Why Go Into the Arts?


Teen-aged Jeanie (in Sailor Hat) with Uke at Church Camp
Teen-aged Jeanie (in Sailor Hat) with Uke at Church Camp

When the night has come and the land is dark,  
and the moon is the only light we’ll see,
no I won’t be afraid, oh I won’t be afraid,
just as long as you stand, stand by me.”

My eyes close and I take a deep breath as I near the chorus.  I know this part by heart.  By the final chorus I’m rocking my shoulders and tapping my toes.

“Whenever you’re in trouble won’t you stand by me, oh stand by me, oh stand now, oh stand, stand by me.”

I practice it a few more times, then move on to Jimmy Reed’s, “You Got Me Runnin’.”  Then “Falling Slowly” from the movie “Once.”  After that I practice a G lick, a D lick, and an A minor pentatonic scale.
My mother said that when I was three I knew the words to “Bell Bottom Trousers” and sang it to anyone willing to listen. At ten I sang “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” (Woof, woof!) at the church camp talent show.  That fall I began piano lessons.
By 14 I’d given up the piano, but it wasn’t long before I found a more satisfactory substitute.  On the way to camp that summer a girl showed me two chords on her baritone ukulele and by the time we arrived I’d taught myself to play “In the Still of the Night” and “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.” From then on I played her ukulele every time I could get my hands on it.  Somehow I found the money to buy one of my own when I returned home that fall.
In college Fred learned the guitar and we played and sang folk music.  Then adulthood took over and we got serious.  Over the years we’d occasionally play for friends and the magic was back: For a few moments I was 14 again and there was nothing but the joy of making music.  The magic returned a few years ago when our friend Sam started bringing his guitar to our gatherings and encouraged us to play with him. But after a while that stopped too.  Inevitably my love for music would come up against Boris the Bore, my perfectionist bully who criticized my lack of skill until it was too painful to go on.
ukeOne day last October I took my 11-year-old twin grandsons to their weekly guitar lesson. When Jake started playing the blues, tears started falling down my cheeks.  The magic was back and this time it was accompanied by a profound longing.
“I want to take ukulele lessons!” cried Teen-aged Jeanie.
“You’re too old!  You’ll make a fool of yourself,” scoffed Boris the Bore.
“I don’t care!” Teen-aged Jeanie insisted. “I want to! It’s now or never!”
Afterwards, Teen-aged Jeanie dragged me to the teacher. “Do you teach ukulele?” she asked shyly.  I could feel my heart beating.  Boris was breathing down my neck. He couldn’t wait to tell me how ridiculous I was being.
“Sure,” the teacher said.  “Actually, I’ve just started teaching a teen-aged girl.”
“Do you have an opening for one more?”
He did.  I took my first lesson two weeks later.  I’m in my second term now, and I play every day.  By the way, “play” is the right word.  Teen-aged Jeanie and I are getting better and having a blast!  Boris got off a few shots last weekend after Sam convinced me to play “Falling Slowly” in public for the first time, but for the most part he’s been curiously silent.
Why go into the arts?  Your story will be different, but I assure you, the fundamental reasons are the same for every heart and soul:

Go into the arts.  I’m not kidding.  The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.  Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.  Sing in the shower.  Dance to the radio.  Tell stories.  Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem.  Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward.  You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Here are a few of my favorites:   Stand By Me: Ben E. King;   Baby Why You Wanna Let Go?: Jimmy Reed;   Falling Slowly:  Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova.
Thanks to my old friend, Charles Ruehl, for sending me the picture of Teen-aged Jeanie at church camp. That’s him on the left.
And thanks, Sam. This one’s for you.
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27 Responses

  1. Why arts?
    Because, good art feels as if it is personal.
    I can try all day to explaint what I feel, but then I listen to Annie Lennox or Dido or somebody else that clever and I realise they’ve already said what is in me.

    1. Thanks for this excellent observation. Yes, it’s all about emotion, heart, soul. When you find something in a work of art that touches you, it’s because it speaks to something in you. When you listen to what it’s saying, you discover another piece of yourself. This is what we’re born to do: soul-making!!

  2. You have inspired me to try painting again! When we use to visit the Raffa house in Tampa years go, Helen was the one who told me that if I wanted to paint that I should paint. I told her that I didn’t think I had the talent or ability to be any good and that I would be embarrassed to let anyone see them. She told me that if it was something I wanted to do, just do it and not to worry about being judged by others. Hard to do for a Benedict! The painting mom had over her bed was one I had thrown away. It drove me crazy every time I saw it because of all the flaws I saw. I shall try again my sister and see what happens! Love, Jimmy B
    Sent from my iPad James Benedict

    1. I love it! I wish you could see me smiling. I’m so glad you’re going back to painting. I loved your work! I never knew Helen encouraged you to paint despite your self-doubt, and I’m very pleased to know it.
      So you live with Boris the Bore too? He must be a family curse handed down from generations of self-critical perfectionists. What a burden! It’s really all about facing our fears and pushing past them to find the joy, isn’t it? In the words of Kris Kristofferson: “I’d rather be sorry for something I’ve done, than for something that I didn’t do.”
      Much love from your adoring little sister.

