This is the transcript from a talk I gave in Wichita, Kansas, on June 14 2016. I had never told my story in this way before, and was encouraged by the response afterward: many people said it resonated with them in some manner. I wanted to share it here, as well, in the hopes that it might give a deeper perspective into the journey that has lead me up to where I am today, with a new album entitled Champion set for release on iTunes on July 22, 2016.
I grew up in rural upstate New York.
My Canadian parents married in ’77 and moved to the States a few years after, eventually settling in the East and raising my five siblings and me in a big white house set on a hill by a river.
Childhood was a quiet, simple time, unaffected by over-activism or worldly influence. We were homeschooled, and my sister and I (we were the two youngest children in the line-up) spent most of our time reading books by Dickens and Tolstoy, wrangling with Euclidean geometry, exploring the woods and fields around our home, and avoiding the hairbrush as much as possible. The house was filled with vases full of lilac blooms and music, usually. Mom would play classical music in the mornings, and then as evening came she and dad would switch to Andrea Bocelli, John Denver, Billy Joel, EmmyLou Harris, Nana Mouskuri and countless others to provide background as they prepared dinner. They were both musical people: Dad had found time during medical school to learn classical guitar, and Mom had sung professionally while in nursing school and for several years after. Some of my sweetest memories from childhood center around watching the two of them sit down at the table to sing songs together: my favorite was an old Gaelic song called Chì mi na mòrbheanna, the haunting melody of which still drifts through my mind to this day.
There was a great deal of beauty and peace in my childhood; but there was broken-ness, too, as in any family. Being exposed to both brokenness and beauty, along with other converging factors, lead me to be a very sensitive child, given to pondering ontological questions from a tender age.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I had what you might call an “existential awakening” at age six. I was looking out across the frosted lawn from an upstairs window, and had lain my hands across the cool panes of glass. My eyes traveled from the lawn to my hands: my fingertips were rosy from the cold. I realized in that moment that these are my hands, and my hands alone. I realized I existed, that I was distinct and irrepeatable: and it terrified me.
This ephiphany, couched as it was in an uncomfortable sensation of isolation, was quickly followed by an instinctual movement of prayer. I had no idea at the time that I was experiencing what Wojtyla calls original solitude: that is, when we recognize our profound separateness, which sets us apart – elevates us – from the rest of creation, but which makes us painfully aware of a certain sense of being “out of place”, homesick, and unutterably, taboo lonely. It is from this very place that the heart seeks God most ardently and truly; this “God-shaped hole” that makes little to no sense biologically, anthropologically, or pscyhologically, when you attempt to split its finest hairs (I have). It isn’t exactly helpful or condusive to proliferating the species, after all: no amount of human connection (or distraction) can remedy it, nor any degree of calculated conjecture. And so in my childlike state I did what my pure little soul allowed me to do readily: I reached for God in that moment, and I felt loved, seen, sought, and wanted. I was willed and necessary.
This kind of existential probing imbued my life as a child. More often than not it felt like a bother, and not like a gift: I could hardly even articulate these ponderances to my own mother, let alone other children, who always seemed so glib, care-free, and focused on keeping their Giga pets alive. Why didn’t anyone else feel like they were going to crap their pants at the thought of eternity, whatever the blazes that was?!
My greatest existential quandery centered around whether or not I could be truly known. (Good thing Mom and Dad didn’t leave any Kant lying around back in those impressionable days.) I craved to be known: I craved to have light spilling into every place of my mind and heart, constantly. Part of that was from a genuine craving for communion, to “be with”: and part of it came from a fallen area of my heart that said I needed to be perfect to be loved; that I simply could not make any mistakes, could not falter or fail in any regard. And somewhere along the line, I thought that it was up to me to make sure that that didn’t happen.
So, while on the one hand, this sensitivity worked against me by way of extreme self-discipline and perfectionism (which, frequently, has ended up wounding people around me), it also opened my eyes up to things of God from a very young age. I would spend hours examining the face of a violet: I would even sing to it and kiss it gently as I memorized each streak and freckle on its petals, sheerly out of love for what God had made. I talked to animals as though they were friends: I think something of their innocence and dependence resonated with me, and I found them to be the most wonderful listeners. The beauty of God’s creation struck me as being for me. I always believed that he had known I would delight in the violets, in the smell of baking bread, in the movement and wildness of a river, in the fog which clings to the atmosphere just above the earth as dusk rolls in. And, while I was a pensive child, I was not serious: I took great delight in things, and more often than not the ready tears that sprung to my eyes were tears of overwhelming joy, not tears of anxiety or fear. I read Calvin and Hobbes voraciously, found the word poop to be uproariously funny – to the half-hearted chagrin of my mother (three older brothers contributed to this) – dreamt in Redwall and dressed my poor cat Caitlin up like a human child on a daily basis.
