5 tools to supercharge your resolutions!

2014 tools resolutions weight loss improvement

I hate New Year’s Day. It’s that time of year when I flog myself over holiday misdeeds of over-eating, not meditating and being too sedentary. My diet for the last month has mostly consisted of cookies and meat — a kind of of modified Paleo. I rarely got to the gym and didn’t eat a single fruit all Christmas, if you don’t count the raspberry jam in the thumbprint cookies I snarfed.

I scramble for a resolution that will shortcut me to greater fitness, flexibility and the loss of those extra pounds that have overstayed their welcome like a bad holiday guest. But, the good thing is, at the age of 52, I’ve had some success in personal transformation.

It’s times like these, when the inky darkness of winter and post-holiday doldrums threaten to engulf me, that I think on past victories and remember the principles and practices that have led to lasting transformation. Maybe they’ll help you too.

Acceptance
Nine years ago I had an uncomfortable moment of truth when unexpectedly viewing a photo of myself in a bathing suit. It was a brown, ruched affair and I looked exactly like an unhappy potato on legs. After a fat caliper test, I was appalled to learn of a body fat percentage of 30% — sneakily close to obese. Instead of denying reality or hating myself and drowning in a sea of Ben & Jerry’s, I calmly made peace with my body as it was — then lost twenty pounds.

Forgiveness
The best time to make a meaningful change in life is (insert number) years ago. The next best time is today. I stayed in a sad and unfulfilling marriage for 25 years. It was tempting to blame myself for the lost years and all the love not gotten, but it was pointless. I could not have left a moment sooner than I did. I looked kindly on the girl I was, embraced her anyway, and learned from her mistakes to build a new life of love and fulfillment.

Teachability
I was a stiff-necked kid who couldn’t be taught a single thing — an unfortunate result of being a naturally talented, overly adored first-born girl in a competitive family. But, talent is a bus that doesn’t go to the end of the line without a refuel — that’s where teachers and receptivity come in.

When I entered my thirties and wanted to progress in music, my father delicately suggested I take voice lessons from his choirmaster. The teacher could not have been more encouraging, and soon I quit bellowing like a moose and started really singing. A good teacher (and a willing attitude) has been the fastest way to learning new skills and making big life changes.

Moderation
When I was 18 and a freshman in college I started running with the cross-country team. I went from being relatively sedentary to running five miles a day — every day. On the advent of our big first meet, my lower legs were in excruciating pain. A doctor’s visit diagnosed shin splints — painful micro-breaks in the shinbones — a result of over-training.

As an adult, I’ve learned to pace myself and get some form of exercise every day, even if it’s just a leisurely walk with a friend. On icy, windy days I might choose the stationary bike in the basement with the latest from Netflix. At times I take it easy on myself and do almost nothing physically. After 34-some years of mostly continual fitness, I’m in it for the long haul and realize that slow and steady truly does win the race.

Courage
Two years before quitting my job, I knew I wanted to walk away. But, the idea of leaving a 30-year career filled me with anxiety. For all my blather about taking chances and being adventurous, I am, essentially, a groove creature.

After crunching the numbers with my husband and determining we could (frugally) live on his income, I hit a wall. I called it every name in the book, but it was generic, yellow-labeled fear. I drew on the wisdom of Mark Twain’s bromide, “Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it” and jumped into the abyss and got to work. I have not looked back. Now fear is taken as a sign that I’m onto something. Let the adventure begin!

This year, I have made some resolutions: put away my clothes after wearing them; lose five pounds; write a business plan; complete that book I’ve been talking about for years; write thank you notes; de-clutter the house. Some of them I’ll honor, others will burst like yesterday’s champagne bubbles. What I won’t do is hate, nag or be unkind to myself. That’s one resolution I’m planning on keeping.

 

Be kind. Start with you.

vulnerability kindness self love hand butterfly

The contrast between the women in the two videos could not have been more stark.

The first woman kept her head down, talking lovingly to a baby in her lap, not looking up until addressed directly by the cameraman. And then, she looked pained, as if she found showing her face excruciating — for good reason. She was heavy — lumpish, her face shiny with oil and beet red with acne. Her hair was short, manly and dishwater blonde. Her glasses were thick, large and unfashionable, as were her clothes. After awkwardly facing the camera, the woman’s head dropped back down to the baby in her lap — closed again to scrutiny, trying to hide on a front porch in the mid-day sun.

The second woman is seen from a distance, singing to a crowded, buzzing concert hall. She’s wearing a low cut, body-hugging, cherry red dress revealing a shapely, lean figure. Her arms are flung wide to the well-dressed audience, face open and happy as she moves smoothly to the music on glittery black stilettos, accentuating muscled legs. Her fashionably cut, shoulder-length blond hair swings to the music — The Way You Look Tonight.

Both women are me. The first video was shot 23 years ago, when I was a mom in my twenties, the second, from a concert I recently performed while visiting relatives in Minnesota. Not long after that event, those same relatives and I viewed that first video of our kids … and a much different version of myself at 29 years of age.

It was fun to see our now-grown children as babies and toddlers, but I had not reckoned how viewing my younger, tortured self would feel. I had all but forgotten that girl, destroyed old pictures, and expunged my mental palette of her sadness, agony and ugliness. Viewing her, I felt the old shame and revulsion, but something more — deep compassion.

I wanted to reach into the screen and pull her away from that peeling porch, that ramshackle house and take her to a place of love and gentleness. I longed to undo the ridicule she received in middle school, free her from the cage of apparent security that conservative religion had provided, enlighten her to her latent musical talent, but most of all, show her the inherent beauty her body possessed, the tenderness in her blue-green eyes, uncover the radiant smile hidden for so long.

