My family is no stranger to tragedies. We know what it’s like to hurt.
When my Mother was twenty-five, her husband fell from a silo. She was left with a seven-month-old son, Doug.
Eventually, she married my father. They had four children—Adriel, Brenda, Nathan, and Frances.
Nathan drowned in our pond when he was two. I was six months old. My brother, Doug, died in a tractor accident when I was seven. The last of my grandparents died when I was twenty-two.
Death was a frequent part of our family discussions.
On holidays we visited the graves—memorials to those we lost. I hated standing in the graveyard waiting for my mother to be done visiting each grave. It was uncomfortable.
I watched my mother make it through all of those painful parts of living by praying. She believed in prayer. She prayed about everything.
On less tragedy-stricken days, we’d pray funny prayers (at least I thought they were funny)—such as “Please God, bring the cows back home,” when they escaped from the barnyard. Prayer was as much a part of our life as doing the farm chores. Given all of our family experiences, you’d think I could easily write a song about prayer.
When I was asked to sing for a National Day of Prayer event I didn’t feel like any of the songs I knew about prayer said what I wanted to say. I wanted my own song to sing.
I could hear a melody (and four simple words) that could be the chorus, but I couldn’t seem to write more than these four words….”But I can pray.”
I knew that I wanted to show the contrast between life’s struggles, the ineptness we feel when someone is hurting, and the power of prayer. I knew the verses would lead me to the chorus…somehow.
I waited for more words to come.
Then we got the news.
A tragic car accident—a young boy and his mother. She was driving him to school…a head-on collision. The boy didn’t survive the crash.
I knew the family. It shook the community.
I pondered the events in my heart, watching the mother struggle with the loss of her son, and a sister with the loss of her brother. I knew it would be hard. We all struggled to know what to say.
I am sitting in the audience listening to a teenage boy share his story. He just can’t cope with life anymore. He finds it too challenging to navigate the rough waters. He wants to end his life. When he gets to the part in the story where someone rescues him from those thoughts, he has my full attention.
What did they do to talk him down from the ledge?
They asked him one simple question.
“Are you OK?”
It literally saved his life, according to him.
As he speaks, I sit there, marveling at how simple it can be to extend kindness to another human being. I appreciate the reminder that I don’t need a degree in psychology or a business plan to let someone know how much I care.
In a world where information abounds in the form of self-help books, podcasts, videos and so on, there’s still nothing like heart-felt compassion and no phrase offers it quite as powerfully as these three simple words — are you OK?
I’ve been hearing this same question from some of you, through private messages, texts…etc., and I really appreciate the sincerity behind it. You are letting me know that you care.
I realize that there are probably others who are wondering the same thing, but are afraid to ask.
So here’s my answer…
Yes, I’m doing OK! Thanks for asking.
You know how many of us crave a “snow day” even if we don’t like snow? We love the way a snow day forces rest on us — as long as we don’t plow snow for a living. After December’s big Portraits of White event, I long for a snowy MONTH. Figuratively and literally. Ha. Ha.
In the post-concert season, I look for things that will refuel my creative soul. Some years I visit local libraries and just sit by the window. Sometimes I browse through quaint shops. Walk. Write. Listen to birds.
This year, I’ve been painting the kitchen, making new curtains, cleaning out closets, throwing stuff away, journalling, listening to CDs from my collection, riding my bike, taking naps and not permitting myself to think about anything music related.
Yep – it’s come to that. I have rules for my creative self. It probably sounds harsh, but I’ve learned that about myself. In a strange way, boundaries set in late December through January (and beyond) seem to lend themselves to creative freedom down the road. It’s a new lesson I’ve had to learn.
Behind every creative endeavor there is a little soul who gives herself wholly to the dream — seeing it through to the end. It’s one long season of exhaling. It must be followed by a long season of inhaling.
After six (and more) months of continual content creation leading up to December, I feel speechless. I can’t even open my Facebook app. I know that some people get nervous that I must be down and depressed after the show, but the truth is, I don’t feel any of those things when it comes to the post-show season.
I’m just depleted.
Deeply satisfied, but equally depleted.
After the concert, there is almost as much work to be done as before the concert as I close out the books, pay all of the invoices, prepare for tax appointments, re-do the website, organize photos, videos, file music, etc. So it’s usually not until the second or third week of January until my brain can truly unplug from the previous year. I can’t rest until then. By the time I feel I can truly unplug, everyone else has moved on.
