reading the river

I begin to learn the very basics of reading the river: learning to see the difference between ripples in the water caused by wind and those caused by branches or rocks just under the water. It’s a funny thing how the kayak wants to go right where the obstructions are, to join the faster water that’s created there. I am aware that I am a rank beginner at this river reading: it’s about equivalent to my Ojibwe recognition: a ”g“ at the end of a word makes the word plural, I know that much!

I’m actually quite good at being a beginner at things: perhaps it’s my only real expertise. I know 300 words and the conjugation of the present tense in as many as 10 languages, but I can’t really speak any but English. I can play simple music on virtually every instrument, but I’m not a skilled performer on any of them. I realize I am in certain ways a total dilettante, a ”generalist“ as my father described me to my chagrin as a teenager. I berate myself all the time for not mastering Greek or the piano, I put myself on disciplined schedules of study that invariably fall by the wayside because the next project requires me to learn the rudiments of the Persian radif and carpentry, kayaking and Ojibwe. After first spending some time with my music, my friend Susan pronounced me a bricoleur, without a trace of disdain, so I’ve decided finally to embrace my bricoleur self, make my peace with my own nature. I have the confidence that I can learn almost anything I need to know to do what I want to do, to make what I want to make. But sometimes I do get lonely for that sense of pure mastery of a single subject. I think of Mark Twain’s immortal description of the river pilot’s expertise in Life on the Mississippi, and I would like to have that mastery in something more, I don’t know, elevated than driving a car, using a Mac, editing audio, setting up a tent.

Although writing this, I’m suddenly realizing that the pleasure I take in dumb little rituals like organizing the car, setting up the tents elegantly and efficiently, keeping my databases and hard drives ridiculously tidy, and a million other tiny tasks, which I execute in a laughably OCD and control-freakish way, are a way of counterbalancing my openness to beginner status and serendipity (otherwise known as ignorance and luck) in the most important parts of my life.

And there is a moment sometimes when I’m writing a new piece when everything falls into place, and suddenly I do have that sense of mastery of the needs of that exact piece and no other, and I feel this oceanic sense of utter certainty: it didn’t exist at all, then the fragmentary thread of something shows up, and then all of a sudden, I know exactly how it goes, what it needs to be. It doesn’t feel like MY mastery at all, more like something visited upon me. But perhaps that’s my version of reading the river. I’ll take it; it’s enough for me, for sure…

4 thoughts on “reading the river”

  1. At what point does competency shift into mastery? How do you know that you’ve achieved mastery? If you were able to master one thing, what would you chose?

  2. A lot of great composers and other artists have considered themselves to be amateurs of one form or another. Kinda related, but *so* related to your entire trip, picking up on Mary’s quote from your last post…I don’t remember the name of the interviewer, but in a book of interviews with John Cage called “MUSICAGE,” Cage talks about following his cat’s lead and approaching life as if a tourist. Seeing and doing everything as if for the first time.

  3. I’m a generalist, too — but life’s just too short to master all the wonderful things out there!

  4. I loved this post, Eve, perhaps because I too have found myself at the same place and spoke of it just yesterday. I suspect we look for mastery in the wrong place – in external things and superficial techniques. We want to master our moods and desires, and our humanity. We want to tame what is wild within us when we should be doing just the opposite – nourishing our nature, not disciplining it. We should be doing what you are doing now. Right now. Thank you for taking us with you.

Comments are closed.