How music changed my life, Part 3: Climbing up

When you are down, negative, depressed, burned out, or even just tired from everyday routine, having some form of creative outlet is a wonderful thing. It doesn't matter *what* you do – it can be writing or painting or really anything you like – but it does matter that you do something. For me, that is largely music.
This is a story of how, over the first 38 years of my life, I grew out of touch with myself and my values, got into a depression, and almost ruined my family. Reconnecting to music was a key element to understand where I was at, in life.
This post is the third in a series. If you have not read the first two parts, please do, starting at the link below:

How music changed my life, Part 1: Falling down

How music changed my life, Part 2: Recognizing and acknowledging the issue

Continuing the story from where we left it in the second post, I had come to the realization that I had to change track. My soul needed that. My family needed me to be my better self. The world needed me to be my better self. We all need to be, if we want to do something about the planet, and our health. Eat organic, eat more veggies, plant trees, make love, talk about your emotions, make music, play with your children.

My wife also wrote a very compassionate post about my depression, our relationship, and how she helped me tackle it. I invite you to read it as well, before I continue on rambling just about music…

My partner's depression was a growth opportunity for our family

Making guitars made me remember and gave me courage to say again that sometimes old versions work just as well. A piece of wood with strings is a piece of wood with strings, and it still plays.

Real human relationships need to be nurtured and shared time is what makes you happy, not all the stuff you fill your house with or the apps you have on your phone, or how many 'likes' or 'friends' you have on Facebook.
You don't need the fake plastic guitar with colored buttons in the same shape of the one a certain famous singer is using… the one you use while watching yourself in the game console mirror and pretend you are that chosen rock idol, while you live in fear you have not made it, unlike he did. He or she (your idol) is just a guy or girl like you and me. He might have something wonderful to sing and to say, but so do you!
As a society, we have largely become just consumers of music, not producers. Besides the very few who actually become rock stars, I know a lot of people who used to have bands but dropped them as they became 'mature' and went to grey workplaces that dimmed their light. We listen to selected famous singers but we don't play as much anymore. And a lot of those who play always try to replicate what those idols do, buying the same iconic instruments from the same three large corporations which are doing very little innovation and just selling large volumes.

We need to compose, CREATE original music. Simple music – doesn't have to be complex – but we need to be in touch with our creative side. We are CREATORS. We need that sparkle. That light. It is only dimmed – it never really dies, but it will kill you if you don't let it shine – but you need to have courage to dig really deep and go beyond your fears to find it back.

And it will hurt, but then it will liberate you.

You need to step in your power and BE your idol. Be the example you want to see in the world, not just blindly follow the largely unquestioned (but very questionable) way of life that someone else has chosen for you.

While wars are being perpetrated around who owns the oil, 'charitable' donations are being used to fuel even more the pharmaceuticals, our food is being genetically modified, Mother Earth is not being respected and invasive technologies are turning us into cyborgs… we need to be the change we want to see. If we don't like the way the world is going, we need to change it. And changing it means standing up for our values and not buying, supporting or producing 'progress' we don't believe in. We don’t have to always compromise.

Building guitars, during meditative hours of sandpaper work, made me go thru all this.

And I decided I was tired of complying, that I needed to stand up for my values. To be a better husband, a better father, a better citizen of this world, a better man. It was time to re-prioritize my life and what I was contributing to.

My wife had helped me, with her patience and her talks, to figure things out, but by now she was sick, I was in an un-diagnosed (and un-noticed at work), but real, depression and I still had a ton of stuff in flight for the project I was working on…

The first thing to reduce our level of fear and start moving forward was moving back to Europe, where we could have extended family around us to help, to at least help relieve the pressure on my wife, to start with. With miraculous help I managed to maintain my job even from abroad, so we had some time to buy a house and settle.
In the Netherlands, the family started coming back to life. Especially my wife and the kids started slowly getting rid of their fear (see article about my daughter's experience in American public school linked from the first post in this series). We could send the kids to a Waldorf school, now, which in the Netherlands is affordable to all, not just by very rich people, and they started coming down from their stress too. They reconnected with their manual abilities and bodies. They finally had cousins and new friends and grandparents close by. They started having the freedom to wander around the neighborhood on their own without social services threatening to take them away. My son started talking to me again and we did things together. He stopped being obsessed with Darth Vader.
Things did look better, and I started making some time for my kids and my family, i.e. now I could bring the kids to school – and talk to them – and then do grocery shopping in the morning, because I had no office to go to at standard 'office times'. My in law's also could give some attention to the kids – we were not alone anymore! – and gradually my wife got a little better with her tummy problems, she got some color back, she finally had some mental space and started studying.

