I met up with a friend at lunch the other day, and after an hour of laughter and chatter, as we gathered our things to leave the restaurant, he reminded me of a conversation we’d had several years ago. It was still mid-pandemic, although the worst had passed by that point, and we had met at a favorite wine bar with a mutual friend. I remember that conversation well – it still felt strange to be out in the world, and to be with other people – because in the intimacy of shared trauma, we’d all been more transparent about our emotions than we had ever been previously.
My friend remembers something I said that night – something along the lines of acknowledging every day with the notion that life is both precious and finite. He deeply felt those words that night, and they continue to be a touchstone. It seems such a fundamental idea, but it’s the first thing I tend to forget when I get caught up in the incessant activity of the world, of the things that I think that I need to do. When I’m being carried away by a current of activity, I tend to become very lost in the pother, and I start to lose all sense of context. Because when I’m finally able to pull away, I realize that I’ve used up time as if it were endlessly replenished. Which of course it’s not.
So, today I reminded myself of the transient nature of our lives. And I reminded myself that it’s only when I arrest the fleetness of time with an awareness of each moment as it passes that I can be truly present for my life, which is precious and finite.
I had a high school English teacher, universally adored, who had a habit of saying “I don’t know a lot, but this much I know”. Of course we made fun of him endlessly (as teens do), but we also knew that when he prefaced a statement with his favorite phrase, he was most often laying down some gem of truth. “There’s a certain beauty in heartbreak” is one that I remember – I don’t think any one of us understood that then, but in my middle age (his age when I was in his class), I now see the insightful truth in it.
I don’t know a lot. None of us do – our individual knowledge is laughingly infinitesimal in the face of all there is to be known. But as a keen observer of human nature, and a keener one of my own inner world, there are some small truths I’ve grasped, some gems to share. This much I know.
So, my story for today:
I had lunch with a friend yesterday, a musician in a major North America symphony. We were sharing news and gossip about friends and colleagues, and he was reminded of an incident that occurred a few years back. His orchestra was presenting a world premier of a work with cello soloist, a gnarly and complicated score. So gnarly and complicated, in fact, that in performance the conductor miscounted something and players became confused and a musical train wreck ensued. Instead of flailing forward, he stopped the orchestra and addressed the audience – something along the lines of “these are the kinds of things that can happen with difficult new work, it’s part of the excitement of live music” – and then went on with the performance. Gracious, to the point, and personable. If I were in the audience, I think I would have admired the candor and appreciated the challenges of the piece (and performance) even more.
If only they’d left it there. A few weeks later, in the midst of a rehearsal for a different complicated contemporary score, this conductor made mention of the arrested performance. What an interesting experience for all of us, they told the orchestra. You know, it was because **** ***** (the soloist) miscounted and got lost, and it was the only way I could save him. Thank goodness I stopped and got us all back on track.
The entire orchestra, who after all had witnessed the entire debacle firsthand, knew that it was, in fact, the conductor who had miscounted and become hopelessly disoriented. In an effort to pump up their image in the orchestra’s eyes, he threw the soloist under the bus. With that misrepresentation, they lost the respect of the orchestra.
Radical ownership is not a new concept. Essentially, it requires complete accountability for one’s decisions, actions and outcomes, without crediting or discrediting any external factors. It’s harder than it sounds. It’s much easier (or the path of least resistance, at least) to try to shift blame, especially if that external factor seems completely out of your control – “I’m late because the traffic was worse than usual because of the Taylor Swift concert” (yes I know that’s specific, but it’s an excuse I heard recently!). Radical ownership would have you acknowledge that yes, the traffic may have been particularly bad, but if you need to be somewhere at a given time, it’s your responsibility to know what may get in the way of doing just that, and to adjust your plans accordingly.
Radical ownership also means acknowledging one’s role in an outcome, even if by outward appearances it’s the result of someone else’s action – or inaction. I had a recent incident in which an administrative colleague was to have gone over my proposed concert repertoire, approve it and pass it on to the library by a certain date. When the deadline came and went and a slightly annoyed librarian reached out to me for the program, my first instinct was to say, well my administrative colleague should have taken care of that. Practicing radical ownership, however, would have me realize that since I hadn’t heard if the proposed repertoire was approved, I should have briefly checked in with my colleague to make sure we were on the same page, and therefore have made the deadline.
To be clear, it’s not about shifting blame onto yourself. Rather, it’s acknowledging the fact that you are a part of everything that you experience. Having this clear understanding about being a participant in life means that you have both the concomitant agency and responsibility. Radical ownership has you taking the responsibility of the role you play, and using it as information to create better systems and outcomes for the future. So, in the case of my administrative colleague, through acknowledging that I could have touched base with them before the deadline, I’m able to establish a plan of action that will benefit everyone in the long run.
