Freeing the Natural Voice

Freedom Sculpture in Phily. Breaking through with the whole body.
Freedom Sculpture in Phily. Breaking through with the whole body.

It's exhausting chasing down one's authentic self. Takes a lifetime. Might as well get started. -Kristin Linklater

I got started, again, this past Thursday in a voice building class led by Andy Wassenich, a member at Church of the Pilgrims and an all-around theater guy. Andy is leading a 2-hour, 3 week class for myself and 2 of my co-workers, Rachel Pacheco and Emily Wilkes.

I approached Andy for a class in order to circle back around to the experience of freeing the natural voice. When I'm in worship, how does the sensation of my voice connect with the sensations I'm feeling in the rest of my body? How does my voice embody anxiety or stress? Joy and community? How does my voice impact the invitation to take risks in liturgy and how is that invitation to risk  expressed through my voice?

How do we as worship leaders at Pilgrims use our voice as a means of expressing the Holy intention that a sacred space is a place of transformation? How do we get out of our heads and into our voice/body while leading?

Andy started off with a reading from Kristin Linklater from her book, Freeing Shakespeare: The Actor's Guide to Talking the Text. Here are some highlights from the reading plus some of my thoughts:

  • The basis of Linklater's work is this---the belief that voice and language belong to the whole body rather than the head alone and that the function of the voice is to reveal the self. This hits home that worship leadership is embodied leadership.
  • Linklater's work book isn't a verse-speaking manual. She aims to recondition the body and mind so that the voice can express visceral and spiritual urgency. What could be more urgent than expressing the Gospel belief that some have food, some have none and God bless the revolution?! (Thanks, Bev Harrison).
  • The breathing musculature is woven around the rib cage, underneath the lungs in the diaphragm, connected to spinal column and roots itself in the pelvic floor. It is  not metaphorical to say "the body breathes." Improvisation is used a lot in Pilgrims worship. How do we let our bodies breathe as we say yes to new beginnings and radical ways of living?
  • When a baby is born, breath is its life. A baby's voice communicate essential information long before words are learnt. So....when a baby cries it worship, my thought need not be "be quiet!" but baby is expression emotion via wordless message.
  • The adult voice is conditioned to talk about feelings rather than reveal them. That's downright yummy.

Andy led us through some breath work that involved being on our backs and creating (creating!) a primordial sound "huh." We did that over and over. And over. Being mindful of where the sound is located in the throat and building intensity with the "huh" sound. Primordial, like the murmuring deep that the order of life came out of in Genesis. We moved on to other exercises to stretch the sound of our voices.

The work of freeing the natural voice is an act of liturgy/chasing one's authentic self--it takes risks, vulnerability, and getting out of my own way. How do I free my voice from social expectations? Break through personal habits? How do I engage mindfulness with my voice while I'm preaching, storytelling, communion-ing?

Two more weeks of voice building. Looking forward to giving space to the authentic self.

The Vulnerable, Liturgical Space of James Chapel at Union Seminary NYC

James Chapel at Union
James Chapel at Union

This past fall I walked back into a liturgical space that formed, birthed, agitated, healed, nurtured, and spit me out into the world: James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary in NYC.

I started going to chapel in James Chapel my very first week at Union.  Almost instantly I woke-up.  Never mind the fact I had just left Atlanta, Georgia, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and the Open Door Community where I got my world rocked. James Chapel kept peeling off the layers of privilege and self-protection. I woke-up to myself, the experience of worship and the Creative Force at work in liturgy.

Throughout my three years at Union, James Chapel became this vulnerable space for me where I started to expand the perception of myself. I gained a sense of worthiness and belonging. James Chapel pushed me to let go of who I thought I was,  the binary living of head and heart, and led me to start living as me. The space consistently held agitation and healing, comfort and disruption on the personal, interior level with the political, global demand for justice.

For the first time I saw people crying in worship. Then I started to cry in worship. And I realized tears became a sign the Spirit was at work and liturgy was this consistent experience to witness this Holy work.

