New Song --> Keep Her Out of Heaven

I am beyond excited to share my new song “Keep Her Out of Heaven” with you!

You can listen everywhere you get your music —>

YouTube for a video w/ lyrics


So what’s behind this song?

I didn't want my mom to get cancer; I didn't want her to die. So I did just what the song says I did in the third verse: "I moved into my childhood room and I put down my guitar" so I could take care of her. I wanted to do (and have done) everything in my power to keep her alive, to keep her OUT of heaven.

Keep Her Out of Heaven (KHOoH) was the second song I wrote for my mom after she got sick.

In it, I'm just starting to figure out how to write song lyrics and sing melody lines that use the language of cancer -- words like "chemo" or "meds." I remember spending so much time trying to figure out how to find a rhyme for the word "cancer" that didn't sound totally amateurish. And then, once I found the rhyme (or near-rhyme, for the songwriting geeks reading this) how to sing it in a way that didn't sound leaden and stiff.

My mom heard this song before she died. She wept every time I played it. In the end, it didn't matter how hard I tried to keep her out of heaven. Cancer got her. But love is stronger than cancer, stronger than death. This song's the proof.

New single out now!

My song Fight the Good Fight is out now on all the platforms.

You don't have to fight the good fight for me.
What's it going to take for you to believe me?
When your world's been blown apart,
I've got your back, I've got your heart.
You don't have to fight the good fight for me.


When my mom got cancer, I needed her to know that she didn't have to do chemo or radiation or any treatment at all if she didn't want to.

It was important to me that she not feel burdened by expectations or assumptions that she should fight her cancer.

In order to convince her that I wholeheartedly meant what I said, I wrote the song Fight the Good Fight for her.

Do you have someone in your life who is such a rock, so capable and responsible that it would seem completely out of character for them to NOT do the capable, responsible thing?

Are you in support of them giving themselves a little grace?

Do you want them to make their OWN choices about how to live and how to die?

Does someone you know need to hear this song? Send it to them.
Do YOU need to hear it? Listen up and let the love in.

Five words per song

Seth Godin has an idea called “Ten Words Per Page.”

He says that readers only register “ten words per page” when they are “reading” a text.

“Which means,” he says that in “your memo, your ad, your announcement, your post–you get ten words” to make an impression on them and cause them to want to engage (i.e. keep reading or take an action).

I’d posit that as songwriters, we only get five words… or less. And we only get the five melody notes that go with those five words.

(Of course, I am purposefully NOT talking about the groove, tempo, sound-scape of the song here. These matter too, but let’s take them off the table right now.)

Five words to make someone listen longer, hit repeat, send the song to someone else, talk about it with another person.

So… about that new song you’re working on:

Where are your most important five words?

What are your melody notes for those words?

Are they the most important melody notes in your song or are they just like all the others?

Maybe you have to write the song to find your five most important words. If that’s the case, then you must rewrite to make sure they are where they need to be (in the chorus, probably) and highlighted by the five most searing melody notes.

And as Seth points out, “If you can begin with the [five] words and write around them, you have the foundation for an effective message.” If you already know what your five most important words are … you are WAY ahead of the game.

BAMA Kids FAQ a.k.a what's this thing you do making art in rural Alabama with a group of kids?

In early 2010, I volunteered for four months at a small, bootstrapped, after-school program for kids in rural Wilcox County, Alabama.

It’s called BAMA Kids.

I’d show up at 3:15p, just before the kids came tumbling out of the school buses and I’d spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening with them helping and fixing — helping with homework, fixing a broken basketball hoop, helping tie a shoe, fixing a snack.

I became reacquainted with 4th and 5th grade math. I instigated drawing challenges and coloring contests. I did a lot of just being there and showing up, day after day. As Zadie Smith wrote, "Time is how you spend your love."

A scene from the shadow puppet show we created with the BAMA Kids on our first trip in March 2012.

A scene from the shadow puppet show we created with the BAMA Kids on our first trip in March 2012.

A little context about this corner of our country

From Wikipedia…

“At the time of the 2010 census, there were 11,670 people residing in the county. 72.5% were Black or African American, 26.8% White, 0.1% Native American, and 0.6% were Hispanic or Latino.

The median income for a household in the county was $16,646, and the median income for a family was $22,200. Males had a median income of $26,216 versus $17,274 for females. The per capita income for the county was $10,903. About 36.10% of families and 39.90% of the population were below the poverty line, including 48.40% of those under age 18 and 32.10% of those age 65 or over.he median income for a household in Wilcox County was $16,646. About 48% of people under the age of 18 live below the poverty line.