In the case of the conductor I mentioned, it’s even more egregious; not only did they take no responsibility in what occurred (and, in fact, they conjured the narrative that they were the savior of the day), they hoisted blame upon the cello soloist – a radical disownership, as it were. The net effect was the loss of the respect of the orchestra.
And this much I know; the ability to be truly accountable is among one’s most important traits, particularly as a leader. This story was a reminder that by not taking ownership of outcomes, trust was eroded – and trust is by far the most important factor in creating meaningful relationships.
There’s a wonderful Japanese word, ma. Ma, like many Japanese words, is hard to define, because there’s a nuance to its meaning that doesn’t have a direct corollary in Western culture. Ma is a pause, a negative space, a purposeful interval, an emptiness, a gap. Somehow, those words can’t quite do it justice, as we in the West tend to take words like “negative” and “empty” to have pejorative connotations. But in Japanese thinking, it is this very negative space that gives definition to what is surrounding it; the emptiness is what gives new shape and meaning to the whole.
Sometimes it’s actual physical space – we have a lot of exquisite prints in our apartment, and one of my favorite is of a half-moon and abstract birds, all in tones of gold and rust and oxidized copper. The moon hangs in the upper right corner, and the birds inhabit the left side, and between them (and taking up a majority of the print) is loosely-defined empty space. Except, every time I look at it, I realize that it’s not emptiness at all – the space is what defines the relationships between the figures, is what creates balance and meaning in the work.
I’ve also been thinking about this idea of ma in context of what I do. One of my favorite pauses is that moment after the reverberation of the final note has faded into the hall, that wonderfully rich and spacious silence before the applause. Sometimes you can almost feel the collective intake of breath in that moment. For me, that moment of hush between sounds is one of the most exquisite experiences in music.
Last week I went to see the Royal Ballet during a trip to London and by chance caught a dancer I’ve long admired, Sarah Lamb. She’s beautiful to watch in a general sense, but there’s a particular quality I adore about her dancing – the way she uses stillness. It takes skill to turn gracefully, but even more to stop it gracefully in a moment of suspension before continuing to the next step. And she has a way of placing her foot…just so…a perceptible pause before she stretches into an arabesque. The stillness between movements gives context to and defines those movements.
When contemplating ma on a different scale, I’ve thought about the larger empty spaces of life. I have a love/hate relationship with flying – I’m uncomfortable flying no matter how much I do it, and I intensely dislike the claustrophobia of sitting in a metal tube. But at the same time I embrace the sense of suspended time when I’m on a flight. Hurtling through the air, something in me feels very quiet, even tranquil. It’s a moment of repose after a busy week, before the next bout of business starts, and it’s that sense of pause that allows me to really take in what has happened and to fully anticipate what’s about to come.
And finally, there is metaphorical space. Every year I approach the end of March with quiet anticipation, knowing that the 29th will mark another year since my father’s suicide – 22 and counting. His absence is palpable, even all these years later; his death split open a space in me that remains unfilled. For a long time I expended an undue amount of energy trying to fill in that emptiness, or hoping it away. It took me many, many years – until fairly recently, in fact – to realize that by focusing on the sense of lacking something, I was trying to create meaning in that space, a futile task. Instead, I’ve gradually been able to fully accept that the father-shaped hole in me is one of those negative spaces that helps define my experience in the world, helps define my understanding of myself. It is a ma that makes me who I am.
I’d written this post at the end of 2022 and forgotten to publish it – it was more topical at the time but the thought remains relevant! I’ve just had an unusually busy few weeks (including 8 days in Qatar) and needed a reminder to give myself a little breathing room.
I recently learned the etymology of the phrase “under the weather” – it’s a nautical term from the 18th century, when in bad weather, an ill sailor would be sent to recuperate below deck, literally under the weather. Which seems a somehow apt description of my New Years Eve, as heavy raindrops from yet another West Coast storm plash like marbles into the growing puddles outside my window, and I curl up in a corner of my bed, unwell. I’m under the weather.
New Years Eve has frequently been a frenetic time for me, either because I’m on a gig or because I’ve planned a celebration. I remember one Eve, many years back, where I did both, conducting a concert and hosting a party (that involved copious amounts of the most alcoholic punch I’ve ever concocted!). I look back at the energy of my younger self with admiration, if not a small whiff of envy.
I know this is the time of year when we’re inundated with year-end retrospectives, and I don’t mean to add another voice to an already-saturated conversation. But during this particular turn of the year, when I’m resting and recovering instead of working and partying, I find myself with more time for both reflection and reverie than I’ve had in a long while.
