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

Enough

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!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Power of We

An inspirational quote that I read recently reflected that if we do things alone, we can get to a destination faster, but if we do things together, we can go much farther. As individual people, when we get clear on our vision, and act on that vision, we are powerful. Yet, when we join with others, share our visions, and support each other in the journey, our power grows exponentially. I call this exponential power, "the power of we."

When I was in graduate school, I remember learning that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And as I worked in the beginning of the organizational transformation movement, I learned that organizations are actually organisms. This lens brings a wonderful consciousness to the founding and development of groups and the projects they undertake. If a group is understood to be a living organism, and each member of a group is a unique, crucial and creative part of the whole, great and unexpected outcomes can emerge and grow.

When two people join together on a common goal, there are actually three entities they need to attend to: each individual "I" and the collective "we." The needs and goals of each individual "I" are important to define and attend to. Recognizing that an oversoul, the "we" also exists, which might have needs and goals that are related to or different from the individuals' needs allows for the care of the relationship as well as the individuals who comprise it.

If I am founding a new group, I try to identify some common elements that create common ground for potential members. For example, in the new Women In Music Gathering that I am co-founding with Colette O'Connor and Cindy D'Adamo, all our members are women musicians, deeply called to and committed to the personal and creative process of making music. Musicians do so much in isolation that building a community of fellow musicians offers nourishment,support and inspiration. By sharing stories of our personal journeys, we find empathetic listeners and common ground. We do not feel as alone. And special projects can emerge for us to co-create together.

At our first meeting, as we introduced ourselves to the group, articulated what inspired us as musicians, described our journey, and looked at our current projects and vision, we found common ground, found listeners who really understood what we were saying, and recognized that our hearts were touched and great energy was generated as each and every member of our group spoke and shared. This kind of soulful communication invites an organic bonding. And the organic bonding invites collaboration and support for the things that matter most to each and all of us. It could lead to new shared projects, as well as nuts and bolts support for current individual projects. We bond over our common ground.

The dynamics are similar even in different groups and different projects. The recent Cabaret Evening for the Newton Festival of the Arts brought together 8 singers and an accompanist to perform in a 21 song, 90 minute revue. Our goals were to have fun, express ourselves, and provide joy and entertainment to our audience. We each prepared our individual songs and a handful of duets. As the producer, I organized the songs into an order for the performance, balancing tempos, styles, genres, male and female singers, solos and duets....And when showtime came, I can feel the power of the team delivering the show. Each and every singer sang at a high level. We passed the microphone baton from one singer to the next, as though we were in a musical relay event. The show evoked many emotional qualities, including laughter and moments that touched the heart. There was a wonderful collaborative energy. It was clear we all had different pieces to complete one another's jigsaw puzzles. And by the end of the show, we felt like a connected team, each celebrating one another's performance, and celebrating together what we co-created.

The creative process that can unfold when a group of people get together with conscious awareness of the power of we is inspiring, and when carefully tended, can lead to endless and fruitful possibilities and successes.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Thin Line Between Dreams and Reality

A grade school friend recently posted photos from our high school yearbook on Facebook. Under the photo of me at age 16 is a quote I wrote that in many ways has been the tagline of my life: "A thin line stands between dream and reality and only the heart knows the characteristics that correspond to either side." Isn't it amazing that we are who we are from the very beginning. Over time, the threads of our core identity are woven together in a magical web. There can be different chapters and different expressions, but the same underlying message.

The quote evolved into my signature song, written in my early 20's, which evolved into my first book, which was published on my 30th birthday. Learning the art of creating from the heart has involved two critical and inter-related skill sets: 1. developing the capacity tap into deep dreams and 2. breaking down dreams into a series of action steps, building a pathway to bring dreams into reality. Yet even more fundamentally, learning to hold the space between dream and reality, allowing for vision to become real, is a profound point of power.

I think I first became aware of the thin line that stands between dream and reality in a grammar school science class. We did an experiment "bending light" with a magnifying glass at just the right angle to burn a hole in a piece of white paper. It really felt like magic. Without discovering the "thin line,"in this case just the right position for the magnifying glass, nothing would happen on the paper. Yet, discovering the right position allowed a kind of alchemy to occur.

