Sympathy beyond Facebook.


Cards, carnations and casseroles—that’s how we used to do sympathy. But, social media has changed everything. By now, anyone on Facebook has seen death notices by family, friends and acquaintances. These messages prompt us to reach out to each other—and we do. After posting about my own mother’s death over a year ago, I received hundreds of heartfelt sentiments on my wall. It was a little overwhelming, but, in the moment, much appreciated.

Grief is a hungry monster, and what I wanted were practical expressions of support from my community.

As the weeks passed, however, those electronic blips of kindness were forgotten. There were details to be settled, a memorial service and lunch to plan, accommodations and travel to be arranged. Like the February snow falling around me, the cold fact of Mom’s death settled in, and, with it, messy emotions. Grief is a hungry monster, and what I wanted (and found difficult to ask for) were practical expressions of support from my community. But I’m lucky. After the initial tsunami of electronic sentiment, tangible signs of love eventually arrived.

There were the cards: carefully selected and handwritten, coming from friends, far off family, and, maybe most touching, acquaintances. I kept them in a stack on my desk, and in the months after Mom’s death, re-read them—proof that Mom mattered not only to me, but to others.

There was the cousin who hosted the funeral brunch at her club, paying the rental fee herself. A newer friend, who hadn’t known Mom, generously set up the food, served and cleaned up afterward. I was also blown away by the folks who came to the funeral: the work friend from 28 years ago who attended by herself; the estranged friend there anyway, because she knew and loved Mom; the entire choir my Dad once belonged to, who movingly sang the songs my mother requested.

And of course, I’ll never forget the friends and family who traveled from out of town to say goodbye to Mom—Cleveland, Florida, New Jersey, and Colorado. Their presence healed me—their thoughtfulness forever changing the way I respond to death. It makes me now want to be the one who shows up or helps out. And, when I can’t, send the card, bake brownies, or call—demonstrating the importance of their loved one.

I’m not alone in appreciating practical, heartfelt expressions of sympathy. I recently asked friends what gestures helped them most in their grief. Here’s what they suggested:

Be specific: Don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do…” This puts the onus on the grieving to come up with an idea in their confusion and overwhelm. Instead, Sue Tannehill offers, “I’d like to bring over dinner on Wednesday evening, or is Thursday better?”

Make it easy: Suzanne Morgan advises this to those who would provide a meal, “Make the serving dish recyclable so I don’t have to wash and make sure the right person gets the right dish. Too much to do when one’s world has crashed.”

Go above and beyond: Lynn Averill was moved after the death of her husband when, “One friend came to the wake with a cooler in her car and arranged for it to be moved to my house. Inside, there were about a dozen pre-cooked, single portion meals, all frozen, wrapped and labeled.”

Be creative: after the death of Debbie Patten’s son, “one friend came over and brought soothing music and did a foot massage with reflexology and scented oil, and did not say much at all to me—that was the best, most loving action.” After Mary Gregory’s mom died, she received, “a tape of Pachelbel’s Canon, a scented candle and bubble bath—one of my favorites.”

What these expressions of sympathy have in common is that they are not reflexive, easy, nor easily forgotten.

Empathize: Sherry Burns advises, “Tell someone to take time to grieve. Don’t try to ‘cheer them up.’ It’s a process that has many stages. Also, remind them that as bad as it is at the moment, just know that it will get better. It always does.”

Look for the need: One woman was able to help a friend whose husband was dying—listening to her and, “when she said things like ‘my garden is getting out of control,’ or ‘the weeds are stressing me out, going over to her place and doing the yard work for her.” Christie Thomas favors telling the grieving, “in advance if you’re going to Target or the grocery, and asking what you can get them while you’re there.”

Talk about them: Dean Oberg proposes, “Sharing memories of the good times had with the deceased. Maybe things you never knew before, and how they touched or made your life better.”

Be present: Michael Collins advances, “Be there. Don’t go away. Sometimes just be quiet. Many (most) people are just clumsy, awkward, unhelpful, or not there. Or not there long enough. Or not enough there.” Beth Genco wrote, “You don’t need to say the perfect thing. Maybe a hug.”

Use technology for good: Lucia Sommer advises, “organizing a care circle so people can take turns cooking, cleaning, and doing other chores and errands.” She shared free online platforms that make this incredibly easy such as Lotsa Helping Hands, Carebridge, and Meal Train.

