It makes me wonder if choosing the correct path (vs. the overcorrect one) is easier when you’re working with someone you trust and/or love.
I am pretty sure I have the answer to that, but I’m not sure I want to write about it yet.
Instead, I want to write about what happened yesterday afternoon, when I went to a coffee shop for the first time in over a year.
I got the Johnson & Johnson (aka “Janssen”) vaccine on Tuesday, April 6.
According to the CDC, maximum protection kicks in at two weeks — so I marked Wednesday, April 21 on the calendar, and then I decided to mark the date by buying myself a cup of coffee at the local coffee shop that had been shipping me bags of small-batch, single-origin coffee since I moved in with L last summer.
I’d never been inside this coffee shop.* It was the only thing I could think about, the entire night before I went; how it might be like it used to be, even though it couldn’t possibly be like it used to be, even though the only thing I wanted was to go into a coffee shop full of people and noise and good smells and the opportunity to start a conversation, even though that was a substitute for what I actually wanted, which was for things to be like they were before.
I know, by the way, that things will never be like they were before. Things rarely are; especially after illness. We are all changed. We are all still changing.
Except for the parts of us that remain, resolutely, the same.
Because I rarely started conversations in coffee shops even when I used to go on a more regular basis. Not unless I was meeting someone there on purpose. Not unless I saw someone I knew well enough to say anything beyond “Hello!”
And I didn’t say anything to the person who was working the counter beyond what was absolutely essential to getting the coffee transaction completed, plus a brief pleasantry about how I hadn’t heard ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in forever. We were both masked, and I didn’t want to linger long enough to make anyone feel anxious or uncomfortable, but I doubt I would have started an actual conversation even if there had never been a pandemic.
Even if there had been anyone else in the coffee shop besides me and the person working there.
I drank my coffee outside, under an awning, as it started to rain.
Then I went back home and cried, because it hadn’t been what I wanted — and because the reason it hadn’t been what I wanted was partly the pandemic and partly me.
I should have waited until L and I could have gone together. It was one of those deals where I didn’t tell him much about what I was doing and why I was doing it, because I knew that if I opened my mouth I would let the fantasy escape — and I had to protect my own delusions, for whatever reason, until I understood them on my own terms.
But when I did tell him, he and I had a very interesting conversation that he has told me I will have to write about someday, first because he always says that the purpose of life is to learn something and pass it on, and second because it ties right in with everything else I’ve been asking this week — whether two people, when they love and trust each other, can help each other become better.
Not just at correcting vs. overcorrecting, but at everything.
And I’m pretty sure I already have the answer to that. ❤️
*Fun fact: I am currently living in a mid-sized Midwestern town about 20 miles from the tiny town in which I grew up. Since I moved in with L during the pandemic, I found myself in the interesting situation of living in a place that I used to know like the back of my hand —while being completely unable to experience both the parts I remembered and the parts that had changed. That’s why I had never been inside this particular coffee shop, and one of the reasons I was so excited to go.
Nicole Dieker will award 10 Art History Points to anyone who can successfully identify the sculpture in the header photo.
I didn’t actually skip Tuesday’s blog post.
I mean, I am technically writing a blog post on a Tuesday.
It’s just too late in the evening to publish it today.
Here’s what’s been going on:
I’ve been spending the past — I was going to say past week, but it’s really been most of March — trying to figure out what my circadian and creative rhythms actually are.
In part because I want to know when it makes sense to eat and write and play and rest and practice.
In part because I want to figure out how to fit everything I want to do, and everything L and I want to do together, into a single day.
In part because L and I have started seriously digging into La Valse, and the time for that has to come out of somewhere. (All of the water in Archimedes’ tub has gotten displaced, as it were — but at least we know that what we’re working on is gold.)
But also — but most importantly? — because I want to start thinking and acting like a peak performer.
(As in Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.)
On September 9, 2020 — the first day I added that question to my spreadsheet, coincidentally enough — I wrote “to train myself like an athlete.”
I think what I really meant was to take care of myself in a way that allows me to do my best work.
Which really means to take care of myself in a way that allows me to be my best self.
The nap stays.
The coffee can stay because it’s too good to set aside, but only half a cup.
The wine stays — sharing wine with L is one of my favorite things — but only half a glass (which is all you’re really supposed to pour in the first place, something something aeration and noses and legs).
If freelance work gets frontloaded to the very beginning of the day, it goes not only faster but better. My writing is considerably stronger at 10 a.m. than it is at 2 p.m., which means I shouldn’t waste a pre-lunch word on anything that isn’t a paying gig or an absolutely essential email.
I also shouldn’t waste a second of my piano practice time on anything that isn’t direct problem-solving, using the methods that L and I have discussed and that are known to work. (More on this later.)
I need time spent without the influence of other minds, as Cal Newport puts it, but I also need to bring other people’s thoughts into my life. Mostly through books (fiction and non-fiction) and in-person conversations. Otherwise, as it turns out, I get overwhelmingly self-absorbed.
If the food thing, the sleep thing, and the exercise thing are all balanced, I’m not only a better writer and musician, but also a better person. The goal of self-care, after all, is less indulgence than it is equilibrium.
And maintaining this equilibrium isn’t just for my own sake. I want myself to be the most important thing so it can also, simultaneously and paradoxically, become the least important thing.
So that my life becomes play, instead of work.
And that I am able to play, and be present, with everyone and everything around me.
L and I were talking, the other day, about the similarities between what I am trying to do with my life and what we are both trying to do at the piano. It really comes down to the process of going from guessing to knowing, in both cases; understanding, for example, that a good meal for me is roughly 1 cup carbs (fruit, homemade bread), 1/2 cup protein, 1 cup vegetables, and 1/4 cup fats (cheese, nuts, chocolate).
