Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lessons From a Street Performer

My Dad, brother, and I recently went on a guys' weekend to Baltimore, MD.  We had made this trip about six years ago and had a great time.  A sequel trip was long overdue.  We watched the sun set over the water, cracked hard shell crabs, and talked long.  We spent hours in Barnes and Nobel collecting more books than we will ever read.  We talked business.  We laughed.  While it was difficult to coordinate three busy schedules and schedule the trip, it was time well invested.  The being always outweighing the doing. 

On our first trip a few years ago there was a street performer that slowed our walk and captured our attention.  He was dressed completely in yellow, strikingly similar to the Man in the Yellow Hat from Curious George.  We dubbed him "Yella Man."  The slang offering him more street cred.  We witnessed a new act from him each time we passed through the harbor.  His impromptu performances didn't seem to be ordained by the government folks who must ordain such things on the harbor, but no one seemed to be chasing him away either. 

On our recent visit, we eagerly looked for Yella Man once again.  We stumbled upon a new street performance.  The performer wasn't dressed in yellow.  Instead, he wore a mismatched, thick suit.  Upon observation, we agreed that it was the same guy - this was in fact Yella Man.  His act was much more polished now than it had been a few years ago.  A small sound system connected to a dated CD player provided audio accompanying the act.  There were  now scheduled show times. The government folks that ordain such things on the harbor seemed to have given him their blessing and some structure to the program. 

We saw one complete performance and the beginning and ending of others.  We overheard Yella tell another person in the audience that he's done these performances for over 15 years and always makes enough to pay his mortgage and get by.  The street performances were his only work.  While the actual performance wasn't very good, we were oddly captivated by the show.  When he ended a show he asked for our money. The crowd tossed a few dollars in his bolo hat that lay overturned on the ground.   The show itself wasn't worth much, but I believe we had gained some significant life lessons nonetheless.

Yella seemingly lived the mantra of starting.  It's well noted that a gap between the wildly successful and those who just lament the good life as unattainable rests in the starting.  The successful start.  Those drowning their faded dreams over unhappy hours often simply failed to ever start.  Ghandi encouraged us to be the change that we wanted to see in the world (or in our marriages, careers, and friendships).  He called us to start.  Best selling author John Acuff says, "We don’t set out for average. But that’s exactly where we end up after listening to our fears day after day, year after year. Our dreams take a back seat and eventually are left stranded by the side of the road."  Acuff calls us to punch fear in the face and escape average by doing work that matters.  And any work can matter.  Yella Man started.  He took marginal talent and shaped it into a business that earns enough for him survive.  It's key to note that he earns "enough."  The key to defining our success is in first determining where our "enough" lies.  Once we know what's "enough", we must start.  Yella punched fear in the face and turned what he enjoys doing into a business that provides enough. 

We saw Yella Man perform the last of a full day of shows.  It was a sweltering day in June.  The sun disappearing from the horizon only offered marginal relief from that heat.  Yella dressed in a full wool suit.  The show climaxed with Yella riding a 6 foot unicycle... while juggling flaming sticks... in heavy suit... on a 90 degree evening.  Yella gathered every last ounce of energy in his voice as he framed the final act for the audience.  Sweat dripped from his head.  He attempted to mount the bike and missed.  A second attempt failed as well.  The crowd assumed this to be a part of the act, a way to illustrate the difficulty of the trick.  He attempted to mount the bike again.  A fourth attempt failed.  The audience shifted in their seat, an uncomfortable restlessness growing from the performers failing.  A fifth attempt wasn't close.  Yella Man smiled and joked about potentially being there all night.  Some in the crowd smiled a polite, empathetic smile in return. Others voiced their disdain.  Both hope and sadness teetered in the heat of the night as we waited for him to continue.  Most just wanted this to be over.  Yella mounted the bike, wobbled around for a bit, juggled for a moment, and jumped triumphantly from the bike, arms raised in victory.  There was scattered applause.  We admired his perseverance.  It took six attempts to pull off the final trick.  It took a lifetime of self assurance and confidence to muster the courage to attempt the trick six times among a tired, sometimes hostile audience.  Yet, he persevered and found success.  It wasn't a gold medal final act, but it was enough.

Yella knew how to laugh at life.  In the midst of a sub par performance and a crowd that parted when someone who had too much to drink regurgitated their entire evening, he laughed.  He laughed at himself.  He laughed at the tricks he nailed.  He laughed at the tricks that were confusing and misunderstood by the audience.  He laughed with the crowd.  He nudged laughs from others even with the jokes that bombed.  We laughed because he laughed, his joy contagious. 

Typically the sequel is never as strong as the original.  However, our second mans' trip to Baltimore proved even better than the first.  We were reunited with Yella.  And he taught us something about the importance of starting something, persevering through the trials, and laughing, laughing, laughing at life. 

I used to carry heavy anxiety about the direction God wanted me to go.  I'd picture God standing beside me carrying a map that I couldn't read waiting for me to choose a direction.  The problem was that I didn't now which direction God wanted me to choose.  So, I'd take a small step forward and quickly turn back to see if God's expression had changed indicating whether he was happy or not with my choice.  Then, I'd retreat back to our starting point and stand again beside a silent God waiting for me to move.  I'd take a step in a new direction and land on a thorn that wedged itself deep into my foot.  This was followed by pain and regret both over the thorn in my foot and over analyzing whether the thorn was there because God didn't want me to go in that direction or whether he had placed it there so that I'd learn to move through the pain and keep on.  Confused, I'd retreat back to our starting point with these paths all lying about, God impatiently tapping his foot at my inability to forge ahead, and me just wanting God to hand over the map.  With grace, my view of God and my understanding of His view of me has changed.  As I journey with God, I now picture him looking at me with full assurance and love.  God doesn't sit silently impatient and charge me with decoding his secret will.  Instead, he journeys with me and as we come upon a fork in the road He gently asks, "Where do you think we should go?"  As long as I'm journeying with God, our destination is shared.  He only asks that I trust him enough to start in a direction, faithfully persevere when the road looks impassible, and that I share long, hearty laughs with Him along the way.  All of the work that we do and all of the paths that we choose matter.  We need only to start, to get up again when we fall, and to smile wide at the hope continually springing from ashes all around.  And when the night is dark, the heat is building, and our mismatched suit feels tired and heavy, we can stand tall with our arms raised triumphantly in expectation as we know how the show ultimately ends. 

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