Today is my birthday, and as often the case, I’m celebrating in a hotel room, with Pinkerton. I always seem to be on the road at this point in January, even in the midst of Covid!
I’m generally not a huge birthday person – while I enjoy an opportunity to throw a party or gather with friends, neither requires a special day just for me. Sharing a birthday with a friend in San Francisco has meant that when I am home for my “special day”, I’m part of a joint celebration, which is more fun anyway. This year’s birthday is a big one, though, so I’m a little sad that I can’t share it with the people I love, but it seems somehow fitting in these pandemic times.
Birthdays, in any case, celebration or not, are markers of the passage of time. While others may take stock on New Year’s Eve, looking back at the time past and making resolutions for the future, my birthday is when I reflect on where I have come. And today I was reminded of something I do as a conductor.
When I’m conducting a piece which involves a soloist and orchestra, there are occasionally spans of time in which the soloist plays by themself, while the orchestra waits to play again. These silences are generally notated, and most often, for clarity, I’ll make a small gesture at the beginning of every bar of silence. It helps everyone keep track of where we are, even when nothing is happening in the orchestra, so that we’ll all be ready to start playing again. It’s called marking time.
While marking time may be helpful in that particular context, today I’ve been thinking that it’s not something we should strive for in life. I often catch myself, particularly during these last 10 months of waiting for for the world to start functioning again, simply marking time. I note the passage of a day, or a week, while all the time it feels like nothing is happening – I’m not a part of the process of the world, just simply keeping track until it’s (metaphorically and otherwise) time for me to start playing again.
When we mark time we are assuming a better future in which we anticipate some sort of joy in which we’d like to participate. And in the process we lose the opportunities to participate today, now, right now, even if it doesn’t feel like anything of note is happening. And as I spend a quiet afternoon in my hotel room, I’m reminding myself that while I may be waiting for many months to host a big celebration for my milestone, I can still be present for myself right now. And that every moment is a celebration, of being alive, of being me.
The events of last week were unsettling, to say the least, and a reminder of the tumultuous and uncertain times in which we live. As if the stress of a worldwide pandemic weren’t enough, we’ve suffered the politicization of practically everything and the proliferation of incomplete or misleading (whether purposeful or not) information.
It’s hard not to be really, really stressed.
I think we all reach our personal stress saturation points, after which the only way towards personal psychic survival seems to be to circle the wagons and batten down the hatches and whatever other self-protective metaphor you can think of. And that’s totally understandable – when faced with an increasingly unfriendly world, it becomes a sort of default setting to direct all of one’s energy towards oneself.
The challenge, of course, is to not lose sight of that world out there. At these point of stress, it’s all too easy to fall into anger or fear (which itself is simply a form of anger) and to become solely focused on what I think of as “me/mine”. When we’re in those states, it’s harder to think about “us/ours”, much less “you/yours”, especially when the “yours” is at odds of your sense of “mine”.
Ironically, though, it is when we venture out of our self-protective cocoons that we can begin to release that unbearable tightness that makes us collapse within ourselves. Reaching out, extending a hand, looking for that sense of “us” in all of this mess – this is what can give us comfort. Being a part of “us”, being of service to “us” – family, friends, neighbors, communities – this is where strength lies.
Sometimes the world is inconceivable, unknowable. But it’s ours.
Just something I’ve been pondering the last few days, which I thought I’d share…
that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.
a fact or belief that is accepted as true.
Definitions from Oxford Languages
Truth is tricky. I look at those two definitions, and I see conflicting meanings. One simply says that truth is based on fact. The second is is far more nebulous, based on the acceptance of something as true – truth as relative to fact or belief, rather than standing on its own merits. I think that’s where it gets a bit tricky.
There are many who subscribe to the notion that if many other people accept a belief, and if you believe it yourself, that belief becomes truth; if a belief is accepted as true it must be true.
And so we create our own truths, in a way, based on our comprehension of the world. Never mind that our comprehension is always limited, because we can only comprehend things within the limits of our knowledge and understanding. And no-one can know everything, or even close to it, much less understand it.
It feels like we live in a time in which people subscribe to their own notions of truth, and are confused when others hold a differing view. Never mind if those truths were created from lack of information, or purposeful misinformation, or an inability to understand information.
Let’s be careful of how we use this word, be mindful of it’s meaning. Let’s consider our assumptions about our own truths.