Part of my days were 'free' because my job position was still with the American team. This also meant that I had to still be online and at work during part of my evenings and do nightly conference calls to match the timezone of my coworkers, or I would not get anything done.

Good luck sleeping after having been in a 'morning' status meeting at 10pm. My insomnia – and nightmares – became worse, and more frequent.

So, while I was starting to take some time to be a better dad and husband, I was still really in need of some time to heal myself too, and to completely detach from what I knew was the core issue: I had never felt aligned with 'scientific' and 'innovation' values pushed by the industry. I was still compromising with them. I was still doing 'poker face' with the world, to get my salary. We had changed country, but I was still not following my heart.

One of my recurring nightmares was that of my daughter having been replaced by a robot, 'for you cannot stop progress'. I kept waking up in cold sweat and with a cramped tummy. Another particularly vivid one was about Bill Gates telling me I didn't stand a chance on my own, that I could not go away since he owned me, and he was closing with 'where the heck did I think I would be going?' before I woke up feeling awful. Bill, don't take it personal, please – it's just a dream after all, and I don't control those. In my psyche, you were a symbol of the technocratic culture and this world that you helped creating, which has never felt my own, but which I infiltrated for a few years while wearing a mask, because that's what everybody else was doing with their lives – or so it seemed to me at the time – and because I really liked to understand how machines and systems work, so that I could control them, and not be controlled by them. It was a fear-based choice, and those are never good. Don't worry – the mistake was mine to join it in the first place but, like every mistake, it provided great learning. So, thanks for all that I have learned in that industry.
It's noteworthy to point out that, somehow, the mask I was wearing – or rather the restlessness that wearing it caused me! – got confused with 'drive' by that culture, and made me 'successful'.

Anyway, it was time for me to cut that cord. And to be done with fear.

So, I finished off all the last pieces of work I had agreed/promised to finish – because I like to maintain my words – but after that I was really done with 'innovating'.
By now we were in a relatively safe harbor, we had drastically scaled back our needs and monthly budget and had some savings set aside – it was time to really unplug, own my shit, change path and fix myself and my family emotionally and completely. So, in October 2015 I finally quit the corporation

Three quarters of 2015, my IT career and various ramblings

Now I was free to start going after my dreams and reinvent a career (or two) for myself that would be compatible with my values.

Now I was without a job but with some savings. A great weight had finally dropped off my chest, I had a good roof on my head, and plenty of time.

A week later, my sister in law stumbled across the FabLab in Alkmaar, which just at that time had set up a workshop on 'cigar box guitars'. I had never heard of them before, but once I saw what it was about, I got completely jazzed! It was *exactly* the type of idea I was searching for: not 'full blown' guitars, but simpler ones, that can be built inexpensively using recycled materials such as old cookie tins, cigar boxes, wine boxes, broom sticks, old screws, etc… and with this 'recycling' theme in mind I launched Plank Guitars.

With Plank, I therefore make custom, one of a kind guitars that are also pieces of art, for musicians who want to play blues, rock or other kinds of music (even techno!) on very special and unique instruments. Besides, my guitars have zero environmental impact for their production (excluding that I use some electricity for my power tools), since I reuse old 'junk' I collect at the local thrift stores such as cookie tins, cigar box guitars, pieces of old hardwood floors, etc.

I don't claim to be an 'expert' luthier (just like I never claimed to be an engineer in IT!) – I am still learning a lot, in fact I am also going to school at the Dutch School of Guitar making by Frank de Haan to improve my skills, and I am learning some cool tricks there!

While at the school more complex guitars are made, some of the instruments I make on my own are left intentionally extremely simple and 'down to basics' so that they can be played by kids or people who have never played any instrument before. For example some have three strings and a diatonic fret board (for the un-initiated, it means you can only play 'full' notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G but not sharps or flats – it's like a piano without black keys) which makes it really difficult to play 'bad' notes. See the 'Gnome's Dulcimer cookie tin guitar' here as an example

Gnome’s Dulcimer cookie tin guitar

There is a freshness and a power in making something simple – not 'over the top' – which actually gives joy to others!

