Oh Sweet Desire, You Know How I Hate to Practice

I’ve never been good at practicing.

I like to be good at something quickly, and if I’m not good at something quickly, I don’t like doing it. So I put it away, for awhile. Or forever. Such has been the fate of tennis, baking, sewing and tap-dancing, to name a few.

The blame seems to fall squarely on the shoulders of desire, but in fact it’s my inner critic who has to take the hit. I blame La Critica for successfully getting me to bail on a bunch of my passions. Back in high school, she convinced me that I wasn’t really any good at doubles tennis even though I was ranked first in my school and she knew how much I loved the feeling of being one with my racket, the ball, my partner and the court.

La Critica has convinced me that my cooking really stinks compared to my husband’s, even though I ace traditional German recipes and bake mouth-watering sweets. She’s even worn down my confidence in sewing, when in fact I made my own wedding dress, several elaborate gowns for the stage, a plush terry robe, and a pair of fancy pants for my guy (discovering all the secret tabs and pockets in a pair of men’s dress trousers). I actually find mending comforting.

Picking her nits, La Critica has been the most persuasive about something I’ve really loved. Dancing. More recently, she’s tripped me up in the luscious tango which I took up with a vengeance after discovering the tango parlors of New York City. Before that it was tap. Not film tap a la Eleanor Powell, but hoofing a la Honi Coles. Last week when I was down in my basement, La Critica stepped out of the shadows and got all in my face saying that I really should give away my tap shoes because the leather is cracking for utter lack of use. “No skin, no lanolin.” Little does she know that I have felt the most profound kinship with the rhythm of this earth while hoofing and actually cracked my leathers because I was dancing so much. Of course, she had a pointe. That was two decades ago in Austin when the exceptional Acia Gray was my teacher at Tapestry Dance. I stopped when I was just getting good (but that’s another posting).

When it comes to singing, it’s been a somewhat similar story. I’ve had little patience for classroom learning and claim only a handful of people as true mentors. The stage has been my teacher for 30+ years and what’s gotten me out there time and again is…desire. Pure and simple, Desire with a capital D. I learned my craft by doing, not by practicing doing. By singing, not by pretending to sing.  Indeed, it’s the many different stage partners from whom I’ve learned the most, and the many different audiences in the many different lands. La Critica is multi-lingual, and yet she’s mostly kept her distance here. It seems that opening myself to collaboration had the surest quieting effect on her secret voice.

In truth, no amount of pressure from her or her pal, El Guilto, have gotten me to volley any faster, cook any more frequently or dance any better when my Desire has flown the coop. We say it’s discipline we lack, but for me Desire is the D-word behind my drive.

When Desire comes knocking on my door, I run to answer. Fueled by her, I feel unstoppable, invincible, refreshed, alive and juicy. And she always brings her friends, Acceptance and Surrender, and together they tackle the demons starting with Resistance and lull him into submission. He loves it!

Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive and go for it!
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
~ Howard Thurman

Following Desire is what it takes and I’ve learned this by her lead. When I burden myself with self-made stories about how passionless I feel, I know I’m really just desiring Desire. And she’s really just waiting for the coast to clear. When La Critica manages to throw my lusty, life-loving, art-priming passion over a cliff, she always climbs back up from out of some valley with a gleam in her eye. “Let’s go!” It may take a few hours, days or even months, but the happiest moments I know are when my Desire comes home.

Wearing many faces, she slips in by day, by night, in wet galoshes and satin slippers. I like her best barefoot and knocking vigorously on my door. Or when she lowers herself down from a branch and breathes herself into me for as long as I can stand it. Bar none she’s been the patient one, as all great teachers are.

Brush step, shuffle, ball change, f-lap
Brush step, shuffle, ball change, f-lap…


Edge Play: Creating Art that Challenges

Performers are revealers; we lay a thing bare.

