Earning Good Feelings

In a lot of ways I’m still a kid. For all the maturity that I think I have, I also have never learned how to earn and save in the way that I picture my most “adult” friends doing. So what has happened for most of my adult life is that I have spent the money I’ve earned, and when I didn’t have any, I borrowed from banks. I have no savings as it stands now, and a few thousand dollars in debt.

I don’t really care about money too much, but I am sick of being in debt — it’s burdensome and sometimes stressful, and as anyone knows who has paid off their debt, that last payment is really worth celebrating (I have created for myself and subsequently paid off thousands of dollars in debt several times in my adult life). I would like to start only using money that I have, which means having earned enough to spend, and to resist the temptation of borrowing money for instant gratification of being able to spend. Of course, if it’s a dire situation, then it might be a good idea to borrow a small amount, but I’m realizing that in most of the situations where I borrowed money, I should have just figured out a way to earn some instead.

All these realizations about money came for me recently while studying a different set of habits of mine. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had my last alcoholic drink, and over a week since having had any sugary treats or adding sugar to anything. I chose to undergo this experiment the week before Halloween only coincidentally. I realized that the good feelings that alcohol and sugar give me were like taking out a loan, getting something I have not yet earned, and that I would pay for it later, possibly with interest, in the form of a sugar crash or hangover.

Culture in America encourages instant gratification, both materially and emotionally. We are scarcely encouraged to develop the maturity to put off gratification until we’ve actually earned it. A person who uses their gift of foresight might choose to put off the instant gratification, knowing that their future self will thank them for putting them in a position where they have good feelings “in the bank” instead of having to take them out “on loan.” As it stands for me now, living in NY, block after block I’m confronted with businesses profiting off of selling quick hits of good feelings: bars, coffeeshops, delis selling cigarettes and lottery tickets, etc. The willpower an individual must have to resist these temptations daily is tremendous. I struggle daily with my desire to succumb for a quick hit of pleasure, and it’s probably only a matter of time before I cave and buy a sugary snack after a long, hard work day (coffee is a vice I continue to indulge in).

How to earn good feelings in a sustainable and mature way? In the typical way you might figure: exercise, eating nutritious food, sober, intimate socialization, practicing artistic creativity, etc. These types of wholesome activities require work to derive good feelings from them. Exercise might require some difficulty up front, but the rewards are manyfold: you get the endorphin rush, your body feels good the rest of the day, you sleep better, and you develop a better looking and more functional body over time. The benefits are numerous, but you have to pay for them first with some genuine sweaty hard work.

Creating art is another wholesome activity that requires hard work up front which usually results in lasting good feelings. Making work that requires personal vulnerability can be challenging and daunting, but when you finally share that work with the world and receive praise and see the value it has to others, the reward is often well worth the price.

In my life, I am currently addressing both the material and emotional tendencies I have to go for the instantly gratifying choice, and making slow steady changes towards making choices that I know will benefit me in the long run. I have started a personal economic plan to help me save for the future and pay off my debt, and I will continue as best as I can to make choices that benefit me in the long term.

Depression is Shameful Sadness

I know so many depressed people, and yet it is considered courageous and unusual for people to open up about their own depression. The problem with that attitude is that opening up to others (namely to those in your communities) is exactly the correct way to find support to lift yourself out of depression.

For most of my life (I’m turning 38 this month), I have found myself battling depression on and off. I’d say that although the past six years have been the most challenging of my life, I have managed to keep afloat, actually thriving and maintaining genuine happiness for most of that time. This time frame also coincided with a period of opening up for me: I learned how to sing and cut loose as a performer in a way I had never allowed myself to before, and I am certain that being open has let me maintain my happiness more successfully than ever before.

In recent months I’ve found myself sinking to the familiar depths again for the first time in years, and I have begun to understand depression in a new way, and I also have begun to realize that fighting depression alone is nearly impossible.