First of all, Happy New Year! I spent my New Year’s Eve, post-broadcast, in a hotel room, watching Anderson Cooper getting tipsy on tequila and giggling like a girl on CNN. There was some champagne, and much texting to friends around the world. Pinkerton didn’t make it til midnight.
Second of all, I learned that a dear friend had overdosed on New Year’s Eve. They’re OK, and I know they have the support that they need. Which is not to say that I don’t ache for them, or that I’m not worried.
They have been in treatment and therapy and are taking all the right steps to move forward, but I know they are frustrated and tired. They’re working hard but they just want to be “better”.
One of the realizations I came to, over the course of my own struggles with mental health, was that the whole idea of “better” is far more complex that we think. I had an acquaintance who had a very binary viewpoint – you were either sick, or “better”. But what is “better”? “Better” than what? When are we OK?
The fine nuances of mental health issues are often difficult to explain to those who don’t have the lived experience of mental illness. In the worst of my own struggles, which have been lifelong, I experienced months of debilitating depression, punctuated by brief (sometimes a single day) episodes of mania (which actually felt really good to me). I knew (know) what rock bottom feels like for me. But then come the subtle gradations of “better”.
“Better”, at one point, meant being able to wake up and not immediately start crying. At other points, “better” was being able to read more than a few sentences at a time (those of you who have dealt with severe depression know that the focus required by reading can pose a tremendous challenge). “Better” could be an easing of anhedonia, when running started to feel good again. “Better” could be when a friend’s pithy comment made me laugh out loud. And that doesn’t take into account all of the “better”s in between.
For the last two years or so, thanks to a correct diagnosis and a completely new medication protocol, I’ve been able to operate from a point of fairly consistent stability. On the whole, I would say I’m doing much “better” than I was before. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better “better”, and, ah, there’s the rub.
For me (and, I suspect, many others who deal with mental health issues), there’s always the question of being completely “better”. As one very oblivious friend of a friend once asked me, “are you going to be cured?” The short answer is no. The more complete answer is that…well, it’s way more complicated than that.
For now, here’s where I stand: today I got up and walked the dog and made coffee and I’m OK, because however I feel I’m still me, and that’s what’s important. Tomorrow I may struggle to get up, or to get dressed, or to answer the phone , but I’ll still be OK, because even in challenging episodes I’m still me, and that’s what’s important. The future might bring me different gradations of “better” (and almost equally, “worse”), but I’ve learned to trust that this sense of self, of being, of living, of believing in my own me-ness, is what’s important. Because if I can keep my feet firmly in this foundation, even the most painful struggles are possible. And I’m OK.
To my dear friend, if you are reading this, I want you to know that whatever “better” may be for you, you are OK right now, because you are you. My world is a better place with you in it. And you are loved.
As 2020 grinds to a close (and if you’re like me, you cannot wait for this unmitigated disaster of a year to finally be behind us) we find ourselves in the final season of the year – List Season.
The best albums of 2020. The most unforgettable pictures of 2020. The 12 wildest aviation stories of 2020. The 25 sexiest shows streaming on Netflix. The 50 best-selling Amazon products of 2020. One could make a list of lists.
Some people make lists of New Years resolutions – I’ve always felt like it creates an unnecessarily stress-filled January. We need some down-time after the flurry of year-end holidays, not a directive!
But I wanted to make a list today, one that I think will help me. Last week I alluded to a heartbreaking discovery. Last week, as we were set to decorate our tree, we discovered that we were missing our Christmas bin.
Let me take a step back. As much as I try to practice non-attachment, I can’t help my predilection for memorabilia. Over the years, I’ve collected things that remind me of a trip or a concert or a special occasion. It could be anything – a ring from an outdoor market, a decorative tile from an artist’s studio, a scarf from a favorite foreign department store, a program booklet, a printed menu, a tiny pin, a smooth river stone, a hotel key card.
I have also collected Christmas ornaments since childhood. Not necessarily anything fancy, just annual reminders of that particular holiday season. After my father’s death in 2001, my mother wanted to downsize her own considerable collection of decorations, and so I took a few dozen ornaments that were meaningful to me. I remembered some of them from the first Christmas trees we had in our first house in Hawaii, many decades ago. I had a whole collection of holiday memories, from early childhood until the present.
I think you might see where this is going.
All of these ornaments, along with some other holiday memorabilia (from childhood and more recent) were in a special bin. The bin that is missing.