Keep in touch: David Dietz comforted a childhood friend who recently lost both parents, writing, “I reach out every couple of days and ask him how he’s doing. The other is that I let him know that I love him like a brother.” Christina Abt encourages, “remembering the person who passed on holidays and special days throughout that first year—always the toughest.” The most moving correspondence I received was an Easter card from a cousin months after my mother’s death. She recounted how much Mom meant to her, signing off with, “My kids loved your mom too.” I kept that card and it still makes me cry.

What these expressions of sympathy have in common is that they are not reflexive, easy, nor (like a Facebook message), easily forgotten. In a very busy world, they require slowing down, thinking of another and taking concrete action.

It’s that lavish thoughtfulness during our darkest days that lets us know we’re not alone in our grief, and that our lives (and those we love) amount to something. For in the end, as Anne Lamott says, we are all just walking each other home. It sure helps to have some company along the way.

That time I became a Jesus freak.

Jesus sculpture

I’ll always associate Jesus with popcorn and hot chocolate. I smelled that as we entered the one room coffeehouse.

A guy a few years older than us with long brown hair, wire-frame glasses, baggy corduroys and scuffed earth shoes met my girlfriends Julie, Karen and me at the door. He had warm, coffee-colored eyes, a dimpled smile, and spoke in a voice that sounded like a bleating goat. “Welcome to Maranatha! My name’s Paul Schenck.”

The Maranatha Coffeehouse was created in 1975 as an outreach to youth on Grand Island by a group of teenage and adult born-again Christians. They were from the Methodist Church, Catholic Charismatic movement, and the Salvation Army. In the 60’s and 70’s, Jesus Freaks were the religious faction of the hippie movement. They were peace-loving folks of no particular political leaning, who embraced charity, and tried to practice radical aspects of Jesus’ teachings, like evangelizing the unfaithful, and welcoming sinners of all stripes.

Maranatha was inviting, with eclectic, cast-off chairs, spider plants in hand-thrown pottery, and a Formica bar along the back wall with a popcorn maker, coffee pot and selection of herbal teas. For all its makeshift tackiness, it was welcoming—a clubhouse for misfits. To the right of the room was a small, raised platform. Warm stage lights illuminated a 20-something guy with kinky brown hair, a bushy mustache and guitar. The man was artlessly but enthusiastically strumming and singing the Kris Kristofferson tune, “Why Me Lord?” in an intense, rusty voice.

Everyone was listening closely, swaying to the music with raised hands, and met our entrance with smiles, waves and quiet hellos. There were about 15 people scattered around, some sitting on pillows on the floor, others at small café tables. My girlfriends and I sat as close to the door as possible, where I pulled my arms into my sides, trying to disappear.

Two or three other performers sang that night. Darcy was one of them. She had long, thick, sun-streaked hair, wore a large, prairie-styled dress, and Dr. Scholl’s sandals on her dusty, cracked feet. The beat-up guitar she played looked small against her tall padded body. Her voice was soft and perfectly pitched, and when she sang, everyone joined in. “Maranatha, Maranatha, the Lord is coming back. We must be filled with love to truly greet him.” I didn’t know what it meant, but the words and minor-key melody soothed me.

Then, the hippie-haired, bespectacled Paul got on stage and read from the New Testament. He told us the story of the shepherd with 100 sheep, and the one that went missing—how Jesus, just like that shepherd, left his flock to find the lost little lamb. My scalp prickled. I wondered if everyone was looking at me, knowing how much I felt like that wayward lamb. No one was. They were all listening to the message. Calls of “Amen” and “Praise Jesus” punctuated Paul’s words. He wrapped up his talk with the clincher “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. You must be born again,” he explained.

The room rang with calls of “Yes, Lord, yes!” and “Amen!” while Paul invited us to pray. We stood and held hands in a circle with our eyes closed, while Paul and the others rocked back and forth on their feet, chanting soft and rhythmically: “Jesus, Jesus, Lord of Lords,” “Praise you Lord,” “Hallelujah.” Then, this: “Kholeo-lambah-kheahtanda.” “Shalalakeanda-motanda-danda.” Others joined in this strange language, which evolved into atonal singing that swooped up and down in volume and pitch like a flock of sparrows. I later learned they were speaking in tongues and singing in the Spirit.

