A Death is Born Into Your Life

I sat next to R. at a community sing the other night. Her mother died several months ago and she is still in the raw grief of it all. Many of the songs called forth her tears and she looked a bit worn. It brought back memories from my own journeys with grief….

My father died in 1991 after a short and intense illness with pancreatic cancer. I was with him when he took his last breath and sent him off with words of love. It was the first time I’d been with someone as they died and it changed my life in ways I am still discovering these many years later.

In the months that followed, I experienced the roller coaster of grief. I’d wake up in the morning having forgotten that he was gone. The realization would land like a stone in my heart every day. Then there were the series of firsts without Dad – holidays and birthdays and seasonal rituals. There were stories on the radio I wanted to tell him about. Weaving through those first weeks and months, I was exhausted from contending with such a huge loss.

It occurred to me since that time that a death has its own life cycle (death cycle?). Like a baby, it’s born into your life on its own schedule and brings undeniable changes along with it. The first months living with a death is much like living with a newborn. Sleep cycles are interrupted. Every little and big thing is different, often in unexpected ways. It feels like it will never end at times. And there’s lots of weeping and a fair amount of shit that needs cleaning up. Paperwork, too.

Eventually things even out and the death requires less daily attention. It starts “maturing.” The feelings are less raw. The anniversaries and celebrations become less wrenching.

Even with those changes, the death – like a child – is with us forever. My 91-year-old mother tells me frequently that I am still her child. “You never stop being a mother” she quips with a smile. It’s why I have to call her to let her know I got home safely after every visit.

Twenty-four years on, my father’s death is now a full grown “adult” in my life. In a way, his death has moved out of my house. I still think of it – and him – every day, but I do so with a kind of pride and distance.

That death – like a child – has changed me and grown me up in many beautiful ways.   It helped me understand my capacity for being present in the face of mortality. It unleashed a creative burst of songwriting that is still continuing after seven CD’s. His death also wiped away a big batch of chronic fear from my life. I’ve heard parents talk about similar fearlessness, clarity, and purpose that came upon them after having a child.

A death is born into your life and grows alongside you, offering many gifts and lessons, including the truth of your own death ahead. May we learn to live more gracefully with this generous and relentless companion.

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Creating on the Move

It all started at the lake. A big one.

Rainy Lake is huge body of fresh water that reaches from the border of northern Minnesota well into Ontario. I retreat to a small, rocky island near the Minnesota shore most summers to write songs with other musicians.

The cabin with the piano is usually mine. It is a repurposed gambling boat from the time when the lumberjacks were clearing the northern forests of their tall trees. Now it is up on stone pilings right over the water.

When I first started retreating to the island, I was fairly new to songwriting and admittedly a little neurotic. I’d get stuck in the writing process and just sit at the piano tense and fuming with a head full of recriminations. One day in the thick of frustration, I leapt up from the piano bench and just jumped into the lake. Paddling around in that cold, fresh water reset my imagination. By the time I emerged, I had the next lines of the song.

From that day on, songwriting and swimming became beautifully entangled.

Seven years ago I was invited to write a book about my voice coaching approach. As I began the writing process, I felt that old familiar creative anxiety return. I’d never written a book before and the very thought of it made my brain freeze up.

This time I knew what do. I’d write as long as I could, then head out the door for a long walk along the Mississippi River or a ski through the wintery woods. The movement helped unlock my thoughts. I’d return from my jaunt with the next chapter swirling in my head.

Last year I began composing all of my keynote speeches while on the move. My 18-minute TEDx talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ze763kgrWGg) was conceived and rehearsed while walking. (I learned to wear my ear buds as a way to become more comfortable with talking to myself in public. Everyone assumes I’m on the phone!)

On a recent retreat in Mexico, I composed an entire poem by walking along the beach and talking to myself. I committed it to paper only after I was certain it was finished. The thing seemed to emerge out of my entire body and the beauty around me instead of merely from my thinking mind.

Movement has become essential to my creative process. Something about the repetitive movement and the presence of nature unlocks a well of fresh ideas.

