Per the authoritative source of everything, Wikipedia, “Collectivist cultures view shyness as a more positive trait related to compliance with group ideals and self-control, while perceiving chosen isolation (introverted behavior) negatively as a threat to group harmony; and because collectivist society accepts shyness and rejects unsociability, shy individuals develop higher self-esteem than introverted individuals.On the other hand, individualistic cultures perceive shyness as a weakness and a character flaw, while unsociable personality traits (preference to spend time alone) are accepted because they uphold the value of autonomy; accordingly, shy individuals tend to develop low self-esteem in Western cultures while unsociable individuals develop high self-esteem.”
It took me a long time to really admit to myself that I’m shy, or at least that I can be with more frequency than I’d like. People’s perception of me often includes adjectives associated with extraverts, such as “bubbly”, “animated”, “spirited”, and “assertive”, and all of these are true, except for when they’re not. And sometimes both are true at the same time, which is a special kind of uncomfortable. Like any person, I’m full of frustrating contradictions.
Without a doubt, the same factors that fostered my depression (that I’ve blogged about here, here, and here) helped fuel my shyness. And if shyness describes a psychological reaction to interpersonal relationships, then one can look into a person’s formative years of peer relationships to find the roots, or at least contributing factors, to the shyness.
Having skipped three grades, I was in college as a pre-med a month after I was old enough to drive. None of this was by my choice. No kindergarten, no third grade, and no sixth grade are exactly the opposite of the moves you would make if you want a child who’s already a bit of an outlier to grow up well-adjusted. Being an agnostic atheist Russian Jewish immigrant growing up in the South (Texas AND Tennessee, just to really shake things up) didn’t help. I was bullied, the butt of jokes, and ostracized consistently. Being book smart was the icing on the disaster cake. This even bled into athletics: I remember a hurtful moment during gymnastics practice when the other girls snickered and laughed at me over the course of two days after I was reluctant to do a certain move on the uneven bars because I hadn’t gotten the, in my words, “concept” yet. I never thought using the word “concept” would get me in hot water among peers, but there I was, withering on the inside as I realized that being smart was a social liability. Dating wasn’t an option even if it was allowed; you’d have to actually be able to carry on a conversation with the opposite sex without experiencing a panic attack, and without feeling two inches small.
Even as my self-esteem and general comfort in my own skin has grown by significant strides over the years, my shyness lurks in a corner of my brain waiting to insinuate itself into a multitude of situations. I have the perpetual option of either trying to breathe through it and maintain as much composure as I can, or just withdraw from social situations altogether to avoid the discomfort. For more times than I’d care to admit, I’ve chosen option #2.
At a certain point, the shyness and depression together just created a sinkhole of withdrawal. It became unclear whom I trusted less: myself or other people. And if neither is trustworthy, if neither is safe, what option do you have? Very bad thoughts can quickly become your only companion.
Controlling the controllables is my motto in life. But I can’t control people (nor would I want to), so what does one do with the unwieldy vat of human emotions and interpersonal dynamics without drowning in it?
Depression is behind me; I’m confident with my skill set to manage that hornet’s nest. But humans are a horde of bees, and I’m wired to crave honey. So although they present a perpetual opportunity to be stung, I don’t have much choice but to suit up and go into the fray with as much boldness as everyone thinks I have.
I don’t really have a middle name (except for my father’s name as per Russian tradition), and at some point in elementary school, I secretly decided I wanted my middle name to be Celeste. For a kid who would stay up late into the night thinking about the scope of the universe, what shape it must have, what there was before there was anything, and what infinity could look like, it made all the sense in the world that I was drawn to it. Many hours were spent stretching my imagination to try to visualize what was beyond the bubble, outside the snow globe, on the other side of perception. I would sigh nightly as I felt myself sink into sleep without wrangling an answer out of the universe.