I yearned to tell her that she deserved kindness and respect from everyone around her. I needed to let her know that as long as she hated her body and waged war on her face she would mistreat it and feed herself poorly. I wished to reveal that most women know tricks — magic tricks to play up their beauty and minimize flaws to stunning effect. I could teach those tricks to her!

I felt desperate to rewind time and save her, but realized, with a jolt, that I already had. The massive changes which began shortly after that first video, had transformed me and culminated with a powerful metamorphosis; I finally accepted myself — no exceptions. I embraced flaws and fears, then parted with an old self-image that thought unkindness was OK, that not being loved was my lot. I learned that the most important person to impart that love was me.

Secure in that love, I left a marriage that was long dead, built a new life, and created an exterior as beautiful as the interior I had always possessed. And, in a surreal reversal of fate, now publicly performed with exuberance, power, and femininity — about as far from that 29 year-old as a housefly is from a phoenix.

My reaction to the first video made me wonder if I’d accepted my shadow side: what Carl Jung described as the “aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself” — in this case, vulnerability, weakness, fear of abandonment and self-hatred. But, it turns out, the aversion to the video was a merely a vestige of an old self.

I am not the insecure and critical girl I once was. The gentleness and patience I now grant to myself is given to everyone in my life. I can walk into the burning buildings of people’s misery and troubles, with warmth and empathy. The alchemy is complete.

But sooner or later, age brings deterioration and illness. Looks are lost and talents may fade. Careers end, fortunes evaporate, loved ones die. What then? In making true peace with the awkward, unattractive girl I once was, I will return to that same bedrock of love and acceptance for the aged, diminished woman I will surely become.

I deserve it — we all do. Then, now and forever.

 

Really seeing ... how it changes everything.

seeing mindfulness respect eye rainbow

My brother Greg is everyone’s favorite person. Well, if you knew him he would
be your favorite person. Not just because he is helpful, generous, loyal and kind-hearted, but because Greg looks at people. Or, I should say, when he is talking to people, he sees
them — he looks deep in their eyes and locks in, devoted and dog-like.

Greg doesn’t break contact, doesn’t interrupt. He is off the clock with no pressing agenda. He really listens — a rare gift in a time when what’s on our smart phones seems to be much more engrossing than the warm and breathing human right next to us.

I’m the anti-Greg: a whirling dervish of places to go, things to do, people to see — just not you, standing right in front of me. I do care, but there’s so much to be accomplished. You don’t mind if I wash the floor while we talk, do you? I furrow my brow, talk loud and fast, and get Many Important Things achieved. People have told me that on first meeting, I have an air of imperiousness — of not liking them and being invulnerable. These are not attractive qualities in a person, much less as the entertainer I have become, and the “conduit of God’s love,” I wish to be.

This impression has been troubling, and for a long time I tried to change this. It took performing at a nursing home to discover the dramatically transformative power of truly seeing people.

Frank was in the last row in a room filled with 60 or so elderly residents. He was strapped into a wheelchair, but looked younger than most — in his early 60’s — and had the appearance of a PTSD Viet Nam War vet: ragged, wiry and agitated. As I sang, he yelled things like: “I hate this!” “Noooooo! Stop it now!”  “Horrible! Horrible!” while rocking and flailing his stringy arms. Fellow residents, annoyed, but apparently accustomed to his outbursts, yelled right back at him, “Shut up, Frank!”

I tried to ignore him and focus on the rest of the audience — until I didn’t. I tried something different. I looked at him. I made my way to the back of the room with small steps, right and left, making eye contact with each resident, eventually wending my way to Frank. I was singing “Moon River,” a love song written in 1961 — his era. “O dream maker, you heart breaker,”

I crooned as I got closer. “Wherever you’re going, you’re going my way,” while standing three feet away with my arms outstretched to him. I looked intently into his brown eyes wide with fear, and didn’t blink, smiling and serenading him and him alone. A look of calm washed over Frank’s face as he heaved a giant sigh and started whistling along. There were no more interruptions.

In the days since that engagement, I have consciously tried to look at people and actually take the time to see them: grocery clerks; receptionists; sales people; my mother; my husband. I observe their eyes, body language; the turn of their mouth without remark. Often, a hurried transaction slows down and becomes an opportunity to exchange pleasantries and exchange smiles. People ask me questions. Paradoxically, by looking closer at folks, they want to know more about me. In turn, they disclose rare and secret things about themselves in holy slivers of now.

The day itself seems to exhale and I can almost hear it whistling a happy tune.

 

Band camp?!? No, really, band camp.

 Photo by Gene Jochen

Photo by Gene Jochen

There’s something that just sounds funny about an adult going to band camp. You get visions of cousin Norbert with his coke bottle glasses and French horn getting on the bus and waving goodbye to his parents. Joking aside, jazz fantasy camp was a chance to get a little of the formal music education I lacked, and learn how to scat sing.

My friend from Buffalo, saxophonist, Mike SantaMaria, sold me on the fun of it. Knowing that Darmon Meader, founder, musical director, composer, saxophonist, and vocalist with the group New York Voices would be my teacher put a big green button on it.

The cost of tuition, room and board for the Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camp week at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY was $1,375 – steep for a working musician like myself, but perfectly reasonable given what I later discovered were the typical professions and socio-economic statuses of the attendees.

On day one of camp, the Wilmot recital hall at Nazareth was filled with 50 or so fellow campers (mostly instrumentalists) ranging in age from early forties to late seventies. As we introduced ourselves by name and instrument, I felt like a brown shoe in a tuxedo world, having labeled myself as “singer,” while others in my group of nine used the more formal term “vocalist.” I had a lot to learn, both big and small.

