I’ll take inspiration wherever I can get it, even if it’s from a crappy car stereo and a couple of barking dogs

I have no logical excuse for the sparsity of my blog posts this summer. I’ve basically been on vacation the whole time, which sounds extremely lazy, but judging by the number of TV shows I have binge-watched and Pinterest recipes I have tried, I’ve clearly had a lot of time on my hands. Time during which I could have been writing blog posts. Time which I chose to spend studying for the GRE (which I took two weeks ago, praise be to Zeus), sleeping, and sometimes running. Yeah, I run now, go figure. Never would have called that one myself, yet here I am, with a pair of fancy expensive running shoes and I actually get legitimately antsy on days when I don’t get some kind of exercise in. Literally shocking. Anyway, please don’t hate me for A) not updating this blog as often as I should, and B) subsequently bragging to you about how much “nothing” I’ve been doing all summer when you probably have a real job taking up all your time. Feel free to close your browser window now if I’ve offended you.

Okay, onto today’s post. Now that I’ve crossed the GRE off my summer checklist, my brain has had a lot of time to do what it does best: freak out. I’ve been feeling pretty anxious lately, mostly about self-centered, aimless twentysomething problems. What if my third year at my job isn’t as good as I’m expecting it to be? What if my girls hate me this time? What if I don’t get into grad school? What if I do get into grad school but have no way to pay for it? My head has been a jumble of all these things, plus countless others, in the recent days. I lie in bed at night, listing off the ways I could potentially screw up my life, or reasons the path I’ve chosen for myself won’t work out. I wake up in the morning and add more items to the list. Then, because I feel a toddler-style meltdown coming on, I try to remind myself that I just have to keep living my life and things will work out.

But, sorry, today that shit just wasn’t working for me.

Truthfully, my usual creative outlet of writing has been rather difficult lately. A professor once told me never to delete anything you write, so I’ve got a handful of half-written stories, essays, and blog posts on my computer from this summer alone, but none of them have seemed worth finishing right now. Even my tiny notebook that I carry with me in my purse so I can write down sudden bursts of inspiration or topics I want to explore has proved useless recently. And when I sat down today, my mind a jumble of worries and my stomach in knots, writing just wouldn’t happen. I browsed my half-written pieces, my list of funny quips and phrases I had hastily jotted down in my notebook, but nothing came of those. And I couldn’t sit still, just staring at these fragments of thoughts. I knew I should force myself to do it, but what can I say, I’m weak.

So I got in my car. I didn’t have anywhere specific I needed to go, but I wanted to drive. When I’m at school and need to get away, the nice part about going “into town” is that I have a 20 minute drive between me and my destination during which I can clear my head, sing along with the car radio, sob quietly to myself, or just decide where I’m actually going. But when I’m at my parents’ house, there are no country roads between me and the nearest Walgreen’s. I can’t drive for awhile without more or less planning out a route. My family always jokes that you can get anywhere in town in ten minutes or less, and sure, that convenience is nice when you’re in a hurry most days. But today, I was longing for the twisty, two-lane highway drive that I had taken so many times with no real purpose. I wanted to drive for awhile and maybe just end up at Lake Michigan. But that wasn’t an option, so I decided to take the highway to the south of town, because, well, what else was I going to do?

I ended up at Target. Go figure. I wandered around, bought some nail polish and a shower cap (don’t ask me why), and then realized I had no other reason to be there. I got back in my car, closed my eyes as I scrolled through my iPod for a new album to listen to, and when I opened them, one of my favorite Andrew Bird songs started playing. It seemed like a sign, so I took a deep breath, got back on the highway, and drove. I turned the volume up and let the soaring strings and plucky interludes soak into my ears. The music swelled and filled up my whole car, and nothing else was in my head but those sounds and how perfect they were. Suddenly, I no longer had a painful knot in my stomach, and my fingers had ceased their relentless tapping on the steering wheel. Maybe it’s the fact that music is rarely absent from my life, but I guess I had forgotten the power of the perfect song at the right moment. And as the song faded out, I felt more at peace than I had in quite awhile.

