Embracing Uncomfortable Situations

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned from starting a not for profit organization is the importance of metrics.  How can we measure impact?  What is the metric for success? These questions are often asked of the arts in general, and I fear that the difficulty in answering them with concrete data is part of the reason that funding for the arts is at risk in America today.  The truth is (as most people who have had a profound artistic experience will tell you) that the true value of the arts is not something that can be measured in an intellectual, corporate or academic way.  It is only measured through the heart, because the arts speak to the heart and soul of humanity.

And yet, I am haunted by this desire to measure success, not just through the work that I strive to do with The Canales Project, but also in my personal life.  How do I know if I have had a good day?  What does a successful life look like?  How can I measure the impact that I have had in my life thus far?

One thing that I know is the importance of the personal journey.  As much as I would like to use metrics that relate to others, the most important measure of any progress comes from my own development.  I consider this to be the most important work that one can strive to do in life.  Perhaps it’s part of the reason that I am drawn to the philosophical and spiritual questions we face as humans.  I don’t know that I will ever find answers, but perhaps I will gain a greater sense of self-knowledge in facing these questions with courage and determination.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to best do so.  It’s hard to carve out the space to think in this way in my daily life, when my agenda requires me to be moving from one meeting to the next and focusing on the deliverables of the day.  In moving at such a pace, an emphasis is put on comfort in order to maximize productivity.  For instance, I can call an Uber instead of wait for a taxi, or even call for food to be delivered as opposed to eating in a restaurant (or going to the grociery store and cooking!). 

The technology that we have available to us today makes this easy.  With the touch of a button we can call anyone, anytime, and pretty much have any service delivered at our convenience. 

This has had an impact on the way we communicate as well.  We no longer call people to talk. After all, how productive would that be?! Most of us text at best, and sometimes we rely on one mere emoji to communicate volumes of emotional and substancial content.

Indeed, we have prioritized comfort as a metric for a better life, and also as a means to enable greater productivity. But I return to the question, what are we trying to produce?

I would like to make an argument for the importance of being uncomfortable.  Upon reflection I realized that I have gained the greatest insights on who I am as a person only by putting myself in deeply uncomfortable situations.  Travel is a perfect catalyst for this.  I am currently in Shenzhen, China a city that is completely new to me.  I do not speak Chinese, and have no friends here.  I have been engaged to come her as a soloist for a concert that is taking place this weekend, in which I will perform an excerpt from the opera Carmen and the mezzosoprano solo in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Some of my colleagues thought it was unadvisable for me to get on a place and travel nearly 20 hours to come here to deal with jet lag, a language barrier, and many unknowns regarding the rehearsal process.  This would certainly be out of most people’s comfort zone.  But for me, this is exactly the kind of situation that I am seeking. 

It is by placing myself in uncomfortable situations such as this one that I feel I have the opportunity to learn the most, and no matter what the outcome, the journey is sure to be an adventure!  Yesterday, for instance, I had lunch at a restaurant where there was no English menu and I simply had to point to Chinese characters and hope for the best.  The result-a real surprise-was absolutely delicious!  The same goes for wandering the streets, particularly those off the beat and path.  I saw things I have never seen, such as huge markets filled with electronic parts.  From this I started questioning my own electronics, how they work, and reflected on the work it must have taken to make the appliances that I use every day.  The truth is that someone make the very computer that I am typing this on right now.  I may never meet that person and have the chance to thank them, but the mere realization that my comfort is the result of someone’s hand-made labor was humbling.

And so, I invite you to think about what might be gained by leaving the notion of comfort behind-if only for a moment-and embracing uncomfortable situations.

A Vessel of Stories

I’m back on the road now.  On an airplane, staring at my beloved horizon line as the sun sets somewhere between Texas and Arizona.

During my travels, I’ve spent much of my time answering questions like, “Isn’t it hard to be on the road all the time?” or “Don’t you ever feel tired of traveling so much?”.  These questions sometimes come with an inferred opinion, and are asked with a tinge of pity in the speaker’s tone.  Now, anyone who knows me well knows that pity is a trigger for me, so maybe I’m projecting this-that’s certainly the more likely scenario.  Or perhaps I just look worn out, so the person asking has good reason to think I am tired!  But, while I know that these types of questions are natural and probably come from a desire to sympathize with me (what a nice thought!), I also know that my answer is not what one might expect. 

The important factor for me is that in asking me this question it means that the person asking is interested in me and wants to engage with me on some level.  This is a gift and an opportunity that I don’t take for granted.  It’s a chance to bond, to create trust and understanding, and potentially even an opportunity for exchange.

The moment when this particular question is asked, I feel have a choice to make.  I could choose the fast track toward empathy and respond by listing the reasons that we all know travel is tough: the lack of routine, the food selections available at the airport, the wrinkled clothes that have spent too much time in a luggage, the long layovers, uncomfortable hotel beds, the missed loved ones…the list could go on and on.  And it’s true-there are many challenges that come with the lifestyle I have chosen for myself.  But therein lies the key.  I choose this lifestyle.  I am living exactly the life that I wanted for myself and because of that, I’m actually living my dream.  For that I feel incredibly fortunate each time I have the chance to travel.

