I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you.”
– Annie Dillard
“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” – Joseph Campbell
Last night we went to see Bruce Hornsby in concert. He was “unplugged” – just him, and one Steinway and Sons grand piano alone on the stage at the McGlohan Theatre in Charlotte. Hornsby grew up in Williamsburg, and went to the same high school as my husband Andrew. Bruce’s band was the house band at the Ramada Inn in Williamsburg when my husband managed the lounge there in the late 70’s. His brothers frequented parties I used to go to in my college years in the ‘Burg. His seminal songs “The Way It Is”, “Mandolin Rain”, and “Valley Road” were part of the soundtrack of my formative twenties.
I haven’t followed Bruce over the last 10-15 years, so I wasn’t sure whether I would recognize much of what of he would play. But no matter, Bruce was amazing. We were blessed to be participants in the dance of a true artist with his craft. He played for the pure enjoyment of playing – often improvising, and playing new compositions as well as the old favorites in a new style or key. I really don’t think he cared whether we were there or not.
Since 1987 when “The Way It is” was the most played song on the radio, he has worked with musical artists of all genres, including Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, Sting, Elton John, Eric Clapton, jazz musicians Charlie Hayden, Pat Metheny and Brandford Marsalis, and country musician Ricky Skaggs. He has written the scores for several of Spike Lee’s movies, as well as the music and lyrics for a theatre musical.
During one interlude in the show, when audience members were shouting out requests from the 1980’s, he laughed, talked about his journey, and said of that time, “I am a lifelong student [of music]…back then, I couldn’t even sniff at what I am doing today.”
Hornsby is pushing 60, and after a remarkable 35-year career (three time Grammy winner, nominated 12 times), he still considers himself a student of his craft. He was lucky to find his true calling early, and has pursued it for over 30 years. He is still pursuing it, every day, with obvious passion and joy. Like a tree with one strong trunk but many branches, that calling appears to rejuvenate itself regularly – scoring movies, writing musicals, as well as coming back again and again to the root, to play his piano solo or with a variety of bands. Hornsby has not packed it all in for the golf course or the yacht club, despite achieving what for most of us would be true financial security and a well-earned rest.
Watching the show, I am ashamed to say that I was jealous — not of his money or of his fame, not of his talent (well, maybe a little), but of the passion, of the calling. How many of us know what our true calling is when we are 22, or even 40 or 50? Although I am grateful for my banking career, I do not think I can say it was a calling. I had worked in a bank in high school. I chose Economics as a major in college because I thought it would help me get a job. But my shadow major was English Literature. Even in college I was split – Economics for the real world, English Lit for ME.
I find myself these days thinking a lot about one’s calling. I’ve spent 30 years in the corporate world and have begun to wonder what’s next. Paradoxically, both my boys are approaching turning points in their college studies. What will their major be? What do they pursue? What should drive their decision?
As a parent who is tired of paying for college tuition, and who dreams of the day when I can finally start spending money on me, I have heard myself push the boys toward the ‘practical’ choice. “Get a useful degree!” “Get a real job!” “Get off my payroll.” In fact, they may have taken that too much to heart.
When Ben was a young boy, he said he wanted to be a marine biologist. As late as high school he still talked about that path. He and I laughed as we conjured up a vision of that Ben – Ben in dreadlocks, tan and lean, living on some tropical island where he and his co-workers dived and swam and discovered the world of the sea. But these days he tells me he just wants to make money. He wants THINGS – the big house on the lake, a nice car, a fast boat. But when I ask him – what do you really want to study, what turns you on, what can you see yourself doing?, I can see that he is conflicted. He admits that he can still sometimes see that other Ben – Ben the marine biologist, Ben in dreadlocks – dancing on that beach. (probably most often when he is smoking something…)
Although I really do want to stop writing all those checks, I don’t want my boys 30 years from now wondering where they missed the path to their true calling, and agonizing about how to get back there again. In 30 years, I want them to still be the kind of student Hornsby confessed to be – a life-long, devoted, enraptured student to their one true passion. I want that for myself as well. Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss”, whereever it leads. It is not only the privilege, but the purpose of your lifetime.