It was as if the ceiling cracked suddenly, and the light danced all around us, defying all fear or obligation.
why do we mourn so
Let’s set the scene: it’s Saturday, noon is long gone, the rain makes steady music as it plop plop plops on our living room windows, and we are scraping eggs off our mismatching breakfast plates. My body feels calm, grateful, open.
I open the hardware-store paper bag labeled “Seeds We Already Planted” and dump the contents on the dining room table. It’s time to thin some seedlings. Maybe. I’m not sure, because I really don’t know what I’m doing.
I mean, I kind of do – I have a few years of experience under my belt, but honestly, I’ve never bothered to thin the seedlings after planting the seeds. I always just plant the seeds in little pots, and hope for the best. The green bean seedings get all gangly and start twisting all over each other, the snap peas usually shrivel up after producing one or two peas, and the tomatoes fight it out to see which seedling will make it to the big pot.
BUT THIS YEAR WOULD BE DIFFERENT. This year our veggies would be SO ABUNDANT that we wouldn’t even be able to EAT all the food we grew in our garden. The quality and yield would be the best they’ve ever been! We would be vegetable heroes! We, and every single one of our friends, would never have to buy vegetables again! Etc etc goes my brain (notice how my perfectionism leaks into everything, even this gardening hobby, which is supposed to be nourishing and slow).
So, mug of mint tea in hand, I hunker down at the dining room table to thin what’s ready to be thinned.
First, I grab a small plastic pot, labeled “Zuch.” The zucchini seed packet says to thin the seedlings when they get to be about 3”. Perfect! These were around that size. Elated, I carefully wiggled and shook the flimsy pot back and forth until the seedlings came out in a lumpy, wet mess of dirt and green.
At this point, I was feeling like a really good person. You know when your brain just starts telling you how great you are, when you’re doing really simple things like folding the laundry or sweeping the floor? My ego was whispering all this bullshit into my ear, like, “wow look at you, thinning seedlings, you’re such an upright citizen gardener,” and, “it’s so impressive how consistently you are caring for your plants, you should really get an award for your organizational skills,” and “you are truly earning your place in society right now – usually, you’re really quite a failure, but right now you’re coming in for the win.”
But then came the doom.
As I was expertly shimmying the zucchini seedlings out of their pot, I happened to rotate the pot juuuuust a little bit, and there, written in the same silver Sharpie, in my own handwriting, was the word “cauliflow.”
CAULIFLOW?! THIS WASN’T A ZUCCHINI AT ALL. This was a cauliflower seedling DISGUISED as a zucchini. I HAD BEEN READING LAST YEAR’S LABEL. WHY DID I NOT CROSS OUT LAST YEAR’S LABEL. WHAT AN IDIOT.
Panicking, with the sharp acidity of anxiety welling up in my chest, I scrambled to find the cauliflower seed packet, while the cauliflower seedlings and wet dirt languished in a sad pile on the table.
The cauliflower seed packet gave the following directions: “Thin seedlings when they are 4-6 inches in height, with the final spacing of the plants 2 feet apart.”
4-6 inches. I HAD PULLED THESE POOR LITTLE ONES OUT OF THEIR COMFY NEST AT A MERE 3 INCHES. This would absolutely not do. Thinning the cauliflower prematurely by 1 inch would most definitely be the death of them (yes, writing this now, I see the absurdity of that conclusion). I aborted mission. I quickly stuffed a bunch of dirt back into the plastic pot, and nestled the cauliflower seedlings back in there, all four of them. There. They seemed perky still. No harm done.
The anxiety stayed, though. I was now in a fog. I had that feeling you get when you’re in a room with two people who are in a huge fight, and you’re really trying to ignore the situation because you feel like you’re not supposed to be witnessing this ugly conflict, but you’re forced to just remain in the room, because it would be even weirder if you left at this point. That feeling, plus a feeling of being lightly choked, slowly but surely, by someone who really didn’t want me to exist.
I thinned a few other plants – some tomatoes, a few snap peas. Each seedling got its own little pot. Then, it happened.
