Soundtracks of Life Revisited

Birth of a song

A friend of mine used to joke that she wished she had a band or small orchestra that would follow her around like in the golden age of musicals so she could just burst into song or dance and have an accompaniment uniquely attached to her life. It always made me laugh affectionately, and beg to disagree.  But then I hear a song on the radio and instantly I’m back in my college dorm room dancing with roommates to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun;” or walking into my first club in Japan to the strains of “Heya;” or thinking of romances long-since fizzled out to “Crazy in Love;” or excitedly driving one of the many highways criss-crossing this country on to the next adventure accompanied by Evanescence.  We do all have a soundtrack to our life, even if it doesn’t take the form of strolling minstrels or personalized orchestras. 

 Last week I  had the privilege of revisiting one of the artists that made up my own past soundtrack when I saw Chrisette Michele live at a theater in my town. I’ll admit, I wasn’t cruising her website looking for tour dates. In fact, I only actually own her first album so far, although every now and then one of her newer songs will show up on my Pandora feed. But, I happened upon a groupon for tickets to her show and thought it was one show I’d hate to miss. The first few people I asked to join me hadn’t ever heard of her and were less-than-thrilled about the prospect (their loss), but finally  I found one of my friends who shares similarly eclectic music tastes to mine and when I spur of the moment asked if she was interested she was all in. So, groupon purchased, we braved the crazy cold and latest snow storm to attend the show. 

For me it was an experience that absolutely submerged me back into the sometime of my past. I happened upon Chrisette Michele’s first album after walking into a music store and dscn1526asking what was currently playing – two of my favorite artists have entered my life in that same way. After purchasing “I Am”, it quickly became one of my standby favorites.  I have frequently jammed out to it during solitary road trips brought on by military PCS’s and post-military moves literally from east coast to west coast, and then repeatedly cruising up and down California’s Highways between the central coast and the Sacramento area during grad school.

I fell in love with the album during my own past love story. I’d even picked out a few of the songs to be sung or played during dancing at my wedding (which hadn’t even entered the picture when the CD first arrived on scene.) The positivity and purity of her lyrics combined with the uniqueness of her voice had me hooked.  The other half of my love story would sometimes tease me for not responding to texts or phone calls because he knew I’d been blasting my music and singing my heart out in the car on the way up. Chrisette Michele’s album was one of my favorites and became even more so once I did finally have that ring and the wedding became a legitimate future for me. It spoke of hope, it thrilled of love, and as my friend said tonight – the music smiled. It was the perfect soundtrack for that stage of my journey.

I stopped listening to the album a few years back.

It was becoming a hazard to my health since every time I put it in on the road, many of the songs would cloud my eyes, blinding my vision with tears and making me an unsafe driver.

You see, my perfect love story didn’t actually turn out the way we hoped, but not for lack of desire on either my part or my husband’s. We were married, we did live together and united our lives, but we never got to dance to the songs I’d picked out in my head during those long drives dreaming. Midway through our journey, brain cancer reared it’s ugly head and ravaged him, eventually taking his life after far too short a “forever.”

So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found myself crying my way through much of the concert even though I enjoyed her performance immensely. Songs like A Couple of Forevers, Be OK, and Golden  just touched too many heart strings and flashed too many scenes from the past for me to not be affected emotionally.

Soundtracks do that to you; it’s part of their beauty.


One of the things I enjoyed most about the concert though, was seeing how Chrisette Michele had changed and matured as a singer and, it appeared, as a woman. Throughout the performance she shared snippets of her own journey between “I Am” and this tour; love lost then regained, fighting fear, struggling with self-doubt and so on. I hadn’t heard her new album before the show, but I could tell which pieces were a part of it. They were deeper, in some ways rawer (if that’s a word), and even possibly richer than the first. 

I know growth and change is supposed to be part of every artist’s journey, and I’m sure it is. Last week’s concert however, was the first time I had the privilege of witnessing it in quite this same way. I think, and hope, that I too have exhibited some growth, maturity, and change through all of my own hurts and curveballs. The change I saw in this artist’s new album sparked my curiosity and made me wonder if her latest music and her music-yet-to-come might also contribute to the future soundtracks of my own life. 

I’m not the same person I was when I first happened upon her music. I’m still growing, still hoping, still trying to find my way, and apparently still fighting the demons of grief and loss in certain moments. Chrisette Michele’s latest offering reflects that life-growth, acknowledges the life-struggle, and celebrates her coming into her own at this point in her journey. Even if the events being soundtracked and the backgrounds she and I come from are vastly different, still I left the concert feeling an almost kinship. 

We are women. We have hurt.

BUT, we have also survived and we will thrive – no matter what.

                    Let’s see where we go from here. 



Straighten up and fly right…


On lessons learned late…

Ever have one of those moments when you realize you were super slow on the uptake? I have had ever so many of them. It’s like I have all these awesome teachers and life lessons from mentors/leaders/friends/etc, and yet somehow the message never sinks in until I’ve royally screwed something up. This is a pattern I have. It’s been going on for years.  Of course, the first time I really became aware of it was a shock to me and came from my mother.