All public schools in the county are operated by the Wilcox County School District. It is also served by one private school, Wilcox Academy, founded in 1970 as a segregation academy. The public schools are effectively all-Black. Both the Wilcox County Schoo District schools were designated “failing schools” by the 2017 Alabama Department of Education.”

Let these realities about Wilcox County sink in — the population is 72% black / 26% white, 48% of kids live below the poverty line, the public schools in the county are failing. And then realize that this is a very rural area. High speed internet is not a given. Access to a public library or any other public social service means you have to have a car or a person in your family who has a car. That’s not a given, either.


Enter BAMA kids

BAMA Kids is the only program of its kind in this community. Started in 1993 by a group of volunteers and concerned parents, its goal is to give kids a safe and fun place to go at the end of the school day. Here, they learn, grow, and feel the love and support of positive role models and mentors. BAMA Kids get the encouragement they need to make good decisions and live healthy, successful lives.

Adding a few Broadway stars to the mix, or: 1 + 1 = 3

In March 2013, I invited the theater group Zara Aina (ZA) to come down to Alabama and work with the BAMA Kids for a week.

Zara Aina is a Malagasy (Madagascar) phrase that means "share life." Started by two Broadway actors and based in NYC, its mission is to use theater, storytelling, and performance to help at-risk children to recognize their potential. It was a no-brainer to unite these two awesome organizations. I saw the opportunity and made it happen. 

In one week, the ZA actors and I collaborated with the BAMA Kids to create an amazing piece of theater — a shadow puppet musical of sorts. The kids wrote the lyrics to our songs. I wrote the music. The ZA crew coached the kids to create everything else -- the story, the acting, the costumes, the set, the shadow puppets, etc. It was busy and fun with a lot of goofing around and improv-ing. 

Here are just a few scenes from that week ...

After a long week of creating and rehearsing, on a spring Sunday afternoon, the kids put on a spirited public performance of their show at the middle school!

Parents came and cheered. The local radio station broadcast from under a big oak tree outside. Someone set up a barbecue and after the show there were ribs and chicken for all.

It was an unqualified success and love fest.

And that was just the beginning

This little project of mine has always been a “we” thing.

I couldn’t have started it without Ms. Threadgill and Ms. Hives — the lifeblood of BAMA Kids. I couldn’t have created a week of arts for the kids without Lucas Caleb Rooney, Bryce Pinkham and the whole Zara Aina team being a thing that existed in the world and the kind of people who say “HELL YES” to just such adventures! And I couldn’t have done it without YOU. Yes, you.

Though I’ve personally spent hours and hours of heart-time and head-time planning and creating the connections that allow these trip be successful, it has been the financial generosity of my fans and friends that have made the four-trips-and-counting happen. Together we’ve raised over $25,000 to create art and change kids lives in Wilcox County, Alabama.

The video below attempts to capture what we do down there. Watch it and multiply what you feel by 100. And you get a sense of what we’ve done, what we’re doing, and what more there is to do.

A video history of the magic combination of BAMA Kids and Zara Aina — going strong since 2013.

For the record and for fun here are the videos we made for our other trips to BAMA Kids:

May 2017 trip

November 2017 trip to work with the student leaders

If you’re moved by what you’ve seen so far and would like to donate, please click here.


In 2018, I wanted Ms. Sheryl and Ms. Hives to know how much we love and recognize them for their unwavering support of and years of dedication to the kids of Wilcox County.

So I reached into my own pocket and flew them to NYC to have a couple days on the town and receive The Zara Aina Award for Planet Earth’s Greatest Citizens at a Broadway star-studded event at the legendary Joe’s Pub. Here’s the celebratory video we created to kick off their night…

Javion and Shatavia, two BAMA Kids that have been with the program for close to a decade, tell the leaders of BAMA Kids, Ms. Sheryl and Ms. Hives, how much they mean to them.

I am deeply grateful for everyone who has shared this journey with me.

Onward!

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.

It turns what we have into enough, and more. 

It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. 

It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. 

It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.

— Melody Beattie

To donate and help keep the BAMA Kids making theater and art with the current and future stars of Broadway and beyond, please click here.

Instead of talking about death, let's sing about it

I spent the day putting together an application to be a speaker at End Well — “a dynamic gathering of individuals committed to generating human-centered, interdisciplinary innovation for the end of life experience.”

I wanted to share what I wrote in my application because it may spark something in you — a story you want to share with me or perhaps you have a place for me to come speak and sing these songs.

What would you talk about on stage? 250 words or less.

