wells of love, lasagnas of protection
There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.
In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.
There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
In late March 2021, after all the accumulations of the past year—
after mourning the people who died—
after commiserating with friends who lost loved ones—
after adjusting to the loss of most of my income—
after feeling almost unbearable gratitude for the work I managed to do in spite of everything, and the friends who supported that work—
after watching momentous political upheavals across the world on small screens—
after endless vulnerable conversations about how everything, everything, had been changed by Covid—
after making and re-making plans over and over and seeing most of them cancelled anyway—
after laboring for so long to keep my professional mask from slipping, because I knew that everyone in the performance industry was suffering more or less equally, and no one had any answers—
in late March 2021, after all this, I cried harder than I had in the entire pandemic.
A worrying subject line had popped across my phone screen while my husband and I rushed around trying to leave for a train. I shoved my feet into my shoes while scanning the email, and my throat closed. As we hurried up the road together, I tried to explain to him about the gig I had just lost to Covid. We breathlessly approached the station only to see the train pull away in front of us. I faltered, stopped, dropped everything I was holding onto the sidewalk, and began to gasp with ugly sobs.
I sobbed like a choking teenager curled into a ball in a corner of a library after getting her heart broken for the first time. That ball of unbelieving misery was me in the fall of 1999, and my body is permanently imprinted with the sensations of that afternoon, sensations I somehow managed to suppress until the blue-eyed boy who said he hoped I wouldn’t cry was safely out of earshot: a feeling of the universe closing in on me, an unstoppable force fighting its way out of my belly and limbs and face, the porous boundaries of the body collapsing inward and outward simultaneously. In the spring of 2021, on the sidewalk outside the train station, those sensations returned. My husband, green-eyed and unafraid of my tears, could only put his arms around me and wait while I—supposedly a thick-skinned seasoned professional, supposedly immune by now to Covid disappointments—sobbed for half an hour, seemingly without breath, until the next train came.
It was just a gig.
I’ve lost a lot of gigs since this all began. So many people have lost so much more, and I’m lucky, relatively speaking. We’ve all said this constantly since March 2020, our complaints loaded with survivor’s guilt, but we still grieve our losses, whatever they are. Naturally I recognize that I’ve had an easier time of it than many. I haven’t been sick. I haven’t lost any immediate family or close friends to the disease. I enjoyed lots of time with my husband and a few dear people. I stayed in touch with others on long, rambling calls. I had time to think, to be creative. Sam and I recorded an artistically ambitious, startlingly successful album that would have been impossible to prepare in a normal season. There was cooking, yoga, endless coffee, and a new adopted family member: a sneezy, fierce, soft little rabbit called Mochi.
Things had been more difficult since winter began. After the excitement of the album release and an unexpected debut with the Concertgebouw Orchestra (which I sang because—gulp—a colleague became seriously ill), I crashed. Everything was canceled, lockdown restrictions were severe, and loneliness clamped down hard. I lost interest in the things that usually keep me going, including singing. My emotions were always frighteningly close to the surface, but as time went on, it seemed increasingly impossible to explain to anyone just how bad I felt. All the critical success of the album—a project I’d poured my whole self into—felt distant, because it literally was, and the wells of my heart (as in the Hafez poem I quote above) felt emptier with every passing week.
Losing work is hard enough, but losing work as an immigrant is harder, I think—it’s a double erasure of identity. Although my Dutch life is very comfortable, it began to seem foreign to me as the pandemic wore on, as if I was looking at myself through the wrong end of a telescope. It felt like my assimilation into this culture was moving backwards: I felt lost, unable to relate to anyone. There was a week when two close friends were ill with Covid at the same time, one local and one distant. I texted the Dutch friend to ask if there was anything I could do—like, could I bring an easy dinner over for his family some night? A lasagna, maybe? Americans, back me up here—bringing a meal to someone having a rough time is the most fundamental way of showing support, isn’t it?
