aging

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.  

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.

 

Rockin’ this nose. The one I was born with.

rhinoplasty-nose-job-self-acceptance-mari-mcneil

He meant well. “Have you ever considered a nose job?” He said it with great delicacy and care, feeling it would improve my chances of succeeding in bigger market cities as a jazz singer. My response was measured, “I hadn’t considered it, but wouldn’t rule it out.” He went on to share the long list of performers he knew that had, including himself. “Why do you think I look so young?" I had to admit, for his age, he did look good.

I have my beloved father’s nose — a German-Irish nose, a not-small nose that shows no sign of shrinking with age. It never bothered me. Or, hadn’t — until now.

I am 51 years old. Many of those years were spent in self-loathing and holding myself up to unattainable, model-like standards. I had a love-hate relationship with my body and it held me hostage from doing the thing I loved the most — singing jazz, instead, spending 12 years as a folk singer, a safe place where an ugly duckling like myself could hide. It was only after a painful divorce that I learned to embrace and love my form in all its glory, with all its flaws. And three years ago, I switched from singing original folk music to jazz — finally feeling sexy and confident enough to get out from behind the guitar and sing the music I was born to sing.

Last January I quit my pleasant, secure day job to become a full-time singer. In addition to the loss of a respectable income and benefits, I have paid a very high price to make this change; I take voice lessons from two coaches, work weekly with a pianist/arranger to build my repertoire, read books on music, study classic recordings and sing for hours in the basement, car and bathroom. Each and every gig is widely promoted with e-mail, Facebook, posters and press releases. On some gigs I compensate my musicians from my own pocket — just for the exposure. Maybe this nose suggestion could be filed in the “price I have to pay” column.

The doctor was highly regarded. He answered every question with intelligence and thoughtfulness. By his reckoning, he had performed more rhinoplasties than anyone in the area. I knew one of his patients, and his work was subtle and attractive. He did not overpromise. This was the guy.

I recently attended a benefit that featured a number of vocal acts from New York City. All of them were smooth and polished — most were beautiful, svelte and dewy-fresh. They had stage presence and some had great patter, astounding ranges and vocal clarity. And, while I enjoyed their performances and derived many good tips, the biggest treat of the night came from an outlyer.

He was the opening act bandleader — a well-known, local horn player. This man is not conventionally attractive. He weighs well over 300 lbs. and is around 60 years old. As a lark, he presented a song. He moved slowly and painfully, and got up. Then he sang Little Girl Blue
with pathos — his voice soaring to a glorious falsetto, in turn brassy and bold, then dropping to an intimate, paper-thin whisper. “Why won't somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer up little girl blue." I was stunned. I could not close my mouth or stop smiling. That night, he was the sexiest man on the stage and it was his performance that stayed with me the most.

As I lay in bed that night reviewing the performances, I began to think of why I loved my favorite vocalists: Jeri Southern, an obscure singer from the 50’s, touches me with intimate vocals and vulnerability; Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn impresses with truth and musicianship; Holly Cole, a jazz singer from Toronto, amazes with originality and focus; Alison Krauss draws with silvery timbre and musicality; Ella exudes warmth, precision and tone; kd lang explodes with power and dynamic range; Mel Tormé seduces with smooth style and phrasing; Jane Monheit commands respect by overall mastery, song selection and interpretation.

Compiling the list, I realized not one of them was a conventional beauty. More important, as a fan, their looks were something I never once considered, loving them instead for their artistry, humanity and talent. I respect their work ethic, dogged attention to detail and professionalism and admire their bravery and creativity.

I do not think about their noses.

If I don’t succeed as a jazz singer, I suspect it will be because I got tired from the immense amount of work it takes to be great with so little initial return. Or, it will be the drain of preparing books and setting up sound equipment, or lack of venues for serious jazz. Possibly it will be the ridiculous amount of work it takes to promote a gig and get a crowd, or living in a small market city. Or, a creative block, beyond which I can’t go.

I don’t think it will be about my nose.

Monday morning, I’ll call the good nose doctor and cancel my pre-op appointment. And then, like most days, I’ll go down to the basement, open my book of tunes, and start working — hard.

 

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.

 

I’ve-given-up-on-life pants.

Slacker having given up on life

Aaron had no business wearing those pants, but with a 2 year-old and a newborn at home, we all understood. But, they were god-awful. They reminded me of the pants I sewed in 6th grade home economics: no pockets or discernable back and front with an elastic waist. These khaki disasters had been hung wet on a hanger so the wrinkles were till death do they part. God-awful, rumply, saggy loser pants. The hens at work promptly named them “Aaron’s I’ve-given-up-on-life pants.”

That is now the term I use to describe anything that a person has just given up on. The “I’ve-given-up-on-life body,” “I’ve-given-up-on-life boyfriend,” “I’ve-given-up-on-life job.” It’s when you’re shooting low and you don’t even pretend to care anymore.

In my mid-twenties after having two children, I gave up on being female. It was too hard to figure out fashion, fitness, and how to be sexy. It was all I could do to pull on my men’s Levis, large sweatshirt and brown oxford flats. And my hair. I kept getting it cut shorter and shorter, hoping it would just get sucked into my skull like the retractable hair doll, Crissy, so I wouldn’t even have to deal with it.

Fast forward. I became a singer, the two kids left home and I got a divorce. Somewhere along that path I discovered my femininity and boy, I will never go back to Birkenstock’s. I won’t even appear in public without heels, lipstick and a form-fitting top. It feels good to care.

What have you given up on? Your job? Relationships? Your weight or appearance? It gets harder to get up after life kicks our ass. It’s really tempting to pretend we don’t care and that life has no more good stuff for us. And it’s dead wrong. Just ask my Mom.

Bunny is eighty years old and just had a visit to her sports medicine orthopedist. Her hip pain is beginning to affect her performance in Zumba class. She wants to get it fixed so she can start a water aerobics class on Thursdays.

Not giving up on life just yet.