I was back in James Chapel in early October to help plan and lead worship services for Union Days--Union's reunion days.

Opening worship. Check. Dinner liturgy. Check. Two workshops on worship. Check.

Liturgical beauty.
Liturgical beauty.

I was hesitant to go into worship on Friday at noon. I was tired. I had been "on" for 2 days. I wanted to be by myself. Yet I pushed through, knowing I needed to suck every life giving particle I could out of the chapel space.  I went into the space, and grabbed a chair in order to sit in the back by myself.

Union alum, David Lewicki, was leading worship that focused on memory sharing. Instead of a sermon (thank you!) David invited folks to share memories. David started by sharing the memory of holding his daughter's hand for the first time.  People continued in that vein and soon it flipped to sharing memories of James Chapel.

  • I remember making bookshelves out of the old pews.
  • I remember crying in this space.
  • I remember being in here for the first time.
  • I remember sitting in this chapel and feeling totally inadequate.
James Chapel
James Chapel

Ten, twenty, fifty years later Union folks were still processing experiences of James Chapel. And the memories were vulnerable ones---revealing how the space holds the search for belonging, worthiness, and purpose. I was struck on how those stories and feelings were so readily available within folks to share and be seen again.

As the memories unfolded, my own memories started to come back to me, and tears started to flow down my cheeks. It was the kind of crying that makes me snort the snot coming out of my nose.

Once again, the liturgy of James Chapel took me to my most vulnerable. I was touched by the memories of others and how those memories let me access the deepest parts of me--my own  memories, struggles, and challenges while at Union. The continued challenge of living as me rather than expectations I put on myself.

The discipline of self-differentiation and letting the Holy and the stories of Jesus define me rather than the socially constructed, Imperial ways of the Church.  The work to tame ego-driven reactions when someone says, "I didn't like that in worship" and my first, internal reaction is "what the fuck is the point of all of this." That's Empire in my head.

As I sat in James Chapel this past October, the Spirit did the work again of peeling the layers off.  The decades of vulnerability that were embodied in that space let me let go. I let myself sink into my emotions. I stopped wondering "why the hell am I crying?" and let liturgy connecting to the past and present span of God's time do the work that was needed.

Lady Gaga as Liturgical Artist

Little Clergy Monsters
Little Clergy Monsters

I went to the Lady Gaga concert here in D.C. this past Monday with some of my clergy pals. Our Gaga name: Little Clergy Monsters. Gaga put on a great concert with lots of dynamics added since I saw her a couple of years ago. These dynamics hit upon some key liturgical principles.

Here's my reflection:

1) Lady Gaga's Body: Two years ago when I saw Gaga she looked like a stick--incredibly skinny. This time around she had lumps, bumps, and curves. She still wore revealing costumes, strutted her stuff, and moved with power in a changed, mature body.  Gaga's body is a key part of the show with the costume changes, and she gave us her whole self with the sense if you don't like her body, you can *uck off. No pretending or hiding of self.

2) Using the Entire Space: Beaming lights from end-to-end, confetti in the shape of shells, hearts and stars being pumped into the air, sound permeating the Verizon arena, Gaga working a huge stage with lots of movement and color.....she utilized the entire space of the Verizon center.  It was sensory-palooza for 2 hours and Gaga took advantage of the huge space and took up every nook and hook.

3) Performing in a Multi-Purpose Space: The Washington Wizards, Capitals, Georgetown Hoyas and a hoard of other groups use the Verizon Center. Up in the rafters the Baltimore/Washington Wizards banners gave witness to their (lame) playoff history. These were  up during the concert and while I tried to catch floating stars from the confetti machine, the banners caught my eye and they quickly moved into the background. The Wizards have zero connection to Gaga (except the concert being moved due to a play-off game) yet those banners weren't a distraction---more than one reality existing in a space at once.

4) Storytelling: Gaga sang "Born this Way" as a solo while playing the piano.

