Living Alone. 

It’s Saturday night and I’m sitting on my balcony overlooking the Thames, enjoying the cool breeze, the night air, and the music coming from the party boats as they pass below. It’s simply lovely. 


This first week of rehearsals for Jenufa have been amazing. I love my colleagues, the music staff, this city, and the work. The process of finding this character and walking through her incredibly heartbreaking journey has been more exausting than any other role I’ve sung. Every moment of the opera is real, important, and intense. Each day this week, I have left the flat around 9:30am, returned around 6pm, and crashed in bed by 9:30, completely spent. I spend the rehearsals being thrown around by emotional men, calapsing on the floor in anger, anguish, and horror, and vocally experimenting with color, word stress, dynamics, and tempi. I have loved every minute of it and am excited to start up again on Tuesday, but know I also very much need some rest. 

The work is wonderful and incredibly familiar. No matter where I am, the music is the music and the craft is the craft. This, I know and understand. Days off are another matter altogether. After spending the past 8 years studying and being a young artist, my time has never been my own. Young artists tend to be in multiple shows at once, so a day off on one show means a rehearsal for another. On the rare day off, it usually had to be spent preparing for upcoming recitals, auditions, and the next opera. This is the first time in my singing history when I can just focus on one thing of the time being. My next role won’t start until the end of August and I actually have it mostly learned already. I can finally allow myself to do one thing well, without feeling over extended. This wont always be the case, as my career progresses, the hope is that it will be filled with work, but for now, I’m going to enjoy this luxury. 

However, this time also begs a brand new issue. The daily markers in my day have been stripped. My Chicago apartment, neighborhood, routine, regular workplace, and especially the people who walked through daily life with me. While I am an introvert, the people in my life are vitally important to me. I have nothing short of utterly fantastic people in my life. My friends and family have always been deliberate in being witnesses to my life. I am a verbal processor and love to dissect in discussion and debate my day, experiences, world events, philisophical and theological concepts, and my work. Suddenly leaving the constant of having people who know me and enjoy the same thing around every day has made me take pause and figure out what it is to live without physical witnesses present in my day to day life.


It’s been odd to not actually feel lonely, but to suddenly be highly aware of being alone. It isn’t accompanied by sadness or longing, just the curiosity of how to find and feel tangible meaning in day to day life, when meaning use to come from the verbally processing what I had just lived with those around me. Skype is amazing. I’ve already had multiple skype dates with friends, family, nieces and nephews, and, even with the time difference, have lots of wonderful people checking in, asking about my day, and always making me feel remembered. So, again, this experience isn’t of being lonely, just literally, physically alone. It’s also different from every time I’ve moved to a new place by myself. I’m not here long enough to need to find friends outside of my work colleagues (who I LOVE getting to know and will also continue to be constants throughout my career). I’m in a temporary, resigned state of being physically alone. It seems obvious, but is still an experience I’ve had to process. 

An interesting development has been that, as the presence of people has declined, my awareness of the presence of God has increased. I have a constant, sweet, feeling of companionship always in how I experience God, but being alone highlights this in a really beautiful way. Perhaps this is why I am not lonely. I don’t actually FEEL alone as I go about my day, just void of human presence. I do have a witness to each and every moment, it just doesn’t look or feel the same as with people. What I love the most about this is that I can experience and process my day without having to explain myself or deal with the frustration of not being understood accurately. I am completely known. Recent events over the past year have shown me how fundamentally important being known and understood is to me. It is the core of all my close relationships and I have a deep desire to know others in this same way. I love “getting” people and feeling like they “get” me. 

It’s been interesting for me to process through this aspect of my relationship with God in recent years. Most people who know me, know my love of the intellectual side to faith, my desire to understand, to challenge and to be challenged, and to engage with people who agree and disagree with me. As someone who isn’t a “high feeler”, my emotional experience of God often looks different from many of those I’m around in my faith communities. My relationship with God isn’t a fiery struggle through anger and trust to overwhelming exuberance, nor is it cold, complacent acceptance; it has simply been a steady deepening, a slow revealing of Himself and who I am, and a constant in life’s losses, changes, and struggles. As it turns out, what I value the most in my close human relationships is exactly how I feel about God. And I love that. 

And, it seems this blog may end up being a place I do my “verbal processing”. As I sit here watching the umpteenth party boat go by, I’m simply feeling grateful for where I am, the love and joy I have in my life, and the Constant that gives meaning to it all. 

