All service requires a level of premeditated dedication, a motivation to influence something bigger than your current circumstances. The story of my time in the Navy is premised on this idea, which seems like a logical place to begin. I could tell you all about my reasons for joining and staying in for 11 years. Why I decided to leave the service. Why this or why that…but none of that really matters to the arc of my narrative. (And besides, you will infer your own logic into my story that may or may not be true based on your own life for which I have no control. I fully accept this reality. Writers and artists of all stripes must come to terms with this if they are to maintain their sanity.) Instead I prefer to talk about a few of the moments and people that taught me the most about myself. It is true that in my attempt to avoid talking about the “why’s” of my service directly, I will end up talking around them via these experiences. Let me say up front that I simply do not care if I reveal my hand in this endeavor. The “why’s” do not haunt me, but they are not as important as they might seem.
Well, enough of that…
The first few years of my career were very challenging for me. I was not a strong player (flute/picc/saxophone) and I began to struggle with my weight. Being a very self-conscious person, my playing wasn’t the thing that concerned me most. And I probably don’t have to say how difficult it was to try losing weight with the never-ending temptations that surrounded me in the New Orleans and Gulf coast region, but I’ll say it anyway!
I am getting ahead of myself, though. Well before I began my weight loss journey and well before I was even close to being out of standards (by Navy or civilian measures), I had one of my first mid-term evaluations. I was a very naïve and incredibly shy eighteen-year-old Seaman Apprentice who took even the smallest criticisms too hard. That said, even in retrospect, there is no doubt in my mind that when my superior told me I could, “stand to lose a few pounds,” he took a step outside the realm of appropriate criticisms. At that point I was nowhere near my maximum weight limit. Full disclosure: yes, I had started gaining weight at the time of that evaluation, however, not enough to warrant such a comment. Depressed about my body image yet not ready to face the trials of a journey toward a healthier life, I spiraled almost to the point of losing my job. It all came down to a single physical fitness test, which I passed, with a lot of difficulty.
I could easily say that my superior’s comments motivated me either negatively to gain more weight or positively to lose it. They did neither. I pulled myself up out of that mess. No one ran the miles for me (though many were there cheering me on). What that evaluation session really symbolized was one more thing that I could look to as an example of my worth. In other words, there was no single driver for the way that I constructed my self-image. My playing sucked, my body was a disaster…what did I have to offer the world? Things were pretty awful at that point.
It is only in retrospect that I can look back on this time as formative and good in the way that growing pains are good. Youthful insecurities are a part of life. That’s not to say that working through them was easy nor that they are no longer a part of my personal struggles. Really, these insecurities are the true specters of my life and not the reasons why I choose a given path.
Norfolk, VA, my next duty station, is where I faced my specters head on and started to slough off the old shell of my younger self. The band was large enough to have a working woodwind quintet where I would be required to hold my own and stop hiding. My colleagues were so patient with me! For that, I have the highest gratitude. Some of the best musical moments of my career were with that group of musicians. Does it matter that most of them were women? I’m not sure. It does matter that their patience gave me wiggle room to improve on my instrument.
With that new-found confidence, I also took up working out as a hobby – under self-imposed resistance to the routine. There is something rather daunting about walking into a gym on a military base (or anywhere for that matter!). Maybe “daunting” isn’t sufficient enough to describe the fear that an out-of-shape person must overcome as the doors to the fitness center stand before you. In any case, daunting is the word we’ll go with for now. Fighting the urge to leave, you walk in and seek out a machine of whatever sort in some remote corner of the room away from the judging eyes of other people. I would go there every other day for weeks and then months until finally I didn’t and I missed it. Over the course of that time my P.T. scores improved and I thought I made peace with my body image issues.
I began to actually believe that I was a contributing member of the Navy both as a sailor and as a musician! This is powerful stuff for that sensitive eighteen-year-old inside my brain. Norfolk is where I honestly took stock in my worth and capabilities and learned that those two things are not inextricably linked. Patient friends willing to let me try the same thing over and over and over again showed me new possibilities for personal growth. Since then I have called upon my experience in Norfolk to remind me during those times when I feel awful about “X” that things will get better once I look to the patient people in my life for support as I pull myself up again…
I need to stop for now. There is so much to say and so much reflection that I have yet been able to consider. More to come….