A Horrifying Opportunity for Growth

The neighbors’ footsteps up above. The rigorous flute scales from the practice room next door. My cat, Bo, singing (yowling) at 2am. The conversation next to me in the coffee shop. The squealing brakes of the train rushing into the station. The distant sound of cars racing down the interstate, heard from even the remotest part of the forest where I run. Quiet moments are precious, as I’m relishing now at 4am with my coffee, laptop, and stacks of boxes surrounding me, still waiting to be unpacked.

Being a student again is like exercising a part of my brain that’s been a dormant couch potato for some time. As an adult I’ve largely held myself to my own standards, which are naturally one-dimensional. I read and do things that are interesting to me, rather than by assignment. No one really puts pressure on me but me, which is a privileged position to be in. What I liked about school growing up was that there was structure and a direction to follow. You get grades and constructive feedback and you’re held to a high standard. You’re asked a zillion questions, you’re encouraged to ask questions, and share thoughts and ideas with people outside of your social circle.

It’s not news that as a society we’ve gotten very insulated, especially when it comes to who we interact with and the content we consume. I’m certainly not immune to it. I’ve subconsciously, over time, curated this little world of people that think just like me, many who look just like me, and they like all the same things I do. My Instagram feed is mostly filled with nature scenes, inspiring athletes, and designy things exactly to my taste. I let Spotify discover new artists for me, based on music I already like. It’s all very comfortable and offers confirmation of the things I know, or think I know, opposed to being exposed to new things and provoking new thoughts and questions. Or, perhaps I am shown something new that I don’t like within the first one or two seconds of exposure- it’s all too easy to just skip on to the next thing without giving it a second thought.

This has all become glaringly obvious to me as I’ve joined a new community, one of musicians and not solely runners/outdoorists. I feel very comfortable in the latter group, because there is a language being communicated that I understand. I know what’s going on in the racing/FKT world, who the big names and voices of the sport are, the trail lingo, the latest news, the little quirks that many of us share. I fit in. In the music world, where I feel I’ve been on the outskirts of for a little while, I have some major catching up to do. My piano-playing fingers are rusty, my knowledge of music history is foggy, and there are vibrant, brilliant modern composers doing incredible work that I’ve been totally oblivious to.

It’s sort of like being a kid and not wanting to eat your vegetables. They taste gross, and besides, white rice and butter together is awesome. What more could you need? Last week in class, one of the faculty members at my school performed a viola piece by a composer I’d never heard of, Caroline Shaw. It seemed that every student in the room was murmuring, “Ahhh yes Caroline Shaw, oh yes, wonderful!” And there I was thinking, “Uhh Caroline who?” She explained the piece was based on a 16th century motet. Wait, what is a motet again? I felt oddly resistant to sitting and listening to a piece I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t know how to relate to. Then for several days after, I couldn’t get the piece out of my head. It stuck with me, and I could appreciate it more. All it took was some initial exposure.

Pretty much every day lately has been uncomfortable because everything is new. New people, new city, and frequently being asked to use my brain again. “What did you notice about this piece?” “What instruments did you hear?” “How did [performing in front of everyone] make you feel?” “What did you take away from that article?” “Why don’t you try the left hand passage this way?” “What do you picture when you play this section?” I am hesitant to answer questions out loud in class because I might be wrong or say something dumb, and I don’t volunteer to play music in front of everyone because I might mess up. And now I’m being asked to do that every day. What a horrifying opportunity for growth!

So perhaps the ongoing question is, outside of literally going back to school, how can adults continue to be lifelong learners? Where is the motivation to go beyond our comfort zone, meet new people, explore new ideas, share our thoughts, listen to others, become exposed to art, music, food, and different cultures? How do we overcome the online algorithms reinforcing the things we already know we like, and feeding us more of the same? Why should we?

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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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