To cultivate as broad a landscape of potential revelation as possible, we venture from the center of familiarity and recognition to the edge of mystery and uncertainty. Just as there are edges to the stage space, there are edges to us performers too. I consider the edge that place where there’s nothing to hide behind and where I feel I can’t hide even when I want to.

As a woman, I live to take myself from the center of my being out beyond myself. From center to edge and back again. With every exploration in life and every lived experience that has made it into a song or monologue, my center has expanded and my edges have pushed outward.

I’ve reveled in this edge play, in voyaging outside of my known comfort zone into a place of sticky aliveness, like that pup who is well fed at home and yet finds peculiar pleasure in the bone he sniffs out of a garbage heap at the far end of the street.

Through my work as solo singer-actress, ensemble leader and director-producer, I have endeavored to flow between these poles, always looking to push at the boundaries of the form and force the box to be wider. So in effect, my life and my art are dance partners. Sometimes life leads, sometimes art leads.

Historically, the cabaret of the French and the Kabarett of the Germans have used the mediums of music, theater, social and political satire, clowning, burlesque and erotic dance. The boundaries in this artform have been fluid, taken by artists and bent to fit any kind of light. Know where you are, so you can be somewhere else.

Freedom is what attracted me to the cabaret artform in the first place. I felt a spaciousness that I hadn’t encountered in my forays into other musical forms – classical, opera, musical theater, folk, pop. Jazz promised freedom, but only to the singer in me. Jazz didn’t scratch my acting itch. Cabaret did.

With this freedom has come the opportunity to play with the boundaries, and the responsibility to break them up. Cabaret has taught me that while something solid may frame my work, like a wall or a shaft of light, the real boundaries are imaginary. The genre itself is a challenge to existing forms, and so everything and everyone inside it is too.

As a cabaretist, I feel free to stage something known alongside something unknown, something secure behind something dangerous. To express pretty songs and ugly ones, bring comforting messages and distressing ones. As muse I may interpret, I may echo, I may rally.

One of the great benefits of daring myself to make challenging art and take challenging art is that I come through on the far side with always a greater feeling for my craft, for myself, and for my audience.

I have always respected my audience’s intelligence. Humor may vary from one culture to another, but intelligence is universal and I feel a responsibility to that intelligence, mental and emotional, in myself and in my audience. I try to be sincere in my work and that means pleasing and entertaining myself first, and challenging myself first. For when I am willing to risk my own sensibilities and expectations, I create the opening for my audience to do the same. And the circle is made.

My job as a theater artist is to remind people of what they’ve dismissed, forgotten or buried. Performance is not about only pleasure. It’s actually about ritual and sacrifice. You have to go through something as an audience member. It means you will be uncomfortable and that’s okay. You’ll also be taken care of.
– Taylor Mac

I’ve been fortunate to have producers who have given me a job and a stage, and then stepped away. And I’m excited as hell to work with these people, because they don’t know what they’re going to get. They’re going on a hunch with me…”give it to Kohler, she loves that shadow stuff.” Their trust is immensely empowering and freeing. They’re the brave ones, and immediately the collaboration feels honest and promising. It’s the only way I really like to work, really can work. I have to have that liberty or it becomes about pleasing someone else and that necessarily entails self-censorship. Feeling beholden to someone puts a sure brake on the vehicle of art.

It’s a similar thing when I am in the producer’s chair. If it’s the Kabarett Kollektif I’m leading, I will come with a vision or a theme because in a group setting we have to feel our common thread. But as soon as possible I want to step away and prepare to be delighted, surprised, challenged, and moved. Directing another artist is about stewarding their vision. I grasp it, they trust me to hold it. Should they wander, I nudge them back. Mostly I witness. I am a hard boundary, a buoy, in their sea of possibility.

We players, venues, producers and patrons are all in service to the call of art. Where it’s the other way around and art is made to serve our needs, where a producer or venue sets limits on what can be expressed, all that is a set up for a slow death for everyone involved. It’s suffocating, and we all know the feeling when the oxygen is scarce. It sucks.