The daily schedule was cram-packed with rhythm, theory and master classes. Music theory class with the superb Jim Doser was a lot like high school math in that I did terribly, in spite of patient teaching, and got red-faced with frustration. I made supremely good use of my time, however, and surreptitiously surfed Amazon on my smart phone to order “Music Theory for Dummies.”

My fellow vocalists varied in talent and experience. We had a couple who played sax as well — the lone males in the group — who wanted to improve their singing. I was the only one who had quit their day job to perform, but one of the least experienced in reading music and ensemble work.

Our teacher, Darmon, immediately got us working on our ensemble pieces (think Glee). One of the songs, Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” had a difficult solo section, which he pointed out might interest someone who was very ambitious. Game on! I recorded him singing it and endlessly practiced it during limited free time in the days to come. I was determined to nail it.

Evenings were for formal performances followed by jam sessions. Never a shrinking violet, I showed up for the advanced jam, but soon found there wasn’t a protocol for including singers. In a typical session, a player (often the pianist) will “call” a tune — that is, name the song and the key, and musicians take turns soloing after having run the song once through.

Some musicians resent vocalists in jam sessions. Singers sometimes need songs in unfamiliar, difficult keys to play. Also, they reduce the amount of time instrumentalists can solo. Finally, they often don’t read charts well — the road maps for how to play a tune. These deficits have led to jokes at the singer’s expense, ie: How can you tell when your lead singer
is at the door? She can't find the key and doesn't know when to come in. Buh-dum!

That first night, about 14 musicians crowded the jam stage; a pianist, bassist, drummer, clarinetist, flutist, guitarist, six saxes, two trumpets and me, the outlying singer. Undeterred, I grabbed a mic, sat down, and made sure to look like I wouldn't be leaving any time soon. They found a place for me, offering me my own turn as a scat soloist and occasional tune caller. Having discovered a position in the band I later invited some of my fellow singers to join in the fun. We all got along just fine.

Communal meal times gave everyone a chance to become better acquainted. I made a point of switching tablemates at each meal and getting to know as many of my fellow musicians as possible. The array of professions represented was dizzying: a medical physicist, accountant, cardiologist, physician researcher, philosophy and advertising professors, music teacher, three aerospace engineers, and at least eight lawyers — among many other professions. Conversation flowed easily and we didn’t want to stop.

Even more than the music, the one-on-one connections were most treasured: there was Christine, the serious lawyer with a heart as big as Wisconsin who dreamed of donating money she made from her gorgeous singing to the less fortunate; Bob, the gentle trombonist with MS who found it difficult to play anymore and thought he might like to sing; Frank, the shy, brilliant, aerospace engineer who made himself available to accompany me on piano during every break; Giuseppe, the gravelly-voiced saxophonist whose voice was made fun of as a child and wrongly thought he couldn’t sing; Celia the flutist/physician researcher who was torn between a profession she felt called to and the music she loved. Most touching of all was Carol, the paralegal with sass who had been gravely ill, undergone a tracheostomy and lost much of her vocal range, but could still movingly deliver a song with fewer notes, but oh-so-much soul.

Each of their stories wove into mine and I felt a kinship with these people called by the beauty of music, and camaraderie jazz provided. They were no longer strangers, and by the time our final recitals arrived, we had not only become friends, we had gelled into some pretty good vocal and instrumental ensembles.

And that difficult solo I coveted and practiced for? Christine, the songbird lawyer and I split it right down the middle. She was better than I, but no matter. What about Carol of few notes? She earned the sole standing ovation.

Just like in our lives outside of band camp, everyone missed some beats and hit a few flat ones, but here, there was love, acceptance and encouragement all around and gorgeous music was made.

 

“Take your hands out of your pockets!”

woman-hands-in-pocket

As I write this, Harvey Rogers, Buffalo jazz's best friend lies gravely ill in a cancer hospital.

Harvey has been a welcome fixture at all the local jazz joints for decades, supporting celebrities and unknowns alike with warmth and appreciation, and, in my case, helpful critique.

It was my first public jazz gig and I was frozen with fear. In my previous incarnation as a folk singer I had played large and small audiences and had learned to work a crowd, but always with a guitar strapped on my chest, sharing original tunes. This was different. Just me, sound, audience — nothing in between — vulnerable.

Harvey sat in the front row, his brown eyes snapping with attention behind the thick spectacles. As I began, Harvey nodded to the music, inspiring confidence. After three songs, I confessed nervousness and that it was my first jazz gig, but was learning. At that, Harvey yelled out “Take your hands out of your pockets!” I laughed, and the rest of the gig went just fine. At the break, Harvey was complimentary, then suggested a list of songs I should consider in my repertoire — many of which have become favorites.

In the three and a half years since that gig, I’ve paid close attention to what I do with my hands and the rest of my body. Stagecraft is hard work. More importantly, I’ve learned to take my hands out of my pockets in other ways. I've played with guitarists in addition to wonderful pianists, occasionally incorporating a sax, gotten acting as well as vocal coaching, and, in a few days I'm going to Jazz Camp at Nazareth College. I’m stepping out from the familiar and hope to learn more about theory and improvisation — how to cut loose, scat and perform with creativity and courage.

Next week, whether Harvey is on this earth to delight us for more days or just living on in our memories, he will be with me at Nazareth, urging me to take chances, sing with wild abandon and take my hands out of my pockets for good and all.

Thanks Harv.

Making the teacher appear.

