49 Years

In a scarily short amount of time I will be celebrating my forty-ninth trip around the sun.

The fact that I have managed to live this long makes me wonder about the old joke that Heaven doesn’t want me, and hell is afraid I’ll take over.

I have learned many hard lessons in my life. I have had dreams come true and hopes dashed upon the proverbial rocks. I have lived with and worked through handicaps. I have fought impossible odds and won. I have taken the sure bet and lost more than I could bear. I have been the new kid in school many times and have battle scars inside and out that I wear proudly.

While advice is usually self-indulgent nostalgia, I have learned a few lessons that may be useful.

You are surrounded by beauty every second of every day.

When I was young, my mother would say, “See beauty.” I started making a game of it, first noticing obvious things like crocus flowers in spring or autumn leaves. Over time I started seeing beauty even in dark places. Cracks on the sidewalk or the graffiti on the Philadelphia subway. The lines of an old mans face and the clover mites on a graveyard wall.

Eventually I started seeing this beauty in human interaction. Two old friends meeting at the park. The way the librarian at the Haverford Free Library sorted and shelved books with almost superhuman ease. The grace of magicians. The clumsiness of a young child.

By seeing beyond the visual I learned to look beyond the exterior when I met the musicians who helped me learn my trade. When I met Harmonica Joe everyone walking by saw a bum, but with that harp, to me, he was beautiful.

Even at my lowest moments, I have comforted myself by finding something with my eye, heart or mind that makes me stop and stare in wonder. From the grass under my feet to the stars overhead, from the swirl of cream in my coffee to the sensation of salt on my tongue. Think of the way your lover smiles at you in the dim twilight. Look around and really see what everyone misses in this age of digital distraction and you will find the world beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful.

Practice kindness.

Just being nice won’t cut it. Eventually our base instinct takes over and we are kicking women and children aside to get into the store at opening on Black Friday.

What is kindness? Kindness is putting yourself second to the needs of others.

Years ago, I was on the Crisfield City Dock with friends from overseas. I was wearing this red flannel hoodie that I loved. One of my friends was not dressed for the Chesapeake Bay air and I saw that he was cold. I gave him my coat.

It wasn’t something I thought about. My guest was cold, and I had the means to help so I acted.

To my surprise, witnesses to my action were dumbfounded.  Somebody said, in utter disbelief, “He gave him the shirt off his back.”

Like seeing beauty, practice this sort of instinctive kindness long enough it takes on a reflexive quality. You give expecting nothing back.

Put your partner, your friends and even strangers before yourself and you will find yourself generating a chain reaction of love and goodwill. It does not need to be a grand gesture. Simply letting somebody cut in front of you at the checkout line can change that person’s day. Help your mother, roommate or partner with the chores. Have a conversation with a stranger.  The smallest consideration has the potential to change a life. Simply by putting the good of others ahead of yourself.

The more you give, the more you truly have.

Follow your Way.

Every craft has a Way.  House painting, poetry, carpentry, management, dancing, fighting, parenting, music – whatever the path your heart is called to, there is a discipline that takes the work into the level of art.

True art is an expression of self that quietly makes the world better in some small way. If all you ever accomplish is making one soul stop and savor the moment you make a perfect grilled cheese sandwich, you have arrived.

My Aunt Mannie’s Way was selfless kindness. She performed her craft with the precision of a ninja. With a few greeting cards she taught me lessons that are carved into my heart forever.  

My father is the best person I have ever met. His is the Way of the husband. He simply puts his wife and son first – much like I described when I spoke of kindness, but he takes it to the level of quiet art. There is no hesitation to put his family first no matter the personal cost. This is how a true man carries himself. Quiet artists like this are too often overlooked but watch him make breakfast for his wife and you cannot help but be moved.

The trick to art is to work for the love of the work. No thought of progress, profit or loss. Simply work until the work becomes an expression of yourself. When you work with no thought, you have begun.

Take that big risk.

My marriage ended in heartbreak when my wife died. It would be easy to curse my fate and even wish we had never met and spared myself this pain.

Despite the way our story ended, we had moments of absolute bliss. Our first kiss. The night we developed our own language of caresses to communicate in the dark when I was not wearing my hearing aids (words were never so beautiful). The day we held each other close as thousands of snow geese circled low overhead. The way we would dance in the kitchen as I sang old love songs. I could write for hours.

When I met Amy, I had just gotten my hearing back. After years of silence I was at a loss at how to talk to a beautiful woman. I had been alone so long that it was natural. I was terrified when I asked her out.

I was scared, but I took the big risk with my heart. At the end of our story my heart was broken – and it was worth it. I would happily bear the pain of loss all over again and again just to relive one sweet kiss.

Fear is a monstrous thing that makes us pass up opportunities that could lead to love, self-discovery, a kiss in the rain, singing a song on stage in front of thousands and, yes, having your heart broken into a million little pieces.

Flying runs the risk of crashing or being burned by the sun – but it also means the chance to touch the sky.

When your moment comes, and it will, put the fear aside and take that big risk. Even failure has its lessons and rewards.

Treasure your true friends.

As a musician, teacher and author, I know thousands of people. I only have a few true friends.

Acquaintances are wonderful, but your true friends are the people who know you better than yourself. They see you at your worst and love you anyway. They tell you the hard truths. They can even rescue you from yourself.

If you are lucky enough to have somebody like this in your life, be aware that the universe is constantly expanding. We are always in motion away from each other just as the stars and galaxies drift apart.  Age, health, change and fate can separate us from our true companions.

Knowing this, tell your friends that you love them. Embrace them. Say the words in your heart while you can. Learn the lessons they share today. Be present. Now. This moment. This heartbeat. Too late is too late.

Trust me, I know.

Count your blessings.

As I write this I am listening to music. Given that my hearing began to fail when I was young, this is amazing. I am sprawled out on a warm quilt writing on my laptop. A tortoiseshell cat is sleeping next to me. A redwing blackbird is at my window. Outside the world is filled will little signs of spring. Daffodils are beginning to bloom. The sky is blue and the sun is warm.

I enjoy the feeling of my fingers on the keyboard. The thump of the bass from the music. I take a sip of cold seltzer water and love the sensation of bubbles on my lips and tongue.

I ruffle my cat’s fur and marvel at the rumble as she purrs.

I don’t have much in terms of wealth, but I have music. I have love. I am surrounded by small blessings that remind me how precious every moment of this life truly is.

Yes, there are tears. There is loss and grief and shame and fear. These things are part of the human condition. Fighting them only gives these emotions power. Just let them come, accept them and then count your blessings. Even the smallest bit of joy has the power to build a bonfire in your heart.

That fire can light up the darkest hour. It can burn bright enough for lonely strangers to warm their hands, face and heart.

With my music and my life, I want to burn so brightly that I can be a beacon for anybody in darkness. To share a song, a story, a cup of coffee, a hug, a filthy joke, a kind word, guitar lick and more and more until the fire spreads to more hearts. As the fire spreads my name may be forgotten, but the light and the love will carry on.

If I live for another forty years or four, the fire has already been lit in my students. I see it in their eyes. I hear it in their songs. The embers dance across the sky like fireflies. In joy or grief, at my big moment or my fall from grace, I set my eyes on stars I helped foster into brightness. I stand up and begin working all over again.

Count your blessings. Build your fire.

May God bless each and every one of you.

~Patrick Costello / March 2019

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