Gaga Type Unicorn
Gaga Type Unicorn

In the middle of the song, she paused to share her experience of being bullied growing up. Kids were crude. People discounted her talent. Gaga talked about persistence and resiliency in the face of mean shit. A few minutes later, Gaga was on a chaise lounge while people tossed rainbow unicorns stuffed with handwritten letters up on stage.

She called for "story time," picked up a unicorn, and pulled out a letter. It was from Hunter, and he wrote about being suicidal as a gay youth, listening to "Born this Way" every night on the steps of the Washington Monument, and gaining strength from her music. Hunter closed with "I love you, Gaga."

She picked up another unicorn, read the letter with a similar story: young, gay man who had been addicted due to self-loathing. "I love you, Gaga."

20,000 people at the Verizon Center were at complete attention. The intimacy she created in an arena stage  with a never before gathered group of people was incredible. Two years ago she didn't seem to care who she was singing to. This time around, she created community with her deep connection to queer culture and advocacy.

Gaga in Polka Dot Lycra
Gaga in Polka Dot Lycra

5) Vulnerability: Gaga wore her typical, lycra-based costumes. After the rainbow unicorn experience, she said, "You've shared so much with me. I'm going to share as much of myself with you as possible." Out came 3 guys who made up her costume transition team. They stripped Gaga down to her underwear and re-costumed her in a Rainbow Brite type ensemble.

Gaga was pretty  much bare-butt naked in front of us. For those 2 hours,  Gaga gave us her everything.

Yoga: Vulnerability and My Yoga Teacher

My yoga teacher, Dave Kidney, started off class on Wednesday sharing this story: I don't know if you've heard the news from this morning, but there was another violent incident at a school. The school is in my hometown in PA. This is my nephew's school. We've talked to him. He's fine. Many students are not. 

Dave was referring to the 22 students stabbed by Alex Hrbal at Franklin Regional High School outside Pittsburgh, PA.

Dave went on to share his wonderings about Alex, his brokeness and woundedness and how that's been inflicted upon others.

As Dave shared, he was on his yoga mat in front of the class, in a modified yoga squat. His head was turned towards the window, eyes fixed on nothing yet holding a deep, profound gaze. Dave's words were soft and gentle, even as he talked about Alex.

Dave invited us to set an intention for the class. This is typical at Tranquil Space. He offered the invitation to go beyond us--to his nephew, Franklin High School, and Alex.

Dave closed saying, again, his nephew was Ok. I wanted to call out from my mat in the way back of the room, with my eyes seeking to make a connection with his, "How are you?"

There are lots of unwritten rules when it comes to yoga classes:

  • Don't step on someone's yoga mat.
  • Avoid "cross talking" to your neighbor during class.
  • People generally don't ask questions (out loud!) about poses during a class.
  • Don't start chatting it up with your yoga teacher when he/she comes over to assist you. "Hey! Great earrings, Kimberly Wilson, where did you get those?"

Yoga invites vulnerability in my physical body yet the class itself is quite contained as far as extending that vulnerability "across the mat."

Dave infused vulnerability in his sharing and I felt it all the way at the other end of the room. Before Dave even sat down to share, he made small talk with people in the class. Checked in with someone on their injury. Greeted a new person. He was present and available.

This is quite different than another class I took earlier in the week. The yoga teacher came in just minutes prior to starting. Announced she would be teaching the class only a few more weeks (ok, she's checked out). Her assists felt like air brushing against me. These assists make me wonder, "are you committed to my body or not?" The tone of her voice throughout the class made me think, "are you bored? Do you even want to be here?"

Dave's sharing lasted a few minutes. He made a choice to share and release that story in order to send healing out of the room and to the traumatized community of Franklin. He made me realize, yet again, that there is more at stake doing yoga than me nailing crow pose to tripod headstand back to crow pose. The planet's well being is at stake. Our well beings are connected and yoga is one healing modality to "get at" that healing.

For my physical practice, it meant I trusted Dave more because I saw more of him through his sharing. When he came over to assist me, I gave him all of me, and I found myself in a twist practically staring up at the ceiling. In that moment, I was able to experience more of me.

Dave, I've been thinking about you all week. I hope your heart is well.