Happy New Year, friends, and here’s hoping that 2022 has a better trajectory in the not-too-distant future!
My own holiday season was busier than I’d have liked; on the flip side, I’m grateful to be working so much, and grateful to be able to travel to see my in-laws.
I turned down a New Year’s Eve concert to give myself a little bit of breathing space, so it was a year without the usual panoply of Strauss gems. I’ve always been partial to his polkas, which I adore. They practically play themselves, and need just a quick prod and a sly look from the conductor for most professional orchestras. I’m a big supporter of getting out of the players’ way and not trying to micromanage – orchestral playing is collegial, and I like to foster an atmosphere of agency for everyone.
Here are two of my favorite performances of some of my favorite polkas. The first, the inimitable Carlos Kleiber showcases his elegant charm with Unter Donner und Blitz Polka; the second features the great János Ferencsik in one of the most delightful examples of minimalistic conducting out there. Hope that your 2022 will hold similar wonders!
I was born in Japan and spent the first few years of my life there before my parents moved to Hawaii (half way between their respective hometowns of Tokyo and Berkeley). Dad had learned Japanese to practice law in Tokyo and so we all spoke Japanese almost exclusively at home. Mom made us take Japanese lessons to learn our kanji, taught me traditional Japanese dance and took us back to Tokyo for long visits yearly. I was brought up, culturally, very Japanese.
I’ll save the complicated conversation around culture and identity for a future post; for now I’d like to extol the soulful pleasure of a traditional Japanese furo, or bath.
I’m not talking about anything fancy. It’s the tub you’ll find in any Japanese home (and in every apartment, no matter how small) or in a public bath house (sentō), a deep soaking tub filled with piping-hot steaming water. Unlike Western baths, the Japanese furo is not for washing; to enter the bath, whether at home or in public, one washes oneself outside the tub, either at a sitting shower or using hot water brought from the tub. One steps into the tub only when squeaky clean, ready for the serious business of soaking.
I have always loved a good furo. There’s of course the physical delight of the heat seeping into tired muscles, of the buoyant lightness of a body in water. In a sentō there is also a deeply communal element of people coming together, unclothed, literally stripped of any identification of class. Everyone is equal in the sentō – a naked body is a naked body – a bath is a great leveler, bringing us back to our basic physical selves.
Even when I’m bathing alone, I have a sense of being part of a long tradition, seven centuries of history and ritual. And while I most often am in a Western tub, I have my own rituals – showering before (if at all possible), sprinkling in a generous handful of bath salts, and sliding down until I’m completely submerged, save my head.
When I walk into a hotel room, the first thing I look for is a bathtub, and it’s always a thrill to come across a particularly big one. I look forward to my bath all day; the tub in my Minneapolis hotel (now nearly a home away from home) is particularly spectacular and makes for a satisfying soak.
Daily I read about the continued chronic stress as Covid draws out in a never-ending sequence of surges, lockdowns, quarantines. The ends of our nerves feel frayed, our bodies in a state of constant tension. We are anxious, we are tired.
Sitting in hot water won’t solve the worries of the world. It will, however, soothe taught muscles and invigorate the skin. It will give us a few moments to yourself, stripped of the efforts of the day. It will connect us to our fundamental physical self – simply a body feeling warmth and comfort. And when we arise, let us wrap ourselves in something soft, and perhaps we’ll be able to face the world with more awareness of our cooling skin, our loosened limbs, calmed minds.
In early 2020 the trial of Harvey Weinstein was well under way, and the #MeToo/#TimesUp movement was still a major factor in the larger cultural discourse. Then of course, Covid hit and all previous conversations were abruptly back-burnered. Then came George Floyd’s murder and civil unrest, and our focus shifted to the continued racial inequity and injustice that have plagued this country since its inception. And while this issue is rightfully at the forefront of our current cultural conversations, I’m a bit sad that those movements centered around women have been pushed to the sidelines. After all, half of all the citizens of Earth still live with the inequity, misogyny and gender-based violence that we’ve dealt with since time immemorial.
To be clear, I’m not in any way making comparisons, merely mourning the fact that the gender conversation felt cut short, and that there is still so much work to do.
