When President Barack Obama won re-election last week, the first thing that came to my mind was hearing Marin Mazzie sing the song “Back to Before” every night while I was in Ragtime on Broadway. That was always my personal favorite of Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics from the entire show. It reads like a love poem to a cherished and familiar lover that one must let go. There are so many lettings go that we do in life. Close friends of mine know that my favorite poem is by Elizabeth Bishop (One Art) and the refrain “the art of losing…” speaks to the way we tumble through life leaving behind a trail of ourselves that can never be recaptured. Truly on election night, the United States left behind many things that say we can never go back to “before.”
On a personal level though, this signaled a breakthrough for me. I carefully considered what it must feel like for those who were not supporting Obama to see this shift. There seemed to be much more at stake than just an election. We see that now with all of the secession petitions being signed and rhetoric about conservatives wanting to leave the country. There was something endangered and then lost to these people that was extremely dear. Was it privilege or power? Or was it the foundation of how they defined themselves? Looking in the mirror, I realized that somewhere along the lines, in all of my own letting go of life, I had left a part of myself behind that I too deeply loved; something that had defined how I saw myself for my entire early life: music. The whole reason I was able hear Marin sing in 1998 as part of the incredible cast of that original show, was because when I was 13, Dr. Theodore Davidovich from the New England Conservatory of Music heard me sing a solo in the Northeast Junior District Choir and then suggested that I speak with someone at the school about voice lessons…that someone was Kim Scown, tenor, who lovingly introduced me to the magic of making music with my voice. This was supported by the careful, if sometimes unorthodox, methods of George Perrone at Framingham South High who drilled me in music theory and other life lessons and discipline and I emerged from my youth a fairly well formed, near professional musician. College, cabaret shows, concerts, choirs, cruise ships, Broadway and National Tours followed…
And then one day, I had to leave it behind me.
There are many reasons this happens. For me, it was about the need to discover that I was really more than just a body and a voice. As a performer, it is easy to feel reduced to those things. A Chorus Line asks that wonderful question, “Who am I anyway, am I my resume?” And it is true. We feel reduced to skill sets and types. I knew I had more to offer: intuitive people skills, analytical capabilities, leadership skills. These were all things I needed to discover about myself in order to get to where I am today.
It is the same with this election. Many of us thought that ’08 was about “change.” Change from the nightmare that had begun in 2000. But ’08 was only about setting the stage for change. The real change only began with last week’s election result and it happened because of a shift in the status quo. We are no longer defined by how white, middle aged and male we are. We are actually defined by our total diversity (including white middle aged men) and how that diverse population wants to see the world. Funny, back in 2002, I was inspired to start a web based movement about diversity. Some of my conservative friends scoffed at it; well, just look where we are today! As a country, we can never go back to ‘before’ and where we are headed has the potential to be much brighter for more of us than where we came from…if we give it a chance. This is a defining and transformative moment in our culture. If we are smart, we will embrace it and look at the beautiful evolution that is taking place for all of us.
For myself, I am looking at my own evolution and re-re-inventing myself. But like the song says, I can never go back to before. So, I am still on track to become a Unitarian Universalist Minister; but I’ve learned that my ministry must come from my heart and soul which is my music…but a ‘new music’ if you will. My music doesn’t have to define me anymore. I will never be the young singer with stars in his eyes who was willing to get on a Greyhound Bus at 3 in the morning to make the 6 hour trip from Boston to New York, just to be seen for a part in a show. I left him and his selfish dream behind. I am free. I am now, approaching 50, someone who has embraced so much more of who I am as a person and a leader and a real “voice” committed to making real change happen for people. I am am carried on the wave of the voices of millions of people who never really felt like they had a stake in this country before last Tuesday. People who must now be heard in all of their glorious harmony everywhere there are ears and hearts to hear.
At last, it is time for me to really start singing. I look forward to sharing my journey, not quite back to ‘before’ with you all.
The following is a montage of selections from two performances on Holland America Line in 2007. Thank you Yeonae Nam and Paul Pappas for the accompaniment.