I went out to the porch at 2:47 AM to smoke. I hadn’t been smoking lately. But at 2:47 in the morning, my defenses were down. And I still had the damn things lying around. So I took the pack, which was a brand I didn’t even like, and tapped out a cigarette. Then I went to the kitchen for a lighter and a tumbler of Dewars. And I took these, my steadfast talismans, to the porch with me for convalescence.
I’d been practicing chords and runs, my headphones plugged into my Yamaha keyboard to keep my noise to myself. And I’d been trying to remember how these songs went, these songs that I knew once but had since forgotten. These key touches that, at one time, felt so natural, but now were foreign to me. And it was exasperating: hashing over the things I’d already done. The pieces I’d already played. The person I’d already been. And doing it poorly. Struggling to remember what made these pieces work before. Struggling to remember what made me work before. And fearing I wouldn’t find it again.
Outside was a damp blanket of ambient noise. The relentless hum of fans from A/C units. The rise and the fall from the hot-breathed din of crickets. The spinning, whirling crescendo of cicadas, clicking and grinding like a thousand tiny maraca players tweaking on acid. The air, just vibrating and full of itself.
It’s the opposite in winter—when there’s nothing but a reserved, hushed silence at night. And I don’t know which I prefer. Both have their charm, I suppose. The sound is good. It reminds me of Houston, where I grew up. The muggy summers of my adolescence. Slow afternoons, ripe with dormant potential, but too young to wake up, or (it seems) to ever get old. There’s something comfortable about the sound, the way it envelops you and keeps you from thinking too much. It’s why we talk: to fill the difficult silence.
But the silence, the silence is everything.
We are all of us always talking and talking and never shutting up. Because we all have this voice, by God, and the will to use it. We have all forgotten how to just be quiet and hear what is said when we don’t speak. And to stop trying to control everything. To stop trying to do everything the right way. I have tried to do so many things the right way. And I have always failed. And I’m tired of it.
I say the most truth when I’m not trying to speak. I am the most present when I’m not trying to be. Then again, I have spoken so much bullshit, and I’m afraid I’m speaking more of it now. I really can’t help myself. And even if I tried to not speak bullshit, I’m not sure I can tell the difference anymore.
There are books and books on making a relationship. On growing a marriage and building a baby. And on living a “happy” life, fulfilled and passionate. There are books and books on doing a thing called succeeding. And doing it in business. And in art. And in life. And they are all fictions, these books. They are all filled with words a person is speaking so she doesn’t have to say nothing, which is one of the scariest goddamned things to do.
I know. I’m terrified of saying nothing. But I’m worried that’s the only time I’m telling the truth.
When I’m playing music, I feel like I’m telling the truth, partly, because I’m not saying anything. I’m not speaking any words. It has remained mostly non-academic for me, music. Something I’ve felt my way through rather than thinking a lot about. Even when I’m doing something technical, like scales. If I close my eyes and turn off my brain and just feel it out, I do them better. The scales work. But if I think about them, I fuck them up. I get stuck. Or rather, I go careening into panicked inaction
The same has been true with people. The same has been true with life.
I would never make a good studio musician. If you put a piece of music in front of me and told me to play it exactly like that, I couldn’t do it. I’d have to walk away. But if you gave me a loose structure and told me to make it my own, we might have something. Or we might not. It would all depend on whether or not you like my style and voice.
And okay, look: I can make all of this sound cool (which if you want to know the truth, is what I’m trying to do). Like, hey I don’t read music I just play, man. But the fact of it is, I don’t have the patience or the ability to really learn music the way I should. I admire people who do, and I envy what they can do and what they know. And I used to think that this would come to me one day, this knowledge. But it has not, and it probably won’t. And the older I get, the more I’m okay with that. And the more comfortable I am about the things I do know about music, which are the same things I know about life.
I like being surprised by it. I like it to remain mysterious. I don’t like over-thinking it, even though I often do (and am doing so now). I like playing music with people, which is the same as being friends with them, and feeling the pull of that thing we’re doing taking us where it wants us to go. I like tapping into that, even if it’s just for a few seconds, and just feeling a little awed by it. When I’m doing that thing I don’t want to be somewhere else. When I’m doing that thing, I don’t want to be somebody else. It puts me in the moment, into myself, and into the people around me, in a way few other things do. Completely present. Focused. Stirring. With just the sounds. And us putting the sounds where we think they should go.
And man, that really does it.
But sometimes with the music, just like with winter, just like with friends—like with anything that’s good—it’s not just about where we put the sounds, but where we put the silences.
Like these long, cold silences between us. And only the memory of our fingers touching. The drinks we pour alone. And the things we don’t say.
And then that does it. Sometimes that does it, too.
David Olimpio grew up in Texas but currently lives and writes in Northern New Jersey. He believes that we create ourselves through the stories we tell, and that is what he aims to do everyday. Usually, you can find him driving his pick-up around the Garden State with his dog in the passenger seat.