Conquering the fear-god

When I have placed fear of making a mistake in the god-chair of my psyche, I play quite a lot worse. This is not a surprising or shocking revelation, of course, but because I’ve been playing so much of late, the difference has struck me anew. When I am terrified, my movements are more stilted. When I am afraid of making my entrances in case I make a mistake, and I am more likely to be late on my entrances. It’s harder to get a good sound, because I am more stiff, more tentative, have less flexibility and therefore less control from a technical standpoint. Of course, then a vicious cycle begins in which I fear making mistakes, and then I play worse, and then I make more mistakes, and then I fear them more, etc ad nauseum.

When I was in my first masters program, upon me playing something out of tune during a lesson I was having just a day or two before my recital, my teacher said, “There’s always something ugly.” Because I have an ego-identification with being ugly, incapable, and irresponsible, this went straight in, burning an acid path into my heart. I accepted it as a part of who I am. And my already extant fear of making intonation mistakes got an upgrade and was elevated to punishing-God status. It is very easy to project those judgements externally, and when I am in an internal place of fear, it’s easy to assume that others are feeling that way about me too. And then, every external input gets run through that filter.

Music and the music world can feel so wildly vulnerable, because when you perform you are out in the open, can’t hide. So this issue of mine gets quite a lot of play sometimes.

But music and the music world can also be incredibly healing. I had the exquisitely wonderful experience this weekend of performing in a concert in which the joy of the music, the performers, and the audience was palpable. The sense of connection was loving and vibrant. To be able to do that, to be in the heart of the glorious sound-ocean that is ensemble playing is an honor and a joy.

Prior to that concert I called my boyfriend and said, “Can I make mistakes and still enjoy myself?” In the conversation that ensued, I was able to kick fear back down to a more appropriate position in my internal landscape. And then, not being consumed with fear, my heart was open for more possibilities, and was able to receive the joy that arose during our performance.

Contrary to what that fear-god claims, self-flagellation does not in fact make me a more responsible human being; just a more unhappy one. And unhappiness is not a virtue.

All of this applies in other areas of life too, of course. It’s hard to muster or execute with grace when tied up in chains of terror of being wrong. I am slowly accepting this lesson in my heart, and allowing it to penetrate my feelings and my actions. There’s nothing wrong with fearing being wrong, or being not good enough, etc, etc. But using that fear to build a cage doesn’t help anyone. So, I am working on engaging with the fear from the point of view of discovering whether it has a useful message for which I can thank it and then dismiss it, or whether its aim is merely to reduce, imprison, and punish. Then, I can expand my point of view, open the window, and invite other input.



I have heard all my life that mistakes are necessary, that they are how we learn. I have on some level considered that idea to be a fairy tale. It sounds good, but actually, says my training and habituated responses, mistakes are evidence of failure, and often of my character deficiencies. Sometimes I respond to mistakes, or to the fear of making one, as though they are threatening my survival. And so I have spent my life attempting to anticipate and prevent mistakes from happening in the first place. And when I fail to do so, punishing myself for the failure to prevent myself from making a mistake.

Think the house elves in Harry Potter. My response to my own errors has frequently been to bash myself on the head. I have been told repeatedly by people who love me that I am too hard on myself. But again, that didn’t really sink in, because after all, I could have done better. I could have not made the mistake at all.

And here’s a wrinkle: I have additionally determined the nature and degree of mistakes by weighting far too heavily other people’s reactions (or my projections of what those reactions are or will be). My calculus is off. The other day when I was thinking about this, the image of baking a cake came to me. And it occurred to me that I have been adding 2 cups of baking soda to my recipe, instead of the teaspoon or two called for. It is necessary to consider the opinions of others, especially those close to us. Baking soda helps pastries to rise; it expands the baked good and makes its taste and form better. But it is powerful: sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) is also used as pest control. It kills cockroaches by causing their organs to burst due to gas collection (Wikipedia article on sodium bicarbonate). Too much of it wreaks the recipe. And when I add too much of it into my internal processes, it distorts my feelings, my decisions, causes me to fail to act, or to overreact, blurs my vision, and interrupts my connection to my heart, my mind, my guidance.

