How to live with the worst thing ever

There is a distinct possibility that the election of Donald trump to the presidency is one of the most painful experiences you have ever had. That's certainly true for me. I've given doses of morphine to my dying mother; I've left a partner whom I loved, but couldn't stay with; at times I've felt close to losing my mind. But this? This is up there. Seeing this scary guy come to power, and seeing him appoint other scary guys to positions of power, induces profound feelings of panic, overwhelm, and helplessness.

To make matters worse, because it's 2016, you have access to a constant stream of other people's panic and helplessness. That is, you have access to social media. With just a few clicks, you could spend your entire day reading terrifying articles and flooding your body with adrenaline and cortisol. (Those are the stress hormones our bodies produces when they think we are in mortal danger.) 

So maybe, given all this, you're feeling like hell.

I spent a lot of my late twenties feeling like hell, because of my mom's death, and going through a divorce, and the depression and spiritual confusion that came along with those things. This may sound weird, but over the past several days, watching so many people going through their profound (and well-placed) grief, it's like everyone finally joined the sad, shitty party I've been at for years. The theme of the party is "Worst Thing Ever". Only I don't hang out there quite as much as I used to.

Whiteboard journaling from my own recovery from a life shit-storm. 2015. 

Whiteboard journaling from my own recovery from a life shit-storm. 2015. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm at the same Donald Trump grief-party you are. But because I've spent a lot of time at the Grief Party, I'd like to tell you a few things that I learned while I was there. Because I think grief is a halfway decent metaphor for what we're facing now. 

The thing about going through a major loss is that, at every moment, there is an enormous well of sadness and loss which lies beneath the surface of your life. Grief is an underground geyser: at some point, you know it will erupt. But it's not Old Faithful; it's touchy and unpredictable. You don't know at what time of day, month, or year it's gonna blow. (This might be why, this week, you're crying in your car—or punching the wall—for reasons that are unclear to you.)

Grief is also like having a sleeping tiger for a roommate. As a griever, I've often felt that I have a choice about whether or not to wake this tiger. When stumbling upon a years-old email from my mom, I can opt to look at it or not. When lying on my yoga mat at the end of a practice, I can linger on the image of my mom's face as it rises before me ... or I can return to a more neutral object, like my breathing. On the phone with my dad, I can steer our conversation towards—or away from—how our lives have changed since her death. 

There's an accelerator, and there's a brake. If you always turn away from your grief, you'll stay in the parking lot forever. But if you're constantly leaning on the accelerator, things can get out of control. 

So here's what I've learned from living with the worst thing ever.

1. Take small bites. This election, like any cataclysmic loss, is a shit sandwich. You've got to decide how big of a bite you can handle at any one time. Titrate the amount that you take in. Protect your inner resources. Personally, I'm actually considering a subscription to a paper newspaper so that I can stay informed without getting overwhelmed (i.e., get my news from someplace other than Facebook).

2. Don't fry your nervous system. Get educated about the physiological effects of stress on your body. If you subject your mind and body to a constant stream of terror, you will short-circuit your body's ability to respond to stress, and eventually experience collapse.

3. Strategically create conditions that make you feel good. Yes, this is allowed. Even while awful stuff is happening all around you. We must balance all this negative stimuli with as much positive feeling as possible. Seek out practices, environments, and people that give you a felt sense of safety and well-being. This is not escapism; this is for your physiological benefit. Your mind and body won't be able to bounce back from all this stress unless you give them the opportunity to rest, and have the physical, bodily, felt experience of safety. Perhaps you can make a list of all the people, places, and things that make you feel like you are in a wonderful happy cocoon. And then go to that cocoon, each and every day. (Last night I left my lights off, and lit 6 candles instead. It changed the way our whole evening felt, even though we absolutely talked about politics.)

Just one of many ways to help your body recover from the 1,000 blows of Facebook.

Just one of many ways to help your body recover from the 1,000 blows of Facebook.

Basically, by writing this I'm trying to affirm what a big deal Trump's victory (and the ensuing chaos) really is. I want to affirm that this very well may be one of the hardest things we've all experienced ... and just share a few lessons from my years of living with a tiger. 


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Greed, hatred, delusion, and the quest to free all beings

In the Buddhist teachings, there is a way of understanding earthly life called samsara: an endless cycle of human births, deaths, and rebirths; a wheel to which we are eternally tethered until we achieve spiritual liberation.

