Thursday, September 1, 2011


Halfway through my first year of graduate school, my grandpa died. It was sudden; we had all been at my parents’ house for Christmas and had a lovely time. New Years’ Day he had a massive heart attack. He was unconscious for several days before he died. My mom flew to Nebraska during that time, my sister went along for support. I wanted to go, too, but everybody thought it was important that I head back to school in order to start the semester on time. So I flew back to Chicago and waited.

When I got to Nebraska a few days later for the funeral, it seemed as if everybody had already settled into their roles, everybody knew when and where to pitch in. I wanted to help in some concrete way, but there were a lot of people around, and it was hard to know where exactly to step in. My one job was to play 3 minutes of music for the funeral, and that felt like a meager thing to offer.

I played in a haze. My hands were cold, I felt numb all over, but I kept myself together because that’s what I know how to do when I’m performing. I spent a few days with family, remembering, crying, even laughing a little. And then I tried to return to life as usual.

The loneliness hit hard when I went back to school. I spent hours every day in a practice room, and all I could think about was how insane it felt to be alone in my tiny room, surrounded by other human beings alone in their tiny rooms, all honing our craft, learning how to communicate, and all very much alone. I felt like I was doing anything but communicating. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I was working towards any more. After years of trying to make music my entire life, in the face of death it suddenly looked like nothing.

I started violin lessons when I was 2 ½, but with two free-lance musicians/music teachers for parents, I was surrounded by it from the beginning. Music has been a part of me since before I can even remember; a part of my family, an essential to growing up. For years, though, it was one thing among many. Through high school there were always books to read, stories and poems to write, languages to learn, pictures to draw. Things that drew me in, absorbed my time, my energy, my passion. Then I decided to make music my career, and I went from taking it for granted to thinking it was the only thing I had room for in my life.

I have a tendency to take an all-or-nothing approach to life. Choose one thing and black out all the rest. Put on blinders. I knew music was a tough field, and I convinced myself I had to give up everything else in order to “make it.” After my grandpa died I realized I didn’t want to—I couldn’t, in fact—give up everything for music. I wanted relationship. Family. I couldn’t let music get in the way. I didn’t want to feel the pull between family and career, and I figured if I let go of all my aspirations for one, the other would be all I needed. And so I traded one pair of blinders for another.

My life has not been wasted. Neither has my education or skill. But I’m old enough to see that my story isn’t going to go the way I think it is, either, and music never faded completely into the background the way I thought it would. I both tried to make music my life, and tried to walk away from it. Neither, it turns out, is possible. Somehow it is deeply a part of me in a way I do not understand, nor do I always know how to handle. I’ve learned since my grandpa’s funeral that sometimes just speaking from the heart—gathering up the pain, the love, the hope, and everything else, and offering it up in a piece of music that goes beyond words and deeds—sometimes that is the thing that is needed. It is not such a meager role to play, after all, and it’s what I have to offer.

“You who see, tell the others,” my English teacher wrote in my yearbook at the end of my senior year of high school. Over the last few years I have started to think of that as a call-to-arms for the artist, the musician, the writer. It is a tall order, a high calling. And here I am, a mom and (very) part-time violin teacher living in a small town in the Midwest that’s awfully short on gigs. These days the opportunities that come are precious. They are also few and far between. Maybe that will change, and maybe it won't. But maybe I have a small part to play. Hopefully there are things I can see, things that I can share from this precise point. I'm finding strength in discovering this is still something I can do. That I can be a mom, a wife, a teacher, maybe even a writer, but I have a voice as a violinist, too, and I can once again embrace it. I want to be done with trying to black out certain parts of myself. Somehow they fit together.


  1. What a great post! sometimes I sort of envy those people who are completely consumed by one area of life. They must not have these struggles for balance where you are always suspicious that you might not be doing anything as well or as completely as you would like.

    But the rest of us in the small midwest town with you who have little ones who benefit from your violin voice are so appreciative that you are here and that you are using your music in the way that you are. You are building into crazy young children ideas and love for music that they would never get without lessons from you.

  2. Gorgeous post. Resonates on every level with me. Thanks for speaking honestly and from lived experience and the wisdom that comes from years. May I borrow that high school English teacher's quote and use it in a blog of my own? Love this post.
    - alison

  3. Amen! They fit together into my glorious and dear friend, Karen!

  4. Whimsy, that was spoken like a stay-at-home-mom/rocket scientist! I love that you understand. And I don't mean to say anything negative about our small town, just that it's...well, a very small corner of the world.

    Alison, thank you you. You may absolutely borrow the quote. It was from Mr. Debe, by the way. He said it was an African proverb, and that my writing made him think of it. I was touched at the time, but I had no inkling of the power those words would have all these years later.

    Laura, you are a dear friend, yourself. Thank you.

  5. Well, I've left this post open in a window for a little more than a week now and I keep revisiting it. This color series, Karen. . .POWERFUL stuff!!

    Why does this post resonate with me so???

    As a music lover but not a musician, my heart balked at the thought of a music offering being "meager" in any way. I am in awe of music and that awe rather extends to those talented few who "GET" it--and can "MAKE" it--and "EXPRESS" themselves through it. What a gift! Not meager at all.

    But even more than that, I think this post resonates with me as it's a perfect expression of embracing who you are. By all means, don't black out any part of who you are--all those pieces are what make you YOU, which is who you're supposed to be--and I like the way you're fit together!!! :)


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