A charismatic – but modest – singer, Seasick Steve, also uses very simple and beaten up instruments in his songs, and I love a quote from his song 'Diddley bow' (which is the name of the simplest ever 1-string instrument used to play it) that says it all:

"With only one string you can't go wrong. Go and make yourself a song." – Seasick Steve

That's the spirit: just sing and don't worry. Don't try to be perfect, just be yourself and enjoy!
Other famous people said that too

"Express yourself don't repress yourself" – Madonna

And there I got that my mission and differentiator was not about selling guitars by the pound and build the next cool label with a big factory, but make simple artifacts that give joy to people.

Earlier this year, with my wife, we also launched the Sanctuary of Joy, a holistic healing organization. We aim to help people to (re)discover who they really are: discover their passions, be true to themselves, improve their relationships and life in flow and abundance.

Sanctuary of Joy is operational

At the Sanctuary we do energy healing, we read Tarot and Oracle cards, and we counsel couples and individuals about their lives, their relationships, their work and their health. Our emphatic and intuitive abilities and our life experiences taught us to see the world – and people – from a unique perspective: over the years we traveled and studied with Indian and Western spiritual teachers; we lived in three different countries while raising our 3 children; we dealt with autoimmune diseases, miscarriages, burnouts, discrimination, bullying, corporate management jobs, and more. We gained deep understanding of cultural patterns and how they can block us from finding our true selves, and how communicating from a place of Love is an art that can be learned.

We think that music fits wonderfully into this picture, therefore we are going to cross-over the Plank Guitars brand and theme with the activities of Sanctuary of Joy, where we think that other people dealing with stress, depression, and all those people who 'locked up' in their emotions – like I had done – can also benefit from using music as a way to express themselves.

Practically this means that we offer:

To give you some Joy right now, in the photo below you can see an extremely simple instrument that my 6 years old daughter was able to build all by herself with a shoebox and some elastics:

Sara with her shoebox guitar

Find out more about our activities under 'Music Healing' at the Sanctuary of Joy's website

Music Healing

We are at the end of the tale. I described how music, and a number of other tools such as Tarot and Oracle cards for self-analysis (We are currently writing a book on this topic – stay tuned), with the help of my wife by my side and copious blessings from above, helped me get in touch with my real locked up self, and start a new journey. I hope the reading was informative and maybe helpful to some people who might be navigating similar times of fear and doubt like those that I went thru, or maybe now they are awakening as well.

Music is not the only thing that I do. I am quite busy with the counseling work of the Sanctuary, I am writing, I spend time with my kids, I cook. I take pictures. I paint. I occasionally do some IT to help small shops or individuals get visible, but not the big scale stuff. As someone else already wrote, I make guitars, but I am not a "guitar maker".

We are all composite people, and the jobs we do to make a living are just things we do, they don't define who we are. We are more that those.

And you don't need a lot of 'things' to be happy either, you just need to have enough, and bring out your light into the world.

All good things are wild and free - Henry David Thoreau
[Image previously shared on Sanctuary of Joy's Facebook page]

How music changed my life, Part 1: Falling down

When you are down, negative, depressed, burned out, or even just tired from everyday routine, having some form of creative outlet is a wonderful thing. It doesn't matter *what* you do – it can be writing or painting or really anything you like – but it does matter that you do something. For me, that is largely music.

This is a story of how, over the first 38 years of my life, I grew out of touch with myself and my values, got into a depression, and almost ruined my family. Reconnecting to music was a key element to understand where I was at, in life.

This post is about 'how I got down there'. The next installment in this series will talk of how I finally awoke to the fact that I had an issue, and how I healed from it.

Personas

I have always loved music since I was a little kid.
I also had music training (piano lessons) since age 7 or 8, after I had begged my parents for a while.
Those music lessons were useful and I am grateful I had them, although they were mostly focused on mastering the 'classics' – i.e. play Mozart of Beethoven perfectly – and not at all on improvisation and composition, and spontaneous flow of emotions.
When I was 16, I dropped out of the piano lessons altogether, after having felt pressured to take it a step higher and do conservatory: I wanted to play rock, metal, anything else by then, and not just copy the famous bands, but compose my own songs, express my own emotions, not play Chopin!
An old second-hand classical guitar that my dad had found somewhere appeared in my life around that time, and I started teaching myself how to play it (this was pre-internet yet, I wish I had YouTube back then!) with some book from the local music store.
I was really crappy with the guitar, but oh the joys of doing my own noise! Expressing myself! No rules to follow!
I even got into a band for some years and I was finding myself.

