PMSing my way to self-love

I’m off my game today. It’s been like that since I got up this morning. We were interviewing a potential new nanny. We made opposite assumptions: hers involved an AM and ours involved a PM. So she showed up when I was still in bed, and we did the interview with me in my bathrobe. We asked questions. She asked a few questions. We told her about our family. She told us tidbits of her experience. It wasn’t an exchange that sparkled.

Then I made some breakfast, but realized as I was making it that I had to be leaving in under 20 minutes. I got a couple of bites in, but wasn’t really ready to eat. I talked with our nanny, part of my brain constantly in resistance to the knowledge that I really needed to get out the door.

I made it to rehearsal in the nick of time. And then…

You know how in the presidential debates Donald Trump liked to stand there and say, “Wrong!” “Wrong!” “Wrong!” while Hillary Clinton was talking? That was happening in the interior of my skull today. I hate getting into that emotional space, where I wind up flinching away from mistakes and with each one the volume of my internal criticism rises to peaks of insulting derision so that I stumble from shame to shame and the betrayal of my hands.

Hillary Clinton is a world-class master in maintaining her composure no matter what is being thrown her way (a mastery built through devastating experience in which people other than herself exposed her private vulnerability to public view and then attempted to personalize every possible aspect of her life, whether it was in the public sphere or not).

Unfortunately for me, I sometimes make the mistake of attempting to substitute suppression for self-centering. And so, instead of gaining a real composure, I just get tighter and tighter and tighter, and it gets harder and harder to play. And then I’m more likely to make mistakes. And, as well, I’m more likely to assume that anything I hear that’s off is my fault. And pretty soon what I can mainly hear is that nasty voice shrieking, “Loser!” in my inner ear.

That lasted for the entire 2.5 hours of rehearsal today.

*sigh*

Then I came home and discovered that I’d gotten my period, something which has become a lot less predictable in the past year as I’ve apparently entered perimenopause.

Here was my (typical) sequence of thoughts.

Inner adult: “Oh, no wonder!”

Inner parent: “You’re just making excuses for your terrible playing.”

Inner adult: “But no wonder I was feeling so emotionally destabilized; that sometimes happens when I get my cycle.”

Inner parent: “Really, just stop making excuses.”

Inner parent: “And besides, you can’t admit that reality. That will just add fuel to the fire. You’ll just prove it. You know, that thing that women are unreliable and can’t be trusted because ew. Because, you know, periods. You know, women turn into crazy bitches at that time of the month. So just suck it up and practice more so you don’t suck so much next time.”

Inner child: crying

Of course, all through this I am aware that I’m being really harsh with myself. I have not entirely lost my perspective. But it is enlightening. On the one hand, roughly half of the population spends decades bleeding on average once a month. It’s a human experience. But it is one of the experiences which in patriarchy is very othering, and which ranges from annoying to mortally dangerous, depending partly on where you live in the world. And there is this tension between on the one hand wanting to be honest about one’s experience in a female body, and on the other, hating to give one iota of energy to the trope of the bitchy woman on the rag.

We all have bad days. We all have times where things are not clicking or flowing right (so to speak). But the experience of women in this instance, and minorities in general, is that a behavior one exhibits carries inappropriate weight because it’s used to justify a cultural narrative. And so, black men, for example, are hugely pressured to police their expressions and behavior lest a white person feel threatened and add that experience to the heap of supposed evidence that black men are violent and dangerous. And women are hugely pressured not to express emotions, because doing so might add to the supposed evidence that women are emotional and irrational and unreliable.

Hillary Clinton, in the 2008 primaries, allowed a tear to roll down her cheek. The endless, awful analysis went on and on and on. (Here is one sample.) It literally doesn’t matter how she comports herself. It is never right. Never acceptable. Never enough. Never too little. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

And that is how it sometimes feels to be a woman in this society.

I learned early to hate myself in ways that crippled me. This was due to a combination of factors, including societal messaging, school environment, and family patterns. I can be incredibly nasty to myself. I am only beginning to unpack why the reclamation of “nasty woman” has felt so empowering for me, but I think this is part of it. Donald Trump outright rejects the validity and standing of half the human species (way more than half, of course, when you take into account his feelings about anyone who’s not a “successful” white man). Claiming my nastiness feels like claiming my whole self, refusing to chop myself into little pieces in order to be more acceptable to others and to myself.

