the wrong gift, the right choice

Amy had hoped for a French horn, but instead received from her parents a smaller box than expected. She knew that the musical instrument she longed for could not fit such a compressed package. Curious though, she went ahead and opened the gift. To her disappointment, a trumpet lay in front of her. The French horn was too expensive for her parents to afford, and she hence ended up with a cheaper option to honor her musical aspirations. Dissatisfied, Amy ignored her parents’ present for a few days. Only dumb boys play the trumpet, she pondered. However, the child’s disinterest did not last very long; her inquisitiveness won over her resistance. Even though Amy initially treated the dreadful object with caution, she was yet able to explore the fine nuances of sound which this metal tube offered.

What Amy did not predict was that the objectionable present would soon become an extension of her own body. The flowing vibration, passing from her mouth to the instrument, from the instrument to the room, infused her with life more than any other hobby might have done. The choice of musical instrument was not so wrong after all. Amy describes the French horn as a stiff device, associated with classical pieces of music only. Her trumpet, on the other hand, is versatile; it includes a variety of opportunities ranging from jazz to experimental music.

Nowadays Amy is part of the Montreal Orchestra. The little girl who disliked her parents’ gift became a professional who appreciates the soul of stages. Playing at Carnegie Hall, in New York City, brought Amy to her dream venue and her parents sat in the audience to witness the maturing of their daughter’s musical capabilities. This trumpet player does hardly feel the pressure one might usually experience in such a prestigious space, but instead feels a sense of performing with responsibility. The conductor though becomes tense in major concerts, mainly when there is a TV or radio broadcast. Amy, conversely, finds a challenging situation inspiring.

The versatility of the trumpet matches the Canadian’s personality. The flexible approach to life reflects her early days of growing up on a farm located in Saskatchewan, a province of Canada. While her parents cultivated wheat and lentils, they were also musicians. Their passion permeated the entire family. Amy started having parts of her life take place in different settings: the little village with 500 inhabitants, the school town with 14,000, and the city where she used to study music over the weekends. Experiencing these different types of environments influenced her way of being.

Amy not only plays at the orchestra those classical pieces from Bantock and Moller, but she is also passionate about early music, fascinated by Renascence and Baroque, which she teaches at a university. On the other side of the spectrum, Amy’s spirit resonates with the possibilities of experimental, contemporary, and cross-over projects with other composers. If this open-minded musician would rule her own alternative, left-wing orchestra, the first amendment would be to stop playing Star Wars.

The hierarchy and stiffness of the orchestra bothers her soul, which ache for flying away. A divide exists between her political positions and the conservative structure of a traditional large instrumental ensemble. While there are climate protests running in Montreal, which Amy supports, the symphony orchestra engages in an international tour, entertaining the elites of developing countries in South America. Should she even be playing in a country ruled by a far-right politician?

During her childhood, the family acquired not one but two pianos so that all four kids could practice for their musical lessons. The time-management of the keyboard ran tightly, overseen by a driven mother. There was no space for exploring the instrument beyond the fixed rehearsal pieces. The rigidity of her musical routine as a child prompted Amy to allow her seven year old son more freedom to enjoy the newly purchased Yamaha home piano. Her child has now the opportunity to have jazz lessons and is free to jam as he wishes.

Amy’s mother works on pottery at the present time and has become more flexible as, in this art, improvisation is an advantage. The elderly woman has been redefining herself as an individual after the sudden death of her husband. Amy’s father is not in this world any longer, but his legacy of supporting the little girl’s dreams lives on inside of her. Living in Montreal, Amy sometimes feels lonely in social situations, which require French skills beyond her current capabilities. Quebec is like another country, in which she is a bit of an alien. The birth of her child let to an obscure phase in her life. During this period, it was even harder to improve her French. The dark period passed by; now the future holds new promises of self-expression. As Amy has lived most of her life in her head, the time to come reserves music as a carrier of the body through dance. The wrong gift shaped a whole life.

molding her body, training her soul

Shaping her muscles for a bodybuilding tournament became a mission beyond presenting a well-delineated body in Bianca’s life. This time the challenge had a different quality: The arduous and repetitive muscular training reserved a motivation superior to aesthetic purposes. To develop a choreography for her bodybuilding performance required creativity, pushing Bianca out of her comfort zone. This quest involved not the attainment of perfectly shaped and groomed body but the submission to judgment. Bianca turned into a body builder to defy her own notions of self-consciousness. Displaying her toned muscular curves to a set of judges accomplished the deed. Even though Bianca felt terrified of the exposure, an internal driving force compelled her to perform, to overcome her fears.