Some Buddhist practitioners take these teachings fairly literally, as part of broader cosmological beliefs; for me, it is simply a helpful illustration of the human struggle. Today, I find myself with an unusually stark awareness of samsara. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is a fresh iteration of a painful pattern of suffering we have seen before. It is raw and shocking, yet it is also familiar.

Our pain is deep because Trump has demonstrated personal qualities which exemplify what the Buddha called the three poisons: greed, hatred, and delusion. It is important to remember that we all possess these qualities, to some degree. In fact, they are so upsetting in part because we recognize them from our own selves.

In understanding our fellow Americans who supported Trump, the three poisons are also a useful frame:

  • greed may have motivated white individuals of wealth and privilege, who hoped to consolidate their material security. It may also have motivated working-class people who feel that their jobs and way of life need to be protected from “outsiders.”
  • hatred may have motivated some voters, whose fear of the “other” creates racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny.

  • delusion is also an important factor for many voters: paranoid or misguided beliefs about government; misinformation created by an unbalanced media diet; or the blind hope that Trump would protect their interests in spite of his myriad personal failings.

Every once in awhile, a moment comes along which is a lightning bolt of awakening. I think this is one of those moments. It is profoundly painful, and we all want to pull the covers back over our head and hide. Yet this is also a moment of awakening—and a moment of fresh commitment. Greed, hatred, and delusion are real. How can we combat these poisons? There are many ways.

Getting back to the Buddha for a second: there’s a happy follow-up to the truth of samsara. The Buddha taught that there was a path out of suffering and that some of us—not all, but some—will work, over the course of many lifetimes, to bring suffering to an end.

That kind of person is called a bodhisattva. Basically, a warrior of compassion. The bodhisattva vows take many different forms, but the one that’s arising for me today is the one we chanted back at Ancient Dragon Zen Gate in Chicago.

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it.

"While realizing the apparent impossibility of accomplishing these tasks," one Soto Zen website comments, "the practitioner begins to appreciate the opportunity to have such a rich task with which to engage his or her entire life." 

Those first two are pretty self-explanatory. The second two are a little trickier, right? But, in our interfaith-post religious language, think of it like this:

There are many paths towards truth; I vow to seek them.

A light dwells within each of us; I vow to uncover it.

The truth can be an excruciating place to live—but nothing wakes us up quite like pain. Today, I won't try to numb the pain. Instead, I take refuge in the deepest teachings I've been fortunate to receive. With the truth of greed, hatred, and delusion staring me in the face, I renew my vow.

I rolled out my yoga mat this morning. Thinking of my African-American violin students, I cried halfway through my Surya Namaskar, or sun salutations. You know what surya namaskar can also be translated to? "Denial of ego; affirmation of faith." 


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The revolutionary joy of teaching & learning

This past weekend, as part of my yoga teacher training program, I had an experience which powerfully reminded me what it is to be a teacher, and what it is to be a student. 

Cory Bryant was the guest teacher for the weekend, and I felt an immediate connection with his teaching. His knowledge of yogic texts, his interest in Buddhism, his directness and humor all resonated with me. In his presence, I felt attentive and joyful. I sat bolt upright on my cushion, taking notes, listening, completely tuned in to what he was saying. 

There are many mystical ideas floating around, about teachers and students. In ancient Buddhist texts, there are descriptions of students attaining full enlightenment—as if struck by lightning—simply by hearing the Buddha speak certain words. There is the concept of the "root teacher." People stumble on a meditation teacher and feel a deep, intuitive voice say: This is my teacher! They feel as if the teacher is speaking directly to them; the words land in a way that they haven't landed before. Worlds of knowledge and possibility begin to open up. 

It's important to point out here that this isn't about guru worship, nor is this phenomenon "about" the teacher per se. Rather, in these moments of awakening, the teacher—thanks to her/his years of dedicated study and personal practice— becomes a channel for universal truth. The student, through openmindedness, respect, and sincere effort, can receive what is being offered. (If you've ever taught in any discipline, you can feel this difference. When a student is truly listening, trying things with an open mind, our knowledge flows from us easily and intuitively. We are a "better teacher" when the student is ready to learn.)