A bible passage from the book of Mark in the New Testament depicts this strange practice. “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Disregard the snakes and poison part, and you get the picture.

I opened my eyes a crack and caught Karen peeking too. We gave each other the quizzical raised eyebrow look. This was getting strange. The nonsense singing seemed to crest, then recede with exclamations of “Jesus, Jesus, oh Lord,” “Thank you Jesus!” and a final benediction of “Amen and amen,” accompanied by tears, smiles and hugs—a spiritual orgasm. I didn’t understand any of it, but oddly, felt peaceful and happy.

In the next few days, Julie, Karen and I attended Bible studies with Paul and his identical twin brother, Rob, in a nearby ramshackle farmhouse. The Schenck brothers had been brought up as non-observant, cultural Jews, but had converted simultaneously at age 15 to Christianity. They called themselves Messianic Jews. Rob and Paul, with a rag-tag team of Pentecostal Christians had founded Maranatha, and were rapidly becoming respected teachers.

My two friends and I read from the King James Version of the Bible, stumbling and laughing over the “thee’s” and “thou’s,” while the brothers explained the necessity of “accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and personal savior.” They stressed that while we’d been born once physically, we “must be born again” to be saved from eternal damnation.

That first night of Bible study, Julie and Karen folded like cheap beach chairs, accepting Jesus into their hearts right away. I had doubts. One night at the coffeehouse, I cornered Paul and shared with him my misgivings. He and I were only three years apart, but Paul seemed very wise—like a kindly uncle I could trust. I confessed the shameful way I’d lost my virginity in eighth grade, and that I’d smoked pot and drank. “How can Jesus forgive me after what I’ve done?” I howled, tears rolling down my face.

Paul laughed and patted my shoulder. “You’ve heard of the adulteress from the Bible haven’t you?” As a Catholic, I had. “The Pharisees wanted Jesus to agree to stoning her, but he turned it around on them, saying, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.’ That shut them down,” he smiled. “Don’t you see, Mari? Everyone’s a sinner, but through Jesus you have complete and total forgiveness—no matter what you’ve done. All you have to do is accept him in your heart. As it says in Isaiah, ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.’” It was like disappearing ink. Considering the wreck I thought I’d made of my life, the choice was easy.

I didn’t care if these people wove baskets, sold flowers on street corners or stood on their heads. They were attentive, sober adults and I found sweet refuge with them. I was a broken toy, but they accepted me, answered my questions, gave me rides and occasionally fed me. I was not accosted, molested or berated. I could have done much worse than this group (and had done so). I was grateful to them. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt safe—cared for. Relieved. With no idea as to the eventual cost of conversion, I surrendered, said, “yes,” and three weeks before high school began, I became a born-again Christian. Not a moment too soon.


Death and flowers in Paris.

Père Lachaise mari mcneil jazz

Père Lachaise is the largest cemetery in the city of Paris. Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde are laid to rest there. On the April day my husband and I visited, tree-covered streets welcomed under a brilliant blue sky. It was such a contrast to the dark mausoleums and somber headstones that crowded the rolling 110 acres of the property. 

Most curious were the tiny phone booth-sized chapels dedicated to the departed. Many of them, over a century old, had moldy padded kneelers as though expecting long-dead mourners. Each edifice, tombstone, and angel statue seemed to say, “this life mattered.”

Photo by David Lundy

Photo by David Lundy

Père Lachaise stood in sharp contrast to the Paris Catacombs that we visited days later. Those underground ossuaries, five stories below street level, contained the remains of over six million forgotten people — anonymous stacks of skulls and bones lining a 2 kilometer path — a ghoulish tourist attraction.

Mom had only been gone two months when we went to France, but neither of those obvious reminders of death made me think of her; rather, it was The Tuileries Garden. Lush spring beds interspersed with sculpture, she’d have known the names of every flower when she was healthy, not so long ago. Though Mom and I had had our troubles, we connected over gardening. My own yard back home was filled with brilliant colored perennials — many given to me by her. I pulled my husband Dave into a quiet corner of The Tuileries and I cried.

It was fitting that no cold monument of stone in a cemetery or macabre pile of bones in a damp cave had touched that aching place inside me that missed Mom. Instead, it was the tender, evanescent spring blossoms she loved so much — in a beautiful garden in Paris.  


As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer.
~ Psalm 103: 15-16


Letting go of money (and an old friend) in Italy.


