Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Importance of Giving Thanks

On Thanksgiving evening, I am taking some quiet space to reflect with gratitude of the many good things in my life. I have always loved having a holiday that invites the opportunity to to meditate, take stock of what is good and right and give appreciation and thanks.

Our world moves so fast. Things change in the blink of an eye. Technology is a blessing and a curse. It is so easy to see the glass as half empty. Especially when we feel more isolated, disconnected or overwhelmed.

Giving thanks is a way of finding the ways the glass is half full or more than half full. Whatever we focus on grows. So, if we take the time to reflect on what is good in our lives, to appreciate the people, the creatures and the surroundings that support us, our sense of goodness expands.

Appreciation is good for the heart and soul. It is a kind of spiritual fertilizer. It helps good feelings grow within us, and it helps good feelings grow in the others we care about. Giving thanks and appreciation invites us to slow down, to be present in the moment, to breathe, to feel and to introspect. Once we have taken the time to introspect, giving thanks invites us to express what we have come to appreciate to our friends, family, colleagues and larger community.

Appreciation nurtures good will, which is another magic spiritual force. Good will invites collaboration. Good will invites generosity and kindness. Good will invites qualities of the heart, which make each moment more enjoyable and fulfilling. Good will helps make projects more possible and visions more realizable.

Giving thanks is also good self-care. It is a way of being kind to ourselves. It is a way to really savor what we love, what is important and what might be too easy to take for granted if we don't slow down and take stock.

When I sit with a group of people who together slow down, meditate and focus on what they have to be grateful for, I often hear realizations that many of the things that cause worry and anxiety are first world problems. Most of the people in my world have food, clothing and shelter. Most people in my world really do have enough. When we look at the people in CA whose homes and lives have been decimated by out of control fires, or even more locally at the people displaced by the Columbia Gas Explosions, the gift of having a safe, warm home becomes very clear.

Giving thanks for health, for creative pursuits, for having enough enrich our spirits and our lives. If we use the critical mind to find fault, we can always generate a laundry list of issues. Joining the mind, heart and spirit in listing what is good will feed the soul and help us find peace in the moment and over time as well.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Deep and the Shallow

I recently saw the new version of "A Star Is Born," the collaborative project of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. I was struck by the emotional power of many of the songs, particularly the way they were woven into the story line, and the visual images that accompanied their performance. Lady Gaga is a very evocative singer, so her singing made many of the songs truly heart rendering.

A song from the movie which I suspect may be nominated for an Academy Award is "Shallow." And the very fact that "shallow" became a song title first called my attention. So much of the way the modern world is presented to us is just that, shallow. And as a former wise woman I knew once said to me, "A large percentage of people are hopelessly asleep, never to be awakened. Some open their eyes for a moments and go back to sleep. Others are dozing. And very few are consciously awake, diving into the depths of life, with all the emotional reverberations it brings."

I was talking with one of my friends from college the other night, and we found ourselves talking about how special it was to find people who chose to explore the depths of their experience and who enjoyed talking about their emotional depths--thoughts, feelings and experiences, freely and openly. For many it is just too scary to "jump off the deep end" and move beyond the shallow. We are not taught how to be grounded, to live in our bodies, to create the internal space we need to feel and experience all of our feelings fully. We are even taught that some feelings are "good" and others are "bad" or "negative" which often interferes with having the emotional space to just presence and experience our feelings.

Our schools would serve not only children but also future generations and society as a whole if we valued emotional literacy enough to teach as a subject from kindergarten on. Learning the skills to introspect, to breath into feelings so that we create the internal space to feel them, to learn what it means to live in the body and be grounded and to develop an observer or witness part in our consciousness that would help us be with whatever arises without judgment would greatly improve the quality of life for all.

In a culture that stays on the shallow side lines, people seek superficial rewards and crave meaning and purpose. It takes the courage to dive into the depths beyond the shallow to find these kinds of soul deep rewards. Love is often portrayed as a gateway beyond the shallow into the depths, much like Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sing about. But we need skills to navigate the depths, like emotional deep sea divers, if we are going to be able to ride the waves of life and time in the depths. Many of the images of love that are portrayed in the media are much more shallow. Men and women are objectified based on the looks or income. Everything is supposed to have the magic and ease of new relationship energy. But deeper relationships hit the shadows that inevitable arise within us as life takes its course.

