Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Gift ≠ Identity

For just under two years, I couldn’t play bass. Or any guitar, for that matter.

Not because I lacked the talent for it (although some may beg to differ), but as the result of an unfortunate injury that has nothing to do with the picture at left.

I was working in a juvenile detention center at the time, and one day, while supervising a recreational sport activity, it happened.

Don’t assume it was a malicious act by some young punk with a bad haircut and attitude to match. He was simply running laps around the gym like a hyperactive squirrel on a hamster wheel, while everybody else was lined up, ready to return to the main facility.

As I tried to slow him down on his next lap, my finger got caught in the folds of his rolled-up sleeve, and when he twisted away — laughing as if we were playing a game of tag or something — every joint in the index finger of my left hand was dislocated.

The next day, my entire finger was twisted in a slightly corkscrew pattern and had taken on the hue of a Concorde grape (the darkest shade of purple I know).

And it hurt. A lot.

Playing guitar — and especially bass — was out of the question. And as the months dragged on, I was forced to consider that, at age 27, my passion for music might henceforth be limited to listening instead of performing.

When it comes to owning the gifts we’ve been given — whether music, art, creative writing, dance, etc. — it’s a common struggle for many to fully embrace their gifts as a significant part of who they are. Non-creative types have been known to snidely denigrate artistic endeavors as ‘hobbies’, far less down the scale of worth than, say, ‘real’ careers in maths and sciences.

I have several artistic friends who have given workshops to challenge/encourage creative artists to stand up and say, “I am an artist. It’s who I am.” For those who haven’t felt the freedom to “own” their artistic gifts, this is both necessary and validating, and I fully support the idea.

At the same time, my involuntary two-year sabbatical from playing music also serves as a reminder to not equate my identity with my artistic gifts. Whatever gifts I may have flow out of my unique identity, but they do not constitute the absolute be-all and end-all of who I am.

It’s still difficult, at times, when people ask me what I do, to respond with breezy confidence: “I’m a writer.” It’s still tempting to qualify it a second or two later by adding: “Well, actually, I work a lot of construction gigs to put food on the table, play in number of bands to put gas in the car, and I write when I can but I don’t make much money at it.”
As if financial remuneration is the ultimate validation. (cf. Taylor Mali’s thoughts on What Teachers Make)
I was fortunate — and grateful — to recover the ability to play music again, about twenty months after the initial injury. I’m grateful for the lessons learned during that season, specifically about not locating my identity and personal worth in my musical ability.

And when it comes to creative writing, I’ve also learned to embrace the other side of the gift/identity coin: what I do with the creative gifts that I’ve been given is an expression of my identity, not the source.

Now, if y’all will excuse me, I’ve got a novel in its fourth draft that needs my time and attention.

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