content note: language (to describe ease of using skills) that is based on my experiences as an able-bodied individual
I have a turbulent relationship with my past. I have longed for it: for long-gone friendships, fond childhood memories, deceased loved ones, “simpler times.” I have shunned it, disconnecting myself from identities and ways of being I felt did not serve me well, and embracing the anonymity of a new school. I have been taunted by it in dreams where that person I miss so much is alive again – but for some reason I never get around to interacting with them directly in a meaningful way, and I wake up feeling empty. I have been tortured by internalized abuse and actions I regret. I have blamed my past for my current problems. I have hated it and run from it, and yet I can’t stop looking back.
Yesterday was the first time I truly and consciously thought of my past as a tool. Fox’s dad was telling me about a time he was surprised by his ability to do something he found challenging, but later realized that he’d managed something similar over 30 years ago! It was a skill set he had already developed, that was just waiting to be used. “Like riding a bike,” as the saying goes: once one learns to ride a bike, one can do it again at any time (assuming no change in physical abilities, e.g. from an injury). It gave him confidence for a new direction he wants to take his life.
I connected his story to my ability to lead a group music therapy experience with my classmates on Wednesday, despite feeling overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted, and inadequate. They were role-playing children; I used a familiar children’s song to facilitate group interaction. Once I’d received enough support from them that I was able to focus on the task at hand, my past experiences kicked in. Years of playing guitar guided my fingers between two familiar chords, even though I hadn’t so much as looked at my guitar in months. My brief experience of working in a daycare for young children (seven years ago) jumped back into the here-and-now: I was singing the same song, having the same fun, and using the same strategies to keep the group from descending into utter chaos. This was augmented by related experiences in some of my music therapy fieldwork (five years ago).
Even the new suggestions I got to try out in the moment were supported by what I’ve learned through past experiences and reading. I was able to consciously focus on them and be more intentional in my overall approach because so much was happening automatically. All I needed to do was allow myself to be fully in the moment, past and present working together.
I see it in other areas of my life, too. Being in my thirties is great because I clearly remember things that happened ten, fifteen, occasionally even twenty years ago. I’ve been driving for well over a decade; it’s become as easy and natural as walking. I’ve been actively and voluntarily developing my music skills for over twenty years now: singing in choirs, studying instruments, becoming fluent in music theory, composing and improvising. Reading and writing and looking up information… forget about it. They’re all active skills I’ve nurtured for so long, they’re just part of my nature.
I can use them, trust them, develop them further. Too often I fear going into new situations alone, like I’m completely unprepared and I’ll fall apart as soon as things become unpredictable. But I’m never alone. I have all these years of experience to guide me.