My mom got ovarian cancer. I abruptly left a successful career as a performing singer-songwriter and moved home to be her primary caregiver. Throughout all the acts related to her “living dyingly” (to use Christopher Hitchens’s potent phrase) -- the rounds of chemo, the periods of radiation, and, eventually, the months of  hospice care -- I wrote songs. It was nearly impossible to find time to craft lyrics and melodies amidst the overwhelming demands of her disease. It often felt utterly absurd to put the enormity of our grief into musical form. But try I did. In little bursts of lyrics and melody.

That act -- of being creative in the face of the ravages of her disease and her impending death -- ended up being my most important act of care.

I’d watch the impossible weight of her sadness and despair lift -- just a little -- as I sung her my song “Letting Go,” “Come a little closer now / Take my hand / It’s not loss / Let’s try to understand / It’s so hard / You should know / It’s not loss / Let’s call it letting go.”

That I would use precious minutes of free time to write a song about her made my mom feel loved, worthy, and cared for on a primal level. My songs gave expression to emotions neither of us knew how to talk about, emotions best expressed through the ancient act of singing. She experienced release and relief through that rhythm and resonance.


How is this speaking topic new, innovative?  Be as specific as possible.

Writing and performing pop/jazz songs about death, dying, and the landscape of loss while living that experience (as the primary caregiver) is something I’ve not seen and heard many other musicians do. There are, of course, some brave souls who’ve walked the path. Paste Magazine, that arbiter of culture, has done a round-up of the most well-known examples: “10 Historic Albums About the Loss of A Loved One.” Still, it’s an endeavor that’s heart-wrenching and begs a lot of questions.

Now that I am recording and performing the music I wrote for my mom, audiences ask me how I did it. They want to know two things -- how I did it literally (how I found the time and the energy when the caregiving was so all-encompassing) and how I did it figuratively (how I found the words to express the inexpressible blank space of death).

To be creative in the midst of the complexity of caregiving was no easy feat. I wrote melodies while my mom and I were sitting in the chemo suite. I wrote lyrics on the days when she couldn’t get out of bed, dead-tired from the side effects of treatment: “She’s been lying in her bed all day, sleeping off the meds / Think I’ll open up the window to what hasn’t yet been said.” I’d retreat to my bedroom and scribble away, pausing to check on her every hour or so. I’m a musician. I knew that somehow, in some way I had to try to process the unfathomable through my chosen medium.

After I finished the first song about our experience, called “Death Come Slow,” and after I played it for her, I knew I had to keep writing and singing. She burst into tears and hugged all the air out of me. I felt like I had finally found a way to speak to the shadow figure of Death that was haunting us: “Your crooked shadow there at the door. My two hands can’t help her no more / Split my fingers, skinned both my knees, crawling after her disease. / Death come slow / Death come shy / Death don’t you look her / in the eye.” That song gave us both the courage to face another day.

What would your audience get out of hearing these songs and my story? They’d viscerally experience a different way of processing death and dying. Music is a different medium than conversation, than dialogue, than spoken word. It’s elemental. It breaks us open; it breaks through in ways the intellect alone cannot.

Lastly, I want to tell you that I made a conscious decision to write songs not only about the dark and sorrowful parts of my mom’s dying, but also about the light and joyful aspects of our time together. She and I were hyper-aware of the opportunities her diagnosis presented. We talked honestly not only about how she wanted to die, but also about how she wanted to live. Every conversation about death turned into one about life. There is a dimensionality to these songs. The lyrics and melodies transform unutterable grief into something shareable, even sing-along-able. The music is candid and compassionate, heart-wrenching and, miraculously, life-affirming.

A common form of contemporary violence

How jam-packed are your days?

Where is the space and stillness in your life? Where is the quiet? Where is there room to linger? To think? To be?

Is there any?

I recently read this quotation from Thomas Merton…

The rush and pressure of modern life ... is perhaps the most common form of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything is to succumb to violence.

I’m doing a daily retreat with my fellow Zen freaks and so I’ve recommitted to my long lost afternoon meditation session.

What a difference it’s making to sit still for 10 to 30 minutes every afternoon. And by afternoon, I mean anything from 2pm to 4pm to 8pm (yes… sometimes the day gets going and my “afternoon” happens at 8pm… which is the whole f*cking point of that quote up above!)

“To surrender to too many demands, to commit myself to too many projects”… that about sums who I’ve been and who I often am.

It does feel like violence to my being.

And when I interact with other people that are overcommitted and full of too many concerns, I see my reflection.

It’s right there in front me. I am them. They are me. No wonder I feel so weird around them, feel their lack of presence, and, basically, want to get away right away.

I am quite sure that is how people feel around me.

Right. Time to stop the violence towards myself and the world.

What the fuck do I do now ... or someone I love's got cancer, how do I help? Start here.

So life’s caught up to you.

Someone you know and love has cancer or some other dread disease and you want to help (or have found yourself wanting to help) care for them.

