Once when I was going through a particular rough period I got through it by asking myself over and over again the simple question: “Amy, right now are you okay?”

At the time I was faced with the normal garden variety of stresses, just coming at me too quickly from every direction. There were some family concerns and some friends in trouble. I had too many notes to learn and a worrisome situation with a student. I had a migraine I couldn’t shake. Matt was under a lot of pressure at work as well, which added to the strain at home. It was life, with all its messiness, just too much of it all at once.

But the worst part of the whole thing wasn’t any particular situation. It was my unhelpful and self-destructive thinking, spinning off into the future, imagining the end of the world as I knew it. I discovered, almost by accident, that stopping long enough to check in with myself—Amy, right now, at this very minute, are you okay?—was enough to halt my mental madness. Because this is what I quickly figured out: I may have been unhappy, I may have been worried or sad or angry or frustrated or stressed, I may have had a headache, but in the big picture, I was okay.

Some days I had to remind myself of this about twenty-seven times.

I have been asking myself this same question a lot since the pandemic began. Roughly thirty-nine times a day, in fact. It has been too easy to get caught up in the general doomsday thinking, most of which I manage without any outside assistance. I don’t need the 24-hour news cycle, or the New York Times, or my bewildered friends and family to make me feel any more vulnerable. I am, after all, a musician. If the economy goes south, my livelihood could easily go south with it. Nor do I need any help imagining a world in which I and all the people I love might be on a life raft in the ocean drifting west. Or where a new improved Covid variant might emerge and once again shut down life as we know it. Or where there’s an increase in violence and hatred and intolerance in this country, and a new casualness about sexual assault and racial discrimination. I can come up with these kind of dark scenarios all on my own.

This kind of thinking does not improve the quality of my life or my work, however. Quite the opposite. Hence the return of my mantra: Amy, right now, right at this very moment, are you okay?

Well, yes.

Having said that, let’s make sure we clearly define what isn’t okay: sexual assault, bigotry, racism, hatred. Nope, those things are not okay and never will be.

And I realize that the great lesson of last few years is that much of the world is not okay. There is too much of the above lurking around out there. There are too many people on life rafts. There are too many people dying in hospitals. There are too many people on the street corners begging for food and money. There are too many people without meaningful work or a purpose in this world. We’ve all been shaken out of our little okay worlds. We must start listening to one another now.

But here’s the thing: I listen better when I’m okay, when I have both feet on the ground, when I am not getting caught up in a future I can neither predict nor control. I listen better both to the people I struggle with and with those whom it is easy for me to love. I listen better to my students and colleagues needing both my musical ears and my rooted self. I listen, ultimately, better to myself, to the voice that nudges at me, “Yep, Amy. More to do. Keep listening.”

Staying okay for me these days means lots of laps in the swimming pool, plenty of yoga and loads of time on the mediation cushion and the piano bench. It means taking time to tend my garden (both literally and figuratively), having breakfast with my mother, lunch with my father, calling my sister when I’m out walking in the evenings. It means setting aside time to have coffee or tea, drinks or dinner with friends who are as confused and searching as I am. It means protecting a quiet night with Matt in order to spend an entire evening drinking a bottle of wine and petting our cats.

Right after the 2016 election, I remember asking a friend who teaches at a local private school how she was holding up. “It’s been a hard week at school,” she said. “Turns out it only takes a couple of gloating teenage boys to make an entire classroom of sixteen-year-old girls cry.” Well, I thought at the time, if that isn’t a microcosm of the whole mess then I don’t know what is.

Turns out the tough times and tears never really end. Most days, I do not feel equipped with the skills or the power or the influence to solve the world’s problems, or even the ones in my own little corner of the universe. But that doesn’t let me off the hook. At the very least, there are children all around me who, more than ever, need sane, kind, compassionate, okay adults in their lives.

Spoiler alert: it is never easy. As a friend said to me over lunch today, “How do we stay vigilant and okay at the same time?” It’s a good question, but if I’m really listening then I think I’ll hear the answer.

Today’s okay guarantees nothing about tomorrow. But right here, right now, right this very moment, okay is an honest place to take a deep breath and start listening.



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