Essay #9: April the Giraffe

Like approximately 250,000 other people, I am transfixed by the April the Giraffe live feed on YouTube.

Animal Adventure Park, an animal conservancy in Binghamton, NY has a giraffe on-site who is expecting a calf, and she’s become a bit of an internet sensation. This is the organization’s first giraffe pregnancy, and someone on their team thought it would be fun to run a giraffe cam so that the public could watch the latter part of her pregnancy and cheer her on. She’s captured the hearts and imagination of the nation, and I’m sure she’s made a boatload of money for the well-deserving park and giraffe conservancy projects. Toys ‘R’ Us is sponsoring her internet feed – that’s celebrity status for a giraffe.

I now know way more about giraffes than I ever thought I would. Giraffe babies gestate inside their mothers for approximately 15 months before entering the world. A giraffe delivers her baby standing up, so it means that baby is falling 6 feet to the ground as it’s born. This is a good thing, because it helps the calf to free itself of all of its amniotic trappings. It’s the equivalent of a doctor giving a baby a smack on the bottom to get them breathing. Giraffe babies are born at somewhere from 100 – 150 pounds and they are standing within 30 minutes of being born so they can evade any predators quickly. The first thing the baby does is to start nursing on their mother. Giraffes will live 10 – 15 years in the wild. Giraffes life 20+ years in the care of a park like this. April has a spacious stall – more square footage than the upstairs of my house – and she gets to run around outside when the weather is good.

April is 15 years old and this is her 4th calf. Her boyfriend/partner Oliver is in the stall behind her at the park. Oliver is 5 years old and this is his first calf. April got her groove back, I guess? Bull giraffes have nothing to do with child rearing. In fact, the park needs to keep the two of them separated for the most part, because Oliver’s liable to try to fight with April or to try to get intimate with her. This would not be helpful in the final stages of her pregnancy. As one of the reps from the park said, “A bull is a bull is a bull is a bull.” What’s nice about these two is that they’ll wrap up their necks together like a really long embrace when they’re in the same space, and they’ll frequently sniff and give nudges of affection over their stall walls.

I’m attributing human emotions here, but I imagine Oliver is a comfort for the increasingly uncomfortable April. Attributing human emotions again: young Oliver seems happy but clueless.

I jumped on board this surreal train when the park made an announcement that April was probably going to have her calf this weekend. I thought it would be fun to catch the tail end (pun not intended) of this miraculous process. Now I think about minutiae like why a giraffe’s tongue is grey and why certain types of giraffes are more endangered than others. Location I guess? I learned that those little knobs on top of a giraffe’s head are called ossicones. Ossicones! A new vocabulary word. A sexy, scientific one.

A curious thing has happened over the course of this weekend. I’ve had the live feed of April running in the background on my laptop as I’ve been doing work and I’ve been checking in on her on and off throughout the day. I’ve learned April’s rhythms. There’s a zoologist named Alyssa (in the photo above) who’s her favorite person at the park. She perks up anytime Alyssa comes in to clean her stall or to take a digital picture of April’s udders. They give each other kisses. I know that April loves lettuce and carrots and they knew that she was heading toward labor because her interest in food was gone. I know they turn the lights off in her stall after they give her the final treat of the night. I know what her contractions look like. I can see her abdomen ripple and the struggle that’s forming in her pelvis. She’s ready. She’s more than ready. Her calf is not.

It’s soothing to be with her, in whatever capacity I can be through a computer screen. Her journey towards birthing her calf is reminding me a lot of the creative process. The quiet discipline of it. The mindfulness required to push through. Giraffes hide their labor until they’re in the final stages of the process so that predators won’t be waiting to snatch their babies when they tumble to the ground. Her labor has to be an interior one, an unseen one. The pain is unseen. The miracle is unseen until it’s ready to make its appearance. I have a pregnant giraffe to thank for giving me this new view of my professional and artistic life. I’ll take whatever insight I can get.

As I start to make my way through these essays that I’ve been running behind on writing, I’m going to keep April on in the background as a reminder of the discipline, mindfulness, and care needed to bring a new creation to life.

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Essay #8: 40 Days and 40 Nights

I am a shitty Catholic. The shittiest of the shitty.

I’m a liberal Democrat. I ask questions. Lots of questions. Subversive questions.

I work for the Church as a musician, but I hate the organization. I feel it’s run poorly. I was a Human Resources professional for almost 10 years. I know from poorly run institutions, and the Church is one of them. It’s archaic. It’s broken from a business perspective. The failed collaborations and the inability to recruit good talent makes the organization a hot mess.

I’m appalled by the pedophilia scandal. I’ve been touched tangentially by that scandal. The movie “Spotlight” hits close to home.

