What Do Adults Want for Christmas?

For the past few days I’ve been struggling with this tug-of-war battle between having an insatiable need to make something and a complete loss for what to make. That feeling of having created something I’m proud of and that other people seem to enjoy is the best feeling in the world. It’s the gift of feeling fulfilled.

As Christmas approaches, my mom asked me yesterday what sorts of presents I wanted. I immediately told her what had been on my mind for the past week or so — a mandolin. For six years I played alto saxophone in school band, then dropped it halfway through high school. I don’t miss playing the saxophone, as I was never really attached to that instrument in particular, but I have been missing the experience of playing music. And so for a while now I’ve been researching different instruments I could pick up, looking for something that can play lots of different kinds of music but has a distinct sound, something that is unique, something that can be played on its own or as part of an ensemble — and preferably something that doesn’t take up a lot of space in a college dorm room. That’s how I settled on the mandolin, which is an instrument that I’ve been interested in for quite some time now, since I saw mandolinist Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer in concert last semester.

Chris Thile being generally brilliant.

As it turns out, though, decent musical instruments cost quite a lot. Which is why I approached my parents with the idea of selling my old saxophone, which has been collecting dust in my closet for over three years now, in order to buy a mandolin. But now that the prospect of actually investing money and time into learning the mandolin is immediately in front of me, I hesitate.

I love music. It means a lot to me and helps me sort through my thoughts and feelings, just like stories do. But I don’t get the same satisfaction out of playing someone else’s music as I do telling my own stories. When this occurred to me, I feared that buying a mandolin would be a waste — something I’d pick up and try for a week or two, then lose interest in. I began to rethink why I wanted to start playing music again, and in turn realized that there was something more important to me.

I tend to set pretty high standards for myself, especially in terms of personal accomplishment. I don’t like to start projects that I’m not fully committed to, or that I don’t think represent the best of what I can be doing. The reason that I no longer want a mandolin is because I think my time and effort and resources could be spent better otherwise. I would still love to get back into playing music someday, but maybe right now isn’t the time. Right now my soul aches to make something, to go beyond the normal expectations and create a work of art or storytelling or whatever you want to call it, one that brings not just joy but wonder to the people who experience it, and that I can feel proud of.

Maybe I’m being too ambitious, but I know what I feel. My heart yearns — it aches — to find meaning, to put my stamp on the world. For the first time in my life, creating things isn’t just a desire, it’s a compulsion. It’s not a want, it’s a need. Now I just have to figure out what’s in my way.

Is this what it’s like being an artist? Or is this just what it’s like being an adult?

“Awe is the grail of artistic achievement. No other human emotion possesses such raw, transformative power, and none is more difficult to evoke. Few and far between are the works of man that qualify. Awe-filled things don’t hold anything back. Awe-filled things are rich and generous. The treasure is right there.” — The Secret of Psalm 46, Brian Moriarty
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