I was in Nav School, and I think I’d had my first (or only?) failed check ride. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m pretty sure it came during the radar phase of training, phase three. I was on the phone talking to my mom about it, hoping she’d cheer me up and instead, these words came out.

“You can’t just slide by in this like you did in college. You’ll fail. This is real life here.”

Wait, what? How could she say something like that? What was wrong with my college career? I’d been super on top of things my first two years. Perhaps even in over my head a bit what with crew, ROTC, band and choir, a work-study job, and an overload nearly every quarter. What did she mean slip by? I worked my tail off – staying up to finish projects till midnight then getting up at 4am and hitting the river for 3 hours, coming back, going to work, then class, then homework, right up until midnight the next night. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Of course, once I knew my ROTC place was secure, had received my scholarship and stipend, and then determined that I’d get an aircrew assignment after I graduated; I’ll admit, I did slack. Too mudiploma-pixabaych. I loved and respected my primary professors and thoroughly enjoyed the subject matter of my major and minor courses, and yet, they were easy for me. So, while I worked hard-ish on my few remaining core courses, I’ll admit, I took advantage of the ease of the Spanish and communications courses, and of my professors’ good faith based on my earlier performance in their courses. Still, my mother shouldn’t have known any of that, I’d never given her details.

My second “lesson learned late” moment came near the end of my Air Force career. I chose to separate honorably. I’d served my time, and opted out of an assignment that was just a bit too late in coming. Of course, my aha moment came a little bit before this, maybe 6 months to a year earlier.

I had somehow ended up on the fast track to a good Air Force career. I didn’t consciously intend to end up there, but I had taken my mother’s warning to heart and repackaged it as “straighten up and fly right.” So, as I had never been one to back down from a challenge that was handed to me, and  was a people pleaser who in some ways lived to serve, I did well in the military. However,  I was probably one who over-volunteered and had a pattern of doing so.

On the second day of field training (the officer’s version of basic), I found myself stepping up to take over the position of Flight Physical Training Officer when the cadet who was intended for it injured his back and had to withdraw from training. Our Officer in Charge (OIC) called us all together and told us what had happened and then asked for a volunteer to take over. As you may imagine, crickets. He asked again, and then again, and finally, I rolled my eyes and said I would do it. I was not cut out for it truly, and I think my OIC knew this, but when he asked if I could handle it, strong rower that I was, I said I could. I was fit, sure, but didn’t really know how to train others. He gave me the benefit of the doubt and the group PTO who happened to be assigned to our flight helped me out a lot. A week or two in though, another cadet emerged as far better prepared for the job and he took over while I moved on to something else.

Later, after arriving at my second permanent base after flight training, I was moved quite quickly from just being one of the squadron navigators to flight commander (CC) for 11 of the guys. I happened to be one of the more senior navs in the squadron, so while it volunteers-pixabaycaught me by surprise, it wasn’t all that unexpected. My mentor in this case gave me the bare minimums of a briefing on what was required – showed me how to use the computer software needed to manage the paperwork that went along with the position, imparted his impressions of my guys and then took off for another duty title. I lasted a few months and did fine from my superiors’ perspective, but when a position for a squadron executive officer opened up I asked for volunteers from my guys as instructed. When none appeared, I again stepped up to the plate martyr-like and took what I knew was a not-very-desirable-job from the flyer’s perspective.

Similarly, after the squadron drawdown due to BRAC was underway, my boss came to me and asked if I wanted to be the Wing Air Force Assistance Fundraiser Officer. I absolutely did not, but again, my eager to please and live-to-serve attitude kicked in and I accepted. It was just as tough as I’d imagined, but I managed to do well enough to later be offered a position at the group level doing a lot of the same things I’d been doing as a squadron exec. Again, I worked hard, but I got so caught up in the details that I was taken aback a year later when my boss came to me and said he was bringing up another airman from my squadron because he wanted to be able to mentor someone who intended to stay in.

That comment finally made it click. I’d been doing all the things a good follower should do, and somehow performed well enough in the leadership positions I was given to please those above me. But, the heart of the positions didn’t reveal itself to me until that conversation. As a leader, it wasn’t really my job to be volunteering for all the “un-wanted” jobs. Instead, I should have been getting to know my own people and grooming them for or sometimes pushing them into positions that while not necessarily flyer-desirable would be good for their growth, fit them, and benefit their career. Leadership isn’t just about being able to “straighten up and fly right,” it’s about taking time to mentor, to learn about, and then to encourage in the right direction.  I’d learned all about leadership during ROTC in college and field training, yet somehow, I didn’t truly comprehend those lessons until it was almost after the fact.20160709_120136

More recently, I recognized a missed lesson when I started a creative writing course after grad school. I was a media communications major in college with a focus on video production. As mentioned, I thoroughly enjoyed the material we covered in classes. It was very practical, hands-on, and fun. I especially loved being behind the camera – framing, calling shots live, and editing after the fact. My final project for video production was to make a short film. The idea (I now realize) was to apply everything we’d learned over our four years from story-boarding to screen-writing to selecting actors, directing production, filming, and then finally editing in post-process.