And you don’t know what the fuck to do.

It’s all so overwhelming and hard and strange and tiring and confusing. You’re struggling to keep your head above water there are so many things to do and think about. So many dire decisions.

I get emails like this all the time now from friends and readers who are going through this. They’ve been thrust into caregiving by an illness of a loved one. They want to show up and do the right thing. They ask me for advice.

Start here:

  • 3 ring binder the shit out of all the paperwork

Get a 3 ring binder where you (and the person you are caring for, if they are able) can keep all the info the doctors and nurses and anyone else give you in one place. Or maybe a big file folder is more your style. Pick a system and use it.

You will be inundated with sheet after sheet of test results, forms, scripts, etc. You might want to be able to put your finger on her last blood tests, say. If you don’t keep it all in one place, that will be hard to do. And you will burn energy you don’t have looking for something simple like that. You can be a better advocate for your loved one if you have all the information handy.

  • The “Running Notes” notepad

It’s also a good idea to have one notepad or notebook (of these can be sheets of loose leaf paper you keep in the 3 ring binder) where you keep a running log of everything related to her health. You’ll want to write down things like: questions to ask the doctor the next time you visit, her vitals when she goes for tests (weight, blood pressure, date and time of recent BMs — yes you might you have to keep track of this), questions you think of to ask the doctor at the next appointment (undoubtedly you will have questions you did not ask, forgot to ask, that came up in between appointments), etc.

You will find it handy to keep track of how she’s feeling, what she’s eating and when, what her sleep was like. These details become more or less important throughout the illness. But having someway to follow along will help with certain decisions.

The reason to have these running notes is threefold.

One, it keeps track of where you are in the illness. It’s a logbook for you and her caregivers. You can use it to take notes at appointments and to look back to reference what the doctor said, how she was feeling, etc. Memory is tricky. Don’t rely on it. Especially when you are overwhelmed and tired beyond belief from the caregiving. Stress and worry does a number on memory.

Two, you won’t always be the one caring for your mom/dad/partner. If you aren't the one taking your mom to a certain appointment or if someone comes to spell you from your duties for a bit, they can see what's been happening with her care and you can ask them to take notes of things they do with her, what they observe. That way, when you get back to caring for her, you will know what has been going on.

Finally, it gives you a sense of control when you feel you have none. You and your loved one have just been walloped by life. Being able to write down lists and numbers and have something to do with your hands counts for a lot. It will help you deal with the stress and the worry and the anxiety.

I’ll keep writing about this topic as people keep asking me questions and reaching out. You can send me an email if you have questions. Until then, I am thinking of you and your loved one. Caregiving is everything — sweet, terrible, hard, amazing, will kick your ass, will make you weep for joy and wonder, will humble the shit out of you, will make you realize how strong you are. I wish you presence during it. Be with them. Show up. When in doubt listen and be present. That’s all anyone needs ever. Close your mouth and be there in person. And if you are moved to ask about their spirits or how they are doing ask “where does it hurt?” and “what’s the hardest part about this for you?” And listen to the answer. And if possible, find someone to ask you (the caregiver) these questions.

You are enough and I love you.

Life takes time and effort

Productivity porn.

It’s on the rise.

These days it’s not enough to just do something for the sake of doing it, for the sake of exploration, for the sake of fun, for the sake of being a good person, for the sake of your soul and what feels good to you and makes you satisfied on the inside.

No, everything we do these days, it’s all got to have a point. Got to lead to a dollar bill, a side hustle, a business or a something that the outside world (and your inside self-hating voice) deems “the point.” What ever you do, it’s got to make money or make you famous. That’s what the voices say.

Life takes time and effort. And most things worth doing don’t have a “point.”

The time and effort IS the reward.

I spent about 4.5 years (1643 days +/-) with my mom. Seeing her from cancer diagnosis to death (and beyond).

Yesterday, I spent 24 hours with my dad. Hanging out, taking him to doctor appointments, caring for him, talking to him, helping him — with all the humor and love and calmness inside me — through some very basic health issues (having to do with toileting).

What’s the point of all of that?

No one ever saw all the things I did with and for my mom. No one sees all these moments I spend with my dad now, being present, being with him (not just “checking in,” or waltzing through, or asking someone else about how he is doing).

You can’t phone-in the time and effort life takes. You can’t delegate it to someone else. I observe, though, that lots of people fool themselves into believing they can. It always leaves me wondering how their souls feel.

There is no point to all of those hours and days I spent with my mom and now spend with my dad. No point other than love and being witness to life and aging and death and change and my own minute-by-minute practice of becoming a conscious, compassionate, unconditionally loving human.