Reconnecting.

I bought a guitar yesterday. Well, technically I put some money down on it and will be paying it off next week. But I’m excited about it. It’s an old guitar (it’s from the 80’s—and yes, it occurred to me that guitars from back then can legitimately be called “old” now) and it was really comfortable to play. I liked the way it sounded, and… yeah, done! That was it. (The guitar was also under budget, which made it feel extra good.)

The larger purpose here, and why I mention this in my blog, is because I’m going through a process of intentionally reconnecting with myself. That phrase may not make much sense on the surface, so let me explain.

Way back in college, at the end of my freshman year, I became a Christian. And I don’t mean “Christian” like a Methodist or a Lutheran or something ineffectual like that. I mean that I became part of the evangelical subculture. It was serious business.

I still remember one of my first post-conversion encounters with a longtime Christian. I was at a sort of summer camp for Christians (? not really sure about its purpose, other than to make college students more Christian-y). I was noodling around on an acoustic guitar one evening, talking with a few people about the music that I liked. (I believe that I had mentioned Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.) Some random guy came up to me and said, “I would really encourage you to give all that stuff up.” Which is the evangelical passive-aggressive way of saying “you won’t be right with Jesus until you get rid of your demon music.”

My first thought was “who the fuck is this guy?” But I was young and naive, and I was also the new kid on the block. So, okay. Maybe he has a point, I thought. Maybe I would be better off without these “secular” influences in my life. I was bummed though, because I had just bought the newest Rush album, and I guess that was going to have to go.

Nevertheless, I did end up following through on his suggestion. Later that summer, I bought an album by a Christian rock band called Petra (one of the replacement bands recommended to me), and tried to like it. Very hard. The music was not anything I would have been drawn to stylistically, and it was a sort of cheap knock-off version of it at that. The message did resonate with me, however. I was trying to ground my new faith, and the lyrics were filled with “you can do it” encouragement and bold, declarative statements. (Looking back, I wonder why this reasurance would have been necessary.)

So I kept that album, and slowly started weeding out my non-Christian music. Eventually I got to the point where I had nothing but Christian CDs in my collection (including more Petra albums). During that time, I had developed an instinctive negative reaction to secular music. The lyrics expressed uncertainty, doubt, negativity; all the things I had come to mistrust as an evangelical Christian. I was afraid of where such thoughts might take me, though I never expressed exactly why that was frightening to me.

Despite all this, I found myself a few years later remarking that I still resonated more with something like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” than any Christian album that I had listened to. And I thought that there was something wrong with that. I had started to become aware that some Christian music was superficial and overly simplistic in its prescribed solutions to life’s problems. (As I liked to put it at the time, an issue would be raised in the first verse, and get resolved by the second chorus.) But rather than challenge the big picture of what I had bought into, I thought that the answer lay in creating Christian music that contained the same level of vulnerability (and to be honest, artistry) as the music that I had formerly appreciated, while still containing a Christian message.

What I was playing around the edges at, and what I later came to realize fully, was that the entire belief system of Christianity was “superficial and overly simplistic”. But it took me a very long time, and the jolt of some very bad experiences, to come to grips with this. In the meantime, however, I was still firmly entrenched in the religion. To the extent that I set out to create my own Christian music, which hopefully would meet the criteria of vulnerability and artistry that I had set for it. While still of course containing a Christian message.

Ironically, the story I came up with to undergird this music was of a young man who became a Christian and found himself isolated, from himself and others, in a world of phony religiosity. Even then I was trying to tell myself something.

But there’s that phrase again. “Isolated from himself”. I had created a false persona, and told myself that that was the real me. Because that’s how the religion works. You are instructed to “die to yourself”, which means that everything about you is now on the chopping block. Because it may be infected by sin, and probably is. So you have to excise all of that stuff, and replace it with Jesus. (If this sounds like voluntary brainwashing, it’s because it is.)

That’s why I got rid of all my CDs. That’s why I systematically isolated myself from all of my non-Christian college friends. And that’s why I decided that post-graduation, I was going to enroll in seminary, with the hope of becoming a “Christian musician”.

But I had long since stopped listening to myself. Instead, I was listening to the narrative that had been sold to me (and which I had accepted). According to that narrative, I had to be willing to sacrifice anything that was important to me, the way Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own child because God had told him to do so. I had held on to music (because that was something you could still do as a Christian), though I eventually jumped at the chance to become a church worship leader, singing and playing exactly the kind of superficial, overly simplistic music that I had previously rejected. And when even that was taken away, I said “okay” and didn’t fight it.

