The Joy Menu #22: Garage
Your author, contemplating creative space, turns the volume up as loud as the neighbors will let him.
The important thing is not to think, but to feel. Or not exactly feel, but flow. Light touch, present but without force — like throwing pizza dough, or aiming a dart.
The brain is a helpful container, but it’s job is to channel what travels through, maybe a nudge or an adjustment here and there, like an editor, or a parent pressing down a cowlick before releasing you onto stage.
You have no ownership, really. If you look at it straight on, it disappears; like a peripheral spectre, or a dream rich in emotional reality but loose, lacking in detail. When you wake up, it’s already nearly gone.
So with this; not caught in clarity, but evading concreteness in confrontation, especially when you write them down, or paint them, or sing them out loud.
Like a memory of a memory; lacking the richness, the grandeur, the glitter when finally captured.
Why does it feel so important to live in this way?
To channel, to create, to make? And why does it feel so bad not to?
Why do they call it a “calling”?
This memory: five or six boys in a closed suburban garage, strapped into instruments, plugged into amplifiers, holding wooden sticks, beating them on drums. 100 decibels, or more. Raspy voiced singing, plaintive and raw. Fueled by dreams and discomfort — is it art or is it adolescence? (Is there a difference?)
My father and mother never complain, despite the loud, echoing thumps, the white noise, the wailing dissonance, four or five hours at a time.
In his speedo briefs and button-down chambray, my father comes to the inside door and hands out water bottles, glares at the boys who leave their empties strewn about. But he never asks us to quiet, never criticizes or complains. As if this, too, were his coming-of-age, his appropriate expression, his passionately channeled teenage howl.
(In fact, he paid for most of the equipment, and when the neighbors come to the door, call the police, stand outside with arms crossed in complaint, he and my mother play interference, and the practise goes on.)
For most of my childhood, when the house grew quiet and I was the only one at home — a blissful rarity — I would wander through the halls carrying a tape recorder and sing, catching every lick, every melody, every couplet, as if each were a seed for a song, one I would return to later, when I had the skill and knew what to do with it, to sprout them all, one by one, into it fully bloomed tunes.
(I still have them in a tote beneath my bed. I’m afraid to throw them out, as they don’t exactly belong to me. My boyish voice, still uncracked, smooth as skin, trilling and airy, silly and circumspect. Each song the faintest of notes in a notebook, half-legible, obscure, meant for deciphering, but belonging to some other mind.)
Where did those melodies come from — those unfiltered, unmolded, unclaimed sounds?
And why, at a certain point — in college, or some time after, my head full of words, ideas, other desires, other challenges — did they stop coming?
Is there a clogged tap somewhere? Or, having not made use of them, were they re-gifted elsewhere, left to float back into the ether, returned to their source, or nowhere, whence they came?
Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, writes:
“Are you born a writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostate of peace? In the end, the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it.”
Maybe we are all born to sing. Maybe we open the channel and a song comes out. Or we don’t open it, and the song finds another voice.
Does a radio signal die if we aren’t poised to hear it?
My father sits in a garage somewhere in Johannesburg. Let’s say Doornfontein. My grandmother drops him off every Saturday, heads into the kitchen for a cup of tea, and then out to run errands.
He’s the only child in a room full of teenagers and adults. But he’s focused. Holding a paintbrush loosely, he stares at a postcard of a painting by a Dutch master, leans back on his stool and begins to mix paint — red, and black, a touch of white, and then more red — on a small wooden palette on the table to his side.
Then he lifts the brush to canvas, leaning toward the paint-stained easel pressed against a wall.
This is the entire world: for him, with him in it. A year or two of Saturdays, this postcard, or the next. Behind him, the painter stands and watches. “Try a little more red.”
He nods and mixes, paints, and mixes.
We can travel there now. We can stay there forever.
Unfiltered, unclaimed, unmolded; a seed yet sprouted; his own passionately channeled howl.
Be well, friends. And, as always,
may you find your way onward
toward creative joy,