Home is where the harmony is

My very first year with my new choir is just coming to a close. It would be a touch hyperbolic to say I’ve loved every minute, but it’s actually been surprisingly close to that. Not for a single second have I doubted that I made the right decision in leaving my previous choir for this one; the group and the music we’ve made have just been a better fit for me in every way — except driving distance, but there could have been no beating the fact that my previous choir rehearsed less than five minutes from my house.

In the three years I was with [redacted], I learned hardly anyone’s name outside of my own section and knew virtually nothing about any of my fellow musicians. If they had quirks and personalities, I wasn’t allowed to see them, and I wasn’t allowed to show mine. It was designed to be that way. No Talking During Rehearsal. No Disruptive Behavior. No Addressing the Director Personally. All Questions or Comments Routed Through Section Leaders.

I understand, I do. It’s not like I’m a screwball and I resented the structure; far from it. Sacrifices have to be made in the name of excellence, and you don’t perfect your craft by screwing around. You do it through hard work and dedication. But rules do not produce those things. Caring. That’s the only thing that can make a person try hard enough to become great at something. I care a whole lot about the music on my own and I always have, and I take my responsibility to it very seriously. That’s something I’ve always been able to bring to any choir I’ve been a part of. I have a great deal of respect for fellow musicians who work the same way. What some directors (and some choirs) never realize, though, is that it’s possible to go beyond that. Caring about the music is one thing, but when you become invested in each other, as a choir, when you care about each individual member as well, your own sense of personal responsibility grows exponentially. You not only want to do right by the music, and by your own talents, you also don’t want to fail your fellow artists.

I’m not trying to trash talk a group I’m no longer a part of. They’re good people who love to sing, and I got a lot out of my time with them that was precious to me and deeply necessary. What I’m trying to say is that from the start of my very first rehearsal with this choir, I felt so much more a part of both the group and of the music that I knew I was where I belonged. After three years with the other choir, I was still “the new girl.”

Our final rehearsal of the season was tonight. On Monday we’ll be giving our final concert. I have a small solo which, despite being small, is a big deal to me. I lost confidence in my voice somewhere in the ten or so years that I stopped singing. Part of me feels I must have been the last choice for this solo and everyone else must have turned it down, while another part is cockily insisting that I’m the best possible choice what am I talking about. The rest of me says, Alyssa, it’s twelve bars out of at least an hour of music. No one cares about your blip on the radar. Shut up and sing your notes, and stop being so self-absorbed. (Still a big deal to me. Still nervous about ruining the entire song by giving it an awful start, and in turn creating a bad vibe that persists throughout the rest of the concert. And my song is only second in the program. It may be self-absorbed and I may be overthinking, but I’ve seen this happen. I’ve been aboard this particular kind of sinking ship before.)

So I’m jittery. But also excited. I get to make music with a group of people who love what they’re doing as much as I do. Also feeling the impending loss of music in my life for the next three months and starting to get wistful about that. (Yet one more thing summer takes from me. It’s looking like we will never be friends.)

But mainly it seems like what I’m trying to say here is: music.


So one of the screens on my tablet displays a thumbnail of the last website I visited, the last music played, and a random slideshow from my photo gallery.

That’s how it happened that Richard Armitage had suddenly taken over my screen.

the day Richard took over my screen

There are worse things.

(Also, I am well aware that I’m long overdue for a post of substance.  I’m still here and chugging away; the hot months are just very difficult for me.  In many ways.  Full cognitive function to return soon, I hope.)

Here but not really

I don’t know what came over me last night, but I had a strange experience at the piano.

When I sat down to it and put my fingers to the keys, the sound that came out of the instrument took me by unpleasant surprise.  At first it seemed to me as though somehow every note on the piano had gone flat by a whole step since the last time I’d played.  Then, as I moved through more bars, it felt like I was hearing the music I was playing for the first time.  It was unfamiliar.  After a while longer, I had a sensation like there was something between me and the music, some kind of membrane preventing full contact, forcing a layer of removal. I became overly fixated on the process of making the music, because the music itself was out of reach.  And in such a state, the process itself came to feel very awkward and mechanical indeed.

