After years of toil and struggle at my craft, I became a rock star last month.
Well, maybe not a star. But I did play a college gig with a local rock band, banging out perfect chords on my state-of-the-art keyboard to a vocal and enthusiastic crowd.
“Rock band” might be an overstated description of the two friends of mine who play cover songs on acoustic guitar at local venues. And we happened to be playing at the college where I teach—I helped my friends get the gig, so they took pity on me and let me sit in on their show with a keyboard I borrowed from the college. And while the crowd was vocal and enthusiastic, it was also about a dozen strong, the majority of whom were our friends. By the time we took the stage, after an opening band of students warmed up the crowd, most of that crowd had decided to head out to the bars.
I did bang out chords, though—that part is true. Most rock songs consist of a three- or four-chord sequence that is played over and over again, sometimes with variations during the chorus or the bridge of the song. So for some of the songs we played, such as Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” my job consisted of playing the same three chords over and over again for three minutes: Chord—"I saw a werewolf"—chord—"with a Chinese menu"—chord—"in his hand." Repeat same three chords for every line of the verse and chorus throughout the entire song.
Even limiting myself to chords, I made mistakes. A couple of times I got lost when we were transitioning from one chord sequence to the next in a song and just pulled my hands off the keyboard and waited until I could figure out where we were. In another song, the guitarists were soloing, and I was blissfully playing the chords, congratulating myself on holding down the melody while the more skillful musicians exercised their talents. In the middle of his solo, one of the guitarists turned around and called out to me that I was playing the chord sequence from the wrong part of the song.
By the time we called it quits, at 12:45 a.m., the only members of the crowd remaining were the manager of the pub, two of my friends and the wife of one of the guitar players.
Afterward I went home and couldn’t sleep. The adrenaline that keyed me up for the performance still was surging its way through my body, and it took several glasses of wine before I finally drifted off. This, despite knowing that I was due up with our 6-month-old twins in just a few more hours.
It wasn’t just the adrenaline, though. It was also the satisfaction of having begun a new story in my life. It’s one I have been wanting to tell almost since the moment when we bought a piano two-and-a-half years ago, and I slowly retaught myself to play, aided only by my sketchy memories from the two years of piano lessons I had in elementary school.
We bought the piano so my older daughters could take lessons on it, but I still play more than anyone else in the household. I find both learning and playing songs deeply satisfying, and a pleasing and sharp contrast to my two other professional vocations—teaching and writing.
I’m a stubborn person. So I can master any song I set my mind to learning, as long as I am willing to play it over and over and over again. It sometimes takes hundreds of times. Eventually, I figure it out.
And in that moment of figuring it out—the first time I can play the song through without mistakes, usually from memory—I sense a small change in the state of the universe. In that moment I have seized something from the void: I have stolen a piece of certainty from an uncertain world, a certainty I can sit down and conjure from the silence whenever I feel a creative urge pulse through my system.
With my writing and my teaching, by contrast, I have nothing so brief and measurable. Both writing and teaching are extended processes, ones that have no sheet music on which I can rely and which may fail each time I put pen to paper or step into a classroom. I frequently begin essays and book projects that sputter into blank space or work out lesson plans that bomb in the classroom.
I’m sure that writing music, or playing it at advanced levels, contains this same level of experimentation and uncertainty that I find in the teaching and writing processes. But at my level of simple performance, my musical experiences are a measured space in which I can find an easy form of intellectual, emotional—and even spiritual—satisfaction.
The spiritual nature of my musical performances—whether they play out beneath the glaring lights of the stage, or alone at the piano at midnight, while my wife and five children are sleeping upstairs, so accustomed to my late-night fumblings that they no longer hear them—stems from this realization that, as I pass into the latter half of my 30s, I have new stories yet to live in my life.
Like most of us who approach middle age in a career path, I know I’m probably not going anywhere professionally that I can’t foresee. I have a good job, a wife whom I love very much, and five happy and healthy children. I won’t be chucking it all and heading to Alaska to spend a year on a fishing boat; Harvard won’t come recruiting me for their English department; I probably won’t write the next Da Vinci Code. I have a pretty clear idea of how my professional stories will play out, even allowing for unexpected turns of events and tragedies and triumphs along the way.
But part of me always seems to be hungering for a new story, one that has no set endpoint, one that will lead me to new experiences or perspectives on my life.
We all pick up new stories along the way—taking vacations, having children, moving, starting new jobs. But the story of my burgeoning musical career is an open-ended one, one that may lead to an infinite variety of conclusions. And I believe that some part of our human nature wants to believe that we always remain capable of living new stories. We want to believe that we have not yet exhausted all of our possibilities.
And that seems to me like a profoundly spiritual lesson—one that has a lot to tell us about hope, grace and redemption.
This link between new stories and our spiritual selves struck me as one of the most crucial themes from Mel Gibson’s controversial movie The Passion of the Christ: the enlisting of Simon of Cyrene to help Christ carry the cross.
In his film, Gibson takes this brief vignette from the passion narrative and makes it significant. He depicts Simon as an uninterested passerby, doing his best to be inconspicuous as Christ stumbles beneath his cross on the path to his execution. Much to Simon’s surprise and dismay, a Roman soldier points to him and commands him to help Christ carry his cross.
Simon protests vigorously, even going so far as to announce to the crowd that he is an innocent man forced to help a criminal. He takes up Christ’s cross reluctantly and resentfully. As he helps Christ along, though, and Simon sees the torture that Christ has been enduring, he is overtaken by compassion. By the time they reach the place of execution, Simon is carrying both the cross and Christ.
This scene seems to me the exemplary instance of a man who, unexpectedly even to him, begins a new story in his life. The film symbolizes Simon’s leap into a new story with the loss of his yarmulke; he enters the Christian story in that moment, one that has just begun and has no foreseeable conclusion for him.
The lesson is clear: No matter where we stand on the path of life, no matter what is happening with us at any particular moment, new stories remain open to us. We are not yet fully formed.
I don’t claim my musical debut as profound a story as the one Simon tells in his moment of redemption. But I do believe both our experiences spring from a deeply spiritual and human longing: the desire to see our lives as at least partially open stories, stories in which we yet remain capable of surprising ourselves and those around us. Stories in which we may become Christians for the first time. Or in which we may discover or rediscover compassion, or hope or love. Ones in which we may happen on a potential moment of grace or redemption and seize upon it. Ones in which we may stumble upon longings or capacities in ourselves that we never knew existed.
Or, maybe, ones in which we become rock stars.
My friends play at least once a week at venues around town. They don’t need a keyboardist, but I’m going to beg them to let me sit in on occasion. I had my taste of performing in public and performing with other musicians, and I loved it. I’m not ready for this story to end. We won’t be going on a national tour—they have kids and jobs, too—but this story has just begun for me, and I’m curious to see what I’ll find in the next chapter.
Maybe I’ll try my hand at musical composition, writing songs of my own. Or maybe a shared interest in music will bring me closer to my children or will inspire them to artistic creation; maybe it will offer me new roles to play in my family, my church or my college.
However this story plays out, it has taught me an important lesson: Like Simon, I am not yet fully formed. I have new stories yet to tell.
James M. Lang, an assistant professor of English at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, is the author of Life on the Tenure Track: Lessons from the First Year (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).