I love the current Pope, unlike some of my blindly conservative colleagues. I love the idea of mercy, charity, and forgiveness and I ignore the dogmatic and the doctrinal. I don’t know my ass from my elbow in terms of Catholic liturgy.

I have a vague spiritual life, amorphous and hazy. It’s in there… somewhere.

I hate the fact that women don’t have seats at the Catholic clerical table in the way the women in the Protestant denominations do. I don’t think that a woman’s health, body, tone, or profession should be policed by the men who surround her.

I believe in birth control. I tried to do IVF (ie interfering with “God’s plan”) to have a kid; no dice.

I believe that what happens in your bedroom is your own damn business. I fully support same-sex marriage and my heart aches for the church musicians and employees who are forced keep their identities under wraps to keep their jobs.

I married an atheist. I married an atheist with pride, because I believe that our marriage represents the ability to cross great ideological gaps in the modern world. Our union should be a microcosm of the bridges being built between people of all faith groups. That’s the foundation of respect and peace.

I feel that priests and nuns should be able to marry. The church would be healthier for it, and it would be much easier to call people into vocations.

I swear like a sailor when the occasion (or comedic opportunity) calls for it and enjoy it.

For all of this, I’m a hypocrite.

I’m also a modern, independent, critical thinking woman who lives in New England.

I am in the world and aware of the bigger picture.

I’m forward thinking and a pragmatist. A pragmatist would see that the Church is dying and would want to fix it. I’m not sure if I have the energy to do it.

I go to church every week – multiple times a week – to sing.

I believe in my vocation as a singer, and I believe that the art and spirituality of singing predates the church.

My secular calling is to bring an emotional layer to the liturgical celebration that is beyond words and ritual. I’m there to comfort families with the sound and resonance of my voice.

I’m an artist. I am a minister in my own right.

The singing piece is not hypocritical. It’s my gift. I’m not hiding my light under a bushel. I’m shining brightly and using my talents for the Forces of Good ™.

I am a Catholic because those are the tools my parents gave me.

I am a Catholic because I believe in faith, hope, love, and charity.

I am a Catholic, because I believe that my actions are more important than the cheap talk and the adherence to tradition and habits.

I am a Catholic because I’m an Irish American. I speak the language of Catholicism.

I’m a Catholic because I admire Mary and the saints. I’m no statue worshiper, but I believe in their stories, their virtues, and their intercession.

I’m a Catholic, because it gives me a moral reference point and a structure through which I can see and evaluate the world.

I’m a Catholic, because it’s given me a vaccination against all other cults. We were the original cult, after all. I’m a Catholic for the beauty of the ritual and the solemnity of the celebration.

I’m a Catholic because I believe in sacrifice, a monastic work ethic, scholarship, and intellectual inquiry. Science and religion are not mutually exclusive. In fact, science tells us as much about what we don’t know as it does about what we do know.

I’m a Catholic because I give until I can’t give anymore. I’d turn myself inside out for the rest of humanity. I’m Catholic because I see the value of suffering, the compassion it creates. I want to care for others in the way that I’d want to be cared for myself. The Golden Rule resonates.

I’m a Catholic because I want to take care of the voiceless and the defenseless. I want all people to be treated with dignity and respect.

I’m a Catholic because I suck at being a Catholic. That’s the whole point. We’re trying to get better at this being a human thing.

So I’m trying to do the Catholic thing and figure out what to do for the 40 days of Lent. Last year, I decided that I was going to go to confession as many times as possible during Lent. I think I freaked the priests out, because it had been ages since I had gone. I had giant lists of stuff that went wrong that poured out of me. They were letting out a Yosemite Sam “Whoa, hoss!” in the beginning. By the end of Lent, the priests seemed impressed with my piety. I laughed at this. “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been 5 minutes since my last confession…”

Confession is one of the coolest things about Catholicism. If I’m looking at life through my filter – the shitty Catholic one – I see “sin” as turning away from love and nothing more. There should be no self-flagellation. Guilt doesn’t serve you when there’s good work to be done. However, how often does one get a chance to sit down and to articulate all the ways that you could have turned toward love? How often does a person make themselves accountable to their own actions in a formal way?

In figuring out how you fuck up, you also figure out how to do better. It’s empowering. The priest is a witness to the dialogue between me and my better self. He’s there to heal the divide. The sacrament is intrinsically Catholic – I don’t think any of the other Christian denominations have it? – and I think that sort of examination of conscience is crucial to fulfill whatever spiritual purpose calls you and to be a better person.

This year, I’m going to try to address the amorphous blob above – the life of prayer and meditation. Not only does my bipolar psyche need the rest and quiet, but I think I need to get a better handle on my interior life. I’m developing daily touch points for myself – finding ways to connect with the spiritual on a regular basis and tracking them in Evernote. I’ll be setting alarms on my phone and using meal times as milestones. It’s going to be totally goofy, but it will be worth it if it gives me a better relationship with the Eileen within. Not Eileen the caretaker, not Eileen the performer, not Eileen the peacemaker – Eileen as she is.

