On Bravery

Sometimes, when you ask someone a question, it takes you a long time to figure out the question that you mean to ask. Over the summer, I corresponded with Colette Alexander. That, in and of itself, was a remarkable act of bravery on my part, as I’ve been an admirer of her for the better part of a decade. And it took me a while to figure out what it really was that I was trying to get from her, by which I mean to say: this is the first part of a longer dialogue, yet to come. Enjoy!

Hi Colette,

At Mittenfest this year, we had an extremely brief conversation about how you, quite suddenly it seems, fell in love and moved to San Francisco from NYC. (Am I remembering this correctly? Maybe there was a job in there too? Also, something about Lyme’s Disease?) Years ago, I watched you move from Ann Arbor to NYC, then travel the world (or so it seemed to stationary me).

I don’t really do resolutions or anything, but I am currently testing out the idea of “2014: The Year of Living Fearlessly.” I read something recently that asked, What would you do if you were not afraid? And reading that question made my brain explode in every conceivable direction. And when I put my brain back together, I saw what felt like an infinite list.

So, Colette. Are you REALLY as fearless as you appear? I look at the list of things you’ve done, places you’ve been, places you’ve moved, crowds you’ve performed in front of, decisions you’ve made. How skilled you are as a cellist. (And please know, as a “cellist,” I’ve learned that mastering an instrument — NOT THAT I’VE EVER DONE IT — is in itself an act of fearlessness.) The fact that you’ve been on the Tonight Show. And if you ARE as fearless as you appear, have you always been that way — is there a Fearless Gene — or was it something you worked on and cultivated (read: Is there hope for me?)?

Love, Amy

Dear Amy,

Your idea for a Year of Living Fearlessly sounds terrifying!
 
In all seriousness: if someone ever tells you they’re fearless, please run the other way. They’re either lying or they’re not at all self aware. I find either of those two traits rather abhorrent in people.
 
I think everyone has fear. Probably at first, out of the womb, we have less of it (you could confirm that better than me, as a mom). Then, I imagine, over the period of growing up and experiencing some of the awfulness of our humanity on the planet, we accrue more and more fear. We’re taught fear, by people, our environment, and just pure bad-old-luck. Mostly I think that people teach it to us, though — whether our parents or co-workers or lovers or friends.
 
I dive into the somewhat depressing origins of fear, because to me, understanding where fear comes from is the beginning of a conversation with it. I talk a lot to my fear. Probably sometimes too much. So, in a step-by-step, usually here’s how it goes:
  1. I know I’m afraid.
  2. I try to figure out why I’m afraid.
  3. I *listen* (to fear, to instinct, to as much as I can, internally).
  4. I decide whether or not my fear is worth listening to as I move forward.
Sometimes fear is good! Sometimes it’s based in reality, and we should all heed those parts of our fear. Often, though, I find it’s just noise, and it’s preventing me from constructing what I *want* to be my reality, or it’s keeping me from having some serious fun. Discerning the difference can feel a little bit like drawing straws sometimes, but it’s worth the try.
 
And, not to get too meta, but I think the secret to overcoming fear is whether you feel like it’s worth it to try. To just push through. To know that you might fail, fuck up, hurt someone, or get hurt, and to go on anyways, because what’s motivating you to move forward feels bigger and more important than that fear. For me, music will always be more worth it. Music saves my life every day, probably because it allows me to overcome fear without the need for anything else but a beautiful song or a just a note drawn long on my cello. Love is more complicated for me than music.
 
I *did* move to San Francisco. A job offer and falling in love seemed to coincide (along with crazy health things that I’m still dealing with) to point me in the direction of the bay area, so I decided to give it a whirl. It turns out that neither the job or the love were what I expected (which, at the age of 33 is probably what I’ve come to expect from launching into so many new things). The job is something I’m still working on getting better at, and still trying to use as a way to improve my knowledge about what I might learn from a non-music-career (answer MIGHT be “nothing”).
 
The love thing didn’t work out. I could write pages to you about why I think that’s the case. Instead I’ll just say: I don’t regret overcoming my fear to try, and if anything, I regret any fear I might have allowed to enter into my experience of the relationship, and sit like a poison inside of it.
 
Which I guess leads me to marriage and kids: you’ve done all of that, and I honestly can’t comprehend the fears related to being married, and then to get pregnant and be responsible for another living being on the planet. I would argue that that is a far braver act than showing up for hair and makeup at 1 PM and playing a 4 minute song in front of some cameras. But both do come with sets of fear, and their own consequences, good and bad. My dad always said having kids was the best but hardest thing he’s ever done, though, and I think I’ll take his word for that over my entertainment industry experience.
 