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When the pupil is ready, the Master appears.
– Unattributed

Mrs. Padlog, my piano teacher when I was 11 years old, probably wanted to strangle me. I had a good ear, picked up rhythm quickly, had great melodic sense and practiced only when I felt like it, mostly never. But, songs came easily and I could play them well enough after two lessons, so figured the end-of-the-year recital would be easy-peasy and I would be crowned Best Student.

Facing 30 or so sweaty and anxious parents and children in Mrs. Padlog’s living room was not the cakewalk I had envisioned. King of the Road became a path of landmines in a forest of snakes. Guantanamera was the childhood equivalent of showing up naked at a cocktail party with a chicken wing hat. Playing faster did not help as the black notes danced and blurred while my heart beat crazily and face burned with shame. I ended with a mashed-up flurry of notes, and slunk off stage, followed by sparse claps and sympathetic faces.

I was not worthy of Mrs. Padlog’s patient instruction. It would be 30 or so years before I was ready for my teachers to appear and truly learn from them. In time, becoming a good musician was important enough to overcome self-defeating habits and a bad attitude.

Besides a little bit of talent, getting ready for the teacher is the key component in any success I’ve had as an artist and performer. Do you want to sing, paint, write, act or dance? You’ll need a great instructor, mentor or coach. I’ve been lucky to have a handful of them. Here’s how to get primed and draw them into your life:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
~ Goethe

Envision
Where do you want to go? Do you dream of becoming a tap dancer? Picture yourself dancing in front of an appreciative crowd, commanding the stage to thunderous applause. Chart your path with gusto — a rudderless boat heads nowhere. Seal the deal by sharing your dream with a supportive friend. Four summers ago, I told my husband I wanted to be a jazz singer. He responded with a fist pump and an enthusiastic “yes!” I was on my way.

Expect the unexpected
Your teacher may not look the way you pictured or come from where you thought she would. What matters is that they have the heart of a teacher and can inspire you. One of my vocal coaches, Guy Boleri is a cranky, almost 80 year-old I met at a party. He yells at me, and early on, made me cry. Now I laugh at his bluster. He’s taught me more about phrasing and song choice than any book or college course could have.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.
– Les Brown

Aim high
Whom do you admire? Often well-known performers and artists will supplement their income with teaching – and they might agree to teach you! They’ll certainly know of a good teacher to recommend. When I heard Andy Anselmo was going to be at a party I was singing at, I buzzed with fear. Andy is known as “Teacher to the Stars,” having taught such students as Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett and Mandy Patinkin. That night I worked up the courage to talk to Andy and now he’s my other vocal coach. In addition to intense vocal exercises and performance advice, I hear anecdotes about great American artists.

Be prepared to pay
And pay you will, in time, money and passion. You might have to give up cable or that weekly dinner out, and while that outlay can sting, the investment in your talent will inspire hard work. My biggest improvements have been when I’ve practiced when I least want to — late at night, when I’m tired, or during a holiday or vacation. It’s my message to the universe: I’m dead serious about succeeding and will pay the price to make it so.

Wearing the white belt here means you have agreed to set aside all knowledge and preconceptions and open your mind to learning as though for the first time. Students here receive one belt and one belt only: the white belt. Those who put in the time, training, and effort will find their belt getting so soiled that eventually it turns black of its own accord.
~ Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

Drop the ego
You may have been the lead in the high school play and the family’s best artist, but the attitude most helpful in attracting and keeping a good teacher is humility and a beginner’s mind. They allow you hear criticism, resist comparing yourself to others and persevere in the face of apparent failure.

One of my first and best vocal instructors was a classical teacher named Frank Scinta who was also my father’s choirmaster. Dad knew I needed improvement and gently suggested lessons with Frank. Initially offended, I ditched my punctured pride and studied under him for two years. He gave me the gift of good tone, breath support and enunciation. None of this could have happened if I had maintained the illusion of not needing help.

I believe that when we open our hearts and ask (and if we are willing to work), the universe, God or whatever sends us what we need. The gift of a good teacher is that they can take our mediocre or budding talent, help us surpass our own expectations and rise high above limitations.

So, get dreaming, get humble and get ready to fly!

 

Hell and heaven in the Grand Canyon.

grand-canyon-hike-courage-warning

WARNING: DO NOT attempt to hike from the canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.

It was on my bucket list, “See the Grand Canyon.” But, I didn’t want to see it from the South rim like a middle-aged tourist starting to slow down. In spite of the warning, I wanted a challenge — to see, hear, feel and consume the canyon as the adventurer I’d like to think I am — a modern-day Viking.

At 52, I had found myself, like many women my age, modifying physical activities in concession to fear or injuries: water and downhill skiing were too dangerous; running beat up hips and knees; overnight camping in a tent — too uncomfortable. At the gym I clung to the same ritual of treadmill, stair climber, then weights — lulled by the familiar.

As frightening as that canyon warning was, I didn’t want to not do it and admit I was forever closed-off to adventure and growth, the sort that comes from pushing physical limits. The canyon offered a challenge to the complacency of age and routine and, I was to find, much more.

The original plan had been to hike down in one day, stay at Phantom Ranch in the bottom for the night, then hike back up the next day. But accommodations at the ranch fill up a year in advance. Passes to tent camp at Bright Angel campground were also long gone.

My husband Dave was dubious, but descriptions of supplies and fitness levels needed to complete the hike reassured him. Up for an adventure himself, he got on board, and soon packages started arriving from Amazon with things like Camelbak hydration packs and a case of Clif Bars.

We started hitting the gym harder than normal and decided the stair climber might be the best thing to prepare us for all those steps. Dave daily put in an hour on the stair climber — me, usually a half hour, occasionally a full hour. Did I mention the hike was estimated to take 12 hours round trip?

