A word about words

I had a few concerned messages concerning last Thursday’s post, and I just wanted to clarify that my Munch-ian post was a tongue in cheek attempt to capture our general zeitgeist, not some horrible news on my part! Also, fun fact: the original Norwegian title was “Skrik”, or shriek. Also, does anyone else get a Macauley Culkin from “Home Alone” vibe whenever they see that painting?

Also, it brings to mind the exhortation of Japanese amusement park management that roller coaster riders not scream aloud, but rather “scream in (their) hearts“.

OK, on to the main part of today’s discussion.

Words are important to me as a writer. They are even more important now as they offer my major creative outlet during this forced pause in music-making. I try to be very careful about my use of words, because I understand the weight they carry, and and I am sensitive to the way others use them.

As I’ve been spending more time curating my presence on various social media platforms, I’ve received, via comments, DMs, messages from my website etc., more communication from a wider variety of people on a more consistent basis than I ever have before. And there are a lot of words being used that make me unhappy, and I have a feeling that they might make others unhappy too, and thus are worth discussing here.

So, let me dissect one of my least favorite phrases.

It is never appropriate to call someone, especially me, a “young lady”. Well, OK, you could call me “young lady” if I were 16 and you were my grandfather, or if I were 16 and you were my mother admonishing me for some teenage transgression. Since none of these scenarios are true, it’s best not to call me a “young lady”.

“Young lady” is patronizing at best, demeaning at worst. If it is being used as a supposed term of endearment, I would suggest a long, hard look at the meaning behind the phrase, given the nuance of implied authority.

First, “lady” is a British title, or something girlfriends lightheartedly call each other.

Second, “young”. I know I look “young”. I know that “young” is a relative term. However, why are we putting age into consideration? What is being implied?

That because I’m “young” I have “so much ahead of me” (written by more than one well-meaning social media follower)? Well, first off it’s untrue. I am middle aged. At very best I might have as many years ahead of me as behind me, but that’s being a bit optimistic. Second, this comment implies that I’m in some sort of nascent stage of my life/career, when in truth I’ve been in the music for 20 some-odd years, and at this point I am mentoring, not being mentored. By defining me by “youth”, assumptions are then being made about my skills or experiences based on an extremely superficial assessment. And I’m immediately infantilized.

That being called “young” is somehow a compliment? I know I appear much younger than my biological age (by the way, does anyone else feel like they’re permanently 29, or is it just me?), and I suppose that this is beneficial given our society’s obsessive focus on youth. But I don’t need to be reminded of this. There are some marvelous aspects to getting older (as well as the creaks and pains), and being denied the respect of experience and accomplishment and sense of self because of this obsession with youth is painful to witness.

And how is age germane to any conversation that doesn’t involve voting, drinking, or AARP?

As women, we are constantly scrutinized. What we wear, how we wear it, the shape and weight of our bodies, the lines on our faces. We are expected to inhabit some strange world of permanent youth, an impossible suspension of time. We are judged by our appearances – as if toned biceps (but not too muscular, please) and wrinkle-free eyes (thank you Botox) were some indication of competence or character.

As all women, I’m on the receiving end of constant commentary that belies this scrutiny, no matter how well-meaning. It is belittling. It is exhausting. It is infuriating. And there are so many ways, and on a daily basis, that we live with these indignities, big and small.

Which is all to say, please, please, never call me a young lady.


Thought on Time

All of a sudden it’s July and in a week it will be 5 months since lockdown began.

I’ve often heard that time seems to speed up the older one gets. I don’t think it has anything to do with the vagaries of the space-time continuum, or some sort of mystical notion. Rather, it’s a matter of proportion and experience; the more days we have behind us, the greater and longer our point of reference, which in turn informs us in our experience of the present. A year is an eternity for a child who has only experienced six others; it’s comparatively short for someone who has lived 40.

“How did it get so late so soon?” 

Dr. Seuss

But these Covid times have somehow altered my perception of time, and there’s an unsettling unevenness in the way in which I experience a day, or a week. On one hand, there are many days that feel endless, purposeless, the hours dragging. On the other hand it feels like weeks have slipped by in the blink of an eye. And for many weeks I’ve been wondering if I’m an outlier in my perception of time both expanding and contracting.