*It should be stated that of all the party boats, I’m torn between wanting to be on the one playing swing music and the one playing Whitney Houston/Michael Jackson… However, I am certain I would massively avoid the one playing the Macarena. 

What I am learning about myself.

I am currently sitting in the Hamburg airport, waiting for my flight to Zurich, so I can catch my flight to Munich tomorrow to continue my audition tour. I am in the midst of three major career Firsts: 

1. My first European audition tour.

2. My first non-young artist opera role as Jenufa. 

3. My first international job singing said role in London. 

I’ve spent the past two months preparing for my role in Jenufa at English National Opera, booking flights and hotels throughout Zurich, Hamburg, Munich, and Geneva, brushing up on my audition arias, figuring out an international phone plan, attempting to pack as light as possible for 2 1/2 months in Europe, and singing gigs around the Chicago area. It’s been a whirlwind of preparation and, essentially, limbo. In the midst of the chaos of planning and preparing, I discovered a wonderful and difficult aspect of my personality. I am extremely present focused. I am constantly living and experiencing the moment, which is one reason I tend to not live in a state of high anxiety or angst. I don’t dwell on the past and I don’t fret over the future. I am here. This is one reason I never procrastinate. If there is something particularly important in the future, my way of dealing with the possible anxiety it might cause is to bring the thing into the present. If I deal with it now, I can just take care of it. It’s one reason I almost always had my school papers done days or sometimes weeks in advance. 


This trait has generally been a blessing in my life. It keeps me from living in angst, allows me to be prepared or over-prepared for my singing gigs, and is probably also why I arrive obsessively early for everything. However, preparing for this massive life change from being a young artist to a working singer has revealed a struggle with this little trait. 

What do I do when I HAVE to wait and can only prepare so much? 

The last week before I left for Europe was overwhelming and incredibly stress inducing. I had my planning planned out and whenever something didn’t go as planned, I flipped out. My switch to a phone company with a good international plan was suppose to be a smooth transition the Monday before my Friday flight. I had checked weeks earlier and assumed it would be an easy check off of my to-do list. It was not. Turns out my number couldn’t transfer to this particular company. I didn’t want to lose my number of 15 years, and after 2 hours in the store, decided to go with a portable wifi device. That night, around 10pm, I happened to read a review of the device which read “WARNING: DOES NOT WORK INTERNATIONALLY”. I had a mini panic attack at the thought of showing up in Europe with no cell service or google maps. I then was up for the next 3 hours googling solutions and emailing my friends in London. 

The next day, I went back to the phone store and we figured out a fairly simple solution and after two more hours of setting up the solution, I left with my phone plan. It was a fairly simple fix, but since the solution came much after I wanted it to, I had lived in panic for half a day. 

Before boarding my first plane to Zurich, fairly jet-lagged, I obsessively planned my train routes and took screen shots, in case I lose service. I find myself dealing with some anxiety as I do this, since all I can do is plan. As soon as I’m off the plane, DOING the traveling, I am fine. It seems so ridiculous. I am a fully capable adult, with decent enough German and in cities where they all speak English. But I also experienced this kind of anxiety about traveling to NYC the first number of times. 

The irony in all of this is that the thing that SHOULD be stressful, the actual auditions, are the place where I feel the most relaxed. I feel prepared, know myself and my voice, and LOVE getting the chance to sing some of my favorite pieces on these beautiful German and Swiss stages. I guess I can still be grateful for this, even if it does baffle me that I’m not nervous at all. 


I think the other thing this pre-traveling anxiety boils down to is my dislike of the idea of “Adventure.” I have NO interest in getting outside of my comfort zone and routine to explore or do something exciting…. Especially alone. If I have a companion or know the place, I’m all for it. But I would never choose to go on an adventure. 

This realization, during my stressful weeks of preparation, scared me a bit. That IS my career. I will spend my life traveling to new (and old) places alone, figuring out how to get around, and getting out to see the sites. I can’t get around this. I was terrified that this trip would teach me that I will HATE the career/life path I’m on. That I would lock myself in the hotel room of whatever city I had traveled to and stay where it was safe and familiar. 

HOWEVER… 

This is not what is happening. I should NOT have assumed anything about myself during those weeks of preparing for 3 GIANT firsts in my life (one huge change/event is bound to bring a good amount of anxiety, much less THREE). As soon as I stepped off the plane in Zurich, I just slowly started figuring out where to go, I used my favorite German phrase: “Sprechen Sie English,” and I allowed myself to look like an idiot when I did something wrong or misunderstood. Once the adventure was in the present, I was fine and actually found joy in my surroundings and the experience. I love the German and Swiss people and the Counties are stunning. I’ve developed a deep desire to REALLY learn German; I find myself jealous of every person around me who is fluent. 


