Orphan Rituals

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

This morning I woke up out of breath.

It’s a usual thing…maybe it’s allergies, maybe I have emphysema.

Who knows?

These are the kinds of crazy thoughts I have.  Every day.

Thanksgiving and Christmas morning when you are by yourself can be difficult.

When I was a young artist living in New York it was a little different. There were lots of single, displaced career-minded actors without significant others. At Christmastime my Oregon friend Michael and I went out for Chinese food and then we would go to the movies. Sometimes we saw two. One of my favorite Thanksgivings was one I spent with my friend Jed, who is from Germany by way of Denmark. He bought a big chunk of pre-cooked turkey and I made Stovetop and sweet potatoes without any unhealthy toppings. At the party, we strung cranberries and popcorn for his Christmas tree and toasted each other with blackberry Manischewitz.

This is not the same thing as being an orphan at someone else’s party.  Last year at Christmastime in Portland, I realized that I had been attending other people’s rituals for quite some time.  So during the month of December, I began to create my own instead. I went to plays and concerts both by myself and with friends. I dressed the tree in red lights and put imitation birds on them like my mother did when I was small. On Christmas Eve I went to a high holiday candlelight service and when I got home, I made a trail of chocolate kisses and Hershey’s miniatures from my bedroom to the stocking under the tree the way my sister did when her children were young. In the morning I lit candles and put on the Hallmark Station’s Yule Log. I had already stuffed the things I had bought for myself earlier that month (things I needed which I was already using) into gift bags with tissue paper. When I woke up I cut open one of the Christmas cakes I had made the day before and toasted the morning with hot cocoa. Then I stuck the rest of the cake into the freezer.

Thanksgiving is not quite the same as Christmas. It’s a big social event which revolves around food preparation.  Even though I haven’t been feeling very social or brave lately, I determined to seek out a solitary adventure. Ha.  It didn’t take long to find out nothing was open. Not the ice skating rink, the community center or the museum. (Okay, the zoo was open but somehow that sounded cold and wet and lonely.)  What I did find that intrigued me was the West Linn Turkey Trot, a benefit for the local food bank. It’s an annual three mile run through a park filled with trees. By a river. Gorgeous. And very wet. I put on my rain coat and headed down the road to the sloshy parking lot.

As a solitary attendee, I had forgotten that when you go to events like this on your own, other people will talk to you. Especially if you talk to them. My shyness dissipated when I met the congenial Chris and Liz (from Texas), two cute policemen (from Oregon City), several sexy fire fighters (from Tualatin) and a bunch of flirty babies in backpacks. There were also about twenty galloping dogs and dozens of quick small children in running shoes. There were bottles of donated water and satsumas and Costco trail mix, a big digital clock so you could track your time and a little girl who sang the national anthem a capella. There were also lots of strollers and a whole lot of mud.

It was a blast.

Because of my breathiness this morning (the mugginess? ambient cat hair? nerves?), I thought that I would probably just walk and not run. But the exuberant planners had put up many handwritten signs of encouragement along the way including ones hanging overhead from the trees to jump up and “high five” which said things like, “You’re nearly there!”. A photo of a bikinied man from the television show Baywatch declared, “You have worked your Hassel hoff!” and another stated, “You’re doing so well that if you were in a documentary, Morgan Freeman would be narrating it!”  Caution tape kept us all from straying off the proscribed path. I realized suddenly that all of these messages were symbolic of how to live a good life.

Despite my derelict lung capacity, I ran nearly the entire three miles.  Afterward, I went home to get ready to go be a Thanksgiving orphan at someone else’s party. It’s not such a bad thing. After all, this way I don’t have to host the whole event myself. Right now I am now at home making deviled eggs and I’ve already laid out the Bailey’s on the counter.  I’m watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade live on YouTube. It’s a parade with a tradition which has special meaning to me because I used to go to watch it in person when I lived in New York.

The best thing about all of these explorations is that I now have some rituals I can share with friends…or with that special someone else whenever he comes my way.

But it also doesn’t matter. These are things I enjoy which I can do on my own.

