Strength

“How much time we wasted, she wrote, believing that things came to us as gifts, through channels of wonder, in the form of signs, in the love of men, in the name of God, rather than seeing them for what they were: strengths that we dragged up from the nothingness of our own depths.” –Nicole Krauss, “Seeing Ershadi”

I encountered the above quote in the New Yorker while reading in the middle of the night in Rouen. I haven’t been sleeping well in 2018 (work, anxiety, jet lag), with many hours awake in the dark. So I was happy to read this lovely short story about a dancer, which beautifully articulated so many ambiguities and doubts so well: mostly, that careers in the arts are not usually the pure artistic journeys people think. They are hard work, occasionally successful, full of rejection even when things are going well, generally not paid much, full of humdrum days just like any other job. Intermittently they give huge highs—personal, artistic, social—that keep us going through the harder moments.

This one quote from the story—“strengths that we dragged up from the nothingness of our own depths”—hit me strongly and has stayed with me. When careers in music work out, I’m learning it’s usually because someone managed to find something particular about themselves and make it indispensable. It could be an especially beautiful sound, or quick musicianship, or an affinity with a certain repertoire, or unusual facility with language and text, or good stage ability, or striking physicality, or being rock-solid reliable, or something else or a combination. (This is in addition to all the other things you need for success–hard work, patience, and a huge amount of luck. Opportunities come so arbitrarily and we can’t control timing. When careers don’t work out or are slow to start, it absolutely doesn’t indicate a lack of talent or work, often just a lack of luck. There have been moments that I’ve felt very fortunate and also moments when I’ve cursed the universe as I compared my own trajectory to others’. But I do think that whenever it does work out, it’s because someone found their own particular strength or set of strengths and optimized it.)

It’s been a weird 2017-18 season. Professionally, things have really started to take off for me. Personally, I’ve seen enormous change and upheaval. Politically, it feels like the world is coming apart at the seams. I’ve had an unusual number of days when I was ecstatic, totally overwhelmed, or rather depressed, and surprisingly few when I was comfortably in between. My moods don’t usually bounce around so much. It’s disorienting. It’s also an opportunity for change—figuring out how to optimize all the stuff that’s in flux, get rid of whatever is no longer useful, and grab new ideas as they fly by and see how high I can go with them. It feels harder to do this in the larger context of world events, and today is a day that I’m particularly depressed about all the negative trends in politics. But there are inspiring people who are defying mediocrity and hopelessness—people who are dragging up strength from nothingness and flying with it.

The last part of the season was especially intense. Just in the last three months, I’ve worked or auditioned in London, Rouen, Amsterdam (& NL generally), New York, Alaska, Paris, Los Angeles, and western Canada; before the summer’s done, I’ll add New York (again) and Buenos Aires (first time in South America). That’s seven time zones’ worth of bad sleep. After years of living in the same cheap and cheerful student apartment in Rotterdam, my partner and I are buying a house; due to logistics that were out of our control, we will close on the house while I’m on another continent, and by the time I get back, all my stuff will be in a new space that will now be my home, even though I’ve spent a total of an hour there. On one of my two days in Rotterdam in May, I signed over power of attorney to my partner during a scary meeting at a notary’s office where I had to struggle to remember a slew of archaic Dutch legal terms or risk the notary deciding that my Dutch wasn’t good enough, which would have cost us €200 in translator fees. (I passed.) Meanwhile, I’ve been re-evaluating a lot of personal things, including family, partnership, possible futures, what is worth fighting for and what isn’t, how I and the people I love fit together. One family member died, one got engaged, one was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a few friends ended long relationships and a few others opened theirs, and so many people had babies. And meanwhile, the U.S. government has begun breaking up families for political capital and putting children in cages and has just decided that it’s legal to unilaterally ban people from certain countries from crossing the border, and every glimpse of the news makes me want to scream or cry (and I’m immensely privileged and less personally afflicted by those changes than many, so I can hardly comprehend the magnitude of the pain caused).

It’s been a roller coaster. I’ve needed every bit of strength I had (and some I unfortunately didn’t) to cope with these months. And, whether I felt strong or not in any given moment, I’ve noticed that the question of strength, and the high value placed on it, also keeps coming up in professional interactions. I’ve sung for about ten important people in the last few months that all have the power to give me work if they like me; most of those encounters have been positive, and when I got feedback on them, people have commented on my all-around strength, which continues to take me by surprise because I still feel like a work in progress. When the feedback has gone into more depth or turned into a longer conversation, it’s about refining my strength, honing it, being ever more careful to only present (in an audition) or accept (in a job offer) repertoire that is absolutely the strongest, the most unassailable, the most deeply rooted in my core identity as a musician, and find a way to cut out anything weaker. To do this, you have to know yourself completely and objectively. There almost isn’t space for vulnerability or doubt. At a recent presentation about starting a singing career, a well-known casting director put it very starkly: you have to work at 250% of your capacity for the first decade of your career, and you have to be literally always on the lookout for things you can learn or people you can meet that can help you jump up a level. You have to be more prepared than you ever thought you’d have to be, at every moment, and yet still somehow be fully present in all of the work you do, because otherwise people can tell you’re preoccupied. Would you think I have Stockholm syndrome if I told you I found this kind of talk inspiring in the moment? When I write it all out, end to end like this, it just seems impossible.

