You Make Me Shine


You Make Shine
Written by Clif Magness and Debby Holiday

 

Please bear with me, Clif. 🙂

 

Recording this song demo 17 years ago was a perspective changer for me. Clif Magness, who co-wrote the song and produced it, is a Grammy award winning, Oscar-nominated producer, singer, songwriter, and all around consummate musician. And not least of things, a great guy. We attended the same church for many years, and it was there we became friends. I sang regularly in service and he lent his considerable gifts from time to time as his schedule allowed.

 

One day, late in 2001, I think, he called out of the blue and asked if I could come in and record a country-ish vocal for a song he was pitching to Faith Hill. I said yes, for obvious reasons, but was nonetheless perplexed. Why me? Surely he’s got a Rolodex full of more highly seasoned and qualified studio vocalists. I’m a voice actor by trade, not a singer. I’d long ago given up any notions of being a recording artist.

 

Anyway, the day came. I was rested and ready to sing, but a bit nervous, because, you know… Clif Magness. I’d never worked with a genuine music producer before. Not like him. He taught me the song in-studio, and I gave it my best. He did nothing but encourage and praise what came out of my mouth, and then began to do what he does so well: Produce the vocal; not with fancy knobs and effects on mysterious machines, but by talking to me. That is to say, he guided me through the song, speaking a singer’s language, and it nudged out of me something new; a sound I’d not really heard before. It seemed full, strong, confident. Foreign. I grew up learning to sing by mimicking Karen Carpenter, and while my vocal chords are uniquely mine, there was a softness and a sweetness in hers that I fully embraced in my own and, in ways, I’d never really learned to move beyond.

 

After about an hour, Clif had gotten what he needed. I took off my headphones and stepped out of the booth. I asked for a copy when it was finished, and off I went to the rest of my day. A few days later he told me the demo was finished and that if I was around I could drop by and pick up a CD copy.

 

I’m not exactly sure how to impart what came next, as it’s possible to be interpreted as both self-pity and self-aggrandizement. It is neither, I assure you. So, let me add a little context. Yes, I have always been a singer. From aged 9, it was THE thing for which I was praised and encouraged. Everyone around me knew this was my “destiny” and spoke in such terms. It was “only a matter of time,” my father would say with confidence, well into my 30s, as if all one must do with “talent such as mine” is wait to be discovered like Lana Turner at Schwab’s. But what all of those dear, encouraging people in my youth didn’t know, the thing of which they are blissfully unaware is when it comes to carving out a career in the music business as a female recording artist, time is not your friend and talent is last in line. For fun, though, let’s assume the talent, okay? Then there are those two simultaneously Cruel and Magnanimous intertwined Creatures: TIMING and LUCK, or magic, the alignment of the stars, whatever you wanna call the pesky pair. I mean there are myriad other bits as well: trends, marketability, looks, charisma, all of that plays a part – especially for women. Then there is the stuff we’ve only begun to speak out loud. Only looking backward has it become obvious that my refusal to sleep with the music director (more than twice my age) on a solo project I was “lucky” to be working on at CBS Records in 1981( at the tender age of 19) brought the entirety of it to a screeching halt. Careers in any creative business require insane perseverance, too. Even a man as ridiculously talented and successful as Clif Magness can tell you, the work never ends. You never arrive. A Grammy and 4 bucks’ll get you a latte, a friend once told me. You keep at it, shoulder to the wheel. You continue to reinvent. But when it comes to female vocalists starting in the music business, age plays an undeniably big part. I’d like to say some of that is changing, but just like in the world of Acting, and even Voiceover, the changes are superficial. I’m not ungrateful for those small changes, by the way, but I am a realist. I knew from the time I hit 30 (um… 26 years ago) that EVEN IF everything else was perfectly aligned, my chances of being a successful recording artist in my own right, as it traditionally played out back then, were not even slim, they were none.

 

Back to the song… I got the CD from Clif’s mailbox where he’d placed it for me, got back in my car and popped it in the player. Now. How do I describe what proceeded to explode in my ears? The difference in production value was so stark (that is, so much BETTER) compared to my own self-made demos it sent a shudder through my bones. And the vocal. My vocal? Who the hell was that? Me? Really? Whoever it was, she was fantastic. I listened over and over, trying to figure out how that could have possibly come out of me, and more importantly, to figure out why I was so turned upside down, so… unsettled by it.

 

A few weeks later, Clif and his wife Carole invited us over for dinner, and during the course of conversation, I thanked Clif for making me sound so good on the demo. He just smiled at me quizzically and said, quite matter-of-factly, “That was all you. You know you’re every bit the singer Faith Hill is. It’s in you.”

 

Later that night I went home and listened again (this was a thing I was working out in my psyche, not self-indulgence, I swear) and it dawned on me that over the years, as I had slowly backed myself out of the music business, (for not unsound reasons, mind you) I’d told myself I just wasn’t good enough. This song, this little demo, recorded a few months before my 40th birthday, was Validation. With a capital V. I had the goods. I Could’a Been A Contender, too, Mr. Brando. More than a few tears were shed that night. Not out of regret, really, but out of a sense of gratitude for this crazy little gift I’d been given – confirmation of what I’d known since I was 9, but had forgotten: I am. A Singer.

 

I’m relieved my childhood dream was unrealized. God’s a funny guy that way. I think a career in the music business might’ve killed me – by drink and drugs or any number of forms of self-destruction. I did not, and do not, have the constitution for it. But over the course of 33 years, with my shoulder to another wheel, I have cultivated this marvelous, creative, under-the-radar-like-I-like-it career as a voice actor, which feeds me both literally and creatively. And I still get to sing – in church, as animated characters, in my car, in the kitchen as I cook, and occasionally live and on demos for creative friends who are still at it, too. Toby Petrie, Jefferson Denim, Steve Mackall, Taylor Mackall, Katheryne Levin and others – because they still know what I had forgotten. That it brings joy to people, no matter how small or eclectic the listenership, is icing on the tasty cake that is my life.