I have spent a lot of time trying to reduce the impact my fear of other people’s reactions has on me. But now I have had an idea. I need to change my relationship to mistakes. If I do not fear them so much, that will help me change my relationship to other people’s opinions, too, because I won’t need to add so much baking soda in an attempt to externally correct or punish myself.

I think I finally understand that it is simply not possible to anticipate and prevent mistakes. And the success of my life is not determined by how well I do that. In fact, just as it is true that kids need to be able to make their own mistakes in order to learn how they want to live, behave, and connect, it is true that I cannot learn well if I am spending enormous sums of my own energy attempting to prevent myself from undergoing that learning process myself. And the more I resist the possibility of making a mistake or upsetting other people, the harder it is for me to learn, and the more likely I am to screw up in the same ways, over and over again.

Also, just as with my kids, to expect myself to learn and grow and gracefully change course in the middle of the chaos is unrealistic, unfair, counterproductive and unloving. To expect myself to be in a state of clarity and calm in middle of a crisis, or to muster the same response when things are messy and emotionally charged as I can find when I am calm and centered is to set myself up for failure and self-castigation. In the Positive Discipline classes we took & the materials we read, it is emphasized that kids learn when they are feeling good and calm, not when they are being buffeted by the storm. The same goes for the adults, too.

So here are is my list of things I want to try to do in order to re-wire my brain around the whole concept and feeling of mistakes. As with everything else important, the ideas themselves are not sufficient. I have to practice.

1) Notice the positives. I need to name out loud things that go well, actions I take that work and that I feel good about.

2) Give myself 10 seconds before I speak or act in order to find compassion for everyone involved.

3) Say, “What can I learn from this situation, and what do I want to do differently next time.” And also, “What did I do well?”

4) Celebrate moments when I am able to accomplish grace and learning in the middle of mess and pain.

5) Create a list of mantras to remind myself daily that I am human and flawed, that mistakes are a vehicle for learning, and that I am not alone: help is always available from loved ones and from the universe.

6) In any given moment, ask myself what I can do and how I can act in a way that I feel good about, without reference to past or future.

A divine day; music, a long walk, and a mediation class

This morning the violist in our quartet texted that she was going to a bakery on her way over, and did anyone want anything. I may possibly have mentioned once or twice how much I love my quartet. I decided to settle for a cup of tea, but the offer put a smile on my face. I brought the pot of tea downstairs, and it was sufficiently popular that I brought a couple extra cups, too, and we started our morning sharing tea & appreciation for the sunshine outside.

Then we had a long Haydn rehearsal. We are at the stage where we are starting to cohere more as a quartet, and we’ve worked on this piece enough that it’s really coming together, too. Everyone was sounding good, particularly the violinist who’s playing first on that piece. It is hard to adequately describe the high of making music like that. There is such pleasure in tuning the chords, getting them just so; in tuning the ensemble so that the right line comes out; in aligning vibrato and dynamics so we’re all contributing to the same emotional picture. The work is deeply satisfying.

In the middle of our 4 hour block, we went and had lunch together. We shared some more biographical details; where various of us had gone to school, and what some of our future plans look like.

When we got back we settled a couple extremely pertinent tempo questions, which is good, because I needed to know exactly how fast to work up the runs in the second movement of the Prokofiev, exactly how fast those triplets will go. Not that it’s possible to know exactly; in the moment, with the alchemy of nerves and excitement and audience, the tempi in a piece can do some interesting and unpredictable things. It’s part of the magic of performance, though it can also produce moments of terror.

