Lately, I’ve been thinking about the discrepancies between what I believe fits into a day and what actually does. I also think about how much easier life might be if I didn’t have a day job at a college plus a moonlighting gig as a contributing writer and reporter that I’m passionate about, with book and screenplay projects on the side, while also raising two daughters on my own.
On top of that, an often-steady flow of neighbors, friends and passersby drop in to say hello over a cup of coffee or to ask me to craft a quick email—which is never quick—on their behalf or to strike up conversations while we’re out and about.
When I noticed I was perpetually allowing myself to get sidetracked and set back in my more extensive projects, I stumbled onto a podcast by Elizabeth Gilbert, who talked about her own struggle to move her work forward as she managed a job waiting tables, her social calendar and a needy boyfriend, before she got her first big break. She recalled venting to a visual artist about her struggles, who put them right back in her lap.
The takeaway was that at some point, if there’s something in life we believe we’re called to do, we need to say yes to ourselves first, and then be creative and selective about the other things we carve time out for. In my case, it meant simplifying my social calendar down to the weekly music-and-market event at Todos Santos Park in Concord with my girls on Thursday evenings, combining “must dos” like walking the dog with “may dos” like catching up with friends, and leaving a little room for serendipitous magic or special invitations.
During the past two weekends I ended up with two such events on my calendar, each for a music gig I might not have elected to attend if not for the invitation. The first was for a Johnny Burgin show at the Monkey House in Berkeley—a musician I hadn’t yet heard, in an off-the-radar venue that I didn’t know existed. The friend who invited me was the wife of the bass player in Burgin’s makeshift traveling blues band.
Thankfully, I paused from writing the story I was working on to look up and research who I was seeing that evening. That’s how I learned that Burgin isn’t just a blues musician, but also a YouTube guitar instructor with roots in Mississippi. And then Burgin showed up at dinner, along with my friend and her husband. Over the course of dinner I learned he is the dad of a college student, who took a nine-year hiatus from music to pursue more practical things before getting back to the thing that drives him and feeds his soul. Burgin was also a 2023 BMA Blues Music Award nominee.
I showed up at the Monkey House, an unmarked and nondescript venue with a capacity of around 50 people. As I sat in the front row, I became intrigued by the trio—Burgin, playing alongside his California-based bass and drum players who he hooked up with for the California stretch of his show. I noted the trio’s chemistry, the way they communicated with each other through nods and eye contact on stage, and the way they had the crowd dancing in their seats and eventually leaving their seats to dance on the floor.
During the break, Burgin gave me a little bit more of the inside scoop. “I learned to play the guitar during the blues boom when I was in high school in South Carolina. I thought I was good until I went to a blues club on the West Side of Chicago and saw Tail Dragger,” he said. “Then I threw everything in the garbage can and focused on music the way an anthropologist would. Really, I’m a guest in the house of Black music. I had to learn it that way and experience it from a cultural lens as best as I possibly could. After college, I thought I’d play for a year before getting a real job and here I am, 30 years later.”
During his nine-year hiatus, Burgin dabbled in sales and side gigs, but making music is the thing that drives his heart to beat. “I’m thankful to be here, doing what I love, and I’ll never test my fate [by walking away from music] again,” he said. Although he didn’t walk away with the equivalent of a Grammy Award for the blues, he’s honored just to have made it as far as he did. “Being nominated was more than enough for me,” he said.
The second by-chance event I experienced involved Laurie Roldan, a singer in her late 50s who crafted a one-woman cabaret, weaving in her stories of life trials, tribulations and triumphs on topics ranging from heartbreak, to returning to college in later life, to finding her calling as a singer, inspired by Karen Carpenter’s music.
“When my daughters went to college, I had to think about what defines me and what kind of legacy I want to leave behind,” Roldan said. “I want the audience to walk away from my show thinking that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams, no matter what they are.”
Roldan’s show is called Laurie Sings A Song For You, but she hopes people are inspired to sing their own metaphorical song after seeing her boutique-esque concert at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. “Whatever your song is, sing it,” she said with an ear-to-ear smile as she closed her show singing beside four children, bringing people in the audience—including me—to tears.
I’m not a huge Carpenters fan but I am a sucker for stories, so I attended the show with both skepticism and intrigue. I left thinking about the trajectory of my own life and the lives of my daughters and the people in my community, which is perhaps what every artist hopes to move the consumers of their art to do. The good news is, there are two more remaining shows, Sept. 15-16 at 2pm at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette. Attendees are welcome to pay what they can at the door.
The reason I mention these two middle-aged performers—who might have stayed completely off my radar without someone nudging me to go and check them out—is twofold. First, the experiences represent the possibilities of living a version of one’s dreams no matter what their age or stage in life is. Second, they reminded me that maybe it’s worth simultaneously centering one’s own craft or passion and leaving some room for the serendipitous magic that happens when we lean in and try something new. When we do this, we can walk away inspired, with a fresh lens from which to consider our own lives.
A social media post that’s also an advertisement for a master class of sorts recently caught my eye, shining light on the fact that even some remarkably successful people didn’t take linear paths to where they landed. Oprah was fired from her first reporting job at the age of 23. Coincidentally, so was I—when my email with stories bounced back while I was in Cuba. Stephen King lived in a trailer and worked as a janitor before becoming a writer. Harrison Ford worked as a carpenter before becoming an actor. JK Rowling was a single mom struggling with depression; Vera Wang failed at the Olympics and was turned down by Vogue before designing her first dress at 40; Morgan Freeman got his first major movie role at 52. The list goes on.
We have a finite amount of time in this thing called life. As the saying goes, “Do what you can, when you can, while you can.” But most importantly, start saying “Yes”—to you.