This nasty woman still bleeds every several weeks. And cries. And works hard. And will continue working hard. And this nasty woman is learning, slowly, to love herself.

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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.

The value of music, and of being a musician

In my darker moments, sometimes I start thinking that being a professional musician (in the way I am currently doing it) is an inherently selfish act. Why?

Because I love what I do, and I often don’t get paid for doing it (the performing and the practicing).
Because I could be spending that time with my kids, who miss me when I’m gone.
Because I don’t play for an established large symphony, with a salary and benefits, which would help support my family in addition to the teaching I do.
Because there are lots of much better cellists in the world performing the repertoire I’m performing, and doing a better job of it, so really, who does it benefit for me to be inadequately replicating their efforts?
Because music is not important in the way medicine is, or teaching kids in school. It’s a cultural accessory. Should I really be devoting so much of my time and energy to it?

There are other areas of my mind and heart which recognize the fallacies in the statements above. But in a society which is so focused on money, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of thinking that my worth is inextricably tied to my income, and the ways in which I make that income.

Ted, bless his heart, has started referring to my practice as work when he talks to the kids. He has explained that he believes it needs to be perceived as work, just as much as my teaching hours. So, the other day when I said I was going to go practice, he said to the kids, pointedly, “Yes, Mommy is going to go to work.” His support makes me cry tears of joy, and also of grief for the message I have received in so many other ways that what I do is not really that important. My practice hours have always been the schedule item that most easily falls off the schedule, deprioritized in favor of kids’ appointments, family business & logistics, etc. Also, I am a procrastinator, and so there’s the layer of resistance I feel, the tendency I have to fight to want to go to bed or relax when I have time with childcare, instead of practicing. Because of that latter internal struggle, I am even more apt to blame myself, or to view practicing as a luxury, or something that’s not really crucial in the broader picture. Sexism plays a role here, too; this is an inner narrative to which I am sure a lot of women can relate.

I talk to my students sometimes about the role music can play in their lives lifelong, and I believe in what I say. I believe in the curative, inspirational, meditative, restorative, intellectually and emotionally and physically and spiritually impactful and interweaving powers of music. I believe that it expands our minds and hearts and souls, and that a society that does not highly value art and artists is impoverished in important ways. I believe it affects us holistically, that being involved with music is more than receiving and giving pleasure, that it can help us re-join the disparate parts of ourselves. I believe all of that.

And I also believe that my unique voice, my unique combination of training and heart and mind and intention, is important. I believe that I can contribute something important.

I will always have that internal despair that can yell or whisper or sneer that I am a loser and that what I’m doing doesn’t matter. But I do have examples large and small of the ways in which music has changed people’s lives, in the moment or the hour or the forever. And I need to hold onto those.

I’d love to see readers’ comments with your stories of your relationship with music and what it means to you. Let’s add to the cultural narrative in a positive way, in this, a tiny corner of the internet.

Thanks for reading!

Split-shifting balancing act

Ted and I have, like every other parent, had numerous conversations about how to achieve a healthy work-family life balance. An idea that never had appeal to me has become one that we’re going to try. And that is, the split-shift. Actually, it’s something I’ve always done without thinking about it, getting in practice after the kids are down, teaching in the morning and then the evening. So I’m not sure why I thought it was not a good thing, except that for office jobs it’s not the usual. However, after the holiday we realized that Ted hardly ever gets to spend time with the kids during the week when he’s not involved in chivvying them out of bed, or back into it. (Holidays can be good for achieving a new perspective.)

Additionally, in February we’re going to be letting go of Tuesday and Thursday morning childcare. Those hours were originally intended for me to practice, but a) we need to save some money, and b) I need to spend more time with the twins.

Those factors combined for us to consider the split shift for Ted. So, starting this week he’s going to come home earlier to have an hour or so with the kids in which they can just play, be together without agenda before the routine of dinner/bedtime begins. And two days a week he’s going to work from home so he can forego the 2.5 to 3 hour daily commute. This way, he can still get his hours in but be available when I am teaching. His being home in the afternoon will also allow us to let go of Tuesday and Thursday afternoon babysitting hours, and will thus save us a significant amount of money, as well as enabling both of us to get more quality time with our kids.

