Growing Up Ella, or How I Got Opened Up and Grew a Soul

02 Feb 2020

I’ve never understood music. Growing up in a Ukrainian household but being assimilated into English speaking society meant that I spent more time trying to parse the words of any song than actually listening to the music. For me, I didn’t identify myself with anything I listened to.

I certainly wanted something more interesting than white noise to listen to (although, listening to white noise did end up being a staple of my working habits), but beyond that my standards were low. When asked my favourite genre, I would tell people that I “could listen to anything”. Most people would look at me like I was lying and then bring up rap. I never really understood that; Rap served the same purpose as any other genre for me. I got most of my musical exposure second-hand: what was on the radio, movie and video game soundtracks, and stuff my friends would show me while I nodded along so we could move onto something I could understand.

When I went to the theatre to watch a concert of Ella Fitzgerald songs, I wasn’t expecting anything. My mum invited me along because she had a spare ticket, and we were raised to respect thrift and never put anything to waste, so I went. Even though, given everything that happened to me at the time, I would have otherwise stayed home and just lied in bed.


I never thought of myself as a person. For me, a person was a human with passion, personality, flaws, and motive. But I never ascribed these things to myself. I never felt passionate about anything. My personality was non-existant, mostly just repeating the latest cultural tidbits and tricks of social banter so I could pass as human. I always got the sense that people knew I was pretending to know how to talk like a normal person and could tell I was faking it, but they were usually too polite to mention it. My flaws weren’t flaws, but endemic to my body – something I was stuck with. And my motive was always to make it – working through the day, getting good grades and work done, then going home and doing work and sleeping. It was automatic.

If that description doesn’t give it away, I’m depressed. It’s something I’ve had medically treated for a bit and had been going to therapy for a year to treat. One of the things that my therapist tried to teach me was that you just have to accept yourself for who you are. But there was nothing to accept. I was unfeeling, unless that feeling was shit. In which case, yeah, I felt like shit. And why wouldn’t I?

My dad has Alzheimer’s. I’m probably going to get Alzheimer’s young. My family is poor and there’s a climate apocalypse on the horizon. I had accepted those things about myself (or at least told myself I did so I could “advance” through my depression treatment). In doing so, I hardened myself.

Growing Up

But the concert wouldn’t have touched me as it did had I been hardened up going in. The weeks before were very stressful and shitty. A bus strike in the city had made my lack of ability to transport myself even worse (though it was relieved massively by the good graces of a friend). I had to drive my mum to the hospital because of a massive spike in her blood pressure. I found out that a guy I had been seeing and interested in had found someone else, and I felt used. I hadn’t seen my sister who I was close with for a while.

All this softened my hardened core. I can see now that in order to grow up, you have to be vulnerable. You must be uncomfortable.


And there I sat in the theatre before show start. Tired, energy-deprived, getting annoyed at nearby boomers. But then, the band struck up.

George Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band rang my head out of its stupor. It was energetic. The lights beamed down on the orchestra, and I could see each player’s face accented in orange glow. Inorganic, yet natural to the rhythm. I was ready to sleep. But the band woke me up. Not that I was mad about it.

After the end of the song, the main singer of the event walked out on stage. Capathia Jenkins was her name. She wore a smooth beige dress with a scarf hanging down from her shoulders wrapped around her elbows. The audience was enraptured, she had total command of the stage. And she sang and took a break and sang again. Each song raised my spirits a little bit higher, and made me attentive to the lessons I was to learn.

This would have been an exciting moment for me: a time where I actually felt good. But it would become something more when she sang out her first impromptu addition to the program: Goody, Goody! She explained that it was about a guy who breaks up with a girl, but then that girl breaks up with the guy, so the first girl is singing about it.

*So you met someone who set you back on your heels, goody goody! So you met someone and now you know how it feels, goody goody! So you gave her your heart too, just as I gave mine to you

And he broke it in little pieces, now how do you do?

So you lie awake just singing the blues all night, goody goody! So you found that loves a barrel of dynamite

Hurray and hallelujah, you had it comin’ to ya Goody goody for you! Goody goody for me

And I hope you’re satisfied you rascal you*

I was never one who got symbolism or fancy wording until I read a passage several times. So having something obvious stood out to me immediately. The aggression, and the passion, and the snark – it appealed to my animalistic side, the one that wants to hurt people who wronged me. It gave words and playfulness to a sense of sadness and loneliness I had developed from the past few weeks. Hearing the words and immediately connecting with them – it felt like my id and my superego were interlocked in a passionate dance. I was captured, I started mouthing the words as they were sung. I felt tingles in my neck, and I was relaxed by them.

