What Are You Looking For?

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It seems to me that (you lived your life like a candle in the wind…wait, where did that come from?)…anyway, stream of consciousness, it seems to me that we’re all looking for something in life.  Perhaps we end up accumulating things–cars, houses, clothes–or we count our “successes”–careers, exotic vacations, retirement plans, but it all boils down to your life is but one moment after another, one breath followed by the next, until it isn’t.

The thing is, we don’t like that.  Are we seriously so inconsequential on Earth that it would continue to exist without our presence?  Now, that’s a very cynical outlook, and I’m not typically that cynical, but the bottom line is that although people who love us would miss us dearly and every action that we make can cause innumerable chain reactions, each person must accept the inevitable impermanence of their own existence and its miniscule bearing on the universe as a whole.  This acceptance stinks worse than a vegetarian dog’s gas.

Rather than accept this fate, we cast about (as my Northern English husband is fond of saying) looking for ways to fill the void and answer the almighty question of what our Purpose (with a capital P) is.  So far, I’ve figured out that I should: graduate from college (not enough), go to grad school (not enough), get a doctorate (not enough), accumulate more certificates and licenses than any sane person should (clue: not…), get married, buy a home, have children, change careers (more than once…anthropologist, teacher, principal, writer, musician, conductor, yoga instructor…might even entertain outdoor wildlife expert and/or non-profit community roots project organizer), and, well, you get the idea.  Every new experience is destined to be THE ONE that will fulfill my hope and dream of making me feel complete.  Unfortunately, what I find is that I will stick with something long enough to somewhat master the skills and knowledge needed to function well enough or obtain some degree of proficiency.  I am comforted by the day-to-day routine; we humans crave ritual!  My life is nice, luxurious by most of the world’s standards.  Then, I realize that I’m bored and what I’m doing won’t fulfill my ultimate Purpose, and try to reconfigure a new direction to sample.

I have decided that a “gap year” is in order.  A sabbatical, if you will.  There is a reason why the Sabbath was observed and has continued to be commonplace within churches and institutions of education–one will eventually go crazy otherwise.  We can disguise it in any way–data collection, field experience, holy fast–but what it means is we need to sort ourselves out and think.  What a concept!  My biggest obstacle is ridiculous–pride.  A sabbatical would mean not working, well, at least not having a 9-to-5 job.  I’m sure I will find work that is meaningful (and likely desperately needed in our family).  However, having grown up in a family of coal mining men and women who did pretty much everything else, as well as sitting on a stack of college degrees, makes me feel very antsy at the notion of not bringing home a weekly paycheck.

On the flip side, on this Ides of March, I am sitting outside writing under an amazing moon with a breeze blowing the palm trees (yes, I’m so sorry to my family in the Midwest right now) looking at the constellations while I write, and I’m thinking, “This world is so incredible and huge. How can I possibly continue to get up and have the same routine every day? I must visit Tanzania, through hike the Appalachian Trail, and twirl prayer wheels!”

I realize that this struggle is central to Buddhism and yogic philosophy and is pretty much core to most religions, but somehow, I’ve still not figured it out.  I’m also incredibly aware that one might interpret this as a crisis plaguing those in their mid-life years, but I assure you that 27 is far too young for that.  (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it until my younger sister’s “age” leapfrogs over mine.)

Feeling Existential

Wow.  It’s been nearly a month since my last blog post, which says something about my daily life.  Somehow, way back at the beginning of the year, I thought I’d be able to juggle a thousand balls without dropping any.  Perhaps I could, if I was really determined, but at what cost?  So far in 2012, my family has been hit hard with two major illnesses costing the children and me many days off from school and work.  During the fall semester, we hadn’t missed a day!  I’m not saying that doing too much is the cause of illness, as viruses do as viruses do.  However, having days constantly filled with “stuff” certainly doesn’t make things easier for your body or mind.

What has surprised me about being home with sick children now for the seventh (yes, seventh!) day in a row is the sense of relief that accompanied me canceling, well, everything.  On any given day, I typically have lessons, rehearsals, and classes that I teach.  Combine that with taking care of my own kiddies and trying to make time for my husband, and I’m amazed each evening that the day is already over–this scares and saddens me.  Am I truly not present enough in my daily life to even notice as each hour passes?  Am I hustling my kids through each part of the day in order to “be on time” so much that I’m teaching them not to value what’s happening at that moment?