And just knowing that is enough to make me breathe easier.

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Resurrection Girl

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

“Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of.” – Bethany Hamilton

“After the Rain” – photo by Katie Bennett

Last week I was nervous.

Some of the nerves were over good things. Everyone seemed to be emerging from the rains to frolic in the spring sun. Even better, these people wanted to have contemplative, meaningful conversations. 

Some of them even offered me jobs.

Being nervous is no fun. But as I examined the feeling which swept down my legs and up through my mid-region, I had to remind myself that I would much rather be anxious than depressed.

That gave me heart.

“Snowed In” – West Linn, Oregon (Jan ’17) – photo by Katie Bennett

Thinking of the dark winter when I holed up in my shell like the classic Portlander I’m becoming makes me think about the year cycle and how we equate winter with aging and death.  We want to hibernate like the seeds of the dying plants or like eggs buried deep in a feathery nest. It happens over and over in this town and this year is no exception.  

Lately I find that more and more I think about my past more than my present. Some people say you shouldn’t do that.

It is true that it is easy to idealize the past or kick myself in my own shin over things I did, telling myself I should have known better when the fact is I couldn’t have known at all unless I did them.

However, thinking about myself as the little girl I was helps me. She was sweet and flawed. She is me. If I think of the doddering aging fumbler who never got it right, how can I forgive myself?

“Persephone” – art by Rachel Walker

It takes courage to do things. It takes an openness of heart to change. Sometimes it’s as simple as one small change in thinking. One thought such as, “what would it mean if the problem weren’t me?” or “do I really have to decide if that person is “all good” or “all bad”? can soften all the muscles in my body. It’s a self-made massage done with thought.

Coming out of my winter shell I feel like Persephone rising from Hades to embrace the spring.

Arise, little girl!

In Greek mythology, Persephone was a maiden who was kidnapped by Hades, god of the underworld.
Every Spring she courageously emerges.

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The Art of the Day Job

Dealing at a Team Casino party last December

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

A couple of years ago when I was working as a featured actor on a commercial, a couple of extras waiting to go on asked me if performing was all I did. I thought about this. The answer at that moment was “yes” so I said that and their estimation of me clearly went up. It was obvious that in their minds this meant I had “made it” as a performing artist.

No one asked my reasons for “yes.”  Among them, I wasn’t teaching a college class that particular semester and I was on unemployment. I also had other resources and some money saved. These were the things that made it possible for me to be free to drive up to Washington at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday and be my best self in front of a camera.

We know the world needs temps and waiters and subs and baristas and bus tour guides and dealers working parties at Team Casino.  I have done all of these things and so have many of my friends. But are these jobs less important than other ones? Some jobs are more desirable, yes. But more important? Is being free to do what we want always a better use of our time than having a “day job”?  I would argue the opposite. How can we connect to people in the world who are working at other kinds of jobs than we are if we never do the same? Being an actor or writer means you must be a good observer of life. I would argue that if you can squeeze a day job in between your performance gigs you will become a better artist. 

My heroine played by Lexie Quandt in my short play “Heaven on Fire” at the Hipbone Studio. Directed by Julie Akers

After a flurry of recent projects which included directing  Almost, Maine at Portland Community College and writing two short plays which were produced at the PDX Playwrights Daisy/Crazy Dukes Festival in January, I once again found myself with a little down time. This time I decided to try substitute teaching in the public schools.* Right now there is a great need all over the state of Oregon for subs so in addition to the perks of flexibility and a $20+/hour paycheck, I knew I would be helping my neighborhood and my community. Never have I had so many thank yous as I have had in the past six weeks just entering and leaving a building.  However, I didn’t expect it to be fun and it wasn’t.  

Gary Corbin and Lauren Emery in my short play “The Egg” which I wrote and directed in 48 hours. Hipbone Studio, Portland, OR

My first month of subbing was fraught with exhaustion, students who challenged me every day and even danger. At one middle school where the rules on the wall declared, “Leave your smart phones in your locker” a disobedient 13-year old defied me. You would have thought I’d asked the student to hand over an arm instead of a tiny computer. Before I could walk the contraband down to the office, the kid got two buddies and cornered me in an empty classroom. The next time I stuck to 11-year olds, thinking younger children would be safer. Wrong. The instant I turned my back, one of them threw a pair of scissors at another student.  