  3. I loved this, Jeannie. I miss “playing” so much. I am not so much self-critical as afraid of criticism. Plus..I value excellence (oops maybe I am self-critical!) It can suck not to be excellent! That said, I value the process and know the joy of just being in the medium having a blast with a light heart. I need more of that! So happy for you and your ukulele. By the way, Graham totes a ukulele all over the world when he is traveling. Cheers!
    Date: Tue, 28 Jan 2014 05:03:03 +0000 To: pschrob@hotmail.com

    1. Thanks, Pat. Yes, it can suck not to be excellent, but it’s equally sucky to avoid doing something that brings us joy for fear of criticism. Either way, the parasite of perfectionism erodes our souls!
      It’s sad to me that I had to turn 70 before I got up the nerve to do something I’ve always wanted to do. But maybe that’s just a normal part of the life cycle. I’m pleased to report that increased awareness of my mortality is killing off the parasite and freeing me to dig in and enjoy my life while I still can!
      I look forward to hearing Graham play some day! Blessings

  4. Thank you for sharing that story. I’ve experienced a similar set of emotions around playing guitar and a couple of other creative efforts. The arts are supremely empowered to breakthrough all types of blockages..physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.

    1. You’re welcome. Yes, the arts do seem to have a magic-like power to free and heal us. I think this is because of the creativity and imagination we employ in every form of art. I posted a quote a few days ago that seems relevant here: “Imagination is the door through which disease as well as healing enters.”
      Sri Yukteswar as told to Paramahansa Yogananda
      Blessings, and thanks for writing.

  5. I love this singing and playing story and I can hear it in my dreaming mind. I am already strumming along and tapping my feet! Up Up and Away, … the parade has got to be here somewhere.

  6. Am now imagining you strumming out Loudon Wainwright III’s The Ukelele Song from 10 Songs for the New Depression album which sums up the joy of all things uke! As for why go into the Arts, and for me Poetry… I had no real inclination why it all started until of late in re-looking at my childhood home, and what is odd at the moment is the new understandings, feelings, revelations etc are so raw that the writing itself is currently rubbish and not up to scratch, yet I know as the understanding settles down the ability to write about it more effectively will return.
    Oh and one more thing Jeanie, the Ukelele orchestra of Great Britain ; have you seen/ heard them ? Lots of clips on you tube and great covers there 🙂

    1. Well, I can see I have some homework to do! I’m not familiar with the New Depression Album, nor the Ukulele orchestra of Great Britain! There’s so much to catch up on and enjoy!
      Interesting that re-looking at your childhood home is providing new revelations about why you write poetry. I attended a writer’s workshop some years ago and the best poem I wrote there evoked many images and feelings about my own childhood home. It was demolished some years ago but I still dream about it. In dreams it’s always been renovated and transformed from a dingy little crumbling cottage into a clean, colorful and cozy home. I guess I know what that means! But it doesn’t tell me anything about why I write. I just know that trying to write a book is one of my first memories and actually starting one at the age of ten was one of my strongest childhood needs. I couldn’t finish either one, though, because I couldn’t think of anything to write about. That tells me a lot too: I hadn’t a clue who I was and wanted very much to understand myself! Writing about my dreams has been my major practice to bring self-knowledge. So I guess that’s why I write! And the rewards have been manifold, indeed!
      Thanks for the you tube suggestion. I’m going there next. 🙂

  7. “In the Still of the Night” on the ukulele? The Cole Porter song? This seems
    like a very advanced song for a beginning ukuleler. “In the still of the night as I gaze from my window, at the moon in its flight…? that one?

    1. Unfortunately, no! It was a doo wop song from the late 50’s by one of the Mo-town groups (I forget who) : “In the still, of the night, I held, held you tight, ’cause I love, love you so, promise I’ll never let you go, in the still of the night…” But I know the one you’re talking about, and it does sound very advanced for me! 🙂

  8. I rocked and swayed to those words, Jeanie and still do. I turned to photography in recent years–sometimes the photos are good, sometimes not, but it’s my new creative play. I paint, too, as you know, also for play, but the camera goes with me everywhere and helps me watch for beauty and feel gratitude. I love 14-year-old Jeanie and her ukulele. Fascinating instrument choice. I know Boris the Bore all too well–and he is lousy at any party. thanks for helping me tap my toes.

  9. Oh, Elaine, your comments always make me smile. Yes, Boris the Bore is particularly boring at parties! Perhaps that’s why I enjoy staying home and writing so much. He tends to leave me alone as long as I’m only dancing with my soul.

  10. Dear and divine Jean …… life is a journey of creative enlightenment and all creative arts takes you to your inner core and music is one of the primary art ……
    music is a wave length …..and as oneness of sound ( time ) and silence( timelessness ) increases …so increases the ability to converse first with humans……
    then with animals…. ,
    then with trees….. ,
    then with nature….
    and then with every atom…….
    and finally with cosmic divine ……we may refer as OM, ALLAH, GOD or name of our choice …..
    p.s…. it is always inspiring to flow with your journey …… with greetins and gratitude …… ram

    1. Thank you, Ram. I love this: “.. life is a journey of creative enlightenment and all creative arts take you to your inner core…” It is always a pleasure and a blessing to hear from you.