When his reply eventually came back, it was clearly confused. Um, we have plenty of food, but thanks, I guess?
I laughed, then sighed. Not only was the world falling apart—I couldn’t even offer help in a way that made sense culturally.
Despite all this disorientation, I didn’t know how close I was to a real breaking point. On that day in late March outside the train station, the loss of one more gig unglued me entirely. As I wept, I genuinely felt that the identity I’d spent my whole adult life crafting—professional and personal—was falling to pieces. I was stabbed with panicked certainty that no one cared what I had to contribute, that I would never get back on track, that live performance would never resume, and that life without it would be meaningless.
I’ve hardly ever felt so low.
Don’t worry—this post gets less gloomy from here. The situation is improving in the two places I call home (the Netherlands and the US), and my calendar and heart are filling back up. But it seems important to try to address what this year has changed for me and for many musicians, especially since I’ve hardly been able to write about it until now. It’s been too big.
I’ve said plenty about work/life balance here before, but always at times when my career was out-balancing other aspects of life—never the other way around. Even in the spring of 2020, as I wrote about performance and love and vulnerability, I had no idea what was ahead, what a shattering of identity we were all in for. I had so much drive in those first Covid months! Gigs were cancelled, but I had a pianist in my house, plenty of scores, long brainstorming sessions with friends. I thought the question was how to maintain resilience and balance in the context of work that existed or that I would create. I did create a lot of work, for sure—notably, the album with Sam, one of my proudest achievements to date—but with little in-person feedback or institutional support, I eventually ran out of energy in the face of circumstances that only got worse as the months ticked by.
Different and more troubling questions then emerged. How can we be OK when we’re NOT at work? How do we define ourselves, find meaning and structure, when the thing we’ve been doing so passionately for so long, this thing that drove all our choices and pressured us to prioritize it over everything else, goes away? How do we support ourselves and each other? How do we keep our resilience and sense of identity in the long term?
These questions poke painfully into very deep fears. Over a long quiet winter, I sat still and listened to many smart people talk and write about them, trying to make sense of my own distress. Although things are improving, I don’t want to let the moment slip away without trying to find some words of my own for how this has actually felt. Our collective trauma can’t be forgotten instantly, and it shouldn’t be. As we heal individually, maybe we can help heal our ailing industry, too.
It’s impossible to talk about the pandemic’s effect on the arts and artists without talking about money.
Early on, the Dutch government hastily organized a bailout scheme for freelancers called TOZO. Friends abroad cited the Netherlands as a happy example of a country supporting its artists during a crisis, but to make a long story short, it’s been a Kafka-esque nightmare, and it made me feel not only poor but virtually worthless during a period of under-employment. The politicians currently in power seem to consider artists inessential, elitist, self-aggrandizing hobbyists who rely on handouts to avoid doing real work—even though “culture” is one of the Netherlands’s main exports and a major part of the economy—even though I’ve spent my whole adult life working extremely hard and earning a decent living from music—and even though art, broadly defined, in what got most of us through the darkest days of lockdown.
Things are worse in the most parts of the U.S.
I knew how unstable the gig economy was, but the pandemic has made it clearer than ever how little safety net there is for anyone (in any field) without a fixed contract. I’m lucky: my husband kept his salaried job, and we have a modest mortgage. Some colleagues have been in tighter spots, and my heart aches for the sacrifices people have had to make to stay afloat—needing to sell their homes or instruments, for example. Numerous colleagues have fled the profession because they can’t afford to wait it out, or because they’re hopeless about the future. The field is hemorrhaging talent.
The picture is a tad brighter when you zoom out from the individual to the project or institutional level. I got a couple grants for my album, and other cool projects have also received support and attention. Orchestras, opera companies, and concert series are continuing to make plans. Most are programming conservatively, panicking about their shrinking donor bases, but a few are being adventurous, trying to tackle larger issues in the industry, using this moment of change as an opportunity to address long-standing problems of access and discrimination. I have several determined and brilliant friends in artistic planning and management who have tirelessly kept their own and everyone else’s spirits up and continued their work despite enormous challenges.