Every time I sub I learn something about the human condition. Children aren’t really that much different in their temperament and concerns than we adults.  Kindergartners are a bunch of insecure gossips and tattletales who cry because “Billy was playing with Joe and not with me!” and most complaints like that come from the boys as well as half the tears.  It is an awakening to have the privilege of seeing boys at the stage of their development before they told to “shut up” by society and forced to pretend they are not just as emotional as girls. It is also nice to see the respect girls are given in school before they have to go out in the world and fight for it. Their confidence in themselves in that protected space reminds me that it is possible to be brave and bold even when the “real world” tries to tell me there is something wrong with me instead of something wrong with it.

My Substitute Teaching Badge

It is impossible to prevent people from having opinions about what we should or shouldn’t do. But the artist must be strong. Just know that the ills of the world do not reside in you if you do not participate in them.  The most difficult thing about this is letting go of the illusion that we have control. We get the idea that if we just shaped ourselves into somebody else’s vision of what we should be then we would fit into the world and everything would fall into place.  

We can’t. It wouldn’t. And we shouldn’t.  But we can create art about it.

And art can change the world.

* It is possible to sub in Oregon without a teaching credential but since I had an expired one I did the renewal work. All it would have taken was 275 hours of professional development in the last three years. Between all my acting and writing classes I logged nearly 500 before I stopped counting!

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Choosing Chaos

As a child in the middle of the back row, creating order out of chaos in an early ballet class.

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being free. 

Free not to have to pretend to be happy or smart or foolish.  

Free to pursue my dreams of expressing my true self through acting or dancing or writing or paint.

Free to be me.  By myself.

But this desire for freedom warred with my desire for love.

Love that was gentle.

Love that respected my intelligence and my feelings.

Love that allowed me to pursue my dreams.

Love that allowed me to be me. With someone.

Growing up, my choices seemed to be that I could either be free and alone or to be controlled and with someone. At school I had to conform or I was an outsider. At home I had to do what my parents said or else there was hell to pay. As I’m a born career girl, I thought being in a marriage meant I would have to follow my partner’s life around if I wanted a husband warm and sweet in my bed. It seemed to me that there was no freedom in love.

I have since learned that this is a lie.

The truth is that relationships are either based on manipulation and control or they are based on equality and respect.  These two kinds of interactions are frequently discussed in psychology circles when discussing healthy and unhealthy relationships. They also show up in faith traditions when discussing Good and Evil. In Christian ideology, God is said to have the desire to be freely chosen while the Devil wants control.  Some people think it is possible to avoid the pain of being in relationship with people by choosing to be alone. But that isn’t true either.  We have to be with people every day whether we like it or not.

No, the pain of real love means the pain of letting go of control and allowing for a little chaos.

It’s the only way to allow people to be free.

Interestingly, the idea of Chaos also shows up in faith traditions. Associated with the dark side of creation, it is an unpredictable void that existed before the world. It also refers to “behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions”.  This is why we don’t like chaos. 

Auditioning for a role in a film last month.

However, for the artist or the true lover, chaos is where we must always begin. We have to trust that it’s the first step on the way to creation.  

Being in relationship with people means joy but it also means being in pain. Not the pain of being with people who are rough, possessive, demeaning, insulting, angry and otherwise controlling in the name of love.  We don’t have to allow our relationships to be incidental and reactionary like that. We can choose to love with intention.

That means allowing for a little chaos.

Let’s choose it now.


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Piano Demon

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts

Yearbook photo of me in a high school play

When I was seventeen, a cute singer from my peer group asked me to play the piano for him.  I had never accompanied anyone before but I wanted to please him so I said yes.  He handed me piles of Barry Manilow and other uplifting songs of the era and encouraged me, saying, “You can play the piano!” It was all a little beyond me.  By the time we were scheduled to perform at one of the clubs in our hometown I was a bundle of nerves. 

