Monday, February 27, 2012

You can never go back (phew!)

My high school is having its 100th anniversary this May, and I signed on to be a part of the gala concert at Roy Thomson Hall.

As many people have asked me since -- WHY?  Why would you want to go to a high school reunion?  High school is an ugly memory for many people, and I'm no exception.

And yet...

The music program at my high school was one of the few things that kept me (relatively) sane, and definitely the only thing that kept me in school.  Oh sure, high school itself was the same angst-ridden, pimply-faced den-of-zero-self-esteem for me as it was for many, but... those hours when I got to hide behind my cello (and there were many) were the hours when I started to feel like I actually belonged somewhere, that I fit in with something, that I was actually OK at something.

Of course, this was all still haunted by the not-dead-yet spectre of my grandfather.  Which managed to keep me from believing in myself fully, and made me doubt myself fully, while sort of thinking I might be OK... but not really.

For starters, I wasn't even supposed to go to North Toronto -- I was out of district (if I'd lived across the street I would have been in district, but the dividing line kept me out).  But North Toronto had the best string program at the time, and I really wanted to be there.  There was a waiting list to get in, partially determined by musical ability, based on an audition.  Meanwhile, my best friend's mother -- who also wanted both of us to get in to NT, as Ali lived on the wrong side of the street, too -- did her usual "I'll fight for my children, whatever it takes" routine (oh, what a great honourary mother to have!) and went in for a private meeting with the Principal.  Very soon after, Ali and I both learned we'd been accepted -- thank you, Jane!

She did let it slip later, however, that one of her tactics was to declare that I was Don Wright's granddaughter, so any music program worth its salt would be begging to have me.

Not because of me.  Because of my grandfather.

So... was I in because of merit, or because of my ancestry?  This question haunted me throughout both my high school and university years.  The name opened many doors for me, gave me many opportunities, let me get away with missing a rehearsal or two when others were kicked out for less than 100% attendance.

I was chosen to be principal cellist of the junior orchestra in grade 9 -- was that because I was good, or because I was Don Wright's Granddaughter?  I was chosen as our school's music delegate for the Ontario Student Leadership Course -- in my incredible shyness, I didn't see how I could possibly be considered a leader in anything, so assumed it was because of my grandfather.  I was principal of the senior orchestra in grades 12 and 13, but always felt like a phoney, like I shouldn't be there, when there were so many other talented musicians who didn't have family pull.

I was proud of my accomplishments, but forever suspicious of them.  This combined with my family's assertions that I would never be able to "make it" in the same way as he had led to some very conflicted feelings toward music, cello, me.  (Fortunately, I eventually got over it -- especially once learning what a B.S. assertion it was!)

And so, I found myself waking up at 6:30 on Saturday morning (yes, really!) and heading down the highway to Toronto.  I had been dithering for weeks whether I really wanted to go through with this, but... did it anyhow.  I met up with a snowstorm about halfway down, and started to seriously question the decision again.  Fortunately, I had made an appointment at the Sound Post for later that afternoon, otherwise I would probably have chickened out and driven right back up the highway.

There is a sick, anxious feeling I always get when I'm on the 401 and approaching the Avenue Road / Yonge Street exits.  It grows as I get off the exit and drive through my old stomping grounds.  People often ask me why I don't move back to Toronto (especially now that we're considering moving to a different big city) -- the truth is, that's where I spent my years of terror, and I don't like being constantly reminded of it.  If I get this ill on a drive-by, how the hell would I live my life on a daily basis?  There's too much horror, too much sadness, too many reminders.  I don't need reminding, thank you very much, my stupid dreams are keeping me in the loop just fine.

Driving down Yonge Street, so much has changed -- the stores are different, it's more developed in some areas.  But the landmarks are still there.  The anxious buzzing reaches a crescendo as I pass Lytton... Craighurst... Briar Hill... St. Clements... and there are the lights for Broadway.  I turn left and enter the new parking garage that was promised in the directions to the new/old school, but have yet to see the school itself.

You see, the school I went to is no longer there.  They've torn down the old building and put up a new one, with condos above and storefronts on the Roehampton side, and a huge football field.  I've been curious to see it, although still trepidatious.

I go to the machine, buy my ticket, head back to the car.  "Alyssa!" someone shouts.  It's Alan, father of one of my former classmates, and fellow cello player -- we shared a cello teacher when I was in high school, and would often commiserate on who cried the most at the last lesson.  A very nice man, with a very nice family.  He (re-)introduces me to his wife and sister: "you know, Don Wright's granddaughter."

Ah yes, the Great and Powerful Oz himself...  my stomach does flip-flops... it's too late to run, now that I've been spotted.  Breathe... breathe... smile... he doesn't mean this in a bad way, he has no idea what battles you've been through at Oz's hand, or what fresh hells have been opened up in the last six years.  Breathe, breathe, smile, breathe, breathe, smile.  Brace yourself, because this is probably the first reference of many -- why didn't you consider this in the snowstorm, you silly twit?

