Updated: Oct 26
After nearly a full year since I last wrote here in The Running Pianist, it is finally time to share some new and relevant thoughts. This writing project began out of a personal need to share ideas which I felt to be valuable, and with the hope that these shared ideas would resonate with others on some level.
Today, I'm going to pull back the camera to capture a wide shot encompassing much more of life than music and running through the lens of kindness. At the risk of melting into inspirational quotes and broad, surface-level one-liners, I assure you that my thoughts on this subject are grounded, real, and as tangible as such concepts can be in one's life. These are realizations, many of which are seemingly quite simple, which have had a major impact on my health, creativity, and enjoyment of life.
In the midst of a months-long pandemic with lock-downs, curfews, and limits on social interaction, it is possible for a subtle depression to set in. Days may begin to melt into each other, and daily structure is reduced to waking and going to sleep (Sometimes multiple times in one day).
This happened to me, and with this hazy slog came the burden of negative productivity. You might think that with seemingly much more time, one would be able to accomplish a whole lot, and to sink into all of those forever-postponed life activities - reading a book you've always wanted to, exercising more, making elaborate meals, becoming an interestingly brilliant person, or whatever it may be.
If you pile these new casual expectations onto an already stressful life of responsibilities, the result can be incapacitating. Just a few months ago, I found myself facing a wall of to-dos, real and imagined responsibilities, and a raft of potential projects of varying size and involvement. The result of this outlook was a lack of motivation, overwhelmed brain and body, and days that continually disappeared without anything on any of my lists getting done.
I was doubling back on my already overwhelming situation, making it all more difficult and less productive by putting too much pressure on myself to get everything done. Now.
Doing something is better than doing a whole lot of nothing, and sometimes doing nothing is the something that needs to happen (Catch that?). It's an ongoing personal struggle of mine to prioritize what needs to get done, and to balance expectations to create a productive, healthy approach to any number of projects and life endeavors.
It has also been important for me to take stock of the blessings and fortune in my life. I say all of this knowing how lucky I am with my situation. Still, there have been key recognizable actions which I have been able to put forth to help work with the deluge of life stuff.
Start With One Note
If you are a musician of any sort, you can take this advice literally. If you're a runner, start with one step. If you are neither, you can take it figuratively and apply it to your own life.
"When you’re tired, you need rest. But if you’re in a rut, you need to nudge yourself into action."
As simple as it sounds, this is simply heartfelt advice to start with a single something with whatever you need/want to get done. Even if it means having 74 other undone tasks, the direction, motivation, and energy you can obtain by putting your focus on one thing can be life-changing, truly. Moving that one thing forward even a bit can alleviate weight where you may have had no awareness of weight. It can switch up energy, introduce new ideas, produce those feel-good brain chemicals which will eventually help every other aspect of your life. Take this as a human-to-human encouragement to not do everything, just do one single small thing. Just to start.
I recently found myself with a collection of commissions ranging from urgent "must-dos" to composition projects which I thought of as "want-to-dos". With the addition of one more project, a switch in my brain went off and it was suddenly, "too much".
Nothing else in my life had changed, but the perception of being overloaded and failing at figuratively treading water meant that I was hit with a feeling of despair. All of these projects, any of which would be thrilling and energizing individually, were suddenly teaming up and killing my inspiration and productivity, while also awakening in my belly a sinking pit of stress.
"I sat down at the piano and played a single loud chord."
After weeks of living through this feeling of helplessness and remaining completely stationary in all projects, I sat down at the piano and played a single loud chord. Simply the feeling of playing a chord tapped into all of the muscle memory and emotional memory which had been slumbering somewhere in my being. More importantly, this single act of "doing", however directionless and unplanned it was, became an act of faith in myself. It became a tangible something which I could move along with in whichever direction I may be headed.
It is important to be honest with yourself and to carry the realization that you are the only person to have ever been living in your unique situation. Allowing yourself the freedom from your own expectations can be valuable, especially in stressful periods of time. The more you can support yourself, the easier it will be to deal with the barrage of existence from the rest of the world.
Casually Relentless Bombardment
Especially via virtual channels, the world can seem endlessly productive and successful. It can also seem relentlessly hopeless if you have flipped through any news coverage over the past year. Without completely desensitizing yourself to anything, acknowledge that both the unnaturally positive and the unbearably negative forces are not real-life balances. Sure, most of the social media posts you see are real people doing real things, and the news you see from credible sources actually happened, but they are the outliers and do not reflect the balance of life.
Generally people only post online publicly when it is something they want people to see. Similarly, unremarkable things do not usually make for interesting reporting. These may seem to be simple observations, but make sure to check in with yourself to be aware of how much high-strung energy you are internalizing from outside forces. People's lives are not a picture-perfect stream of posts, even if that's what they want and try to present.
Along with the above idea, with a new year, come the inevitable New Year's Resolutions, challenges, streaks, and prolonged initiatives: "Practice and post every day", "Workout every day and tell the world about it", "Create life-changing art every odd-numbered day". Besides the worn-out New Year's Resolutions, there are countless other initiatives which people create, or join in the new calendar year.
Many of these are admirable and come from a good place, but if you are not taking part in one, it can make you feel as though you're being left behind. Being completely aware of this, I still almost got caught up in a couple this most recent turn of the calendar. I felt guilty for not throwing myself into a challenge which would hold me accountable day-in and day-out for the indefinite future.
