Built on the Foundation of Love


My new home is continuing to come along.  Progress is being made quickly, and I continue to marvel at how the process of building this new house parallels the process of building my life.  I have been building myself anew in many areas, and it is simultaneously exhilarating & terrifying, and there are so many lessons along the way.  With both my home building and my life building, I am striving to always build on the foundation of love.

I got an idea from my friend Kelly from Chicago.  She had told me about how her church had been installing new hardwood floors, and before the flooring was put down, members of the congregation were invited to come and write on the floorboards.  They could write a prayer, a quote, their name…

Last weekend, I invited some family members and friends to put their touch on my new home.  As I asked people to share messages on my floor, I thought about how I was really making this house my home.  The power of these words will always be there with me.  On any day years from now, when I am feeling defeated or afraid or confused, I can place my hands on the floor and be uplifted by the amazing messages that were offered to me.  It means so much to me that people from all different chapters of my life came together to grace my home and grace my life with incredible heartfelt words.  Prayers, song lyrics, pictures, personal messages, Bible verses, quotes, and some fun and light-hearted reminders will be my inspiration and guidance in every room of the house.  One of my creative friends Stan Stewart wrote an improvised poem on the occasion of my new home.  You can read his poem “Every Time” here: http://muz4now.com/2015/every-time-an-improv-poem/

I believe that our lives are shaped by every person whom we meet.  Each interaction that we have changes us in some way.  I believe that we carry with us in our bodies, our voices, and our unconscious stirrings…a piece of each person whose path has crossed ours.  For that reason, I find it fitting that so many people who mean so much to me have made their mark on my home.  As I walk on the floors of my new home, I remember that I am not alone in the world;  there are so many others traveling on the journey, and my life has been blessed by coming to meet and know them.

There were also several words and phrases and pictures that I added to the floor, as I recognize that I have a personal responsibility for erecting a strong and love-based foundation.  I can’t only lean on others to fill me up and support me.  Another special touch to the floors was a special signed letter and message that builder Curtis Bailey and his wife Dorothy placed under the floor in my meditation room.  Just like an artist signs the piece of artwork he or she has created, I feel that it is appropriate that Curt signs his name to this awesome construction that has been a product of his ideas, skills, and care.  I am honored to have blessings from Curt and his wife be forever a part of my future home.

I am humbled, blessed, amazed, uplifted, and even floored by the incredible foundation of love that has been co-created in the process of building my new home.  My heart is full of gratitude as I reflect on how my life has been touched and moved and graced by so many, and I am inspired to continue to build my life with such care.


A Year of Building

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At the start of this year, I named 2015 as a year of building.  While 2014 involved much letting go, getting rid of excess belongings, ending some relationships and shifting others, and releasing ideas and beliefs that no longer served me, this new year has then been an opportunity for me to continue more of the same and to allow newness into my life where space had been created.  I have felt stronger, more open, and very ready.

While the cold winter was still with us, I committed to an agreement with a contractor to have a house built.  I am enjoying the process now of making many decisions (siding, stone, roof, doors, door handles, flooring, lighting, kitchen cabinets, toilets!, and more), and I am enjoying the process of seeing my new home being built from the ground up.

I have come to know a consummate professional and a truly wonderful human being in Curtis Bailey, and his workers who are on site are hard-working and phenomenal builders in their skill and in their care and attention to detail.  Both my parents and friends have supported me and helped me in making choices and plans.  I am filled with gratitude for all who are making it possible for me to be able to move into this future home that I have envisioned.

It has been fascinating for me to witness my home being created from first a small hole in the ground to then a large hole, and then a foundation, then the framing, and now roofing, some doors and windows, staircases, and more…  It’s exciting!

And so it is with our lives.  As I’ve identified other areas in my life in which I’ve wanted to build, I’ve followed the same process.  A hole was dug;  the hole increased in size.  The foundation was carefully laid.  I framed the structure and then covered it and began to work on the details.  All along, I was constantly reviewing what was done and evaluating my next steps.  All along, I have been making conscious choices, consulting my heart, and allowing my intuition & creativity & love to lead the way.