I have a sneaking, unpleasant feeling that I’ve been in this place before.  That this is where I was in the years just before my diagnosis, right before I had a nervous breakdown and failed out of school one semester short of my degree.  That it may be why I gave up on music for so many years.  I’m suddenly reminded of how much it hurt me when Lucas said to Danielle, “Sometimes you just stop hearing it.”  I don’t want to stop hearing it.  Without art, without music, without the creative instinct, I’m not Alyssa.  I’m not even alive.

Background to the fore

June is here, with all that entails.  Needless to say, it is very hot right now.  As per the yearly ritual, I’ve been diving through my photos to find a cooling image to live on my desktop for the next few months.  I collect pictures of snow and water year-round for just this purpose. I’d share the wallpaper I settled on if I remembered where it came from so I could link to the source.

I will, however, share the full version of the blog’s background photo.  Because it’s my photo, and so I own the rights to it, and I’m proud of it, and I attach many pleasant (and cool) memories to the experience of taking it.

Phipps Conservatory Pittsburgh, PA

Phipps Conservatory
Pittsburgh, PA

“This gentle and unforc’d accord… sits smiling to my heart”

This summer has been an actual battle.

I say that with a certain amount of willful optimism, implying that summer is approaching something like an end, when in fact in the Valley of the Sun we could easily be looking at another two months of temperatures over 100°F.  That’s just how Phoenix rolls.

When the heat took hold and the dimensions of my world shrank in the name of self-preservation, I thrashed against the captivity like a caged tiger.  My very literal physical confinement quite naturally led to the surfacing of all the other ways in which I’ve been feeling limited.  And, being trapped with myself and my thoughts, there was little I could do but huddle in my hole and stew.  I flailed miserably against my novel all through the month of June, ultimately deleting more than I walked away with by an alarming margin.

July made it worse in some ways, as the heat deepened and the monsoons rolled in with their humidity to make us truly suffer; and with my son off staying with relatives for the entire month, I found myself suddenly without any tangible responsibility. It was mind-boggling how quickly I embraced the nothing I was able to get away with doing.  But it soon became clear that my avoidance of the sun was quite literally making me ill – clinical depression brought on by vitamin D deficiency.

Even as my general ability to anything dwindled, that trapped feeling was brimming over, exploding into something volcanic and destructive.  I needed out, and I needed it any way I could get it.  Dark thoughts in the midst of the sun’s ascendancy.

Now, Depression and I are old friends and I know its knock by heart.  I know not to listen to ideas that aren’t being spoken in my true voice.  But that helplessness, that need to escape, to do something, was real.  Unfortunately, so are all of the familiar limitations that daily hold me where I am.  There were two things, only two, that I could exert any control over in the depth of summer’s hell, and I dove into those as if to save my life.

Because it was.

My novel: I’ve vowed to finish it by the end of the year, and I mean it.  I’m tired of being vaguely embarrassed to tell people I’m a writer just because it hasn’t been monetarily rewarding.  I’m also tired of being too poor to handle my daily life, and having no recourse to do anything about that because no one will hire a thirty-three-year-old autistic woman with limited work experience.  Well, if I can’t get hired, then I just need to earn money at the thing I’m good at.  I don’t want this book to feel like it has to save my life, but it kind of does.  (Don’t tell the novel.  It’s under enough pressure as it is. /whisper) So I’ve spent the summer hacking away at this word count, some days with a feverish urgency because the more trapped I felt, the more I needed my writing to save me.  Every time I hit a snag, I begged the novel to behave because we don’t have time for that.  I need out now.  The poor novel has done the best it could.

The only other aspect of my life I had the power to effect any change over was my attention to my health.  I dove into that too, because it was all I could do.  Knowing I needed some sun, but obviously unable to get it healthily in the middle of the day, I made a choice.  I’ve always struggled with insomnia, and I mean that struggled quite dynamically.  I fight it, trying to force my clock to conform to social norms, only ever ending up the worse (and more sleep-deprived) for it.  But this summer, with no spawn in the house and no one to make demands upon my daylight hours, I made a decision to go full vampire.  Completely flipped my schedule.  I didn’t want to be up and moving around and trying to do things during the hottest part of the day anyway. I did this ostensibly so that I could get out for a brisk walk in the mornings at dawn, before the worst of the heat set in, but there have been other benefits as well.