This year has been, to put it mildly, a challenging one. The number of times Paul was admitted to hospital (8) and the number of months, in aggregate, that he spent there (4) and the procedures he had (nearly a dozen) represent just the simple arithmetic of a year that felt completely upended, that constantly tested my equilibrium. And while perhaps I’ve been able to maintain my sea legs, I’ve also been reminded of the need for self care, an area in which I still need a great deal of improvement.
I ended up in the emergency room myself (twice!) with palpitations and chest pain, mostly because I was dehydrated, under-nourished and under-slept, exhausted. I was admonished for not taking care of myself, and in those instances, completely overwhelmed by working full-time and caretaking, I wasn’t doing a great job. In my defense, I generally try – by eating nutrient-dense food, finding daily time for movement, blocking off time for sleep (even if I didn’t sleep the entire time), maintaining strong social ties, creating moments of mindfulness. You know, all the stuff you’re supposed to do. I’ve been pretty good with it.
But I’m less adept at giving myself the space and breathing room to truly rest my body and mind, because even in my desire to practice self-care, I’m focused on the doing, and I’m far better at doing than being. And for me, being means that I’m in touch with an internal state that’s not connected to or contextualized by some outer activity, and that’s difficult for me.
This week, when I haven’t been feeling well, put a hard stop on my usual activity, and at first I felt pretty resistant, and the desire to power through was overwhelming. And I know so many others who do the same, who try to push through even though their bodies and minds are pleading for a break. But in the last day or two, I’ve finally been able to embrace, in some small way, that my body has felt relieved to be still for a while. And while I’ve done the small amount of work that absolutely had to be done before 2023, I’ve acknowledged the restorative power of a few hours for a good read, or a few episodes of a Netflix obsession. Or a nap, or a cuddle with Pinkerton. Or just watching the mesmerizing quivers of leaves in a downpour.
I know I’ll have to go back to the grind in a few days, but on this New Years Eve, I’m putting the activity and anxiety of that future out of my mind, and instead allowing myself stillness. My body could do with a little more recovering, and my mind seems happy to have the time and space to wander. As rain continues to fall outside, I realize that in a strange sense, being ill has been restorative. And that I’m oddly glad to be under the weather.
I originally wrote this post over a year ago. I’m not sure why I held off on publishing – as you know, I’m not one to shy away from difficult personal stories! – but it was right around the time that work started to pick up to pre-Covid levels, and I imagine I didn’t have the time to edit or proof, and so it sat in my “draft” box.
My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby this year, which stirred some things up for me, and I recalled this unpublished post. Reading it now, I can remember the pain I’d felt as I was putting words to paper, and I feel that pain anew. But pain is meant to be felt, and moved through, and so now, as is my wont, I’ll put this out into the universe.
I wasn’t one of those kids that played with dolls, or dreamt about my wedding dress, or fantasized about having my own children; I pretty much stuck to collecting horse figurines, body surfing, and practicing the piano. For many years I didn’t really see marriage in my future, and certainly not children; from college through early adulthood I was more interested in forging my way through the world.
I met my husband at the Curtis Institute of Music, where I began my degree a few years after graduating from university, and within a year we were living together – and within 4 years we were married. As struggling young musicians having babies really wasn’t initially in the cards, and it wasn’t until 6 years into our marriage, when we both won jobs with the Richmond Symphony and settled into our starter house, that we started contemplating the possibility.
Trigger warning: fertility, pregnancy loss.
I approached the idea of motherhood with a quiet excitement tinged with ambivalence. For someone who was keenly focused on their career, children would be challenge, particularly given that work travel, and a lot of it, was already in the cards. But deeper down, there was the pervasive feeling, after my father’s death by suicide the year after I was married, that the world was uncertain, unstable, unsafe. People could disappear from your life in the passing of a moment; how could I bring a new life into such a world?
Biology and the relative stability of both of us working in the same city prevailed, and so my husband and I decided to start trying.
We as a society too often equate childbearing with idyllic images of beaming couples cradling a growing bump, or an Instagram-worthy gender reveal cake; the reality is, of course, not at all picture perfect. We couldn’t conceive. After nearly six months of trying to no avail, we sought out reproductive health.
Even given the tremendous strides women have made in the larger universe, the world of motherhood is still in many ways foundational, fundamental. Our bodies are meant to grow life – it’s a biological imperative. So when that fundamental capacity seems non-functional, it feels like a failure, as if I couldn’t uphold the obligation – and power – of being a female of my species. It was difficult for me not to feel like it was my fault.