After my rehearsal I had another in a series of close and connected conversations with my friend R, who is in jail. We talked about fear: the different sorts of things people fear; the ways in which people react differently to fear; the choices we make when we’re afraid, and when we’re not.

Once I was off the phone I went to find my kids, who were outside riding their bikes with the babysitter. I walked down the block with them, and then, since the day was so incredibly beautiful, decided to walk to the afternoon’s mediation class. I wanted to be outside.

It took me about 50 minutes or so. I used to be (before kids, I’d say) much more attached to driving than I am now. I have come to love walking. It is exercise, meditation, and appreciation all rolled into one. I had about ten minutes to spare when I’d gotten close to my destination, so I sat down on the grass in a park and watched a guy trying to make gigantic soap bubbles with a bucket of suds, a bubble frame and some rope. His bubbles didn’t last long, but they glistened beautifully in the sunshine.

The meditation class was wonderful. I love the class, and the people in it. They are so thoughtful, intentional, loving. After a long discussion of where we all are and how we are being impacted by various things in our lives and our universe, we did some practices together that served to help me feel both more connected outwardly and more centered in myself, a very good combination.

On the way back, I walked as far as a grocery store with my friends A & L, and then as far as a Car-2-Go, in which I arrived at home on the dot, a minute before our babysitter was supposed to be departing.

Ted and I did the bedtime routine with the kids, which involved a lot of snuggling, a lot of reading, and then a story about two kangaroos who wanted to escape the zoo and go back to Africa, a family which helped them do that, and a trip to find their family.

Of course, since DST puts fairly substantial hiccups into family routines, after we turned out the lights there was some up and down (literally – the twins have started coming downstairs when they don’t want to be in bed), but we eventually got them settled, and they are now peacefully sleeping, Hazel and Emily in one bed and Joanna in another.

Now, of course, it does not remotely feel like bedtime in terms of my sheer sleepiness factor, but it does feel like the peaceful end to a long, satisfying, joyous day. Given the time change, I think I will now get off the computer, take a shower, and read. Hopefully the lack of screen light will allow my body to perceive that it is nighttime, and I will be able to sleep. Gratitude often helps, and there is a lot for me to feel thankful for, especially after a light, music, and friendship-filled day like today.

rules, fear-based thinking, exercise, Joanna crawling

Today I came to the conclusion that we have amassed too many rules in our house, and it’s to the point where there are just too many ways in which Hazel can “mess up” by breaking a rule. It’s not helping. She and I get into a cycle sometimes in which I get irritated that she’s not listening, and then I overreact, and then she doesn’t listen any better, and I get more irritated, etc etc, ad nauseam. I know this is my issue, not hers. I am the responsible party here. So, in thinking about it, I decided that because too many rules, applied rigidly, constitute a recipe for unhappiness, one solution is to have a lot fewer rules, but a couple of higher-level ones clearly articulated. The result is an idea which Ted and I want to try. And that is, when Hazel asks to do X, Y, or Z, we want to answer that she can, with the provision that we build in time to clean up. So that if Hazel wants to finger paint we can say, “Yes. How much time do you think it will take to clean up?” And we can have a conversation about that, agree on the time, and then go ahead with the activity.

We have been in the habit of saying, “No,” too often, just from fear of a possible negative consequence. And so, instead of dealing with what is actually occurring in real-time (thereby teaching Hazel about problem solving) we are reacting to something ephemeral in our minds before it’s even had a chance to happen (thereby restricting Hazel and modeling fear-based behavior). As soon as I figured out the new guideline I relaxed, felt happier. The restricted way of living doesn’t feel good to me either.

I went to the gym today, yay! Exercise really does help me with mood, with sleep, with general well-being. I am so glad to be getting back to it.

And lessons went well, too. Funny thing, a student of mine went to the Symphony this last week, and got into conversation with someone sitting next to his grandfather. It came out that he was taking cello lessons, and she asked from whom. And what do you know, she’s someone I knew in middle school, whom I haven’t seen in decades. It’s a small world!

