passions

Waking Up from Ash and Dust

Last time I wrote, I believe (it’s hard to keep track of because I’ve been privately publishing small “performance diaries” to chronicle this journey from the get go), I’d just decided to team up with a good friend and form a band together. I was all sorts of terrified and simultaneously excited at the possibility of something I’ve always wanted actually materialising, but most of all I was baffled that someone who’d actually been performing and writing/recording music and in other bands wanted to start one with me. The goal was two cover songs at an open mic – incidentally one of the things on my 30 Before 30 list.

And it happened. I didn’t throw up this time, but I did completely over-analyse it afterward and burst into tears, thoughts of having let my friend down flitting about my head along with worrying about if I was awkward on stage, if I was too stiff, if I sounded any good… people kept telling me it was great, but it was like their words were being thrown at my brain which had built a solid, impenetrable fortress around itself and couldn’t hear any of it. Then it happened again. I went from not being able to physically face the same direction or look at my friend to actually enjoying getting together to jam. There was something magical about having a far better musician than me actually be willing to sing and play songs I’ve always wanted to right there with me, and I’ve always been a sucker for great harmonies, and ever since we’ve been performing, I’ve lost count of how many times people have said how perfectly suited our voices are to each other. And it’s really difficult and strange and bizarre… and kind of amazing to keep hearing when your brain has told you otherwise for so long.

First performance

It’s been six weeks, filled with many jamming sessions, a handful of performances, and an almost complete turnaround in belief – I’ve always felt I was too quiet, too soft, too nervous, and too doubtful to ever fully sing properly. But even though I still wish I had a bigger voice, or could play more instruments, or could commit songs to memory in a heartbeat, the love of doing something has finally, finally outweighed the fear. Last performance was my first ever in front of the biggest audience yet without the safety net of lyrics and chords in front of me. We did an Imagine Dragons song and made it completely our own and I don’t think I forgot a single word. Afterward I noticed I hadn’t needed my water, which I’d chugged the time before because my throat was so dry with nerves, and I noticed I wasn’t shaking with post-performance analysis and anxiety, I was actually REALLY HAPPY and excited that I’d just done something I really never, ever thought would be possible. My heart wasn’t sinking to my feet any more. It was bursting with joy.

I was reading a blog post today from someone I am beyond proud to know, and these words struck such a chord (I swear that wasn’t intended):

Whether you’ll admit it or not, there are dreams you’ve kept since childhood. There are things out there that make you come alive. There is a burden in your soul that feels like its been lit on fire, and it makes it difficult to speak, and you fumble for the words, and you ache to quench the thirst. That’s not your heaping serving of cliché for the day. That’s just the truth. The truth, the truth, that we are often made for things so much bigger than we ever allow ourselves to have. We get small doses. We get little reminders. But honey, honey, what could it look like if you just opened the flood gates and let the passion pour out.

I felt that passion come pouring out when I finished my first short story. I feel it now I’m 30,000 words into a book in which every strange twist of my imagination is allowed to live and breathe forever. Once you hit the point of taking that step over the edge, into the unknown, and you realise it’s actually okay – it becomes a fuel to keep going. People always say things like “feel the fear and do it anyway”, “what have you got to lose”, or “what’s the worst that could happen?” But I thought to myself the other  day, before a practice session, perhaps some better words might be along the lines of “…but what if it’s brilliant?” Everything you ever try has the possibility to turn out a million different ways, and we have such a tendency to believe our capacities are far less than our true potential. We’re conditioned to believe it’s almost arrogant to go into something new thinking “I might be kind of good at this”. And so we don’t. We go in scared, if we even go in at all, because then at least if it does suck, it’s not like we didn’t expect it. It’s a self preservation thing; a mask that’s been so tightly glued to our faces that even we’ve forgotten it’s false, and we believe it. We believe that we are small. And we let those beliefs shape everything we’re ever brave enough to try.

I don’t know if anybody’s watching this season of The Voice UK (shh, guilty pleasure), but I remember seeing this little Irish ginger kid with a guitar auditioning with an absolutely arse kicking version of an Ellie Goulding song of all things. And he just WENT FOR IT. I looked him up on YouTube afterward, and he does it all the time. He doesn’t hit half the notes, but it doesn’t matter – his enthusiasm and commitment to just pouring that passion out into the world and rocking it is all he needs to just be absolutely brilliant. And he’s kind of become a bit of an inspiration. Every time I get nervous about hitting a note or trying a new song for the first time, we talk about “just gingering it”. Not thinking about nerves or worrying if it comes out wrong, just letting the excitement and love of music and hope for something awesome come out instead. And I think when you do it that way, perfection doesn’t even matter. My whole life I’ve been scared of showing anything I’ve created to anyone unless it’s 100% perfect first.

