I grew up in a household where no one got better at anything. No one practiced anything. No one started a project, no one finished a project. No one took an instrument, no one played a sport. My father made it clear that we were never to look foolish, which to me translated to don’t try anything new. When I took ballet at seven and came home and complained to my mother that my toes hurt, she said well honey if it hurts, quit. So I quit everything.
And then I married someone who relishes being a beginner. It seems everything he does he does to get better. At 53 he started playing tennis and every day he charges into the house exuberant at the new thing he just learned. The man thrives on teeny baby steps of progress.
When he took Suzuki violin with our kids, he walked around the house squeaking on that half-size child’s instrument attempting to play Twinkle Twinkle. Part of me was thinking, doesn’t he get it? He’s obviously not good at this. He should quit. But the smart part of me, my gut part that holds the wisdom, was well aware that what he was doing was vitally important. At 2:30 in the morning, after screeching the same 19 notes for three months running, he stood at the foot of our bed and with the excitement of a five-year-old said, babe, babe I made a breakthrough! And he proceeded to play Twinkle flawlessly. I remember sitting bolt upright with tears rolling down my cheeks. How could I have reached this age and not known that what he was doing would lead to what he had just done. How had I missed this fundamental life lesson?
It’s amazing how our childhood wounds shape us. It wasn’t as if my parents beat us or locked us in a closet but “just quit” and “never look foolish” are indelibly imprinted on my psyche and rear their ugly little heads whenever I even think of trying something I’ve never tried before.
The title of Annie Lamott’s landmark book Bird by Bird came from her father’s response to her nine-year-old brother sitting in his room with a pile of notes anguishing over a report on birds due the very next morning. Dad, the boy whined, how am I ever going to get this done? The father gently put his hand on the boy’s back and simply said, “bird by bird, son.”
Last night I picked up my husband’s harmonica. I blew a few notes and he said, do you want me to show you how to isolate one note. He took the instrument and showed me and then I tried. But I had no success. He took it back and showed me again emphasizing how he curled his tongue and pursed his lips and blew at the same time. I kept trying and kept trying to get that one note. Don’t give up, keep going, don’t quit, my grown-up self insisted. You’re not good at this, you look like an idiot, my wounded child piped in. I was about to put the thing down when I got it! I got one note all by itself. When my husband didn’t yell hurrah, good job wow you did it! You’re brilliant! I turned on him. I snapped, the teacher is supposed to validate the student. I just did it right. And you didn’t say anything! The poor guy looked stunned and said, yes, well you did do it. Good.
If this weren’t my issue, my broken part, I’m sure I wouldn’t have needed a standing ovation for being able to play one stupid note. I apologized. He apologized.
The thing that I keep thinking about is how powerfully those early mini-traumas affect us and how can I wipe the slate clean and begin without those damaging voices in my head that keep me stuck? How do I silence them?
Maybe I start by not blaming my father anymore.
Maybe I can imagine him watching me from his perch in heaven all these years later struggling with the harmonica and feel him gently patting my back and saying simply; you can do it, Nance. Just do it . . . note by note.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart (Hyperion/Little Brown) which has gone into its sixth printing and will be released as an E-book this May. She won the Derek Bok Teacher of the Year award for the two years she taught for Robert Coles at Harvard.