Whether it’s in music or love, I know my radical vulnerability (which some people read as bravery, others as stupidity) has consequences: things hurt really bad when stuff goes wrong. REALLY bad. (For instance, about an hour ago I realized that I liked a boy more than he liked me, and needed to go into a bathroom at work and cry for a second)
 
As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that being radically vulnerable comes with a set of things you need to do alongside it, in order to not be torn down by it all:
  1. Learn to be kind to yourself. Kinder than anyone else might be. (I SUCK at this sometimes)
  2. Decide to learn from the hurt and from the failure.
  3. Don’t be afraid of the decision to stop doing something or to quit, especially if it’s to protect yourself.
So — now I get to ask, right? This is how this works? How do you see your kid learning or un-learning fear? Was there anything that you were afraid about when it came to having V that you’ve since realized was unfounded? Or absolutely relevant?
 
love,
-colette

Dear Colette,

Radical vulnerability. I love that. I have never thought of bravery in those terms but it makes so much sense.

Vi is sort of . . . cautiously fearless, and it’s one of my favorite things about her. Doing something for the first time, she is slow about it, she wants to hold my hand, she’s a little nervous. Once she realizes she can do something, she’s fearless. (Maybe we’re all sort of this way? Maybe the difference is she’s too young to talk herself out of the cautious trying? And maybe that’s because she doesn’t have a ticker-tape list of all the crazy things that could go wrong to run through?) As it happens, it’s actually sort of hard for a kid to REALLY hurt herself, say, on a playground, so if anything, I work on erring to the side of letting her go a little too far (much to the chagrin, it sometimes seems, of the other moms around me [dads seem to get it]).

Right now, she’s toying with the idea of fear. She says she’s afraid of things from time to time, but it’s this kind of mock-drama. I’m not sure how I’ll deal with her actual fears. I want to honor her emotions, but I also don’t want to encourage them, especially stuff like monsters, fear of the dark, etc. I want her to be tough, but not hard. (I’m hard, but not tough. Although I only learned this recently.)

As for what’s happened since becoming a mother, well. For my pregnancy and the first year of her life, I was afraid of EVERYTHING related to having a kid. Like, almost literally. Now, I am trying to take it one day at a time, stay calm, model good, moderate behavior. The truth is, I think motherhood is taking so much out of me that there’s not much energy left over in that part of my life for fear.

In other parts of my life, it’s grown. I don’t really know my purpose anymore. I used to throw myself so completely into my job that I felt fulfilled by it; I’m no longer able to do that. I’m afraid to “put myself out there” artistically (I have a bunch of photographs of peeled fruit I had every intention of selling online but I can’t bring myself to do it, for example). I guess at heart I fear that people will think I take myself too seriously (and I don’t). Which, now that I’ve typed it, is silly. And certainly not behavior I want to model for my daughter. Which, I guess means it is a fear not worth listening to (thank you for that tidbit, by the way, which I’ve thought about a lot since reading your letter).
I’ve thought a lot about a lot of stuff you wrote in your letter, actually, and all I can say is that it’s been really helpful. So if you have anything else to share (right now or whenever), I’m always available.

Love,
Amy

Dear Amy,

Your description of Vi and her cautious fearlessness is awesome! The idea of allowing children to deliberately and regularly step out of their comfort zones by loving them and supporting them is probably one of my favorite ways I’ve heard parenting described. It also sounds like motherhood is transcendent for you in the sense that it obliterates the opportunity for more fear — even if it’s because you’re so tired at the end of the day, or because you’re so focused on the details of getting it right — whatever it is about that energy, it sounds like it pushes the fear out to the sides and sweeps it away. Sometimes I think when we focus on just getting things (or, better yet, just one small thing) done, we’re able to overcome the fears that paralyze us. God, now I’m starting to sound like a stupid self-help book.
 
And now, as a little humor/music break, everyone should go listen to this, which is my current hype-song-to-feel-good-and-inspired.
 
“You have to walk through the fire . . . you walk through the fire, and then you own it, and you go ‘Come for me, bitches’ ” gets me every goddamn time. To me it seems like anything that’s *worth* doing (motherhood, love, friendship, playing music) always involves walking through the fire (sometimes over and over again).
 
Your line about worrying about people thinking that you take yourself too seriously struck home pretty hard. I struggle a lot with caring too much about what other people think, and it’s often paralyzing. What I love about that Richard Simmons sample at the beginning of the music clip I linked to is where he points out that often when people (or your internal critic) hurl criticism at you, it’s actually a reflection of them and their insecurities and not really about you or your own work at all. Being armed with this knowledge is often my shield when I go into battle with my fear. When I realize other people’s potential (not even actual!) criticism prevents me from making art it seems . . . well, exactly as you put it: silly. Nothing any of us do is ever perfect, either. Perfection is a dangerous lie perpetuated by people (and internal voices) that are hell-bent on keeping us locked up and paralyzed with fear.
 
