Of Fear and Resignation

I am resurrecting this blog after a year of silence -and oh what a year! I write this on a flight from NYC to Los Angeles, as fitting a setting as I could possibly find for this topic, for I’m terrified of flying. Once, when an insensitive flight attendant went on and on during boarding about how turbulent her arriving flight from Chicago was, due to storms that I would surely being going through myself on my way there, I got visibly upset and she said they didn’t want someone like me on the plane. I walked off and took another flight, humiliated. But now, here I am. It’s not an uncommon fear, and I’ve worked it out – careful focusing on my breathing, lavender oil, ginger and rooibos tea, and a tiny notebook to write in have lent me a quiet dignity about the whole thing. I don’t want to be here, but I know that I can be, and that’s enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and resignation. This time last year, around the time that I began writing this blog, I was in a grieving process. I was a professional jazz alto saxophonist and composer yet I was living in the woods, far from any sense of community, far from my band, far from the heart of the creative improvisational music scene – I was full of music but shouting at the wind. In my isolation, I began to feel it was time to compromise my dreams, to erase some of the flourishes around the edges, the bright and shiny things, the daring goals that kept me wide-eyed with possibility. I had begun to resign myself to my dreams being the dreams of Hallmark cards and Hollywood pictures – big, puffy cumulus clouds that I could reach out and touch but never hold. Pretty dreams, captivating as they sailed across glorious sunny skies – but at the moment I connected with their center, it would become clear that they were made up of simply air and water, and already evaporating.

Resignation is horrible. It ages you, drags down your spirit. And it isn’t acceptance. It’s a kind of limbo that invites inertia and stifles creativity. Fortunately, I’m stubborn as hell, and at some point, grief turned into anger and the spell was broken. For me, that meant total upheaval of my life – and moving out of the woods to New York City on April 1st.

I don’t mean to seem New York centric here, and to say that New York is the only place one can thrive as an artist – but for me, as a performing artist primarily in the jazz medium, it is unequivocally the right place. Where I was before, I had to fight tooth and nail to maintain my identity as a saxophonist, a dualistic practice that never let me be me. Here, by simply getting up every day and doing what I do amongst my peers, my identity is without question. After what it took me to get here, I know that it doesn’t matter how I make my money to survive, it doesn’t matter if I don’t get a specific grant or a gig falls through – I will never stop playing and writing and working towards being the best musician I can be – and I will never lose that aspect of myself. We can’t always tightly control our art, nor should we. And if we are secure in ourselves, we can blunder and trip our way into orchestrating the kinds of disasters that lead to brilliance.

Fear and resignation. As a skeptic of feel good advice columns and best selling missives that mete out drams of sugar coated “wisdom” cleverly arranged to pre-sell you on the next volume, I want to tell it like it is. Letting go of the resignation and facing the fear was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m still learning. Fear begets fear, and for every fear I faced another would crop up. As I cast aside my particular set of obstacles to getting to New York, fear of isolation as a musician in the small town morphed into fear of the massive levels of talent in NYC, fear of living in a place where most people you see every day are strangers, and most of all fear that choosing to put my music first would leave me artistically fulfilled, but alone.

This all sounds rather bleak, but in truth, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve had help this past year from a wide variety of sources, and finding that help is critical. It’s come in odd forms, unexpectedly, sometimes in the dead of night (after all, I am a jazz musician). Lou Reed’s “Magic and Loss”, Joseph Campbell’s “A Hero With A Thousand Faces”, lingering over Oolong tea at a table for one at Sacred Chow, mooning about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There was that time I saw myself holding a white rose in a reflection in the window of a subway train – an optical illusion due to the college aged guy in front of me holding the rose – but I really did leave with it, though I had never said a word to the guy and his friends who later offered it to me awkwardly. There was my tiny glass lucky cat called Marble due to her missing limbs, who stayed in my pocket for nearly eight months and became the namesake of a new tune. Busking underground in the Village when I just needed to face the horn straight on, running in Riverside Park with music blaring on my headphones, yoga, cupcakes with new friends and of course checking out amazing live music – all of these things kept me on my journey, and keep me still.

It would be easy to assume that one’s artistic endeavors would naturally be an ally in facing one’s fears, but that has not always been my experience, especially when one’s fears have to do with one’s art! While I was fighting for my identity from the outside and not assuming it, my ability to use my music as catharsis was limited. I could experience things profoundly, but translating them directly to playing or composing was not easy for me. Over the last eight months I’ve found that that too has shifted. As artists we are so lucky to have such an outlet – to turn heartbreak into tunes, suffering into long tones, extreme joy into wild improvisation – it is a gift many do not have, and we should use it well.

I don’t know each of your individual stories – where you are stuck, what you have left behind and where you may be going – but I hope that my own struggle offers some empathy along the way.