By “club” I mean of course the Elks Club. We were teenagers, after all. Our audience consisted of elderly people sitting around tables who wanted a bit of light entertainment at their monthly meeting. But in my state of mind we might as well have been on stage at the Met.  On our second song I flubbed the final key change and froze.  My singer friend tried to get me to continue but I would not, could not go on.  He finally had to boot me from the piano bench and sit down at the keys himself. I stood in the middle of the room staring wide-eyed at the audience while he did both our jobs. It was a while before I realized I could move my feet.  I slunk home and never told anyone the story.  My relationship with the piano was over.

Until last year. 

The old Weber

I happen to be living in a house with an old Weber upright piano. It’s a lovely walnutty thing with carved curlicue wood over the harp. One day last year its black and white keys started to call my name and even taunt me. Startled, I cried, “No! I will have nothing to do with you!” But the piano demon would not leave me alone. I realized not to answer this was to allow this evil thing from my past to defeat me. So I ran to the downtown Portland library and dug through the archives until I found the Manilow song I had blown so long ago. It was “I Write the Songs”. 

I came home and set it on the piano. Most of the notes looked completely foreign after so many years of resistance. But I found myself pounding away, screwing up horribly of course, but determined to play the stupid song all the way through without stopping even if every note I hit was wrong.  And most of them were. But not all.  And I didn’t stop.  

After some months of practicing I met up again with my old singer friend and told him how ashamed I had felt on that day.  Eventually he remembered the gig and asked, “Why didn’t you start playing again?”

I said, “Because, I already wrecked it. It wasn’t perfect.”

He thought about that and smiled. “I know a place where you can play,” he said. “You can make mistakes there and you can even stop. All the people there will still applaud.”

So I did.

Last summer I showed up on his church doorstep wearing my lucky tangerine dress and shaking with the old terror.  As I sat down at the keys and began to play “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” for the elderly crowd, my friend sat down near me and started humming along.  At first I was thrown, then I was irritated, and finally I realized he was trying to encourage me.  He wasn’t listening for wrong notes.  He was listening for right ones.  

He had my back.

Sometime after this, I went to watch the auditions of Susan Boyle who blew everyone away in her Britain’s Got Talent performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”. Most people have watched the dramatic video where the judges discount her before she even opens her mouth. But this is the one where she wins the semifinals. Watch the beginning of her performance then skip to the end to hear the response of those same judges: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLSqUqmwvEE.

Me at Christmas Eve service last month

Her voice broke when she started the song but no one said a word about it. The difference was that this time they were rooting for her.  Susan Boyle won the competition and is now a world-wide name. Her elegance, talents and story were an inspiration in a world quick to embrace divisiveness. This shows that any situation can be turned around, any mistake you make can be redeemed. Not everyone out there is a critic.

Some people do have your back.

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Green Braided Beard

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts  –


The view from my window in West Linn, Oregon





Still and joyous.

Almost joyous.

This year has been one of pain and emotional strife but on this night the year all seems to be telescoping in to this one moment in time.

Overnight, a mood can change.

A thought or good news can change it.

Exercise can, a return to health or just a good quote for the day.

Even a quirky element in a dream.

The other morning was like that. I woke up with a heavy heart from a dream in which somebody I love shunned me.  In it was one odd element that the person doesn’t have in life.

He had a green braided beard.


Backyard view from a friend’s house in Bend, Oregon last Thanksgiving

Dreams like that are no surprise. Much of my loss of confidence this year has been due to strife over the illness of my aging mother and the drama, emotions and finger pointing that have gone on in my family as to how to care for her.  Harsh words have been spoken and so far there have been no apologies.  It’s hard not to feel pulled to pieces when people want more from you than you feel you have to give.  

How much is too much?

