A storm, a song, and Beckley

By Erika Lynn May

Written as a part of Rachel Howard‘s Writing About Spirituality course through Stanford Continuing Studies


There is a storm outside. Like a storm, creativity does not just rain on me and then stop, rain here again and go away. Rather, the rain falls here, then it falls next door, then it falls down the hillside. There is always rain falling, always rivers rushing towards the ocean, always the ocean rising skyward. The muse is always present, calling for us to seek. Sometimes, when we’re lucky, we can be present enough to find union, safe and still enough to enjoy the rain. 

Rumi says, Be patient. Respond to every call that excites your spirit. I move towards my piano. I sit. I say a small prayer, summoning the muse, my guide into peace and purpose within my creative work. I try not to ask for anything specific, just that they be present with me as I practice, present with me as I prepare, present with me as I produce, as I perform, as I present. I vow to be patient. I vow to be present.

From there, I begin exploring outwards, into my surroundings. My elderly dog, Beckley, is sleeping underneath the piano. Even in my creativity, I must tend to the things I care for, the people and duties I am responsible for. If the inward listening seeks my own longings, this act of listening beyond myself is how I learn how to be the artist and person that I want to be in the world.

Beckley fears the storms, so she is tucked into her safe place, here by my feet. Today is not a good day to practice anything loud or jarring, believing as I do in the principle of doing no harm. I hold my hands lightly above the keys and begin fingering a soft waltz in the key of D. 1-4-5, nothing complicated. I keep the emotions light so I don’t overplay. Nothing in that deep register below middle C. It must exist in the air. It will not be a deep piece, designed to resonate through the objects in the room. A piece that moves between rather than upon the objects in space. 

This trace song I have summoned becomes a song about calm, about the peaceful moments of a day. Nothing complex, really. It is a simple expression of love, the soundtrack to an afternoon nap. Perhaps, later, if this moment of practice has created anything memorable or worth exploring, I can counterbalance the calm of this simple chord progression with one that implies: there was thunder outside. For now, I must let my practice serve the present moment, this truth, this thunderstorm, this friend.

Playing just a few simple notes allows me to follow one small bit of nothing on its journey to becoming something. There is no pressure in this type of practice, no need to build something solid for others to appreciate. As a professional artist, I am often met by what Stephen Pressfield calls “Resistance” – the universal force that demands we face ourselves before sharing what we have to offer. Practice offers hope, but we must first face hope’s opposite – fear. And by starting with small moments, I remember that I am practicing because I love to play. 

While I will never tire of play, I have learned to take much joy in work. The desire to create work that is meaningful and lasting is potent. I focus on the verb, to work, as in “to be effective, successful.” I try to take what works and leave the rest.

Not every note is born to a life of notoriety. I sift through the moments that stick, one at a time, the seeds I have saved. What survives is often more the weather’s choice than my own. I prepare the soil with this practice and perhaps someday they will find their way to root down. I have hope they will be viable, I vow to spend time with those that sprout.

And then I pray for rain.

On blessed days, those first snippets that I find workable are like spring wildflowers: they have one brief window to bloom and, when they do, they glorify the world. Often, just the fact that they exist is enough.

I am more familiar now with this piece I that now has a name. Beckley’s Song has developed a second part. Having played the first melody a while, making it repeatable, memorable, I wandered into a new unknown territory. Against the backdrop of the second movement, the first becomes clearer, more distinct. Each movement gives the other a further layer of meaning. I have found something living here, and I have planted it a friend.

The sun comes out again, the prayer flags now drenched and torn and sideways. I have to make sure a song works for me, first. It is not up to me to decide what might work for you or what won’t. I believe that art has a primary effect on the artist themselves. We should never create with the expectation of its impact on the world, beyond direct collaborators or friends. If we can change our heart or mind by practicing our art, it follows that other people will be moved by it as well. This is not something I wish to plan on or predict, but I can work diligently anyways.

The trouble with music – and it’s a beautiful problem – is that every day, something strikes me differently. A movement that almost worked yesterday works marvelously today. Other things that have worked well for years fall apart in an instant. Music must by its very nature resonate in the now, in time ever-changing. I don’t panic, for this is a life of bliss. I return to the dog under the piano, to my fingers on the keys. I start again, from the top. Once I have finished the song for Beckley, perhaps I will play Ode To Joy. Certainly not Beethoven’s Fifth. That would not work for us today.

I have spent a career thinking about what works for the market. Young musicians are instructed to do everything, be their own agents and managers, their own producers and engineers. Artists of every sort are supposed to have eyes in the back of their head — moving solidly ahead while they peek behind, seeing if anyone is following. I have had successes, but nothing works quite the way that diligent practice does. Making art work is different than creating products that sell, and I have yet to find the price great enough to cover the value of my creative soul. I want to be a better artist for the art itself, for my band and creative peers whose critiques are the only opinions that matter. If I am growing, if I am learning, I am not dying. For now, that is enough. 

