Here is a fact I generally try to keep secret: I am 30 years old, and I’m living with my parents. As much as I’d like to smudge the narrative, save my pride, and say I’m here because of the pandemic, I’m not. I left Brooklyn in September, because after nine years in the city I was burnt out and broke. I’d spent my last two years there working full time while taking full-time classes at Columbia; prior to that I’d spent 7 years chasing visions of “success” as a musician and actor that I thought would make me whole. I needed space from the city, its pace and its delusions, and the fragmented self I’d constructed there.
In New York, no music I made or writing I completed or success in school ever felt good enough. I’d moved there when I was 20 to attend a musical theater conservatory connected to Tisch; in an environment fraught with empty criticism, focused on plugging weaknesses rather than building strengths, a vague feeling I’d had my whole life—that I wasn’t good enough— operationalized into a belief system. When I finished that program, I focused on writing and performing original music. I learned to play the piano, I recorded an album and booked shows at venues I admired like Rockwood Music Hall and The Bitter End. The first song I submitted to American Songwriter’s lyric competition received honorable mention, and my favorite song I’ve written won an award in the Songdoor International Song Competition. Yet, the never-good-enough mentality was always there.
I found a reason to devalue everything that I should’ve celebrated. It didn’t matter that I was playing shows of my original work, I was embarrassed because my audiences were small. Because I was playing at 5pm instead of 9pm or because I didn’t have a band. It didn’t matter that my lyrics received recognition, because I still didn’t have a record deal. I’d often feel guilty if I went out with my friends instead of writing a song. I assumed if I wasn’t using every free minute to write, I would never achieve the vision of success I needed to cleanse the never-good-enough stain from my consciousness. My mentality then became— it is ok that I am dissatisfied now, because I will be happy once I get “there” later. “There” was murky, undefined. A record deal, maybe. A tour. Selling out a show? I didn’t know, I just knew that success meant happiness and success wasn’t playing shows to twenty people.
This sounds more intentional than it felt at the time. The issue was not that I thought I deserved more or was consciously ungrateful, but rather that I conflated dissatisfaction with ambition. I set lofty goals, like winning Tony Awards and selling out venues, because I’d decided I was the type of person who achieves lofty goals. Fueled by the constant thrum of feeling never-good-enough, I was afraid to fail. I was afraid to indulge being a beginner because I thought it indicated that I wasn’t good; anticipating obstacles and failures resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy— failing before I even began. Rather than dissolving, the harder I worked the never-good-enough feeling intensified. It became a cycle: I’d want something larger than life, I’d get so caught up in making the perfect choice that I’d fail to take any meaningful action, and I’d be dissatisfied all over again.
In looking so far ahead, I was also able to overlook what was actually making me unhappy in the present. Maybe I would’ve been happier if a record deal with Matador Records materialized, but more likely I would’ve been happier if I hadn’t been dating men who treated me badly and chasing dreams I didn’t actually want. Valuing a future I didn’t have over the present I did have was escapism. It gave me an excuse to avoid interrogating my immediate choices, like why I stayed with that boyfriend who refused to read my writing because fifteen-pages interrupted his video games. Or why I couldn’t confront the simmering suspicion that what I really wanted from music was validation, which it turns out is an auxiliary benefit of actually playing music. Clinging to a pretty future meant I didn’t have to acknowledge that I spent meaningful time pursuing something that was never for me to have.
When the pandemic hit Washington, then California, then New York and the dominos started falling, the thought patterns that had been my crutches came tumbling down too. Feelings like disappointment or failure— usually relegated to a blur in my periphery as I ran toward something else— sat, unmoving, just outside my childhood bedroom window. They were mangled and felt brutal. And yet I couldn’t look away because there was nowhere to look. There was no more hopeful idea of “moving back to the city by summer” (a discussion amongst my friends) and no grad school (deferred) and the essays I’d been working on to submit for publication no longer mattered (who cares about my hot-feminist-take on the word victim now?). There was nowhere to be but here, listening to my parents watch Jeopardy, whether I like it or not.
On a recent morning, when I was sipping my coffee on my parents’ deck, lyrics from the last song I ever sang at my musical theater conservatory bubbled up from some forgotten corner in my brain: “You meant to tell me to be where I was, not some place in the past or the future. I worried too much about tomorrow,” Dot, the main character and muse says to the artist George Seurat in the musical Sunday in the Park with George. He can’t make art because he’s paralyzed by his desire to produce exclusively good art. I know the feeling well. “Stop worrying where you’re going, move on,” she implores. When I was 22, singing the lines in a dusty studio on 18th street, I heard them as good advice, potent for the time. I didn’t really listen though. They are a memory, sure, and come up unannounced as memories tend to. But sitting with the sum of my choices, in a home I never thought I’d inhabit again, they feel nothing short of oracular.
You meant to tell me to be where I was. I recently accepted my first full-time position that I’ve cared about as a Writer/Editor at an educational nonprofit; one of my assignments is to write a children’s book, a project I’ve been wanting to do. I thought of some ways I could negate it: I’m not writing for The New Yorker; I haven’t had anything published; the children’s book won’t be widely distributed. Not some place in the past or the future. My skin was not thick enough for the music industry, I was not a strong enough performer to “make it.” And yet. The truth hurts, but it doesn’t kill. I can build whatever I want from the remnants of my defenses. I can celebrate that I have a job title, the exact title I wanted, which was unimaginable a year ago. What else have I failed to imagine? I worried too much about tomorrow. I wake up every morning with my fifteen-year-old dog curled in a swath of sunlight on my quilt, reminding me that time is finite. But it is ours.
Stop worrying where you’re going, move on. We have time for rewrites. We are here. We can find space for grace.