I’ve honed cheap-skatery to a fine edge. I re-use foil and Ziploc bags, self-administer haircuts, pedicures and even Brazilians — attaining a Jedi-level of self-grooming. Hell, I’d even drill my own teeth if I could, and have occasionally been known to file my own choppers when rough.

It pains me to spend money, so a month-long trip to Italy with my husband Dave to celebrate his retirement promised to be a little uncomfortable. Not that we’d be living like senators, mind you; we got a cheap flight and Dave had chosen reasonable Airbnb rooms with kitchens so I could cook some of our meals. Also, we’d be taking public transport whenever we could.
No, it was all the unanticipated extras that made me wince: cab fares, toilet fares, and paying for water (water!) in restaurants. It was also the sad realization that even though the Euro was down, it was still worth more than a dollar, so a €30 dinner was actually $33.73.

When we arrived in Florence, known for its well-crafted and inexpensive leather goods, I’d reached a Scrooge McDuck level of frugality — at least in my head. A well-deserved leather jacket and briefcase for Dave and beautiful saddlebag purse for me brought no joy, only Eyeore-like thoughts. “We can’t afford this.” “We’re pillaging our emergency fund.” “We’ll bounce our checking account.”

I put a good face on it and tried to enjoy the rich chaos of Rome, lushness of Florence and quirkiness of Venice, but by the time I got to the gritty city of Naples, I knew my attitude stunk and could use a change of clothes. It took the death of a friend to shame me out of my pinch-faced parsimony.

Andy Jones was a new acquaintance. A jazz-loving, energetic man who had just celebrated his 88th birthday, he sparkled with vitality and optimism. He still worked as a greeting card salesman and began every day with 1,000 sit-ups (you read that right) and a seven-mile walk. He'd recently been giving away his old suits — not to divest himself of possessions, but so he could buy new ones to impress the ladies.

We thought Andy would live forever. There is a Japanese word that describes him exactly —
“genki.” Roughly translated, it means enthusiastic, energetic, lively — game, ready to go. That was Andy Jones.

He found our group of friends through a shared love of music, and we spent many Friday nights gathered around the piano, singing songs from the Great American Songbook — Andy’s favorite era. He went from being shy and requesting songs, to singing them with gusto.
We loved getting to know Andy and looked forward to many more gatherings.

When Dave learned on Facebook that Andy had passed away of a heart attack, we were both stunned. And here we were in Italy, unable to attend the funeral, and filled with sadness.

An inescapable truth of Rome is how impermanent we all are. The ruins of Italy have outlasted the life spans of their creators by thousands of years. The many statues and monuments are for people long-gone and mostly forgotten. The cosmic clock stops for no one — not the citizens of ancient Rome, not Andy, not for me.

Andy Jones wrung every drop of juice out of his 88 years, so why wouldn’t I do the same? Here I am in Italy with the man I love. We’re both in good health, and have an emergency fund to plunder. How about I buy some expensive gifts and that sexy dress from Florence? Or, fully enjoy the dizzying views from The Path of the Gods over the Amalfi Coast; bask in romantic, peach-colored sunsets over the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, and ogle over Michelangelo’s David? Must I be the Grinch Who Stole Our Italian Vacation? I couldn’t think of a single reason why I should and, I’ll bet, Andy couldn’t have either.

The heavy chains of miserliness fell from my shoulders. I didn’t look at the receipts anymore or question Dave’s purchases and decisions to use a cab instead of walking. Best of all, I could finally drink in the richness of Italy with abandon and, mind you, €5 bottles of wine.


The night Captain Fantastic gave me a voice.

elton john captain fantastic voice courage

The Chrysler station wagon smelled of cigarettes, beer and spoiled milk. It did on hot humid nights. My older brother Greg was driving, and he and his friends were playing that stupid game of repeating exactly what each other said a split second after saying it. It was like being in an echo chamber full of morons and it was irritating.

