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Where to look for inspiration?

Where to look for inspiration? We all need it, and sometimes our internal inspiration tank is on empty. On those occasions, I would suggest the arena of artists and athletes, and not those who are at the peak of their prowess, but rather the ones who are facing the diminishment of their God-given powers due to age and the body’s inevitable breakdown. Think Joni Mitchell and Tiger Woods.

I grew up listening to the music of Joni Mitchell. Her angelic voice was healing and cathartic. I was captivated by her lyricism, her unique blend of folk and jazz, and her willingness to experiment to create rare sounds at the price of easy commercialism.

I saw her in concert decades ago at the Universal Amphitheater (when it was an open air venue) at the apex of her vocal powers and musicianship. Her beautiful voice instilled the night air and sky with an aura of mysticism and soul.

I still remember her introducing a song by explaining the distinctive power of music. She said there was something magical about being able to sing songs over and over with different arrangements, inflections, and nuances. No one ever tells Van Gogh to paint Starry Night again. But I can recreate Big Yellow Taxi as many times as I want, and each time it’s new and powerful and different.

Thanks to Martin Scorsese’s brilliant filming of The Band’s The Last Waltz farewell concert, Joni Mitchell’s profile in shadow as she sings backup to Neil Young’s Helpless remains forever imprinted in my memory. She possessed the voice of an angel.

But to see her perform now at the Newport Folk Festival, at the age of 78 and still bravely recovering from the devastating effects of a brain aneurysm in 2015, is to be truly inspired by her determination and will. Knowing that she has had to teach herself how to get out of bed and walk, much less relearn how to play the guitar, elevates her special gifts to a super-human level. Seeing her defy time and disease with such grace is a Heaven-sent gift. Her grit and determination to overcome debilitation more than fills up my internal reservoir of inspiration.

For the last two decades I have paid close attention to Tiger Woods’ golfing genius. To say that he is the best player of his generation, and arguably of any generation, is a massive understatement. At the height of his skill, he dominated opponents, leaving them to vie for second place finishes, and tamed the world’s most difficult golf courses, rendering them into pitch-and-putt sites.

But Tiger Woods demonstrated his greatest attributes this year as he battled back to competitive golf after his life-altering can accident in which he nearly lost a leg. To witness him endeavor to walk the challenging topography of Augusta, fighting with all his physical might and mental toughness just to make it through all 18 grueling holes, is to be truly inspired by human will. He further inspired the world by returning this year to St. Andrews, the birthplace of golf and site of one of his most impressive victories, knowing that his body could no longer match his skill, yet still putting his reputation in the arena of competition. Injuries and surgeries have diminished his golf game, but they have only enhanced his triumphal perseverance and willpower.

Like Joni Mitchell, Tiger Woods has more than filled up my internal reservoir of inspiration.

I feel blessed to be a witness to the willingness of this great artist and great athlete to continue to perform when their capacities have been compromised. For me, their greatest achievements are not what they accomplished in the glory of their prime years, when their talents and powers were seemingly limitless, but in what they are demonstrating now, in their seasons of waning talents and powers.

Joni Mitchell and Tiger Woods are the embodiment of Bruce Springsteen’s encouragement in song, No Retreat, No Surrender, and as such, are profoundly inspirational.

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