When you’re young you are motivated by your own potential. You believe in your talent, and with a little encouragement, that’s enough. If you follow up, talent turns into achievement, and only then do you realize that you were previously running on faith.
If you don’t follow up, all you end up with is potential. Your future, the one you always believed was coming but never did, isn’t enough anymore to keep your head up. Were you ever good? Did you even have talent? You begin to doubt it. Having never proven it, you wonder whether it was always a delusion.
That’s what happened to Renaldo. At 45, he was unhappy. His faith in himself was lost to realism. There was no innovation anymore, nothing new now, only the was (or wasn’t). He was going through the motions in his life, and he felt typical and indistinguishable from others.
Then something changed. It started with a bath towel. He pulled it out of the laundry, and began to fold it. This towel was 27 years old. There was still a piece of the “R” that had been sewn on by his mother, before she gave it to him as a going away present. He didn’t think much about it at the time, packed it and left for college full of a hope for independence. He used it, way too many times to count, but he saw it now almost for the first, and understood from it something about his mother and her hopes for him; his first daughter quickly approaching the age he was then.
His mother gave this to him, sewed his initial on it in white over blue, maybe so that he wouldn’t forget who he was. The towel’s blue was faded, and the towel was full of holes. But it spoke to him, as if it had waited for the right time to do so, Renaldo’s Obi Won. He folded it carefully, put what was left of the “R” on the inside, to protect it, and laid it neatly inside the dog crate, where it now comforted the bitch.
And the thought of how he felt at 18 or maybe it was how he should have felt, infused him.
He wanted to believe, when he picked up the guitar again that he had once been good, but he doubted it now. The child that imagined greatness had been proven mediocre. But that was ok; he lowered his expectations. Maybe that was the problem in the first place, standards too high to live up to. So he started practicing, got it back a lot slower than he hoped, in fact, two years down the road, he was still struggling with some of the basics. But he didn’t want to be a virtuoso anymore; he just wanted to play simple riffs well, and to play with feeling. His faith not all gone, he believed that this, at least, was within reach.
He practiced every day that he could, even if it was just a little, not without resistance, balancing family and work with this experiment. He had a strange call to it, a need that he didn’t fully understand which kept him at it. It didn’t mean so much to him that he had aspirations of a career, those were dreams still reserved for youth, but it was strangely important. He absconded to his basement sanctuary, his prayer spot, to practice less often than would have been required for hasty progress, but he refused to give up, and relied on the faith that what didn’t come quickly would come slowly. He had seen that in his children, the slow progress they make, until suddenly they can swim like it had always been natural, and speak to you like adults. But he was frustrated with the pace of this. It wasn’t fun, when you weren’t any good. He would have quit, defeatism had become a habit, but he couldn’t throw in the towel, so to speak. He would see it, in the dog crate, and it would drive home a smile and a determination.
Then one day, he played something, in the privacy of his home, not easily repeated. It inspired that thought that often comes to people younger than him, at the point at which they realize for the first time that all their previous conceit had been a lie. He thought, “I AM good.”
When you are unhappy you often do not understand why. The people around don’t understand why. The wife of an unhappy man may even be offended because she and the kids are not enough to make him happy. And you try to work out what the difference is between the joy you get from yourself, and the joy you get from others, but it’s not an easy distinction to explain.
Then you do something that makes you proud, and you grasp what was really bothering you all those years. It’s not a vague and indeterminate depression; it’s specifically, and more accurately, that you were simply not proud of yourself. You are not like the people you admire. And then you get a taste of pride, and you want more.
Renaldo took stock. He took stock of his values, the things that he felt were important: not just guitar, in fact it seemed to be so important now because it taught him to recognize the other things that were important to him, that he didn’t have, financial freedom, a fulfilling job, a family that knew love, and an examined life. He wanted to be, always admired those who were, debt free. He wanted to spend the lion’s share of his day, not at the sacrificial alter of a job that had no meaning for him, but free to live within his means doing things he could be proud of.
He wanted to be a good dad. He wanted to discipline, when necessary, with love. He wanted his kids to know that he is always glad they are there. He wanted to guide them with honesty and without judgment, so that they would respond without rebellion. He wanted to be, yes, a partner, as crazy as that sounds, with his children, in their upbringing, instead of pretending that he had more authority over them, than they had over themselves. His time alone in the basement brought him to this.
He wanted to show them, too, by his example, what they could make of such freedom, by living a life in which he had not forsaken himself. He wanted to listen, but he also wanted to be heard. He wanted to be someone he, and they, could be proud of. He wanted to be proud of them, and he wanted them to be proud of themselves.
He would not have understood any of these things.
But for an old beat up towel his mother had given him, what seemed like a very long time ago.