GAELYNN LEA


On Mental Health (Remember You Are Loved)

20180511_163639This morning I shed more than a few tears after reading about the death of Frightened Rabbit’s singer Scott Hutchinson. To be honest, I haven’t listened to their music, although it sounds like it was extremely powerful and touched countless lives. But it’s not that part that got me. I cried because he was a real person who was experiencing real suffering. I cried because too many musicians have lost their lives to suicide. And mostly I cried because so many people I know and love dearly are also dealing with depression, and they have probably felt the same darkness that Scott did that day when he ended his life. This breaks my heart.

I want more than anything for my friends to make it through the darkness to see another dawn, for them to reach out for help when they need it instead of suffering alone. I want them to feel safe telling me if they are suicidal so together we can find a way to get to the next morning. I want to hug them and hold them through the worst moments and I want to sit and sing and laugh with them when things get better. I just want them to make it to tomorrow.

This isn’t something I talk about a lot, but I know what it feels like to be a prisoner of your own dark thoughts. I have dealt with depression, anxiety and PTSD at various points over the past 17 years, or half my life. At age 17, I sank into a depression that left me tender and vulnerable to overwhelming sadness. I cried several times every day until I was twenty, when my good friend Lauren finally talked me into seeing a counselor. The counselor said I had depression, but I did not believe her at first. I have always been a go-getter, so had trouble accepting that just trying harder wasn’t going to fix it. She literally had to walk me through the list of symptoms of depression – I had eight of the nine. She put me on Prozac and we began weekly counseling appointments. At first I didn’t notice anything, until a couple months later it dawned on me that I hadn’t cried in a week. This was such a wonderful, refreshing realization – like stepping out into a beautiful spring day after being trapped in a dark and musty old house for the longest winter of your life. I know it’s hard to picture feeling happy again when you are depressed, but I am here to tell you that it is possible.

Unfortunately, a year later, I experienced near respiratory failure and almost died in the hospital. It turns out I had asthma but the doctor who was treating me just saw my small stature and assumed I was a lost cause. He told my parents I was going to die, and it is only because my mom sought a second opinion and a new doctor ordered a life-saving round of prednisone that I am here today. It was a traumatic experience that left me extremely skeptical of doctors. It also left me extremely anxious. I started having panic attacks regularly and I often chose to stay in bed rather than face the world. I was literally frozen by fear. I started failing my classes, and I eventually decided to drop out of school all together, moving home in the middle of my senior year of college to be closer to family and to get some much-needed counseling. Still on medication, my new therapist tweaked the dose and prescribed an as-needed anxiety medication that gave me calm when panic attacked and also peace of mind knowing it was there when I needed it. During this challenging time I learned that it’s ok to uproot your life if things aren’t working. I leaned that seeking help is so important – help from family, friends, medication, counseling, support groups, religion – you name it. Any proactive step you can take is always better than suffering alone while your world crumbles around you.

After I moved back to Duluth, relative stability followed, I believe in no small part because of music. I started performing when I moved back home, and this gave me a kind of joy I hadn’t experienced in many years. I still dealt with anxiety, but it was manageable. And no matter how crummy I felt before a gig, I always felt better afterwards… I truly believe that music is medicine. I decided I felt ready to try living without medication, so with the help of my psychologist, I gradually tapered off my anti-depressants. Anyway, it was after I returned to Duluth that I finally graduated college, which felt great after 6 long years. I also met my husband Paul during this time. Falling in love was a new and exciting experience… Although our relationship has seen its share of turbulence, I have always felt that we could be honest and communicate with each other, even when things get hard. I am so grateful for his constant love and support.

Then when I was 27 I was hit by a car when crossing the street as a pedestrian. The driver was looking down and crossed an entire intersection to hit me in my wheelchair. I only survived because I was able to turn away from him fast enough and he hit the back of my chair instead of crushing my body. I was extremely lucky that as a person with Osteogenesis Imperfecta I didn’t even break a single bone. But not all injuries are visible, of course. After the car accident I experienced nightmares and extreme anxiety in and around cars. My health anxiety also resurfaced with a vengance. I started second-guessing every minute physical symptom I experienced and a few months later I was dealing with a full-blown case of health anxiety. I was googling diseases left and right, spending hours by myself shamefully researching extremely rare health scenarios. Deep down I knew it was irrational but I couldn’t stop. It was a compulsion that left me feeling very trapped, anxious, and alone. I was starting to feel a deep sense of despair, so I decided to return to counseling to get my anxiety under control.

