In my apartment, there is a small nook with a scale, a coffee grinder, and a kettle. Above them, a bag of coffee perches on a thin hanging shelf. I stand in this nook every morning to make myself a cup of coffee by hand.
My first job was at a coffee shop; I learned to taste there. I woke up early day after day to show up and get burned, stained, over-caffeinated, and fussed at by customers. I did this for five years, moving from shop to shop, state to state. And I hated it. And I loved it.
I don't work in coffee anymore, and though I know it was frustrating and grueling on my body, I miss it. When I am in cafes, watching the baristas bump into each other and swerve and fling their arms around behind the bar, my body buzzes with knowing. I feel with them as they move. So the time I spend in my little nook every morning has become a fond ritual of memory, of connection with an older self.
As I have moved through the brief (though seemingly long) years since I was a graduate student — the end of my coffee age, so to speak — so much has radically changed in my sense of myself. My professional goals. My creative interests. What I need from my partner. How I identify with and differentiate from friends and family. My relationship to work. My relationship to my body. My boundaries. The way I communicate. There is joy in all these changes, but there has also been pain.
We know the value of releasing things that no longer serve us, but we also know how complicated it can be to recognize what those things are. We know even more how challenging it is to admit to ourselves when they are holding us back.
For instance, it no longer serves me to continue surrendering my sense of ability and confidence to a handful of major Young Artist Program auditions. It is difficult to release chasing this kind of validation, though, because for so long it has seemed like an anchor. It has seemed like the house I am supposed to be building, above which I can hang my little sign: a real singer lives here. And each year — like clockwork — it reinforces its potency. Watching and celebrating friends getting swept into it renews my sense of hope in its possibility for me. And it may well be possible, or have been possible. But other, truer dreams are possible, too.
I want to build those new dreams. I want to lean into a new understanding of what I am striving for, what an artist can be, and how to discover and participate in community with others who are hungering to build as well. What I am learning is that the patient nurturing of creativity and the cultivation of connections and friendships far outweighs any stamps of approval from lofty places. It outweighs them not only because it can yield growth and opportunity, but because it brings pleasure in the present.
In pursuit of what can create joy and comfort now, what can challenge my assumptions and inspire me to push my thinking from day to day, a new vision of success has to take over. I can feel myself changing, my goals differentiating from what they once were. And while there is deep celebration in that revitalizing process, there is also part of me grieving the loss of what I once felt I needed. The grief of relinquishing old yearnings.
I once had a wise friend who told me she imagined grief like a bag constantly changing shape. Sometimes it would be huge like a fully loaded duffel. Other times, it might be a clutch, or a coin purse. It could be burdensome and heavy, but it could also be something precious that felt good to hold in your hand. Either way, in some form and fashion it would always be there. You would always carry it.
I have wanted many things. Most recently, a full-time career as a singer. Before that, to conduct choirs. Before that, to play Hamlet, and Romeo, and Edmund in King Lear. Before that, and as early as I can remember, to dance and sing on Broadway stages. As my new visions gain traction, I have to allow myself to feel tender. I am allowed to be gentle with myself through shifts in priority, to let things ache a little, or a lot. Letting them ache may bring me to a place where I can still treasure all of what I've once wanted; I can consider old yearnings with fondness, pride, and understanding. I can release bitterness. As with my little coffee ritual each morning, I can find some piece of them to carry with me day to day, some sensory ritual to honor them.
After all, the old yearnings aren't gone. They're only changing shape.