I was also aware that fertility wanes after one’s early 20s (did you know that pregnancy over the age of 35 is called “geriatric”?) and that it would be an uphill battle. So it was with some begrudging acceptance that I moved forward with reproductive assistance. We opted for an IUI – read about that here – and after two tries, we finally saw the faint pink plus-sign on our pregnancy test.
I don’t know if I was overjoyed or relieved, but it felt like an accomplishment, a battle won, and we were embarking on a new quest. We’d been warned about miscarriage in the first trimester, and to wait to share our news until after the 12th week. And so I remember dutifully keeping my mouth closed as I turned down a drink after a concert in LA, at a friend’s housewarming, at a holiday celebration – oh, no, nothing’s up, I just don’t feel like a glass of wine. I finally caved, at eleven weeks, and told my family over Christmas dinner, and I vividly remember feeling like some sort of blessed vessel, a glowing Madonna to be treated with gentle reverence. I was fulfilling my biological charge.
When we passed the first trimester mark, I keenly enjoyed the freedom of sharing my good news, and by week 13, it truly felt like we were in the clear; the ultrasounds looked good, the tiny heartbeat strong and steady. I jetted across the country for a concert that was also an audition for a music director position.
It was the middle of week 14 and the middle of the dress rehearsal when I started to bleed. Not a lot, but noticeably. And by the end of the rehearsal, feeling mild cramps, I knew something was wrong. The personnel manager took me to the emergency room, to yet another ultrasound. I didn’t need the technician to tell me the tiny heartbeat was gone.
I don’t remember much after that, except that the personnel manager and I went to In-n-Out to get burgers and shakes (my request) and that she sat with me for a long, long time. I managed to pull off the concert without breaking down, but the next day in my job interview I felt dead to the world, and had to divulge what had happened. I’ll never forget the blank stares and the discomfort of much of the search committee, nor the knowing pain behind the silent chairwoman’s eyes. I didn’t get the job.
If my inability to conceive felt like a failure, my miscarriage felt doubly so. And like nearly any woman who experiences such loss, my immediate thoughts were to my own deficiencies – what was wrong with me? Was it something I did? Something I didn’t do? Should I have stopped running? Should I have taken more folate? Should I have not flown across the country to audition for a position?
By the time the interview day was over I was bleeding pretty heavily, experiencing painful cramps, and feeling exhausted. I was prescribed some painkillers and given the green light to return home. This is probably the worst of it, the nurse at the clinic said. You may be passing blood and tissue, but that’s normal. Fly home, get some rest, see your doctor in a bit.
I got home, made an appointment for a few days later, and crawled into bed. What I didn’t realize then was that at 14 weeks a fetus is the size of a kiwi, and there is a good amount of tissue. The next morning, as my husband was at a rehearsal, my body pushed out, slowly and painfully, what was left of my little kiwi.
I’m not sure how I had the presence of mind, as I was heaving sobs, to go to the kitchen and find a pair of chopsticks. I’m not sure how I had the forethought to pick the mass of cells out of the toilet, to put it into a plastic bag and then a tupperware, and to put it in our refrigerator. My doctor had told us that testing could be done for chromosomal abnormalities and I was determined to know if genetic issues were at play.
Weeks later we would learn that this wasn’t the case; there wasn’t anything that pointed to a specific reason the pregnancy wasn’t viable. In the meantime, I spent my days curled up (oh, the irony) in the fetal position, my body aching, tears dropping steadily from my eyes, clutching my empty womb.
Miscarriage is not a part of common discourse, then or now. Instead it’s spoken of in hushed tones, a “private loss”. But I couldn’t think of anything more public, as friends and colleagues and acquaintances waited for my bump to swell, and had to be told why it didn’t. Conversations usually ended at that point. No one wants to talk about it. Few people know what to say.
And those who said anything were often so misinformed or ignorant as to exacerbate my pain. Was it because you lift weights? Were you too stressed? Maybe you should’t be working so much? Did you drink coffee? Because you shouldn’t drink coffee. Even the most well-meaning responses treated the loss of pregnancy (or, more accurately, “spontaneous abortion” – a neutral medical term laden with political undertones) as an avoidable outcome, if only I had been “doing it right”, as if it were my fault.
The irony, of course, is that 10-15% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and that it’s more likely than not that we know women who have experienced it. I learned then that a handful of friends over the years had quietly suffered their own losses; most didn’t know who to reach out to as the topic felt so strangely taboo. And so they had borne their pain, supported by their partners, but feeling isolated in their grief.
And bringing up the topic of miscarriage still feels strangely taboo, as if the world still doesn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. And so I’ve told my story many times, whenever I could, as my own way of opening the conversation, of creating that language around loss of pregnancy. Because not every pregnancy ends in a joyful birth, or a birth at all. Because we are better served understanding our own biology. Because life and loss move in mysterious ways.