At this point, I would conclude that depression is sadness compounded with shame. Sadness is a natural human emotion, brought on by pain, loss, empathy with others, etc. Life is bound to be hard at times, and it’s a normal response to feel sad in these times. My life since 2011 has been wrought with difficult situations: my father died of lung cancer, my mother began to suffer from dementia, I have seen the dissolution of two meaningful romantic partnerships, I got bed bugs, etc. I have had plenty of reason to be sad, and I have let myself feel those feelings.

Opening up about my sadness in recent years is what has allowed me to successfully keep the sadness from becoming unbearably heavy. Learning to sing, writing songs about my experiences, and performing those songs for my peers and communities has helped me publicly address my issues, and as a result I have felt supported and loved by those I have opened up to. The catharsis that people describe that comes with an emotional performance is a powerful release, but there is also a return of energy from those attending the performance in the form of loving attention. It is this attention that we use to sustain one another emotionally and spiritually. When you know others know about your issues, and that they care, it may not relieve you from the actual original issue, but it at least mitigates the secondary issue that comes about when you keep your sadness hidden — that’s when the depression starts.

Shame is the secret ingredient that lets sadness remain shrouded in darkness, and it festers when hidden in this way. When you feel shame about your reasons for being sad, you will tend to hide your sadness and disconnect from others. This is where the spiral of depression begins: your shame about your sadness (or about other reasons related to your sadness) prevents you from fully opening up about your reasons for being sad. The tricky thing about shame is that it takes many forms, and is difficult to identify if you’re not vigilant in being aware of your own patterns.

I can recall getting in fights with my older brother when I was younger, and if we had a serious fight it would almost always result in a bout of depression for me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would internalize the sadness I felt about our fight, and I would keep this sadness to myself since I felt shame about the fact that I was fighting with my brother. It took years before I realized that I needed to open up to him about those feelings to try to prevent my sadness from developing into a full blown depression.

My attempts to write on this blog and to communicate with a broad audience are in line with the notion that publicly addressing my sadness is a good step in preventing it from coalescing into a deep depression. I recognize that my last romantic partnership was with someone who I now see is reluctant to open up about her shame, and that difference between us ultimately led to us growing apart. The commitment to opening up to others can be frightening if you feel like you might have something to lose, however I’ve found that if you can relate your story with compassion to yourself, others will generally respond with compassion as well. If you open up about your sadness and convey only the shame you feel about it, then you will likely inform others that you have good reason to feel shame about your condition, and they will possibly resent you for your sad state.

Through my expressions I realize that my purpose is to encourage others to be open with one another, and to be compassionate to yourself and to others in what you discover in the process of opening. This is a theme that I will continue to address in future writings.

Last Night I Had a Dream

Cannabis is a plant that has provided me great comfort and inspiration over the past decade, and I’ve used it almost daily (usually at the end of the day) because it helps me cope with the stress of my existence. Life in New York is tough, and the experiences I’ve dealt with in the past five years have sometimes left me in dire need of comfort. Smoking cannabis reminds me to laugh, to stay light-hearted in face of heaviness, and it also helps tone down the anxious effects of caffeine (which I also consume almost daily).

The problem with using cannabis at night is that it makes remembering dreams a lot harder. As a result, I have been divorced from my dreams for the majority of the past few years. Last night was the first night since November 2016 that I didn’t indulge in a night-time smoke, and as a result my sleep was colored by dreams. I had a difficult dream (which might even be considered a nightmare), and that dream has left my day stained with overwhelming sadness. The dream continued the drama of my love life, and pushed me deeper into heartbreak and lament. So, maybe it’s a good thing that I have been obliterating myself nightly, to save myself from the demons lurking inside.

But then I think to myself: what have I been running from? It has occurred to me over the past few years that dreams provide an opportunity to discover some of the true feelings you have about the world and yourself, feelings and thoughts that your conscious mind (filtered through your ego) might be ignoring or consciously avoiding. I have attempted to practice lucid dreaming in the past with mixed results, but my successful experiences with it have taught me that you can ask your deeper awareness questions in your dream if you have the mind to do so, and sometimes those answers are meaningful and revelatory.