So what I’m trying to do now, what has been long overdue, is to reconnect with myself. To ask myself “what do I like?” Because I had spent so many years believing that question to be irrelevant. What is important to me? Well, music, for one thing. More important, however, is that I even ask the question. That’s really what I’m after here. To get practiced at this.

Why? Because, let’s face it, I’ve only got one life here. I’m already “not young” anymore, even if I don’t qualify as “old” yet. And I don’t want to end up like another Willy Loman, getting to the end of my life and lamenting what could have been. A huge part of that, as I’ve learned recently, is to stop being passive about my own life. To take responsibility for myself. (This is also a huge part of combating anxiety / depression. Because it feels shitty to think that you don’t have any control over your life, and it feels great to realize that you actually do.)

So I bought a guitar.

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Guitar shopping.

I didn’t write yesterday morning as I usually do, because I was out with a friend at a guitar store. But I see that as a natural outgrowth of what I’ve been doing here. One of the most important things that I’ve learned in recent months is the need to listen to myself, and then to act upon whatever it is that I might hear. To do something about it.

So that’s what I did. And it was a great time. I learned a lot, talked a lot, and figured out more about what I’m after musically, or artistically, or perhaps in life (never being one to shy away from a metaphor).

Here’s what happened. I went to this store not really sure about what I might be looking for. My intent was (and is) to buy an electric guitar, so that I can start playing and hopefully recording again. But what kind of electric guitar? There are a million to choose from, as the very large store we went to attested. I had some ideas, and I knew the basic varieties that were out there, but I wanted to find the one that was right for me (taking into account everything that I’ve learned about music and guitar playing over the past 25 years).

So I looked over a bunch of Fenders and Gibsons (the Fords and Chevys of guitars), and found myself shrugging and saying, “Okay, sure…?” Both had their own distinctive qualities, and both were very different from one another. I knew all this. Every guitar player knows this. But I just wasn’t inspired by either one.

Because what it always came down to for me was, what would I be giving up if I bought one kind over the other? I like certain things about Fender guitars, and I like certain things about Gibson guitars. But I don’t like either enough to pick one of them and be happy with it. I would always be second-guessing whichever decision I made. And I have done this in years past, as I went from one guitar to the next, never satisfied.

As you can tell, and as I realized yesterday, I was really overthinking it. I could have gone back and forth forever, debating pros and cons in my head. When all the time I was feeling no real pull toward either one. There was no passion for any of these guitars, no connection to them. Even when I went over to look at the Paul Reed Smith guitars (the most successful hybrid of Fender and Gibson guitars), I felt nothing. I’d been here before. Driven by the same obsessive need to find “the right guitar” for me.

All of this, I realized, was in my head. When I took a step back, I realized that I didn’t care about any of it. What I was feeling was a desire for something a bit quirky, a bit weird. Like some random piece of shit guitar that had been traded in a while ago, and was currently hanging on a hook at the back of the store.

And here’s the funny thing about that: when I envisioned such a guitar, I didn’t imagine any particular configuration or design or anything. It was like all of that stuff didn’t even matter, when it came right down to it. I just wanted something fun that had character. Whatever that might be.

Here’s where the metaphor comes in. I’ve spent years of my life second-guessing decisions that I’ve made, or thinking obsessively through what I think I need in order to find “the right life” for me. I need this, I don’t want that. Or maybe I do want that, but I don’t need this. Bla bla bla. None of it leads anywhere, and none of it is connected to what’s really going on inside me.

Because what I really want is to be happy. That’s all there is to it. And all of the circular thinking about pros and cons and this and that have nothing to do with happiness. Because when I am happy—when I pick up that fun, quirky piece of shit guitar—it doesn’t matter what it has and what it doesn’t have. What matters is that I’m feeling inspired.

This is what I’ve found to be true in life. When I’m feeling connected to myself, and to those around me, the specific circumstances of life matter very little. Everyone’s life has pros and cons. Because that’s the way life is. But that’s not what matters. What matters is just picking up the guitar, no matter how dinged up or weatherbeaten it may be, and making music with it.

Wanderlust.

I did one of those BuzzFeed quizzes this past week. I don’t even remember what it was about, but one of the questions was: “What would you do if you won the lottery?” One of the options was “Travel the world”, and without hesitating I clicked on that one.

Which seemed odd to me at the time. I’ve done plenty of traveling in my life. I’ve been to eight different countries that I can remember offhand, as well as a bunch of places within the US (including Hawaii and Alaska!). I’ve always thought that I was done with all of that, that all I wanted to do now was find the right place to live, and park it there for the duration.