Veer too far over or under those amounts and I don’t have the energy I need to be present. I start thinking about myself and my discomfort (too hungry, too full) instead of everything else I could be paying attention to.
Now I’m trying to get to the point where I know when to write and when to work and when to rest and when to connect. The same kind of energy balance, only with activity instead of food.
Like any learning process, there’s a lot of work that has to be done until you understand what’s going on so well that you can start playing. To dance through the day, as I said to L earlier this evening, instead of keeping one eye on the clock.
I should write, sometime, about learning to dance with L.
As creative collaborators who spend nearly every evening discussing how to improve our writing, our music, our freelancing, and our teaching; as pianists playingLa Valse; and as partners who are building a home together — both for ourselves and to share with the people we love.
The thing about dancing is that it goes so much better when you know the steps.
The other thing about dancing is that you can’t really learn the steps unless you learn them together.
So when I say I want to take care of myself in a way that allows me to be my best self, I’m also saying we should take care of us in a way that allows us to be our best selves —and our best us.
And it took us a hot minute (as the kids say) to figure out that we’re much better at playing La Valse together in the afternoons than we are in the evenings — and we’re much better at curling up in our respective chairs and writing our respective insights into pedagogy and discipline and specificity at the end of the day, when we’ve already learned what we need to write down.
Which is why I’m writing this on Tuesday and giving it to you on Thursday.
And, by the time you read this, I’ll have already written what’s coming next. ❤️
One of them is ours, and one of them is the one we’re trying to create for the people we love.
The thing is that I think these could be the same Christmas — or at least the same kind of Christmas — but the temporal nature of the holiday makes it difficult.
I mean temporal in both senses of the word, of course; the one that means “bound by time” and the one that means “worldly and secular.” It seems obvious, at least on the surface, that these two definitions work in tandem to give us the kind of holiday that no one really wants.
The kind that’s performance-based, not process-based.
The kind that I am frantically trying to make happen for my parents and nephew and extended family, not the kind that L and I are quietly making on our own.
There is a certain amount of holiday-related stuff that has to be made to happen if you want it to be part of your celebration. Trees must be retrieved, either from the tree farm or the internet or the box in the basement. Gifts must be purchased. Food must be purchased, or made, or (in most cases) both. Matching pajamas must be ordered online, in the correct sizes, ideally in time to take advantage of Black Friday discounts.
But what you’re really trying to make happen is the feeling — and I’m not even sure what the feeling is, except maybe I love all of this, or I love our home, I love our life, I love you, which is what L and I have been saying to each other every evening as we sit in front of our tree and our stockings and our fire.
Last Sunday I told L that I’d already had everything I ever hoped to get out of Christmas, just in that past weekend, with him and me together. We were sitting down to one of our favorite meals, with a very good bottle of wine (by which I mean a $12 bottle of wine, don’t get any ideas) and for dessert we had peppermint bark and English toffee that I’d stirred together earlier that afternoon. We’d made origami stars and worn flannel pajamas. We’d gotten in the car to drive around town to see the lights.
We’d even given each other small gifts, since we had an Advent calendar that we’d been filling with love notes and music suggestions and ideas for holiday activities and, in this particular weekend’s case, small gifts.
“This is everything I ever wanted Christmas to be,” I said. “What are we supposed to do for the rest of December?”
L smiled. “More of this.”
The thing about the kind of holiday that L and I are currently having, the kind that is based primarily on “doing stuff we already like to do, but Christmas-themed,” is that you can have it every day — and you might not even get tired of it.
I mean, if it all comes down to “making food you enjoy, wearing attractive and comfortable clothes, enjoying wine and conversation and doing something creative, all while giving the people you love regular reminders that you love them,” then the only difference between Christmas and real life is the former’s tendency towards excess.
Not just “making food you enjoy,” but stuffing yourself with it.
Not just “wearing attractive clothes,” but stuffing yourself into velvet and sparkles.
Not just “giving someone a reminder that you love them,” but spending a pile of money on stuff they may or may not actually want.
And — probably the most important part — not doing any of this together. Dictating, to your partner or family or extended family, what Christmas Should Be — and then performing it as if it were a school pageant.
Which brings me to the Other Christmas.
“This is our first Christmas with my family,” I told L, as we unloaded the dishwasher together. “I don’t want to mess it up.”
Messing it up, in this case, could mean any or all of the following:
Not sending gifts on time (which is already going to happen, since two of the items we ordered from small, indie retailers are experiencing shipping delays)
Not wrapping the gifts very well (in my family, I am known for being The One Who Is Bad At Wrapping Presents)
Not getting holiday cards out quickly enough, even though I’ve already told my extended family not to expect any cards until New Year’s
Not being on time for the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
Not being able to get the tech to work for the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
Wearing the wrong thing during the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
Saying the wrong thing during the Family Present Unwrapping Zoom Call
And so on.
It’s worth noting that these anxieties (like most anxieties?) are entirely self-inflicted; my family has already told me that it doesn’t matter if the presents don’t arrive on time, for example, because their presents probably aren’t going to arrive on time either. That said, I still want to live up to whatever it means to be a daughter and an aunt and a sister and a niece during Christmas. There’s a way to do this that isn’t a performance (and one of my hopes for this year is to figure that part out, with L’s help), but since so much of Christmas tends towards the performative — the deliberate appreciation of gifts at the beginning of the day and food at the end of it, for example — it’s hard not to worry that you’re going to fail to deliver.
