What makes us who we are?

I'm a mom, vintage store employee, and style blogger now, but when I was younger I thought I'd be a musician. I practiced every day. And when I wasn't practicing, I was looking for new sheet music, and joining student orchestras, and making trips to the music store to try out astronomically expensive flutes. I never bought one of those flutes. But I longed for them in a way most ordinary teenage girls pine for new shoes.

Sometimes, when I was practicing something dull like scales, I imagined what it would be like to be a celebrated classical musician, and play in Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. I would wear a sweeping red gown. I'd play a complex French piece in a minor key. People would bring me roses.

When I was fourteen I auditioned for the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. I didn't expect to get in. My mother didn't want me to try out at all, fearing that if I did get in I'd fall victim to the rapists and muggers and pedophiles she was certain lurked on every subway car, waiting to abduct me during my hour-long commute from Long Island.

"You'll be so far away," she warned. "Bad things happen to teenage girls traveling in the city. I just read about that in the paper."

"So?" I countered. As far as I was concerned, being far away was kind of the point.

I don't think of myself as an adventurous person. I've never gone skydiving. Or white water rafting. Or mountain biking. I hate roller coasters. I always follow recipes when I cook. I am not the type to throw my things haphazardly into a suitcase and head out onto the open road without a map. I plan my outfits days before I intend to wear them.

And yet somehow, after I got into Performing Arts, I became adventurous. I took the subway. I strode through Harlem and Hell's Kitchen alone, without a second thought. I spent my allowance in charity thrift stores I leaned about from a homeless person I befriended my freshman year. I cut class to attend a gallery show I saw with my artist boyfriend who was substantially older than me. I fell head over heels in love with being a musician. I practiced and practiced and practiced, in public hallways and tiny practice rooms and the soaring performance hall of conservatory and once in the stairwell of Carnegie Hall, where I performed my junior year.

I haven't picked up my flute in nearly twenty years. I used to practice for three hours a day, seven days a week, fingers slapping the keys in a satisfyingly purposeful way. Now my flute lays neglected in its case somewhere within my recess of  my closet. So many years have passed since I've performed that it's almost as if I was never a musician in the first place. Sometimes, suddenly, I get the urge to play. I miss the adventure of mastering a new etude, of exploring the cavernous tomb of the music library, and of commuting into a city that mystified and inspired me.

Last week I took my kids on a short vacation without my husband. We spent four hours driving deep into Texas hill country, through winding single lane roads and dusty abandoned towns. It was nerve-wracking, and the most adventurous thing I've done in years. We ate at food trucks and went swimming in lake LBJ and took a boat ride under the Congress Street bridge in Austin to watch bats fly out at sunset. At the hotel pool, my daughter befriended a little redheaded two year-old girl. They spent an hour swimming together, splashing and floating on their backs while I chased my twins out of the deep end.

I chatted with the toddler's mom after my daughter left to go paddle boarding on the lake. She asked if I'd had the chance to try paddle boarding myself.

I had, I told her. It was amazing. And scary. And totally fun.

"Your daughter said you weren't adventurous. And that you hate getting your hair wet." She looked me over approvingly. "But you went paddle boarding!"

Somehow, between graduating and getting married and having kids and jobs and bills to pay, I'd adopted the idea that I'd failed at the one thing I was good at. I never became a professional musician. I went to Mannes College of Music and a big public university, where I learned about sociology and art and creative writing and American history. My interests changed on a daily basis. One month I was volunteering at a Head Start school, then working on a sculpture of a pregnant woman, then writing sanctimonious editorials on underage drinking for the school newspaper.

I got a job. And a different job. And a boyfriend, whom I eventually married. I stopped taking flute lessons. I stopped practicing. I just stopped.

My family was very concerned. They asked me why I'd stopped playing. They scolded me for "wasting my talent." What happened to the flute? they asked. What was so bad about performing?

I shrugged. I couldn't answer. I felt somehow ungrateful, like a petulant child shunning her old toys for something newer, shinier.