When my dad would take us to the symphony – which was where I had my first aesthetic experience, that is, my first transdendent experience of being moved by eros, in the platonic understanding of the word – I would sit there and cry silently, overwhelmed entirely by the beauty of the music but even more so by the nobility of the human person, able to work as a body with others in order to create something magnificent. I actually used to feel broken-hearted for little creatures like ants or beetles as I would watch them scuttle along, thinking to myself, “Why was I lucky enough to be created a person, and not an ant? Why should I get to experience consciousness, and not they? They’ll never know what it means to be loved.” (Poor ants. To this day I sometimes pity them for their brainlessness. Other times I envy them.)
This brings me to say that I always believed that God loved me and revealed himself to me through other people. I remember thinking that I was looking at the face of God whenever I would hold a newborn baby, and feeling something eternal about the safety I felt when I would climb into my father’s arms in the evening when he would come home from work. Other people utterly fascinated me – they were other universes, made up of innumerable layers, memories, pains, joys, fears, passions, and purpose: and I yearned to know of them, though for many years I was cripplingly shy and would content myself with simply imagining what it would be like to encounter another person meaningfully. To this day I still struggle with being hesitant to let people know just how dearly I love them, fearing there is something I must improve about myself in order to be worthy of such transparency: perhaps, also, fearing I won’t be received as I hope. I think at times people have thought me aloof and cold, and perhaps disdainful of them (worst of all, indifferent). I have yet to figure out how to convey how devastating it is whenever someone believes that they are not good enough to be loved or noticed by me. I can only imagine the pain of God’s heart when we think the same of him: that he is too busy, too important, and too perfect to be pleased with us.
(I said to my fiance not long ago that in some ways, my image of God is something like that of a noble, highly esteemed Professor: I admire him intensely, wish to be near him and be taught by him always, but am self-conscious about actually approaching him outside of the classroom. Surely he’s too busy to talk with me, the little freshman of the spiritual world, who hardly knows words to formulate a brilliant statement? Surely he’s pressed for time, with meetings every hour when he isn’t in class; and surely he won’t remember my name – how could he recall? I need to be understanding of him and his need for privacy…
Pride and fear have no place in love. But God is patient, and all of his creation is patiently directed toward our eternal consummation with him.)
I found that I could channel all of the intense emotions and thoughts I experienced as a child into music. Though I had begun lessons at age six, when I was about 15 years old I began to more seriously immerse myself in piano, practicing an hour or more each day, and biking to my lessons a couple of miles down the road with a backpack full of music a couple times each week. As I would play the notes of Debussy’s Arabesque or a sonata by Mozart, it was as though some kind of creative dam was loosed inside of me, and the worry of temporality lifted off – the effort of “becoming” was not as apparent. I felt that I was doing what I was made to do, and the tension borne from the struggle between self-gift and self-preservation, which so often rears its head in the division and sinfulness of the human heart, was loosened to the point of being forgotten. I could sense God in the notes, ringing out in the perfect harmonization and mathematical perfection of the theory which undergirded these masterful compositions but which did not, and could not, vivify them: only a human body, animated by life, could do that. Only a human act of creativeness, a small fractal of God’s cosmic act of genesis, could set these static notes into motion and thereby stir the mind and heart with more immediacy than even the most lovingly spoken words. I sensed that I was working with God, that I was doing something my dignity and calling and inheritance allowed me to do: I was participating, in some small measure, in the creative mind of God, and this filled me with indescribable joy and purpose.
Around this time I discovered the new-wave folk/reggae music of bands and musicians such as Dispatch, Sublime, and Jack Johnson (I can’t recommend Sublime’s entire discography in good conscience – your mama won’t appreciate you singing What I Got at the next family barbeque: but – if you’ve never listened to Bradley Knowles’ cover of By the Rivers of Babylon, do yourself a good deed and check it out). I was also digging in deeply to the music of Cat Stevens, Jim Croce, John Denver, and Eva Cassidy: though these artists had been played in our home since I was a child, I hadn’t fully appreciated the depth of their writing and the stories they told through their music until now. I picked up the guitar when I was around 15 in an attempt to play some of these folky songs I loved so much, and ended up accidentally writing my first song soon thereafter.
