When the bough breaks, Part I

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My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby this year, which stirred some things up for me, and I recalled this unpublished post.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.

(To be continued)

Feeling, being

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.

Take care

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.

Limits of empathy

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!

Save(d) draft

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.

Anniversary

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.

Reasonable failure

I recently pressed pause on a long-standing friendship. It was precipitated by a singular event, but in the clarity of hindsight it was a long time coming. I don’t want to retread the history of the relationship – I’ve spent a long time thinking about it over the last many weeks away from this friend. In any case, the relevant part of this discussion is that aforementioned singular event.

In a nutshell, this friend was going through a very challenging moment in their life, and they were focused on the worst possible outcome. For weeks, all of my conversations with them centered around this possible awful future, and they spoke as if it were a foregone conclusion. As a fellow human being, I’m intimately acquainted with the temptation to catastrophize. I think part of it is that by parsing an undesired and uncertain outcome, we feel that we are somehow controlling it, and this rumination momentarily provides a brief relief. But in the end, when we spend our their energy thinking about potential catastrophe, we are suffering in the present about something in the future. If the catastrophe comes to pass, in effect we’ll actually be enduring the pain twice – once in anticipation, and once when it happens. And if the catastrophe is avoided, well, then, we’ve gone through unnecessary pain regardless.

I expressed this over and over to my friend, with the assumption that they would eventually understand my perspective, and that they would intuit my desire for them to avoid unnecessary suffering. I was met with pushback and the insistence that they had their own way of approaching life, and that’s what they were going to stick to it. And so the conversations about their fear about an undetermined horrible future continued.

It weighed on me, and because it was near the forefront of my mind, I decided to mention it (in passing and anonymously) in a previous blog post, in relation to their fear of the future. Though it was absolutely not my intent, this action (for various reasons that I won’t get into here) deeply upset and angered my friend, and I was, for days, on the receiving end of a a series of late-night texts and emails, full of angry and hurtful words. Despite my continued apologies for this unintentional offense, the hostile and cutting words continued. And something in me snapped, and I told them that it would be better for me to cut off contact for a while.

I’m not writing this because I want to air any personal grievances, and I’m fully aware that a public discussion is a small part of what induced their anger in the first place. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take because it was such a powerful teachable moment for me.

There were clear missteps on my part at several points. The primary one involves my assumption that if I presented a reasonable point of view that might save them some suffering, my friend would of course adopt it. I thought I was helping, but it wasn’t the kind of help that they actually needed at the time. What I was hearing was an obsession with worst possible outcomes. But perhaps what they were trying to do, in retrospect, was spitting the bile of fear out of their system by constantly talking about the most disastrous future. What I heard as compulsive catastrophizing may have instead been an attempt to expunge fear. In effect, what I was offering them was sound advice, but not advice that was meeting them where they needed to be met. They were trying to face a challenge in one way, and I was asking them to change their thinking without fully understanding their motivations and perspectives.

My takeaway is twofold. First – and this is one so fundamental that I feel sheepish in admitting that I seem to forget it all the time: you cannot change anyone else’s mind. Second: reasoning, no matter how sound, can be unhelpful if it doesn’t fit the task at hand, or if I don’t fully comprehend the task at hand, or if it’s offered at the wrong time.

But it goes further. As much as I depend on my own sense of compassion to guide me through the world, I also rely on my beliefs in what I perceive to be the truth. In my mind, ruminating on an unknown, terrible future is tantamount to creating one’s own suffering. I contend that life throws enough challenges our way, and that we shouldn’t needlessly add pain.

But maybe by adopting this position, I’ve closed myself to different ways of understanding. Perhaps there is merit in taking a deep dive into suffering. Perhaps we as a society – and I as an individual – demonize fear and suffering, and there is something to be learned in the darkest of our thoughts. Perhaps suffering can teach us about ourselves, even if we are the ones creating it for ourselves. Or perhaps my friend simply needed to vent, over and over, as a way of shedding light on their fear.

Challenges to one’s belief system are, well…a challenge. And it’s a hard pill to swallow when we mean well, and come armed with compassion and reason, but fail to improve a situation. In this particular situation, I still don’t think that my belief about self-created suffering is entirely wrong, but rather it wasn’t necessarily the most helpful concept in that particular circumstance. Even more, perhaps it wasn’t pertinent to my friend’s situation at all. I was simply insistent on a concept I thought might be helpful, and it just wasn’t.

Lesson learned!

Gratitude, abundance

This has been the longest hiatus I’ve taken since starting this blog nearly two years ago , and I feel a bit rusty. I’m pretty constantly writing even when I’m not blogging, but these last 6 weeks have been a notable exception.

Paul was finally discharged from the hospital a few days ago, where his combined stay was nearly a month. There were some genuinely fraught moments, and there is still (straightforward, laparoscopic) surgery in his future. But far more importantly, he was able to avoid the (complicated, emergency, major) surgery that we were beginning to fear was the only way through. He’s recovering at home now and finally eating on his own, and it’s an enormous relief to be moving forward.

Emergencies and illness and infection and complications – those things that are life-threatening are also life-altering. The clichés about truly appreciating life after experiences like this of course hold true, and I’ve been reminded both of the fragility and the privilege of mere existence. But more importantly, for me it has been a reminder that even given a frightening and challenging experience, I can choose to navigate through it with clarity and a sense of abundance, and that ultimately this is what makes everything ok.