In my now-disregulated (and thus significantly more clumsy) state, I brought all the seedlings over to the sink to water them. I placed the smaller pots along the edge of the sink, and let the large pot of snap peas sit in the sink to drain. Once the snap pea pot was ready, I hauled it up – too quickly. My elbow collided squarely with the pot of freshly-tucked-in cauliflower seedlings, and they fell, in slow motion, down into the sink. Face down.
The tiny green stems were crushed. They fell from such a high height and couldn’t withstand the weight of the pot and dirt. They had already been ripped out, left out, and replanted in the last half hour. It was too much. They lay there, splayed on the sink bottom, surrounded by globs of soggy potting soil. I tried to reconstruct the pot, but it was no use. The cauliflower seedlings were bent and disfigured beyond repair. They were not going to make it.
At this point, deep grief seeped into my bones. I picked up the four seedlings, so small, so new, so delicate, and slowly carried them to the compost in the palm of my hand. Placing them in the compost was way harder than my rational brain thought it should be. It felt wrong, like these cauliflower seedlings needed a song, a ritual, a funeral march, and not just an unceremonious trip to the compost bin. They were living just a second ago. They were thriving. They were making it in the world. They were so beautiful. And now I was just leaving them to decompose. And worse, it had been my fault. I had killed them.
I’m not sure why I spent so long describing my thinning shenanigans, and not nearly as long describing the grief. The grief was why I chose to come here and write this blog post. But maybe the grief will be a future post. Here are my brief thoughts on it before I sign off for the night:
- Why do we (and by we, I mean American humans) assign so much weight to death as an ending? Why is death not simply a rebirth or a transfer of energy?
- Why do I feel more tangible grief for these cauliflower seedlings than I do when I see news footage of people dying, or of climate change?
- What is it about young things dying that causes so much suffering in us?
- How did these seedlings dying remind me of my abortion 4 years ago?
- Why does it scare us when we realize we are a part of nature, and therefore have very little control over what lives and what dies?
just a small question
are we just walking
our bodies around the block
to prove we exist?
when will we just be?
Will we ever stop trying to improve, and just let ourselves be?
when we choose the same words
I remember the oozing, frothing rage I felt at the scraggly neighbor at the annual block party. Or maybe he wasn’t scraggly, necessarily, maybe he was clean-cut and looked like a relatively normal, early 2000s, ex-hippie dad, but he looked scraggly as fuck to six-year old me. He was a stranger. He was a scraggly stranger who, when my sister fell off her bike and cut her hand, knelt down to touch her hand and ask her if she was okay.
We were all riding our bikes around like hooligans, yelling and laughing and having a great time. As soon as she fell, I stopped my bike and moved towards her, but he got there first. He was paying attention. She wasn’t okay. Maybe she was crying. Maybe she was bleeding. He was the closest responsible adult. He wrapped his arms around her tiny shoulders in comfort, attending to her.
I think, to a passerby, it looked like a friendly neighbor was comforting a child because he happened to be in close proximity, and her parents happened to be somewhere else enjoying the gathering. It takes a village. To a passerby, I didn’t exist in that scene, and I didn’t need to. I was just another kid. I was standing far enough away that I was outside the frame.
To me, though, it was a different scene. I was the sister. I was her Protector, and I was failing. I was frozen, rigid with rage, torn between running as fast as I could to pull our parents away from their conversation, and staying to protect my sister from this monster. I watched in horror as this unknown man put his body and hands on my sister. Boiling lava erupted inside me and ravaged my small chest. I didn’t know how to get in between them, so I just yelled “I’m her sister!” when he asked where her family was, hoping that that would somehow communicate to him that she was taken care of, that there was absolutely no need for him to pay any attention to her.
I think he let go when my mom came over to check on the situation. There was absolutely nothing inappropriate about what he did. He was a kind man filling in as a fatherly figure, and nothing more. I didn’t voice my rage to anybody – it made no sense in that scenario. That intense feeling of anger and powerlessness stayed with me, though, and resurfaced in various moments of my life after that.