I try not to get bogged down in semantics, but I tend to be a bit fastidious about conversations surrounding emotions.
First of all, there is the word for the emotion itself. When asked how we are feeling, we tend to give rote answers; I’m feeling good, I’m feeling tired. Descriptive in the simplest sense, yes, but so broad and unnuanced as to prevent any real understanding.
Lately I’ve been challenging myself to find more specificity in the way I describe my emotions, which is more challenging that one would think, because we are all so habituated to distilling our feelings into a few very limited categories. I’ve been overworked and underslept a lot lately, so let’s go with “I’m feeling tired”.
What are the things that I find tiring? A long run is tiring. I long argument is tiring. A night of disrupted sleep is tiring. Hours spent staring at scores is tiring. Arguing with our health insurance for the umpteenth time is tiring. Thinking about the amount of travel I have coming up is tiring.
Once I can identify what’s making me feel tired, I start to do a bit of digging, because the tiredness after a run is completely different from the tiredness contemplating an over scheduled future. When I finish a really tough run, I feel the kind of satisfying tiredness when my energy is used up. I feel spent. When I work on complicated travel logistics that will take me away from home for weeks on end, I feel like I’m not going to have enough energy. I feel burned out.
Arguing with health insurance gives me the feeling that the issues are never-ending. I feel weary. A night of little sleep can make me feel lethargic or debilitated, depending on the number of hours I managed to get. Hours spent staring at scores are straining and exhausting. An extended unpleasant argument without resolution leaves me spiritless.
If I can be more specific about how I’m feeling, the possibility of really being understood improves exponentially; the impression and mood of “depleted” is strikingly different from those of “sleepy”, both of which fall under that “tired” category. It’s a way of providing clarity for others, and, more importantly, for ourselves. And even if our concept of “depleted” differs from whomever we’re talking to, at least it opens up the possibility of talking about what we mean by the word, allowing us to fully express ourselves. Specificity allows us to be both more precise and more meaningful.
Second, there is the manner in which we use these precise and meaningful words. I practice Vipassana meditation, which is a practice that aims to observe our thoughts and emotions as they are, without judgment or attachment. It’s predicated on the idea that thoughts and emotions are passing, and that these fleeting things are something we experience, but they are not us.
And that distinction is important. I think many of us get into trouble because we start identifying with our emotions when they are simply an ever-changing part of the way we encounter the world and ourselves. Emotions are not permanent, and we aren’t our emotions.
So I often catch myself saying things like “Oh, I’m just exhausted”, as if I embody exhaustion and that it is a part of who I am. What I really mean is “I feel exhausted” – that I feel the sensation of exhaustion and am experiencing it in the moment. Exhaustion is not a part of my core being, and I am not a manifestation of exhaustion.
You might argue that it’s a matter of semantics, but I firmly believe that words matter, because they externalize our sense of our own reality. So when I say “I feel exhausted”, I accurately describe a feeling that I’m holding in myself for the moment, but it’s not who I am. There is a tremendous difference in “feeling” vs “being”, and there is liberation in the understanding that feelings are not permanent.
And feeling both understood and free is pretty great.
I’ve been largely absent here for most of the year, posting irregularly. It’s been a busy time, certainly – the music business, at least my corner of it, has come roaring back in 2022, Omicron be damned! But it hasn’t been so much the work-related time constraints, but more about psychic space.
Paul was rushed to the hospital on January 28 with acute diverticulitis which nearly perforated his large intestine. What has followed is 8 months in and out of the hospital, a truly frightening C-diff infection (look it up, it’s a nasty bug), scheduled surgery, unscheduled procedures, a lot of unexpected complications and many frustrating calls with our health insurance. His prognosis is good long-term, but the short-term healing that now needs to happen will take more time than anticipated. He’s still got some pain, which is terribly wearing.
Which is all to say, it’s been a challenging time. It’s certainly awful for him, experiencing never-ending health issues and dealing with pain and the side effect of medications. He’s been through so much it sometimes feels unfair (of course the universe takes no account of fairness – a topic for another post). And it’s been a difficult time for me, from two angles; first, to watch a loved one suffer so much, and second, to take on the demanding task of caregiving.
I have a close friend whose father-in-law moved in a year ago. He’s mobile but frail and recently recovered from major surgery. While he’s largely independent, I watch how she cares for him, making sure he’s fed, creating projects for them to do together after her own demanding workday, keeping track of his needs and insuring that he has interaction and stimulus. Her patience and compassion are inspiring.
