On Secrets

I want to give you the full picture I promised.

You have to understand that the full picture isn’t pretty, and does not seem conducive with making money, or receiving more support from the general public. But, I think it’s important to tell the truth somewhere. And since I can’t tell it on social media (I lose followers, shed likes, and lose engagement if my posts are not sunny and hopeful and perfect), I will share it with you here.

Let me back up and set the scene. I’m lying on an ugly couch in my beautiful home, cozy in a big, hooded sweatshirt from the University of Rochester, with a hot water bottle and my cat curled up at my feet. I am safe. I am panicking. There are too many people I have not called back, too many emails I have ignored and let slip into the dank muck of internet memory, too many songs I have not yet recorded, and too many opportunities I have been unable to pay attention to. I am panicking because I am not enough. Or rather, I believe I am not enough.

Two competing ideals vie for attention in my mind:

  1. The artistic freedom I possess in my life makes the “suffering” worthwhile.
  2. I am supposed to be living the dream.

Here it is in a nutshell: my innate musical talent is a gift, and thus I am encouraged to work hard to share it with other people. I practice piano and voice, create arrangements in rehearsals with my band, promote my shows online, haul my keyboard and gear to small bars, give all of my raw energy and passion to performing with my band, collect a couple hundred bucks at the end of the night, distribute the money between band members, and finally drive home, depleted, to start over the next day. I also record my songs, collaborate with audio engineers, book future shows, and maintain a Patreon community.

This is fine. It works for someone who has more tolerance than me and who gets energy from being out. I am very sensitive to noise, though, as well as socializing and being out late at night. Being out depletes my energy.

Then there’s the “making a living” part, which tends to be important for staying alive. I spend 20-30 hours a week making my music career work, not including the hours I spend teaching. Due to my sensitive nervous system, I can play about 3 live shows a month, and leave with $50-$100 bucks in my pocket. I make about $160 a month from my patrons on Patreon. With this income, at the current New York minimum wage of $13.20 per hour, I get paid for only 8 hours of work each week.

Eight. Out of thirty. At minimum wage.

So. It’s becoming clear to me that I’m doing community service when I’m working on my music. Okay. That’s fine. Community service is wonderful. The question is, is it strengthening me or slowly killing me? Is it my fault? The eternal question for everything challenging in our lives.

I don’t have an answer, and don’t think the answer is truly important, but I can at least start to think it through.

Mostly, I just want to be alone and quiet. That desire makes me feel unloveable and broken, and it also makes me feel like a failure of a musician. What musician wants to be alone and quiet most of the time? Living the life of a musician, I am almost never alone, and quiet is not the goal, to say the least. I am rehearsing with my band, or creating relationships online with my fans, or performing for a crowd at a bar who is half listening, half talking, and half numbing the stress of daily life.

These necessary, day-to-day tasks push me far past my limit. I’m so far past my limit that I can’t bring myself to call the people I love back, respond to supportive messages from friends, clean my office properly, or consider new opportunities. I’m at a standstill, trapped in the commitments I’ve already made, but unable to function properly. This is all obvious to me. I can write it out and nod my head and go “yes, I am burnt out.” But it also seems absolutely ludicrous. It’s ridiculous to me that I have such a low tolerance for stimulation, for other people’s experiences, for being out in the world. It seems impossible. I must be capable of more. I just have to bully myself into being capable of more. At least that’s what I tell myself.

We always have to answer to someone, right? I answer to my audience. And until recently, I loved doing it. I reveled in their joy, their excitement. I absorbed their energy and called it mine. But now, when I go onstage, I notice a huge disconnect between how I’m feeling on the inside and how I present to my audience on the outside. I can never go onstage and use my audience for comfort. I can’t go on and say “today has been really fucking difficult and I need some love.” They use me for comfort, not the other way around; that’s how the agreement works. The person onstage provides a respite for the people offstage. I am vulnerable, soft, exhausted in front of my audience. I try to be myself. I try to be open. I hold so much space for them. I bleed myself dry in front of a crowd of people for a couple of hours. The problem is, I cannot hold the same space for myself. At least not at the dizzying rate it would take to counteract the depletion of resources caused by performing. If I can’t love myself, or give myself the space I need to thrive, then the rest means absolutely nothing.

My life force, or energy, or whatever you want to call it, is at an all-time low, and still I push myself to play one more show, to make one more Instagram post, to keep expanding my business. That’s where I’m at, in this precious moment on my ugly couch. That’s the truth. Is this what I’m working for?

I thought I was doing all of this to build a sustainable music career. Simple. If I could gain enough financial and physical support from my fans, then I could relax a little bit and my days would be like a well-oiled machine, rather than the scrabbling rat parade they are now. I work super hard in the present so that I can relax a bit in the future. Tour the world, play big stages, make steady money, hire a team of people to book my shows, run my social media accounts, and market my music. Focus only on the music, not on all the stuff surrounding it.

But.

