The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I've practiced the piano about 30 hours over the past three months.

Doesn't sound like much, except that over the past two decades, I've practiced a total of 100 hours, if I'm being generous, compared with the 5,000+ hours I'd logged by my mid-20s.

When I was 8 years-old I practiced an hour a day; I even got up at 6am to do it. I was going to be a concert pianist when I grew up.

By high school, I continued to practice, but just enough to keep from getting grounded.  There were moments in college when I was eager to practice.  When I was learning to play jazz so that I could audition for Synthesis, BYU's Big Band, for example.  But mostly I cosseted myself away for 3-4 hours each day because my parents wanted me to study music.  And so I did.

By the time I had married, graduated, and moved to New York, I was rather done with the piano, and rarely played for a good 15 years, except when asked to accompany the choir or soloists at church.

Pianokeys

Source:  istockphoto

Five years ago, I was asked to accompany Vanessa Quigley; she was to solo in a church gathering of 400-500.  I said ‘yes' because that's what we do in our church, but grudgingly.  I didn't know her, I'd never heard her sing.  Duty.  As she and I rehearsed an arrangement of the hymn ‘Oh My Father', something unexpected happened.  Her voice was beautiful and well-trained.  I found myself enjoying playing, collaborating with her.  I even practiced a few hours in advance of the performance.  I had a similar experience with an equally superb musician when I accompanied Macy Robison for a cabaret-style recital chronicling her experiences with mothering.

Childrenlisten

After decades of the piano being a duty, a drudgery to be endured, why did playing the piano again feel magical?

Is it because:

1. I'm no longer practicing to stay out of trouble or because I'm trying pass a class, but because I choose to?

2. I'm no longer wondering if I'll dazzle the audience with my technical chops (or embarrass myself terribly because I don't have them or I'll forget the music), but rather thinking about how to best showcase another musician, to be as Robin to Batman, the hero of support?

3. Or because I'm preparing to collaborate with another musician, to have a conversation with her and with the audience about making meaning of our life experience?  To help people feel something and believe something about themselves that they didn't feel before?  Ultimately, it's not about Robin, or even Batman, but about how they work together to save Gotham City.

In his book Practicing, Glenn Kurtz writes:

“Practicing is a story you tell yourself, a tale of education and self-realization…For the fingers, as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage….When you sit down to practice (to make a home, build a business, practice a sport, rear children), you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your myth.  You will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more.  The story of your practice weaves all this together.  When you truly believe the story of your practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.”

There have been stories I've told myself about why I practice — some in which I've been the victim, some the hero.

To now write a story in which the struggle has enabled me to collaborate, connect and communicate in a way I hadn't thought possible…

That's a story worth telling myself — and my children — over and over again.

Is there something that you used to love to do that you've set aside?  Have you tried to pick it up again and found yourself discouraged?  Is it possible that you can combine your childhood skills with the ones you've since acquired, to tell yourself a new story — one that is fresh and relevant to you today?

One of the reasons that Macy Robison's Children Will Listen has resonated is that it creates a story that gives meaning to mothering.  Saydi Eyre Shumway's post The Snapshot that Changed My Life similarly accomplishes that, Stephanie Soper's Portrait of An Artist, tells stories about her painting, while Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie's Memoirs of My Mother helps make meaning of her mother's untimely death.

I am struck by how much I don't enjoy, even eschew, being Batman when it comes to piano.  Yet it's important I feel my contribution is valued by the vocalist or musician for whom I playing.  Do you have a context in whicchatboh you prefer less visibility, but still want to be valued?

Should you want to read/listen to more about my college musical experience, click on Tell Your Soundtrack Story: College, Culmination of Childhood Dreams

Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie | Memoirs of My Mother

…Yet another lovely voice.

Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie enjoys being a wife and mother, baking, quilting, reading, gardening, triathlon-ing, blogging, and most recently writing her mom's life story.

After you read Rebecca's letter to her mother, will you share your thoughts with her and us?  

***

In July 1991, when I was 21, and serving an 18-month volunteer mission in Texas, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer; she passed away in May 1992 at our family home in Agoura, CA with my dad and her sister by her side. 

At the age of 38, my mother (a mother to 9 children, ages 2-15) wrote the following entry in her journal.