Eventually, I got home and I was greeted by the familiar barking of two excited dogs. I watched their eyes light up as I walked in the door and I let them jump all over me, thrilled that I was merely in front of them. I don’t believe in god, but if I did, I would have thanked him right then for creating animals who, no matter what you have going on in your life, will always look at you with the same joy and enthusiasm when you return home to them. It’s such a perfectly predictable expression of love. I wish I could think like a dog more often. Then maybe days like today wouldn’t seem as overwhelming.

So, while I went for a drive hoping that rolling the windows down and getting out of the house might clear my head, or that I would find inspiration somewhere new and exciting, what really ended up saving my afternoon was two things that have always been around in my life. And tonight, maybe I’ll feel anxious again while I try to fall asleep. Maybe I’ll lie awake, wishing I could remove my brain from my head just to get some peace and quiet. But right now I just feel grateful that I was able to sit down and write this post, finally. And it’s all thanks to a Bird and some dogs. I guess sometimes inspiration can come from the most routine parts of your life.

look at this goober.

look at this goober.

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“every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied”

I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on relationships lately. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Josh Ritter, my favorite singer-songwriter. For some reason, during a routine listening session recently, the following line in his song “Kathleen” stood out to me, more than it ever had before: “Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied.” Though I had heard this song countless times before, I finally really listened to this line, and I stopped what I was doing and thought, Damn. This guy’s got it completely right.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been struggling with a few of my own personal relationships lately, or maybe I’ve just never fully understood the weight of Ritter’s words before now. But I started thinking about the knots that had been tied around my heart and who had tied them. Beginning a relationship with another person, be it romantic or just a friendship, involves a certain amount of trust. You are agreeing to let them see the vulnerable sides of you, the ugly sides that you sometimes can’t control. You are also agreeing to let them have a permanent impact on your life. You will make memories with them, you will be connected with them in some way for the rest of your life. Yet when we form relationships, we don’t think of it in this deep, heavy way. When I meet someone new, my first thought isn’t You are going to make a lasting impact on my heart, am I ready to let you? That would be weird. But it is funny to think about how seriously our relationships with other people impact our lives. For some people, one failed relationship can mean a whole string of other relationships that lack trust and honesty. For others, a solid relationship can make the rest of life seem to fall into place. For me personally, a couple rejections and “friend zones” have given me many insecurities about entering into relationships.

When I love someone, I love them completely. I invest so much of myself into the relationships I make with people, romantic or not, and sometimes, I let my feelings dictate my actions more heavily than I should. I can’t help it, I just love deeply. But that sometimes complicates things or leaves me disappointed. Not everyone can commit so fully to relationships like I do — it would be weird if they did. It’s how I love, and I can’t change that about myself. I think sometimes I feel stupid about it because we are often taught not to be the one who loves the “most” in any given relationship. It means you are weak, or clingy, or dependent, or any other negative adjective that describes a person who can’t function without others. I hate that. Just because I really love someone, I’m the weaker person in the relationship? I agree that there is a healthy level of attachment for a human being to have, and when you become too fixated on yourself in relation to someone else, then something needs to change. But I don’t believe we should ever think less of ourselves based on how much we love.

When you love someone, you are allowing them to tie knots around your heart. You are also, in turn, tying your own knots for them, but blindly. You don’t know how your knots are going to affect the shape of their heart or the ability for them to love others. You just do it anyway. I don’t think a heart can ever be a perfect package, with a single string tying it all together simply. Maybe, depending on the nature of the relationships you form, the knots on your heart aren’t very tangled. Maybe they are, but someone else will come along and be able to slightly detangle them while gingerly adding their own knots on top. Maybe you’ve closed your heart off enough so that no one else has been able to tie any knots in a long while.

I think right now, my knots are a mess. I’ve tried to untangle them with my mind, analyzing and criticizing my own relationships, each knot in relation to the others, but it just made the problem worse. And maybe someone else came along and tried to untangle the mess I had already made, but the knots just turned into a bigger, more condensed knot. It won’t ever go away — it’s like the knots are tied from some permanent material — but I can choose how I’m going to let those knots affect the rest of my relationships. It doesn’t matter that it’s not all a nice, neat package. All that matters is that I have space for new knots to be tied.

how a cheap ukulele made me learn to love music again

I’ve been an artist my entire life. When I was a child, I painted without worrying what the outcome would be. I put on plays that didn’t have an ending and made my family watch them. I sang songs and built cities out of the set of wooden blocks in my basement. My parents surrounded me with ways to create, to grow as a young artist. I explored, I performed, and I learned.