There would be much less concern about failure if we were not working towards a targeted Big Day with its Big Experiences that will be remembered and discussed for years to come. If we could do the family Christmas the way we’re doing our at-home Christmas — as a series of small joys passed between people who are still learning what brings each other joy — that would be something else entirely.
A different kind of memory, though it might require a different kind of discussion in advance.
You know how every new couple is all “I wish we could make our own Christmas traditions,” except there’s always someone else’s calendar of traditions that is already taking up all the time and space and energy?
The minute we realized that “decorating the tree” was starting to feel like a chore, for example, we switched over to “hey, let’s just put one or two ornaments up every night.” (We’re also telling each other the story of every ornament as we put it up, which is turning out to be an excellent way of learning new things about each other and about our respective families.)
L and I also decided, pretty early on, that we wanted to spread the presents out over the entire month, just like we spread our favorite Thanksgiving dishes out over the entire four-day weekend. Not only does that give us more time to enjoy each individual gift, but it also gives us the option to refine and iterate as we see how each gift is received.
And I know that the whole “let things take the time they take” and “figure out what you want to do together” business might not work as well when you’ve got more people in your home, with needs and wants that are more likely to compete with each other and with the limited amount of time we actually have available to us, as much as L and I are trying to pretend otherwise.
If you only have two hours to get the tree up between all of the other stuff (holiday or otherwise) that usually fills up the calendar, you force that tree into position even if you spent the entire year wishing that this task could feel more like something you were sharing with your family and less like something that you had to cajole and/or rush everyone through.
So yeah, I get why the kind of Christmas L and I are discovering together, tucked away from time and from the world, might not work as well in other types of situations. But it seems like it could, if people who love each other could agree to care enough to figure out how.
Because that’s the only kind of holiday I ever want, from now on.
There’s one more thing I need to tell you.
As soon as L and I started making Christmas happen — both the holiday we are creating for ourselves and the parts of the holiday we are creating for other people — we stopped making anything else.
I’m not writing in the evenings. L isn’t studying jazz. We’ve given up on Godel, Escher, Bach. We’re still practicing the piano, and we’re still playing chess, but all of our other various creative activities have been displaced by the activity of creating Christmas.
Even our delicate, beautiful, private Christmas takes effort — if you want to know how to delight someone, you have to pay very close attention — and even something as simple as sitting in front of the fireplace and saying “I love this house, I love my life, I love you” takes time.
This is the choice we are making, because this is the time of year to make it.
This is also, perhaps, why one cannot actually have Christmas all year long.
Why it needs to be temporal, in at least one sense of the word — because the other thing people often realize, at the end of holiday stories, is that there is more to life than this.
“It’s Christmas Day! I didn’t miss it!” they say, by which they mean I got the feeling I was supposed to have, the one that comes when you give and receive joy.
And then they start asking themselves what they’re going to do next.
I don’t know how everyone else came up with it, but when I turned to L and said “wait, we could spread our favorite Thanksgiving foods out over the entire weekend,” I honestly thought it was an original idea.
It was still a very good idea, in the same way that shifting our lives from a clock-based schedule to “things take the time they take” was a very good idea. Instead of trying to fit fourteen side dishes into a single meal, we had… well, I guess we had four. Three, if pie counts as a dessert and not a side.
So it was turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and bacon, fresh cranberry relish, and pumpkin pie on Thursday; leftovers on Friday; beet salad with oranges and walnuts and goat cheese on Saturday; and more leftovers plus fresh cornbread dressing (using Kamala Harris’s recipe) and chess pie on Sunday.
This also gave us the opportunity to improve our cooking skills as we went along; the chess pie was significantly better than the pumpkin pie because our first pie crust came out soggy and we made it our goal to make our second pie crust as perfect as possible (turns out you’re supposed to chill the crust before you put the pie filling in, who knew).
There are two points to this story.
The first is that I hope this tradition of “spreading out the Thanksgiving foods over the entire weekend” sticks, for as many people as possible who enjoyed it as much as we did. I understand why it might not; the reason you have fourteen side dishes in a single meal is because some of the people you want around your table at Thanksgiving can only be there for a single meal — and because everyone wants to cook and/or eat their favorite Thanksgiving food, so you might as well make ’em all.
But if you also divided your Thanksgiving meal into multiple days, did you also notice how pleasant it was? To be able to focus your attention on a few treats and experience them thoroughly? To leave the meal feeling satisfied, not stuffed? To cook a bit here, and a bit there, and make the second pie better than the first one?
The second point — rather like the second pie — is that our first Thanksgiving together helped us figure out how to spend our first Christmas together, and BOY HOWDY was I worried about Christmas.
I actually wrote a song about it, which I sang to L as we were cleaning up the dishes after dinner on Friday. (It has a tune, but it’s enough like “When You Come Home to Me” from The Last Five Years that you can go ahead and substitute that one.)
When I have someone of my own
I won’t have to sit in the most uncomfortable chair
We’ll be able to sit together on the couch because we’re new
And my sister will have to sit on the chair (because somebody will have to…)
When I have someone of my own
They’ll send us a box of Christmas treats from Harry & David
Because only couples get boxes of treats from Harry & David
And single women have to wait for someone to share (and they never do…)
“Ah, the fifth wheel song,” L said. “I’ve sung that song before.”
“No, wait,” I said. “There’s a bridge. It’s the important part.”
And he will buy me
Everything that’s shiny
All the gifts that no one ever gives a daughter or a sister or an aunt…
I have been, if you’ll forgive me mentioning it, a little demanding about Christmas. It is not only our first Christmas together, but also my first Christmas with a partner and the first Christmas I’ve ever spent in a for-real house, not a group house with roommates or a studio apartment with no kitchen where you have to wash your dishes in a bus tub and dump the dirty dishwater in the toilet. (True story.)
