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.

ups and downs

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

One hug away

one free hug

Today marks the last day of Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 5-11, 2014.)  Today is also two months from the date of Robin Williams’ death, following his depression and suicide.  I wrote this spoken-word poem in August 2014 as part of my reflection after learning of Robin Williams’ journey.


I am one sigh away from hopeless.

One tear away from despair,

One bead of sweat away from exhaustion,

One track away from derailment,

One choice away from regret.


I am one pop-up ad away from a virus,

One dollar sign away from bankruptcy,

One digit away from a wrong number,

One dropped ball away from defeat.


I am one accusation away from indictment,

One degree away from the flames,

One vote away from impeachment,

One storm away from disaster.


My voice is growing louder;  my words are getting faster.


I am one heartbeat away from tachycardia,

One shock away from electrocution,

One mistake away from failure,

One bell toll away from the funeral.


I am one doubt away from a lost cause,

One signature away from resignation,

One sin away from the devil,

One broken bone away from a body cast,

One click away from ‘game over.’


I am running on fumes.

I am one key turn away from combustion,

One dress size away from losing my dignity,

One pulse away from abortion,

One hug away from good-bye.


I am one tragedy away from recognizing that we are all vulnerable, and no one is immune.


You today, me tomorrow,

Me today, you tomorrow.

Me, You, You, Me.

Today, Tomorrow, Now.


On the border straddling peace and chaos.

One foot planted on the balance beam.

It’s that close of a call.


We are all one rabbit pull away from the magic show.

Pull, pull, make him appear.

One hop away from sticking our landing.

My feet are shaking.

Look up, child.  Catapult.

Accept that we stand on moving ground.


We are one vow away from marriage,

One paint stroke away from mastery,

One dime away from a dollar,

One contraction away from birth,

One detour away from an amazing destination.


We are all one sunbeam away from a rainbow,

One sensation away from ecstasy,

One prayer away from salvation,

One Hallelujah away from Heaven,

One leap of faith away from enlightenment.


When you are one x away from y,

things can go either way.

It can happen to you, to me, to them, to us.

Listen.  Look around.  Practice gratitude.  Practice love.


Anxiety, depression, people.

It’s about people.  It’s about heart.

You are not alone.  I see in.


He was one laugh away from you and me.

He was one smile away from healing.

And we are too.


Please don’t judge what you haven’t experienced.

It’s no more foreign than French fries and French kisses.

We are all one heartfelt hug away from each other.

There are only two things you need to say,

“You matter,” and “I care.”


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

Christmas Eve – Subject to Change

I have served as the church musician at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lansford for over 10 years now.  Our church has always had an 8:00 pm Christmas Eve service. Last night, snow squalls and black ice prevented us from having our traditional Christmas Eve church service. Some unexpected snow led to accidents…which led to road closures. My father and I attempted to get to the church, but we came to a point where the police directed us to turn around; a portion of Route 209 was closed. Our pastor also was unable to make it to church, as part of Route 443 was closed. While it was disappointing to not be together with our parish family celebrating Christ’s birth through prayer, Scripture, song, and communion, it was much better to play it safe and stay off of the slick roads.


There are those things in life over which we have no control. Most of us are quite good at planning. We organize, design, create, and put structure to our homes, our work, our days, our gatherings, our lives. And then…life happens. Often times, life has other plans. And often times, we don’t understand them. But I think that’s part of God’s plan…to remind us to let go & realize that we are not in control. Our job is to be our best selves and make the best choices with what we are given…just like Mary and Joseph did on that holy day in Bethlehem.


If Mary and Joseph were to choose a time and a place for the son of God to be born, I am certain they wouldn’t have named a tiny stable in Bethlehem on a cold winter’s night as the ideal conditions for Jesus’s birth. They were not prepared and didn’t want the blessed birth to turn out like that. But the circumstances were what they were…and things turned out okay…even better than okay. Mary and Joseph did their part and trusted and prayed. And that’s what we can do, too.


So often in life, we shape and sculpt our environment and have very neatly packaged visions of how we want everything to flow. Sometimes things flow as we have predicted and planned, but other times the weather, timing, other people, and so many other factors change things around, and we must go from there. But the good news is that on many occasions the outcome is better than we could have ever imagined.