Neither of us had given footwear much thought. Dave had some steel-toed boots from work he thought were appropriate. I chose Keen All-Terrain sandals, in hindsight about as appropriate for the canyon as red stilettos. Both of us would have been in a vortex of pain had we continued on that path.

For weeks my dreams were anxious — filled with images of dry landscapes and falling off sheer precipices. The thought of calling it off occurred many times. This didn’t have to be undertaken and what exactly was I proving? At my age, did I really need to take a treacherous hike we were barely prepared for?

grand-canyon-hike-courage-david-lundy-mari-mcneil

We arrived in Arizona to stay with my brother Greg and his family five days before the canyon. Greg, well aware of the dangers of high-altitude hiking in the heat, took us on three killer climbs to prepare us for the rigors of our adventure. Our first trek up Black Mountain had us sucking wind like Grandma at a polka. Nothing in Buffalo, NY could have prepared us for the thin air.

While sturdy, my Keen open-air sandals collected stones, dirt and sand every few steps. Dave’s boots were heavy and increasingly hot. A subsequent trip to Big 5 Sporting Goods outfitted us with Coleman mid-ankle, lightweight boots. Two more rigorous hikes further hardened us for the Canyon ahead, or so we thought.

We woke in our hotel room at 5am the morning of our adventure, neither of us having slept much. After filling our Camelbaks with water and food, we powdered our socks, Vasalined our feet and laced up the new boots. Then, we drove to the main parking lot on the South Rim of the Canyon where a shuttle bus would take us to the South Kaibab trailhead.

grand-canyon-hike-courage-dave-lundy-mari-mcneil

On the bus was a grizzled 60-something park ranger with a braided Fu-Manchu beard viewing us with a practiced eye. I’m sure our Wonder Bread whiteness and un-scuffed boots didn’t escape his notice. “How far you folks hiking today?” “We’re hiking top to bottom in one day” answered Dave. (crickets) “We recommend against that. You folks know how long that takes?” “We figure 12 hours or so.” He nodded gravely in agreement and repeated his warning.

Our first view of the Canyon had been spectacular the previous night, but the hike down South Kaibab continually took our breath away. The path is stunning and recommended for its panoramic views. It’s also steep. Deep ruts filled with dust and bracketed by logs formed the steps we were to become quite familiar with.

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Tangled Utah Junipers greeted us early on the trail but vegetation became sparse and desert-like as we descended and the temperature rose. Spiky agave plants studded the hillsides, some with peculiar flowering stalks up to 12 feet tall — sending up a swan song before they died.

Our path zig-zagged down sheer cliffs of brick red, sage green and chalk white. Each turn revealed queer rock formations carved by the Colorado River eons ago, but what we noticed most was the silence. No wind, car or tourist noises broke that hollow, cathedral hush. The azure sky was empty of all but the wispiest clouds and the occasional floating hawk.

grand-canyon-hike-courage-donkey-trail

As we moved down the path, we encountered a couple of mule teams coming up the trail loaded with tourists and garbage from the ranch, their droppings odiferous landmines steaming under the hot canyon sun. Aside from this, there were surprisingly few hikers along the trail and mostly we trekked by ourselves.

The old ranger had warned us that injuries were more common on descent, while exhaustion and dehydration were risks on the ascent. This was true for us. Within a few hours, Dave’s old knee injury ominously began to act up. My hips became sore from the pounding of each dusty step.

Walking sticks helped but we further wondered what on Mars we were doing when we viewed a sign mid-way advising that “Descending the canyon is optional — ascent is mandatory.” In fact,
if you do get sick or stuck on the trail, it costs $4,500 to get airlifted out in a helicopter.

grand-canyon-hike-courage-colorado-river

We caught our first glimpse of the Colorado River about three hours in at the portentously named Skeleton Point. It was tiny, copper green and impossibly far away. It looked so refreshing and inviting. Dave reasoned his knees would not be an issue on the longer ascent and, in an act of faith or foolishness, we continued down the increasingly steep switchbacks.

Four hours and 7.1 miles from the start, we reached river’s edge after crossing the Kaibab Suspension Bridge. It was over 100 degrees by that time — it had been just 42 degrees at the trailhead that morning. I soaked my hot and swollen feet in the river and dunked my head in clear water cold enough for an ice cream headache. Then, we hiked the flat half-mile or so to Phantom Ranch. Any illusions of splendor or luxury were soon dashed.

grand-canyon-hike-courage-phantom-ranch-lodge

Designed by Mary Colter and constructed in 1922, Phantom Ranch lodge is of mostly stone construction surrounded by rustic cabins. The dining room has long wood benches and tables with florescent lighting overhead — not much different than the rough-hewn Girl Scout camps I went to in the 60’s.

We sucked down the fresh lemonade they sold ($4.99 a glass, but so worth it!) and ate the contents of our packs — beef jerky, dried mango, Clif bars and trail mix. After an hour’s rest, we got back on the trail for the arduous uphill climb.

At first Bright Angel trail gradually inclines, but then dismayingly descends while switchbacking up and down near the Colorado. It’s an easier climb up than the steep Kaibab would have been, which is why it was so much longer.

As the temperature climbed, my hands began to swell alarmingly. I had not thought to take my wedding ring off and my fingers were puffing like shiny bratwursts. My slightly heat-addled brain I reasoned I could flag down the occasional ranger we encountered to cut my ring off if needed. Soaking my head and hands in every icy stream we encountered felt good, but didn’t help the swelling.

The risk of dehydration is very real on the uphill. We continually sucked water from our Camelbaks, their lifeline tubes positioned at our mouths, but did not urinate once during the 6 ½ hour uphill climb. The intense Arizona sun evaporated our sweat as soon as it left our bodies.