Art must be free. Engagement and connection happen when art is free – free to soothe and free to challenge. When its edges serve as pointers to the centermost place in each of us that we all recognize.

Art is there to be spoken.
Rules are there to be broken.
Create by rules alone.
Your art sinks like a stone.


Goodbye Jikan

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~ for Leonard Cohen
(1934-2016)

I am not sad today
Goodbye Jikan
To hear you’re on your way
Goodbye Jikan
You took your life and modeled to me living, loving, dying
If I said that I was mourning now you know that I’d be lying
What singer mourns a poem anyhow.

 

You are my tower of song
Goodbye Jikan
Your words inside of me will carry on
Goodbye Jikan
There is no end to love, we know, no end to any dancing
Promise you’ll send word about this latest great romancing
Your finest verse perhaps, my dear Jikan.

And so I am not sad today
I’m really rather glad today
The sea has freed a sailor, yeah
Godspeed Jikan


Message in A Bottle – “Don’t Put Anything Off”

“Don’t put anything off,” is the advice of a dear friend who recently lost his wife to cancer after a long battle. Together they had been grand patrons of art in my community.

I pause to assess my life. It’s rich with all that I hold dear – my marriage, family, singing, directing, coaching, traveling, gardening, reading, learning. Still, I hear his words and follow them straight into my heart and to the place where the kernels of my being lie dormant.

What am I putting off?

My friend was not referring to the little things, those sometimes appetites, spied upon pipe dreams, and fast flirtations with purpose. He meant the meat. What part of the sirloin steak of my existence have I not cooked up yet, let alone bought…into. What delicious dish have I seen in a display window and decided, ‘oh no, that’s really too rich for my blood.’ Somewhere in these shadows, my once-dreamt-of ambitions slumber and in the light of my openness and attention, they begin to stir and whisper:

A return to India.
An arts residency in Japan.
A crew spot on a high-seas sailboat.
Reviving my Spanish.
Little Death as an album.
My poetry published widely.
My songs in my own words.
That mascara-less confession with my priest, the mirror.
That radical, no holes barred, blink-and-you’ll-miss it baring of my soul.

Sure, I’ve got my share of put-offs and beneath them all is a safety net. My fear of falling and failing. My fear of gambling away the good. My fear of becoming really good. My fear of indecision. Wait…as I write these words here in my corner coffee shop, over the airwaves Sting sends out his SOS to the world.

I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my message in a bottle yeah

What message hath my bottle? What is that thing I tell myself I can leave behind me only to find it eternally floating by from upstream? What advice have I got for the young ones in my life who haven’t yet risked big, and lost? And found?

Does someone have to die for the truth to sink in or can we bring the wisdom of those at the edge who turn back with the words “don’t put anything off” to bear on our lives this day? What does it take to put something over? Especially a high stakes something?

It takes an in-breath. The inspiration is all that’s needed for the out-breath to follow. One step. One conscious, directed next step is all that’s ever needed. And what better time is there, what other time, than now?

Isn’t it astounding that we wake up every morning with a head full of dreams and with hands ready to grasp any lever that would shift everything? Isn’t it a daily miracle? Every minute we are dying to ourselves and being reborn. In this particular minute, we might actually wake up to that fact and shepherd our deepest yearning into our next becoming.

Living and dying, inspiring and expiring, breathing in and breathing out. That’s all there is to it and has ever been. Spiriting in the next kernel of destiny. And following it downstream.

That’s the message in a bottle.


On Integrity: Scaling Rocks, Rocking Scales

One of the first really conscious tastes I had of being fully aligned and integrated as a woman occurred during a wilderness training exercise when I was 39. I had opted into the challenge of scaling a 40-foot high rock face with many purchase points, both real and deceptive. Safely harnessed and belayed from below with lots of eyes on me, my aim was to work my way up this wall of stone with my bare hands and all the wits I could summon.

