Category Archives: Heart

Goodbye Jikan


~ for Leonard Cohen

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




Give Your Gift Before You Go

This New Year’s morning, my man and I were talking about the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. And about how I have enough decades behind me now to weigh and measure. I’ve been here long enough to attend births, to steward some into their own becoming, and be with others at the doorway to their deaths. Now is my time to bring my experience to the midpoint and say:  It’s a short distance between one and the other.

You can bring birth here
You can bring death here
To this midpoint
To this center, this moment
Which contains all

We artists have a natural urge, a hunger even, to throw ourselves into the world with abandon. We’re inclined to embrace without first needing to understand. Our very pursuit of art is the way IN toward the understanding we seek.

Without our yearning, who would we be? Without our curiosity and wonder, why would we care? Without our sense of abundance and absence, how would we know where to go? We’ve gifted ourselves the gamut of emotions from bliss all the way to regret so that when the music plays, we can move.

Since birth we’ve had placed at our feet infinite treasures. From the first blink of consciousness up to this moment, who we are is a wealth. It doesn’t matter what, it matters that. We’re the totality, the beginning and the end, the first word and the last. Whatever you come across, it’s treasure and there’s more than enough.

There is enough.

Take any experience at all…take a negative one: a betrayal, a theft, a broken bone. The one who sees only the experience suffers many times. The one who sees the gift in the experience suffers only once. The victim is resigned. The maker sees the bounty and gets busy. Experience is a treasure trove. It’s fodder for the craft. We know this.

Make your life your work of art. You’re at the helm, master of brush and baton, mistress of ink and film and marley.  Play with what you’ve lived. Use it with abandon. Draw it back, pull it forward…recreate it. Be selfish, be reckless, be courageous. Be honorable, be humbled, be happy.

If in life you’re an artist, you’re an artist of life. At irregular intervals you stop to consider your time, your distance to events and people, and you begin again. You make anew what you were taught and given, and what you learned and received.

Share what you’ve lived and lay it bare for us. Create a new way for us, a new world of possibility for yourself and for us. When you open, we open. When we discover, you discover. When you are, all can become. This is art. This is also wisdom.

Give to your life the voice of its author.
Your life is your gift.
Give your gift before you go.

Channel Magic

You’ve got to find some way of saying it, without saying it. – Duke Ellington

In cabaret, I’ve experienced enormous freedom. I’ve lived moment-to-moment for an hour at a time, using anything that comes up in myself and offering that to my musicians and my audience. The result of my dipping into my own emotional palette is that others dip into theirs – their own emotions and stories and memories. And so it cycles ’round and ’round.

This is why the audience is so essential to the cabaret experience – because of this intimate and immediate exchange that happens. The magic happens when a channel opens, a channel of interpretation that connects us in limitless ways to each other and to something beyond ourselves.

Learning cabaret has helped me learn life. Just as I’ve spent years getting out of my own way on-stage and out of the way of what seeks to express itself through me, I’ve freed myself off-stage too. I’m better today at feeling empathy, at managing fear, at listening, at making mistakes, at lowering my expectations and letting myself be surprised. I’m better at trust.

The goal for me as singer is not to sing at all. The goal is to channel. To open myself to the emotions, ideas and messages that are at hand and to understand how that will sing itself. My method can be reduced to being fearlessly willing to stay open in the moment. To not “put” anything out there or put anything on, but rather to allow myself to be put out there. My work is as much about vanishing as it is about arriving.

Excellent performance is a matter of being rather than doing. It’s handing myself over and that takes time. Time and practice and trust. Ironically, before one can hand oneself over as an artist one has to first accumulate oneself. You can’t give up what you don’t possess. To release the self from performance requires a hearty self-consciousness, an amassing of self and an ever-increasing confidence to let go. And so we pack on the training and the experience and the “me/mine” for many, many years.

As singer and teacher today, I release myself from my preparation and live as freely as possible on-stage. I am not tied to my interpretation of a song (even the one I rehearsed yesterday) or my ideas about stagecraft. I dip into these things as needed – catch them, bring them to earth, let them go. Performance is like any language. I’ve learned it, it is in service to me and in opening to it, it brings itself forth.