It happened one rainy day that my sister Magdalene and I were sitting at the dining room table together. I was strumming the four chords I knew on the guitar – perhaps “hacking away” would be a better way to put it – and was simultaneously singing aloud the words of a Reader’s Digest article that was on the table in front of me. It had to do with a brave fireman who rescued a blind kitten inflicted by a trifecta of dropsy, scurvy, and dysentery (or something along those lines). I was trying to get my sister to laugh – which she did – when I realized that the melody I was singing actually sounded quite lovely, and it was coming in one piece, effortlessly. Something urged me to go up to my room, shut the door, and allow the melody to become a song. And so, I did. I went up to my room and within about 15 minutes I had penned the accompanying lyrics to my first song.
After that, I began performing at open-mics in my little country town, usually on Thursday nights. Farmers, skater kids with long hair hanging down in their eyes, business men with weary faces and tattered shoes, little old women accompanied by their grandchildren – perhaps at the bribe of a cup of hot chocolate and a cookie – and my three closest girlfriends were the first people I ever sang for, outside of church. And they were so warm, encouraging, and receptive – much to my surprise. I was shocked, again and again, when I would look out to see grown men leaning against the doorpost, heads down, crying. Or when someone would approach me afterward, thank me for my vulnerability, and share something painful, beautiful, or both from their own life.
Around this time, I had a profound experience at a retreat in Maryland: I was sixteen, and I encountered God in a new and powerful way. I met a boy.
Now, I’ll admit that I had my phases of airheadedness, just like any teenage girl, and I’ll also admit that I often sentimentalized the idea of love and romance into something altogether vaporous and pain-free. But God worked through that saccharine childishness and touched something deep within me when I met this young man from Vermont, who wore thick-framed glasses and had a maganaminity of spirit unlike any I’d encountered before. It was the first time I remember having something deeply feminine awoken in me in the presence of, and directly because of, someone deeply masculine. This young man was so good, so manly, and so honest that meeting him lead me into a deeper experience of my own personhood and identity.
And it was fitting: where my loves had been childish, sentimental, and flighty, something changed interiorly, and the little-girl heart I had always known and identified with began to beat with a womanly, distilled, maternal pulse. I recognized the exclusivity of love, the individuality of it, the responsibility of it: and I understood for the first time that Christ was not some pantheistic warmth that issued forth from the cradle of my infancy. He was someone I had to choose, deliberately; or else deny. There wasn’t room for a sentimental middle-ground.
This brings me to mention that the world is so confused about sexuality and eros. It has the distorted idea that sexuality and eroticism have to do with things that happen when people are horizontal, behind closed doors: that they belong in some kind of separate, dark room that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, interfere with or be made to coincide with the other spheres of life. The fact is, we live out our sexuality while we are vertical, at every moment of every day: washing the dishes, stepping over puddles, pulling up weeds, picking up a friend from the airport, and when we are praying. Our sexuality imbues every sphere of who we are: it informs, effects, and deepens how each of us listens, comprehends, and engages. What’s more, our sexuality has everything to do with incarnation: our generative potential is part of our divine inheritance, and it is the means by which God chooses to be reborn again and again in our world, through each individual who bears his image and likeness. God is the divine mover: he is the inventor of ecstasy. He knows what it means to be moved by the beauty and goodness of another person, and he speaks to us through that incredible gift: that incredible experience of being “awakened,” and “commissioned.”
He spoke to me in this way through that young man, nearly ten years ago. I’m not sure where that man is now, or what-ever happened to him: we lost touch some years ago, after a volley of intermittent snail-mail, as it just wasn’t meant to develop into anything further. But I give thanks for him still. As a result of his lived manhood, something gave way within me and I awoke to the commission to “Create,” which is one of the deepest callings of woman. And after that retreat, songs began to come like a deluge after a monsoon.
Everything begets itself. A well-lived, integrated heart; a vibrant and wholesome sexuality; and a magnaminity of spirit will beget the same in those around you.
The first person who urged me to recognize songwriting and singing as a God-given talent, meant to be used for his glory, was a Franciscan CFR named Fr. Christopher. He invited me to perform at a couple Catholic Undergrounds in Philadelphia when I was in highschool, not long after the above-mentioned retreat. Those experiences with Catholic Underground were formative for me, and were a further affirmation of the fact that this was not simply a fun talent given to me by God, but a charism I was being called to share. Day after day, year after year, God has moved powerfully in my life specifically through this charism of music: music has, more often than not, been the bridge that has connected me to other people, at least initially, which has then given way to some of the deepest, most life-changing friendships I have ever known. It has lead me to record numerous times, to travel all over the States, to Israel, to Spain, and next year to New Zealand. It has inspired hundreds of beautiful letters and emails from people all over the world, expressing the movement of God in their lives – experiences of healing I can hardly fathom.