I decided to do a music video to one of my favorite songs, Be Still by the Newsboys. I took a video camera with me on a trip to our family farm in Nebraska and filmed some scenes of my sister and cousin in the snow. I think I forgot the story-board part, or did it after the fact. At any rate, I got hung up mostly on the post-production and editing part. This was in the earlier days of AVID’s video editing, long before iMovie and Movie Maker had become ubiquitous. I was, true-to-form, working late the night before it was due – so late that Campus Safety kicked me out of the editing lab and sent me home. I thought I’d recorded my tightly edited work well, but didn’t have time to check it. I submitted it the next day, and was chagrined to get the feedback from my prof that it was a blank tape. I’d saved my work on the hard drive of the computer as well, but the day it was due, the football team came in and deleted everything, so they’d have space to edit their end-of-season video. My prof gave me grace, I’d always done pretty good work for him in the past, and assigned me a passing grade, which looking back I may not have fully deserved despite the hours of work.

dsc_8445My first creative writing conference in 2014 taught me that my problem then as now has always been plot. I’m good, or at least decent, at capturing scenes or moments, in writing as well as in film. Blending those moments into something more coherent that demonstrates character growth and entrances the reader or viewer however?  Well, that’s not my strong suit. Sure, I can have a vague idea of where I want my characters to get to in the end – sometimes, but getting them there…um, not so much. It’s not my professors’ fault, this lack of mine. My media prof did everything right. I remember my notes, impressions, and respect for him and his work. And, while I was enrolled in his courses I’m sure that I was really trying to apply those principles. I think though that here too, I got bogged down in the details and lost the big picture.

I just sent an extremely rough and incomplete first draft to a dear writing friend of mine and as I clicked send, I realized that even though I’ve now “learned” this lesson about plot, it’s extremely hard to put into practice. Although I don’t think I’ve screwed up beyond repair yet, I’ll admit it is disheartening. But, contrary to the lessons learned post-college and post-AF; I’m not post-leading, post-learning, post-writing. I’m just beginning these really. So, it’s time to “straighten up and fly right” once again and keep working to really implement these going forward. Thanks to all the teachers, mentors, and friends – writing and otherwise, who keep imparting lessons as we walk through life. As my wise mother often says, “please (continue to) be patient with me, God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Inspiring DR: Miss Rizos Salon

One of the things I was most excited about experiencing here in the DR was seeing what opportunities would arise. Throughout my trip, I hope to share stories of people I encounter whose stories inspire me. My weekend trip to Santo Domingo introduced me to a couple people I want to do mini-profiles of because of the lovely things they are doing and because of the surprising nature of how they “fell into” their callings by recognizing a space for opportunity. Below is the story of one.

arco de jardin

Buscando tesoro de oportunidades

People doing lovely things: Santo Domingo

“¡Hazlo con miedo!” Do it with fear!

Carolina Contreras moved to the D.R. to reconnect with her roots, but without being entirely sure what else would come out of it. Since then, her Miss Rizos Salon for natural hair in the heart of Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial has exploded onto the Dominican beauty scene. There’s a troubling tension here in the DR along the lines of color, race, and ethnicity. One way this is shown is through the ubiquitous “salons de belleza.” Part of my pre-departure orientation explained that long, straight hair and lighter skin is preferred. This is hard for me to understand as I’ve always found the variety of different colors and ethnicities one of the most beautiful parts of human life.

natural hair pic

Natural Hair

To me, the mezcla – blend or mix – of cultural and ethnic backgrounds is the epitome of gorgeous. Nonetheless, here lighter – really whiter – is better. Some of the African-American students I’ve talked with who are here from the states have complained of discrimination or of being on the receiving end of assumptions that they are Haitian. Such actions are partly why many Dominican women of African heritage have been opposed to natural hair or pajóns (puffy hair, afros). Carolina has been changing this stereotype by first blogging in Spanish about how to care for curly hair, and now by opening her salon. By showing women that natural is beautiful and that there are ways to care for natural hair that go beyond straightening, she’s inspiring many to own their own identity, to dream big, and to go after their dreams.

I got to meet Carolina briefly during our group dinner in Santo Domingo. Her words to the students with us were inspiring and humbling. She told a couple of us afterward that she and her roommate have a saying between them:  “Hazlo con miedo” which means do it with fear. In this way they counteract the idea of “no fear” or of waiting until you’re sure of success. She told us that although she didn’t move to the DR with the intention of DSCN1833.JPGcreating a salon, doing so has been amazing.  It’s been the hardest thing she’s ever done, but it’s also been extremely rewarding and completely worth the pain. Taking a step to turn a problem into an opportunity also continues to surprise her by how ready others are to help and promote her work. Talking with her reminded me of one of my favorite Paolo Coehlo books, the Alchemist. Carolina would agree that truly when you are doing the hard work of following your path, the universe comes alongside to help you.

Below I’ll include a link to a New York Times article about Miss Rizos salon as well as a link to her blog. I don’t have a good picture right now, but hope to go back and get one during my time here. Crossing paths with Carolina, however briefly, was encouraging and hope-giving. Who knows what can happen!

Miss Rizos Salon NYT