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

The Cello Lesson: 9 Points Toward Unlearning Perfectionism

Recently, I played the cello in front of a couple of hundred people.

Which statement probably doesn’t nudge your pulse up a notch or two, but that’s only because you don’t know the cello.

And you don’t know me.

First: The Cello

It’s difficult to play at all. It’s a crucible to play well.

Second: Me

I’m a striver. I like to reach far and push myself into discomfort. That’s on my best days.

On my not-so-best days, I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, the personality type marked by the “setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”

Thank you, Mr. Webster, for that brisk insight.

(And while we’re here, your dictionary was really never all that perfect, either. So…)

Third: The Cello and Me

Did I mention that until a month ago, I hadn’t laid a bow on a cello string in thirty years?

Four with my first cello.

Four with my first cello. All photos David Dalton archive ©

Fourth: What the…?

Oh, I grew up playing the cello, sure. Thanks to professional musician parents, we kids all sang and played instruments. The result is that all four adult children— everyone but myself, that is — still are, to one extent or another, hardcore (lessons began at the age of four), trained (by the world’s best and in the best conservatories), professional (professors, performers, pedagogues), classical (does solfège mean anything to you?) musicians.

A blessing and a curse. Because that kind of upbringing can cause one to have certain standards regarding music, you know? Like, I know how a cello should sound. No – I know how a perfect cellist should sound. Which gets complicated when you’re to play the cello and remember you can’t do it perfectly. Or really all that well.

Or really at all.

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Fifth: Calluses and Panic

For background: When the musical director in our congregation wanted this lovely cello solo performed during the holidays, she asked if anyone played. I waited for someone else to pipe up. No one did. I waited longer. Still no volunteers. So in a moment of forgetfulness, I said, “I do!”

Forgetful, because I used to play. I really did. Never brilliantly, and with varying degrees of commitment and artistry, but I played for many years. Still, as with tightrope walking or karate chopping through stacks of reinforced concrete with one bare hand, if you haven’t brushed up on your technique recently, best to not volunteer.

Not, at least, unless you expect some pain, both physical and emotional. Physical: aching shoulders; cramped hands; blistered, then bloodied and then peeling fingertips in order to develop calluses. Emotional: nausea; what-have-I-done midday panic attacks; what-were-you-thinking night terrors; tears. Shingles. Hives. Scratching and oozing.

Real cellists have callused fingertips. But calluses don’t necessarily guarantee beautiful playing. And as I kept practicing, finding the notes again, massaging out my jackhammer vibrato, I was increasingly aware that no callus in the world was going to be thick enough to protect me from myself. Here crept those unrealistic demands again. There was the faint whip-whip-whip of self-flagellation. In my lower back was the clenching of a vise grip of not achieving my goal, and– oh brother – that neon blinking “sign of personal worthlessness.”

 Failure. Submediocre. No Yo-Yo Ma.


Sixth: Oh, No Ya Don’t.

I’m too old for that stuff. I was working through that mini psycho-drama when something shifted one chilly late morning. I was sitting in my bedroom wrapped around an old borrowed cello, running scales and arpeggios. Suddenly, I wanted to cry. Not out of pain (although my fingertips are still recovering even as I type this), and not out of anxiety or despair. I was suddenly moved to near-tears by the pure intoxication of making music. The melody thrummed through me in all its amber-toned cello-ness, making me sway with the sensuous drag of my bow arm. And while the sound was warbled and scratchy to be sure, the basics still worked! The tune was recognizable. Not gorgeous, and a Mahler symphony away from perfect, but just fine. Adequate. Okay. Good enough.

(My Inner Perfectionist winced and smacked her flat hand on her forehead. How she hates those ^ words.)

And then, before the Inner Perfectionist could roll her eyes or pretend to stick her finger down her throat in disgust, a thought swept in:

 “The fear of flaws is not going keep me from sharing what God has given me to share.”

Maybe an obvious thought for you, but a mini-revelation for me. And with it, release, liberty, a trampoline flip of delight.

And then came a whispered little P.S.:

“Play badly. Go ahead. But at least do so lovingly.”

I nearly crushed the cello into splinters as I hugged it like an old friend. “We’ll do this,” I mumbled, “You and I. I loooove you.”

The wooden instrument didn’t talk back. Not because it couldn’t, but because it was wise enough to know I was actually addressing myself.


Seventh: Stressing, Impressing, Blessing

Perfectionism is exhausting, stressful.  Author and lecturer Brené Brown calls it “a hustle.” It’s also a waste. It wastes not only time and energy, but robs you (and potentially those within the reach of your influence) of everything from a good night’s sleep to creativity to ambition to true success. Perfectionism is linked in research to addictions of all sorts and to a lack of true intimacy in relationships, either with others or with yourself, and even, if you are a believer as I am, to a lack of connecting with God.

Why does perfectionism block intimacy, even –or especially – with God? For obvious reasons. Do whatever you want, buddy, to impress others. But you can’t impress God. Furthermore, perfectionism throws up these Plexiglas walls through which you think you are seeing the real thing, or, conversely, through which you think you will be seen. But from a distance, please, because being known implies breaking through walls and being exposed as you really, truly are. Throw up all the walls you want for thick protection, but God wants you as you are, you in all of what I call your irresistable flawfulness.