As of June, the mood has changed because of widespread vaccination in my two countries. But we’re not out of the woods yet. The industry and many individuals are gutted. No matter how things felt before the pandemic, almost every artist I know has wondered this year if they can even call themselves an artist when there’s no work.
Which brings me to the larger question, for those of us fortunate enough to not have to worry about meeting basic needs (already a massive privilege, I know): identity.
Setting: A Plane. Economy Class. The Before Times.
Person In The Next Seat: (smiles and cuts into piping-hot lasagna in a little plastic box, elbows askew) And what do you do?
Me: I’m a musician.
PITNS: Oh, lovely! What kind of music? Wait, that’s your job? But what do you do the rest of the time? Do you have a manager? And you actually make money? How do you even spend your time? But…? Hmm. (digs into lasagna) Wow.
Me: (murmurs inaudibly behind a plastic cup of red wine)
It’s always been confronting to be questioned about our performer jobs. Either we’re put on someone else’s pedestal (“I LOVE Phantom!”) or it’s assumed that we’re delusional, because no one could actually make a living playing music. How much more confronting are these conversations today? What does being a musician even mean right now?
Well, it’s always had its problems. I have no plans to change careers, but being a professional musician in the Before Times meant living in a near-constant state of burnout. It meant a tendency to push ourselves unreasonably, to measure our self-worth by others’ accomplishments, to think guiltily that we should have practiced more even when weren’t sleeping enough. The general message (culturally, institutionally, and internally) is that we should be grateful to do this work at all, so we bide our time, hoping we eventually reach some magical turning point when we’ve Made It.
That threshold is vague. Eventually most performers accept that circumstances probably won’t change that much even if they achieve certain markers of success. Some people settle in and make the career work on their own terms; some transition into music-adjacent fields, or out of the arts altogether; some find ways of balancing performance with other jobs. But there are also people who can’t face the idea of “quitting,” because it would trigger a complete identity collapse. Those folks never dare to slow down or question whether their life in music is what they hoped, if their work gives them satisfaction and comfort, why they wanted it so badly, and what they’re trying to prove.
Until Covid. Suddenly, the fast-moving train ground to a halt. Everyone was thrown, but the change allowed some people the space to ask questions too scary to ask before, like:
If the unexpected time apart from my normal pace and routines is a relief instead of a burden, what does that mean?
How did I set boundaries before Covid? Were they sufficient, or did I constantly feel overstretched? Are they better or worse now? How can I set healthier ones, now and later?
What are my outlets for creativity, validation, and a sense of purpose aside from my work?
What people and places do I long for most when the shit hits the fan? Who can I actually call on the phone without it being weird? Who is physically nearby that I can visit when I need live human company?
Why is it only during a global catastrophe that it feels possible to talk about the intersection of work and mental health?
Burnout is a huge problem in modern life, not just among musicians. But I’ve noticed a seismic shift in the conversation since Covid began. People at almost every level of the arts industry are speaking up about vulnerability and mental health, criticized industry expectations as toxic and unsustainable, or admitted that the pandemic has changed their beliefs about what’s important. And although there are plenty of counterexamples—the pandemic has reinforced lots of existing fears and power imbalances—there’s progress in other fields, too. Naomi Osaka and Meghan Markle have both done the world a service by going on the record about their struggles with mental health; conversations are becoming easier.
I’ve noticed a new clarity and decisiveness emerge amongst my closest artist friends. One ended a toxic work relationship after years of abuse; another gave up an unsatisfying job and started an ambitious cultural project of her own; another was finally able to lessen his dependency on others’ approval; another vowed to stop accepting work from organizations that pay lip service to “diversity” without actually committing to change; several have re-prioritized being present with loved ones after years of distance. At a moment when major change is more possible than usual, people I know are making it, and I’m proud to know them. Here’s a whole beautiful series of interviews (directed by my dear friend Renate) with orchestral players about how they’ve gotten through the year, and many report similar coping methods: service, family, exercise, rest, therapy, teaching, political action, music at home for its own sake.