Feeling that time is constantly warping around me is disconcerting, to say the least. I find myself having a difficult time remembering if a conversation occurred yesterday, or a few weeks ago – the insistent sameness of my days blurs the boundaries. And I’ve caught myself on many an occasion glancing at my watch and being surprised that so much/so little time has passed, defying my perception of it.

I’ve experienced a fluid awareness of time during meditation, and in my deepest sits I lose the sensation of it entirely, so that the sounding of the bell brings me not only back to my environment but also to the passage of minutes. This kind of fluidity can feel wonderful – as if I’m suspended in stillness and gently dropped back on a calm current of seconds, minutes, hours, as if nothing has been disturbed.

But in these months I’ve also been acutely aware of the sense of losing time, of time being disturbed. I feel the loss of time when I would have been conducting, making music. Time with friends, time with colleagues. Time in the many marvelous cities I frequent. Time when I would have been working, generating income.

And then I have to remind myself of the preciousness of this finite resource. In the aggregate of all the time of the world, our lives don’t even occupy the fraction of a blink of an eye. Time is fleeting. And there isn’t really enough time to be spending time mourning the loss of time.

So I’ve been trying, in my own way, to be more aware of the progression of minutes and seconds and weeks, to be present in them. To not waste my moments now contemplating a moment that didn’t happen. To accept the passage of time, in its ow time.

Nothing so painful to the human mind

“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

Former Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki

Whenever anyone asks me my favorite quote, I gravitate towards the one above. It makes no attempt at elegance or dazzle or cleverness. Rather it is a straightforward statement of a basic truth: that life and the world move on, and it is to our disadvantage if we don’t move with them.

We’ve all been reading about the states in which the easing of lockdowns started early and seeing the images of people standing shoulder to shoulder at bars and clubs. It’s all obviously ill-advised and has led to spikes in infections and hospitalizations. What fascinates me is that these people assumed that they could go back to “normal” life, as it was defined by the time before this pandemic.

I would argue that things will never be “normal” again, in the sense that we’ll return to something we once considered “normal”. Even looking at the word “normal” itself – conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected – these are not static things. Standards change. What is usual or typical changes. And expectation must follow the fact that change is a defining factor of normalcy.

One of the things that has been challenging throughout this lockdown is the notion that at some point we can get back to our lives and pick up where we left off. This ignores the fact, of course, that the world has utterly changed, and that there is no way that we can return to a time without Covid. We can (hopefully) vanquish our viral foe, but it has fundamentally changed the way in which we approach public health, the workplace, travel safety, personal responsibility, and countless other facets of life. We can never go back.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Things change. Change is necessary. And the minute we can accept that we won’t go back to something, but rather embrace a new standard, the easier it is to move forward with life.

On a very small scale I look at what happened with Pinkerton – pre-accident he was a extremely active and supremely athletic dog (go find a YouTube video of Papillons in agility competitions. They are extraordinary little balls of kinetic energy). He regularly accompanied us on 7-mile hikes and could outrun almost any dog for a short distance.

After the accident and the successful surgery, he is thankfully on the mend and able to walk. With time and physical therapy we hope he’ll be able to run. But no more hikes, and no more stairs, and no more tousling with larger dogs. The tiny athlete is no more.

From the viewpoint of the kind of life he had before the accident, it’s painful to think about the limitations he must live with post-injury (although to be fair, he’s a dog and doesn’t really care about past or future. The pain is entirely mine, and created by myself). I could be angry and sad about the fact that he can’t return to his pre-accident “normal”. Or I could simply accept that he now has a new “normal”.

Change is hard. In fact, that’s the sentiment of the quote (another favorite) that’s referenced in the title of this post – “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change” (Mary Shelley). But unless it’s accepted, there’s no way we can move ahead. And so we’ll be left behind.

And besides, I really dislike irrelevance.

Comparisons

I’ve been spending a lot of time on social media. Mostly it’s a very conscious effort to keep audiences and fans engaged, to expand the reach of my professional network, to create online content (videos, interviews) that might lead to future non-performance work, and finally to keep myself focused and functioning and sane.

It’s been an interesting process shifting my energies towards a virtual audience, as well as a steep learning curve in terms of the skill sets required (video editing and production, graphic design). Being active online has kept me occupied, and for that it feels useful.

The flip side, of course, is that I have to spend so much time on social media. To be fair, at their best, these platforms provide useful information, insights into interesting events, humorous/enjoyable content, handy how-to videos, connection with friends and colleagues, a space to look at pretty pictures. But at worst, social media becomes an endless display of life highlights to which we can’t help but to compare ourselves, or a tangle of conversations that lead to divisive name-calling as much as to civil discourse.

