Re: learning

My father was one of the last children in America to contract polio before the initial vaccine appeared in the 1950s. While he fared much better than many, my dad’s nerve damage was such that he had to re-learn how to walk at the age of 10.

I don’t know nearly as many of the details as I’d like, but I do recall one poignant image: his father supporting him with an arm around his chest as my dad began the arduous journey toward walking by first attempting to crawl. Can you imagine, years after first learning how to walk, being unable to perform such a simple task—so simple, infants can do it? What must it feel like, being unable to rely on your own body, having to slowly, painstakingly rebuild the neural connection between brain and legs?

In my own life, I’ve had but the smallest taste of this experience. I took nine years of piano lessons growing up, but later fell out of the habit of playing. Eventually, the summer I was 28, I spent five weeks in a place where I had access to a piano and ample free time. Yet I was soon shocked out of the eager anticipation of getting reacquainted with the instrument: my brain still had all the knowledge, but my fingers acted as if they had never touched a piano. Luckily muscle memory returned soon enough, and when I got back home, I bought the keyboard that’s sitting across the room from me right now.

I relate these stories to preface this assertion: in a broad sense, the story of my adult life is one of relearning who I am, and things I once knew.

In a previous post, I spoke of having to relearn confidence in the face of the unknown. There I told of the time in second grade when, facing a lesson in cursive (Does anyone learn cursive anymore? How many even know what it is?), I felt thrilled to see something I’d never seen before, to know that soon I would master this new skill and my world would grow that much larger.

What I didn’t talk about in that post was the time, in fifth grade, when I was asked to play a trumpet solo in my band concert—not a short solo within the context of a larger piece, but a true solo, with only myself playing (and my mother accompanying on piano). In the handful of mental snapshots that is my memory, this evening stands out boldly: not only was I free of any nerves, on the contrary, I felt a thrill of sheer joy at the chance to create what I knew were beautiful sounds and share them with an audience.

To this day, I wonder: could that actually, possibly have been me? How did I start out my musical life in that wonderful space, and what the hell happened to teach me differently?

Well, there was the matter of puberty, of course. In addition to the usual turmoil, amplified in my case by being a short, glasses-wearing, brainy late bloomer, a couple incidents burned into my brain the danger of overexposing myself and the primal need to find safety from the gaze of others.

One day in sixth grade, I experienced an entire classroom laughing at me at once—including the teacher—when I asked a question that revealed my utter ignorance of breastfeeding. A year later, I succeeded in eliciting the laughter of the entire school during a campaign speech for student council president. While I thought mentioning my leadership training in Boy Scouts was perfectly relevant, hundreds of my peers found it cause for great amusement.

I don’t want to get sidetracked in analysis or looking for people to blame. Blame? Even praise and guidance, I’ve learned, distort one’s sense of self-direction. For example, I wrote a few stories on my own, and won a newspaper essay contest, in elementary school; yet whatever talent I had for writing, I never explored it. There were too many other things I had to do, apparently. And besides, getting good grades was where the real praise lay, the real shot of self-esteem crack.

The point is that, over time, my training was so thorough, the external voices so internalized, I forgot how to recognize my own self. Even when my ex-wife approached me years ago about her “exploring relationships with other people,” it took me a ridiculously long time to determine whether my aversion to this was genuine or merely a reflex acquired in early conditioning.

And so, in my 40s, I find myself having to relearn my intuition, and also desperately wanting to get beyond the performance anxiety that still dogs me, despite having performed more times than I could possibly count.1

At the risk of resembling a broken record, this is a powerful impetus behind my Sudbury passion: to keep more people from having to recover the sense of self that is so powerfully theirs as young children, as strong as their innate curiosity and drive to learn. In other words, children aren’t born with psychological complexes; rather, they learn them. No wonder the question hounds me, exhorting me to do all I can to support Sudbury schools: What if more people never had to unlearn bad habits, never had to relearn their personal beauty, health, and strength?

Of course, as I’ve explored in my posts on Beginner’s Mind, there is considerable fascination in observing one’s ignorance. Naturally, this requires openness to new situations, stretching beyond one’s comfort zone: but given my experience, I suspect you will find it well worth the effort. What I’ve learned about intuition, for instance, is that it can be stalked, slowly approached, by first stepping back and simply watching yourself. What are you drawn toward when you’re not thinking about should and could? What do you find yourself spontaneously doing?

In general, I’m learning that meditation—a real, sustained practice, not simply sitting in my apartment and breathing—can reduce the noise and clutter enough to reveal what’s actually there, at least glimpses of it. And I’d say that’s not a bad first step.


1Interestingly, this is especially true for me with singing. I don’t have nearly so much trouble with public speaking, or piano, trumpet, or acting. Within singing, being in a choir is one thing, but having my individual voice heard and evaluated, well, that’s where the nerves tend to overwhelm.

I can think of at least a couple of reasons for this: one, I’ve had less training, and fewer years of practice generally, with this type of music-making. Also, the human body is a much more variable, idiosyncratic instrument than, say, a piano or a trumpet, so the issue of reliability looms hugely. With singing, there’s no hunk of metal or wood between you and your audience, and thus it’s easier to feel exposed and vulnerable. I have worked off and on for years to overcome performance anxiety, yet it appears to be a very long-term process indeed.


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