128 Steps to a Portable Career



1. You breathe.
2. You love.
3. You think.
4. You write.
5. You move.
6. You move a lot.
7. You move with family.
8. You doubt your ability to do…just about everything.
9. You move with small children, nursing in buses, rat-infested alleyways, in your sleep.
10. You move with grown children. (In any event, you always move with growing children.)
11. You move with your partner’s fledgling career.
12. Which, with work+grace, grows into a strong international career.
13. Which keeps you moving.
14. And moving.
15. You have more children.
16. You doubt yourself.
17. You learn to decode cultures, languages, your own anxieties while collecting addresses.
18. You have some breakdowns.
19. You keep moving.
20. You keep writing your story.
21. (You had gotten those fancy, literature-based advanced academic degrees, after all.)
22. (When you had your first two babies, by the way. And you were moving far and often.)
23. You harness your skill set and education and energy.
24. You doubt yourself.
25. Your husband buys you a writing chair.
26. Your husband buys you a new laptop.
27. Your husband supports your efforts like you’ve supported his.
28. Your efforts ARE his efforts.
29. His efforts ARE your efforts.
30. You write.
31. You doubt yourself.
32. You breathe.
33. You write more while learning new languages, customs, rules for everything.
34. You dare to share with friends what you’ve written for yourself.
35. You get feedback.
36. You doubt yourself.
37. You breathe.
38. Your husband buys you a new printer and a bigger desk.
39. You write and speak and write and sing and write and speak.
40. You write more.
41. You doubt yourself.
42. You send manuscripts to 3 dozen top publishers.
43. You receive their genteel or gruff rejections.
44. You doubt yourself.
45. You breathe.
46. You abandon all plans to ever write, sing, or speak. Ever.
47. You can’t help but write.
48. You can’t help but sing.
49. You can’t help but speak.
50. You send your firstborn off to university.
51. You get a call at 10:47 at night telling you that this same child, robust and exploding with life yesterday, is lying in a deep coma.
52. You race, your husband flies, you hold the lifeless fingers of your child, you hear the experts tell you “no chance of meaningful survival.” You turn off life support.
53. You watch your child take his last breath.
54. You die.
55. You die again. And forever. Everything dies.
56. The universe unplugs.
57. The sky drains of oxygen.
58. The clouds turn into ferocious, carnivorous, metal-jawed demons.
59. The earth groans and heaves, soaked in bitter blood, its crust open to swallow up life.
60. The colors wash pale, or are too intense to look at.
61. The sounds grate and scrape or recede behind yowling crowding internal lamentation
62. The light burns. The darkness buries, mercifully.
63. You doubt yourself. You doubt your life.
64. But you don’t doubt God.
65. You long, however, to stop breathing. To be finished here.
66. You stop writing. You stop singing. You stop speaking.
67. You resent each sunrise that drags you back into life.
68. You walk, sleepwalk, sleep, one and the same thing.
69. Your deceased son appears to you in a dream.
70. Your son says, “Don’t stop singing.”
71. You breathe.
72. You breathe.
73. You listen.
74. You try to recall what that life felt like, who that version of you was.
75. You lie in your grave of grief and vow to never move from it, never to stand in the light.
76. You rest and gather strength. You learn a new language: Silence and Spirit.
77. You love.
78. You mother your living children.
79. You wife your living husband.
80. You move. A finger. A toe. A shoulder. A knee.
81. You stand up.
82. You move house.
83. You move with family.
84. You sing. Once.
85. You speak. Once.
86. You write. Again.
87. Your friend cautiously, lovingly connects you with an agile, buoyant publisher.
88. You meet that guy, thirteen times zones away, via Skype. You sign with that publisher.
89. You edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit.
90. You (fearing and weeping) join social media. You inch your way into the light.
91. You doubt yourself. More than ever.
92. You move.
93. You move again. You move countries. While releasing and promoting your book.
94. You star in a small technicolor panorama of breakdowns.
95. You trust your enterprising friends who call themselves, “Team ___”. (Your name.)
96. You get some rest and watch your mentors. You watch your dreams.
97. You get hives and nausea.
98. You work on your next manuscript.
99. You get it published. While moving countries.
100. You keep writing.
101. You plug your ears to all the critics. They are bored, frustrated,  and have not understood you.
102. You weep a bathtub full of anxiety while listening for the voice of your son.
103. You apply under eye cover up with a spackle knife.
104. And you sing.
105. And you speak.
106. And you write.
107. And people listen.
108. And people read.
109. And people’s eyes shine when they talk with you.
110. And people’s hearts open when you open yours to them.
111. And you get hired to speak in small halls, big halls.
112. And you get hired to write for yourself, for other people.
113. And you outline another book. Books.
114. And you write. Every day. And you speak. Every week.
115. And you get hired to “sing” more than you can find time for.
116. And you mother.
117. And you love.
118. And you move to another country.
119. And you write.
120. And you breathe.
121. And you think.
122.And you love.
123. And you love.
124. And you live.
125. And you learn.
126. And you find your light.
127. And you stand in it.
128. And you sing.
reclining mel

3 thoughts on “128 Steps to a Portable Career

  1. Hi Melissa,
    I have held onto this question that I wish I would have asked since hearing you speak at the King’s English bookshop in Salt Lake City a few years ago. I hope it is ok to ask here.

