OK, so it wasn’t the first time I had ever seen Andre Watts. Nor was it the first time I ever saw him at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. And it really doesn’t compare to that magical night in the conservatory at Longwood Gardens last spring. But my yearlong celebration of my 40th birthday would not be complete without a night with Andre. No one can play Rachmaninoff like he does, except of course for the maestro himself. Hearing Andre play is always an ethereal experience during which I feel suspended somewhere between reality and a magical world where I embody my idolized purple pegasus and soar around the world at least 20 times. I always need to constantly remind myself to be present, to be focused on the experience, when I hear him play because, no matter if he is playing Rachmaninoff or a less favoured composer, he takes me to another world.
Last summer, when listening to various tracks on my MP3 player while on a road trip, my mother mentioned that she loved Joan Osborne’s Right Hand Man and One of Us which she had never heard before. When I first heard her Relish album at 20 years old, I fell in love Joan’s almost paradoxical combination of soulful stirring and playful irreverence — something with which I could deeply relate. So this spring, I decided to see Joan in concert, and I took my mother with me. It is interesting that there comes a time when it is acceptable, even desirable, to share remnants of youthful rebellion with a parent.
There we sat, in the front row of the balcony in a small, intimate venue, after nearly another 20 years of my life had passed. Needless to say, she was amazing as was her musical partner Keith Cotton. It was there that I was introduced to Raga (inspired by Dorianne Laux’s equally beautiful poem, The Shipfitter’s Wife), the best working class love song written since Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer, during which I broke down and wept — and to my second favorite new song on her newest album, Work on Me. I felt as though I had neglected an old friend with whom I grew up, as I had not listened to her music much in those almost 20 years, and was so grateful that we had the chance to become reconnected. My appreciation for her work has truly blossomed as much as I have over the years.
I sometimes think that I was happier when I was depressed. I recently found a journal from 2006 and 2008, with an almost two-year gap in-between. The pages contained subtle and not so subtle expressions of sadness, rage, loss, obsession, and shame. While I read my desperate words with compassion for the promising young woman who couldn’t see past her, my, immediate challenges, I also felt a sense of loss for the person I once was. Who knew that I would someday long for those dreary days with a sense of sentimental pride.
At the time, I knew exactly who I was — or so it appears on the page. My mental health diagnosis was enmeshed with my identity. It was who I was; it explained why I felt what I felt and did what I did. I defined myself through my diagnosis with religious rigor. Resistance to recovery is often rooted in attachment to our sense of self at a particular time in our lives — a self that we have, necessarily so, learned to understand, manage, and control.
But I really only knew one part of myself, and now I have opened up to so many other possibilities for my life. I am happy, or I should say happier, but not consistently so. And that is unquestionably good. But at the same time, I feel that my writing, a reflection of how I feel about life at the moment, has become, at times, fake, sterile, and dull despite moments of restless rumination. I fear that if I do not suffer, then my art will on my behalf.
I didn’t originally have the opportunity to self-identify as a person who experiences mental illness, pervasive emotional distress. From a young age, I was told you’re this. You’re that. I was medicated. I received harmful treatment that fractured my already fragile self-esteem and identity. Without realizing it, I conformed to those various labels that were attached to me and implicitly complied with the related assumptions about my feelings and behavior. In my heart of hearts, I never fully accepted other people’s interpretations of me, particularly those that were based on a simplistic diagnosis — because I am a unique, complex, dynamic human being— as we all are.
No, I really don’t want to go back to those more difficult days, but I wouldn’t change them either. I am grateful for what they, both at the time and in retrospect, have revealed and taught me about myself and about life. They have made me a stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient person.
Writing is a solitary enterprise and that, overall, suits me just fine. After a day at work surrounded by other people, love them though I may, I long for some time alone where I can think, reflect, and just be without interruption or diversion.
To be a writer is to selflessly shed the blood of one’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, along with otherwise underutilized charm and wit, only to, for the most part, suffer the subtle rejection of silence. It is to always be on the verge of the unknown, to throw out ideas and not to know where they may land.
Reading too is a solitary endeavor. Readers sit in blessed silence, submerging themselves into another world that opens them up — intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally — and enlivens them. It makes their daily existence in the tangible material world even more meaningful as the two worlds become forever intertwined through the conscience of the reader.
But writing is also a conversation between writer and reader — and one in which the reader too often remains silent. Written text is a private conversation that takes place in a hidden world full of secrets that neither reader nor writer will ever fully visualize or understand. Each retains their own perception of the text and the vivid worlds they have created together remain distinct in many ways. The world of the author and reader too often do not connect in authentic or purposeful ways.
Readers unfortunately most often respond to the writer (at least to this writer) when they are in disagreement, when what has been written somehow violates the social, cultural, economic, political, intellectual, and/or emotional arrangements they have made for the world in which they live. Like when a reader responded to my kind offer to share a copy of Ashley and Tiana by writing a long-winded, scathing review in a way that only a bitter middle-age man could. The world I created did not in any way intersect with his — and in addition to that, I had the nerve to use an en dash instead of an em dash.