The pre-Covid movement hit a nerve for me. Fortunately, unlike Weinstein’s victims, neither harassment nor abuse have been a part of my professional life; as a conductor, I’m the general marshaling the forces – the buck stops with me when I’m on the podium. So ostensibly, it is me who has the power to abuse, rather than the other way around. As a female conductor the worst I’ve survived are the occasional condescensions, some snide remarks about my appearance, a subtle resistance in accepting my authority, and the microagressions that any woman has experienced. My colleagues have mostly been civil, and I’ve certainly never felt unsafe around the men with whom I worked.
But I’ve known fear – and I’ve felt unsafe, in an intimate relationship that should have been a haven for security and safety. And it’s an all-too common scenario; in fact, current statistics show that 1 in 3 women have experienced some from of physical violence within a romantic relationship. I am part of that 33%.
My college years were spent at Harvard, where there were opportunities abound for the study and performance of music. In my junior and senior years I was dating a fellow musician, a fellow conductor, in fact (mistake #1; never date a fellow conductor. Too much type A energy in a relationship). He had a big personality that could sometimes tip into overbearing control, often over utterly innocuous and inconsequential things. An example; he didn’t like that I wiped my mouth after rinsing the toothpaste out of it, and would berate me constantly for doing so. He would become frustrated that I continued with this “unacceptable behavior” and his anger was obvious. (Mistake #2; don’t ignore a mild god complex.) He was angry because I was doing it wrong, I wasn’t doing it his way. There were subtle warning signs, to be sure.
Towards the end of our junior year, the unthinkable happened; his stepfather shot and killed his mother, then turned the gun on himself. The resident tutor in my boyfriend’s dorm encouraged me to accompany him back to his hometown to help him deal with the aftermath, which in retrospect doesn’t seem appropriate at all, but this was the 90s, a different time. I wanted to be the good, supportive girlfriend. So I went.
We flew to his hometown and were immediately faced with the shock and the morgue and the house and the funeral arrangements. His high school girlfriend was still there, and he went off with her one night, leaving me at the friend’s house in which we were staying, not returning until the next morning (mistake #3; never ignore callous disregard for your feelings.) As I said, there were warning signs.
Back at school 10 days later, his behavior became more erratic, and his grief, transformed to anger, was directed towards me. His putdowns were frequent, and mean, and they imperceptibly began unraveling my confidence. But his aggression was covert and verbal, hissed at me behind closing doors, so few people saw the potential for disaster.
Summer break gave me time apart and some respite, but when we returned to campus the next fall, we continued our relationship, and the aggression and tendency towards abusive behavior became more apparent. He would snap at me out of the blue. He would belittle my work. He would say that he needed a break from me, and hours later be publicly making out with another girl – letting me to know that I was expendable, that he held the power. He became demanding and dominating during sex, often ignoring my discomfort.
And then one night we were in his room studying when he picked up his reed knife (he was also an oboe player). He gazed at it for a moment and then turned his eyes to me. “I could probably kill you with this, couldn’t I?”
I left the room. He promised to see a therapist, although I wasn’t sure that ever happened. And yet I stayed, because I wanted to help, I wanted to change him, because our social lives were entwined and I was afraid of his fury.
The proverbial back-breaking straw would come months later, as I coped with his volatility in private, in fear. But it finally spilled over into our public lives. His late mother, who had also been a musician, owned a harpsichord, and in the spring of our senior year he had it sent to him. I’m trained on the instrument, and as a harpsichordist one needs not only to know how to play it, but also how to tune it and how to perform basic maintenance on this unpredictable instrument. I was tuning the instrument and making an adjustment to a plectrum.
We were with a mutual friend, a violinist who is, surprisingly enough, also a conductor (side note: my class at Harvard produced 4 professional conductors, which is highly unusual). My boyfriend didn’t like the way I was tuning his mother’s harpsichord, didn’t like that I was shaving the plectrum to make the action lighter, didn’t like anything I was doing. Sighing and rising from the bench, I told him that I knew what I was doing, and that he didn’t. Please leave me alone.
In one movement he grabbed me by the neck and shoved me against the wall behind me. And then he pushed up, his other arm crushing my chest, his face against mind, contorted in rage. My feet were not entirely on the ground.
Our friend, whether out of nervousness or because he thought it was a joke, laughed. I’m still haunted by this, and by the fact that when I was released and my boyfriend stormed away, the friend didn’t ask if I was OK. He simply left the room as well. We still cross paths professionally every now and then, that friend and I. I don’t think he remembers that night, a night seared into my memory, and seeing him brings back that moment of terror.
