Life Takes Practice: Showing Up

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Fourth Sunday in Lent Sunday · 
March 26, 2017
Celebrating Women’s History Month
Reading: Mark 1:30-39
Mr. Nehemiah Luckett

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”  

As many of you know, I went to Sarah Lawrence College, a small liberal arts college in Westchester County. In my 3 ½ years there I performed in, directed, produced, music directed or sound designed more than 400 performances. I had business cards printed up that had my name, email, phone number and the phrase “making things happen”. How did I make things happen? Sheer force of will. I would show up anywhere, at anytime to rehearse or hold a production meeting. My schedule was an open book. And if there was a free slot, it was fair game.

But, this was nothing new to me. In my high school days, due to budget cuts the annual musical was cancelled and some friends and I decided to get together and put on a show. I was a junior in high school, 16 years old and I had no “pull” so in the beginning the only time available for our was before school. As I had no choice – I just showed up and crossed my fingers that others would do the same. At 645 in the morning it would normally be the principal, the janitor and me walking in together. I would turn on the lights in the auditorium, set up and hope that someone would be there for the 7a rehearsal call. Eventually word got around that I was actually showing up and the other students started to come. After a couple of weeks word got around that rehearsals really were happening, even at that ungodly hour – and the principal eventually had some pity and carved out some after school hours for us. The show, “Hamlet, Prince of Funk” was the first student written, directed and produced musical in the 30+ history of the Murrah Musicals and the first to make a profit – but, that’s a story for another day.

You may have noticed that earlier I said in my 3 ½ years at Sarah Lawrence College. Unfortunately, no, I did not graduate early. One of the drawbacks of “making things happen” was that the school decided, rightfully so, that I had found loopholes and was essentially changing the liberal arts school into my own personal conservatory. In my senior year I was summoned to a dean’s office and told that I had to make a choice. I could either stop performing or I would be asked to take a “leave of absence.” I made it about two weeks before I realized that a year of not performing, not making theater, not making music was the equivalent of a death sentence for me. So, I left the school that I had dreamed of attending since I had sat in a summer arts school counselor’s office in California in 1997 staring at a small green pamphlet that said, “You are different. So are we.”

So, there I was, 21 years old, living in Yonkers, NY. Without a college degree and nothing more than a talent for “showing up” and “making things happen.” Though I had quite the production resume I had no idea how to make a living doing what I loved so, I took the first job I could. The night shift at the neighborhood 7-11. From 11pm to 7a. As I look back, it was here that I first should have noticed a problem. Coming home mornings after work I would help out with renovations in the house, my friend Anton was building a recording studio in the basement. I would take a short nap in the afternoon. And then rehearse and teach in the evenings before heading back to the graveyard shift. On my days off I would look for other work as this seemed unsustainable.

After a few years, I found myself working multiple jobs from the Gap in Cross County Mall to a personal assistant to a NY Casting Director to the Bronxville Starbucks all while continuing to perform, write and class by class finishing up my undergraduate degree and moving from Yonkers to Mount Vernon to Riverdale to the Upper East Side back to Riverdale and then finally to Harlem with three roommates. In December of 2009, I found myself working full time at an Upper East Side Starbucks, music directing a great show in Brooklyn and completely by chance accepting an offer to step in for a few weeks and work on the Music team of an Off-Broadway production that was already slated to move to Broadway with some of the biggest names in the NY Musical Theater scene. It all seemed perfect. My average day started at 4am, when I would open the Starbucks store, followed by an eight hour day at a rehearsal studio in midtown for the Off-Broadway show, followed by a train ride to Brooklyn where I would lead the music rehearsals for “Caroline, Or Change”. This should have been enough but, I was certain that I could do more. So, I would have voice students come to my apartment for late night lessons or audition prep or I would send out emails looking for musicians to fill out the band for the musical. Sleep was something that happened while I was on the train or in the rare times I would actually sleep in my bed it was for an hour here or there and normally surrounded by multiple alarm clocks to insure that I did not oversleep.

I should have noticed that I stopped being hungry. But, this was it. The big break that you hear about when you’re sitting in a theater or music class in high school or college. And I was determined not to let it pass me by. I wasn’t going to let little things like sleeping or eating get in the way. One day, I showed up at a music rehearsal and the director asked me if I was ok. I said, “Of course. Let’s get started.” I should have noticed the look on his face when he said, “I don’t know, Nehemiah. You literally look green right now. I think you should go home.” My reply, “Oh no, its ok. I’ll just put my head down for a minute and I’ll be ok.” Fortunately, he called me a cab.

I would tell you more about what happened next. But, honestly, I don’t remember most of it. To say I crashed would be putting it mildly. I hadn’t eaten in days, it had been weeks since I had slept more than an hour or two. When I got back to the apartment, I sat down on my bed and I remembered needing a drink of water. Well, I remembered thinking that I couldn’t remember the last time I had a drink of water. Yesterday? The day before? The last thing I remember is forcing myself to get up and head towards the kitchen. The only word I could think was “water”. The next thing I remember is one of my room mate’s standing above me asking, “Should I call an ambulance?” I had passed out in the hallway and it was hard to think and almost impossible for me to form sentences. I managed a hoarse whisper of a “Yes”.