At this time of year people tend to think about giving and their thoughts often turn to people in need. Once of my nieces has had close dealings with the homeless community and she says the only way to help those people change is a one-on-one friendship. Sometimes even that doesn’t work. She told me a story about how she managed over time to befriend a homeless girl but that there came a day when she couldn’t be there when the girl wanted. That was that.  The homeless girl felt betrayed and left the friendship. My niece says people are great at providing clothes and blankets and meals and shelter in the winter cold but that won’t get the homeless out of their addictions or solve their mental illnesses.  Yet should we give up our whole lives to help one other person? Can we even do that?

How much is enough?

Christmas Tree, Pioneer Square, Portland, Oregon

Hearing this story and thinking about my mom made me consider myself and how I interact with people. Sometimes I want too much from my friends and family and sometimes I want to give more of myself than they want me to give. The same thing works in the opposite direction. Sometimes people act as though they are trying to give me something and tell me I should be grateful but in reality those people are only trying to push me around.  

What is true giving?

The morning of my dream was a planned day of leisure. I took a hike up a tree-lined road and I went to my favorite yoga class. I spent an hour talking to someone compassionate who told me I was worthy of love. Then I dressed to the nines and went to an afternoon Christmas party. It was a benefit for the Oregon Food Bank at Cast Iron, an agency which has cast many national films and shows.  I ate cookies and sang and played with the owners’ dogs.    In the evening, I went to my PDX Playwrights group and sat around a table to read and critique new plays. Afterward I went out for a hard cider with some of the playwrights including my friend Alan.  Alan had a stroke last year and I knew he’d had a hard time of it so I asked him how he was doing. He was a pianist and a composer who had lost the use of his left hand.

He looked at me like I was crazy.  “Why? Because of the stroke?” he asked. “No, no, don’t feel bad. I don’t. I have eight grandchildren and four lovely daughters-in-law and I don’t have to work anymore. I have worked with some of the best musicians in the world. I am lucky to live in America where everyone has enough—even the homeless have more than they would in other countries–and I have a new musical coming out next month. In fact it’s called Homeless. It’s about people less fortunate than we are. So no whining on the yacht.”

This expression was something I hadn’t heard before so I asked him to repeat it:


Crown Princess…and some other tiny boat. I was fortunate to cruise the Baltic on this ship in 2009

“No whining on the yacht.”

I thought about my day and how it would seem to someone else like such a great day and I thought about how much I didn’t enjoy it. My whole life I have always been a bit entrepreneurial and inventive enough to work a flexible schedule so that I can pursue a creative career. I don’t have the money some people have but I have frequently sacrificed that for time. I also have sacrificed having children and intimate connection because I so wanted my freedom.  Yet despite all my efforts to create the life I wanted, I found myself struggling.  

Was I giving enough?

At the end of the day as I sit looking out at the cold dark frozen night, it occurs to me that the one gift I am giving the world is that I can take care of myself. I am not a burden to anyone yet and I am free to enjoy my life. It’s a life many other people would love to have and some day I may not have it.  There is a lot of talk about gratitude in this world and many admonitions against self pity but that was not the emotion I have been fighting.  


In my Estonia Christmas hat in Ontario, Oregon

It was guilt.  

Survivor guilt.

It is so good to unbraid the twisted green thing that has been haunting me for so long.

May you exorcise all your demons too.  


Alan Alexander’s #HomelessTheMusical will be at the Clinton Street Theatre in Portland January 27, 28 and 29th at the Clinton Street Theatre. To purchase tickets, click: https://www.boxofficetickets.com/go/event?id=316913 Alan says the use of his left hand is slowly returning and he’s now playing a bit of piano and bass.

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Tennis Shoe Politics

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts  –


My old black and white Keds

I don’t believe in sides. I really don’t.

I am someone who is always looking for a third way of looking at things.

Politically I am a moderate. Yet this is what I got when I attempted to reach out on social media to engage in the recent post-election debate:


A sweet friend did this to me. An old friend.  A friend I thought loved me. And this was over something I didn’t even think was particularly controversial. Just fact-checking stuff. Would she have done this to my face? I don’t think so.  It’s scary to talk about feelings face to face.  But it’s better. It’s important to say “I love you” in person even if you are not sure the sentiment is returned.  It’s generous.  It is also more daring to challenge each other’s convictions in person. It is less likely we will shout at each other.  It is far too easy to “hide behind the screen”.  So many things in life are unjustified and make us feel angry. Or do they?

