Heartland

My heart is heavy today. Peter Ostroushko, gentle soul, extraordinary musician, passed away this morning. It was an immense privilege to know him, to work with him, to make music with him. His “Heart of the Heartland” is forever the melody that will hold his memory in my heart.

Conductor in a Covid Word

Episode 3 just hit my YouTube channel this week, a reflection on a holiday concert I produced and conducted in December. It was the first time I had conducted the Minnesota Orchestra – who I work with monthly during a regular season – since last March. It continues to be challenging on the live-music front, but there are slivers of blue sky peeking through. I’m just keeping focused on the things I can do right now, and seeing where the future leads us…

Feelings

Just a thought for you today, from a marvelous book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain :

“Emotions and the feelings are not a luxury, they are a means of communicating our states of mind to others. But they are also a way of guiding our own judgments and decisions. Emotions bring the body into the loop of reason.”

António R. Damásio

Achy breaky

I conducted a full concert last Friday for a live broadcast, Musical Menagerie, the first full program I’ve conducted since I was in Tulsa in October (I’m shaking my head as I write this. I mean, under pre-Covid circumstances I would have had 50 concerts in the last 11 months, not 6. I digress). It was amazingly awesome to work, and to be playing such a huge role – I conducted, hosted, played the harpsichord during the performance and helped to script and produce too, offstage. If you want to see the fruits of my labor, check out this link to the Minnesota Orchestra website; you’ll need to create a sign-in but it’s totally free!

It was also the first time in a while in which I was waving my arms around for hours a day, and running around the stage and hall in 5-inch heels during the broadcast (I know they’re not the most comfortable thing, but I love my heels and I love being tall!). Conducting is actually quite a physical pursuit, and I’ve been really mindful of keeping my arms and shoulders in good shape with weight lifting and functional workouts. No workout quite duplicates an active conducting week, however, and now, a few days post-concert, I find myself with unusually achy shoulders, upper back and neck.

At its core, pain is helpful – it informs us that something is awry, and that we need to do something differently. Our survival as a species is predicated on our pain response. But pain, in any form and to any degree, is uncomfortable, and it’s a very human reaction to attempt to alleviate discomfort as fast as possible; I’m certainly reaching for my ibuprofen. I think most of us have experience periods of physical pain that are resolved over time. It’s unpleasant, but we can prevail knowing that there is most likely an endpoint.

What’s more challenging is chronic pain. Many of us live with that as well. Roughly defined as any ongoing pain that lasts over 6 months, it’s most often the result of injury or illness. Inflammation or nerve damage/dysfunction is the most often diagnosed cause, but the science of pain is complicated. Generally, we think of it in terms of being controlled but never fully cured; pain management as opposed to pain elimination.

Chronic pain is all about the management of expectation and the tolerance for discomfort. In my case, an early-teen surfing incident (I grew up in Hawaii) cause acute nerve compression and minor nerve damage (it was an L4-L5 issue). It hurt like hell for a few months, and then gently faded to a general ache. I assumed it would fade further, but it didn’t. For decades I’ve carried with me the chronic ache in my lower back and right leg.

It generally doesn’t dramatically affect what I do; I’m certainly more careful about the area in my lower back and keep the muscles around it strong. I do have days when it feels worse, and I’ve learned to be flexible in my approach to my body when it’s not at optimal function. It’s always there, and it’s most probably never going to go away, so I’ve learned to tolerate it.

Easier said than done. As I said, toleration of discomfort is not our natural human tendency. We would rather run away from it, wish it weren’t so, make it go away. And when none of those things happen, we feel a level of desperation, of being caught in a sensation not of our choosing, an unpleasant feeling. I know all about that.

What helped me early on, and still does now, is mindfulness, and a conscious focus on not the actual feeling of pain but the feelings around the pain. Pain is a physical sensation that can precipitate an emotional reaction. The trick is being able to separate sensation from reaction.

Here’s an exercise that has helped me from day one. Identify the source of pain, and go to it. Your back, your wrist, your hip. Examine the sensation of the pain; is it stabbing? throbbing? burning? dull? sharp? What color does it evoke? When you close your eyes, do you see it taking any sort of shape or form in your mind’s eye? I often think of it as looking at a sculpture in the middle of a room, walking around it, taking it in at all angles, finding all of the details of it.

Then: what does the sensation make you feel? anxious? angry? What feeling does the color, or the shape, evoke in you? disgust? confusion? What are you emotions around this sculpture in the middle of a room?

Of course, to be able to examine both the pain and your response to it, you need to remove yourself from both. And it’s in that removal from the source of discomfort, of being able to face it for what it is that takes away its power. My own pain is blue and squeezing; it makes me feel sullen, slow, resentful. And in facing it and naming it, the pain just becomes something that is simply a part of my experience of the world and of myself, something that is known, not mysterious and frightening. And that makes it tolerable.