Not too long after this, I started to develop a taste for my favorite genres: adventure, science fiction, and fantasy. The Count of Monte Cristo and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea come to mind as two of the first literary influences that completely absorbed me. Later I discovered stories such as The Foundation Series, The Time Machine, Alice in Wonderland, White Fang, The Neverending Story, and Lord of the Rings. I mentally lived (and perhaps still live) in swashbuckling adventures on the open seas in large sailing vessels, in quests that involved time traveling, sorcery, and an assortment of creatures and characters, and in parables that required inner strength to complete a task.
I think it’s safe to say that Celeste has been germinating for many years, and she might have shown up much earlier had another character not hijacked the reins of my mind. Depression is the kind of character that convinces you that it is you. Good thoughts are systematically replaced with maladaptive bleak thoughts until there is not even a semi-permeable membrane between you and it.
Tonight I found myself revisiting notes from several years ago. In 2010, I wrote a diary entry reflecting on my first two studio records, Talk is Cheap and Incantation, and what would become my third record the following year, Triumph & Symphony. An excerpt:
“…this grief and anger found its way into not just one record, but two. Talk is Cheap bears the brunt of the initial, intense, very personal wave of grief and rage, and Incantation contains the latent grief and a more objective, observational empathy that came from that emotional knowledge…They gave me the room to fully grieve and move forward with a resilient heart and stitched-up thoughts…”
Art has always been the most honest litmus test of where my head is at. I remember telling a friend that writing Triumph & Symphony felt like finally finishing the climb out of the red and up to the zero mark. It was a true starting point for me as an individual, and was an ascent I never fully believed I’d ever complete. But I had finally turned a corner. And following a couple of other necessary artistic explorations, mainly the (very dark) music video for Animal and the writing of my (very dark) novel about a depressed woman in a relationship with a serial killer, I was finally able to put the character of depression to rest.
I could finally hear Celeste’s voice in my head without all the other clutter, and hers was a voice I had not heard with that much clarity since I was a kid. Though it was not my fault that I lost the threads of that character, the onus was still on me to do the work to find her and make her a more dominant voice than all the toxic bullshit, twisted messages and devastating oppression that I had been forced to take on from a less than ideal childhood.
I’m not a superhero, but every time I conquer a trigger for depression, or make a good decision about a person that may not be so good for me, or manage my emotions and reactions that apprise a situation as best I can, or make the most sound choice possible that holds the greatest good without sacrificing myself, I feel like a superhero. And maybe that’s the true blessing of depression. The ordinary victories of everyday life are extraordinary accomplishments, and when you’ve experienced complete mental paralysis, there is much value to be found in wrangling those monsters and sidestepping those pitfalls. I may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I can hurdle sneaky dangerous openings of perilous abysses. And that’s pretty damn heroic for someone who never thought she’d survive past 25. It’s likely I will never travel to different planets or different dimensions, but I’ve found my own emotional center of gravity, and my explorations of my inner world could give any adventurer a run for his money. And that makes the seven year old in me quite proud.
I once again would like to start off with a disclaimer: I am not a therapist. After I got some really moving responses from my previous blog on the subject, I started mulling over what other useful things I might contribute to the conversation of managing depression from my personal experience.
One of the most useful concepts a therapist imparted to me was the following triangle.
Depression/anxiety Coping mechanisms***
Primary emotions (sadness, anger, joy, fear)
***(substance abuse, eating disorders, perfectionism, workaholism, overachievement, etc)
Moving through emotions, feeling them firsthand, and processing them properly is essential for a healthy mind. It seems straightforward enough: someone breaks your heart, you cry and grieve until you get over it. If you spend time with someone you love, you feel joy and should savor the moments, etc.
But if something comes along to sever or blunt the self-renewing cycle of stimulus-emotional response, then there is (and I’m using this term at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo, please forgive me) an energy that has nowhere to go. It’s trapped within us, shoved into some dark recess of our brains. If our internal experience is like the water cycle, we’ve built a dam and cut off the flow. This leads to depression and/or anxiety (as illustrated by the left side of the triangle that should be an arrow pointing up). Depression and anxiety (top left) are very difficult states to maintain perpetually, so we try to sublimate the experience of them with an assortment of coping skills (top right) such as substance abuse, eating disorders, perfectionism, workaholism, overachievement, etc. These coping skills further aggravate the brain, and the short-term alleviation they provide is dwarfed exponentially by how much they further fuel depression and anxiety (as illustrated by the top side of the triangle that should have arrows on both ends).