This time I regularly saw a counselor named Mary, who helped me to put a name on my suffering: PTSD. Although my obsessive thoughts and irrational anxiety felt shameful to me, she encouraged me to stop judging myself and helped me to realize that any person under the age of 30 with two near-death experiences would have to deal with the burden of trauma… That it would, in fact, be abnormal if I just walked away from these experiences with nothing to process. So we began to dig in to these issues and she taught me many helpful tricks for disarming negative, obsessive thinking. And she was just someone to talk to – it was so helpful to share my burden with another person who I knew was trained to carry it with me.

Since then, my anxiety and depression have ebbed and flowed, but I feel more equipped to handle them now. I am also much more willing to seek help early on, before things get out of control. For example, right after I won the Tiny Desk Contest, I signed myself up for therapy and got regular counseling for nine months. Not that anything was wrong, but even good stress is stress, and left unchecked it can take a seriously dark turn. My depression still reappears from time to time. When I get too run down or too busy for too long I will experience that extreme tenderness that is the face of my depression. As soon as those crying jags start up again, I know it’s a red flag to seek help right away. I actually met with my counselor over video chat while we were in Ireland at Christmas because things were getting too heavy in my mind. Technology, when used for increasing access to medical care, can be a lifesaver.

My anxiety is more constant, and it’s part of me I am learning to accept and manage rather than wish away. I do ok when I am healthy, but at the first sign of illness my normal coping skills pretty much evaporate and I just have to make it through the darkness. I have learned who I can talk to when my health anxiety is bad, and I avoid WebMD like the plague at all times. I am sure there will be times in the future where my anxiety will feel unbearable, but if that happens I am now prepared to seek shelter until the storm passes.

If I have learned anything from my experiences with anxiety and depression, it’s that time changes everything. You will not be stuck in the same place forever, especially if you reach out to get help. Seventeen years went by in the blink of an eye, even though the darkest parts felt like they would never end. But they did end, and I am still here, feeling glad to be alive. I am grateful to the medication, counseling, family, close friends, books and music that guided me to a brighter space, a space with a little more room to breathe. If and when the walls start closing in again someday, I hope I will return to these sources of help. I wish the same for you.

My dear friends, there is no shame in medication. None. There is no shame in getting counseling. Not a bit. There is no shame in telling your friend, your wife, your coworker, or a suicide hotline that you are not doing OK. No shame whatsoever – in fact, it’s the very bravest thing you can do. Holding on gives you the gift of time – because time brings change. It’s inevitable. And with the right support you won’t have to live in this darkness forever. I know because I have been there.

If you are feeling hopeless, please know that you are not alone. Although I have not experienced many suicidal thoughts, I have definitely faced despair. And so have countless others. There are times when we’ve only made it out alive because of the grace of friends, family, counseling, and medication. And we want you to grab hold of these lifesavers as well.

The saying goes, love your neighbor as yourself… But I would challenge you to reverse that saying for a moment. Love yourself as your neighbor. If you saw another person hurting, you’d want them to get the care they need, right? Well, you are that person today. You are absolutely worthy of care. Please reach out when life feels too difficult to bear. Hang on another day so you can eventually find yourself in a better place and come to know your reason to keep living.

I am cheering for you and sending you my love, and so are the millions of others who deal with depression and anxiety. And I want you to know that I am so damn proud of you for surviving this day, and the next, and the next. Your efforts do not go unnoticed. Remember that you are not alone – please reach for another person’s hand when you feel overwhelmed. Together, we can help each other walk through the darkness and into the light.


Gaelynn Lea’s List for Venues, Bands and Promoters to Make the Music Industry More Accessible

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My name is Gaelynn Lea. I am a violinist turned songwriter from Duluth Minnesota. I have been performing for over a decade, but my music career took a national twist when I won NPR Music’s 2016 Tiny Desk Contest. After that I started getting a lot more offers to play out of state so I started working with a booking agent to help me arrange tours. My husband and I both quit our jobs, sold the house, bought a van and hit the road! As of this writing I have played over 250 shows in the past 18 months which took us to 42 states and 6 countries – life has been a whirlwind indeed!

I have a disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease. This is a genetic condition that affects the collagen in my body and causes my bones to be fragile. I broke between 30-50 bones in utero and this caused my legs and arms to be bent and shortened since birth. I have used an electric wheelchair since the age of 2 and a half…. I ruined many a doorway while learning how to drive at such a young age!