My boyfriend was eventually contrite, but wrote it off as just an argument that got a little heated. I knew better, and I finally had enough. A few days later, I worked up the courage to tell him that I was done. That night he spent nearly an hour banging on the door of the suite in which I and my 6 roommates lived, demanding to see me; he left only when we threatened to call security. The saga of the aftermath deserves a blog post of its own.
On one hand I tell this story because I feel that too many people have mistaken assumptions about abusive relationships, and are too often unaware that even if everything looks fine on the surface, intense distress can be quietly concealed on the other side of the door.
But in all honesty, I tell it mostly for myself. Because for years I looked that time with regret – months of constantly being on edge, the unremitting undertone of fear, the simmering potential for violence – and with shame for not having the wherewithal to extricate myself from an abusive relationship. It had to reach some sort of crisis point for me to turn away. And, typical in abusive relationships, I blamed myself – I must have been doing something wrong, it must be my fault, I just wasn’t enough.
Over the years I’ve come to terms with the reality of the situation, and that my helplessness was a heartbreaking but all too common response. Many have been in my situation, and worse. We don’t stay because we’re inherently weak. It’s just that when you’re told that you’re lacking, when you’re treated as if you’re lacking, you doubt yourself. And when you doubt yourself, your power and your agency are slowly drained away. And and when those things are drained away, treading water and hoping that things don’t get worse is the best you can do. There is no shame there, just sadness.
And it’s only recently that I’ve been able to look at that Sarah from decades ago – locked in an untenable situation – and respond not just with cool sympathy, but with tenderness, with compassion. I feel sad for her, of course, but I understand more deeply, more profoundly, that she was trying to use all the tools she had gathered in 20 years of life, that she was trying to figure it out, that she was doing the best that she could. You did OK, I tell myself. You are OK.
There’s a little Japanese supermarket and diner a half-mile from our apartment where onigiri, Japanese rice balls, are made fresh every day. As an occasional treat, when my husband returns from his PO box close by, he’ll pick up a few for us. I always give him my first, second and third choices of flavors, knowing that because the shop is so small, some may not be available that day, or may have sold out. Sometimes, if it’s late in the day, I’ll even give fourth and fifth choices, to his bemusement.
I’ve always been a contingency plan kind of girl; I like to know that if my original intentions can’t be met that I have some other options in play. Occasionally I’m chastised for being so pessimistic about outcomes, but that’s not really the way that I look at it. To me it’s a matter of practicality and a way to manage my own expectations.
I was listening to a podcast during my run this morning, an interview of Julia Galef, co-founder for the Center of Applied Rationality (how marvelous how such a thing exists!), and one topic she touched upon was what success or failure for any given situations looked like for each of us. In her discussion, this distinction was part of the larger idea of then having systems in place to prevent self-delusion, but it got me thinking about what constitutes success.
In some senses, success is simple; the realization of a desired outcome. I set out to run 4 miles today; I ran 4 miles today. Success! Early on in my career, I knew I wanted to reach a point at which I could choose where I live, rather that be tied to a single job; we were able to move to San Francisco 6 years ago. Success!
Yes it’s a simplification – it’s usually not so binary, and I suppose that’s where the complications lie. And that’s where my love of establishing multiple acceptable options comes into play, because the creation of alternative plans expands the scope of expectation. If we can’t have X, Y is also an acceptable outcome, and Z will do in an absolute pinch. And thus we’ve given ourselves three possible paths to success, rather than one.
But isn’t one then settling for second or third best, you might say? It depends on what “optimal outcome” might mean, because it’s subjective. I have a friend who was house-hunting and whose starting point was a long list of criteria, which could most probably not be met completely. But he was clear about which criteria were non-negotiable, and figured that if he could find a place that ticked enough of the other boxes, that would work for him. He’s found a place, and feels like his search has been successful even thought he didn’t get exactly what he wanted. He chose satisfaction over perfection through an expanded definition of optimal outcome.
“Optimal” is self-determined. What falls within the realm of “acceptable” is self-determined. What if we decided to become comfortable with a variety of scenarios, rather than the one that we absolutely want right now (which we might feel differently in a few months/weeks/days)? If we can decide that we absolutely must have something, or that we absolutely need certain conditions to be met, we lock ourselves into a limited window of happiness. If we gently expand the scope of our wants (and/or our perceived needs), the possibilities for an increase in agreeable outcomes and the opportunity for success – or satisfaction – grows considerably.