I remember having an anxiety attack years ago that was so bad I start shaking, and continued to shake for about fifteen minutes. To add insult to injury, my boyfriend at the time told me it was “creepy”.
But experiences like this, in some ways, are the gifts that keep on giving. Like the positive feedback loop of depression that sends your thought patterns (and the rest of you) into a downward spiral, once you snag onto a small thread of reality in the vortex, you can start stitching together a more objective reality. And that snag could be as simple as a question you ask yourself…..
”Why did I stay in a relationship for two years with a man who consistently didn’t have either the emotional intelligence to respond appropriately, the empathy to show compassion, the humility to say he didn’t know how to respond, or the respect to ask “what do you need to feel more safe right now?” Any of those responses would have been wonderful. But they didn’t happen. The telling irony is that it was while the two of us were alone in his apartment that I had one of the worst anxiety attacks of my life.
It started really hitting home that, despite having forcefully and defiantly escaped an abusive childhood, I hadn’t escaped its emotional patterns at all. And it was frightening to realize that not only are abusive people out there in spades, there were also mechanisms within me that gravitated towards being treated like shit because ultimately, I felt I either deserved it, or didn’t deserve better. People often say their loved ones “feel like home.” It became clear I was no different in what I looked for in my loved ones. Except for me, feeling “like home” is a much darker and more sinister proposition.
And if toxic relationships aggravate my depression, can they be lumped in with any other addiction or behavior that fuels exactly what I’m trying to escape? (The answer for me is …yes.) If my depression was marked by feelings of worthlessness, it was also marked by behaviors, and relationships, that reinforced those feelings of worthlessness. That’s the interesting thing about the human mind. Once it frames a narrative, it runs with it, sucking in every piece of evidence and sprinting towards every decision that will reinforce that narrative. It’s a bad script. For the brain, it is often more important to be right than it is to be happy. We can’t fault ourselves for an imperfect evolutionary process of the mammalian brain, but we do have to work within its framework. In both the most existential sense and the most practical sense, our perceptual mind is all we really own, and we have a right to revise the script.
Back to the above triangle. The moment my therapist whipped out his drawing of the triangle, my head almost exploded. I had never put the system together like that before. So what you’re saying is that, in all the despair, in all the dark emotions, in all the alternating between crying, more crying, and numbness of depression, I’m not feeling ENOUGH? Quite literally, I responded with “what the fuck?” How was this possible? I’ve always been told I’m too emotional, too sensitive. I’m a goddamn artist, all I do is feel, isn’t it?
Slowly I started piecing it together. A molecule at a time. It was like something from Memento or Sixth Sense or something. I had to reevaluate everything in my life. My friendships, my relationships, my perceptions of myself, of others. Every thought I had was subject to scrutiny…. but not the same kind of scrutiny of depression. The self-scrutiny of depression is value judgment, shame, self-disgust. You want to do away with your head, not embrace it. It is the enemy, you are your head, therefore you are the enemy. Suicidal thoughts are not far behind those leaps of logic.
The new scrutiny was not about value judgment, it was about effectiveness evaluation. It was about identifying how I actually feel in various situations, something I was never given permission to do. I was very actively discouraged from doing this. And when you’re taught that your feelings about what’s happening directly to you are irrelevant, that’s what the brain, like any other animal, learns. It becomes an unstated, unspoken assumption. You don’t question it, but you do experience the fallout of that poisonous assumption.
Can the countdown to complete self-obliteration be stopped? So what happens to the system when you throw a wrench in it?
What if the existential question isn’t: “Why am I such a worthless person?”
What if the question is: “How do I give myself permission to start feeling again?”