So L started our Christmas planning by saying “You know I’m not really into presents or stuff, I’d rather have us spend Christmas Day having a good time than opening a bunch of gifts, and most people our age buy ourselves everything we want anyway,” and I countered with “Look, you can do as you like, but there will be a box of pears wrapped in gold foil and a tin of peppermint bark and some very expensive chocolate truffles, and you already know that there is exactly one gift I want you to buy for me which is a snow globe that is also a music box and inside the snow globe there are little houses that light up and a train that moves through a tunnel, and that’s fine, I’ll buy everything else I want myself.”
And the next day I said “I’ve started buying all the stuff I want for Christmas, I will surprise you with it soon,” and the day after that I started crying because we were doing it all wrong.
L had said that I should go ahead and buy myself everything that delighted me, but I wasn’t delighted. Turns out — and this is the plot of basically every Christmas movie ever, so spoiler alert — getting everything you’d ever wanted isn’t any good if you don’t have someone to share it with.
Especially if the person you want to share it with lives in your house.
Of course, I was also crying because I assumed that I’d have to send all of the stuff back. The matching holiday pajamas, the Advent calendar shaped like an Alpine village (that lights up), the commemorative Mary Poppins Living Magic Sketchbook Ornament (that is also a music box). Our Christmas would be devoid of kitsch and glitter, with nothing to do but play chess and listen to music, like we already do all the time — and sure, eventually we’d eat a ham or something, even though I told L that the whole concept of a once-a-year holiday meal was just as much “stuff” as anything they sold on The Bradford Exchange (and he agreed with me).
And then the miracle happened.
The stuff started showing up, right about the time we began turning Thanksgiving from a single-day stress-fest into a four-day, “things take as long as they take” celebration.
The boxes I had bought were instantly less interesting than the pies we were making together or the cornbread dressing we were baking together or the freshly-killed Christmas tree we were driving out to the tree farm for and then dragging into the house together. It was clear, to both of us, what the true meaning of our two-month-long winter holiday season would be: Making things together. Like we already do, all the time.
But the stuff was not worthless. We put on glittery holiday hats when we did the big family Zoom on Saturday, and we kept the hats on when we started decorating the house on Sunday, and when the matching jammies arrived we both knew that it would be more fun to do whatever it was we would end up doing while wearing matching holiday pajamas.
One of those things, as it turns out, will be “making origami ornaments.” L suggested it, and it was instantly more interesting than the Disney Magic Sketchbook Living Movie Characters Also a Music Box thing I had purchased, but would we have come up with the idea of making our own ornaments if I hadn’t said “hey, ornaments are important?”
(Maybe we would have. But let me have my miracle.)
And then — and here it is, the surprise third point of this whole story, the way The Gift of the Magi could have gone if O. Henry hadn’t been a candy bar — after we had this lovely Thanksgiving weekend in which we made food and brought in a tree and visited with family and created a holiday together while occasionally wearing themed clothing, I came down the stairs the next morning and said “Hey, I don’t want to buy the giant tower of treats from Harry & David anymore. What if we learned how to make our own peppermint bark instead?”
And later that afternoon L said “Hey, I think I’ve got something that you’d really like. It’s this old box of holiday decorations that I’ve never done anything with because I never had a home I wanted to decorate before. Do you want to see what’s inside?”
There were scented candles and ceramic snowpeople and so many reflective surfaces — but the first thing I pulled out of the box was your typical Norman Rockwell-esque Santa sculpture, Saint Nicholas and His Sleigh, by which I mean it was delightful. Especially when I turned it over and wound up the key at the bottom.
You’re probably wondering how the experiment is going.
(If you don’t know what the experiment is, go read this. I’ll wait.)
(Are you caught up now?)
Last night, I went to bed around 11 p.m.; this morning, I woke up a little after 7:30. By 8:30, L and I were side-by-side in our matching bathrobes, digging into the Ruy Lopez. We hadn’t planned on playing chess this morning, but we had been studying chess last night (after we went through the five Peano postulates and how they related to Hofstadter’s typographical number theory) and the board was already set up, which made it easy.
But everything we’re doing has become a lot easier now that we’re integrating our lives together instead of trying to fit each other into our free time.
And — impossibly — we’ve both ended up with more free time. To spend together, and to spend on our own.
How did this happen?
Some of it has to do with logistics. Now that the two of us are going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time (instead of me going to bed and waking up two hours earlier), our circadian rhythms are more in sync, which means we are more likely to want to do the same things at the same times of day. This, in turn, makes us more likely to do them.
I also did something ridiculously simple that completely transformed the way I slept — I swapped out my cheap, synthetic “down alternative” comforter for a cotton quilt. Technically two cotton quilts, since it’s getting colder at night; one that my mother made for me when I was a little girl, and one that L made with his grandmother when he was a little boy.
I don’t want to say “this one weird trick cured my insomnia,” but it did stop me from waking up in the middle of the night covered in sweat, which means I’ve been sleeping better than I’ve slept in, like, years.
But the real reason we’ve ended up with more time than ever — somehow, impossibly, improbably — is because we’ve started giving everything we do as much time as it needs.
After we moved into our new home, and after we got the piano set up so that I could start practicing again, I began working on two new pieces: Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major (K. 332), and Schumann’s Papillons.
L, who is a piano teacher, often compares the process of learning music to solving a series of problems. The trouble is that many musicians, even reasonably accomplished ones like myself, don’t solve each problem in full. They get the piece to the point where they can play through it well enough, accurately enough — even though many of the technical aspects are still unaddressed and/or unspecific.
