Tag Archives: birthday

Singing, with Strings

Sometimes the thing your heart wants, perhaps the very thing your soul most needs, falls right into your lap. It comes to you beautifully wrapped, an unexpected gift. But on closer inspection, you discover that those decorative ribbons are really strings attached. Do you accept the gift? Or reject the possibility because it carries unknown risk?

Yesterday I discovered that the phenomenal Ysaye Maria Barnwell is offering her workshop Building a Vocal Community:Singing in the African American Tradition at the Rowe Conference Center,  a place not far from my home.  On my fiftieth birthday.

I love to sing. I came to singing late in life, not until my forties. Growing up in a family of prodigiously talented singers and self-taught professional musicians, I always thought my modest voice was broken, better suited to poetry than song: “Poor thing. That child couldn’t carry a tune in a paper bag.” But when I was home alone doing ancient womanly tasks, like tending my garden, or  ironing,  my throat would open and overflow with my mother’s Baptist hymns  and my grandmother’s  quavering spirituals and Lady Day’s blues.

Nine years ago, I found my voice in a community choir. I was persistently invited to join Joyful Noise Gospel Choir even though I explained that I “couldn’t” sing.  For five years, I found my proper place in that choir– no longer a misplaced alto or soprano, I found my seat between the tenors and the baritones. I learned to sing out loud, in the choir and in the world. I became bolder in my work and more willing to take risks in my art. Joyful Noise dreamed of us collectively attending a workshop with Dr. Barnwell, because singing gospel and spirituals with others was a profound gathering home.  That gathering taught me that singing is a dialogue between the song you raise, the support of my response, and our shared listening for the possibility of harmony. This is a deep spiritual practice, one that healed my broken falsetto, leaving a strong, honest tenor in its place. When our choirmaster, and many members of Joyful Noise moved away, I cried for months.

And yesterday I discovered that Ysaye Maria Barnwell – the scholar and  bari/tenor from Sweet Honey on the Rock, the organizer of great Community Sings — is offering her workshop. In a place not far from my home.  On October 28th –  my fiftieth birthday.


This workshop costs hundreds of dollars, at a time when money’s too tight to mention. OK, not as tight as a long-line girdle, but definitely Spanx-tight.

And I don’t know if I can open my tender voice and heart in a room full of strangers to my culture, who are likely to treat it, and me, with some degree of unintentional disrespect. (I live in rural New England. Not exactly a bastion of racial diversity.)

If my intention is to act more powerfully in the world, how do I discern when something is an empowering but emotionally risky opportunity , or just another place to get deeper in debt and hogtied in somebody else’s  strings?

The Birthday Question

Thursday was my 49th birthday: my  initiation for turning Intentionally Fifty has formally begun! I have spent much of the last week reflecting on how I want to spend this year. In particular, I have been thinking about what I want to accomplish before I turn fifty, what experiences and accomplishments I want to have under my belt before I finish my forties.

But first, I need to party. One can’t properly celebrate a birthday in the middle of a busy work week, so I plan to spend this weekend celebrating. Won’t you please celebrate with me?

A Birthday Tradition: A circle of dear women in Ohio taught me celebrate with this special birthday tradition, one that I invite you to share:

  • We make a semi-circle, in birth order. Those younger than the celebrant tell the group one thing they look forward to about achieving the age of the celebrant.  Those older than the celebrant tell the one thing they remember most about being the age of the celebrant. Then, the birthday celebrant answers The Birthday Question: What is the most significant thing you have learned during the last year of your life?

So, Dear Reader, please join the circle and tell me:

  • To what do you aspire  before you turn fifty?
  • What do you remember most about your forty-ninth year?

I promise to answer The Birthday Question in return!

The gift of a year

My friend Lisa’s husband started it.

For her fiftieth birthday, he gave her the gift of year. A year without the need to do paid work, or take on new family projects; a year in which to explore who she would like to become in the world for this next part of her life. Lisa’s family isn’t rich, so this offer was a gift made of sacrifice, one she accepted gratefully and took seriously.  I learned a lot about how to turn intentionally fifty as I watched as Lisa deliberately, confusedly, impatiently and enthusiastically trying on new identities like clothing and jewels.

Lisa has a great sense of adventure in the area of vocation: she’s a dancer, educator and artist by training, and once she told me that she learned to juggle when she was a cook for a clown camp. So I watched with fascination as she discarded some old work identities that she had outgrown, and handed down to others social roles that no longer fit her but still had lots of life in them.  She redefined the role of home and the meaning of work in her world.

Starting from scratch, she became a yoga teacher; then she started her own business, helping folks who are Not The Usual Suspects to gain strength and wellness through yoga. She refreshed an old love to become a masterful landscape gardener, and she brings home the bacon – OK, brings home the tomatoes – as a grower of food. She’s moved her time and attention from mothering a young adult daughter to daughter-ing an aging father from afar.  And all the while, she has let her sassy red hair grow out curly, silver and long.

Witnessing Lisa’s transformation makes me ask myself: What would I do with the gift of a year to decide how I want to spend the next passage of my life?

What would you do?

And what if we already have that year, starting now?

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