First video: Bastille’s Pompeii

I’ve spent the last six weeks learning how to jump in unprepared and ride on hope and enthusiasm and trust… That’s a big one. Trust in other people’s words for the first time, that maybe I’m not that awful at this thing I’ve wanted to do so badly for so long. I know I have such a long way to go. I need to learn more chords, I need to learn how to write a song, I need stage presence and I need to strengthen my range. I need to stop doubting and being afraid and just keep focusing on the passion and forcing myself to keep doing it. With writing, and with music… I’ve been wired with a longing to dive into them both, such a strong, deep desire to create, to get what’s on the inside of this head out into the world… I suppose some of the very same reasons I started a blog in the first place. To prove to  myself and to the world that what was on the outside, or what I saw in the mirror, wasn’t truly what existed inside. Wasn’t what I truly was. Another few words from my wise friend seem applicable here, too:

We’re all a lot deeper than we give ourselves credit for. And we live within a world that never lets us fully know that. It’s a culture that keeps our intensity, and the fire in our eyes, and the lost hope in our bones at bay because shallow sells and the harder questions make us wince. But you, you, will always be hungry to go deeper than this world has ever let you believe you could. Going deeper isn’t easy. It’s not pretty. But it is so, so, so, so, so, so, (so, so, so) life giving… This world is much, much shallower than your sweet identity.

And maybe you already cry over that at night. And maybe no one ever thought to tell you but, yea, you’re kind of deep. Deeper, deeper than you even allow yourself to see. But the scary truth in all of it is that we have to be the ones to wade out into deeper water…. If you choose to walk forward, leave some of the smallness behind, plenty of others will stay to pick up your load but you’ve got be the intentional one in all of this. The one who sets the space for something more. Or else, you’ll stay a clam shell. You’ll stay surface level. And no one will ever fault you for that but you’ll probably start to feel those concrete shoes getting buckled to your feet when you look at your hands and ask, wasn’t I supposed to do something more with these? 

Diving inside to retrieve that passion and intention has been a long time coming. Words cannot express how happy and free I finally feel, but moreso, how grateful, for those around me who’ve been my safety nets. My cheerleaders. Those who’ve made it their mission to get me to see that maybe I really can follow my dreams after all. We only have one life. And it absolutely cannot be guided by, or wasted on fear. 

 

It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you go (in which I sing publicly, on video, looking like a moron – but finally finish that infernal list!)

It doesn’t matter where you come from
It matters where you go
No-one gets remembered
For the things they didn’t do
– Frank Turner

I started writing this post the week of New Year’s before apparently taking a sharp turn through the time vortex and ending up halfway through February. The subject of reflections and resolutions is subsequently a little stale, but bear with me: over the last two months, Big Things have happened, and both of the above have played rather large parts in my day-to-day life.  On January 1, I didn’t make any resolutions. This was likely in part due to the fact that I still had a handful of things to check off my 26 Before 26, and partly because I think waiting until the turning of a new year to start doing things better is a bit of a procrastinator’s cop-out. If you’re going to make a change, what better time than the very moment you decide to? So while I didn’t new year’s resolutions, I did try to hop aboard the Life Lesson Express to see if I could learn something from the year that was to pave the way for a happy, healthy 2012.

Now, the thing about learning experiences is that they usually end up having the biggest impact after you’ve made the biggest cock-ups. Maybe the reason we’re all stuck in the eternal Groundhog Day of making resolutions that evaporate faster than a Winnipeg cup of tea in February is the fact that it’s so bloody uncomfortable to admit we’ve made bad decisions in the first place. Nobody likes being wrong, and it’s easier to cover up the past with declarations about the future than it is to actually stop for a second and take accountability. But if you don’t genuinely acknowledge your own part in things not happening the way you wanted, nothing will ever change – we throw ourselves into our own time loops of history repeating itself simply to avoid the temporary discomfort of admitting we were wrong. When I began this post, I wanted it it to be my personal acknowledgement: there were things I did and decisions I made in 2011 that led to life being significantly less full of win.  There were definitely a few big mistakes, and a crap load of smaller bad habits I’d formed over the years – but as someone commented last time I was here, the good thing about bad habits is that with enough dedication, they can be broken, and room can be made for new ones. And that’s exactly what I decided to focus on.