That summer of 1975 was big for Elton John. He had released Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and the breakout single, Someone Saved My Life Tonight, was playing on the radio. A miserable and lonely 14 year-old, I identified with the world-weary, but hope-filled lyrics and passionately sang along, oblivious to the snickers around me:

I never realized the passing hours
Of evening showers
A slip noose hanging, in my darkest dreams
I'm strangled by your haunted social scene
Just a pawn out-played by a dominating queen
It's four o'clock in the morning
Damn it! Listen to me good
I'm sleeping with myself tonight
Saved in time, thank god my music's still alive

As he’d done so many times before, my brother snapped the volume off, leaving my voice exposed in the now-quiet car. In the past, I’d sheepishly clam up, embarrassed to be singing. Not this time. Those stirring lyrics and hearing my voice above the mocking gave me courage to go on:

Someone saved my life tonight sugar bear
You almost had your hooks in me, didn't you dear
You nearly had me roped and tied
Altar-bound, hypnotized
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear
You're a butterfly
And butterflies are free to fly
Fly away, high away, bye bye

The laughter stopped, and Greg turned up the radio.

That night was the beginning of finding my voice — a process that still continues. Sometimes that voice is quieted by soul-crushing failure, a negative review or disapproval from others. But magically, the mere act of speaking out — singing, saying or writing what is true for me — blasts open the timid doors of my heart and I’m free to fly.

Someone saved my life that night. Turns out, it was me.


Money-smart, marriage-smart.


My husband and I left the room after two hours, spent, hungry and light-headed. Had we been arguing, engaging in “afternoon delight,” or working out? Nope. Just talking about money. We joked that we were “divorce-proofing” our marriage

I wasn’t always money-smart. My family didn’t buy lottery tickets, but somehow believed money would magically appear. Budgeting was for the bourgeoisie. My father spent as he wished, while my mother fretted, saved and arranged deck chairs as their ship slowly sank. Though they recovered financially, I was imprinted by their mixed messages.

Additionally, I was a math-phobic child. Multiplication tables caused me to white out with fear. I failed math every year of high school, barely passing it in summer school. My math illiteracy led to an avoidance of anything financial.

In my first marriage I was frugal, but like my parents, mostly ignorant or in denial about the state of our finances. My then-husband would tell me cash was low and not to spend until a check cleared. Instead, I’d hear “The apocalypse is coming. Buy cereal, toiletries and paper towels,” and overdraw our account.

I regularly engaged in financial infidelity — hiding purchases and misrepresenting my income. Yet, we rarely argued. Discussions about money were off-limits. Clearly, I had baggage I wasn’t ready to unpack. Money avoidance was only one of our issues, but a metaphor for lack of intimacy and transparency in other areas. For 25 years we arranged deck chairs on our own sinking barge. In 2006, I jumped ship to a new life.

My first act of financial transformation was preparing a budget for the divorce lawyers. I was terrified to find out my true fiscal state, and wrangled a girlfriend to walk me through this basic skill. I felt like that kid who kept failing math.

As we plugged in the numbers, I was stunned to find that a modest apartment, saving for both retirement and a down payment for a house were actually affordable. Expenses that didn’t matter anymore were gleefully slashed, like cable TV or a new car — making room for such luxuries as hair foiling, eating out and vacations. This math was fun!

As I started dating, I developed a checklist of desired attributes. At 46 years-old I got to pick. He didn’t have to be rich, but his finances couldn’t be a hot mess either — that was my old life.

My new boyfriend Dave and I had many wonderful things in common, but some not so lovely. We shared a fear of money and a checkered financial history. Aside from a small car loan, I had strangled the debt goose, but Dave still had money troubles; a good deal of debt and an upside-down mortgage. Though most of the debt was due to his late wife’s illness, his balance sheet was a yellow flag to me.

It wasn’t romantic, but some of our early discussions were about finances. Turns out, my new love was naturally frugal, but didn’t like to say no to his significant other — a recipe for money problems. I, on the other hand, was a spender, and splurged when fearing scarcity — often on useless items or impulse buys.

Instead of pre-marital counseling, we took a budgeting class together. We unearthed our inner money nerds and worked on changing bad habits — excruciating at first. The angriest we ever got with each other was in structuring our debt repayment. Having hit a wall, we hired a financial coach with Solomon-like wisdom to referee. Resolved and secure we were on the same page financially, we became one in the eyes of God, the law, and our bank account.

By tightening our belts, living in a cheap apartment and driving beater cars, we were debt-free in three years. Five years later, we are now on our way to paying off our simple home and securing a bright financial future. We still make mistakes, “forget” to mention purchases and impulse-buy on occasion, but quickly right the vessel.