I am in a process of rehabilitating myself right now. I am attempting to cultivate good habits, replacing the habits that provide quick, instant relief with habits that build a solid foundation for resilience in face of all types of stress and emotional turmoil. I realized that you have to earn good feelings, and feeling good all the time will inevitably cause you to overlook crucial truths that often blow up unexpectedly if not dealt with in time. My dream last night illustrated to me my own insecurity about my body, about my heaviness, about my lack. When your heart is violently stomped by the person who you have put so much love into over the past five years, it makes you question everything, including your fundamental self-worth as a human.

My commitment right now is to my own well-being, and I realize that using cannabis (and other substances) have helped me find repeated temporary escape, but that it’s time to face myself soberly so that I can work out the details of why my life is failing.

Starting Again

After a few months of dereliction, here I go again attempting to communicate with you. I decided to take a break from performing my music with my band not only because it requires tremendous energy and resources to put on shows, but also because I am feeling like it’s time for me to find new things to express besides the songs I have written already. I think communicating a little more directly, like with prose on this blog, might be a more effective way of getting across what it is I’m trying to say.

I will continue playing music privately, as well as occasionally performing in my friends’ bands, and I will continue writing, though I will put a lot less pressure on myself to produce great work. I need to remind myself why I love music and what sounds good. Right now, all my music sounds the same to me, and lots of other peoples’ music does too. I am in too deep, I have hit a wall, I need some perspective to remind myself what I enjoy about life and creation.

The honest truth is that I feel a little disappointed by this world I am living in, and it’s caused me to question the point of doing anything. In other words, I let myself fall into a depression, even though it has been quite a while since I let that happen, and even longer since I have felt quite so dire about my circumstances and those that my world is in.

I will say that my goal is to live as art, and as such to be transparent and open about my challenges and how I am addressing them. My radical dreams are to further transform this world into a loving and creative place, and I realize that being and doing and giving others inspiration in doing so is the sustainable way of having the positive impact I wish to have. So, that means being naked here and in all venues in which I share work of some kind (including all my social media platforms).

I admit that for all my honesty, there are still parts of my life that I leave lurking in the shadows, out of fear and insecurity. This is the time for me to shine light on those parts: my fear is a reflection of my interpretation of social norms, and the things I am hesitant to share are usually the things that most urgently need discussing and addressing by any radical artist.

So I guess I will leave you hanging, but I will here decree that my intention is to eventually give it all away, and in doing so, attract those inspired by my openness and love such that they also choose to share their struggles in a way that further inspires others. The last thing I will admit right now is that my heart is broken, and I am putting my life in the hands of those around me who care enough to breathe some inspiration back my way (to inspire means literally to breathe). My continued existence is uncertain, and unless my heart mends, I might eventually decide that there is no place for me in this world any longer.

Five Years Later

My dad died five years ago last week. He died of lung cancer, though he had quit smoking over 13 years before he passed. I would like to share some of the things I’ve learned in dealing with his illness, his passing, and my life since:

-Stress is a part of life, and having a constructive outlet to process the stress and trauma experienced is essential to maintaining mental and physical health. Arts are healing, especially when the work tells your story, and you share that work with your community/family/friends. If my dad had integrated into his life a creative outlet that allowed him to share his story, I think he would have lived for a few more years at least, and would have been way happier. Unfortunately he came from a culture where repression of feelings is the norm, and thus never felt comfortable expressing (or even investigating) his deeper issues.

-Children unconsciously inherit the traumas of their parents, especially if the parents have accumulated stress without a constructive outlet for it. All the material comforts and luxuries provided still will not insulate a child’s psyche from the influences of his/her environment. These children then grow up burdened with the baggage of traumas past, possibly passing their trauma onto their own children, and continuing the cycle of stress and violence. To break this cycle, our lives must allow for us to express ourselves honestly and without fear of judgment, and integrating opportunities to be honestly expressive into the lives of young people is essential for a healthier society.

-The passing of a parent is a regular rite of passage into adulthood. It is the way things are meant to go according to the cycle of life. However, illness and suffering are unnecessary, and we should aim to live lives that avoid burdening our children or caretakers from having to take care of us as sick people.

