Conditioning, or Taking a Vacation from Identity

The last month or so has been weird for just about everyone, and I find that I’ve been reacting to the new pace of things in my own idiosyncratic way that has involved, up until tonight, a certain denial of parts of my identity for reasons relating to points of stress and false circumspection that I’m going to try to lay out below. This entry is neither balm nor agitator, solution nor alarm. If anything, what I’m going to talk about is a sort of second-order coming to terms with aspects of my identity that have felt wholly irrelevant in the preceding few weeks, and why returning to them tonight has been important for me.

So for one thing, the quarantine has brought a dizzying network of old and new issues to the fore in my everyday thought, while also bringing some much needed breathing room to the arc of the year. Really, the last few years have felt like being shot out of a cannon, without any significantly long break from productivity and social interaction that didn’t itself involve some sort of mitigating factor, such as the concentration needed for travel. But I digress. As to the old issues: I used to work from home, and having to do so again was both comforting, because I got to fast forward in the course of a week or so through the phases of circadian dysfunction that comes along with a certain loosening of the absolute necessity to put on pants every day, and also thoroughly grating, as I am now tied to a desk more than I like to be. (This latter is an extremely privileged complaint, but I’ll get to why I think it’s form is a valid thought to have.) Second, and, more complicated, is the helplessness one feels when they are of no practical use to society in any meaningful way. I am wired almost to a fault to try to be useful, but that part of the brain is not quite satiated when the most useful thing to do is stay home and stay out of the way.

Now without diving too far into some sort of territory that smacks of a capitalist critique of the function of art in times when it doesn’t actually make money for anyone, I have been questioning the long term implications of being an artist and my responsibility during a time when, in some very non-trivial senses, my art seems to be reduced to little more than a temporary distraction from the plight we are in as a society. This is something that I have thought about off an on for years, but have more capably dismissed in the face of simply being too busy and productive to question it too deeply. In a certain sense, this time has allowed me to really and deeply consider the question “Should I even be making work anymore or should I figure out a different path that can help me mitigate or even help prevent in some small way situations like the one we’re in now?” It all stems back to these little dreams of a well-lived and morally defensible life as some sort of steward of the earth, perhaps a trail maintenance worker, ready to put the small comforts of life behind in order to help preserve some small part of the planet. The fantasy, in my mind, has always smacked of some sort of martyr-dream, which is why I’m probably not cut out for this kind of work in the first place. I’ll come back to this.

New things that have cropped up are varied, and range from the banal and practical to the deeply existential. On the banal and practical side, I have had to reorient my shopping and eating habits to make things last, and remain relatively healthy during this period without feeling like I’m veering into ascetic practices unnecessarily. Furthermore, I’ve had to reorient my physical training to make up for the fact that my job no longer requires or allows for me to be on my feet all that much. This means that I’m now running instead of always walking, and doing whatever else I can inside of my own home without any facilities to speak of. Pushups, situps, you know the drill. (I could, and very well may, write a whole post on the problem of running addiction, but we’ll leave that for now.)

On the existential side, I’m trying to buy a house through all of this mess, and have over the last week or so been in the dark on an actual closing date, which is a second order feeling of helplessness on top of the default level we’re all feeling stuck at home, or working and feeling at heightened risk. As part of this problem, I’m also now living out of boxes, and my usual playground of instruments and books has been pared down to well below the minimum for comfort. I also need to figure out furniture, but that seems like small potatoes.  A lot of the creative projects I was working on before all of this came down ground to a halt, and I had to reckon with the fact that, in a lot of ways, my vision of 2020 has been obliterated.

I’ve slowly been gathering some new projects that will start to bear fruit in the coming months, but the feel of time right now makes that seem like some hypothetical eternity from now.

What this brings me to is tonight. Tonight, for the first time since, honestly, a couple of months before the quarantine hit, I put on a pot of coffee at 7 PM, grabbed a difficult book, picked some intricate chamber music, and got to work. Tonight I gave myself permission to revisit the things that have come to form parts of my identity: ethical responsibility, social ties, current situation, and hesitation at thoughts of the problems of American individualism be damned. Because the truth for me is, if I had felt compelled to go live somewhere remote and fix parks, or go into life on the run as an activist or some sort of anarcho-idealist, I would have done it years ago. Tonight, a little over a month removed from the gentle life of extroverted comfort I have here in Indy, I returned to the space of absorption and creation that has been the one space I have ever felt true purpose in. I read and wrote, listened and composed, and was reminded that maybe the one thing I have control over long term is whether or not I will do these things in a manner that does justice to the purpose I feel doing them. If I could imagine doing anything else and feeling the same way, I would already be doing it.

Tonight was also reminding myself that the brain needs workouts just as much, if not more at times, than the body alone. Sitting up at 1:00 AM, it is hilarious to me that in the last few weeks I’ve spent more time running than making music. Global disasters will do that to you.

Below is the piece I wrote tonight. It’s not flashy, nor especially sophisticated, but it will work for now.