I will continue building.  I will continue growing.  I will continue to move in my life with passion.  I know I carry my home in my heart, and this physical manifestation of a place to call my own serves as a concrete visual representation of what can evolve when hope meets intention and expresses itself fully, acknowledging fear but not letting fear lead to stagnation, asking for help and support – because life is a shared path of give & take, and journeying forward with trust that life is truly a beautiful way to explore and build and come into the deepest union with our higher selves.

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Aren’t You Dead Yet?

At the end of last year, I read a book titled “Aren’t You Dead Yet?”  This memoir was written by Lucy Stanovick after she was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer.  I had studied with Dr. Stanovick as part of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writing Project in 2009, and then I worked with her on the NPWP Leadership Team.  I also had the pleasure of teaching her two children when I worked at Pleasant Valley Intermediate School.  In picking up this memoir, I expected that it would be a powerful and moving read, because I had come to love Lucy’s go-for-the-jugular, tell-it-how-it-is style of writing, but my experience in reading “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” took me to places beyond what I expected.

Since I knew her, I had admired Lucy as a scholar, as a writer, as a teacher, and as a person.  She pushed her students and all of those she met in life to go deeper, to avoid nothing, and to speak and write with a clear and intentional voice.  She went above and beyond in her work as a professor, and she and her colleague Dr. Lesliee Antonette directed the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writing Project, which has been consistently referred to by teachers as “the best professional development experience I have ever had.”  Besides that, Lucy was a very fun person to be with.  I found Lucy to be a person I wished to model my own teaching and writing after.  She always seemed to know what to do and what to say, and she seemed to have it all together.  In reading her book, I found out that this was far from the truth.  Lucy wrote about her struggles with anxiety, her painful experience of not fitting in at the university, and so many doubts and questions she had that left her feeling confused and messy…just like me.  I am now even more captivated by the wonderful human being whom I got to know, and I wish that I could sit down with her and have a conversation about all of these things and connect over our shared questions about life and those thoughts that keep us awake at night.

After reading “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” I began thinking more about how so many of us go through our days alone in our heads, believing that we are the only ones thinking these things and feeling these things.  We often don’t share some of those dark or confusing parts with our friends, our co-workers, our family members…we stick to the happy highlights.  We share with others the pictures on our phones of our grandchildren;  we post on Facebook the description of the great meal we ate over the weekend;  we talk about our fun in planning the next vacation.  And then others come to think that everyone else around them is functioning just fine and is without these struggles…and the difficult emotions become even more difficult, because there is the additional pain of feeling different and alone.

Interestingly, shortly after reading “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” I encountered several other displays of vulnerability and have been inspired and uplifted by them.  One of my aerial teachers sharing publicly about overcoming an eating disorder, a colleague at school sharing a draft of a book she hopes to get published that is written in a beautiful and vulnerable way as she shares about a long period of trials and what got her through, and then also a woman I met at a yoga retreat who posted on her blog about the way this past year has tried her and who shared for the first time about the abuse she suffered as a child  .

These have all been incredible reminders of how resilient we are, and I feel a deep and meaningful human connection with these people…a connection that I don’t feel with “perfect” people.  In only sticking to the superficial in conversations, in keeping the messy stuff covered up and only sharing the highlights, we miss the “just like me” connection.  What was most powerful for me in reading “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” was the way that Lucy’s feelings resonated with me, and I thought to myself, “Well, if she felt inadequate and unsure of herself and was able to be the wonderful scholar, writer, and person she was, then maybe I am not as lost as I thought I was…maybe it’s not just me.”

I thank each of these people and so many of my friends who make it a practice to embrace vulnerability.  We all have ups and downs.  We all are unsteady at times, and we all need help from those around us.  Being vulnerable and human is what makes us alive, and as long as I’m alive, I will tell my stories.