 

I know you were just doing what you do every day when you had me record that vocal, Clif, and it’s a little late to be saying this but, thank you for asking me. It rocked my world in a most meaningful way.

 



You Cannot Lose My Love


I had dinner with a friend a couple of weeks ago and the topic of parenting came up. He is single, never married, no children. Without mincing words, he told me he was glad he never married and that he had no desire for children whatsoever. His was a difficult childhood, complete with physical and sexual abuse. So for him, family was nothing short of awful and he’d no intention of creating one. My childhood was nothing like his, but I certainly understood his point of view. When I was younger I couldn’t have imagined myself as a parent and, unlike my siblings, it wasn’t really in my plans. My relationship with my mother was difficult at best, and I certainly didn’t want to recreate it. If that’s what parenting was destined to be for me, no thank you.

 

I first heard this song, You Cannot Lose My Love, by Sara Groves, at a women’s conference held at the beautiful retreat center Casa de Maria in Montecito, an event sponsored by Brentwood Presbyterian Church. I was 8 months pregnant with Esther. The speaker for the weekend was the Rev. Dr. Laura Robinson Harbert, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and Licensed Family Therapist. I’m not sure what the topic of the weekend was, but I’m certain Dr. Robinson was imparting as only she can the unceasing love God has for each of us. She played this song as a modern-day expression of that love: a song of assurance that this journey we’re on will surely be full of peaks and valleys, successes and failures, and yet, whatever we encounter, we cannot lose the love of our Creator.

 

I sat in the back row, near bursting with child, my heart filling with fear and unspeakable sorrow for the child I would soon deliver. I remember listening to the lyrics and thinking “No no no. I DID lose my mother’s love. It does not last. This is all a lie. My relationship with my daughter is destined for the same pain and sorrow. I have no idea how to do anything differently. I can’t do it. And I can’t go back now.” My silent tears turned into loud and embarrassing convulsions and I became inconsolable as the session ended. Like a sharply focused laser, Dr. Robinson came to me and wrapped her arms around me while I continued to sob and convulse. She asked me what was wrong, and after a minute or two I was only partially able to get words to this effect out of my mouth: “I’m afraid for my daughter. I’m afraid to be her mother. I’m not equipped to do this. I can’t do it. I don’t want to ruin her.” I’m not sure what she said to soothe me, but after a while, I calmed down. I can’t remember any other detail of that weekend from nearly 16 years ago. Only that Dr. Robinson threw her arms around me in love until I could see straight again.

 

Needless to say, the song stuck with me. Esther was born 3 weeks later, and everything changed. The truth of the message that weekend became crystal clear. There was no way on Earth or in Heaven that my daughter could lose my love. Not. A. Chance. It wasn’t even a decision I had to make. It was as true as the morning sunrise. Having Esther gave me a new perspective on my Creator’s love for me as well, and it is this that has been ultimately transformational. I am loved. Period.

 

A few years later, my mother developed dementia and in 2012 died of its complications. I was there with her on several occasions leading up to her death and was present when she died. I remember a significant visit with her in hospital. When I first came into the room, I sat down and held her hand. I asked if she knew who I was. She looked at me with the most pained and honest eyes and said “no.” I smiled at her and told her she was my mother and I was her daughter, Kay, her youngest. I then squeezed her hand and told her I loved her. She squeezed my hand even harder, and with a conviction I’d not experienced in her before said: “I love you, too.” The truth is, I think she always did. I think our hurts and our expectations and our human fallibility got in the way of our being able to live into that love here on earth, but my heart rests more easily these days believing I had never lost her love, just as Esther cannot lose mine.

 

Thinking back on the conversation with my friend, I can’t recall what my response was, except just to listen. Sometimes that’s all a friend needs. But I do wish I would’ve told him that having a child has been, for me, an opportunity to recreate a loving and psychologically healthy parent/child relationship, only this time I’m the parent, and by way of a lot of self-examination and mental health work, I created the capacity to do things differently – with love and respect for who my child is. There has been remarkable healing for the child still residing inside me; a refashioning of the parent/child milieu buried in my psyche. And as God has a fantastic sense of irony, my daughter has been the most remarkable conduit of healing for me. I had no idea parenting came with such a magnificent bonus.

 

I recorded You Cannot Lose My Love for Esther for her 13th birthday. She liked it. I think she’ll like it even more as she ages and if, perhaps, she becomes a mother herself.

 

You Cannot Lose My Love
By Sara Groves

 

You will lose your baby teeth.
At times, you’ll lose your faith in me.
You will lose a lot of things,
But you cannot lose my love.

 

You may lose your appetite,
Your guiding sense of wrong and right.
You may lose your will to fight,
But you cannot lose my love.

 

You will lose your confidence.
In times of trial, your common sense.
You may lose your innocence,
But you cannot lose my love.

 

Many things can be misplaced;
Your very memories be erased.
No matter what the time or space,
You cannot lose my love.

 

You cannot lose,
You cannot lose,
You cannot lose my love.

 



True Beauty


I got a request from one of my dearest and most faithful friends, Carol Maddon, to post this song. So, here is True Beauty.

 

Toby Petrie and I were in the height of our songwriting productivity and I remember this one came fairly quickly and easily to us. Toby, of course, wrote the music, and I, the lyrics.

 

I’ve come a long way in my understanding of what it means to be beautiful since writing this song, and have gained a pretty strong sense of confidence in who I am, but as I listen to the lyrics in 2018, I am mindful that while we are more enlightened about our sense of what makes for a woman’s worth, there are still far too many young women and girls doing drugs and starving themselves to be thin, and far too many of my generation going under the knife in the ever futile attempt to recapture our lost youth. We are still being judged by appearance alone, and we fear we just don’t measure up to the magazine covers.

 

I put this video together several years ago and watching it today, I am astonished once again at the passing of time. Two women in the video are no longer living, including my mother. Some of the young girls are off to college, some are married with daughters of their own. This life really is ephemeral, but true beauty, that unmistakable light shining in each us, lives on.