It’s a bizarre experience, in some ways. To start having to name my feelings was odd. To have someone name them back to me was even more jarring. When my therapist would say something as simple as “You’re feeling sad” in a calm manner, it would trigger a river of tears. For it to be okay to just feel without criticism, without it being used as a weapon against me…This was a revelatory experience. To feel safe, to feel present and in my skin and not in some odd semi-dissociated state from myself was new. To be able to identify that someone is making me feel uncomfortable or unsafe with a higher sensitivity setting than just “Unsafe=immediate physical danger, safe=anything else” was like someone gave me a box of 64 crayons to play with after a lifetime of only having red, blue, and yellow.
It took several years of daily work to rehabilitate my thoughts and learn how to experience primary emotions, to learn how to just be human and find solace, joy, and comfort in my inner world. I had this thing (that I still use sometimes) to fall asleep. (I’d mentioned in my previous blog that insomnia alone can send you into madness). I’d get into bed, turn off the lights and say aloud “I have worth” enough times until a small part of my brain started to really consider it to be true. I’d then choose a number that I found comforting (for me it was 55, I liked that it was an odd number while being symmetrical and balanced) and would count backwards until one, and start over again until I was asleep. It’s telling that speaking disparagingly about myself was commonplace, but saying those three words aloud to myself in solitude and darkness would have me weeping.
It was time to introduce some competing, dissenting thoughts into the established status quo of my mind. Once the new thoughts and feelings started eking out a small niche in my mental landscape, I nurtured them daily, hourly, minute by minute. I allowed those thoughts to begin to dictate my behaviors, my choices in relationships, my perceptions of the world around me. Depression had been the architect of my mind for long enough. It was time for a new set of blueprints, a new map, a new story.
And to revise the script, I had to go all the way back to “Once upon a time, there was a girl who had worth and value just because she was Anna: no more, no less.”
I have mixed feelings on writing a blog directly about depression because it’s a topic that deserves either a more comprehensive approach or a more artistically delicate approach. However, maybe if it’s helpful to just one person to read any of this, perhaps it’s worth it to try. It’s a topic so close to my heart that I’m going to have to just make a list so I don’t go too far down rabbit holes. I will preface this by saying I am NOT a therapist, but I recommend finding a good one. When I was twenty, despite being already mentally set to devote my life to music, I finished my bachelor’s degree in neuroscience mostly out of the hope that it would help me understand my depression that had hit its stride by the time I was about thirteen. After that, I spent a lot of free time reading graduate and clinical works on different therapeutic approaches, psychodynamic theory, etc etc. After some years of resistance, I tried anti-depressants of different sorts. I also had several different therapists over the years with widely varying degrees of success. More on this in a minute.
Here goes nothing:
1. The anatomy of any one individual’s depression is unique. Learn about your own.
In college, I could, and did, sleep for fourteen hours at a time. At some point it shifted to sleeplessness punctuated by horrifying recurring nightmares that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. The dread and anxiety of nighttime alone made me consider putting an end to existence.
Unlike a lot of folks trying to cope with depression, I don’t have tendencies to substance abuse. I’ve smoked weed about four times in my life and hated it. I drink once every few months, and when I do, it’s typically no more than a drink or a drink and a half. Even a relatively small amount of alcohol makes me depressed and anxious for about seventy-two hours afterwards so I avoid it for the most part. Besides a few experiences with mushrooms right after college, I’ve never had any desire to experiment with anything else. Food was a lot more dangerous to me than drugs, and I struggled with dysfunctional eating patterns for a long time. It took me years, for example, to realize, to really realize, that I would feel victorious when I’d go as many hours after waking as possible without eating. And of course, how does a mind and body recover from depression if it’s not giving itself any fuel?
That’s what’s one of the shittiest things about managing depression. All the factors involved are constructed in a way to push you back into the framework. Substance abuse, eating disorders, workaholism, distorted self-esteem, overachievement, underachievement, thrill-seeking behavior, withdrawal from activity, toxic relationships….Each one begets the next. If you don’t take care of your body, your mind suffers. If your mind is suffering, your decision-making capability in interpersonal relationships suffers. If your relationships suck, you have an unhealthy inner circle. If you have an unhealthy inner circle, you’re getting shitty advice from people wittingly or unwittingly sabotaging you, which lowers your trust for people, which causes you to withdraw and draw bad conclusions of the world at large, so why go for a hike, eat a healthy meal, or make your therapy appointment if there’s just a bunch of shit waiting for you at the other end?