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If you are interested in reading “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” Lucy’s husband has reported that all of the books from the first printing have sold out.  He is taking pre-orders for a second printing. If he gets enough pre-orders, they will do a second printing.  To pre-order, send John a message at jstanovick@fs.fed.us.

Recommitment to Love




To the man I witnessed on my walk, screaming at his dog and picking him up by his neck in anger after the dog had run ahead of him out the door…


It really bothered me when I witnessed you yell in such anger at your pet and then chase after him and pick him up by his neck.  As I took a walk yesterday with my friend, I was walking with a heavy heart.  I had just spent some quiet time with my cat Song who only has a short time left with my family.  She has an oral tumor.  I had just cleaned out the clear drainage from her eye that moistened her nose bridge & turned to God with a tear in my eye and prayed that Song would not suffer and that we would make the decisions that were best for her.  I had just knelt down to pet Song and felt barely able to stand up again, as my whole body felt shaky in allowing myself to feel the fear about what comes next.  I noticed I was barely breathing as I stood face to face with the frailty and fragility of life.


I tell you this not to make you sad.  I tell you this to urge you to celebrate.  Celebrate yourself, and celebrate your dog.  Celebrate your time together.  Celebrate even his misbehaviors, because they are signs of life.  When he runs excitedly out the door, forgetting that he’s supposed to wait for you, overcome by the excitement of a beautiful, sunny day, fresh air, and people passing by, call him back and run after him with love in your heart, and then hug him.  Hug him, and let him know you care.  Let him know your life is better, because he’s with you.  Let him know you’ll be with him until the end and will cradle his head as he takes his last breaths, remembering the times you played together and holding close to your heart that still frame of his furry face, reconnecting with that sweet feeling of walking in the door and knowing someone missed you and could not contain his excitement that you were home again.


I am not a judgmental person.  I do not wish to criticize your ability to parent your dog, and I do not intend to chastise you as a person.  I freely and willingly admit that I have been overwhelmed by life at many points, frustrated when others didn’t listen to me, tired of stuff going wrong again and again.  I have screamed, said things I didn’t mean, and have hurt people whom I care about.  I’ve been at my wit’s end.  I’ve made choices that have been rooted in fear and resentment.  I have approached tender hearts with violent words that raged and wounded.  I’ve been broken and breathless after life threw incredible twists my way.  And eventually, I returned to love.  Thankfully, I returned to love.


My letter here is an invitation and a reminder.  Please take some time today and look in the eyes of those you love – humans and pets.  Simply and quietly say, “I love you.”  Say anything else that’s on your heart.  Breathe together.  Enjoy the sensations as you stroke your lover’s skin or pet your best friend’s fur, and know this moment is a gift that will not always be available to you.  Vow to hug more often.  Slow down and make time for walks outside and playful exchanges.  Remember to laugh at silly things.  Appreciate.  Wag more and bark less.  Purr more and hiss less.  Forgive.  Allow for mistakes – on others’ part and on your part.  And if you are a person who prays, please offer up a prayer for my cat Song and for me and for every pet who is facing health challenges and approaches his or her final days.  Send some positive energy out to those pet parents who are taking their dogs for that final walk and loading their cats into a carrier to get that lethal injection because the suffering has grown too unbearable and there is no cure.  And I will think of you in a wave of compassion and bless you and your dog.  Thank you for reading this, and thank you for inspiring my reflection and my recommitment to love across the board.


Copyright © 2014 by Susan M. Featro, Voice Lifted.  All Rights Reserved.


Life Lessons



A recent health scare has taught me some very important life lessons.  After having routine lab work done in April, I got the report that one of my hormone levels – Prolactin – was elevated.  My doctor recommended that I see an endocrinologist, but since I couldn’t get an appointment for several months with an endocrinologist, I asked the doctor if I should have a contrast MRI of the brain/pituitary gland done, just to make sure that there were no abnormalities that could be causing the elevated Prolactin level.  After the MRI, I got a phone call…not from one of the doctor’s office secretaries, but from the doctor herself:  the MRI showed a pituitary tumor.


