Closer to Authentic

51TKgMSTFwLA few months ago, I read The Dirty Life, a memoir by Kristin Kimball. Kimball was a successful writer living in Manhattan when she met her now-husband, Mark, whom she describes as “a wingnut farmer.” They moved to upstate New York and founded Essex Farm.

At first glance, the premise of Kimball’s memoir sounds like the setup for a rom-com: city slicker falls for country bumpkin, they start a farm together, hijinks ensue (picture falling face-down in the mud and chasing runaway cows), and they live happily every after. The Dirty Life does reveal Kimball’s deep love for both her husband and life on the farm, but it also describes her painful acclimation to backbreaking farm work, begun each day before dawn, and the financial anxiety of knowing that an early winter could mean losing their farm and home.

The difficulties and risks of farm life notwithstanding, Kimball and her husband persevered and do, indeed, appear to be living happily ever after. They have young children and Essex Farm is thriving as the world’s first full-diet CSA. Kristin Kimball is a thoughtful and vivid writer, and while her book reaffirmed that a life in the countryside is emphatically not for me, the following passage in The Dirty Life has continued to haunt me (emphasis mine):

The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic.

In the passage above, Kimball is referring to the clarity she found while harnessing horses and carrying heavy loads as part of her day-to-day work on the farm, but her summation of what defines authenticity is elegant and universally applicable.  The narrower the gap between who we think we are and how we behave, the closer we get to authentic.

As an inveterate list-maker, I love the idea of putting two columns on a page: the first one being, “Who do you think you are?” and the second, “How do you behave?” The more overlap between the columns, the more authentic a life the list-maker can claim. Simple. But as I’ve mused here before, simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Sometimes, the distance between who I think I am (singer, writer, regular exerciser and healthy eater) and my daily routine (harried errand-runner, sporadic blogger, sunny day picnic enthusiast) feels much greater than I’d like.

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Believe it or not, buying groceries paves the way for disciplined creativity. Caveat: I am never this pulled-together while running errands.

I’ll continue trying to narrow the gap between my self-perception and habits. Daily vocal exercises are one way of keeping my focus “on the ground,” as Kimball puts it. Even if those whoops, hollers, and scales feel effortless one day and arduous the next, they’re a powerful affirmation: I am a singer. 

But damn it, even the most tedious of errands must be run (oh, hi, DMV, what a pleasure to see you!), and even sporadic writing is still better than not writing at all. Buying groceries and straightening up the apartment are not necessarily identity-related tasks, but, like Kimball, when I’m doing them, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m not one of those romantic artist types who flourishes amidst chaos; my creativity thrives in the security of a stocked fridge and tidy practice space.

As for finding some lazy hours in these halcyon late-summer days for languid lunches in the park—including wine and cheese, obviously—well, that’s the urban equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines.” And that feels like time authentically well spent.

 

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Blue Jeans & Bagels

At about this time last year, my doctor found a lump and recommended a sonogram. She was just being cautious, she said, and told me not to worry about it. Nonetheless, I was subsumed by dread and worry in the weeks that followed. When the tests revealed nothing troublesome, I gave thanks for a healthy vessel, renewed my gym membership, and vowed to never again disparage my body for its “imperfections.”

Fast-forward to the present day. I’ve been exercising regularly and incorporating more vegetables and lean protein into my diet. My body is decidedly more streamlined, and the winter blues that have dogged me for months seem to finally be dissipating. All this to say, I was feeling pretty good about myself last week when I reached into my closet and retrieved a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in quite some time. Years, actually. But I was optimistic. I’d been working out! I’d been eating right! Those jeans were about to come out of retirement!

My optimism coughed, sputtered and was finally extinguished as I sucked in my stomach and cursed under my breath, wrenching the jeans over my hips with considerable effort. I managed to button them, but seeing as how the “overstuffed-sausage-in-a-denim-casing” look doesn’t seem to be in vogue this spring, I returned the jeans to the closet, feeling somewhat defeated.

Then I remembered the apprehension I felt last year as I walked through the linoleum hallways of the hospital, looking for the radiology department. I reflected on the relief that flooded my senses when the doctor called to tell me that everything looked just fine. I reminded myself that brave and tenacious souls the world over are facing real crises, so who did I think I was, feeling defeated (defeated, for chrissake!) by a pair of jeans?!

I realized that I had a choice to make. I could redouble my efforts at the gym and forever ban bagels in an attempt to be lean and mean, or I could decide that “lean” and “mean” are, in fact, not admirable qualities, toss the damned jeans in the Goodwill pile and go have a bagel.

Wearing a pair of jeans that fit just right, I had a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. It was everything I hoped it would be.

Contradiction=Benediction

When I was a senior in high school, a teacher gave us a “thinking styles” test based on the work of Anthony Gregorc. We were presented with 15 lists of words (four words per list) and told to circle the two words in each list that best described ourselves, i.e.:

a. doing
b. feeling
c. thinking
d. experimenting

At the end of the test, there was a formula to determine what thinking style suited us best, Concrete Sequential, Concrete Random, Abstract Sequential, or Abstract Random. “Concrete” and “Abstract” referred to perception, whereas “Sequential” and “Random” described the way information is organized.