There is far more vegetation on Bright Angel Trail than on Kaibab. About 1/3 of the way up we saw an enormous cottonwood tree — limbs splaying over the trail like angel’s wings, its shade welcome in the sweltering heat.

As the winds shifted, we smelled the most intoxicating fragrance — what I later learned was the flowering Cliff Rose. It was spicy, sweet and disconcertingly, given the heat, brought me back to my childhood and the smell of incense in church at Christmas.

grand-canyon-hike-courage-114-degrees-indian-gardens

Dave was right about his knees not hurting, but we felt increasingly fatigued after three hours, and rested halfway up at Indian Gardens. We refilled our water and ate the dried, but surprisingly appetizing snacks. The thermometer read 114 degrees but shade was found, and with my hat over my face I took a short nap.

Refreshed and encouraged that we were roughly 2/3 of the way through with our ill-advised adventure we headed off confidently — cockily — up the trail. The worst, however, was yet to come.

The gradual incline behind us was replaced by a steep and relentlessly climbing trail. Switchback after switchback did not even seem to make a dent in the towering rise of cliffs above us. Viewing the sheer drop of the Canyon walls I could not imagine how our path could possibly take us to the top, and pictured a giant ladder propped upright for the final 1,000 feet.

My legs began to feel like licorice, back sore from the pack, fingers swollen and throbbing — this with hours to go. Another warning we had received from a ranger was “Oh, you won’t die, but the last hour of the hike you’ll wish you had.” Dave and I grimly trudged on.

We stopped every 15 minutes or so to chug down water, catch our breath and appreciate the view. When our eyes met, there was only sympathy and exhaustion, though Dave could have understandably carped at me for my hare-brained idea. But, we were in this together and there was to be no blame. We didn’t even have the energy to talk, other than the occasional “You’re doing great.”

The final hour of the hike became a battle of wills: That of the whiny baby girl inside of me who wanted to cry, rest and complain, or the warrior who had given birth and raised two children, survived a nasty divorce and built a new life of love and courage. “If I have survived ­_______, then I can survive this” kept swirling in my head like a mantra.

We were frequently fooled by what appeared to be the end of the trail, but was yet another heartbreaking switchback. Energetic tourists wearing flip-flops would pass us going down, chatting easily among themselves with no clue as to the epic drama unfolding before them. I hated them and their fresh legs. I imagined we looked like zombies with our hollow eyes and sweat and dirt-stained skin.

grand-canyon-hike-courage-dave-lundy-mari-mcneil-finish

At last, six hours after beginning our climb, a final rise revealed Kolb Studio, the end of our trail. A crowning surge of adrenaline powered us to the top, surrounded by tourists. We kissed each other tearfully, disbelieving, and hugged, leaning on each other for support, then enlisted a Danish tourist to snap our photo — our swelled hands raised in victory.

I would not hike the Canyon in one day again but have no regrets. Some part of me knew it was going to be grueling and bring me to the edge of endurance but was OK with that. My unpreparedness enabled me to take an adventure of a lifetime and pick up what the Old Testament Israelites described as a “stone of remembrance.”

The stone I now carry at midlife is tenacity: that white-knuckle attribute which powers through illness, depression, loss and discouragement — ultimately more important than either talent or luck.

The Grand Canyon hike — so physically punishing — also energized and reminded me that despite my age, I have depths not yet plumbed; strengths not yet drawn on, but that may well serve on the sometimes-uphill climb ahead.

 

 

Envy in the arts (and how to get over ourselves).

envy arts green jealousy flower

When I was seven, I wanted to kill my friend, Jeannie Stevens. Every year, our local supermarket sponsored an Easter-themed coloring contest with the hotly-desired prize of a giant Easter basket filled chock-a-block with glistening jelly beans, epic chocolate bunnies, and pillowy marshmallow Peeps.

As serious as a heart attack — I’d take out 48 crayons and, zen-like, shade and color the black outlined Easter scene to waxy Crayola perfection, this time sure of winning.

The entries papered the store by the thousands like an explosion of Buddhist prayer flags, yet every year, inexplicably, unfairly, tragically, classmate Jeannie Stevens won the contest and the grand prize basket. This annual travesty persisted, though I was sure my coloring was as good as hers.

Thomas Aquinas’ description of envy as “sorrow for another’s good” did not even begin to describe the toxic bile I internally spewed at having lost, yet again. I wished Jeannie nothing but eventual capitulation and annihilation — and she was my friend!

I would like to say my envy has been conquered in adulthood, but that wouldn’t be true. I flinch when a fellow singer (usually female) gets to play a desired venue and critique her performance, adding up what I possess that might be better than she. I obsess over festivals and clubs not booked and seethe about the method and politics involved in the choosing of acts. I’ve often said bitterly (in my head)

“Who do ya’ gotta know in this town to get a gig at …”

If you have never had that sour metallic taste in your mouth as another enjoyed success, advantage, acclaim, reward or publicity in your creative field, congrats and all that (barf). You can stop reading here and wish your fellow Miss America contestants the best of luck as you maintain your Vaseline smile and clutch your Miss Congeniality trophy.

For the rest of us flat-footed Hobbits, envy is a familiar, if not often admitted emotion. In fact, evolutionary scientists believe it’s a natural condition with hard-wired roots. Envy is a tool to evaluate our rank in the competition for resources. It helped our cavemen ancestors — and now us — know when to hit the gas and try harder for the goods.

