I stopped playing bassoon the day of my last performance exam. I went, performed, was told that I should have prepared a longer program, and left knowing I’d receive a higher mark than I deserved. That night, when I cut off the tip of my right ring finger while chopping carrots, some relief was mixed in with the struggle to stay conscious. That little injury meant I couldn’t play for at least a week, which turned into a month, then a year, and then another.

If I had wanted to play, I would have, but in all honestly, the instrument made me feel sick. I could hardly stand listening to a bassoon, let alone touch my own. I had been demoralized by failing to give this learning opportunity all that it deserved. If no one had told me that I might have the chops to go professional, I wouldn’t have felt so guilty for missing the ambition. But with that in mind, how could I not feel like the years of private instruction were wasted on me. My poor teacher had to battle weekly with my seething frustration, and the experience probably left both of us scarred. Fortunately, the shame didn’t prevent all musical development.

In parallel, my math studies had become a strong source of self-loathing. By not living up to some articulated potential, I felt unworthy of being called a math major. Incapacitated by the fact that I did not give my classes and professors all of the attention they were due, hard work became impossible. I am somewhat amazed that I managed to graduate when so much time was lost clamoring over this miserable psychological lump. Add on the accumulation of all I had neglected in student government, never reaching research targets, nor ever writing a satisfactory paper, and it’s no wonder I graduated with a queasy sense of incompetence. Though in retrospect, I see something ironic in my internal state at a time when my accomplishments were being recognized. I still have to remind myself that two honours degrees and a scarlet key should be considered evidence of being able to do stuff.

All this to say, I needed to escape the throngs of overaccomplished peers and academic expectations, and volunteer run organisations apparently provided the right kind of shelter. Having spent most of my life doing work without pay, volunteering wasn’t new, but somehow the attitude of “whatever works” hadn’t sunk in before taking part in these successful structures of good intentions. At twenty five, I was learning to assess what people did as opposed to looking for what they didn’t. Applying the same to myself is an ongoing project, but the theory is in place.

With this new permission to work on my strengths rather than towards externally articulated virtues, Sigismund the third is no longer scary. I don’t have to be a better sight reader, or have faster technique to be a bassoonist. If I want to play, I will, and finally I did, and it sounded good.