In my workshops and privately, my students come with their presentations and I observe. Ideas comes to me as I watch and listen and I note my feelings as they occur. Then we play. The student guides herself to refine her piece, change it, polish it, transform it. I am the witness, the nudger. My aim is not to change the way she is expressing herself. I want that to be natural and real and on her terms. My aim is to help her bring herself to that channeling place, and to place her expression in a certain frame. I am an enframer, yes.

I strive to sing my songs the same way, as I would speak them. I let them come to me. I let the audience come to me. Allow, allow, allow. That’s when the magic happens.

How I Prepare a Song: 6 Steps

Step 1. Whether I find them or they find me, my songs move me musically and lyrically. Sometimes the melody hooks me first, sometimes the lyric. If a song appeals to me musically but not lyrically, I won’t sing it. I’ll give it to the band to play. Lyrics are key. I can’t sing a song I haven’t lived. I can vocalize it, but I can’t really sing it. I have to be able to bring something to it from my own life experience. Indeed, there are many beautiful songs I have not taken into my body. Beautiful, as sung by others.

Photo: rand alhadeff

Photo: rand alhadeff

Step 2. I check the song’s vital signs:  title, composers, year, language, dominant emotion, secondary emotion, texture and rhythm. I ask myself “who am I here?” (me or a character?), and “who am I singing to?” (myself, another person, the audience directly). Does the song take place now, in the past or in the future? Is it a recollection, or a wish?

Step 3. Next I feel my way into the song’s “gender” and “color.” Some songs feel masculine to me, some feminine, and some neutral/neuter. The texture is variably coarse or soft, assertive or yielding, gritty or buttery. You might say that my “signature” songs all have a complex mixture of textures, making them compelling to me and worth every effort. From texture I get a sense of color so that when I structure a setlist, I can sort out the red songs from the pink, the black ones from the blues, the oranges from the yellows. Voila! – this is also how I get the color I will take to my lighting technician for that song. And decide on costume. The colors that my songs wear help me choose my dress color for the night.

Step 4. Depending on the nature of the gig, I may really dig into the song’s history. When was it written and why and for whom? If it’s not a contemporary piece, I ask – “What was the world like then?” I may decide to use this in my patter (what I say between songs or song sections), or keep it to myself. Either way, doing some homework gives me a deeper connection to my message and a sense of authority with a song. Both will come through in my interpretation.

Step 5. I memorize it. Word after word, repetition after repetition until I know it by….head. I was going to say “heart” but in the first several outings with a new song, it’s still mostly a heady thing for me. It takes time for me to know the song by heart. Like any love affair.

Step 6. I play with my songs forever. They are among the best investments I make in life and their return is priceless. Through my many moods and circumstances and years, my songs grow with me and change according to who accompanies them and who hears them. The musicians come up with their own ideas; the audience leaves its own signature on the table. When my songs have run their course, I let them go. Ah, were it possible to give up anything as easily as I give up a song when I know the time has come.


For us stage artists who use words – singers, actors, poets, comedians and clowns – we sure have our fun with words! Words beg to be nuzzled, caressed, floated, struck, oozed, dribbled, slapped around, spit out, swallowed whole, taken by vowel, taken by consonant, taken high, taken low and every place in between. And they don’t mind being left out.

Words and silence need each other like hot needs cold, day needs night, sun needs moon, freckles need skin, and this sentence needs a period.

Note to actors, voice-over artists, public speakers and others: If you have a script, you can follow these steps as well. Have fun!

A Glorious School for the Heart

 “Nature is a glorious school for the heart! I shall be a scholar in this school
and bring an eager heart to her instruction. Here I shall learn wisdom, the only wisdom that is free from disgust; here I shall learn to know God and find a foretaste of heaven in His knowledge. Among these occupations my earthly days shall flow peacefully along until I am accepted into that world where I shall no longer be a student, but a knower of wisdom.” – from Beethoven’s Diary, 1818

Okay, I’m going to risk being unpopular and say: I am loving this winter! And I’m happy to hear more snow is coming! Was that a snowball that just hit me in the back of the head? Could you at least have used less tired snow? – ick.