But, let’s face it. Envy is ugly — one reason we deny it and pretend we’re above it. In fact, Evolutionary psychologists Sarah Hill and David Buss cite research that we respond to envy with either ambition (I’ll show them!), submission (withdrawal, white flag, denial — it didn’t matter anyway), or destruction (@Jeannie Stevens). None of these strategies are particularly noble or empowering.

Maybe there is another way. In a search to better handle my still-operating envy and jealousy over other’s successes, I interviewed painters, singers, musicians, actors who admitted to not always being able to quiet the five year-olds inside them caterwauling “what about meeee?!?” — brave souls willing to cop to envy, but also share creative methods of coping and thriving with this very human emotion.

Reach higher.
Often, we’re most envious of those who are similar to us – our artist friends and acquaintances. This can poison a relationship but also limit our prospects and vision. Opening our eyes to world-class artists helps us to attain greater heights and exit the local rat race. Painter Phil Durgan doesn’t waste his time envying his peers their success: “I've only envied trailblazers (Duchamp, Picasso, Basquiat) because they discovered something before I did. Hats off to them! Because they, too, envied someone else.”

Believe in your own path.
When you have discovered your mission, you will not have time nor reason to focus on someone else’s. Actor and singer Kerrykate Abel states it this way: “The older I get, the more I realize how individual everyone’s creative path is. While it is true that sometimes it does seem that some people have more opportunities than others, it all evens out, and I am a firm believer in creating your own destiny and opportunities. If you want what someone else has, go out and make it happen — the only thing standing in the way is you!”

Work Harder.
As an adolescent and sometimes an adult, I’d respond to hearing a better singer by either criticizing them or taking myself out of the competition. Now, after reflection, I head to the basement and practice — my only competition being the voice that needs to improve – my own. The opportunities seem to grow in direct proportion to the amount of work I put in, or, as Samuel Goldwyn said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Learn from it.
Instead of blaming the process of selection, denigrating the actor she lost out to or avoiding the play she didn’t get cast in, Actor Loraine O'Donnell studies her own process: “When I don't get a part, I look back to see if there was something I could have improved on, learn from it and move on. Quite often not getting the part will light a fire under you creatively and actually help you to become a better artist.”

Actor Peter Michael Marino uses a similar approach when witnessing a superior performance: “I usually just try and figure out why someone in my field is doing better as opposed to resenting them for doing well.”

Josie DiVincenzo, also an actor, is refreshingly honest with her struggles with jealousy, wondering, “What's wrong with me that I didn't get the thing the other person did? Or, I get angry at the people choosing, thinking it's not fair that they favor that other person, and also wonder what magic or trick or ‘je ne sais quoi’ that person has that I don't have, LOL.” But, Josie ultimately derives insight from her feelings: “In the end, I always realize it's my internal work I must do to not hang my happiness or blame on someone else's choices or life.”

Count your blessings. When we are faced with another’s success it’s easy to forget our own creative wins — the phenomena of “what have you done for me lately?” Actor Peter Palmisano responds to envy by telling himself to “Stop being an asshole and forget it. I already consider myself to be very lucky in my ‘career,’ so I have no business being jealous of anyone else‘s success.”

Embrace your own bad self.
Like a beach ball forced under water, repressed envy can pop up and hit us in the face.  Accepting our emotions may be the fastest way to process through them. Pianist Michael McNeill freely admits his own struggles with envy: “I stew. Then I remind myself that I'm on my own musical path, and while the things we commonly associate with success can be helpful in developing one's music, the music comes first, and I can keep making my music without outward signs of success. But sometimes I still stew even after that.”

And if all else fails …

Ponder your mortality.
The Buddhists are big on picturing their dead and decaying bodies while meditating. Pretty grim, but it puts petty concerns like fame into perspective. Or, if you prefer, a gentler take from the Bible:

People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades.
~ 1 Peter 1:24

In the bigger view, what we do here on earth is not nearly as important as it often seems and fades with stunning swiftness.

As I did when I was seven (and sometimes even now), we can allow envy to sour our souls and alienate us from our fellow artists, or we can let it be our signal to work harder, love more and let go of our self-importance. 

I’m still working on it.

In praise of cracking up.

nervous-break-down-cracking-up-spirituality

I was a happy but nervous child. Either hardwired or nurtured that way, I remember plucking out all my eyelashes at the age of seven, just to handle the anxiety — jumpy as a flea on a drowning dog.

Our home was loving, but chaotic and alcohol-influenced. Christmas was the worst. My understaffed mother was overwhelmed with choosing, purchasing, affording and wrapping gifts for six kids. It did her in every year with a torrent of tears and drama. Though my father was a structural engineer and made a lot of money (buying plenty of expensive cars, toys and alcohol) there never seemed to be much for clothing or gifts.

As the first-born girl in an Irish-Catholic family I felt accountable for, well, just about everything. The house was a mess? Clean it up. No money for clothes? Get a job at 12 and buy my own. I was hyper-responsible, taking on the emotional burdens of everyone around me, including trying to raise my two younger sisters and joining an oppressive, controlling Pentecostal church to provide the parenting backup I felt we needed. Mine was a short and serious childhood.

As a teen, I never dated, but married at twenty, short-circuiting a normal social life, and having no fun in college. I only wanted to work and become an advertising star, make my family proud and support my husband through his education. However, having two children by the age of 27 sidelined any desire to be a famous art director.

Becoming the next female Darrin Stephens was not to be, but I would excel as a volunteer in a lot of activities: elder in the Presbyterian Church, Bible study teacher, program creator in an advertising club and as a Rotarian. Trying to be everything to everyone, I freelanced to stay at home with the kids, make money and be Supermom.