We walk as a group out of the parking garage and towards the school.  I can see the north side of Broadway just fine, looking pretty much like it always had.  And then... holy mother of Zeus!  The school is nothing like the old building.  Nothing whatsoever.  The old anxiety-filled high school is gone.

I can feel my shoulders.  Sort of.

After a significant journey trying to find an open door, we venture inside.  Inside, it's a combination of old and new.  The old Ontario Scholars plaques have been transferred to the new walls.  There's a courtyard with the old bricks and arches.  The old Maytime Melodies photos are on the new walls (oh lordy, there's me with braces and helmet hair -- make the lambs stop screaming!).  It's kind of like a dreamworld, where the building you know is transformed into something else -- you know what it's supposed to be, but the details aren't correct.  A bit surreal.

And then it's into the music room, where a few familiar faces have already gathered.  Some closer to their old faces than others.  :-)  The old anxieties try to surface... I shouldn't be here, what if I let the truth slip out, what if somebody already knows my secrets?

Geez, Alyssa, you write and speak regularly about surviving childhood sexual abuse -- why are you suddenly afraid people will know your truth?

Right... ahem... yes.  They're allowed to know things now.  Not that it's really polite conversation at a high school reunion, of course, but... you don't have to freak out.

Yes, high school is an awkward time for the best of us.  I was not among the best of us.

Just before grade 9 began for me, my mother had finally told my father he was not allowed to come back to the house, because she had had enough.  Of course, she was still sending my sister and I for sleepovers at his new apartment, so I guess she didn't think we'd quite had enough...  Many secrets still had to be kept.  As well as haunting my musical life with the Toronto District School Board, my grandfather was busy trying to prove I was a liar about my father's abuse, and using his sleazy lawyer to basically try and crush us all into submission.  And by October, it had become apparent that my mother was involved with her psychologist, thus introducing sexual predator #2 into our I-thought-it-was-finally-going-to-be-happy home, as well as a whole other layer of secrets to worry about -- she knew enough, apparently, to know that it was unethical for a psychologist to sleep with (and later marry) his patient, and that we shouldn't let anyone know what was going on, she just didn't know enough to not do it.

Back then, if I was in the hall talking to people, I was at risk of spilling the truth.  If I was hiding behind my cello, no words had to come out.  Can I tell you how very much I loved my cello in those years, despite all the self-esteem issues that came with it?!?

Ahem, back to the present.

I see my friend Debbie come in -- who never knew me in high school, but is now the head of the music department.  She will be my reminder of who I am now.  I will not slip back into who I was.  And just to prove it, I go over and talk to the people who I used to not feel worthy enough to talk to.  And hey, they talk back, and give genuine hugs.  Maybe I wasn't as unworthy as I always thought I was... Oh shut up, Alyssa, you were NEVER as unworthy as you thought you were.  NOBODY is as unworthy as you thought you were.

The concert organizer -- who I've never met -- comes up and tells me that I was one of the two people identified as possible principal cellist, he's sorry to let me know so late, but would I mind sharing the job?  Hell no.  :-)  A total stranger, who probably has no idea who my grandfather was -- but even if he did, could not expect any special favours from him since he's now dead -- has just told me I'm worthy.  Damn straight, I'm worthy.  I feel five years of adolescent stupidity start to melt away... well, start, anyhow.

In comes David Ford, the head of music from my high school days, the man who always asked after my father and grandfather, who I spent five years smiling and trying not to spill the truth to, five years wondering if he actually saw any value in me, or if he was just trying to gain favour with Oz.  He recognizes me, but fumbles for my name.  Oh lord, I was obviously nothing, nobody, unworthy... Shut Up!  Seeing his embarrassment and discomfort, I offer up "Alyssa Wright" -- he grins and gives me a huge bear hug.  The Great and Powerful Oz is not mentioned at all.  He remembers me.  Me.

I remind myself that neither he nor most of the people in this room would recognize Me Today after knowing Me Then.  I've had conductors from my university years not know who the heck I was decades later, after spending years sitting directly in front of them.  I would hide.  I would blend into walls.  I would be quiet.  I would do my best to NOT be noticed (and then, of course, be resentful when nobody noticed me -- oy!).

Oh sure, I'm still an introvert.  But I'm an infinitely more confident introvert.  With, some might argue, a pretty big mouth.  :-)

The fact that I actually approached him to say hello probably threw him off more than the extra pounds, extra wrinkles, hair cut by a professional (i.e., not unevenly hacked off by me in the darkness of my mirror-less room and then gelled into submission), and lack of leggings, dark makeup and way-too-bulky men's sweaters.  This is what I'm telling myself, anyhow...  ;-)

I'm talking with my section-mates, realizing that there's only two of us doing music full-time.  So I must be worthy, right?  Duh...  Oz never had much sway outside the school system (not that I was aware of that until much later), this is me.  Merit and me.  Hard work, merit and me.

Rehearsal begins.  We get to the Medley -- a medley of several medleys from over the years.  I recognize many of the arrangements, some of them my grandfather's.  Oh, here we go... nope, nary a mention.  Phew!

