How I Arrived Here

Cold winter evenings spent ’round a blazing fire, sharing hot and hearty drinks, good company, and stories from lives well lived…Is there anything better? It is one of my favorite winter scenes, especially when the chill weather forces us to take shelter indoors. Even the idea feels nourishing to the mind, body, soul, and the connections made with those gathered, be they considered family, friends, or tribe. This story is about the song lines that brought me to this work. It serves to draw us closer by revealing bits of a life journey, familiar adversaries, and lessons learned along the way. May it meet you well in these times of isolation (by necessity), and bring us all closer together. Fill your mug and settle in.

Music Everywhere -- Early Life

We begin at the beginning, in the singing lands that brought me forth and raised me up. My ancestors of blood all hail from what is now Scandinavia (Norway and Denmark on my fathers’ side), Northern and Western Europe, and lands yet unknown from Eastern Europe (German, Irish, and ?? on my mothers’ side). These far-back origins sing to me in blood and spirit, and some of the work I’m called to do in the world hails from these lands, as guided by my ancestors, who are with me now and always.

I am third generation American, my great-grandparents having immigrated to the United States in the late 1800’s to the Chicago/Great Lakes area of Illinois. Various relocations moved my family line to California, and ultimately, to Colorado. I had the great good fortune of spending the first half of my time on Earth relating to the lands of the Cheyenne, Ute, and Jacarilla Apache nations on the high plains and foothills of the Rocky Mountains in central Colorado. This time was formative and highly relational, and there are spaces and particular other-than-humans from that place that I miss deeply. My heart song is still that of the Western Meadowlark (heard here), and the aromas of the grasslands populated by big sagebrush (artemisia tridentata) and pinon (pinus edulis) and juniper (juniperus osteosperma) woodlands. Bright red sandstone (from which the state gets its name) set against the very inspiration for “purple mountains majesty.” ¬†

In my growing up time, the housing development where we lived abutted approximately 500 acres of unused cattle pasture, and it was abundant in these and other flora and fauna, a veritable wonderland for curiosity, imagination, and running unhindered in nature. It was here I first learned to find my voice, hear the stories of those other than human voices in the neighborhood, and all under the protection of the Rocky Mountains, our sentinels to the west. I played in irrigation ditches, negotiated space with cacti, yucca, and scrub, climbed lone poplar and cottonwood trees, and mostly watched the ever-changing expanse of sky. Wide open, impossibly blue, cloud studded or at times walled in with thunderheads one could see approaching from miles away. It wasn’t taken for granted, even in those formative years.

I could hear these other than human people and their voices singing. It was intoxicating. I am a sonambulist, and from a young age I would react to their call by getting up and walking the house to a window, and once or twice out of the house proper, asleep the entire time. I’d sit in lilac hedges and hold extended conversations, chat up spiders under the deck, mimic birdsong, try by whatever means available to me to capture these quiet stories–crayon, pen and paper, and inevitably song. By this time, I was attending public elementary school, and my musical abilities had yet to find an outlet for expression. But there was a piano in the house, and I would play many a song by ear, or make them up entirely. My paternal grandmother was a child prodigy at the piano, and though I never really learned to play formally, it is an instrument near and dear to my heart. Whenever I seek comforting music, I find what I need in slow piano, perhaps with a cello. There was a wide variety of music at home as well. My mother favored pop and jazz standards like Elvis, The Beatles, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra and more. My father listened to classical music, cool or mood jazz like Antonio Carlos Jobim and Herb Alpert, and some folk music. I found myself drawn to the moods of certain songs, or technique and timbre of voice more than anything else at the time. My personal tastes would develop surely enough, soon enough.

Foundational Skills--Training & Performance

In my fourth grade year, I took the opportunity to join the school choir, which met before school in the little music room. From day one I felt I belonged as I had not belonged before in school. Singing songs with others is its own language of belonging, music a universal language. Woodie Guthrie, Disney favorites, State Songs, perennial children’s classics, and even some pop songs made our choral repetoire, and I was nothing if not enthusiastic. My father often shares a story of coming to see our first performance. Scanning the risers for my face amid the denim vests, white shirts, and red bandanas, he said that I was the only one moving. The music moved through me, I embodied it, and it made me feel alive. So much so that it moved me, a pretty shy and goofy kid, to audition for solos–most memorably a Winter Holiday program where I would sing “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” in a voice that accurately mimics a voice after inhaling helium. (I can still do the voice, and my son is my number one fan!) These tests of my fortitude against being seen would come more frequently as I rose to the ranks of upperclassmen.

Middle School (though it was called junior high where I lived–grades 7-9), may not be everyone’s least favorite experience, but it was definitely mine. During this time, we learn more about who we are, as individuals, as a species, as our mettle is tested not only academically, but also socially and behaviorally. The town I grew up in was small, and its teenagers suffered from all of the very same lack of things to do that only a small town can offer. I managed to mostly stay out of trouble, and I believe music acted as a North Star for me. The bodies in choir grew more numerous and diverse, there were even options for women or men only, or mixed choir, each holding their own hierarchy in the school. I moved through the ranks quickly, and became envied for it. I auditioned for everything, any solo I could, and I was chosen for many of them. Public school choir is a mixture of musical pedagogy, voice coaching, and training on how to be one part of a greater entity. I began to understand how to blend, how to harmonize, how to hold a countermelody without fail, and lead a section with confidence. Apart from the competition within the choir, there were also opportunities for competition within the school district, and on to the state and national level. I did it all. I was tutored in voice after school; I sang all the time. I was driven to be the best I could be, to lead and to win solos and competitions. I felt like it was the only thing I could do well.

