Comfortable in your own skin

Going to the Upper Potomac Dulcimer Festival each fall is a good strong blow to my ego mixed with some encouragement and flattery. It’s good for me, but also very unsettling, and it takes some time to metabolize.

To start with, here’s some of the encouraging things:

* At the great weekly jam at O’Hurley’s General Store, the bass player requested my original tune “Third Street Market.” I first played this tune for this jam session two festivals ago, and it’s amazing to me that they remember it and like it enough to ask for it. National hammered dulcimer champion Mark Wade, who was to my left, even commented that it was a nice tune.
* Paul Oorts, an amazing musician (who happens to be married to Karen Ashbrook, one of the country’s premier dulcimists), agreed to accompany me on my tune “Fallen” for the Friday open mic, along with my friend Rick Davis. Rick played the psaltery part I’d written and played for my Christmas CD, and Paul just made something up based on the chords and the melody — rich and deep and incredibly well-suited to the tune. Also, Karen, and Maggie Sansone, and a few other folks commented positively on the piece afterwards.
* When Dan Landrum found me to talk about what we should do in his morning class (since I was the only one who’d signed up, and since we needed to find a location for it), he mentioned that he had been looking forward to meeting me, apparently because he’d read some of my comments on or the hammered dulcimer email list.
* Joanie, who directs the festival, seemed to make a point of letting me know that she liked having me there, that I was helpful and worked hard, and that she intended to have me teach again.

Then there were the ego blows:

* Friday afternoon Rick and I were in charge of leading a slow jam. There were more people there than I’d expected, and I wasn’t sure what Rick expected or planned or what everyone else expected. I didn’t feel very helpful.
* Kitty, a woman who has studied with Ken Kolodner, mistakenly asked me for a private lesson on chords and backup, thinking I might have something to show her from a different perspective or something. I had very little idea what to do, since she already knew so much of what I usually teach about such things, not to mention all the other stuff she already knew. I felt my limits as a teacher, not only in material but in how to present it usefully.
* I participated in a regular jam after the open mic, and while at first I knew some of the tunes or could follow the chords of unfamiliar ones, it got to a point where I didn’t know any of the tunes and couldn’t hear anything but a constant A chord. All the tunes sounded alike to me, and I couldn’t even tell if I was playing things that sounded okay with them or not. I also got a little bored — perhaps a defense against feeling incompetent.
* Most of all, I heard so much fabulous music and saw and heard amazing technique and expression — particularly Christie Burns’ ease with syncopation, and everyone’s ease and grace in general — far beyond what I think I can do.

This sort of thing is unsettling for two main reasons:

First, because it is difficult to integrate. How can it be that I have enough skill or giftedness to provoke compliments and interest, and also enough inadequacy to feel like a failure at some of the same things? To be complimented for AND incompetent in expressiveness, composing, arranging, rhythm, teaching, helpfulness with jams?

I am tempted to think that only one is possible — either I’m nothing or I’m all that. I am also tempted to believe what people tell me about myself, as if I don’t know who I am. And so I seem to waffle between heights of arrogance and ambition on the one hand, or depths of insecurity and failure on the other. Any appearance of humility I might have is likely to be motivated by fear: fear of my own arrogance, fear of being exposed as less than people think or expect of me. It gets to the point sometimes where my attempts to deflect compliments look more arrogant than if I simply accepted them.

For example, in his afternoon class, whenever Dan started a topic we had discussed in our one-on-one morning class, he mentioned my name very casually — “as I told Marcy earlier…” Perhaps no one else even noticed, but I felt embarrassingly in a spotlight while also feeling flattered by the attention: it aggravated both my sense of grandeur and my sense of inadequacy — and my sense that neither one needs aggravating.

Dan seems to have something that I envy whenever I see it: being comfortable in his own skin. Perhaps he also sometimes has temptations to arrogance or insecurity or to depend on what other people think of him, but I didn’t see it like I see it in myself. He seems to know who he is, what his gifts are, what he lacks, and is at peace with it all.

The other reason this experience is unsettling is that it is potentially divisive. Ambition has a history of breaking up marriages, and this festival tends to fan the flames of my ambition. Plus there are the things I love about the festival that my husband would not enjoy. He doesn’t like dulcimer music, or Thai food, and perhaps he and the friends I have there would not enjoy one another. I find it disturbing that I love this trip without him so much, and I wish I knew how we could be that exciting for one another.