What I realize after our weekend with Cory is that it is deeply nourishing to the spirit to be well-taught. Teaching anything is an act of generosity and caring. When Cory helped me personally with the alignment of a pose, or responded to a question I asked, it felt so amazing! I felt like a child in one of my group classes, raising her hand and hoping to be called on. My heart was calling out, Help me grow! I could see this sincerity and excitement on the faces of my fellow trainees, too. Through this experience, I could see clearly that I really just want to learn. Therefore, to receive individual attention from the teacher, and to see my practice grow as a result, is tremendously exciting.

Simply put: the student wants help. When the teacher has the patience, knowledge, desire, and sensitivity to help, all is well. I had this relationship with my violin teacher, Olga Kaler, at DePaul. Her knowledge was so deep, and her ability to share it with me so skillful, that my playing was really transformed.

From my experience in yoga this weekend, I can see that the teacher needs a teacher, too. Cory is constantly learning, regularly going to see his Ashtanga teachers in different parts of the country. He is being nurtured by his teachers, and in turn, he can nurture his students.

Although I am not teaching yoga at the moment, I am teaching violin five days a week. As you can imagine, what I experienced this weekend immediately changed how I approached my group of four violin students on Monday. I was more strict, but also more kind. I gave each of them my individual attention, breaking things down for them and making it clear what skills they needed to gain next. Sometimes, I have behavior problems with this group. Yesterday, I had almost none. There was a clear atmosphere of serious learning, and I know that the tone I set for them had made a huge difference. Believing in my students, challenging them, and giving them the tools to grow can be an act of generosity, and can demonstrate my respect for them as humans. 

You guys ... I'm so excited. <3

When did playing Tchaikovsky start to feel like being in drag?

About a week and a half ago, there was a lively thread on the Facebook page of composer Matt Marks. To launch the conversation, Matt wrote:

So like, ok: I know hundreds (if not thousands) of musicians who focus almost-exclusively on new music, to the point where it's practically become a distinct sub-discipline from *classical music*, as different a set of skills, study, and practice as classical and jazz.

Q. Where is the point where this sub-discipline should just break off and become its own independent field of study?

Q. What institutions already have programs where students can major in this field of study, particularly at the undergrad level?

Q. How can we make this more of a thing?

This line of inquiry was unexpectedly emotional for me. To be honest, I rarely think about—rarely let myself think about—just how different "new music" and "classical music" can be from each other. After all, I live on the fault lines between the two, so I spend a good bit of mental energy trying to smooth things over. In Chicago, I could do a Saturday night show at Constellation singing an excerpt from Dave Reminick's pizza delivery musical (fee: $0), and then do a Sunday matinee of Beethoven 8 for a white-haired audience as part of an orchestra whose dress code discourages women from wearing pants (week's work: $750). The first event felt exciting, life-affirming and full of possibility; the second had its moments, but was overall a little hard to get through.

Making a living! La la la, it's all music!! trilled my inner optimist. After all, I was supposed to be able to do both ... right? Isn't classical music—warts and all—my training, my lineage, my home? 

For the past week, I've been preparing for an audition, and I'm working up the opening of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto for the occasion. When I played it through recently for my wife Susan, it was relatively clean, but it also felt embarrassing and artistically wrong. "Playing this music feels like being in drag," I suddenly blurted out.  "Like, I feel like I should be wearing a bow tie, and it should be 1945." (Just to be clear, I don't enjoy being in drag.)

"Do you also feel like you should be an old white man?" Susan suggested.

My god—when had this happened to me? My soul-deep discomforts with classical music's canon, institutions, norms and expectations were actually coming out in my performance. The arpeggios were in tune, but you could smell my skepticism and discomfort. 

Shit! I thought to myself. When did I become aesthetically incapable of putting on the costume of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto? And what the hell did this mean for my future as a gigging musician, aka Person Who Makes It Sound Good No Matter What It Is? What's gonna happen now—I stop playing music that "doesn't feel right"?!

On the train later, I scribbled in my journal to try to make sense of things. There were so many possible explanations for my discomfort. I jotted them down: 

1. Maybe as I'm growing closer to my true self, it's getting harder to fake interest in repertoire I don't love? 

2. Maybe as a bona fide queer woman, it's getting harder to cheer for the all-male canon and my limbs are refusing to cooperate any longer?

