40: beginning anew
Well, I just turned 40 and it feels pretty huge. It’s hard to explain, but as I step across this threshold, somehow I know that I’m entering a completely new phase of my life.
When I turned 30, I had a similar sense that things were about to change in a big way, but I could never have imagined how. At the time, I was finishing graduate school in Colorado and healing from an intense three-year illness that stripped so much away. During that moonless night, I had no idea where the river of my life would flow. But one year later, I bought a used Subaru, packed my stuff, and drove east into the unknown. My then-boyfriend started the journey with me and we spent a long, sad night in Omaha together. Then, he flew back to Colorado and I continued on alone—sailing through cornfields and truck stops with soaking wet eyes. With each mile, I watched my familiar life unravel in the rearview mirror as my car became a refuge under the shifting skies.
Eventually, I arrived in the Berkshires where I didn’t know a soul. It was inspiring and terrifying, and the leaves were already starting to turn when I moved into a cabin-apartment across from a horse farm. Little did I know that that light-filled sanctuary would become the place where the music within me would emerge.
When I got there, I had never played the harmonium or composed a song. In fact, I had no experience as a musician or singer. But the confusion and sadness of those days drew something from my depths, and all I wanted to do was sing. So, I bought a used harmonium on Craigslist and figured out how to play some basic chords. Then one day I heard a melody out of nowhere. And then another one, and another one. And eventually I had a collection of songs that became my first album, Soma-Bandhu.
When I made that album, I never expected to do anything with it. It was really meant to be a creative project for my own healing, and an offering to my spiritual teacher. But somewhere along the way, this “thing” that was buried inside of me for 30 years just ripened, and before I knew it, I was in a totally new land.
This land was beautiful, but truthfully, I wasn’t ready for it. Yes, I was ready to find my voice, but I wasn’t prepared for all of the things that came along with that: the onslaught of opinions and judgments, of being celebrated and slandered on social media, of marketing and music festivals, and the “man’s world” of recording engineers. It was rough terrain to navigate—and between that and my day job as the editor of a magazine—I was completely overwhelmed.
At the same time, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share my personal path in a public way. Chanting is my spiritual practice—it’s the way that I pray. And while my devotion is also my art and I love sharing it with people, some of the other elements that come with singing “professionally” are uncomfortable for me.
So, for the past decade since this music came out of nowhere and stole my heart, I’ve been going through a deep process about whether or not to keep doing it. I think this internal struggle is one of the reasons why my second album, The Ram Sessions, took five years to make. I was sitting with so many questions about my dharma and how to share my art with integrity. I was so afraid of screwing up and being judged, and that fear drew many obstacles to my doorstep.
But it’s hard to move forward with one foot in and one foot out. And since I wasn’t ready to fully embrace my path, I just treaded water and focused on my magazine job. Then, this past January, that job fell away after eight years and I found myself standing in a great void with nothing to hold onto. Suddenly, I was at a crossroads and I had to make a choice about which path to take—give myself completely to my music and see how it goes, or step away and find a new vocation?
This question has required some serious soul searching. I’ve had to look honestly at all the ways I’ve sabotaged myself over the past nine years and figure out why I keep getting in my own way. Like most things, there’s no simple answer, but it basically boils down to a lack of self-respect. That’s what my thirties revealed to me, and it was pretty unpleasant. Over and over, I found myself in situations and relationships that were disempowering and demeaning. I tolerated bad treatment and tried to shroud my light so other people wouldn’t dislike me. And I wasted so much time seeking the approval of others, which is an impossible task.
Now, as I turn the corner into a new decade, I have compassion for all of that messiness because I know my soul was just trying to show me some painful patterns that needed to transform. And as I reflect on the innocent 31-year old who started singing to save her life, I see little bits of evidence that she’s changing with each passing year. Of course, it’s always a process, but I finally understand the cliché that kindness and humility aren’t synonymous with being a doormat. There’s nothing “spiritual” about disrespecting oneself and living in a cesspool of shame.
Sometimes I think we have to cycle around certain patterns until they finally come out of the shadows into plain sight. This can be so painful, but without seeing our habitual tendencies for what they are, there’s no way to shift them. It’s so much easier to blame other people for our discomfort and problems. But in the light of awareness, those old patterns can’t help but lose their grip.
Two weeks ago, as I was driving somewhere at night, I merged onto a four-lane highway. There were no lights on the road and the cars were flying by really fast. Suddenly, my dashboard lights started to dim and I tried to adjust them, but then my headlights started to dim too, and before I knew it, all the lights were out.
I tried to use the brake to slow down because I couldn’t see, but they wouldn’t work either. I turned the wheel to the right and braced myself to smash into the guardrail, but as the car veered into the small shoulder, it stopped dead. My heart was pounding and it was pitch black. I couldn’t use the brakes or put the car in park. I didn’t know if someone was going to hit me from behind, or if the car was going to drift into the middle of the highway. The doors and windows were locked, and I couldn’t open them. So, I called 911 and the police and firetrucks came. My car was towed away and is now no more—the same car I bought when I drove from Colorado to the Berkshires.
The whole thing was crazy and I’m so grateful that I wasn’t seriously hurt. Maybe it is what it is and there’s no sense assigning too much meaning to the experience, but I can’t help but feel like that death represents the end of a cycle and the beginning of something new. The plug was pulled on the very car that ushered me into a new life, and when that phase was over, it just stopped dead—and as it died, some of my illusions went with it.
That night as I drove away in the back of a police car, I heard my heart say, “Now is the time—embrace your path.” So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I do know that sitting with people and singing—sharing the beauty and pain of the human journey—is my dharma. And with my teacher’s blessings, I’m going to keep doing it.
Along the way, some people will love it, and others will hate it. Some will throw flowers and others will throw thorns, but I can’t concern myself with that anymore. There will always be people who paint pictures of us with the acrylic of their wrong perceptions. That’s just the nature of the world—it’s full of opinions. All any of us can do is be true to ourselves and surrender the rest.
I still have no idea how things will unfold from here, but I take refuge in the knowing that I don’t have to fit inside a box. A teacup can’t hold the entire ocean, so why should I smoosh the fullness of my being into a label? This is what 40 is teaching me—that I don’t have to solidify who I am into any one thing. My work, music, and art are just fragments of this thing called “me”, and that “me” has no solid identity—it’s an ever-evolving flow of karmic debris and timeless truth rolled into a temporal form.
Am I kirtan singer? A writer? A woman? Am I a plum, a cloud, a raindrop, a song? I don’t know. I’m a mystery to myself. I just want to do what I can to offer a shard of beauty into our fractured world, and use the privileges I’ve been given in a good way. I just want to make the most of this life and heed Allen Ginsberg’s advice: “Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness.”
May it be so.