After this diagnosis, I did even more research (on reputable medical websites) on elevated Prolactin levels and pituitary tumors.  The more research I did, the more I learned and understood about this condition…and the more scared I got.  I read about medications that had very serious side effects and saw statistics showing that almost everyone who took these medications experienced these side effects.  I read on multiple websites that the most common course of action was surgery.  I became horrified when I saw that the surgery is typically done transsphenoidally (going through the nose and the sphenoid bone.)  Since the nasal cavity is a resonance chamber for the singing voice, I felt that this was the worst possible thing that could happen to me;  I would have much preferred that they just cut open my head.  In  the meantime, I saw an endocrinologist and an ophthalmologist.  The reason I was referred to an ophthalmologist is that sometimes these tumors can press on the optic nerve at the optic chiasm affecting peripheral vision, but this isn’t the case for me.


Because of my concerns with my singing voice, I went to see a team of doctors at Johns Hopkins Pituitary Center in Baltimore, Maryland.  They were able to get me in for an appointment last Thursday, and that appointment brought me good news.  The doctors are recommending that this tumor be monitored through serial MRIs.  I will have repeat blood work in 6 months and a repeat contrast MRI after that.  Then, they will see if the tumor has grown over time, stayed the same size, or has shrunk.  At this time, they do not feel that medication or surgery is necessary…since I have not been experiencing any symptoms.


This was the best possible outcome I could have hoped for.  While I will need to follow up and monitor this condition, I am not looking at surgery or medication right now…and possibly will never need to do anything to treat it.


I believe that everything happens for a reason, and I do want to take away from this the life lessons that are mine to learn.  A health scare of any kind is always a reminder to be thankful for one’s good health.  This also has reminded me that everyone has challenging times and things to deal with that are very scary, sad, and painful…so I hold that in my heart as I am interacting with people, whether it is a student of mine, a parent of a student, my friends, a cashier at a business, someone whom I meet while waiting in line at the post office, anyone…  I am reminded of the quote that was attributed to Plato, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”


I know that another lesson for me in this is to let go and release my grip on “how things should be.”  We can sometimes get so fixated on there being only one possible outcome…one possible way for things to go that would be “the right way.”  But that is not the case…and so often, there is something better in store for us.  I knew, as I was going through this, that I would have to get to a place in which I was going to accept and be okay with whatever the outcome was.  If I was going to need surgery, then I’d need to believe that this was happening because maybe my body needed a time to slow down and step away from it all, and this would be a time to take good care of myself.   If surgery or medication would affect my singing voice, I’d have to accept that there was some other way that I was to share of myself with others and contribute to the world.  And this was a reminder that I am not entitled to anything & that nothing is a guarantee…I’m not entitled to one more day with the voice I have;  I’m not guaranteed one more day on the planet.  I can hope for more days to lift my voice in song and more time to do the things I love, but none of it is guaranteed.  This has reminded me to see it all as a gift and has allowed me to be so grateful and so amazed by the tremendous gifts I’ve been given and continue to get.


It took me a while to process all of this & feel my feelings & come to peace.  I did get to that place, and I think that was a major reason that the Universe orchestrated this challenge for me.  Even though it wasn’t in a pleasant form, it was something that I had to experience in order to grow.  There are so many other lessons to take away from it all.  I also know this was an opportunity to practice advocating for myself and my health and remembering that I know my body best.  Finally, this experience showed me that there are so many people who care about me and that I have wonderful friends who are willing to listen and to share of their experiences with me in a beautiful and authentic way.  If I never had this experience, I wouldn’t have had these same conversations…wouldn’t have become so vulnerable in my sharing and wouldn’t have heard the supportive words from friends & experienced such wonderful connections.