I had a conversation not too far back about the idea of being “wired for” either lack or abundance – another way, I suppose, to look at the glass as half empty or half full; but there’s a little more specificity there that spoke to me. Pessimism and optimism feel like broad and impersonal terms; lack and abundance, to me, speak of fear and acceptance, and these I can better grasp and internalize.

When Paul was rushed to the hospital while I was thousands of miles away, preparing for a concert, my immediate reaction was fear. Fear of losing him, fear of our lives changing, fear of not knowing what the future would hold. Discipline and a knack for compartmentalization got me through the concert and onto the next flight home, but that fear, and the sense of loss of control, were prevalent and overwhelming.

For me, fear leads to catastrophizing and imagining a worst-case-scenario, and this can be absolutely devastating, because when we obsess about a possible terrible future, we create present suffering. For so many of us, it’s hard not to contemplate all the things that could go wrong, even though it makes us feel worse than we need to. And by allowing ourselves to be guided by fear, we make a bad situation even more untenable.

I have a close friend who was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery within nearly the same timespan. Now as they await pathology results, their focus is on the 50% chance of needing chemotherapy, how horrible chemo is, how sick it will make them, and how terrible they’ll look. And while I have remained deeply sympathetic of their pain, it has been difficult to watch them create their own suffering, to watch them practicing fear. It has led me to contemplate the alternative.

So for the last month and a half, I have made it my charge and challenge to face every day with a sense of acceptance and abundance. And while I haven’t always been successful, it has been an eye-opening experience. Because when you choose abundance, you’re able to see the small beautiful things that are knit into the fabric of life.

The furrow of concentration as a nurse adjusts an IV line, and the crinkle of compassion as I thank her for her care. The first tiny green blossoms on the cherry tree down the block, because time passes and spring arrives even when life seems confined to a hospital room. The texts of support from colleagues I haven’t seen for years, because the extraordinarily close-knit network of musicians means new travel quickly. The comfort of the simple activities of everyday life – loading a dishwasher, stacking the mail, watering a parched house plant. The glory of watching Paul take a sip of apple juice, the firs thing he’s been allowed to eat or drink in weeks.

And by cultivating abundance, even throughout the constant turmoil of the last month, I’ve been able to maintain a sense of gratitude – for access to healthcare, to the extraordinary efforts of the nurses who largely cared for Paul, for the unflagging support and love of our friends and family, for the colleagues who jumped in to cover for me when I had to bow out of work. And with that sense of abundance and gratitude, life is far more navigable – and I feel ok.

We live to keep learning, and we learn to live. I’ve certainly learned a lot over these last six weeks, and for that I’m grateful.

Renewal

For those of you following me on social media, you may know that my husband, Paul, was hospitalized last week; he’s doing much better and I hope to have him home later this week. It’s been a rocky time for sure. I hope to write about it when I have a bit more perspective, but for now, I thought I’d share the post that I’d been working on before Paul’s hospitalization. Hold your dear ones close, my friends.

A few weeks now into 2022 I’ve finally had a moment to catch my breath. The holidays never seem to be as relaxing as I want them to be, partly because the period from mid-November to New Year’s Day tend to be the busiest on any musician’s calendar, and partly because of the panoply of post-vaccination family obligations.

I managed to keep my New Year’s Eve and Day free, thought, which was just as well because we were exposed to Covid and lightly quarantined until we tested negative twice. So we managed to have a quiet holiday at home, just me, Paul and Pinkerton, a bottle of champagne and Anderson Cooper getting drunker by the CNN segment.

We’re taught early on to treat the turning of the year as an opportunity to turn a new leaf for ourselves, to make those ubiquitous New Years resolutions; this year I’m finally joining a gym. This year I’m finally going to begin writing that book. This year I’m finally going to lose 10 pounds/stop drinking/get my online degree/take my dog to obedience school/learn Chinese/sell my collection of gramophones (all things friends and acquaintances have mentioned over the last months)

While I love this sense of renewal – renewed efforts, renewed energy – I’m also wary that by tying it so closely to a particular time of year, it overshadows the possibility of renewal at other times. 

Symbolically, New Year’s provides us all an opportunity for a collective pause, reflection, and re-setting, which in itself is wonderful. But as all of those lapsed gym memberships, misbehaved dogs and gramophones continuing to collect dust will attest, a single push to renew our lives seldom leads to lasting change. And while we tend to confine that to the beginning of the year, I would argue that we have the opportunity to start anew every moment of our lives. 

The main focus of any mindfulness practice is to learn to truly inhabit the present, each moment as it unfolds into the next. And each one of those moments is a chance for renewal. I’m reminded of my experience early on in the pandemic, when the fear and uncertainty was overwhelming. Projecting into the future and seeing only the possibility for dread, for quite a few weeks I felt locked in what felt like an unchangeable reality.

Weeks in, when I was able to face my fear and to release the expectation of certainty, I was able to ground myself in the situation at hand, the present that I inhabited. And when I let go of my desire to try to control an uncontrollable reality, I was brought back to the notion that if I lived each moment as it passed, a world of possibility opened before me. Each moment was a renewal, a possibility for change, a chance to come to a new understanding, an opportunity to expand into the space around me.

And then things didn’t feel so difficult, or frightening.

I challenge myself daily to be fully aware of each moment, to welcome the every-changing present, to open myself to the notion of constant renewal and change. And life becomes that much bigger. Forget those New Years resolutions and resolve to explore the wonder of infinite renewal.

Thundering Tristch-Trastch

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!

Carlos Kleiber

Link to János Ferencsik HERE.