I felt this guilt until I simply, but profoundly, realized that it was not my right time, and that that was okay. There's nothing inherently wrong with resolutions or challenges, especially if they fit in well with your own development and lifestyle. The problems live with the mismatching of challenge and intention. Find the inspiration and the appropriate means of developing that for yourself when you feel it is the right time.
"...realized that it was not my right time, and that that was okay."
Therein lies a new difficulty in there never being a "perfect time" for those things you've always wanted to do, but there's a difference in the actual right time, and postponing out of fear, or unwillingness to try. Know why you're putting something off, and then trust in yourself and reevaluate as necessary.
Again, much of what I am writing here seems blatantly obvious, but I truly needed to hear these words not too long ago. I wish I would have read some of this laid out in a clear format and I will probably need to read them in the future too. So, here they are for you and me.
Living in an in-ordinarily stressful time comes with unseen tension and stress. There is a hidden toll to living through a pandemic. In addition to the bombardment from outside forces (Flipping through the news), there is a drastic change to routine and expectations.
These are also only some of the new forces we must face if in a fortunate place of having a relatively stable daily life. Those who are battling the pandemic from the front, or with more responsibility in caring for people's lives and well-being currently have a much more intense and difficult existence. To them I am so very thankful.
Humans are generally creatures of habit. Even if one has a wild lifestyle with a spontaneous foundation, that personal decision has been made to create that lifestyle, and is thus the created habit of unpredictability. When that unpredictability is thrust upon us, especially for those who do not desire it, it's unsettling and draining. These changes in daily life are processed mentally, emotionally, and physically, sometimes without our awareness.
This has been especially relevant for me while on the occasional winter run, finding myself drained from the very first steps. Our energies are much more depleted than normal, just trying to cope with the uncertainty, and the unnerving stress of every day. It is important to recognize this and to be kind to ourselves. Re-inventing expectations and adjusting our motivations behind our exercise in stressful times can be especially valuable.
"...it might be time to adjust your mindset and simply use running as a tool to make you feel good."
- Brittany Hambleton (Canadian Running)
Our bodies are starting on a different level of fatigue than we are used to. Recognize this, adjust accordingly, and take it easy on yourself.
What I Needed to Hear:
Be Kind to Yourself
In stressful times, we often overlook our own health and our own value. The kindness which we extend to others often is not applied to ourselves, and that can have lasting unseen damage. Self-care and focus on ourselves can sometimes be presented as selfish, and I know that I sometimes prioritize many other activities over my own health. How we treat ourselves will be reflected in how we treat other people. Take care of yourself.
Do your best to take care of the duties you have. Have kids? Take care of them as best you can. Have work and other life responsibilities? Do your best to take care of them. Anything on top of these is a bonus and should be applauded, however small and insignificant these things may seem. Extraordinary times require extraordinary kindness. Allow all of the good and the bad - allow everything and work with it to your best abilities.
"Extraordinary times require extraordinary kindness."
Allow room even for failure, and for the willingness to not name experiences failures. The changed landscape of success and what that constitutes should encourage you to move your markers, adjust your self-analysis, and celebrate small steps, even if it's simply making it through another day.
"The struggle is definitely real. It’s no wonder that many composers throughout history have struggled with mental health issues. The myth of the tortured genius still — unfortunately — looms large in the public imagination."
Allow space for change and adaptation, if only temporarily. This is not necessarily the time to excel, but rather the time to look inward, reflect, take stock of our values, and to live out moment by moment knowing that it all helps in our growth.
Be Kind to Others:
Honest and open communication can allow more space for kindness and understanding. Someone with whom you are communicating may think their project is the only item on your priority list. Without making excuses, simply remain open about your responsibilities, timelines, and lay out expectations accordingly.
Everyone is human, even if they don't act it sometimes, and if people can't act in a human way with empathy, perhaps they're not worth working with (if you have that flexibility). That's a bold and broad statement, but it's something that has become more important and central to me recently.
In a related note, those who are a joy to work with and for, are people who I am likely to remover fondly, respect more deeply, and desire to spend moments with in the future. Be one of those people.
Kindness to others is also recognizing that your struggles, seen and unseen, are mirrored in other people. The simple acknowledgment of this can lead to an understanding empathy in your interactions. Although we are all alone on Earth in many ways, we are also all in this together at the same time. Connect with others in earnest ways, and allow space for understanding.
My language throughout this post has been intentional: "allowing" many forces, rather than pushing or falsely creating. Awareness goes hand-in-hand with a release and an allowance of the forces you can and cannot control. Simply allowing for failure, re-imagination, understanding, empathy, difficulties, growth, changes, and countless other complex aspects of life can lead to a more sincere existence.
A Hopeful Tangent
I have a new final segment to my posts for the indefinite future, as long as this world pandemic directly affects us. I'm guessing we could all use a pick-me-up daily, and I simply want to provide a piece of music, or a story, or a profile which I have found calming, inspiring, beautiful, or uplifting. I won't write much else about it, but simply provide another tangent that you can follow which will hopefully provide a bit of light in your day.
If you have any comments or ideas for future topics, please write below - I'm always up for suggestions! You can also subscribe to The Running Pianist Newsletter with your email here, and check me out on Instagram here.
Coming Up Next: 07. "Memory & Memories"