Saw Rufus Wainwright in concert the other night.
Rufus used to use crystal meth. With the help of Elton John, who reportedly helps Eminem and also many other musicians with addiction, Rufus went to Hazelden for a month back in 2002 and got sober. He’s stayed sober since then and has continued to write songs and release albums… in short, to be the person he was born to be. To put his abilities to good use. He reaches people.
We were in a very old, beautiful venue: the proscenium arch was rimmed with antique red globe-lights, the single balcony still bore its fancy curved gilt-painted balusters and polished wood rails, and Rufus himself commented on how lovely the space was. He’d played it before.
I was enjoying this sitting next to my husband. I could not have appreciated any of this if I’d been using.
Rufus appeared with his sister Martha Wainwright, who had people helping her backstage with her new baby. Throughout the concert they were memorializing their mother, the musician Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in January. They also talked about their father, the musician Loudon Wainwright. They sang songs in French and joked about what it was like to sing together at holidays. Rufus made Martha laugh so hard during a song that for a moment she couldn’t perform.
Opportunity, and performance anxiety: a story
Watching him be so comfortable on that stage, knowing he’d had opportunities to be there from a young age, I was reminded of another similar space where I took art lessons as a kid. The routine was, 300 kids would show up at 8 a.m. each Saturday morning and sit in the audience while five chosen kids would reproduce their drawings from the previous week onstage in pastel on paper set up at enormous wooden easels. These were the Easel Artists.
In my first year, at 10 years old, I was picked as an Easel Artist. In Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, it was an Opportunity. I was up there onstage, performing. But because I was given no idea that this was something I should try to repeat, I never repeated it. My family’s philosophy was fatalistic—The Judges had picked G on some fluke, was the way they thought of it. So I learned not to connect with those people: they were faceless and imperious; unreachable, not really even people. My mother didn’t come and show me how to shake the instructor’s hand and introduce myself. I was taught not to take myself seriously.
But I had serious ability that needed to go somewhere.
You better let that boy boogie-woogie
Because it’s in him and it’s gotta come out
—John Lee Hooker, “Boogie Chillun”
I continued to perform throughout junior high and high school. I was first-chair flute in bands and symphonies. I had art in shows; I had solos, and I was the flute in the pit when we put on Rodgers and Hammerstein or Cole Porter. I won medals. But I had to be careful how often I drew attention to myself. To do so too often would be to violate the cardinal sin of Pride.
On the other hand, to create anything meaningful in the fields of music, art, or writing, you have to reach audiences. You have to connect. It’s not like sitting in a room, building circuit-boards or inventing new glass-making processes (what the rest of my family does for a living).
My family discouraged me from thinking in terms of how these abilities could connect me to the rest of the world—how I could put them to use. As Gladwell says, my music, art and writing were simply the cute things that made me “G.” They didn’t connect me to anything outside myself. The best thing they fitted me for, in my mother’s opinion, was playing for the church folk-group (which I also did).
Well, I’m sure Rufus could play for his church folk-group. But he wouldn’t reach very many people that way.
When I went to college I started writing seriously. I had bylines and received letters from readers. And I was beginning to think I wanted to write for a living. And after college, I did for a while. I won awards; went to graduate school; wrote a book; went to New York; got it published; was asked to write the greater part of another one. And I didn’t “promote” either one because I didn’t want to Stand Out; and all the while, the migraines and fear got worse because my self-doubt never disappeared. The more my skills improved, the more, somehow, the big black bag of self-doubt dragged behind.
And I started using more and more because the drag of my self-involvement and selfishness and fear was just so painful.
I used in order to make myself small. To shut myself up. Eventually, to put myself to sleep.
This ring a bell for anyone?
Step 7—How it feels for the defects to be removed
I’m working on this Step 7 exercise right now. It asks,
What might it look like in my life when my “character” defects are not standing “in the way”?
You know what that looks like? I was thinking about this while listening to Rufus and Martha last night. It looks like white light. It feels like I’ve stuck a fork into the 225-volt socket in my mother-in-law’s kitchen and I’ve become incandescent—the bushel removed. It feels like a smooth new clean train, packed, on the Jubilee Line streaking through a tunnel under Thames.
It looks the way Rufus looks when he plays the piano, or the way Martha looks when she plays the guitar, and the music rolls through their bodies and they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re totally in charge.
It looks fast and powerful and harmonious and it gets shit done, man!
But it’s also sometimes scary as all hell.
Now I’m talking like my mother, and I better quit.
I just need to say: for me, one thing that takes the fear away is asking for help. Admitting that it’s scary, and having other people say it’s OK to be scared. …
Also, prayer and meditation. Query: If higher power believes in me, can I?
What does it look like for you when your defects are removed?