 

True Beauty
@ Kay Bess and Toby Petrie

 

I aspire for acceptance
in an artificial world
I search in stacks of magazines
And wish I was the cover girl

 

As if somehow my happiness
lies in what I wear
In the perfect shade of shadow
In straight or waving hair

 

True Beauty
True Beauty
Waiting here inside of me
True Beauty
True Beauty
Waiting to be free

 

I’m the judge of my own body
My sentence is so cruel
I set myself against myself
A never-ending duel

 

Every day another struggle
As the mirror stares at me
How do I look beyond the image?
When will I see?

 

True Beauty
True Beauty
Waiting here inside of me
True Beauty
True Beauty
Waiting to be free

 

All that glitters, All that’s gold
Leaves me lifeless, Leaves me cold
Holy wisdom, Touch my eyes
One day I will realize

 

True Beauty
True Beauty
Waiting here inside of me
True Beauty
True Beauty
Finally free

 



A Cloudless Day In Dublin


Here’s another one I rarely play for anyone. Go figure.

 

I traveled with my then boyfriend to Dublin, Ireland in 1999, and it was on this trip the imagery for A Cloudless Day in Dublin first entered my psyche. I walked in light rain and lit candles in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I stood on a bridge over the River Liffey. I sat in a pub in Temple Bar and was rattled by a newscast about a bombing up north in Belfast, all the while wondering if this relationship I was in would ever amount to anything. I was unsettled. I also drank a lot of Guinness. That part never made it into the song.

 

The genius who is Ed Moy Maria Moy wrote the music to this song, and the puzzle of the lyrics came together on my Big Blue bus rides from Santa Monica to UCLA. At the time, we Americans knew little of terrorism. It was something that happened across the pond and in distant places that had no effect on our daily lives. But on that visit to Ireland, the war between the Catholics and the Protestants became real to me. And given my relationship status, I felt an urgency to bring these ideas together. I was in search of some kind of resolution. Any kind would do. Would Ireland’s warring religious factions ever find peace? Would my boyfriend and I ever see eye to eye for a future together? This felt at the time like one of the most profound songs I’d ever written. There was no happy ending, no nice and tidy bow on the package. Can peace ever last? Can love?

 

9 months after Tim Klassen, Ed Moy, and I released this song on our debut album – Juliet – The twin towers were decimated by terrorists on 9/11 and thousands of Americans lost there lives. The war was here, and we were changed forever. The imagery of this song paled in contrast to what my friends were experiencing in their own city, and what the rest of us were loathed to watch on screens in our living rooms. I had been so so far from grasping the true depth of despair and depravity in the world.

 

There’s a melancholy I continue to love in this song, a plaintive wail as it closes. And of course, the question remains: Can a cloudless day in Dublin ever last? As much as I hate it, I think I know the answer.

 

As a point of interest for all you Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs fans, Robert Paulsen lent an Irish lilt to this song – just after both those shows first went off the air and he was at the height of his fame. He was generous even then. ❤

 

A Cloudless Day in Dublin
Music by Ed Maria Moy
Lyrics by Kay Bess
newscast voice: Robert Paulsen

 

It’s a cloudless day in Dublin
Maybe it’s a sign from above
Round the tower of St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Flies a dove
Flies a dove

 

By a bridge on the River Liffey
I was thinking how lucky we are
Look at us, just like the Irish
Aren’t we charmed?

 

Well it comes and goes
You say everything’s temporary
And love is a burden you cannot carry
or hold so close

 

We are not too far from Temple Bar
There’s news from the North on TV
Can’t anybody, anywhere
Find some peace?

 

When it comes and goes
I see everything’s temporary
And love is a burden we cannot carry
Or hold so close

 

Can a cloudless day in Dublin ever last?

 



Ride of Our Lives


I imagine even those who are familiar with this song don’t know that Ride of Our Lives was commissioned by the Board of Elders at Brentwood Presbyterian Church for an event celebrating the ministry of then Associate Pastor, Rev. Bill Barnes. It was a complex and uncertain time for the congregation, as the beloved Senior Pastor, Rev. Charles Shields was dying of cancer. No one was sure of the future or what would happen with the loss of our dear mentor, confidante, and friend, and there was palpable anxiety among the congregants. But we also had this unflappable sense of mirth, which was a gospel truth Pastor Shields had instilled in us: We (all of us) are The Beloved, he affirmed each week from the pulpit, and our Creator has plans for us: “plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future.”

 

This was a daunting task for me, as I’d never written something by commission. As a songwriter, I always waited for inspiration, until my Muse spoke to me from the depths of untraceable mystery. How was I supposed to do this? I almost turned it down, but Jefferson Denim, the friend and artist who wrote the music to the song, nudged me. Well… nagged me is more like it. He has always been a firm believer in my gifts, and I imagine he was frustrated with my insecurities and lack of belief in myself. And so, finally, I surrendered to his belief.

 

I started with the knowledge of and desire to affirm that Bill was an avid surfer and a lover of the ocean. I wanted the imagery to feel like home to him, and so set the piece on water. I wanted to honor the tumult going on in the congregation and to acknowledge that we were in for a rough ride with the uncertainty of Charles’ health. I also wanted to bring a sense of hope to the song, a recognition that we were in this together, that we’d weathered storms before, and that we’d make it through this one, too.

 

Recording the song was a mixture of flying by the seat of our pants and surrendering to the magic of collaboration. It was also a reunion of sorts as my singing soul-sister Betsy Buenzow Petrie flew in from the midwest to do background vocals. We recorded in Sherman Oaks, at the home studio of Stephen Teller, who played drums on this track and whose production skills saved the entirety of the project at large (8 songs total) from the depths of mediocrity. I am eternally grateful to him. Is it not here, Stephen, that the imaginary Austrian band “Air Tambourine” was born? God, we laughed, and our only intoxicant was music. Well, perhaps a little tequila, but that was utterly secondary. It does warm the throat for singing, by the way.