Several years ago, Public Enemy engaged their fans in the process of writing a song. While I chose not to participate at the time, and rap music historians thank me, I really appreciated both the intent of this project and the process that surely unfolded. But opening yourself up in such a way as an artist also brings a great deal of risk — especially of destroying the sacred pristine expression of all that is good and true to you. It takes a lot of courage to co-create with others, particularly when those others are able to self-select.
Yes, vanity likes on social media are nice, and validation of my ideas is also sincerely valued. It is heartwarming to know that there are other people in the world who notice, understand, and appreciate my perspective. But it seems shallow to not desire more, like provocation of life-changing self-realizations and inspiration of ideas that positively transform the world. Or maybe that is just selfish.
I yearn to create writing that is imaginative, playful, honest, and luscious — and to do so on a consistent basis. Writing is not only an emotional outlet, it is a reflection of who I am. It serves as documentation of the interconnected processes of self-exploration and transformation which I continually experience. It is an exhumation and selfless giving of the most special, sacred spaces in my heart. Writing is what makes me come alive, and in turn it gives life to ideas that hopefully inspire others in unique and meaningful ways.
At one time, I barely wrote anything for about four months. I was depleted, uninspired, and exhausted. My life felt heavy and stagnant. I was unable to produce anything of merit, anything worth sharing, anything worth reading. The less I wrote, the less I wrote. I was sucked into a downward repressive spiral from which emergence seemed more and more impossible. Was this it? Was there nothing more to say? Was I all but gone?
There was a lot going on my life at the time, and as a highly sensitive person I am often unable to filter out certain types of difficult experiences. I absorb them, ruminate, and internalize other people’s insecurities. Eventually my despair serves a purpose — connecting me with greater awareness and understanding, and illuminating new insights. This lengthy and difficult process is necessary for my spiritual awakening. But I could have been writing to help me make sense of those experiences along the way.
When I get stuck, it is usually because my naughty, naughty inner muse is assisting me in this self-sabotage. And like unruly children who are neglected and unfed, that naughtiness comes from a lack of attention and nurturance which renders her incapable of engaging in a creative relationship with me. When I feed my inner muse, she astonishes me with her support and tender loving care; In other words, I am better able to invoke passion and love through the written word when I take care of myself and indulge my desires — regardless of how often I stare at a blank piece of paper or screen. Because my writing is so deeply connected to, and a part of, me — I need to be well in order to write well.
There are certain special things I like to do to feed my inner muse, like immersing myself in sunshine, bubble baths, ocean waves, and spectacular music, eating ripe peaches at the height of summer, and traveling to previously unfamiliar places. Daily rituals, like meditation and physical movement, also fill her heart with joy. I can also approach every moment with openness, wonder, and curiosity and engage with the world as my playground, rather than a battlefield. Neglect her, leave her hungry, and naughty girl will once again emerge. At every moment, I need to treat her, my most wise and beautiful inner self, with lovingkindness so she, and my writing, may flourish.
A few years ago, when visiting a major museum in the Mid-Atlantic area which shall remain unnamed, I was absolutely mortified when an employee — or perhaps it was a volunteer — handed me a device through which I was expected to listen to a narrative about the artwork I was about to view. I said to my mother who accompanied me at the time that it was like the scene in Amadeus when they perform the ballet without music. Art is meant to be personal and intimate; a group of people looking at the same piece but in their own little worlds listening to a streaming audio track in their headphones is practically sacrilegious.
Is this trend a feeble attempt to make art accessible to more people? A response to declining budgets and volunteer availability? A cruel social experiment intended to update what some people see as antiquated traditions with modern technology? Whatever it is, I refuse to take part in it. If the museum cannot or will not provide the service of a friendly and knowledgeable guide, I would rather engage with text than passively listen to some unknown, unseen, distant person speak. So hand me a pamphlet, or allow me to find the text that is typically installed as part of every exhibit on my own, and spare me the headphones. Or I shall do my own research instead.
My resistance to the integration of new technology at art museums is not in any way a hesitation to dismantle the old order. In fact, I was an early computer adopter, writing simple programs when my age was still in the single digits, and I value what technology brings to our lives. But when it creates a distraction, noise, and separation among people it is, in my opinion, no longer serving a useful purpose.
I may be a snob, but I am an inclusive snob. I believe that all people have the right to enjoy good and beautiful things by virtue of their human nature (of course some people vehemently deny and reject this right, and who am I to argue with them). If indeed the headphone thing is what needs to be done to engage people in the fine arts community…no, I can’t accept that as the best or only solution. There must be other ways to make the arts come alive for people, like small group discussions led by artists or complementary art forms like film. And what could possibly be more engaging than opportunities to create art right in, or adjacent to, a museum when visitors’ souls and imaginations have been stirred and stoked?
Yes, the way we preserve, view, and appreciate art can and should be modernized and made accessible to more people. But let’s do it in a creative and inspiring way.