If you’re at odds with the world and feel like shit about yourself, you might not be pursuing your dreams because who gives a shit about what you have to offer. Or on the other hand, you might be pursuing success that’s disproportionately fueled by revenge or vindication.
It’s all very complex. Ultimately, it was immensely important for me to become the scientist of my own existence. I believe this is what has kept me alive. My curiosity to learn about my own thought patterns and behaviors is what also is the impetus to grow, change, and drop old perceptions. The willingness to step outside of my own experience is a critical part to being able to reframe the picture, which dovetails into point number…
2. Neuroplasticity is a thing. One of the most exciting and interesting things ever. The brain is not as fixed as initially posited. Much work and research has been done on the brain’s ability to remap itself. It was critical for me to understand this point, because this is the crux of being able to be an effective agent of change for yourself, in as much is as biologically possible. I will not underestimate the complexity of this, because every person has a different set of experiences and background (sexual abuse, rape, veterans with PTSD, narcissistic family dynamics, children of alcoholics, drug abusers, the list goes on and on and on and on). But, here’s something interesting. For even something as culturally darkly iconic as the Hemingway curse… Read this.
3. The Great Paradox. A few sentences above I wrote about stepping back from the self…but if depression is marked by withdrawal from activity, the inability to feel connected, etc…Why on earth would one want to further disconnect? It seems paradoxical. But when you’re depressed, you cannot FORCE yourself to feel anything differently than what you’re experiencing. The bad kind of disconnect is from your personal world, from yourself, from your true emotions that you are likely a few degrees of separation removed from already anyways. The good kind of disconnect is starting to politely step away from your depression, even if just an inch away. Once you begin to just sit with yourself when you’re feeling that way, that’s a baby step in the right direction. I see depression as this altered state that is trying to suck you into a brutal mental fight with yourself. It’s trying to shape your point of view into its point of view. Fighting it often makes things worse. If your best friend was experiencing something awful and traumatic, you’d be an asshole if you said “just snap out of it.” Why would you do that to yourself? A little compassion for your inner struggle can go a long, long way.
4. Start understanding what primary emotions are, and keep a journal about how often you experience them. I wrote another blog a few months ago just peripherally touching upon the idea that depression is not sadness but is more a systematic, chronic inability of experiencing primary emotions as they come. The primary emotions are joy, anger, fear, sadness. In a perfect world, we would be able to process and move through these emotions based on the stimulus at hand. Shark=fear. Injustice=anger. Loss=sadness. Unfortunately, between the complexities and imperfections of brain structure, the dysfunctional families that raise us in ways that shape our neurochemistry to deal with things poorly (or not at all), and a society that is so perched on externalizing all emotions into concerted actions and manifested destinies (instead of just stopping for a while and going within), many of us experience a runaway train of a positive feedback loop into a Kafkaesque nightmare of a depression.
5. Find a good therapist. I cannot stress this enough. You should not A Beautiful Mind it. I admit this is very daunting to do. It took me a while to do this. Letting someone in like that to be in a position of power, in a weird unbalanced information exchange, is very difficult. But you cannot perform psychic surgery on yourself without some guidance. You are already doing most of the work by shoring up the thoughts that depression is trying to flood upon you. Let someone else help you map out what you are looking at and how you’re going to manage all the variables. Google “what to look for in a therapist” so you can develop a list of bullet points of what you want in a therapist and be prepared as you are screening them. If you’re not comfortable with anti-depressants, be honest about it. If you’re too comfortable with self-medicating, also be honest about that. Medication is a leveler to get you to a point of being able to use your critical thinking skills and cognitive functions to change your inner world, your lifestyle and your emotional habits…Don’t just get a prescription for 100 pills of 20 mg Prozac and call it a day. The relationship with the therapist is an intimate dynamic that can and should yield some of the most transformative moments you’ll ever experience…Put substantially more time into finding the right fit than you do your OkCupid profile, finding a good juice bar or your next networking event.