Emotional literacy can help us know ourselves and be available to know the depths in others. We can build the emotional muscles and the communication skills it takes to dive into the depths and relax in the shallow when consciously desired. Having the skills and the emotional space to swim between deep and shallow help us learn to be balanced internally and with others in relationship.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Trauma and Silence

With the Christine Blaisey Ford versus Brett Kavanagh story in our public consciousness, the topic of trauma and silence is very timely. There are subjects that people just don't want to talk about or hear about, and trauma, violence, sexual transgressions and the stories of women and men who have lived through such experiences are at the top of that list.

This year brought up the #MeToo movement, and with it an avalanche of stories formerly relinquished to the shadows, that can now courageously be brought into the light of day. I find it sad and angering that all too often as a brave individual comes forward to speak their truth and share their story, they are greeted by often men in positions of power saying, "if something really happened, why did the person wait until now to tell the story or report it?" A question like this reflects both a lack of understanding of the nature of trauma, and a total lack of compassion for the stakes a survivor of trauma must face when speaking up.

Trauma breaks something fundamental in our expectations of human experience. Having a safe environment, having the boundaries of our bodies and hearts and minds respected, and being treated as though we matter, are as important for our psyches as being able to count on food, clothing and shelter.

Trauma is like a wrecking ball that crashes through the fabric of our hearts and lives. Our hearts, bodies and minds become overwhelmed in the moment by feelings, thoughts and reality that are more than we can process or truly bear. Our feelings, thoughts and somatic experience fragment and shatter, as we move into a frozen holding pattern that can last for decades. Our actual memories, thoughts and feelings are buried deep down in the recesses of our consciousness. Even if we want to talk about what happened, we often are not able to do so. Our voices are frozen, along with our memories and our bodily experience.

Healing from this kind of trauma is a courageous journey, and one that must unfold in its own right time and place. A safe healing environment, facilitated by a skilled and respectful therapist is often critical to recovery. This is a very personal journey, and one that is often invisible to even friends and family of a trauma survivor. If it takes courage to embark on the personal healing journey, it takes even more courage to tell ones story, even to those closest to us.

Speaking about trauma in a larger, more public context presents a tremendous risk. Subjects that sit in the collective unconscious evoke dark triggering shadows when voiced. Our collective ignorance, fear and the reactivity that comes from ignorance and fear jump out at the courageous speaker, often with fangs and talons. To stand up and speak about sexual trauma, especially involving people in positions of privilege and power is to risk being a lightning rod for all the fear, anger, judgment and rage lurking in the shadows.

If my college professor harassed me, was the dean of my college really going to believe me? If they did believe me, would they want anyone else to know or tell me to just move on and keep quiet? No one wants bad press. No one wants to take someone off their laurels. And if I was a student and a young woman, my place in the power pecking order was not significant enough to pay heed to really. And I would be blamed and judged and shamed...even when people had not heard my story. Speaking up was the equivalent of volunteering to wear the Scarlett letter, and be banished into the shadows of invisibility, because no one really wanted to believe what I had to say.

So, beyond my own personal wounding, my awareness of the price I would pay for speaking would keep me silent. After all, self-preservation is pretty important. And who wants to be a sacrificial lamb? Though I don't really like the frame of victimhood, speaking out as a survivor of trauma or assault then subjects you to a downward spiral of intensifying and unspoken victimization.

I had no choice but to speak out about a major life threatening trauma that happened to me at the hands of a stranger in an alley on my way home from my job when I was 16. If I did not tell the story, I would not survive. But a story of an attempted rape and murder of a 16 year old girl by a stranger is more hearable than a story of sexual abuse by a freaked out father who could not deal with the fact that his daughter had been attacked when she came home from the encounter. And it is also more hearable than the story of a college professor misusing his power because this same young woman was not interested in his sexual advances. Or the story of the high school Math teacher who sadistically took this young woman aside and told her girls could not be smart at Math. When a stranger is the perpetrator, it is one thing. When it is one's father or high school teacher or college professor...or classmate, it is another.