Others had gone before me and I had watched as they slowly and successfully navigated the terrain. I began where they did, but soon my own experience and choices personalized my path. My journey took roughly 45 minutes during which time my mind tried to psych me out several times, my body began to feel heavy and tremble, and my heart skipped a few beats. As each step distanced me further from the ground, I began making more calculated and deliberate decisions as to where to place my hands and feet and whether to move upward or sideways or both. And gradually I became aware of my heart’s intensifying commitment to the climb and my mind’s ever more calming instructions to my body.

I made the last exerted push up and onto the top of the rock and came to my feet. Stretching out before me was a glittering valley at the dusk of day. A rush came over me that ignited my whole being and I felt as though I, Karen Kohler, began somewhere far beyond the top of my head and ended somewhere far below the soles of my feet, deep inside this slab of stone and earth. I had tasted the joy of integrity, of being perfectly and wholly one with myself – mind, body, heart and soul.

It was not long thereafter that I experienced a very similar and powerful episode on stage for the first time. Then too I was in complete mental, emotional and bodily alignment, in harmony with my purpose, my voice, my songs, my story and history. Though I’d been singing since I was a child, I felt then that everything had come together and I was finally born as the artist I was capable of being. I had arrived as myself on the stage of the theater with my whole life in my possession.

Everything before that memorable stage turn had been preparation for it and everything since has been practice of it. Today I’m like the surgeon who knows how it’s done and does it again and again, always a little bit differently, always following the silent hand (and voice) that is leading and, with few exceptions, always coming to a deeply satisfying conclusion.

Integrity is pure bliss. Like scaling rocks, it’s rocking scales!

Integrity is a state of being and allowing, not an act of overdoing. I have learned to allow my thoughts, feelings, and intention to be unified rather than to actively try and steer them. When my thoughts wander, I notice how I gently nudge them back into alignment. When a feeling comes like a wave, I breathe it down to a ripple. When my will expands, I talk it into a whisper. My body follows. My movements, gestures, carriage and silhouette are the external conveyers of the inner life around my songs. The more I allow both inner and outer worlds to merge, the more integrated I become and the more compelling is my creative expression.

Integrity is the reward for the work we do on ourselves, beginning with the will to claim ourselves as artists, to accept the call, and to own the life in and around the art. All of it. Art utilizes all of our disconnected parts in service to itself.

Integrity is inner peace. Integrity is world peace.
Unfold your purpose now and begin your grand ascent.


For Anneka

Life really is a song. Sometimes it hits you from behind.

The first Basic Course of PSI Seminars that I staffed was in January 2003, right after my husband and I had been through the many advanced courses of this self-development training all within a 6-month time.

In the small group I was leading was a girl named Anneka, a very beautiful and very challenging young woman who was resistant to the exercises, quite shut down and obstinate. Fearful really. Something in her reminded me of myself and I didn’t give up on her although I wanted to heave her across the room at times because her manner was affecting others in the workshop. After that weekend, I never heard from her or any of the other attendees again until 10 years later, 2013, when out of the blue came a note to me from Anneka. She had found my website and wrote to let me know she’d made something of herself, that PSI had been huge for her and my staying with her especially. It was quite a beautiful note to get.

Two nights ago with the Basic upcoming here in New York in July, I thought I’d reach out to her to see if she might come and staff or re-audit. I had no email for her so I plugged her name into Google. Instead of an email I found an obituary.

Anneka Foushee died a year ago February from a rare kind of cancer that one gets from asbestos poisoning. She was 41.

I was up for many hours the other night. Here’s a website I found, a fundraising site to help her Mom recoup some of the costs of having her in treatment for several years. It closed only a few days ago. There are also several sites where one can purchase her work.

Until the other night I was on the fence about whether to commit to staffing and leadership or to just attend as a re-audit. Finding this news helped decide it. It was Anneka’s call from beyond…”staff, please staff…”

I’m happy she took the time to write to me. I’m happiest that she found her voice in art, her purpose and quite a bit of love. She sure burned fiercely for a time…unforgettable.