One girl wrote to tell me that the music helped her through painful seasons of depression and anxiety. A mother wrote to tell me that my love songs are the only songs that engage her son, who has autism and usually is withdrawn and silent. A young man shared with me that one evening he had been struggling with a temptation to look at pornography, which he was fighting to overcome, and then one of my songs came on and his found the strength to rise above that temptation: “The thought of my future wife bolstered me,” he said, softly and proudly.
Each time I get a letter or email like this, it catalyzes healing in my own mind and heart. The nature of mercy is always reciprocal. The humility, love, and vulnerability of these generous souls calls me on to be more forthcoming and frank about the healing power of grace in my own life, and to be humble enough to let other people know when they have been agents of that grace.
Letting someone know how they have affected you takes guts and humility.
To reiterate that point on gifts and charisms: a priest once explained to me the difference between a gift and a charism. “A gift,” he said, “Is something you enjoy doing, something you’re good at: it comes naturally to you. It’s fun for you. A charism, however, is something that heals other people – something that reverberates out beyond you and your own experience of it, and effects change. It’s a responsibility.”
Conversion and healing is always God’s work. Conversion and healing within ourselves or within other people isn’t something we confect on our own, nor is it something we can boast in or take credit for. Admittedly, it’s easy to be tempted to think that our identity and worth lies in our gifts and talents: in the things we do. It’s easy to pin our identity on measuable outcomes, because then we aren’t as sickenly aware of how effortful the work of “becoming” is. But as soon as the door to that temptation is opened, we start to think in terms of performance: how can I make my talent more impressive, so that I come off as more lovable? What do I have to do to make sure I never lack the feeling and knowledge of being known and loved? That kind of deprivation thinking – the what must I do to fill this lack in my life and feel safe kind of thinking – can consume us if we don’t invite God into our personalities and attempt to surrender our lives to him.
During college, after I had gained a reputation for being a singer, songwriter, and brainiac, I started to feel isolated and fearful. I had enjoyed the attention and image constructed around me for a while, because as long as people had built their own concept of who I was – a concept I was fine with, as it was a pleasing concept – then that meant I didn’t have to take the real risk of intimacy. But God’s light started to pierce my hubris as questions began to surface interiorly. Suppose I lost my voice. Suppose I was in an accident, and I was disfigured. Suppose I hadn’t been born with a lovely face. Would I still be loved? Suppose I had never been able to sing. Would I ever have been noticed?
It was painful to have these questions turn up inside of me, because I’d been able to ignore them in prayer, the reason being that I approached God much like I approached other people – at arm’s length, with a friendly smile and very little true vulnerability. My fear of being flawed and therefore unloveable had mingled with vanity and pride to the point that I was thirsting to death, spiritually. I had wrongly thought that proving my loveability was up to me: that I could call the shots, and that I could somehow pick and choose which parts to share and which ones to keep under wraps. I was trying to fill the gaping God-shaped hole inside of myself with myself and with human affection, and it was obviously an exercise in futility. I was trying to convince myself that I was loveable, that I wasn’t flawed.
But that’s a ruse. Not the fact that I’m loveable – but the idea that I’m not flawed. I didn’t have it altogether, I don’t have it altogether, and even though it had been nice for a time to let people think my life was as tidy and ethereal as my folky songs, I was suffocating in the Ziplock bag of my own ego.
And then God in his mercy tore that stupid bag to shreds and miraculously got through to me and said, “You are my child. That is your identity. And your greatest talent is your ability to love, because I first loved you.”
God could mend a broken heart with a two-string guitar that’s terribly out of tune. He could reach somebody through the least elegant and most faltering of words if he so chose. He can take the most sensitive, overly-cautious and tightly-principled heart and fill it with radiant courage and compassion at just the needed moment. He can take the most bombastic, garrulous personality and radiate his understanding and wisdom directly through it, when he wishes.
The man or woman unlearned in books can be the one Word that makes sense to the people around him or her, the one symbol that makes sense in a world of noise.
It is always his initiative, and it is always his grace. He is the water, and we are the water pitchers, broken but patched back together by adoption and grace. Our job is not to stop and focus on the chinks and fissures we see all over ourselves: our mission is simply to be filled, so as to be poured out. Those who are thirsty for water will not discriminate against the vessel by which they receive it. It’s the water they’re after, after all. It’s the water that replenishes them and cleanses them, not the clay.
This realization, for me, was monumental. It’s one of those things I’ve always known: such a basic, fundamental reality – but one that I constantly have to re-learn it and be reminded of.
There is not a great deal unique about my story, not any more than any one else’s, but it’s worth telling even so – as is your’s.
I grew up in rural New York. I can sing and write songs. I am very soon to be married to a man who, in his love, sets me free and calls me higher (that is another story – the best story! – in which all the other stories begin and culminate). God gave it and he can take it. I’m his daughter and I can love ’cause that’s what He is.