As I progressed into adolescence, I discovered my love for theatre. As a shy, introverted kid, I was intoxicated by the ability to be someone else onstage. I loved the smell of stage makeup, the warmth of the lights beating down on the heavy costumes I had to wear. I found people who were like me in the casts I was part of, and finally it seemed normal to be the artistic kid, who chose late night rehearsals over sporting events, script memorization over making out in someone’s car, and cast parties over trips to the mall. Theatre was essential in helping me discover who I was.

I finally chose an art form that I knew I could cultivate well into my adult life when I decided to focus on singing. Choir was my safe place and voice lessons were my release. I knew this was something I could do for years and years and not tire of it. I chose my college and future career path based on this (which you probably read about earlier). I loved it. I had tried other instruments — the clarinet, the bane of my existence until ninth grade, and the piano, with which I had a love/hate relationship — but nothing compared to the power of the human voice. So I went on to study classical voice in college as an innocent, fresh-faced 18 year-old. I sang all the standard Italian songs and arias, I tried to fit my voice into the operatic mold that my school expected me to adhere to. I loved singing, but I realized that I loved singing for myself, and not for others. That was when I started falling out of love with it.

I’ve been struggling a lot lately with what it means to be an artist. Naturally, at a school like the one I work at, this question comes up a lot, both among the young artists I mentor and my coworkers/friends, many of whom have artistic backgrounds themselves. What does it mean to devote your life to an art form? How do you find a balance between artistic fulfillment and personal achievement? For me, artistic accomplishment and professional recognition were never the goal (which is probably why I chose the music education path, but that is a separate topic). Sure, it was great to hear from a professor that I had come long way on the Liszt piece I had been rehearsing for two semesters, and when I got a callback for the top choral ensemble at my school, I did feel like all my hard work was being recognized. But I wasn’t in it for the success of it all. I was in it because I loved singing.

I will always love to sing — that part will never change. But I lost sight of why for awhile, especially toward the end of my college career. As I began to realize that teaching wasn’t the profession for me (again, a topic I’ve explored previously), I also stopped using music as my form of release. As a college student, I sang. Every. Single. Day. I went to rehearsals, I practiced my voice repertoire, I sang in the shower. When I graduated, I lost that commitment to my art. I no longer had a “reason” to sing, because I wasn’t preparing for a recital or a concert. And I realized that all I really knew how to do was stand in front of a piano and sing an aria. And even then, that wasn’t what I was happiest doing. I think I knew all along, all throughout my college experience, that classical voice wasn’t where I fit. I wasn’t an opera singer. I would much rather sing something I connect to, that holds real meaning in my own life, than a bunch of French words I can barely remember how to pronounce.

About a year ago, I picked up the ukulele. I bought a relatively inexpensive one since I wasn’t even sure I would like it. I started learning basic chords and practicing strumming and singing along. I taught myself easy songs and I started listening to my own voice again. It made me happier than any form of music had in a very long time. I had taken quite a bit of time off from singing and making music, and suddenly, I remembered why I loved it in the first place. I played for myself, not for others, and I just did it for fun. That was what I had been missing. Such a simple, easy instrument suddenly added life to my musical identity again. I loved it. I still do.

But I do continue to fumble with what it means to be an artist for me here, right now, at this point in my life. I don’t stand in front of my studio class and spout out a bunch of German every week anymore, and I don’t have specific songs to practice and memorize. Nothing I work on is culminating in some big performance, where I will be publicly recognized for my work. I don’t do anything musical because I have to do it. I do it because I want to. Does that make me less of an artist? No. Does it still make me feel like I should be working toward something concrete? Absolutely.