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Seed Your Soul

If you search for your soul you won’t find it.

Search for anything — power, talent, time, romance, riches, God — they will elude you. Instead evoke them. Call them forth. In the case of your soul — recall it and then seed it. Uncover who you already are. Bring forth who and what you already possess.

Who you are at birth is given. There is no going after it. The path leads back and under and over and through as you birth yourself again and again to this already established fact.

True artistry is a pure kind of channeling and emerges from trials endured, from deep engagement, and from recall. Recall is remembering what you know. Recall is deep listening. As soon as you know, you go. As soon as you learn how to let go, you find.

What comes effortlessly to us has significantly less meaning than what comes with effort. This is true of a lot in life and in the arts too. We see it in raw talent that doesn’t come close to realizing its potential, or in the effort expended in the name of talent without any real investment in self.

It is not a given that a performer will display their interior life. They put up a flag that points to it but their work does not come from the riches they hold, and so the performance feels needy, grasping and flat.

You have to make the effort. The onus is on you — then it will have meaning for you. Then it will seed your creativity. You can learn technique in schools and workshops and from books and coaches all the live long day, but what will eventually come out of your throat, eye, hand and foot that is of any real resonance is that which flows from your own experience and from the integration of your life fully lived.

Talent seeded with courage and curiosity will always come to something. Messing around in the roots of ourselves, breaking up our entanglements and watering our ground will allow the old spent shoots to die off and the new ones to come through. The elation, satisfaction, confusion, anger, sadness, doubt and ennui that this probing and examined living engender are what it means to be human. And they are the essential ingredients and fodder for our craft.

Something old is constantly dying in you and something new is taking its place. It takes guts to live and breathe from your depths and use the highs, the lows, and the illusive in-betweens of the performing life as fuel to get to the core of your artist heart. Happiness and suffering are equal and necessary parts of the drilling in, the sifting through the patterns, the confronting of demons and shadow play, the affirming of divine energies and illumination. Until you are accessing the whole of yourself, true art expression will not come forth.

So at regular intervals, stop. Stop and express right where you are. Produce something, say something, move someone. Yourself. Once this is played out in you, a new time of probing will set in. You will call it to you in some way — an event, person, triumph, struggle, illness, journey — some play with fire, some transformative agent. This will be followed by the gestation, by the new seed anchoring in the new ground.

And that’s how it goes — this tilling, planting, reaping, planting, tilling, reaping — throughout your life and career. You seed your soul to the end when, in having recalled your nature and shared the truth of who you are and what you know, you’ve connected others to the truth in themselves. That fuels the world. That is immortality.


Leave Breadcrumbs

I believe in breadcrumbs.

Since the night I snuggled up to my Oma’s bosom to hear her read Hansel and Gretel for the first time, breadcrumbs have fueled my imagination. Haunted and yet mesmerized by this tale of witches and evil stepmothers, it was the breadcrumbs I remember most. And I began leaving them too. I didn’t do it consciously, but then neither did Hansel (they fell from his hands as he walked). In writing and documenting my feelings since the days of my teens, it turns out that I too have left myself a trail of tender bits of nourishment that have guided me home when I’ve been lost in tricky passages, grasping for clear direction.

They say the itch comes in cycles of seven; for me it’s longer. Ten years ago I was in a similar place, and ten years before that. I yearned for a deepening of the path each time, filling journal pages with my questions, enrolling in workshops, and gathering my most trusted peeps together in support of my molting. I’m in such a transition again today, feeling that the path is either deepening, veering off into a brand new direction, or both.

My fiery Sagittarius (Rising) is ready. In the early morning, I hear her stamping her hooves to prepare the ground for new adventures that will rattle my cage, reset my marbles, and bring in the next stellar thing. My earthy Virgo (Sun) is all in her head. She knows vitality is essential to her heart and change to her soul. What’s vexing is that we’re presently in the in-between place where one foot is happily tapping away on the known ground while the toes of the other foot are already dipping the new waters. Cue the breadcrumbs.

