Answering the call

Fundamentals V training has come and gone, and what a week it was. Less than a week, to be exact, but it felt like longer. I can remember the trainers talking about the possibility that we may feel “fundamentally” changed by the end of the program. As usual, I was skeptical.

This morning, as I sit on JetBlue flight 686 and type, I am reflecting on this idea.

The first day, our leaders spoke of being born with certain tendencies, and I am well aware of mine. We had taken a Meyers-Briggs test before the second round of Fundamentals training at the Horace-Albright Training Center in the Grand Canyon.

My 4-letter personality schema was an INFP, with 26/30 for Intuition (N) and 30/30 for Feeling (F). Yes, I am a sensitive gal bordering on too sensitive said the gentleman who described an “NF” in the video we watched this past week. My Achilles heel is guilt, my quest is identity—appropriate for a doctoral student studying sustainability at the individual level—and my motto is “I’m an NF, and I’m here to help.”

The more I think about it, the more I believe that fundamentally, I have been the same person for my 31 years on this planet. It is less that I feel changed and more that with each new experience where I share myself as I truly am, I feel more myself. I feel the strength that seems to burn ever stronger from within. And I am able to feel a deep and profound love for the people around me, especially those who find value in this self.

I flirted with the idea of incorporating music into my interpretive programs when I was a seasonal park ranger at North Cascades National Park Complex. I loved to sing and could play a little guitar. I took popular songs and wrote new lyrics to fit the subjects of programs I offered.

But I was shy. I was still overcoming my fear of speaking to large audiences. I got up the nerve to sing at the end of one of my last evening programs that first year as a volunteer Student Conservation Association ranger, and that was it for a while.

I was inspired again to incorporate music into education when I was teaching with an environmental education non-profit program called Komo Kulshan Outdoor School (KKOS). Teachers would bring students up to a remote location in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and Puget Sound Energy realm of the Cascades, and we would teach them about river ecology—Pacific Salmon, macro-invertebrates, and native plants. One teach came with a backpacker guitar, and I was mesmerized. She knew all of these wonderful songs, and the small size of her guitar made it accessible and easily transportable.

So, I bought one and played it a bit. But I never quite worked up the nerve to play at our evening campfires, and soon the season was over and I lost all momentum. The backpacker guitar sat in a corner of my house, forlorn and untouched.

A few years later, I started a Watershed Art program to offer creative reflection and expression for 8th grade students at the local elementary school who were going through their second year of a stream and watershed stewardship program with a local non-profit. The culminating event was a performance where students shared vignettes they had written and practiced to teach the younger students in the school about good practices in stream and watershed stewardship. The students got so into the program that they spent hours practicing and creating sets to accompany their performances. One group composed a salmon rap and another student wrote salmon-inspired lyrics to the tune of “Stand By Me.”

At the end of the performance, I got on stage with a borrowed guitar and sang a song for the students by way of thanks for all of their hard work. It was a song composed years earlier by a fellow ranger who took the song Country Roads by John Denver and wrote an homage to the Humpie Salmon that came up to spawn every other fall on the Skagit River. He called it, “Skagit Flow.” It is still a favorite of mine, and I have sang it in many places.

A parent came up to me after to tell me how much he had enjoyed the performance. He remembered me from when he brought his son up to KKOS. “I think you missed your calling,” he told me.

I smiled and thanked him. I didn’t believe that I had missed my calling because I didn’t believe that I was an artist. I didn’t believe that I had what it took to answer a yearning that came from deep inside. I loved singing, but I didn’t believe performance was my calling, so I made no attempt to answer that call. I ignored my inner self, tucked away those thoughts and carried on with life.

It wasn’t until I began the Prescott College PhD program in Sustainability Education that I began to equate the tenets of sustainability to my own self. How could I possibly hope to make the world a more sustainable place if my own existence was so very far from sustainable itself?

It has been a slow process, at times, messy and ungraceful. I made difficult choices and felt judged by my community. I drank to excess to try to deaden pain and grief.

In finding the ukulele and a musician who believed in me enough to dedicate many hours to teaching me how to compose songs from spoken stories, I began to experience a real, tangible shift toward answering a call I had ignored for so long. I began to create an identity of an artist, an identity I could believe in and be proud of.

So, when a dear friend from high school visited me in Lowell for an evening this summer, we spent a couple of hours beginning work on her Story-to-Song. We talked for a while after. I told her about the techniques I had been learning for finding melodies, key, and probable chords to fit the notes she was singing. She told me how therapeutic the experience had been for her.

“I think you found your calling,” she told me.

And she was right. I no longer have to live with the burden of knowing that I am avoiding a voice inside of me that has known what I am capable of all along but who I have ignored out of insecurity, inconvenience, and myriad other reasons for decades.

A significant part of the journey to a more sustainable way of being has been to rediscover that smoldering fire inside of me and to listen to it. It took time to find it. It was a pitiful looking pile of charcoal if I ever saw one. Once found, it needed attention and encouragement to begin a slow rekindling. What was it trying to tell me?

I had this fear that if I ignored it again, it might disappear altogether, and I desperately tried to listen to it, to gently coax it back into existence.

“Don’t give up on me,” I wanted to say to it. I realized that small fire was my own voice—weak and muffled but still present. I was trying to save myself before it was too late and I was lost completely.

In answering that call, I have newly found confidence in the strength and inspiration I find in creating songs that tell the stories of men and women who came before me and those individuals in my community whose stories have yet to be sung. I have found meaning and purpose once more.

With that confidence comes joy and love and a desire to share the songwriting process with anyone who will listen and participate.

With this newly found fire inside of me, I no longer trapped.

I am free.

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