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

Macy Robison | Picture Perfect

Macy Robison is a teacher, performer, and photographer. She was in the Music Dance Theater program at Brigham Young University and performed with the Young Ambassadors.  She also holds a masters degree in music education from The Ohio State University.  Macy has performed in professional, community musical theater productions in Utah, Ohio and Boston.  Most recently she has developed a cabaret-style recital Children Will Listen:  Reflections on Mothering which she will perform in Utah in mid-July.

***

Sometimes I feel like a priest.

I'm actually a music teacher.  For the past ten years, I have taught general music, been a choir director and taught private voice lessons.  When people discover this, they immediately start confessing their musical sins.

“I'm tone deaf.”
“Oh, you don't want to hear me sing!”
“My family doesn't let me sing!”
“I love music, but I just never kept up with (insert instrument here).”

 And most common:

“I would love to sing, but I just can't…”

Sometimes the conversation turns into a debate over my firmly held belief that anyone can learn to sing.  Sometimes I just listen.

I'm also a photographer, but I'm starting to feel like a priest in this role as well.  Photographic sins from both sides of the camera…

“My pictures never turn out.”
“I would love for you to take my family pictures, but I'm not Christmas-card worthy.”
“I always hate myself in pictures.”
“I would get pictures taken more, but it's such a hassle.”

It can be a hassle to have pictures taken.  Finding the outfit. Wondering if the outfit will photograph well.  Worrying about fixing hair.  Keeping that hair looking good.  Stressing over whether your son will pull that crazy face he's so fond of making every time the photographer takes a picture.  Screaming.  Crying.  Fights.  We all know the stories.  We've all lived the stories.

But when you look back at the pictures, do you regret the hassle?  Need to think about it? While you are pondering, I'll give you an example of why the hassle is worth it.

This last Christmas the stars aligned and my family was in the same place at the same time for a couple of days – me, my husband, our son, my husband's son and daughter and their fiancées.  Since the next time we would be together, we would be in wedding clothes, I wanted to get pictures of us together.  I scouted the location, we coordinated clothing, I got there early to set up my tripod so I could be in some pictures.

Everyone arrives.  We're ready to smile and have fabulous pictures taken.  We're braving some unexpected cold, but it's a lovely location.  Just as we start taking the large family group picture – my usually angelic toddler gives us this:

Macy Robison1

And this:

Macy robison2

Here, let's zoom in so you can really experience the fun:

MacyRobison3

There was no consoling, bribing, joking, or anything else that would get this child to stop screaming and crying.  We finally broke down and gave him his beloved animal, hoping to calm him down to get a few pictures.  But instead, we got this:

MacyRobison4

So, with no cooperation from the toddler, what did I do?  I kept shooting.  The point of the photos was to document our family.  To show the relationships between us.  To capture our family at that moment in time.  Toddlers cry, kids make silly faces.  But if you keep shooting, you will end up with some fabulous pictures that you love.

MacyRobison5

Eventually, our little guy calmed down.  Though he didn't crack a smile for the entire day, I ended up with some pictures of him that I loved.  Like this one:

MacyRobison6
 

And this one showing how much he loves his big brother and wants to do everything he does.

MacyRobison7

And finally, this picture of my husband, son and I that my dad took with my camera.

MacyRobison8

Is this a perfect picture?  No.  To start with, there's a branch coming across my husband's face.  I could remove it with Photoshop, but I love the memory of shouting back and forth with my dad about framing the picture and still ending up with a branch tickling my husband's chin.

Is this my favorite picture of myself?  No.

Do I look as horrible as I imagined I did?  No.  (And isn't that always the case?  When I look at the pictures of myself from 10 years ago when I thought I looked awful and needed to lose 20 pounds, I want to reach into the picture and slap my 1999 self.) 

Do I love this picture?  Yes. 

In part because I got out from behind the camera.  My son needs to see me in pictures with him.  I have very few pictures of me with my mom. (Something I didn't realize until right this minute.)  I wish I had more.  She passed away suddenly almost 10 years ago.  I know she loved me and loves me still, but I wish I had more examples I could see.  I cherish the few I have.

 I want my son to see our relationship and how much I love him.  And as Saydi Eyre Shumway  put it so eloquently in her post last week – I need to see myself in the picture with him.  See how much I love being with him; become the kind of mother I want to be.

MacyRobison9

 In fact, in addition to having another photographer take our family pictures later this year, I'm going to start work on a self-portrait series. I've been inspired by amazing photographer Davina Fear's self-portrait series to take more pictures of me with my son.  Not only when we're dressed up in our best clothes, but when we're in our every day clothes coloring together or working on puzzles together.

Coordinate the clothing. Come out from behind the camera. Embrace the hassle.  Document your relationships. Capture who you are — who you want to be.

It will be picture perfect.

Promise.


For more on the importance of photos, take another look at Rebecca Ellsworth Menzie's post:  she too wishes she had some photos with her mother.  And Saren Eyre Loosli's post with her daughter crying?

