Improvisation

Growing up I had quite possibly the most comfortable blankets in existence. My mom would find the softest sheets and sew them to the warmest comforters she could find, which would lead to some ugly combinations. But a kid can find beauty in plenty of places; amazing blankets are hard to come by.

One time when she was sewing one of these said blankets — this was in sixth grade — she told me her life dream was to go to a third-world country and open up a nursing home. She wanted to do something significant with her life, which is quite inspiring when I think back to it. But back then — remember, I was only 12 — instead of being inspired, I started bawling my eyes out.

The thought of living without my mom was overwhelming. I was, in the purest sense, a mama’s boy.

Of course as time went on I started hanging out more with my friends and coming home later and later, and eventually I was the one who went away — thousands of miles, to New York — while she was still at home. And eventually I made a new life in New York with a blooming career, a handful of loyal friends and an incredible girl whom I spent more and more time with until I fell in love with her and followed her to Boston. In the meantime my mom was still in Kansas.

The summer after I finished undergrad, my parents decided to sell the house and my mom was going to move to Vietnam with my dad. For one day, I went back to Kansas to help her pack everything, and she made clear what she wanted me to do: Lighten her load. If we really wanted to keep something in the house, put it in the storage unit. Otherwise, she wanted to travel light.

In the Bible, God tells Moses and the Israelites to basically not hoard things. He tells them he’ll provide for them — he tells them not to worry. That type of sacrifice, I imagine, is incredibly difficult, incredibly terrifying, incredibly freeing.

My mom went to Vietnam and, now, to Indonesia, and while she hasn’t opened a nursing home, she has college students and young adults in these foreign countries calling her “mama” and trying to keep in touch with her. She has literally shifted the life trajectory of a handful of kids. And if that isn’t making a difference I don’t know what is. But I know life is still incredibly frustrating because with this kind of trust in ‘something greater’ — or this embrace of ephemeral life phases — also comes a certain amount of anxiety. Grounding is hard to come by; ‘home’ is hard to define.

In seventh grade I discovered jazz piano and my mom suggested I switch permanently to this newfound joy. I began taking lessons with a professional jazz pianist named Wayne Hawkins; I was his first student, so I’d trot up to his house on Saturday morning and he’d still be sleeping so — after a few minutes of ringing his doorbell — he’d stumble out of bed to teach this awkward middle school boy how to improvise a four-measure solo. Eventually he taught me how to go into a improvisational section with only an inkling of what was going to happen and, as the next beat approached, to go where my fingers felt like going. The idea that virtually anything could happen in that moment was not only freeing but also terrifying. Occasionally it caused me to freeze, to the point that I’d just stop playing. But he told me that if something sounded bad, sounded dissonant, I could play a transitional phrase to get where I wanted to be. The beauty of being in a bad place was that there was opportunity and freedom for a juxtaposed recovery.

I think back to everything that happened after I quit jazz piano — I was rejected from my top-choice school, rejected from dozens of jobs, had to move every single year since I was 18 — but I don’t feel like anything bad really happened. I don’t ever feel like I didn’t get what I wanted. I recently wrote an essay on my dissatisfaction, but it wasn’t meant to be sad; it was just meant to show that in a life narrative, there needs to be tension and release; there needs to be a juxtaposed recovery — leading to yet another juxtaposed recovery. It provides momentum.

One of the toughest realities to grasp, for me, is that each of us only has one life to live. Milestones are reminders that everything before that moment can never be re-lived. But the beauty of being in a rut or a hole is that the juxtaposed melody is going to sound oh-so-sweet; the satisfaction of one’s tangled heartstring being straightened out is arguably the primary Homo sapien narrative.

But what about the great anxiety caused by this refusal to be satisfied? This yearning to enter solos with no plan except a tinge in the heart? Well, that’s what the world’s most comfortable blanket — and the people who sew them — are for.

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