The human connection that comes from performance is thrilling and genuine, but it’s not enough to sustain us on its own. We all have certain elemental needs: to stay connected to ourselves, our histories and loves; to see and touch loved ones in person; to feel protected. When we grieve, music is one of many things that can help us feel better, but at a moment of collective global trauma and prolonged uncertainty, what we all need most is a safety net and a community.
The same week as my meltdown on the train platform, another gig was cancelled. My calendar gaped emptily for months ahead. I was a mess. My alarmed husband gently encouraged me to visit the US, at least, if I could do nothing else.
After feeling cut off from my native country for so long, it was both thrilling and mundane to book my first flight in a year. A few weeks later, I sat on an uncrowded plane, marveling at the miracle of air travel, taking pictures of clouds, smiling at the blessed banality of the captain’s soothing announcements from the cockpit, and trying to decide if it was worth the small Covid risk to pull off my multiple masks and wolf down an airline lasagna while the Atlantic unspooled miles below.
Reader, I ate the lasagna.
East Coast daylight has a different quality and temperature than Dutch daylight, and as the plane descended into JFK, I couldn’t stop looking out the window—that particular blue of the sky was home, as was the curtain of noise and humidity in the jetbridge, the abrasive advertising in the airport, the busted New York infrastructure of potholes and gum-spackled train platforms and crooked street signs. Some time later, after a huggy reunion with my parents in a North Carolina parking lot, I walked in the door of my childhood home and smelled the familiar home-smell I’d missed for so long. I had my first vaccine shot the next day. For several weeks afterward, I did little besides lounge on the porch swing, drink coffee, talk quietly, admire the dogwood and azalea and honeysuckle and lilac and peony in riotous spring bloom, and eat mom’s granola for breakfast every morning.
My parents are on a mission to de-clutter the house, so I did my part by going through my old books, pictures, mementos, mix tapes, and abandoned craft projects. I remember myself as a particularly awkward misfit of a teenager, but my old stuff told a generous, nuanced story of how I grew into myself. I smiled at thoughtful comments on my English papers, earnest journal entries, goofy photos of costume parties and yard games, and even a few sweet postcards from the blue-eyed boy of that first heartbreak. (Bless our little confused teenage hearts!)
The most special discovery was a letter my high-school choir director had written to me before I left for college. (You reading this, Désirée?) She wrote of how I had helped and inspired her in her tough first years teaching, and she waxed poetic about my potential contributions to the field if I decided to choose music as a career. If I did, it wouldn’t be easy, she warned me: “I wish I could tell you that it’s all pure fun and light-hearted, but the very fact that it is not is one of the deeply moving aspects about it. I know that you already understand this. You will make the right choices for yourself, and I can’t wait for the ‘rest of your life!'” I’ve burst into tears rather often in the last year, but after reading her words, it was from happiness, a feeling of a missing part of myself recovered, fitting back into place with the rest as I sat cross-legged on the floor of my childhood bedroom surrounded by piles (to keep, to give away, to recycle) of my past selves.
The Covid year has been so hard—identity splintered, work and purpose gone. But I realized that I’ve spent this hard year doing the same things I always have: reaching for connection across gaps of time and space and understanding, making things out of words and songs and pictures and food and fiber, freely giving them away, showing love any way I can. The act of weaving those things into blankets of protection around people I love IS my identity. It always has been. And my former teacher’s letter made it clear that it’s no accident that I went into music, because music is the richest love language I know.
Did you know that there’s a sprawling field of scientific research into human happiness? There is.