The creation of all art depends upon the heartbeat of life itself, of this muse, even God. An artist confronts the ultimate static object: a blank, white page, an empty canvas, a grand piano in an empty room. Within this inertia is infinite potential, but nothing yet is growing. The artist should vow to take sincere, repetitive action – years of practice, years of listening and looking – before expecting to live up to their own expectations. Sometimes it takes a lifetime or more to learn, for oneself, what the work is about. The body becomes fertile only after it develops. The creative spirit must look for purpose, something worth saying, worth fighting for. In the meantime, practice draws on our impetus, the pain we breathe into or the light we shine on. The artist finds union with the muse, and the creation is seeded. Hallelujah, rain.

Like parenthood, art is continual service. Bringing life into the world is the most natural of things, yet children can be conceived out of pain, out of rape and violence. Others are neglected or abused, leaving no joy and no peace. We must vow to be better in this one regard: we must treat our creations as the living things that they are. We must nurture them into wholeness and encourage them to follow their bliss. We must give of everything we have so that they may, one day, stand on their own, find pleasure and purpose, and be sufficient in and of their own. At that point, and only then, our job is done. We an only hope that they will choose to call home often.

Here is what I mean: I move from the first arpeggiated D-G-A chords into the second slowed staccato part. I play it through again, and discover another hint of melody. This third piece immediately transitions into a song that has already been written, though, now, in this different key, in this tempo. I move into it anyway, observing the new relationship that forms here. In its proper form, this song has lyrics that describe what my best friend went through in losing her mother to CJD. In its present form, it is now a song about an elderly dog sleeping. I play the song quieter, aware that she is not a puppy, closer than ever to her last long afternoon nap.

All of my songs cycle back towards death, because it is against the backdrop of death that I can most appreciate life. Developing work is the process within which I have found the most healing. The word catharsis comes to mind. I look it up and the first definition is, essentially, purification of emotions through art, a purging that brings spiritual renewal and release from tension. I am also drawn to the second definition: “elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression.” Without a creative outlet, without spiritual renewal and purging, my emotions can be dangerous. I allow my feelings, all my anger and sorrow, all my playfulness and desire, to come out as I sing, as I create artwork. Here, I can safely allow anything I experience to be present, affording it expression. Like alchemy, my lead turns to gold, my pain turns to strength, my wounds become my armor, my tears become my salve. 

When I am happy, I find it possible to dig into the harder experiences that are still left to purge. When I’m struggling with them directly, I must sing in longing, sing for the joy that I wish to return to my heart. This puts me inside the funny contradiction: I write sad songs when I’m happy and happy songs when I’m sad. Both are cathartic, and both modes can transmit healing, an open space for anyone who listens to be present with their own healing. 

In this way, art is a mirror to our soul. Like this warm, daytime lullaby, I see around me like an out-of-body ghost in the corner of the room. Yet I am fully within myself, tuned in to the frequencies that make me hum. I notice if I am bored or restless. I am reflected back to me, fun-house style, as I pull out incomplete songs, snippets that germinated but never grew. Sometimes, I can bring them back. Other times, I let them rest. I see patterns, a creative history, by playing songs I have written before. I play a cover and can hear what rhythms or poetics I am most drawn to now, different from last year, different from childhood. Art requires us to be alive, and to become aware that we are alive. We move swiftly towards what we love, and learn to hold loosely the things not meant for us. We remain curious, always testing, playing, exploring, working.

Art is how I understand consciousness, and beyond my own experience, art is our collective consciousness, our bound memories, our cultural identity. Art is only as self-aware or as blissfully ignorant as we are. All art moves through the creator and, then, to whomever it comes in contact with. Art is transmissible, and can be benign or infectious. Art is its own singular, unique contribution to the world. The act of making art creates a new exclusion, a new path, a new lookout tower. An artist can have thousands of works and have any degree of success in their own lifetime – from none to infamy. Artists can make one singularly, timely and evocative work that changes the world. Artists can create a persona that is their creative contribution, their personality or presentation even more effective than the work that is beheld. Artists can create in privacy, dedicated but not hungry for a spotlight, impacting only their children and loved ones, perhaps only themselves, as a way to mark and pass the time.

I type these words at my keyboard, fingers making motions like they would if I were still at the piano. Beckley eventually woke up and sauntered to the door, my quiet reverie complete for the day. Before I rise, I close my eyes and bow my head, silently thanking the muse. I notice what I have done and thank myself for devoting this time. I find myself being ever more grateful to the artists and teachers who have been, and to all that makes it possible for me to have spent this time in this way. I wish this fullness upon everyone and I stand. Practice brings me to a sense of my own wholeness, and though I profess to wish to stay in that daydream forever, art reminds me when to let go, when to move on, when to call good enough done, when to come in from the rain.