I’m not being sarcastic. This really has been one of the most beautiful winters ever. It’s true that I keep no kids or pets or car here, am able to adjust my days when snow comes and work from home, and go out just for pleasure and exercise. That makes a difference, I know. But before you pelt me with another white (uh, gray) stinger, let me share why I love the stuff:

Purity. Nothing is like snowfall. It defies imitation. In dusting the earth, even in blowing hard, it is purely and simply snow. It’s our atmosphere (so far we still have one) whirling about, dancing, coming to rest in windswept dunes. At the center of our hearts, we all love snow. What’s not to love? Snow is delicate, clean and white. It brings us back to something simpler, someone we remember, some place long gone. Snow brings intention. It has a clarifying effect. When it blankets us, we get to see what really counts – in our work and our play, on that day and on that shopping list.

Presence. Snow is a thing of this moment. Young and old, it has a quieting effect on our psyches and souls. Before it lays there, dirty and pee-stained and blocks our way, it’s a thing of beauty, right now. And we move differently through it – more conscientiously, softly and slowly. We think of ourselves and the person next to us. Like magic, snow brings out the best in us.  When it’s soft and fluffy and shimmering in sunlight, we love it. When it’s black and hard, we don’t. Everything that sticks around is like that. Settle too long in one place and you too will become dark and hard and be in someone’s way. That’s what snow does most for me. It nudges me back on the path.

Protection. Take heart. We’re going to have an amazing spring! Right now under all that protected ground, the earth and all its creatures are busy storing up their energies and reserves and protecting all the seeds. We call it the dead of winter, but there’s nothing dead about it. Another conceit of us humans, just because we can’t see something taking place. Nature doesn’t fault us. Soon she will gift us with a ground-breaking, death-defying, orgasmic Pop!, Pow!, Brr!, Shrrr!, Buzz! Breeeeee! Weeeee! Swang! Swing!….Spring! And that will be a great time for artists and lovers.

Poetry. Go ahead and take your inspiration now for snow is a poem. Snow is a story, a slice of a season, a gasp from a cloud. Snow is a pirouette, a prayer, a curse. It’s silence, a shadow, a whisper. Snow is light. It alights. Like a brushstroke, and a lyric. Thank God it’s here now and not coming down in July. That would really be shitty. Take your inspiration now. Take it before it’s gone. Gone for….good.

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, Feb 2014

The Seed Within

Within us all there is a seed of resplendent life force. We artists feel it especially. This seed lies in its casing, a hard exterior shell. 

We have to let the flowering take place. For an artist this is always a necessity…this having to bloom. We cannot help it. We can hinder it, prevent it, stifle it, go another way. It does not go away. It is patient. It waits for us. And then, when we allow it… even then we cannot help it. It grows itself.

Resistance to it comes from the mind and through the body. It does not come through the heart. The heart may race with fear as easily as with exuberance. The two are the same when fear feels exuberant and exuberance, fearsome. Both originate in thought, in mind. And we resist. We resist feeling fear and we resist feeling exuberance.

My life in art has been a long path of getting out of the way of the flowering. Of not putting up walls and other defenses. Of becoming increasingly trusting. Of listening. I have thrown myself into the stream and sometimes I have floated and sometimes I have been hurled into rocks and I have come close to drowning more than once. Here my mind, my ego, has come to be a necessary ally. And I have survived, with the seed intact. And this seed has grown and begot new seeds. And that’s what it means to live as an artist. To sow the seeds of our destiny and see the path we must follow.  Like Hansel & Gretel and their breadcrumbs, only with better results. 

At whatever time you awaken to the seed that stirs within you, that is where you start….whether you’re a child or a very big grown-up. No matter how old you are or how you look or who you’ve been or what you’ve done. Or haven’t been and haven’t done. Start there. Begin to listen.