Lesson One: Being too focused on “not wasting time” prevents you from giving time to situations when that’s exactly what’s needed.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a difficult time with conflict. I think it results from the uncomfortable combination of being extremely opinionated, extremely sensitive, and extremely stubborn, all three of which are bad ingredients to begin with, but when combined result in one recipe for ultimate disaster. Keeping the idea of life being short and avoiding future regret in the back of your mind I think is a good thing, but as with many things, taking it to the extreme results in them being very bad indeed. My lesson here was to break the habit of closing the door on negative things too quickly – whether in short-term situations (a disagreement with a friend, for example, who wants time to cool down – I’m trying to learn to see that as a positive step to a healthy resolution, and not a waste of time that could be spent moving on) or long-term ones (getting the proper treatment for my anxiety and self esteem issues, and not trying to be a hero and do it on my own, or do it all now). As much as I like to think things could be as easy as flicking a switch, I’m learning that even though life is short, some things do take time – and patching over things for the sake of moving on quickly isn’t going to fix anything in the long term.

So this weekend, I begin a ten-week program with the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba. And since December, I’ve been seeing a counsellor who’s given me all sorts of techniques and insights into the way I’ve grown used to seeing the world – and armed with this knowledge, a chunk of humility and blind determination, I’ve seen an enormous change. I don’t worry so much any more, I don’t assume the worst, and though I still break down in tears practically daily, it’s now usually a result of things finally being more awesome than I’d ever dreamed of. (I know, I kind of wanted to punch myself when I saw that in print too.)

Lesson Two: Just because terrible things happened in the past does not mean terrible things will always happen.

I’m not going to go into this one in depth, but something I allowed to spiral out of control last year was allowing past baggage skew (and ultimately sabotage) how I viewed the present. I got into the habit of absolutely ruining things that were going wonderfully because in the past, something always bad had happened – I started reacting compulsively to my own catastrophic imaginings of history repeating itself, and became a leech for constant reassurance. It wasn’t enough to have things going brilliantly; I had to be told repeatedly that they were, and that sort of uncontrollable worrying and assurance-seeking is enough to drive anybody away – causing a distancing that fuelled the worries that had been unfounded in the first place. I created my own self-perpetuating cycle. It had to stop, and breaking the habit of over-worrying and needing reassurance has been my biggest focus in 2012 so far. It started with forcing myself not to text people when I felt the urge to, which was enormously difficult for the first few days – but within a week or two, I’d learned that it was completely okay to go several hours without communicating, and actually valued the messages and phone calls more knowing that they were completely on somebody else’s initiation. It’s an interesting phenomenon to witness how drastically a cycle’s direction can change – to learn that constant neediness drives others away, resulting in more worry and more need for reassurance – and that with a change of habit, it can all turn the other way. I don’t catastrophise any more. I don’t worry that somebody’s died, or found more interesting and exciting friends if I don’t hear from them for a little while. I give myself a grace period when learning new things, and don’t beat myself up half as much if I’m not an expert after watching something once. (Half as much however is apparently still too much, and something I still need to work on…) I don’t ruin perfectly fun evenings any more by inventing some reason to worry and then be reassured. It’s been two months of continually tearing down these old habits and rebuilding new ones, and I can honestly say I’ve never been happier in my life. I feel terrible for the loved ones that had to put up with me last year, and I’m so grateful to those that stuck around.

Lesson Three: It’s perfectly okay to spend time in your own company.

I’ve always been thoroughly fascinated by the psychology of personality, and still remember being thrilled when I first discovered that there weren’t just 16 Myers-Briggs personality types, but 16 independently scaled variables, too: one INFJ may be on the extreme side of introversion and feeling, for example, and another may be extremely intuitive while only slightly introverted. These two people may score the same fundamental personality type, yet their wildly differing levels of each component would make them incredibly different people. When I learned that I was barely a cat’s whisker on the introverted side (I like using making reference to cat whiskers when I have the chance), it was like I’d unlocked the Library of Babel. Every answer I’d been searching for suddenly arrived – I’d forever wondered why, if I was such an introvert, I craved company so bloody much, had such difficulty spending time alone, yet was often terrified of social situations where I might find myself centre of attention. It was because I was stuck in the middle of introversion and extroversion – and realising this led to understanding, and finally being able to do something about my discomfort. I wanted social interaction, but my inner introvert wanted to do solitary things like reading, writing, or watching a movie. But the extravert would always say how terribly loserish I’d be if I spent time doing any of those things, and encouraged me to fill up every night of the week with plans involving other people. And then cancelling them because I’d invariably be too tired, and then feel bad I was stuck at home alone again. Egads! I decided to work on becoming comfortable with both – primarily the solitary activities, because I desperately wanted to be able to go home and not be intimidated at the thought of an evening by myself, wondering what I’d do with the time – but also the more outgoing things that go along with being an extrovert.