Dave and I trust each other and don’t have secrets; it’s the basis of intimacy. Full-disclosure financially has also required us both to put our oars in the water and pull in the same direction — good for any couple. And that’s a ship neither of us are likely to jump.


Getting naked. My road to emotional and physical intimacy.

body image naked flower nude vulnerability

I’m going to get naked with you, sharing the one secret that gave me a life of emotional and physical intimacy. Getting there was the scariest thing I ever did, and you won’t believe how simple it was.

First, some background.
I had three older brothers and two younger sisters in a lively Irish-Catholic family on Grand Island, New York. My parents loved each other, but bickered all the time. If Dad said the couch was red, Mom corrected, that no, it was rust. They could bicker over anything.

Mom’s world consisted of emotions, beauty, family and charity. Dad’s was reason, ideas, facts, perfection and competence. Logic and force of personality won out and my father frequently had the upper hand, unless memory was involved. Then my mother won.

Our family dinners were fun and energizing, but sometimes resembled a blood sport — eat or be eaten, wit being the coin of the realm. Mom stayed on the sidelines, not suited for battle — rarely a participant. Like a baby mouse imprinted with her mother’s scent, I adopted their style; it was more important to be right than happy.

At 20, I married a man much like my father, blazingly intelligent, quick, cutting and defensive. We reenacted my parent’s dynamic in many ways, but I vowed not to be vulnerable like my mother. I dressed in Levi’s and plaid shirts, cut my hair short, gained weight and hid any sign of femininity. I appeared asexual, but more important, learned to cover sadness, concerns and anger, acting like one of the boys. Being tough and invulnerable, I couldn’t be hurt.

Once, five months pregnant with our second child I camped for a week in Algonquin, Canada, with my husband and our church young couples group. I carried a heavy pack, portaged through the woods and slept on a thin foam pad. It was only after days of trying to sleep on tangled roots and rocks that I discovered all the other couples had air mattresses. Such amenities were for sissies.

My androgyny affected our sex life; very little of it and not good. I joked that there was only three subjects my husband and I could not discuss: sex, money and chores. I needed more.

Just as blocked arteries develop other pathways to deliver blood to the heart, I developed alternate routes to receive love — I built up a collection of friends who loved me, mostly female, occasionally male — all platonic. I would have said I was happy, justifying the creative financing of my love bank.

But deep inside, was a woman wanting out — a soft-hearted, tender creature who wanted to be cherished by one man. Eventually, through the magic of therapy, good friends and re-discovering musical gifts, I reclaimed much of my femininity, but it was too late for us. After 25 years, we divorced.

At 46, I faced a brand new future, a future I could choose.

I created a vision statement for my new life. It described the house I’d live in, kind of music on the stereo, paintings on the wall and, of course, the man who would share it with me: he would be smart, funny, hospitable, sensuous, and above all, kind. And we would be intimate, whatever that meant.

I dated 18 men in one crazy year, then, took a sabbatical. At the end of it, there was Dave. He matched the man I’d pictured in all the key ways, but —closest to my heart — was kind.
I’d found my ideal mate and I was terrified. So terrified, a latent case of colitis kicked into high gear. I was touching on deep fears and my body was objecting. I had not seen intimacy between my parents, had not experienced it with my ex, yet that is what I desperately wanted in my new life. How could we create this?

We started with one basic rule, we would be kind to each other — literally, a zero-tolerance for unkindness, and it had to start with me.

How did this play out?

We didn’t allow blaming. For anything. Ever. Especially when driving or discussing money. No criticism was permitted. If we had a beef, we either sat on it or discussed it as a thing we might solve together. Sarcasm was also barred at the door — including that ominous fourth horseman of divorce: eye-rolling behind each other’s backs. We argued and sometimes heatedly, but never hit below the belt. Public putdowns were forbidden too.

We were patient with each other, listening without jumping in, even when a story took so long, you could picture cows wandering in and out of the pauses. We created an environment where we could be ourselves without criticism or judgment.Most frightening for me, we admitted fears, cried in front of each other, shared hopes, budding dreams, and let down our guard. Slowly, I reprogrammed that baby mouse for a life of love instead of one of conflict and competition.

Do you know what happens in a relationship where both people can be vulnerable and truly themselves? When you know your tender bodies and souls will be cherished and not ridiculed?

You feel safe, relax, and have a lot of really great sex.

