I’m in need of a bit of self-soothing today – the grind of the pandemic is weighing a little more heavily on me these days, and my psychic ache feels a bit more tender.
We all have our go-to’s when we’re in need of comfort. And while I find things like going for a run or walking Pinkerton to the park to be helpful, sometimes I need something I can do quietly, in stillness, alone, gently curled up into myself.
I enjoy reading in general, but I find reading poetry to be particularly soothing. Perhaps something about the rhythm, or the conciseness of thought, or the open-ended imagery? A poem is a miniature world unto itself, a realm I can slip into for a few moments, far from my own.
I recently came across this one, by the Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu (she was one of the Thirty-six Medieval Poetry Immortals of medieval Japan, and a fascinating character) – it’s both incorporeal and tactile at the same time, a question that isn’t looking for an answer, but is begging for more questions. It’s a quick read but a long thought. And for those few moments I’m transported, and my mind is soothed.
What color is
this blowing autumn wind,
that it can stain
my body with its touch?
I’m fortunate to have family in San Francisco – my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew – with whom we’re podded, and with whom we could share a Thanksgiving meal.
This is the weirdest holiday season ever. Every-rising infection numbers, CDC warnings, separation from loved ones, lines at testing sites, lines at food banks, both vaccine hopes and dire warnings about the upcoming winter, the fatigue of it all.
I’m also in the middle of the 10 week stretch in which I usually make a big chunk of my yearly income, where I’m working straight from mid-October to New Year’s Day. I have a single concert this holiday season.
To say that it’s shitty is an understatement. And yet here we are.
This is the point at which I should be encouraging you to practice gratitude. And while I absolutely believe in the importance and power of gratitude, sometimes we’re not feeling particularly grateful, and that’s ok too.
Today is such a not-feeling-particularly-grateful kind of day for me, and I have chosen to just flow with that. Fortunately, I’m with a little pod of people who are as at peace with my cynicism and are as relieved as I am that we don’t need to put up a show of thanks when our emotions are so complicated.
We are humans; we can hold so many things within us – anger, fear, dismay, but also love, compassion, delight. Gratitude may be too exhausting to muster tonight, but a quiet hope is not. Sometimes all you need is someone (or a few someones) who accepts this unconditionally, and then passes you the cranberry sauce.
I just posted a new episode of Conductor in a Covid World. I’m grateful to have had a few opportunities to work since March – I know some colleagues who haven’t been on the podium since this all began. It’s still hard to wrap my mind around all the work I’ve lost and the amazing music I haven’t been able to share. But all of us in the industry are keeping our fingers crossed with the vaccines, and looking with cautious optimism towards fall of 2021.
That time would have been this morning, in my hotel gym in Minneapolis. I also left without completing my workout because of this asshole.
Minnesota governor Tim Walz just ordered a four-week shutdown of bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness clubs, starting Friday. This is how bad things are here. And yet this asshole shows up to a gym without a mask, and proceeds to do sprints on a treadmill.
I still can’t fathom the disconnect that too many have with this pandemic, and the willful ignorance of the part that individuals play. There’s a disturbing cavalier attitude – “oh, I’ll be fine, so I don’t need a mask” (not considering, of course, if you do get sick and take up medical resources, you’ve done so completely unnecessarily, a price that others pay). Or – “if you want to protect yourself, you’re free to put on a mask. That’s not my problem”. Or – “I’m free to do whatever I want, this is a free country”. All of these bely an appalling lack of humanity, a profound disregard of the responsibilities we have towards each other.
Look, you can try to refute the (internationally accepted) scientific studies supporting the use of a mask. I don’t even want to get into that. But let’s give you the benefit of the doubt. If you were an ER nurse, would you walk into work without a mask?
You wouldn’t, would you?
Frankly, I don’t care what anyone believes. I’ve always held that what someone believes is their business.
However, how that someone acts becomes my business, our collective business. We all live in a society. We are able to have the lives that we have – materially, spiritually, and otherwise – because we live in that society. If we are going to enjoy those benefits of societal living (security, access to shared resources, etc) we need to do our part in supporting our community. It’s as simple as that.
When I read the news and look at the latest shocking numbers, I’m absolutely heartbroken. Heartbroken. Because all I can see is a statistical representation about how much people in this country apparently don’t give a shit about each other.
I’m sorry for this little rampage, but I’m angry. Angry at the politicalization of basic hygiene measures. Angry at the mass rebuke of “love thy neighbor as thyself” in a country that purports to be Christian. Angry that the selfish and misguided notion of individual freedom is superseding the needs of our communities at large.
Let me cool down a bit and end with this: anger is hard for me. While for some, anger leads to a lashing outward, for me it brings a lashing inward. It’s such a heightened and active and seemingly dangerous emotion that my tendency is to let it tear me up inside rather than unleash it on those around me. In my mind, that’s my way of sparing my friends and family.