I wonder how many students would benefit from learning on the move? What if business teams had walking meetings outside instead of the ones around long tables in fluorescent-lighted rooms? What becomes possible in our creative lives when we walk out the door and take that first deep breath?

Here is a song by guitarist Glen Helgeson and me that emerged from the cold, clear waters of Rainy Lake many years ago.  Click here to listen

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Conrad’s Gift

It is a common Native American practice to consider the impact of our actions on seven generations. Seven. It’s hard for us to conceive that kind of time, especially if we are the descendants of immigrants. “A long time ago” in the US is just the blink of an eye in cultures where people can trace their family roots back thousands of years.

There is a story in my family that helps me see this idea more clearly.


My great-great grandfather Conrad Dietz

My great-great grandfather Conrad Dietz was a farmer and businessman who emigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania in the mid-1800’s presumably to escape religious persecution. He was a Dunkard, one of a conservative religious sect that believed in full immersion Baptism, resisting military service, and living simply. He eventually settled on a farm near Des Moines, Iowa. He and his wife, Susan, had a large family. One of the daughters, Susan Alice, was my beloved Grandpa Fred’s mother.

The Dietz Farm was still in my family when I was growing up in the 1960’s. Grandpa rented it out to farmers. As Des Moines grew, the area around the farm started sprouting housing developments. Grandpa held on, despite many lucrative offers. He loved the farm so much that he still owned the place when he died in 1997 at the age of 96.

After his death, my cousin purchased the farm from the estate. Because it had increased in value as the area around it developed, each of Grandpa Fred’s children received a share of the proceeds. My mother is one of them.

She is now 91 years old, living in a beautiful senior living complex in the Minnesota town where she has lived for 60 years. She has good friends there, both residents and staff, and will tell anyone who will listen what a great place it is. Though her body is slow moving, her mind is sharp – sharp enough to beat me at Scrabble now and again.

She is able to afford the place because of Conrad’s farm, her father’s good sense to hold onto it, and my cousin’s willingness to invest in it. Between the farm and some other investments from her mother’s family, my mother is able to live out her days in a place that suits her. Conrad had no idea that his decision to purchase that piece of land would enable his nonagenarian great-granddaughter to live well.

Which brings me to this question. I wonder what I am creating in my life now that will be of benefit to the people coming after me in the way that Conrad’s farm is supporting my mother’s life? I don’t have my own children, but my nieces and nephews do. What will the great-grandchildren of my nieces and nephews reap from my life? What is my “farm?”

I hope my descendants find something useful and nourishing in what I’ve created in this life, even though the world will be wildly different than the one I inhabit now. It will be as unimaginable as my world would be to Conrad.

In the meantime, I want to thank Conrad for taking such beautiful care of my mother.

Conrad & Susan Dietz with their children

Conrad & Susan Dietz with their children

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Heart of a Warrior

The word “warrior” typically calls to mind a burly gladiator covered in dust, waving a sword. Or a burly Schwarzeneggar type kicking ass and taking names. The warrior I want to tell you about doesn’t look a thing like that. She’s 4’9-1/2” inches tall with a keen mind and a thick Boston accent.

We met many years ago on an excruciatingly cold night in Minnesota. She was interviewing me to manage the office at her small consulting firm. The only time we could get together was in the deep dark, cold evening hours. She invited me on a “walking interview,” so I arrived at her house bundled up in multiple layers of warm clothes. She leashed her elderly pooch and we set off for a three-mile walk through her neighborhood.

We walked and talked our way through the interview, our frozen breath clouding around our heads. Now at 6’2”, I am nearly a foot and a half taller than Susan. My legs reach nearly to her shoulders. So a nice, brisk pace for her was snail slow for me. By the time we returned to her home, I had the job — and a chill so deep in my bones that it took a hot bath to thaw them out.

In the years I worked with Susan, I witnessed her warrior spirit as she pioneered organizational development consulting in the Twin Cities. She’d bravely walk into a new situation, full of curiosity, good questions, strong instincts, and a zany sense of humor. As a friend, I saw her take on healing her body, mind, and spirit from the considerable challenges of her growing up years.

