Mari McNeil

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.

keep-calm-and-sing-on

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.

 

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.

 

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.

On being loved fully and outrageously, like I deserve.

intimacy-couple-sex-self-respect-loved

First, a confession. For the first 40 years of my life, I did not feel worthy to be loved romantically. I projected an aura of superiority and self-confidence, but inside felt unlovable and undesirable. A lot of women do. We internalize slights from middle and high school and hold ourselves to impossibly high standards. We find ourselves lacking.

What cured me of self-loathing? At first it was becoming a musician and singing out publicly — finding a passion and that audiences liked me, they really liked me, as Sally Field once said. This flew in the face of my old story about being unattractive. Secondly, it was going through a painful, unwanted divorce.

To heal I needed to fully love myself, faults and all. Early in the separation a memorable moment occurred in front of a full-length mirror. I assessed my body and finally embraced its beauty, uniqueness and flaws. I loved it — and me, completely.

Loving myself was an important step to being loved, but before dating, I also needed to map out what a successful relationship would look like, so I created a vision statement for my new life. It painted a verbal picture of my new home; the atmosphere, art and music that would live there — the social life, vacations and spirituality I’d pursue.

I also envisioned the man in my life. He would be kind, hospitable, generous and fit. I imagined a mutually loving relationship with a lot of sex and affection. I wanted a man who adored me, would lay it all down for me, put me first and powerfully desire me. I shot not only for the stars but the whole dazzling Milky Way before even setting a foot in the dating swamp. This became the road map for my future.

A friend who had been single for many years warned about the lack of prospects in our hometown. “There are no good men. They are all taken. The only ones left are losers. Trust me — I’ve dated them.” I envisioned better for myself. I reckoned it was only a matter of time before Mr. Right came into my life. The key was to not be entangled with Mr. Wrong when he finally appeared. The more I loved myself, the easier it was to lose the Mr. Wrongs. And while setting the bar high might result in singlehood, alone and happy was better than coupled and miserable. The bar stayed high.

It didn't drop with that first man I dated who noted I was “loving and feminine onstage, but vulgar and boorish offstage.” Bye. It remained high with the wealthy but incurious man with only one thing on his mind and it wasn't quantum physics. He was stopped at the second date. Significantly, the bar didn’t lower when dating the well-off, fit and sexy plumber who had anger and jealousy problems. It was sad, but I ended it and was alone again.

Dave was not an obvious choice. He was a recent widower of a dear family friend. He was an artist like I was and quiet, probing, funny and smart. We started out as supportive friends with no thought of dating while I kept looking for Mr. Right. To our surprise, over time our friendship became romantic. We were remarkably compatible, sharing interests in museums, theater and music. We both loved to read, travel, entertain and wanted to create a house filled with love, respect and generosity. Most important, Dave wanted me — was willing to do anything to get me. Nothing came before me. The more he loved me, the lower my defenses became and the more I loved him back.

Newly single, I'd been told that “statistic” that a middle-aged woman had as much chance of remarrying as getting struck by lightning. But, that was a mindset of scarcity and desperation. Instead, I determined there would be abundance and love in my new life, if not specifically a new man. However, it turned out that accepting myself fully, envisioning an ideal life and keeping high standards became the magic path to the love of my life.

 

How to live like you’re dying.

climbers-live-like-dying-courage-mortality

The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.

~ Psalm 103:15-16

When my daughter Louise was 15 years old, she decided she was ready for all-night coed sleepovers. This led to loud, dramatic discussions in which I was labeled as “unfair” and “overprotective.” Exasperated and out of options, I was inspired to explain my position in a different, more visual way.

I got out a piece of poster board. On it, I drew a long line width-wise. I labeled the left “0.” The right, I marked with with “80.” I explained to Louise, “This is a timeline of your life if you live to 80.” I placed a tick mark at the center of the line and one to the left of that and explained “Here is you at age 40, and you at age 18.” Then, I put a mark at 15 (her age then) and, using a red marker, connected the marks from 15 to 18. “This small bar represents the amount of time you have here before college; three short years.”

Finally, from 18 to 80 I drew a bright green bar. “The green bar represents all the time you have left in your life to do whatever you want. You’ll be on your own and there’s nothing I can do about it. You can be a stripper, a heroin addict, or a prostitute, if that’s your passion. So, how about you let me be your Mom for the next three years and not fight me so much?” She was silent as she took it all in. Things calmed down a little after that.

Numbers are powerful things. They do not lie.