So I shut down the electronics, the phone and sometimes even the studio itself. I can’t think of one thing to say, write or put into a fun video. Even writing emails and texts wears me out at this stage of my recovery. I don’t want to even touch my phone. That makes me appear quiet.
I think I should have been a bear. Hibernating in the winter appeals to me. I draw strength from solitude.
It feels completely unsocial and that makes me squirm, but I know that as an artist, I must have some time to recharge my batteries and do some normal kind of living. Since I write about life, I have to do some regular living in between the creative work. That’s where I get my creative juices for the next “thing.”
I’ve heard people asking for a new Christmas album. One of the many challenges is that it took me 40+ years of living life to write Portraits of White. It’s not just a pile of songs. It’s a pile of life, not to mention a pile of money to produce a project like that.
I guess I need another 40 years of living to write another one. I’m laughing again.
My simple goal for 2022 was to NOT make anything happen —choosing to “sit and wait” to see what might present itself to me. It’s a new approach for me because ordinarily, I love to set goals and work hard to accomplish them.
I also need to acknowledge that the lingering affects from the pandemic have made me feel like a circus clown jumping through hoops for two years straight as I keep trying to find a little spot close to my sweetest spot. I know other musicians feel this too.
Speaking of spots, I didn’t realize how many little spots could make up one big sweet spot. I’ve been thinking that perhaps it’s like the pre-dawn of the morning when you see shafts of light, but the source of the light is hidden from your view. Sometimes my husband and I like to sit and just watch the light BEFORE the light.
We are usually glad when the full light of day arrives, but it’s possible to enjoy the day-peep moments. There are things that can be accomplished. Like gathering inspiration.
Though I feel like COVID has been hiding the full light of day from us, I’m learning to thrive in the pre-dawn moments. I’m gathering inspiration.
I feel like I’ve had to go from living under a big ball of light to living in the softer hues.
Am I even making any sense?
See. This is why I think it’s better if I just stay silent for a season. LOL!
So in answer to your question….yes – I’m doing very well. I know I’ve been quiet. Believe me, there are moments when I want to pop up on Facebook and play a tune for you or see what you’re up to. But I resist because I know that I’m in a season of refueling right now and the only way to fill up is to breathe deeply in solitude.
Thanks for your understanding and ever-loving expressions of concern. It means the world to me.
I hear myself singing a familiar song, in the middle of the night, in my dreams. I’m singing the lyrics to the popular song, “Have a holly jolly Christmas…” but you wouldn’t recognize it because the melody is different than the one you’re used to. In my dream, I’ve turned the happy melody into something more melancholy.
I feel as if that’s kind of become my brand in my “awake” life—my unwanted brand. I take happy things and make them sad. Or at least point out the sad. I guess it makes sense to do it in my dreams too.I suddenly wake up, the melody and lyrics fresh on my mind. Was I really dreaming? I get up to write down my ideas. It’s rather unusual for me to be singing in my dreams. Maybe this is something special so I better pay attention.
I usually go to the piano when I hear a melody and lyric, but since my piano is next door in my studio and it’s the middle of the night, I dig through the drawer looking for a piece of paper. I scribble my ideas on a piece of paper, drawing little lines that go up and down across the page representing the melody so that I’ll remember it in the morning. As it turns out, when I revisit the idea, it’s the harmony I have actually noted.
I start to finish the song a few days after the dream…(at least I thought I finished it)
Here’s one fo the early drafts:
Have a holly jolly Christmas
Have a holly jolly Christmas
you can hear the music play
but as time goes on, on and on
Christmas doesn’t look the same each year
I go wandering ’round in a circular world
that doesn’t know where to end
in the midst of the lights
where do you belong, Jesus?
Show me the way back to the heart of Christmas
help me to see all that you meant it to be
I want to see youI want to know you better
show me the way, show me the way to You
All the family now is gathered
they have come from far and near
but the pain inside cannot hide
Christmas has its disappointing times
in the back of our minds
mem’ries there to remind
things are not as you wish
and in the midst of the tears
shed through the years, you wonder
where do I belong, Jesus? (Chorus)
Christmas is meant to be joyful
Christmas is meant to bring peace
but just like the story of so long ago
where things don’t turn out just right
Children lose their lives
royal men still lie
and families run for their life (A husband baby and wife)
still this prayer I offer you tonight
Show me the way….
