems a lot more like riding a bike than it does like playing Bach’s cello suite. It doesn’t really leave anything behind. One thing I know for sure about your life’s work. You have to proclaim it and not be afraid of the unavoidable ridicule. Your life’s work doesn’t have to be grand or beautiful in the eyes of others, it just has to be yours, and it has to measure up to you in your own eyes. Casals knew he wanted to be the greatest cellist ever, and he knew that before he performed, it had to be right. Casals refused to play the Bach suites in public until he was good enough. So he practiced them every day.
For thirteen years.
Maybe I’ll get bored with Chaucer soon. It’s only been a year and a half. But maybe not.
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