As a life-long singer, music was an outlet at first, but at mid-life became a compulsion. I was recording my second CD under an impossible deadline with a bi-polar producer who kept losing everything — including much of the work we did. Money was running out and my husband’s patience was fraying. I could almost hear the thin cloth of my marriage ripping apart.

A combination of willpower and terrifying obligation got me though my CD release party, but afterward, the wheels really came off the wagon.

It started with muscle twitches and then I couldn’t sleep or eat — visibly trembling. An emergency room visit determined my problems were probably psychological, not physical. A visit to a neurologist confirmed it. I was sick, but it was all in my head.

The nervous tremors were now accompanied by agoraphobia and cluster panic attacks. Previously extroverted, now I couldn't even bear to leave the house. My first anxiety attack occurred in a grocery store. The bright lights and noise became unbearable. My body felt as though jolts of electricity were shooting through it. I thought everyone could see it. After that, all I wanted to do was stay home, but home was not a sanctuary. Unable to sleep other than for minutes at a time, when it did come, slumber was jagged and filled with nightmares.

While accepting that my illness was mental and not Parkinson’s, MS or Lou Gehrig’s disease was a relief, imagining everyone losing respect for me was horrific. The self-perception as a world-beater was quickly deflating. Making my life an admirable and unassailable structure had failed.

One morning, I laid on my bed, limbs stretched out to the edges like a starfish and thought ”I’ve lost my marriage, the respect of my kids, most of my clients and any idea of who I am. I am nothing.”  After 42 years, I gave up on being the perfect wife, mother, volunteer, daughter, artist. I finally surrendered and it felt … unbelievably good.

Breathing was easy and my body felt as weightless as a dry leaf. The sun shone bright through the bedroom windows, creating warm patches on the down comforter. Everything was perfect and complete. I was perfect and complete! That moment set me free.

A friend had once asked who I was without my accomplishments. There was no answer. Doing nothing meant being nothing. It was unthinkable. It was stunning to now realize I loved and respected myself in spite of cracking up and letting everything fall apart — fulfilling no one’s expectations, not even my own.

Healing was slow. A psychiatrist prescribed an anti-depressant and a tranquilizer, and while useful at first, meditation, dietary changes and a measured life soon replaced them. In a few months I was calm, mindful and definitely not back to normal.

Many changes resulted from that breakdown. Though I did lose my marriage, my career picked up where it left off, and the respect of my kids, family and friends were still there for me. The biggest changes besides peace and sanity were a new understanding of and compassion for mental illness, its causes, and the part balance plays in healing.

Though occasionally trapped by someone else's expectations, or volunteering reflexively for something that “must be saved,” I am no longer swept along in a slipstream of real or imagined expectations of others, setting my own course.

I had been on a mindless, relentless path to redeem my childhood and family legacy and finally got off. Life never looked so good or free.

Burning my last boat to live a life of passion.

burning boat life of passion courage

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
~ Helen Keller

A year ago I quit my job. The stated purpose was to start a freelance graphics business and sing jazz at night, but I was lying to myself. I didn’t want to be a designer anymore. I just wanted to sing.

Singing always came easily – too easy. I was gifted with good pitch, a pleasing voice and loved singing more than anything else in the world. It was the first thing I was good at. But build a career out of it? Silly girl. I thought I was ugly, short and had no charm. Everybody knows performers are tall, glamorous and feminine. Instead, I took a consolation prize, dressed my little artist self in a grey suit and thirty years ago became a graphic designer.

I was good, but never great.

Passions have a funny way of persistently itching and mine would not let me go until I scratched it. At mid-life I owned what beauty and charisma I had and learned to love myself as is. I left the corporate design job ostensibly to work freelance and sing, but actually started an inner battle that shook me hard. It became a tug of war between doing something I did well or doing what my singing demanded — taking a leap into the unknown and believing in myself. At first I did both half-heartedly.

I posted in a blog:

Every day I get up and ride two horses. When I spend time on music, it feels as though I am cheating my business. When I work in advertising and design, I feel like I’m taking the easy, well-worn path of success and not devoting myself to my passion.

Clinging to the ruse of being graphic designer by day and a jazz singer by night ensured
neither would flourish. A saying kept haunting me: “Burn the boats to take the island.” It refers to an historical incident where a commander, having landed in enemy territory, ordered his men to destroy their ships, so that they would have to conquer the country or be killed.

I hadn’t burned my last boat. I kept swimming back to my graphics comfort zone and clinging to it. I was afraid to trust my singing and my ability to make it succeed — afraid of failing at something so beloved and desired.

This fear had a point. The music business has never been easy, especially in Western New York, where most musicians supplement their income with teaching or another job. Even low-paying gigs are ferociously competed for and guarded. However, hard work, competition and challenge had never stopped me before. Why should they now?

After a year of divided attentions, I still had no advertising clients. The few design jobs I pitched landed with dull thuds as the client probably sensed my heavy heart and lack of enthusiasm.
A previously strong suit was now dragging me down.

Meanwhile, music was succeeding in ways never thought possible. I had regular gigs at clubs, scored spots at festivals, was playing with some of Buffalo and Rochester New York’s best musicians, and had selected and memorized songs I loved, could master and deliver with feeling. Most importantly, I was connecting with my audience on a deep level and building a fan base at each gig.
The answer was blazing a hole in me.

One year after quitting my job, I officially quit my old career and faced my terror — closing the door on the one sure thing that was not so sure after all.

The American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron writes:

A teacher once told me that if I wanted lasting happiness the only way to get it was to step out of my cocoon. When I asked her how to bring happiness to others she said, ‘Same instruction.’

Today, when asked what I do for a living I answer without hesitation: I am a jazz singer. I finally believe it.