Do they really? Do “causes” make us angry or does anger make us seek out causes? You know the old adage about the chicken and the egg?

I think the anger came first.


Here’s a link to the fun argument.

We have all been hurt by life and are driven by our emotions. Men and women are born packed with hormones which dip and peak at various times of the day and month. In the worst case scenarios, this has led young men to feel justified to pick up guns and shoot up schools, malls, and theatres and clubs. Some of them have gone down with causes on their lips, but I don’t believe the “causes” were the reason for their actions.

I think the raging came first.

Snowflakes we made at Christmas for my church

This makes me think back to when I was a kid in middle school. Talk about hormones. If you wore the wrong kind of jeans or tennis shoes, you were smack on the wrong “side” of everything. I really don’t think things have changed much.  Community can be awkward and uncomfortable but we all need each other. It is important not to remain isolated in our own little political bubbles. It’s vital to look into each other’s eyes. It’s essential not to get sucked into the rage.  We are individuals as unique as snowflakes and as multifaceted as gems.  We are not flat comic book characters with only two dimensions so how can there only be two answers to any question?  We are three dimensional beings. Some scientists believe there is even a fourth and a fifth dimension. I guess I do too, since I believe in a spiritual realm.


Faceter Gail Bumala’s unique spiral rose cut.

We all have the right to speak and the responsibility to listen. Trust me, being a know-it-all never changed anyone.  The only thing that ever changed anyone is compassion.

So blessed are the peacemakers.

May I become one too.

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The Me Season


Self Portrait, Seaside, Oregon

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –

Life this year has been hard.

Not because I am unloved or don’t have friends.

Not because I do not have family who will come and help me if I am ill or in trouble.

Not because of my career or my health or my financial situation.

Objectively speaking, all of these things are going well.

But none of these things look quite the same as they did at this time last year.

(It’s difficult to let go of the old and embrace the new.)

Lately I’ve been having scary conversations with people I love about how I really feel about them.  Worrying about people who don’t seem to want to stay in my life.  Wondering why the people who have known me the longest seem to understand me the least.  Maybe it’s because those people have too many memories of how I used to be. Or impressions which were false which became imbedded over time.

I wonder if it is because people sometimes become so close they can’t really see you?

Some people say that friendships come and go with the seasons. I hate that idea. It doesn’t seem fair when people go. I think friends should remain committed.  But it doesn’t really matter what I think.  It only matters what I am becoming.

Most people in my life think of me as a strong-willed person.  I am not.

I am a people pleaser.

Veteran performer Kevin Bacon says, “Most actors want to have the world look at us and love us, and those who say that that’s not really a driving force for them, I don’t believe.” I think this is accurate. Most of my life I have felt like if there is a problem, the problem must be me. This turns out to be a longstanding mistaken core belief of mine.  What I am now learning is that some people have limited capacities for handling things. This means that if someone criticizes my personality, the problem may well lie there. It doesn’t mean the problem is me.


Photo by Nathan Nichols

At the moment my life seems to be a quiet time of self-reflection after many storms. Without the usual people bolstering me up, I have begun to feel the pain I had been avoiding due to years of relying on others to help me share the burden.  But after tears often comes euphoria. And after pain comes joy. That is something I haven’t felt in a while. Contentment, yes.  Anguish, certainly. But joy? That childlike delight I felt in my youth? I’d almost forgotten what that is like. And yet I feel its stirrings.

It will be worth the wait.

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Houses with Secret Rooms

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts  –

At age one, West Linn, OR

When I was a little girl I used to sit in the fields above my house on a hill and hide in the tall grass.

I would tramp it down and make a little room for myself. Sometimes I would tromp a hallway through the grass to another room and another until I had a little house.

There I would sit in one of the rooms where no one could see me and gaze down upon the little Oregon town in which I lived.