In the pursuit of this, I see no hypocrisy. I’m a shitty Catholic. I’m proud of my complexity and my efforts to do better in the world.

Wish me luck.

 

Essay #7: Mistress Moon and the Cluttered Room

I’m having a hell of a day. I got into a car accident on the way to a coaching in Dorchester. I’m fine, but the car is less fine. I was having trouble seeing beyond a giant snowbank coming out of a gas station and my car clipped the back bumper of another car. His car was scratched. My car lost a plastic insert for flood lights and the bumper is busted. I’ve spent the afternoon talking with insurance adjusters and making an appointment with an appraiser instead of singing with my coach and voice teacher. I’m annoyed, I’m disappointed in myself, and I’m rattled.

Fortunately, the guy who was driving the other car was a total sweetheart. The car was a rental car, so he had no great attachment to it. We exchanged insurance information easily using our cellphone cameras. I was so flustered by what happened that I accidentally left my driver’s license with him. He drove back to the corner where the accident happened and handed it off. The whole experience could have been a lot worse.

Tonight, I will be singing as a section leader (aka a “ringer”) with the community choir in town. They’re singing the Brahms Requiem, one of my favorite pieces of all time, but I’m not feeling it. I’m sure I’ll feel better about it when I get there, but right now I’m feeling like an angry weasel in a corner, licking its wounds. No driving. No singing. No being out in the world. Bah.

When I feel down, I try to think of things that make me happy. It’s a tough thing to do for me sometimes. So much of what I liked growing up was dictated by my environment. There were up to 8 people living in our house at one time (my parents, my 4 siblings and me, and my grandmother), so there wasn’t a lot of space for individuals. I would spend lots of time playing in the bathroom with the door closed (much to the annoyance of my teenage siblings, I’m sure), because it was the only space where I could truly be alone. I imagined living alone in an imaginary house the size of my bathroom. I figured I’d have everything that I’d need – a sink for washing hands and dishes, a bathtub for bathing and sleeping, a toilet that could convert into a chair… Imagine my surprise when the Tiny House trend became a thing.

In theory, I loved a having a clean bedroom. However, I learned if I didn’t clean my room, then people wouldn’t come into the space when I wasn’t there. Folks liked to hang out in the rooms in the house that were recently tidied. I’d find my brother’s orange peels under my bed or my mother’s ashtray on my bedside table. Nature abhors a vacuum. So did my parents’ house, apparently. There were papers, binders, and books on the dining room table. There was laundry on the chairs. Things got cleaned up, but things got their cleanest when we knew people were coming over for a visit.

I wore hand-me-downs. My fashion sense was dictated by the clothing that I received from my older sisters when they grew out of them. I knew what colors I liked, but I knew that I couldn’t necessarily wear all of them (electric yellow didn’t always play well with my coloring, for instance!). My fashion sense didn’t really go beyond that. Cut? Style? Length? Shrug. I loved sharing a room with my sisters. I have a much closer relationship with them now because we shared a room together growing up. That said, there was little sense of boundaries. I certainly had no sense of them when I was little, and I didn’t understand that borrowing without permission was stealing.

Now that I have my own house, I’m trying to figure out who I am outside of the context of my crowded-but-loving family. What do I like?