There are many things that I do which the old me, the musician me, wouldn't consider legitimate. They don't involve trekking through Manhattan or befriending the homeless or performing in Carnegie Hall. They don't set me apart as exceptional, or extraordinary. These things wouldn't put me on a professional path or earn awards or call for roses. Paddle boarding and writing a blog and raising three kids aren't exactly resume builders. I wonder if that's why they seem less legitimate than being a musician does, as if they don't count.

There are so many things that identify with as "who I am" that it's hard to narrow it down. I'm a reader, a thinker, a thrifter, a runner, a bad joke-teller and a whiskey drinker. And a former musician.

Who we are isn't necessarily what we do. And who we were isn't necessarily the person we are meant to be.



15 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this, I loved it! Just last night I was thinking about the goals we have for ourselves when we are children and teenagers. I haven't accomplished most of the goals I thought I would when I was 17. I am not the woman I thought I would be. Generally this thought makes me really sad. Is there anything sadder than a dream that's dead? I start thinking about the passage of time and people growing old and possibilities slipping away. But last night I had a radically different thought: maybe the dream dying is a good thing. Maybe it means we are growing and those dreams just don't fit us anymore, like a pair of jeans that shrunk in the wash. Maybe one dream dying makes way for new, better dreams. In the past I have often felt disappointment that I didn't accomplish my 17-year-old self's dreams. But I have accomplished other things that have made my life wider, larger, braver, stronger. I thought I would change the world at 17. I didn't know how, but I thought I would. I thought I would make the world a better place in some grand, undefined way - with my writing, mostly, and art and passion. I have not changed the world in some grand, undefined way at 31. But I have changed some lives for the better, and I try to be kind in everything I do. Maybe that's not huge, but it's enough.

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  2. I've often wondered at the whole "You must play every day" adage for musicians...yes, we play better when we practice regularly, but it's possible and often necessary to take breaks from that discipline/drudgery. I hope you'll pull out your flute, dust it off, allow yourself to just sound Awful, and give it another whirl just for your own pleasure. If there's a kind of music you've always wanted to try, be it jazz or standards or whatever, this would be a good time to try something new, where there would be no comparison to the demands or the skill levels you needed before. It could be a new adventure for you, and a way to share your former joy of music-making with your children.

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  3. Hi Elissa. What a wonderful post. How clearly I identify--my high school years were also consumed in the study of classical music, piano for me, though I also played flute seriously for a couple years. I taught music for ten years, then 'retired'. I got married, had a little girl. Write professionally. Study literature. When someone asks about me I usually forget to mention the bit about music, even though I gave countless hours and so much intensity to those studies.

    Last night I pulled out some Chopin, some Mozart, some Gershwin. And played the g harmonic scale up and down forever, slow and blistering-fast. My husband said it sounded amazing. It felt, somehow, restorative.

    Perhaps we will be able over time to integrate all these selves, to become so complete that our aspects are one unique picture, not disparate parts of the whole.

    Thank you for your post! I always read with enjoyment and sometimes (as today) profound identification. Keep up the good work. It seems you are becoming healthier and healthier as time goes on, dressing yourself with courage in more ways than clothing!

    Emily

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  4. Elissa, you are a fabulous writer and a breath of fresh air!! Out of all the fluff I follow, it's nice to read a blog that actually has substance and real, honest introspection that's not apologetic and filled with self-loathing. I love that about you!! Thank you for sharing this with us!

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    1. Thank you for your kind words, Andrea. They meant so much to me. It's difficult to write a blog post like this without worrying it will come across as narcissistic navel-gazing. I'm humbled by your words and really glad to have you as a reader!

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  5. This is just so beautifully said. I am a published novelist, short story writer, and poet...and nowadays, I write a blog. It seems to me that you are simply refusing to be put in any box and meeting your life's challenges in the way that seems right to you. And who knows, one day you might pick up that flute again.

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    1. Thank you so much, Terri. You always write the most beautifully supportive comments, and I am so grateful to have you as a reader. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really appreciate you!

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  6. Maybe I'm missing the point, but you can still be a musician without being a "professional" musician. Surely you've got community bands near you. I mean, I only say that because I played in high school, dropped it in college, but then started playing in a community band some years later, and I really enjoy it. It does make me feel a little "multifaceted" because it is something that is so different from my regular life. Maybe it's all just as well for you, but I always think it's a bit sad when someone stops playing an instrument.

