What Dad's Funeral Taught Me About Fun
Growing up, my mom had always complimented me on my discipline and self-motivation. I thought the various things I achieved would cement into place my value. I slowly pursued singing and piano and music composition as an 8th grader for the pure joy of it. Slowly, my focus went from curiosity, play and exploration, to musical achievements. As I went from no ability as a singer to singing my first solo mostly in tune, to breaking my high school record, to working with a Juliard teacher, and on and on, I thought all this would eventually add up to a sense of deserving to be here.
Then my dad died.
At my dad’s funeral, I was shocked to realize that no one had mentioned anything he achieved over this lifetime. I thought, at the very least, someone would mention him being the driving force of the Martin Luther King march in San Antonio. Nope. Not even that.
Instead, it was friends he had lost contact with, who spoke of fun times they had together. When my Dad was, apparently, fun? They mentioned moments that, at the time, had it not been at his funeral, I wouldn’t have registered those moments as having any importance whatsoever…such non-ambitious things like being tied to a tree and that somehow being funny, going to the beach, pranks at school…all things that sounded like wasting time. I didn’t realize those were the moments those closest to him actually remembered.
I had never known my dad to be fun. Going to the movies was quickly followed by a lengthy lecture on morality. Conversations revolved around what I would achieve…a moral ideal, a career ideal or a health ideal. A “fun” activity, , even if it was on the schedule, carried a weight and seriousness to it that often overshadowed the experience. His own lack of connection to his “fun side” meant that I rarely if ever felt accepted or light-hearted around him, which also meant that I rarely let my guard down, which also meant that although he cared about me, he didn’t really know me behind my resumé.
My mother however, a Cuban immigrant, had laughter and fun in her soul. It surprises me that people who suffer the most, can sometimes be the most fun to be around. Although my relationship with my mom wasn’t perfect by any means, the ability to have fun together meant that she knew me in a way my dad never did.
Something sank in with my dad’s death, I began to wake up out of my narrow focus on goals, and see relationships, but it didn’t shift my focus on achievement in the musical realm. Financial pressure has a way of over-valuing and fearing the future, even though technically the future doesn’t even exist yet.
Remembering the distance that developed between my dad and I, and the fun I had with my mom that often led to more trust, I realized that my relationships and the quality of how I show up to them, will ultimately be all I have left at the end of my life. Yet I didn’t quite let it into the way I taught. Aaaand yet, it began to slowly change how I taught without me realizing it.
I kept climbing the ladder, so-to-speak, of training and coaches for singing, music and movement. As I went deeper and deeper, it became clear that the quality of my attention was all the difference in progressing in these various skills. The faster I wanted to progress, the less I paid attention fully to how I was singing that note, or playing that chord, or balancing on plank. The better the quality of my attention, the faster I would progress, but to progress at the faster speed, I would have to let go of getting over there and pay attention to how I’m here, without immediately trying to change myself or looking away.
As this quality of attention in myself got “better” (and attention is a skill that is hilariously all-over-the-place as a result of being human, it's a continuous process where some days I feel more like a squirrel than a human) I started noticing something in my singing, my playing, my movement and my relationships:
I was having fun. A lot of fun.
And with this fun, came what felt like an effortless drive towards practicing, but practicing didn’t feel like practicing, yet I was getting better, and practicing more.
But with practice, instead of being stressed out and grumpy and snappy towards others and coming out of a practice session with a sense of “I’m not good enough yet”, I came out with more to give. I came out with an energy, a playfulness. My closest relationships found that I was more fun to be around. Those around me began letting their guard down.
With this fun came a sadness.
I had realized, that the last time I felt like music was “mostly really fun” was when I had first started as an 8th grader. The process of trying to be “the best” was a subtle rejection of who I am now. A subtle way of always telling myself, that if I’m just enjoying music, making music and not trying to make myself better or the music better, then I don’t deserve to play.
And the interesting thing here is: our brains our designed to learn through play. Through having fun. You’d never know that looking at typical schooling.
And of course, when you’re having fun, it's easier to really pay attention to what you’re doing. So you get better musically when you forget about getting better. When simply making sounds within what’s available for you now, and connecting and having fun sit in the center of your musical explorations, not as a side bonus, you actually get better faster.
So in this way, we can practice how to have fun, how to just be, how to connect with ourselves more deeply and with each other more deeply through, ironically, levity and play in learning.
And, as Patch Adams so beautiful demonstrated by making kids with terminal illnesses laugh, in the end, those are the only things that will actually matter.
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