Yes, we tore the apartment apart. No, we didn’t find it. Yes, it was the victim of the hasty (Covid unemployment-related) move we made in August.
Yes, I cried for two days.
I know that memories stay in our hearts, and the warmth of the good ones cannot be taken away. Their very existence is permanent. They live within us, are woven into our beings. I also know that tangible reminders of those memories – like, say, Christmas decorations – can evoke images and feelings in a powerful way, take us back to a moment viscerally. Sometimes objects are portals into the past, a crucial aid to memory.
Losing an object does not obliterate a memory, but it does make it less easily accessible. And some objects can unearth memories hidden deep beneath the surface, allowing us to access emotions that were otherwise hidden. So you can understand how losing my bin of decorations felt like losing a well-worn path to a lifetime of holiday memories.
So. My bin may be gone, but I have a memory of the contents themselves. So, in the spirit of List Season, I made a list of all of the decorations I could remember. I thought I’d share some of them with you.
A Hawaiian Santa, in a grass skirt, paddling an outrigger canoe
An angel in a white robe tied with a blue ribbon, a wreath in his hair, blowing a trumpet
A white goose in a brown apron and blue bonnet
A red Pysanka Ukrainian Easter Egg ornament hung with a red ribbon
A folk-motif painted blue pig (yes, I know, a lot of these ornaments are a little unconventional)
A silver filigree bell from my American grandmother
A pair of blown-glass wrapped candy-shaped ornaments
A Santa in a Hawaiian shirt sitting under a palm tree with Rudolph, one of my father’s favorites
A trio of caroling girls, bought at a Christmas fair in Prague
A collection of Hawaiian angels, their bodies and wings made of coconut tree husk, heads made of kukui nuts, made by an elderly neighbor when I was 7
A Rudolph made from clothespins, picked up at a school holiday fair
A picture ornament of my brother and I at 6 and 4, me with missing front teeth, my brother in green shorts
A felt Christmas wreath ornament I made when I first learned to sew – it was overstuffed and looked more like a green bagel that a wreath, but my mother pretended to love it
A pair of ornaments featuring two dogs we owned previous to Pinkerton – Sieglinde the mutt, and Bamse the German Shepherd – made of photos pasted onto cardboard and adorned with glitter glue, from the very early years of our marriage when we barely had the funds to pay our bills, much less buy Christmas ornaments
They are all gone.
Each year, there is more of life behind me than there is ahead, and the tendril of memories that stretches into the past grows more drawn out, thinner. The memories once firmly grasped, loosen imperceptibly every year, some sifting like sand out of a hand. The images lose their color, become sepia-toned, lose focus. It’s the way of things.
Life necessitates an acceptance of loss, finding peace with endings and undesired outcomes. And as this tumultuous year comes to a close, I continue my quiet work to find equanimity in gently letting go.
It’s been an oddly busy few days in San Francisco, connecting with our families and getting things in order for the end of the year. We also spent a day baking holiday treats so we could bike around the city distributing care packages to our elderly and immunocompromised friends (of which there are, unfortunately, many). Holidays can be a hard time for me, so I make sure to find ways to keep active and connected, and it’s gratifying to feel like I can bring a little joy to people (and we’re pretty amazing bakers!).
It’s a little late in the day for me to be writing, and I have a few more gifts to wrap, but I wanted to put something up. So, I have three things for your today.
First, this, video, which I’ve watched a dozen times, because it makes me laugh so much:
Second, I’m reposting something I wrote last holiday season over on my other blog, Work Still in Progress. As I said, holidays can be hard for me, in large part because it’s when I feel the loss of my dad most acutely. For more on that, read below.
Third, I’m sending my love out into the world tonight.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
The holidays are upon us, a season of unity, of bringing together friends and family, a time when it almost seems as if our shared humanity might overcome those things that conspire to divide us.
I try to approach this “most wonderful time of the year” (to paraphrase Andy Williams) with a certain openness. And sometimes I’m able to enjoy the celebrations and the music and the gift giving and the time spent together.
But let’s face it – the holidays can be a challenge. Even more so when we’ve lost a loved one. And yet more when we’ve lost someone to suicide.
I’ve written about my father’s suicide on this blog (link here); his death is woven into the fabric of my life, and it’s a reality that I confront on a daily basis with as much equanimity as I can muster. On my best days I’m able to feel integrated with both the complicated emotions that accompanied his life and my experience of his death, able to move through memories and feelings with a certain amount of grace.
