How to Make Mistakes

Where I come from, girls learn how to play the piano.  If that sounds Victorian, well, now you know something about where I come from.  I don’t have much to show for the time I spent and the money my parents spent on that endeavor, but it wasn’t optional.  Every week, from 3rd grade to 8th, I went to piano lessons.  I liked playing the piano when I was allowed to play what I wanted–but most of the time my teachers made me practice boring exercises and songs I didn’t know.  So, even though I wasn’t a terrible piano player, I was pretty terrible student. At least that’s how I remember it 30-some years later.

The most important thing I learned at piano lessons, I learned from Mrs. Swan, the elderly lady who sat 12-year-old me in her dark living room at her doily-draped piano after school on Thursdays.  She made me play the most dreadful drills.

Another thing girls do, where I come from, is play the piano in church.  This is an honor and a privilege, and it is freaking terrifying because all the older girls who have been taking lessons longer than you have and can play without ever making mistakes will hear you if you mess up.  Everyone will say you did great and it doesn’t matter if you made a little mistake.  But still.  Even the preacher will hear you mess up.

So one Thursday afternoon, I was playing particularly badly for poor Mrs. Swan.  She seemed so discouraged by my lack of love for her lessons, that I confessed.  I had barely practiced my lesson at all that week.  I’d been asked to play the piano in church, and I was madly practicing… “Whispering Hope,” I think it was.  This relieved and delighted poor, discouraged Mrs. Swan.

“Play it for me,” she said.

I gingerly began picking out the notes, pausing where I was uncertain of my finger placement, not wanting to fail at this as well.  When I got to the end of the song, Mrs. Swan gave me a significant piece of life advise which I have called on many times and repeated often.  Whatever the words she used, the message was this:

“Don’t you be afraid to make mistakes.  You just play that song with all your heart, and if you make a mistake I want you to make a big, enthusiastic mistake that everyone can hear.  No little wimpy mistakes!

Something to that effect.  She told me to play it again.  So I played it again, loudly and confidently.  I made some loud, confident mistakes and I had to admit she was right—it sounded a lot better, mistakes and all.

Mrs. Swan isn’t living anymore–if she were she would be 100.  And I can’t play the piano to save my soul, but I know how to make a good mistake.  Big.  Loud.  Not fearfully or shamefully.  I’ve had lots of practice and I’m fabulous at it.

I actually hand myself Mrs. Swan’s advice quite frequently when I’m surfing—who knew that piano lessons could speak to that?  “Don’t worry about making a mistake,” I tell myself.  “Make a giant mistake.  Take the wipe-out of the day.”

I do.

Mixed with my rides, I get me some almighty wipe-outs.  I consider them a success in their own way.  Sometimes going all in is more important than what happens next.

 

About Being Brave. Or Not.

I’ve always been perplexed by people who tell me I’m brave—or maybe I should say, I am intrigued by the things that people interpret as acts of bravery.

How many times have I heard this: “You live in Costa Rica?  Oh you’re so brave!”  Or in reference to me moving here by myself (even though I was coming back to friends) when I was 24, “That’s so brave!”

The thing is, it’s not brave.  Not for me, anyway.  How can you be brave if you aren’t scared?  If I’m not afraid of something, for me to do it requires no bravery at all.

My boss took the batch of us on a canopy tour, recently, where you harness up, hang by metal clamps from steel cables, and zoom through the jungle canopy from tree to tree.  It’s a lot of fun.  I’ve never been afraid of heights, so it requires no bravery for me to launch from the platform and fly through the air.  Some of the team members, however, were petrified.  For them to do the exact same thing as I did was a tremendous act of bravery.  I watched them struggle with their fear and overcome it (or not).

To be brave is not the same as to be fearless.  If I’m not afraid of the ocean and I paddle out into it on a surfboard, that’s not bravery.  If I am afraid of the ocean and I paddle out into it anyway, THAT is brave.

For me, getting on an airplane is brave.  Getting on the motorcycle is brave.  (I do it all the time, clamped for dear life to the back of my husband who is cool as a cumber.)  Living in Costa Rica?  Not brave.  Getting on a boat?  Not brave.  Canopy tour?  Not brave.  Spelunking?  That’s another story.  I will hang by my tiptoes from a tightrope before I crawl into a small space that I can’t see my way out of.  That would require me to be brave, and I’m not interested.  Call me a chicken.

Up until the end of July, surfing, for me, was generally not an act of bravery unless there were a lot of rocks in the water.  I have this inexplicable panic in the presence of rocks.  Duh.  Rocks.  But yes—seeing dark shapes under me, or feeling them when I can’t see them, has always just about sent me over the edge.  No idea why.  And then the crocodile thing happened.

It didn’t happen to me in the most literal way, but there are ways in which it did.  And I’ve been back surfing, since.  Gingerly, if there is such a thing.  It’s getting a little better.  But make no mistake—surfing, for me, has become an act of bravery in a way that it wasn’t before.  I think I speak for a lot of people in my town when I say that.  Whereas before, perhaps, we are fearless, we have now become brave.

Being fearless, which can be good or bad, is a characteristic, and who chooses their characteristics?  Being brave is a choice.

Where am I going with this?  A ninguna parte.  I’m just saying.  Fearlessness and bravery might look the same on the outside.  On the inside, they’re not.