There are few authors whose creations have inspired me as much as Kurt Vonnegut. Reading Breakfast of Champions was, I think, the first time I truly understood the concept of words being simple, humorous and incredibly meaningful all at the same time. And pictures to boot? Yes, please. So when my brother loaned me Welcome to the Monkey House, a collection of short stories by our good friend, Kurt, I devoured it and subsequently found a compilation of words I've yet to get out of my head: the short story, "The Kid Nobody Could Handle".
This story revolves around George M. Helmholtz, a "fat and kind man" whose only real talent is conducting the best high school marching band in the country, and Jim Donnini, a scowling teenager with "expressionless eyes" and a very shiny pair of black boots. I won't do Vonnegut's story the dishonor of summarization here, but I will ruin the ending for you all. Basically, Helmholtz's pure and unwavering love of music saves Jim Donnini from a life of scowls. Here's their final interaction in the story:
"Think of it this way," said Helmholtz. "Our aim is to make the world more beautiful than it was when we came into it. It can be done. You can do it."
A small cry of despair came from Jim Donnini. It was meant to be private, but it pierced every ear with its poignancy.
"How?" said Jim.
"Love yourself," said Helmholtz, "and make your instrument sing about it. A-one, a-two, a-three." Down came his baton.
I don't know about you, but these words stop me in my tracks every time I read them. Even now, I've got little goose bumps rising up and down on my arm. I relate to poor Jim Donnini, shaking in his very shiny boots, terrified at the thought of failing to make something worthwhile.
"How?" - he cries? And it pierces every ear. I know it certainly pierces mine. I feel his despair. I know it on the most personal level. It is the doubt I face when the page is blank and the cursor is blinking at me. When all I see is anger and fear and defeat regarding the future in the news and on my social media pages. When it seems all of my time is taken up with the mundane responsibilities of daily life.
But Helmholtz has an answer for poor Jim, for all of us. And a damn good one at that. "Love yourself," he says. "And make your instrument sing about it." What really gets me about Helmholtz's response, though, isn't actually the advice he gives, as good as it is. It's what he does next, his last contribution to the conversation, that really drives the point home.
" A-one, a-two, a-three."
Helmholtz, God bless him, did not leave time for hemming and hawing after his point was made. He did not make sure Jim Donnini felt confident or capable in the task at hand. He spoke wisdom and affirmation, and before anyone could doubt their ability to manifest the love he demanded from within them, Helmholtz called his band into action.
And I think that's the thing, right? Whether we choose to think of these words as Helmholtz's or Vonnegut's, the universe's or those of God himself, they are a resounding reminder to us that we don't actually need time to parse through the song our soul is trying to sing. All we really need to do is make sure the tune gets out there in front of people and then trust it to do the job it has been given, to express to the world the life that we have lived thus far -- no more and no less.
Or to put it simply, we don't have to know everything before we create something.
And, God forbid, if our instrument should emit a terrible, squeaky noise that makes everyone cringe or we run out of breath mid-song or make the last chair this go-round, these words remind us to have faith that the world is still better for it, that the universe is on our side and ready for us to try again.
And not once we've recovered and reflected the adequate amount, licked our wounds and promised not to make the same mistakes again. It's ready for us, it begs of us, to try again right now.
Helmholtz didn't tell Jim that any of this was easy. It is no small task to be vulnerable. But what Helmholtz does demand is for Jim to try and fail and try again. Because while the task at hand may be hard, it is, nonetheless, the task that we were all sent here for.
It can be done. You can do it.
A-one, a-two, a-three.