Yesterday something quietly extraordinary took place. I woke up, and decades of shame disappeared.
At around 4:30am, after treading water in a random stream of consciousness, I was overcome with a sudden urgency around locating a lost song, written when I was 18. I padded up the stairs, reached into a cupboard in my office, and (this almost never happens) found it. It was the very last song on the second side of a cassette tape I’d made for my mother in 1972. The song had been written for someone I knew at the time; but listening from forty years later, I can hear myself clearly, desperately, reaching out to my own heart.
But the song is not the point. The point is that while looking for it, I had to listen to all the other songs on the tape—and in doing that, I stumbled onto a game changing truth. By the time I pressed “play,” I had steeled myself against the inevitable rush of shame over having thrown away my music career at such a young age (18). I steeled myself against the sound of a brilliant, younger, perfect musical Tina who gave up before even trying. I was willing to brave the Valley of Stillborn Dreams to find this song.
And I found so much more than just the song.
The first thing? There was no authenticity on that tape. Of course, there was talent, cleverness, potential. But there was none of the earth-shaking musical perfection I’d “remembered” about my 18-year-old self. That self was a myth, partially created by my parents, and held in place by me for the better part of four decades. My real self was awol.
The second thing, and much more important, is that there was no shame in this realization. Just compassion for that real self and for whatever made her too afraid to show up.
And the third thing was the sense of relief! I didn’t fail myself or anyone. I didn’t really give up anything! The Valley of Stillborn Dreams is not strewn with the detritus of my unlived life. It’s alive! It’s a fertile valley with a rich and vital stream at the bottom that feeds anyone and anything that comes to drink from it. And I live there. I sustain myself and my loved ones every day from those waters.
I have an authentic connection with my life these days. I’m connected to my children, who are doing a great job of climbing their own mountains, finding their own valleys. I am connected to my wife, keeper of my heart whose heart is in my keeping, and whose journey is now twined with mine and mine with hers till the wheels fall off. I am connected to my music, but with a much healthier feel for how that fits into the grand scheme of things. I will never be Stephen Sondheim or Joni Mitchell. But that’s not because I failed. It’s because there is only one Tina for the world, and I am the only one who can be her. And my whole life has been about becoming her, becoming me, becoming real.
May everyone feel the freedom from their mythic past that I feel today.
For those of you curious about the song I wrote so long ago, here are the lyrics:
the arms of love are under you
the calm of God above
whatever troubled you today
my sweet and comely child?
cry out for freedom tiny one
and let your freedom show
let the wild winds blow
the child in you is sacred strong
you cannot lose it to
the pressing throng of infidels
the wild and mindless crowd
you’ll win and smile
you’ll lose my child
and weep a time or two
and let yourself