How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

The old punchline "Practice, practice, practice" applies to more than musical performance. It applies to the project of coming to terms with our new circumstances, and perhaps embracing our new lives. If you live in parts of Japan right now, or in the flooded Mississippi, or in areas recently devastated by tornadoes, you know that the day when we leave off practicing and begin performing can be far closer than you ever thought.

Ideally, I feel like my last post in the Adapting In Place series ought to be something rousing and inspiring. But at the moment, I think the quiet exhortation to simply keep practicing at your life might be more to the point.

All works of art have two pieces - the obvious, occasionally transcendent product, and the whole body of work that preceeds them that makes them possible. A lot of that work, even to create the purest, most elevated art is dirty, sweaty, smelly, hard and exhausting.

Writers write and write, they screw up, they expose and humiliate themselves, they get carpal tunnel, bursitis and back injuries, they fail, they burn out their anger and frustration at their own inadequacies, they work and then throw days of hard work in the recycle bin, and they get up and do it again.

Dancers endure injuries, strained muscles, bleeding feet, they sweat, they get filthy and sore and they try the same motion over and over again until their mind is numb with frustration and boredom and they wonder why bother - and they get up and do it again and again.

Musicians see their fingers rubbed raw by strings and their muscles cramped holding their instruments, they play the same passage over and over and see where they fail, they can hear the right notes in their but they cannot make them, they play in public and screw up and they get up and do it again. Do you sense a theme?

A graceful life, lived with as few non-renewable resources as possible, and as adapted to changing and shifting conditions as possible is a thing of artfulness and beauty. The extraction of every drop of happiness and comfort from the resources you do leave you at the end with a life well lived - and what better art form is there?

But just as with music, dance, literature, sculpture, behind the art is failure, many mistakes, frustration, repetition, imperfection, and practice, practice, practice. It is not enough to say "Ok, I read Sharon's blog, I know I'll need a garden someday, and look, I've got the seeds in packages right here for when that day comes." I can't teach anyone anything about gardening that will not be completely dwarfed by a single season in the dirt trying to grow food.

It is not enough to say "I will check and see if the camping stove and the woodstove can keep us warm in an extended power outage when the time comes." Anyone who has ever tried to use a new piece of equipment in the dark, in the freezing cold or rain or wind and discovered you needed another essential piece or it doesn't work or doesn't work like you need it to knows - not a good choice. The same is true with every single endeavor - you can know what you need to do to go without any electric tool, to live without a car - but until you have done it, and done it enough times to know what happens when seasons and circumstances changed, you will not know.

Behind this blog, which very occasionally has its artful moments, are literally thousands of failures - time spent writing papers and arguing ideas on the internet in which I did not speak clearly, I did not make my ideas clear, I was boring or missed the point or wasted my own time and others. There are plenty of posts on this blog in that genre .

Behind Sharon-as-writer is an acre of red pen on papers, and kind and harsh replies to my foolishness, screw ups and mistakes that seemed irremediable but weren't, and lots of time doing dull, frustrating rewrites. And what I learned was to (sometimes) do it mostly right the first time, to mostly be able to make myself clear, or for others to understand me. If there are moments when this is good it is only because of the sweat and sleeplessness and the failures behind it that made it possible for me not to screw up every single time. If I avoid some mistakes it is only because I already made them...and made them and made them.

Behind Sharon-the-farmer are thousands of errors - dead chicks and broken eggs, mud and dirt and manure that shouldn't have been where they were, losses that made me weep and failures that made me ashamed of myself. It is only because of time and practice and memory that sometimes, now, I get it right the first time. I have learned how precious that is.

I say this because there may come a time (or we may be there now for some of you) when you cannot afford to experiment, to make too many mistakes, when you may have to do it right the very first time to keep your life together. And the only way to avoid many of the worst mistakes is to make them early while there's still time. Now is the time to screw up.

And that means you have to try adapting in place, as though you really needed to. Try for a week to give up the car. Try for a weekend to turn off the breakers and the gas and live without fossil fuels. Set a limit on your kilowatt hours or you consumption of gasoline for the month, and stick to it. Don't make it an easy one - push your limits. Cut your budget to the bone and then cut some more, as though you had no choice - and see how you do. Even your mistakes will teach you something about what you need. Remember Japan, remember the river, remember Katrina, remember all the times in the last decade when it hasn't been a choice to figure out whether you can do this - and practice.

