While reading Life Is A Gift the day it arrived, I had to stop for a moment to slow down. I was reading too fast; I wanted to take it slower. In that pause, I texted my co-blogger Lesley, who was also reading the book , that “I was living the book.” That was a typo, I meant to say that I was loving the book.
But now I don’t think it was a typo. I am living the book. Or trying to, to the best of my ability.
I admire Tony Bennett for sharing these stories from his life. And not just the good and positive things about his life; he is equally frank about the downturns and loss as well. It takes bravery to share all that with us. But more importantly, it takes enormous wisdom to learn from those experiences. Making mistakes is part of the human condition; learning from them is a form of courage.
When I have gone to see Mr. Bennett in concert, I have felt the love between the performer and the audience. In Seattle, almost exactly a year ago, a woman who I had never met cried from joy, on my shoulder, throughout the concert (alas, her husband wasn’t feeling the emotion). When Tony Bennett sings, he’s as emotionally real and honest and giving as anyone can possibly be. And now, in Life is a Gift, he tells us the stories from his life that have shaped him and made it possible to sing and paint with such integrity and honesty.
He says that “when you can give yourself up to love, you’re ahead of the game.” For almost everyone I know, being able to do that is one the hardest things to ask one to do. So many of us go through life with our hearts boxed away to prevent being hurt. Tony Bennett, who has seen and experienced so much pain–from losing his father to fighting in World War Two to almost losing touch with his sons–is able to acknowledge that pain and yet can approach everything he does with love. It takes enormous bravery to be so open.
I once worked with a gifted theatre director who told me “You don’t do this because you want to. You do this because you have to.” Mr. Bennett is so clear in his passion for both painting and singing and not being able to imagine doing anything else. This passion for painting and music clearly defines who he is. I can only be grateful that I am able to see him in concert, buy his albums and save up to perhaps buy one of his watercolors. Because his sharing his art and music is a gift as well. To us, for sure, and maybe for him too.
If we can learn anything from Mr. Bennett, though, it would be to emulate his often-stated desire to learn something every day, to sing better every time, to always be a student. Even at the very top of his game, he still is looking for a new phrasing for a song and changes to arrangements. At the age of 86, Mr. Bennett is taking sculpture lessons–learning a new art form.
His advice to young singers is so important. He’s teaching us how that how we live: with love, honesty and attention to our craft is always more important than quick success and a large paycheck. It’s not about being rich and famous; it’s about respecting and honoring the gifts that we’ve been given. And, most importantly, to live in the moment, in the now.
Life is indeed a gift. This book is a loving gift as well. It’s a portrait of an artist. But like the Rembrandt self-portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this book is looking back at us and asking us who we are.