Maybe they haven’t finalized a particular fingering, for example — or maybe they’ve decided on a fingering but haven’t worked out the accompanying arm weight, or standardized which part of the finger attacks which part of the key.
Maybe they’re still fudging a tricky articulation.
Maybe they’re leaving out a rest because they’d forgotten it was there (or never paid attention to it in the first place).
Maybe they can play that chromatic run most of the time, which nearly counts as all of the time, because nobody can play it right all of the time — unless you take the time to look carefully at what you are doing, figure out why the run isn’t coming out the same way every time, and make the necessary adjustments.
And taking that kind of time takes time, for lack of a better phrase.
So I decided to take it.
As much as I wanted.
I told L that I was going to learn these pieces until I had solved every problem in them, and I wasn’t even going to play past the first eight measures until I’d solved every problem those measures presented — because I knew that if I got in the habit of playing “well enough” and telling myself I would get more specific about solving problems later, I’d have to unlearn all of that unspecific playing.
I told L that if it took me the rest of my life to learn that Mozart sonata — to play it the way he and I thought a piece could be played — it would take me the rest of my life.
I don’t know how much longer I have to live, but so far I’ve spent nearly four months on the first movement and am just starting to address the second.
The idea that I would not let myself play past the first eight measures until I’d solved all of the problems in them worked, in theory — but in practice (pun intended) I quickly discovered that every stage of the learning process generated a bunch of new problems.
In other words: you learn eight measures and tell yourself that you’ve got the fingerings and articulations and dynamics all solidified, and then everything changes when you speed up the tempo, or try to play from memory, or begin the transition from measure eight to measure nine. I just realized this week that the reason I wasn’t able to consistently play a chromatic run wasn’t because my fifth finger wasn’t always striking the same way (even though that was part of the issue); it was because I was using a fingering that created a problem with the interval leap at the end of the run, and switching to a non-standard chromatic fingering (the one recommended by the editor, coincidentally enough) also solved the fifth-finger striking problem.
And if I hadn’t told myself that I had unlimited time to work all of this out, if I’d been trying to get the piece put together to play for an audience by a specific date — or if I’d been trying to have something to show a piano teacher by the end of the week, to “prove” that I’d “practiced” — I wouldn’t have taken the time to address and readdress every tiny inconsistency.
I’m playing better than I’ve ever played.
The idea that you have unlimited time is, of course, not true. Certain aspects of life, including the length of it, come with deadlines — and everything you take the time to do takes time away from everything else you could be doing.
And, although disconnecting the idea of time from the idea of the clock and the calendar has given me the freedom to be more present in the present, telling myself that I have unlimited time to learn K332 or work on this piece of music I’m composing — or, for that matter, that L and I can take as much time as we want to talk with each other, or linger over dinner, or cuddle — has also prompted me to think seriously about whether the life I’m living is worth the time I’m giving it.
Is this particular Mozart sonata worth an unlimited number of hours of study?
Is my relationship with L worth an unlimited amount of time in each other’s company?
Is the house we’ve bought together worth the unlimited amount of time it takes to make a home?
Is the piece of music I’m composing worth an unlimited number of revisions?
Interestingly, the only question I’d answer no to is the last one. I told L, when I started arranging Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18 for tenor and piano, that I was doing it mostly because I wanted to make something, and literally making anything might help me figure out what I wanted to create next.
So I’ll finish it, because I’m pretty much done — but if I weren’t, I might give it up. The composition is fairly pedestrian, a little bit derivative, and not worth my unlimited (and also very, very limited) time.
An original idea, on the other hand, might be worth it.
The harder part is choosing which disciplines, and which indulgences, to pursue.
I started this new method of practicing by trying to study both a Mozart sonata and a Schumann waltz suite, for example — but even though I told myself I had unlimited time to solve all of the problems both composers presented, I only really had enough time to focus on Mozart.
Likewise, L and I went from trying to study chess, go, and bridge simultaneously to focusing just on chess — and then focusing on chess openings, and then focusing specifically on the Ruy Lopez opening.
Which is what we began our day with, at 8:30 this morning.
Not because we planned it — but because we chose it, together, and decided to give it as much time as it needed. ❤️
It won’t be today, of course, the day you are reading this. It’ll be a few days after today. Probably Friday.
Today’s today, the day I am writing this, is November 4, 2020 — which means that nobody will really want to read this today, the only thing any of us really want to read is some kind of confirmed statement about the presidential election, and none of us are going to get that today.
Probably not even by Friday.
Every year on my birthday I take a picture of myself, generally tagged “this is what 39 looks like” or whatever the appropriate age is. A borrowing of Gloria Steinem.
Here is what 38 looked like:
And here is 39:
I could have taken a posed one, like I did last year. With a respectable professional-person blouse and very red lipstick. I could have taken a series of selfies until I hit one that I was happy with.
I took this one, instead.
If I look a little wan in this photo, a little tired around the eyes, it is only partially because of the election.
I mean, it isn’t really because of the election at all, but I feel obligated to say that it is because I know that’s what everyone else is thinking about right now.
I’m not thinking about the election. (I did vote; at this point, the rest of it is out of my control and no amount of thinking will change the outcome.)
I’m thinking about the adventure I find myself called towards.
The adventure I have to choose whether or not to accept.
If you know anything about me, from any of my writings on The Billfold or Lifehacker or Nicole Dieker Dot Com, it’s that I love structure and order and the kind of discipline that eliminates a lot of decision-making. Wearing the same basic outfit every day. Eating the same basic meals. Knowing what I am going to do at 6:30 every morning, and at 6:45, and at 7:15.