What happens instead, of course, is that my path to self-destruction ends up hurting those friends and family even more.
So. I’ve tried to release a little of it here, on this page. Because maybe by writing about it I’ve dissipated my anger a bit. Because maybe by writing about it some other angry soul out there feels heard. Because, as flawed and misguided as I may be, all I really want is to be a functional, compassionate member of society, because that’s what makes me – us – human.
And I never, ever want to be the maskless asshole at the gym.
Those of you who are regular readers know that I’ve been a runner since my preteens, and there have been very few weeks, if any, since then when I haven’t laced up my shoes and headed out to move my body across the earth.
Running is important to me, because I find it grounding, because it produces the endorphins that I rely on, because it provides an outlet for stress and anxiety, because it’s good for my respiratory system and bone density. These are the immediate and obvious outcomes.
But running is not only an exercise for the body; it’s an exercise in discipline and of finding peace with delayed gratification.
Sometimes (many times!) I don’t want to head out. It’s cold and rainy, or it’s late in the day, or I’m feeling unmotivated, or sluggish. But I know that, 9 times out of 10, while the first mile may be a slog, by the time I’m finished, I’ll feel energized, I’ll feel better than when I started. Knowing that the reward is not immediate, and that it requires both forethought and effort to reach it – it rubs against the very human desire for instant gratification. But discipline, too, is a muscle we need to exercise.
It’s also an exercise of tolerance.
As a society we are all about constant, on-demand comfort. We don’t want to ever feel pain, or boredom, or anxiety. The overriding impulse is to escape from the feelings of distress, because we feel that we can’t live with them. So we avoid the difficult conversations. Or avoid facing unpleasant news. Or we avoid dealing with the tasks at hand. Or we avoid having to make physical efforts unless we absolutely must.
My friends, running is effort. Muscle-contracting, breath-burning, sweat-trickling effort. It doesn’t always feel great. It isn’t easy. It’s always uncomfortable. You just learn that if you can get past those feelings of discomfort, you’ll eventually feel pretty good – either at the end of the run, or 20 years from now, when the accumulated efforts will help you continue in good health.
I struggle to tolerate discomfort. I want to avoid it as much as possible; it’s only human to feel that way. But I also know that it is only in tolerating those things that I find difficult and distressing that I can move through them, and beyond them. I know that the exercise of sitting with those feelings that I don’t want to deal with is what fortifies my spirit, is what gives me strength.
And so, I lace my shoes and head out again. Because if I can learn to tolerate discomfort, I can learn to tolerate those uncomfortable parts of myself. And that’s how I’ll keep moving forward.
Confession: last weekend, when I was in Minneapolis to host a broadcast I had some…incidents with my electronics.
On Wednesday, I left my iPad in the Uber from MSP to my hotel. And then on Saturday I left my phone in a bathroom in Terminal 2 in SFO – which I realized after I had passed security and was at the baggage claim. My items were returned to me in both circumstances – the first by a very responsive Uber driver, the second by a good Samaritan who found the phone and brought it to the police – so all’s well that ends well.
They were both facepalm moments, and a bit embarrassing to admit to given that I travel so much and I should know better. And I had a moment of what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-me self-blame. But I think there was something much more important going on.
It’s easy to assume that we make mistakes like this because we are somehow lacking, or faulty. “Oh I’m so forgetful”. But these actions instead point to a preoccupied mind – when we can’t focus on the practicalities of living our lives in the moment, it’s because our minds are not living in the moment. And when we can’t be in the moment, we lose ourselves (and our things).
A regular mindfulness practice means that at least once a day, for 15 minutes, I’m firmly in the present. But for the other 23 hours and 45 minutes? Sometimes not so much! Incidents like these remind me that I’m often living in a state of distraction, and that this distraction has tangible repercussions.
I, like so many of us, have been chugging along and coping with the continued stress of the pandemic, the election, everything. I’ve become so accustomed to this underlying state of constant stress that it feels almost normal.
It’s not, of course, and my forgetfulness was a reminder that there is a lot going on. And that I have to acknowledge it and make sure I’m doing all I can to support myself – body and mind – as I continue to travel, to work, to exist in this unremittingly challenging time. And that when my mind is full, I need to be especially mindful.
I’ve been craving diversions lately – there’s just too much news, you know? I just want to be engrossed in something that has nothing to do with the pandemic or the election.
Here’s something that fits the bill. If you’re a musician, you’ll be astonished at the skill (and the mental capacity) required to even pull this off, much less totally kill it like she does. If you’re not a musician, you’ll be astonished at how weirdly wonderfully compelling this is. Enjoy!