    How has your singing changed since Parker’s death?

    I am a classical singer myself, and since I’ve started raising my children, the experience of performing has morphed dramatically for me. I can’t imagine what it would be like to process that kind of grief with music… healing? I hope so. Mostly it feels like it would be just too much! Do you actually still sing these days?

    I hope it is ok to ask these things here, I always wished I had asked you in person when we met. Much love,
    Emily B

    • hi Emily-

      Great questions, and I’m just as happy to answer them here as I would have been at that fun book signing. (Kings English shout out!)

      I have thought about this a LOT. In fact, I was thinking of this question just two days ago while singing “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. I was alone with our dog Finn in the forest, felt the setting was like nature’s cathedral, remembered how much I loved singing in a cathedral’s bright acoustics, and just let loose. I’d forgotten how much I need to sing to feel alive.

      How did my son’s death change my voice? Parker’s death shut down my singing voice completely. I’d sung at his gurney’s side before we turned off life support (as you remember from Global Mom), but I am sure I was only able to do that by virtue of Parker’s hovering presence and the palpable spiritual strength converging in that room. I also sang with the congregation at his funeral one week later to the hour, buoyed for a moment by that same incredible power. But the next day, I was utterly muted. I could scarcely whisper out hymns when we went to church after arriving in our new congregation in Munich. It took over a full year, in fact, to be able to sing in front of others (even in an ensemble and not even professionally, just at church).

      Prior to that I was physically incapable of eking out the sound. More than anything, the mere thought of singing dislodged something I was battling daily to hold together: my soul. You know how you have to open your gut to sing well. You have to have physical strength and a firm diaphragm. But I was all liquid. Singing simply drew up too much emotion. I would try, but I’d begin trembling in my feet, then hands, then spine, then my whole face. Me, who’d been performing in front of folks since I was about 3. I couldn’t control my vibrato for all the tears that flushed up my throat. I felt too bare, too exposed, too raw, even when all alone. And this lasted for a very, very, very long time.

      Then one day a gorgeous soprano, Angela Brower, showed up at church. She was a brand new contract mezzo soprano at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. She’d graduated from the same elite music school as had my parents (where my Mom got her Masters in vocal performance and had sung the same roles as Angela and on the same stage). So there was this connection. There was also a very good pianist and vocalist in our congregation, Britt, and one day in the winter someone suggested we all sing prelude music. I loved these women. I trusted them. They were both so vulnerable and real and tender. They both understood something about my fragility. And before saying no, we just stood up there and sang. I shall never forget our improvised harmonies and sostenuto on “Be Still My Soul”. A healing spirit flushed through me. I rediscovered my body as an instrument of peace and comfort for others. How many
      “others”? There were maybe, oh, 20 people listening, if that many, and still I felt it was one of the finest musical triumphs of my life. As we finished, and under our breath, all three of us said, “Wow.” Something bigger than a hymn was happening.

      And I was willing to sing again.

      (Just writing that has me crumpled up in tears.)

      But it’s not really the complete answer to your question, Emily, is it? You asked how my singing has changed since my son’s death. Interestingly, my singing voice has changed much like my written voice has changed. You can feel that written change abruptly in Global Mom. With a page turn one hears the pre-loss (I call it “innocent”) voice — higher, lighter, jingling, maybe even Baroque — recede. With the page turn — with death — a deeper, heavier, more dense (I call it “experienced”) voice emerges. I wrote deliberately like that, imposing a vocal shift that paralleled what in real life was my profound psychological/emotional/spiritual shift.

      My singing voice has deepened, become more dense. Major loss has carved out a greater cavern for emotional resonance. I sing with a voice of experience. (Yes, William Blake has come to mind many times.)

      And to your last question: From a purely tactical stand point, writing and public speaking have overtaken the use of my “vocal” talents, so I’m training far less, have lost elasticity and range, and so while I’ve taken a few nice paying gigs over the last 4 years, I’m not going to do that anymore because I’m simply not in the vocal shape (let alone serious musical milieu) I need to be in to receive people’s money to hear me sing.

      But come with me to my forest and you and Finn and I can cover the whole repertoire together. How’s that?! 🙂

      • Dear Melissa,
        Thank you for sharing the musician’s side of your journey. Of course I would LOVE to meet up with you and Finn in the forest anytime. I’ve met some enthusiastic and sincere singing pups before, I’d like to imagine Finn is one of those, but a good listener works just as well.
        I especially liked hearing about your healing impromptu trio of ‘Be Still My Soul’, what a perfect hymn for that experience. Some of my absolutely favorite times singing have been in nursing homes and hospital rooms, where the music is healing.
        I met your parents at the aforementioned book signing and they were just lovely, and generous, as are you, dear friend.

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