I’ve had a feeling that this next career step was going to reveal a lot about myself and I’m already finding that to be true, even though I haven’t even started up the job in London yet. I can now be aware that, when anxiety hits in my travel preparation, my fear of not currently having control is to blame. I am learning that I will, not only, be okay, but will learn, adapt, enjoy, and thrive. 

I know this blog has been silent for quite a while, but I hope to revive it. I will have lots to report, process, learn, and express over the next couple of months. I beg your forgiveness for ramblings… Hopefully some of it will come out cohesive and interesting. 

Fact: Listening is Stressful

Did you hear that?

 

 

Listen.

 

 

That is the sound of silence.

Not the Simon and Garfunkel variety, but the beautiful, mythical-seeming kind – the absence of static, white noise, and the general chaos of life.

It has been silent at the blog this month. At first, the silence was circumstantial – life just got too busy. But then, thanks to my second husband, DIP (Nick’s Dissertation-In-Progress), it became intentional.

DIP and the family spent the past several Sunday afternoons having a party at the lab trying to iron out the kinks in the data collection process.

The girls happily hung out in the adjacent room with Miss iPad, our trusty babysitter. DIP and Nick hung out at the computer command center pushing buttons and trying not be frustrated. I hung out like this:

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I know it looks like I was just sitting there, staring at a computer screen. But in reality, I was listening to and repeating inane sentences (stockings in large sizes are hard to sell) being subconsciously stressed. Not just because Nick made me sit for long periods of time without shaking my legs or twirling my hair (sitting still is physically painful for me). It’s because listening is just stressful.

Yup. It’s a fact. In a process that is beyond the scope of my pathetic understanding of hearing science, when you decide to listen to something, your body predictably and involuntarily freaks out just a wee bit. This is a physiologic stress response called listening effort.

The body has a stress response when listening in quiet, and a bigger response when listening in noise. When Nick had me listen with white noise in the background, he recorded a higher level of stress, even for sentences that I had no trouble understanding. It is a universal, completely involuntary response to noise – even when you can comprehend perfectly fine, more noise equals more stress.

The last couple of years we have tried to intentionally observe the season of Advent as a family. It started as a way to refocus the season on the reconciling peace, joy, and love of the birth of Christ. But this year, it became more than a protest against Christmas consumerism. It became the impetus for a cultural shift in our family.

Advent is a season that embodies expectant hope. Joyful patience. Watching and waiting. Listening.

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Listening.

Sitting there in the lab, failing miserably at not moving, it struck me. The holiday season is where we do everything – decorating, purchasing, wrapping, baking, celebrating – in the name of relationship. For our families and friends. For our neighbors and teachers. For those in need.

I wear my stress like a badge of honor, as proof of how much I care. And inevitably, finding the time to sit down and listen – to my husband, to my kids, to my friends, to God – never quite materializes. I hunker down, close my door and my ears, and chisel away at my list of love activities. I always seem to be snippy. I never feel very loving. I just want to be left alone.

Listening effort – a beautiful advent metaphor. Trying to listen in the ambient (and oft self-induced) noise of the holidays just pushes me over my stress threshold. My brain rebels, screaming “TOO MUCH!” Autopilot switches on, shutting down my desire and ability to truly listen.

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In a season where Nick and I have decided to place extra emphasis on the practice of watching, waiting and listening – to each other and to that whispering voice that invites us to participate in healing those around us – I needed to be able to listen without putting myself (and my family!) in perpetual fight-or-flight mode. I knew this year I had to turn down the self-induced noise and limit our exposure to the rest.

So the blog, among other things, fell silent for this season. Once I created a space to listen, almost immediately a handful of friends reached out. Friends standing at life-altering crossroads. Friends staring into inexhaustible heartache. Friends who just needed someone to listen. And, for the first time during the holiday season, I had the time, energy and desire to be present with them and listen.

Our gifts to others this year have been simple, our activities limited, and our house is not clean, but it feels right. I feel like we are where we need to be.

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Laura is entering a season of huge responsibility and limited time, so she and I will revisit our blog format after the holidays. But until then, I hope you too can respond to DIP and turn down your noise to truly listen in peace.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Two sisters. Divergent lives. Exposing the fabulous. Savoring the common. Eliminating the Fear Of Missing Out.