The creative process requires and invites this kind of alchemy. Attuning to deeper feelings, thoughts and intuition through meditation, journaling, movement and introspection allows dreams to germinate and be captured tangibly in images, feelings, and words. By revisiting an image, a feeling, a thought or words, we can bring our conscious energy to the dream or vision. Our conscious energy allows the dream or vision to evolve and become clearer. Increased clarity allows us to translate the dream or vision into actionable steps we can take. Taking action steps and evolving vision become an integrated feedback loop. Each step we take clarifies what comes next. What results from each step helps us refine our vision.

Learning to hold vision lightly and with a heartfelt commitment is another kind of thin line. Human beings are often scared of the unknown and the unseen. And making dreams real involves starting with the unseen and the unknown. If we are scared, we hold onto vision tightly. This tightness can leave no breathing room for a creative process to unfold. Faith is a critical ingredient in giving vision space to breathe and unfold.

When we are afraid, it is hard to have faith. Learning to sit with an open space, patiently, quietly and faithfully is a kind of emotional or spiritual "muscle building." Initially it might hurt. With practice, we become stronger and better able to gently hold vision faithfully.

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to practice working with the thin line between dreams and reality. As a songwriter, I sit in an open space and a state of receptivity, never knowing when inspiration will strike. When I am struck and a song starts to come through my creative channel, it is my work to then sit with it, listen to it, receive it, and go to the piano to capture it. Making notes about chords and lyrics, and recording an emerging melody help me birth a song. Sometimes it comes all at once. Sometimes it comes in fragments. Keeping my mind open to how it will come through and when keeps my creative process fertile.

When I paint, sometimes I have a clear image I want to make real...and other times I am called by particular colors, both on their own and in combination. Working with acrylics in a pouring medium includes opening to the magic of what the medium itself creates. There is a divine magic at work, and the end result is surprise.

Starting a new project, bringing people together to build community, writing an article or a book, or developing a personal growth workshop all have elements of working with this thin line. When to listen and when to speak, when to apply oneself and when to step back, when to ask outwardly and when to ask inwardly....there are fine lines between each of these dualities.

Becoming comfortable and familiar with polarities and the balanced middle ground is all part of this thin line dance. Right brain and body wisdom can be a fine conductor of the creative journey.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Connection And True Safety

With all the cultural violence we are living through right now, sadly too often it is hard to truly feel safe. Schools, libraries and churches are places we would expect to be safe. One could argue that each of these places is even sacred. But the pain and disconnection that is ripping through both individual people and our society as a whole has brought violence into all of these safe, sacred spaces.

Even when we suspect violence is to come, as those close to Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida did, and as neighbors of Jeffrey Yao, who killed a woman and wounded a man at the Winchester Public Library in Winchester, Massachusetts reported and feared, the pathway to make a difference and stop potential violence is not clear. People reported concerns about Cruz to appropriate authorities. Nothing was done. Neighbors feared Yao would kill someone. Sure enough, he did.

Looking at both the personal and cultural pain and trauma that underlie violence is critical. Pain and trauma disconnect us from ourselves, from others and from the divine. Too often, we feel frozen, helpless and powerless in the face of senseless violence. We don't know how to protect ourselves. We don't know what can be done to stop more senseless violence from happening. And it takes a sense of disconnection to commit violent crimes. In order to hurt or kill other people, a killer must view them as just that, "other," separate from self. When we "other" those around us, they can become targets or objects of our pain and rage.

Guns do not make us safe. Guns are made to kill and injure. When used as an extension of rage, guns have become a weapon of terrorism and destruction, too often at a large scale. The idea of having more guns in the hands of more people frightens me greatly. The more guns, the greater the chance of gun violence. Gun violence cannot happen in the absence of guns.