Try as I might, I’ve had a much harder time with caregiving. Part of the challenge is practical. As the partner who’s rarely home and has the more demanding schedule, I don’t do much housework. Well, I fold laundry, because Paul hates it. But as the partner who runs his own business from home and has more agency in regards to his time, he most of the housework – cooking, grocery shopping, cleaning/laundry, bill-paying, keeping track of vet appointments and teeth cleanings. We prioritize my work because it constitutes a majority of our income. Paul in turn adeptly takes care of a majority of the rest of our lives and has become expert at anticipating my needs when I return from a long stretch on the road. He’s a good caregiver.
I, on the other hand, have felt like I’ve been a middling one, at best. After the initial shock of his first hospitalization, we fell into the uneven rhythm of him improving for a while, then needing to return to the hospital. And as I couldn’t stop working, I found myself making arrangements – for transportation and meals, for friends and family to stay with him – as I was boarding a flight, or during a rehearsal break. And when I was home, my days were filled with the tasks usually taken on by Paul – cooking and cleaning, picking up medication and running errands – as well as trying to make him as comfortable as I could. I felt constantly harried and behind the eight ball, with not enough time to study music for my next gig, much less a spare half-hour for a run or a few moments for myself.
And it made me frustrated, and resentful, and irritable, which in turn made me feel like I was an awful person. I did the best I could with what needed to be done, but I found myself quick to anger and slow to reason, and constantly forgetting or losing things. I felt terribly impatient, and often unable to draw from my sense of compassion. Some days, during one of his six hospital stays, I would cut short my visit to Paul on some excuse – I had a Zoom call, I needed to get to FedEx before it closed – when really I just didn’t have the mental and emotional energy to give him the attention and care he needed. I needed to run away.
I felt like a terrible caregiver.
Which is not a fair assessment, because caregiving is hard. And with the amount of travel and work I’ve had over the last eight months, I haven’t really had more than a day or two to recharge. I grappled with bouts of depression. Sleep eluded me. Focusing my energy on another person when I didn’t have enough for myself completely drained my batteries. To mix metaphors, I’ve been running on fumes.
Paul had a lengthy stay after his surgery last month, and things are still far from normal. And while I’m still struggling with the sense that I’m no good at this – and still feeling resentful that we’ve both been thrust into this situation – I’m trying to cut myself a little slack. I’ve been catching my own scathing self-judgments before they start dragging me down. Directing more patience towards myself as well as to Paul had been helpful, as has more mindfully carving out time just for me. I’ve been reminding myself that taking care of my own needs allows me to better be able to meet his needs.
As he slowly improves, I’ve felt less worried when I leave for work. Things are getting better for both of us, for which I’m grateful.
Part of me wishes that I could draw some more conclusions from my experience, or have some words of insight or wisdom to wrap up this post. But I don’t, and I accept that. Part of the reason I started this blog was for me to have the space to externalize my inner ruminations, and I’ve forgotten the sense of relief that writing provides.
So I’ll leave you with this; caregiving is extraordinarily demanding, and I maintain enormous respect for all who are doing this challenging work.
*A lot has happened since I penned this post. Paul’s back in the hospital.
While I was on a gig this last weekend, Paul went camping on Mt. Whitney with a group of our friends. One of them – a highly fit, healthy guy – suddenly felt unwell on Friday afternoon, and within minutes he was having what looked like a seizure. Paul and our friend’s wife rushed him down the mountain, meeting the ambulance halfway. Turns out it was vasovagal syncope, which might have been a result of dehydration and/or altitude.
He’s going to be fine. But his wife was really shaken. I reached out to her, letting her know I wanted to support her in any way I could; as my spouse recently went through an acute and life-changing health scare, I have a good idea of some of the tumultuous emotions and anxious projections she may be processing. But that’s all I have; a good idea.
I often think about empathy – the recognizing, understanding and sharing of thoughts and feelings of another person. It’s the foundation of relationships, enabling prosocial/cooperative behaviors to emerge from within ourselves, rather than a behavior forced externally. By shifting the focus to the internal state of another person, it helps us make moral decisions; by assuming the cognitive state of another, we’re able to see their perspective and thus create deeper connection.
Which is all profoundly necessary and a cornerstone of society, but I am cautious about the notion of “walking in someone else’s shoes”.
My wariness is twofold. The first applies to situations like the one I described above. When Paul went through his acute health crisis earlier this year, I was initially bombarded by a sense of terror and a loss of control. Watching a loved one in what was a near-critical situation can reframe the present and the future in an intense way! I, like so many, live my day-to-day with the underlying assumption of a modicum of stability, and a projection of a long future in which things go basically as planned. One could argue that this is totally unrealistic – we can’t ever discount the possibility of surprises/disasters/scares (Covid has re-taught us of this). But constant fear of possible negative events would certainly gobble up immense amounts of psychic space and be a barrier to living fully and well. So we try to live in the present and hope for the best.