I wrote the song “Heart of a Warrior” for her as a birthday gift one year. (You can hear it at the link below.) Here are some of the essential warrior qualities the song illustrates:

Moving forward in the face of fear
Fearlessness is a great idea. Warriors know that waiting for the fear to go before doing what you’re called to do will ensure that you’ll never do a thing.

Bringing humor into challenging places
Unlike the macho warriors, we know the gift of lightening up when things get heavy.

Saying yes to life’s invitations
Warriors practice the art of “yes,” even when the “how” isn’t clear.

Using love to fuel your relationships and work
Love is willing to keep going when everything else is exhausted.

Bringing curiosity to every challenge
Warriors are well versed in the art of a good question and an inquiring mind

Knowing when to rest and receive loving care from others
Giving is much easier than receiving for us warriors. If we don’t rest and receive, we are headed for serious burnout and crippling egomania.

Most important of all – and Susan knows this well – warriors do best when they dance!  So crank up the song, get up on your feet, and do your full-hearted warrior dance!

Click here to listen to the song





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Three pots are boiling on my stovetop.
There are towels spread on my counter and piles of small cucumbers in a basket at my feet.
Steam condenses on the window and trickles down.
Ditto the perspiration on my brow.

It’s canning time.

I pull the speckled enamel canner from the cobwebby basement and wash out the dusty canning jars I’ve stored there over the year.  How many of those jars have traveled the long years from my own mother’s basement?  What have they held over those years? Pickled beans? Tomatoes? Peaches? Kosher dills?

Kosher dills.
When I was growing up, that’s what my mother called them. I thought it was because they had garlic in them. For years I thought “kosher” meant “with garlic.”
And what exotic stuff it was! The only time we made anything with garlic was during pickling season. (It was small town Minnesota in the 1960’s….)
My assignment was to peel clove after clove of the stinky stuff – five cloves for each quart jar of pickles. For a week afterward, my fingertips stank of it, no matter how vigorously I washed them. It was the smell of summer, as was the pungent reek of vinegar brine steaming on the stove.

Dad joined us in the kitchen for the pickling parties – a rare event in those days. We fitted the scrubbed cucumbers into the jars like puzzles. Threw in a dash of alum to keep them from getting mushy. And tucked fragrant seed heads of dill in and around the bright green cucumbers.

We enjoyed the companionship of repetitive work, accompanied by idle chatter and the whirring of the box fan.

When all the packing and filling was complete, Mom carefully lowered them into the boiling canner to process. Later as they cooled on the kitchen counter – each sealing jar sang out a joyful “ping” – the music of plenty and work well done.

I still make pickles every year in late summer. I perform the ritual of kettle, brine, and garlic-scented fingers. I’m certain the pickles in the store are far cheaper than what I spend on supplies at farmer’s market and grocery store. But what I’m making is more than pickles. I’m linking back to those summers in a sweltering Minnesota kitchen under fluorescent lights when we all worked alongside each other to make something good for the winter.

Dad’s been gone now for decades and Mom is slow and sharp at 91. Yesterday I brought her the first jar “kosher” dill pickles of the season.  She cradled them with delight and talked about how good they’ll taste with her sandwiches this winter.

I hope she can taste the gratitude I tucked into that jar, nestled between the dill sprigs and garlic cloves.

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Falling Silent

As a voice coach and singer, I pay unusual attention to voices. I cherish the cadences, rhythms, and sounds that I hear in the voices of my family members and friends. Each one is completely unique. Each one lingers in my memory as that person’s inimitable “song.”

Voice is at the heart of our personal relationships. Isn’t it a kind of miracle that your voice has the power to connect your inner world with that of another person?