The other voices in your head will be there too. They will have you wait until some certain time, or some other thing happens first or is achieved – when I turn 21, when I quit my job, when I quit my marriage, as soon as the kids are gone, as soon as I lose 50 pounds, as soon as my father dies, as soon as I have a million on account – are stories. Set the story straight. Start where you are. Become the one who begins at last.

Everything comes from nothing. You have an inspiration, your intuition tells you something, turn in. Listen to that something, attune to it. It is the stirring of your seed.


It needs your attuning and that’s really all it needs. Just your attention. Attune to it, believe in it, and watch what happens next. You are given things…clues, ideas, instrumental people, energy. Soon the seed becomes a root and a stem and a branch and a bud. The flowering happens naturally. Our job is to cultivate the seed, to make fertile the earth and to water it all the way into budding with our love and our belief. We can let others love it and believe it for us first, before we do. It’s all the same to the seed.

No flower asks for permission to bloom. It blooms in its own time. Claiming our birthright as artists is like making a pact with nature. Our responsibility is to the seed. Nature takes care of the rest. Our true nature.

If you are reading this posting, then something has likely already stirred in you. Your soul has been aroused from its deep sleep, or perhaps from a recent nap. Long ago or just this morning. It has called you to art. What will you do now?

A new year is an impressive time. It always feels pregnant to me. All of us people on earth who count the years, and that’s most of us, are focussed on this turning. And we feel it collectively, that focus. All those intentions and all that dreaming. Very potent.

Some things will stick. Some seeds will pop out of their shells. Some won’t.

Don’t set yourself up too broadly, too vigorously, hang up too many hooks around yourself. Pick a thing that is your heart’s desire and feed that. Just one essential thing. What is it you dream of most nights? What have you known about for as long as you can remember? What inkling have you had time and time again…

Here in the northern hemisphere it’s winter and all the seeds are dormant in the earth.

Any day is New Years day, all the live long year.

Love Is Most High

leather-email01Love is most high
More high than sky
More salty than the tear
From my Beloved’s eye
And sweeter than a drop of dew
Born in a strand of morning’s new

For love is tall
More tall than all
More patient than the ancient earth
Awaiting autumn’s fall
And restless as a song of spring
Unthroated and untiring

For love is first
More first than thirst
More swift than any arrow
Of a blessed cherub cursed
More instant than the kiss of death
More languishing than heaven’s breath

For love is free
More free than we
More innocent and ignorant
Of our necessity
More yielding than the tempered shield
That binds the fortress to the field

For love is true
More true than blue
More black and red and lavender
Than anybody knew
And how about the fool love is
How cruel love is and old

For love is bold
More bold than told
More telling than a corpse can say
Once she has gone to cold
More fleeting than a shadowplay
More durable than this fine day

For love is high
More high than sky
More all than all
For love is all

Don’t show us. Let us find it.

I attended a screening of the new film, Nebraska, with my Canadian actor and pal Jean Brassard. What a truthful bit of film-making it is and what amazing casting! In the live chat with Bruce Dern that followed, he shared some of his wisdom:

1. Don’t push. Don’t perform. Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.
2. Always leave a piece yourself at an audition, even if you have just 2-minutes of time. They will never forget that.
3. Take risks and build a family of creators around you.
4. Go home. Because that’s how you find out who you are.

I’m inspired to explore these themes in the next few entries.

First off: “Don’t push, don’t perform, don’t show us, let us find it.” Dern was told this by a casting director at one of his earliest auditions. How very compelling and very challenging! It seems like a contradiction – telling an actor not to show something; a performer not to perform. And it is a beautiful irony. Don’t the best performances seem somehow to be “dialed in”? It’s like they come from somewhere else. Genius and raw talent manifest in this way. An artist opens up and just streams the stuff from God knows where. That actor is a pure, clean channel. For me, its been precisely in those moments when I’ve managed to step beside myself and vanish for just a little while, that something real and truthful has been invited to come in. I feel at once all there and not at all there.

