The Required Burning: Notes from a Musical Mid-Life Crisis

The day after Thanksgiving, I took my mother to my favorite café just before ferrying her to the airport. Between bites of organic fried chicken and kale salad, and while her boyfriend was away from the table, I blurted, “I think I have a chip missing.”

She quickly and conspiratorially replied, “Me, too. What do you think it is?”

I paused.

“Laziness?” she offered.

“It’s definitely not laziness,” I replied quickly. “But I don’t know what it is.”

My mother and I seem to be having a simultaneous mid-life crisis. Mine is likely a bonafide mid-life crisis — closer to 40 than 30; what have I done with my life; where did that clump of silver hair come from? Hers is about retiring, somewhat reluctantly, and finding that once she turns in the keys to the office, there’s nothing left of the business she put 30 years of her life into.

Slowly I grappled with what I was really trying to say.

“Why am I not more successful than I am?”

With all my obvious advantages — a free college education, a fairly worry-free middle class life, well-cultivated talents in music and writing — why have I not become a Grammy/Oscar/Pulitzer winning success?

And perhaps more importantly, why do I think I should be?

I grew up in a rarified environment, on the Upper West Side, literally across the street from Lincoln Center and Julliard. For a handful of my teenage years my younger brother was performing a dozen blocks south on Broadway in Les Miserables and then in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. Through a series of bold and bizarre moves, I ingratiated myself into Winona Ryder’s family and was a fly on the wall for movie shoots and premiere parties. My mother’s fashion PR company skyrocketed and I met Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs — the latter a fresh Parsons graduate, wearing a bedazzled denim jacket. Steven Sprouse designed my prom dress. While I was away at college Courtney Love passed out on my best friend’s couch on Ludlow Street. A few months later all the skater kids I hung out with at the Cube on Astor Place every summer — Harmony Korrine and Chloe Sevigny among them — made a movie called Kids.

I believed my time would come. My moment would arrive.

But it didn’t.

To be fair, I never had the singleness of purpose that any of those folks had. I loved to sing, act, and write. And I did all of it. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, choose just one, and so the cultural folklore that I bought into told me I wasn’t being true to any of them. A real artist can do nothing but the one thing she is called to do, right? An acting teacher of mine told our class, “If there is anything else you can do with your life besides acting, do it.”

I decided then and there that there were plenty of other things I could do, so I gave up on acting completely. It was a relief. I was painfully insecure about my body — I  could never master it or own it like an actor must. Sadly, I tried to beat my body into submission through diets, bouts of exercise, and eating disorders, but I never shook the sense that I wasn’t entirely comfortable in my own skin.

It was more than fifteen years before I would entertain the idea that I could act for my own pleasure. I joined a small children’s theater group at my local church, and I enjoyed it. I realized that the story I’d been telling myself all these years — that I wasn’t any good at acting, that I shouldn’t embarrass myself by trying — was a lie. A lie I used to protect myself from trying, from falling in love with it, and then failing. If you never try, if you disqualify yourself from the race, then you never win, sure, but you never lose.

* * *

Today, a friend reminded me of this Viktor Frankl quote: “What gives light must endure burning.” To get to the victory, one must suffer the heartbreak first, one must suffer the burning; the burning is ”required,” Frankl later added. I am finally learning this.

I am still juggling a handful of artistic pursuits — music and writing — and I feel like I’m failing at all of them. Am I using my artistic gifts to elevate myself, trying to trick God into elevating me by granting me the success I seem to want so desperately? Or is God perhaps holding me at arm’s length from this success, knowing it would never be enough? Or is it neither, or both of these?

Perhaps I haven’t yet passed through the required burning, the dying to myself or in Buddhist terms, the cessation of desire. Perhaps this burning, this heartbreak is the canyon I stand on the edge of, never fully committing to jump. And thus, never able to access that victory, whatever it may look like, on the other side.