This realization has really prompted me to stop and appreciate what I have.  Now, I’m not saying that I’m not thankful for my life.  In fact, last Thanksgiving, I decided to give thanks on Facebook for something or someone each day until the New Year.  It was really a profound experience that prompted me to start this blog, in fact.  However, what I am still searching for is not just gratitude, but satisfaction–contentment in my life.  The concept of Hungry Ghosts in Tibetan Buddhism has always resonated with me.  Hungry Ghosts are often depicted as ghosts with tiny mouths and huge stomachs that can never be filled.  The underlying idea is that people often try to find fulfillment by meeting goals or physical desires that prove illusory.  I can’t tell you how much this metaphor represents me and how disturbing that is to me.  Let’s see…earn college degrees–check, get married–check, get a “good” job–check, buy a house–check, have children–check, do the best possible job I can do at everything I do–check, check, check, check, check…

It’s almost as if I “conquer” one thing in order to move on to the next challenge and that next challenge will be “the one” that will change my life.  Add to this obsessive goal-setting the need to be outstanding at everything I’m involved in and you have someone who cannot “stop and smell the roses” because she’s too busy making sure the roses are the right size, shape, color, etc. to compare to the neighbor’s and planning for next year’s blooms.

Back to feeling existential and connecting that to being an “opera singer.”  Notice that my blog subtitle is “Story of a music teacher turning opera singer.”  Why?  I’m actually already an opera singer–someone who sings opera–and have been for the last two years.  Now, I’m not employed by the Met and I’m not earning a salary playing roles on stages across Germany.  However, I’m learning and singing beautiful opera music.  My blog subtitle is very telling of my mindset, though.  Can this facet of my life simply be part of my life, part of who I am?  Does it have to be all or nothing? Perhaps I need to brush up on Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s writings on personal life fulfillment and creating meaning for oneself from our daily experiences.

A good friend of mine who did have a fairly long first career as an opera singer is now in school studying to be voice faculty.  When I asked him why he decided to make the change, he simply stated, “I want stability.”  We chatted about how being on stage is thrilling and a huge boost to the ego and performing beautiful music with others is an amazing experience.  However, he also said that not knowing when your next performance is can undermine that thrill.  You’re left hustling for engagements, saving money because you aren’t sure when you’ll be paid again, and not having a stable relationship or family either because you’re traveling or don’t have normal working hours.  In essence, he wants what I already have.  Huh?

Lately, I have talked to all my close associates in music about their opinions on my career–continue as a music teacher or make a break as a performer?  Inevitably, they have all asked me in response, “Well, what makes you happy?”  Easing my anxiety, they have all been kind enough to add that I have the required “equipment” to do either job, as long as I’m committed to putting in the work needed to succeed.  The funny thing is that I haven’t been able to answer the question.  I assumed that once I’d progressed enough to have professionals in the opera world tell me I had chops, my decision would be a no-brainer, but this is confusingly not the case.  I’ve realized that if I’m going to plunge into performance and leave all the rest behind, that I will be abandoning a flourishing music program that I started (at my own kids’ school no less), juggling schedules with my family in which I won’t be seeing them as much since rehearsals are often at night, existing on little to no pay (which our family could manage, but I’m not sure I could accept), and relinquishing teaching.

My surprising reaction to this potential change is reluctance.  Certainly, fear of the unknown is also involved, but for the first time in my life actually, there is little struggle.  Sure, there is the daily struggle that everyone has, but I mean real struggle, like moving across the country, finding a job, finishing a college degree (out of state), facing a major health issue, fighting to adopt a child (twice), making ends meet…you get the idea.  Do I want to create struggle where it doesn’t exist?

Perhaps even framing it this way is wrongheaded. Perhaps, the issue isn’t all-or-nothing.  Perhaps, a long-term goal requiring a sacrifice of everything and everyone isn’t needed.  Maybe, just Imagemaybe, it’s okay to simply take each day at a time without judging myself; accept that I’m actually successful at lots of things and so are other people, which should be celebrated.  Enjoy the fact that I can teach, sing, play, and be a good wife and mom without being perfect at any of them.  The only need to be “the best” exists in my mind, which is the same place where contentment resides.  Which cause do I want to give space to grow?