January 13, 1982

Jeri Edwards was in town for a few hours, so Helen had several stop over and say “hi”. I truly love Jeri. I’ve just finished reading, Eliza, and kept thinking of Jeri throughout. She’s one of those special, vibrant, fulfilled women who just radiates love of life, the Lord, and family, and of being! I’m just one of the hundreds who count her their close friend, but I’m honored to be counted too. I wish I could just sit and visit with her for hours-just share my heart and get more of a glimpse of hers.

It would be quite something to be the kind of woman she is. Everyone loves being around her. She is truly called “blessed” by all who know her. She’s intelligent, philosophical, social, spiritual, joyful, creative, kind, compassionate–all that I’d ever, ever hope to be. I feel as though I really was the caboose of heaven–just sober, depressed, boring, stifled me.

Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie 1982 Family PhotoThe Ellsworth Family (1982) — Pasadena, California

***

Present-day (21 May 2009)

Dear Mom,

It’s hard to believe that you wrote this journal entry just 10 years prior to your death. From my perspective, especially since I've become a mother, you were a wise and faithful mother and woman. It’s hard to read your self criticism from 1982 when I see you so differently.

Yet, there was a time when your words could have been my own.  When Wayne and I were engaged, now 15 years ago, after a visit to his family I walked out of his parent's home easily loving each sibling and parent, but feeling insignificant compared to Wayne’s mom.

She was superwoman in my eyes. She decorated, cooked, and crafted at a professional level. Next to her I felt like an immature, untalented person.  I was so sure Wayne would be disappointed, that very evening I let him know that he was not marrying someone as talented as his mom.  Certain that I couldn't possibly accomplish all that she did in a day, I cried, “I don’t even know how to tole paint!”  When Wayne replied,  “What is tole painting?”, I realized he wasn't looking for a professional crafter, chef or interior decorator; he was looking for me, and loved me.

I still admire Wayne’s mom’s talent and drive; she is a beautiful woman.  But I no longer feel as if I'm in her shadow.  As I've pursued my own path I've discovered talents and capabilities I never imagined I'd possess.  I not only can make more than tossed salad, you will be happy to know that one of Wayne's former co-workers recently told us he still remembers the strawberry pie I sent to work with Wayne over 10 years ago. (I'm so glad you left the recipe!)

Strawberry-pie

What a relief it is to finally know that I don't exist to fit another person's mold,
but to be true to my own self, to grow at my own pace.

In reflecting further on your letter, I'm reminded of my recent lunch date with a group of women, most of whom I was meeting for the first time. Each were beautiful, bright, articulate women, all of whom I'd gladly choose as a friend.  Our different life experiences and thoughtful, candid self-expression made the conversation rich.

Toward the end of lunch, the conversation turned to possibilities…. Whitney asked, “What dreams do you have and how can I help you realize them?” The conversation wasn’t a spotlight on any one of us, it was a spotlight on each of us as individual women of worth.

Somehow, naturally, and without fully realizing how important it was, I realized I needed to share your story. My dear mother, you didn’t think you made a difference in the world. You felt “sober, depressed, boring, stifled,” and yet you expressed the secret, difficult feelings so many of us women feel, or have felt at one time or another… your words are like a friend saying, “On some level, I can relate.  You're not alone.”

Thank you for keeping a journal. You thought it was pathetically sporadic, but I find it priceless. Through your words I know that you know how to help me as I journey through motherhood and womanhood. I’m sorry that you ever felt small, or that you had little to offer. I know differently about you. I see greatness in you, for I see the ripple effect of your love, devotion, and faith. Even as I write these words, I know you have spoken them to me, and I to my loved ones.  Why is it so challenging to say these truths to one's own self?

I know differently about you.

I see greatness in you.

Wherever you are, I hope you can see the legacy of your life's offering.  I hope that you see beauty, intelligence, strength, and honesty, and that you hear your loved ones call you “blessed.”

I love you more,

Becky

Rebecca Menzie 2008The Menzie Family (2008) — Boston, MA

Because Rebecca's mother provided an unvarnished account of her life, Rebecca and her 9 siblings have a ‘real' person from whom to draw inspiration.  As we increasingly journal publicly, do we risk not teaching our children how to work through tough times?

Writing is one of myriad ways we can ‘tell our story'; take a look at Tell your Recipe Story and Tell your Soundtrack Story.

Additional resources:

  1. The Gift of Stories — Robert Atkinson
  2. Old Friend from Far Away — Natalie Goldberg
  3. Thinking about Memoir — Abigail Thomas

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