Artists have vivid imaginations and I am no exception. Mine is big and broad and never ending. It is filled with watery mists and parched deserts (in the same locale), forests and sky (in reverse order), fairies that flitter and kittens that talk. At night I dream of crazily built houses which contain hidden passageways to secret forgotten rooms. Usually they are filled with old furniture and spilled food.

May 2014 028.jpg

Garden house, Seaside, OR

As a child I lived 90% of my life in a fantasy world.  I could stare at the wall all day and not move and be perfectly entertained. When things went wrong, I would fix the flawed world in my head and make things turn out differently to make myself feel better. But early on I realized that no one else around me used that method of escape so I hid my gift from the world in shame and fear.  After all, I didn’t want people to think I was crazy.  I have since learned that fantasy is a “coping mechanism” and that artists are “sensitive”. Also, I was doing something called “self-soothing”. These are all good things.

Because artists are sensitive it is easy for us to develop psychological blocks which make it difficult to express ourselves and be what we were truly meant to be. Some of us tend to look too much to others for approval.  This can cripple us further. As a child I never thought of myself as an artist or at least not a very good one. Now I know I was born one.  As I have begun to live a more open life I am starting to unlock the doors to my secret rooms and invite people inside.

field house

Grassy field, West Linn, OR

Acting and writing have been very healing to me. The worst things that happened to me as a child have become storytelling fodder. As an actor, my most shameful memories now have become standup routines. More and more, my memories do not hurt me anymore because I no longer relive them. I just use the events to tell more stories.  The more I delve, the more I discover secrets that need to be uncovered. The old furniture needs to be replaced and the food swept up.

Now I’m entering into a new phase. A slightly scary phase.  We will see what happens next. I hope I can be strong and become the person God means me to be. Yet I know I’m already who he made me–disarmingly frank and yet somehow delicate.  I am a fortunate woman to be who I am.

I hope you too can embrace who you are and know that there is nothing wrong with you. God made you unusual for a reason.

After all, He is an artist too.

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Singing Ugly

A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts  –

Katie singing baby with kate

Singing “Patterns” from “Baby” at a Faculty Recital in Ontario, Oregon. At the piano: Kate Larson

Last spring I lost my voice.

This was a true disaster.

In two days I was due to travel to New York to begin study with a world famous voice teacher. Money had been spent and the tickets and hotel booked. Right next to Carnegie Hall.

What irony.

In desperation I scampered to the doctor down the street from where I live just south of Portland. “Give me the good drugs!” I whispered helplessly. He laughed and prescribed everything I had ever thought of trying and one thing I hadn’t:  Five tiny miracle pills called steroids. Who knew? By day three I could croak, and that was the day I began my study with the amazing Catherine Fitzmaurice.

Catherine’s philosophy of voice training is different from any other teacher I have ever encountered. Breathing and relaxation are important, but her students do not lie passively on the ground and will these states to arrive. Instead, she has developed a more active method of relaxation she calls “tremoring.” Simply put, the actor moves into a variety of positions and lets the body shake. We also make a lot of noise. Sometimes we recite Shakespeare. Sometimes we sing. If you’ve ever been to a charismatic church service, you get the idea–It looks like everyone is filled with the spirit and speaking in tongues.


On the town after a day with Catherine

Something holy was going on for sure. I have a nice singing voice, but I’ve never thought of myself as someone who has the “money” notes. You know, the high notes they pay the big bucks to singers on Broadway. But Catherine has a unique philosophy about voice support. Like most voice teachers, she talks about the intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, but refutes the longstanding Linklater idea that the breath comes from the belly. “Your lungs are not in the belly!” she would cry and show us videos of diapered toddlers whose voices could be heard across a football stadium. She asked us to watch them engage the transverse muscles which wrap around the pelvis. These are the powerful muscles a woman uses to push out a baby.