In the end, I suppose that what I believe to be true for myself is that the more I enter into any situation with an openness to alternative outcomes, and make peace with Plan B (or C), the more I enhance my opportunities for joy and contentment and ease, and that simply makes life better. And that feels like the greatest success of all.
My husband and I visited an elderly friend recently, and it was wonderful to catch up with him after a year apart. As we chatted we touched on the effects of the pandemic on travel, and our collective delayed vacations. He’s had to cancel – twice – a much-anticipated trip to Italy with a friend, and it looks like next spring is their best bet. How great that you’ll still be able to have this adventure, we said. To which he replied, “Two years lost means a lot more to us with much less time on our side.”
Time waits for no-one
Time is the most valuable thing man can spend
Lost time is never found again
Proverb, Theophrastus, Benjamin Franklin
I’ve been looking back at these 18+ pandemic months as if into an abyss. Those first 6 months, for me as for many, were an endless series of Groundhog Days, weekends and workdays melding together in an unending succession of anxious hours. Time seemed to grind to a standstill. Even recently, as the world has been lurching unevenly towards a fragile normalcy, time still seems suspended, as if neither here nor there.
Ironically it’s also true that I’ve felt, acutely, the passage of time, and of time lost. I realized this weekend as my nephew turned nine that the last birthday party I’d attended was back in the fall of 2019. He’s nine now, all gangly limbs and jack-o’-lantern smiles, both sweet and cunning, the transition from little kid to boy realized in the lost months of Covid.
While my conducting schedule has been filling up (my spring looks to be pretty epic), it occurred to me that part of why I’m so booked up is that so many upcoming concerts were meant to have taken place months and months (or a year, or more) ago. January of 2022 will see me performing in Cologne, a show originally slated for May of 2020. Even simply thinking about this concert, and the work I did for it before the lockdowns, slingshots me into some warp of the space-time continuum as the past morphs into the future. Time feels fluid.
Back in the before-Covid-times when I was locked in the seemingly unending cycle of travel, work, and a few exhausted days at home, time was all about not being late for a flight, about putting in the requisite hours to learn new music, about counting down the minutes on a hotel treadmill. It was something to be gotten through. It felt endless.
And suddenly somehow it’s not. I, like so many others over these many months, have had the wherewithal (and the hours!) to reflect on my cavalier attitude towards time, and how it’s so precious and finite. So this afternoon, I closed the score I’d been working on all morning and piled into the car with my husband and Pinkerton and some blankets and bottles to watch the 20-foot swell that was pounding Ocean Beach. And as the three of us gazed through the salty mist to the beautiful violence of the sea until the sun was hugging the horizon, time was both inexorably passing, and gloriously still. And for those hours it was neither waiting nor lost, but without doubt the most valuable thing I could spend.
A conversation with a friend yesterday had me thinking about Buddhist teaching, most notable the first noble truth, which is most often translated as “Life is suffering” which, let’s face it, doesn’t seem to be the most encouraging opening salvo for a philosophical tenet. In truth, it’s something of a mistranslation, as the Pali word dukkha has much more subtlety and nuance than mere suffering.
Without getting too deeply into Buddhist belief, dukkha can be divided into three basic categories: the physical and mental pain of old age, illness and death; the vexation when faced with impermanence and change; and the kind of existential distress of being human, of being alive. When describing these to my friend, she was struck with what she perceived to be the inherent pessimism in codifying suffering.
But to me it feels ultimately optimistic, because when we acknowledge and name our sufferings, we’re better able to coexist with them, to integrate them in our understanding of life, and to establish a kind of detente with them. We suffer when we are reactive to our suffering, and we suffer when we try to run away from it.
When I think of the first category of dukkha, the physical and mental pain of our corporeal fragility, I’m reminded of a minor surfing accident (yep, I grew up in Hawaii) during my early teens, causing injury to a lumbar vertebra, which then became the source of sciatic pain that I’ve experience, on and off, to this day. Chronic pain, even the manageable kind, is not simply physically wearing; it permanently inhabits the spaces of our consciousness and tugs down on one’s sense of vitality. It can be exhausting. And early on in my life, I was faced with the prospect of the lifelong energy-sap of chronic pain.