But at some point I got 'serious': in the beginning of 1997, at age 20 (almost 21), after realizing university was too boring and would be too slow for my liking, I set off in a totally different direction (Information Technology), which would give me economic independence more quickly. Eventually that was still a 'socially accepted' and 'serious' work, everybody in my family was happy and proud of me, and family pressure relaxed.
After a couple of sentimental relationships that weren't the real deal but more like 'proof of concept', me and my soulmate Jyothi – that I knew since I was 19 but we had lost contact with for a few years – found each other back and I got a family with her. I gradually started working more and playing less, and neglected myself my love for music. Nobody told me to stop: it was the fear to be 'silly', not serious, egoistic, or be wasting time for myself.
Maybe because I was told as a kid that artists could never make a living, I was repeating that mantra without questioning it, and music got unconsciously ranked as 'non essential'. So, as I was 'settled', things got busy, and music became something to listen to, but I played and composed very little or close to nothing for several years. By letting go of music, I had locked my soul in a cage I built myself.

[long period of musical darkness]

Fast forward a few years, when we were living in Italy, Jyothi had a miscarriage, but I was already too busy, overworked, tired and blocked emotionally to deal with the associated emotions in a conscious and rational way. Nevertheless, I needed to express them: in a shopping frenzy I decided to buy a new professional sound card for my computer so I could record my compositions – I did it instinctively, or was it divinely guided – and at that moment I started making music again and wrote a couple of songs. But things got busy again very soon – I was travelling for work all the times and I was feeling so lonely, and so did my wife – so I swallowed that pain and didn't really deal with rationalizing the emotions associated with that episode until 2015… I also didn't play nor write much music for another while, as I was never really home, and when I was home I was trying to be a husband and a dad, first. I was spreading myself very thin, and letting my emotions out was really at the bottom of my priorities. It turns out it was a mistake to just try and toughen up / swallow those emotions and keep them locked.
Some music had come out during an episode of pain, but already at that point, with many years of very little or no music and extended exposure to solely 'rational' thinking done in IT companies, I had already shut down parts of myself and some of my other artistic expressions had deteriorated or stopped: I wasn't drawing or painting anymore – I was only drawing networks and other diagrams for work, but nothing artistic – and those couple of songs that came out were still very mechanical and 'stiff'. Also, they didn't have lyrics…

In that period I anyhow intensified my use of the camera and I became a lot better at photography – I used to explain that I still liked music, but photography was more 'portable' of a hobby, which was true: photography meant another artistic outlet that at least let me capture the beauty I was seeing outside and in other people – even while on my business trips – , although I was no longer capable of expressing my own emotions as much, I was at least using the camera to capture stories I saw outside. "The camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera" Dorothea Lange – the famous photographer – said, and she was right.

Fast forward a few more years, I had gotten a career opportunity, so we had moved to America.
While I was still very 'distracted' and mostly just working (in fact, more and more as I was getting 'up' the ladder), I had this big board in front of my face that didn't let me see. I was under the illusion that, since I was providing money by working hard, every other subsystem of me could be just shut down and I would be fine.
Well, not really. But luckily I have my kids that guide me. Kids are the greatest teachers. They are still so 'connected' to source, and if you flow with them and don't try to control them or shape them into what society tells you to, they'll show you the wise way every single time. So in our first year in America, Luca had a chance to get a couple of free piano lessons at school. He loved it so much and started playing a simplified version of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' over and over and over on a crappy little keyboard we had. Then I thought "hey but I have a better one" – with all my music equipment which I had relocated but not yet unpacked, over 9 months after the move.
So I reconnected all my stuff to get him a keyboard, but eventually I also started using it again myself a little. And then a little more, and a little more…
Then we got Luca a better electric piano, and his playing improved a lot and he kept enjoying it. We made sure his teacher used a different method than the one I learned with, so that he would not be too constrained into just the classics but get a broader taste and focus on enjoyment of playing, not perfection.

