I’ve recently found myself in unfamiliar territory: The Waters of Failure. Things that had once come relatively easy to me are now cumbersome and uncomfortable and painful. I’m in the throes of frustration, willing body parts to move, pain to ease, stomach to regain its flat plane, and the mind to stop repeating diatribes of “loser” cyclically in my head.
Perhaps one forgets the labor of the original talent and, as time passes, only the accomplishment stands like a beacon in the fog of memory? I’ve recently heard giving birth is a similar experience; one so readily forgets the labor in admiration of the celebration and new life. I am not yet convinced that this latter statement is true, but I am no authority on childbirth.
I once was extremely talented at playing the piano. With little-to-no practice, I was able to tackle great classical works: Chopin, Debussy, Billy Joel. At family gatherings and recitals alike, bodies would gather and marvel at melodies that floated from my fingers. A plastic cup labeled “Tips” would collect quarters and dollar bills from tickled relatives and, on one occasion, allowed my grandfather to make change for the $10 bill he had burning in his wallet.
I was a born performer. A talent. I had a habit of getting lost in my music, swaying forward and back like a newly-minted sailor on difficult seas. I was the antithesis of the scared child, clumsily plunking away at foreign keys. The music and I belonged together. It was a communion, a conversation, and when I tiptoed close to the edge of error, I could effortlessly improvise my way back with no one the wiser.
I had stopped my studies for many reasons. My parents had divorced and my mother could no longer afford the $80/month lessons. (And, if I were being honest, it wasn’t like I practiced anyway.) In two years, I was off to college where I would study to become a famous actress, or so I thought. My father, clueless to the identity of his daughter, began introducing me as a pianist – a concert pianist – off to earn a degree at a prestigious university. It became clear to me that his pride teetered on a very thin fulcrum: an actress was not a profession worth bragging about. An instrumentalist who could one day be in an orchestra wearing all black with sparkling diamonds was far more appreciated.
Piano became tied to those two things: a burden my family could no longer afford and my father’s lack of my pride in my true identity. So, I stopped and, though I would run my hands o’re the keys occasionally, I did not look back.
Now, more than ten years later, I find myself sitting in front of a Steinway, near-sobbing for fear, frustration, and failure. It had not all left me, no, and somehow that was even worse than if it all had.
Running had quickly become my go to exercise, mental and physical. It had made me trim and fast and confident. Running helped me feel beautiful in clothes and strong in sneakers. It brought me closer to nature, my spirituality, and was probably responsible for regaining my sanity on more than one occasion.
I met friends and formed relationships, developed a community and earned a feeling of safety and well-being. (It’s quite easy when you look like a package of highlighters.) My father and I regained a semblance of a relationship, comparing run times and routes and, of course, the high.
All of this, in spite of a doctor’s diagnosis in high school that my knees would never be strong enough to support an activity like this. With no cartilage under my kneecaps, I was forced to walk the track while my classmates completed their 12-minute miles. Sophomore year of college, I sprained both knees and had to be carried the 10 blocks home by a dear (and strong) friend. I screamed and fought the whole time, hating the feeling of weakness and inability.
I will never forget the feeling of running my first race, The British 10K. Here I was, living out a dream in a city that inexplicably felt like home, running a race with 25,000 people. Words cannot express the pride, the joy, and the “pinch-me-I’m-dreaming” emotions of this achievement.
My second race, I won 3rd place in the women’s division. I then went on to my third race, my first half marathon, my fifth race, my sixth.
Running was a meditation, me-time. Unspoiled by anyone or anything.
Now, injury and overwork nearly wiped out all of the strength, stamina, and speed I had once developed. My stomach is softening, my arms losing all of their definition, and any little bit of exercise irritates my damaged back, wrist, and hip. My average weekly miles began to look like what I used to run in a day. Now, there are none to speak of.
I feel weak. Powerless.
Remembering what and who I used to be leaves me crippled, even more than my body’s ailments. I recall with saccharine clarity the command my fingers once had, the determination of my legs and feet. I carry the recollections with me – the songs I created, the miles I logged – and it nearly buries me in sadness and anger.
How could I have fallen so?
And then, like the voice of a minister on a mount, calling me to truth, I hear the advice I would give anyone I cared for in this situation: Be where you are today, start from here, go easy on yourself, honor your body, begin again.
The critic within, though he tries to sabotage my journey with taunts of “used to be” and “could have been,” must be silenced for “what is now.” Although I fear what the X-rays and doctors may say, I will take these steps towards health. I will take responsibility for what my body is telling me, not that it’s broken, but that my ability to hear it was broken.
One day, maybe soon, maybe not, I will lace up and hit the trail. I will go slowly, frustratingly so, but at least I will move forward. I will again sit on the bench and allow music to come from me, and though it may not always be as writ, at least I know I can find my melody again.