But the more I thought about it, the more I felt like “travel” was something I still wanted to do. I don’t know where I’d like to go exactly, or how I would accomplish this (traveling costs money), but I realized that I’m not as ready to settle as I thought I was.

I’ve never felt completely at home in the US. It’s certainly familiar to me, and I get the culture and the people. But I don’t know how much of a connection I feel to it. No doubt this is partially due to the fact that I spent five years of my childhood overseas, in places that were most definitely not America. Also, my mother was born and raised in Australia, so I’ve always had a conscious sense of being “half-American”.

In more recent years, my gradual shift away from religion toward atheism (preceded by a corresponding political shift) has highlighted this feeling of disconnectedness. America is a religious nation. I’m not. Truth be told, I’m sick to death of religion, of the very idea of it. I’ve found myself wondering recently where someone might go if they wanted to live in a country where they wouldn’t have to worry about the influence of religion in politics, in society, in culture. Does such a place exist? I’m not sure.

I think what I’m really looking for is a place where I can regain (or perhaps, “gain”) a connection to my surroundings. I’d like to want to be where I am. I’ve spent almost the past six years wishing I weren’t living in the place where I’m living. It’s not that I don’t like it here. It’s that I hate living here. I’m sure that for some people, exurban Illinois is a lovely place. But for a half-American liberal atheist like myself, it’s not.

I do want to travel again. If only to remind myself that there are other people and places out there. To feel a sense of internal validation. To know that yes, the things I value, think and feel are shared by others, somewhere. Or maybe just to get away from this crushing sense of isolation.

Maybe I do just need to find the right place. Somewhere where my internal warning system can finally take itself off of high alert. It’s been blaring at me for years, telling me that something needs my attention. And I’ve been ignoring it. Trying to, anyway. As I’ve learned by now, ignoring urgent messages from myself is where anxiety and depression originate. But I’m not sure what to do about this one.

Because it isn’t just about me. Wherever I go, I take five other people with me. Who may not necessarily want to go anywhere. And so far, my resolution to this issue has been to put their needs ahead of my own. Which is fine, because there is a part of me that likes to be reassured that I’m taking care of my family. But there is another part of me that is dissatisfied with this.

My long-term resolution to this issue, at least in my mind, has been to tell myself, “someday”. As in, “once the kids are grown”, in another eleven years. Which is kind of a long time. (Twice as long as I’ve lived here in Illinois already.) I wonder if I’ll be able to last that long. And what I will do in the meantime.

I mean, I have to do something. I don’t have any answers, but as I wrote last week, I have been making baby steps back toward prioritizing the things that are important to me. I went out to a music store that day, and I think I’ll do the same today as well. It’s not everything, but it is something. And it does help. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

 

Meedley meedley mee.

Last week I wrote about music. It’s been on my mind ever since. So I’ve decided to start doing something about that. Today I’m going out to a guitar store, or several. Just to see what’s out there. It’s been a long time and I’m out of the loop.

Plus, I love guitar stores. I just love being there, surrounded by instruments and amps and racks of cables and strings. All of it. It’s my natural habitat. And noodling around with a bunch of different guitars is super fun for me.

Mostly, I’m looking forward to it as an exercise in listening. Not to the guitars, but to myself. I want to play a bunch of different guitars and see what I resonate with. I’m not planning to buy anything. I just want to listen.

It’ll be good practice for me. And it’ll be good to be pursuing something that I’m passionate about. I find that that kind of clarity is contagious. Once I learn how to hear the voice that says “yeah, this matches up with you”, it becomes easier to recognize it in other areas of my life.

That’s really all that I have to say right now. But I’m still checking in to mark what I hope is some forward progress on this path.

What do I want?

What do I want?

That’s a hard question for me to answer. I’m not used to thinking that way. For the past eleven years, I’ve been in a career that I don’t have any interest in pursuing. Eleven years ago, I had lost what in retrospect was a short-lived job as a music minister in the church. Nevertheless, that job had represented the culmination of all my career aspirations to that point. And really, it had represented the culmination of all my life aspirations as well. Ministry has a way of becoming both.

But it was gone, and I had to find something else quickly. So I found a headhunter, did a job search, and ended up at the company that I’m still working for today.

I have told that story many times to illustrate how my life is fucked right now, and why everyone should feel sorry for me. This was something that happened to me. Life (circumstances, other people, whatever) conspired against me. All I could do was react to it, as best I could. The ship had gone down, and I had survived by clinging to a life preserver.

I’ll be honest; I still don’t think I’ve gotten over that loss. Even my choice of phrasing—”right now”—shows you just how present this still is for me, even after all this time. I still think of my current career as a temp job, and that any day now I’ll get to switch to something else. I’ve been telling myself this for a very long time.