The unrealistic demands a perfectionist makes on herself often fill her with shame and an unwillingness– a fear, even– to share her sludgy, tired, incapable, at times unpleasant, always utterly human self with others. She’s convinced that only the perfect version of herself is lovable; that perfection in whatever form it assumes is the only version deserving of love.

And so the perfectionist will run herself ragged trying in vain to attain an unattainable standard in order to “earn” adulation, which she mistakenly thinks is love, but which in fact is no more than a cheap and shallow quick-fix facsimile for the real thing. Re-cognition is not cognition, or knowing in the truest sense. Knowing is real contact with the real thing, and the root of true love.

To my point, perfectionism keeps us from being happy and good and plain, or just plain good ‘n’ happy. Who out there is not a little (or a lot) threadbare, floppy, sloppy, but a basically good soul? Who’s not rough on every edge and fractured in parts, but basically means well, wants to do good things? Like playing the darned Christmas cello solo in church, for heaven’s sake?! Then we must learn that…

Cello, viola, violin, piano. Later, sopranos and a bass-baritone

Cello, viola, violin, piano. Later, sopranos and a bass-baritone prince not shown. (All photos David Dalton archive ©) 

Eighth: Le Mieux est le Mortel Ennemi du Bien

The best is the mortal enemy of the good. (It takes Montesquieu, a Frenchman, to nail it. Like so many of the French I know, he knows perfection! ) Always holding out for the ultimate best –for “le mieux”, for perfection – we pass by the daily, hourly, ravishing yet fleeting opportunities to grasp and luxuriate in what’s given us. To take full part in the everyday, mysterious, generic, supernatural human condition.

  • We don’t say the simple, kind phrase because we were hoping to write it up in an Elizabethan sonnet.
  • We don’t call on Dad’s birthday because we really wanted to send him an ice sculpture of Genghis Kahn.
  • We don’t kiss our lover because he has Gandhi’s sandal breath. Or we’ve got shin stubble. Or someone is jet-lagged, crusty, non-glam.
  • We don’t raise our voice to make the comment in class because it’s not brilliant, worthy of general stunned awe, or up for the Nobel.
  • We don’t commit because the man that flips our switch doesn’t have a PhD. (Or condo. Six-pack. Life all figured out. Eyes like Clooney. A list of accomplishments. The perfect background. The perfect anything. Except love, good humor and all else, maybe. But…meh.)
  • We don’t pray because God doesn’t approve of us anyway. (Honestly, who would?)
  • We don’t dive in the ocean because we don’t want anyone to see our stretch marks or that we put on 10 kilos since last time (was that 1993?) when we dove in the ocean. Wearing a full length terry cloth cover-up.
  • We don’t laugh because, what if someone thought we were actually happy and content and not seriously pursuing something grand and unattainable, because underneath the thick lamination of harried ambition, we don’t want others to see that we’re just as much an average slouch –tired and overdrawn and messed up – as the next tired, overdrawn and messed up slouch?
  • We hold back. We keep quiet. We side-step by open doors. We shut ourselves down. We agonize over errors. We live tiny and tortured.


In short, perfectionism paralyzes us, as Brené Brown writes, and locks us into a glove box of smallness, or, as Anne Lamott says, “cramped and insane your whole life.”

A writing guru, Julia Cameron, adds this:

“Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly–and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner’s work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn’t know how to say, “Good try,” or “Job well done.” The critic does not believe in creative glee–or any glee at all, for that matter. No, perfectionism is a serious matter.”


When reflecting on the iterations of perfectionism that used to plague my life (the teen years when I nearly died of eating disorders; the spells of anxiety-induced depression that took me to teetering emotional ledges; other forms of the beast…), I mourn.

Fourteen with anorexia. My cello weighed more than I did.

Fourteen with anorexia. My cello was much bigger than I was and weighed more, too. (All photos  David Dalton archive ©)

But I don’t stay mourning very long. I quickly remind myself that those years, they were practice shots! And hey, life itself is one epic practice shot. I can learn from those mistakes and redirect my now-mature energies and gifts and garden-variety normalcy to playing whatever song I can play– not perfectly, maybe awkwardly, and at times outright badly– but at least I’m playing.

Ninth: Play Lovingly

My ear for intonation and harmony and my gut for rhythm and phrasing run through me like my DNA. My eye for beauty, my mind for language and cadence and lyricism in literature are equally strong currents. My passion for people, for the spiritual webwork that connects us all, for the mystical and the unseen that throbs through humanity and propels us forward, upward –these are the drivers I want at the center of my life, not  some “voice of the oppressor,” as Anne Lamott calls perfectionism, “which [is the] enemy of the people.”

No. I want a friend – a loving, merciful, forgiving, magnanimous, all-heart, all-in Friend, or even a couple of friends – at the center of my life. Shouldn’t one of those friends be myself?

These ideas sort of coalesced when, on your average pre-Christmas Sunday at church I took a borrowed cello to my heart, pressed it there lovingly, and then with all the tender self-embracing I have in my bones, I let. that. baby. ring. In that moment, I couldn’t suppress thinking through the text as I played:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Who can ruin such beauty? Well, to be honest, I might have. It was pretty average cello-playing on all counts, I think, and there might have been some outstanding flubs of intonation. But you know, I was so good with that. No one saw the alchemy as it lay total siege on me, but I swear my whole body and soul resonated. As I write this, they’re resonating, still.