-After your parents pass away, you have an opportunity to re-invent yourself as a new type of adult. Maturity generally peaks as a person becomes a member of the oldest living generation of their family. Though losing a close family member can be traumatic, it is also an opportunity to free yourself from constraints and expectations that have been put upon you since infancy that you may have lived with unconsciously.

My father was a great man in his accomplishments, especially given that his life started in conflict, and that he grew up in refugee camps until early adulthood. He provided the utmost for his family, and was a radical in his attempts to steer our world into a sustainable path. I have had the privilege of a well-rounded education (which I am very grateful that my parents insisted my brothers and I have access to), and have discovered what I need to do to heal myself from those inherited traumas, so I am hoping to continue my family tradition of being an agent for radical, constructive change in our world.

Saleem and Yazan
Saleem and Yazan

BHM: Belton Sutherland

February came and went, and I managed a few posts about some of the Black American artists I love and have been inspired by, but there are so many more. Black Americans in general deserve greater recognition for their contributions to this country’s abundant wealth and culture, so Black History Month continues for me.

I discovered Belton Sutherland, a generally unknown blues player, in the music documentary The Land Where Blues Began (1979, dir Alan Lomax) (watch it here for free). I bought a DVD of it after seeing that my great blues idol RL Burnside had a few performances in it.

All of the performances in the film by various artists are remarkable in their own way, but something about Belton stirred me deeply. He was not a professional artist, just a man hardened by a punishing existence, expressing some dark and heavy blues — maybe the heaviest I have ever heard from a country blues performer. His lyrics are brutal — “Kill that old gray mule / burn that white man’s barn / I didn’t mean no trouble, I didn’t mean no harm”. This is folk music of a systematically oppressed and impoverished person.

He looked so badass too, with a cigarette barely hanging off his lip and his cold stare. Back in 2010-2011 when I was just starting to learn to play and sing in a country blues style, I dreamed that I could be that bad some day. So, I ended up buying a 1938 Gibson L-50 archtop guitar on eBay that looked just like his, and that’s the main acoustic guitar I still use today. I am still nowhere near as bad as he was though, and will probably never be (I’m cool with that).

BHM: James Brown

James Brown is the greatest performer of his generation: energetic, theatrical, uniquely idiosyncratic, and musically groundbreaking. I got obsessed in high school with his music, though it was only after YouTube that I got to really check out what one of his performances (and interviews) was like. The only performer in my mind to take it to the next level was Prince — more on him from me this week.

BHM: Eddie Hazel

Back in summer 2004, I was in an office working for the City of New York, and I remember sitting on my chair at my desk, under a blanket trying to insulate from the extreme air conditioning in the building, and this tune came on in my headphones and it was the first time I’d really listened closely to the singing towards the end of the tune, and I just started crying uncontrollably, right there in front of everyone. I still get choked up listening to Eddie’s beautiful voice.

BHM: Sly Stone

The musical mind of Sly Stone demonstrates a beautiful balance. His monstrous band serves music that is harmonically rich and supremely funky at the same time. The diversity of his material and his band are hugely inspirational — someday when I have a family band, my kids and I will be singing “Thank You” in harmony. Sly was marginalized after succumbing to addiction, but he has recovered somewhat, and is still alive and has wisdom to offer — check out his more recent interviews on YouTube. Thank YOU Sly Stone!

This post is part of a series where I pay tribute to the numerous Black American artists that have inspired and influenced me over the years.

BHM: Boyd Rivers

Boyd Rivers sang and played with the spirit and fire of a man doing his best to save us from certain damnation — he’s the baddest preacher I have ever come across. Discovering this video blew my mind that this man was virtually unknown outside the communities of dedicated blues listeners. Watching it taught me about singing from a deep place in my body, and to do it with style and joy. There are a few rare recordings of his out there — all worth checking out.

This post is part of a series where I pay tribute to the numerous Black American artists that have inspired and influenced me over the years.