Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Losing my identity was a gift (and how American Pie lied)

Imagine from here.
Have you ever lost part of yourself? A big chunk of your identity; who you are, how you see yourself?

Sounds sad, right? Well, it is a little sad. But it’s also kind of awesome.

Once upon a time (a lifetime ago) I was a musician. According to my shrink I still am, but if the definition of musician is someone who writes, plays, or sings music, then I no longer qualify.

I’m going to assume that singing badly enough in the car to make both child and partner consider jumping out and walking doesn’t count. Trust me, I’m right on that one.

To put this in perspective, you need to know that I was an extremely shy kid. A kid who was always sick. Always bullied. Always a bit weird. Not very bright. Always chosen last for anything at school. A kid who listened to music nobody else liked. Read books that were too old for her. Wrote weird stories and was generally on the outer. The kid who couldn’t buy something in a shop if the price wasn’t on it, because she was too shy to ask.

Despite repeating Grade One because I couldn’t read, I caught up fast and soon overtook my peers. I loved to read. I loved to write.

Don’t get me wrong, I was no introvert. Quite the opposite; I desperately wanted the limelight. I loved performing in plays, being the centre of attention. But off stage, I was terrified of everything. And everyone.

It’s not surprising then, that when I discovered a talent for music, music became my identity. Music was everything, because the kid underneath was nothing.

I started on that dreaded instrument of musical torture, the recorder. Next came clarinet, tenor saxophone and flute. Clarinet was my real love. How I loved to play that thing. It soothed me, became my best mate.

I still wrote and read but music took over and writing was shoved to the back of my over-crowded brain.

Music didn’t solve my social issues or my shyness but it gave me a much-needed outlet for my extroversion. And it was one thing (finally) that I was good at. So good that I was lead clarinet in various youth bands and orchestras. My music teachers loved me. They knew I was destined for Big Things. I was “the next Don Burrows*” and I was accepted into the Conservatorium of Music at Melbourne University.

During my first year of university I permanently damaged the tendons in my hands. I couldn’t play. You can’t complete a performance-based degree when you can’t perform.

I left university, and music, behind me.

My identity was taken away.

A tragedy.

You’d think so.

You’re right, I grieved for a very, very long time. I still have rare days where the anger wells up and can’t be contained. I’ve made my peace with those days and know they pass.

It may be hard to fathom, but losing music was a strange and complicated gift – but a gift nonetheless. The loss shoved me head-first into the real world, where I had no choice but to start to deal with my shyness. That real world taught me to care less. It taught me that few people can hurt you if you never take yourself too seriously. Laugh at myself, and steal the power from others laughing at me.

It also made me to realise that music wasn’t all there was to being me. There was writing.

With music out of the way, the road was clear for me to write again.

It took twenty years, but here I am.

If I hadn’t lost music, there'd be no stories about finding live lizards in the bottom of my handbag, dead possums in my roof-space, and bongo calves who steal my airtime. I wouldn’t be sharing tales of involuntary feminine waxing in public places, GPSs with suicidal tendencies, and how buildings are smarter than me.

Imagine if I’d never been able to tell those stories?

Now THAT would have been a loss.

Have you ever had to re-build your identity?
How did you do it?

* Go Google him. I know. I’m old. But not as old as Don Burrows. Sorry Don.

P.S.  I have a bone to pick with American Pie. I attended many band camps and I can honestly say that I never pleasured myself with any of my instruments. Given that one of them was a tenor sax, that was probably for the best.


  1. I can relate to this for similar reasons.
    Music was the only extra-curricula activity I was involved in as I was too unco for sport.

    Sure, I did bird-watching, but as one can imagine, this was probably something which didn't help build my reputation.

    So, music was it.

    I played in lots of bands, in and out of school.
    Occasionally played for a musical theatre group.
    Good times indeed.

    After school finished, that was it. No more bands, no more seeing the same friends who also played in those bands.

    It was a bit sad actually.

    In the 2000s I helped out with a friend's school but playing French Horn in their school musicals, but then we moved away and that too ended.

