‘Tis the Gift to Be Simple

Every January in recent years, I’ve chosen one word to act as lodestar and touchstone for the new year ahead. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that one word chooses me every January, since I don’t do any research or spiritual deep diving to arrive at my verbal talisman. I’ll just be walking down the street or taking a shower or washing dishes and, as though an imaginary magic 8 ball had just been turned over, a single word will float to the top of my mind. (Well, with one exception: in 2014, the phrase “Done is better than good” announced itself as the year’s motto. Otherwise, all of my words-of-the-year have been single words—nouns, to be specific: fruition, faith, action, communication, acceptance.) This year, for the first time, the word is an imperative verb: simplify.

Maybe it’s because I’ve got a big birthday coming up in 2018, or maybe it’s because I learned that a couple of my high school classmates passed away last year, or maybe it’s because a dear older friend began a note with the words, “When you get to be—in a flash—as old as I am…”, but I’ve never been more urgently aware of the passing of time. The meter’s running, and while some tedium and drudgery are inevitable (the trash does need to be taken out, after all, and the laundry done), I want to spend as many hours as possible in the company of people I love and doing things that are nourishing, whether abstract (writing, singing, meditation) or tangible (cooking, eating, and sharing good food). Heeding the call to distill my priorities and attention down to the really important stuff feels necessary and deeply right.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, and I didn’t make any this year, other than a sweeping intention to be as present and kind as possible. Nevertheless, in these quiet first days of January, I’ve been getting up earlier in the mornings for some uninterrupted writing time. I’ve been running regularly, eating healthily, and even finding a few minutes most days for meditation. And, after a protracted period of not vocalizing, I’m back to regular warmups and building a practice routine that feels purposeful.

I can find a million reasons on any given day to not make time for music or writing or exercise: there are emails to answer, groceries to buy, two new Dave Chappelle specials on Netflix, it’s too cold outside, inspiration is elusive…but no matter how wily or persuasive Resistance may be, the simple fact is that my days are much happier and more expansive when I prioritize the important before the urgent. Singers sing. Writers write. Runners run. Simple.

Happy new year!

The Song Is You

“You’d never know it, but buddy I’m a kind of poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say…”

He was seated at the piano, playing and singing “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” when I walked into Tula’s in September, 2001. “Who,” I thought, “is that?” How was it possible that, of all the singers and pianists in town, I had never met this particularly young and handsome one? As is wont to happen in the brash bloom of youth, our eyes met from across the room and that, as Rick famously said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I learned that Joshua was stranded in Seattle that week. He’d been visiting his family when the planes hit the World Trade Center in his adopted hometown of New York City, and all the flights were grounded, all the airports closed, so he couldn’t get back to his Harlem apartment. Not knowing quite what to do with ourselves in those frightening and disorienting days after the 9/11 attacks, we both sought sanctuary in the local jazz club.

When I moved to New York a couple of years later, Josh met me for dinner. His relaxed kindness told me that, even though I was broke and overwhelmed and had no idea whatsoever what in the hell I was doing, I had a friend in New York City. A while later, when Ray Passman heard me sit in with Bob Dorough at the Iridium and decided to “present” me in my first New York solo show at the Triad, I called Joshua to play piano. I was as green as grass and did everything wrong, but I still remember the gentle 12/8 feel Josh brought to our rendition of “Tis Autumn,” and how the room seemed to stand still for that tune.

He came with me once to my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where we played a Christmas show; we duetted on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and switched the roles, with him singing, “I simply must go…” and rebuffing my wolfish advances. He stole the show, of course.

Josh had a way of showing up at exactly the right moment. I had a brief stint singing with a country band, and we played a gig on the Upper West Side one summer night in 2012. To my delight, Josh was in the audience. In fact, he may very well have been the audience. We caught up on the set break, and a few days later he sent me a note asking if I’d like to perform a holiday show with him that November in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his brother had founded an orchestra. Josh opened that email by asking me, “How ya doing, cowgirl?” I gleefully accepted his invitation, and that autumn, we shared a wonderful weekend of barbecue and music.

Four years ago, another email appeared in my inbox, this time from Josh’s dad. I was in the elevator on my way up to my apartment when I checked my phone and read the news of Josh’s recent hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. No treatments could be undertaken or explored beyond keeping him comfortable. In a trance, I exited the elevator and tried, again and again, to turn my key in the lock. It wasn’t until a neighbor in the hallway said, not unkindly, “um, hello,” that I realized I’d gotten off on the wrong floor and was standing in front of a stranger’s door.

I am infinitely grateful for the time spent in the hospital with Josh and his loved ones in the days before his death. Even today, four years later, those hours are too surreal, too painful, too dear to write about. There was singing, there were tears, there was—somehow—laughter, and there was a palpable cloak of compassion enveloping us all that I, an avowed non-believer, can only describe as holy.

