Reaching further. The idea has been on my mind quite a bit recently. You may have noticed. I have to admit that I don’t actually do it consistently myself, but I’m beginning to think the time has come. True, like most, I live my life surrounded by folks who are content to simply get the job done. It seems to be a time honored tradition in our culture; do what is expected of you, collect your pay check, and go home to your family. I’m ready to reach further; ready to stretch the old expectations just a little. You may wonder why.
I was a kid in junior high school. Mr. Olson told us that he was playing with the guest soloist in the high school band’s spring concert and suggested that we might like to go. Most of us did. Rafael Mendez was one of the premier trumpet players in the twentieth century, so many of us left the concert that night with a little different idea of what it was possible to do with that small brass instrument that we played with puckered lips. The next day at school, Mr. Olson told us a little about the virtuoso we had heard on the previous night. You can read about him on many sites online, so I’ll spare you the biography. The one thing that I remember distinctly is the fact that Mr. Mendez almost lost his ability to play the instrument while still a young man. One night, as he warmed up in his dressing room, another player burst through the door, slamming it right into his trumpet bell and cutting his lip badly. He went ahead and played that night, but the wound became infected and for almost three years, it appeared that his career was ended. Six surgeries, including a crude one in Mexico with an electric drill as the operating tool in the doctor’s hand, left him with a horrible scar and no feeling in his lip. The popular version of the story has it that Mr. Mendez re-learned his instrument by hanging a trumpet from the ceiling on a string and playing notes without holding onto the instrument at all, to keep from putting any pressure whatsoever on his lip. I’m not sure if the story is true, but at any rate, he played skillfully for many years, sharing with thousands of young players all over the world from his treasure trove of knowledge, until just a few years before he died. He reached further.
A number of years later, I met the Lovely Lady and her family. Her mother, a pianist and piano teacher, was an inspiration to many, having been afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis while still in her forties. This is not anything akin to the osteoarthritis which many, including myself, face as we age. Her malady was an autoimmune disease, affecting most of the joints in her body, crippling and disfiguring as it advanced. Most folks who develop this disease have to stop their physical activities, sitting in wheelchairs and being cared for as invalids. This lady fought. She refused to be in a wheelchair until the last couple of years of her life, preferring instead to hobble along on her own two feet. She taught her lessons into her eighties and regularly played as the church pianist until she was nearly seventy. She still played specials at church, even in the last year she lived. At one point, she arranged and published her own book of hymn transcriptions, written specifically for folks with hands like hers. It hurt her horribly to play and still, with misshapen and crippled hands, she reached further.
About the same time I met the Lovely Lady and her mother, I met another musician, one on the opposite end of the spectrum in music. Frank, I’m told, was one of the finest up-and-coming young guitarists in our area. There weren’t many around who were better than he at their chosen instrument. But one fateful day, he and a friend were installing a television antenna on the roof of a house and got the metal apparatus across a high-voltage power line. His friend died from his injuries. Along with significant burns and permanent damage to his heart, Frank’s left hand and forearm had to be amputated just above the wrist. One would suppose that his guitar playing days were over. One would be wrong.
Frank realized that he could never play the guitar in quite the same way, since he no longer had a hand and the fingers necessary to form the cords and fret out the melodies and harmonies. He also knew that he had to play again. When he was fitted with a prosthesis, Frank asked the technician if there was any way he could make him another attachment which could screw into the spot where the hook (which was manipulated with cables from his shoulders and neck) went. They developed a device which allowed the persistent musician to once more play a guitar, this time lying across his lap, in the Hawaiian style. Frank has played the resonator guitar and lap steel guitar now, for many years, refusing to be denied the ability to make music. (There’s a link to a short video of him below) Even with a shortened arm, he reaches further.
You see, I am indeed, as are you, surrounded by folks who are content to be mediocre, but I’m just as sure that you also have those extraordinary people in your lives who make you sit up and notice the difference. I don’t have the handicaps any of these three stubborn people faced, but still I find myself ready to give up at the slightest hint of hardship. Maybe, like I did today, you need a little reminder as you work hard to reach some physical goal. Perhaps, it’s a more esoteric and far-reaching mark you’re aiming at. Regardless, it’s not a bad thing to have witnesses of the possibilities in your life.
You know…another word for mediocre is “common”. The folks described above were anything but common.
How about you? Are you content to be common? Maybe it’s time to stand out from the crowd. Maybe you’re ready to reach further instead.
I know I am.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us…”
(Hebrews 12:1~NET Bible)
My friend Frank, Reaching Further…
(Click the link to watch a short clip, taken just a day or two ago.)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.
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