  • The color turquoise
  • Dark denim jeans with elegant shoes
  • Composers: Mahler, Brahms, Debussy, Bartok, Ravel, Poulenc
  • Silver filigree, Celtic circle designs
  • Spare branches with spring leaves
  • Crimson silk shantung
  • Hayao Miyazaki movies, anime in general
  • Round music – Baroque and Romantic
  • Mezzo-sopranos and baritones
  • Burnished gold, crystal chandeliers, Tiffany glass windows
  • John Singer Sargent, the way he paints velvet and flesh
  • Full skirts and plunging necklines
  • Imperial topaz rings and pendants
  • Chrysanthemums and other autumnal flowers
  • Dark chocolate and jasmine tea
  • Cellos, violas, and French horns
  • Salvador Dali and his marvelous melting clocks
  • Jean-Pierre Jeunet films – “Amelie”, “The City of Lost Children”
  • Guillermo del Toro films – “Pan’s Labyrinth” especially
  • Tori Amos, Regina Spektor, Vienna Teng – fierce women with pianos
  • Palomino horses, long-haired cats
  • Wrap dresses and shirts
  • Long hair, curls and waves
  • Irises, roses, calla lilies, hyacinths
  • Waterford crystal, Lenox china, fussy looking silver cutlery
  • Old Hollywood glamour, red lipstick, soft waves, elbow length gloves with cocktail rings
  • Ireland… don’t get me started on Ireland…
  • Kylemore Abbey, Connemara, St. Stephen’s Green
  • Prehistoric Newgrange in County Meath
  • Our Lady of Knock’s shrine in County Mayo, where my father’s family is from
  • A car with heated seats
  • Warm food with rich sauces, soup, hot coffee (manna of the gods), runny fried eggs
  • Fresh bread, succulent green vegetables, berries
  • Visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and then lounging in Japanese community soaking tubs at the Inman Oasis in the wintertime
  • Strength training, Hatha yoga, and Vinayoga – lifting heavy things
  • Bel canto singers like Marilyn Horne Lieder interpreters like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hitchcock and Atom Egoyan films, dark and sad narratives
  • Shakespeare and sonnets in Iambic pentameter
  • Partnered social dance, like swing dancing and English country line dancing
  • 1980s geek culture: Tabletop games, Dungeons and Dragons, Freaks and Geeks, Stranger Things
  • Children’s books that were really written for adults: Madeleine L’Engle, C. S. Lewis, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series
  • Hymns from the British Isles: Slane, St. Columba, Thaxted, and Hryfrydol
  • Ancient cathedrals and catacombs, tombs, mausoleums, pyramids, gravestones – the monuments to immortality and familial identity
  • The luminous moon and her satellite stars (I always felt the universe worked the opposite way – the sun was lonely among the clouds, and the moon had millions of tiny, twinkling friends)

The picture is coming into focus, little by little. I don’t always choose what I like best, but at least I know what some of these things are, what differentiates me from my family and the world around me. It’s taken me years to figure some of this out, and I’m sure it will take me many more years to drill down to the essential themes. At this point, I know that I’m a Romantic with a capital R, I’m embracing my roots as an Irish-American girl, I like to be warm inside and out, I like darker colors and voices, but I also love things that glow, sparkle, and glitter. I read. I listen. I consume. I admire.

(Thanks for indulging me, if you’ve read this far. I’m feeling better already.)

Essay #6: The Music of the Hospital

NERISSA

When the moon shone, we did not see the candle.

PORTIA

So doth the greater glory dim the less:
A substitute shines brightly as a king
Unto the king be by, and then his state
Empties itself, as doth an inland brook
Into the main of waters. Music! hark!

NERISSA

It is your music, madam, of the house.

William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”, Act 5, Scene 1

*****

My brother in law hates the sound of beeping machines in hospitals.

He and my sister were visiting my mom after her knee surgery last week and he kept on going on and on about the repetitive beeping sounds. Incessant, endless beeping.

In my mind, those beeps are the heartbeat of the building.

Hospitals have so much music in them. The clattering sound of the dinner tray cart rolling by. The rhythmic honk of a telemetry monitor. The shuffle of a nurse walking by in floral Dansko clogs. The laughter of the PCAs as they make their way to and from patients’ rooms. The cry of that guy Frank down the hall. The guy who couldn’t stop shouting. The guy who made one of my mom’s nurses sigh, “Do you have what you need for now?” Rolling her eyes toward Frank’s room: “…because it’s going to be a while before I can get back to you.”

My mother was a nursing instructor for more than 30 years at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, a college town on the edge of Boston. Her nursing program trained nurses through a combination of classroom and clinical work. She spent three days a week teaching her students on the floor, so that her students had practical experience to back up the theoretical concepts they explored in class. She guided her students through the ICU, the ER, obstetrics, cardiac wards…

My mother loves hospitals. She loves being a patient.

After years of taking care of our family of seven and thousands of patients at St. E’s, I don’t blame her one bit for wanting to lie back and let someone else drive. She adores the rolling tables with their tidy instruments and shiny tools lined up just so. She likes neatly made beds. She cherishes the nurses who follow best practices, making great decisions while being clever conversationalists and thoughtful caretakers. She revels in being able to order food from a menu, from the butter with her toast, to a turkey sandwich with cranberry relish, to lemon cake, to the coffee with 1% milk. She loves being cared for by nurses from her generation, because they know how to do things the proper way. Hospital corners. Foot boards for the bed. Never letting a call signal go for more than a few minutes.

Heaven help the nurses who don’t do things just right in my mother’s presence!

My mother usually begins her hospital stays saying to us, “I’m not going to tell them that I’m a nurse. I don’t want the young nurses to get nervous around me.” Then, almost within the same breath, my mother proceeds to ask the staff to find any of her students who work on the floor so that she can say hi. She drops medical terminology left and right so that the nurses ask, “Are you a nurse…?” My mother chirps, “I was a nursing instructor at St. Elizabeth’s in Brighton. But now I’m retired, thank you very much.” She takes great pride, both in her profession and in her ability to drop it nonchalantly like a handkerchief in her decadent retirement. My mother likes to throw out her own thoughts on her symptoms, to second guess the doctors and nurses who don’t meet her standards, and to question the way things are written on the intake forms. My mother knows. This is not her first rodeo.