These notes to myself prove to be treasure-filled. In a journal from 2006, I find an entry where I envisioned meeting my future self 20 years anon (which is only 10 years now). I wrote out in detail how my future self looks, how she will greet me, what she’s up to, and what advice she will have for me. It’s a poignant read, inspiring enough to lift me from the goo of my current ambivalence and place me expectantly on the back of my patient Sag.

As in any good fairy tale, there are demons all over these writings. And history shows me that the ones we come into this life with are the ones we’re fated to fight. The same menahudi that tried to trip me up a decade ago are back in full force, which is depressing except for what I’ve learned about that: demons are our teachers and the level of our resistance to them is equal to the size of their gifts. In my last blog posting, I sent a love letter to fear and in that same spirit I acknowledge these others, some of whom I’ve  endowed with names, descriptions, habits and skills in an effort to understand them better and win them over:

Missy Incompetence is mousy, prim, and whiny. Her strengths would be persistence and soft-spokenness if she had a better message, but it’s all about “not enough” for her. Grim Reeper Mama is steely, cold and deadly. She insists that time is running out and barks “Why don’t you quit art and go back to a real job before it’s too late?” I gotta hand it to her, she’s the very spirit of clarity and confidence. Greener Pasture Patsy misses a lot and is obsessive, always looking for something other than what she has. But she still has a killer bod, can seriously multi-task, and is light-hearted and spontaneous which makes her adorable too.

Argh! Fighting these three is futile. I’m better off getting cozy with them over cocktails and dinner. (Mata Hari: I totally get what you were onto in choosing to sleep with the enemy.)

My breadcrumbs are clues that help me see the oh-so natural struggle that is the artist’s life and how well things have actually worked themselves out since the last time I was drifting. I see how life and craft are richer and more fulfilling than anything even my Grimm-trained imagination can ever conjure up. Knowing that is a real blessing.

Leave breadcrumbs. Not only is writing a cathartic activity no matter how scratchy and haphazard it may feel in the moment, but it’s cheaper than therapy and a huge vote of confidence in your inner guru. Keep those scribblings near your passport, will, marriage license, bible and whatever else you’d grab in a fire. You’ll find that these testaments to your vulnerability and longing, as well as your hopefulness and gratitude, will provide ample direction should you one day find yourself in a dense forest at night with a wicked stepmother in tow. And if there’s a budding writer in you, you’ll have the seeds of your memoir.

I’m reminded of a tender tidbit from the life of Goethe, my fellow Virgo who shares a birthplace with me and whose poems have reliably lit my path. He lived to spend his 82nd (and last) birthday in August 1831 in the mountainous region around Ilmenau surrounded by his grandchildren. There in the woods he’d visited often in his youth stood a tiny wooden hut. He came upon the hut while out walking, and on the wall inside it was a poem written 51 years before. As he recognized his own handwriting, he wept.

Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, (Over all the peaks there is peace,)
In allen Wipfeln spürest du (In all the treetops you feel)
Kaum einen Hauch; (Barely a breath;)
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde. (The little birds in the forest are silent.)
Warte nur, balde ruhest du auch. (Just wait, soon you will rest too.)


Love Letter to Fear

Dear Fear,

It has taken me some time to get around to this, but with Valentine’s Day having recently passed and the world evolving the way it is, I’ve been thinking a lot about love, affection and their opposites. It’s high time I wrote you this letter.

The world is full of teachings that would have me confront you, tame you, control you, overcome you, silence you and be free of you.

Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.
– Mark Twain
The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.
-Buddha
Where fear is, happiness is not.
– Seneca
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear.
– Mahatma Gandhi

It’s tough to argue with sage souls.
Even Marilyn has no love for you.