I got home for the bedtime routine tonight. When the kids got to the top of the stairs, Emily started crawling toward the laundry room, and Joanna followed her. She made it through two rooms crawling with the desired opposite hand/leg motion. It was so exciting! So it seems that if we encourage Emily to crawl more, Joanna will too. Joanna giggled all the way to the bedroom. It was awesome.

babies’ fear of people they don’t know

The babies are at that stage where they can be scared of people they don’t know. Today my friend A came over, and they more or less freaked out. The nanny gave him Emily to hold, and she started bawling. That set Joanna off, and she got so unhappy she buried her head in my chest and cried. Every time she looked up and saw him there she’d cry again. It was sad. So, we rolled with it, and instead of forcing our way through lunch with unhappy babies he went off to do other things. We’ll try again another day.

Since I am shatteringly tired, that’s it for today. I must try to get some sleep.

The power of parenthood

Warning: this post contains Downton Abbey SPOILERS. DO NOT READ if you haven’t seen the fifth [edited for episode number accuracy] episode of Season 3 and wish to remain in ignorance of its plotline.

I have definitely found that since having babies I have become (even more) easily moved by depictions of sadness, violence, fear, and loss, as well as joy and love. The more detached observer in me sometimes finds it amusing, but I cry much more easily now at movies or watching TV shows (though admittedly, I scarcely ever have time to see either). And, not surprisingly, what is most likely to move me to tears is a scene of loss having to do with babies, children, or parents. When Ted and I began the episode tonight, the babies were lying on the floor, taking their break between their currently usual 8-ish pm and 10-ish pm feedings. By the time we’d gotten halfway through, they were hungry again, so Ted brought them over for me to nurse. Consequently, I was feeding my babies while we watched Sybil give birth, meet her baby, and then die. What started the tears in my eyes was seeing her mother’s face contorting with grief while Sybil was dying. One of the concepts that Hazel has recently been learning and playing with is that everyone is their parents’ kid, even when they’re a grown-up themselves. I am now a parent, but am still my mother’s daughter. I can feel the poignancy of that scene from multiple perspectives, and can relate to the grief my mother would feel at my loss, as well as that my daughters would feel at mine, and that I would feel at theirs. As I sniffed and wiped my eyes I heard a similar sound from Ted. I looked over and realized that he was crying too. After the episode ended, we talked about it.

With my babies still on my breasts, I said, “I never want anything bad to happen to them.” Of course, I know this is impossible. I know, even, that it is not desirable. Life involves pain, and desiring an obstacle-free path for your child means, in some sense, that you want to prevent them ever from living, because the risk of your pain has become greater than their right to the pursuit of their own life, as joyful, grief-laden, and risky as it might be. But still. Looking at Joanna’s charming smile in that moment, I know that seeing the pain of life happening to the daughters of my heart will be one of the biggest challenges I ever face. And if it were me, seeing my daughter die in childbirth, I know it would be hard to live past that moment. When Hazel was a tiny baby, she stopped breathing. She was in the NICU at the time, due to two nasty infections I’d gotten during three days of induction and passed onto her. A nurse started her breathing again, and she was fine. I felt, at the time, that if she died I would kill myself. I had never felt anything like that before. I was astonished. She was six days old. My life, my heart, my sensibilities, my perspective, my choices, my self were all profoundly and irrevocably changed in the moment of her birth. I now risk a greater degree of pain than I ever have before. And I think that has something to do with the fact that I’m struggling with my control-freak tendencies, especially in my relationship with Hazel.

Having children has also profoundly changed Ted. It has broadened and deepened our relationship. We are both individually and as a couple willing to look more deeply, work harder, and practice more compassion than before.

He said that he was sad about what had happened to the character of Sybil, but that “mapping it back” (yes, he’s a tech geek) to our family was what brought him to tears. Like for me, imagining terrible things happening to our beloved daughters brought up grief for him.