This was such a vivid experience that I wrote about it a few of years later in my 2004 journal when I was nine years old. I’ll include it here, complete with all the original spelling and grammar mistakes.
Its like that time Maya fell off her bike at the tallent show. She scraped her knee. She was crying and bleeding. A man ran over. He huged her. He kept hugging her. Boiling hot lava bubbled up, I was mad + afraid. I stood there, riged. I stared. Here, was this man, daring to touch my sister when she was hurt. My mom and dad still hadn’t noticed. I ran to them. “Mommy!” I said, Maya fell off her bike!” This man’s Hugging Maya!” I shouted, well, so the man couldn’t hear. “It’s fine, it’s fine,” my mom said. She didn’t know how I felt. My mom ran over to Maya. She took her out of the man’s arms. A lot of the Hotness stopped then, But I still had enough left to glare at him. I don’t think he noticed I was staring at him.-Siena’s Journal, November 28, 2004
I didn’t look at my original journal entry until after I had written this blog post. I knew it existed, but wanted to wait until after writing my account of what happened to reference my journal. The only thing I got wrong was that Maya cut her knee, not her hand. I think it’s fascinating how my memory of it now differs slightly from my memory of it at nine. How some moments are elongated, some shortened. The things I chose to focus on over others.
The most fascinating aspect, though, is that there are certain words I chose at twenty-seven that are exactly the same as the words I chose at nine:
- boiling lava
- fell off her bike
No, this is how it is
This is how it is: the morning hour, when, alone, I walk barefoot to the bathroom to face myself again. This is how it is: slipping into the small, eastern room to let the oblivious sun envelop me before it fades.
This is how it is: the heavy head tilting towards the kitchen steam, battling shame.
This is how it is: war, when surrender would make for better company.
This is how it is: the hour when, precious and alone, I am not Woman, or Worker, or Teacher, or Separate.
This is how it is: the hour, when, seemingly alone, all I expect of myself is everything.
This is how it is: an intentional prolonging, stretching the illusion of solitude.
No, this is how it is.
i am not special
i am not special
i race to nowhere
i am not special
i hang sunset flowers to dry
in the west-facing window
i am not special
i eat discount applesauce from the plastic bottle
i am not special
i am always looking for reasons to want
what the world can take
moments of feeling
like I am not enough
that I am too much
for this world
I am astounded by
to know anything
about what the world can take
or what I can
Last Tuesday, I put the endless stacks of sheets into the closet. Finally. I’m resisting editing that sentence, even though I know it’s a bad beginning. It’s really a bad sentence in general. But I’m resisting. I want to try writing this piece all at once, badly, just to get something out.
In November I did my one-blog-post-a-day challenge, and it was so fucking hard but it was so fruitful! By the end of the month, there were thirty pieces, all about different things, all written at varying levels of honesty. Almost all of them had something good hidden in them, a little gem, that I will use later. So that challenge was a success. But the problem with challenges is that when they’re over, you can let yourself off the hook. You can say “alright cool beans. I’m tired now. I’m gonna watch Netflix at night instead of forcing myself to pump out yet another blog post. Yay! Celebration! Sigh of relief!” And then you can lie to yourself and say “I’ll write one blog post a week, instead of once a day…but after I take a little break.”
So five months later, here I am! Back at it. Not doing a daily challenge this time, just writing regularly and putting stuff out there.
Just for the record – and fyi, “the record” is pretty much just my overactive need for approval and recognition, things that I mostly need from myself, that I almost never give myself, yay for therapy – I have been writing almost daily in my journal. The first evidence of journaling I have is from 2001 (I was six). My family went to visit my 20-something aunt in California. I remember feeling a strong urge to write in this sparkly purple journal she gifted me. It was so beautiful, so empty. It was waiting. At least I felt like it was. I wrote about seeing the elephant seals sunning themselves on the rocks by the ocean, my handwriting was big and loopy, and I felt this weird satisfaction from being able to write something down in a little book all my own. I liked that nobody but me would ever see it, so I could write whatever I wanted.