Just recently I wrote a song called "The Mistake," which is a piece of my true story, but is written in the spirit of compassion and healing. "The sins of the fathers pass on to their daughters...the pain of the mothers pass on to their sons," is the lyric at the bridge of the song, reflecting the transgenerational patterns and shadows we are all dancing with.

I pray we can all embrace our deepest courage, and open our hearts to speak and listen. If we can truly speak and listen from our hearts, lots of truth can be spoken, lots of healing can take place, and perhaps the hidden pain that has weighed so many of us down individually and collectively, can be transformed for our children and our children's children's children.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Power of WE: The Women In Music Gathering

There is a saying that if we want to get somewhere faster, we do it alone, but if we want to go farther, we do it together.

This past April, the Women In Music Gathering was launched, an intergenerational artist alliance that was the collaborative creation of me, social media publicist Cindy D'Adamo, and singer/songwriter Colette O'Connor. We were aware that women in music face a very particular set of obstacles as they strive to balance relationships and professional goals throughout the different stages of their lives.

The journey is often frought with competing needs of the creative individual, a partner, children, an aging parent and professional challenges. It is very easy to both feel alone and be alone in this journey.

The field of music has become more complex and challenging in our internet and social media era, where being seen and heard, making money from one's profession and having true listening rooms for live performances is no small task. It can be quite overwhelming knowing where to focus, what to focus on, and how to balance all the activities that are needed to build one's music life and integrate it into a whole life as a woman.

There is also the need to just speak and be heard and listen to other's stories in a group of collaborative women. The first time our group gathered, there was a profound energy in the room. It became very apparent that our coming together not only was fulfilling a deep and unspoken emotional need, but also a more sacred purpose. Our members ranged in age from 20's to 60's, and as we shared our life stories, many common threads emerged along with many tears. To be in a circle where others inherently understood the challenges of the journey, the aloneness and the need to gather together for both personal and professional support was extraordinary.

Our meetings include a potluck brunch, a song sharing circle and a chance to go deeper and share what is on our hearts, as well as professional projects, questions and visions. Just as the power of the group can uplift each of its members, performing together as a group can uplift the audience in a powerful way. The whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts, and when four to eleven singer/songwriters and performing musicians share their unique musical flavors, the listener is bathed in a rich experience that touches heart and mind.

What is also wonderful is how collaborative projects unfold organically. We currently have 15 members in our group, and we thought it would be wonderful to do a "group showcase" show. Thanks to the support of Tom Bianchi who books the Burren, our group will be performing there on 11/18, and 11 members of the group will be sharing their songs. When I needed to choose back-up singers for my upcoming show 9/27 at Club Passim, it was a natural thought to ask two of my Women In Music Gathering sisters in song, Mary Casiello and Mara Bettencourt to join me. When we perform, we can back each other, not only emotionally and practically, but harmonically!

Last week, four of us sang sets of original songs at a venue in Somerville, and we discovered that two of us had written songs inspired by our four-legged companions. Our group is full of animal lovers, so the idea emerged of doing a show to benefit a local animal shelter. We are now doing our research to identify the date and venue for the show, and determining which of many beloved animal shelters will benefit from our efforts. Once the nuts and bolts are clear, we can collaborate with the animal shelter to promote the event, and in doing so, the cause of making sure our four legged companions are well cared for in forever homes.

The model we are building here in the Boston area can be transferred to other cities around the country. Gathering women in music for personal and professional support and collaboration, not only fills a need, but actually inspires. And as we are full and inspired, we touch others through our music and lives.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Opening To The Spark Of Inspiration

I have had periods of my life where I have felt my creative channel was wide open, and as I went through my days, I could live in a manner that allowed me to receive creative inspiration. I have also had periods of my life where too much was on my emotional and psychic radar to have any space at all for precious creative inspiration.

While I feel more alive, in the moment and present in all my senses when my creative channel feels open, sometimes life's necessities or challenges make this vital capacity seem like a luxury.