We should all start to live before we get too old.
Fear is stupid. So are regrets.
– Marilyn Monroe

Life has taught me something else. It has taught me that if I make an enemy of you, Fear, I make an enemy of me. If I disown you, I disown what it means to be a human woman and breathing, living artist. What has it ever cost me to acknowledge you and own you? Have I been irreparably defeated or have I only ever gained from your lead? You who has the uncanniest way of showing me the path not by leading me along it, but by pointing me to it. You, who are not my leaping and my flying, but the miles of ground leading to the edge of everything that has ever been extraordinary and, in retrospect, essential.

I used to believe it was you who kept me from crossing the street, but really it was you who kept me from staying where I was. The tight feeling in my mother’s hand as she stepped off of the curb with my tiny hand in hers, that was her fear. I learned that fear feeling from her. I learned it so I could recognize it. I’ve heard it in the faint-hearted gasp of someone not coming along with me, or someone looking back over their shoulder. I’ve seen it again and again in the eyes of people, in animals, in the movement of crowds, in the gestures of evangelizing egoists. But I’ve never seen it in babies. Fear, you are not our first response, you are our learned response.

People talk about being free of feeling afraid. The enlightened teachers of our time encourage fearlessness. Is that even possible? Can I be free of the feeling of my heart racing, my stomach turning, the top of my spine tingling, my blood boiling, my mind playing tricks? How would I know these things, these life-defining things, if I were free of you? You are Life to me, Fear. Without you I am dead. Dead to myself. And fear of death? What is that, really? Is it fear or is it the absence of that other F-word….faith?

The people in my life who know me longest and best know that resistance is my gut response to any new and really worthwhile thing. I come in with a shrug, I furrow my brow, I speak with time-buying words, I step back, step around, hold my breath. It’s true that I never leap into the really good stuff, the stuff most destined to be me and mine, right out of the gate. My resistance is you, Fear, and how I’ve learned to trust it! That wall of No is how you get yourself across to me – for an hour, a day, a year if the stakes are high. It all depends on what’s on the other side waiting for my Yes.

You’re my safety, but not in the conventional sense. I’m not safely stuck to you. I know you don’t want me for yourself. You’ve gone five decades without so much as a blown kiss from me let alone a missive of love like this and look how you’ve thrived. You’re my safety because you want the utmost for me. There just near the heart of me, the core of me, the best of me, is where you are. As artist I’ve been saying it for years…fear is fuel. You are the way in to the center, not the center itself. The stronger I feel you, Fear, the closer I know I am to my jewel.

That band of prickly heat I feel on my neck on a dark street at night is you. That cosmic, no gravity, freewheeling feeling in the pit of my stomach when I look down from a very high place is you. That flutter in my heart at the sight of someone electrifyingly resonant with my being is you. In my every step up the aisle into long partnership, or downstage to the footlights, in those fleeting moments of sublime connection, in every exit visa, in every whimper of my heart beginning to break open, there you’ve been. Like a chaperone, you old chap. Because at the moment of arrival you are gone. You have no desire to own me and rule me. This is the great misunderstanding. You don’t want me to cleave to you like anxiety, hallucination, terror and madness would have me do. What are those but fear fearing fear. You want me to breathe through you, shake you off, move on from you. Your purpose in life is to see to it that I arrive inside the wondrous, elusive, and transcendent moments of being, alone.

I know you had a name once, long long ago and all but forgotten. Ireul. I know you came with wings and fire for anything seeking birth. You’ve been here always. In that fateful spark that became me, you were summoned for my journey. At long last I have the words to tell you what I know you’ve always known: that without you I don’t exist, without you I don’t create, without you I don’t breathe, bleed, feed, live and love.

The day you die, my Fear, I will die with you.
Until then, you are my compass guiding me toward all that I am meant to be and not to be.

Love always,
Karen

The bird of courage flies with wings of fear.


Money, Money, Money, Money

Back in November, I was interviewed by Lizzie O’Leary, host of NPR’s Marketplace Weekend who was querying different kinds of folks about their relationship to money, including me the artist. Our short chat was inspiring and has prompted more writing on the subject. (If you’re interested in listening to the segment, find it here – Nov. 13, 2015.)

