How My Sister Kept My Dreams Alive
Learning Who To Listen To When Times Get Tough
“Don’t forget this one…” The muffled sound of music plays in the background.
“Which one?” I ask, not able to discern a melody through the phone lines, me in Nashville, her in Minneapolis. She can’t remember the title, but she will.
My sister, Jody, sings along with the music in the car, “Call me from this boat, I wanna walk on the water.” It’s my song about wanting to escape from the doldrums of life, into something more fantastic — there’s got to be something more, kind of thing.
“Oh yeah, I love that one,” I reply. I listened to my own song through the phone, a tune that had over the years become a stranger to me. I felt like I was looking at a picture of an old friend in a high school yearbook. I remember really liking that song.
I love my sister more than anything else in the world. She is my constant companion, in my heart or on the phone. We have one of those connections where you just know what’s going on with the other, even though there is 900 miles between us, and no words have been spoken! Throughout most of the Nashville years, she has been a champion for me and my songs when I had long given up.
See, it’s not easy going after your dreams, especially in a town where dreamers are a dime a dozen. Maybe a nickel. There are days I’m convinced I have the talent to succeed. And then there are the days when I’m convinced I’m absolutely crazy and have no right to think I have anything to offer the world. Many days it pulls me into lethargy; a dragging, of sorts, into nothingness. A place where there’s no fear of being crappy — my safe place. Kathleen Norris, one of my favorite writers, calls it “acedia.”
“But my favorite is still ‘hold onto me forever, and I’ll hold onto you,’” Jody sings. That someone would actually like my music enough to consider one a favorite is mind-boggling to me.
But I don’t have the average sister.
She keeps old cassettes I’ve sent to her over the years, and plays them in her car. Or jams along to the tunes in her basement music room. She makes me think there’s actually value to some of my songs, when it seems like no one else in the world cares. I have always believed what my sister said because she was older, which meant wiser.
Besides, she was always the more talented sibling, the leader. I was the follower, the imitator. They say I didn’t even talk until I was three; Jody simply did all the talking for me. I watched her to see what I should do, what I should be. She sang, so I wanted to sing. She was a writer, so I wanted to write. It’s like growing up in a house with a great chef; you kind of automatically have the desire to cook, as well.
Jody would sit at the piano bench and play “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin eater,” and I’d crawl up next to her (I was probably four years old) and try to copy her.
“Motherrrrrr!” she would yell, disgusted with her baby brother impeding her musical genius.
Whenever I heard her say, “Marrrrrrrk,” I knew it was time to stop doing whatever I was doing. Her multiple r’s sounded a lot like a grizzly bear’s “Grrrrr.”
In our teens, Jody and I would spend time at the piano in our basement, but this time she’d be singing and I’d accompany her. She was impressed with how fast I could pick up a song on the piano, but I was just trying hard to get the page turns down without causing a break in the music. And I loved hearing her sing — such a pure voice, a lot like our mother.
She says she just doesn’t have the courage to sing in front of people anymore. I can’t help but wonder if I’m trying to compensate for the both of us, never afraid to grab the microphone and sing a tune, make a CD, or travel the country performing concerts in bars, churches, and even prisons.
Her encouragement isn’t just “you can do it” fluff. She challenges me to keep aiming for greater excellence and authenticity. And to be prepared for when the door of greater opportunity might open. And to keep exercising my body, because after all, it is show business.
Having my sister believe in me — even when I can’t believe in myself — is enough to keep me going, to keep taking the next courageous step, trusting that the result will have some kind of value.
When I discovered acting, and then later, singing, I found what I thought was my voice. People would watch and listen to me up front, and then they’d applaud. They appreciated what I did. They liked how I made them feel. Which made me feel valuable and important, even if I was merely reciting someone else’s words. I was the tool for someone else’s message.
Jody taught me that if I really wanted to have a voice, I would have to learn to write, so I could sing my own words, pronouncing my feelings at the top of my lungs, thereby validating them, perhaps by sheer volume. And, she said, it’s much cooler than singing someone else’s song.
Little did I know, but Nashville — a town driven by songwriters — would be the absolute best place for me to learn the craft. Hearing a great song can be either intimidating or inspiring, depending on how you feel that day. Hundreds of people spend hours upon hours digging for gold in tiny writer’s rooms with out-of-tune pianos, keys drenched with spilled coffee or Jack Daniels.
They say you have to write a lot of crappy songs before you write one really great song. Most people don’t have the tenacity to write a bunch of bad songs, they simply think they are the exception; that perhaps they’ve struck gold with the very first handful of songs they’ve written. That’s been my problem.
But before I wrote a whole bunch of songs I had to figure out who it was I was writing for. Was I going to try to write for other artists? Should I learn how to write commercial songs that could be recorded by someone else? My sister was instrumental in helping me answer that question.
I decided the person I am writing for is me.
Yes, it’d be great to write for other people, to have really famous people sing my songs, but I feel it’d be even better for me to have a cadre of tunes that provide glimpses into my own story, songs that communicate places of hope, desire, brokenness, determination, devotion, etc. If I could effectively communicate my story, allowing other people to see themselves in my story, bringing them pieces of hope and encouragement, then I believe I’d be the kind of writer I want to be. And Jody agreed. So that’s what I’ve done.
My big sister’s never-ending encouragement has continually put fuel in my tanks. And I take her with me in my heart on each step of the journey. Whether I’m making a new CD or performing a concert, there’s always an opportunity to listen to that crazy voice inside of me that says, “Who do you think you are?” She has taught me to ignore that voice, even if I can’t make it completely go away.
There’s a desire deep in my bones for my life to be special. To be awesome. To be a person of impact and influence. Music is a great way to do that. But there’s also a feeling, almost as deep, that I’m hopelessly inadequate. That I’m average, mediocre, and basically silly. I guess this is what makes me an artist, and on a good day, keeps me going, trying to write better songs and be a better performer. So life becomes a balancing act — attempting to live each day with the weight of both sides pulling on me.
The way out? For me, it’s gratitude and discipline toward my craft — the same kind that makes me get out of bed to go running when I don’t want to.
But most importantly, it’s found by listening to my sister’s voice.