I went to the Embassy Theatre last night to hear Joshua Bell perform with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. People who saw my red nose and eyes afterward might have thought that I was just verklempt from hearing one of the greatest living violinists perform. That was a little bit true—he was of course very good—but mostly I was crying because I had a complete mini-midlife crisis during the time it took for Bell to play Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium.”
I was a classical music geek in high school, specifically a violinist. That was my thing, the way I structured my adolescent personality development project and the reason why, if you mention any pop music that was A Big Fucking Deal in the mid-1980s, I might stare at you blankly: I was entirely too high-minded to listen to pop music, don’t you know? I know I was insufferable, but my love was real—many of my strongest and most valuable memories from my teenage years are musical memories.
In 1986, Joshua Bell, an 18-year-old violinist in the process of transitioning from child prodigy to professional adult musician, came to perform in Kansas City, my hometown. Of course I went, and of course I read the interview with him in the Kansas City Star in which he said that actually, he hadn’t really gotten serious about playing violin until he was 14. This was a revelation! I was 14! This story, along with his Midwestern upbringing and closeness to my age, put his life into the sphere of possibilities that seemed real.* If I start practicing five hours a day starting now, can I be him in four years?
Well, no. That wasn’t possible, in large part because I never did develop the habit of practicing five hours a day, suggesting that I never did find practicing violin so addictively compelling—or the rewards so desirable—that I would choose to put in the hours it would have taken to make a career of it, whereas I did find scholarly work compelling enough to earn a PhD and become a professor. But even if I had put in the time, I still would never have become Joshua Bell . . . it was never possible. But I knew none of this when I was 14, because the world was nothing but possibilities.
Before the concert, I told my husband about how my 14-year-old self had translated a desire to be Joshua Bell into a teenage fangirl crush on Joshua Bell. “That was so long ago, thirty-one years ago. Just think—he’s been traveling the world for more than thirty-one years playing violin.” That comment, tethered to the weight of 31 years between then and now, sank down into a lonely place in my soul, and while Bell and the orchestra were performing the Bernstein piece—a musical treatment of the Symposium’s conversation on the nature of love—I couldn’t stop thinking of the big life that I wanted that I didn’t get. It didn’t have to be music—it could have been anything. I just wanted it so big and astonishingly full that it would be Enough.
Like the fool that I am, I tried to reason myself out of it. Would it have helped if I had gone into music as a career? No. I thought about all the thousands of professional violinists in the world, and how those violinists have to deal with the same little petty wounds and resentments that I feel in my life now not at the top of the field that I did choose. I thought about the seven billion people in the world, and how Joshua Bell is in the top ten or twenty of all violinists alive today—seven billion people, and he’s easily in the top ten in his field! Is that enough for him, or does he look at lists like this one or this one and think: Yeah, but I’m no Niccolò Paganini?
I don’t usually think like this, I promise. I appreciate the work of the greats but am mostly content, every day, with my life in the middle. And I’m ashamed to think like this at all, even for a minute, because my life in the middle is so inconceivably much better than the lives of most of the people who have lived through all of human history and likely of most of the people alive in the world today. How can I be so ungrateful? It’s because for a short time in my life, Joshua Bell was a window into a big life, a life that I believed was attainable and that I now know is not attainable.
Life knocked it out of me a bit, so much so that at the age of nineteen I renounced ambition, telling myself I wasn’t that special. My life, like everyone’s, has been a series of looking back on my younger selves with embarrassment, and I was heartily embarrassed then to think of how special and talented I had once thought I was. I have since looked back on that 19-year-old self and thought what a waste it was that she had to squash altogether the feeling of being special. Ample evidence suggested I wasn’t anywhere near as special in reality as I thought I was at 14, but couldn’t 19-year-old me have revised her self-concept to “somewhat special” instead of “really not special at all and formerly totally full of herself”? But she was doing the best she could, too.
In the car on the way home, I named it. “I just had a midlife crisis. This is why people buy Porsches and have affairs.” I don’t think I’ll do either. Instead I wrote this essay.
Rachel E. Hile
* In 1986, I didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia. Today, Wikipedia tells me that Bell was already studying with world-renowned violinist and teacher Josef Gingold at the age of twelve, suggesting that either (a) what he meant by “serious” may be different than what I considered “serious” at the age of 14, or (b) 18-year-old Joshua Bell may have been engaging in a little bit of auto-mythography, as 18-year-olds do.