So I do believe this happened for a reason, and I’m grateful for the life lessons I’ve learned and am still learning from it.  Of course, the future with this tumor is uncertain. At any time in the future, I could notice symptoms.  I could have my repeat blood work and repeat MRI and get a bad report.  But on the other hand, I could end up having this for the rest of my life and have no problems at all from it…it very well could even shrink.  And that is life: never knowing what is coming next, so therefore, being in the present moment and engaging wholeheartedly with the life that is right in front of you.


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Authenticity of Emotions

This blog post is inspired by a recent blog post by Dr. Alice Chan: Be Real, Not Positive.    Dr. Alice Chan and I connected through Twitter, and I have found her to be an authentic and inspiring voice who is passionate about the work she does as an author, a speaker, and a coach.  Dr. Chan’s words in her most recent blog post resonated with me, as I read and agreed with the thoughts she shared regarding the treasures in negative emotions and how we might allow them to “have their air time” as any and all other emotions.


I believe that all emotions are valid and welcome, if they are honest.  I think of Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” when I reflect on this.  (This is a favorite poem of mine.  I encourage you to read it and take in the message if you are not familiar with this piece.)


In my blog writing, I typically focus on my experiences as a creative artist.  As I relate Dr. Chan’s blog post to my art, I know that, as a musician, it is important to bring my real self to the stage and to the practice room every time.  I need to stand in honesty and in vulnerability before my audience and in the presence of fellow musicians.  I believe that acknowledging one’s humanity evokes beautiful music.


When we appear as our whole selves – not denying those pieces that we judge as “ugly” or “messy,” we allow for a sincere connection between those offering the music and those receiving the music.  It takes courage to do this.  It might seem easier to slip into Dressing Room A to find a mask to put on & then go out and pick up our instrument and exude an air of confidence.  We might reach for a script that includes the lines, “I have it all together.”  But those performances, while they might be technically flawless…don’t move us.  And making music that moves others is what it’s all about – that vulnerable sharing of ourselves with others through our art.


As a choral conductor, I could appear before a group of singers at an evening rehearsal, plaster a smile on my face, and say in a peppy, perky voice, “It’s so great to be here!  We’re going to have so much fun singing.  Let’s hear your pretty voices starting on page 1 of the score,”  …or I could say…  “I’ve had a tough day, but it’s great to be with you to make music.  Let’s begin.”  Which conductor would you connect with?  Which conductor would you want to sing for?  I believe that people are craving authenticity.  I find it refreshing to be in the presence of someone who’s not afraid to be himself/herself.


Dr. Alice Chan provides steps to guide us in the journey toward authenticity of emotions:  acknowledging our feelings, allowing our emotions to be felt fully, learning from our negative experiences, and releasing our traumas and pain.  I believe that these steps allow for a person to progress through a healthy emotional cycle.  It’s when we deny our “shadow” that it becomes bigger than life and eats away at us.  My study of Debbie Ford’s transformational work has affirmed my intentions to invite myself and those who surround me to fully allow and embrace those darker shadow emotions.


While it might, at first, make us uncomfortable to witness others in their pain…it becomes easier and more natural.  We stop judging emotions as “good” and as “bad” and come to realize that we all experience highs and lows and in-betweens.  I desire to walk with my family and friends and fellow human beings through all of these.  I want to see the real you, and I want the real me to be witnessed.


I believe that whatever degree to which we allow ourselves to experience these difficult and painful emotions…to that same degree, we allow ourselves to feel joy.  If we resist feeling the “negative emotions” to their full extent, we also put a limit on our joy.  I want to experience the full spectrum of emotions, and I want to have the capacity to express all of these emotions in my musical performances and in my daily interactions with others.  I honor you and all you are feeling in this moment.  I invite your reflections and comments.

Daring Greatly

The author whose writing has most inspired me and changed me in this past year is Brené Brown.  Brené Brown (Ph.D., LMSW) is a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.  Her areas of research include shame and vulnerability.  Yes, I did say she was inspiring.  Really!