It is tempting to withhold forgiveness forever from a world that would silence Josh’s music so abruptly, so cruelly early; he was just thirty-nine years old. But the world doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and anyway, didn’t it give voice and breath and life to Josh’s song in the first place? Where does that leave us? What are we to do with ourselves in this perplexing and infuriating and beautiful life, overflowing with loss and tenderness?

Sing, I think. We are here to sing at full voice, to live right out loud, heedless of the occasional dissonance or cracked high note. And may our music, like Josh’s, be a balm, a window, a catalyst, and—above all—a gift for whomever is listening.

Closer to Authentic

51TKgMSTFwLA few months ago, I read The Dirty Life, a memoir by Kristin Kimball. Kimball was a successful writer living in Manhattan when she met her now-husband, Mark, whom she describes as “a wingnut farmer.” They moved to upstate New York and founded Essex Farm.

At first glance, the premise of Kimball’s memoir sounds like the setup for a rom-com: city slicker falls for country bumpkin, they start a farm together, hijinks ensue (picture falling face-down in the mud and chasing runaway cows), and they live happily every after. The Dirty Life does reveal Kimball’s deep love for both her husband and life on the farm, but it also describes her painful acclimation to backbreaking farm work, begun each day before dawn, and the financial anxiety of knowing that an early winter could mean losing their farm and home.

The difficulties and risks of farm life notwithstanding, Kimball and her husband persevered and do, indeed, appear to be living happily ever after. They have young children and Essex Farm is thriving as the world’s first full-diet CSA. Kristin Kimball is a thoughtful and vivid writer, and while her book reaffirmed that a life in the countryside is emphatically not for me, the following passage in The Dirty Life has continued to haunt me (emphasis mine):

The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic.

In the passage above, Kimball is referring to the clarity she found while harnessing horses and carrying heavy loads as part of her day-to-day work on the farm, but her summation of what defines authenticity is elegant and universally applicable.  The narrower the gap between who we think we are and how we behave, the closer we get to authentic.

As an inveterate list-maker, I love the idea of putting two columns on a page: the first one being, “Who do you think you are?” and the second, “How do you behave?” The more overlap between the columns, the more authentic a life the list-maker can claim. Simple. But as I’ve mused here before, simple isn’t the same thing as easy. Sometimes, the distance between who I think I am (singer, writer, regular exerciser and healthy eater) and my daily routine (harried errand-runner, sporadic blogger, sunny day picnic enthusiast) feels much greater than I’d like.


Believe it or not, buying groceries paves the way for disciplined creativity. Caveat: I am never this pulled-together while running errands.

I’ll continue trying to narrow the gap between my self-perception and habits. Daily vocal exercises are one way of keeping my focus “on the ground,” as Kimball puts it. Even if those whoops, hollers, and scales feel effortless one day and arduous the next, they’re a powerful affirmation: I am a singer. 

But damn it, even the most tedious of errands must be run (oh, hi, DMV, what a pleasure to see you!), and even sporadic writing is still better than not writing at all. Buying groceries and straightening up the apartment are not necessarily identity-related tasks, but, like Kimball, when I’m doing them, I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’m not one of those romantic artist types who flourishes amidst chaos; my creativity thrives in the security of a stocked fridge and tidy practice space.

As for finding some lazy hours in these halcyon late-summer days for languid lunches in the park—including wine and cheese, obviously—well, that’s the urban equivalent of “making hay while the sun shines.” And that feels like time authentically well spent.


Blue Jeans & Bagels

At about this time last year, my doctor found a lump and recommended a sonogram. She was just being cautious, she said, and told me not to worry about it. Nonetheless, I was subsumed by dread and worry in the weeks that followed. When the tests revealed nothing troublesome, I gave thanks for a healthy vessel, renewed my gym membership, and vowed to never again disparage my body for its “imperfections.”

Fast-forward to the present day. I’ve been exercising regularly and incorporating more vegetables and lean protein into my diet. My body is decidedly more streamlined, and the winter blues that have dogged me for months seem to finally be dissipating. All this to say, I was feeling pretty good about myself last week when I reached into my closet and retrieved a pair of jeans that I hadn’t worn in quite some time. Years, actually. But I was optimistic. I’d been working out! I’d been eating right! Those jeans were about to come out of retirement!

My optimism coughed, sputtered and was finally extinguished as I sucked in my stomach and cursed under my breath, wrenching the jeans over my hips with considerable effort. I managed to button them, but seeing as how the “overstuffed-sausage-in-a-denim-casing” look doesn’t seem to be in vogue this spring, I returned the jeans to the closet, feeling somewhat defeated.