As with most things in the world that frighten me, when I face it and walk towards it, its power diminishes, and mine grows.

For those of you with chronic pain, I’d love to hear about your own experiences and coping mechanisms – it’s always useful to add ideas and approaches to our arsenals – share your thoughts!

Breaking point

I often find myself powering through things – everything from long runs when my legs feel like lead, to weeks when I’m working on 4 hours of sleep. I’m generally pretty good at being aware of my limits, but when I’m less than aware my body and mind will in no uncertain terms let me know that I need to stop – with persistent injuries and mental burnout, respectively.

Many of us have been powering through this pandemic. Frankly, it’s already broken me a few times; at some point in late May, after Pinkerton’s accident, I was on the precipice of not being able to cope at all, and again in late August I had a massive breakdown when I realized that concerts were mostly going to be canceled through the end of the year and life was absolutely, definitely never going to be the same again. I’ve made it through those low points with patience and compassion towards myself, and with the unwavering support of friends, family and particularly my husband.

He has had a LOT to power through. He was been my sounding board and cheerleader, a source of strength and consolation. He remained stoic in those first few months, slowly growing his nascent business in the midst of a pandemic as we saw my earnings plummet to zero. He powered us through Pink’s injury, financial pressure, the death of a client, my major depressive episodes, the implosion of my management company, our constant worry about elderly parents and the continuous blows to the industry that is my livelihood.

I knew that something was going to give at some point. I just didn’t think it would be the Super Bowl. I came home from a pre-game walk to find him sniffing, puffy-eyed. “The Super Bowl broke me,” he said ruefully.

A football game is fixed – the date, the exact time. It’s meant to be experienced simultaneously by everybody. It’s celebrated together, not just with family and friends, but with millions across the country. It’s a “this is happening now” kind of event, and for my husband it was a more metaphysical “this is happening now” epiphany that tumbled him into tears.

It’s hard to have the carefully constructed scaffolding that is holding us up, come crashing down. It’s hard to come to realizations of the changes in the world (some more permanent than one wants to admit), to the time we’ve lost, to the loved ones we’ve not seen. So many of us spend so much time and energy simply trying to be OK that we keep pushing that grief below the surface.

So. We talked, we laughed that it had taken him this long to have a little breakdown. We discussed the things we needed to do for each other moving forward. We agreed that things just fucking suck right now, but we’ve got each other’s back.

We’re just hoping to be able to make this for a huge gathering of friends next year:

Civility

While its current definition implies courtesy and politeness, its roots go deeper:

Late Middle English: from Old French civilite, from Latin civilitas, from civilis ‘relating to citizens’. In early use the term denoted the state of being a citizen and hence good citizenship or orderly behavior. 

Oxford Languages

Civility isn’t a benefit of society, it’s the basis of society.

Civility has been sadly lacking lately, and there’s a level of animus inflaming online discourse that’s a little frightening to witness. I generally try to stay out of the fray; my interest lies not so much in proclaiming my beliefs (and therefore opening myself up to animosity), but more in trying to find a commonality in our shared human experiences. That being said, we’re all different in our approaches to life, to writing, to blogging, and that’s part of the wonderful diversity of humanity.

Anyone who puts their life online opens themselves up to critique and I accept that reality. It’s a price we must pay to inhabit this virtual space. Some people are not going to agree with what I say, or not like it. I would hope that anyone who visits this space feels free to express their disagreements, to have an open discourse. And if you just don’t like what I write, you’re totally under no obligation to read! No, really. Click away from this page! We’ve all got different tastes. I get it.

All that being said, I don’t really think “Suck it up, buttercup. Life goes on” is any way to start a conversation.

I’ve been a public figure long enough to know that there will always be haters – I’ve had some hurtful words thrown my way. And I know that, regardless of my intentions of kindness and openness, there will be those who don’t share my world view. It’s fine if you don’t. And, for the most part, I’ve learned not to take any of it personally.

So, reading the “buttercup” comment in response to a blog post (this was on a different social media platform, BTW) just made me sad. Not for me, but for the person who felt they needed to assert themselves through an act of hostility. Sad that strangers strive to anonymously hurt each other. Sad that a level of incivility has become the norm.

Please don’t take this post as a plea for sympathy – I’m a big girl. There are no hurt feelings. I’ve gone through more of this than I ever want to talk about. It’s just that I take these moments of unexpected meanness as a reminder of my responsibility, to my friends, my colleagues, my community – as a human – to do what I can to connect rather than divide, to show compassion in the face of antagonism. And I hope you do too.

Fashion

Fashion is best when it’s not so much about adornment, but about self expression. The clothes we wear can be merely practical of course (although that in itself also tells us a great deal), but it’s definitely more fun to express a point of view, a personal aesthetic, a cultural or political stance, a commentary on the world, a reflection of what one holds dear.