With the former, I started small. I’d opt to walk home instead of taking a bus, despite it being winter.  I’d wrap myself up in countless layers, tuck my hair into a big furry hood, plug my earphones into my phone and head off into the night. It’s about a twenty-minute walk, but it’s down one of the prettiest streets in the city, and at night in the snow with nobody around, it can be quite magical. I found myself getting caught up in the lyrics of wonderful songs by moonlight, getting goosebumps more from the words than the chilly air outside. I stopped to take in small displays of loveliness – tree trunks and bows silhouetted in fairy lights, or brightly shining stars above. The cold didn’t seem to matter – I’d stop at various points along the way, pulling out Google Sky Map and pointing it skyward, learning the positions of Jupiter and Orion. I’d make it home eventually, hair and eyelashes coated in frost, to a happy little cat, and realise for the first time, I actually enjoyed something I did alone. So I started doing more – spending time on things I really wanted to do, and learning how to feel perfectly at peace in doing them. I went on walks just to listen to music and take lots of photos. I carved myself a new workspace at home, with candles and greenery and sepia-toned photographs, and I find that now, it’s a place I love to go. This also led to an incredibly exciting project – I can’t share too many details yet, but I’ve started a project I’m beyond thrilled about. Research is being done, calls are being made, buildings are being explored and imagination is in overdrive. I’m a happy cat.

As for nurturing the extraverted side, I decided to take the plunge and cross the last two things off my 26 Before 26. I’m well aware of how long ago my June 2011 deadline was, but there were two really big and really scary things on there that I’d been terrified of for as long as I can remember. The first was learning to drive and getting my licence. It took a couple of months, one intense car crash (!), one instance of being pulled over by the police (for going too slowly), two test attempts, one lesson in learning how to operate windscreen wipers and one extended crying fit (I’d never failed anything before!), but I got there – at the end of December, on icy roads in lots of snow! Words couldn’t describe the feeling of finally achieving something I’d been afraid of for a whole decade, and now I’m just getting used to driving around on my own. And it’s brilliant!

The second thing was a little more nerve-wracking: being in the spotlight singing a song on stage in public to an audience full of strangers, friends and coworkers. I’ve always loved singing, but the love has always been outweighed by fear. For some reason I can sing proudly and confidently in my own little apartment, but I find it incredibly difficult to do so in front of a single person. Cat-shaped people notwithstanding. But over the last few months, I’ve been “jamming” with a couple of good friends, who’ve encouraged me to pursue it. We made plans before Christmas to perform together at an open mic, but I managed to lose my voice for a good month until the end of January. At the beginning of this month, I was practicing with one of said friends, who suggested I perform one song with him during his next set – the night before Valentine’s day – only two weeks to get my proverbial shit together. I’ve never been good at getting my shit together. Especially on a deadline. Remember last time I had to do something in public? I went up there, raced through the entire thing, and left the podium sobbing uncontrollably. Which wasn’t exactly awesome.

So Monday came after a night of definitely not sleeping, and I found my heart defiantly attempting to burst out of my chest every time I thought about what I’d be doing at 8:00. I made sure my coworkers knew I didn’t think I was a good singer and had expectations lower than a rapper’s trousers. I went home at the end of the day to find my lovely little cat and a lovely boy there to surprise me me, into whose arms I immediately fell and burst into tears (how many times is this now? We should make this a drinking game) crying about how I didn’t want to do it. After a good sob and a better cup of tea, I decided I should probably practice. But I was too scared to sing in front of him, so I sent him outside on the balcony (in mid-February) to run through my song once. When I let him back in, I sang it in front of him. Well, that’s a lie, I meant facing away from him, because I didn’t want him looking at me while I was singing. (Because I am a crazy person.) After finally managing to squeak it out kind of in his direction, it was time to go… and we arrived at the venue. Friends and coworkers started pouring in, and after a couple of songs, it was my time to join my friend on stage. I’d never been so scared in my life. The next five minutes flashed by – I remember getting to the final chorus and thinking ecstatically that I was almost done – and looking back, I know you can tell how incredibly scared I was. I know they probably turned the mic up because I was singing too quietly, and I know I sound awful because I was focused on just getting sound out without fainting, not on actually singing well, and after I was done, I felt very proud for about thirty seconds that I hadn’t cried – before running into the toilets and throwing up. But I did it! It may be terrible, but I finally crossed the last thing off my list. And for that, I’m happy.

Here’s a video of the whole thing. It starts with a giant case of feedback, keeps focusing on the back of some guy’s head, and I look like an uncomfortable moron, but apparently if I don’t post it, it didn’t happen. Next step? Learning to do it standing up (shut up), without shaking, without the words, and actually making eye contact with the audience.

And apparently to not be so hard on myself.

Here’s to the amazing people who helped me keep striving, who put up with my crap, who believed in me, and who helped me do things I’d only ever dreamed of being able to do. Here’s to friendship, to life lessons, to creativity and to passion. 2012 is shaping up to be the best year ever, and right now, at this moment, I feel on top of the world.

(2012 is also the year I promise to learn the lesson of conciseness. If you made it this far, you’re a brilliant human being.)