3. Maybe the more I learn about and care for the world around me, the more I am drawn towards artwork made by my fellow living beings—and the less enthusiasm I can muster for museum pieces and the conservative institutions that surround them?

While these reasons are all very clear and compelling in my own heart, each artist has their own set of values. For me, Matt's post launched an essential inner dialogue about how my training and economic circumstances connect with that truly matters to me aesthetically. The post, and the discussion that followed, allowed me to see that the artistic separation I'd been feeling was painful. I think it's important to keep in mind that: 

1. It's all well and good to "stick it to the man" and abandon classical music. But as players, our arts economy rewards us for staying in touch with our "classical roots." A lot of the stable, decent-paying work is in orchestras, playing standard repertoire. There's a financial cost to rejecting the conservative canon. This meme pretty well sums things up:

2. The norm for "being a good musician" pretty much means, as I mentioned above, making anything sound good—in three rehearsals. Matt shared a quote from Brian Ferneyhough, quoted via Jeff Trevino, that sums up the problem beautifully: 

"In general, one encounters two distinct types of performer; one that might be termed the "gig" musician - the player who, in a couple of rehearsals, is justly proud of producing a "professional" realization of just about anything. Often, such individuals are required to interpret vastly different styles in close juxtaposition and have, in consequence, developed a technique of rapid reading and standardized, averaged-out presentation in order to maximalize effectivity for the vast majority of works and contexts. ... It seems to me no contradiction in terms to presuppose a species of interpreter for whom a lengthy and intense involvement with the artistic and technical demands and assumptions of a particular composer or group of composers would be an essential prerequisite for adequate performance activity. That's the performer who's willing to spend six months or so really trying to penetrate to the roots of a style, to focus in on the mental development of the composer during the act of creation so as to be able to actively counterpoint this against his own personal learning and reproduction dynamic. It's true that, over a couple of decades now, I have developed a significant relationship of this sort with a number of soloists and ensembles. It would be a mistake, though, to concentrate overly on the quasi-virtuoso aspect of this: the spiritual relationship is always more important."

I'm sharing all of this in hopes of having a discussion with my fellow performers who have grappled with this conundrum.

For the record: playing Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Haydn, Schubert, and many other composers does NOT feel terrible/like a 1940's costume that I don't want to wear. And also for the record: hell yeah, I'm still taking that audition. I've gotta make sure all this "revolutionary" sentiment isn't just a grandiose manifestation of my fear of failure. Also, I need the money.

Teaching young scientists how to social media

I was thrilled (and slightly intimidated) to be invited to lead a workshop on social media at ComSciConChi, a local iteration of an exciting conference called Communicating Science. After all: scientists!? Me?! But it was actually super fun. In this two-hour workshop, we:

  • got clear about WHY we want to have an online presence in the first place,
  • looked at case studies of scientists sharing their work online in fascinating ways,
  • did some soul-searching about which social media platforms we actually enjoy being on,
  • speed-drafted as many social media posts (in our chosen platform) as we could in fifteen minutes. One of my star students created 20+ posts (!). 
  • started to create 200-word, 50-word, and 200-character bios of ourselves for use in various online settings.

The conference was put together by Northwestern graduate students in all sorts of science disciplines, and was attended by grad students from across the Midwest. Interdisciplinary communication for the win!  

If you'd like me to talk to your group about communicating about your work online, please get in touch!



A candid panel on freelancing at Humanities Without Walls

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting on a three-hour panel about freelancing at the Humanities Without Walls workshop, run by the Chicago Humanities Festival. My fellow panelists were journalist Ben Austen (the author of important articles about Laquan McDonald and Cabrini-Green) and media entrepreneur Jenn Brandel (who founded Curious City and now runs the company Hearken). Both of them were generous, kind, and fascinating people; I left the panel inspired by their bold work in the world. I was also thrilled to finally meet Alison Cuddy in person—a longtime cultural reporter for WBEZ, and now Associate Artistic Director of the Humanities Festival. 

The Humanities Without Walls workshop gathers Ph.D. students in the humanities for three weeks of learning, discussion, and site visits in Chicago, all to help orient them to the possibilities of working outside academia. What an amazing idea, right? 