Dmitry Orlov often observes that living through tough times is a little like falling out a window - you want to fall out the lowest possible window, not the highest. The lower you are prepared to go in your resource use, the more you are able to adapt to tough things, because the distance between what how you need to live now and what you've already experienced is small, the better off and more secure you and and your loved ones will be.

Perhaps the weekend with all the breakers turned off or the "how low can you go" spending practice will help you get just a little lower. It is time to start practicing - because Carnegie Hall, and our big public performance may be closer than we think.


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Heartfelt and sincere, thank you Sharon.

Yes, biking around is great when it is 65F and sunny. And you are healthy. Can you do the same when you are sick or injured? What about 10, 15 years from now? With a cold, my commute seems much further.

And absolutely YES! Test your gear before you need it. Use it, get so familiar you are bored with it. When something 'exciting' happens, you will not be focused.

By ChrisBear (not verified) on 17 May 2011 #permalink

Practice means understanding the gap between where I am at and where I want to be.

Being in the gap with some resiliency makes it easier to feel the burn of ineffectiveness, inexperience, vulnerability.... This isn't just animating the physical, it is a heart and mind shift, too.

Great post.

All of this is so true.

After a week without power, nearly everyone remarked how relaxed they were and how much better they knew their neighbors. Our neighborhood was bartering supplies and sharing, the population was civil and polite. I know I got a lot of chores done (and a sunburn), and I enjoyed getting a chance to play with my "stuff" in a real situation and being able to tweak my plans and supply chest.

It was, in fact, rather enjoyable. If this is a slow crash, sign me up.

What I have been trying to communicate to people, especially those who were utterly unprepared for disaster, is that it could have been MUCH worse. No electricity is an annoyance when it's 80 outside. No drinking water is a different game altogther.

Great post. Btw when do you think we will be able to read your adapting in place book?

Thank you, Sharon -
of course I assumed this (and I think you may have hinted at some less-than-stellar outcomes in the past ;)) but it is very nice to hear an "expert" admit some failures. This was a tough year for me, goat-wise - we lost three out of nine babies. My garden is a perennial embarrassment (hahaha, get it?). I constantly fall short of the goals I set for myself, and my only consolation is that I set high goals, so even my failures are successes of a kind.

Brilliant and beautiful - the product of lots of practice.

I needed this. There have been a lot of recent events in my life and I've responded by reverting back to some old habits, and this has been the powerful reminder I needed that if these little changes blow me off course, then how resilient will I be in the face of much bigger challenges. Thank you, thank you. Now I need to get back to work!

Sharon, The inspiration for my blog "Squash Practice" was exactly the same feeling that there is a lot of learning-by-doing that we have to do before we are ready for the changes looming upon us. There is nothing like getting up in the morning and making your best effort at a vaguely unfamiliar task. It's all part of the "Practice of Practice" (the title of my inaugural post)!
I find myself always looking forward to next year so I can put into practice some variation on the way I did things this year that could be better. It's the essence of practical learning.

What is it they say--it takes a million words to make a writer, twenty hours a week of deliberate practice for ten years to make a musician?

Anyway, what I really like about your adapting in place series is that, simply, that's what we must do. Not all of us can homestead in the country. It's not just about skills (though I'm working on that). I've been growing into my community for half a lifetime and the networks you form over that period, in complexity and worth are definitely the result of time and practice and mistakes.

Oh my goodness, yes! Practice, practice, practice! Especially in gardening. There's nothing for it but to try, fail, learn from your mistakes, try again, and rejoice in the successes that do come. I gardened casually for five or six years, then started gardening more seriously for subsistence in the past four years. There is still so much to figure out! The learning curve is slow and long with gardening, particularly if one moves from one climate to another. I learn a little bit more each year, but even the most experienced gardener must contend with the vagaries of each growing season.

This advice may be something new and novel for Americans who have money, but for the chronically poor, necessity makes frugality a lifestyle, not "enlightened" choice!