On a long solitary drive through the Carolinas, I listened to an episode of a podcast called Ten Percent Happier featuring the scientist Emma Seppälä. I completely recommend the entire lively interview, which was recorded about a year into Covid.
She discusses three broad categories of ways humans can feel better when things get tough.
First: Breath. Seppälä talks about a study she led of war veterans suffering from PTSD. The study compared several treatment methods, and the best results by far came via a practice called Sky Breathing. It was more effective than traditional mindfulness training or pharmaceutical drugs in helping people heal from trauma-related anxiety and depression, and the results lasted a year or longer. I was riveted. Meditation doesn’t come easily to me, but guided breath? A repeatable sequence of simple physiological instructions for the body, no Jedi mind tricks necessary? I loved the idea. Guess what else is a controlled breath practice that aids emotional regulation? Singing. Singers inhale in a measured and deliberate way, optimizing elasticity and response time. We exhale audibly, phonating on specified pitches for specified durations. No wonder I felt worse this year when I sang less; no wonder yoga (also a breath practice, among other things) helped me plug the gap a little. I ended up taking a Sky course, and it immediately helped my sleep, emotional resilience, and feeling of balance, and the benefits have stuck. Simpler practices are also clinically effective, it turns out—like deliberately lengthening your exhale: breathe in, two, three, four; breathe out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Repeat for a while. Anyone can help themselves by doing that.
Breath was just the first of the elements discussed.
Second: Nature. Having a plant in your house helps you feel better—even having a PICTURE of a plant helps. But being outdoors and unplugging from your devices increases creativity by 150% on average after a few days.
Third: Connection. The data is clear: loneliness is more hazardous to us than smoking, obesity, or high blood pressure; strong social connection increases longevity and immune function and basically every other metric of human health. Of course Covid has made connection difficult, but apparently its benefits don’t even depend on physical contact with others—or any contact at all. Happiness can be improved by just THINKING about others in a positive way or doing acts of service or kindness, even anonymously to strangers.
In addition to all this actionable information about emotional resilience, Seppälä also discussed collective mental health in the workplace. There’s a whole new branch of research devoted to this topic called Positive Organizational Scholarship, and what she says about it is exciting: “they’re finding that those organizations characterized by compassionate leaders, positive interactions, and cultures that are characterized by forgiveness, by trust, by integrity, by humility—they do way, way better than traditional organizations. They are really the workplaces of the future. Not many people know about this research yet, but they will. And over time, organizations will become better and happier places that have employees that are happier, and therefore families that are happier and healthier.” Many people are talking about these things nowadays. Esther Perel gave a great interview about the intersection of work and life during Covid and how it has impacted people’s mental health; she’s been busy all year consulting with companies about how to improve work culture in the long term, using what we’ve learned during the pandemic as a jumping-off point to create more humane and productive business models.
Jazz hands! Can we please fast-forward to a time when ALL businesses big and small—tech giants, nonprofits, restaurants, universities, opera companies—embrace the science and become less ruthless and exploitative? It’s not only everyone’s humanity at stake, but their own bottom line.
As our worlds re-open, lots of musicians are trying to put the pandemic behind them socially and professionally. I get it—I’m tired of Covid, too! But I worry about the erasure of not just our trauma, but our growth. We can’t afford to forget what this year has taught us. We can’t afford (individually or collectively) to go back to how things were. If we charge forward relentlessly as though nothing has happened, all the toxic patterns in our industry will slip back into place, too, and we’ll miss a once-in-a-lifetime chance to challenge them.
We must stop fetishizing being overworked, under-supported, exploited by brilliant people who are terrible bosses, and obsessed with perfection, as if those are emblems of success. In fact, they’re emblems of failure, on every level. I’m so glad to be getting back to work—I have beautiful music to learn, emails to write, rehearsal schedules to arrange. But already I find myself struggling not to fall back into familiar patterns of anxiety. I have to keep reminding myself that the elemental needs I’ve reclaimed space for this year—community, safety, rest, space, breath, family, autonomy—ARE NOT SPECIFIC TO A CRISIS. These are things we all need, all the time.