At age 50, it was with my own timeline in mind that I considered quitting my corporate day job and becoming a jazz singer. On one hand, I could cruise comfortably until retirement, with good pay, benefits, and a pleasant job; on the other, take the incredibly scary leap into my lifelong passion. I contemplated the likely balance of time left to me, realizing I most certainly had less time before than behind me. My life was startlingly finite. So, I jumped.

I know a guy who toils at a barely tolerable day job. He is in middle management with a team of 11 and reports to a disinterested boss who was promoted to the position my boss should have received. Day after day he fades a little. Though he delights in his garden when he comes home, he does not have time to fully enjoy it. He’s too tapped out for friends or hobbies. He’s tired of his life.

His husband also works a job he would like to leave. His passion is selling used items on ebay and he’s brilliant at it. He buys low and sells high. He makes good money. With my boss' organizational skills and his husband's sales ability they could probably both quit their day jobs and make a killing in the re-sale market. Fear keeps them stuck.

I want to show him the timeline before it’s too late.

In my Buddhist practice I am instructed to ponder my own death during meditation. This is not morbid. For Buddhists, it is an exercise designed to remind us of the fleeting nature of our lives and to live meaningfully, mindfully, with purpose. It is over all too soon.

What is the nature of your life?
You are but a wisp of vapor
that is visible for a little while
and then disappears.

~ James 4:14

A few years ago, Tim McGraw sang a hit song titled “Live Like You Were Dying.” In it, he encounters a man on his deathbed who describes how his terminal diagnosis changed the way he lived:

And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.
And he said “Someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dying.

It is funny how pondering my own demise and the change it inspired has made life so much more vibrant and joyful. I have never been more engaged, excited, and fully alive than when pursuing my passion. I can’t wait to wake up in the morning.

It turns out, death is a great motivator.

 

The three pillars of success.

Three Pillars of Success

My friend Ryan recently sent me a link to a You Tube Video his 13 year-old daughter Skylar created. She’s covering the song It Will Rain

Her piano skills are competent (learned from YouTube!) her voice is in pitch with a lovely timbre. She’s attractive, fresh and yearning. She could go anywhere — or nowhere. It’s up to her.

She reminds me of myself at around that age. I had some talent. I had written a few songs, sung in a band, taken some lessons, had a few gigs. Then I didn’t win a musical contest, got my feelings hurt and dropped out of music for “real life.”

35 years later, I wish I could have told my 16 year-old self about the three pillars to success in music — and life.

Find your unique talent.

When I started playing guitar, I thought I’d be the next Melissa Etheridge — gutsy, angry, dynamic. As it turns out, I didn’t have a rusty, belting rock voice. A softer, folkier approach worked (think Mary Chapin Carpenter), but as a passable songwriter, I had limited success.
It wasn’t until my companions at a dinner party egged me to sing a couple of torch songs that I could imagine singing jazz. Jazz was always attractive, but a little too hot, vulnerable and sultry for my feminist frame on life.

But singing jazz at a ripe nectarine 48 is not like 23, and jazz finally felt like a tailored evening dress; snug to my body, smooth velvet and in just the right color! I had found my music at last.
Maybe your niche is comedy songs, or children’s music. I had a dear friend who excelled in Hawaiian slack-key guitar music. This is characterized by open tunings and dangling a needle over the guitar strings (from a thread hanging from the mouth) to produce a soft, chiming sound. He was so passionate and the best (and only one of his kind) in Buffalo.

Finding your singular voice will take time and probably be frustrating, but will pay off as people discover (and reward) the original that is you.

Work like a dog.

This as not as obvious as it might seem. In an era of instant stars ala “America’s Got Talent,” and “American Idol,” we have come to view success as talent + opportunity = meteoric success. And so, with all the other upstream swimming salmon, musical hopefuls scour opportunities, waiting in long lines to be heard, get auditioned – becoming demoralized (as I had) at the smallest failure.

This model disempowers the artist. It puts all the control in the hands of the judges, observers and critics. What sets the greatest musician apart surely is talent, but it is the unseen hours of work that boosts her over the top. While her fellow hopefuls attend endless open mics and talent shows looking for praise, she is in the basement singing, working, building on the talent she has. Work is her secret weapon — her edge.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of work before the greats experienced success (Bill Gates, the Beatles, Beethoven, Tiger Woods).
While one might quibble with the hour count, hard work is the non-glamorous component common to most success stories. You can’t control shifts in taste or create cultural tsunamis like Lady Gaga has, but doing the work? It’s all yours.

