On Resilience & Cowardice

I’m writing this from my bed.  It’s been a long time since I brought my computer to my bed, but here we are.

Am I hiding from my husband and my son?  Nah. They’re playing Minecraft downstairs. But the truth is: I’m up here, listening to Kelly Buchanan on Spotify, and recognizing that there are lessons from my past that I absolutely have to acknowledge right now, or I’ll miss them.

For those who haven’t been friends or family since I was in college, a little backstory to clarify where I’m coming from:  I attended Berklee College of Music from 1998 to 2002. At first, after years of being in honor bands and symphonies in high school, I wanted to be a film scorer or rock star. Berklee seemed like the place to do it. But, as my entrepreneurship teacher so aptly said in class one day, “Berklee turns artists into assholes.” And, I can’t say Prof. McCluskey was wrong. It certainly worked that way for me.

I started out in total percussion and switched to voice second semester, in no small part due to the fact that I loved singing, and I couldn’t develop the skills necessary to succeed on drumset for Drum Lab 3, no matter how many hours a day I practiced.  Failing a class wasn’t an option for me. I was too much of a perfectionist back then. So, I withdrew, and I switched my principal instrument at the same time that I declared a major in music business/management.

My first semester of vocal training, I was lucky enough to be placed in a performance lab with Kelly Buchanan.  I was in awe of her — like “rockstar effect” awe, and I don’t think she realized that. She played her guitar and sang at the same time. She brought her original songs to class. She was the messy blonde-haired blue-eyed punk rock goddess that I had groked in music business classes was the only kind of person who could really succeed in the fucked up industry we were trying to be a part of. She was the embodiment of what I wished I was at the time. But there I stood, in all my brown-haired, hazel-eyed, fat glory, daring to be in the same class as her.

I will never forget this one time, in the cafeteria running into her and another classmate who sang Mariah Carey songs better than Mariah did — I let them both know how amazing I thought they were, and they were both shocked, because they said that in their estimation, I was the best performer in the class. My mind was blown. I decided that they were just being nice – because, if I knew anything about myself by that time, it was that I was a total weirdo, and it was impossible to actually like me.

Fast forward to 2020 — past the mistake of a first marriage and its abuse. Fast forward past graduating law school and failing the bar exam multiple times — past EMDR and acknowledging all the trauma I’ve repressed over the years. Fast forward past being diagnosed with MS and seizure disorder and later common variable immune deficiency. Fast forward past falling in love with a man who understands me on levels I don’t understand myself, who sees my value when I don’t. Past our marriage and the birth of our first child. Fast forward to the point where everyone else has entered quarantine and is freaking the fuck out about a viral global pandemic that is killing 3% of the people who become infected, while my life has changed in exactly one way: I no longer go grocery shopping on Saturday.

I’m now 34 weeks pregnant with my second child, and the world is being overtaken by COVID-19.  I found out today, that the medical community is hurting so badly for personal protective equipment that many spouses are not being allowed in to c-section surgery because of a lack of appropriate protective masks and scrubs. Finding this out sent me into a hormonal tailspin of anxiety. Like if Adam holds my hand, I can make it through labor, but without him, I will almost certainly die.

And if I die, what am I leaving behind besides my son?  A blog.

For some reason, I can write and not give a shit whether or not anyone thinks it’s valid. Nobody’s forcing anybody to read my online diary. But songwriting? For some reason, it’s sacred and put on a pedestal.  I’ve got notebooks full of lyrics. But I never forced myself to get over my fear of bad notation and write the music out, so no one else knows the melodies.  And I haven’t made a chapbook and acknowledged that it’s poetry.  It’s just pages in random spiral notebooks, scattered throughout my house.

Kelly has 3 albums on Spotify. And one of those CDs came out after she recovered from a traumatic brain injury.  I have none. In fact, I have only 1 recording of an original song, and it is not one that I’m terribly proud of. (I wrote a goofy song for a boyfriend while in law school, and his good friend recorded it with me as a present to him. It was not my best work, lyrically.)

So what does this have to do with resilience and cowardice?  Everything.

Kelly performs to this day. She had to reteach herself guitar after her injury.  My buddy Chase, who I grew up with, had broken legs from a bike accident and re-taught himself drums.  I’ve got a piano and 2 guitars in this house, all gathering dust, because I can’t stand sounding bad.  I’ve got books of songs no one’s ever heard because I can’t let my art be judged.  If I die tomorrow, it will die with me, all because I can’t be nice enough to myself to spend time sounding bad.

And that, in my estimation, is the very definition of cowardice.

I can say that it’s because I don’t want anyone to steal it if  I dare to put it online. I can say that I know that it enters the public domain if I don’t copyright it first. I can say that it’s because I don’t want to release anything that isn’t exactly right. I can say that I should be spending that time doing other things for my family. But they’re all lousy excuses.

It feels unforgivable when I can, in one breath, be willing to bear every inch of my soul in words that the whole world can read, and in the next, be too afraid to record and share any original music.  As if the music itself is actually is part of me or belongs to me.  As if the music I’ve listened to by other artists, my whole life, didn’t weave the soundtrack of my very existence.  Like knowing every lyric of Kelly’s work doesn’t mean it’s part of me too. As if by keeping it quiet, I’m not denying the ephemeral stuff of life that isn’t just part of my identity, but part of other people’s too.

It feels like the older I get, the more I sink into my oddity, the more I embrace the weirdness and uncomfortableness of inhabiting this existence and recognize that the entirety of who I am is neither known nor understood by anyone, even me… the more that I recognize that I am just NOT for everyone.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m even for myself, but to be honest, I don’t get the luxury of having a break from me. This brain constantly chatters. And that’s okay.

See, one of the things I’ve learned from all these years with multiple chronic illnesses — from connecting with people all over the world who deal with incessant pain and fatigue and brain fog and uncertainty — is that resilience isn’t just a skill. It’s a mindset.  It’s a way of being. It’s not just about not giving up. It’s not just about trying — or even how hard you try.  It’s about not forgetting who you are. It’s honoring the fact that every past iteration of your self resides inside you still, at every minute of every day. It’s recognizing seasons exist in life, and not fighting them.  We can’t bloom all the time. And when we do bloom, it won’t always look the same.

Resilience is rooted in self-acceptance, and self-acceptance only comes when you either do the things you need to do to earn your own respect or give yourself grace and understanding for not living up to unreasonable expectations. You have to learn to treat yourself with the same kindness you reserve for others.

To put it in the words of Lizzo, “If you love me, you can love yourself.” I’d hate to think of what life would be like if she hadn’t had the guts to self-validate when it comes to her music.

These days, I’m teaching my son piano basics. He’s about to be 5. He knows “Hot Cross Buns” and how to play both a major and minor scale. He can pick out “Jingle Bells,” and he doesn’t beat himself up when things aren’t perfect because he knows he can always try again, and nobody in this house will ever like him less for making a mistake – no matter what kind of mistake that is.

And if I can teach him that, I’m pretty sure I can internalize the lesson myself.

Even shitty art is valid. Bad music is better than no music. And bravery is sometimes just letting yourself make mistakes in front of other people until you get it right.

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