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.