I suppose I ask a lot of my body.
I’m hurrying down Second Avenue at 7:40 a.m., eating cold leftover bibimbap from a bent plastic clamshell. It is 28 degrees outside, but I’ve made an 8 a.m. appointment with my favorite hairdresser in Manhattan before a long day of rehearsal and two outdoor shows in Times Square. I realize, amused, that no one will notice my fancy blowout under my winter hat – but I’m only here for 48 hours, and hair needs cutting.
This pace became my norm in 2011, when I entrusted my belongings to a storage unit in Montréal and began traveling full time for music. I took every gig imaginable (and invented more than a few): performing with chamber ensembles, singing in recitals and church services, auditioning for conductors and companies, teaching guest masterclasses and lessons in voice and composition – utterly winging it. “City shopping” seemed like the best way to discover where I felt most like myself, where a sense of home might be found.
In the meantime, I had to manage the practical concerns of creating an on-the-road home space. At first, they revolved around my physical body. Each day began to require an entry period – a few minutes spent trying to remember where I was. I had to adjust to time zones, learn to navigate head colds and tax spreadsheets alike, take on bureaucracy and diplomacy no matter how sick or tired I was. I made a home of my body whether it was riddled with mosquito bites, trussed into a ball gown, or both.
I needed to find a language to describe home as more than, or different from, a single geographic location.
But as life on the road progressed, I began to realize I would need more than just my body: In order to survive the emotional upheaval of constant relocation, I needed a broader definition of home. By 2014, I had all but decided to stop traveling full time – but when my band Roomful of Teeth won a Grammy for our first album, I felt compelled to continue. At that point, conventional ideas of success and home were much more hindrance than help. I ached for consistency, even as I was told I had “arrived.” Yet this discomfort catalyzed a new commitment in me, to adopt a more holistic approach to my lifestyle. I could no longer claim that my traveling was casual “city shopping.” I needed to center the people I loved and the music I sought to serve as my grounding forces amid nonstop change. I needed to find a language to describe home as more than, or different from, a single geographic location.
As I’ve grown into this lifestyle over the past eight years, many aspects have gotten easier, while others have become more difficult. But when I am asked those casual, impossible questions – “Where do you live?” “Where’s home for you?” – my answers have started to feel truer to myself and to the person I’m trying to become.
After the emotional whiplash of 2014, it helped to begin to think of home as a moving target. So much of freelance performers’ lifestyles requires accepting change as our only constant. For lack of singular musical styles or employers, we improvise circuitous paths to fulfillment. I needed to confirm for myself that what worked one day may not work the next, and that that was okay. Our needs for physical spaces also evolve: I’m much better at sleeping on planes now, but my overnight Greyhound bus days are decidedly over.
Still, I make spreadsheets to track my boxes in storage, and set up fasting days at the airport when I realize I’m distractedly consuming every food in sight despite a lack of appetite. As I exercise these small gestures of classification and control, I search for threads of continuity. What systems can I can create to help me feel grounded? Home is what I need to feel safe, to feel more like myself. Making a career as a freelance performer means deciphering where I’m allowed to be and under what circumstances: Where am I welcome, where am I needed? The more comfortable and at home we feel, the more we are able to give generously as storytellers. When we fully embody ourselves and use this embodiment to communicate more freely, we give our colleagues and audience members gentle permission to do the same.
As my concept of home shifts, so does my answer when asked if my traveling lifestyle is “worth it.” When creating home in wildly different environments, that “worth it” bar is bound to move, and move often.
After all, performing is a service profession. If home is where the heart is, what happens when we leave all that heart on stage? So I journal every day to make a habit of listening to myself. I try singing just by feeling, wearing earplugs while warming up into a pillow in thin-walled Airbnbs. I don’t eat with my hands on planes, especially during cold season, knowing full well that sopranos are replaceable. I amuse myself at how dire that sounds and live into that state of surrender. A masseuse in Ann Arbor takes pity on my tight trapezius muscles and shows me some “heart opening” exercises; I start doing them every few days, stretching into new habits. Home is the place where I take care of myself.
I love that these definitions can coexist, but my favorite may be that home is built in. Years ago, one of my hosts set me up on a blind date with a friend’s live-in tutor. He and I laughed about our circumstances as we drank tea in my surrogate grandma’s basement and talked about our travels. At one point, he started waxing poetic about his profound love for his backpack. At the time, I’d been working to devalue material items in my life. Then I imagined him as a turtle, born with a home on his back, reverent of that which helped him live as he did. He had stopped searching, even though he was still moving: He brought home with him. I thanked him for the afternoon and wrote madly in my journal that night: “What if I am the boat and the buoy?” We exchanged numbers and never spoke again.
Home is something I have to keep reinventing, investing in, caring for and tending to. As my concept of home shifts, so does my answer when asked if my traveling lifestyle is “worth it.” When creating home in wildly different environments, that “worth it” bar is bound to move, and move often. In the words of my beloved mentor, Sanford Sylvan, “You don’t get rich singing the ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ you just get happy.” Our methods for getting happy are allowed to change. My definitions of home and musical fulfillment are not bound to a state of perpetual variety; instead, the sense of self I continue to discover in music, as a performer, teacher and writer, stays my course.
For tonight, I choose to keep investing. After our freezing shows in Times Square, I head back to my hotel with the rattling vent and I put in my earplugs. I light a scented candle to mask a stranger’s past cigarettes and put on some music, using the curved plastic ice box to amplify my phone’s speaker. Tomorrow morning, I’ll be sure to disable the nightstand alarm clock, knowing this space will soon be home to someone else, some body in a different rhythm and time zone. I write in my journal, trying to show up for myself in the way I have for the audience that day, for the composers and poets and colleagues, for my teachers and loved ones: with sensitivity, fierce care and commitment in full bloom. Tonight, it is worth it.
My word for home, in the language I’m still teaching myself, is this.