I woke up in Harlem Hospital with a doctor asking me to describe my usual schedule. I explained. He looked confused and said, “You have to sleep a minimum of 20 hours more a week. Do you think you can find a way to cut something out of your schedule so you can sleep?” I thought for a second and said, “I could cut back at Starbucks but, I have to keep up my hours there because that is where I get my health insurance.” The doctor laughed this strange laugh and said, “You came in about 6 hours from your kidneys completely shutting down and your other organs not far behind. Your job for healthcare is killing you.” He would repeat this last sentence a few more times as other doctors came to check in and again to a team of med students who were making their rounds. I think he thought it was funny.

Here is where one would think that this is a message about self care and not doing too much and all that. And maybe it is. But, I don’t want to stop there. I want to tell you about what happened next. The following weeks I was put on strict bed rest. My roommate, Matt, took my phone and called all of my employers to tell them what happened and that I had to take time off. I was not happy. It was 2010, I was 27 and the last time I had taken a real vacation was in 2002. And the last time I had had less than 3 jobs was when I was 14. I didn’t know how to take time off. And self-care was something I had heard about and promised I would read up on after I was done with the next show.

So, I disappeared. I took the time off to consider what I needed. I had no idea how to do that or even what that meant. I was alone. I was forced into my solitary place. During this time I thought about all of the things I had done in the past and tried to consider what gave me life. And then out of the blue, Matt, the same roommate who called my bosses, oh and my Mom, announced that he wanted to run for local office, in his home state of Wisconsin. I was astonished and proud and confused. I wanted to help but, I didn’t want to fall back into what had landed in the hospital in the first place. But, I felt an urging. One of the many projects from my Sarah Lawrence days was a Stevie Wonder Cover band, The Congregation of Wonderful. I sang and played the keyboard. There were three other singers, three horn players, guitar, bass and drums. As there were 10 of us working around class schedules and college life most of our rehearsals started around 11pm or midnight. It was worth it for the shows. The shows would energize me. Music with a positive message that made everyone want to dance. That was it.

The idea was to get the band back together and play a series of fundraisers for the candidate.  I called up the band members one by one. Taiwo was in NY. Lily in Philadelphia. Mike in Boston. Leslie in Chicago. Oleg in Arizona. With the exception of the trombone player who was living in Berlin and the bass player who was having health problems everyone said yes. I was floored. I was in my solitary place with nothing else to do so we started to email back and forth about what songs we would perform and made plans for the most insane schedule that would have us getting back together in NY for one day, rehearsing at Asbury Crestwood – my church home in Westchester and then piling into a van and a station wagon to drive from NY to Chicago to Minneapolis to Rice Lake Wisconsin to Philadelphia in two weeks, performing at least every other day.  

Unfortunately, the campaign ended early due to residency requirements but, at this point I had already emptied all of my savings into this tour and was finding that with each day of planning, I was feeling better, feeling energized, feeling that I was making a difference. Not only in my own health but somehow in the world at large. I was alive. We played in living rooms, in backyards, in bars and at every show I would look out from the stage and consider how lucky I was to have these friends and how lucky I was to bring this music and to see the smiles and the joy that it brought.

While on tour my friend Mike who was one of the singers became reacquainted with an old friend from Sarah Lawrence, Laura, who was our host in Minneapolis. 5 years later they were married and I am honored that my husband Florian and I are the godparents to their daughter. Also while on tour, I received a phone call while we were on a long stretch of road from Chicago to Minneapolis from a James Benn who was calling to ask if I was available to come and play keyboards on a tour with someone named Rev. Billy. I had never heard of them. I told him that I was out of town and wouldn’t be able to make it but to feel free to call back if he ever needed anything. When the call ended, Ric Becker, who subbed for the trombone player who was living in Berlin, asked me who was that who called. I told him and to my surprise he said, “I thought I recognized Mother Benn’s voice.” And he proceeded to tell me that he regularly played with Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir and that they were this anti-consumerist, environmental activist gospel choir who use music, theater and direct action to raise awareness. And he thought I would love it. I remembered all of this when they did call back a few months later and I have been with them for the past 7 years.

At the end of our services during Lent we sing, “May you run and not be weary/ May your heart be filled with song/  And may the love of God / Continue to give you hope / And keep you strong / May you run and not be weary  / May your life be filled with joy  / And may the road you travel / Always lead you home.”

We are living in times that demand we take action. Social media and news apps and 24 hour news cycles make us aware faster than ever what is going on in the world around us. And yes, we need to run and we need to show up, we need to show up for the people who are marginalized, at risk and we need to show up for those who can not show up for themselves. But, we also need to show up for ourselves. There are at least three actions happening every day in NYC. And if we could all be at all of them, we should. But, let’s be real. We can’t. We can’t be everywhere, every day. But, where we do decide to be we need to really be there. We need to really show up and participate and be ready to be challenged, to be changed. We need to take the practices that we have been discussing week after week of “Centering,” “Listening,” and “Empathy” and apply them to ourselves. And if in the fight to make the world a better place, a more just place, we need to take a break and have a rest – that is not a defeat. It is a strength. When we DO get weary may the roads we travel lead us home, to our safe spaces, to our solitary places to pray, to our communities that nurture us and bring us back to health, to our climate marches, to our Women’s Marches. To our nearby villages to hear the Good News, to bring the good news. THIS is our strength.

I need you. We need you. We need you to survive. We need you to survive the hard times, the dark times, so that we ALL can survive.