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Monday, 29 January 2018

The Most Boring Piece of Music (and why I love it)

I come from a very musical family. All my siblings and I play an instrument, if not two or three, and have done so since we were little. It’s something I’ll always be incredibly thankful to my parents for giving us the opportunity to do (and (yes Mum, I now appreciate it!) for forcing us to practise). My main instrument is viola and, while I love the mellow sound of it by itself, I’ve always preferred playing it in orchestras where it becomes not so much about me myself but the music as a whole.

I had the real privilege of being part of the Senior Symphony Orchestra all through high school, playing scores of music written by some of the most famous composers around, many in their original form (as opposed to the simplified versions I’d played as a younger musician).

The music varied year to year, depending on different set pieces for competitions, the preferences of the conductor and what was being composed, but every year, without fail, there was one piece in particular we played:


First rehearsal, week one, we were handed the music and it stayed in our repertoire all year to be pulled out at various times and concerts.

Grade eight, I hated it, thinking it the most boring piece of music ever written.

Admittedly, viola parts aren’t often all that interesting to start with (cue the viola jokes…) but this piece – from the first violins down to the tubas – was dull. My part was only a page long but played so slow that it felt like twenty. It built – with really long, low, slow notes – until the last line when, five bars from the end there was one big, grand triumphant note. And then it dropped straight back down again and ended. That was it. We had so many other more interesting pieces to play which sounded amazing, I couldn’t understand why Nimrod kept getting chosen.

Grade nine, I groaned inwardly when it got handed out again. I might have held on to a hope that I’d built it up (or rather, down) in my head but no, it was just as boring.

Grade ten, I still hated it, although was pretty resigned to playing it by now. Amidst soundtracks from Les Miserables and Star Wars’ Phantom Menace and thrilling pieces like Into the Storm and In the Hall of the Mountain King, it just became ten minutes (hours…) to endure.

And then, grade eleven, something changed. I don’t know what it was – maybe I knew the part so well by then that I stopped paying attention to mine and listened to the piece as a whole or maybe I was just more mature – but I started liking it. Appreciating it even.

By grade twelve, it was one of my favourite pieces to play. It was with great reluctance that I handed the music back at the end of the year.

I listened to it again the other day, sadly without being in the middle of orchestra. It’s still an incredible piece. Yes, the start is slow and yes, it still feels like it goes a lot longer than a page but it truly is beautiful. I caught my breath at that one grand note near the end.

But the thing I’ve realised is that that note would mean nothing without the rest of the piece. It’d be a nice orchestral chord, sure, but that’s it. It wouldn’t have the beauty or the triumph. It wouldn’t make me catch my breath. It would just be one note – if not for the slow building intensity of the first ninety percent of the piece.

Those long, slow, boring but building notes are what give that one note its glory.

Reminds me of a particular movie I like. Every time I watch it, I wonder again why I like it. It’s awkward, cringe-worthy and downright painful to watch – until the very last scene, which is so downright perfect I can’t stop smiling and almost always end up rewinding it to watch it again just so I can sigh with happiness.

I thought about saving myself some time and pain once and just watching the last scene. One of those brilliant ideas which totally didn’t work. The end was still sweet, sure, but it didn’t have the same impact. It needed every one of those painful, cringy moments to make that scene the sigh-worthy scene that it is.

Sometimes life feels like Nimrod. Painful, slow days that drain our energy and patience. Making dinner day after day, doing the same jobs over and over, praying the same prayers so many times they start to feel like rote and we wonder why we even bother. It would be so easy to give in and give up hope that anything will ever change.

But it will. One day, there will be that triumphant note. The one that makes you catch your breath, the answer to that prayer. The one that would always have been special but means so much more because of the wait. Because of the build. Because of the hours and weeks and years of anticipation. Because, somewhere along the way, we learned the beauty of the journey.

Life happens in the anticipation. God could easily jump us from mountaintop to mountaintop, skipping all the valleys and painful climbs along the way. But how much more the exhilaration having come through the valley!