I take this song to my manager (as well as many other Christmas songs I am writing) and his critique is consistent with what I’ve heard before. “Even your funny songs have an intensity to them,” he says, in reference to a non-holiday song I wrote called “Personalities.” Sigh. I’ve asked for constructive critique because I want to improve as a songwriter. So now I have to receive it, right?
I thought you might enjoy seeing my notes I wrote after he listened to Back to the Heart of Christmas.
I love the part where he asks, “Who’s the kids getting killed?”
Or the part where he says the bridge is too l long and introduces a whole new line of thought. I see what he means once he points it out. A bridge should simply carry us from one thought to another without building a whole new road. It should take us over the water, not muddy it.
In the broader story of the Nativity, other babies died, a King lied and the parents of Jesus had to run for their lives. So in this case, I felt the bridge in the song could help remind us all that life isn’t perfect, especially at Christmas. Sad is mixed in with happy, even in the Nativity. But in my desire to “set the world straight” I tend to try to say too much.
I’ve had to learn to stay focused on the one thing the song is about and not try to solve all the problems of life in just three minutes.
It took me decades to understand my own yearning for perfect holidays. To discover that much of it was tied to the fact that we didn’t have perfect holidays as a family. We were not a complete unit. We had lost people along the way and it was extra hard at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Just as my disheartened soul went through some healing and mindset shifts about the holidays, coupled with a better self-awareness of why I struggled with the holidays, the song also evolved. I wrote a much simpler bridge…
Help me to be like a child at heart
open my life to your love
setting aside the distractions of life
that keep me from the greatest gift of all
Of course, in my case, the distractions were grief and loneliness. They come in all shapes and sizes.
I started sharing the song (the re-written version) with audiences at Christmas events. Many times people would ask if I had a recording of that song. I knew that was a good sign.
All of these years later, after putting it on the album, keeping it in the annual show, I still feel the magic every time I sing it.
I knew that I’d face some extra challenges this year when I sat down to plan Portraits of White because of COVID 19. I was hoping that by December the pandemic would be a thing of the past. As we all know, it’s not.
So in addition to the regular lions, tigers and bears I usually encounter as we get close to the show, I’ve had to face a new monster this year.
I decided to approach it with a little bit of humor…
“Are you ready for Thanksgiving yet?” the young cashier asks the shopper a few cash registers over from me.
“Yes,” the customer replies confidently.
I try to mind my own business as I pay for my groceries. It’s not my conversation but I somehow feel like it could be.
It’s only November 5, I think to myself.
The determined cashier continues. “Well then, are you ready for Christmas?” It feels to me as if she’s now trying to one-up the shopper.
“I don’t do Christmas—too many expectations,” the customer says, loud enough that everyone can hear her. I try to keep my head down and resist making eye contact.
Secretly, I admire her and I smile to myself. She isn’t rude or obnoxious, but she clearly lets us know (because we’re all listening aren’t we?) where she lands when it comes to Christmas. And now it feels as if it’s a public conversation.
I decide in that moment to turn around and look at the person who is being interrogated, as if to let her know that I acknowledge her and can appreciate the position she’s just been put in. Someone needs to acknowledge her discomfort…at least with a nod or a smile.
We all get it. Whether it’s expectations, loneliness, grief, lack of money or time, weariness in coming up with what to get someone, dread of dragging out all of the decorations, we all have buttons that get pushed during the holidays or in this case, the weeks leading up to the holidays.
I stand there feeling conflicted. While I feel sorry for the customer, I also appreciate that the cashier is just trying to be engaging. Sometimes we ask questions just to be friendly. They aren’t good questions, or timed well, but we ask anyway. Perhaps that’s what’s happening here.
When I turn to see if I can catch the eye of the disgruntled lady, to acknowledge her strong feelings, I’m a little surprised. Her hair is done perfectly, make up looks great. She’s quite beautiful for Friday afternoon grocery shopping. I don’t know what I am expecting to see but she looks very put together (talk about expectations.) I expect her to look…disheveled…old…something…I don’t know…
She is giving me a gift. She is giving me courage…hope. A small dose of encouragement reminding me of why I do Portraits of White. I need some of this kind of medicine at this point in the marathon.
In fact, as I get ready to post this week’s video, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been tempted to change it, throw it out, re-do it because I am letting you see me when I’m not feeling very organized. And this was before the grocery store drama. Her honesty gives me the courage to keep the video “as-is.”