There’s a comfort in this kind of ritual — that every day I will rise before dawn and light a candle and write three pages and drink a cup of hot lemon water with cayenne and compose two measures of music and put on NPR’s Up First and begin doing sun salutations on my yoga mat.
And after that I will practice the piano and open my laptop and start sending out invoices and replying to emails; I’ll have breakfast and then lunch and then go for a walk and then finish up my freelance assignments; then it’s a half-hour dumbbells routine on alternate days and then a quick tidying of the house and then dinner, all before a terribly early bedtime.
That might have worked when I was 38.
It will not work when I am 39.
You do see what is missing, don’t you?
Or, more accurately, whom?
At first I thought that L and I could have the hours between dinner and bed, and I could have, like, all the rest of them.
And L, because he actually loves me — which is still uncomfortable, I am still not used to this — was actually on board with this plan.
It would seem to be the same kind of plan that many people have, especially couples without children; out of the door every morning with a quick kiss on the cheek, back at the end of the day for a couple hours of relaxation and/or television before starting it all over again.
It would seem to be the kind of plan that could work. It is not an unfair plan, not necessarily.
But it is not the plan that either of us want, which means I have to consider The Other Option.
It all started to fall apart when L and I invited a few people over to socially-distance themselves around our new fire pit. Although L had originally planned for the evening to end early enough for me to keep the kind of bedtime you’d give a fourth-grader (because he loves me, because he knows these kinds of things are important to me, because I still cannot believe all of the care this man is giving me), the gathering lasted until nearly 10 p.m.
This is where I start feeling embarrassed on my own behalf. Ashamed, that I should be so loved and behave so poorly.
Because I left the party early. I went up to bed to give myself enough time to relax and wind down before my disciplined little bedtime, which meant I said goodnight to everybody at an hour that had an 8 in it.
Which could have been fine. It was not an unfair thing to do. L and I had agreed, beforehand, that I could do it.
But it wasn’t fine. If it had been fine, I wouldn’t have spent the next four days losing sleep over it.
Then it was Halloween. We dressed as foxes and built a candy chute off our front porch. I was already several days sleep-deprived and I ate much more candy than was good for me and it came around to 8:30 p.m. and L asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him, to say hello to the neighbors and see the full moon.
And that could have been a wonderful experience. We could have had a wonderful time.
But I was tired and unhappy and overstuffed with chocolate, and after our walk, when we should have been celebrating how well our first Halloween had gone, I started complaining about how miserable I felt.
And L, because he loves me, did not say you are ruining the goddamn evening.
But I knew I was.
The next morning. Samhain, and the time change — though it didn’t matter because I barely slept that night, and by the time the sun was up I had made my decision.
“The way I am living isn’t working,” I said. “We can’t have the life we want if I need to be in bed by 9 p.m. every night. We’re going to want to have more parties, we’re going to want to go to the symphony, we’re probably going to want to play with the symphony or do theater again or take a dance class or something like that.”
“What about your early-morning writing time?”
“I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People between 9 p.m. and midnight,” I said. “I only changed my schedule after that because I started doing freelance jobs that required me to be ready to pitch stories by 8 a.m., and I don’t have any freelance jobs like that right now. I could switch my schedule around — go to bed around 11:30 or midnight, wake up around 7:30. It could work.”
L agreed. “It would put you more in line with the rest of the world.”
“Plenty of people wake up before 6 a.m. and go to bed by 9,” I said. “But this schedule would put me more in line with the world you and I want to live in.”
I’ve always said that you should begin as you mean to continue, so that day I stayed up until 11:30 p.m. by the new clock. Midnight-thirty by the old one. Nearly four hours after I usually went to bed.
The next day I woke up with a plan for every hour — same old Nicole, just chrono-shifted and slightly jet-lagged — and it all went beautifully until 9:30 p.m., when I had slotted in work on the composition I’d been previously tackling at 6 a.m. and L picked practice the piano and we discovered that you cannot do those two activities simultaneously.
The day after that I woke up ill and exhausted; I spent much of the day in bed and almost missed a freelance deadline.
Then my birthday. Up and at ’em and time to light the candle and write in my journal and — no, wait, L is also up now, he’s inviting me to join him for a cup of tea, I want to have tea with him but I also want this little precise comforting life that I have created for myself, if we have tea and it goes a bit too long I might miss the time I’ve set aside to practice the piano — and at this point, still jet-lagged, I become completely discombobulated.
So we talk about it. Because L loves me, we talk all the way through it.
And I realize I have two options.
The first option is to remain as I am. To assign a task to every hour and to keep myself attentive to those tasks. L will support this plan, if I choose it.
The other option — or, since I capitalized it before, The Other Option — is to begin to integrate our lives. Both of us are self-employed, and at this point in our careers both of us have workdays that require approximately five consecutive hours of sustained focus. L’s workday is fixed; he teaches piano online in various time zones, and he’s got nearly all of his lessons batched between lunch and dinner. My workday is more flexible, but I could adjust it to overlap.
Which means that we could have our mornings and our evenings free. Literally. We could go to bed when we were tired and wake up when we weren’t. We could have tea for as long as we wanted, or we could say “This morning is too beautiful to stay indoors — let’s go for a walk.”
We could play chess at 9 a.m. if we wanted to, or at 10 p.m., or keep a board open and alternate moves all day long. Currently I have “chess” blocked off for Monday evenings only, and before you start laughing, keep in mind that before I created that schedule we weren’t playing much chess at all — we were just saying I think we should play more chess and then watching television instead.
That’s the first challenge of The Other Option (or, as I called it this morning, going “Full Artist”) — that we’ll spend our days dillying and dallying instead of thinking and creating. We want to make things on our own and we want to make things together, and we will have to figure out how to integrate our time in a way that balances both discipline and indulgence.