It's clear that in the humanities, just as in the arts, there's an anxiety about how young people being trained in the discipline will survive. But beyond that, there's also optimism about how musicians—and scholars of all kinds—could be having a much bigger positive impact in a wide range of settings and disciplines.

The accomplished workshop participants grilled us about everything from self-employment tax and health insurance, to networking and relationship-building, to how we stay upbeat in a world that doesn't always appreciate the work of artists. 

I hope to stay in touch with what this workshop is doing for years to come! Special thanks to Alison, and sociologist Margarita Rayzberg, for inviting me to participate.


Joyous week with Oracle Hysterical

I don't always play gigs the week before my wedding, but when I do ... it's with folks as awesome as Oracle Hysterical. I've long-admired the work of Elliot Cole, Doug Balliett, Brad Balliett, and Majel Connery—both separately and together. So I jumped at the chance to join them on the chamber version of their latest show, The Sea: Tales of Lapham. We played to enthusiastic crowds at the Hideout, HCL, and a long-running Hyde Park salon.

It's thrilling to work with musicians who share my passion for literature, song, and storytelling, and who perform with such joy and at such a high level. I felt very lucky, and right at home. Come back soon! 

Why Anyone Would Share Their Failures Online

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by the thoughtful and accomplished percussionist Doug Perkins for his podcast, Five Days With Doug. We talked for almost two hours. I confessed to Doug that while I’m in a pretty good place right now, I’d spent a decent percentage of my late twenties struggling with depression, career confusion, self-doubt, burnout, and financial instability. (Doug referred to this as my “turning thirty freak-out,” which is definitely part of it.)

This week online,  I discussed my attempt to quit eating sugar.

At some point, Doug said: “So, you’re pretty open about the fact that you’re searching, you’re seeking, you don’t have it all figured out. But you’re also saying to other people, I can help you with your career stuff.”

“It’s true,” I replied. “It might seem counter-intuitive. But I think there are some things that you can only help people through if you’ve been there.”

Everyone’s had that instrumental teacher who doesn’t quite know how to break things down, because they learned the technique so long ago that they’ve forgotten. Or perhaps the skill came relatively easily to them, and they can’t get inside the head of someone whose process is different. When it comes to working through life's thorniest problems, sometimes it's helpful to talk to someone who's very recently come through them. So I often choose to "out" myself, so that I can be "found" by friends, colleagues, and even near-strangers who may share my struggle and can benefit from what I've learned.

It's a tricky balance, this dance between private life and public statement. It's possible to share too much, to open a wound before you're truly ready, to expose yourself to criticism or public debate when what you really need is privacy, silence, and time. 

Still, the fact remains that this process of sharing is second nature to me. Recently, my friend Deidre was asking me about why I choose to write about my life and ideas online. Deidre, a more private person than me by nature, didn’t really understand sharing in the way that I do. “What do you get out of it?” she asked.

As I was talking to her, I realized is that I have a Circle of Life, which looks like this:

II:  Have an experience → Reflect on it → Gain insight → Share what I’ve learned  :II

Repeat ad nauseam. I'm calling it a Circle of Life because I swear, it just happens regardless of whether or not I plan it, or think it’s cool or strategic or useful. I can declare to myself,

No more blogging! I’m only going to be literary or

I’m going to go on meditation retreat for three months or

I’m going to take a damn orchestra audition. No really, I am.

Sooner or later, I will be back, pecking my most recent life experience out onto a keyboard, trying to make sense of it. Part of how I make sense of life is by sharing it.

The perils and triumphs of of online navel-gazing.

The perils and triumphs of of online navel-gazing.

And of course, the magical thing that happens once you’ve shared your own story is that you discover you’re not alone. People come out of the woodwork. They email you and share their experiences. They take you aside at parties and mention something they never otherwise would’ve mentioned. And suddenly you have a sense of tribe, a sense of shared experience, and the world is a less lonely place.

So a lot of what I choose to do -- writing, coaching, consulting -- falls under the “share what I’ve learned” piece. Not because it has some particular benefit, but simply because it's in my DNA, for better or for worse.

I’m super curious. Do you, my dear readers, also have a “circle of life” that you constantly find yourself engaged in?  A pattern, a process, a way of being in the world that’s deeply ingrained and unique to you? (Mine is pretty typical for an ENFJ, by the way, and I find it fascinating how different personalities approach and process the world.) Let me know in the comments.