But this time of year always feels different. The holidays bring up memories so vivid and powerful that I feel Dad’s absence much more acutely, because he loved Christmas. LOVED Christmas. Spent months ramping up for it.
I remember one year when he bought a tree so tall it poked a hole in our living room ceiling (our living room ceiling was 15 feet high). And his obsession with his ever-growing collection of holiday CDs, on constant rotation from the day after Thanksgiving. And how on Christmas Eve day if the the piles of presents were deemed lacking, he’d disappear for hours and return with armfuls of new gifts to tuck under the tree. And when after hours of unwrapping on Christmas morning, he’d set to cooking a multi-course gourmet feast that was weeks in the planning.
The childlike thrill with which he approached this holiday was infections, a delight. Christmas was Dad’s thing. In our family Dad was Christmas.
Our first Christmas without him was in 2001, which had the added trauma of being soon after 9/11 (in which I’d lost a friend). Celebrating at home in Hawaii, as we’d always done, was not an option. My husband Paul and I, not married a year when my dad took his life, invited my brother and Mom to Philadelphia, where we lived at the time.
Paul was playing a Christmas Eve gig at a church near our apartment, and Mom and my brother went along; I did not. Instead I went across the street to O’Neill’s Pub to spend the evening with Jameson and Guinness. They say holidays are all about traditions; for many years after Dad’s death, getting plastered on Christmas Eve was my new tradition.
Christmas morning began with the hustle and bustle of gift-giving and driving out to the suburbs to visit with Paul’s family. The afternoon saw us return back to the city where we took our dogs for a chilly walk to the park, delighting as they romped across the field of fresh snow. And as evening rolled around we found ourselves at a beautiful Christmas dinner buffet at a swanky Center City hotel restaurant, all soft music and flickering candles and gleaming silverware and…
It felt so wrong. I’d been trying all day to convince myself that I could move forward, create new memories, create my own magic, fill the enormous void that none of us could work up the courage to acknowledge. I was grieving, I was angry, I was still In disbelief over my loss and how life had inexorably changed. The carefully constructed scaffolding of activity and forced cheer wasn’t enough to hold me up. Instead I felt as though I’d collapse into myself, like my heart was being ripped out of me. Again.
I’d be lying if I said that every Christmas since has been better, although taken as an aggregate it’s true that they’ve improved. When you’ve spent a quarter century living one kind of normal, you can’t expect a new normal to immediately be established. Change is inevitable, yes, but accepting change and moving with it instead of against it takes patience. And courage.
Nearly 20 years after my father’s death, the holidays are still an emotional minefield for me, and while I still struggle to negotiate my way through them, I can rely on a few things to help.
One is to let go, I mean really let go, of any expectations of how you’ll feel. Maybe the holidays unearth a particular sadness that’s buried at other times of year. That’s OK. You don’t have put on a cheerful face, or think that there’s something wrong with you. You have every right to miss your lost loved one with fresh pain, to grieve, to feel sad or angry (despite the well-meaning exhortations that may come your way). As a wise friend once told me, don’t feel upset because you’re upset. Being upset is hard enough.
And then sometimes it might feel organic to really participate in the joy of the season, to be caught up in a moment of celebration. That’s wonderful; don’t feel guilty about it. You are not disparaging the memory of a loved one if you’re able to enjoy the holidays without them. In fact you’re honoring them by finding your footing in your new life.
Second, it can be tremendously helpful to create new associations around the holidays. While you can’t expect to create new traditions overnight, it’s good to keep exploring the things that might bring you some joy. I’ve long given up my solitary alcohol-fueled Christmas Eves, but Paul and I have, for the past many years, taken to finding a holiday-themed activity that lies somewhere on the touristy/cheesy/campy spectrum. This year it was a Christmas-lights-of-San Francisco tour on a bus kitted out to look like a cable car. In our free Santa hats, holding oversized takeout cups of hot chocolate and with holiday tunes blaring, it was both ridiculous and perfect. Looking for an activity that will top the previous year’s has given me something to look forward to, a holiday tradition that’s all my own.
And finally, I can’t emphasize enough the important of self care. When there’s so much holiday hustle and bustle and you’re experiencing a maelstrom of conflicting emotions, it’s vital to carve out some time for yourself and for those moments, however brief, to focus on your own needs. I know this is a tall order for anyone who has others to look after (and that’s most of us), but it’s impossible to be present for anyone else if you can’t be present for yourself.