Lizzie asked me to explain why I believe it isn’t noble to be a broke artist. We have to free ourselves, I told her, from the very old story that money is evil and has a corrupting influence on our art. That just keeps money at arm’s length.

A person who separates art from money is like someone who walks their bicycle. Money is a vehicle. You don’t walk it, you ride it. You let it take you somewhere, which first means trusting that it can and will show up and support you. Money is currency and green is not its only color.

Asked how I came by my lessons about money, I shared that I’ve had to unravel my own inherited money myths. After years of employment outside the arts, I finally in my mid-30s heeded the call of the voice within that said Sing! Sing full-time. And so I gave up the security of a fantastic corporate job for the chancy life of a nightclub singer. Every time that company’s stock split in the years thereafter, I wondered if I hadn’t made a huge mistake. I was still of the mindset that money showed up as payment for effort and nothing more. Something to put in the bank and live on. That led me down the path of fretting about money too. Luckily, I’ve always surrounded myself with people who really believe in my talent and understand the role that passion and a serious work ethic play in anyone’s success. And I’ve counted on these few trusted souls to nudge me back on the path of art whenever I threatened to veer off into safer havens or defiantly push away money and abundance.

I thought of that while riding my bicycle.
– Albert Einstein
on the Theory of Relativity

I’ve learned that money IS currency in a very broad sense. I’ve learned that when I am true to my art and calling, money will follow me anywhere I wish to go. In fact, it’s often already there waiting for me when I arrive. I trust money. I trust money as current and energy. Money is streaming energy and wants nothing but to flow. Money doesn’t want to be at the center of our lives as artists, it wants to serve what’s at the center of our lives. And it shows up in endless forms, dollars and cents being just one.

To understand why we’re so hung up about money, we have to look at our stories. Across time and all our cultures, we’ve concocted delicious stories around the idea of the poor artist. The poor, hungry, cold, solitary and yet somehow magnificently prolific artist is in our history books, folklore and romance. Poverty, we’ve told ourselves, produces the greatest inspiration – far better paintings, books, poems, plays, films, dances, and songs. The glory of the starving artist is a myth. If you’re starving, you’re not producing. Your mind is on survival, not the sharing of your gifts.

Another story we have is that money is corrupting and ruinous to art. We believe that the artist who becomes successful and amasses wealth will inevitably lose it – her bearings, taste, abilities, integrity, family, health, her very life. And it’s happened often enough that an artist dies and dies young, but not actually because of anything money did or didn’t do. That money is a demon is a myth.

So we actually give mixed messages to money – from “I don’t want you near me” to “I can’t live without you.” We demonize it at the same time as we glorify it. We chase after it with our fretting and anxious thoughts of fear and lack, and wonder why it runs away. Or we put up the blinders and wonder why it never reaches us. Suddenly having not enough money or too much money is the focus, is our daily bread. Now money is at the center of life, and creativity is huddled over in the corner, shivering and starving. That’s the distressing rumble we feel in our tummies when we fret about money. We think we’re hungry for money but we’re really hungry for our creativity. We long for integrity.

So we have to take a broader view of money.  We have to approach it with the understanding that it’s a tool, a vehicle. We have to respect it like we do any other current: a rushing river, the voltage in our walls. Money as currency and current looks like this: a studio in which to create, a patron, a voyage, a meal, a good review (a bad one too), a contract, a contact, a colleague, a student, a mentor, a bill of good health, a stroke of good fortune, whatever makes you smile. Apply this filter to your day as an artist and then ask: Am I wealthy? Am I thriving?

Abundance is our birthright. We were all born as artists, as creators, even though a good many of us have forgotten it. Create and you will never be poor; destroy and you will never be rich. Harbor thoughts of scarcity and poverty, and money will find another place to flow. It’s the way of nature. Open the portals, welcome all visitors, and watch as the money tree grows. And the wheels of life go round and round…


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