Choices, mentors, etc
Hi, my love. Writing you on a train from Den Haag to Amsterdam, closing out a wild week of work and travel.
We had a last minute show on Friday in Nancy, France. We accepted said show on the condition that they put us up in Paris the day before.
(An excellent choice.)
After a year of living in locked down Europe I’m relishing being able to finally enjoy it. The train from Amsterdam to Paris, for example, takes the same amount of time as the train from NYC to Philadelphia. A wild fact that really sells this continent for me.
Paris did not disappoint.
When we arrived I was set on steak frites, because as you well know steak is my favorite food/lifeblood. In a gorgeous flourish of former executive assistant excellence, I snagged us the last outdoor table at legendary Le Relais de L’Entrecôte.
(While in line, the woman ahead of us asked, “Do you have any vegetarian options?”)
(The waitress responded, “We have cheese and nuts.”)
You know I love you, my vegetarian and vegan brethren. But I cackled at that v Parisienne response.
Le Relais de L’Entrecôte’s beauty continued with the food. Here is how an order goes:
(1) You tell them how you want the steak done. There are four options: Blue, rare, medium or well done.
(2) The waitress writes your preference down on the paper tablecloth.
(3) They bring you a teensy-weense salad.
(4) They bring you steak and frites.
(5) They bring you refills of both steak and frites, however much, to your heart’s content.
We started eating while the sun set, and finished with a line behind us snaking around the block. Night had descended on Paris, and little t had set her heart on the Eiffel Tower. José had never been, so that was a no-brainer. We jumped in an uber and beelined over to the tourist-trap/most-romantique-spectaculaire.
As you can see, I was a little bit happy about this.
José was, too. He posted the below photo, with the caption, “Fuck how it started, this is how it’s going.”
This sentiment, playing on the viral twitter premise, really resonated with people. He got hundreds of messages of love and support. I, too, love my husband for his humor and for his truth. And though I share his feelings about the now and often share his feelings about the past (truly. fuck. it!), I’ve been living in my past this week quite a bit.
(Wanna know something funny?)
About 11 years ago, I was obsessed with the idea of living abroad in the Netherlands.
I had just met the (very) wrong guy for me whom I was convinced was the (very) right guy for me.
(We’ve talked about him a bit. He doesn’t deserve much mentioning, but peripherally is important.)
Naturally after knowing him for four weeks I decided it was time to relocate my entire life for him.
I was getting a dual degree at the time: A BFA in jazz vocals and a BS in science with a focus on genetics. I discovered the University of Leiden was doing a sister program with the New School and set out to make the impossible possible.
My mentor at the time was an absolutely epic scientist who changed my life. You likely don’t know Katayoun Chamany. She doesn’t need you to. A searingly brilliant and compassionate scientist, Katayoun was decades ahead of her time. She pushed for inclusive science and fed me a steady diet of love, intellect and Bell Hooks.
“And yet I see you consumed with vulnerability and low self-esteem. Please develop the kindness to yourself, and see that the work is challenging and you rise to that challenge in creative and meaningful ways!”
Gasp. A legend. A beautiful, generous, legend.
I miss her.
As you can imagine, a badass woman like that was not down with the idea of uprooting my whole ass life for a guy she knew, even then, wasn’t worth it. She tried gently at first. Reminded me of my promise as one of her students. Told me what a terrible idea this was.
I fought, I pushed, I clawed to try and make that wrong choice work.
She got a little less gentle. Ultimately it fell through and my Leiden dreams were squashed. I stayed in New York City, but we had a large scale falling out about it.
Her name is Katayoun Chamany, and that is just one example of how she saved my life. Wherever you are, Katayoun, please know that I absolutely adore you.
As we pass Leiden Centraal, I’m pouring one out in your honor.
(You were right. You were right. You were right.)
But I couldn’t see it then. I was so furious that I abandoned the project and my major. I switched to psychology, the only other science degree whose credits would transfer from genetics.
I kept moving, learning about attachment theory, addiction, etc. It wasn’t sticking, though. I began really struggling: Socially, emotionally, academically and otherwise.