 

I remember one period of panic in doing the background vocals: What were we going to do with this musical bridge? It needed something, but “oohs” and “ahs” alone were not gonna do it. Tracking along with the lead vocal on the word “Fly” wasn’t working either. It needed movement, we needed to propel the song toward the final chorus. We were fried from recording all night, and we didn’t have the luxury of sleeping on it and seeing what we could come up with tomorrow. Betsy’s flight was leaving in the morning and this was it. I think Betsy would concur that in a 30 minute period of time something magical happened, and neither of us could say from whom the idea came. It seemed to be a melding of creative minds, and as silly as it reads on paper, “ooh, nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh, ooh nuh nuh nuh nuh” under the lead vocal emerged. And it worked. Perfectly. It stands as my favorite part of the song along with the chorus that follows, complete with rich, descant-like phrases, lifting the song up and over, like a surfer catching the wave of a lifetime.

 

I hope I did Bill Barnes justice. I hope I caught Charles Shields’ irrepressible spirit of hope. I hope I gave at least a moment of encouragement to the congregation at the time. We were, indeed, on the ride of our lives and among the very best of friends.

 

The Ride of Our Lives
lyric by Kay Bess
music by Jefferson Denim & Kay Bess

 

Riding on the crest of a wave we know we never want to end
We look out on the sea and see we are among the very best of friends
And with nothing added, nothing taken, we will be restored
We have all we need to make it,
you and I together to the shore

 

High on the water we rise
We are setting our sights on the sky
We’re on the ride of our lives
What a way to fly

 

We are standing on the edge of a time we’re trying hard to understand
But in reaching to each other we experience the healing hand to hand
And with every test and tidal wave, we’re riding out the storm
We have all we need to brave it,
here we go together for one more

 

High on the water we’ll rise
We are setting our sights on the sky
We’re on the ride of our lives
What a way to fly
Fly. Fly. Fly….

 

Can you look out on the sea and see we are among the very best of friends?

 



Woman of Sorrow


I’ve been traveling down the Musical Lane of Memory, and have decided, over the course of a few weeks, to share a bunch of songs that I wrote and collaborated on with richly talented friends many years ago, and to perhaps share some memories attached to the songs.

 

I’m going to start with Woman of Sorrow – a song I, myself, until yesterday, hadn’t listened to in probably 15 years – because I was embarrassed by it, for reasons explained below.

 

Toby Petrie and I wrote the chorus and bridge years before it became the song that it is now. My sister, Jill Bess Neimeyer, was writing a play about the topic of rape, and really liked the piece that Toby and I had written, but wanted to know if I could complete the song. In stepped Jefferson Denim who wrote the music to the verses and connected them to the chorus, etc. And, ta-da. The full song was born. I don’t think Toby and I knew which came first, the music or the lyrics, or how a lot of our songs evolved, but with this one, I know I was mulling over one of my favorite scriptures about Jesus being a man of sorrows and well acquainted with grief. I always thought that was beautifully expressed. I experienced myself at the time as being well acquainted with grief, and those words always gave me rest.

 

I remember, not long after it was finished, submitting Woman of Sorrow to a Christian music songwriting contest and getting some feedback which prompted me to put the song away and cease playing it for anyone else. He told me the emotional payoff of the song “wasn’t big enough.” At the time I found that criticism crushing. Now, I look upon it as a few cursory and unenlightened words out of the mouth of a man who had never been raped, never lost a child, never divorced, never experienced crushing depression, the suicide of a spouse, or lost a loved one to cancer. If you listen, and I hope you will, the pay off is that the “woman of sorrow,” to whom the words are addressed, is reassured she does not suffer alone; that she has someone walking alongside her in her sorrow, and that the promise of the Beatitudes – “blessed are they that mourn, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – is real. I can’t imagine a better pay off. Can you?

 

Woman of Sorrow

 

Lyrics by Kay Bess
Music by Toby Petrie and Jefferson Denim

 

In your eyes I see you there alive
Trying to escape, trying to survive
With all you’ve taken on, you’d be more than justified
If your spirit gave way, if your heart broke down and died
But have you come so far
Just to hide behind your scars?
All that breaks your heart
Isn’t half of who you are

 

Woman of sorrow
Woman of sorrow
Holding on ‘til tomorrow
When will you see
Woman of sorrow
Woman of sorrow
I think it’s time to let it go
Set yourself free

 

You have trials to come and tears yet to weep
But rest assured you will be known
by the company you keep
No you won’t suffer alone
I understand it as my own
Poor in spirit, rich in pain
All of heaven is ours to gain

 

Bridge:
Blessed be the one who mourns
Willing to wear this crown of thorns
Blessed be her broken heart
The strangest gift
A place to start

 



Debts paid, Lessons learned.


 

I don’t even know where to start… Partly because this story is a decade long and difficult to encapsulate, and partly because it is terribly embarrassing. But if by revealing my embarrassment and my mistakes and my naiveté, somebody else might feel less awful about theirs, I will count it a privilege to overshare this part of my life. I thank you in advance for your indulgence.

 

Perhaps I should start with the end. Today, after 9 long years, I made the last payment on a debt of over $100k to the IRS.

 

It all started in 2003 when my husband and I sold our house in Mar Vista after our daughter was born. I had suffered from postpartum depression for about six months and essentially stopped working, making it impossible for us to make our mortgage payments. Selling our house was our first mistake. We should’ve kept it, rented it, waited until my voiceover work took a swing back upwards. It always does. But we sold it, and ourselves, right out of the Los Angeles housing market which, at the time, was still booming. We used most of the very small profit we made and bought two rental properties in Oklahoma, sight unseen, but that didn’t stop us from buying a couple of other “investment” properties with no money down. That’s another story. Let me just say that 100% financing was all the rage in 2005.