Much to my surprise and consternation, my thinking style was split 50-50 between Concrete Sequential and Abstract Random. “Great,” I thought, “I effectively have a split personality. My thinking style is evenly divided between two polar opposite ways of thinking; no wonder I’m so neurotic!”

CompetitionIn fact, the tug-of-war between my ordered, logical sensibilities and my spontaneous, “whatever works” approach to life is ongoing. Abstract Random is content to flit from one form of expression to the next: singing along with Lester Young solos today, writing a blog tomorrow, and roasting a pumpkin the following day will surely bear creative fruit in the long run, right? Meanwhile, Concrete Sequential rolls her eyes, makes a schedule and insists that nothing will be accomplished without clearly defined goals and priorities.

But really, aren’t we all kind of a mixed bag of at least a couple of contradictions? Many professional performers, despite living their lives onstage, are incredibly shy. I’ve known pastry chefs who don’t really enjoy sweets. My Midwestern mother, aunt, and former roommate all have a sunny disposition that utterly belies their steely, unsentimental tenacity. My friend F. is a Master Sommelier who prefers Belgian trappist beer to the fancy-schmancy wines he knows so well.

yin_yangNow, after years of watching my inner taskmaster and free spirit do battle with each other, I’ve finally learned that each of them has something precious and essential to offer. Concrete Sequential is the organizer, planner, lone wolf, and pragmatist. Abstract Random is the people person, the intuitive guide, the one I bring to parties. I depend equally and unapologetically on both.

Our contradictions and our complexities are exactly what make us human. Our inner opposites can actually be a blessing, a divine guide of sorts on our journey through this amazing life.

Vive la difference!

And I say, “Hey! Lama…”

I descended the stairs into the subway station at Union Square after a long, if uneventful, day of errands, music, and work. My feet were aching and I had switched my mind to “autopilot” for the ride home, which I hoped would be short. I was absentmindedly digging in my purse for my notebook; I’m a compulsive list maker, and I figured I’d sketch out the next day’s schedule while on the subway.

That’s when I heard the music. Now, it’s not unusual to hear music in the New York City subway. It is a bit unusual, however, to hear really good music in the New York City subway. A sweet and gravelly female voice caught my ear and I walked closer, making my way through the crowd of people who had gathered to listen. The crowd was a cross-section of the city itself, filled with New York night-shifters of all ages and colors. I tossed some money in the open guitar case and took a flier. The band was called The Bill Murray Experience.

The members of the band all looked to be in their early 20s and they were playing blues and jazz standards. Backed by bass, banjo and guitar, the singer was also playing the washboard; her time was excellent, she was dead in tune, and most of all, she was performing with a palpable sense of joy. In fact, everyone in the band was swinging hard, and they all seemed to be having a great time. (Below: a YouTube clip of The Bill Murray Experience busking in Washington Square Park this summer.)

It takes something pretty special to make a crowd of tired, homeward-bound New Yorkers stop and pay attention, which is exactly what the Bill Murray Experience did. We all stood and listened to tunes like “St. Louis Blues” and “Shine,” totally engaged in the present moment. The Bill Murray Experience transformed the Union Square subway station into a 1920s-era speakeasy of sorts. Their exuberance was a reminder that the music of life is everywhere and that great beauty lives in the ordinary. So much for “autopilot.”

As a compulsive list-maker, I’ve added another item to my list of “Things I Love About New York”: on the most unremarkable of days, just when I least expect it, New York can provide a moment of Total. Consciousness. So I got that goin’ for me…which is nice.

Give me the simple life.

This is how my date with Dr. Bob made me feel.

This is how my date with Dr. Bob made me feel.

About ten years ago, I had a heinous date with a young anesthesiologist I’ll call Dr. Bob. Over the course of a seemingly interminable evening, young Dr. Bob lamented the state of his life:

Dr. Bob: I’m just so tired of people needing me all the time. I mean, I’m always getting these annoying phone calls in the middle of the night: “So-and-so is having her baby, can you come down right away?” It’s exhausting. I’m so sick of it.

Me: Um…you’re an anesthesiologist. Didn’t it occur to you during your 7 years of med school that people would be needing you?

Dr. Bob: Yeah, but I’m just saying I’m so sick of it. I’m not happy at all with my life right now. I’d rather be traveling or something.

Me: So quit. Do something else. Life’s short.

Magnet by the brilliant Anne Taintor

Magnet by the brilliant Anne Taintor

Dr. Bob: What are you, crazy!? Do you know how much time and money I’ve spent becoming a doctor? Do you know what kind of a lifestyle I’d have to give up? You totally don’t get it, do you?

Me: Check, please!

I went home, closed the door behind me with a sigh of relief, and realized that Dr. Bob had unwittingly just taught me about the vast chasm between “simple” and “easy.” Having invested many years and many more dollars becoming a doctor, Dr. Bob claimed to be extremely dissatisfied and not well suited to the medical profession. The simple answer, as far as I was concerned, was to change course completely and pursue a life that was both personally and professionally gratifying.