Many times, the shift in plans leads us to enjoy it all more. We relax our shoulders as we let go of the rigid blueprint we had been holding. We laugh at how our serious and well-intended game plan was turned upside down. And we take joy in the connections we make with others as we bond over the unpredictable circumstances. Something about uncertainty brings us together, as we realize that none of us have it all together & we all can bring a lot to each other’s lives as we support each other in this unpredictable and sometimes crazy life journey. Besides, memories are made out of missed flights, unannounced visits, improvised recipes, detours, creative alternatives, unscheduled stops, and those minor mishaps that keep us on our toes. I’m convinced that God has a sense of humor.


A belated Christmas liturgy is still possible, and silent meditation and reflection has power. There are so many possibilities, but what matters is that the Christ child was born…not where or when or how he was born. And he lives in our hearts if we are open to His power, His plan, and keeping the faith, including all of the vulnerability and mystery that is inherent in faith.


Merry Christmas!

Above is a photo of the Christmas tree at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bowmanstown, where I played a later Christmas Eve service (after roads re-opened.)

Stepping Out of Our Comfort Zones

I have mentioned InterPlay before in my blogging.  I am grateful for the opportunity I have every week to participate in an InterPlay class at Wellspring Holistic Center in Stroudsburg, PA.  InterPlay is an active, creative way of tapping into the wisdom of the body through improvised movement, storytelling, and dance.  The group of people who come together to participate in our InterPlay classes is truly a family – a perfectly imperfect circle of men and women who are committed to supporting each other in personal growth through embracing play and vulnerability.


Our topic of exploration at class for the past two weeks has been stepping out of our comfort zone.  We have participated in powerful and moving explorations through movement, through story, and through song;  these have been full of tears and laughter and heartfelt sharing that was spontaneous and creative and rich in wisdom and beauty.


One thing I know for sure is that it’s not easy to step outside of one’s comfort zone.  I struggle with doing this, fearing that I will not be a success, fearing judgment and ridicule by others, and fearing rejection and abandonment.  Those are major risks!  Yet, I know that if I don’t step out of my comfort zone, I will miss out on many experiences that could be very rewarding and truly awesome…and I could end up “in a rut” if I don’t take those risks.  I know that…but/and I hesitate to step out of my comfort zone.  I have great desire and strong intentions…yet I often find myself in the position of…not quite…not ready yet.  And then I get very frustrated with myself.


A step outside of one’s comfort zone is a step into a new territory where learning and growth can occur.  If we take too wide of a step, it can be a shock to our system, and we might even prevent ourselves from taking future risks if we are consumed by panic as we experience the completely unfamiliar, but a reasonably incremental step out of our comfort zones is good for our bodyspirits.

comfort zone

So the last two InterPlay classes were an important time for me to explore and process all of this, and I continue to work and play with it.  There are many ways, big and small, that I can step out of my comfort zone that would make a difference in the world…for others and for myself.  If I attend a meeting and don’t speak up, I have short-changed the group from my ideas and input…and I also leave with the feeling that I haven’t really given my all.  I don’t want to do that again.


That’s just one example.  There are many places in my life where I will focus on stepping out of my comfort zone as I move forward and take the wisdom from these InterPlay explorations with me.  Now it’s your turn:  What is out of your comfort zone?  What things do you hold back from doing?  Would you like to step out of your comfort zone?  How do you plan to go about this?  Please share in the comments below!


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?

Doing it Anyway

For quite some time, I’ve considered putting a blog on my website.  It’s been almost a year since I started telling friends, “I think I’m going to start blogging.”

My hesitation centered around two major fears:

1- People might read your blog.

2- People might not read your blog.

Simple.  Contradictory.  The real deal.  Can any of you other bloggers relate?

I acknowledged that my blog would be available to all who travel through cyberspace.  That’s a good thing.  I want my voice to be heard.  But…anyone might be reading what I’ve written:  students I teach at school, those who’ve attended performances I’ve given, friends, the guy who asked me for change at the Farragut North Subway Station, my parents, future employers, people who don’t agree with what I’m saying, the waitress who got my order just right at The Hershey Pantry.  The list goes on.

On the other hand, I’ve been terrified that no one would read my blog…that my writing would be “wasted,” (although I realize that would not be so, as writing almost always helps me make sense of what is floating around in my mind and my heart.)  Yet there was a very real fear that my voice would go unheard, unnoticed;  that would not feel good as I put myself out there, embracing vulnerability.

So…I’ve taken that important step of naming what I’ve been afraid of, and now I intend to release all of that, shake it out, and move forward on this exciting journey.  My friend and fellow musician & InterPlayer Stan Stewart advocates the “feel fear and do it anyway” approach, and that’s what I intend to do.  Thank you for joining me on my journey.  I ask you to please say “hello” and let me know that you’re here.  Comments are most welcome!