Anyway, when I was 10 years old I decided that I wanted to play a stringed instrument. Lucky for me, I had a very encouraging and creative teacher. Because of my small stature, I couldn’t play the violin or cello the regular way. So instead we had to figure out a way to adapt the instrument to fit me. We realized that I could play the violin upright like a tiny cello. It worked out great and I have been playing that way ever since. I started performing in bands in 2006, writing songs in 2011, and touring in 2016.

As a touring musician with a disability I have faced a number of unique challenges on the road. Some of these are just part of the deal, like needing the assistance of a travel companion (who is fortunately also my husband, Paul). But some of these difficulties could be fixed if we just raised awareness! So here is my list of the FIXABLE WAYS we can make the music industry more accessible… Get ready, buckle up, and take a ride with my wheels…

  • Make sure your venue is accessible to your guests!! This means an entry to the venue without stairs or with a ramp… and access to the concert space! Either have your public events on the main floor or make sure there’s an elevator. This is so important! You may never have thought of this before, but a venue with a step and no ramp might as well have a sign outside that says “People with Disabilities Not Welcome Here”. Ultimately it’s no different than saying Black people or LGBTQ people are not welcome – we just haven’t been conditioned to think that way. Although the Disability Rights Movement is alive and well, it’s not quite as ingrained as other Civil Rights movements… yet. That’s why I am writing this list – to help raise awareness! What’s , this isn’t just about being a “nice” venue owner – accessibility is the law in the United States! The Americans with Disabilities Act (the ADA) has been around for 27 years and counting – so every venue owner has a legal responsibility to be as accessible as possible, no matter how old the building is… So get with the times!

  • Be clear about whether or not you are an accessible venue! If you’re an accessible venue already, be loud and proud! Put it on your website! Write it on the posters! I assure you, people with disabilities will take notice – 20% of the population has some sort of disability and that’s a lot of potential customers! If you’re not accessible, make sure that is on your website and posters too – although it sucks to have to write it, it is WAY better than someone showing up to a show to rock out to their favorite band only to find they can’t get up your staircase or they can’t go to the bathroom all night! Plus maybe having to actually write the words “We are Not Accessible” on all your posters will motivate you to invest in a ramp or a bigger bathroom stall first – instead of upgrading your sound system or espresso machine. Accessibility needs to be a priority – it is the law and it affects 20% of your potential customer base! Feel like you can’t afford to modify your venue? There are tax credits for making these accommodations. There are electric lifts that are WAY cheaper than elevators. There are boy scouts looking for service projects. There are crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe… So stop making excuses and start getting creative! Somehow you’ve always managed to pay your taxes and your rent (at least I hope so!) and if you treat it like another legal obligation (umm, because it is) you will find a way! Don’t put this off any longer! Can’t get up to code? Consider moving into a new space, or partner with a more accessible venue like a church and start co-hosting your public shows there instead! Perhaps that is tough to read, but that’s reality!

  • Help your guests with disabilities feel welcome at your show! Not everyone with a disability uses a wheelchair – in fact, many don’t! So there are ways to be accessible to people with other types of disabilities. Here are some ways to become more accessible: 

  1. Make sure you have an accessible entrance and bathroom – anyone with walkers, crutches, canes, wheelchairs, scooters or age-related disabilities like arthritis will benefit from these basic accessibility features.
  2. Try to have at least a little seating towards the front (making sure the band is visible!) for people who may tire easily or have trouble standing for long periods.
  3. Remove trip hazards and make signs clearly visible for people with vision impairments.
  4. Offer to have lyrics captioning or an ASL interpreter for people with hearing loss / Deaf people upon request. If you can’t afford to hire a professional, one DIY approach to captioning is having a power point on a TV screen to the side of the stage and requesting that the band submit their set list and lyrics ahead of the show – get a staff person or a volunteer to run the power point in time to the music so your Deaf audience members can get in on the lyrics! This takes some advanced planning but I have sent in lyrics to a number of shows and I am happy to do so because I want EVERYONE at my shows to have a good time! 
  5. Some people have sensory issues that make blaring speakers, mosh pits, and strobe lights a big problem. So if you can swing it, find a space away from the stage that is a bit more chill and keep the sound down. Lots of venues have adjacent rooms attached – and instead of blaring the music into that room too, keep the volume down and the lighting soft and the vibe more chill. Many people will appreciate this kind of safe space!
  6. Have Questions? Ask! I am not a complete Guru on Accessibility, so I am sure there are things missing on this list – plus every venue is unique. Call your local Center for Independent Living (or CIL – this is a Federally-mandated disability organization that exists in every state) and ask them to come in and assess your space…. Together you can think of ways to become more accessible!
  7. Write “accommodations for people with disabilities will be made upon request, if possible, with advance notice” on all your promo material – and leave a contact email! This is most relevant for things like captioning – and helps you plan for a less routine accommodations that may arise.
  • Build a ramp to the stage… Seriously! I have played a lot of shows in my life and unfortunately only about 25% of these venues have accessible stages. The other 75% have elevated stages without a ramp, ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet off the ground. But no matter how high the stage, my electric wheelchair can’t climb it – not even “just one step”. So this means I either have to be lifted on the stage (it takes 4 adults to lift my chair because it is 260 pounds) which is bad for my chair and dangerous for me, or I have to play on the floor in front of the stage. This is not cool for obvious reasons, but also for a more subtle reason – no one else has to get lifted onstage. It is discriminatory! You don’t see 4 dudes lugging Paul McCartney or Beyoncé or anyone else onstage – it would be uncomfortable to watch and you’d wonder what was going on. But for some reason it’s still deemed acceptable in our society for musicians with disabilities to be reliant on the help of others to get on and off stage. It doesn’t have to be that way! Either:

