“I didn’t play the piano for 10 years. A decade of slow death by greed working in the City, chasing something that never existed in the first place (security, self-worth, Don Draper albeit a few inches shorter and a few women fewer). And only when the pain of not doing it got greater than the imagined pain of doing it did I somehow find the balls to pursue what I really wanted and had been obsessed by since the age of seven – to be a concert pianist.

Admittedly I went a little extreme – no income for five years, six hours a day of intense practice, monthly four-day long lessons with a brilliant and psychopathic teacher in Verona, a hunger for something that was so necessary it cost me my marriage, nine months in a mental hospital, most of my dignity and about 35 lbs in weight. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not perhaps the Disney ending I’d envisaged as I lay in bed aged 10 listening to Horowitz devouring Rachmaninov at Carnegie Hall.

My life involves endless hours of repetitive and frustrating practising, lonely hotel rooms, dodgy pianos, aggressively bitchy reviews, isolation, confusing airline reward programmes, physiotherapy, stretches of nervous boredom (counting ceiling tiles backstage as the house slowly fills up) punctuated by short moments of extreme pressure…

And yet. The indescribable reward…

James Rhodes, British classical pianist, from an essay entitled “Find What You Love and Let It Kill You” [the title is from Charles Bukowski]


  1. Success is not one of the names of God. 🙂

    1. As Emily Dickinson said, "Success is counted sweetest/by those who ne'er succeed"…Thanks for the Glen Writing Workshop tip, too…Merry Christmas, Fred!

  2. And yet some writers do 'succeed' don't they? Or am I missing the point?

    1. Hi Denis, yes, of course, which opens a whole other subject: namely, the definition of success. One definition for me is getting to spend as many hours a day doing what I love.

      But the point of the piece isn't success. The point of the piece is that spending many many years, and sometimes a lifetime, working basically on spec in order to bring beauty into the world strikes me as sublime. The point of the piece is that great art costs. The point of the piece is that maybe one reason we don't have more great Catholic art is that people aren't willing to pay the price.

      From an essay by screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi:

      "In his "Letter to Artists," Pope John Paul II described the paradoxical process in which as artists grow in their ability to produce more beautiful things, their personal being is "uglified" by the process of practice and study and isolation and the near fanaticism that beauty requires. The Pope described artists as priests who make sacrifices that produce objects of redeeming power. He also says artists are prophets called and outfitted by God to lead people into new depths of understanding."

      That's the point of the piece.

  3. Having problems posting comments, keeps freezing

    1. so sorry, don't know what the problem could be…I review them first, so that could account for some delay…

  4. What I like about this article and your interpretation is that they both recognize the original desire a person has before they can even begin to understand it – like, oh my God that greasy glass sitting on that table is beautiful in the raking light. THe pianist lying in bed at age ten thinking – what is this? where did this insane beauty come from? Then you go about your business and that feeling seems incompatible with everything: job, school, friendships, family, etc. SO of course you try to rip it out of yourself cause it's a distraction, an embarrassment. But then, in tiny fits and starts, or all of a sudden, decades later you see something – the work of someone with dedication and training, a REAL painter/writer/musician and you realize. Damn! that's it! I will give anything to be able to do that or at least to TRY, to shoot directly at that target without distraction for a few minutes each day. ANd then of course there are other failures, other obstacles, but what was once solitary is now communal, even if the community only has two members.

    1. Oh for the love of heaven, I just spent at least an hour writing a reply, p-roc, and just as I was about to post, somehow deleted it!

      But in short–yes, yes, and yes! You have nailed it! That crazy call of the heart that I believe is very probably implanted in the womb, that necessarily sets you apart, that your whole life makes you think you might be crazy (which is tricky as in some sense, and not just the artistic one, you are…)

      The wonder and weirdness and ongoing miracle is that God could take someone like me–who is MORBIDLY sensitive, who CRAVES attention and validation, who is so narcissistically disordered that I can barely stand to hear another praised in my presence, who fears abandonment and rejection ABOVE ALL ELSE–and set me on a path where all of that is bound to be ceaselessly, unendingly triggered. And from which I have nonetheless not wavered for a single second!

      As you say it's all about our desire. Consenting to let our desire go to the stars, even though that is going to cause major insecurity, uncertainty and anguish. Also, however, the operative point: joy…

      It's not that "the artist" lives a more rarefied existence than anyone else, nor that his or her suffering is worse or more noteworthy than anyone else's. It's that God allows, invites, helps, walks with all of us as we stay the course. Why was the man born blind? To glorify God…

    2. Thank you! Both of you!

  5. …if you want to be an artist, you have to be willing to be totally ripped apart. Maybe that's why we don't have more Catholic writers (and painters, and poets, and composers, and musicians). Maybe we lack the willingness to be ripped apart…to let grace work its violence on us. To wait for a wedding that may or may not ever come, practicing, practicing, practicing. Preparing, hoping, praying, waiting.

    I just finished reading Ruth Burrows' autobiography, Before the Living God, and those words of yours resonate with much of what she says about her own call to the contemplative monastic life and her struggle to "let grace work its violence" on her. The book was written in 1975 after she'd been a Carmelite for about 30 years, and in a recent interview, she said that struggle and the "preparing, hoping, praying, waiting" has never ceased.

