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Jean-François Millet:
Peasant Returning from the Manure Heap (1855–56)

"I necessarily remain a novice at this work …"

Judging from how I seem to drag my feet into practicing, this creating a set list seems like hard work. Even the hardest work, though, might include some Reassurance, some occasional sense that it's not just hard but also rewarding. My anticipation decides much, and I too often anticipate some worst coming. This set-up leaves me surprised and sometimes even delighted when my effort produces some glimpse of goodness, when some of that old confidence shows, or when I seem to know what I'm doing again. A body of work long left idle awakens fitfully and requires Reassurance to fully awaken. Creating this set list was first just an idea, though I do not mean to demean its source since ideas seem capable of sparking most anything. Beginning again seems more daunting than was the original creation of these songs.

I sat before a small window in a cramped hotel room, guitar in hand.
This stance took me back to my earliest years writing songs, when I would use the window in my bedroom as a resonator, for it would reliably bounce back an undistorted version of whatever I played into it. Those were the days before microphones and headphones and I struggled to hear what I was performing. I could spend hours, and did, up into the wee hours, tapping my foot and softly singing, practicing or, often, finishing a fresh song. My folks softly reported the following morning that my foot tapping disturbed their sleep, but they never registered any serious complaints about my work. Their acceptance offered me Reassurance that I had been doing the right thing, however outrageous it might have seemed, even to me. I was not quite a songwriter then. I ran on Reassurance.

I still run on Reassurance. Perhaps we all do. I still find it challenging to engage in my work, whether that work be writing, songwriting, or set list making. I seem to need to rise to the challenge to engage in anything. I have just about convinced myself that mastery does not exist outside of the occasional self permissions I grant myself. I nod in humble recognition that I might choose to attempt something. Go ahead, I whisper, pick up that guitar, see what happens. I do not deploy my gifts as if my weapons and I their master. I remain my craft's humble apprentice, attempting what I intend, grateful and a little surprised, sometimes even delighted, when it works. It does not always work.

The fact that it does not always work makes my work real. If it harvested itself, always low-hanging fruit, I doubt that it could nourish. It carries risk and always has. I once imagined that I would eventually out-grow my need for Reassurance. I have not yet outgrown it and I've grown to doubt if I ever will, or should expend energy attempting to. I have so far seen myself through as a sometimes deeply discouraged novice. Those times when I stumble into facility surprise and delight me, such apparent mastery emerging from little old me. I continue learning how to not take myself too awfully seriously while also accepting that nothing's inadvertent.

As I've set about creating this set of songs, I keep stumbling upon songs I'd forgotten I'd written, ones which were once displayed center stage whenever I performed, then moved to the back of some forgotten storeroom. I find myself at the stage of set creation where I'm trying tunes on, auditioning, I guess, for inclusion on the final list. I sometimes think myself prescient then, when I reanimate an innocent impression from before way back when that still works once reconstituted, like this lyric:

We were born
for reasons that I can't imagine yet,
mysteriously blessed,
we come to be reborn,
tasting of the essence of the sunshine,
with hungry eyes we run to meet the day.

I feel as though my eyes have grown hungry again and that I am presently actively running to meet the day. Few experiences match this sense of impending discovery. When (not if) I lose my courage, forgive me, please, if I seem to need Reassurance. I necessarily remain a novice at this work and hope one day to become its apprentice.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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