I’ve called this week’s post Cues and Shoes because one of the stressful parts of doing the show is figuring out the lighting cues. I know, you’re probably thinking to yourself…REALLY? Our world has been turned upside down and you’re stressing over lights?
Then there are the shoes. Somehow I was born without a hint of an arch in both feet and I have giant-sized bunions—much like my mother had. It’s always been hard to find pretty yet comfortable shoes for the stage, and it only seems to get worse with age.
One year after the show, my feet hurt so bad I couldn’t walk out to greet everyone. I finally figured out it was just easier if I went without shoes, so I walked out in the lobby, shoeless and it felt wonderful.
In the scheme of things, the shoes are a small part of the stress, but every little bit adds up, as you know. And though I don’t actually run the lights during the show, I have to make sure that those who do are well prepared for every little detail. Spot on Doug, spot on Wayne, Frances at the piano, Frances in the center, George on timpani, Tim on a stool, trumpet feature…..Frances tripping over her dress. Oh I hope not! LOL!
Similar to all of these show details, the expectations that come with the holidays can start with tiny things but when combined, they can add up to stress. Where to spend the holidays…when to have the dinner…what to serve for dinner…what gift to buy….And some people, like the shopper lady have decided they just don’t “do” the holidays anymore.
Then there’s the lingering pandemic. We’re all weary of what this has done to our lives. I see the strain on your faces as I’m out doing concerts. I read your notes that tell me of the crises you are facing personally. My heart breaks for you.
I don’t know who that lady at the grocery store is, but thanks to her outburst, I found the courage to keep running this last leg of the race of Portraits of White. I know it will be worth it. I’ve been preparing, practicing, pondering, stressing…all of it. But I’m ready for December 10 and 12.
I can’t wait to see you and finish this Christmas show marathon with you by my side. (Even if I end it in my bare feet.)
I’ve answered all kinds of Portraits of White fan questions this summer. This one made me feel furry, fuzzy and a bit…well…cattywampus.
“Do you ever consider using dogs or cats in Portraits of White?”
Just to be sure, I looked up the word cattywampus. I believe it fits this week’s video purrrrrfectly.
Definition – askew, awry, kitty-corner. Cattywampus is a variant of catawampus, another example of grand 19th century American slang. In addition to “askew” catawampus may refer to “an imaginary fierce wild animal,” or may mean “savage, destructive.”
My cats would like you to paws for a moment of fun and watch THEIR video.
“Do you make enough from Portraits of White to pay yourself?” Another great question from a fan.
The simple answer is not yet, but I hope to.
But there’s always more to the story than just a two word answer, right?
When I first started Portraits of White, I was doing 50 – 100 events per year, working at a church part time and writing/recording albums. I had to be organized and make good use of every moment I had. I suppose it was good preparation for starting a big Christmas event.
Portraits of White took my music career on a path filled with higher mountains, lower valleys, roller coaster twists and horseshoe turns emotionally and financially. It challenged my faith, musicianship, tenacity and endurance. I’ve learned a lot about myself, show production, business, marketing, and realistic goal setting, for starters.
“There’s nothing so powerful as an idea who’s time has come.” — Jim Rohn
Sometimes ideas can feel like little mosquitos who are pesky and want a place to land and suck your blood. At least, that’s how I feel some days. I can’t possibly carry out all of the ideas that pop into my mind or give them a place to live. BUT….in the end, ideas can be our friends. We just have to learn how to nurture, prioritize and categorize them. 🙂
When you see Portraits of White, you’ll be witnessing the power of an idea.
A snowy day led to the idea for the title song, Portraits of White.
One single manger scene in a Christmas shop in 1999 sparked the idea for the song Take Another Look.
That song took me down a path of “skipping Christmas” that year so I could pay attention to the holiday sadness I often felt in December.
Skipping Christmas opened up space for me to start expressing my feelings through songwriting.
Those seeds of songs started me thinking about doing a Christmas album.
The album provided more ideas – how about a show where we “hear” and “see” the music?
It came to pass in 2014 and it will again this year!
Do you have your tickets to see this show yet? 😉
Jim Rohn suggests 5 steps for turning nothing into something:
1) Start with ideas and imagination – they aren’t tangible, but they are almost real.2) Believe that what you imagine is possible for you.
Two types of testimonials can provide inspiration for us:
“If I can do it, you can do it.” (Someone else’s story)
“If I did it once, I can do it again.” (Our own story)
3) Go to work and make it real – make it tangible. 4) It takes the disciplined activity to make it reality. 5) Appreciate the discipline it takes to follow through and see it happen.