In my 20's when I fully embraced songwriting for the first time, I could be anywhere--driving on a highway, reflecting on a conversation or waking up in the middle of the night and feel an impulse arise from within my heart. I would recognize the gift that was surfacing and I knew that when a song was beginning to come through, it was critical that I ground it, write it down, sing it, go to the piano and work with the impulse like a sculptor with a chunk of clay....I was also aware there was a window of time where I needed to capture this bit of inspiration before it was gone.

Scraps of paper were often my retrieval tools, or journals if I was lucky enough to be carrying one with me. I would try my best to remember emerging melodies, singing them over and over to myself until I could get myself home to the piano. Today, with an iPhone, it is much easier to capture the emerging fragments of a new song. I can sing a melody line into the iPhone, type lyrics into an e-mail to myself....and when I go to the piano, I can record my initial musings as I play.

However, it is just as important that I follow an impulse and work with it when it is fresh and arising. It seems the more fully I surrender to a new burst of inspiration, the easier it is for it to emerge and unfold.

I learned early on not to force it or push it. Inspiration has its own rhythm and timing. And the more receptive and surrendered I am, the better. I find when I am working with an emerging song, if I give it my full focus, the song will take me as far as it is ready to go. It may take several sittings over the course of a day or several days or even a week for the song to form fully enough for me to have the outline of its overall structure: verses, chorus, bridge, introduction, outro...

I am grateful that I have learned to be kind, gentle and patient with myself in the songwriting process. Sometimes a song comes to me in full--music and lyrics both at once. Sometimes a fragment is music or words. Closing my eyes, moving into a meditative inner space, where my mind is quiet and my breathing is deep may allow me to feel the emerging song more deeply in my body and heart. Making notes about what is emerging and then returning to a place of stillness and inner quiet, can feel quite magical and graceful. My observing self can recognize that a spark of inspiration is moving through me, and this feels joyful and worthy of gratitude. And at this point in my life, I am deeply grateful that I can live spaciously enough to be open to inspiration this way.

I have to respect the other kinds of work I have done in my life, and one can say that most everything I have done has come from a deep creative source. But for all the years that what it took to earn my living, raise a child, especially as a single mom, to care for the many responsibilities that all of us are faced with in our lives, a part of my deepest self felt numb, or perhaps buried and forgotten. When I did not tap into my creative channel, I wondered if I would ever be able to find it again.

I never liked to write music as homework assignments in college, because they were "production," not "inspiration." Writing from production might even yield a fine result. It just did not feel the same. So, part of me made a commitment to myself that I would let inspiration be my source, however long that too. And I accepted even years of dry spells, trusting that the well within would be there when the time came for me to tap back in.

One can say that when something is a part of you, it never goes away. You might not express those parts of you, but the core source of expression remains. It has been a 10 year process for me to "jump back on the source," and fully embrace my creative songwriting channel. For the past 5 years, I have given myself permission to change the landscape of my life so that I could be receptive and present as inspiration arose.

I find it fascinating when people ask me, "how do you have so much energy?" or "how do you do so many things?" My answer is "I love these things. They arise from within me. It is natural." When inspiration guides you, even big projects can be light lifting. For this I am grateful.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Rebecca Parris: A Tribute

Music is my deepest lifelong passion, but my path towards fully embracing it has not been linear at all. As a child, I did not talk until I was 3, but I found myself magnetically gravitating towards any and every piano as a toddler, running my fingers up and down the key creating melodies joyfully and organically. My father did not share my joy. He repeatedly told me that "music was the waste of a good mind." And so, my love of music was a source of great shame.

In spite of that emotional burden, I wrote music through my childhood, got a degree in Music with honors and distinction from Yale and pursued a career as a performing singer/songwriter in the Boston acoustic music scene when I was in my early 20's. My first album, a tape of all original songs, "Dreams And Themes" came out in 1983. My songs were well received. But between being an introvert fighting an internal battle to put myself "out," and the reality that taking enough money to live as a musician was really really hard, I found myself stepping back. I had no idea my pause would turn into a multi-decade hiatus.

About 10 years ago, something inside me was tugging at me to move back towards music. I started going to the Acton Jazz Cafe Jazz Jams, frequented by a whole community of wonderful musicians, among whom one was Rebecca Parris. Her ability to tell a story through a song and truly mesmerize her audience with an emotionally compelling, soulful rendering of every line she sang made a strong impression on me.

