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Epiphanies While Reading Others’ Words

I read a good bit – not as much as I should, but more than most people. I’ve read twenty seven books this year! (list here) I picked up the latest Amy Tan book Where the Past Begins at Costco a couple of months ago and just started reading it. It is another of her memoirs, but this one is very free form.

Amy Tan Where the Past Begins


So, I’m reading this book about Amy’s life and her relationship with music in particular. She tells of when she was a child and her mother forced her (and her brother) to take piano lessons. I, too, took piano lessons and was terrible at it because I hate to practice and never would. She writes about the 15 years of piano she took and her hatred of the whole process. (I concur.) She writes of a recital she had when she was just beginning piano lessons. She was to play a Bach piece (Minuet in G Minor) and she failed to play the whole piece – her fingers got mixed up and she just couldn’t play the piece. In reality, this incident was not such a big deal; kids screw up recitals all the time. But it turned into a HUGE deal for her. It ruined her desire to play piano and it affected her for 50 years into the future.

While she was writing this memoir, she was digging through her family’s piles of history: notes, letters, photos, belongings. The detritus of family history that ends up in boxes. She found the sheet music of her “nemesis”, the Bach Minuet in G Minor in a box and recalled that dreadful recital. So she went to her piano and tried to play it. First, she was astonished that a young child was expected to play such an advanced piece. Then, as she played it, she found herself stuck, again, in the exact same spot as she’d been stuck decades ago at that recital. Her fingering was wrong and the piece simply cannot be played unless the fingering is correct. She hammered on that piece until 2am, until she finally got it right.

During the hours she was killing herself over this piece of music that had haunted her for decades, she realised that THIS INCIDENT had echoed throughout her life. She says:

“They [the notes she was stuck on] contained so many emotions; the reason I had hated public performance for many years; the reason I hate being forced into any kind of competition; the reason that I play the piano only when I am alone. The reason why I hate to this day any kind of expectation placed on me, including those having to do with books I am writing. My stomach lurches at the thought of public scrutiny whether expectations were met.” -Amy Tan from Where the Past Begins

Oh, man, does this hit close to home for me. I immediately remembered times in my youth where I publicly failed and it has stayed with me, too. In the exact same way. It also made me a perfectionist and it made me an information junkie: I like to know the truth, not just what someone says about it.

When I took piano lessons, of course there was a recital and I did poorly. I didn’t take lessons for long, but I quit soon after that recital. Another time, around 2nd or 3rd grade, I entered a spelling bee. It seemed like a no brainer since I was a walking dictionary! I was so nervous that I missed the first (very easy) word: ammonia. I knew good and well how to spell it, yet when I spoke, I said a-m-o-n-i-a. No idea why I did that. But this set the stage for my fear of failure. Oddly, I’ve never been shy in front of groups – hell, public speaking class was my favourite in college!! I’ve been known to jump onstage and sing with bands! I adore karaoke!

BUT, you put me in a situation where expectations are put on me and I could be held to public scrutiny and I balk every time, audience or no audience. I also detest competition of any sort. I am ambitious, but not competitive. I will crush you like sparrow egg, but not in a direct way.

Anyway, this is a little glimpse into what makes me the person I am today. I’d never really thought much about the piano recital or the spelling bee, but when I read Amy Tan’s words, it was a VERY bright light going off in my brain. I’ve often wondered why I’m so averse to competition…now I have insight into that.

I also know where my family gets the belief that I never finish anything. They saw these failures and rather than set me up to get past them, they reinforced them over the years. When I wanted to go off to college, my family was against it. They thought it was “stupid” and a “waste of time”. They didn’t want to help me with the costs – but they did help some, while complaining. I found out that my father had started a pool to see how long I’d stay in school – since I never finished anything in his mind. Finding that out HURT. But this is how my family works: once an opinion is formed, that’s it. It’s done. Everything is set in stone with them, which is why they are miserable, unhappy people who literally do the same things every single day/week/month/year/decade and can’t figure out why nothing changes. Due to their lack of encouragement and downright cockblocking my desire to get an education, I’ve carried lots of baggage about what I can achieve.

So, you parents out there, HEAR THIS:

Let your kids fail, but then teach them to get back up and try again. There is NO SHAME in failure. It is just something that happens sometimes. If you never try, you’ll never fail and if you never fail, you’ll never move forward.

My brother was never allowed to fail. He has been propped up by the family his whole life. He let go of his dream of being a trauma nurse long ago, because June and Rick demanded that he get into the family business. So he did, without question. He has never had a relationship, or a job outside the family, or lived outside the family. He has never failed. And his life is a depressing mess.

I have ZERO regrets. I don’t regret leaving the family or anything that has led me to where I am now. Every failure has brought me to this point. I’ve lived a life that has underutilized my abilities at times, but I still feel accomplished in many ways. I got an education. I left the backwater of E TN. I’ve learned so much about so many things, it’s astonishing. I am a fully realised person because of every failure and every set back. I’ve seen people who glide through life without any challenges and they always seem…I dunno…incomplete, somehow. Like they don’t really get it. And they don’t. It’s the struggles that make you stronger. It’s the challenges that bring out your grit. And that’s the stuff of success: GRIT.

So, thank you Amy Tan, for hitting that neuron this morning. It has given me new insights into myself and I feel energized by the realisations. Now, all y’all GO FORTH and CONQUER your fears! Live life without regrets! LIVE!

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