    1. I went on a whole Ruth Burrows kick this year, The Essence of Prayer, Before the Living God, and a few others. Good good stuff. I love that she starts out by saying we don't initiate prayer, God does. And there are no "technique" to be learned, no bullet points, no road map….

  6. I drink in everything you write. Thank you, thank you. Being a Catholic in Anchorage, Alaska–well. . . no analogy for that. It's just, um, different. This post is especially moving to me. And a PS–want to send you a little Christmas check. Send it to your agent's address? Or somewhere else? Merry Christmas Heather. –Suzanne

    1. Suzanne, thank you! You'll find a paypal Donate button on the right column…and thanks in advance for your interest in a possible writer's retreat. This is something I've been mulling for a long time and praying on and scribbling notes about–I will definitely keep folks abreast of any developments on my blog, and you can always see all my upcoming talks, retreats etc. on the Events page (tab up top) of the blog.
      Anchorage…Christ is up there, too, I wager…
      May the good Lord bless you and keep you! Merry Christmas and thanks again–

  7. This is the second of two comments. Neither need be posted–they're mostly communications with you, Heather. If you have a writer's retreat, I'd love to have early notice so I can register and get plane tickets. Do you need any info from me, or should I monitor your blog page? –Suzanne

  8. As a dear friend and I spent a recent evening discussing addiction he said "Being an addict is beyond our control… so we need to choose our addictions." insinuating we direct our addictive energies toward life-giving activities such as bicycling, writing, maintaining health, etc. rather than allowing the control of unhealthy substances, eating disorders, or brutality to take hold of our souls. This of course, you know, is not at all easy. I remembered this conversation upon the reading of this post's title.

    1. I like that, Alicia Rae, because it takes us to the meaning of love. "Love one another as I have loved you"…I would have said I "loved" booze–something I had found that was certainly killing me–but I didn't love it, I craved it, I needed it, I abused it…and yes, something else, something infinitely bigger has to take its place…

  9. "Success is not one of the names of God." – that's a pretty scary thought since I'm hoping God has success in leading me to Heaven, leading all of us to Him!

    On the issue of doing what we love and free markets and such: I find it such an fascinating topic because on the one hand I feel like we should be able to follow our passion. On the other, I think how if we were still a hunter/gatherer society I wouldn't be able to listen to a symphony orchestra or read Moby Dick. So I guess there's a tension between productivity required to maintain civilization and our own artistic desires. Aristotle said something like where the needs of society and your talents meet – there is your vocation. I guess that sums it up.

    Btw, I just read the following in the paper today, which is certainly a different perspective than the one I'm used to seeing. I guess it's sort of how to help the poor learn to fish rather than give them a fish:

    “The problem is poor people are poor because the value of their labor as valued by the market is low,” Garrett said. “There is a reason people working at McDonald’s earn the minimum wage. Giving them more money through a higher minimum wage — in an accounting sense it raises their income, but their productivity hasn’t changed. You want people to permanently increase their productivity.”

    1. Yes, money, the market, creativity are all fascinating subjects. On top of it, many of us have straight-out neuroses and compulsions about money, e.g. thinking it is holy to be poor (and thereby undervaluing our own work/time/experience); underearning; overspending. My own experience is that you get to be simultaneously willing to be poor and also willing to stand up for your work and price it accordingly. You get to be more or less handsomely paid for some things and do a whole lot of other things for free. To wear the whole thing like a loose garment…"Don't worry about what you're to eat or wear; your Father knows what you need"…I was reading something recently pointed out that Jesus seemed never to have actually carried money…(the temple tax in the mouth of the fish; he had to ask someone else for a coin to illustrate his point about God and Caesar…). To deal with money, as we must, without making money our God (either by wanting to stockpile it or being afraid of it); to learn that money is a tool to spread love seems to be the goal…

      I'm not sure what the guy means by increasing productivity–to be of loving service, whether you're working at MacDonald's or as a teacher, scientist, writer or priest is already the highest form of "productivity" and the highest form of "success" possible. Whatever we do, we get to find creative ways make it about God. And we should pay each other accordingly. "Did I give a fair wage to an employee?" my little Examination of Conscience before Confession pamphlet asks…And under Commandment 7 (Thou Shalt Not Steal), one suggested MORTAL sin is "Have you defrauded workers of their just wage?" (I was just delighted to spot this–why is it so much fun to look at OTHER people's shortcomings?) So rather than put it on the worker at MacDonald's to increase his or her productivity (either on the job or by, say, getting a degree that would lead to a better-paying job) maybe the grotesque profiteers could spread the wealth around a bit.

      Of course I've never been an employer myself. If I were, I'm sure I'd get to look a little more closely at my own tendency to grotesquely profit at the expense of another…

      Anyway, yes, fascinating stuff–in fact my agent is trying to sell a book I wrote on this very subject. It's called LOADED: The Mystic's Guide to Recovery from Compulsive Underearning. If she can't, I will self-publish. And then we'll all be rich–in love!

      Thanks, TS, and Merry Christmas.


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