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—
after all this, in late March, I cried harder than I had in the entire pandemic.
A worrying subject line 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, unbelieving teenager curled into a ball in a corner of the school library after getting her heart broken for the first time. That ball of 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 repress 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, 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 for the last fifteen months, 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 more time than usual with my husband and a few dear people. I stayed in touch with others on long, rambling calls. I had time to think and 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, daylight was short, and loneliness clamped down hard. I lost interest in the things that usually keep me going, including singing, and instead spent long afternoons on the couch, knitting endlessly and numbing myself with silly shows. My emotions were always close to the surface, but as time went on, it seemed increasingly impossible to explain to friends or even to my husband just how bad I felt. These are textbook depression symptoms, and I couldn’t shake them, and it was sobering to experience what lots of musicians had been feeling all along. 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—a double erasure of identity. Although I’m very comfortable in the Netherlands after many years here, my life 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. At one point, two good friends were ill with Covid at the same time, one local and one distant, and I worried about them both. I texted the Dutch friend to ask if there was anything I could do to help. Could I, say, drop off dinner for his family some night? A lasagna? Americans, back me up here. Bringing a meal to someone going through a tough time is the most fundamental way of showing support, isn’t it?
When the reply eventually came back, it was clearly confused. We have enough food, but, um, thanks?
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 fragmentation and sadness, I didn’t realize I was so close 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 choked on my tears, I genuinely felt that the musical identity I’d spent my whole adult life crafting was falling to pieces. I was stabbed with the panicked certainty that no one cared what I had to contribute, that I would never get back on track professionally, that live performance would never resume, and that life without it would be meaningless.
I’ve hardly ever felt so low.
Don’t worry—things get less gloomy from here. The situation is improving rapidly 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. We’ll all be grappling with the trauma of it for a long time, even in places where vaccination is easing us back into a routine we recognize.
I’ve said plenty about work-life balance on the blog before, but mostly at times when my career was out-balancing other aspects of life—not the other way around. Even in the disoriented 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. Heavens, I had so much drive at first! My concerts were cancelled, but I had songs to sing, people to call, a pianist in my house, plenty of scores. I thought the question was how to maintain resilience and balance in the context of work that existed already, or that I would create. And I did make a lot happen, for sure. 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.
At that point, different and more troubling questions 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 at such a time? How do we keep our resilience and sense of identity in the long term?
These questions poke painfully into very deep fears. I’m not sure I have any particularly wise answers, but 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, we can help heal our broken 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. I received assistance for a few months, but I’ve been paying for it ever since in bureaucratic anxiety and thousands of euros of punitive fines for misinterpreting the Kafka-esque filing protocols. I have friends who are in even worse trouble for accepting help, although the rules remain totally unclear and apparently subjective. The government coalition currently leans center-right, and those in power seem to consider artists considered 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, and even though art, broadly defined, in what got most of us through the darkest days of lockdown. Things are just as bad in the US, though in different ways.
We already knew that the gig economy was a farce, 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 one of the lucky ones; 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) to become web designers, real-estate agents, lawyers- and nurses-in-training, project managers, counselors, and corporate consultants. 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 and opera companies and concert series are continuing to make plans; most are programming extra-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 determined and brilliant friends in artistic planning and management who have been working tirelessly to keep their own and everyone else’s spirits up while steering their ships through stormy waters.
As of June, the mood has changed because of widespread vaccination in my two countries. Halls are re-opening, and dressing room selfies are back with a vengeance. But we’re not out of the woods yet—not by a long shot. The industry is gutted, and individuals are barely getting by. It will be ages before we all feel on firm footing again, if we ever do.
How do we fix this cascade of damage? Build a more robust lobby for the arts? Go back to a private patronage system, like Haydn enjoyed? Become insurance salesmen who compose on the side, like Ives? Move massive resources and talent into early education? Fight for legal protection of all vulnerable un-contracted people—artists, food and service employees, health workers, sex workers, community organizers, laborers in agriculture and construction—who have literally always been necessary in society but have always been punched down by the same shitty politicians?
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 while trying to maneuver a plastic knife into a piping-hot lasagna, elbows askew) And what do you do?
Me: I’m a musician.
PITNS: Oh, lovely! What kind of music? Wait, and that’s really your job? But what do you do the rest of the time? Do you have a manager? How do you actually make a living? Hmm. (digs into lasagna) Wow.
Me: (murmurs inaudibly, hides behind plastic cup of caustic red wine)
It’s confronting to be grilled about our profession. 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. Either way, conversations with strangers have always rattled at our sense of identity. But Lord, 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 find it immensely rewarding and have no plans to stop, but being a professional musician in the Before Times also meant living in a near-constant state of burnout. It meant a tendency to push ourselves all the time, to compare ourselves to others, to think guiltily that we should have practiced more even when weren’t sleeping enough. The general message (culturally, institutionally, and within) 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 can relax into the happy knowledge that we’ve Made It.
That threshold is vague, though. Eventually most performers accept that things probably won’t change that much even if they clear certain goalposts 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 massively disoriented and distressed, even if they were safe from the virus itself, but the change also allowed 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 changed or dissolved them? Were they sufficient then, 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 isn’t new, and it’s a huge problem in modern life. But I’ve noticed a seismic shift in the conversation since Covid began. Over the past year, people at almost every level of the industry have spoken up about vulnerability and mental health in the arts, criticized workplace expectations as toxic and unsustainable, or admitted that the pandemic has changed their beliefs about what’s important. And although there are counterexamples everywhere you look—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, I think, by going on the record about their struggles with mental health.