Then I remembered the apprehension I felt last year as I walked through the linoleum hallways of the hospital, looking for the radiology department. I reflected on the relief that flooded my senses when the doctor called to tell me that everything looked just fine. I reminded myself that brave and tenacious souls the world over are facing real crises, so who did I think I was, feeling defeated (defeated, for chrissake!) by a pair of jeans?!

I realized that I had a choice to make. I could redouble my efforts at the gym and forever ban bagels in an attempt to be lean and mean, or I could decide that “lean” and “mean” are, in fact, not admirable qualities, toss the damned jeans in the Goodwill pile and go have a bagel.

Wearing a pair of jeans that fit just right, I had a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. It was everything I hoped it would be.

Baby Steps

I'm sailing! I sail! I'm a sailor!

“Growth is uncomfortable,” I often say, and what better time to walk my talk than these early months of 2011? Lately, my whole life is in a state of flux, from the creative (hello, country music and musical theatre!) to the personal (hello, wedding planning!). Sprawling, uncharted landscapes of expression and identity beckon, daring me to take chances, work harder, and expand my vision of what is possible. I find this metaphorical map-making energizing, but just as a sailor beginning a long voyage must recognize and respect the winds and currents that will shape his travels, I also must acknowledge the presence–and power–of resistance in my own journey.

Some days are better than others. Some days I feel powerful and motivated, zipping from an audition to the practice room to the gym with ease and enthusiasm. Other days, though, I feel mired in mediocrity and sloth, and I wind up sitting on the sofa watching Nigella Feasts, eating chocolate-covered almonds by the fistful. Resistance, you’re a wily bastard.

It’s been helpful, if challenging, to remember some fundamental truths concerning resistance: resistance is universal and impersonal, and resistance will–must–invariably arise whenever any individual undertakes a positive new endeavor. According to director Ann Bogart,

Resistance heightens and magnifies the effort…The magnitude of the resistances you choose to engage determine the progression and depth of your work. The larger the obstacles, the more you will transform in the effort…at the same time, be patient.

Put another way, when resistance feels insurmountable and overwhelming and we saddle up and do the work anyway, major transformation is imminent. In fact, resistance and the potential for transformation are in direct proportion to one another. The greater the resistance, the better we become.

The only thing tougher than beating resistance is heeding Bogart’s wise admonition to be patient. I mean, come ON! I’m doing auditions, I’m taking musical theatre classes, I’m going to the gym, I’m writing in my journal…so where the hell is my transformation, already? Sometimes I feel like Bob Wiley: I’m doin’ the work, I’m baby-steppin’, I’m not a slacker! Gimme, gimme! I need, I need!

The thing is, the more I look for transformation as I battle resistance, the stronger the resistance seems to become. When I stop relentlessly chasing results and instead focus on the work to be done today, I am reminded why I chose the word “faith” as my verbal talisman for 2011: I trust that all these “baby steps” are sure to lead somewhere, but in the meantime, the process, not the outcome, is where it’s at. For a few moments, resistance fades into the background. And in those moments, like Bob Wiley, I feel good. I feel great. I feel wonderful.

The (anti)Social Network

The Reverb 10 prompt for December 5 asks, What (or whom) did you let go of this year? Why? (Author: Alice Bradley) Since I’m skipping around and doubling up on the Reverb 10 prompts until I get caught up, I thought the December 5 question dovetailed nicely with the question posed by author Cali Harris on December 7: Where have you discovered community, online or otherwise, in 2010? What community would you like to join, create or more deeply connect with in 2011?

Well, I let go of my Facebook community this year.* (Not that I really consider Facebook a community, although as I type those words I feel fortunate that tomatoes can’t be thrown via the internet. I’m sure more than a few of you would like to lob some my direction for such heresy.) Truthfully, I had a little trepidation about leaving Facebook. After all, those were almost one thousand friends with whom I was severing all communication, right?

Um, no. Not really.

In actuality, I’d been spending an inordinate amount of time online with hundreds of virtual strangers, finding out more than I needed–or wanted–to know about toilet training, obnoxious co-workers, and imaginary farms/mafia wars/pretend cafés. Meanwhile, I craved in-person interaction with the small but much-loved cadre of bon vivants who comprise my circle of flesh-and-blood friends.

My frustrations with Facebook (and with myself on Facebook) came to a head when, fueled by giddy excitement and a few too many glasses of champagne, I changed my relationship status to “Engaged” before my fiancé had had a chance to call his friends and tell them our happy news himself. A handful of people near and dear to the person whom I hold nearest and dearest found out about our engagement via…Facebook. He was (rightfully) pissed, I was rueful, and with a steady hand and firm resolve, I pressed “delete” and haven’t looked back.