I don’t know about you, but I’m a little exhausted about everything that’s going on right now – it’s hard to know who to listen to, or how much news I should be ingesting. There are a few things, however, that I recognize as fact: 1) humans are not good with patience, and 2) just because you say something is true doesn’t make it true – it actually has to be true.
Another fact: no matter how much division we cause amongst ourselves, no matter how we think how different we are from the “other”, no matter how unique we believe ourselves to be, humans, all humans, share 99.9% of their DNA in common. We’re basically all there same, folks.
And finally, if the pandemic has curtailed your wanderlust, or if you want a fascinating diversion, or if you simply want to feel connected to the billions of people around the world who wake up and take care of their kids and make dinner and listen to the radio, just like we do; check out Radio Garden.
It’s a map of the world, and you can click over to any radio station that’s available, anywhere. And the world is at your fingertips. From my 10 minute scan this afternoon, here’s what people were listening to:
Country Radio Switzerland, Schönenberg, Switzerland – Brad Paisley
EasyRock FM 92.3I, loilo City, Philippines – Chicago
Mix 90.1 FM, Toluca, Mexico – Kings of Leon
Top Milenium FM 91.5, Asunción, Paraguay – Cher
Invicta FM 98.9, Kaduna, Nigeria – Mary J Blige
TFMRuwi, Oman – Coldplay
Yes, I realize it says something about the impact of American culture around the world, but to me it also points out that there are people out there, everywhere, listening to the same kind of stuff we listen to. That that someone in LA might be grooving to the same Mary J Blige tune as is a listener in Nigeria. Or that, whether you’re in Annapolis or Asunción, Cher is pretty fabulous. Or that maybe we aren’t all so different after all.
My fellow Americans, if you are pacing in a jittery jangle of anxiety on this eve of Election Day, sit yourself down and read this interview in The Atlantic. The interviewee is my friend and Harvard classmate Jordan Ellenberg – mathematician, writer, and really great guy – and the article centers around the unease around election forecasting.
I highly recommend you read it, but if you don’t, let me pull out some interesting takeaways. First, a thought about probability:
According to some philosophers of mathematics, probability is a measure of your feelings. It’s a measure of your degree of belief in some proposition.
It’s hard to separate our emotions from the endless prognosticating that has bombarded our collective consciousness for months. The fact that it has reached a deafening crescendo in these last days is certainly adding to the angst. Our inability to separate our feelings from forecasting, to stop obsessing over the probabilities of the outcome of a single event over which we have next to no control (yes, I know, every vote counts, but you get my meaning!) – it’s a huge challenge.
But here’s the thing; we try to create meaning in statistical probabilities and tie ourselves and our feelings of safety around a predicted outcome. And that’s just a recipe for psychological disaster. Because the probability of one thing happening doesn’t discount the possibility, however remote, of something else happening.
Do I have you tied up in mental knots yet?
I think the most helpful bit, for me, was this closing thought:
A good mental-health question to ask yourself is: What am I actually gaining from trying to figure this out now? None of us sitting at home is going to decide the election. The meaningful actions we’re going to take in support of our preferred candidate at every level have mostly been taken, or decided. So what are we gaining? We’re all about to find out the answer. Our epistemic situation when we know the outcome of the election will be the exact same no matter how hard we think about it right now. Our stress affects nothing.
I didn’t watch any of the presidential or vice presidential debates – I watched/read about highlights on various media outlets. I’ve neither joined supporters of my candidate in the echo chambers of the internet, nor have I participated in the increasingly disgracious discourse that is peeling the veneer of civility in this very divided country.
It’s not because I don’t care. It’s because I have a healthy sense of self-preservation. Because unless I’m doing something substantive that may affect the outcome of this election – volunteering for a campaign, fundraising, sending get out to vote messages – speaking in circles of reassurance with people who agree with me, or lambasting those who don’t, will do nothing to change the future. And obsessing over the unknown causes an unbelievable amount of stress.
We obsess over things, we humans. I do it too. And part of the obsession is the deceptive feeling of control we have when we spend time thinking about a situation. If it’s on our minds, if we’re talking about it, it gives us the illusion that we have some sort of control over it.
Of course, what we are doing then is simply trying to soothe our discomfort with uncertainty.
But while uncertainty is uncomfortable, it is far less agonizing than the suffering we create for ourselves through our obsessive thoughts. And I don’t want to suffer. And I don’t want anyone else to suffer.
This is a stressful time. I’m stressed. You’re stressed. Let’s face it, the entire world is stressed. But on this eve of a momentous election, I’m choosing to accept that I don’t know the outcome, regardless of likelihood one way or the other. I’m choosing to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty, because that very act opens up a small, calm space within me. I’m choosing not to create my own suffering.
I hope you choose to sit calmly with uncertainty, too. Because there will continue to be a lot of it, election or not.