I’m getting my 6-8 hours of sleep every day for the first time in a decade and a half, now that I’m not fighting my body’s natural rhythm and trying to take them at night when my mind is most alert and active.  I would say it’s miraculous, except it’s more like I should have thought of this years ago.  My family isn’t exactly on board with this, but you know.  They have their struggles and I have mine and we all have to deal.  And this is me, dealing.

But the other unintended side-effect has been that the surrender, the laying down of arms against my body’s sleep cycle, has led somewhat organically to a more cooperative approach to my writing.  Instead of seeing my own creativity as an adversary needing to be conquered by the forces of productivity, I’ve been able to accept the flow of ideas as helpful even when they don’t ultimately lead me where I want to go.

Part of this has been a direct result of the hour-long walks I’ve been taking before the world has awoken, because in the silence and solitude I am naturally inclined to explore dialogue and creative concepts.  Sometimes it’s hard to get it all down on paper when I get home, and not everything I write ends up being useful, but surplus is the opposite of the problem I’ve been having until now and I’ll take it.  Mainly, though, I really think this sudden relative ease in my writing is just the lack of struggle.  I’ve stopped fighting myself, at least in this.

And, strangely, I’ve even found things to love about my little corner of Hell since I started venturing out with the sun:

The clouds at dawn. The stillness of the world in that hour before morning shakes off night’s silence.  The utter freedom of being out beneath the sky at an hour that belongs to no one.  The inexplicable colony of lovebirds living in the neighbors’ Royal Palm.  The dog that still barks at me every morning as I pass his chain-link fence, even though he started recognizing me weeks ago; he wags his tail now while he makes his usual ruckus.  The baby cock that thinks he can crow like a man, and tells us so every sunrise in his reedy little voice.  The dawn-light on those ageing blue crackle-painted louvers.  The contrast of the fuzzy black carpenter bees against the wall of glossy white lilies.  The scent of ripe figs telling me I’m coming close to the crumbling old brick building at the end of the neighborhood.  The cats who watch me pass from their comedic safe spot, wedged in beneath the eaves.  Familiar faces whose names I’ll never know greeting me with a nod and a smile as we pass, we alone moving through a world not yet awake.

As the approaching equinox chases dawn deeper into the morning, I know I’ll be sharing my quiet hour with more of my neighbors, so the solitude has been a gift that only summer could give. And for that I must thank it.

This remains a place I know I can’t go on calling home forever.  If there’s one thing I took away from the depth of my desperation, it’s that Phoenix cannot be all there ever is to my life.  We are not and never will be friends.  But for as long as we are forced to deal with each other, we may as well accept a wary truce.

July taught me this

Things I’ve learned since I started taking daily walks at dawn:

  • There is far more action around here at 5 a.m. than is decent — which is to say any
  • I walk funny
  • Phoenix sucks so bad that even at dawn it’s not exactly tolerable outside
  • Someone’s peach-faced Lovebirds seem to have escaped and formed a commune in the Royal Palms around here, and at first I thought I was seeing things when I spotted them up there
  • When you’re completely alone, and the only sounds are the wind, the birds, and the distant hum of morning traffic just getting underway, the natural inclination is eventually to talk to yourself. Or maybe I’m just crazy.
  • Talking to yourself at dawn in near-complete isolation while revisiting familiar territory is the perfect time to run dialogue for flow
  • Or maybe I’m just crazy
  • Moving around at dawn makes me question my sanity
  • Uncoincidentally, moving around at dawn makes me wax philosophical
  • We have a foothold situation in progress re. the feline population

Dying every day

I really need to get out of this town.