    • Build a permanent ramp

    • Buy a portable ramp

    • Buy a lift if the stage is really tall – there are both manual and electric lifts, depending on your budget

    • Take away the stage! If you can’t afford to build a ramp than have ALL the bands play from the floor!

  • Advertise your shows and music programs to people with disabilities! Look up some disability organizations in your community and send flyers or email blasts to them too. Part of the reason people with disabilities may not go to shows is because they’re not sure if the venue is accessible. Or maybe they were never invited in the first place! You can help to change that by being inclusive about where you advertise your events! If you run an open mic or a community music group, it’s especially important to advertise to people with disabilities. It’s hard to hone your craft if you are not able to practice in front of people, and open mics and community music groups are great places to work on your chops! We will start seeing more musicians with disabilities as they are given more chances to perform! I started at open mics myself, unfortunately in a venue that was completely inaccessible. I I had to enter the venue through the kitchen, be carried onto the stage, and have help in the bathroom because my wheelchair wouldn’t fit. I wish I could say it was different than that, but I’m still glad I was able to play! However not everybody can be able to attend an open mic unless they are invited and the venue is accessible. We can and should be doing better to help support new musicians with disabilities!

  • Book more musicians with disabilities in venues and festivals! It might not seem like it (due to lack of representation in the media), but there are many talented people out there playing music who have disabilities! I have been lucky enough to meet many of them on the road… and you can meet them too! You just have to do some research and find them! One of the things that music promoters and other bands can do is to search out and book shows with artists who have disabilities! Call your State’s VSA Office (which stands for Very Special Arts) if you are having trouble finding people! 35 states have a VSA agency and many of them have a database of artists with disabilities. Otherwise call local disability organizations. Or turn to good old Google and Facebook!

  • Remember that music is activism! The more society sees people with disabilities out there performing, the more disability will become a central focus when we talk about things like healthcare or accessibility or even just fashion, dating, or events in our community! Right now disability seems like an anomaly because it’s not part of the cultural norm… But it doesn’t have to be that way! Everybody has varying levels of disability and at one point or another… you might end up being disabled yourself someday even if you are able bodied now! There’s no shame in that, and part of the way we can express Disability Pride is to include disability in the Arts! So if you book a venue or a festival remember to be inclusive. Nobody would book a festival filled with all white dudes… at least not in 2017. In the same way we don’t need all able-bodied people to be performing all the time! Spread your wings a little bit and help change the social norms! On a similar note, if you are a radio DJ or a music writer, make sure you are including musicians with disabilities in your playlist/ content! Representation matters! 

So that’s my list! I know all these ideas put together might seem intense if you’ve never thought about disabilities in the music industry before. It’s a lot to take in, and change won’t happen overnight. But I want you to know what real challenges there are facing people with disabilities in the music world…. Things will never get better if we don’t start talking about them and educating ourselves and working for change. I also want you to know that performing has been one of my greatest joys in life, despite all the barriers that currently exist. Music is medicine. Music is energy. Music is love. Music is light. But still, I know as a society we can do better and I want to see progress happening for the future generations! Together we can make the world more accessible for everyone, including musicians with disabilities! So let’s get out there and change the world!

