Molly Mahoney and Me

“Molly Mahoney was the manager of the Emporium; Mr. Magorium’s apprentice; and my only friend. In the mornings, Mahoney would play the piano, attempting to finish her very first concerto. But she never could find the right notes.

When she was younger, everyone thought she was a musical genius. A brilliant pianist. And she believed them. But now, as she became a grownup, she wasn’t so sure.

I don’t know why grownups don’t believe what they did when they were kids. I mean . . . aren’t they supposed to be smarter?

What Mahoney needed was the opportunity to prove to herself that she was something more than she believed. And that opportunity was about to appear.”

I am now old enough that I’m just barely beginning to learn there are two wrong ways to look at ourselves. There’s a common conception that low self-esteem means not seeing ourselves as worthy; that good self-esteem means no more than the dictionary definitions of the words, esteeming oneself, regardless of actual natural capacities or the lack thereof, the use of them or their neglect.

However, another angle is not allowing ourselves to see and use the gifts we do have, and everyone has some, regardless of IQ, regardless of talents or training or interests. There’s something in everyone that’s a gift. But we do have the capacity for self-invalidation.

Throughout my life, I’ve gone through a battle where self-valuation is tied to gifts, the use of them, and the denial of them. At this point, I have no use for esteeming oneself, as defined above, outside of Christ’s imputed worth. Probably the least relatable combination I’ve encountered in another human being is an individual with high self-esteem and low self-validation—a narcissist who refuses to acknowledge and use their own capacities. (I had such a friend once, and suffice to say it didn’t work out.)

There is nothing more difficult on a person’s boundaries than being asked to serve the interests of someone who will not serve themselves because their self-esteem is stroked when other people compensate for their self-invalidation. I guess the shorthand for that is co-dependency. I’ve come to just call it a toxic nuisance and a crying shame.

But to return to our story of magic and childlike belief, Molly Mahoney’s story is mine. I’ve actively learned not to believe in the gifts God gave me, or to treat them as a sort of curse that makes me stand out from the crowd too much. And yet, somehow, it’s written into my personality to want to do my own thing, crowd be jiggered.

Molly cuts to my heart because I was—keyword, was—a musical prodigy who has grown up to be a musical mediocrity. I remember being told as a child of six or seven that I was “gifted.” I found this a very exciting concept. It meant there were things I could do right, and do well, which didn’t seem to happen often. I was regularly in trouble for being strong-willed, and for coming at the world sideways instead of doing things the way adults were trying to teach me to do them.

When I brought up the gifted idea before an adult I was close to, it was curtly impressed on me that it wasn’t okay to think of myself that way. I was just curious to explore the possibilities of what that meant; I got the message that to do so would be arrogant and out of place, and I got it strongly.

As an adult, I place myself in the range of average. I’m no genius, and there are plenty of people like me. Nonetheless, I still regularly receive the message that the abilities God gave me are not okay; I should go back in my corner and stop challenging people’s comfort zones in so many ways.

Last night, driving home as the stars came out, I thought about God-given abilities. There are many different types in humankind: intellectual, physical, and even emotional and spiritual ability. There are different relationships between all of them that make each person’s strengths very unique. It’s possible to have great spiritual abilities without much intellectual glamour—I think of a relative who functioned at a Grade 8 level, yet understood the Scripture more clearly than many adults. There are people who are all brain and no heart. There are those who rarely even read a magazine, yet their brilliance is crafted through hands-on, active engagement with the world. (My father-in-law can build all kinds of things with all kinds of materials without a single written note.)

We do ourselves no favours to ignore the magic within others or ourselves. It’s something inexplicable within the frame of simple biology. Gifts aren’t measurable in such limited ways as we often assign. It’s not wise to esteem oneself; it’s also not wise to invalidate one’s God-given gifts. He’s created an amazing world for us to inhabit and explore, and we should do that without apologizing, in whatever way we’re designed to do.

Molly cannot write her concerto until she realizes that there’s magic inside her. It doesn’t depend on the world around her, or the people she loves and trusts and must let go of in the end. It doesn’t depend on the dreams and goals people tell her to have. It depends on doing the one thing she’s uniquely made for, living in and loving a tiny unnoticed corner of beauty and mystery that will die without her.

I have one of those too, inhabited by four young imps with sparkling blue eyes and adventurous, laughing spirits.

When she confesses what she most passionately believes, even though she doesn’t believe in herself, she finds a sparkle inside that flows out of her like fireworks and sheds colour and life into the world around her. And in the magic of being true to her calling, her song is waiting.

Where I Am From

I am from teakettle whispering,
from Digestive biscuits
and long, philosophical talks of an evening.
I am from the scent of late-summer grass under borealis dews.
I am from saskatoon bush,
wild rose,
alkaline prairie clay;
the rustle of poplar,
secret golden ladyslipper,
silvery spring creeks that disappear in the heat.

I am from learning by love and exploration,
and nervous concern over details,
from Caroline’s broken heart and great-uncle’s crabapples and long-ago unknown Irish Guinns.

I am from silent thoughtfulness
and contemplation, seated side by side.
From God is a crutch for the weak, but some need that;
and human kindness is its own reward.
I am from cold, hard logic which must touch to believe,
but shatters in the shocking grief of death’s grimace
in spite of thinking nothing is there.

I’m from les p’tites villes au l’est du Winnipeg,
from settler rogues on the lam
and Liverpool bombing survivors,
from the last merchant seamen of England
(we do not know why we love to tie knots in things);
roast beef and puds,
cold salads and pies at harvest,
wild raspberries found in the Manitoba bush.

From the gift-penny Great-Grandmother threw at the feet of her unloved son’s relatives;
his Taj-Mahal painted box she pawned away;
the canvas of oils he made as an old man, using my calendar’s iconic photo.

I am from the tarnished black-and-white of wed estrangers in occupied India,
a cottage by a mud-brown creek,
an elm-shaded city home with the faint tinge of British tobacco,
a small-town retirement constructed by my father out of places we no longer are.

I am from an ugly plastic box tucked beneath an end table,
loose, random memories layered over well-ordered envelopes.
From clicking Kodak wheels that have disappeared somewhere, taking the Parthenon and the VW van
and the six-month walking tour with them.
(I am Little Metric, conceived in Europe.)

I’m from the shiny brown hassock full of vintage Beatles vinyl.
From the needle-scratch of modems
delivering pixelated expressions of
Pakistan and China, Australia and Israel,
framing familiar, beloved faces in a flatscreen glow.

I’m from the scent of antique books tucked beneath the farmhouse attic’s fir trusses;
an internet archive of childhood moments in UTF-8.

From a sparkling Canadian lake where a heartsick Yorkshire war bride dipped her feet and posed a smile.
Where prisoners of war were interned as labourers,
and my children now sail in freedom.

I am from dichotomies.

Writing Exercise: Where I’m From,