6. Your language shapes you. The language and words we choose to describe, or not describe features of our inner experience end up defining us. It is the narrative we create. When we take a section of our inner experience and try to board it up because it’s too difficult to manage, too consuming, exhausting or scary, then you are in essence training your brain exactly that: that it either can’t be managed or you don’t deserve for it to be managed.
I think this all I’m going to write on this for today.
Keep chipping away it.
I love structure. It might be a bit of a weird thing to write a blog about, but the world is too stupidly insane to not devote a few paragraphs to one of the few things that keeps me from losing my mind.
In elementary school, we had to do a project about bringing disorder to order and were instructed to take pictures of the before and after to show the transition. The problem is I didn’t really have a before. I had to deliberately mess up my room to get a before shot, and every displaced toy and book just looked so wrong that it gave me anxiety. The meticulousness I had for my toys and books and stuff was the structure I needed for the abandon of playtime to actually be satisfying. I accounted for every little removable piece so that when I was ready to surface from the leagues of my imagination, the inventory would be stocked and ready for the next play session. As a kid, I lived with the understanding that very little of my life was under my control. No one asked me what I thought about things, no one inquired into what I wanted, no one consulted me on decisions. My opinion about my life, let alone the world around me, was of little consequence. So if imagination was the great escape, I took the vehicles of that escape very seriously.
I’ve had a few incidents this week that remind me that, in principle, very little has changed. Most things that frustrate me and anger me and sadden me about the world are things over which I have little to no control. So I constantly must refocus my energy on things in my immediate sphere of influence, things I can actually impact with some degree of accurate prediction. People often use words such as “freedom” and “liberating” to describe what they think making music and art is to me. Perhaps as a listener, art is the great uncorker. It unbottles feelings and thoughts that may not be elicited otherwise. But for me, it’s actually kind of the opposite. My mind’s default setting is always to be on and running, and my emotions are fairly close to the surface. I’m much better at being honest than at being deceptive. A concerted act of will couldn’t change this: I’ve never gotten out of a speeding ticket, and I don’t anticipate I ever will. So, much like the organized room of my youth, music and art are the shelves, cubby holes and drawers that I am consistently building to contain the accumulating experiences, feelings and internal chatter that perpetually threaten to outpace me.
Years ago, my older brother told me he thought I’d do well in the military. It may seem odd, but to some degree, it makes sense. I like very direct communication. I like very clear messages. I like very clear expectations. I like when people are consistent. My friends know me to be unambiguous about my pleasure or displeasure with something, Once I can identify and name my feeling, I will do so in a safe environment. Not all environments or circumstances are safe, and for that I build a new little container to pour myself into. When I watched the Temple Grandin movie with Claire Danes, I very deeply identified with the relief she felt in the cow holding pen. I get it. Specific shapes sandpaper away the sharp edges of prickly emotions. Structure soothes chaos, and every day is a fight against entropy.
I did not anticipate I’d feel the amount of pain I’ve experienced the past couple of weeks while only marginally exposing myself to the escalated conflict in Israel and its fallout. After all, my Jewish identity is something I was born into; it was neither something I chose nor a culture I’ve ever heavily pursued. I’ve been to a synagogue a handful of times in my life… a wedding here, a high holiday there, and, ultimately I find any kind of tradition or ritual rooted in far-fetched mythologies unnecessary at best.
However, the reality is that I am a Russian Jewish immigrant, and I always will be. And although I may choose to focus my daily experiences and thoughts around what it means to be a useful and contributing American citizen, who I am as an artist, or what kind of person I am to the people in my personal and professional life, the inextricable connection I have to this one identity is not something I can detach myself from. I have no personal memories of Russia or of the anti-Semitism my family experienced there. I don’t have firsthand experience of the Holocaust. Yet still, all the horrific stories, all the loss, all the collective pain (and strength) of a people lost in a nebulous existential disconnect from each other and striving to carve out meaningful lives as an amalgam of circumstance, geography, and culture shaped me in ways I probably will never fully fathom.