The response of the students who survived the school shooting in Florida is powerful and important. When our leaders don't get to the heart of the matter, it is critical that individual people gather together, as have these students, and harness their collective power to truly fight for fundamental change. In addition to their courage and voices, these students are modeling the importance of connection in creating and restoring true safety. When we can feel each other's pain, when we can see that what could happen to you could happen to me, and what actually happened in one place could likely happen anywhere, including where we are, we begin to become conscious of the fundamental interconnection between us. And if we can truly see and feel our common humanity, our capacity for empathy develops and grows. As our empathy develops, so does emotional intelligence, which leads to more conscious, thoughtful, considerate behavior, and the recognition we need to heal our pain rather than act out from it.

Healing is a process that helps us restore all forms of connection, within oneself, between self and other and between self and the divine. When people come together around a common vision, common values and right action, one can argue the divine works with them and through them. Aloneness breeds disconnection, alienation and powerlessness.

When we feel that we are different in an alienating way, that no one understands us, that we are pushed to the margins and we are left to suffer in our pain, we experience a soul crushing sense of disconnection. This kind of disconnection is at the root of loneliness, addiction, and violence. We feel invisible. We feel we do not matter. Pain and anger can build up to the point of explosion. We can implode or explode.

In an era where the forces pulling us apart are often more visible than the forces drawing us together, we seek safety and self-protection as sole units. We hope that by pursuing money, individual space, and other material resources, we can protect ourselves. But often it doesn't work out that way. Our disconnected society creates more and more holes for people to fall through, and sociopaths pursuing personal interest at any cost to move through. The whole is really greater than the sum of its parts. So, we need to find ways to come together and form meaningful wholes. This is the kind of power we really need. And this is the kind of power that can make a difference and create real, tangible safety.

Weapons of mass destruction have no place in our daily lives. Guns do not belong in the hands of teachers or students. Building capacities for emotional literacy, deep listening, community healing and community collaboration are needed to truly transform our world to a place of true safety.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Loneliness Kills

A critical public health issue that Former US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy is now focusing on might surprise you. And the toll this particular issue takes on our health is as great as smoking cigarettes. Too rarely do we value and focus on our emotional well-being and our health overall. But if we want to look at the underlying roots of the opioid crisis and addiction, violence, and cardiovascular illness, there is one key issue in common: loneliness.

In an interview published January 18, 2018 in the Boston Globe, Murthy reflects, "Loneliness and emotional-well being are connected to the issues we're reading about in the papers every day....Loneliness can contribute to addiction and can be a consequence of struggling with addiction." Much like the chicken and the egg.

The article notes that "there is a growing body of data and science that's telling us that loneliness is more prevalent than we thought and it's also growing over the last several decades." Being in as state of chronic stress contributes to serious health issues, including cardiovascular illness. "Loneliness places the body in a chronic stress state and increases inflammation levels." But even more sobering, loneliness can have the same life-shortening effect as smoking 15 cigarettes per day! This is the data Murthy presents that "is telling us that loneliness kills."

In a world where cyberconnection possibilities are seemingly endless, we can lose touch with the importance of connecting with one another face to face. Our cyberculture can isolate us. Working at home from our computers may have its conveniences, but it can also reduce our sense of actual connection. I notice that when I serve on committees or boards, not only do we stay more focused on our collective goals when we meet face to face, but we also nourish our common bond and our sense of team. I have found that conference calls and video calls can be done without the time needed to drive to a meeting, but they can not sustain spirit and creativity without sufficient face to face contact. When people are within 8 - 10 feet of one another, their heart fields connect without words. We lose the full benefit of this kind of heart connection when we have virtual meetings.

Work consumes a huge amount of our time and life energy. But with a transient work culture, where people move from job to job or organization to organization frequently, instead of staying at one company for a career, it is hard to establish or maintain close connections. In addition to it being lonely at the top (the article notes that "even half of CEOs admit to feeling lonely I their jobs"), it can be lonely throughout the organization. We live in a time where work follows us 24-7, since we can send and receive e-mails and send texts from the dinner table, on vacation or even in bed at night. This can eat into our tie for face to face connections and self-care, and can keep us from being fully present with the people we are with when we are actually with them.

Murthy advocates for making emotional well-being more of a priority in the United States is critical. Growing awareness that loneliness is a serious health issue is a critical task. Finding ways to live and work that consider and encourage emotional well-being is a worthy pursuit.