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Want to learn more about how to make your events more accessible? Check out the the DIY Access Guide from the UK-based disability arts group,  Attitude is Everything! You can download their helpful guide for FREE!

Read an extended version of this essay (and many more awesome essays about the music business!) in Martin Atkin‘s newest book, Band:Smart!


Sexuality, Disability & the Journey to Inner Freedom

Mind the Gap. What does that mean to me? In a way my whole life has been lived in the gap. I have a physical disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or Brittle Bones Disease. Due to numerous fractures in utero, I have bent arms and legs, which cause me to have a shortened stature. I have never walked, but I started using an electric wheelchair when I was two and a half years old (many doorways and toenails were destroyed in the process of learning how to drive at such a young age). I have been playing violin for over 20 years, in large part thanks to a creative music teacher who helped me to adapt my style of playing. I hold my violin upright in my wheelchair like a tiny cello instead of on my shoulder. In 2006 I joined my first band, in 2011 I wrote my first original song, and in 2016 I won NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest.

11950145_713396762099856_8153043841824708073_oNow I am a full-time touring musician, with the help of my husband who travels with me. We are constantly improvising on this new musical journey, navigating our lives in the Gap. After all, having a disability often puts you outside the mainstream, where you are forced to fight your own battles for equal access while others your age are busy partying or generally being young and carefree. What’s more, pursuing a career in music with a noticeable disability is unfortunately still a relative anomaly and I have to work around additional obstacles in order to get across the country and play shows. And while accessibility issues mean perhaps life often lived on the fringe, it isn’t the area where I feel the gap the most.

If you were to ask me what the biggest “gap” has been for me so far, I would say sexuality. That may seem surprising, but I know am not alone in my sentiments. Research shows that sexuality is often an area of emotional turmoil for people with disabilities. According to an article from the Center on Human Policy, “many people with disabilities consider sexuality to be the area of greatest oppression.”

So why is sexuality such a difficult area for people with disabilities? And what have I learned from my life in this gap? And how can the lessons I’ve learned along the way help you, regardless of your physical ability?

First, in the spirit of full disclosure, let me start by saying that I am just one person with a disability. I cannot possibly represent every person in the disability community and I don’t intend to speak for others. Furthermore, I was born in 1984 and I identify as a heterosexual woman – so my experiences with sexuality and beauty come from a very specific time and place. There are as many stories of disability and gender as there are people – so after you hear my talk, try to remain open to the millions of other stories and perspectives there are out there. The human race is an incredibly diverse and beautiful collection of souls.

Second, let’s identify the gap. What I mean by the gap is that people with disabilities are virtually left out of mainstream cultural discussions about sexuality and beauty. This might seem like a small omission, but it is not. According to the US Census Bureau, nearly one in 5 people in America has a disability – 19%. Just think about it for a second – how many times can you recall movies or books or magazines or advertisements portraying a person with a disability as a love interest or in a romantic relationship or as beautiful? Likely not many, and certainly not 19% of the time!

There are reasons for the omission in our culture. First of all, our country has historically propagated the view that people with disabilities are “defective” and “unfit to raise families”… Eugenics programs were legal in 33 states as recently as 1956, and forced sterilization of people with mental or psychiatric disabilities still exists today. These practices obviously negate the reproductive and sexual freedom of people with disabilities and likely have farreaching effects on our national psychology.

For example, often people with disabilities are viewed as “eternal children” because of their need for extra care; I can’t tell you how often I get called “sweetie” or talked to like I am 10 years old. People with disabilities are also seen as “asexual”, in part because it’s hard for people to picture someone with a disability partaking in a physical act like having sex. These beliefs are certainly not true, but they are ingrained in our culture and not questioned nearly as often as they should be. Instead of addressing the sexuality of people with disabilities, we are preconditioned to ignore it – pretending that it just doesn’t exist.

Gaelynn with her sister, CorryOn a personal level, I felt left out of the mainstream sex and beauty culture from a very young age. When all my friends were getting asked out to our first “school dance” in 5th grade, I received no offers. In fact, the boy I eventually asked myself (I have always preferred taking matters into my own hands) said no, because he “just thought of me as a friend”. This terrible line would follow me for the next twelve years or so… Every time I thought maybe I’d found a boy who returned the romantic feelings I had, I was rebuffed with the “Friend Clause”. Whether or not that was actually true in all cases, or if the boys just couldn’t admit they had feelings for a girl in a wheelchair, is up for debate. Either way, it sucked. Loneliness & despair were frequent visitors to my angst-ridden teenage heart.