As I post on Instagram or Facebook I can’t help but peruse what’s going on in the lives of friends and colleagues. We all realize that social media, particularly Instagram and Facebook, are highlight reels of people’s lives. Yes, there are serious posts – in support of social movements, or to announce a death or illness in a family – but the majority center around fun activities and beautiful settings and happy faces and cute animals and amazing performances and delicious food.

Instagram in particular is a space in which we see very carefully curated versions of people’s lives. For instance there’s a whole genre of female Instagrammers that supports body-postive, “honest” looks at actual (read “non-model”) women’s bodies. You would think that this would be a more authentic way to present the human body, a raw look at reality. But the truth is, even photos of “real bodies” are most often staged and highly-produced images, artful displays of one’s enlightened view of beauty that are ironically still fetishizations of the female form (I could go on about this particular topic for pages, but will stop myself here!).

So much of the messaging on social media is “look at the wonderful things I’m doing”. And I realize that I’m just as guilty as any in presenting the best parts of my life, and myself. But for me (and for many), this creates an environment in which we take in everyone’s highlight reels and compare them to ourselves and our own lives. And we often find that we are lacking.

I struggle with the idea that I’m enough. I’m constantly worried that I’m not smart enough, or talented enough, or compassionate enough, or strong enough, or supportive enough, or loving enough, or lovable enough. It’s something I work through on a daily basis, reminding myself that my mere existence as a being on earth, that simply being ME is in itself, enough.

But the bombardment of beautiful images and exquisitely phrased pronouncements and gorgeously produced videos that I encounter as I put up my own posts on Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube, or LinkedIn, or Twitter – it chips away at my tenuous acceptance of inhabiting my own mind, my own body, my own life. It messes with my self-perception, makes me doubt myself and my goals.

I’m not sure that there’s a true resolution here. I suppose that, at its core, it points out my need to keep working on my own sense and security of self, to ground myself in my own reality, to focus on and move forward with the things I believe in, independent of anyone else’s actions. Or to put it another way, to “stay in my lane”.

But I’m human, and part of the complexities of humanness is to compare and contrast, to feel anxious, to feel envy, to feel lacking.

As the pandemic eases (although, frankly, we’re in as bad a place as we were months ago, at the purported “peak”), I’m looking forward to shifting my energies back to actual interactions, to live performance, to physical engagement with the world around me. But until then, I’ll be plugging away online with my various projects, all the while attempting to keep the demons of constant comparison at bay.

What to say

Sometimes I can take my own challenges – the fact that I haven’t worked in many months, that I’m terrified about the future of my industry, that I’m constantly anxious about my livelihood – and find some universal message of resilience to write about. Sometimes I can’t even begin to deal with my own feelings, much less share them in a way that’s understandable to anyone but myself.

Today is one of those days where I just can’t find the point to doing anything, where I descend into a level of both existential doubt and hopelessness that defies even the best of my mitigation efforts. And I don’t want to talk about it, because it’s exhausting, because it brings tremendous grief to the surface, because examining emotions is hard work, because I’m afraid if a explain myself I’ll be rejected.

Today is one of those days when I don’t know what to say.

Rough seas

I know that many of you know exactly what I’m talking about, because you’ve dealt with your own depression. And it is you who I think about on days like today. Because there is a commonality of experience that so many of us share, a travail that we understand. Because there are others who struggle. Because there are others who hurt.

When I am too exhausted, too defeated, too depressed to want to do or say anything, the best I can do is to turn those feelings outward instead of inward, to feel empathy for the sorrow of others.

Part of the reason I started this blog was to give myself a space to examine my own mind and my own emotions as the pandemic irrevocably changed life as we knew it. The other part was to be able to create a space where others could reflect on their own feelings, a platform to share words that gave expression to the emotional states of others, a way to let others know that they are understood. And the thought that I may have provided even a moment of comfort or companionship for someone else – I’ll take that as the most important thing I can do

So that’s all I have for you today. The seas feel dark and rough for me today, but it comforts me that there are so many of us in this boat, together. It gives me a small strength, and I hope it does so for you too.