It was not about finishing first but about being out there. Her idea of success is defined by accomplishing the task. Winning is realized in the process of exposing oneself. If there is anxiety, she defeats it. Bianca explains that people will judge you whatever you do and the best way to deal with uncomfortable situations is to confront them: to submit yourself to judgment with no expectations. This high-achiever masters obstacles that life places in front of her. Energetic, her body has been an instrument of her will. Not that this muscular woman runs over no-trespassing signs like a raging bull. Rather she is aware of the constraints of nature, attending to limits determined by her bones, nerves, and cells. When Bianca faces a dead-end street, she raises her head to find alternative pathways.

In Thai boxing, she happened to be one of the few British women offered the opportunity to compete in the world championship. A concussion suffered from strikes to her head ruined her chance. The brain injury led to cognitive and affective complications: depression, blurred vision, short-term memory loss. Suicidal thoughts popped in her mind. Hormonal treatment followed to tame the myriad of symptoms.

Being among elite athletes brings the best out of her. On another occasion, Bianca pursued her vision to be part of the Olympic Games in London. Because of her mother’s Belizean origin, she’d be able to represent the small country of Central America at the largest event in international sports. She proposed to Belize’s committee to participate in the Olympic marathon, suggesting that she could finish the run in less than three hours—contingent on extensive training.

Shortly after having undergone an abortion, Bianca was again in the arena. The long-distance runner joined the tribe of Kenyan marathonists in East Africa to prepare. Bianca headed to the Rift Valley, in Kenya, which has an altitude of 2,500 meters. The extreme circumstances are said to help the body to achieve better results at sea level. Blood would run down her uterus while training, bearing testimony to the recent terminated pregnancy. However, it wasn’t the distress her body coped with that stopped Bianca. Her back failed her; a hamstring tendon injury destroyed her plans.

Resilience persisted. Bianca recollected and reinvented herself once more. She doesn’t stop. This survivor explains that she has become a specialist in failure. Failing usually has a negative connotation, particularly in England, she remarks. For this strong-minded athlete there is more to failure than the fact of defeat. In her view, failure makes us learn, experience, and grow. This half-Belizean, half-English woman embraces the idea of ‘keep trying.’

In her professional life, Bianca has also been purposeful. In the fields of micro and molecular biology, she ended up in a lab working with vaccines. It wasn’t her thing. Soon she wished to escape from an environment that cultivates a kind of science biased by financial interests. Not even the idea of eradicating viruses sounded like a worthwhile endeavor. For the researcher of biological agents, these creatures have an evolutionary role; they’re part of a human’s DNA, our co-evolved pals. Modern medicine disappoints her. Bianca views nature as a process, which prompted her departure from the molecular biology lab.

Bianca believes that there is always something to gain from any experience. She was able to combine her two passions: sports and science. In sports science she found a way to express herself. She’s interested in how testosterone levels increase in women who train and formulated a PhD project on this, but hasn’t had a chance to start quite yet. The sport scientist helped young athletes with strengthening and conditioning as well as assisting people with injury prevention training. But it’s as a motivational trainer that Bianca pictures herself in the future. This athlete-biologist seeks to help people overcome their fears, achieving well-being and mental equilibrium.

This mindset has led her to Jiu-jitsu, another martial art in her life. In contrast to Thai boxing that focuses on attacking the adversary, Jiu-jitsu is about using the strength of the opponents against themselves. This type of combat involves problem solving skills for precise movements and a subtle way of using the body, emphasizing fluidity and harmony.