When the worst happens, it is truly earth-shifting, because your sense of what is happening, and what can happen, is suddenly jarred off-kilter; the precarious balance of our sense of reality is threatened, and we’re forced to reexamine our own images of our lives, both now and in the future. And that’s HARD. As Paul’s hospital stay extended on and off for months, the learning curve was steep.
That’s all to say, I have experienced a spouse’s acute health crisis, and so I have a good grasp on the kinds of emotions my friend is now going through.
That is not to say, however, that I “know what she’s feeling”, because I can’t possibly completely put myself in her shoes. To me, empathy comes with the suggestion that we’re able to enter another person’s cognitive state – to actually feel what they feel – and I don’t think that’s reasonable. Even if we went through absolutely identical experiences, we are both separate entities that are an amalgam of our unique genes and experiences. While we may have a better idea of each other’s feelings than someone who doesn’t share our experiences, we can’t feel the same emotions. So you can understand that I’m a bit cautious when anyone uses phrases like “I empathize”.
Sympathy is more accurate. Sympathy indicates that we understand what the other person may be feeling rather that feeling what they’re feeling. This seems a better representation of what I felt for my friend – I appreciated her experience, and could grasp the nature of her feelings, but not try to feel them.
But better still than sympathy is compassion, because it requires neither mutual feeling nor understanding. It’s simply the willingness and desire to relieve the pain and suffering of another. And so I find the idea of compassion to be the most useful, because we needn’t try to enter into that suffering, and we don’t need to analyze or try to comprehend another’s experience. We merely need to extend a hand. When I’m in pain or grief, the thing I most want to hear is “how can I help”, because even if there is no way to change the situation that’s causing me pain, simply knowing that someone wants comfort me and try to alleviate the pain is enough to ease my grief.
A final thought about empathy. When my dad died, we were all devastated, none more than my mom (at least outwardly). She had never imagined life without a spouse, and on top of reeling from the loss of a loved one, she had little about many of the practical facets of life (she didn’t know anything about health insurance, or where the fuse box was, for instance). She was mired in confusion and desperation and disbelief and anguish. Instead of staying within myself, so that I could extend compassion to her, I took it upon myself to take on her emotions, because it felt like the only way to understand her. That lasted many years, as I kept feeling her anger and sadness, not as an observer, but as someone who was as mired in her emotions as she was. And of course, that interfered with my ability to help her in any way, as I was too wrapped up in her feelings. Empathy, in that situation, was harmful.
And so while empathy may have some place in trying to see another’s perspective from inside of them, in the end, it has it’s limits. “I know how you feel”? Probably not!
I was wondering the other day what my writing output has been like over these last two years, and my site stats show that I’ve published 182 posts. Which averages to about a post every 4 days (although most of that is thanks to my daily posting at the beginning of Covid). While that was useful, what was more interesting were the 42 posts that were saved as drafts.
Some are nearly complete, but most are a few sentences, or just a phrase that captured an idea I had in the moment. I have a notebook that I carry with me everywhere, full of scribble and shorthand as I hastily take down some interesting factoid that I’d come across, or a line in some book I was reading; the Notes app on my phone has lists and lists of random ideas.
I have been a writer as long as I can remember. At 6 or 7 I created my first picture book, a dozen pages in my large, careful, childish hand, all bound together by ribbons strung through holes I punched out with a sharp pencil. From long-hand entries in countless journals, to stories and poems saved on my first Mac (remember floppy disks?), I wrote constantly. In high school I was in a writing club; I even wrote a short novel.
We all have ways of processing the world, and of discovering our authentic selves. I have a friend from back home in Hawaii who is a realtor, but who feels truly himself, and truly a part of the world, only when he’s in the ocean, draped over his surfboard and squinting over his shoulder, waiting for a good set to roll in. My mom is an exquisite cook, and finding the right recipe for the right occasion, perfecting a new technique, creating and conjuring memories through food – these are where she’s most creative, most engaged, most at peace.
For me, it’s been an even split between performing and writing. I’ve told people that being on the podium is the most comfortable place in the world, because I feel so focused and grounded in myself and in the present. But performance is also my job, my career, and so there’s always the sense that it’s not something I’m creating for myself. In fact I like performing precisely because it’s actually about other people; the orchestra in front of me, the audience behind me. Everything I do is in service of them, not myself.
Writing is selfish. And I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. It’s selfish in the sense that I do it for me, in service of me. I work through my heartache, process my trials, celebrate my discoveries through writing. And it becomes a tangible reminder of where I’ve been and what I thought and felt; it’s like looking back at an earlier iteration of myself through the words I’ve put down. It’s clearer than any photo.
