Do me a favor and turn this video on in the background before you start reading this post.
This story is about Colorado, but it doesn’t begin in Colorado. It begins in a long gray hallway.
This is the hallway I used to walk down every day last year, when I would go to work in the morning. I’d shuffle my way down the gray hall, beyond the reach of any natural light, and sit myself down in a gray chair, in a little gray corner of a gray office. There were always more projects to work on than I had time to complete. Deadlines were always tight. Pressure was always on.
Somewhere around mid-May, I received an invitation. It was a very special invitation—only issued to a small handful of people. I was invited to go to a tiny town in the mountains of Colorado and play music for two weeks. It would be a small event, just a dozen or so musicians and teachers. Practicing 3-4 hours a day, coaching sessions, lessons, chamber music, fishing, hiking, and reflection. Time to breathe. Time to think. Time to play music and enjoy good food, good wine, good people.
Here’s the thing. The gray office was full of work to be done. Specifically, there was a very big, very important project looming on the horizon, and this trip was going to fall right in the middle of a bunch of big, important deadlines.
“I want to go,” I said. “I just need to see if I can get the time off work.”
I sent an email to my boss, asking for the time off. I didn’t get a reply back right away, so I sent another one. This time, with the line, “This is really important to me.” The reply I got back was something along the lines of… “okaaaaay, but I’m worried about this project…”
I was worried about the project too. I really was. I considered not going on the trip. I thought I might need to stay behind and work on the very important project so we could meet the very important deadlines. But in the end, I decided I would just do whatever I could to make sure it was all worked out before it was time for me to go to Colorado. I booked the flight and tucked away the itinerary, and kept walking into the gray office in the morning, down the gray hallway, working to meet the deadlines, knowing somewhere in the back of my mind it was never going to happen.
I’m going to skip ahead, to the day when I stepped off the plane. Out of the gray office. Into a big, wide world of blue skies and green trees. Open spaces, rocky rivers, mountains so big you have to crane your head to see the top.
At 8,800 feet the air is noticeably thinner. It’s light. Crisp. Dry and crackly and full of energy and potential. And it feels… open. Like, you can just open your lungs and take a big, deep breath of it and there’s still plenty of room for more. Maybe it’s the oxygen deprivation, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t surrounded by rows of gray filing cabinets, but my mind started doing strange and unusual things almost as soon as I stepped off the plane. Soliloquizing, speaking in symbols or slant rhyme, sitting on the side of the street sketching or singing or writing sonnets—I could feel bits of the back of my brain lighting up, and if I had started doing any of those things at any moment, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
We stayed at a little lodge called the Cristiana Guesthaus. I had a cozy room with wood paneled walls and a soft, comfy bed, all for myself. I set up a music stand in the corner. Over the next two weeks, I would spend hours in the room, just me and the viola. Sometimes with the window open, the mountain air breezing through the room and the birds singing outside.
The upstairs of the lodge would periodically be reconfigured to accommodate string quartets and quintets as groups of us would read through Mozart or Mendelssohn or Beethoven for a few hours in the afternoons.
I went fly fishing while I was there. I didn’t catch a thing. Maybe I wasn’t meant to fish. Or maybe the fish could tell somehow that I didn’t really want to catch them. All I really wanted to do was just stand there, in the wide open river, and feel the sun on my face and the cold water rushing around my waders. Feel the slippery rocks under my feet and mud on my hands. Feeling. So many feelings, all at the same time. Untangling the fishhook, feeling the tiny slice of the line across my hand. Feel the resistance of the air, feel the hand pull back, feel the line fly out. Feel the river drag it down. Walk with it. Stand. Breathe. Watch the fish jump out of the water a foot away from my line. Smile and feel happy for the fish as it goes back down into the water, happy that it caught the real fly.
I sat under the stars by a campfire and listened to my teacher talk about time and turning points and what it’s all really about. I ate the best meal I’ve ever had, and listened to conversations around the table, about conductors and concerts, music and art and life. Laughing, smiling. I practiced every day and I broke through some walls. Some techniques that had been holding me back, I got on the right track to overcome some hurdles and do some things I had never quite managed to do. With guidance from a master and some time and the summer sky, I reshaped my hand to do things it’s never done before.
After it was over, I visited a friend who lives in Colorado. I hadn’t seen her in many, many years. We hiked to a place called Hanging Lake. Up and up the side of a mountain, through a canyon. It seems like you’ll just keep climbing and climbing. Then up some narrow stairs, with a handrail to keep you from falling hundreds of feet downward. No sign of anything unusual, and then suddenly, there’s a lake. The most brilliant blue-green I’ve ever seen. There’s a chemical reaction that occurs with the water and the rocks to make an absolutely unreal color. Water falling into it from a waterfall above, and orange-gold fish swimming around inside.
There is no photograph that could ever be taken that would do it justice. The experience of it… the feeling of being there, it stubbornly refuses to be captured in two dimensions. My soul was open and alive, and at that moment I felt I might be able to open up my arms and just be lifted up into the sky, be absorbed into the golden light of the universe.
Let’s go back for a moment. Back to the gray corner at the end of the gray hallway in the gray office.
As the day of my flight (and all the big important deadlines) grew closer, things started to smell a little funny at work. I could tell that All Was Not Well. Something was amiss. I won’t go into detail, because it’s not important. But each day things got a little bit weirder. And then, right before it was time for me to go on my trip, everything changed. The boss, who had answered my email and told me I could take the vacation, but don’t forget about the deadlines… was gone. Left the company. The boss’s boss? Also gone. The big, important project? Scrapped. Completely. Half my coworkers laid off. The rest of us left shuffling around, not knowing quite what to do.
If I had decided to stay, to work through those very important two weeks, and make sure that all the very important deadlines for the very important project were covered, I would have watched it all evaporate into nothing right before my eyes. And I would have missed one of the best experiences of my life.
There was a church there, in the tiny town in Colorado, where we had many of our rehearsals, lessons, classes, and some evening performances.
On Sunday, the local pastor invited us to come to the meeting and be a tempest. “A tempest?”
A great tempest.
We rehearsed for a few minutes before heading over to the chapel. We figured out how the cellists could make some great low, echoey wind noises. Some of us could sound like rain. A few good knocks and bangs here and there. And lots and lots of windy, sweeping up and down the strings. We filed into the church and sat in the congregation, a few rows from the front. After the singing and announcements, the sermon started, and we listened for our cue.
Soon, we heard it. “And behold, there arose a great tempest,” he said. And we provided. Softly at first. Slowly. Then louder and faster, until there was, in fact, a great tempest, right there in the middle of the congregation in a tiny town in Colorado.
The pastor had to speak loudly over the tempest, but his voice was strong and clear and the words were perfectly audible—and Jesus rebuked the winds, and the waves, and there was calm, and still. And we were all still. Absolute quiet. And then, in the stillness, the words—Why were you afraid, O ye of little faith?
Never, never be afraid. The great storm that’s swirling all around, the looming deadlines, the Q4 goals, the bullet points that will go on some executive report and prove to everyone how hard you’re working? Won’t matter. Six months later, no one will remember you stayed late every night and neglected your family and friends and your unique talents and the things that make you sacred. So carry the torch. Keep the flame burning. Make time for the things that matter—the things that will keep you human. Carve your name into the clay. Hold onto your paintbrushes and pan flutes and fountain pens as though your life depends on it (because it does) and if anyone or anything ever threatens to come between you, tell them all to go to hell and don’t worry about it, because as soon as you step out of the gray hallway, off the runway and away into the open air…
Peace. (be still.)