The worst question you can ask a child is the one most adults can’t answer.
When we are young, we get asked a lot of questions by adults.
“What are you doing with that paintbrush up your nose?”
“How did you get mud all over your clothes?”
“Why did you eat your entire birthday cake in one sitting?”
(“I ran out of hands to carry it with”; “I wanted to roll around in mud”; “Because it was MY cake”).
But there is one question we get asked repeatedly throughout our childhood, year after year.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Because we are young, we always have an answer ready.
“Astronaut,” you say with vehemence. Maybe in a year or two, your answer will change to “Zoologist” or “Ice-Cream Taste Tester.” Whatever your answer, it is usually fanciful, and embellished with all the colourful trimmings of a person who has not yet learned the meaning of the word ‘limitations’.
The one thing I never wanted to be was a musician.
For me, being a musician was not a matter of want or not want; it was an identity I assumed at birth.
Music permeates my memories and seeps through the pores of my earliest consciousness. Age three: first guitar. It is battered little thing, hanging on a piece of yellow string around my neck. My smile is huge, stretching almost to my ears. My hands haven’t yet managed to produce anything more musical out of it than a caterwaul, but I have great hopes. Rainbow xylophones are for chumps.
We bought instruments instead of furniture; sometimes it even multitasked as furniture. My first playground was my father’s music shop, and family outings were limited to going out to see bands. (This would later serve as a useful brag at school. Sample conversation: “I’ve been going to bars since I was eleven, man!” “Wow you’re so cool!” “I know.”)
I wrote my first song when I was six. I only knew two chords, but I was determined. I had the entitled sense of a young prince who knows he will one day be king — who knows that one day, when he is old enough, he will take up his father’s crown.
My father had one jazz piece that he played quite often. When I was twelve, I made him teach it to me. It was, of course, far beyond my skill level. For years I practised it religiously; it became an obsession. Time and time again I tried to make my fingers dance over the frets like his, memorised it note for note so that my mind could play it back to me, even when my fingers couldn’t.
He never praised my playing. The most I ever got was a thoughtful nod, his dark hazel eyes scrutinising me like a hawk looking down from his perch.
Twenty years later, I still haven’t mastered the damn thing. It’s kind of become a running joke in the family. I only have to play the opening bars before being politely told to ‘shut the front door’. So I do. But I’ve never entirely been able to rid myself of that absolute need to perfect it.
It is an exhausting, confusing thing to be constantly asked — by yourself and others — what you are supposed to be, and why. I still don’t have the answer, nor will I ever really know how much of my desire to ‘be’ a musician is tied intrinsically to a need to please my father.
But I’ve always remembered that first (terrible) song I wrote at age six. It was called “How I love my guitar.”
And I remember the feeling of holding my first guitar when I was three, and the grin that stretched so wide across my face.
And I know that even though a guitar around your neck can be a heavy weight to carry, I couldn’t bear it if it wasn’t there.
Contrary to popular belief, “adult” is a made-up word. There’s no such thing. It’s just a way of drawing a line in the sand between infinite possibility and indefinite mediocrity.
Sure, we grow up, if you want to correlate maturity with distance away from the ground. But inside, we’re all still confused, overly-ambitious children seeking the approval of our parents. And maybe that’s ok.
In the meantime, there’s always cake.