Later, this same casting director told me, after hearing me sing and looking through my CV, that it was great to meet someone who had clearly been working very hard for a long time, had been very patient, had herself figured out, and was finally reaping the rewards. He had many specific things to compliment and a few to work on and help me improve. This was incredible to hear from someone with that level of experience and influence, and it reminded me that I’m not really a “young artist” any more, an intern of the classical world. I’ve been working full-time as a singer for a decade and am ready for a higher profile; I’ve put in my 250%. I am, in fact, quite strong. But I often don’t feel that way. I still very often feel like an imposter, like someone who is just barely hiding major shortcomings. I still feel that if I’m not critiquing my own work for things that need improvement, I’ve lost objectivity and lapsed. I still feel, too strongly I think, that certain individuals can make or break me; I feel crushing disappointment when something I want doesn’t happen; I set my expectations impossibly high on what work I can fit into a day, even though I really should know better by now.

All this is to say: I have been so lucky this year in who I’ve met and what I’ve managed to do, but I’m ready for a break. It is past time to let some of this stimulation and upheaval simmer down.

Luckily, I’m in a place—Banff, Alberta—where I can slow down a little while looking forward to a real vacation later. I’m singing Cunégonde and tons of chamber music here, but somehow I don’t feel overworked, so I’m able to enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the place. Although all the music is difficult and I know I would perform it better if I were practicing during all my spare hours, I have been spending a lot of my time sitting or lying down or hiking and thinking—so much quiet thinking, finally, instead of the frantic reacting of the whole year. So much of this season was about “strengths that we dragged up from the nothingness of our own depths,” but now, even though I’m still in the middle of some challenging stuff, I am finding moments when I don’t have to feel strong. I can let myself be weak or unremarkable or quiet; I can blend in; I can (sometimes, at least) let assorted feelings come in whatever strange waves they do, and I don’t always have to channel them into straight lines.

The tone was set immediately at Banff by a gorgeous singer and human named Leela Gilday, a member of the Dene First Nation who was in residence the first week. She led discussion sessions that ranged all over, and she created a sense of openness right away. One of her discussions centered around an informal sketch she had made of something called the Medicine Wheel. I learned that that name refers to both a physical thing (one of many stone circles in North America) and to a concept (used originally in the Cree and Anishnabe traditions and now much more widely for teaching, healing, and analysis) concerning the harmony between people’s spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional selves. Here is Leela’s sketch (posted with permission):

We were each asked to consider personally our own relationship with these elements of the wheel and write down anything that came to mind about them. I found as I went on with the exercise that I was finding some peace and relief in naming these things (even when they were troubling) and moving methodically around the circle. The peace was coming from the wheel’s seasonal structure, I think—from the reminder, or realization, that not all development (professional, personal) can fire on all cylinders all the time. There are moments for the body, moments for hard work, moments for healing, moments for non-attachment, and each one is equally necessary. Implementing that is another story, but I think some of my moments alone here, the ones that are actually resetting and calming my brain, have happened because I’ve made space for them within that realization.

Other glimmers of this have appeared through the spring, and they’ve been so necessary. A conductor I adored working with this year because of the joy and rigor in his music-making also turned out to be unusually emotionally plugged-in. I got some amazing advice from him that I’m still turning over: he reminded me that I’m the only one who can decide how I will spend my time, and how I spend my time determines (to some extent) what level I can reach and what I will do. Everything that sucks away time in ways I don’t feel I’ve chosen—every gig of repertoire that’s a bad fit, every administrative mess that should be someone else’s problem—should be reconsidered or put aside. He emphasized that a big part of being able to do this is to quiet the constant critical voices in our heads and look on ourselves with friendly, compassionate eyes; to soothe ourselves after setbacks, rather than catastrophize them and let that overwhelm us, which just leads to more suffering and paralysis.

Equilibrium is a moving target. When one part finally feels balanced, another part has gone out of whack. Sometimes we achieve goals only to realize that our desires have changed. Everything is a trade-off and we can’t have it all. But I think this season is finally convincing me of a few things: 1. I’m stronger than I thought, and 2. I don’t have to have it all. I have a lot of choice over the division of my time and energy–more than many, and that’s an immense privilege. It’s fine to focus, to say no, to leave parts of myself behind, to be un-objective and direct about what I want when I’m sure. It’s fine to want things that not everyone else wants. It’s fine to be indifferent to things other people value. It’s fine if my family and relationships look and function differently than what society expects. It’s fine to be strong sometimes and passive other times. It’s fine to be angry about the state of the world, and it’s fine to take joy in the beautiful moments in the world and in my own life.

Being able to hold all this truth in my head and structure my life around it, if I ever manage, would also be a strength improbably dragged up out of the nothingness of my own depths. Instead, like most people, I’ll probably get it partway out, drop bits back in, end up with depths that are full of crumbs, and still rather enjoy whatever’s left, like a cookie imperfectly pulled from a jar.