It turns out I want to be cozy at home with my cats instead of touring the world with my band. So why am I really doing all of this?

Because I am terrified of failing. I’m terrified of not being enough. I’m terrified of letting go.

I have so many questions. As usual.

Why do I try to expand when I can’t yet handle the work I’m currently doing? Why am I trying to build this ‘strong foundation’ when I don’t want, or don’t think I can handle, the life of a touring musician? Is not wanting the same thing as not being able to? Is there a way to do this without martyring myself? Is there a way to do ANYTHING without martyring myself? My therapist tells me there is. She says I need to stop doing third grade work when I’m still in second grade (a clever reference to me skipping second grade as a kid) so that I can succeed instead of drown.

It’s true that I am drowning. In my own ambition. I am trapped in my own skewed sense of self and responsibility.

I’m not supposed to be telling anybody this. I’m supposed to keep up a rehearsed front, in which I am always excited and grateful to be doing what I’m doing, in which I’m always proud of my work, where I consistently advocate for myself with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. I’m exhausted from all the springing and the stepping. I don’t want to advocate for myself anymore. I don’t have the capacity to do it. I just don’t.

I’m actually sick right now, came down with a bad cold. I’ve been sick for days, but I refused to let myself rest until today. I had too many things to do, too many tasks to complete, too many people to answer to.

Why?

Because I can’t fail. But I can’t keep going like this, either.

On Settling

I was born in 1995. I’m smack-dab in the middle of the “Millennial” generation. I grew up on VHS tapes, landlines, and tucked-in turtlenecks, but never used a payphone or a record player. I was taught that I was special, that my unique capabilities and personality made me perfectly suited for…something. Whatever that ‘thing’ was, be it a person, a job, or a lifestyle, I was meant to find it, pursue it, and never settle for anything less.

This ‘thing’ wasn’t supposed to pay my rent, or provide a stable life. Nope. Instead, it would supposedly make me happy. It would fulfill my potential. That was the ultimate goal: to fulfill my potential for joy, for being fully human. This ‘thing’ would make me fully myself.

Settling was supposed to feel like boredom, stagnation, or mundanity. Notice a small lack of passion for your partner? You’re settling. Don’t feel quite right all the time in your job? You’re settling. Doing mundane work that doesn’t seem to have a higher purpose other than putting food on the table? You’re settling.

So yeah. It turns out that “not settling” can be pretty confusing. The “not settling” mentality can keep you from actually living fully. It’s making us more anxious, less happy, and just generally less OKAY. It’s as if we owe it to the world, to the universe, to never settle. Because to do that would be to rob everyone else of our gifts. This messaging is constantly pushed down our throats in ads, Instagram posts, and media, generally aimed at us “snowflake” Millennials:

“Don’t stay in a boring job.”

“Follow your bliss.”

“Find your purpose.”

“Be uniquely you.”

“Never compromise yourself.”

“Your perfect person is out there, you just have to make room for them in your life.”

This shit doesn’t lead to happiness or fulfillment. Because we’re never gonna get there. “There” is always changing. We’re always searching, striving for the next best thing, and we’re never gonna feel present. Not only are we never sure if we’re doing the right thing, because we’re terrified of settling, but we’re also just not attending to the miraculous, ordinary shit that’s happening in our lives.

Then, there’s the constant questioning. It takes a toll. It’s exhausting. It’s anxiety-inducing. As my partner Chris wisely said when I mentioned I was writing this piece, “If you don’t settle for something, you never get to enjoy anything.”

Then, there’s the issue where “not settling” can trick you into thinking that you’re moving on to bigger and better things, when really, there you still are. The same ‘you’ that you’ve been dealing with this whole time. You don’t all of a sudden grow wings and a halo because you move to a different house, or meet somebody new, or create a new online business where you print inspirational quotes on stuff.

And, the more I think about it, the more “not settling” feels like avoiding real connection and growth. If you don’t settle into something, you don’t ever have to compromise. You never grow in relation to another person, or in the context of a challenge. You’re an island. You’re holding out for your “best” self, in the form of the “best” thing outside of yourself. You’re a self-perpetuating carousel.

The real question is not, “Am I settling?”

The question is, “Is there something hurting in me that I need to attend to?”

Here’s the heart of it for me: “not settling” means running away from the mundane. But the mundane moments in my life are what make it all worth it for me. My cat jumping up onto my lap while I practice piano. My partner making us egg sandwiches for breakfast. Drinking a cup of coffee in the morning. Finding a great radio station on a road trip. Listening to a particularly poignant podcast. Looking out into the trees through the big window in my office, forgetting about my to-do list for a second. This is it. And I’m not selling myself short because I actively love, notice, and cherish those things.

From now on, I want to stop avoiding settling. Fuck it. I’m rebelling against all the messaging. I want to be present. I want to be bored. I want to revel in the absolute miracle that we’re here, on this earth, together, and alive. And I don’t want to do it in Bali. I want to do it in my fucking living room.