High school was much the same, only now there were additional venues to showcase my growing talent–school musicals and talent shows, and even theater productions. I was not popular in the conventional sense. The only reason anyone knew me at all was because I continued to show up, there in the spotlight, never stopping with the singing. Amid the arty kids, I was likely despised as much as I was befriended. I felt like high school was when I made real adversaries, which looking back should maybe have been a sign of what lay ahead. Add to this romantic intrigues, friend set dramas, and parent/child relationships at this point in life, suffice it to say I began to use music/training/competition as a means of escape. It was my drug, and the effects weren’t always positive.

By the time I hit college, this unsustainable lifestyle was in full tilt. One vocal coach trained me to the point of torture. At one point during this period I had strep throat or tonsillitis eight times in one year. Between academics, extracurriculars, and coaching I was stressed, exhausted, and developing a voice in my head, based on so many of the voices around me, that would become a debilitating critic in whose eyes I could never, ever be good enough. I developed stage fright to such a degree that I would very often vomit in the moments before a performance (which is not good for the vocal cords at all), and no matter how the performance had gone I could be found weeping and swearing I would never get on stage again. I did eventually give up classical vocal performance, along with it dreams of performing at the Metropolitan Opera.

Wings Spread--Breaking Tradition

I switched my studies from music and theater to literature and history and began attending the local community college. I had no scholarships, which meant working to afford my education. On the weekends, I would often go out drinking with friends at a smoke-filled karaoke bar. I’d often choose the most challenging rock songs–Janis Joplin, Heart, huge rangy 80’s songs–and absolutely blow out my voice by the end of an evening. At the time I believed I was having fun, and sometimes it was entertaining. It was more self-destructive. During my studies I found a deep love for reading, creative writing, poetry, and medieval history. I lost interest in the bar, in performance, and found I was more than just a lyric mezzo-soprano. I returned to the natural world, found a song of spirit that enriched my life. This renewed listening to the other than humans in my community eventually moved me across the country and altered the course of my life forever.

The moment I stepped out of the cab of the moving van upon my arrival in North Carolina in December of 1999, the land greeted me in song. I was so overwhelmed I had to grab a hold of the door to keep from collapsing with relief. The heady aroma of pine straw, accompanied by a stunning sunset, had me in love with this place from that first encounter.

The opportunity to deepen my relationship with spirit, my own and those of place, was great. I knew only one person, my roommate, and they were at work for long hours. I wrote a lot, started taking guitar and songwriting lessons, and played an open mic once or twice. It was a very fruitful and creative time for me, and kept me busy as I worked to save money to return to school after gaining residency for in-state tuition. Once I graduated (magna cum laude with a degree in literature with a focus on English literature before 1500, double minor in French and Medieval history), I felt like it was time to perform again. I joined two bands, one a folk-rock quartet, and the other a progressive-folk duo. I learned a lot, and we performed a little, and it was fun…until it wasn’t. The toxic self-talk and my competitive nature reared up, and I wondered whether I would ever enjoy performing in public again.

I fell deeply into my spiritual work and studies. Good fortune favored me with a group of folx working with a variety of meditative and trance states, and my skill for deep listening was useful, and I found I had a knack for creating sonic landscapes for journeywork. There was useful, constructive feedback that in no way incited the imposter syndrome or fraud police or scathing critic living in my head. It was a rich period of “un-learning,” of giving myself permission to vocalize in ways that were not based on meeting the Western standards of “beautiful singing.” It was a time of rewilding and reclaiming my voice, of starting to heal the fractured nature of my relationship with my voice. It was beginning to truly see what before was talent as a gift.

In 2013, all the years of stress and self-doubt and incredible pressure caught up to me in the form of a breast cancer diagnosis. Just two years after the birth of my son, I began a treatment plan that included chemotherapy and multiple surgeries. From the other side of this particular journey, I have come to understand it as a call to healing not only of the body, but of the spirit. “Shaman sickness” is a documented event the serves as an initiation or awakening, and has been documented by many healers, medicine people, and shamanic practitioners around the world. (I hesitate to use the words “shaman” or “healer” myself, as I feel I facilitate spaces for one to heal themselves.) My experience with cancer follows the trajectory, and acted as a sacred call. By healing myself of this malignancy, by answering the call and living my purpose, only then could I truly heal my relationship with my voice.

Learning to Fly--Here. Now.

Easier said than done, my friends. Seven years on, I feel I am still learning how to trust and surrender to this calling. Years of perfectionism and self-critique takes just as long to un-learn; years in = years out. It is impossible for me to be a clear channel for spirit, for the sounds that come through deep listening to the voices that are not my own, when I am in the way with these heavy thoughts. The more I trust, the more these spaces resonate with you as an attendee, with what your spirits sing to me when you enter the room. (This is another entry, how I do what I do.)

The more time I spend relating to the land, the other than humans here, the ancestral culture of place, the more aligned my work. On the advice of my own ancestors, I understand that I am called to sound in spaces that have been harmed by extractive capitalism, offer keening for the loss of species, of cultures, and for the memory of these ones who have not been honored or even mourned. This is done humbly, with permission from the land, with many offerings over time to build trust and relationship, especially in places that have been harmed by humans.

With the advent of SARS-CoV2, I now hear the call of a more collective human grief, and intend to offer opportunities for grief easement keening events that will not only allow for grieving the many human dead of the last year, but also the many species lost to continued human behavior problems that are harmful to what we deign to other as “the environment.” We are a part of our environment, we are deeply connected. There is no separation or difference. To believe thus is the most pernicious root to such a strangling fruit. In what ways I am able, this is how I will share these gifts.

As always, I thank you for your trust and presence as we share the path a while. You are a big part of why I am able to this work, and I am always open to hear ways an offering has helped you, or suggestions for other opportunities that might be co-created. Deep gratitude, and may all that is good and right come to you on your healing journey. Until next we meet!