Growing up in the Christian South with a last name like Madorsky generated inquiries into my Russian-ness first, and Jewishness second. As bleak as communist Russian life was, I could get away with speaking to the Russian identity less morbidly: I’m bilingual and can think in Russian, I was born in Leningrad, we emigrated to the States when I was very young, the upright piano I played as a kid we brought with us from Russia was named “Red October” (I shit you not…engraved in gold Russian lettering and everything).
But despite Americans’ apprehension of “Commies”, the Jewish identity was the one that was unfathomably more unsettling to talk about. The cloud of the Holocaust and the War hangs perpetually over all the countless explanations of why my family is so small, of why we are the way we are. I remember vividly the pain in my grandmother’s face when she would recall those events from the first half of the twentieth century living in Belarus, short for Bela Russia, meaning literally, White Russia. She lived in a tiny town called Tolochin, about halfway between St. Petersburg and Kiev, Ukraine. I remember how grateful she was to live out her twilight years in America. There’s nothing quite like watching a four foot ten Russian Jewish woman belting out “God Bless America” in broken English during a family dinner toast while drunk and woozy off of two shots of Manischewitz wine. While I was yearning to get out of Texas, she was grateful to have made it past Ellis Island.
To be tolerated and not persecuted for who you are is one step in the right direction. But to be somewhere where you are actively embraced is another experience altogether.
I hope our human species can one day move beyond the petty tribalism that engulfs so many parts of our world. Because as much as I feel in my stomach the intensity of what is happening in an 8000 square mile plot of land that is the last bastion of hope for a Jewish people’s home for many Jews much more Jewish than I am, I feel an even stronger intensity towards the desire for individuals to redefine themselves according to the simple realities at hand; that we are a species who possess the intellect and self-awareness to recognize that life is very finite, that human experience is very fragile, and that we are obligated to embrace an appropriate and balanced amount of stewardship for each other and the pale blue dot that sustains us.
(visual courtesy of the Monty Python lads)
As I’ve started playing live streaming shows regularly, a fan asked me to write a blog about what performing is like. I’m two lines in and already I want to use the quote comparing talking about music with dancing about architecture. But I’ll give it a go.
Songs make sense to me. They are a little balanced ecosystem of ideas, patterns, and abstractions unsoiled by any outside agenda. I lose all track of space and time when I’m absorbed in the laws of physics that govern them. However, the insulated world of music collides with the world and events around me in weird, unpredictable ways. So to commit myself to serving as an instrument for their performance is going to be inevitably fraught with possibilities of danger and embarrassment. Which I’m fine with, really.
I can liken it to the popular thought experiment involving what might happen if a spaceship approaches the event horizon of a black hole. Time and space become warped, all normal properties of physics morph into a surreal vortex of no one really knows what. But if you ARE that black hole, you’re swirling in a beautifully logical pattern with arms splayed open, and bringing everything within your radius a little bit closer to infinity.
And sometimes, it’s not nearly that elegant. An hour before my first show ever with a band, a car hit me while I was waiting to turn left to pick up a bandmate.
“I’m fine!” I said, “It’s just a flesh wound!”
The miracle of adrenaline got me through that performance…singing, playing, carrying amps, guitars, loading and unloading the car….without a hitch. It wasn’t until I woke up screaming in pain at 3 am that night that I even realized how hurt I was. Nothing a couple of months of consistent physical therapy couldn’t mostly alleviate.
During yet another show, I learned the real value of knowing two different instruments when my guitar broke in half in the middle of a set. I picked up the rest of the show on the keyboard. It all worked out in the end, and these and all the other mishaps have become good stories to share.
As someone whose childhood was rife with priceless moments like smacking myself in the face by stepping on a rake or falling off a fence to avoid a swarm of wasps, I was well-prepared for these kinds of trials in adulthood. But what I was not prepared for was the actual experience of what happens when you step outside (or is it inside?) yourself, and disappear (or appear?) inside the splendor of sound, rhythm, tone, words, mental pictures, and stories for other people. Songs are majestic little creatures, and I feel as equally privileged to access the world of music as I do to draw in the audience within my radius a little bit closer to that infinity. If you find me cracking a joke, fiddling with a piece of gear, or looking perplexed between songs, it’s simply because I’ve had the momentary realization that a tangible universe exists outside of the one I am about to dive back into headfirst. And it touches me every time I look up after the last moments of a sound wave’s decay into silence and realize the audience is still with me on our little shared adventure.
