doubt

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.

 

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

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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.

An artist’s prayer.

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Dear Creator,

Allow me to make art with integrity, using my own voice. It’s the only one I really know anyway.

Give me patience that my art will find its audience, however big or small. One enthusiastic fan is worth a large, indifferent crowd.

Help me let go of my creations without expecting return. I’ll produce the quantity — you can be in charge of the quality and distribution.

Remind me to encourage other artists — young, brilliant artists. In this way, my art multiplies without me doing much work.

Allow me to be generous. Supporting and giving praise to other artists does not diminish my gift in the least.

Keep me from making comparisons. They foster jealousy and superiority — both places I do not want to live.

When I wonder if it’s worth it, help me remember, you too are a creator and want to see my gift flourish and heal others.

Let me know that shame has no place in my art. Give me the courage be outrageous, exuberant and tell the truth in the face of fear.

Assist my taking chances and risks. I know you hold the net.

Give me the courage to keep working in the face of discouragement, indifference and failure. They are to be expected when I take chances and try something new.

Surround me with trusted, encouraging voices. Let me be that for them.

When I am tempted to think too much of myself, I get nervous. Let me remember that sharing my art is a gift. In the end, it is about the receiver, not me.

Help me do the work today — it’ll pave the road for my success tomorrow.

Oh, and don’t let me forget the fun. Sometimes I get so grimly focused on end results, that I forget to play with this gift you gave me. Thanks!

Note: Thanks to Julia Cameron for the concept of quantity and quality from “The Artist’s Way.”

 

In the woods; then and now.

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I am five. I am in the woods in front of my house on the south side of Grand Island, NY. It’s winter and the forest is hushed with a muffle of snow. The trees are black and bare, like spiders against the pewter sky.

I am captivated by the silence and intimacy. It’s like a church, but spooky. I am intoxicated with freedom and independence. This is what is good about a large family. I can sometimes get lost and not be missed.

Crunch, crunch, go the sticks and dried leaves under foot. I hit a smooth hard surface, brush away the snow with my brown vinyl boot and discover a pane of ice. Underneath it are rotten leaves and black water, a glass paperweight.

I can skate! I run, and zoom on the smooth surface – my own private ice rink. In the middle of the pond I hear a cracking, the ice groaning and buckling under my feet. I try to run, but the ice traps my feet. The brackish sulphur-smelling water pours into my boots. It is only a foot deep, so I am safe, but shaken. I slosh out of the pond and make my way home to stuff newspaper in my boots, fairly sure I will not receive a scolding; one of many adventures.

I am fifty and have left the comfort of a good job. The possibilities loom large. The silence of my home office is rarely broken. My time is my own. I am both exhilarated and terrified.
I make phone calls to prospective clients and meet with rejection. Press kits go out unnoticed. Calls to bars and restaurant owners result in tepid recollection.

I trudge on, practicing, creating, calling, writing and planning. I am shaken, but believe I am meant to be here and will find my path.

Never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.
~ Satchel Paige