Wednesday, July 23, 2014


A young man climbed the mountain upon which lived the Wise One. Everyone knew that the Wise One was indeed the wisest man ever known, and willing to share his wisdom, but few were willing to make the dangerous climb necessary to consult him.

Jim was one who did want to go. He did not know anything about mountaineering, and his first attempt almost ended in disaster. Jim learned a lot from his trips up the mountain, including how much pain could hurt, but finally, one bright morning, he cheered with gasping breaths as he drew himself over a ledge and found a cave, and outside the cave an old man with a shaggy beard chewing a piece of yak jerky.

“Oh, great Wise One,” said Jim, “I have come to seek your direction.”

The wise one called the Wise One nodded, swallowed, and said, “Speak your question.”

Jim flopped down and, once he caught his breath, said, “I have been assailed as a directionless fool. What should I do with my life?”

The Wise One looked at Jim, gaze meeting gaze, mind meeting mind. Then the Wise One nodded. He closed his eyes and sat motionless, so long that Jim thought the man had fallen asleep, so long that Jim began to fear he had died.

Suddenly the eyes snapped open, the head and came up, and the creaky old voice spoke: “You…must sing!” he said.

“Sing?” said Jim, astonished.

“You must,” said the Wise One. “Sing,” he added.

“Like, actually sing musical songs?” said Jim. “Because I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. I forget words; every song would be called ‘The One That Goes Dee Dee Dee’ if I wrote it. I know nothing of music. I don’t know which end of a trombone the music comes out of. I have the natural rhythm of a drunken earthworm. How can you tell me to sing?”

The old man simply shook his head and said, “You must…sing.”

Jim could get nothing more from the old man, so he took the treacherous journey down and went home, wondering what to do. Exhausted, he collapsed into bed, thinking. No one would believe Jim if he told them that the Wise One said singing was his destiny… and yet, that’s what had happened. Somehow, this was his purpose.

The next morning he arose, determined to follow this path.

He thought that destiny would carry him---after all, he had never tried singing publicly, and maybe some mighty force would cling to his boldness as like is pulled to like. Jim set up a box in the square and climbed on top, and began to sing every song to which he knew some of the words. He did this for a week. In that period he had more old shoes and empty cans flung at him than any five stray cats in town.

Jim realized that he’d been waiting for magic, but destiny was not magic. It was a destination.

He started taking music lessons that day. He took singing lessons. He took music theory. He took music history. He sold his little home to pay for it. He got a job selling sheet music, singing to make sales, then shutting up because it worked better. He kept learning. He went to open-mike nights. He worked harder. He sang all the time. In his phrase, Jim had singing “out the bazooty” for decades.

Then he went to see the Wise One once more.

Jim was a good deal older now, of course, but he was patient, and slowly made his way up the mountain, stopping as needed to rest and acclimate himself in the cold breeze. After all these years he'd come to wonder if he had hallucinated the old man while stumbling around in the thin mountain air. He did not think so, though, and expected to find the man's remains, and maybe some fossilized yak jerky. 

The Wise One was still at the cave where Jim had left him. He was not a frozen corpse, as Jim thought initially; just the incredibly old man, still breathing. His eyes opened slowly and regarded Jim. 

"You have returned," the Wise One croaked, his voice unused in countless months. 

"You remember me," Jim gasped.

"Of course."

"Then you know you told me I must sing."


"All right," said Jim, when he had recovered his breath, "I thought I'd tell you how it worked out. I have spent decades learning about singing. I have spent decades learning about music. I could draw the Circle of Fifths in my sleep. If you give me a note I can give you its harmonic pitches in a second. I have transcribed music and sold it. I learned to play the trumpet, harmonica, guitar, ukulele, clarinet, and seven other instruments, albeit all poorly. I can give you biographical sketches of every important musician in the last century, every important composer in the last millennium. I have eked out a living on the periphery of the music business, or barely so, spending my entire life on the outside, looking in. Because in the opinion of dozens of music teachers and vocal coaches, hundreds of professional colleagues, and thousands of listeners, I have no talent for singing. I am a failure by every measure." Jim sat back in the snow with a grunt. "I thought you should know," he said at last.

A long time passed. The sun crept lower in the cold, vacant sky. Stars began to twinkle in the east, as lights far below began to twinkle in the town. The breeze quieted. All was still.

Then the Wise One turned his head toward Jim. With an effort, he opened his ancient mouth, and spoke at last. 

"Well," he said, "it was worth a shot."

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