Bianca’s way of moving and thinking inspires others. Her message comes through her body, through her existence, through her experience. She believes that her life story can resonate with people. There are other perspectives through which to make sense of events. A situation can be both catastrophic and fortunate at the same time. Bianca’s endeavor is to teach us the art of failure. On this view, sports can become therapeutic and strengthen a sense of community. Her favorite word is ‘ubuntu’, an African expression that flags the connection among all humans through bonding and sharing. Bianca is not afraid to transform failures into experiences, and experiences into opportunities of relating to others.

the language of animals

When Kath was about five years old, she prepared a special gift for her teacher’s birthday. The little girl overheard her kindergarten teacher’s fear, detecting a potential for the big surprise. Frequent visitor of a barn where raw products awaited their future at her family’s distillery in a Northwest German village, Kath explored the paths in the top floor between the piles of straw, searching ‘the object in question’ on the ground. It didn’t take long for her to find what she was looking for. The gift was carefully wrapped in a kitchen towel. Arriving at school, the angelical blond child marched toward her kindergarten teacher with both hands holding the package. She shouted ‘Happy birthday!’ whilst handing the item to the birthday woman. As she unwrapped the present, her facial expression shifted from sympathy to terror: there was a dead mouse inside of it. The teacher strode to the nearest trashcan holding the dead animal, followed by an army of young pupils, including Kath who felt excited within for having provoked such a reaction.

Not only could the little girl collect a dead mouse with ease, but she also befriended the animals considered enemies of rodents. Felines brought a sense of comfort that she didn’t know existed. In the same barn in which a few dead mice, cadavers of pigeons and spider webs were to be found here and there, cats would find a place to rest among mountains of straw that would be used for cattle bedding. To get closer to a tabby cat frequenter named Suzy, the kid would observe the animal from distance and make a subtle sound before every move to warn the animal about her intentions. This was not the only trick she developed. When the cat would close her eyes, Kath would shut hers, too. Proud of her connection with the felines, she narrates the time when Suzy became a mother and showed her the way to the litter. Cats usually hide their lineage from predators; exposing those little living creatures to a human was an ultimate sign of trust. The little girl had some sort of access to the animal kingdom. Kath would place the kittens on top of her body while stretched out on the floor. The lack of human affection in her early life led those fluffy tiny living beings to turn into soothing material; a satisfaction to her cravings for warmth.

With horses, Kath developed another sort of relationship. Trained in dressage from a young age, she would become a team with the four-legged companion. The line dividing the animal from the human body would somewhat dissolve in an invisible tune; a ballet of nature. The gallant young woman learned how to move her arms and legs with tenderness to let her pal know which kind of sequence to follow, whether it’d be leg yield, shoulder in, travers, half pass, flying changes, pirouette, rein back, counter center, or one of many other dressage movements. The animal followed her hints, most of the times. Depending on their personality, the experience would be an easy pie or a challenging endeavor. Kath has ridden from shy and friendly to wild and rebellious equines. Her intimate knowledge of animals guides her to understand how to conduct even the most temperamental horses.

As an adult, Kath still finds peace in the company of animals. She didn’t grow to become a veterinarian or zoologist even though she has undertaken an internship taking care of dolphins in a zoo in Duisburg when she was 17. She would prepare food for the aquatic animal and help clean the area around the tank. With her charms, Kath was even able to attract a dolphin to the edge as he turned around so she could pet his belly, going against the rules as interns weren’t supposed to touch the charismatic swimmers. The excitement to be near those friendly acrobatic mammals contrasted with a critical sense of the animals’ living conditions and their use as entertainment, being in captivity with no voluntary relationship to humans. During her PhD thesis in modernist literature in England, she’d ‘kidnap’ the cat’s neighbor to make him her faithful squire. Not in the sense that she’d have to force the feline inside the house, she just knew how to enchant Milo, a black and while amiable cat. Kath explains that she doesn’t lure felines with food; for her it’s not the right way to get close to them. The animals shouldn’t join her as a business trade of any sort, but they should approach her for affection solely. The literary modernist student knows how to make felines fall in love with her the same way that she falls in love with them. Kath is fluent in the language of animals.