5 tips if you’re experiencing depression in the age of Covid

The Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns have been challenging on so many fronts, and being cooped up at home, dealing with financial stress, and the general breakdown of life as we know it has affected our collective mental health. Many of us are dealing with depression, and I though it would be helpful to share some tips to help you through these troubled times

  1. Stay in a dark, quiet place

A bedroom with blackout blinds is ideal. If you’re depressed, you definitely want to create an environment that’s dim and inert, to match your mood. Lack of stimulus is really helpful, and being in dark, silent immobility will be especially helpful in supporting the excessive ruminating and isolation that is such an important part of maintaining that depressed mood! Spend as much time as you can in your bedroom, with the covers over your head, or better still, with earplugs. Bonus points for curling up in the fetal position.

2. Avoid contact with family or friends

Being in touch with people means you have to expend energy, and you definitely want to conserve it for pulling those covers over your head. Conversation can be really disruptive to the ruminating and isolation we were talking about, and takes time away from those spinning, dejected thoughts. And reaching out to friends and family means you’ll need to examine your feelings and talk about them in the open, and that’s just so much work! Far more efficient to keep it all bottled inside. Besides, your loved ones are just pretending to be concerned, and helping others in need doesn’t feel good at all. Make sure you resist their attempts to care about you.

3. Don’t bother going outside, particularly in nature

First of all, sunshine will increase your vitamin D, which might do things like prevent osteoporosis and help your immune system. You really don’t need those things anyway, so why bother? Being out in nature might give you too much oxygen saturation and boost energy, and, again, you don’t want to be inconvenienced by too much energy. Remember, being still and isolated and quiet as possible are the way to go! Besides, you might be stimulated by everything around you, or encounter a Golden Retriever puppy, and that level of unbound enthusiasm and cuteness would be an unnecessary assault on your depression.

4. Make sure you completely inhibit movement and exercise

First of all, who has time for exercise? There’s just too much to do during lockdown! Besides, any cardiovascular activity will raise your heart rate and improve blood circulation, and you really want to avoid anything that may give you too much energy, or boost your mood. Yoga requires too much breath work, stretching might make you too loose and flexible, and walking forces you into that unnatural upright position. And finally, exercise can releases endorphins which can trigger positive feelings, and that would definitely threaten the integrity of your depression.

5. Maintain a high-carb, high-fat diet

So-called “healthy” eating is so overrated. I mean, eating foods chock full of omega-3s and vitamin B might improve red blood cell formation and and reduce inflammatory response, both of which might get you brain functioning too well. You want to keep your mind as suppressed as possible as this will help you maintain your depression. Far better to subsist on a combination of Cool Ranch Doritos and Peanut M&Ms. This will keep your blood sugar racing up and down, and give your body something interesting to do. And of course, caffeinated soda right before bed is fantastic; it will keep you focused while you’re battling your nightly insomnia.

I can tell you from experience that these 5 steps cover all your needs if you are experiencing depression during this pandemic! I hope you find them helpful!!

You know I’m kidding, right?

Minding the gap

I was looking over my upcoming schedule today – a colleague is teaching a seminar at the SF Conservatory and wanted me to lead part of the discussion – and as I glanced over the last few months and the next few approaching ones, I realized something. I still have a gig in September that hasn’t yet been canceled. And if I end up doing it, it will have been six months since my last concert.

I know I’ve blogged about this previously, but this enormous gap was realized anew today as I stared at my schedule (something I generally try to avoid). I’ve had friends of friends tell me that I should treat this forced break like a much-needed sabbatical. I can’t tell you how much that frustrates me. The devastating financial fallout aside, for a musician to not be performing for so long – it’s like having a part of myself missing. Let me explain.

(Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)\

First, I want to dispel the notion that music-making is all about self-expression. Most of us professional musicians spend enough time preforming upbeat tunes when we’ve lost a beloved pet, or delicate melodies when we’re furious at the state of the world, or romantic works when we’re fighting with our partners, never mind the times we have to convincingly play a piece of music that we hate performing. Yes, music is expressive, but oftentimes we performers are expressing that music, not necessarily ourselves.

Rather, for me, it’s this: we as performers are accustomed to externalizing our internal energy. We draw upon our memories of joy, or love, or anger, or sorrow, and channel it through the creation of sound, the performance of music. So we are not just “expressing ourselves” in the moment; it’s more that we’re communicating our own thoughts and reactions and energies through music.

