I grew up in a small town in eastern Massachusetts on the south shore. Throughout my childhood and into college, music was my identity. I played and performed classical piano; I was first chair for the clarinet in the school band; I listened to any and all music I could find. I started plucking around with a guitar and singing harmonies with women friends in high school and studied piano with the artist in residence during my first year of undergraduate school.
Do you ever look in the mirror and wonder at the person looking back at you?
I feel as if much of my life, I have been looking at a stranger in my reflection. There was the person on the inside, an identity I shared with very few people. Then, there was person I shared with the outside world. The two were often at odds and acquaintances at best.
My inner self asked deep life questions on a regular basis:
Who am I?
Who do I want to be?
What do I want to do?
How can I make the world a better place?
I knew that I wanted to do something important and meaningful with my life, but I was not sure what I could do as one individual being.
My outer self wanted to fit in to a social and cultural world where the parameters for acceptance ran counter to the desires and values of my inner self. I compared my self to other people my age. The results were never positive. I could match their exceptional qualities of beauty, intelligence, popularity, or skill.
I was not smart or pretty enough. I played piano too musically.
What I learned from comparison was that my real self was not adequate and therefore did not matter. I was of little consequence in a big world. I was not of value. I was not important. And I was afraid to share my raw, unfiltered identity for fear of judgment and possible rejection.
After graduating high school, I moved to Maine for college and spent most of my time studying overseas in foreign countries. I learned new languages and ways of living. I met people who wanted to learn about me. I tried on different identities and different names.
In Hungary, I was vegetarian.
In Mali, I was Nandi Koné.
I cut my hair, let it grow, and cut it all off again.
By the end of college, my connection to music was in listening only. Disenchanted with the stringent culture of classical music, I had given up the piano. My high school guitar lay in a case gathering dust in my parents’ basement.
When I graduated, I headed for the west coast, vowing never to return to New England. Life there was too fast-paced, and I wanted a change. I wanted adventure. I wanted to create my own life and identity, free from the attached strings of my childhood.
For more than a decade, I lived around the world, moving from one community to the next. I felt rootless and transient, my identity never seeming to quite meet my expectations and hopes.
I gained and lost weight.
I got a nose piercing, took it out, and then pierced it again.
I grew restless for change, to recreate my identity. When this happened, I would think about getting a tattoo, packing up my car, and driving somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Music had long since faded into the background of my transient life.
I have made plans, and they have changed.
I lived in the Pacific Northwest, France, Alaska, Arizona. I lived one reality in my mind, another on paper, and another still in practice.
I got married, and then I got divorced.
I moved seven times in two years.
Somewhere amidst the moving and changing, I started listening less to the voices of expectation and judgment from the outside world and more to my inner self.
I began to realize that I found comfort in accepting and valuing the part of me that I generally kept hidden. I began to blend my inner and outer selves and found that I had a stronger sense of confidence and purpose when I shared the real me with people in my community. Rather than trying to meet the unrealistic, unhealthy expectations of cultural peers and managers, I was creating a more sustainable path just by being myself. I breathed more easily and experienced less anxiety by being honest and real.
The more I listened, the less I wanted to lead a double life.
My life shifted from planning to practice. It became my practice to live in ways that nourished my inner self and true spirit.
The practice of being my self was not easy and not always accepted by the outer world.
For this reason, while it was never part of any of my plans to move back to New England, I left the wilderness of bush Alaska for a gritty city in Massachusetts.
Lowell, Massachusetts. Factory town. Long-forgotten wilderness.
I moved all of my belongings with me, and then spent two years selling and giving them away.
I immersed my self in music and began writing the songs of people.
I felt like a stranger and befriended the ghosts of factory workers, who shared their stories with me and helped me feel less alone.
I sang their stories and felt a renewed sense of purpose.
Recently, an appointment for my day job as a park ranger brought me into Boston and through a security line. Wearing my civilian coat and hat, it was business as usual. Remove your laptop from your bag, and take everything out of your pockets. When I took off my coat, the men staffing the security line saw that I was in uniform. My identity in uniform was more acceptable.
“Where is your ID?” one man asked me.
“I am here to get one,” I said.
“Well, then you should practice saying, ‘I have an id. I am important,’” he informed me.
I looked at him. Did he really just say that?
“I am important, with or without an ID.”
The words came out before I could stop them. I was not just speaking for me. I was speaking for every person who might otherwise appear invisible.
I went to the fifth floor and down a narrow, windowless corridor lined with green doors with small, numbered signs at uniform height on the upper left side.
The door to Room #560 was open.
I went inside.
A man sat at a desk.
“Your nametag, it says Interpreter français,” he said.
“You speak French? Vous parlez français?”
I nodded. “Oui. Je parle français.”
We conducted the remainder of the appointment in a mix of French and English. I learned that he was from Senegal and had spent the past 24 years in the United States. I told him that I had lived in Mali.
At the end of the appointment, he said that I must come back and visit so we could speak French together. I invited him to Lowell and told him that I played the ukulele and wrote songs from people’s spoken stories.
“You are a griot,” he told me. “Do you know what is a griot?”
I did know. A griot is a person in West Africa who walks from village to village singing the songs of the people.
I left with buoyed spirits.
It did not matter what clothing I was wearing. I mattered, and what I was doing mattered.
I was important. I was singing the songs of the people.