The other problem facing a girl in a wheelchair with bendy arms is that there is virtually NO ONE depicting your body type as beautiful in this culture. The standard of beauty in America is arguably tall, thin, busty and blonde — I was about as far from that standard as possible! Luckily I had pretty healthy self-esteem overall so actually I never developed a hatred of my body, but I must admit I didn’t have a lot of hope that someone else would eventually find me to be physically attractive. I wanted to date, to marry, and to have kids, but my chances seemed slim to none. This kept me up a lot at night. As it turns out, my fears were not completely unfounded: according to research done by Thomas Gerschick in 2002, women are four times as likely as men to divorce after developing a disability, and only one-third to one-fourth as likely to marry [as men].”

Luckily I had awesome parents that gave me some good advice while I was sitting on the sidelines of love. First, my Dad told me that most boys are idiots until at least age 25. He said to give it time, and that eventually someone would love me for me. I didn’t really believe him, but I tried to tell myself this anyway as a coping mechanism. I was only 18, so I still had a few years until I’d have to call his theory into question.

My mom had another helpful tip. She said two of the coolest ladies she knew didn’t get married until they were in their 40’s – but that instead of letting their singleness bother them, they focused on doing things they thought were fun and interesting – expanding their horizons and creating some awesome stories in the meantime. Then, by the time they did meet their “Mr. Rights”, they were great catches because they were some of the most interesting people you could talk to… Their partners loved them for their depth – that’s part of what made them beautiful.

This gave me a sort of mission – a way to be proactive about dating even if I wasn’t dating – by focusing my energies on expanding my horizons. So I did a lot of cool things – I joined a disability rights group and played music and hung out with friends and got involved in organic farming and politics. Maybe my motives for being so involved were a little questionable, but it was certainly better than sitting around and moping about my singleness. I was becoming confident in my self-worth, but I still felt pretty conflicted about issues of sex and beauty and love. I remained unsure about whether I could ever be viewed as beautiful or find someone who loved me, wheelchair and bendy arms and all.

It was around this time, during my fourth year in college, that I had an epiphany. A mind-blowing epiphany. I was taking a class called Political Theory and I had to write a paper about a book by a guy named Marcuse. He wrote all about this concept called Eros – which basically means sexual and creative energy. Marcuse and other theorists have argued that sexuality has been usurped by capitalism… That one of the reasons the media created these ridiculously unattainable standards of beauty is so that people would feel bad about themselves and buy whatever product would “fix” them and help them to better fit the mold of beautiful.

You must admit, these theorists were onto something. People buy cold cream to mask their wrinkles and pay for expensive workout videos to lose that “stubborn last 10 pounds.” In some dark and secret recess of their brain they have bought the idea that maybe, just maybe, if they work hard enough and buy the right things or wear the right clothes, they too can be “beautiful”. But what they don’t acknowledge, at least in the deepest sense, is that they are being scammed. These images staring back at us from the magazines aren’t real – they are airbrushed and often depicting women who are malnourished and 21 years old. And you, my friend are a real person who probably eats normal amounts of food and will also eventually be 45 years old…. Hopefully even 85!

Where does that leave you? These ideals cannot usually be achieved at all, and if they can it is for but a moment in youth. There is a serious disconnect between the media’s image of beauty and actual human biology. If you really think about it, the traditional standard of beauty in this country is a terrible standard by which to measure oneself.

And that’s when a lightning bolt struck my brain! All these years during my childhood I had wished to be “beautiful” like the images I saw in the media – but I knew that realistically it was never going to happen. No amount of cold cream would un-bend my arms and no cool clothing would cover up my wheelchair. Somewhere in my six years of college, I had lost my interest in fashion and make-up and weight – because I figured I was hopelessly doomed in these realms anyway. But what I had failed to realize until this moment was this… all along I was free!

I didn’t need to obsess about my weight because it didn’t apply to me. I didn’t need to obsess about my hair because I didn’t apply to me. I didn’t need to obsess about my makeup or clothes or anything else, for that matter, because it didn’t apply to me. As far as beauty was concerned, I was invisible. But in an odd way, being invisible was far preferable to being scrutinized.