  11. Jeanie WOW, I read them all, how did this slip by?

    Now a little good news and bad news.

    I am thrilled you have continued along your chosen path of enriching your family and all your friends. If I had anything to do with kick starting you, it was because of all the joy you and Fred’s singing has given us.

    Eleanor and I are so thrilled to have you both as friends and soul mates.

    Now for the bad news. You aren’t Cheap!!!

    I picked up the guitar the other night while Eleanor was talking with Sara. Just my few meager little riffs cost me XXXXX plus dollars.

    As though it was scripted,——- A little Night Music—-


    Gee Sam——You’re playing Falling Slowly, let’s rent the video, it’s really great. I’m sorry I didn’t bring the video!!!

    Eleanor—– gee, it is opening at Bob Carr. Let’s try for tickets, get good seats,

    Sam—- Darling it is sold out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Eleanor—- Call Theo??????

    Theo—- maybe I can help, I’ll call Eric……..

    Eric—-Sorry sold out but I will see what I can do………

    Drum Roll……. Sam—-Eleanor——- Eric—– how about 2nd row?

    Sam— Ok When—- tonight

    Freddy—- Sammy get there early maybe you can get on stage?

    Fast forward

    Thinking this was like a dream we get the tickets and

    Got drinks at the bar on the way in… and then as Fred had mentioned get there early maybe you can get on stage (I am getting goose bumps now)

    Well how about come up to the bar on stage!!!! How about another round with the Actors, then how about everyone stay on stage while we open the show!!!!!

    What an incredible evening all set in motion by you….. sharing your passion for the arts and your friends!!

    Jeanie, you and Fred get it!!!! The Gift is in the Giving, thanks so much for sharing with us.

    With much love, The Kids, Sam and Eleanor

    Good thing—–memories are priceless.

    PS Tom eat your heart out you!!!!

  12. Oh, Sam, you are priceless too! I enjoyed your story and the way only you can tell it. And I’m so glad that you, Eleanor, and Sara got to see the play “Once.” I wish I could claim responsibility for setting this special evening in motion, but I can’t really. After all, it was you who relit my passion for the ukulele by insisting that I play it and liking what you heard! Had you not done that, I’d never have taken lessons and learned to play “Falling Slowly” and you wouldn’t have fallen in love with it and started playing it too. But it even goes back further: The trip to Cuba where the four of us first got acquainted was arranged for art lovers! So our mutual love for the arts is what brought us together and made us friends and soul mates, and that’s what ultimately led to your special evening! As Kurt Vonnegut said in the quote I cited above: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.” We’re very lucky and grateful to have you as friends who are contributing to the growth of our souls. Thank you.

    1. Cool! When I read your piece on the arts (which I loved) I wondered if you’d been inspired by this one! I often have the same experience of posting something on a topic only to find articles about the same ideas that are written either shortly before or shortly after I post mine. As you may know, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake has studied this phenomenon intensely and says (I’ll give it a very rough and probably flawed explanation!!!) it is due to “morphogenic fields” where new ideas and insights converge and from which they emerge into collective consciousness. Our minds tap into these fields at an unconscious level. I suppose we all get this unconscious information all the time whether we are aware of it or not, but for those of us who are very mindful of our inner lives and intuitions and write about them regularly, it becomes readily apparent! This would certainly explain synchronicities like this one.

  13. Thank you, Jean, for your story. Really lovely. You describe that approach/avoid dance so well. I recently returned to the piano after a quarter century away. It wasn’t until I was able to let go of the thought (spoken by my own version of Boris) that I had to be a professional or I was nothing, that I started to really play. And I think I even started to sound better at that point! At least to my own ears. Love the Vonnegut quote, too!

    1. Thanks, Jason. That Boris is a real joy-killer isn’t he? I think he must be the ego’s evil twin! Ego just wants to be accepted and successful; Boris tells us we’re losers who’ll never win unless we’re perfect! That may be true if we’re Olympic athletes trying to convince the gods to grant us immortality, but it doesn’t apply to ordinary mortals in everyday life. So much of my struggle for self-acceptance has been about recognizing and challenging Boris and realizing that my flaws are what make me a whole human being.

  14. Oh – everyone should go into the arts!! And I make it a practice to never use the word “should”…but in this case it is begging to be used! As an actor and writer, I live in the arts..it is my vocation and very much part of my spiritual practice. One of the most important things I focussed on while raising my four children was to nurture and foster their own play and creativity through whatever form flowed through them.
    I have a ukulele calling to me that I bought in Nicaragua and you have given me just the nudge I need to sign up for some lessons!
    Thank you 😀

    1. How lucky you are to live, breathe and work in the arts! And how lucky your children are to have you as a parent! Time spent engaging in our particular form of creativity is our passport to the realm of the gods, a place where time stops and joy takes over. I hope you’ll let me know how your uke lessons go. Mine continue to be a blast! Jeanie

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