“What inspires you to create? What inspires you, not just your music, but your life?”
This question makes me wonder. Do we have to be “inspired” to create?
I started out my songwriting journey writing solely by inspiration. I’d hear lyrics and melodies in my head. All I had to do was sit down at the piano and follow their lead. They always seemed to lead somewhere. Based on that experience, I was convinced that it was best to just wait for the inspiration.
One time I heard one of my favorite songwriters say that they wait for inspiration. They never write unless they first hear a phrase or lyric in their mind. That seemed very magical and spiritual.
Then I attended a songwriting workshop where the leader said we write by inspiration AND perspiration. “Nah,” I thought to myself. “Why would I bother making myself sweat to write when I can wait to feel inspired?”
Then I heard about the non-profit organization called Songs of Love. They were looking for songwriters to write and produce songs for children and teens with a lifetime disability or terminal illness. Something nudged me to audition.
When I found out that I was accepted as a songwriter, I was thrilled and anxious to get started. Until I got my first profile. “Now I HAVE to come up with a fully produced song within 25 days,” I said to myself while feeling a sudden sense of panic. What if inspiration doesn’t strike? Oops….
Remembering that songs are basically a combination of elements: lyrics, notes, rhythms, etc., I started to focus on the task. I played with the rhythm and sound of the child’s name. How could I creatively use it in a song?
Aha! I had a chorus idea. Then I started in on the verses. Next thing I knew, I had a song. I felt extremely inspired.
I’ve been writing for Songs of Love for over 17 years now and I can say that I’m no longer convinced I need to wait for inspiration. It sure would be nice to feel something special every time I want to write, but I’ve discovered that creative juices can get flowing just by starting.
One of my songwriting heroes, Robert Sterling says “As dull as it sounds, songwriters find their ideas and inspiration hiding in mundane, everyday things and places—in resources available to anyone willing to pay attention. Those same resources are all around you every day, and they fall into two general categories: reading and listening.”
Back to the original question… What inspires you to create?
I decided to take a different approach for answering this week’s fan question. I was pretty sure that if I’d sit down and take the time to reflect on the songs I’ve written, I could probably always trace their start to a specific event, phrase or moment.
So over the weekend I sat down and listed the song titles from my albums. Beside the song title, I wrote a short phrase that describes the spark that started the song. You’ll see that some ideas were just simple, every day events or words, like Robert suggests. They didn’t come dressed up in sparkles like some kind of fancy genie who pops out of a bottle when you make a wish. Oh if only!! But all it took was a spark and inspiration soon followed.
I hope this will inspire you to pay close attention to the things you hear, see and feel! You never know when creativity is waiting right around the corner.
Big sister flies away (Big Blue Sky)
Vocal exercise (From My Heart)
Digging in my garden (Master Gardener)
Wilted flower garden (Rain)
Y2K (Just When You Think)
Sunday sermon (Living Fire)
Feel like I’m always fighting another battle (God is Able)
Racine (The Memory of You)
Husband shoveling snow (Moments)
A discouraged friend (Who You Are)
The word “turn” (Turn and Look in His Eyes)
Youth missions – camp sermon (Love Me)
Moment of overwhelming peace (Sometimes)
Bad news (Be Joyful)
Family finances (The Bottom of Grace)
Doubts (I Still Believe)
Faulty synthesizer (Never By Accident)
Family farm auction (Bidder on the Heart)
Making a career decision (Wrong Thing)
Flashy female speaker (Personalities)
Watching a friend’s life change (Free From the Inside Out)
Spontaneous Spirit jingle (He Can)
Pussy willow tree on childhood farm (Innocence is Good)
Visiting my father’s grave (Someone Else’s Shoes)
The harp and the bowl sermon (In the Hand of the Lord)
Cat looking out the window (Shatter the Glass)
Blooming lilacs (Missin’ You)
Tragic accident (I Can Pray)
Phone call from my brother (Pond Beside the Barn)
Teenage slumber party (Wonderfully Created)
100 year church celebration (I Know God)
Radio show (Miracles)
Radios in India (One Small Box)
Playful piano (Joy to the World)
Snow drifts (Portraits of White)
List from pre-school mom (MOPS)
One night I had a dream (Back to the Heart of Christmas)
Writing challenge from producer (Ride in the Sleigh)