Putting those words out into the world, for public consumption – that’s a whole other case. Writing becomes an act of faith. Because while I know that writing is a deeply personal process, I have to believe that this process could be meaningful for someone else. When I write these posts, I imagine that someone, somewhere, reads my words and realizes that there are others who have gone through what they have gone through, who have shared the same emotions. I imagine that someone, somewhere, feels understood. That someone, somewhere feels a little less alone.
I was in Hawaii last week for a set of concerts (and a few stolen hours on the beach!), and an orchestra member knocked on my dressing room door before our final rehearsal. They had been following my blog, and had been touched by my writing, especially about my father’s suicide. How brave you are to put your stories out there, they said. I’ve never really felt brave, I said, it’s just that putting my stories out into the world makes me process my thoughts more clearly for myself, and I hope that I can contribute something to someone else in doing so.
Then we talked about my father’s death and the challenges I’d gone through; we both got a little teary. Then they said, you know, it’s so illuminating to read your posts. I think of you as this glamorous figure onstage, always calm and gracious, but you really have gone through so much. It makes me think of all of the things that we all keep hidden away, they said, and how much more there is to each of us than we could possibly imagine, and how much you’ve struggled to become the person you are.
And with those words, I suddenly felt understood.
It’s funny how writing can come around like that; the words that were borne of my own need to process led to someone else’s reflection, which led me to feel acknowledged and accepted for who I am. And that I’m not alone.
And this is why I write, and will continue to write.
I had started this post several months back, but I was still very much in the midst of Paul’s health scare, and caretaking overtook blog writing. So I’ve picked up the threads and finished the thought.
21 years ago today, my father took his own life. For 21 years, I have marked this day.
On this year’s anniversary, I’ve been struck by the number itself, shuffling into the third decade since his death. I realized that, very soon, my years without him will outnumber my years with him, and that frightens me.
Lately I’ve felt stranded in my past, in reliving the memories and emotions of my younger self. There’s a tremendous longing for that sense of security and wholeness, and for the greater ease from what seems to me a simpler time (knowing, of course, that our minds tend to blur much of the trials of the past – a bit of mental self-preservation!).
When my dad died I had been married less than a year, and was less than two years out of conservatory. I’d gone to university and spent a year abroad before I went to music school, so I wasn’t young young, but I was young enough, and at a stage where it felt like my career and my personal life were finally under way. And into this period of beginnings, where I was figuring out everything anew, came the finite moment of my father’s death.
I think many of us get stuck in a moment of time, like an endless eddy where you are sucked back in the moment you think you might be whirling your way out. For me that moment wasn’t the shock of his death itself, or the numb hours following it, or even the funeral. Rather it was the moment I finally arrived home to Hawaii from the East Coast, when my mother ran into my arms and cried “What am I going to do?”
I realized in that moment that I had become my mother’s caretaker.
Mom had at that point lived in the US for nearly 30 years, but her English was, and still is, fairly rudimentary. Enough to get her through daily activities and straightforward conversations, but not much more. In Honolulu, with its large Japanese population, you can still get away with some pretty basic English. Her realm in our family was very precise: Mom kept our home sparkling clean, cooked incredible meals, took my brother and I to our many activities and drilled us in Japanese kanji every Saturday. Dad did everything else, and so when he was gone Mom literally had no idea what she was going to do; she’d never seen a water bill, or understood insurance, or had the tires rotated. So, with my brother, I took over most of what Dad had done for her.
That moment has been on my mind lately. I often think of my past as divided into two discrete eras – the before-times, pre-suicide, and the after-times that proceeded my father’s death. And sometimes the distinction feels less connected to his presence or absence, but to my relationship to my mother, and that moment in which the tables turned, when I ceased to be her child and she became my charge.
And I think that’s the genesis of my longing for security and wholeness, because that was the moment when my life to that point was blown wide open, and when the dust settled and everything fell into its new place, I had in some ways lost both parents. That feeling of quiet safety (the one I can sometimes conjure up during meditation) is the precious memory of our childhood that we hold onto well into adulthood, a warm cozy contented space within us. And as my mother cried in my arms that day, that space within me disappeared.
It becomes contingent on us to find our own sense of security and belonging, of course, and that’s been my challenge during the decades after my father’s death. I felt thrust into a role I was neither expecting nor prepared for in early adulthood, and though I’m more equipped to both understand and fulfill those duties now, I’m not sure it would be easier, or that it would hurt less if he had taken his life in 2022 rather than 2001. And so I keep searching for that small still place within me where I can hold myself as if a child, to recapture that elusive sense that all is well with the world. I know it’s there.