I’m not saying you need a spa day or a meditation retreat, simply to create some time in which you’re nurturing yourself and just yourself. A restorative yoga class. A afternoon with a book you’ve been meaning to read. A massage. Cooking your favorite dish (if you find cooking relaxing). A trail run you rarely make time for. A dram of an 18-year-old single cask at that awesome Scotch bar. FaceTiming and reconnecting with a friend far away. Experimenting with a 15-step Korean skincare kit. Skeet shooting (I have a friend who finds this the most relaxing activity ever). A venti sugar-bomb holiday coffee drink concoction, just because it sounds good at the moment, and throw in some gingerbread loaf for good measure. A cuddle with the dog. A nap. Whatever makes you feel content and centered and brings calmness to both body and mind. When you feel good and grounded you can rejoin the hubbub of holiday activity.
When we lose someone to suicide we’re left with unanswered questions, unresolved feelings, unfinished conversations, and when the rest of the world seems to be celebrating togetherness the absence of someone can become even more heartbreaking. I’ve accepted that holidays are complicated, and they most likely remain that way for the rest of my life. My task is to make peace with that simple fact, find the things that can bring joy, and make sure that I treat myself with gentleness and care. I know I can survive, I know I will thrive. And I know that you can, too.
I don’t know if I posted about this, but my friend Pamela Espeland wrote this lovely piece about me on MinnPost a month or two back. And just last week, Yoshi Kato wrote this piece about 3 Bay Are conductors (myself included of course!) and another shorter feature in the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Datebook”. It’s a privilege to be covered by these wonderful journalists, and I’m so glad I was able to share my stories to an even wider audience!
For those of you who missed the live broadcast/livestream last Friday, my concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, A Midwinter Gathering, is available here; you’ll be asked to create an account to access the archived concerts. It’s immensely gratifying to be able to produce a show like our Gathering, a concert which tied together music and storytelling from diverse voices. Wherever we are around the world, we love to gather and connect with our loved ones, and I hope the Orchestra and I did our part to remind the world that we humans share more similarities than differences.
I had sort of a rough weekend when I returned home to San Francisco – I made a rather heartbreaking discovery – I’m not quite ready to write about it yet. Sorry to be so opaque; I promise I’ll be more transparent when I’m able.
And finally, in connection to the Minnesota Orchestra again, we recorded a musical holiday greeting during our rehearsal process for the broadcast. I love this gentle tune, and hope that it brings some joy and warmth to you as well:
Tomorrow I conduct a concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, an ensemble with whom I have a titled position (“Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall” – I know, a mouthful!), an ensemble I’ve been working with for nearly 15 years, an ensemble full of friends.
Tomorrow I conduct a concert with my friends for the first time since March.
I’m still working through what all of this means, and I’ve not really worked up to putting it into words – I’ll save that for the next post.
What I can say is that the stage always feels firm beneath my feat, the light is always dazzling, the sound always enveloping, and the deep humanity of what we do always palpable.
If you can join me live o Friday, December 18 at 8 pm Central Time, it will be broadcast on Twin Cities PBS and live streaming on the Orchestras website.
I needed a little break, and it was frankly nice to take what really amounted to just 10 days away from this blog, and from much of my social media.
During my pre-Covid days I spent a majority of my time in front of people – in rehearsals and concerts, of course, but also in meetings, on the radio, giving presentations, speaking. I became accustomed to a life that was tilted towards the external. And there’s frankly nothing wrong with that – it served a purpose. But it could be exhausting.
Since March I’ve had ample time to take a step back and give focus to the internal, and that too serves a purpose – it was a necessary reset, a shift away from throwing all of my energy outwards. And over these months I’ve gained a better sense of the delicate balance of living in and out of my head.
And I knew enough 10 days ago that I needed to start focusing on the inward for a little bit. Maintaining a virtual presence – here, of course, but across social media especially – takes more outward energy than I had anticipated. In some senses, it’s more relentless than anything I was doing before – at least concerts have a definitive ending! An online presence is a 24/7 venture, and that can be exhausting.
So, as they say, balance with everything. If these 10 months have taught me anything, it’s that I need more breaks than I think I do, and that mindfulness is a skill on which I need to keep working!