Seek qualified criticism and take advice.

In the current “everyone gets a trophy” “student-of-the-month” atmosphere, we have become soft. Everyone desires to be praised and no one likes to hear the truth. At my very first jazz gig, I sang in front of a small crowd in a coffee shop. I had prepared three songs and this was my first experience singing without a guitar in my hands. Not knowing what to do with them, I stuck them in my pockets.

In attendance was an ancient jazz aficionado named Harvey Rogers. Old enough to have and give an opinion on everything, he shouted from the audience “Take your hands out of your pockets!” Though mortified, you can be sure I did and from that moment on, paid attention to what my body was doing as well as my voice, later watching videos of Liza Minnelli and Nancy Wilson for good examples of stage presence.

I also have two vocal coaches — both old Italian guys who have been around the music business block. Guy Boleri regularly shouts at me for poor intonation and sloppy phrasing.
Andy Anselmo puts me through endless scales and vocal exercises to improve tone and berates me to “sculpt the words!”

My feelings have been hurt on many occasions by both of them — eliciting tears a few times too. Maybe it’s my age, but I can finally take criticism without permanently folding. It’s beneficial for me and I like to imagine the critics are so hard because they must think I’m good enough to take it.

The three pillars: find your talent, work hard, let go of your ego. I wish someone had been able to tell me these things when I was Skylar’s age. But, somehow, I doubt I would have listened.

 

Getting to “no.” How embracing rejection can set you free.

no-rejection-resilience-hand-courage

20 press kits had been sliding around in the back seat of my car for weeks. Knowing I should drop them off at bars and restaurants, instead, paralyzed — unable to walk in the door and “cold-call.” My winter depression was seriously kicking in, and all I really wanted to do was crawl into bed and forget this pipe dream of being a jazz singer.

I had been singing as a hobby my whole life, first in high school, then in a rock band and in mid-life as an acoustic singer-songwriter, producing two CDs of original music. I studied voice for years under wonderful classical teachers, then switched to jazz, found an arranger/pianist, chose a repertoire, hired a vocal and acting coach and had charts written for over 50 songs in my key. It was my dream to go professional, and I was stalled at the starting line.

To intensify the pressure, I broke the 11th commandment and “quit my day job,” announced grand intentions to anyone who would listen, and, at the age of 50, risked failing publicly and quite spectacularly. I felt as crazy as it sounded.

One day, my sister Linda called, and immediately sensed my malaise. “What’s going on? You sound really low.” It was no use hiding from her. She grew up observing my moods, tracking my triumphs and failures, and could read my voice in a nanosecond. I described my inertia with the press kits, which she airily summed up in one succinct phrase: “You’re afraid of rejection.”

Was it that simple? Was I just afraid of rejection? And, did success lie on the other side of hearing a lot of no’s? As it turns out … it did. 

Linda’s offhand comment kicked me into gear. I gave myself a goal of delivering the kits to 20 restaurants or bars, including the many Wegmans Market cafés in Western New York. It took about two weeks, and I did get a lot of no’s – quizzical, stressed-out bar and restaurant owners fielding yet another unfamiliar musician who wanted to play their establishment and drain their thin resources. But I remained cheerful, upbeat, and optimistic as I collected my rejections, “maybes” and “we’ll sees.”

Two weeks after the press kit drop, my gig calendar was still empty as I headed off to Pennsylvania to help out in a family emergency. Halfway there, I got a call from one of the Market cafés. Would I like to play the Alberta Drive Wegmans on May 25th? Two days later; another Wegmans. Soon after that, an art opening, then a birthday party at a private club, three benefits and two more Wegmans. It was happening, and no one was more surprised than me.

There is a new game out called Rejection Therapy. The Game

The game has one rule:

You must be rejected by another person at least once, every single day. In this game, rejection is success. You actually collect rejections to win. Terrifying.

In my old life, I avoided rejection like poison ivy. I gravitated to fields I knew well, was talented in, that ensured, if not easy, at least eventual success. Jazz was a journey for which there was no road map. And like jazz, it required improvising.

Embracing rejection is still a powerful piece in the puzzle of seriously following my passion and believing in my art. So, I tirelessly promote and connect with club owners, and those who know club owners. Some call me back, some don’t.

I apply to every festival this area offers and haven’t heard back from any of them yet; however, rejection has become, if not a friend, a fellow traveler on this journey to deep career satisfaction.

And lately, he’s been a little quiet.