I’ve always been a screw-up. Always always always. And when I say “screw-up” I mean NOT a malicious and narcissistic sower of evil who sets out on a path of Wrongness and pursues it single-mindedly. I mean a well-intentioned doofus (in the worst instances, dumbass) who aims not high but modestly and somehow, much of the time, misses anyway. As a kid I was always running and stumbling. I still am. I was always forgetting things. I still do. I was always losing shit — my temper, my equilibrium, my #$%@! car keys — that all these decades later I’m still trying to find. And I was always inadvertently baffling and hurting and disappointing people, not from ill intent but all of the stumbling, the forgetting, the losing.
So it goes. I try. I screw up. I TRY. I SCREW UP. And then, just for good measure, I TRY AND SCREW UP SOME MORE.
Over time, two women helped me find peace. One was Mother Teresa, whose observation that God “does not require that we be successful — only that we be faithful” struck me as some kind of radically liberating bombshell. The other was my own Mother Jeanne. “Did you do your best?” Mama’d ask whenever I tried and failed, often when I was caked in mucous during the aftermath. That’s all she ever asked of me. That’s all that ever mattered to her. The trying.
Mama was a violinist, and, like every working musician who ever lived, she gave private lessons to a rotating assortment of students young and old. One day, on a trip to the grocery store, she also gave them buttons. I don’t remember what prompted this shopping expedition to downtown New Preston, Conn., though she was probably ferrying them to or from a recital and had routed us all into Zinick’s for a treat. For whatever reason, there we were, a few of her younger students and I, when Mama spied a basket full of little round pins with positive messages by the cash register. This was the 70s, and smiley faces were everywhere.
Mama combed through the basket and plucked out buttons for her students. I only remember one of them. It said I TRY in big white letters against a black background, and she handed it to the kid who possessed the worst tin ear in the history of Mama’s music lessons, possibly of all time. He accepted it with a smile.
I have no idea whether he went home later and wept into his “$6 Million Man” pillowcase, but for me, at least, it was a memorable and positive lesson. She hadn’t handed him a button that said NUMBER ONE, or YAY FOR ME, or I RULE AND THE REST OF YOU SUCK, HA HA HA. She wasn’t telling him he was a Jascha Heifetz mini-me waiting to happen. She was affirming his effort. She was acknowledging he’d done his best. And that’s not nothing; in fact, it’s just about everything. In this success-obsessed society, it takes courage to hit the wrong notes and keep playing. It takes faith to fall flat and get up. But there’s no other way to keep moving.
So I try. I screw up. That’s life. Amen. And to hell with the car keys, anyway.