Dave and I will be married for five years this October, and they have been the happiest years of my life. Over time, I learned to be OK with both emotional and physical intimacy and my colitis went away, but we’ve had our hard times too. It’s then that kindness kick in — the touchstone we always return to when we’ve lost our way.

Ultimately, intimacy had to begin with me. I had to let go of a lifetime of defensive tactics, unconscious behaviors and a pathological need to be right. I could expect kindness in my life and marriage when that’s what I gave. And I discovered that when you remove arguing, anger, blame, bickering, sarcasm, insults, criticism, pickiness and fault finding from a marriage ... all that’s left is love.


Losing (and finding) my voice.

finding menopause losing voice dysphonia

The symptoms started last summer vacation in Colorado. In the car practicing scales, my voice cracked — a common enough for a 14 year-old boy, but never me. The more I sang, the more hoarse my voice became. It was terrifying.

I was 52, had left a good job in marketing to be a jazz singer only a year and a half prior — and now this. As always, I jumped to worst-case scenario and cried on my husband Dave’s shoulder that night. “Will you still love me if I can’t sing?” I half-seriously asked him. More important, I wondered how much I’d love myself if I couldn’t sing.

Googling “vocal problems, hoarseness, perimenopause,” I discovered women often experience a loss, changing or lowering of their voice at mid-life. Opera singers, in particular, age out and quietly retreat from public performance, avoiding the public humiliation — often, only in their forties.

A life-long singer, I had taken my voice for granted, wondering instead if age or looks would be the determining factors in success (heck, even those few extra pounds), all the while not realizing my entire career rested on two tiny vibrating pieces of tissue less than an inch long. Talk about feeling vulnerable.

Of immediate concern, was my rapidly approaching debut at the Lewiston Jazz Festival. How ironic would it be that after years of applying to the festival, my first performance there would be diminished or, God forbid, even cancelled?

The more I researched, gastric reflux (a common malady of menopause) appeared to be the direct cause of my problems. Simply, stomach acids were frying my vocal cords and affecting their ability to vibrate properly and produce sound.

The next morning, I hit the pharmacy and started taking Prilosec – which belongs to a group of drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPI’s) or acid-reducers. Within days, the vocal cracking stopped. My range returned, and the relief was as big as the surrounding Rockies.

My performance at the Jazz Festival was a success, but vocal problems continued to dog me. Again, I turned to the internet to research my condition. In addition to preventing reflux by not eating large or late-in-the-day meals, modifying a number of habits would keep my voice limber: avoiding caffeine, alcohol and decongestants and raising the head of my bed six inches.

Just how important was it to keep singing? I even gave up my beloved red wine. And, as averse as I am to medication, hormone replacement therapy soon joined my medication regime.

Finally, having exhausted self-diagnosing, I visited an otolaryngologist. He confirmed reflux, but to great relief, my vocal cords were only irritated, not permanently damaged. It also turned out (in danger of having doctor creds removed), I had been taking Prilosec incorrectly.

So, I’m singing again. The range is back and doesn’t skip. And yet … this is not voice I had in my thirties and forties. It’s not quite as lush or round. It sounds (gasp!) older. I hear the difference in my recently-recorded CD and am not entirely happy.

These days, I have to work much harder to maintain vocal fluidity and limberness. The passage from chest voice to head voice is not as easily navigated. I have to sing every single day to maintain tone and flexibility.

And yet, there is something I did not have in my thirties and forties — vulnerability and connection. These songs have been lived, revealing both broken hearts and simmering passions.

Now 53, I also believably project sensuality and playfulness. I take myself less seriously and am more confident. I’m not sacrificing the message of the song to attain perfect tone – the phrasing is more conversational. You also hear that on the CD.

This last year has seen the death of a number of friends, most of whom were artists. The world is the lesser for it. I wish I could hear just one more of their songs or see another of their paintings. Yet, here I am, alive, sometimes tempted to stop sharing my gifts out of vanity or perfectionism.


Funny, when singing, my flaws and limitations are forgotten. In that moment, I am a conduit for God or Spirit. I’m lost in the song, creating joy, and often (especially with the elderly) making someone’s day. My audiences connect, and through the music, buried emotions are unearthed. My work matters.

Yes, I am an older woman with an older voice, but I have a compelling story to tell and hearts to touch. Until my audiences stop listening, I’ll keep singing.  

My Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.

big hairy audacious goal spider

The first time I did it, I was 11 years old. The local SPCA shelter was low on money and was forced to euthanize the overflow of puppies and kitties. It just about broke my heart. Something had to be done. So, we put on a show.

I envisioned a vaudeville extravaganza with corny skits, music, and written-out parts for the available cast — my two sisters and a couple of our best friends. Even our flea-ridden, mangy collie Kingboy would have a walk-on role.

We canvassed the neighborhood, selling flimsy paper tickets for 75 cents each that Dad had photocopied at work, baked cookies and made lemonade. We hung up a clothesline and pinned old tablecloths on it. Any available fold-up chairs were wrangled from the neighbors and lined up hopefully in our garage.

After one whole week of rehearsal — largely consisting of me telling everyone what to do and pitching fits when they WOULD NOT follow my directions — we were ready for the hoards of Harvey Road theatergoers.

And you know what? They came: mothers, fathers, squalling toddlers — even that new black family down the street (exotic for Grand Island) we’d welcomed with a cake. Everyone came with money in their pockets expecting fun, but knowing they were supporting something larger than themselves.

They clapped and listened appreciatively to our overwrought dramas in that hot, fly filled garage. They bought the overpriced brownies and Kool-Aid because five raggedy kids and a reluctant dog wanted to do something big and help something worthy.

I’m doing it again. I’ve put together a crack team of musicians and we’ve recorded a wonderful CD. We’re going to release it at a big party for a really great cause — The Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP). And boy, are they audacious too. They believe that with education and service they can grow and bring healthy food to the West Side of Buffalo.

The tickets aren’t cheap ($20 presale), but all of the proceeds and a percentage of the CD sales will go to MAP. We’d like to buy them a walk in cooler for their fresh, locally-grown produce.

Please join us on Friday, March 28 at 7:00pm at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Buffalo. We’ve upgraded the cookies and lemonade to wine, desserts and appetizers. Instead of five awkward kids you’ll see some of Buffalo’s best jazz musicians. Kingboy the collie won’t be there, but if you’ll come, we promise you one hell of a show.


Finding a blue sky in Buffalo.

Painting by Phil Durgan

Painting by Phil Durgan

Can we agree that this Buffalo winter has been a real bummer? Misery for most, heaven for some, what we haven’t seen are many blue sky days. This has made the shooting of my album cover, “Here Beneath the Blue,” a near impossibility.

I had pictured me standing, relaxed arms wide open, under a brilliant, clear blue sky. However, glamour shots in 20° weather with icy howling winds don’t portray the laid back vibe I’m shooting for. Streaming eyes, nose and flailing hair might be fine for a metal band, not classic jazz.

Friends suggested Photoshopping me into an idyllic background — dependent only on a good shot and mad editing skills. While I’m at it, why not copy/paste a 20 lb. slimmer body on me, put a margarita in my hand, a nearby pool boy applying sunscreen and call it a day?

No, desperate times lead to desperate measures. Somehow, I’d create my own blue sky; that is to say, hire an artist to paint a blue sky behind me while I posed happily beneath it. Luckily, I know a few wonderful painters and was able to line up the talented abstract artist, Phil Durgan to be my performance painter. I supplied him with a thumbnail sketch of my vision and we were on our way!

What to wear for my cover — sexy, vulnerable, spiritual or slinky? Ask an expert. Last night I met with BFF and style maven Pamela Sieracki who shopped my closet for five potentially awesome outfits. She combined fabrics and colors like the designer she is and advised me against my own “What Not To Wear” disasters.

Mari McNeil outfits

In two days, the photo shoot will be a coordination effort worthy of D-day: first, my hair will be cut and styled by Michele Ruffino of R Salon. Then, my face will be painted, troweled, and airbrushed by Hollywood makeup artist, Dani Weiser. Next, it’s off to the indoor loft apartment/French bistro owned by the generous Paul and Sandra Wilkins. It has the distressed brick look I’m hoping for, plus lots of natural light. Phil will arrive on site with his partially finished canvas and painting supplies to set up a live backdrop to my posing.

Then, it’s time for my photographer, Marc Murphy, to work his magic with existing light and my thoroughly natural, hey-I-look-this-good-everyday, appearance. If all goes as planned, I’ll look happy and open — here beneath the blue.

Just like in real life, when blue skies in Buffalo are not cooperating, we create our own.