dear hilary: the tuning fork

Dear Hilary,

I want to please other people. I want to do whatever will make them happy. You want 100 photocopies in 3 minutes? Done. You want a strategic plan for the future of an organization at this college? Done. You want me to be there, run this errand, listen to this problem? I would love to. But then I run headlong into this wall. I really want to be a writer. I really want to be a counselor, of some kind. I really want to put writing and counseling together in some strange beautiful combination, and I don’t want to lose threads of theology, or of my love of French, or my love of theater… When I ask people what I should do, they tell me that I would be a great PhD student, of history or political science or philosophy. They tell me I could run an organization, a school even. I want to please them, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone’s dreams. Help?

Afraid to Disappoint

Dear Afraid to Disappoint,

Our piano is out of tune at home. The keys clink strange half-tones, and I swear I can hear it groaning when someone asks it to sing one more rendition of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Have you ever watched someone tune an instrument? They take that strange fork instrument and hit it against something – your knee, or a piece of plastic or wood, the door frame, or something. And then they hold it up to their ear to hear it ringing. The air moves between the two tines of the fork and the note – a middle C, or an A – becomes the foundation for the rest.

I have been thinking in these last few months that certain loves in our lives are like a tuning fork. They give us the foundation for the rest, a measure against which we can understand how other things might fit into our lives.

Sometimes it’s terrifyingly clear that they don’t sound the same. I do not love everything in the magnitude that I love writing. I do not breathe, and ache and live in biology; I do not yearn for one more hour with a potter’s wheel or a linoleum block printing press. And why should we be afraid of this? We will never be able to do everything, anyway. In the small amount of time we are gifted, why shouldn’t our hearts be caught up in the work we love most?

I think you ache to write. I think your body physically feels the need to put words on paper. Why else would you write? I think you are beginning to tune the piano of your life by the writing tuning fork. So strike it and listen. Does counseling sound like that? Does teaching? Does directing plays or traveling to France? Does politics, or philosophy, or history?

You write to me that you don’t want to disappoint others in their ideas of what you should do. I can understand that. You don’t want to say no to a career in history or political science or philosophy, partly because you love these professors and mentors. You want to honor their work, affirm the value of their field. That’s admirable. But, Afraid to Disappoint, I have to tell you that the only sure disappointment in this life is living less of you. You are the unlikely combination of counseling, writing, French, history, politics, philosophy, and faith. You are the unlikely wedding planner meets chemical engineer. You are the unlike-everything-else musician turned playwright turned nanny turned environmental advocate…

Being that, that strange impossible combination, takes everything you’ve got. It will cost you the security of pleasing others. It will cost you the comfort of a plan. It will cost you a life characterized by steps and guidelines and directions and each thing done right.

It will pay you back with a heart that hurts so much sometimes you think that the person just stabbed you. It will give you back failed attempts to plan weddings and failed attempts to get a second interview and failed attempts to move to France. It will give you back uncertainty and breakups at two in the morning when it isn’t said but unsaid, and you leave and lie on your bed thinking that for sure you are dead and there is no more and what else could there be, and you’ll play country music and read Dear Sugar and throw the book across the room because this life will be so damn mysterious.

But isn’t that what you really want? To throw books across the room because of the damn mystery of it all, the deep love that roars, the brilliant failure, the moment of singular compassion, the breakup at 2am and the return flight from France and everything it teaches you?

Strike the tuning fork. There isn’t anything to be afraid of.



5 thoughts on “dear hilary: the tuning fork

  1. Dear Hillary, this resonated with me. Thank you for sharing!! I liked what you said, “strike the fork, see how it sounds”, when we do what we love or we attempt to do what might not be part of us. I loved it. Thank you!! Blessings

  2. The tuning fork. Oh, what a perfect description, dear Hilary. Such a beautiful image about trying to find that which makes us come alive, and that it is only by being stretched that we play our notes most beautifully. And a reminder that what resonates with you may rest discordantly on me, and *this is all right.* We do not all tune to the same fork, but oh, how we need all the notes to play the music. Thank you, thank you, dear friend.

  3. Hilary I think you have found a huge key. As a much older woman who was decently good at many things ( we all are), the key for me was to find, as early as possible, what I must do — not what I can. And then to realize that what one does for a paycheck, in my case, for years CEO our family businesses and later teach high school, may not be that holy pursuit without which you will end up insane or worse ineffective. For me, keeping on at the MUST regardless of the luxury of being able to do only that, is a key to sanity and joy. You, like many I mentor, are so dang talented…that can work against you. I suggest you keep asking that question, “What MUST I do?”

    And seasons, sweet girl. There are seasons, especially for women who wish to have children. I have four…they sucked the brain cells right out of my literary mind. So that too, can complicate it all for us gals.

    I am confident that your gifts will keep opening doors…many, and even the one that matters most to you.

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