Our voices create a soundtrack for the lives of those closest to us. The beautiful baritone singing voice of my grandpa Fred is still vivid in my mind’s ear, even though it fell silent in 1996. I recall in detail the sound of the blessing I received from a wise therapist in 1985 and the warm, resonant tone of the teacher who helped me find my voice. I can also conjure the tone of my father’s scathing sarcasm. Whose voices are ringing in your memory right now? How do you think the people around you will hear your voice in their memories?

As I grow older I experience an increasing number of deaths in my immediate and extended circle of friends. With each passage, another voice falls silent in the world. I grieve the loss of hearing that voice on the other end of the phone or in a lingering conversation.

A few weeks ago, another beloved voice fell silent. My friend, Jamie Showkeir, died after a 14-month “adventure” with ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Jamie loved nothing better than to converse. He built his entire personal and professional life around the pursuit of authentic conversations. He and his wife, Maren, even co-authored a book about it. (https://www.bkconnection.com/books/title/authentic-conversations).

How I loved talking with Jamie! In our wide-ranging conversations, he was fully present, curious, funny, daring, and surprising by turns. His laugh shook the rafters and his slightly asymmetrical eyes were right there. Our talks always yielded fresh thoughts and intriguing ideas. He made me (and so many others) feel brilliant and fascinating and appreciated.

After his diagnosis, we talked frankly about his illness and impending death. Those conversations included strength and vulnerability, fear and fearlessness, hilarity and grief….all the good stuff. Many of his conversations with his wife, Maren, were beautifully chronicled in her CaringBridge posts throughout his illness.

The last time I saw him, Maren and I cuddled up close to his wheelchair and had a long, often difficult, conversation about dying. By that time his voice had grown weak. He needed to gulp a breath after every few words. He frankly expressed his fears and doubts. We explored mysteries and told stories. There were tears and giggles and such deep fondness.

Oh, Jamie, I will miss your voice! And I will remember the “song” of it as long as I live.

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Like A Drop of Ink in a Bucket of Milk

I am attending a gala that supports a woman-focused foundation. A number of grant recipients from around the world are sharing their inspiring stories. In between, a singer/songwriter is offering an original song that perfectly reflects what that woman has accomplished.

As each recipient speaks, the room is perfectly and respectfully silent. But each time the singer begins a song the room instantly bursts into chatter. I am certain that the songwriter put at least as much time, energy, and effort into creating her songs as each of the speakers did with their remarks. I am crestfallen that her work doesn’t receive the same level of attention and respect as the speakers. And it sparks many memories of my own experience of bringing just-the-right song to a group who treats my music as background.

I finally found my voice to speak about this phenomenon in Vancouver, British Columbia where I was co-leading a daylong community-building workshop with my friend and colleague, Margaret Wheatley. She was providing brilliant thinking, as she always does. I was weaving music throughout the day. In between, there was lively dialogue in small groups among the 150 people in the room.

We are coming back from a break. I call the room to attention before I begin the opening song. As I start singing, everyone complies with my request, except for a handful of people in the middle of the room. Their conversation continues apace.

And then I start talking….

“Now, I want to be completely clear that what I’m about to say is not intended to shame or embarrass anyone in this room. I do want to point out that this particular song can’t really be heard unless it’s offered into a container of listening silence. And one small distraction – one side conversation – is all it takes to dispel the field of listening for the whole room. It’s like a drop of ink in a bucket of milk. Most of you are old enough to remember when there were smoking sections in restaurants and on planes. The smoke didn’t respect the delineations of those sections, did it? Sound works much the same way. Is this making sense?”

Heads nod. Everyone is listening closely.

We are a culture that has forgotten how to attend to live music with full attention. Most of the time when we hear music in public, it is in a bar setting where everyone has to shout to have a conversation with friends or it’s canned Muzak that provides a bland and ignorable soundtrack to nearly every public space. We’ve become inured to live, public music. We’ve become accustomed to treating it as background music even when it isn’t intended to be.

For years I didn’t talk about this phenomenon because I thought people would judge me as arrogant or needy for asking then to pay attention to me. Now I’m over it. And feel obliged to speak on behalf of all of the musicians out there who deserve an audience’s undivided and respectful attention.

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