The second challenge is that I might not feel comfortable asking for the time I need to make the things I want. When you set a schedule and tell yourself “this is what I am going to do with my day,” you save yourself the trouble of having to make decisions — and when you tell your partner that you are going to run your days by a certain schedule, you save yourself the trouble of having to ask permission.
Not that permission is the right word, but there’s going to be some morning when L asks “would you like to go for a walk” and I’m going to say “well, I really wanted to work on this piece of music I’m composing,” and my worry is that I won’t actually say that.
But I’ve already written paragraphs and paragraphs proving to all of you just how much L loves me and how ready he is to give me the time I need to do the things I want to do. Proving to myself, in a way I didn’t realize until I wrote it.
So it seems obvious what I should choose.
The Other Option.
The integrated life.
The call to adventure.
And — let’s be honest — the call to growth.
I don’t know what other gifts L has gotten me yet (we’re going to do presents later this evening) but I think this may be my favorite one. ❤️
We’d been living in our new home for two full months before I noticed the birdhouse.
I saw it, finally, when I was practicing the piano — I was trying to solve a problem, some bit of Mozart or Schumann or Chopin that was at the edges of my abilities, and I turned from the bench to the window and there it was.
Sometimes the window is what we look out of when we’re actually trying to see something in our mind’s eye.
Sometimes we see a birdhouse, instead.
Here are some of the books that L and I are currently reading and/or re-reading:
Godel, Escher, Bach (Douglas Hofstadter)
Better Chess (William Hartston)
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Betty Edwards)
Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
It took us two full weeks before we realized that all of these books seemed to be sending us the same message:
It is an inherent property of intelligence that it can jump out of the task which it is performing, and survey what it has done; it is always looking for, and often finding, patterns.
One must develop the technique to calculate such [chess] sequences through to the end, even if it is ten or twenty moves deep. Only when you’ve calculated the calculable, and no clearly advantageous continuation emerges, is it time to move into the fuzzy thought of looking for the most promising path through the forest of incalculable possibilities.
Many of my readers have intuitively understood that this book is not only about learning to draw, and it is certainly not about Art with a capital A. The true subject is perception.
The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.
I was playing Hanon Exercise #31 (the wrist rotation one, where the hands start a third apart) when I stopped to write down it’s all perception in my notebook and then got up to tell L that I had discovered another “secret to life.”
“Everything we want to do depends on perceiving what is actually there,” I said, “and then figuring out how to understand it and build on it.”
It’s the same for piano as it is for writing and composition and chess and drawing and acting and math. You have to work as hard as you can to see what is actually in front of you. You can’t make assumptions or take shortcuts — I mean, you could, but that’s how you get the type of creative work that is just a little bit imprecise. A game of chess that loses its fun because you’re moving pieces instead of playing. A line drawing that captures more of the idea that everyone knows what a chair looks like than the reality of the chair in front of you, the one with a specific height and depth and light source. A section of music that you’re always a little nervous about because you know you didn’t really solve the problem; you’re just hoping that tonight will be one of the nights when you play all of the right notes instead of a few of the wrong ones.
And — let’s be honest — deciding to keep reading beyond GEB Chapter 7, The Propositional Calculus because you get the gist, you know how Boolean logic works… and then deciding to go back and really, truly learn it.
“So how can we strengthen our perception muscle?” I asked. “I mean, maybe it’s in the second half of the Kahneman or something and I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”
Then I said “No, wait. It’s in Cal Newport’s Deep Work. The secret to sustaining periods of deep work is to take deep breaks. Not, like, scattered-thought breaks where you check Twitter or email or whatever. They can be social breaks, you can have a conversation with someone you love, but he says the best kind of deep break is the kind that is performed without the influence of other minds.”
“So, essentially, walking without your earbuds in. Or meditation.”
The trouble is that I like to use my walks to study music, and I like to use my yoga practice to listen to NPR’s Up First and other podcasts, so my actual alone-with-my-own-thoughts deep break time is somewhat limited.
That might have been why I woke up at 3:30 a.m. last night and did not get back to sleep until it was time to get out of bed.
Which, in turn, might be why I’m making this blog post just a little bit imprecise by doing the easy work of adding section breaks instead of the more difficult work of writing effective transitions.
What I need is obvious — and for once, it’s tied right in with what I want.
To give myself the kind of life where I can do my best work, as a writer and a teacher and a pianist and a partner and even, if we go far enough down the list, as a chess player.
Which means I have to build the kind of perception muscles that can both understand how the game is played and be able to create the game anew, every time.
This all goes double for my freelance work, of course, and it may be one of the reasons why I’ve been able to thrive as a freelance writer; I’ve developed the ability to understand how a piece should be structured and to create a piece that goes beyond the structure to communicate something compelling and informative and new.
But to work this hard, on freelancing and Mozart and everything else, means I have to build in better breaks and deeper rest — to take care of myself, so that I can put my attention towards what truly deserves it.
There’s one more thing.
One more “secret to life,” as I like to call it.
Nobody cares if I can play Hanon Exercise #31 in every key, or if I learn how to draw a chair, or if I finally beat L at chess. The world will keep spinning whether I understand the Propositional Calculus or not, or whether I keep working at the secret writing project I’ve started tackling at 6:55 in the morning. I am an ordinary person who is trying to make art, and there’s something heroic about that (as L would put it) but also something admirably inconsequential.
Because the actual consequence — the reason behind all of this creativity — is that creating makes you more perceptive.
It’s the other way to strengthen your perception muscle, besides walking and meditation and yoga and whatever turns out to be in the second half of the Kahneman.