The best performances I’ve seen are also highly original and individual. I don’t think of us as purely pure channels. I do sense that there is a heightened awareness, yes, and a tuning that gives way to something less self-conscious. So what is performing anyway? Webster’s says it’s “presenting something, portraying a role, demonstrating a skill, taking action, enacting, and… beginning something and carrying it through. Now this really resonates with me. To perform is to carry something through, to quiet my urge to “show” something and allow something to show itself through me, using all my faculties and resources. I get myself out of the way to clear the way for something to convey. This is the essence of performing, of being a performer. For in handing myself over, I’ve still got myself in the mix.

Returning to Dern: Not to show something and instead letting it be found – how radical is that in our time and age! Where everything is shown, put up big and boldly and loudly, screaming at us all the time…”see me, see me, see me…want me!” – in advertising, in business, in our relationships.

For a thing to be found, it has to exist. It has to be available and given in the first place. No camera can find a thing that isn’t there, that hasn’t come into the room. Showing up is that thing given. Showing up at the audition, showing up for the camera, for the viewer, showing up for the carrying out. “Show up, don’t show off” is what Dern is advising. Present, but don’t push. Carry and stay, don’t get carried away. Convey, convey, convey. The rest is up to the finders.

Next Bruce Dern said: “Always leave a piece of yourself. They will not forget that.”

But Beautiful

Last night at Town Hall here in New York City, Julie Wilson made a surprise appearance in an evening honoring two legendary interpreters of song – Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short.

Wearing a long sheath in brown tones with hints of gold accents she was escorted out on the arm of a man, her hair pulled back tight in her signature chignon and a flower framing her left temple. Nearly 90, Julie moved slowly, cautiously, as if with baby steps. As soon as she was in reaching distance of the microphone, her body came alive and undulated like a trapped bird does or a bee when it senses it is once more free.

tn-500_stephensorokoff-5568She began the first words with a voice that now contains an entire lifetime, with the color of an entire palette of human emotion, every glory, every setback. Julie Wilson has had a life and it is in her song. Her range has narrowed to a few notes that float and the rest are gasps and rasps and moans and airy whispers.

Love is funny, or it’s sad
Or it’s quiet, or it’s mad
It’s a good thing or it’s bad
But beautiful

Beautiful to take a chance
And if you fall, you fall
And I’m thinking
I wouldn’t mind at all

Julie Wilson takes her time. She’s lived it all and hurry is something she doesn’t worry about. She’s not singing to prove anything, advise anyone, convince or admonish. Love is not something she longs for, dreams of, not something that lies before her as once it did. It’s all in her now. She has become it.

Love is tearful or it’s gay
It’s a problem or it’s play
It’s a heartache either way
But beautiful

The hall was utterly still. No one was expecting this, everyone was rapt. She was matched at the piano – all her energy, pacing, phrasing, simplicity, the sparseness, nakedness and directness of every line. Julie was the canvas and we filled ourselves in between her words. It was her story and it was ours, her man and ours, her heartbeat and heartbreak…and ours.

And I’m thinking if you were mine
I’d never let you go
And that would be
But beautiful I know

Her masque transitioned between pathos, bewilderment and anguish, and she ended each verse in absolute joy through her smile, that inimitable Wilson smile. Julie is grateful to have lived it all.

Singing is story-telling. Singing is surrendering. Singing is serving up the universal themes that make a life. The great artists have had great lives. Big lives. Things happened to them. Meaningful things. We have to be fearless. We have to live to sing and put what we create of life right back into our song.

The more life we have, the more songs we can sing. Not just vocalize, but sing. Julie is a singer. Her gift is in her ability to take what she’s dared over nine decades to do and feel and be and think, and harness and acquire and lay bare. An artist lays herself bare and vanishes until what we see and hear out in the dark is ourselves. Singer, actor, dancer, painter, poet…a great artist let’s us forget who they are and remember who we are. The song is the bridge.

When Julie finished, applause and cheers filled the hall and most of us rose to our feet because it truly was such a rare and sublime treat. Beaming, she blew kisses and bowed and waved. Her escort returned from the wings to assist her, but Julie Wilson walked off alone. Beautiful.