 

About that time we also decided we were going to save our daughter from the insanity of Los Angeles and move to the midwest. So we bought a house in a Kansas City suburb, packed everything up, and waved goodbye to my home state. This house in Leawood KS was amazing. A mere $245k. A half acre. 2000 square feet. 3 beds, 3 baths. A basement in which I could build a voiceover studio. Awesome. A mansion by L.A. standards. And though it was never on our list of must haves, it turned out to be a pretty swanky neighborhood. Who knew? At that price it seemed like a fire sale to us, what with our west coast real estate sensibilities. Turns out we over paid. And we inadvertently threw in $100k to remodel the thing. We had intended to put in $20K, but that’s how remodeling goes, right? Where we got this money, I have no idea. Credit cards. Loans. Today, I tremble at the expense of needing tires for my car, let alone where I’d find $100k. But again, borrowing was all the rage and not a single lender said no. At least not until, after the remodel, we tried to refinance. Remodeling a house in the midwest does not increase home value like remodeling in California.

 

Then the ground began to shift.

 

Shortly after our move, my husband’s new job prospect in Kansas City fell through. His old job in Los Angeles kept him on, thank God. So, by necessity, he started commuting – coming home to Kansas from Los Angeles every other weekend – while he continued to look for work in KC. Our daughter was 3 years old at the time, and after about 2 months of that nonsense, she didn’t even want him to kiss her goodnight anymore. “Just go” she’d whisper, as he came to say goodbye before heading to the airport. It broke his heart. It was becoming clear we’d made a mistake moving to the midwest. (Ya think?) Our friends in Los Angeles knew this before we ever left, of course. We decided to “cut our losses” and move back to L.A. But it was there that our losses grew beyond our wildest nightmare. Right about that time the housing market began to crumble, and it always crumbles in the midwest first. We couldn’t sell our house. So, we rented it. To awful tenants. Then the house started to fall apart. We needed a roof, a new heating system, the basement flooded. You name it. We had purchased The Money Pit. We were now cash poor and tapped out of credit, and whatever equity we thought we’d gained by remodeling was now truly gone with the housing meltdown. So…

 

We emptied our 401k to save the house. We paid our penalties and our automatic 20% tax, but we had no idea that emptying that account would kick us into a higher tax bracket with seriously higher tax consequences, or that it would be the nail in the coffin of our financial undoing.

 

That year, we ended up with an $85k tax bill. And we were broke. We tried to sell everything, but nothing would sell. There was no help yet available from Uncle Sam for underwater mortgages. We were among the first wave of losers in the housing market crash of 2006, the lucky stiffs who paved the way for the tsunami of underwater home owners soon to devastate the economy to such a degree that the Feds were forced to step in.

 

We lost our Kansas City house to foreclosure in 2011. We lost our 401k. We were terrified of the IRS, who has rightfully earned its reputation for being intransigent, cold, and unrelenting in its collection methods. It didn’t matter to Uncle Sam that our dreams were crushed, that we were sorry for our terrible decision making, that we took responsibility for it all. It didn’t matter to them that the federal manipulation of money and interest rates and mortgage lending rules helped to create our perfect storm. Understandably, every piece of advice we got from every so called “expert” was not to negotiate with the IRS alone. Hire an attorney. Hire a specialist. Whatever you do, don’t face them by yourself. We hired one company promising to help us negotiate pennies on the dollar. They took us for about $5k and all we got were wage garnishments. We then hired a bankruptcy attorney to the tune of $9k who erroneously filed bankruptcy on our behalf TWICE before withdrawing the filings both times because he failed to gather pertinent information from us before filing. He also failed to tell us that voluntarily withdrawn bankruptcies stay on record for 10 years just like regular ones do, only without the relief of bankruptcy itself. No wonder he disappeared from our radar screen. We then hired a tax attorney to help us set up an installment plan and once again were threatened with wage garnishment. Needless to say we were seriously beginning to doubt our ability to judge anyone’s character. Lord.

 

Weary (so weary) in 2012, we fired the tax attorney and I called the IRS and FTB myself. What could they possibly do to me? Take my favorite sandals from Target? The well-worn china my mother-in-law gave to us? What? Our penalties and interest alone had grown to near equal our original debt which, if we’d just called the taxing authorities ourselves in 2007 and set up a payment plan, would’ve been paid by now. All that was required to negotiate with the IRS was my calculator and some very simple math. I did not dispute any part of the tax owed and told the IRS and FTB we just wanted to pay. Sweet music to their ears. We set up a plan for each, and each was accepted without a fight. Our plan for the State would take 4 years to pay off. Our plan for the Feds would take 6 years. But at least we could see the end.

 

Our luck began to change in 2014. I’d put my shoulder to the wheel and ended up having a pretty good year, and by a stroke of good fortune we were able to pay off the State of CA last September, 2 years early. It felt miraculous.

 

By several different standards, we make a lot of money. More than enough. By Southern California standards, we are just a working class family, trying to make ends meet, living paycheck to paycheck with no room for error. The bankruptcy attorney we hired refused to refund our money and has stopped returning our calls. The IRS attorneys we’d hired to help us in the beginning had class action and criminal suits filed against them and are in jail. Our credit is gone. We have Federal and State liens on our persons. And even living modestly in L.A., our rent is exorbitant. All that remained were the two modest investment houses in Oklahoma, neither of which had appreciated in the last 10 years. Still, we’d put 10% down on each and had ten years of paying down the mortgages. Perhaps there was something there to be culled. I brought this to My husbad’s attention, and this past Spring we put them on the market.

 

We closed on Oklahhoma house number one at the end of July, and on Oklahoma house number two on the 2nd of October. Our net (I should say “the return of our money down” as it could hardly be called profit) from both houses combined was a mere $56k. When I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, I was on hold for 90 minutes just to find out what our IRS payoff was – expecting something around $65k. We figured the sale of the houses would cover most of the remaining debt, but not all, and we were prepared for several more months of regular payments. The IRS agent uttered a figure that took me aback. $54 thousand. We could pay in full, with two grand to spare. I hung up the phone, dropped my head in my hands, and cried my little eyes out.