When I moved to Houston from Brooklyn as a brand new convert to Christianity, it was a handful of months after 9/11. What had seemed so important to me before my city was firebombed suddenly registered less than zero on the significance scale. My city, my worldview, and hideously, one of my favorite people endured that literal burning. And the result was ash, not light. At least not at first. But through that experience something was burned to the ground in me: the fear that my destiny was a needle in a New York haystack, the idea that the value of my life amounted to nothing more than the sum of my accomplishments.

I assured myself, shakily, that my destiny, whatever it might be, would follow me. But I also came to believe that my artistic pursuits were just a part of my story. This belief, born of my new found faith, gave me the courage to leave New York and take a leap of faith in Texas.

Since then, as in anyone’s life, there have been ups and downs. I find myself in a career as a music minister, which is a privilege and a true joy. I’m a wife and mother and friend — all roles that lend tremendous meaning to my life. But there are no Courtney Love sightings or Broadway performances to attend. It’s a quieter life. Shortly after I moved to Houston, I was on a treadmill at the gym when I saw Sufjan Stevens, a friend of a friend, on MTV. Last I’d checked he was performing to twenty or so people, just like me. Now he was on his way to becoming an international superstar, and rightly so. Recently, I’ve watched former classmates (Sarah Paulson) receive Golden Globe nominations, and star in movie after movie (Gabriel Macht) from the living room couch of my quieter life. Ironically, or perhaps not, my spell check just changed “quieter” to “quitter.” Which is it?

“I believe that history will show the American Dream to be the most debilitating, insidious lie a culture ever told,” my friend with the Frankl quip said. “The pursuit of happiness is a myth. You are what you think you are. You’re happy if you think you’re happy. You’re a child of God if you think you’re a child of God. You’re a broken blundering mess if you think you are. You choose.”

I think I am both/and. I am all of the above and sometimes none of the above. And in those moments of debilitating uncertainty I remind myself of the two best words of advice I’ve ever gotten: Keep going.

The artistic work of a life, or the life of an artist, is about the doing of the work, the going of the work — the writing of this essay, the singing of this song. The audience, the outcome, the success or failure of that work cannot be a consideration in the making of it or we are doomed. Doomed to rely on formulas, to pander to the invisible critic in our heads.

I need to know that God loves me and that I love me — or at least that I’m trying to, regardless of my “success” or “failure.” Perhaps the work, then, is the journey and the journey is the destination.

* * *

A week or so ago I got a cryptic text message from a friend. “I have kind of an odd request,” it began.

She went on to explain that a baby who had been in the care of the foster agency she works for had died in the hospital. Born extremely premature, his mother left him unnamed as she signed over her parental rights. The baby lived only three weeks. Three weeks during which the women at the foster agency fell in love with him, named him, prayed for him, and visited him every day.

The women at the foster agency then took on the sacred business of planning his memorial service. They’d become his family.

“I want him to be honored as I would want my own child to be honored,” she said. “Will you sing?”

My husband and I have sung at many memorial services and many weddings. We’ve been invited into the most intimate moments of people’s lives, and we’ve been humbled and moved by those experiences. But as we drove away from the tiny gravesite that day, shaken to our core yet somehow better connected to our purpose, I was reminded of something I seemed to have recently lost hold of: why I make music.

We have accepted the call to make music whose benefit does not necessarily accrue to us. Singing for an orphaned infant, for example, has value that can’t be measured in record sales or radio spins. Though chart-topping music — music widely held as “successful” — can touch the soul and spirit, we are very clearly called to something different. We are called to release this music along with the “success” or “failure” of it, and somehow in doing so, it will release us. Our music is not less than because it’s not on the radio. It is important, and it matters.

Put another way, we are the musicians you call for the memorial service of an orphaned infant. And there is no greater honor than that.

In the doldrums of a mid-life crisis, or even just a gray day, as artists we must trust that the work is good work, holy work, and that it’s enough — regardless  of the biting critics in our culture and in our heads.

The work is the journey and the journey is the destination. Keep going.

Photo: Lanecia Rouse

Cameron Dezen Hammon is 1/3 of The Rebecca West and 1/2 of Olivette. She received her BA in Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and hopes to become an MFA candidate this fall.

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