I can see now that it was necessary to pull away from my dogged love of genetics and science. Painful as it was, that wasn’t the path for me.
It never was.
(Music was.) (Obviously.)
(And the universe knew it was time for a second mentor to get me back on that track.)
Enter Janet Lawson, may she rest in peace. My purple queen.
You likely don't know Janet Lawson. She didn't need you to. The consummate queen in purple, Janet was a brilliant singer, an actual artist educator who was kind to vocalists at a time when very few were at the New School.
She always wore purple, often in beret form. She called me "taaaaaaaa-lee" well before I claimed it as an artist name. She was a beacon of light in those few very dark years for me. She was patient, she was kind, she saw through my blustery showboat exterior and spoke, continuously, to the budding artist in me.
She, too, was not a fan of that boyfriend who she knew, even then, wasn’t worth it.
One day I came into class a wreck. Earlier that day I found out he had gotten another woman pregnant and lied about it. It was the first of what would become five years’ worth of painfully discovering his dangerous and sociopathic habits, cheating and otherwise. I only found out about the abortion that day because the woman’s mother called him, furious that he hadn’t checked in with her daughter. Too busy with his actual girlfriend, I guess.
I remember even now that I felt worse for both of those women than I did for myself.
(I still do. I thought about not sharing this, protecting him for the eleventh year in a row, but decided against it. I’ll power through my body-keeps-the-score-nausea today and say it: The truth is I still only feel deep sorrow for she and I in 2010, stuck in that continuously abusive web. I wish there were a way to save us all.)
In any event, I came into Janet’s class that day with all 22 years of my angst. I melted the fuck down. I didn’t have the coping or interpersonal skills to deal with the fragmented, complicated beginnings of the abuse I was experiencing. Later I sent a frantic apology to my purple mentor. Look at the grace with which she responds.
“The creative process asks us to bring everything to it. I think part of evolving as an artist involves sifting and sorting what is helpful and supportive to us and what gets in the way.”
Gasp. A legend. A beautiful, generous, legend.
I miss her.
Her name was Janet Lawson, and that is just one example of how she saved my life. Wherever you are, Janet, please know that I absolutely adore you.
I owe my life to both of those women. And I have been thinking of Janet, of Katayoun, as I start teaching again this semester at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam.
A small clipping of my notes for my first class:
My class began this week, with me knee deep in memories of how these two and many other key educators saved my life. I feel such deep love for them now. For my brother, Jonathan, an educator on the other side of the world. Teaching requires such humility and patience. I don’t know that it’ll be something I do when touring really starts again, but it is so beautiful.
And I love my new students. A smaller seminar group than last semester, and a much more boisterous one. Who knows, maybe my reputation of being the new young goofball artist in residence at this school has finally caught up to me. This class was way more down for the laughter and blasting of Nirvana next to Beyoncé next to Dolly Parton that comes with a Taali songwriting seminar.
I was so happy to sit with them, to feel all of their coursing energy and hope to help them direct it. But I also felt, considering, the huge burden of the task.
Janet and Katayoun showed up for me. They showed up with me. They guided me, they pushed me where appropriate and fell back where appropriate.
“Teaching” songwriting requires me to draw on many of those same skills.
(You can’t teach songwriting. This is a hill I’ll die on.)
But you can sit with humans and help them write songs. You can listen to their fears, help them process them and think about telling stories and how best to do so. By doing this and continually writing songs, they will inevitably get better.
I’m grateful that the Conservatorium van Amsterdam has let me run with this concept. Some 11 years after my own schooling (which included, btw, only one songwriting teacher who absolutely HATED ME… ha! ha! ha!) I know full well that it may take a decade for my students to process or appreciate even one word of what I’m saying to them now.
But at least they’ll have a road map. And maybe, maybe, in 2031, they’ll write on their future-internet-newsletter-slash-whatever-star-trek-future-is-in-store-thing about what they learned from me.
They’ll say, You likely don't know Taali. She didn't need you to.
I hope their songs bring them every bit of peace they deserve until then.
See you next week,
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