It’s a very contemplative moment for a couple reasons. One, we’re into December, with the next couple weeks serving as a suffocatingly (like, literally difficult to breathe sometimes) ominous march towards grim anniversaries of loss. Two, I just gave my last public performance of a year that brought me more in the way of stimulating musical collaboration than I’ve ever had, all undertaken by the skin of my teeth amidst an unusual degree of overwhelm (as evidenced by the fact that this is my first blog post in three months and the first one that isn’t a musical Top 10 list in seven, the longest such stretch since I began blogging in 2010). So it’s all kind of coming at me at once.
For reasons that I didn’t initially try too hard to identify, I’ve spent my fleeing moments of downtime over the past week and change reflecting on where I was 25 years ago (spurred, I suppose, by having missed my 25th HS reunion last weekend). 25 years ago I was wrapping up my first semester of college, living in a filthy, stinky apartment with a couple of sketchy roommates and no heat. I had few friends there (and was by that point estranged from the one close friend with which I began the semester) and limited access to my “offsite” friends (letters and expensive long-distance phone calls). I had just been informed that my wrist problems had been largely misdiagnosed and in the meantime I had followed the instructions of the misdiagnosing surgeon (who had operated on my right wrist a couple weeks before I began college) so well that not only had that wrist gotten a bit worse, but my left wrist had caught up in the meantime and gotten just as bad. The issues had grown so acute that it was excruciatingly painful to lift my backpack or a tray in the dining hall when I went for one of the 12 meals per week (skipping breakfast each day as well as lunch twice a week) on the meal plan I had chosen due to some sort of masochism and body image issues (justified internally under the credible but insincere guise of frugality).
Of course with wrist problems like that I was barely able to play the piano, the pursuit of which was pretty much the only reason I had landed there in the first place and the only reason (aside from stubborn determination not to return home) I chose to stay in spite of all of this. I had not begun studying with Kenny or Ted, the mentors who would most inspire and shape me as a musician, I hadn’t yet met Wanda or Caryl (the classical piano teacher and hand therapist, respectively, who would team up to help me crawl out of the gutter physically), and I was still months away from beginning to reconcile that seeing a therapist could be anything other than a) a humiliating admission that my image as a generally functional person was all a ruse and b) the opening of a floodgate that protected me from things that, unlike all the above circumstances, were well beyond what I could handle.
Mind you, I’m conscious that many people have it worse. I was hungry and cold, but not REALLY hungry and cold like others without regular meals or a roof. I was sad and depressed and lonely, but I was not despondent (I never once contemplated ending it all, for example) and was not without people in my life. But man, I was pretty miserable. One of the hardest parts was the added layer of disillusionment. My high school experience was by no means terrible (I wasn’t subjected to physical violence or significant bullying, aced my classes, had some friends, played some music, etc.), but I was depressed, anxious, and generally out of my element, and able to endure largely because of the reassurance that college would be different. And a few months in, it was even worse.
I now look back to those days with a certain type of fondness. Not fondness in the sense of positive nostalgia – indeed, thinking in any depth about it brings me back to having the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that on a good day back then would abate for maybe one or two of my waking hours. But something shifted for me in that time, specifically the deep awareness that I could endure.
There was this one moment in particular that I remember helping to sustain me. My “love life” was a non-starter (yet another thing I had banked on changing once in college) and at one point I asked a girl out; I wasn’t entirely sure about her but I’d become so desensitized to that feeling in the pit of the stomach that I just ignored it in this case. She said yes and then she cancelled the afternoon of the date, citing too much studying that she needed to do. So I went to a movie instead, and there she was with her friends. And I laughed – for whatever reason, it felt not like a slap in the face, but rather more like a private joke with the universe. And that moment of laughter, trivial and momentary though it may have been, broke the tension, reminded me to breathe, and gave me some smiles that made it easier to get through the next day.
I don’t precisely remember the next day, but I DO know that every moment of levity, every moment of kindness, every moment when a setback wasn’t as hard as I anticipated, all those moments cumulatively wound up being the nourishment that allowed me to endure. My life could hardly be more different now in terms of the resources I have, but it’s not hyperbole to say that the resource I value the most is my awareness of my capacity to endure. It’s not even the capacity itself (though obviously that’s important too), but my AWARENESS of that capacity is what allows me to stay out of certain rabbit holes of despair and know that adversity won’t break me. Even that assertion is largely spiritual in nature – I can’t say for certain that life will never break my body or even my heart beyond repair, but my soul can withstand the beating and hold out for a clearing. That’s pretty much what I expect the next couple weeks to be – I know it’ll hurt like hell and it’s likely that I’ll still be there on the other side, and that’s enough to sustain me for now.
As a postscript, just this morning I thought about the beginning of the following semester, the winter of 1993. My wrists were getting marginally better and I was starting to have people want to play music with me. My relationship with my estranged friend was getting marginally better. One of my sketchy roommates left, replaced by a not-sketchy one. I was starting to write letters to this cool girl who was in college in Rhode Island. Objectively speaking it was still a pretty rough time, but I felt so good to be seeing any positive things happen that I felt alive and encouraged. This was the reward for enduring. Subtle though it may sometimes be, there is always a reward for enduring.