Before returning to the Netherlands, I spent a joyful, sun-soaked week in New York—a blaze of reunions, picnics, wine on porch stoops and roof terraces, ever-shifting Hudson and East River views. New York was my home for many years, but typically when I go back for short work trips, I’m usually jet-lagged, over-scheduled, worried about vocal stamina. This time, I threw myself head-first into friendships and hugs and long conversations, as many as I could fit in. Nearly everyone had tough stories about the past year, but we connected through both sadness and joy. It was hard to pull myself away at the end of the week, and I cried over my last bagel before heading to the airport (whole wheat everything, toasted, whitefish salad, red onion & tomato; god, it was perfect).
In particular, I’ll never forget some precious sunny hours spent with a dear friend who trusted me with his raw grief over a recent loss. We sat in the grass in Battery Park, crying, laughing, talking about everything. We rode the Staten Island Ferry just because. We walked up the western edge of Manhattan and traversed the whole High Line. That day, I learned the beautiful Hafez poem quoted at the top of the post.
There are different wells within your heart. … In one well you have just a few precious cups of water, that “love” is literally something of yourself, it can grow as slow as a diamond if it is lost. Your love should … be offered … only to someone who has the valor and daring to cut pieces of their soul off with a knife then weave them into a blanket to protect you.
How lucky are were to have each other? To have so much love in our lives, past and present? To know what it feels like to be offered a blanket of protection (musical or otherwise) made from the fabric of someone else’s soul?
I’m home again—the home that’s Rotterdam. Yesterday, I slowly prepped a lasagna (of protection?) for dinner with my husband’s family. It had been a mixed-up day. We’d tried and mostly failed to do some work around the house; we’d gotten yet another €3000 bill related to the botched TOZO freelancers’ bailout, and again I felt slapped in the face by a conservative government. But in the garden, over our food, Dutch and Frisian and English quietly floated into the evening sky, and I was calm. I could talk a little about how my work and purpose were slowly returning. I spontaneously made a batch of cookies for dessert.
The past year has taught me what I need most, actually: community, rest, breath, close friendships, a way to serve, an outlet for my creativity, and a safety net (governmental or otherwise). When I’m deliberate about ensuring those, I have them, because I am very lucky. Finally, when I say that, it’s not only survivor’s guilt talking, but genuine full-throated gratitude.
Oh, and the gig? The one I cried over at the train station?
I have that, too.
It got restructured—shorter, leaner, Covid-proof.
The crisis in the arts is far from over, but (fingers crossed!) I’ll still get to sing music I love next season with people I adore.
Ellen HenchJune 23, 2021 at 10:47 am
Katharine, what a wonderful share! I love following you and your music and life journey, and once again, feel blessed that Allen and I got to host you way back when in Charlottesville. You have a true gift of writing as well as music and I appreciate your honesty, compassion, and willingness to take the time and thought to enrich others with your experiences, thoughts, struggles, and insights. Take good, good care and please keep singing and writing!
AbbyJune 23, 2021 at 4:01 pm
So much love, wonderful friend. Thank you for sharing this.
Sophie KerssemakersJune 24, 2021 at 6:18 am
Katharine, thank you. Your story – that I will certainly re-read many times – made me feel how raw I am with covid loss but that there are ways out. Longing now for blankets and lasagna. I wish you well and i hope you may stay close to what you have discovered in your heart to be true.
YasminJuly 4, 2021 at 4:25 pm
I wish I could be a drop in one of your wells… love you!
CelesteJuly 5, 2021 at 8:02 pm
This is beautiful, Katharine, and felt deeply relevant to my own experience in the last year and a half. Thank you for sharing in such an eloquent and meaningful way–hoping there are more conversations and collaborations for us in the future!