It’s Friday, May 8 2020. Outside my window up here in Central Maine, welcome signs of life. I bought my first, new house in the last week of December in 2019 so my mental image of this place is in its deadened state. Murky, muddy. Unkempt. Years of unraked leaves and fallen pine branches strewn across the backyard. Salt-stained snow piled up on the sidewalk along the front of the house, creating this barrier of winter filth. The front porch, nothing more than a rotted, futile utility. Used cigarette butts, dirty diapers, and Humpty Dumpty potato chip bags from vagrant passersby, and sadly even automobile driving litterers. Selfish bastards wouldn’t even leave any free samples. The condition of the house was dank and Central Maine winters are successful agents of additional insalubriousness. Let’s not even speak of the garage and the bounty of firewood it will become in a year or two.
Still, when I signed the papers and closed on the house, unlocked the door, and walked into the kitchen dreams are made of: oven fire scorch marks on the celling and vinyl wallflowers winking at me, all of it, so what, it was mine. I will never forget that first tear into the decades old, cat-soaked carpet, symbolic of my mark on this charming 1944 Cape Cod, nestled in a concealed third of an acre on one of Waterville’s main arteries to US Interstate 95. The amount of pride, and relief, I felt knowing I had a place of my own as I fight my way screaming into the early stages of middle age. This, after years of being a full-time student and freelancer for a decade+ and with a plethora of suspect living arrangements during that time. In this house, I wasn’t walking into uninspected territory on faith after a cross-country flight. In this house, my roommate wouldn’t threaten to kill me in my sleep-in kitchen pantry because I wouldn’t pay for underage, underdressed seasonal workers to clean up after his pets and late night Triscuit binges. In this house, I wasn’t at risk of being lit on fire by the self-proclaimed “Bleach Queen” for using unidentifiable plates in communal cupboards. In this house, I knew my landlord wouldn’t have two punched-out black eyes from unsuccessful drug deals. In this house, I wouldn’t find out ex-girlfriends were sleeping in my bed unless I invited them, of course. In this house, I knew Eric Carle paper mache puppets weren’t going to ambush me in the middle of the night. In this house, I make the decision whether or not to sell it off to a developer to build high rise condos or a Whole Foods. This house is not the backseat of my car after a mental or emotional breakdown. Or several.
So no, the house isn’t perfect. Neither am I. In all those other living arrangements, I’m sure I didn’t make the most of them, either. I know I could have been more graceful about my way of being in and out of those spaces. But this house, like my mind and body, is mine. It’s mine to build on. It’s mine to take care of. To improve and optimize. To pour boundless romanticism into it. I mean, Kennedy Memorial Drive of all places is the most appropriate place to ask this question: Ask not what your house can do for you…you know the rest. To get there, I forced myself to ask the hard questions about who I am. How I treat and interact with others. What my work is in the world, and what it isn’t or shouldn’t be. Behaviours I needed to change. Strengths I could capitalize on. Things I needed to let go. Things I could never let go of, ever. December 2019 was the month I felt like the greatest gift I could give to anyone in the world would be the commencement of an old version of myself, wrapped in a bow, mailed to an undisclosed address. To fully embrace this next stage in my life with peace and quiet – externally and internally. To live a life more selflessly, more thoughtfully, more intentionally, yet still keep the fire burning for art, passion, truth, and life’s great adventures. Less “settling down” than “settling in.”
In January of 2020 B.C. I spent the month prior to Colby College’s spring semester frantically preparing the house and spent very little time with others. I joked about being in quarantine as I painted, scraped, and consumed far too many low rent pizzas. Despite this new-found love for my domestic proclivities my wanderlust will eventually take hold. I made one trip with my lifelong best friend, collaborator, and travel companion to Montpelier, Vermont, where we bought a round of maple lattes and climbed the top of the Hubbard Park Tower, overlooking the luscious landscape of Vermont’s Green Mountains. At the tower’s summit was a prophetic painting on one of the tower’s protective iron bars. “Time is running out,” with a sand timer ominously nearly emptied. As an American culture, we frequently chide our political and environmental state and make frivolous yet uncomfortably truthful asides about the apocalypse. My GenZ students would simply call this “nihilistic humour.” I photographed the graffiti by the unidentified guru and posted it to Instagram for, ready for this? A laugh. The irony of an Armageddonist augury at the onset of “new decade, new me-ism” captured the shortly lived zeitgeist of the time. Hindsight really is 2020.
And then, Coronavirus.
Fast forward to Tuesday, 05 May 2020. As if there weren’t enough bad news on a minute-by-minute basis, a widely disseminated report about the end of choral music as we know it for two years. Like the stock market crash of our own Great Depression, thousands of choral directors and vocational and professional vocalists alike saw the world tumble down on them. This week I sat in on numerous phone calls and Zoom meetings with industry professionals and have read the argument and countless counter arguments over, and over, and over. The organizations of which I serve leadership roles have asked for my response.