Catherine had one day in the course which she called “Singing Day.” Joey Bates was our teacher and when my turn came, I chose “The Colors of My Life” from Barnum. Joey played the piano as I sang quietly and tearfully around what little voice I had. By then I was on day five of my miracle steroid pills. “At least,” I thought hopefully, “it sounds kind of pretty.” When I finished, Joey turned to me. “Katie, do you trust me?” he asked. I nodded. He knew I did. “Sit on the piano bench next to me,” he said, “and push against me with your back as hard as you can.”

empire state

Katie at the top of the Empire State Building

I looked across the classroom over the heads of the talented teachers and college students who had come from all over the world to take this workshop. As I gazed out the open window, I put my back against Joey’s side and pushed as hard as I could.

And I sang.

The voice that came out of me skyrocketed across the room, out the window and practically smashed into the building across the street. The sound was hard and strong and like nothing I had ever heard come out of my body.

You would think this would have been a powerful lesson to me. But afterward, when my classmates came up to complement me, I found myself asking, “But wasn’t it ugly? It sounded ugly, didn’t it?”

They pondered this in puzzlement. “Well, no, it wasn’t ugly,” they replied.

“But it wasn’t pretty, was it?” I asked.

“Well, it wasn’t ugly. It was incredible. And don’t you have laryngitis?”

After the workshop was over I returned to Portland and incorporated Catherine’s tremoring into my acting and relaxation techniques. I relished the hot summer, acted in a couple of films and spent time with friends. But I didn’t do any singing.


The Columbia River where it meets the Pacific Ocean

Then the darkness descended.

The winter rains hit early that year and with unusual force. By February a record had been set at 25.27 inches which is nearly twice the normal rainfall. The river rose, the yard became a jungle, and the house was as shadowy as a cave. I felt like the girl in the Ray Bradbury story “All Summer in a Day” who “looked as if she had been lost in the rain for years and the rain had washed out the blue from her eyes and the red from her mouth and the yellow from her hair.” Depression crept into the lives of many people I knew: Two marriages broke up, several of my most cherished friendships fell apart and my mother became seriously ill. Worst of all, a beloved aunt took her own life.

cherry blossoms

Cherry blossoms, McMinnville, OR

Things began to change in April when the sun arrived. Moods lifted, hard lessons were learned and singing reentered my life when an old friend asked me to help him with some special music at his church. We were in the sanctuary practicing when Mike startled me by letting his gorgeous tenor open up like nothing you’ve ever heard before. It hit the windows and the ceiling. Desperately I wanted to turn around and figure out what he was doing but I was playing the piano so I just listened as he let his voice bell out and fill the church.

Later that night, I thought about Mike’s technique and remembered “Singing Day” with Joey. I have always wished I had a voice like Judy Kuhn, Jody Benson or Paige O’Hara.* But singing isn’t always about sounding pretty any more than acting is about always looking good on screen. If you’re playing a tired alcoholic, the makeup artist is not going to give you false eyelashes. She is going to paint bags under your eyes. When you are singing in character you may choose to sound hard or angry or brassy. Resolutely I picked up the sheet music to “Moonfall”, a famously sweet soprano tune from The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  It is a song I have always told myself that I could never master. I stood in the sliding doorway which led to my bedroom and gripped the edges. I slammed both feet against one side of the frame, shoved my back against the other and pushed as hard as I could.

And I sang ugly.

I sang until my intercostal muscles ached and my diaphragm hurt and my transverse muscles pulsed.

In case you’re wondering, no miracle occurred. The sound was truly ugly. It takes time and practice to get better at something but boldness is always the first step.


With my Fitzmaurice classmates in New York, May 2015

After a while my voice started to congeal and the lower and high ranges began to sound like one voice instead of two. Now when I sing “Moonfall” I have enough control that I can actually apply some dynamics. Soon I know I will be able to hold the last note as long as I should. I look forward to the day when I am capable of applying the final sforzando.

I now relish my ugly.

I’m even beginning to think it sounds pretty.

*In case you don’t know who these sopranos are, they are the Broadway singers who voiced Disney’s Pocahontas, Ariel and Belle.

Note: Anybody trying my “doorframe” method, make sure the frame is wide enough for your spine. An interior sliding doorway with a smooth, flat frame is best. A safe alternative is to put a heavy piece of furniture in front of you and push against it while you press your back to the wall.

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