The toughest thing for my mother is losing control. She’s used to being the authority. She’s used to being in charge. It’s frustrating for her to have to rely on others to get simple things done, like moving toward the bathroom, taking a bath, finding the call switch, and getting scooched up to the right spot in the adjustable bed. I think that’s why she nitpicks us while we’re there. “I put my pants on hangers in the closet. Don’t put them in the drawers!” “You can’t roll the blanket that way! The seam will hit my feet!” “Push the handle down on the bag before you move it!” “Cut the flowers before you put them in the water!” I’m 41 years old. I’m a very competent 41-year-old woman. My mother will never see me as older than a teenager in the script that plays out in her head.

My mother laments, “But how can I be stuck in this hospital bed when I’m only 42 in my mind?”

I hate to break it to you, Mom, but I’m going to be 42 this year, and I’m your fourth kid. Welcome to 77. You wear it well, even though your body is trying to tell you otherwise.

I’m hoping that my mother will be able to let go of some her frustration so that she can fall into the rhythm of the hospital, a place that is the heart of her profession and the root of her career. It is a secular church filled with healers and problem solvers. I hope that the beeps and the rumble of gurney wheels can transport her to a place of peace and trust. As with the clicking of a metronome at the piano or the sureness of a cello bass line in my world, the chirps, whirs and clicks we hear in the background are the music of her world. Hours can melt like wax candles in the hospital, but in that music, she knows she is home.

 

 

Essay #5: Until the Fat Lady Sings

I was having a bad day. I was having a bad day and I wanted salmon. I wanted baked salmon, crisp on the outside and pink and soft on the inside. I wanted vegetables or starch with that salmon. It didn’t matter what else I paired with it. As soon as I could, I made my way to Turner’s Seafood and Grill, the popular seafood restaurant in the center of town. The restaurant was a family owned business, and it had a raw bar, a fish monger’s case with fresh fish, and a full sit-down restaurant.

The hostess looked at me expectantly.

“One for lunch,” I said, eager to see what they had on the menu.

Once she got me seated, I began to sift through the menu to construct my meal. It was cold out, so I immediately thought of soup. Chowder. No – lobster bisque. I love the lobster bisque here. A cup, not a bowl. The bowls are too big. There were a few salmon dishes on the menu.

“Hi, my name is Amanda, and I’ll be your server today. Can I start you off with something to drink?”

It was five o’clock somewhere in the world. It was about 12:50 pm here. “I’d love a glass of water… and a glass of sangria!” I gave her a conspiratorial smile. She blinked, wrote down the order and sauntered off to the bar. No judgment on her part. 100% judgment on mine. I was going to have the sangria anyway. Why not? It was a Wednesday. Wednesdays deserve sangria.

I flipped back to the menu. Maple salmon with mashed potatoes with a touch of mustard. Vegetable of the day. The specials sounded good, but I was here for salmon. I knew it. My stomach knew it. It was time.

When the meal and the sangria reached the table, I was elated. The sangria was delicious, the meal was comforting, and the soft lighting of the restaurant made me so happy. Nothing beats that feeling. I put my phone away. I looked out the window at the red brick wall from the store next door. I was sated. I was me, all at once. The salmon wasn’t exactly what I was imagining, but it was good. It was salmon. Requirement met.

*****

There’s that old line about opera: “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”

There is some truth to that in the historical opera performances. Back then, opera singers were only hired for the beauty of their sound. Looks didn’t matter if the singers could execute the intensely athletic singing well. You had large dramatic sopranos that could be dressed in a breastplate with a shield, a horned Viking hat, and a spear (Cue the Elmer Fudd from “What’s Opera, Doc?”: “O Bwunhiwdaaaah! How I wove you!) or in a coquettish Alpine shepherdess’ outfit. For the operas that required huge singing, these women and men would “park and bark”. Everything was about the sound. Everything was about the resonance. Audiences lived for it.

Young people with half-baked voices couldn’t sing Wagner or Verdi. Opera singers came into their prime in the thirties and forties. It didn’t matter if the character was 16. You needed singers that could be heard over giant and lush orchestras. A massive King Henry VIII-sized Pavarotti would be hired over his peers, because of the glory of his trademark sound. You can’t fake that sort of voice. It poured out of Pavarotti like liquid gold. Heroic. Tender. Deft. All the emotion was baked into the sound.