    Now saying "I play the French Horn" is a little bit like saying "I'm in year 10". It's not actually true. Sure, it was, but it isn't now.

    It might be like a bike, I may not forget how to play it. Now when I go to venues where I used to play on stage as a lad, I'm sitting in the audience watching other people.

    I know where I'd rather be.

  2. I lost a huge part of myself when I stopped being a wife. I didn't know who I was any more, but now, I can see that it was the first step in finding myself. There is still a part of me missing, but now I know that being a wife cannot fill that hole.

  3. I am so relieved to hear that kids at band camp dont commit unspeakable acts in the wind section. I was beginning to think that band camps were veritable orgies ;-).
    In all seriousness its sad that you weren't able to pursue your passion for music. Sometimes life deals a dud hand. Even though you can't play anymore perhaps there is some way of keeping music in your life.

    1. Who knew American Pie would lie to us this way?!!!!


  4. Ah.... the music world's loss will be the writing world's gain. One man's trash is another mans treasure. Did the tendons improve ? Can you play for pleasure or is it finit. (MLAATCWT)

    1. Thanks Sue. Yes they did but no I can't play.


  5. I want to give your younger self a HUGE comforting hug and tell them everything will be ok and you will see proof that everything happens for reason.That you are not weird but you are unique.
    I would tell your kid self you will write and with your words you will reach others and make their world a better place.Xx

  6. Haven't had to rebuild because I'm still trying to build.

    What we do should never be who we are. We DO a lot of things, LOVE a lot of things, HAVE a lot of things. It should never be just one.

  7. Appallingly sad. Never had the opportunity to study music, we could barely afford clothes. That sounds pathetically whiny, but it's not meant to be, just the simple truth. But I know what it is to hang on to something tight because it's all you have that makes you feel good about yourself. The gift of being a musician is something I envy a great deal in others, at least my children are getting the opportunities I never did. And squandering them, of course :)

    I've never actually watched American Pie all the way through. To my great misfortune I saw the most recent sequel. It was just as poor and unfunny as I suspect the first one was. But I do remember seeing those One Time at Band Camp clips all over the place, and it's become a kind of stock phrase in this house.

    Anyway, this would cause me great grief too and I think you have every right to feel bereft and sad and angry from time to time - to have such an ability taken from you. It makes me sad and angry for you too.

    Though PS, yes, it would be a loss, for everyone, if your body of work was not there for us to read.

  8. I played a lot of sport and was quite good at a couple of sports - State level etc. But... a lot of it was tied up with becoming anorexic in my final years of high school, so after school and after Uni I stopped everything when I started to gain weight.

    Even now I struggle with certain aspects of sport cos the whole thing got too intertwined with my eating disorder by the end. But... I do regret that I stopped playing ANYTHING. I'm such an all/nothing person.

    Do you miss your music now though? Or would it be impossible to fit it into your life with everything else?

    1. Hi Deb. I miss it but I couldn't do it even if I could fit it in. I'd make room for it, I reckon!


  9. Decided to get on the computer to comment on a few blogs ... phone is letting me down!!!! And I really wanted to comment here. I love your writing, so it is a hard call for me to share your love lost. However, I played the recorder as a child, never graduated to any other wind instruments (just talking heaps), and I loved that time alone where each note would drift into the air and join with the other to form a beautiful noise that would soothe me. I still have my instruments and usually get them out once every 5 years or when we move house and will play a little tune, they still feel good in my hands, but that time is gone and I too love to write and that is now my solace and my joy! I for one am very grateful that you compose with words!

    1. Thanks Sandra. I love that... talking heaps is a type of wind instrument. Gold!


  10. I couldn't even begin to imagine what it feels like to lose something that was so much a part of you. Especially when there is nothing you can do about it. I for one though am glad that you rediscovered your writing. You certainly have a gift with words.

  11. Oh so sad! I used to be a musician of sorts, story much like your first commenter. You are so funny and clever with words so perhaps it was meant to happen xx
    Life is cruel and unusual sometimes is it not??

    1. Thanks Sarah - yes it is sometimes! xxx