I felt something. I felt my inner person stir. I got the sense that I was allowed to feel good about liking this song. This song about making fun of someone’s despair. There’s a word for it: schadenfreude. Realizing that I’m allowed to feel this way reminded me for the first time that I’m a human with complex and selfish feelings. I did have flaws, and most importantly, I’m better for knowing them. I got had, and now I’m feeling what I should have been this whole time.

A brief intermission to make me think about this moment. I started doodling away in my journal. I had to make something of this feeling. I could envision a me. I wondered what I looked like.

Back to the music, and the next one hit me even harder. George Gershwin’s The Man I Love.

*Some day he’ll come along, the man I love And he’ll be big and strong, the man I love And when he comes my way, I’ll do my best to make him stay.

He’ll look at me and smile, I’ll understand And in a little while, he’ll take my hand And though it seems absurd I know we both won’t say a word.

Maybe I shall meet him Sunday, Maybe Monday, maybe not Still I’m sure to meet him one day Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day.

He’ll build a little home just meant for two From which I’ll never roam, who would? would you? And so, all else above, I’m waiting for the man I love.*

This was the first time I cried to music. I saw myself saying these words. I realized the absurdity of all my previous attempts to get a me. I saw someone I liked, and I tried, in the vain hope, that I could define myself vicariously. I was waiting for a man. And when I had one, I tried to persuade him to stay. I didn’t talk about it, we didn’t say a word. And the one I wanted to meet would come someday. Just to live the perfect life with the two of us.

It was madness. I had spent so much of myself giving to others so they would accept and love me. And then mad and bitter when I didn’t get my man – when they didn’t give me myself.

Now, I’m still waiting for a man. But I hope that even if he doesn’t come on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday, I’ll have myself to occupy my days.

Growing up in a working family, I didn’t spend a lot of time with mum and dad. I don’t really know how I got raised outside of school. So when Arlen and Mercer’s Blues in The Night finished, I felt like I had gotten a lecture from a mother, trying to make sure that I knew not to get my heart broken.

*My mama done tol’ me, When I was in knee pants, My mama done tol’ me, Son! A woman’ll sweet talk And give ya the big eye; But when the sweet talkin’s done, A woman’s a two face A worrisome thing Who’ll leave ya t’sing The blues in the night

Now the rain’s a-fallin’, Hear the train a-callin’ Whoo-ee (my mama done tol’ me) Hear that lonesome whistle Blowin’ `cross the trestle, Whoo-ee (my mama done tol’ me) A whoo-ee-duh-whoo-ee, ol’ clickety clack’s A-echoin’ back the blues in the night

The evenin’ breeze’ll start the trees to cryin’ And the moon’ll hide its light When you get the blues in the night*

My parents weren’t the no-one will hurt you type of people. We were aware that there would be people who wanted to exploit me. But emotionally, this had an unintended effect. I spent so much time worrying that I’d get hurt that my formative years were spent alone. I didn’t have any friends until late into high school. I never had a relationship until I started long-distance. I never learned how to read people like my parents did. Their lesson of “people have complex motives” was muddled into “people are out to hurt you, so stay away.”

This song taught me the right lesson. People are two faced. They’ll leave you crying. They’ll push you out of their lives. And everything around you will bend to make your life worse. The mood will hide its light. The rain will pour. Even the whistle of a train becomes lonely. Happiness is nothing without the tartness of sadness to give it its sugar.

We have to know that people are complex. That everything is moving on beyond us. People are two-faced and deceitful, but that happens for a reason. That other people have motives. And that having motives makes me a person too. And that its okay to have multiple faces too.

Growing Up

The concert ended with an encore. Improvized and beautiful. I clapped until my hands hurt.

If I hadn’t had the bittering experiences I had, I don’t think I would have been this moved. I wouldn’t have grown up so quickly. I wouldn’t have found a soul of my own. I’ve read it everywhere, but now I understand. We have to be uncomfortable. You need to be able to make yourself vulnerable. Let yourself grow.

I still have a lot to think about. Hell, I’ll probably look back on this thing and cringe later. But, I think I can’t wait to see who the person who’s going to be reading it at that time will be.

You got this.