There's a cello solo.  I'm ready to defer to my co-principal.  Debbie, who is probably wondering where Alyssa just disappeared to, announces it's supposed to be for electric cello, and would I mind bringing mine in for the concert?  The girl who never got picked for a solo is now the woman who gets picked for the solo.  Worthy, worthy, worthy... oh lord, WHY am I still stuck there?

Of course, the solo is in the nose-bleed section of the cello, and I'm sight-reading -- but instead of the devastated "I suck" that would have hit me in high school, I just fake it and laugh and say I'll look at it better for next time.  I'm imperfect, and that's OK.  The Old Me would never believe it.  It's OK to be imperfect.  And even in my imperfection, heads are nodding and voices are saying it's going to kick ass in concert.

Why yes, it is.  :-)

It took me a few decades, but I'm actually enjoying high school.  I will brave the snow storm (and early morning alarm) next weekend too.

After rehearsal, it's a stop down to the Sound Post, where I offer up my old cello for sale.  Mild (!) kick in the gut when I'm told it will probably be sold for about $5,500, minus the repairs it needs and their commission.  This is the cello I bought at the end of high school -- thinking it would last me for university and then I'd get a new one, though I only replaced it last spring! -- for $8,000.  I went in to debt with Oz to buy it.  I scrambled and scraped my way through university, taking on extra jobs to pay Oz back as quickly as possible, but still getting "why haven't you paid it back in full yet?" letters on a regular basis.  This cello was stressy.  I fought this damned cello for almost 25 years.  In inspecting it for sale, I learned all the reasons why it was so difficult to play, and how they'll fix it to make it playable -- yet nobody had mentioned this to me in all the years I'd spent taking it elsewhere for repairs.  Lesson learned.  But kind of depressing that after all that time and effort and stress, it wasn't even worth the purchase price any more... if it had ever been in the first place.

Oh well, Alyssa, it's a symbol of the past.  Get rid of it.  You have a beautiful new cello now that does everything you want it to.  Get rid of the past.

I do.  At least I hope I do.  They have it for 120 days, at which point they can change their mind if it hasn't sold.  Anyone want an angst- and pain-ridden cello?  Real cheap...  ;-)

And so, driving up University, my mind is pondering Old Me, New Me.  Old Life, New Life.  Old School, New School.  Old Cello, New Cello.  How much has changed, how much is no longer there, how much that I never could have imagined is now in my life, how much EASIER it is to be alive.  University becomes Avenue Road.  Oh look, there's my former shrink's office, where I spent an hour a day every day for seven years, trying to unravel the web of lies that had been the Old Me's Old Life.  Coming up to where I hung out with the friends from my youth group, trying hard to be somebody else.  My old primary school, where much of it all began.  Two more blocks, the street to my first house.  One more block, the house of hell.  I'm always tempted to do a drive-by, masochist that I am, but I opt against it, choosing instead to revel in all that no longer exists, not wallow in what used to be.

Yet... since then, I've found myself fantasizing about knocking on the door.

I have just had it hammered home that my old high school no longer exists, is not the same, that I'm not the same.  While the house from hell is still standing and fully intact, I'm 100% sure it's not decorated the same, and they've probably made a bunch of changes in the almost-20 years since my mother finally moved out of there, and... it's just a house.  With any luck, an abuse-free house.  It's tempting...

But then again, how would a normal person react if a total stranger knocked on the door and said "Hi!  I was abused in this house for ten years, could you please give me a tour?"  Yup, wacko, bolt the door!  ;-)

There's no place like home (Thank God)
You think there's no place like home?
Well you can change all the names,
But the characters stay the same
Oh there's no place like home
[from "No Place Like Home", Alyssa Wright, 2006]

Well, as much as all the characters continue to fight for the status quo...  I've changed.  I've changed, and my life has changed.  They can keep their status quo.  I'm happy to never go back.

...when you're ready, your heart holds the tools
So say goodbye to that road of salvation
And the heartless, the coward and the fool
Oh my
The heartless, the coward and the fool


You can't go back.  Even if you wanted to.  Everything changes.  It stays the same in your mind, but only if you let it stay the same in your mind.  The beautiful part of living a long life is that you can change your story.

I can stay stuck in "not-worthy-land" as long as I feel like it -- or I can choose to see that all those years of feeling unworthy forced me to work my ass off and get farther than I ever could have been if I just plodded along in a "normal" life.  I can cringe at my choice of makeup application, or I can recognize that I was creating an obvious mask to go with the emotional one I needed to make it through to the end of high school and out of the damned house.  And enjoy the fact that I'm confident enough to not wear ANY makeup on a regular basis these days -- what you see is what you get, this is who I am, like it or lump it.

I am no longer a helpless child or a hopeless adolescent.  And those years helped me grow into the strong, capable, independent, blissfully happy and love-filled woman I am today.

I have cleared the space, it's time to take my place
Prepare to speak my truth, stand up and be the proof
Be the Proof... 
Only the Truth remains

[from "Sword and Wand", Alyssa Wright, 2009]

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