I don’t think it was any actual wisdom that led me to almost immediately accept that this particular physical pain would become part of my experience of life; I think it was more that there were things I wanted to do, and the only way to do them was to move on (after I recovered as much as I could from the original injury) from the idea of the permanence of this physical pain. As I look back now on young me, I realize that I didn’t have the imprint of decades of experiencing my own pain, or observing the pain of others, so I didn’t have a basis of true understanding or comparison. Or more succinctly, the neuroplasticity of my inexperienced young brain allowed it to say “Oh, OK, this is how it is now”, and to move on.
Kids seem (and actually are) a lot more adaptable than adults; a huge part of that, of course, is that when we’re young we’re still constructing our sense of reality and the world through our developing perceptions. It takes experience to understand the repercussion of actions (e.g. the hand on the hot stove), and when the aggregate experiences are few, we have less precedent to refer to. We’re not bogged down by our own expectations. We adults could learn A LOT from this. I’m still grateful for the unexpected wisdom of my youth, of my ability to let go of any expectations of how my body was supposed to feel, and to accept it for what it was.
It’s only as we gather life experience that we start to feel distress at the thought of change, the second category of suffering. On one hand, I’ve often looked forward to certain change; starting a new and exciting job, moving here to San Francisco to be near my brother, feeling my endurance improving during marathon training. Positive change, of course, is easy to accept. Negative change – not so much!
Last year, right before Covid, I sold my mom’s house, the one I grew up in, and moved her into a condo. The prospect of letting go of my childhood home was fraught with attachment to a sense of familiarity and safety, and the fear of losing a tangible touchstone, a direct path to my youth. The thought of never again being in that house made me feel unmoored years before it was put on market. Losing that physical connection to my childhood, my youth, filled me with deep sadness, and dread.
Impermanence is the most fundamental characteristic of life, yet humans long for the comfort of an unchanging familiar. We cling to the idea of permanence as if we need those external anchors to stabilize our sense of ourselves. And my heart clung to the idea of that house.
What helped me, over the course of nearly six months and several visits to help mom pack, was to take videos of the house, the property, the neighborhood, the road I ran on almost daily for nearly a decade, all while talking about the thoughts and memories and feelings those places conjured. I still have hours of recordings on my phone, working through all of my internal expectations and emotions that made me cling so powerfully to this house, this object. And I discovered that the pain was not about the object itself, but all of those memories and feelings I attached to it. Letting go of the house felt like letting go of my past, which I realized of course was not true. And with that realization my feelings shifted, loosened. Changed.
That’s not to say it was easy when the movers packed the last box, and my mom and I got in her car to drive to her new home. But I felt, acutely, the impermanence of things – of external objects – and understood quite viscerally the fluidity of my own emotions. Just as much as things around us change, things within us change. Everything changes. Everything is changing. Always. And in that moment, as I drove up the driveway for the last time, I was present with change, with the movement of time, with the beautiful mutability of life.
Category three is a tough one, and I would be lying to say that I’ve even touched the surface of it, but here goes.
“The suffering of being alive” – the suffering of our humanness – is sometimes described as background suffering, suffering that is just there. It’s the fathomless unsatisfactoriness of mere existence, which in itself exists because of mere existence (try to wrap your head around that one!).
Covid and the effective shutting down of the world for many, many months forced me, as it did all of us, to face this “mere existence”. Stripped of everything that gave me a sense of self in the world – my work, my interactions, my travel, my socializing, my yoga classes, everything – I was faced with the prospect of just…being. And there is an inherent underlying dissatisfying nature to the conditions of the world we inhabit.
I think that we all have those points in life where we aren’t questioning any particular event or state; but rather, we look up to the sky with an existential “why?”. And I guess the best answer is simply (and ambiguously) “because”. And although I think it’s contingent on ourselves to define that “because” in some meaningful way, I think that, fundamentally, the “because” is simply our existence itself. I know that feels like a circular argument, but isn’t that really the nature of life?
A few night ago I watched a documentary on fungi (“Fantastic Fungi”, HIGHLY recommend). It was fascinating on so may levels – biological, psychological, medicinal, philosophical – but the biggest takeaway for me was the existence of the mycelium network that branches beneath the surface of the earth. It’s essentially an immense underground network of fungi filaments that connect plants together, almost like a kind of botanical internet that transports water and nutrients and chemicals to keep trees and plants alive and communicating with each other. Yes, communicating with each other. It’s kind of amazing and profound and too much for me to explain, so watch the doc.