 

I’d like to tell you that paying off this debt in full was altogether celebratory, but it wasn’t. I’ve been a little depressed these last two weeks. The reality of it all just smacked me between the eyes, like standing in the aftermath of a tornado that has done its damage and dissipated. I’m so relieved it’s done. But what do I do with what’s left? I’ve spent the last decade – most of my 40s and into my 50s – with this beast on my back, as has my husband. It has colored everything, every last part of our lives. Our marriage. Our daughter – what we have been able to provide her, and what she’s gone without. She could’ve used some educational assistance, tutoring, perhaps schools better suited to her learning issues, and we can’t get her developmental years back. They are gone. We sold furniture, beloved drum kits, instruments. We’ve sold more crap on Craigslist than I can recall. We have foregone seeing family and aging parents, and visiting our dearest friends in their times of need. Even our inability to join friends at dinner or a concert now and again reverberates with a bit of melancholy. Each place we’ve rented has gotten smaller each time we’ve needed to move. It has been a most humbling experience. We made some really, REALLY stupid decisions, and we have paid more than a fair price for our failings. Isn’t it funny… In my stubbornness, I still maintain had we made those decisions a decade earlier, they wouldn’t have appeared so stupid. Some might have called us genius (!) and we likely would have made a nice nest egg for ourselves in real estate. Ha. No point in re-writing history. Stupid is as stupid does…

 

I think I ended up with the equivalent of a PhD double-major in Life and Economics – a detailed education in real estate, finance, borrowing, credit; in the fallibility of attorneys and experts, and opportunists who seek out the weak to exploit them. I learned what I am made of and that no expert has my best interest at heart – not like I do.

 

I learned I am not my credit score.
I am not my bank account.
I am not my failures.

 

I am not alone.

 

I learned to cook.
I learned to share.
I learned to live on less.
I learned to want less – less stuff, anyway.

 

And I’m happier that way.

 

I learned to want more of the good stuff:
More truth.
More transparency.
More love.
More humility.
More grace.
More faith.
More creativity.
More expression.
More presence.

 

More life.

 

And here I stand. 53 years old. At zero. No nest egg. No house. No property. No savings. No investments. No credit. We will not be paying for our daughter to go to UCLA, let alone Princeton. If she goes to college at all, she’ll be working to pay for it, and that may end up being the most valuable part of her education. I’d be lying if I told you that all of this doesn’t scare me. At the same time, I know I am terribly lucky to have been imparted by my father and mother and the whole of my faith family a value system that confirms the state of my heart matters more than the state of my finances. That’s an immeasurable gift for which I am eternally grateful. It’s what carried me through.

 

I am finally free of a truly ridiculous burden – and yet men have jumped off of bridges for less. That’s not lost on me.

 

I am also quite aware that this decade of struggle was, by and large, a “Western-world” problem. What we’ve gone through – this loss of security, of comfort, of “stuff” is nothing new, nothing unfamiliar to countless numbers of people over the course of time; nothing uncommon in the least. Hundreds of thousands of people in this country are still inside of similar or worse struggles. Some have a long way to dig before they find some light. Some may leap from the bridge. I can’t even talk about the rest of the world. My goodness. What’s a FICO score to a man scouring the streets for something to eat, or to a woman desperate for a place to lay her head in safety? What’s a foreclosure on a credit report to a refugee desperate to touch his feet to free ground?

 

Perspective. That’s what this has taught me. Perspective and gratitude. Gratitude in plenty is easy. Gratitude in darkness, in want – that’ll test your mettle. And mine was tested, for sure.

 

That’s it. Just a little thing called freedom. That’s the gift I wanted to celebrate with a bottle of fantastic champagne. So… Cheers, my friends. Here’s to hope, to perseverance, to gratitude.

 

I’m good now. 🙂

 

Onward.

xo



Arrivals


 

Another piece from my forthcoming collection of letters to Esther; this one written over three years ago. My goodness, time flies…

 

My Darling Esther,

 

It is May 30, 2012. I am flying at 36000 feet, traveling at 554 miles per hour, heading west from London and home to you. I miss you so much; so, so much. As I contemplate my arrival home in a few hours, I am remembering the moment you flew into my arms last year when I came home from a week long trip to New York. It seemed a lifetime spent away from you. I remember the sound you made as you jumped to me, wrapping your arms around my neck and your legs tight around my torso. You let escape a moan so deep it went straight through my heart and shook me alive. I know the depths from which that sound comes. It is primordial (Ooh, that’s a good word, honey. Look it up.) It is love and need, anxiety and relief all wrapped up together, and I felt it for you too. “Sighs too deep for words” – as Paul in Romans describes our most inexpressible prayers, my Esther – and I sighed for you, too, more intensely that day than even on the day you were born.

 

One day, my girl, when you set out on your own travels through the world, you’ll discover what a strange thing it is: to experience the fantastical freedom of flying off and leaving your silly, stodgy, irritating family behind; letting go your former things, your ingrained ways of doing and being, to make room for new things and new ways and new doings. And in a fit of the human condition even you will not escape, you’ll toss the old and new together, just as you will toss about in the lonely winds of that same fantastical freedom that lured you to its beauty in the first place. And then, like Dorothy, you’ll realize where you are may indeed be lovely, but where you came from ain’t so bad either. You’ll feel that paradoxical pull toward home every one of us comes to feel. You’ll click your proverbial heels and wind your way back into the arms that loved you enough to let you go; the arms that will welcome you home each and every time you choose to return, for how ever long you wish to stay.

 

You know what, Esther? It’s not so different for me, this leaving home and returning again. 10 days ago, when I set out on this rather extravagant journey to London and Paris to celebrate my 50th, I really needed some time away. It’s been a good trip and I’m so grateful for it, though it has not been without its difficulties. Even at my age it’s a good thing to tire of your kin, a good thing to travel away from them for a time, and even to miss them. But it’s better, I think, to book a return flight; and best of all, to arrive back home.

 

Can’t wait to see you, sweetheart.

 

Love,
Mama



If I Am What I Ate


bread_and_wine-_artistic_kjyl

 

If I am what I ate,
I am Spaghettios
and Swanson TV dinners.
I’m grilled cheese on Wonder Bread
and my mother’s Mexican Goulash,
which is neither Mexican
nor goulash.