From where I sit, you’re leading an incredibly rich and busy life. When you write about struggling with not having a purpose, do you think that it has to do with finding ‘balance’ (ugh, I hate that term) between all of these things? Or do you think that a purpose is more functional: “I wake up every day and deliver x and feel y because I have a purpose.” ?  Being on tour and playing shows always did the latter for me. But that was addictive, I think — having that release and expression and pure function every day seems an easy stand-in for purpose, but I’m not sure it ever actually was truly a purpose, as much as a thing I could do every day that reminded me I was alive and part of humanity/the planet. So, not a bad thing, but also not the complete answer to what purpose is. I wonder what other kinds of things I can do to put myself there. When was the last time you felt like you had a purpose? And what’s the definition of ‘purpose’ for you?
 
I keep coming back to what you describe as cautious fearlessness with Vi — and I wonder how we can enable that space for ourselves, within ourselves. Brené Brown (ugh, TED talks, I know — but give it a chance) speaks about a lot of the stuff we’ve covered – vulnerability, shame, fear – and how actually getting there and interacting with all of that stuff makes people have the ability to innovate, create, and ultimately be happy. Shame is key when it comes to vulnerability, which is why I linked to that particular talk. Shame goes back to the Richard Simmons clip and that line about how those critics (internal and external) say things to try to keep us down, and what that’s really about. Your photographs of peeled fruit or whatever other piece of art you put out are you showing up in the gladiator ring and fighting the fight, and they’re your vulnerability.  I need to see them. You need to see them. We all need to see them, and we all need to make our own and be kinder to ourselves and others who are vulnerable with us and for us every day.
 
Love (and apparently Richard Simmons and all other self-help cliches I could pack into an email),
Colette
 
Dear Colette,

Ah! Call my life anything JUST DON’T CALL IT BUSY. (I’m so over busy. I’m on very much on board with the movement of people thinking “busy” is the new way of saying “I’m important.” If anything, I am ACTIVELY trying NOT to be busy, or to ever say things are “crazy” [another pet peeve]. I spend too much time watching Netflix and reading for fun to ACTUALLY be busy.)

A FUNCTION. That’s it. It’s not that I don’t have a purpose. I guess you’re right, I have many. But I want to feel USEFUL. When I was working full-time at that cool place, pre-Mom, I could really throw myself into it. It was my life. It made me feel useful. It wasn’t even that I had any delusions that I was changing the world. I just felt that I was doing a small, good thing, and it was the nucleus that my life revolved around. Now my purposes are divided between too many things to make me feel useful in the way I am used to. But it’s a pie, right? I want the pie to be uncut, one function. But I need to come around to the fact that, even though it’s in pieces, it’s still a PIE. (I see your Richard Simmons and raise you a clunky and unoriginal food metaphor!)

You are a glass-half-full kind of girl, and I respect that. I strive for that. And you are so right about how when people throw shade it’s their own insecurities, and I have to keep that in mind.

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to post this, but I think I’ve figured out why. Because I didn’t ask you the question I actually wanted you to answer. Watching you play with Matt Jones at the Ark a few weeks ago, I thought of all the hours in your life you’ve practiced that instrument versus the number of hours in my life I’ve dicked around. And I, of course, wished that I could trade those hours so that I could get up in front of a crowd and dazzle and amaze the way that you do.

So. At the end of this very long entry, the question I REALLY meant for this to be all about, is: How do you cultivate a sense of DISCIPLINE, around anything? At this point, I lack discipline almost completely. And I realize, mastering anything takes more than discipline, it takes a combination of discipline and CONFIDENCE to truly succeed. Which takes a sort of bravery, which is where I think I got off track.

Anyway. Thanks for engaging with me on this sort of Quixotian exercise. I’ll wrap my brain around this discipline question — you start thinking on it, too — and we’ll discuss, soon.

Love,
Amy

Colette Alexander began playing the cello at the age of four, and has studied classical, contemporary classical, North Indian and Persian Music at Interlochen, Meadowmount, Sarah Lawrence College, and the California Institute of the Arts. She has recorded and performed with many artists, including Jens Lekman, Josh Groban, Sara Bareilles, Angelique Kidjo, Rilo Kiley, Rachael Yamagata, Greg Laswell, Girls in Trouble, Au Revoir Borealis, and Drafted by Minotaurs.  With a primary focus on writing/arranging for and performing with pop/rock bands, she’s toured extensively in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, and appeared on many recordings. She currently resides in San Francisco, but is about to move to Portland.

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One thought on “On Bravery

  1. Biltu Saha says:

    Beautiful interview and article.

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