Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!

Walt Whitman

In the United States we have some fairly standard ways of defining success and failure. Success is a good position. Success is a good salary. Success is power. Success is being the boss, the big fish.

Success in America is also often defined by vibrancy. It is being healthy — on the youngish side — strong, beautiful.

Success is also things. It is stuff — good clothing, a good house, a good neighborhood, a luxury car, expensive jewelry, a brag-worthy vacation.

And success in the U.S. is people, families, spouses, marriages, children. It includes “our people,” as if we could still own them  — housekeepers, maids, lawyers, shoppers, perhaps a trailing retinue of admiring and secretly jealous friends, perhaps some fleshly conquests.

Failure — it is not having these things.

By such definitions many of the people that I know are not successes.

Not to vilify the middle class or the wealthy — there are numerous super excellent people with stuff  and fluff and family enough — but many of the smartest, bravest, hardiest, kindest, funniest people I know are unemployed, or formerly employed. They are not wealthy. They are old. They are moms, grandmas, widows, divorced, sick, perhaps lonely. They live in rooms in small houses. They live in small apartments, in other people’s houses — in less than desirable neighborhoods —  some are in and out of hospitals. They have little, they know relatively few people in the grand scheme of things, they run nothing. People they pay do not prop them up.

And yet, and yet, just yet — how lovely they are.

Bill Holm has put it eloquently. The sunk, lost, unimportant, Whitman’s “numberless” — they play a kind of beautiful music. They play the gorgeous, melodic, halting and yet lovely “music of failure.” Perhaps they are failures as defined by our pre-paid, power-laid, beauty-bade, family-weighed American dream. But when these lesser lights are judged by their resilience, their good humor, their kindness, their godliness, their grit and their gumption — they play gorgeous music.

Bill has written that the “music of failure“ sounds “like Bach” to him, played by a so-called “failed” family friend.  Then he asks, “What does it sound like to you?”

To me it sounds like the voices of some of my most brave, fun, resilient friends.

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