But I don’t think that this tells the entire story. “Eleven years ago” wasn’t the first time that I decided that my own needs or desires weren’t important. I had already been in the habit of thinking that way. The job I left in order to start working at the church was itself born out of necessity, as was the job I had before that. I had no real interest in either one, but we needed the money.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting a job and making money, but I didn’t take the time to consider how I might try to match up “we need the money” with something I might actually enjoy doing. I saw both of those jobs as interruptions of a dream that I was pursuing (namely, to be a musician). But I did what I had to do. And I hated it, and resented the situation that had created this necessity.

Prior to that point, I had been enrolled in a post-graduate program at a nearby seminary. It was in fact the reason why I had moved to the area in the first place. I was going to get a master’s degree (focusing on “Christianity and contemporary culture”) to help me with music ministry. Because I had felt that that was my calling in life.

This “calling” had first started to coalesce in my mind when I was a junior in college. At the time, I was struggling with a psychology major and was looking for a way out of it. I had no interest in psychology as a career, but I had initially chosen it as a major because I didn’t know what else to do. But since becoming a Christian at the end of my first year in college, a new path had opened up to me. I could be a Christian musician. That sounded a lot better to me than psychology.

Because I already knew that I wanted to be a musician. I had known it since I first started playing guitar when I was seventeen. I hadn’t really wanted to go to college at all (because what did that have to do with being a musician?), but I felt that I had to, because that’s just what you did after highschool. It was time to pursue a career and make money.

It’s been “time to pursue a career” for a long time. And I’ve allowed fear, insecurity and obligation to keep me in that place. So what do I do? Quit my job? Honestly, that sounds like a great idea to me right now. As I sit here and read over this, I see patterns that I’d never put together before. A constant battle between what I want to do, and what is expected of me. I don’t think I’ve ever resolved it.

At this point I have to sigh and roll my eyes a little. Of course my dream couldn’t be something like “being an accountant”. There’s a clearly defined career path for that. Not to mention my own career, which seems to have become something related to information technology and compliance. There’s a clearly defined path for that as well. And if I may say so, I’ve actually done pretty well for myself at it.

But I don’t care. Oh my God, I don’t care. I could leave my job tomorrow and never look back. But then what? The abyss of uncertainty that would lie before me is the same thing that I have always faced whenever I start to seriously consider a career switch to “musician”. Because there is no clearly defined path for that. Most musicians have day jobs, and never quit them. It’s not something you do for money. And we still need money.

But I do know that music is the only thing that has made me happy.

This is where I’m going to leave it, because the fact is that there is no neat or easy resolution to this. When I was a Christian, one of the biggest things that annoyed me about Christian music was how a song would introduce a problem, and then resolve it by the final chorus. That’s not how life is. It’s not how my life is. I don’t have an answer.

But I would like a final chorus.

Clocking in.

It’s going to be a long weekend.

Three days off from work might seem like a good thing, but when you’ve been avoiding dealing with difficult situations at home, it feels more like purgatory. Because I don’t have the distraction of work to keep me occupied. It’s just me and the family. And everything that that entails.

My thought right now is that I want to get out of the house, while everyone is still asleep. Rather than sit here at the computer, writing. I know that my time is limited. And already, as I type this, one of the kids is waking up. The stillness, the silence—like the surface of a lake in the early morning—is starting to break apart, as focus and concentration now start to become more difficult.

I’ve been around long enough to recognize the symptoms of depression. I’ve been dealing with it for about twenty years. And I know that “inability to focus or concentrate” is one of the symptoms. I can feel it inside, too. The rising levels of stress hormones, the shallower breathing. Life is awakening, and I must soon report for duty.

It occurred to me a while back that we need three adults in order to effectively manage everything at home. Last night, however, I realized that we actually need four. But we don’t have four; we have two. We are understaffed. And overworked.

In the midst of this, not much time remains for… well, me. I don’t even know that I could define myself to another person without mentioning my family. The lives of these five other people are intertwined with my own. Though that is a more poetic word than I might choose, if I were to be honest. “Fused in an unholy melding of flesh and bone” seems more fitting.

Even as I write, I feel the judgment. “Time for you? How selfish can you be?” Well, the fact is, it wasn’t too long ago that I found myself at the door of a depression treatment facility. Am I all better now? Well, I’m better. I can say that much. I’ve learned more about how to manage myself. And it’s been helpful.

But managing the situations around me? I don’t have many answers there. I know that I would definitely be capable of living on my own. Taking care of everything that needed to be done. Wouldn’t be a problem. But as you add more people to the mix… well, that’s when things start to become shaky. And I’m not sure if it’s just the fact of more people, or if it’s my sense of responsibility for them. Probably both.

