A friend of mine has given up self-pity for Lent. What a useful idea! It got me thinking about what I could give up that would be helpful. I’ve been obsessed with the idea of giving up for a couple of years. Brent reminds me that most people my age go through a period of assessment. We’re asking questions about whether what we’ve been doing is what we want to continue to do, or at the very least, if we want to keep doing it the same way.
When I moved to Colorado everything I’d been doing for 20 years stopped. I didn’t have a concert schedule, I didn’t have students to sing with, I didn’t have an audience, and I didn’t have the story I’d been living with to define me anymore. My sister-in-law, and probably lots of others, worried I wouldn’t thrive out here. What I experienced, though, was relief. I was anonymous, my weekends were my own, my husband loved doing things with me, and I was happier than I’d been in a long time. After a while, though, an undercurrent began to bubble up. Without performance and students I wasn’t sure who I was. I didn’t know my purpose. And I didn’t know what my life meant. The hardest questions were (and continue to be) if I’m not singing for others than what’s the point of singing? If all I want is the ego gratification of singing for others, what does that say about me? And, if I come to the conclusion that it’s ok for me to want an audience, how am I going to get it and what is the goal? In other words: am I still trying to “make it” in the music business, or is singing for my friends occasionally enough?
I started dreaming about singing professionally in my late twenties, but I had no clue how to get started. I moved to New York City when I turned thirty, then pretty much hid in my apartment because being in the city was terrifying. I didn’t know anyone in the music business, I didn’t have any experience, and I had no plan. All I knew was I wanted to sing. I thought that my wanting to sing combined with the strength of my voice would add up to a career.
Getting somewhere in the music business is like a narcotic: you get a little taste and you want more. With every success I eventually had, I wanted more. When I moved to Colorado and my professional life stopped, I was acutely aware of how much my ego was involved in my need to make it. What I wanted to know was what it would feel like to make music without attention to my ego, without needing my ego to be satiated. What I found out is it’s impossible. My ego is alive and well and needs to be fed just like everyone else’s. What I’ve been trying to learn these last few years is how to balance my need to make music with my need to make it in the music business.
So when Michele told me about giving up self-pity, I told her I was experimenting with giving up in general. I’d been toying with the idea of giving up my dreams for the whole of 2015 just to see what it would feel like. But a year-long commitment was daunting. What if giving up my dreams meant I was dying? I didn’t want to do that. Or maybe it meant I would lose whatever professional momentum I still have? Forty days seemed reasonable. I could give up dreaming for forty days, no problem.
Normally when I sit down to write, or when I sit at the piano or sing, I immediately get caught up in the possibilities of what could happen if I were to do such and such: Maybe I should be singing the blues, or jazz, maybe that’s what I’m meant to do? Or maybe I’ll take piano lessons and practice for hours a day so I can do what Eva Cassidy did, that would work! Or I’d love to finish that book about my songs. There are stories to tell, if I could write them, maybe package the book with a CD, then maybe a publisher would sign me up! It’s not the ideas that are draining me. I love all that. It’s the constant need to make it, to be something more, to get myself on the map. A good friend of mine once confessed to me that she couldn’t stand the idea of not being special. I can’t stand it either. The idea of getting to the end of my life without being a songwriter whose songs are listened to thirty years from now, or whose picture goes unnoticed when the obituary is published, or whose writing is simply average, I don’t like those thoughts. Yet there’s relief in giving up. There’s relief in not trying to make it anymore. So what do I do?
And that’s what this experiment is all about. What do I do when I’m not striving to be more? What’s my day look like? How do I feel?
Turns out I like it. I sleep better, I get more done, I’m easier to live with, and I’m enjoying myself a lot more. Last weekend I even allowed myself to sit and watch Foyle’s War for six hours straight without a moment of high-mindedness or anxiety. Wow! Whenever thoughts of how to make an idea commercially viable come into my head, I ease them out of my mind just like my friend lets go of self-pity. The thoughts come in, then I do my best to set them free.
*Because I am writing a book about my songs, and I do want to finish it some day, songs that are relevant to the ideas in this blog are: "Ah ha ha" and "Running Away" (from Journey) and "Up on the Hill" (from confession). If you're reading this and you have questions about my songs, ask away. You'll be helping me form my thoughts for the book. (Am I dreaming again??)