And all of that perceptivity, in turn, makes you more receptive — to a new idea, to a new person, to what you actually want and need. To change. To growth. To everything.
Practicing the piano, if I may put too fine a point on it, helps you turn around and see the birdhouse.
I suppose I should tell you a bit about what’s happened to me this year.
At the end of July, I bought a house with someone — no, he can’t be “someone,” we can’t go around calling him that until the end of time, so we’ll call him L.
I’ve known L for a long time. The first time I knew him, he was one of the most important people in my life. We fell out of touch for nearly twenty years, and then I had a dream about him; the two of us, standing together in his front room, just talking.
I think that’s all I’m going to say about that. When you share your life with another person, there are some parts that you don’t necessarily want to share with everyone else.
But I’m still going to share my ideas. What I’m thinking about. What I’m working on, and the problems that I’m trying to solve along the way.
This week, for most of the whole week, I’ve been trying to figure out whether love makes you more creative.
There’s not going to be a conclusion to this, btw. If you were expecting one. This is a question that I am still answering.
Because my first thought was that no, love does not make you more creative. It still has to come from you. You still have to make the decision to make the thing, and you still have to decide that you’re going to set aside time to make the thing, and you still have to come up with the focus and fortitude to see the thing through to completion.
And then my second thought was that, well, love can help with all of that. If you’ve got someone (we’re not calling him “someone,” we’re calling him L) to support you, either morally or mentally or simply through sharing the day-to-day work of living together. If you’ve got another person to help you process what L calls the “threat matrix” — the big worries about health or family or pandemics and elections that can get into your head and become the thoughts that occupy your thoughts. If you’ve got a first reader, as it were, to respond to your work and help you make it better.
But that answer’s kind of a cheat, because most of it is about logistics and very little of it is about love. Does being loved, which I am still trying to define because it is so new to me — and which I am currently Venn-diagramming as some intersection between “being seen,” “being cared for,” and “being stimulated” — does that experience actually inspire you to produce more interesting, more complex, more honest, and/or more vulnerable creative work?
And what about the other end of it? Does loving someone else make you more creative?
Here’s where it gets very interesting (and complex, and honest, and vulnerable) because I wasn’t very good at loving L at first. I thought I was — in fact, we said our life felt like a honeymoon — but I didn’t really know what I was doing. You can see it, in my journals. They’re still about “me” and “him” as if we were two separate things that needed to be balanced and negotiated. What’s best for me vs. what’s best for him, and so on.
Then I realized that I was thinking about it all wrong. It has to be what’s best for us. What will make our relationship stronger, and what will weaken it.
And somehow, loving the relationship — seeing it, caring for it, and stimulating it — made me better at loving the person.
There’s a song L and I like to sing to each other, from the musical Once Upon a Mattress:
Yesterday I loved you
As never before
But please don’t think me strange
I’ve undergone a change
And tonight I love you even more…
I used to think that song was about the emotions associated with love. Now I think it’s also about the actions. The little choices you make, every day, intuitively or deliberately. To love, after all, is a verb.
And I am not sure whether love makes you more creative, or whether either being loved or loving someone else helps you produce better creative work. The results are not yet in.
But I am fairly sure that love is a creative practice.
And I only figured that out this morning — which means that if creativity is defined as “making connections between things” (which might not be true, but it’s how I defined it in my last post) this particular connection might be one example of love making me just a little bit more creative. ❤️
I don’t know about you, but my creative practice kind of stopped mid-March.
It took me until the end of August to start doing anything that even resembled a serious creative endeavor. I made a few attempts at getting back into the creative practice habit this summer, but it was kind of like “Nicole goes through the motions of being serious in the hopes that creativity will result,” and it didn’t. I was doing for the sake of doing, but it was unfocused and deprioritized and I didn’t really know what I wanted.
I found my way back in through journaling.
At first I simply wrote about what was going on.
Then, exactly like Julia Cameron suggested might happen in The Artist’s Way, I started making connections between things. (You might say, if you were of a profound turn of mind, that making connections between things is the essence of creativity.)
I began to prioritize my journaling. Made it the first thing I did every morning, before checking email or the news or anything like that. Just a few minutes with the blank page and as many thoughts and emotions as I could jam onto it.
I had an unexpected, almost mindblowing artistic growth moment at the very end of August — and oh my goodness I really should write about that, shouldn’t I — and after I realized what I needed to do next, getting back into the daily creative practice routine was relatively easy. (The hardest part was, of course, figuring out where and how to schedule it.)
Although, as I recently told a friend, this newly revived practice was all about studying other people’s work (at the piano, in this case). Not generating anything new.
“Maybe it will be a technical year,” I told her. Sitting down with Mozart every morning can teach you just as much as writing something of your own, after all. Maybe more.
For the last week, I have started each day by writing “What do I want?” at the top of a blank page.
It’s surprising how useful it is to keep asking yourself this question. Each time, my answers get more precise.
Once I know what I want, I translate the answer into action steps.
I added the question to my daily journaling ritual, and kept coming up with the same few responses over and over. One of which was “I want to make things.”
And then I had an idea — it came to me, literally, in a dream — and I woke up and I wrote it down.
And then I started waking up a little bit earlier every morning so I could have time to work on it.
Which brings me to now, 6:55 a.m., the sun still yellow at the horizon. (My new office faces east, which is one of my favorite things about it.) I’ve done my journaling and my making-something-new, and when I’ve finished with this post I’ll do some yoga and share a cup of coffee or tea with the person I love and get ready to sit down at the piano.
And when I’m done practicing, with the rest of the day still ahead of me, I’ll start my freelance work. ❤️