THE LONG HAUL: The Optimism of Cycles
The aftermath of a writing session for "Ships in the Night," a song from Rachel Baiman's new album, "Cycles," out this Friday. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Baiman)
In the spring of 2019, I sat down to write a song with my friend Olivia Hally, who was visiting from Melbourne, Australia. We talked about our fear and awe regarding pregnancy and childbirth (neither of us having experienced it) and the unique strength of the women in our families. What emerged from that session was the title track of my new record, Cycles, an exploration of life being passed down from one generation to the next, as a way of starting over, getting some kind of new chance to nail it with each attempt. In the days following that session, I started seeing everything around me through this same lens. From the cyclical nature of each day and the seasonal and lunar cycles of the natural world, to the constant treadmill of my mind and the downs and ups of my career and my relationships. Death and life, panic and euphoria, romance and monotony, great success and intense disappointment; what goes up must come down.
As someone who thrives on constant change, adventure, stimulation, growth, and challenge, it has taken me the better part of my life to learn any semblance of patience for the tough parts of these cycles. When things felt too bland in a relationship, I would bail. When I didn’t feel like I was growing in a job, I would immediately quit. When the country moved toward the political right, I feared apocalyptic nuclear war. I have always envisioned an ideal life to be similar to those y=mx+B equations I spent so much time with in math class: a nice straight line with a steady slope, moving up and to the right with consistency.
But reality, I have come to see during this tumultuous, and annoyingly adult chapter of my life, will always be a series of repeating cycles, up, down, around, and then up and down again. There is no destination, no straight line pointing to the top right corner. The best we can hope for is that we weather each storm with a little more grace, a little more confidence in ourselves, a little more openness to growth, and a little more belief that the good will come around again.
Never had I needed this mindset more than with the release of this aptly titled new album, Cycles. When I released my debut solo record, Shame, I felt a jolt forward, a momentum that I had never before experienced. In those days of dreams coming true, I tried to remind myself that my career wouldn’t always feel that way, but I couldn’t help hoping that there would be steady movement forward from that point on. Of course, that wasn’t anywhere near true. In 2020, with a freshly finished record (what I believed and still believe to be my best work so far), I felt that the consistent upward trajectory I had been seeking was finally in reach, only to have my entire team, and the entire industry, bottom out, along with the rest of the world, in the midst of the pandemic.
It took more than two years to create and release this record. During the darkest days of the pandemic, when Trump was still the president and the racism and ugliness of our country was on full display, I tried to imagine the nation on its own cycle, the orbit moving through conservatism to progress, then right back onto itself, the marker shifting toward racial and economic justice with each cycle, just the smallest little bit. Ten steps forward, nine steps, and so on. As many people smarter than me have said, progress is not a straight line. I tried to believe the same for my career; that a moment of immense setback and seeming disaster was merely the negative reflection of a much bigger arc whose positives would take me to new and better places. I’m no zen master, and I had my share of breakdowns and despairing moments lately, but I always took comfort in the concept of cycles, even when I had trouble fully trusting in it.
Growth, creation, destruction, renewal, rebirth — that’s what this record means to me. The belief that redemption and rebuilding is always possible, with greater wisdom, greater kindness, and greater empathy toward oneself and toward others. As Liv and I mused that day in April 2019, “These cycles shed our sins / I would die to be born again / we made a brand new skin / handed down to be worn again.”