These pandemic days, stuck at home, there’s little reason to dress up, and I confess I’ve spent a majority of my time in leggings and oversized sweaters (all in black – my husband calls me “comfort ninja”). I do, however, put a little bit of thought into my masks. Between my friend the talented seamstress, gifts from friends around the world and what I’ve picked up on my travels, I’ve amassed quite a collection. Here are a few of my favorites.


Repurposed Aloha shirt fabric onstage in Dallas
Grogu! Yes I’m a Mandalorian fan
Plain black for a birthday get together in the park. Yes, that’s special Japanese toilet paper. My brother has a quirky sense of humor
Golden Gate jaw! Love this one with an embroidered skyline of my home base.
KN95 for the plane. I’ve been double masking lately
Tropical vibes, and reversible. Satisfies the Hawaiian girl in me.
An RBG tribute – this one was made by a friend of MN Orchestra violins Deb Serafini.

Covid brain

So…I apparently forgot to write a post on Monday, and didn’t realize it until today. Pre-pandemic Sarah would not have let something like this slip, or would have at least noticed a day later. That was when I actually had some executive function in my prefrontal cortex. Nowadays – not so much.

A few weeks back, meeting a friend for a walk in the park, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen her for ages. She laughed and reminded me that we had gone on a bike ride just the week previous. I’ve become so forgetful with my packing that I have a checklist taped to the front door so I don’t leave without Pinkerton’s leash and my concert shoes.

I’ve heard the term “Covid brain” tossed around a lot – it’s probably a function of being lost in the groundhog day of pandemic life, as one day slides into another. It’s hard to be sharp when time feels like a puddle.

More importantly, many of us have neither the kinds of interactions with others nor the daily activities that kept us on our toes. Human beings, as much as we like our comforts, thrive on novelty and surprise and the little serotonin bursts they bring. Lacking this stimulation, it feels like our brains become sluggish.

I had a difficult time with memory in the worst of my depression. Part of it was because I felt so dissociative, few things registered as “real”, and so I had little recall of them. My mind always felt sludgy, and focusing on anything was a tremendous act of will. Covid brain feels different – rather than being stuck in a muddy bog, it’s like being in a pool of tepid water, neither here nor there, just not wanting to move.

So. Apologies for my brief absence. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep to a …. what was I talking about again?

Sleepless in SF

I’ve been having some sleepless nights lately. Nothing in particular is wrong – I’m not any more or less stressed that I usually am. It’s just that sleep hasn’t come easily for a few nights, and I’ve had a hard time staying asleep.

I spent a few years after my dad’s death dealing with some pretty epic insomnia. I would finally fall asleep an hour before dawn and get a few fitful hours. After a few days I would eventually crash and sleep for 11 hours, only to have the cycle repeat again. I tried everything – melatonin, hypnosis, Ambien, warm milk, you name it – to no avail. In retrospect I was dealing with some unnoticed and unmanaged manic episodes, so the fact that nothing seemed to work makes sense.

Luckily I’ve never returned to that level of sleep disregulation, but I’ll experience occasional jags like the one I’m in now. I’ve found that it helps to spend a little time checking in with myself – is there something going on internally that I’m not paying attention to? Am I drinking too much coffee? Am I not taking my meds correctly? Am I spending too much of my evening staring at screens?

If the answer to all of the above is no, I simply let myself be OK with the fact that I can’t sleep. Not anxious, but also not in some magic state of blissful acceptance (although that would be nice!). Rather, it’s a studied neutrality. Huh, I can’t sleep. Isn’t that interesting. I guess I’ll just hang out awake until I feel like sleeping.

Worrying about your inability to sleep is not going to help you with sleeping. The more global corollary, which I remind myself of daily, is that feeling bad about feeling bad is not going to make you feel better. Sleeplessness and feeling bad are hard enough; we don’t need to further cause ourselves pain by needlessly blaming ourselves. Sometimes things just are, and the best we can do is to sit with whatever it is.

Finally, I always try to take a page from Pinkerton’s book. Whenever we travel, even if it’s somewhere that’s totally new to him, he’ll find a way to make himself feel comfortable and safe, which generally involves finding a soft place to lie down, and finding some of my clothing to lay on. A sweater, a scarf, occasionally dirty gym clothes – anything he can fashion into a nest that smells of me. He finds the things that are comforting and comfortable and creates a safe space to rest.

A good object lesson for all of us.

A word of thanks

…for the many birthday wishes across various platforms! I feel so fortunate to have so many friends all over the world, whether IRL or online.

It’s wonderful to be on the receiving end of good will, a potent reminder of the power of words. The kind words of a birthday greeting from a fan in Belgium brings joy. The caustic, angry words I’ve seen online lately bring conflict, pain. They’re even occasionally directed at me, and when that happens it’s hard to move past them.

The word we say every day, to our families, friends, neighbors – ourselves – they hold weight, they are catalysts for emotions, they can connect and divide us. Let’s use our words wisely, bringing them from a place of both compassion and curiosity.