Nowadays, the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts their operas in HD movie theaters around the country. It was a savvy move on their part, making the art form feel accessible and (hopefully) less elitist. As a result, the visual look of the shows and the actors needed a more of a glamorous Hollywood feel. Audiences didn’t necessarily want to see a lumbering Brunhilda in HD. Singers had to read well on camera, and decent acting chops became as important as the singing. Modern operas were movies as much as they were musical experiences.

Svelte, buxom sopranos like Anna Netrebko have become the norm. There are so many singers vying for so few roles that opera houses can afford to be choosy about the look of the singer. Voice, body, and energy became the performance metrics for a hire. Unless the singer in question had a particularly superb sound, they were going to choose the woman who looked as well as sounded the part. Weightism has been a hot topic in the opera community, as that Hollywood mentality was starting to creep into our “sound first, everything else second” world. Opera had always been about gender bending and hiring the best singer for the job – more progressive than a lot of the performing arts in its casting – so it’s been a shock to the system.

Health and fitness are important for singers, as their body is their instrument. Without strength and endurance training – especially in the core muscles – a singer couldn’t do multiple hour operas without exhausting themselves. Conditioning is as important as recovery time, and you can’t do your job if your voice is sick or compromised. Fitness plays into that.

However, it’s frustrating for those of us who have put the work in on our technique and voices to be passed over for the more conventionally beautiful singers. We get it, but we don’t have to like it.

*****

When I first started singing seriously, I was at least 100 pounds lighter than I am now. It’s been a tough 8 years or so, and I developed habits that weren’t serving my body in any way. My husband and I were having trouble trying to conceive a child. I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder and put on medication. My father passed away from complications with heart disease in 2013. We chose not to have children. My confidence was waning. Food became the anesthetic. Food became the safety net. Food became the defense against everything that was going wrong. Food fed on the excuses and the stresses.

Food became my enemy.

Over the past few years, I’ve been getting to know a friend who runs marathons regularly and who eats a limited palette of food based on her allergies and preferences. Eating meat isn’t her bag. She has to go to the emergency room if she eats any gluten. Dairy doesn’t agree with her either. She opts for whole foods, not processed foods and sugar. Her body is a temple, and she consumes food and commits to physical exercise in a disciplined and almost worshipful way.

She is a running coach and I am a voice teacher. We offered to exchange lessons so that we could see how the other lived. I met her at the track and we started to go for a jog. It quickly became clear that her running gait was going to be a lot faster than my jog. She walked alongside me as I puffed along. We shared our health stories. She is a recovering anorexic, who learned to feed her body in a loving way so that she could run. I am a compulsive eater. I was years away from regular exercise.

She made the observation: “You and I are a lot alike. We don’t listen well to our bodies.”

At first, I couldn’t imagine the similarities between us. Then I realized that we were flip sides of the same coin. One of us ignored signals of hunger, the other ignored signals of satiety.

I have a tough time leaving an empty plate. That’s a leftover kneejerk reaction from my childhood. “There are starving children in <insert country here>, and you won’t finish your peas?” “I hate canned peas.” “Eat your peas.” Preferences didn’t matter in a family of 7. You ate what was put in front of you or you didn’t eat. You grabbed the treats that came into the house as quickly as you could. Otherwise, your siblings ate them out from under you. An empty plate was a badge of honor.

My marathon running friend practices intuitive eating. It was through this method that she could identify what she truly wanted and how much her body needed to feel full. It’s a novel idea to me, taking the time to listen so that you understand what hungry and what full feels like. Also, it’s tough to trust that the body would find the right foods for itself. It’s funny to distrust a system that’s been regulating itself beautifully for thousands upon thousands of years. However, the addictive qualities of processed/fast foods and intense sweets make me question what I consume sometimes.

*****

I look at that plate of salmon and I see the thing I want, the protein and healthy fats that my body needs. I didn’t need the sangria. I didn’t need the bisque. I didn’t need to eat the bread with the warm butter. But my body knew it needed the salmon.

With all the food that I eat above and beyond what my body needs, I’m not the size that I used to be. I have a tough time accepting that. I’ve lost my confidence for auditions. My voice sounds better than it ever has before, and yet I feel the worst about myself. It’s discouraging. The silver lining is that a lot of the roles that suit my voice type accommodate women of all sizes – mothers, grandmothers, sidekicks, witches, nuns, etc. Mezzos have a longer career track than most voice types.

I wish for once I could be a glamorous Anna Netrebko or a Renee Fleming. I know that beating myself up for having the wrong body type or size is unfair, but I’d love to be able to shop in normal size clothing stores. I’d love to be able to try an evening gown, the business suit of the classical performer, on in a department store and to be confident that it would fit. Self-love is crucial to performance, and I’m disappointed with myself for not practicing that with my interior voice. I give myself such a hard time.

Would I talk down to a friend like that? Would I give them a hard time if their jeans didn’t fit? No. Never. Now, why would I talk to myself that way? There’s no room for that on the stage.