I got a mandolin for Christmas. (If you don’t know me well, I’ll just tell you that the mandolin has been one of my favorite instruments for a long time and I greatly admire any person who can play it.) I am slowly but surely learning to play it. Sure, it would be great if I could eventually become good enough to jam with my friends here (because currently all my skills allow me to do is strum occasional chords on the uke and throw in some harmonies…) but I am in no rush. I’ll learn it as I go, it’s just great to have something new to work on. And when I get upset or frustrated or tired, I can pick up my uke and remember how it feels to love doing something. Music has become a much more personal thing for me, and I think I’m finally realizing that. And while I miss the discipline and focus I once had as a young voice major, I’m accepting that I can make music take whatever role I want it to take in my life. I just know it needs to be there.

soli deo gloria, or, what I learned from being a non-believer at a Lutheran school

My religious identity was ever evolving when I was growing up. My family migrated from church to church. First we were Catholic. I don’t remember this because I was a baby, but my parents were married in the Catholic church and I was baptized there. Then we were Lutheran for awhile. (My dad was raised Lutheran.) All I really remember about that was going to Sunday school, coloring in pictures of God’s creatures, and the Christmas pageant, which I’m pretty sure I cried all the way through or something. I hated church. I was too shy for church.

Eventually we landed at the Unitarian Universalist church in our town. This seemed like the perfect fit for my oddball family: a pluralistic approach to the search for spiritual growth and truth within a community. My parents were all over that shit. And it was good…for awhile. Sunday school still sucked, though, and I didn’t fit in with the kids in the congregation. They were too loud. They all went to a different school than I did, and I always felt like a tagalong. My parents gave me the option of sitting in on the Sunday service, but I got bored. Even as a pre-teen, I was beginning to think that church just wasn’t for me.

We eventually stopped attending the UU church, at least on a regular basis. It wasn’t that we didn’t like it, but my family just wasn’t a church-going family. Christmas and Easter, those were our church holidays, and I liked those because it meant seeing my grandparents and aunts and uncles and sharing church (and dinner) as one big family like we did every year. Church on those holidays was a tradition, but every Sunday, it was not.

When I decided to attend a Lutheran college, I think my parents were understandably anxious. They knew it was a good school with the right kind of music program for me, but they worried I wouldn’t fit in with the average Lutheran students, the “Religious Kids,” who went to church every Sunday and knew all the hymns. But I kept telling them, “I’m not going for the church, I’m going for the music.” And it was true. All I wanted was a place where I could sing all day and be around other people who sang all day, too. A school with five massive choral ensembles was my dream.

So I went to college. I made friends with some of those Religious Kids, and most of them only went to church when they felt like it (because what college student likes waking up early on a Sunday morning?). Nobody cared that I didn’t have any religious beliefs whatsoever. I studied music, and I sang in choir, which is what I was there for. Every once in awhile, my choir would be asked to sing on Sunday or at a morning chapel service during the week. Strangely, it was not uncomfortable for me, a kid who had really only attended church two times a year for most of her adolescence. I took comfort in the camaraderie of singing with a group of other people who loved music as much as I did. It didn’t matter that the religious texts of our music didn’t hold a spiritual significance for me. I connected with the thick, textured harmonies, the rise and fall of the soprano line, the firm weight of the bass anchoring the entire piece together. I was continually awed by the sound of many unique voices blending together in one song. I felt the most at peace when I was singing, and the fact that I was in church didn’t change that. My peers around me may have been singing to glorify God, but for a few brief moments, we were all singing together and that was all that mattered.

I don’t think religion will ever be a significant part of my life. I have gone most of my life without it as an anchor, and I am completely fine with that. But what I do need, I think, is a musical anchor. I need the reminder that music can take you somewhere else or give you relief from the stress of your daily life. I’ve been missing that in my life recently, and I look back on all of those college rehearsals, concerts, and church services with longing. With all of the emphasis that is placed on the well-being of others within my job, I sometimes forget to do things for myself. Sure, I spend time with people I love, I go to yoga, and I sing alone when I get the chance — all of these things can be a release. But there is something extremely special about the sense of community that goes along with a choral experience. A challenging piece of music, when finally polished and performed, is nothing short of magical. The focus connects you. Those collective breaths and sustained notes, the simultaneous internal counting of the difficult rhythms your section has pounded out time and time again in extra rehearsals, that ringing moment when the last note has been sent out into the air, leaving behind the exhilaration and exalted faces of the people who gave it life. I’ve worked in groups of artists many times before, but this feeling, this sense of accomplishment and artistic release, is the most rewarding one I’ve ever found.

So even though I may not have taken away any big moments of religious discovery in my four years of undergrad, I certainly did grow in my appreciation for musical and artistic fellowship. I am continually thankful for all of the friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years merely through a mutual love of singing, and I hope I can one day find another sense of community like the one within the choirs I’ve been a part of. That’s all the religion I need.