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  • Jeni Houser

One Step at a Time

Updated: Jul 23

I’m currently spending my days taking care of Phoebe, the one-year-old daughter of some friends. In addition to the front-row view of a tiny person figuring out what it means to have a body (which is utterly fascinating!), it is eye-opening to hang out with someone who has no concept that life would be any different without a pandemic. I feel renewed hope for the world. I see the potential we all have to change and grow and figure it out. But I also feel quite a bit of anxiety about the world we are passing on to the next generation. Doesn’t she deserve better than this? And how do we teach her to be anti-racist from the start, to see her own privilege with open eyes and an open heart?



Having an open heart is fundamental to making positive changes, but I feel sort of like my heart is floating in the air around me a little too openly, vulnerable from every angle. I haven’t been able to write for almost two months. I have felt too in-the-middle-of-it-all, with no useful perspective on racial justice, the classical music industry, or even my personal bodywork and singing. I am grateful to have the time to listen intently and deeply, and I am doing my own work on the things that matter for the world at large, but I am also dealing with an onslaught of personal issues and concerns, which has been overwhelming at times. Nevertheless, my heart simply will not put itself in a box for protection. It feels connected in some way to everyone and everything. Since I can't keep it from feeling intense emotions, the only thing left to do is to decide what actions will follow those feelings, because like constant-motion baby Phoebe...


I believe in action.


It is impossible to see an endpoint or to plan all of the steps necessary for societal change (or career growth or increased physical strength), especially in the midst of intense uncertainty and anxiety, but it is always possible to take one step in the right direction. My grandfather, George Houser, spent his entire career working as an organizer and ally for racial justice. He was guided by a principle from a favorite hymn, Lead Kindly Light: "I do not ask to see the distant scene/One step enough for me."


So I am taking each day as it comes and finding moments for introspection and moments for action. I have been reminded of a similar philosophy of doing the next right thing recently by several friends who were advising me in moments of darkness. It feels overwhelming (and frustrating and stagnating) to try to solve huge life problems all in one go, but with each next thing accomplished, another one miraculously appears. In that way, forward progress is always possible.


Nobody knows more about figuring out forward progress than a one-year-old learning to walk. Setbacks? No problem, keep going! Fall down? Get back up, move legs faster! And one step at a time is obvious in baby Phoebe’s overall approach to life. She doesn’t know what is laid out for her day. From the moment she wakes up, everything is just what it is - she plays with the things at hand, eats food that is put in front of her, and explores her surroundings, whatever they are. She doesn’t enjoy diaper changes, but she also doesn’t really know when they’re coming up, so the experience isn’t magnified through anticipatory anxiety. The discomfort arrives and then passes.


There is something incredibly meditative about spending three solid hours with a toddler. Nothing exists outside of this moment, now. A toy is fun and invigorating until it isn’t, then the next idea is explored. Phoebe doesn’t judge herself for spending too much time affixing gears to a mechanical giraffe, believing that she should have been working on her ball-rolling skills instead. There is room for growth and fun in each activity.


I have also taken a lot of inspiration from a current habit of Phoebe’s: when she is particularly interested in a person or animal, she bends her head to the side as far as it will go to get a different view. She loves looking at things from a new angle. I have needed so many perspective shifts in the past few months, but I have fought against some of them. I have wanted my industry to spring back into action. I have longed for any sign that I will once again make music in front of a live audience. Watching Phoebe, I see how easy and rewarding it is to switch things up. Life is nothing if not moving and changing, and when we look at those changes with curiosity and appreciation, they seem much more fun and adventurous than when we stare at them through eyes that see what “should” be.


I am not the only one who can benefit from perspective changes right now - my industry needs to be shaken up and looked at from every angle. Even if a vaccine were available tomorrow, I would not wish for American opera to start up again the way it was with the same financial gatekeepers, barriers to access, and problematic repertoire presented uncritically, over and over again. I don’t have solutions for opera’s systemic problems, but I am grateful for time to ponder and listen to what many people smarter than me have to say about them, and discuss lots of ideas with lots of different folks. We have all been given the gift of time for perspective-shifts, if we choose to use it.


Meanwhile, however, we cannot do all of this heavy lifting each day without breaks. Phoebe gets tired after learning and exploring for a couple of hours at a time. She has to rest throughout the day. In my life, that translates into reading a big article about rebuilding the performing arts and then playing a game or meditating. It means doing one single exercise for my shoulders with great awareness, and then relaxing in my favorite yoga pose for a while. I alternate books about anti-racism work with two-day thrillers that I can’t put down (if you're looking for recommendations of can't-put-them-down books by Black authors, let me know, I collected some great ones recently). One book at a time, one day at a time, one step at a time.


We don’t know where this pandemic will lead us. There is no way to see into the future. So we simply have to do the next right thing, whether that is some intense self-reflection or reeducation, joining protests or donating to bail funds, taking care of those closest to us or spending some time in self care, making a solid financial plan for the future or dreaming about one fun career thing that might happen eventually. The world is changing. We are changing with it and (spoiler alert!) there is no other option. Just as toddlers cannot stay toddlers forever, we have to evolve into an unknown future, either kicking and screaming or with grace. Today’s kiddos will inevitably learn to sing and press buttons and kick soccer balls, and (hopefully) we will show them how to be responsible members of the global community and they will continue to make the world more just, more equitable, more beautiful, and more peaceful. One wobbly step at a time.




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