Part of the problem is that I’ve internalized some of the voices from the other women in our family. Agonizing over weight issues has become a competitive sport for us, and the way that we talk about ourselves is downright shameful. Sure, there’s an unwritten social contract that says this is the way women bond, but I find it unacceptable. I have resolved never to talk about body issues or to insult myself in front of family members again. I’m not going to play the game anymore. Talk about healthy activities and choices? Sure. Beat myself up because it’s a family ritual? No.

For now, I’m going to have to be the big girl in the breastplate singing out the glorious high notes. I’m going to finish out the show. My hope, though, is that I’ll be able to find my way back to a place of health – not a body size – by eating intuitively and practicing self-care. Food is not the enemy. A more healthy relationship with it will ultimately save me and make me well again.

Essay #4: The March of the Subglottic Sandwiches My Father Used to Make Me

Yeah, so that title up there perfectly describes my head space right now. There are a bunch of words. All of them are specific and interesting on their own; none of them make sense when they’re put together. I’m in the middle of writing three essays for #52essays2017 and they could not be more different from one another. I want to buckle down and focus on one of them, but my brain wants to go in at least three different directions.

I’m dog sitting for my sister on the South Shore right now. She and her husband have a black lab who is less than 2 years old. This means that the Puppy Brain Fairy hasn’t made its deposit yet, and she’s all over the place. You take her for a walk, and you realize very quickly that she’s actually taking you for a drag. The dog is a good 50+ pounds and she’s really strong. This means if there’s a dog or a neighbor across the street, you have to hang on for dear life to get her to stop. If she’s used to going in one direction, it takes all your physical energy to get her to break the habit.

That’s my brain. I wonder if the Puppy Brain Fairy is ever going to make a deposit.

I’m imagining a TV commercial for a Puppy Brain Fairy ™, patent pending. “Ask for it by name!” “Arf!”

Let’s take a look at these three essays. One of them is more relevant to current events than the others. It’s about the Women’s March and privilege and feeling a weird mix of shame and sadness over the nice (read: scare quotes around “nice”) town I grew up in. It’s a stupid essay. The right path for me is to own who I am and to listen. Really listen. To listen in a way that isn’t all about constructing a response, a defense, or a rebuttal. If I’m whinging and hand wringing about my own inadequacies as a human being, I’m not listening. I joined the #52essays2017 because I wanted to hear voices that were dramatically different than my own. I want to read their stories carefully and with an open heart. If the price of admission were to write 52 essays of my own in exchange, it was totally worth it.

Now, I’m not discounting my own voice and point of view, but it’s not the important thing in this exercise. If I’m going to be fed, I’m not coming to the dinner table empty-handed.

The second essay is the weird one, but there’s great sentimentality attached to it. The piece is about all the sandwiches that my father used to make me when I was growing up. My father passed away from heart disease complications in 2013, and my mind is still sorting out all these random memories from my childhood. He was a loving and charming man – a massive Irish American New Yorker with twinkling blue eyes – but cooking was not his strong suit. His sandwiches, ranging from split hot dogs with baked beans to liverwurst with mayo and mustard on mangled Wonder Bread, were impossible to trade at the lunchroom tables in my elementary school. Knowing what I know now about fathers and their often tense relationships with their daughters, I wouldn’t trade those sandwiches for the world. Each of those misshapen food sculptures was an act of love.

The third essay hit me this morning. It’s an essay about professional curiosity. My colleagues have been sending around a blog post on vocal pedagogy and raving about its ideas. My eyebrow shot up when I looked at some of the author’s suggested teaching exercises for creating a cleaner seal between the vocal folds in singing. I have great instincts when it comes to diagnosing and working through issues in my studio. However, there’s so much that I have to recall in terms of anatomy and physiology to link my good instincts back to science. The article was mostly right on a conceptual level, but the applied exercises it was recommending have some risks attached to them.

Then my mind formed an analogy: Voice teachers are software developers in a hardware engineering world. The art of teaching focuses on training the brain – the operating system – and lining up the system in order to sing in the most efficient and healthy way. The science of teaching focuses on the hardware. The larynx. The cricothyroid. The stylopharyngeus muscle. Subglottic pressure. My teacher is a vocal therapist and her shared expertise has allowed me to maintain healthy technique while moving through studio practice and performances. She’s given me great guidance on pedagogical and scientific concepts as they relate to the voice. I could know more. I should know more. I’ll be hitting the books when I get back home.

So my brain is serving me a mashup, a triple helix of thought streams that I will tease apart over time. Rather than get stuck between the three (a frequent flyer problem for me), I’m pulling myself up into the stratosphere so that I can look at the process and all the moving parts. Eventually, the individual essays will make their way out onto the page in a more fully formed way, but for now, I’m going to let them percolate.