As a songwriter and writer, I’m deeply engrossed in stories: how we’re shaped by them, how we use them as touchstones, how we wrap our psyches around these metaphorical bits so that we can make sense of the complexities of our own lives as we allow imaginary universes to ignite our purpose and fuel our trajectory.
As an artist within the shifting landscape of the music industry, studying and observing its narrative from the 20th century to the present is a lot like watching a giant, lumbering, alien alpha beast attempting to survive on a planet that likely can’t support its infrastructure or feeding habits; at least not for very long and without a whole lot of casualties.
For the past several years, the industry has been dismantling into a new sort of organism: one that’s been brought to its knees by natural evolution and must adapt to survive. Hierarchies are flattening, gatekeepers are becoming increasingly obsolete, and music technology has become unshackled from obscene costs. Both business folks and artists have been scrambling to adapt to new roles, new sorts of relationships, and new self-perceptions. These massive shifts force us to reexamine our purpose and trajectory.
Frankly, I’m glad for the reinvented plot.
The new playing field for artists and musicians is one where we are all required to think mindfully and purposefully about business. In its essence, is it not the same kind of process we go through to create our art? We make decisions as to the kind of ethics (or lack thereof) we are inspired to see reflected in our stories and lyrics, and what kind of value system governs the characters. And in the same way, we have the creative power to spearhead the economics of art with our day-to-day choices, how we treat people, and with whom we build alliances.
When I was about ten, I asked my older brother, “Why are most songs on the radio about romantic love when there are so many other topics to think about, sing about, and discuss?”
His answer was “that’s just what people spend most of their time thinking about.”
But I don’t, I thought, and found myself constantly wondering:
If I exist, aren’t there others like me?
For me, the shift in the music industry is best expressed as the liberation of the Idea. Without radio formats, I can defy genres. With easy access to technology, I can stretch my skills as a producer and arranger. Without strictly controlled channels in a male-dominated industry, I have the option of what kind of woman I want to be. With the disarray of the music business, I can push myself out of my comfort zone to become a better and more passionate entrepreneur.
It serves no one to sever the roles of artist and businessperson, or to think of them as ideological opposites. Rigid definitions of ourselves are something we do when we are threatened, and enlightenment does not happen without painful and uncomfortable growth. Downstream from this expansion, it is the listener who benefits from having access to music and artists as idiosyncratic and unique as they are, and it is the listener who will reward the artist for giving them access to stories and storytellers who have the power to open them up to parts of themselves that they may have forgotten about or didn’t even know existed. Belief systems, familial structures, gender, sexuality, the unspoken ambivalences within relationships, and sociopolitical ideas: these are the stomping grounds of art, not of an archaic business framework too afraid to take risks, too mired in tightly controlled messages, too vested in the dogma of a power structure it does not want to upset.
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t ask the difficult and uncomfortable questions that seem to be constantly rolling off my tongue. And although I’ve never really questioned if this ferociously inquisitive streak in me would ever subside, I have frequently doubted that I might ever find a good home for it.
If I exist, are there others like me?
To hold to the principle that you are viable and vital because of your uniqueness rather than despite it… Now that is something indeed. Every artist has a specific outpouring of essence that can create a magnificently enriching ripple effect to her or his particular audience.
The music industry of old and those who endorse it may be formidably ruthless, but not nearly as formidable as the kinetic energy that is commanded when the creative and fiery spirit of art converges and collaborates with the warmth of mindful, resourceful, and creative business. When ideas are liberated, we are all freed.
As the world seems to continue to implode, I decided to make a list of things that are totally awesome of living in the here and now.
So today, I rejoice in all the bittersweet awesomeness of human civilization. If it’s all going to hell in a handbasket, at least the ride is climate-controlled.