They say gardening during periods of forced stillness make for the most bountiful harvests. Right now, on my window sill, sit ten cups of pumpkins plants I’ve started inside since it is still too cold to plant them in the ground. The last time I attempted pumpkins was years ago and it was a half-hearted failed attempt with little research, care, or time. Using compost from an old bin the former owners left behind, I scooped about fourteen cups of compost and planted seeds from packets and remnants of last year’s purchased pumpkins. Three to five seeds per cup, set on their sides because apparently, they grow faster that way. Every other day I water them but every day I talk to them. On recommendation from a dear friend, I turn the cups every so often as to play fair with the rotation of the sun. Without any real serious knowledge about growing things but simply reading and learning for the first time, in three weeks I now have ten plants with full, lush leaves. In a couple of weeks, I will consider planting them outside and letting them go in the wild. I don’t have kids but is it silly that I already dread the empty nest syndrome? Over these past months as our world’s physical, mental, and economic health rapidly declines by rates unseen in over a century I grasp at straws to find ways to relieve my spirit and restore my faith in a life beyond the pandemic. In the words of Kacey Musgraves, “I’m alright with a slow burn.” Sure, my unabashed love for anything autumnal will keep my heart racing through the spring and summer months, but these pumpkins right now even in their earliest stages gives me great hope for what is to come. Four cups of pumpkins were overcome by worms and didn’t survive. But it made room for the other ten to thrive. They’ve been great companions.
Even when things look like they’ve all died, things still grow in nature. Much like the state of our choral world right now. Just because things have ceased doesn’t mean everything has stopped. It may look different and we may be naturally resistant to change. We may have to embrace new options for concert production and community development. It will be taxing on so many fronts, from time to resources. Friendships to finances. But to say it Is the end is a notion I cannot abide by. I cannot make any suggestions for how anyone else processes grief because it’s not my experience nor is it my place. As for the groups I maintain leadership with, I make certain assurances that I will do everything in my power to help our organizations maintain their place in the hearts, ears, and minds of our devoted audience families. Like these pumpkins, I will watch how other progressive leaders in industries musical and non-musical and how they are able to create and connect people by any means necessary. As I can, I hope to make partnerships and alliances with organizations and companies across our economy in hopes that sharing of ideas can lead to most unexpected and extraordinary outcomes. These ideas come from seeds, sown from materials in our past that look dead but are very much alive on a molecular level. And then?
This whole Coronavirus pandemic is a shock to our respective ecosystems on levels macro and micro. It is indicative of the unfortunate reality that our global immune system has been depleted for far too long. We have run the gears of our respective hamster wheels down to inoperable levels and they needed to be replaced anyway. I see this on college campuses and professional ensembles every day – if we don’t x, y, and z right now, every minute of every hour, then there will no longer be an alphabet with which to spell our names and write our checks. Insurmountable anxiety is crippling and our economy is crippled. As such, it hasn’t much changed. From the millions of job losses or furloughs or lost gigs to millions working from home and believe it or not, Harvard Business Review has found that “With most of us working from home these days, Americans’ workday has increased by 40% – roughly 3 hours a day – the largest increase in the world.” to the millions still on the jobs outside of the home and working an increased number of hours without the appropriate remuneration to show for it. Let’s not speak of the number of cases and deaths in our country alone. We are glued to our devices, you don’t need me to tell you about that. For choral directors, voice teachers, and arts administrators who will now have to fight even harder for validity due to the destructive conclusions drawn by the mass dissemination of articles brought about by events such as Tuesday’s, a job already exigent in regular times, it is critical for us to invite time to be on our side as much as possible. In the course of a day our emotions can run from rope to rope: desolation, frustration, elation, isolation, reflection, lack of direction, joy, fear, hope, anger, confusion, delusion, hunger, thirst, jump in bed first, never get out, never let in all in a 24 hour span. Now. If all of that can take place in such a short amount of time imagine what medicine and science could look like tomorrow. Or a month from now. I will not and cannot predict the future and assume things will be better or worse but what I can almost be certain of is that things will not look the same. So before we throw it all away or post/share our own demise can we take the information that we have and learn, and think, and create, and try those plant those seeds now so that we can make the most of this forced time we’re given to actually watch them grow little by little, day by day? Like the pumpkins or any crop for a first-time gardener you cannot sustain yourself on the fruits of your labour without planting the seed. For skilled greenthumbs or even the largest family or factory farms the most sustainable depend on crop rotation, too, right? We NEED to change and switch around our gardens. That takes TiME. I know it’s hard to fathom with so much of our world fast and fleeting at our fingertips. Our greatest technological conveniences can be our own worst enemies.
Conversely, for some, we might need technology to survive. It seems hypocritical of me to admonish technology as I am also encouraging you to listen to this podcast and learn how to create digitally. Even if you don’t, and if you belong to a singing organization that can survive without activity for a while due to familiarity, accessibility, or locality, singing and vocal communication is not a skill that will disappear in two years. Especially if we as leaders and lovers continue to use our voices anyway. As much as we can, no matter how.
While we live in times of both fear and hope, may we allow ourselves to see life in death, and in loss, opportunity. If it’s too late for you to grow pumpkins, herbs grow all year round. Rosemary, oregano, and of course, thyme.