 

If the voices in my head
belong to my parents,
then it’s they who told me to lay low,
toe the line, follow the rules,
and do unto others, as others
are more important than I.

 

It wasn’t God.
It wasn’t Jesus,
not the Pope nor Billy Graham.
It wasn’t the sacred texts or hymnals,
or the sages who interpreted them
who told me to be someone else.

 

God is God, and He’s made me a lovely dinner.
I dine on the Feast and become myself.

 

With my tongue I taste.
With my eyes I see.
With my ears I hear.
It’s my blood surging.
It’s my heart that sings in the dark.



In The Moment, When It Mattered Most


IMG_0258

My mom and my daughter, Esther, in June 2012.

 

I wrote this piece in December 2012; two weeks after my mother died. It has taken this long for me to shine it up for public consumption. The heart is ready when the heart is ready…

 

Those of you that know me well know I didn’t have a great relationship with my mother. It was fraught with strife from the start (if what I was told was true) and continued through most of my adult life. Of course I don’t remember much before the age of six, but from that point I had the perception that my mother didn’t like me too well, that I was difficult, that my conception was, for her, an unhappy accident, and I came along just at the wrong time. If not for me, so the folklore goes, my mother would’ve traveled more, and lived her dreams. If not for me, she would’ve gotten her PhD and really made something of her life.

 

If not for me.

 

These kinds of myths, when imparted to a young child whether by word or glance or silence, persist, loom and grow larger as years pass and, at least for me, they became the foundation of a life fraught with a sense of worthlessness, which I came often to experience as paralyzing anxiety. This manifested in many ways: fear of flying, the ocean, taking tests, getting sick, auditioning, stepping on stage, and the ever pervasive “nameless dreads” – the irrational sense that something bad is coming, and coming right soon.

 

It feels like I’ve worked a lifetime at ridding myself of these demons, and for the most part I guess I have. I started seeing therapists when I was 7 years old. I stuttered pretty badly at the time, and my father was wise enough in the late 1960’s to understand this was likely an emotional issue, not one of speech mechanics. So, he took me to the school psychologist, also known as the “speech therapist.” I’m still incredulous that they had such a person on staff at a public elementary school in 1969. The next occasion I had to see a therapist was almost a decade later, around the time my parents divorced; then again in my mid twenties when I just couldn’t shake the panic attacks, cigarettes, cocaine, or bad-boy men-friends; and yet again in my mid thirties as a result of self-inflicted emotional trauma caused by my own infidelity during my first marriage. Worthlessness takes on many forms, and I’ve worn lots of camouflage over the years.

 

In the year 2000, I married Tim Klassen. With Tim came a sense of calm and long-sought stability (though it’s WAY more complicated than that) and, 3 years down the road, our greatest treasure: Esther. Now motherhood, as all mothers know, changes everything. Once you have a child of your own, you never see your own mother in quite the same way. And so it was that a light went on when Esther was born. I realized, Good Lord in Heaven, that my own mother is a human being. Who knew? My parents’ prohibitions, once thought equivalent to those of a jailhouse warden, began to seem quite rational and, truth be told, too permissive. Now I understood that my mom and dad had no idea what they were doing. While they appeared all knowing and all powerful, they were just doing what they thought best at the time. And while my father was busy saving the world one soul at a time, I imagine my mother was reading Dr. Spock blindfolded, crouched and shaking in the back of her bedroom closet.

 

Even as I have struggled to maintain a career in the 21st century and struggled to keep some culturally acceptable sense of a “personal identity” separate from my identity as a mother, I have NEVER struggled to love my daughter. That scenario is just not within the realm of possibility. And so it is that I’ve come to rethink the folklore of my childhood. Given my own experience as a mother, it seems likely that loving one’s children kinda goes without saying. So, is it not possible, logical then, that even in my mother’s struggle for identity and her desire to live her own dreams, she also loved me? Maybe even as fiercely as I love Esther? I think so. No. I know so. And I think, again based on my membership in the motherhood club, my own misguided belief that she didn’t love me broke her heart. I remember a few occasions when she tried with great desperation to explain her love for me, but it was all mixed up and awkward, rolled up in her ambivalence about career and marriage. It was covered so thick in Gloria Steinem, pop psychology, and Me-Generation rhetoric it turned my stomach, and I would have none of it. It took another 25 years and having a child of my own to understand the terrifying truth she was trying to express; something I, in my stubborn naïveté, have just barely come to accept: once you have children, you give up your dreams in deference to theirs – at least for a time, but maybe forever. It depends upon your kid, and it’s a risk you take. And I would add another somewhat controversial layer to it: A mother gives up her dreams in deference to her children’s, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

 

Knowledge of this truth has not kept me from pursuit of the illusory Brass Ring in my voice acting career, nor has it kept me from lone excursions to far away lands in pursuit of an ever-elusive peaceful state of mind, of lessons in how to let go of worry for the future, regret for the past and (at the risk of sounding just as entrenched in modern day Me-Generation bullshit rhetoric as my mother did in the early 1970’s) of learning to “be in the moment.” Why else, my friends, would I attempt to surf in Costa Rica with a bunch of 22-year-olds or balance myself in Bakasana (crow pose) at the age of 50? I’m a jokester about my own narcissism rooted in my parents’, but now that I’ve crested the great mountain of life and am staring down its descent, my desire to be in the moment has shifted focus. Lately, what I have wanted is to be fully present, not with myself, not with God even, but with the people I love right here, right now; my friends, my family, and especially my daughter. When I’m with Esther, I want to be with Esther, not focused on the dinner I “should” be making or the audition I should be recording. I want her to know I am right here with her doing homework from 1×1 to 12×12 and every word problem in between. I want to be with her on the swings and climbing the tree, not on the sidelines on my iPhone checking Facebook. It’s an on-going problem of mine, this not being “present,” and I’ve missed out on stuff I don’t want to miss out on anymore.

