Sometime near the end of 2011, I decided to pull off the road for a while. To take a sort of timeout, or “sabbatical.” I use quotation marks because neither my year-by-year academic contract nor my life as a freelance performer necessarily support or encourage these sorts of breaks. My self-declared (and self-supported) leave of absence came about because my life and my head finally became quiet enough to ask: what do I want, now? What do I need, now?
My life had already taken a turn down a quiet road. Maybe I was finally embracing and accepting my own introverted nature. I was starting, in all areas of my life, to say ‘yes’ to what I craved (more space) and ‘no, thank you’ to old patterns of living and interacting that no longer felt right. I’m not sure what precipitated the change, but it became nearly impossible to do things with which I didn’t feel in sync. Painful, actually. Most always, I still felt engaged and alive during a performance and in rehearsals - these were easy. But there was a lot in my musical world that didn’t seem to fit anymore. I had less and less interest in schmoozing, networking, and nailing down gigs. Less interest in actively promoting what I was doing, unless it was music I was passionate about. Less interest in trying to maintain a status as a musician. It was like the fire I’d once felt had burned out, and in many aspects of my musical life, I felt I was phoning it in. This is not a good feeling.
So I found myself deciding, with some months to plan and prepare, that I would step away for a year. Once I realized I could do this, and that the only thing that might prevent me was my own fear, the decision was easy. It made sense to be somewhere quiet and full of natural beauty; and, considering a family health crisis looming on the horizon, returning to New Hampshire to be close to home made sense. I was fortunate to have one year - 12 whole months! - devoted to walking and running in the woods, spending time in meditation and contemplation, and being with an ailing parent in her last year. No emphasis on music whatsoever, unless I felt moved to play. No concerts, no teaching, no need to maintain my musical identity. I brought a lot of Bach with me, for myself. I feel blessed that all of this was a possibility.
About a month before I left Chicago, I had one of those sublime moments playing Schubert at home (the musician’s equivalent to the runner’s high), and was gripped by a wave of fear. Was I crazy? Would not putting in my daily time at the piano, not being in the ‘scene’ mean I would lose my chops, and the capacity for creating these special moments? Would my musical self become flabby and ineffective? The ‘what if’s’ were even worse. What if I didn’t want to return to Chicago? What if I didn’t want to return to the piano? Who would I be?
These thoughts gave me pause, but they were eclipsed by the certainty that I needed to do this; that phoning life in is not what I want for myself, and that the moments of musical connection weren’t so much about notes and technique, but about something intangible that was very much related to what I was seeking. I felt this certainty in my core.
So off I went, and rented a lovely little apartment in a very old house with a view of Canterbury Shaker Village, just 10 minutes down the road from my parents. I was surrounded by beautiful trails, and walked or ran (or snowshoed) in the woods nearly every day. It may be true that when you quiet down your external environment, your mind talks louder and faster. I survived many bouts of this, and went deeper. Life became more intense. I had some really difficult moments, and some blissful ones. Every now and then, I sought escape in various ways, and always fell on my ass. I spent time with my parents, and along with my dad, siblings and assistance from hospice care, helped accompany my mom through her last days. It was, basically, life. But somehow, I became more focused, and experienced more capacity to reflect on what I was feeling and learning, without distractions.
I had thought maybe I needed to change my life in a dramatic way. Maybe I needed to live somewhere quiet (and believe me, I did enjoy the woods, and the people I met, and the trails!). Maybe I needed to get out of the competitive musical scene and do something else entirely. But to my genuine surprise and delight, I found none of these to be true. Slowly, it became clear that what I needed was to know myself. To be in sync with myself. To say ‘yes’ when I meant it, and ‘no, thank you’ when I meant that. To be comfortable in my own skin. And happily, the joy in making music returned with a vengeance. Now, my work is not so much fueled by ambition as it is by sharing what makes me feel joyful. It feels really different. I’m sure I’d had that joy once; but I had wandered away from it. It feels like I was cleaned out on the inside, and everything on the outside looks brighter as a result.
I still struggle and feel confused, occasionally, about life and music and how I function in the world. But taking a hard reboot has made those moments fewer and further between, and enabled me to get quiet with myself and see how I’m bothering myself fairly quickly. I don’t feel, anymore, that the answers to my problems lie outside of me. Or joy, or love, or the blissful, sublime moments. It’s all right here with me. I am what I have been waiting for.