It’s this form of communication that I miss, the sense that I can get a point across, wordlessly, just through the gestures of my body that conjure the harmonies from the orchestra. To take an internal impulse – a thought, a feeling – and to find a way to translate that into the energy of a sound – it’s extraordinary. When I perform I’m literally saying to myself “Out, out, out!” (in a joyful, rather than banishing, way) – sending that spirit into the world, and feeling and watching its visceral effect on people.

And that’s not even touching upon the intense connections that I hold with musicians in front of me, the energy exchanged, the music shared.

When I stand on a podium, gather everything inside me and reveal it through motion to an orchestra, who in turn take in and reflect that energy into a packed hall – this is when I feel understood. This is when I feel known. This is when I feel most connected to humanity.

I’ve not had this for over 3 months now, and the thought of not experiencing that connection for another 3 months, probably more, is more painful than I can adequately explain.

One of those days

This has been one of those days in which I start three different blog posts and am dissatisfied with all of them. Partially this is because I’m aware of the fact that when I write, I’m not doing so solely for myself, but with the hope that I can share something that might resonate with my readers. So in a way I pressure myself to create something for an audience, which I suppose is antithetical to the notion of a diary! But here we are.

So, I’m just going to tell you what’s on my mind today, if that’s OK with you. And what’s on my mind today is a conversation I had earlier this week with someone with whom I’m beginning to develop a project. They are of a different generation (a few decades older than me), and perhaps not as skilled in addressing and discussing mental health issues as has come to be expected in this day and age. I’m going to call them X.

I was trying to explain the idea that music is experienced differently (and certainly feels different from a performer’s perspective) when one is in different mental states. In my case, I was describing the different perceptions of music I had when I was in a depressive or manic state.

X’ response was along the lines of “Well, being manic probably feels pretty good, right? Like you have a lot of energy? I bet you get a lot done!”

I live with bipolar II, so my base state tends to stay in the depressive end of the spectrum. Before my current medication protocol, I would experience regular (every month or so) hypomanic episodes (from 1-4 days) in which I would inexplicably become full of an uncontrollable, electric energy.

I didn’t need to sleep much, and food became of little interest. My mind had a certain clarity that allowed me to generate a lot of ideas. I would, however, have to write these down immediately as I found it difficult to focus on any one of them. In fact, it would be hard for me to remember what people were saying to me because my focus shifted so quickly.

While I enjoyed being able to increase my running pace and distance dramatically, I also experienced what I can only describe as an unpleasant tingling in my limbs which made any resting position, whether sitting or lying, very uncomfortable. I couldn’t be at ease unless I was moving (you can imagine, then, that conducting was actually soothing to my mania).

Writing came more easily when I’m hypomanic, as did conversation, most of the time – when I was at my peak, because my mind would be moving so quickly, it was hard for me to formulate words fast enough and I paradoxically became tongue-tied. I was highly irritable during these periods, and I had little patience for anything or anyone, including myself. I found myself having to constantly remind myself not to lash out at people.

And finally, my sleep meds didn’t really work when I was hypomanic. Or more accurately, they wouldn’t help me sleep but would rather make me kind of high and even more energized, and I would do things like buy stuff on Amazon that I couldn’t recall purchasing the next morning, or find myself on a treadmill at the hotel gym at 3 am trying to soothe myself and get myself to come down.

I didn’t respond to X with this lengthy explanation, but rather said “There was heightened energy involved, but it was mostly pretty unpleasant”, and left it at that as we continued with our discussion. This exchange did, however, firm my resolve to find ways to have more complete and open conversations about mental health.

So I’m going to continue to pursue the angle of presenting music from the perspective of depression and mania for the project we’re working on. Just having this conversation with a well-educated, well-meaning person made me realize that there are still barriers to understanding mental health issues. Once a totally taboo topic, it feels like it has only recently become a part of the national discourse.

Over the last several years celebrities have “come out” about their anxiety or depression and invariably been praised for their courage. And while I applaud their efforts to shed light on the prevalence of mental health issues, the real courage lies in living with these conditions, and finding ways to be productive, compassionate, and full of life in spite of them.

I’ve always been keen on advocacy, but it has most often been in service of uncovering truths and creating support for others. I’m finding now that advocacy is most meaningful to me when I’m speaking my truth, and inviting others to share in my experience so that we can better understand ourselves, and each other.

And part of that advocacy is bringing my experiences here, on this blog, to share with you, and I feel grateful for each of you reading this post and for being a part of my journey.