And, after we get them down at night, Ted will do a chunk of work, and I will practice. The fact that we’re working in tandem will help, I think. And then we’ll have an hour to decompress, and then we’ll do it all again.

Someone I know was bemoaning the relentlessness of the parenting life a couple of years ago. At that time the twins were so young that we weren’t even in the space to think about the relentlessness of routine: we were just trying to survive having two small babies at once. But now we’re there, and we’re working on finding ways to make the routine serve us better, so that at the end of the day we can feel happy that the routine has gone beyond the logistics of life to give us space for connection.

And I’ll have to keep working on my own personal discipline so that I do actually practice at night. The reality is, many of my days are 15 jam-packed hours long. I am starting to have more compassion for my desire for relaxation that gets expressed by an habitual turning to my phone for entertainment & escape. But I have been convinced for some time that the answer is engagement, not escape. So here we go!

Practicing cello, dinner with a friend

Today I had three separate practice sessions, and thought I might add a fourth after coming back from dinner with a friend. I was still mildly entertaining that idea when I received a reminder from one of the members of my quartet that tonight is DST, and to set our clocks forward. Somehow, seeing the time move from after 10 pm to after 11 pm removed the idea of going down to my studio to practice from the realm of the possible and pushed it some small distance toward the absurd. Nonetheless, given that my body thinks it’s only 10:39, and not 11:39, I may shortly wish that I was downstairs doing something productive rather than surfing the web. Choices, choices.

I have come to the conclusion that come what may, I need to find time to practice every night, even if it’s just 15 minutes after I brush my teeth and before I hit the sack. I need that degree of regularity, regardless of the amount of practice I’ve achieved earlier in the day. So, despite tonight’s choice, starting tomorrow I’m going to implement my new plan. Before doing the dishes, before reading, before anything else, as soon as the kids are down, I’m going to practice, even if it’s just playing scales or tackling one difficult measure. Doing so will be good for me professionally, and good for me personally. Practicing is part of how I am alive, engaged, creative, curious, productive. It’s certainly better for me than Scrabble, for example. I may give myself Saturday nights off, given the time of night I come home sometimes from hanging out with friends (not scandalously late, seeing as how I have three small children, but later than most other nights). And that will feel good too. Balance is important.

I have been working hard enough on the Prokofiev that now themes from the second movement are running frequently through my head. There’s a place where the cello part dives up into treble clef with passionate abandon. I spent a fair amount of time today working on the intonation on that run. It’s a funny contrast, the careful crafting that goes into music, so that one can play with the passionate abandon often required by it.

Then tonight, I got to have dinner with another college friend, whose kids are a decade older than mine. The parenting situations occurring in her life feel as distant as the moon to me, but I know that once I’m there, the days of preschool and kindergarten will seem almost like they happened to someone else. Yet I clearly remember the day I met R’s younger kid, when we met for lunch while R was still on maternity leave. Time and memory continue to bemuse and fascinate me. Sometimes I think that we really are a series of people as we grow and learn and change, and that the connections between periods of our lives are sometimes more tenuous than we might think.

It is wonderful to talk with other parents, especially people one knows and trusts, to see different ways of doing things, to learn and appreciate, to understand and be mystified.

Life is a thing I am grateful to have.

I am in that state of trepidation and excitement prior to our upcoming quartet concert that burnishes everything with internal sparkles. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s rehearsal.

I hope everyone survives Daylight Saving’s Time intact.

A creative weekend of writing and playing

What a weekend! I spent Friday through Sunday morning at a resort with my critique group. The weather was incredible: we had clear blue skies and water of so crystal a quality that the reflections mirrored almost exactly the sky and clouds above. The community was even more incredible. There’s no topping time with friends that involves conversation that weaves through humor, into depths of feeling, and through analysis of the creative process.

I got another scene done, and then a good chunk of an outline, as well as the end of the book. There are still big holes I have to fill, but I’m getting a better sense for the overall picture, and that feels very good.

