About a week ago, I made a decision to cancel an event. This event had been published in several places already. I had graphics. I had a venue. I had performers. I had absolutely no energy to pull it off. In a moment of either sheer panic or divine intuition, I sent out the text to those who needed to know first: “I’m canceling the Bazaar. I just can’t do it.”
I’ve never done anything like this before. In the past, I have generally used the public announcement of a thing to be a contract to myself: you will do this now, because you said you would. It was a way to hold myself accountable, to push myself out of my comfort zone and past my fear, and to force myself to continue growing and doing and experiencing and living.
A good friend asked me if I felt relieved after pulling the trigger. I wish I had. In truth, I felt like a failure. I said I was going to do something, and then I decidedly did not do it. I broke a contract to myself, and it felt terrible.
Naturally, when you cancel something that has been put in motion, people ask why. Furthermore, when you are presenting yourself as an organization, and you cancel something that has been announced as part of your season, you need a reason why. I’ve spent the last week trying to put into words the reason why. Why couldn’t I put the event on? What happened?
The simplest answer to give was that obstacles were continuing to present themselves and I was unable to overcome them. This much is true: there are easily twice as many holiday markets this year as compared to last. This means higher competition for traffic and for vendors. The purpose of my events are to bring together diverse communities of artists and their respective audiences in order to foster new relationships and build a wider, more robust artistic community. I love this mission. I think it holds value. However, I understand that for many artisans selling their wares during the most heavily shopped month in the year, priorities are a bit more monetary than they are kumbaya. It was much harder to find people who would commit to selling this year, and that is a problem when you are planning a bazaar. Beyond that, I had volunteers back out and I was short on time to secure the donations needed to keep costs of producing the event down. These obstacles are real and they are valid. I think I could easily hide behind these obstacles alone, but in reality, the biggest obstacle was me.
I am exhausted. I am fatigued to the very core of my being. I am so tired I truly think I could sleep for 24 hours straight if my schedule and anxiety allowed it. At the tail end of the summer, I posted an incredible article from the Harvard Business Review on my Facebook page. In “When Passion Leads to Burnout,” Jennifer Moss discusses the emotional and mental roller coaster of doing what you love for a living. Ms. Moss writes, “I love my work, and as such, can easily fall victim to burnout… I would never claim that it doesn’t ever feel like work. It is more like being involved in a complicated love affair. One minute it’s thrilling, passionate, engaging. The next, it’s exhausting and overwhelming, and I feel like I need a break.” She goes on to explain the unique conundrum that is “purpose-driven burnout” caused by “obsessive passion.” To paraphrase, when you care (a lot), you work (A LOT).
I recall reading this article in the middle of the night in a burst of insomnia induced by panic over how behind I was in preparing for the upcoming season of teaching, performing, and producing. I read with a few tears slipping down my cheek: I saw myself in every sentence and I had no idea what to do about it. I have been told by a few mentors now that perhaps I should condense: do I need to teach AND to perform AND to create AND to produce? One individual went so far as to suggest I was unfocused. Should I cut back? Probably. But when you do what you love, it can be very difficult to distinguish what to cut back on.
I honestly believe that having my hands in as many aspects of the dance world as possible guides my creative process and enhances my creativity. Teaching encourages me to define my artistic philosophy and my students inspire me to continue learning, growing and exploring. Producing allows me time and space to exchange and collaborate with other artists. Performing unlocks a part of me that I need access to in order to make sense of the world around me. Creating challenges me to construct a language with which to express those thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and ideas for which I lack words. Being an artist makes me a better arts administrator and vice versa. Teaching makes me a better performer and choreographer and vice versa. It all intersects: I need each component to fulfill my potential. How could I cut back? On the flip side, if I can’t cut back: how can I survive? As I type that last sentence, I am recalling a meme I saw on Facebook that read “True self-care is not soft baths and chocolate cake. It is making a choice to build a life you don’t need to regularly escape from.”
I’ve been trying to alter the way I use language while I teach, in particular exchanging the verb “to force.” For example, I began to notice how often I would say, “If you do it this way, it’ll force you to…” I’ve been swapping out “force” with “encourage” as I think about the type of language that instills a sense of support, autonomy, and consent in the young populations with whom I work. “If you allow your head to spiral in toward the movement, notice how it will encourage the momentum to continue in that direction” Doesn’t that sound much more positive? In my first edit of this very post, I caught myself using that unsettling verb again, when I said “It was a way to hold myself accountable… to force myself to continue growing...”
In college, I read Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail by Rom Brafman. Mr. Brafman concludes his book - which is based on the anthropological and psychological study of underdogs and designed to teach you how to overcome the odds and “make it” in this crazy world - with his unscientific but rather heartfelt personal pointers on how to succeed. It was in this section that he wrote, “Don’t treat yourself any differently than you’d treat your best friend.” This sentence has stuck with me for years, and I have worked hard to grow into a person who can heed this advice often. Every now and then, I realize that my work is not done. This moment is one of them: why use language toward myself that I have realized is not healthy for my students? Why should I “force” myself to grow? “Force” seems hostile and aggressive; it feels nonconsensual. It eliminates a healthy environment for growth. In fact, you cannot force growth: no matter how loudly you yell at a plant to bloom, it is only the encouraging factors (water, sunlight, fertilizer, etc) that will create results.
I want to continue to challenge myself. I want to maintain an active, multifaceted life full of various stimuli. But I do not want to continue to “force” myself to do anything. I don’t want to “survive” my life, particularly when I’ve structured that life around a passion I do truly love. So what is the answer? A respected mentor told me that my life is a dance that I get to choreograph. In choreography, stillness is not dead. On the contrary, it allows space and time for movement to become clearer and more pronounced in contrast. Perhaps my life needs some more stillness; or, as Ms. Moss most succinctly stated, maybe I just need to take a freaking break. I guess I won’t know until I try.
In summary, consider this my formal announcement. After careful consideration, I have decided to cancel my second annual Mrs. Claus’ Bizarre Bazaar. I will be reimagining my January SHOW + TELL event instead, and I am very excited to say I’ve found a like-minded local dance company to partner with so I will have help with the workload. I can’t wait to announce those details soon.
This post almost went in about a dozen different directions. I chose to keep it fairly simple and personal. This post is what I had the time for. It is what I had the energy for. It is what felt right. However, I would like to note that I am not uncommon. Many women work extremely hard, and experience incredibly high rates of burnout. Research for this piece encouraged a great deal of reading about the outdated feminist fantasy of “having it all,” as well as statistical data supporting that women regularly work harder for much less than male counterparts, exhaustion rates for women, and more. I highly recommend clicking some of the links and contextualizing my experience - and perhaps your own experience - because at the root, this is not merely a personal journey for me to traverse. It is actually a societal problem that we should all be examining and trying to right together.
Each of these is hyperlinked for your convenience! Read up, folks!
When Passion Leads to Burnout by Jennifer Moss
Why Women Have to Work Harder to Be Promoted by Leonora Risse
Why Are Women So Exhausted? by Jean Kim
The Complicated Origins of 'Having It All' by Jennifer Szalai
Seriously, Why Are We Still Asking If Women Can 'Have It All'? by Marie-Claire Chappet
Having It All: Feminism, Dreams and Family by Christa Hogan
This blog contains contributions from several women with who we are grateful to work. Head over to our TEAM page to learn more about who we are; scan our archives to learn more about what we think.
Top Cover Photo: "shell" by I.J. Chan, Image by Haley Abram Photography