What You Have May Well Be Enough (or Three Chords Can Make Beautiful Music)

This time of year, I think about transitions.

For many teachers and schools, it’s the time of year when the school year has just ended, is ending, or is soon to end. Some folks will be moving on.  New roles. New jobs. New opportunities. The summer ahead is about what was and what isn’t and what soon might be. At the library, we see a large influx of books, forgotten in all the places and spaces where such things get lost, begin to migrate home. Many other books leave for summer travel and summer reading and summer “Let’s check out every picture book we can get our hands on!”

And when I think about this time of year and transitions, I think a lot about the soundtracks to such times. My soundtrack for transitions for the last several years has been the soundtrack of the Pawnee Unity Concert, the concert that wraps the ending of the sixth season of Parks and Recreation. When I feel particularly wistful and in need of a good cry, I allow the last episode of the series to cross my eyes ((I did so earlier today, in fact. And it’s still maybe the best last episode of a television show that’s ever been made.)).

In particular what drives the montage of change that is the Pawnee Unity Concert is a song by The Decemberists. It’s called “The Crane Wife 3.”

This week, as I’ve been working through some transitions in my own work and life, I’ve been thinking about and listening to that track, and it’s been on and in my mind. Over and over and over. I’m in a place lately where I’m digging deep into a song or two at a time. ((There is not, I’ve learned, a good English word for this. But it’s meditative in a sense, and poetically critical in another. I grab a song with both hands and wear it for a while, exploring all its pockets and checking the seams for rips, tears, and stories.))

The song, which is built around an old folk taIe about an injured crane that’s cared for by someone who comes across it, and he one day discovers the crane has left and shortly after, a woman appears who can weave beautiful clothing. Over time, the man discovers that the clothes she makes are made of her, of feathers and skin.  As I often do when I’m digging into a song, I grabbed my guitar and worked through how the song is constructed.  I wanted to see if I could play it, to try it on a different way.

When I picked up the guitar and googled some chord progressions, I learned a valuable thing. The song, which carries an awful lot of meaning and plenty of metaphor about change and transition and carries all of the welcome baggage of the end of one thing and the beginning of another, and the ending of that, too, perhaps, is built on a very simple rock tradition.

The whole song is a repeating progression of just three chords. Verse?  D A G.  Chorus? D A G?  In between . . . I bet you can guess.

Just three chords. And it is more than enough.

I do a lot of coaching and consulting with folks who tell me that the obstacles in their way are their lack of resources. We ONLY have, they say. Or “we need tables and we only have desks,” or “we have desks, but we really need chairs.” ((I hear this one an awful lot.))  They can’t move through a transition and into a next new thing because they see what’s available and wish for more, rather than think about how what’s right there may well be sufficient.
I get stuck like that, too, from time to time.

And I understand that some big things are impossible to do without the right resources. But frequently we can move forward in big ways with what we have, and we decide not to and allow the constraints to be the thing we pretend keeps us from doing so.

But they’re not.

When you get stuck, and aren’t sure how to move forward, I hope you’ll remember that three chords are frequently enough. You can do big things with just three chords. There are other chords out there, and maybe you’ll use them another time. Or maybe you can’t play the other ones, but don’t let that stop you from making music with the three that you have.

Tonight, that’s what I’m thinking about as I press repeat.

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