There are so many ways to tell our story.  Macy chooses to tell her story through words and images and music via her cabaret act.  There are so many ways.  Take another look at Lizzie Christensen's Recipe Story, Rebecca Menzie (via her mother's journal), Stephanie Soper's painting, my soundtrack story.  Will you tell your story?

Any thoughts on how Macy's approach to photography is allowing her to Be her Own Batman, even as she's Robin?

Saydi Eyre Shumway | The Snapshot That Changed My Life

Saydi Eyre Shumway holds a B.A. from Wellesley College and a Masters in Social Work from Columbia.  She has worked as a social worker for all kinds of agencies supporting families, both in the U.S and as a volunteer abroad.  Currently she devotes most of her time to raising three small children; she also runs Saydi Shumway Photography a child and family portrait photography business.  She is passionate about photography, travel and adventure, though currently her biggest adventures are trips to Target with three screaming children to see what kind of diapers are on sale.

***

Here’s my story—a common story, I’m finding out:

I had some expectations for my life, and my life isn’t turning out as expected.  I expected I’d go to college, serve a mission for my church, maybe attend graduate school and then get married, work for a while and have kids.  That all happened.  Perhaps not in the same way or as quickly as I thought it would, but it happened.  What happened after that is where the “unexpected” comes in.

I had my first two kids close together—sixteen months apart—and it was planned.  My thinking?  I’m devoting my life to this motherhood career right now, might as well pack it in, like I do with everything else.  It seemed sensible, like a good, sound plan, but living through that plan was harder than I had expected.

Much harder.

I expected that the first 18 months with two small children would be killer, but after that, things would get better.  Even when my second was well over two I felt far from having things under control. I didn’t see myself as the mom I’d always wanted to be.  I had envisioned myself cheerfully discovering life with my kids: devouring books with them, taking them out to bask in the wonders of nature, experimenting, crafting, cooking, serving. I thought I’d be that cool mom who enjoys spontaneity but also runs a tight ship, teaching my kids to be polite, make good decisions, obey, work hard.

The reality was that I was tired and disorganized most of the time.  I didn’t have a structured discipline strategy.  I ‘lost it” more often than I’d like to admit, and I could barely get through the piles of laundry, let alone take that weekly trip to the library.  Instead it was a monthly library trip, mostly to lug back the ambitious bag of unread, overdue books.

Around that time my dear friend snapped a picture of me and my son Charlie at the beach. She emailed it to me one night and I printed it out and looked at it, and looked at it, and looked at it.

2008-04-09 beach with Charlie

After I got past how I didn’t like my hair and my nose, etc. (sometimes that’s all we see in pictures of ourselves) I saw the beautiful, authentic reality of my mothering captured in this moment and revealed in this image.

I realized that looking in on that scene felt vastly different from living it. The image did not present a haggard, unorganized, failure of a mother like I probably felt at points during that day, and that week, and that month.  Instead, this photograph depicted a happy, fulfilled mom, drinking in her delighted little boy, sitting securely on her lap.  It captured the tiny bit of perfection that exists in my life….yes, it’s small, but it was real at that moment. The picture helped me see that there is joy and love and satisfaction and even magic in my life, it’s just hard sometimes to see it through the cloudy monotony of my daily mothering routine.

I put this picture on my fridge where I could look at it every day for two reasons:

  1. It reminds me that I do love mothering, that I love my kids, that they love me.
  2. It is a tangible representation of the mom I want to be, and the feeling I want to create with my kids: comfortable, happy, secure, delighted.

The philosopher Meister Eckhard said, “When the soul wishes to experience something, she throws an image of the experience out before her and enters into her own image.” The picture of Charlie and me on the beach is the image that my soul wants to experience.  Having it on my fridge helps me to remember to be the mom I want to be.

To enjoy.

Baby jonah-8108

I’ve always enjoyed photography, but it wasn’t until the epiphany with this photograph that I realized how powerful photography can be.  I started taking my camera to work with me and took pictures of my social work clients while they interacted with their babies. I was amazed to see these photos did the same thing for them that the beach snapshot did for me. It helped them see the beauty of the mother/child connection, creating a tangible image of their mothering that enabled them to reflect on who they are and who they want to be.

It has also changed my philosophy as a photographer.  Since this snapshot, I’ve tried to view photography as a tool to reveal emotion and connections. To capture true pieces of relationships, rather than just the right smile or pose.

To help people create images that their souls long to experience.

Images so tangible they can jump right in.
Be the person they want to be.
Enjoy.

Kruckenbergs and Truscotts-2626

***

I usually write a post-script; however, Saydi has prepared some questions will provoke thoughts aplenty.  I look forward to your comments!

What snapshots do you cherish? What pictures of yourself or your family do you have displayed in your home?  Why do you cherish these pictures?

Can a picture be therapeutic?  Can a picture help you to become who you want to be?

Do you like being photographed?  Why not? Can you see beyond your appearance in a picture to what is happening?


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