When I realized that I was essentially free, cast aside in the wild frontier of unacknowledged sexuality, things began to change for me. It’s not that I ceased to care how I looked altogether or that I stopped showering. It just meant that I realized that I had the power to choose what mattered to me. For example, I decided to stop shaving my legs and my armpits. If men don’t have to do it, why do I? I also stopped wearing shoes and socks – I don’t walk and they are uncomfortable and never fit right – so why spend money on them? I also opted for all dresses instead of pants and shirts – dresses were more comfortable and allowed me to dress myself and increased my independence (and they are prettier, duh).

But defining my own beauty standards didn’t just allow me to let things go that didn’t serve me. It allowed me to hone in on the things that actually make me feel good, like bright colored dresses, sparkly jewelry and purses. I don’t look for brand name items, because again, this doesn’t personally enhance my own sense of beauty. Anything colorful and flowy fits the bill. And while I don’t often wear make-up or perfume anymore, I still do when I perform because it makes me feel fancy, and I like feeling fancy at shows. Claiming my own sense of beauty made me feel more beautiful and attractive, on a very real level.

But this newfound freedom extended beyond the more superficial things like clothes and make-up and external appearance. It also helped me to realize that I am indeed a being capable and worthy of giving and receiving love. It gave me the courage to have honest conversations with my would-be husband when we first met about what society might think of our relationship. It renewed my conviction that the biggest reason people in our society reject the concept of sexuality for people with disabilities is because they simply never see it.

10583037_10153841549902628_978726259407411715_oSince my husband does not have a disability and mine is quite obvious, I knew that we might face some awkward questions, misunderstandings, and perhaps even disdain… And we did from some. After all, Paul has to help me with a lot of things that most couples won’t have to do for each other until they are quite old. Our relationship sometimes functions differently than our peers’ for this reason. But in time the people close to us came to understand that our relationship is built on the same foundation as anyone’s: love, trust, respect, and friendship. I am still convinced that the more society sees people with disabilities in romantic relationships, the more they will realize it is “normal”. That love truly does transcend physical disability. But without a sense of personal freedom from societal standards, I think I would have encountered a lot more self-doubt and insecurity in the early days of our relationship. Not to say these demons never reared their heads, but overall the two of us were able to forge a relationship that was very open, honest, authentic and unique because we knew we couldn’t compare ourselves to most other couples our age and so we didn’t even try.

On an even broader sense, freedom from sexual and beauty standards of modern capitalism birthed a new sense of self-confidence – the confidence that indeed I could be myself and everything would be ok. That I could follow my dreams and respond to challenges and others with authenticity. If standards of beauty are generally imposed on us by society, then it follows that most other standards are just that – impositions. We truly do have the freedom to follow our hearts.

I think this is partly why I have been able to do things like perform my own songs in front of people even when it’s scary. I think it’s why I left my day job selling insurance to start teaching fiddle lessons, a job that more aligned with my sense of self. I also think it’s why my husband and I were willing, excited even, to sell our house and try touring with music full time after I won the Tiny Desk Contest. If you aren’t traditional in the first place – if you’re already living in the gap – then why not live big? Why not follow your heart and your dreams as far as they will take you?

So what does my college epiphany have to do with you? Well, my friend, it means that you too, have the right to be free from the sexual and beauty standards of this society. How does this make you feel? Excited? Scared? Happy? Relieved? I would encourage you to take some time in the coming days to reflect on your own relationship to societal pressures around sexuality and beauty and the idea of “fitting in” generally. Because you can free yourself from the anxiety and oppression of pursuing these standards. It might take time. It might mean extracting yourself from unfulfilling and unhealthy relationships, it might mean redefining your boundaries. It might take therapy, it might take journaling or creating art, it might take a haircut. But the truth is, ultimately you are not required to be anyone but yourself.

Once you have come to terms with the fact that you are indeed free from society’s false standards of beauty and sexuality, you can begin focus on the things that make you feel good. You can pursue interests that really matter to your identity and cultivate the kinds of relationships that you find meaningful. You can do anything.

Please remember that you are beautiful and deserving of love regardless of your appearance or race or sexual orientation or economic situation. You matter, even if society makes you feel invisible. The real task before you is not fitting into a mold, but acting from a place of authenticity and love. May you live with courage & conviction in your full personhood; may you set an example for others to follow.


The First Six Months: Thoughts from the Road

2016-10-23 15.51.43Paul and I have been on the road touring full-time for the past 6 months now – I have performed and/or spoken at 125 events since October and we’ve traveled to over half the US states so far… 34 is the current total, to be exact!