That is why the argument that “it’s not real” has never made any difference to me when trying to process or discussing violence in movies. It doesn’t matter that it’s not real. It’s representative of horror that is real, that happens all the time. People beat, kill, abuse, hate, maim, and terrorize other people. Art maps back to real, lived human experience. That is why it has such power. It can show us our nightmares about what is currently happening, as well as our dreams of what is possible now or in the future. Yet another thing this episode brought up for me is the horror that I feel over the fact that there are many people for whom their perception of their right to own weapons whose purpose is to kill other people is more important to them than the fact that every year people lose their parents, siblings, children, friends, colleagues, and community members to bullets fired by guns. Guns increase the likelihood that someone in the house will die, including one’s children. When so many terrible things can happen, (like the death in childbirth of a woman whose father was too impressed by the noble-doctor-to-the-peerage and too afraid of hearing details of (gasp) women’s health to listen to and take seriously the concerns of his wife, doctor, and mother) why must we have more in the form of some of our citizenry mowing down other members of the citizenry with easily-available assault weapons? When are we finally going to sufficiently move beyond our bizarre and simplistic American idea of “good guys” and “bad guys” to realize that we can’t arm the former to prevent the actions of the latter? They don’t exist. We are all just people. People have the capacity to commit both atrocious deeds and acts of loving generosity. And when people are armed with deadly weapons, more of the former are going to happen. My dearest hope is that we will learn as a society to take actions which make the latter more likely than the former.

Ultimately, Ted and I agreed that we want to practice being consciously grateful for every day that we’re alive, that our children are alive, and that we all have each other. I want to focus on cherishing my loved ones, being careful without being a control freak, and being compassionate with the fear that Ted and I both can feel. It’s totally understandable. As one friend said to me when we were contemplating having children, “Prepare to be more vulnerable than you ever have been before in your life. You’ll have a part of yourself walking around in the world.” I want to try to remember that when I get tied up in control-freaky knots, I can choose to focus on love rather than fear. This is one of my hardest lessons. But each new day I get another chance to try. And that’s life.

Big storm

I hope that everyone on the East coast will be ok, though of course, I already know that everyone is not ok. I heard on the radio this evening that two people had been killed (I think in NYC) by falling trees. Given that I often get mad when I get hurt or hurt myself, I imagine that my ghost/soul/figment’s response would be to yell, “Dammit, seriously?” And then my ghost/soul/figment would spend a while (possibly centuries) feeling guilty about my poor choice of being outside under that tree in that moment, despite the exigencies that might have led to my presence there.

This makes me think about something I struggled with in getting married, and that I struggle with now, having kids: that is to say, my discomfort with making promises about the future. I think there’s some superstition mixed in there, along with some wariness and a certain degree of analysis of my life as I have experienced it thus far. I know that kids need stability, the assurance that their lives are grounded in a solid foundation, and that they have a positive road ahead of them. And yet, I think that masochistic, sad little scared kid inside me hesitates to make boldly positive statements about the future lest the universe strike me down for my temerity. Possibly I need to offer my own inner child reassurance before I try to give that to my kids; otherwise it might really feel quite inauthentic to them when I try. And possibly I need to spend some time repeating to myself that I deserve a long, healthy life (regardless of whether I get it or not).

There are a few things I have no hesitation in promising, in any significant relationship:  I will always do my best to be truthful, with myself and with my loved ones; I will always aim for clear, direct communication about anything that matters; I believe love to be a verb, and will consider whether my actions are loving or not; I will ground my actions and communications in my values; I will always strive to be my most authentic self; I will do my best to celebrate, support, be present with, and love the people close to me.

I’m sure there is more, but that’s what comes to mind at the moment.

And when I look at my children, I have no hesitation at all in telling them I will always love them. That wellspring is theirs forever. Knowing this brings me peace and joy.