It’s EDS Awareness Month and, appropriately enough for a milestone that occurs once per year, I have been contemplating the seasonal nature of life and the ways that a life with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome reflects that. This was further underscored when I stumbled upon this picture from 10 years ago this spring, taken at the beginning of my last-ever tour – more on that below.

Jazz Gallery, 2014 – photo by Kate Ten Eyck

More recently, this past December I had an invigorating and musically gratifying informal concert to celebrate my 50th birthday. It was so inspiring that I left with a renewed determination to move forward musically … whereupon I stopped seriously practicing for several months.

Wait, what? Okay, allow me to explain.

The week that followed, I was exhausted and the only thing I felt like doing at the piano was playing simple renditions of songs from my childhood (which is to say ‘80s pop tunes), and even that maybe a couple songs every other day. And then the holidays rolled around so I cut myself some slack. And then January. And February. Thanks to teaching, I still played a few minutes of modern jazz most days, which kept my chops from atrophying, but the motivation to “move forward” or “consolidate my momentum” was entirely nonexistent.

If this had been my first experience of “seasons” as a musician, I would have been rather worried. After all, who gets to the precipice of the mountaintop and then says “nah, I’m good” and then moseys back down? Was this my “thrill is gone” moment where my creative well ran dry? I still enjoyed engaging with music in numerous ways so that seemed unlikely, but more pertinently, I was not new to the manifestations of “seasons,” of different sorts and on different levels of scale.

One such experience came in 2009 upon finishing the Know Thyself suite, which was a comprehensively overwhelming experience both creatively and emotionally. It was clear that my tank was on “empty” at that point and each attempt I subsequently made to push my luck (for the sake of living up to my preconceptions of what it means to be a prolific artist who builds on each triumph by immediately leveraging the momentum towards the next pursuit) was met with deep inner resistance and abject weariness. I ultimately realized that the well would refill if I was tuned in to what I needed, or at least that if I didn’t heed those inner gifts (albeit seemingly inconvenient ones) of clarity, my relationship with my own creativity would degrade. Each time I’ve had a comparable experience since then has been less fraught for my having had that experience and recognizing that, for me, seemingly fallow periods are simply the other end of the coin of certain ambitious and whole-hearted pursuits.   

That “seasonal” realization wasn’t EDS-related but many have been. On a different level, a few years after that I realized I had come to dread performing in the winter. Being able to physically get through a gig presupposes a certain degree of blood flow and muscle/joint health that is hard for me to come by in cold weather, and even if the weather happened to be good on a given day, I was already emotionally worn out from obsessing over the forecast and navigating through pain and stiffness on the days I was supposed to be practicing diligently. So began the yearly “winter gig hibernation” routine that I’ve held onto ever since.

While that change was instituted purely to limit the extent to which I needed to play under physically compromised circumstances, I found that I was going into my spring gigs more inspired and eager because there had been some time for me to refuel. This is, of course, something that athletes with off-seasons know well; I suppose, even their fans can relate to the build-up of excitement that comes after having some downtime. People fond of seasonal produce tend to embrace that the absence of worthwhile peaches in New England in February makes tasting the fruit of August all the sweeter, literally and figuratively. But musicians, especially freelancers, seldom embrace that “seasonal” mentality by choice, so this change felt downright radical.

Then there are the “seasons” that don’t renew, the way the term is sometimes used to discuss phases of life, aging, and so on. Some of these are circumstances most folks find innocuous, such as moving on from childhood toys or Saturday morning cartoons. Some of these are as weighty as weighty gets, like facing down mortality and having to reconcile life without people we love. Sometimes we have agency over this (e.g. “the behaviors of my youthful partying days are no longer relevant” or “this piece of music from my childhood now occupies the realm of nostalgia” or “I’m now successful enough to say no to such-and-such”) and sometimes (mortality, life-changing injuries, job changes beyond our control, foods we can no longer digest without consequences) the world takes care of it for us, however much we may kick and scream and resist.

I had been pondering this as I realized that I had reached the milestone with which I began this essay – that it was ten years ago that I completed my final tour. Some finite milestones are only identifiable in hindsight – for example, the last time I walked off a tennis court (a few months after said final tour), I didn’t yet know that I was done, that took a series of medical visits and a period of contemplation to solidify. The Ripples album release tour, however, revealed itself in real time to be the end of a season.

(Note: I should clarify that a “tour” for me represents one of the following two things: performances on multiple consecutive days in different cities and/or a high concentration of geographically dispersed and not-necessarily-consecutive performances all revolving around a particular project or body of work. This is a caveat to distinguish from the “on the road for weeks or months at a time” level of touring of which my body has never been capable even in the barnstorming-from-my-1982-Volvo-station-wagon days of my mid-20s.)

In any case, this tour involved 10 stops in 8 states in a couple discrete chunks. With each late night and each bed-that-wasn’t-mine and each non-homecooked meal and each performance that extended beyond my body’s endurance, it was clear that I couldn’t do this again. Or, to be more accurate, that I wouldn’t do it again – the cost was higher than I’d be willing to pay moving forward, an important distinction as I had to take responsibility for that.

Interestingly, I enjoyed most of it – not just because I was savoring a last hurrah of sorts, but because it was genuinely fulfilling. I got to share high-quality music that I believed in with enthusiastic audiences in different places, playing with great musicians, chatting with different folks, seeing different places, cruising up the highway listening to and studying MLK’s oratory on books on tape. This is what makes the narrative counterintuitive in a sense – if it was agonizing, then explaining my decision would be more obvious and straightforward. As I was working on this, I saw a transcript from yesterday’s interview with the charming tennis player Alizé Cornet following the final match of her career. Discussing this transition (much more momentous than my own), she dropped the following gem: “What I will miss and not miss are pretty much the same thing.”

This is one of the silver linings of what those of us with EDS have experienced. Injured times and well times (or at least less-injured times) generally juxtapose in a back-and-forth flow, something rather different from the more conventional paradigm of expecting perpetual robust health to be a default state, viewing periods of injury and illness as an affront to one’s plans and viewing the likely eventual need to move on from an activity or capacity as the betrayal of a core entitlement. Anyone reading that sentence rationally can identify its absurdity easily, and yet when we combine the marketing techniques of the “wellness industry” with humans’ innate desire to look away from their frailty, it also makes sense why it’s so easy to lapse into that paradigm, just as so many of us lapse into taking for granted that we have certainty over the future in other ways that we know, rationally, are volatile.

In a way, the young man in this picture (is 40 young? I guess that’s another topic – sure seems that way now!) represents the last moment of obliviousness to the finite nature of that particular season, as the writing wasn’t really on the wall until the ride home from that first performance at the Jazz Gallery in NYC. I am grateful to him, though, for doing the soul searching in his 20s and 30s that made this particular shift feel like the latest in what he realized would be a lifetime of welcoming seasons, sometimes with open arms and sometimes with a layer of resentment, but welcoming them nonetheless. And as I lean into the enthusiasm of the current Spring, I am grateful not to be surprised that honoring the preceding Winter was an essential part of getting here. As such, I have to be grateful to EDS for helping prime me for that lesson – the joint flexibility is no fun, but if it has given me other kinds of flexibility, I won’t take that for granted.       


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