Mycelium allow plants to share resources, to funnel nutrients to those in need, to send chemical signals warning of attack from insects. It runs between different species of plants; scientists believe that 92% of all plants on earth form a mycorrhizal relationship in the soil. It is everywhere. It connects everything.
Why do I bring up fungi?
On one level, I think it’s beautiful because it shows us the value of sharing resources, creating efficient ways to move them, and forming close, mutually supportive partnerships. But on a more profound level, it shows us that the natural world is quite literally all connected. Nothing is separate from anything else. It is a united entity.
And that is powerful. Because, as creatures on this planet, we’re part of that natural world as well, and if most of everything growing on the earth is somehow connected – well, by the transitive property (and more technically, by ingesting those things growing on earth), WE – we humans – are all somehow linked. We are literally – not is some ethereal philosophical way, but in a grounded, material way – all connected to each other.
When I question the “why” of mere existence – the challenge of simply being alive – I think of the mycelium. I think that we are never alone. I think that the filaments of all humankind are intertwined with mine. I think that whatever “it” is, we’re all in it together. And that helps me to be at peace with uncertainty, with pain, with impermanence. With suffering.
Early on in the pandemic, as the first lockdown dragged on, I relied on daily routines to give me a sense of safety and stability. Waking up at the same time every morning. Writing a post for this blog. Going for a run in the park.
Pouring the first glass of wine after dinner.
Alcohol consumption has risen over the course of the last 18+ months; a survey conducted this February by the American Psychological Association found that nearly one in four adults reported drinking more to manage pandemic stress. The increase is notably higher for women, which is problematic in that because women metabolize alcohol differently; similar quantities of alcohol affect us more adversely than men.
In non-pandemic times, drinking was most frequently a social activity – the happy hour with colleagues, champagne at a birthday party, a bottle of wine shared over a beautiful meal. Covid changed all of that; drinking – and solitary drinking at that – became a coping mechanism.
People drink to alleviate anxiety, depression, the prickling stress of uncertainty. And while it may temporarily calm the fight or flight surges in our amygdala, alcohol is at its core a depressant. We may feel some temporary relief and relaxation, but it ultimately increases our distress.
My relationship with alcohol started quite early. My late father was a wine connoisseur who allowed my brother and I a few sips of wine regularly, starting when I was 9 or 10. Early exposure (and some fantastic vintages) soured me on the amateurish drinking I witnessed but in which I rarely took part during my teen years; for my peers, drinking was an enticing forbidden world. For me it felt old hat – it held no draw, no novelty.
Alcohol was a casual acquaintance through my early 20’s. As any young person, there were of course instances of excess – exuberant New Years Eves, house parties with my music conservatory housemates, overindulging at a favorite martini bar. Occasionally, it was a way to unwind after a particularly stressful day, but even then I was wary of feeling any reliance on that first drink, of feeling that a cocktail was a need rather than a want.
Drinking took on a different tenor in the year proceeding my wedding, particularly as I distanced myself from my father. Perhaps at some point I’ll be able to write about this need for distance itself. For now, suffice it so say that I needed to pull away, and that in itself caused me deep anxiety, and alcohol stepped into a more prominent role in my life.
My husband and I moved to a wonderful little apartment in a lively part of Philadelphia, across the street from a bagel shop, a Peruvian restaurant, and an Irish bar, O’Neal’s. We were both freelance musicians with jumbled schedules and jobs that sometimes took us hours outside the city. O’Neal’s became a comforting source of consistency, a familiar place to frequent on those nights when my husband was out on a late gig. Adding to those solitary hours was the deepening anxiety over my father, and it’s no surprise that the shot of Jamesons and that first pint of Guinness held more and more allure.
10 months after I got married my father jumped off the 16th floor of his office building with a picture of me in his pocket, and my life was forever changed.
To say I was traumatized doesn’t begin to describe the sudden and extreme sense of utter instability into which I felt plunged. The evening I flew to my hometown of Honolulu for the funeral, I remember sitting with my brother in the kitchen of the house we grew up in, drinking glass after glass of wine as we wrote our eulogies. Everything felt out of control, but the feeling of wine as it entered my system – that was familiar, understood, and somehow safe. At one point I felt nearly out of my body, looking down at the two of us at the kitchen table, empty bottles between us. I’m not sure how we could string sentences together on paper, but we did.