But changing horses in midstream, as it were, would invite a fair amount of upheaval and some anxiety, to say nothing of the logistical challenges involved. Such a bold course of action, saturated with the simple truth that life is too short to squander in unhappy pursuits, would not be easy to carry out, which is why Dr. Bob erupted in frustration.

We human beings have a persistent tendency to over-complicate our lives. But the expansive, 360-degree truth of who we are–who we are meant to be–is usually pretty simple, if we take the time to look for it. Oscar Wilde said it best:

Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.

Give me the simple life.

North Pole, South Pole

north_pole_MG0233My friend R. is a brilliant guitarist who spends a lot of time on the road. Road trips and trans-Atlantic flights can get long, and musicians tend to be a pretty funny bunch, which is, I suspect, how R.’s “North Pole, South Pole” game came into existence. The game goes something like this:

“Hey, Hil. North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather live in a remote village in Papua New Guinea with all your favorite records OR in New York City, but you’d never be able to hear music again?”

“Okay, North Pole, South Pole. Would you rather write ‘jazz is dead’ 5000 times on a chalkboard OR be forced to transcribe every note of a Shooby Taylor solo?”

And so on.

Now, it’s fun to play “North Pole, South Pole” on an endless road trip or after a couple of beers, but we engage in real-life “North Pole, South Pole” thinking at our own psychological peril. Regarding our life choices as binary, “either/or” propositions can actually leave us with some pretty miserable options:

“I can be an artist and live in abject poverty, OR I can give up my creativity and be financially stable.”

“I can have independence and a strong sense of self, OR I can sublimate my identity and be in a relationship with someone.”

“I can be liked OR I can say what I think.”

“I can have a career OR a family.”

At times, I’ve bought into every single one of the “North Pole, South Pole” scenarios listed above. But, invariably, whenever I start to paint the world in black-and-white, Life comes along and throws a bunch of gray onto the canvas. Free from “North Pole, South Pole” thinking, our choices, our challenges, become about balance. How can we:

weighing_the_balance_587x30…pursue our creative potential while maintaining financial solvency?

…connect wholeheartedly to our partners without losing our connection to our individuated Selves?

…articulate our own needs and ideas with the right blend of assertiveness and compassion?

…navigate the distance between our home life and our life’s work?

Pic2-3aSphereNot surprisingly, the answers to our biggest, most pressing questions can’t be found in a game of “North Pole, South Pole.” Truth, like people, tends to live somewhere in the middle.

Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing

6 scotches and a pack of Lucky Strikes for lunch?  Why, Don Draper, that's a marvelous idea!

6 scotches and a pack of Lucky Strikes for lunch? Why, Don Draper, that's a marvelous idea!

I watch Mad Men for a lot of reasons: the writing, the clothes, the glimpse into 1960s New York City, and especially the pantheon of mysterious characters.  Last night’s episode contained a subplot in which Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency, was trying to sell a diet cola vis-a-vis a re-creation of Ann-Margret’s iconic opening scene in Bye Bye Birdie.

The Sterling Cooper creative team found an Ann-Margret look-alike, wrote a catchy Bye Bye Birdie sound-alike jingle, and painstakingly reproduced every camera angle of the famous scene.  The executives from the diet cola company had been explicit in their request for an imitation of Ann-Margret’s star turn.  Yet, as they watched the carbon-copy commercial, uneasy glances were exchanged.  

The soda executives were finally forced to admit that, while they couldn’t put their fingers on it, something just wasn’t right about the commercial.  The ad executives at Sterling Cooper agreed, although they were also unable to pinpoint exactly what was wrong.

The soda executives and the ad men shook their heads, shook hands, and parted company.  A young ad exec, still puzzled, remarked that he didn’t understand what had gone wrong; the ad men had done exactly what the client requested, so what was the problem?  Why had the commercial bombed?

Roger Sterling, one of Sterling Cooper’s partners, had been silent the entire meeting.  Now, with the soda executives gone, he shrugged his shoulders and said with utter certainty: “She’s not Ann-Margret.”

When we’re trying to find our way as artists, regardless of our medium, it’s easy to fall into the trap of imitating successful artists in our genre.  The temptation to compare ourselves to artists we admire is great–and very dangerous.  You see, the trouble with imitation and comparison, as Mad Men so brilliantly illustrated, is this: an imitation will always invite comparison, and will always–always–fall short of the “real thing.”

Oh, the entertainment business will never stop trying to clone the big success stories.  Watch an episode of American Idol (if you can stomach it): every single singer is trying to emulate somebody else who has already “made it big.”  But at the end of the day, who would you rather listen to, Aretha Franklin, or an Aretha Franklin imitator?  

There is no one else on the planet who can be you.  No one can look just like you, no one can write, act, sing, dance, or speak exactly like you.  So it stands to reason, you’ll never be able to exactly reproduce the qualities that make someone else unique.  And that’s okay!  In fact, that’s the whole point.  Instead of trying to fit yourself into a mold created by someone else, celebrate your voice, your gift, your message.  The world is waiting.