I wrote a year later in that journal that I thought my best friend’s father, Les, was “brainwashing my dad.” I think I had never seen my dad agree with anyone before, and the fact that he was nodding along to what Les was saying was shocking to me. I was genuinely angry and afraid for my dad, and I wrote about those feelings in my journal. A “boiling hot feeling” spread through my body. I thought my dad would lose himself completely if he acknowledged any more of Les’ opinions. It wasn’t that Les’ opinions were scary or wrong. It was that I was terrified seeing my dad accept anyone else’s perspective as valid. It wasn’t normal.
To be fair, I had also just watched the Scooby Doo live action movie where most of the characters get possessed and lose control of their bodies, so the fear of being brainwashed was pretty present in my mind.
Then there was my fourth grade teacher. Mr. Baker saw the writer in me immediately, and made it his mission to nurture that identity. He was a writer, and actually encouraged all of his fourth grade students to keep their own journals, and read pieces to the class. Pretty much all I remember of fourth grade was writing writing writing. Every single day, my best friend Sophia and I would be the last to leave the classroom. We were either the most disorganized, or the least concerned about getting out, or the most chatty, or a combination of all three, and Mr. Baker would ALWAYS send us off with a hearty “don’t forget to write!” Every singled afternoon. It stuck. I’ve kept a consistent journal since fourth grade, without fail. So. Much. Material. So. Many. Ridiculous. Stories. So. Much. Processing. I fucking love it.
And since this was originally supposed to be about clutter, I’ll just quickly describe the clutter around me in my office. I did finally put the linens away in my closet. About 8 months ago, I took them out of the closet to organize them into piles – this piles is the towels, this pile is the winter sheets, this pile is the summer sheets, etc. Very exciting. The problem was, once I organized them, I didn’t have shelves to put them on. There are not shelves in the closet, because my partner and I just haven’t had time yet to build them. So I just put the individual piles on this big white IKEA chair that we got from my parents, and left it at that. It was easy to find each thing, at least, but it was terrible because my office was basically one big linen closet all winter.
Last week I decided enough was enough. I was putting the linens back in the closet, organized, shelves or no shelves.
There’s still clutter, though. In the right corner I have all of our house documents, including our deed and other important things, in a folder waiting to be filed, along with piles of music books, a broom for cleaning the upstairs bathroom, CDs that Chris and I have no intention of listening to, paintbrushes, paints, empty photo albums, empty binders, empty journals, and a collection of old calendars from my middle school years.
In the left corner of my office sits a desk that I found on the side of the road in Vermont and toted back to Rochester. Chris and I painted it this awesome eggplant color, and now it’s covered with art magazines that are “weighing down” a collage I made a couple years ago that got a bit curled from our move. There’s also a huge prickly pear cactus that we repotted recently, thinking it would do it some good to have space, only to find that repotting it was a huge mistake. So now it’s in rehab on the purple desk. Then there’s my little blue paper organizer that holds folders of receipts and checks. It’s kind of teetering on a pile of art magazines, just barely staying up. Then there’s piles of envelopes and stamps, also perched on top of the art magazines, that I use to send poetry to my patrons. Then there’s a pile of paper of various thicknesses and colors that I use for art and poetry. And to top it all off, I have a pile of piano teaching materials sitting on top of the art paper pile.
It’s all very overwhelming once I start writing it down. But the thing is, I’m doing the best I can. I actually keep our house pretty well organized. I actually look around me with a fond amusement. I think it’s delightful how messy and in-use my office is. Eventually I’ll create zones and more shelves and blah blah blah. But for now, this is what it is. This is where I’m at. And that’s okay.
The most important shelf in my office is my journal shelf. I have all of my journals, from 2001 to the present, lined up on that shelf. My history, my healing, my process, my trauma, my experiences, my family, my friends, my pain and joys, my core and my wanderings, everything is in those journals. Most of them look different. Most of them I received as gifts. All of them I love and cherish.
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:
- The artistic freedom I possess in my life makes the “suffering” worthwhile.
- 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.
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.
Because I can’t fail. But I can’t keep going like this, either.