Statistically, women more than men are more liable to use alcohol as a means to cope with anxiety and depression, and that was certainly my case; alcohol could temporarily soften the cutting edge of anxiety and briefly fill those hollow spaces of sadness resonating in me. But at the same time, while I’d experienced depression and mild hypomania in my early adulthood, in retrospect it occurs to me that the heightening of those symptoms coincided with the aftermath of my father’s suicide and the sudden escalation of my drinking. Bipolar and alcoholism often present together – both can be tied to genetic predispositions – a complicated topic for a later time.
I spent the first few years after my father’s death skirting the borders of alcoholism; drinking wasn’t a daily ritual, but close. It was a predictable component of my weekends, which often featured binge drinking (generally characterized as more than 4 drinks in 2 hours for women) after concerts. I could easily toss down a six pack, or four vodka martinis (with a twist, not olives), or the second bottle of wine.
I would anticipate that first post-gig drink for hours. At first came the radiating warmth as I gulped to the bottom of the first glass. Then came that loosening of the spot between my shoulder blades, the imperceptible drop of my shoulders. And after that, the soaring sensation of everything around me lifting, gliding upward. And finally, the beautiful numbness, the world fuzzy around the edges, a jumble of sound.
I was put on antidepressants around the same time, and years later the older, responsible me cringes at the bad judgment, and the danger of combining medication with heavy alcohol use. There were a handful of instances in which I was close to black-out drunk, stumbling home on the narrow brick sidewalks of the historical area of Philadelphia. Too ofter I awoke on our couch, my eyes gritty, a half-eaten slice of pizza from Lorenzo’s (open until 2:30 am) on the coffee table, my arm still in a coat sleeve and the steely taste of last night’s vodka in my mouth, on my breath. I frequently didn’t remember how I got there.
Waking up like that, with a headache like a vise crushing my temples, weekend after weekend (and on an occasional Thursday) was unfortunately no deterrent to the binge drinking; more captivating were those moments of blissful numbness when I felt nothing at all, relieved of the burden of my emotions. During those years, when my husband was away on his regular Christmas Eve gig, I developed a solitary tradition; crossing the street to O’Neal’s for a shot and a pint, and then another shot and another pint. And another. And then I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
The bell of the church down the street tolled midnight – Christmas, my father’s favorite holiday – and through my haze I would lay a wad of bills on the bar and crunch across the snow to our apartment, fumbling the keys with fingers that refused to work.
It took nearly five years, but a move to a different city and a more regular work schedule helped disrupt that pattern. We bought a starter home, contributed to our 403(b), established some security in our livers – and bit by bit the binge drinking lessened. The heavy drinking of those first years of marriage, in retrospect, exacerbated the bipolar symptoms that emerged during that time, and pulling back from alcohol tempered both my depression and hypomania. I entered several years of relative stability, both in my drinking and in my mental health.
In 2011 a summer-long tour with Sting precipitated a descent into eating disorders (read more about that story here) which was soon followed by severe depression, punctuated by brief periods of hypomania. I may have been starving myself of food, but I allowed myself alcohol, which I more and more frequently imbibed in increasingly copious amounts.
Drinking of course always made everything worse, even if it seemed a momentary relief. And my chronically empty stomach and withered frame meant that the effects of alcohol were intensified. I would hold off on drinking for days and days (lots of calories in alcohol, after all) as my anxiety rose exponentially. And when it became too much to bear, I would take the precipitous tumble into the comforting pool of inebriation, not realizing that I was slowly drowning.
Depression begat binge drinking which begat depression. My brief periods of mania were frightening in their heightened emotions, so I drank to quash them. My dwindling daily energy was dedicated to maintaining the illusion of normalcy in my work life; few people knew the depths of my despair, and my dread of the uncontrollable punctuations of panicked hypomania.
But yet again a move to a different city marked the beginning of another behavioral shift. I started seeing a therapist that I really liked. I was closer to family. My work became more wide-ranging and meaningful and took me to fascinating cities around the globe. I began writing more, and launched my first blog. Excessive drinking was still a feature in my life, but more and more it felt like a troublesome habit and not a need.