And I’m thinking if you were mine
I’d never let you go
And that would be
But beautiful I know68648_10201267302028309_996694425_n




Photos: Stephen Sorokoff

On Waking Up and Walling Up

My life happens first and my art imitates it. That’s the usual way. What I experience becomes my authority in what I bring across on stage, in a scene, a song, a mood, emotion, sentiment, argument.

I admit I’m an adventurer, happier on the edge than in the center. Yet anchored in the center with at least one foot, or even just one finger….tip. In waves, with my whole body. That’s usually after I’ve been out exploring and, like a satisfied cat, am back in a sun-soaked window licking myself. My fur, of course. My surfaces.

My sun sign is in an earth planet, and all the other dominant aspects are in fire signs. It isn’t always easy or practical –  these opposites and their eternal tugging – but it makes for me better art than were I simply grounded or simply restless. Actually, I was painfully shy as a kid, as a young immigrant freshly off the boat (or in my case plane, as my Dad was an airline man), but that’s another entry.

What I want to write about is this subject of life happening first… scary life some days…

I was deep into my upcoming album project yesterday, writing a lot and in a self-imposed exile. After dinner RM and I were noodling away at our respective noodles when he suddenly let out a gasp and “Oh God.” Something about Boston. Explosions. The marathon. The marathon? Are they kidding?! I broke from my writing and Googled Boston and there it was…a new story about mayhem and terror and injuries and death in a place where people are running. Running. Sporting. Competing…with themselves. Lots and lots of people. No, I had no desire to watch the gory details and have them playing in my head at sleeping time. I turned my machines off.

Now it is morning. I have not opened myself to it – the unfathomable, inexplicable, horrible to which we are all witness and vulnerable, we fear, and on some level, implicate. Events like this color a day, a week, a month, a lifetime. We artists are sponges after all. We feed on this stuff. Six years after my Off-Broadway success with a piece called Little Death, I’m creating the next chapter in its life. I live with this project. I breathe it in and out. Destruction is one of its many themes. But this morning, life happening first is too much for my art. Too external. Too violent.

I am building a shield around myself for as long as I can…for certainly it is dominating the news now as such things do and have only too recently done in a town not far away.

It pisses me off. Another group of people mowed down in their innocence. People passionate about running are innocent. They’re alive with running and with what’s running them. The people watching are innocent. They’re passionate about watching running, or watching movies. In the throes of our passions we’re unguarded. We’re vulnerable. We’re children. Does that go for the bomb-makers too?

Last night someone on Facebook wrote…”I love Boston, now I can’t trust it anymore.” I left a comment:”If you give away your trust, they’ve won.”

I feel this morning a giant NO. No, I will not turn to this. No, I will not distract myself with it, fall off my writing streak, my creativity, my creation. For then you have power over me…you tiny and frightened and miserable souls with your desperate pleas for attention. You are not animals. Animals don’t do this to each other. No living thing in this world takes from it what a human is so capable of taking.

This is all I’m permitting on the subject. A blog entry on how to erect a wall. A wall around myself to protect my innocence and inspirations which come from who knows where but someplace good. I am in the business of breaking walls down not building them up and in that way, you takers have won. For the moment.

But I set the tone here. The choice is mine of how much I give away and how much I retain. Today I stay with art and life will content itself with imitation.

Later I will visit Lenny’s grave just over in Greenwood. Kindred spirit. Good for the soul. The highest point in Brooklyn is near where he rests and from where you could have watched New York burning 12 years ago.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” – Leonard Bernstein

Postscript: Bomb-maker – I call you tiny, frightened, miserable and desperate in your plea for attention. Not very nice of me, is it. For all I know you are passionate about what you do and believe your inspiration comes from some good place too. In my heart I know that you and I are neighbors and that railing against you is railing against myself. That the impulse in me to diminish you is a tiny seed compared to the full-blown jungle who’ve created, but it’s the same impulse nonetheless. To the soil all seeds are the same. Nobody knows until one breaks through the crust of the earth what kind of thing it is and whether it will bloom by day or by night. You and I each exercise our passion according to our cherished beliefs, but here’s the thing: In my world, nobody has to die so I can be heard.

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