For most of the year, our mutual hatred for one another simmers down to a low background murmur of discontentment I can mostly ignore. My neighborhood is bad, so I don’t go on walks or bike rides as often as I would like to. Culture is nearly non-existent, so I don’t get out much. Drive times are horrific and the scenery terrible, so I occasionally talk myself out of seeing my friends and family. I’ve never been a fan of desert vegetation — I find it harsh and alien and I have never been able to feel at home in it — and water is a rarity, so visits to public parks aren’t exactly the tranquil retreats I’d like them to be. But, I don’t know, my family is here and so is my husband’s job and my teenager’s life and the college degree I’m only a semester short of if I ever get back to it, and the cost of living is tolerable. And I’m frankly too poor to uproot and make a life somewhere else. So I deal.

But then May comes around and the temperatures start to rise. A panic sets in. I know I’m about to lose what mobility and social life I vaguely cling to. Sometimes I entirely deplete my store of financial and emotional resources living as though I’ve been given a terminal diagnosis. Because it’s sort of true.

June arrives, and I am rendered literally housebound by Nature. In the same way that winter robs people in northern climates of their mobility with blizzards and killing cold, summer in Phoenix takes tyrannical control of my life. My interaction with the world outside shrinks to its barest minimum, necessities only. I could tell you how long it’s been since I last left my house, but it’s maybe just a little too sad. Cabin fever set in a long time ago, but just stepping outside to collect the mail is enough to remind me why I’m not getting out more. There’s nothing good about living in a place where you need a shower just because you spent thirty seconds beyond the reach of your central air.

For the first few weeks of summer, this hermit-like living is too instinctive, driven by sheerest self-preservation, to inspire much grief. Indeed, it’s hard to think anything at all when the a/c is running nearly constantly and still can’t dispel the heat.

Then I realize it’s July and I’ve spent an entire month dying slowly. I realize this place is killing me. Because this, what I’m doing now, what the heat has made of me, is not living. And it’s going to be literally months still before summer lets me out again. Months of my life every year are lost to this tyranny. The bars of the cage come into focus. I’m bursting with plans and ambitions I cannot realize because they require me to step outside. I’m filled with restless longing, twitching with it, sick with it. And it’s just so hot out there, so ugly, so barren, that the only choice is to stay inside and keep dying.

This is the phase of the summer where I turn desperate because it hits me that this is my life and I’m wasting it in hiding. That this is my life and I’m living it in my own personal Hell on Earth.

I really need to get out of this town.

Familiar spaces

Just now I came up for air on the novel and was reading through some old journal entries while I regrouped. Something about the feel of this one in particular resonates with the mental space I find myself in at the moment, for reasons I can’t entirely pinpoint.

So, because it hasn’t ever seen the internet before, I’ll just go ahead and share this old insomnia-driven scrap from August of 2008 that for some reason speaks to where I am right now:

It is so easy to forget, living immersed in city lights, just how beautiful the sky can be at night. I knew once what the Milky Way looks like — that gorgeous belt of diamonds wreathed in stellar mist. That seeing it again was such a shock to me is a grief I only wish I could remedy. I would almost say the long drive was worth it for that midnight view alone.Unexpectedly I met a kindred soul this morning, as sudden as lightning in summer. Perhaps it’s only my imagining, but I think she sees it too. Something about the way she stares at me, as though she sees a familiar thing but can’t quite find it in her memory. Her pain is my pain, and all the world around us is oblivious. There are words I could say to ease her suffering, but I don’t know which ones or how to speak them. Too much has happened already in the name of this cause, too much damage that may never be repaired, and I fear to botch another operation so delicate. One day I hope the door is open at a time when I’m standing before it ready to enter.This feeling is odd and unsettling, surrounded by beauty of a sort I have long since ceased familiarity with, and unable therefore to drink it in without some discomfort. It hurts, in a way. In many ways.

There’s so much here I cannot process.

Sitting out upon the lawn far greener than those at home, I was recognized by a stranger who knew me by the family resemblance. I remember the days when that was more common, and we would laugh about it. The age gap is not inconsiderable, but I suppose we’ve both always been difficult to pinpoint. The boys were trying to play at the time, but both of them being what they are the exercise was fraught with certain difficulties. I think they have a bond regardless and it pleases me.

Sleepless now in a strange place that is nevertheless much like home — like what I wish home was. I feel haunted almost by memory, regret, the ghost of contentment, yet these spirits mean no harm. They simply have words for me that I cannot quite make out and am straining to hear over the sound of my own disquiet.