This past week, Brené was on The Katie Show.  She discussed new book “Daring Greatly.”


My first exposure to Brené Brown was in watching her TED Talk on vulnerability.  Vulnerability was not a new concept for me.  For the past 10 years, my teacher and mentor James Jordan at Westminster Choir College has insisted that choral conductors and all creative artists needed to be vulnerable in order to offer pure and beautiful creations that move people and connect people.


What is vulnerability?  It’s kind of like emotional nakedness.  It’s being open.  Vulnerability is allowing ourselves to be seen…as we are.  Vulnerability is letting go of trying to control how others see us.  It is showing up and being real…allowing ourselves to be exposed in all of our perfection and imperfection…embracing humanness.  Vulnerability is taking risks…saying “I love you” first, letting others see us cry, saying “I don’t know,” and “I’m scared.”  Vulnerability is letting others see how excited we are about an opportunity…with the recognition that we might not get the job or we might not be the one selected after the audition, or that special person might turn us down for a date.  So many times, we choose to avoid vulnerability by “playing it cool” and acting as if it’s not a big deal…pretending it doesn’t really matter if we get the job/get role we auditioned for/get to go on a date with that special someone.


To be vulnerable is to be brave.  We take a risk when we expose ourselves to others.  There is a very real chance that we will be judged, ridiculed, hurt…  Brené acknowledges that being vulnerable takes courage, and we will sometimes experience rejection and hurt.  Yet, it is worth the price, because it is actually more painful to stand outside of our own lives and look in, wanting to engage and participate wholeheartedly…but to hold back, protecting ourselves from the potential dangers we might encounter if we let others see us.  I know:  I have often stood back and not fully engaged with others, not speaking up when I had something to say, not saying how I really felt because I feared others would judge me, not stepping up and taking a leadership role because I still had work to do on myself to become “good enough,” not letting others see how much I care on account of fear that I would be judged as “too sensitive.”  The list goes on.


I have now decided:  I would rather go home and feel the painful feelings that follow harsh judgment by a friend, audience member, critic, family member, or stranger after I have lived authentically and lifted my voice, living out loud…than go home and feel the painful feelings that arise from knowing that I didn’t put myself out there…that I stood in the background and didn’t bring all of me to the world.  I choose to dare greatly.  I know I will have to be brave.


How have you dared greatly in your life?  How do you plan to be brave in your days ahead?

To Teach and to Learn


Susan - Back to School Photo - to Teach and to Learn

Yes, even as the teacher, I still get my picture taken on the first day of school. The first day of school is a special beginning, and I want to reflect in this post on my role as a teacher…and a learner.


I am a teacher of English as a Second Language.  I am also a teacher of music who gives lessons out of my home.  I’m also considered a teacher when I lead choirs and when I present at academic conferences.  Most frequently, I am a teacher as I go about my day-to-day activities, interacting with family, friends, and those whom I meet as I journey through my days.  At the same time, I am a student.


I do not take either of these roles lightly.  I think it is an amazing opportunity, privilege, responsibility, and gift to learn from each other.  It is a beautiful exchange:  to teach and to learn, to share.


There is so much that we can learn from each other, and we each have much to share, to offer, to teach.  We teach by example, as well as through our words.  We learn by being open and receptive as we connect with others and as we engage fully in life.


Life is constantly presenting us with lessons.  Some of these lessons come to us at a comfortable pace and are enjoyable for us, as we discover and grow;  other lessons are hard and painful.  If we don’t learn the lesson the first time, we can be assured that it will be repeated for us…until we master it.  …Kind of like Outcome-Based Education, which became popular in the 1990’s.


I am committed to teaching and learning.  I always strive to be a good teacher and a good student.  I know it is important for me to lift my voice and share myself with others.  It is, likewise, important for me to listen and learn from others who surround me.  The coexistence of these two roles provides a balance, and that is what it is to live and to learn.  Thank you for joining me in the classroom of life.