Don’t give up. No matter how long the journey seems to be or how hard it gets, don’t give up. Not on life and not on hope. God is working in your journey and that final scene, the final note, will mean all the more because of it.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Turning Mud to Masterpiece

There’s this kids’ book called Ish (written by Peter H Reynolds). It’s about a little boy who loves drawing and does it every chance he gets – until his older brother laughs at him, telling him that the vase of flowers he’s painting looks nothing like a vase. From then on, his brother’s laughter haunts him and every drawing he does gets scrunched up and thrown in frustration on the floor.

One day, he notices his little sister watching him fail and growls at her to go away. She does, but not before she picks up one of his scrunched papers off the floor. Furious, he follows her and is about to yell again when he sees her room. It’s covered wall to wall with the drawings he’d thrown at the floor. She’d saved every one of them, smoothing them out and pinning them up where she could see them every day.

The story goes on to have her telling him that the vase one is her favourite and that though it might not look exactly right, it looks like a vase-ish. From that moment on, he finds the freedom to draw, paint and write whatever he feels with the freedom to be imperfect and draw ish-ly.

The lesson behind the story is that we all have our own voice and way of seeing the world and to give ourselves (and each other) the freedom to share it – but I can never get past the page where Ramon goes into his sister’s room. It hits me like a thud to the heart every time.

All those pages he thought were failures, all those dreams he’d given up on, every single one of those messes he’d made, she’d taken and treasured. She didn’t change them, didn’t frame them or try to make them more beautiful. She loved them as they were. She made them her own personal gallery. 

I know, I know, it’s a kids’ book. Just a story. But isn't it the most beautiful picture? Isn’t that just what God does for us?

So often we see ourselves as failures – whether it be in work, facing the reality of unrealised dreams, in relationships or even simply in not living up to the person we want to be. We see imperfection as a weakness, throwing our frustration at the walls and bemoaning the fact that we’ll never be enough.

But there’s God, taking us as we are. Treasuring us. Cherishing us. Calling us his masterpiece. Telling everyone, "Come see! Look at my masterpiece! I made her. Isn't she beautiful!"

But you know the bit that blows me away? It's that he calls us his masterpiece before we’ve even done anything. While we’re still a long way from perfect. While we’re still failing, falling, nobodies struggling and too weak to get anything right. Right there, in our mess, he calls us his masterpieces.

You are his masterpiece. His handiwork. His work of art. His wonder. His showpiece. Not when you get it all together or figure out how to be perfect. Not when your kids start behaving or you get you marriage back on track. Not when you make something of yourself or finally find the strength to stick with a New Year’s Resolution past February. Now. Today. Right there in your weakness and mess. You are his masterpiece.

Doesn't that just blow your mind?

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The First Rule of Goal Setting (and how I broke it)

A new year. A new start. A chance to sit and wait in expectation of what God will do. I know, I could do that any day but there’s something about the thought of a brand new year that fills me with excitement. That same excited anticipation I feel sitting down to write a new book. I know in my head how I’ll get from the start to the end but it’s those twists and turns I never see coming which bring it to life and show the story’s heart.  

In past years, I’ve spent New Year’s Eve with my journal out writing long reflections on the year that was and prayers and dreams for the next one. Since I’d already done that in various forms and had neither the energy nor the motivation to do it again, I simply wrote down five goals I have for 2018.

Four out of five of them are achievable. Getting this blog back up and running with regular posts is one of them, finishing Alina’s story (the one I’ve been writing and rewriting for most of 2017) is another. They’ll be a huge challenge, I’m not kidding myself there, but I know I can achieve them if I put the effort in.

The fifth – finding a literary agent for my books – I realised even as I wrote it, I might not achieve. I can do the work, send out proposals, put money and time into editing, enter competitions and pray my heart out, but in the end, whether that goal is achieved or not depends on someone else. It’s not a goal I can reach on my own. Which is as frustrating as it is terrifying. The first rule of goal setting is to make them achievable. A stretch, yes, but achievable. This one isn’t.

I can’t do it alone. I can’t make it happen.

But God can.

And that’s why, despite the fear that I might not achieve it, that goal is number one on my list for 2018. Because I know God can. And I’m just crazy enough to believe he will.

Human logic says I’ll never be published. There are so many reasons why. Fortunately, God’s never been big on human logic. He has a great track record of taking nobodies like me and making miracles. And I can’t wait to witness him do it again.  

How about you? How big is your dream? Big enough?