The final nail of the coffin was a correct diagnosis of bipolar (I write more about my experience here ), and the resulting awareness and medication began to mitigate the worst of my symptoms. Slowly, drinking lost its primacy as a maladaptive coping mechanism; I was learning to manage my emotions without it. The pull of alcohol as savior and solution has receded into a past horizon.
Drinking and I have reached an uneasy detente. In times of stress, and when I sink into depression (which, while far milder, is still a permanent fixture in my life) I begin to hear the distant siren call of excessive drinking, the insidious enticement that if a drink or two is kind of nice, then 5 or 6 will definitely make me feel better. I acknowledge the impulse, and on most days reject its fallacy. Now I aim to drink to celebrate, not obliterate. I don’t drink alone.
The post-dinner glass of wine in those early days of lockdown mostly stayed at a single glass, even as my husband and I, together on our couch, tried not to doom scroll, in near paralysis over the crushing anxiety of that initial uncertainty. But I didn’t need it then; I don’t need it now. It doesn’t solve anything. And tonight, as I contemplate an evening cocktail with friends, it occurs to me that I haven’t had a drink in nearly two weeks .
And tonight, I know that I’ll be OK. That I don’t need a drink to shut out my life. That I’ll never need just one more.
A few months ago I was able to conduct maskless in front of a maskless orchestra. This week, with the Cincinnati Symphony, I’ve donned my mask again, as have the strings and percussion sections. I can’t see everyone’s face again – nor can they see mine. The little bit of normalcy I was finally able to experience at work has yet again been taken away.
It felt like we were collectively on the right track, moving towards a future with some sense of certainty, only to be thrust back to where that hopeful horizon again seems a distant blur. And to have that bit of expectation, of hope, yanked away again is not simply frustrating, but disillusioning.
I think we’re all battling that sense of fatigue; hope is energizing, and the loss of hope feels as much a physiological let down as it is an emotional one. And I know that I’ve found it increasingly difficult not to be pulled back into the defensive crouch in which I spent a great deal of the last 18 months. Which has led me to ponder, how do I move forward? How do I make progress when the world seems to be regressing?
A wonderful mindfulness teacher once told me that fostering feelings about what should or should not be happening keeps us from accepting things as they are. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this a lot the last few weeks, as I’ve been lost in my “shoulds” – we should be in a better state, we should be moving towards higher vaccination numbers, there shouldn’t be a record number of Covid hospitalizations, my friends in the medical field shouldn’t be thrust back into the frantic despair of the beginning of this pandemic.
Yet here we are.
At one point I felt that letting go of shoulds/shouldn’ts meant I was giving up on a better future. Accepting the present as it is doesn’t feel aspirational – it’s hard not to think of it abandoning the possibility of improvement. But I’ve realized that I was approaching it the wrong way.
The same teacher told me that every moment is a moment of evolution, and I think everything is contingent on this truth. Because accepting our present as it is doesn’t imply a static state; it simply means that we are moving through the present, moment by passing moment, and moving to all of the upcoming moments that hold the possibility of change.
The present may be challenging, but the only way to move forward to accept it as it is, because it’s this acceptance that allows us to move forward. When we are grasping at our “shoulds”, we are stuck in the sense that our lives betraying us. We are static in this constantly frustrated state. And that’s a painful – and exhausting – state in which to be.
I’m exhausted of my exhaustion, and so I’ve decided to focus on the things immediately at hand; planning for tomorrow’s rehearsal. Feeding Pinkerton. Spending a few minutes stretching because I never seem to stretch enough, and I have 10 minutes now, right now, in this present. And feeling connected to this continuous cascade of moments slows me down enough to let go of my anger towards the world, to accept that regardless of the choices that have brought us to this point we are still at this point, and that we still need to live through today.
And so today, after a long day of work, I feel tired, but not exhausted. I feel that I’ve at least shifted the needle from my neural groove of my frustration, and that I’m ready for a different tune.
Music has often been used as a backdrop to a mindfulness practice; this series uses it as the sole focus. When we open our ears to each sound, each note, as it leads to the next, we’re able to slow our thoughts and bring us back into ourselves and to the beauty of each moment.
Join me in a mindfulness practice as we explore the gorgeous sonorities of the cello and focus on a selection by J.S. Bach.