I have not been attending Church regularly for the last two years. This is not a confession (I am not Catholic) but rather an observation. I have not yet found a Church family in Berlin, although once in a while I feel called to go to the beautiful Marienkirche at Alexanderplatz on Sunday evenings where the Anglican Church of Berlin celebrates the Eucharist in an intimate setting. It's awe-inspiring to be a small group of lovers (I do not like the word worshipers...one of the reasons I've stayed away from Church...but I'll get to that later!) in a building dedicated to the greatness of a God Who strengthens, maintains, and nourishes us...in fact Who IS who we are at the deepest level. When I experience the Gospel in this light of greatness, with the knowledge of the depth of true love that I now sense, I can embrace with open arms the faith of my childhood.
Over my years of being a Christian I have heard many sermons which vibrated with greatness in the most unexpected places. A lot of them were delivered in small-town Dallas and came in the form of a "Brown Bag Talk" where my favorite Father Homer Smith wrapped the most profound messages to us children in a paper bag and a short story. Because of Father Homer, I’ve become accustomed to looking for Spirit just around the corner: in a conversation, in a song...in a wooden straw, in an empty shoebox. Father Homer taught me to honor what we know instinctively as children--and I thank God he came along in my life at the time he did! He translated my childhood experience into adult vocabulary and spoke to the soft place inside me which was in danger of being hardened by the trials adolescence. He taught me that adults can listen, too, for the voices which come to us in the form of whispers from a place we can live in but which is not tangible in the way we expect it. He did not teach us in words. He taught us through a way of being which informed his speech. Like the words of God which in our stories created the Heavens and the Earth, with simple words Homer created a desire in me to understand and to know what he knew, and to create something on the outside of me which might represent what I’ve found on the inside.
Father Homer is the inspiration of my current desire to put to words what is happening in my life as a singer now. One day I hope to wrap these many words, like he did, in a brown bag or an opera Partie, or a concert, and have come across as crystal clear knowledge that speaks to all of us. For now I will have to settle with this medium to give my heart the satisfaction that it has been heard and understood.
If anything has been learned from my studies of voice, it is that the Spirit of childhood in singing can disappear before we ever realize it! Over time I am becoming more and more convinced that this is the most integral part of being a singer. It is what can be beaten out of us, or chased so deep inside us it can never be found, as the child which loves to sing finds out she knows nothing about theory or languages or how one “should” act or “should” be to “achieve” a career. It is the factor which has somehow remained intact in the artists I find most touching and thrilling on stage.
Every singer who brings me to tears has shared with me the absolute vulnerability and paradoxical strength which is at the core of all of us. It’s a quality which leaves us normally when we ‘grow up’, when we ‘figure life out’, when we decide we want to ‘make it work’. It’s a quality we like to belittle, a quality many people are afraid of. To see the world through the eyes of a child can be frightening. It’s not ‘safe’ to be a child, with so many dangers and influences and so many people who do not honor the beauty, worth, and unique qualities of children. It seems much easier to believe I can control, to believe I have to protect...to believe life is a fight and a struggle I can win if I am strong enough! NO CHILD CAN CONQUER THE WORLD! Or can s/he?
This morning my devotional reading was a call to remember the story of Saul, David, and Goliath. I know the story well, but I had not considered in in the context of my life, lately. Though this has always been a story of the weak prevailing over the strong with God’s help, now it is a story of the wisdom inherent in childhood: David, the youngest of eight sons, a lowly shepherd, saw a way to defeat Goliath that the entire amy of King Saul’s slaves could not imagine. It was a laughable proposition! A child and his slingshot kill a giant whom no soldier would face? His brothers laughed at him, yet in his certainty he made his way to an audience with the King, and he told Saul of his experience guarding his sheep, how his arm was strong and his aim was sure, and that God was with him and with the Israelites. A child had figured out how to defeat the Philistines with the certainty of his vision!
What I love about this story is not that a child won the fight...but one who thought like a child! I am certain that there were perhaps hundreds of men in Saul’s army who had better aim and more experience at a slingshot than little David. However they had been hardened by war. They were used to awkward spears and shields...they had seen too much blood. Forced to labor as slaves sent to die for their King, they did not search for the inspired thought which comes from God to save. When we are in a position of slavery, of desperation, of little hope, God cannot share the simplest solutions with the child-like hearts SHe is looking for...indeed, the hearts SHe sees in us at all times, regardless of what we believe.
When we worship something or someone, we kneel to them in the conviction that we are separate from them. I used to worship singers who somehow seemed to have figured out how to be a part of the music they sing. I thought, like many people do, that there was something god-like about them: they have been blessed to a special degree which allows them to do what they want to do. In this worshipping state of mind, I automatically separated myself from the vision I saw and felt. I squelched the imagination of my internal “David” and put myself by default in the same category as the thousands of members of Saul’s army: enchained and shackled by the common thought that what makes a singer is a mystery, I languished in my lack of information. I, like Saul’s servants, sacrificed myself over and over to the giant “Goliath” of what it means to be a singer. I attacked it with every imaginable weapon. I tried to engage it in philosophy and in spirituality. I tried pleading with it and yelling at it. I tried walking away. But every time I turned, my “Goliath” would still be standing in front of me, unvanquished.