Ultimately, this question as an opportunity to describe what I consider to be one of the greatest privileges in life: the opportunity to meet new people.  I try to explain that I actually chose this lifestyle out of love and pursued the chance to travel as a way to fulfill my dreams of learning more about the world and my desire to gain a better understanding of humanity.  It’s what drives me more than anything as an artist.

Of all of the amazing benefits that come with the opportunity to travel, the greatest gift is the gift of having interactions with people I may not have otherwise come into contact with. I attempt to use these types of casual exchange as opportunities to open myself up in an honest and vulnerable way, and to share stories from my travels. 

Sometimes I think of myself as I do my luggage, only instead of belongings, I am a vessel of stories.  I imagine myself a trader of sorts, and for any story that a person might share with me about their life, in exchange I share with them one of the stories in my catalogue.  This is the connection I yearn for.  I hope in doing so I will learn something about life, and perhaps I will have given them something to think about.

At the airport just now I saw a t-shirt that said “Make America Kind Again”.  That was a new one for me, and the most convincing line in the “Make America…” campaign I have seen so far.  But to me this is the wrong approach, because in truth who really knows America right now?  And how can we know our country-one that is so vast and diverse-without knowing its people, its history, and its stories?  I certainly don’t claim to know America well at all, but one thing that I have noticed is that many people in this country feel like they are not heard and many Americans feel like their stories don’t matter.  This breaks my heart.  I think upon the many stories in my little luggage of conversations.  They are my form of currency.  They are my gold.

I am very fortunate to have the chance to live my dream, and it’s something that I don’t take for granted.  In fact, it’s probably the thing that I love most about America-the fact that we are encouraged to pursue our dreams in this country.  My parents are the embodiment of the American dream.  Both came to this country as immigrants with not much in the way of possessions, and now they have raised three college educated children and contributed to society in many ways.  Perhaps it’s because of this that I believe in our country so much.  I have been told that it’s a hallmark of first generation Americans-this love of the American dream and its ideals.  Only I have never considered it ideology.  It’s been my truth—my own story. 

Little Red

As an opera singer I spend a great deal of my time traveling.  I embrace life on the road and am very thankful for the opportunities to travel and share what I love most: music.  However, it goes without saying that travel can have its challenges.

Enter Little Red.  Most people would see her as just a suitcase, but to me she is a trusted travel companion who has become a personal friend.  Little Red is about 22 x 14 inches (in other words, carry on size) and has two wheels (as opposed to four…a longer conversation/debate for another time).  She was made by Briggs & Riley which is what attracted me to her originally.

After several years of going through one or two pieces of luggage per opera season, I wanted something durable. I was ready to commit to one-one piece of luggage-who would always be there for me.  Loyalty is something that I value greatly, but a true lifetime warranty is hard to come by!  I researched this and came up with two solutions:  Briggs & Riley or the Eagle Creek Tarmac.  I decided to go with the first option-less sporty and more suitable for any potential first class upgrades.

In addition to being my friend (and my suitcase) Little Red has become one of the great teachers in my life.  I am convinced she must be a yogi guru of some sort. Each time I pack, I am forced to do some intense self-examination.  What’s important to me?  What do I value so much I can’t do without it?  Who am I?

She is opposite of me in that she shuns existentialism and instead embraces the possibilities of life with such an optimistic outlook.  To her anything is possible.  She has never been the one to shy away from adventure or a challenge.  There have been many (many!) times where I thought there would be no way that all of the things I needed to carry back home would possibly make it, and each time she has proven me wrong.

Little Red has many special qualities.  For one, she is flexible.  She allows me different options-compartments and such, but also a substantial expansion zipper option.  Her willingness to accommodate is much appreciated.  Secondly, she is strong.  I use to look at cobble stone roads differently back in the days of other bags, knowing how much damage they would cause.  Not for Little Red.  She has incredibly sturdy wheels and has trekked on some amazingly uneven paths, even the unpaved kind.  Lastly, she has a great grip.  There are times that it can be hard to travel, especially when I’m going to a new place or traveling along.  There is comfort in holding Little Red’s handle-a soft, familiar place now-and knowing that I’m not alone.

Some people may look at Little Red and see a carry on bag.  I see her as one of the great long lasting relationships of my life, and an opportunity to learn more about myself each time I have to pack for a trip.

Creative Entrepreneurs at Berklee

It was wonderful to be a part of an important discussion at Berklee College of Music Institute of Creative Entrepeneurship on social impact through the arts.  The panel included Tony Woodcock, David France, Julie Leven and Liz Powers, and was moderated by Panos Paney.  Video clips to come soon!