My circumstances as the single mom of a then middle school aged son pulled me back and forth as I tried to "jump back on the (music) horse," and eventually as I meditated on what to do, my heart told me to call Rebecca Parris. As soon as she answered my phone call, I knew I had just opened a critically important door.

And Rebecca was truly my mentor, my coach and the holder of my heart space as I faced all the demons that arose as I opened my heart to my music deeply once again. She helped me not only technically, but even more importantly personally. She knew that the heart of the song required a deep space within the heart of the singer. And the deep heart space she had created within herself was a warm, compassionate place to be held while moving through the pain that kept me from embracing the full power of my own voice. I only wanted to sing songs I really loved. And I found myself crying through most of these songs as I prepared myself to be able to sing them.

Rebecca's love, wisdom, talent and incredible soul touched me very very deeply. She gave me the gift of knowing her longtime partner, pianist Paul McWilliams, and her adopted adult daughter, Marla Kleman. I had many meaningful visits to her home in Duxbury with Paul at the pianist and Rebecca at the coaching helm.

Rebecca mentored many, many singers. And I appreciated the wonderful community of singers who came to Rebecca to hone their craft. I made special friendships with some of these other singers, and felt more and more a part of the Boston musical community. Rebecca also was very generous lending her voice and talent to support good causes. When I produced the first of three Voices of Boys and Men Concerts to benefit Boys to Men New England, an adult-teen mentoring program for teenage boys, I invited Rebecca to be our headliner and she very generously graced our stage. I could think of no more fitting model of mentorship than Rebecca.

On June 17, after singing with Paul at the piano at a jazz jam on Cape Cod, Rebecca went outside and collapsed. As Marla wrote, "her heart just stopped," and she died at Yarmouth Hospital. It is hard to imagine she has crossed over to the other side. Her spirit and reach into the world of music was so great. People of her depth of spirit and soul are just as rare as people of her vocal talent. I miss her deeply. And I know that is true for the countless people she touched.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018


I find it fascinating to see where songs come from and what sparks inspiration. A couple weeks ago, my singer/songwriter colleague John Mark sent me an article entitled "All I Want Is A Mediocre Life," and asked for my thoughts about what he might include in a refrain for a song on this subject.

Though I have never liked the word "mediocre," the article got me thinking how much I value simplicity and how important it is to have a sense of "enough." And then I got to reflecting on what is happening in my local village of Newtonville, as several big commercial development projects are changing the face and landscape of my long time stomping ground. One project involves building a mixed use complex on a popular parking lot. Another project, one the neighborhood tried to push back on unsuccessfully, has put beloved mom and pop businesses out of business, as longstanding buildings are being torn down to make way for a huge 5 story complex, which will dwarf any remaining buildings near the intersection of Washington and Walnut Streets.

Projects like these could make Newtonville unaffordable for people like me (and many others). And while many consider this kind of commercial development progress or just inevitable, beyond the inconvenience of detours due to months of construction, I grieve the loss of simplicity of life as it has been.

The shadows of commercial development have also been haunting me in Waltham. When I moved into my house there 3 years ago, a 1950's ranch sat on a corner lot at the end of my street, inhabited by an elderly woman. When she died, her family sold the lot to developers, who tore down the ranch house and built two large houses on the lot. My very own house, built in 2006, was the product of the same kind of development: a 1950's Cape house had occupied a large lot, and it was torn down and replaced by two houses. I appreciate my house. I appreciate having a small yard without the burden of maintenance that a larger lot would require. But I am sad to be part of a trend of tearing down houses that were perfectly adequate for a family to live in when I grew up, and squeezing multiple larger houses on postage stamp sized lots.

I love beauty. I love quality. But I fear we are losing perspective. We live in a supersized world, where we receive messages that bigger is better. That Starbucks calls a small coffee a tall, and a medium coffee a grande is a metaphor for what is becoming "normal." Somehow, I am afraid that the simple things are getting lost, either because we are too busy to have time for them or because there is no room for them with our new constructions.

I found myself moved to address this experience, and a song started to come through me. Simple is enough for me. And I hope I will not become an anachronism because I feel this way!