It is not by chance that I have met a singer as part of this most recent awakening who shall remain nameless here to protect my unabashed praise and love for him (it is enough that I dedicate this blog to ONE tenor!). Through all of his life as a singer he has somehow managed to maintain a sense of fun and play. Sharing a meal with him is like recess on the playground...always something new and fresh, always something to appreciate and enjoy! To top that time with him off, I also had coffee with a dear friend and colleague who loves shoes as much as I love horses and stands in the midst of a shoe gallery with the same passionate joy that I feel when I stand in the horse barn! What treasures!
These colleagues and friends are I hope just the beginning of my great discovery of sweetness in the singers around me. It took an internal journey, it took being open to the fun-loving girl I also am, to find my way to the slingshot and rock which has toppled the Goliath of my dreams. The solution came quietly. It came in the form of a hug I gave without knowing why...it came in the form of laughter and joy and letting go into the center of who I am...it came in the form of a teacher who embodies all of the things I admire in a singer: a man who has maintained an open heart while cultivating an incredibly exacting mind so that the technique he shares sends us directly to the source of our truest power. It is with deep humility that I stand here and now, slingshot in hand, Goliath toppled...with the same feeling of wonder I felt when I found a kitten to protect or a horse who would let me ride him, or an Oregon sunset which stunned me into silent tears.
What does it take to get to this place? Where did this transition come from, and what of the mountain of my own building which I believe I have been climbing?
Somehow, with Father Homer’s voice in my ears, I suspect I know the source of my mountain. I suspect I know why I feel I have been fighting an uphill battle, one which the people who love me with consternation could not understand! “Why are you not singing everywhere?” they would ask... “With a voice like that I would be taking on the world!”. It has not been my particular journey, to lack people in my life who believe in my voice. My particular uphill trek has been driven by a lack of knowledge (not belief--belief I have had since I was born...I just did not know it!) in myself. How could I express something which seemed to be ever-changing? How could I ask anyone to invest in something I did not understand? How could I in any confidence share something which I did not truly know?
While I was sitting on the couch here in Gothenburg earlier today (an aptly name city, as God indeed is here), I was sitting across from my best friend of all time, the woman who has believed in my singing from the beginning of my vocal rebirth. This incredibly beautiful girl now has a precious baby...a baby who is one year old, with a head of stunning black curls and eyes which could melt anybody’s heart. He is one of those special babies who is just bursting with joy. One look or one kiss can send him into ecstatic fits of laughter. His facial features could be easily transferred to some monk in the mountains who is saturated in love. He laughs at nothing and everything all at once. My heart does not know whether to weep or laugh with him, or better yet both at the same time, for the beauty of what he represents.
This precious baby knows love so deeply that he will reach up his arms in pure joy with no prompting at all, and fall backward into empty space. He has entered the stage where he is beginning to know his physical strength and flexibility, but he does not yet know fear. It is an interesting stage for me to observe as his honorary Auntie, and I can’t help but see the wisdom in his existence, as without fear and in complete joy, he flies, unguarded, into my sheltering arms from the side of the couch. His Mother in all her wisdom, watching, said “Does not God want us to be like that?”...to which I had to reply “Yes, Yes, Yes...”!
The love which runs so freely from this child and the trust which is so apparent would not be were it not for his loving family. If his watchful parents were not there to catch him, trust would soon be lost and the pain of life would color those gorgeous eyes in a deeper cast.
It is here that I have learned the greatest lesson of all, as I consider the next steps in my life as a singer. For if the greatest singing I have known is also the most child-like, where are the singer’s parents? Where does s/he find the love and trust needed to let her inner child play in wild abandon?
Is a great singer not only a grown-up version of their own inner child, but also its watchful and caring parents? Is our vocal technique vocabulary not riddled with the words of parenthood? “Keep the head voice up...” ... “Keep the little smile...” and of course “Don’t let the head voice fall...” ... “Don’t sing too heavy...” ... “Be wary of over-projection...” ... “Stay away from all extremes...” ...all in the name of keeping the voice, our precious baby, safe from harm, and honing our slingshot arms and aims.
I am learning to be all in one: a child as pure and as real and courageous as can be, and her Mother, with firm boundaries and a warm embrace. I am preparing, as if I were a woman having given birth, verily, to a precious living, growing creation, to allow my voice to fly, unafraid, into my own waiting, protecting arms...into the arms of God and the Universe and Love and Life...and I am preparing to watch this all happen before me, as the maintainer of this holy temple and nursery of my body, through the eyes of a God who, in my years in Church gave me the words to say for whom and for what I truly live.
I have finished with fighting and climbing. I am now, officially, before the world in all openness, leaving behind the mountain of dead dreams killed by my struggle with the Goliaths of my past. God and Her servant David have laid claim to my voice and I, as my dear teacher told me today, am ready to “do my job” in completion and in sincerity, in trust and in truth, as a child, as a Mother, as an artist and as a woman.
It is here that I must share with you the quotation from the sermon at Fifth Avenue which started this whole journey of thought and realization. You will see how it crystallized the floating thoughts in my heart to such an extent that I could finally express them to you here:
“[Faith] is a mountain we cannot climb by our own efforts; and if we could we should only perish in the ice and unbreathable air of the summit lacking those wings with which the rest of the journey has to be accomplished. For it is from there that the real ascent begins. The axes and picks are “done away” and the rest is a matter of flying.”
~C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
~C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics
I am not afraid, for I know more and more by the day how to read my voice like I can read, relaxed and observant, the body language of my precious ‘nephew’ as he takes his deep breath before flight. I am ready, darling, I am ready. And this...this is Love.