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    1. I understand what you're saying, and appreciate your comment. I suppose I didn't do a proper job of articulating the idea that I only saw being a musician in a professional context. While playing stated out as a hobby, it evolved into a professional track. I only saw being a musician as a career path, and eventually, an obligation. It was only when I went to college, and saw that there were other things I was interested in, that I realized I didn't have to be a musician. I could be anything. And so I stopped playing. I didn't comprehend that music could be fun, and that I could play without it being my entire intensity. I wrote this post to challenge myself, and explore the idea that the past roles we have don't necessarily identify who we are, that we can evolve and develop interests beyond who we think we are supposed to be.

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  7. I'm a new reader, and I especially liked this post. Thank you! I struggle all the time with who I thought I was, who I might be now and where I'll end up before it's all over. It's hard to let go of a dream, but maybe that's part of our growth. You've given me something to think about.

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  8. I identify with this post like you have no idea! I too am a former floutist. Went to a performing arts school. While there I also discovered I had the pipes to sing and joined every group I could get involved with. Then I went to college, dropped every musical ambition I had and majored in English Education. Now I'm a school counselor. I do love my job-don't get me wrong. And if I hadn't become a HS English teacher, I never would have met my husband. But there are days when I meander down to our choir room to just listen. I miss my days being involved with music. It was such a large part of me. But now my time is filled to capacity with my current job, raising our son, running to all the after-school events for my husband (he is a school administrator), and the other things that make up a life. Someday I'll get back to it. For now I will settle for randomly pulling that Gemeinehardt out of the closet and wowing my boy with mad scale-playing skills. I think those dreams of my high school self didn't necessiarly die, but moved aside for new dreams. And without that, I wouldn't have the life I do now. Even if I mourn the loss of my musical self, I wouldn't trade one single moment of the life I have now for anything. Everything is as it should be.

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  9. Elissa, this is one of the most beautifully written posts I've ever read. It is eloquent and universal and raw. Fantastic. Thank you.

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  10. So beautifully said. One of life's hardest lessons is to realize that the dreams we have at one point in our life are not the only ones we can ever have, or *should* ever have.

    I was going to be a writer. I decided that when I was 7. I wrote for my high school yearbook and my college newspaper and at my first crappy job after graduating. I was going to be a reporter for the New York Times.

    Along the way, I met my boyfriend who became my husband and discovered that the path to becoming a reporter didn't always overlap with the path to being with him as he made his way through graduate school.

    For a long time, I thought I'd failed because I made my way into editing instead, and then into something else entirely (the brave new world of the internet, then called "new media"). I stopped writing, except for blogging occasionally and sporadically.

    And then I started my style blog 3 years ago. I couldn't articulate it at the time, but eventually I came to see that one of the reasons I've kept at it regularly and consistently is that it's my writing outlet. I'm the editor and author of my own publication.

    The other big epiphany that's come to me on this side of 40? Just because you didn't achieve it by 25 (or 30 or [insert imaginary deadline here]) doesn't mean you can't do it now. Which is why this former flutist is finally taking drum lessons, the instrument I always wanted to play anyway. (Except in 1978 drums were for boys and flutes were for girls.)

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  11. I read your post in 3 minutes holding my breath! I am so scared of regrets I didn't want to get to the end to understand if you have regrets or not! Sometimes we don't end up doing what we have always been dreaming about and I don't know if it's a good thing cause plans are boring or if it's a bad thing cause we "gave up" ! In your case it looks like the first case so I'm happy for you! Still I'm terribly scared about my case +_+ Thanks anyway for sharing this story with us it's really inspiring! :) Keeo up the goow work cause you're a great writer, sounds like you're a great mom and a very good thrifter ;)

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  12. I've read your post with very much interest wondering how it will end. I have to disagree with you. We always make and do whatever we are. Will we always be the same? No! And I thank God he allowed change in the world, because to be the same person for 70-80 years, man that'd be boring. Growing up we learn to set up goals. Facts, people, events and some other factors influence us to transform into individuals with different fate. However, on each stage, we are what we believe. And we do what we believe in.

    Have a good day!
    www.namiscribbles.blogspot.com

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