A couple of years ago, I began working on writing my autobiography. Someone asked me why – after all, there are a million autobiographies out there, why add one more? So I had to explain myself.
I said it didn’t matter that there were a million others – this was for me. I loved writing, and what better subject could I ever find than my own life? I couldn’t resist the challenge of packaging my experience as a work of art that might be interesting and entertaining, even inspiring, to someone else.
For a whole year and a half, I wrote, unable to tear myself away from the project. Not only was it a joy to be telling my story, the writing was helping me reconcile with everything that had ever happened in my life. Because I had to go back to each past moment, put myself there again, and ask, who was I then? Where was I coming from, what was my state of mind? What fears and hopes were driving me? And as I did this, I began to see how every part of my life, even the most absurd and senseless, was a perfect part of the whole – like facets of a jewel…
In the process I began to see reconciliation in a new way. It was more than just a way to be ok with my past – it was a celebration and a thanks-giving for the gift of this life that I did not choose.
Which brings me to the puzzle of the present. I wrote the above several months ago, when I was just dipping my toe into my early 50’s in my story. Since then I have completely lost interest in writing my autobiography.
Instead, all I want to do is sing!
What the…? I’ve always been a writer! That’s been my identity since I was nine years old. And now, suddenly, at 72, I’m an old lady who just wants to sing, sing, sing! It would be embarrassing if it weren’t just so delightful.
It’s curious that this change came at the end of one 12-year cycle and the beginning of another. Silo used to talk about 12-year cycles, and in writing my story I could see how those cycles roughly corresponded to important changes in my life.
But I think what really happened was that in writing my story, I finally reconciled with my musician mother.
My mother, Mary Helen Richards, was a fireball, an inspired and charismatic musician and teacher, and a joyful and contradictory human being. She gave all her kids the gift of music – we sang together as a family, played instruments together, listened to music on the stereo. I sang in her church choir, and drew illustrations for her music teaching materials. Music is in my soul, in my every cell of my body. To this day, if ever I feel distressed, all I have to do is listen to a Bach cantata, and all is well.
But there was never any question about me going into music as a career. I was too close to my mother – even during my teen years, she was always my best friend. Hell, I even look almost exactly like her… No way was I going to follow in her footsteps. I knew from the time I was very young that I would have to do something different, find a different identity to set myself apart from her.
The solution was a no-brainer. I loved writing, and I was good at it. So I became a writer.
My mother completely agreed, openly discouraging me from becoming a performing musician. That smarted a little. Wasn’t I good enough?
I think the answer lies in her own childhood. She had longed to sing with her two brothers, who had angelic boy’s voices and sang solos at church, but her mother had said no, her voice wasn’t good enough, she had to be content with accompanying them on the piano. Later on in college, she took singing lessons, but they must have turned out badly, because she decided that her mother was right, she could not sing. And with that she did something admirable. She poured all her hurt and anger and passion into developing an approach to teaching music that would open the door to singing for everyone.
She devoted her life to spreading that message, that everyone can sing – and then when it came to me, her eldest daughter, she treated me even more dismissively than her mother had treated her, not even acknowledging that I had a good voice and might want to consider being a singer! Even though it was already a foregone conclusion that I could never go into music, that hurt. I could only rationalize that she wanted to spare me the suffering she’d gone through, the agony of not being good enough.
Whatever the case, I am infinitely grateful. Music has always brought me only joy, never stress. If I had gone into music, I would not have lived the life I’ve lived, a life I would not trade for anything. More than anything, I would not now be receiving this amazing, supremely joyous gift – the gift of singing with no holds barred, without caring one whit who’s listening.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love to write. Not sure my autobiography will ever move past my early 50s, but maybe I can learn to put some of my poems to music… Besides, I sing for the same reason I write: to give the best of myself, to express who I am and what it means to me to be human. When I sing in front of others, my “I” still trembles – not with fear or false hopes of glory, but with sheer delight at singing free and at connecting deeply, and with a blush of gratitude whenever someone tells me I sing beautifully.