 

Essay #3: The Anatomy of a Funeral

I was facing a line of teenage boys.

All of them were in dark suits, their hair combed neatly for the occasion. Three or four of them were crying. Eyes puffy and red. Moist tears were running down their cheeks. They were seated right in front of my lectern. They were the pall bearers for the casket. I’m not used to seeing teenage boys cry like that. They were tall and strong with beautiful faces, the flowers of an Irish American family.

Several them were altar servers at the Cathedral. They were the sons of the lector who served frequently with me at the 7 pm Mass on Sundays. I had seen them check the candles for oil in the sacristy before lighting them, and I saw them don cassocks and surplices before Mass. It was a piece of cognitive dissonance to see them in their suits. No longer altar boys. Proto-adults. No more goofing off in front of the rack of albs and robes. Deadly serious.

Their dad, the lector, has a gorgeous Irish accent, and he lilted his way through the eulogy with a silver tongue. His speech was funny, tender, and a fantastic representation of the man he was eulogizing. He only lost it once when he saw one of his daughters sobbing out of the corner of his eye. I can see why the family chose him to sum up the life of his wife’s father, the patriarch in their family. His sense of humor was comforting and lightened their hearts.

My favorite story from the eulogy was about their grandfather’s name. Bob insisted on being called Bob by all the grandkids. Grandpa? Nope. Pop pop? No way. Grandad? Guess again. Granda? Not even close. Just Bob. Bob used to whisper his name into the ears of his grandkids when they were babies in the hopes that his name would be their first word. Their parents hoped for “Mama” or “Dada”, but do you know how much easier it is for babies to say “Bob”?

Everyone was laughing at that line. They needed a laugh.

During the Offertory, I climbed up into the choir loft to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. The song gets done so frequently at Catholic funerals and weddings that many singers end up phoning it in when they sing it. I try to sing the piece like it’s the first time it’s ever been sung. The piece should sound emotional and immediate. I’ve sung the song so many times that I can trust my breath and my technique to carry the lines. This familiarity allows me to focus on the song’s intention.

When I finished the second verse of the piece, my music director spun around on the organ bench and whispered, “That was *lovely*. Just *lovely*.” Praise like that is rare from a seasoned organist who has heard the piece more times than they can count. I knew in that moment that I had served my purpose in the ritual. A well sung “Ave Maria” is spiritual food for a faith-filled family like this one.

When I got back downstairs from the choir loft, I decided to direct the acclamations and chanted prayers to the family directly. “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world… Grant us peace.” That “Grant us peace.” line was my final benediction to the grieving family before we all start into the Song of Farewell. I sang it to a wall of sobbing teenage boys.

The next night, I performed as a cantor at the 7 pm Sunday Mass at the Cathedral. The regular crew was there. The eulogist from the funeral was one of the lectors and his sons were in the group of altar servers. One of the boys recognized me from the day before and his eyes widened a bit. It looked like he wanted to say something to me, but neither of us knew what to say. I gave a silent, sympathetic smile to him, but the words hadn’t found their way out yet.

The Mass that night was celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, a feast commemorating the visit of the three wise men to the Christ child. We Three Kings. The Gifts of the Magi. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold for the Christ’s kingship, frankincense for Christ’s role as priest, and myrrh as a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and embalming. All those Christmas carols and stories came to life in the scripture readings.

When the Mass was done, I came down to the front of the church and saw the lector talking with another congregant. His teenage boys, the altar servers, waiting for him on the steps leading up to the altar and the chancel. That same son gave me another awkward stare. He wanted to say something. I didn’t know what to say. I brushed past him to express my condolences to his father, who always knew what to say. His father explained that Bob was his wife’s father and that he was able to get most of the way through the eulogy until he saw his daughter crying in front of him. He saw her weeping and he lost it.

“Imagine seeing your sons cry. Imagine singing to your crying sons,” I thought.

As we were walking out to our cars, his son said to me over my shoulder, “I loved your solo.”

I marveled at this. This was a teenage boy. A teenage boy was telling me, the pudgy former inhabitant of a white alb, that he loved my “Ave Maria”. It takes a lot for a boy of this age to do that. They shield themselves with a cool nonchalance and the guise of apathy. This kid let down his barriers and I finally knew what to say.

“I was so glad that I was able to give that gift to you all. Thank you so much.”

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

You could see the relief cross his face as he made his way to his family’s minivan. He said what he needed to say, and his sentiments were greeted with warmth and love. I thought about the tears that had been pouring down his face yesterday morning and I knew that my voice had carried him to an emotional space that he couldn’t reach on his own.

It’s the closest I’ll ever get to giving him a hug. My singing voice was able to say what my arms couldn’t, and I was so grateful for my gift in that moment.