I made some more movement forward in my own process, too, toward self-love and compassion. It’s easier to think when you’re not surrounded by kids who need things from you, and you can have not just one, but several conversations with adults, time to breathe, time to relax. One evening I went for a swim, and walking over to the pool through the crisp clean air, looking at the stars above, I realized that I was feeling a peace and ease in my own company that was soothing and joyful at the same time.

When I got back home, Ted and I took the kids for a walk, and then to a park. It was that magic time of day when the light glows and the colors are rich and alive. The twins set off across the field and I went with them. We climbed a big hill, got up on top of big rocks, listened to a woodpecker, admired the sky, and enjoyed each other’s company.

And, after we got them down for the night, I had a quartet rehearsal. We did all Haydn tonight. We were cold and out of it when we started, and the thing bumped and bumbled along, but it was a very productive session, and by the end we were sounding downright musical. Three of the four of us are quite vivacious, and we tend to increase that tendency in each other, so rehearsals sometimes have a quite enjoyable element of hilarity. We’re going to record everything next week so we can discover all the myriad of things we need to improve before our concert. That will be sobering, I am sure, but I am also sure we’ll hear some beauty.

I am endlessly grateful for the fact that I have such a vibrant creative life. I am grateful for my ability to play, and to write, and for the opportunities I have for collaboration with others. Those are wonderful gifts.

Concerts, illness, life balance

Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote a post. The past few weeks have been tremendously busy, culminating in two concerts in two days, and my getting sick two days before the first one. Today, I am sitting in my comfy chair browsing and reading, while Ted has the kids over at friends of ours. He’s going to bring me a scramble for breakfast when they get home. Thanks to Ted!

The concerts went fairly well, but I definitely experienced an impact on my energy level from being as sick as I was. Not my favorite way to perform.

One thing that has increasingly become clear to me is that a frenetic lifestyle is not sustainable in the long term. It’s ok to have bursts of higher levels of activity, but my current approach to those times, to just attempt to push through with all the same expectations of what’s going to happen and what’s going to get done, is not working.

I need to support my musical career, and that means I need to make time for practicing, rehearsals, and performances. I need to engage with my family, and that means I need to make time to spend with my children even when there is a ton of other stuff going on. I need to take care of myself, and that means I need to be able to take time off from my main job, teaching, when necessary so I don’t run myself into the ground. I need to be present when I’m teaching, so I can give my students (and myself) the best pedagogical experience I can facilitate. I need down time, time for handling life’s logistics. I need time to write, something I usually only manage on a weekly basis, if that. (At that rate it’ll take me another 2 or 3 years to get through my first draft.) I would also like to live in a clean and organized house.

I am starting to understand that I can’t maintain ideal levels of activity in all of these categories at all times. (Not that I didn’t know that already, but I kept hoping, anyway.) Each one will rise and fall. I only have so much time. When I’m prepping for a concert, other things will need to slide. But what I can do, instead of just trying to push through, is to work into the plan little essential elements that I don’t want to lose altogether, like a half hour walk with Hazel, or 10 minutes in the morning one day during the week to vacuum one room.

I keep wanting to ensure that I have two hours to practice every day, that I have an hour to write every day, that I have time for email and house cleaning, for mail and bill paying, for relaxing, for doing the dishes, for cleaning the cat box and feeding the cats, etc., etc., etc..

I can certainly set up systems and circumstances which will be more or less conducive to that level of regularity, but I have to accept that there are no guarantees that what I plan or wish to happen will happen. Disruption is often the name of the game.

Ted and I set up a task schedule so we’d get x and y done during the week. I think we’re going to have to mostly throw it out, and take some time on the weekends to clean and organize, to catch up. Our weeknights are extremely short, and we need to relax, not to spend that hour and a half after the kids are down cleaning, etc.

And I want to come to a level of peaceful acceptance of the level of chaos in our house, because if I allow it to stress me out to the degree it does, the house doesn’t get any cleaner but I feel worse.

And eventually, I think I may have to back down to only 2 nights a week of teaching, because I am not sure that the balance between family and practicing and teaching and household can sustain more, long-term. But we shall see.