Be who you are

Do you ever feel alone in the world? Let me be the first to assure you that you are not. I know this because while I have a tendency to feel blue and alone in my struggles, when I put these thoughts down on virtual paper and send them out into the world I often receive an instant, positive response from someone my words have reached in a meaningful way.

This happened just the other day. I have a tendency to forget the powerful connection that can happen across space and time thanks to the world wide web, and it was a very uplifting reminder that I am not alone and that I can connect with people from the other side of the world when I put myself out there.

The life of an artist can be very lonely, and with the onset of a pandemic combined with leaving our communities in Belgium and France to return to very conservative Arizona in the United States has given way to a strong feeling of isolation. I have felt this past year like my attempts to carry on with this work have not been met with success. Even the public library music series told me my music was too controversial for our community. They said it in a generically vague message:

You are clearly an experienced performer, at ease with the audience, and good at getting people involved in singing. Your voice is lovely and strong. I don’t think, however, that the Coffeehouse is quite the right venue to showcase your style of music-making. 

To be honest, this person’s message could be read many ways. Having gone to see her perform and then looking at the upcoming lineup of performers, it felt like she was trying to boost my confidence by reflecting that I was talented but also communicating that I really did not fit in with the “norm” here. Well, lady, what else is new? Literally, welcome to my life.

The kinds of musicians being invited to perform from a much, much older generation and with a propensity for playing easy to listen to songs in a more country music style. Nothing controversial. Nothing that would raise any eyebrows or stoke the proverbial politic fires for the conservative town where we live.

Music about refugees on the themes of opening borders and people being connected is controversial and dangerous. I am not going to be a chameleon to make other people comfortable. My path is to rare the real stories people entrust me with. It is a privilege and an honor that so many people have shared their stories with me, and I have a strong feeling that these songs need to be out in the world. Just as sharing my own vulnerabilities and struggles can serve to help people who may also be moving through a dark time feel that they are not alone, so too can sharing the stories of people’s lived experiences. The more we listen with open hearts, the more we can transcend the fear and othering perpetuated by those with an agenda toward separation and polarity.

I mentioned the feeling of not fitting in was a familiar experience for me. I have felt this since childhood. There have been few places in the world where I had set foot and felt the kind of relief of returning home. Alaska and the mountains of the North Cascades have been two such places. Everywhere else I have lived I have found beauty and connection but always with the sense of being an outsider somehow.

Something I have learned along the way is that it is not a problem to be an outsider or to feel like I do not belong. And I do not have to change who I am to fit in, even if it means other people might feel a bit uncomfortable as a result. I don’t mean that I can just brashly bounce around in a way that is disrespectful of other people or in a way that inhibits other people and beings from embodying their own authentic means of being in the world. No. I need to be authentically myself in a way that fits within the definition of sustainability.

I spent many years thinking there was actually something profoundly wrong with me because any time I showed a tenuous spark of my authentic self I was met with swift retribution from people in my life. This came about in my professional life as meetings about being a “problem employee” and even in my experience as a doctoral student studying sustainability through the reflection from an early scholarly mentor that I was academically too outside of the box. These people wanted me to reassimilate into a system that was more comfortable and familiar.

It has been in great thanks to the people in my life, friends, family, and mentors, who have encouraged my outside of the box way of being that I have managed to get to where I am today, working steadily in each of the many moments of every day I have to practice showing up in the world in a way that honors who I am with grade and kindness. I believe that on this path, I give others permission to do the same.

As previously mentioned, this can be an incredibly lonely pursuit. Success in this realm is not celebrated in traditional, showy ways. But I do have moments that are meaningful and that lift my spirits and remind me I am on this path for a reason and that it is a good one to follow.

I had a moment like this just the other day. I had been reorganizing my music website the other day and decided to move an older piece that had been living on a page of my music website and repost it as a blog piece, I didn’t think very much when I hit the “publish” icon and sent it out into the virtual world.

I didn’t even remember the piece when I received a message from a friend in Hong Kong that the piece had not only spoken deeply to her but that she had shared it in a discussion in one of her Clubhouse sessions.

Clubhouse is an app where you can create a virtual room that people can join from anywhere in the world. You can host these rooms and initiate dialogue and discussion on any subject. My friend Mayuko Yoshida, who is originally from Japan and has lived all over the world, hosts a Clubhouse room several times a week for native Japanese speakers who are studying English.

Mayu was my neighbor in the house where I lived my senior year of undergraduate school at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She introduced me to “My neighbor Totoro,” and we shared many meals of pasta, tomato, avocado, and olive oil and a lot of laughter. Our last semester senior year we co-hosted a radio show with a title that is probably no longer politically correct: Half Japanese Girls, On Average. We played a lot of music and discussed profound questions of life on that show, and my only regret was that we didn’t get started earlier because it was some of the most fun I have had in my life.

Our connection at Bates was instant and one that we picked right up again a year ago when we reconnected and I first visited her Clubhouse room to share migration songs. She was living in Hong Kong after having lived in India for several years, and the spark of our connection proved to still be strong even after being only very intermittently in touch since we graduated in 2003.

Mayu wrote to tell me that she had shared my post on Twitter and read through it with in a Clubhouse session with another woman I met through Mayu, Kumi, who works with refugees in Vancouver, BC.

I was so very touched by this incredible gesture and that my words had spoken to people in such a meaningful way. I listened to the Clubhouse session, catching the few words in English that were shared from my piece in between the very fast-paced Japanese.

Even though I had no idea what they are saying, I was heartened to hear phrases like “innate value,” “just by virtue of existing,” vulnerability,” and “authentic truth.”

I was very lifted to hear Kumi say, “She is as authentic as she can be, I think.”

It’s been such a very long road to get here, and some days I find myself still questioning if I am on the right path. Knowing that embodying my true self in the way I show up in the world can speak to other people who may be on a similar path or who want to take those first, courageous steps, I am reminded that honoring and being who I am is the path. I hope it can be yours as well. And if I can help in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know.

If you speak Japanese or just want to listen to this beautiful language, here is the link to the Clubhouse conversation about my blog post:

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