Luca playing the Piano

My son needed music, but he was a mirror for me, because I needed it too! I was just keeping it quiet and enduring and waiting for 'when I will have time'… while letting the time pass and never actually finding the time for what my soul craved.
At this point the equipment was plugged again, and the house in America was a lot bigger than the apartment we had in Italy, so I could also use a much bigger space, which encouraged my playing. I was also travelling a lot less, just going back and forth to the same office, so I actually was able to find a few moments in the evenings to use my equipment. So I started composing something again – if you look at my 'songs' page you'll see I wrote and recorded several songs over the 2012-2014 period.

All sort of emotions went into those song, as several things happened in that period. Work was more intense than ever, and under a new set of conditions for me: while in Italy I was travelling all the time, even if I was lonely and it sucked, I had long unwinding times for myself where I could take pictures of a new place and spend time outside to reground myself after having been at customers. I am a bit psychic and a bit autistic, I pick up other people's emotions and they stay 'stuck' on me. In the last few years I have learned to recognize and accept that and 'deal' with it to some extent; but before I realized it, in America I was absorbing everybody's emotions and intensities in large projects with hundreds of people, large meetings, conflicting agendas, frequent re-organizations and changes of plans, I had to keep quiet on several things I didn't agree with, and my European directness tended to not match the political correctness that my American colleagues expected. But according to my managers, at the end of the day I was doing great, so they kept giving me awesome reviews and raises (which carried more responsibilities, as I was already burning out) – which incidentally also made other folks jealous, since they were not moving up the ladder quick enough… as a result of all this, I was swallowing emotions, not dealing with them, and bringing a ton of stress home, which eventually made both me and my wife sick. It must have been hard being around me both at work and at home), as I was often behaving like an asshole, snapping for no reason, not trusting anyone anymore.

At least my wife was giving me the space to write songs which could speak from my soul and not from my hurt rational mind! Please listen to 'Where are the days?' and its desperate cry, from that period when I started going out of my mind.
Not just the rhythm at which I worked that contributed to my stress, anyhow: more stressful situations and episodes were also coming from society, for example what I described in the following posts, which I felt 'safe' to post only a couple of years later, after we got out of America…

When I stopped sleeping well at night

Imaginary Friend Sara (about public school in the United States)

There were more bad things happening to us and scaring us in that period, some of which I prefer not to write about, but it felt like the whole universe was screaming at us 'get the heck out of here'. But at the time I didn't clearly understand what was going on in my own head. I was dozed and 'living the dream' or being a successful manager of a famous company, and I refused to see that things weren't quite good for our well being there. I was scared and delusional.

It's easier to rewind the tape like I am doing now and watch the movie (or hear those songs), in retrospective… but while the movie of life is being filmed, it is all improvised and not always conscious – especially when you are always running, you don’t give yourself time to regroup from one task to the next, you don't know exactly what you are dealing with, and you don't control your emotions and what you are letting out. Other people see it. That's why it's important that you let it out also in some creative form, so that you can also have a chance to see it. Because you can better see how you are by observing yourself from the outside. You can only see your problem if you move your point of view out of it. I can only take a photo of the house as a whole if I get out of it, not if I stay inside its living room. Art lets your inner self spew out fragments of a puzzle that is a projection of your conscience, or your soul. The more of these fragments you create, the more the puzzle starts to take shape, till you eventually see what you already knew but were afraid to admit to yourself – and often it is just fear of being all that we can be.

To become self-aware you have to realize how self-aware you're not – Scott Berkun

One thing was clear: I needed music more than I had ever needed before.

In the next installment of this series of posts (which I hope to publish at some point next week), I'll describe at what point I finally became aware of my condition, how I started climbing back up from the hole I had dug for myself, and the role that music played in the recovery process.

The second part of the article is here

How music changed my life, Part 2: Recognizing and acknowledging the issue

Microsoft Way

Microsoft Way

In the last couple of weeks we have been driving thru America from the east coast (New York) to the west coast (Seattle).

I figured out I needed to show my family the Microsoft campus too. Of course they know I work at Microsoft… but having only seen the office of a subsidiary – the one in Rome, with about 250 people at its max – might not have given them (especially the kids) an idea of the actual size of the company.