Zen for Ten 19: Let the Light Out

There’s something about spring. Even after as mild a winter as we’ve had here in Maryland, you feel a change in the air when the season officially turns. New energy, new light; a kind of optimism that gets in your blood with every breath you take of clean, fresh air. No wonder we talk about spring fever. As the first new green comes out on the trees – nothing is quite as magical as that first green – everything seems possible.

Spring is a terrific time for beginnings. I’m standing at one of my own, with the launch of my novel in seven weeks and three days (not that I’m counting 🙂 ). But spring can be a challenging time too.

Today, we’re getting a slow, soaking rain. Another spring truism, about those April showers and May flowers, is all well and good, but if you’re like me, the weather can mess with your mood. Two days ago, when we had lots of sunshine, I felt pumped and happy. Today, I’d like to crawl back in bed and wait for the gray weather to go somewhere else.

For me, changeable spring weather is a great metaphor for new beginnings. They can be rollercoasters. You don’t know how things are going to go, how you’re going to feel once the dust settles and you can take stock of the new adventure you’ve embarked on. Will you keep hurrying forward, eager to see what’s coming next? Or will you backtrack, wishing you’d never left the safe, flat-but-familiar place you came from?

As I write this, I find myself thinking about a poem from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring:

The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road has gone, and I must follow if I can: pursuing it with eager feet, until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet. And whither then? I cannot say.

In the story, Tolkien gives this song to a couple of different characters. One of them, optimistic adventurer Bilbo Baggins, sings it with the words I used here. Another, the strong but heavily burdened Frodo, makes one small change: instead of “eager” feet, his are “weary.” To me, that’s exactly the contrast of new beginnings, especially when you have a tricky brain, like mine, that likes to undercut what you’re trying to do. As much as I’d like to have a Bilbo-mindset about adventures, much more often I find myself identifying with Frodo.

So this brings me around to this question of letting the light out. As my current adventure gets underway, I’m making a bargain with myself.

Like many depressives, I find it much easier to curl up in my safe place. Putting myself out there, in any way, is dangerous, and change is often terrifying. The status quo might have its problems, but at least I know how to deal with it.

You can’t fight adventures, though. Change will happen whether we want it to or not. I’ve learned from my own experience that struggling against change, or setting up walls against it, is exhausting. In the end, it only makes the depression heavier.

My current bargain with myself goes something like this. You’re used to keeping your light hidden, but it’s not time to do that anymore. You need to let it out.

Reaching for inspiration can help. Today’s musical feature is by my single favorite composer, if I could only choose one: Ludwig van Beethoven. Below the video, I’ll talk a little about this particular piece and why it’s so significant for me. Feel free to skip down and read first, but make sure to come back and listen.

Today’s feature: First movement of Symphony no. 3, “Eroica,” by Ludwig van Beethoven (performed by the Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting)

So, why this particular piece? Because this is the one that changed history.

Beethoven stands at a crossroads in music history. He comes from the Classical era (about 1750-1825), and was trained by one of the greatest names of the Classical period, Franz Josef Haydn. Beethoven learned from Haydn about how music was “supposed” to sound: elegant, polite, cleanly structured, restrained.

Even as a young man, Beethoven didn’t have much patience with “polite” and “restrained.” He started getting fed up with Haydn’s lessons early on; the teacher-student relationship was, let’s say, interesting. And then the real change happened.

Beethoven was about thirty years old, taking Vienna by storm with his brilliance as a concert pianist. Then his hearing started to fail.

We’re used to thinking of him as “the deaf genius,” as if his life couldn’t have gone any other way. Take a second, though, and think about what this would have meant for a musician. What it would have meant for a performer, who depended on his ears to tell him what his hands were doing when he performed on the piano. What it meant for a composer, who depended on his hearing to allow him to write the music he heard in his head.

In 1801, when Beethoven was only thirty-one, he knew that no doctor could reverse his increasing deafness. Suddenly the life he had built became a huge question mark. All he wanted to do was make music. He couldn’t imagine, and hadn’t prepared for, any other kind of life. What was he going to do now?

In a famous letter from the time, the Heiligenstadt Testament, he admits that he became so despairing that he thought about ending his life. But, he wrote, “Art stayed my hand.” He still had music he wanted to write. He didn’t know how long he would be able to keep working, or whether, once the deafness became complete, he would have to give up the one thing he loved most. While he still could, though, he would keep making his art.

We know the rest of the story. Beethoven kept working until the day he died. Out of his deafness and isolation, out of his frustration and constant physical pain, he created art that changed the world.

Be embraced, you millions! This kiss is for the whole world! Beethoven set that line of Goethe’s poetry to music in his Ninth Symphony. When I had the chance to sing in a performance of the Ninth, in college, that line made me cry. So much beauty, out of such a dark time at the end of Beethoven’s life. The size of his soul couldn’t have been clearer.

The Ninth Symphony was Beethoven’s last, but the Third Symphony was the first piece to come out of his new resolve to keep working despite what was happening to his body. The piece was premiered in 1802. When Beethoven sent it to his publisher, he wrote that this music was written in a totally new style, that it would do things no composer had ever done before.

Audiences at the time didn’t know what to think. Some people loved it. Others said it was vulgar, overblown, just plain bad. Without question, though, Beethoven had done something new. After that, music would never be the same.

That’s why I chose this piece, when thinking about how important it is to let the light out. Beethoven did that, in spite of everything he faced. His light reached uncounted millions of people, and still does, almost two hundred years after his death.

If you’re like me, and if you struggle with change and adventures, I encourage you to listen to the Eroica (maybe the whole symphony!), and think about letting the world see your light. I’ve also been doing an exercise that helps: I visualize an actual candle, hidden under a basket, and then I visualize taking the basket away. When you let them, how far do those rays reach?

This spring, I invite you to embrace your adventure. Let us see your light.

Thanks so much for visiting the blog. See you next time!

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4 thoughts on “Zen for Ten 19: Let the Light Out

  1. Randi Anderson

    As much as I love adventures in retrospect, I always panic when they come to me. This has been probably the third (?) time someone this week has reminded me to “let the light out,” in so many words. Message received.

    Thanks for sharing your story, and Beethoven’s. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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