I’ve noticed a new clarity and decisiveness emerge amongst my closest artist friends, too. 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 changing anything; 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, individually and institutionally, and I’m proud to know them.
If you want to read more stories about musicians re-thinking assumptions or creating cool new pathways this year, here are some I’ve enjoyed, and here’s a whole beautiful series of interviews (directed by my dear friend Renate) with orchestral players about the changes of this year. Many report similar ways of coping: 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 our past selves (if we want to be) via people who have known us a long time; to belong to people we can see and touch; to feel protected. When we grieve, music is one of many things that can help us feel better, but it’s become overwhelmingly clear to me this year that at a moment of collective global trauma and prolonged uncertainty, what we need most is a safety net and a community.
The same week as my meltdown on the train platform, another gig was cancelled. My alarmed husband gently encouraged me to visit home at last.
After so many anguished months of feeling cut off from my native country, it was simultaneously 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 human 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 a KLM 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 rows of advertisements in the airport, the busted city 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, the gray house I grew up in offered its familiar home-smell to my tired nose. 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, rapturously admire the dogwood and azaleas and honeysuckle and lilacs and peonies, and eat mom’s granola for breakfast every morning. The wells of my heart began to refill.
Normally, I only spend only a few days in Chapel Hill before or after a gig. With more time at home, I could tend to old friendships over walks and tacos and impromptu banjo lessons, and even make new ones. My parents are on a mission to clear out ancient clutter, so I did my part by emptying out closets filled with my old books, pictures, mementos, mix tapes, and abandoned craft projects. I remember myself as a particularly awkward misfit of a teenager, but as piles mounted on the floor around me, these objects told a generous, nuanced story of how I grew into the version of me people know today. I smiled at thoughtful comments all over my English papers, earnest journal entries, goofy photos of costume parties and yard games, and a few sweet postcards from the blue-eyed boy of that first heartbreak.
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!'”
The Covid year has been so hard. I’ve felt so alone—work vanished or compromised, identity splintered across many places. But apparently, I’ve spent the year doing the same things I always have: reaching for connection across gaps of time and space and understanding, fumbling sometimes, making things out of words and songs and pictures and food and fiber, freely giving them away. The act of weaving those things into blankets of protection around people I love IS my identity. It always has been. And Désirée’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.
They discuss 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 for trauma, 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 these poor people heal, and the results lasted a year or longer. Numerous other studies support the practice’s effectiveness in treating anxiety and depression.
I was riveted as I listened. I’ve tried meditation numerous times, always at moments when I was overwhelmed and anxious, and a practice has never stuck. But guided breath? A repeatable sequence that can help treat even severe PTSD via simple physiological instructions for the body, no Jedi mind tricks necessary? I loved the idea. It also made intuitive sense to me, because guess what else is a controlled breath practice that aids emotional regulation? Singing. Singers inhale deliberately, optimizing for 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. After reading a lot about the Sky method, I took a course here, and am so glad I did. Even in the short time I’ve been doing the sequence daily, it has helped my sleep, emotional resilience, and feeling of balance, as well as introducing me to a community of lovely people. 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.
Anyway, 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. 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 one of the remarkable things Seppälä says is that 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. Even if you think you don’t like meditation, take fifteen minutes and listen to this sometime when you’re feeling down, and see if the thought of loved ones in a circle of protection around you doesn’t cheer you up.
In addition to all the wisdom she shared about individual emotional resilience, Seppälä also talked about collective mental health in the workplace. There’s a whole new branch of research devoted to this topic called Positive Organizational Scholarship, and it’s exciting to hear Seppälä talk about it: “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.” Other people I hugely respect are talking about this, too. Esther Perel gave a great interview about the unique intersection of work and life during Covid; 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.
Yes! 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 their own bottom line as well as everyone’s humanity at stake.
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. Lisette Oropesa, a singer I usually admire enormously, recently called it “that time of which we will not speak” on social media. Even the memes are returning—the ones about how musicians can’t possibly practice, sleep, and have a social life all at once. God, can we stop and think before we reflexively parrot the same old shit as before? Can we agree that we can’t afford (individually or collectively) to go back to how things were? We’ve lost a huge part of the workforce. Millions are still getting sick and dying around the world. 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. They’re not. They’re emblems of failure, on every level. I’m so glad to be getting back to work—I have plenty of 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 leaving the US, I spent an intense, joyfully 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, and hipster takes on comfort food. Usually, I’m only back in the city for a short work trip, 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 into my days. Nearly everyone had tough stories about the past year, but we connected equally through sadness and joy, and I could feel the scattered parts of my own identity beginning to knit together again at last. 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).
I’ll never forget some sunny hours spent with a dear friend who trusted me with raw grief over a recent traumatic loss. We sat in the grass in Battery Park, crying, laughing, talking about everything. We rode the Staten Island Ferry for no reason. We walked up the western edge of Manhattan and traversed the whole High Line, stopping along the way for haute ice cream sandwiches made by a friend of his. 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 in Rotterdam. Yesterday, I took my time cooking a giant lasagna (of protection?) for my husband’s family. It had been a mixed-up day. We’d tried and mostly failed to do some work around the house; I realized we had gotten yet another €3000 bill related to the botched freelancers’ bailout, and again I felt slapped in the face by a right-wing government. But over dinner in the garden, Dutch and Frisian and English floated around me into the evening sky, and I was calm. I could talk a little about how my work and sense of 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 those, I mostly have them, because I am very lucky—and at last, that’s not only my survivor’s guilt talking.
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.