 

As Providence would have it, I did not miss out on what has turned out to be one of the most pivotal experiences of my life. Two weeks ago, my mother died. Her rather sudden decline over the last few months took us all by surprise, as my siblings and I were just coming to terms with having moved her to a residential care home where she would have round-the-clock oversight – necessary due to the deepening of her dementia. It was not easy for us to get to her, as I live 3 hours away by car and both my siblings live out of state. Nonetheless, we were all able to be with her at some point in her last weeks on this earth. Most of the time she knew who we were and was able to respond in kind when we told her we loved her.

 

After 4 weeks convalescing in hospital from an infection, she had been home only a few days before she was taken to the hospital again. This time she had suffered a few small strokes that sent her into a rapid decline. With the good counsel and care of the hospital social worker, we decided it was time to adhere to my mother’s advanced care directive, stop all heroic measures and bring her under hospice care. I asked the hospice nurse to be frank with me about how long she thought my mom might live and, God bless her, she was. Not months by any stretch. Not to Christmas. Maybe days, maybe a week. That was on a Wednesday. I planned on coming to see her that coming Friday, the 30th of November, and to stay a few days.

 

I drove to San Luis Obispo County and checked into my hotel, the Kon Tiki in Pismo Beach, before heading 10 miles further north to my mom’s. The ocean was roaring to the West and clouds were threatening rain ahead. I drove in the dark to Los Osos and arrived to see her at 6 pm. Ross, her caregiver, took me back to her room. I pulled up a chair next to her, reached for her hand under the sheet and fixed my eyes on her. The air in the room was warm and thick. The only sounds were the rain outside the window and the whoosh of her oxygen machine. The room was peaceful and expectant, womblike. She was sleeping, and while her breathing was shorter than usual, it was steady and calm. I didn’t want to wake her, so I kept my eyes fixed on her and said nothing. Her skin, my god, her skin. It was still flawless with nary a wrinkle, even at 82. My mother never went in the sun. She wore the silliest hats and goofiest sunglasses when I was a kid, keeping herself protected all year long from the California sunshine she sought as a young wife and mother in her 20’s, escaping what she perceived as the drudgery of life in the small town Midwest. I remember we’d go to Disneyland in the high heat of August and she’d tell us girls to put on long-sleeved sweaters, so as not to let the sun burn our skin. My sister and I, who would slather ourselves in baby oil in the midday sun every July, thought she was crazy. Ya. Crazy like a porcelain goddess.

 

After sitting with her for about 45 minutes, I looked at my watch and remembered that I hadn’t eaten anything since 10 am. I squeezed her hand just a little and whispered that I was going to get something to eat and would be back in an hour. As I let go, she opened her eyes. I took it as a sign, a signal for me to stay. So I did.

 

I searched the Internet on my phone for hymns of her youth and favorite scripture (there are times to praise the internet, it turns out) and began to focus my vigil. As I read and sang, and as her eyes once again closed, I realize how much of those hymns and pieces of scripture I knew by heart… And in knowing, I was able to keep my eyes focused on my mother. I was looking at … no, seeing… so intently my mother’s skin that when I began to notice a shift in her coloring, I thought my eyes were going wonky. Her skin was becoming translucent and I could see the tiniest, most delicate capillaries on her forehead. Her bone structure was amazing. She glowed. How can that be? How does one glow in such a state? I kept blinking to make sure I was keeping her in focus, and began to realize that she was dying before my eyes. The blood was leaving her face. Her breath became shallow, inhales less frequent. But my god, even as life was leaving her body, her beauty was palpable.

 

I had arrived at 6 pm that Friday. I sang and kept vigil until 8:02 pm when she took her last breath. It was not days, it was not weeks. She’d had only hours left. And I was present for them. Along with the hours spent birthing my child, these were two of the most privileged hours of my life. Within the span of them, I got to encourage my mother to Heaven, while every resentment, everything bitter, every failure between us drifted away. Vanished. Like they never existed. And it was nothing I did. It was the last and most treasured gift my mother gave me. By her willingness to die in my presence, she confirmed that she trusted me, that she loved me, that I was worthy of being present at her birth into eternity.

 

I did not call in the nurse for a good 15 minutes. I sat alone with my mother’s body and took in the last moments of her life. I felt in some odd way that I had witnessed a miracle, and even now I find it hard to articulate. I mean, what is so miraculous about death? It’s pretty pedestrian, really, and inevitable for us all. I didn’t see her spirit hover or ascend or see anything I thought to be supernatural. But I was struck again by how beautiful she was. I wanted very much to share this experience with my siblings who had wished so much to be by her side with me. So, as odd as it sounds, I took a picture of my mother in a last, feeble attempt to capture the moment, to capture the beauty I saw as she left this realm.

 

It wasn’t until the next day that I looked at that picture. And what I saw was as plain as day: my dead mother. A shadow of herself. No life. No translucence. Just a strange emptiness. It was not easy to see, and for a moment I was deflated. But in the next moment I grasped, finally, that what I had been working so hard to experience over the last few years had come to pass. The moment my mother died, I had been fully present. I was in the moment when it mattered most. With her, and nowhere else. And by being in the moment, I saw her.

 

I saw her sweetness.
I saw her innocence.
I saw her vulnerability.
I. Saw. Her.
And she was beautiful.

 

For an experience as emotional as this one was, I shed very few tears over the next few days and had little to say. I was mostly in a daze and out of my body, like I was hovering over the tumultuous Central Coast ocean, yet at peace. I imagined that this was kind of what Mary Magdelene (my patron Saint) must have felt when she saw Jesus in the garden that First Easter Morning. Miracles do that to you, I think. Leave you speechless…

 

And so it is, I have found, that even in death there are gifts to be received. Some would say it was a gift to my mother that I was by her side when she died. Maybe so, but I think I got the greater gift. My childhood folklore was dismantled and, irony of ironies, it was my mother who set me free from its tyranny. I don’t know exactly how that happened, so I’m choosing to call it a miracle, and leave the mystery intact. I have no desire to explain it away, only to embrace it, and hopefully, when the moment comes, offer the gift to Esther.