It seems I’m far from the only person dubious about the merits of social networking. I attended a cocktail party this fall, where I met someone who told me with a smile that he, too, had recently removed himself from the world of Facebook. When I recently stopped by a photographer friend’s always-thoughtful blog, I found that she, too, had recently abandoned Facebook in favor of increased productivity and more face time with friends. Perhaps the brilliant Aaron Sorkin, writer of The Social Network, said it best when he told Stephen Colbert, “Socializing on the Internet is to socializing what reality TV is to reality.”

I’m not unaware of the inherent stickiness of castigating Facebook via that other ubiquitous online medium, the blog. After giving it some thought, though, I believe that reading a blog is akin to turning on your TV for the purpose of watching a specific program. Cruising aimlessly around Facebook, on the other hand, is more analogous to having the television blaring in the background while you go about your business around the house: it’s loud, distracting, and often utterly meaningless.

Lest I come off here like a curmudgeonly Luddite, let me just say that I know there are some of you who can check your Facebook profile once or twice a day, tops, and you swear by the site’s usefulness in keeping in touch with faraway loved ones. To the three people on earth who fit that description, I say, POWER TO YOU! Happy Facebooking!

All kidding aside, I’m not really telling anyone to quit Facebook cold-turkey. I’m just saying that checking in on Foursquare when sitting down to dinner with friends isn’t as important as…checking in with our friends. An online community can be great, but as 2011 looms ever-nearer, I delight in knowing that one’s off-line community of friends, family, and even obnoxious co-workers is much, much more valuable.

*Full disclosure: I didn’t quit Facebook cold-turkey, really. I just deleted my personal Facebook profile, as well as my MySpace account. I kept my music page on Facebook, which I use exclusively for music (and blog!) related business.

Right Here, Right Now

I am, at best, an inconsistent meditator.  My relentlessly practical Judeo-Christian, Midwestern/Alaskan upbringing is antithetical to the Buddhist concepts of no-self and detachment.  I like clear-cut yeses and no’s and rights and wrongs: What do you mean, this is all an illusion?  I’m right here!

Despite my resistance to some Buddhist ideology, I have long appreciated Buddhism’s emphasis on living in the present moment.  As anyone who’s even dabbled in meditation can tell you, being here now is a lot trickier than it sounds.  I try to cultivate the experience of present-moment awareness as much as possible, but I’ll be honest, there are many times when I’d rather be doing something other than, for example, airline travel, shopping at Trader Joe’s at noon on a Saturday, or waiting for the subway to arrive.

There are, though, some moments in which our senses are heightened and we perceive the world in sharp focus: colors are brighter, sounds are more pronounced, and we are, perhaps in spite of ourselves, completely engaged with what’s happening right now. We feel uniquely, fully alive. The Reverb 10 prompt for December 3 is an invitation to: Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail (texture, smells, voices, noises, colors). (Author: Ali Edwards)

The Broadway opening of Come Fly Away was one of the most hyper-attuned, electrically “alive” experiences of my life thus far. The murmur of the near-capacity crowd drifted backstage, where dancers did last-minute stretches and whispered “Merde!” to one another. My black velvet Lanvin dress was tight across my hips, so my stride was shorter and more careful than usual. The headband holding my hair ornament in place pressed firmly against my scalp.

As the curtain opened and the show began, I was conscious of my rapid heartbeat and the brightness of the lights. I felt a little bit lightheaded and oddly calm; as the opening strains of my first song began, I was aware of the floor beneath my feet, the cool metal of the microphone in my hand, and the sensation of my voice traveling from my throat into the theatre.

For the duration of the performance, I experienced every breath, sound, and movement as “Now.” “Now.” “Now.” Moment to moment. I was wonder-struck for two solid hours, which brings me to the Reverb 10 prompt for December 4, in which author Jeffrey Davis asks, How did you cultivate a sense of wonder in your life this year?

Photo: Michael Nagle/Getty Images, NY Times

Well, it was easy to access a sense of wonder during the excitement of a Broadway opening and the ensuing six-month run. Every day brought with it a heightened sense of gratitude and engagement with what was happening rightthisverysecond. The thing is, though, most days are not Broadway openings. The challenge, then, becomes cultivating present-moment awareness and a sense of wonder as we navigate the hassles of everyday life: the airport, the endless check-out line at Trader Joe’s, and even the subway.

Looking ahead at 2011, I wish I could say that my meditation practice will be rock-solid. I’d like to believe that one day I will finally make my peace with the Catholicism that has seeped into the very molecules of my being and reconcile it with the elusive equanimity of Buddhism. I can’t. I feel sure, though, that I can cultivate a sense of wonder in moments both magnificent and mundane by simply choosing to be right here, right now.