I think I’m just sick of people needing me. And that may sound even more selfish. But it’s the truth. I don’t have enough to give, every day. The tank is empty. And I’ve seen what happens when I take a step back. My absence is missed. Things—and people—fall through the cracks.

So here I sit, at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, looking forward to going back to work again on Tuesday. Because “work” is the least stressful part of my day. At work, everyone has their own area of responsibility. We have job titles! I know what I have to do, and what others have to do. The boundaries are clear. And the work is manageable. The fact that I’m not emotionally invested in my work seems almost beside the point.

Or perhaps that is the point. It’s easier to shut down the computer at the end of the day than it is to tuck your family in at night. Because if there’s something that I miss at work, I can always get to it the next day. But for these five other people in my house, it doesn’t work that way. I am emotionally invested in them, and the work day never truly ends. It is with me from the moment I wake up in the morning, to the moment I fall asleep at night. And as I wrote last week, it isn’t getting easier.

Am I wrong to say that I want a new job?

The thing nobody tells you.

When I was 25 years old, I became responsible for another person’s life. This person started out very small, and looked a lot like his mother. Or did he look a lot like me? It depended on the angle.

When it came time to name him, my head was filled with the names of Bible heroes of the past. Which one would it be? From the outset I was attaching mythic significance to the birth of my first child. As if he were Simba, to be displayed before all the other animals while stirring music played in the background.

Our second son was born four years later. Again the names of Bible heroes came to mind, but we settled on the name of a beloved family member. It was still Biblical in origin, but to us the name was meaningful for the person it represented.

Our third son came along two years later. Perhaps representative of the changing focus of our lives, the idea for his name came not from the Bible or a family member, but his oldest brother, who used the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a source of inspiration.

Finally, we had our daughter. Once again, two years after the last. We picked her name because …we just liked it. It was a strong name; not too girlie.

By this point our oldest was eight years old. Then four, then two. Plus the newborn. I’m not gonna lie; it was easier back then. Yes, we had four kids. (Four!) But they were kids. They weren’t really people yet.

And that’s the thing nobody tells you.

Sooner or later, everything you know of raising children will get upended and dumped on the floor. You will find that whatever parenting skills you had before, are now irrelevant. Because eventually, your child will cease to be a child. They will become a person.

As in, a fully-functional, autonomous human being with their own opinions and thoughts, prejudices and passions, worries and hopes. Go pluck a random person off the street and start raising them in your house. Tell them what to do and when to do it, and see how they respond. This is what parenting is now like for you.

It’s what parenting is now like for us.

Am I complaining? Not really. It’s more shock than anything else. The shock of realizing that I am almost literally back to square one as a parent. I thought I had learned something. And sure, I have. I’ve learned how to raise children. But I haven’t learned how to raise adults.

My mom used to tell me, during my teenage years, that there was no manual for being a parent. I imagine that she said this with some measure of frustration or perhaps bewilderment. Because that’s how I feel now. Utterly clueless. And utterly unprepared.

I had always believed that children somehow just magically morphed into adults, the way caterpillars turn into butterflies. They would go inside the cocoon of puberty, and emerge in dazzling color, soaring off into the sky as people oohed and aahed.

Yeah, it’s not like that.

How do you navigate “parenthood” when your job as a parent is simultaneously to provide structure and encourage independence? And I mean real independence, not “he can ride his bike by himself now”. Decision-making. Managing emotional well-being. All of the things that are part of the adult experience.

I have no idea. That’s my answer to that question. I really don’t know. I am an authority figure at a time when peer relationships are of much greater importance to my son, developmentally speaking. I’m “the man”. The establishment. The system against which my son must naturally rebel.

I feel powerless, essentially. My oldest child is growing up, and the others are quickly following behind. I’m not often nostalgic for earlier times as a parent, but I sometimes feel that if I could only speak to my children in that language—the language of yesteryear, when they were toddlers, or preschoolers—then I could make them understand. I could make them see.

See what?

That I just want to protect them. I want to hold them and keep them safe from the big bad world, which is practically at our doorstep now. But I have no language with which to communicate this. I feel like my hands are tied, because my children are growing up, and that is as it should be. They are distancing themselves from me, because that is part of the separation.

What I never realized is that I would be inside the cocoon as the butterfly was being formed. That I would have a front row seat to all the change and mutation, the uncertainty and confusion, and that I would be changed just as much by the process.

In a way, it’s like going through adolescence all over again. And I know that no one told me that.