Thursday, November 12, 2015

Month of Gratitude, Week Two: That One Thing

Man this is going to be an emotional post.

Like I mentioned last week, I am writing one post a week this month about gratitude, specifically how illness has taught me to feel more gratitude.

As illness peels away layers of identity and you’re left with just the essential, you are able to see the very center of your happiness and what feeds it. I hope you have one thing, more than anything else in your life, that illness or pain has not taken from you and brings you the most joy in life.

My one thing is music. Aside from rap and modern country, I like most music genres (even those two I listen to occasionally). Jazz is my home but I also love classic rock, world music, alternative, blues. I have probably mentioned before that I’m a musician/songwriter and have been for a good portion of my life. If I could choose just one profession in life, I’d be a performing songwriter. Although I was rarely paid for it, I did get to live that dream. I haven’t talked about music much because it’s one of the most painful aspects of illness for me. I haven’t been able to perform in about a year and a half, and because of my breathing problems, I had to stop singing a year ago. It feels like I have literally lost my voice.

But this wasn’t always the case. 

My whole life I begged my mother to let me take piano lessons. Most kids are forced to take them, but I wanted them desperately. She couldn’t afford to pay for lessons, so my first year in college I made enough at my job to pay for lessons myself. I took lessons for about two years. My piano teacher would often put classical music in front of me but she humored my love of jazz and my need to improvise. Although I didn’t take lessons for long, she taught me how to create arrangements and improvise. She used to tell me, as I was playing something from a piano book or something classical, “you don’t have to swing everything.” The rhythm of my heart is jazz swing. Even now when I find myself trying to swing some music that doesn't need it, I think of her teasing me and I laugh. 

When I was a teenager, my best friend used to live out in the country and I would use the time I spent picking her up to sing in my car. When one of my acquaintances during that first year in college started a band, I went out on a limb and asked if I they needed a vocalist. I had not really ever sang in front of anyone before, but I wanted to be musician, even if I had to pretend. I was in a band for about a year, and it was fun learning how to build a song with a group of people, but my bandmates had no desire to perform. We had different goals. The band disbanded and my friend and I started a duo together. We wrote a bunch of songs and would perform in coffee shops. We’d throw in a few Nirvana and Tori Amos covers since we were children of the 90s. We only performed a few times so I decided to take my nascent piano skills and start performing solo. Those first few shows must have been painful to watch. If I heard a recording of them now I would cringe. But I was determined.

A year or so after I started going solo, another acquaintance organized a show at a local renovated old theater. He made me the headliner. That was the first time I ever played for a live audience. I was only the half the musician then that I am now, but it is still one of my favorite memories. There’s nothing quite like sharing your passion with others and getting an instant response. I got great feedback and I pressed on with my dream.

I played in coffee shops, bars, restaurants, weddings, and even a flower shop that had a piano. I got to play for live audiences again when I did musical interludes for my college’s performance of The Vagina Monologues. One of my best friends is an obscenely talented keyboardist and we decided to join forces a few years ago. We started doing a lot of shows and it became a reason for all of our friends and family to gather. Those are still some of my favorite memories. Our last show was July 2014.

One of my favorite memories is when years ago I contacted one of my favorite artists Janis Ian, the consummate singer-songwriter. We corresponded through email a few times, and I asked her for any pointers she had to share. She told me that in her 60s she felt that she was just finally getting her stride with performing. I was planning on recording one of her songs and had hoped to include it on a cd I wanted to sell so I asked her about royalties. She responded that she didn’t own the song but wished me the best of luck and asked if I’d send it to her. I did record it but never sent it to her. That was almost 10 years ago. I suppose I should send it to her someday. (You can find the song, “The Come On,” on my soundcloud page). I don’t have those emails anymore but I wish I had saved them, if only to convince myself it wasn’t just a dream.

I didn’t play much while I was an academic and when I was teaching. I wish I had set aside more energy for it. I assumed, as so many of us do, that nothing would change. That I would be able to play music in the same way for the rest of my life. I was wrong.

When I got ill in 2011 and had to leave my PhD program, music was my solace. I wrote a few songs during that time that I’ve never performed or recorded, but hopefully will someday. I played a private gig for about 10 of my good friends in the program before I left as a goodbye gift. I had lost about 20 lbs and was very ill, but I powered through for them and I think they appreciated it.

After we moved back, my friend and I did a few shows together, but every single one I had pushed myself too hard to practice and I was in very bad shape on the day we played. That last show we did, I should've spent the day in bed but I'm glad I pushed myself to do it. I left each one feeling tremendously disappointed I couldn’t be the performer I used to be. Yet, I look back now and feel thankful for those shows. My mom was at most of them. Every time we played, I always tried to throw in a song just for her. I played Fleetwood Mac’s “Crystal,” one of her favorite songs she introduced to me, at one of our last shows in 2014. She was not well but I watched her sing along with me as I played it.

Now that so many things have been stripped away from my life, I can see clearly what I valued the most, what is integral to my identity. That is music and performing. I could accept never teaching again or having to use a wheelchair for the rest of my life, but playing music is non-negotiable. That will not be taken from me. That is the one thing that is mine still that gives me the most joy.

I still play my keyboard most days and still try to sing. I can get through about half a song before the respiratory weakness kicks in.  I don’t have the power in my voice I used to have and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. But that’s ok. I live on a quieter frequency now anyway.

When my mother was in the hospital and then hospice last month, I lost music briefly. Playing music and listening to any of my favorite artists/bands brought me no joy. But in the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to the playlist I made for her and playing my keyboard again and it is once again a source of solace. I played the piano at the assisted care facility where my mother was while she was in hospice. On that last day when we were all there to say goodbye, I played for about a half an hour and many of the residents gathered around the piano. One man who was in a wheelchair would clap along to every song. Although he was hunched over and had difficulty talking, he had an impeccable sense of time. I adjusted the time signature for each song to match his clapping. Right now, I'm trying to re-learn some Christmas music to play for them next month. I’m hoping to go back there soon.

I am going to get back to singing and I am going to perform again. Whatever that looks like, it will happen. I have a collection of songs that I’m ready to record and turn into an album, and that will happen. Illness has been a gift in that it has shown me that music was ultimately my greatest passion in life and it’s also inspired many songs I've written. I was able to record one last year, “Upright,” which you can also find on my soundcloud page and on the bottom of this post. Illness has given me a new sense of purpose and drive to play music as often as possible.

I didn’t mean to divulge so much and miss the point here. I guess I needed to look back and celebrate these memories I still have. The point is I hope that you also have one passion or joy that brings you the most pleasure and no matter what setbacks you’ve experienced that you are able to return to it again and again. That it is never taken from you. That it is your greatest solace.

I would’ve continued to take this passion for granted if illness hadn’t let me see it for what it was. 

No matter what, I still have all of those memories. As I talked in my last post about learning how to feel satisfied, I feel satisfied that I can still play, even if it’s not the way I ultimately want to. I still have it. It’s still there for me, and nothing can wash away what music has given me.

My wish for you is that whatever your greatest passion is, whatever that one thing is, that you can hold fast to it and enjoy it for as long as you can. Never surrender it. Make time for it. Celebrate its role in your life and your identity.

And then, more than anything, share that one thing with others. 

*Special thanks to Carrie Anne for all the great pictures over the years


  1. Sometimes illness strips away even those things we are most passionate about and that is extremely hard. When that time comes, remember that one can always find something new and more accessible to be passionate about. The main thing is to find something that brings you joy that you can access every day. You are so right about the importance of that in one's wellbeing.

  2. "You don't have to make everything swing" -- If she were to peer inside your soul, she would see nothing but swing <3


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