I feel so grateful for all the beautiful landscapes we have seen, the experiences we have had, and the wonderful people we have met along our journey. I have played at a wide variety of venues, from intimate coffee shops to packed clubs to elementary schools to disability rights organizations. Each event has been memorable, fun and rewarding in some way. I am so glad that I have been able to take this journey with the man who I love and care about so deeply, my husband Paul. It has been a dream come true for us to travel around the country (and the world!) together.

I knew this year was going to be a big transition and that I might not fully digest everything right away. I’m sure I am still processing it as we speak… I mean, Paul and I left our jobs, sold the house, bought a van, and basically said goodbye to our life as we knew it. So my brain probably has some catching up to do!

The past 6 months have been extremely fulfilling, exciting, tedious, frustrating, exhausting, scary, touching, and fun. There seems to be no middle ground on the road – it’s a constant roller-coaster. You’re working so hard and sometimes it seems like you can’t catch up or take a break… but then you remember that you’re working for yourself and your art and the people who support you – and that makes it all worth it. Paul and I both agreed awhile back that even though touring is a grind, we feel like the positives far outweigh the negatives. So as long as that is the case, we will keep going.

I thought that the lessons of the road would hit me sooner, like a ton of bricks, in the form of some grand epiphany about music or travel or marriage or the nature of life. But truthfully, we have been so busy that I haven’t had a lot of time for pondering. It seems the last 6 months were more for action and receiving information – and that all my processing must have been happening underground, in my subconscious.

Just this week, a theme of our tour slowly began to surface in my mind – about community and the arts community in particular. Looking back, the most remarkable thing I have witnessed again and again during these 6 months is the absolute kindness and generosity of people in the music community – both from the artists themselves and those who support creative types.

170403_151930_COLLAGE-1I think about Martin Atkins, one of the first people I met after the Tiny Desk Contest, who freely offered up his hard-won knowledge to us touring newbies and proceeded to facilitate two of the most memorable performances of my career to date – the CD Baby Conference and the Pigface 25th Anniversary Reunion Show – in his home base of Chicago.

I think about Warren Defever from His Name is Alive, who graciously opened for me at my show in Detroit and then let us crash at his apartment. He probably doesn’t know this, but the conversation we had over a cup of coffee the next morning provided me with a sense of clarity about what I want to do in my future recordings and I often find myself replaying his words in my head.

I think about Alan Sparhawk, who took me under his wing in our duo The Murder of Crows 6 years ago and introduced me to the looping pedal and played beside me as I sang my first-ever original song in public – and in addition to all of those tremendously meaningful contributions – who invited me to open for Low in Ireland during my first tour overseas in December. He didn’t have to do any of these things, but because of his kindness my world has been permanently altered. I am so grateful for him.

I think about Bob Boilen, whose voice I found on the other end of the line on February 26th, 2016 when I received a call from NPR telling me I had won the Tiny Desk Contest. After getting to know him better in the past year I can say that he is truly motivated by his love of music and that he genuinely cares about nurturing, supporting and guiding artists along their journeys. I had half-expected our paths to disconnect after my series of shows with NPR ended last May, but he has done a beautiful job of keeping in touch and popping in, not unlike Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, always bringing with him a boost of encouragement.

170403_151921_COLLAGE-1These pivotal moments clearly stand out to me, but what is most remarkable is that we have been on the receiving end of kindness and generosity from so, so many people during our tour… There’s no way I could write about all the goodness we have seen over the past six months.

As a touring musician, every single day you meet people who want to see you succeed and are more than happy to help you if they are able. People have opened up their homes to us as a place to rest or as a house concert venue. People have helped us spread the word about our tour dates, helped set up new shows, and sent me recommendations of future places to play. And this Fall, 142 people amazingly contributed $8,000 to our GoFundMe campaign so that Paul and Leah and I could tour in Europe. Some people stick around after shows to share a meal and others send their encouragement over the internet. Musicians and promoters and other road warriors have shared their stories and tremendously useful life lessons with us freely, helping us to learn more about this new life we find ourselves navigating.

We absolutely wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the support and positive energy and kindness of others. We have made friends in so many cities… the world seems much smaller and a bit less scary than it did when we first started this journey.

If all I learned from the last six months was to be grateful, I would be content with that. After all, I truly believe that gratitude is the seed of happiness.

But the more I ponder the kindness we’ve witnessed, the more I realize that there is another lesson to be learned beneath it all. And the lesson is this – we all rise together or we all sink together. So it is our task to help each other rise.

I think in my past, I was unwittingly fed a lie that only a select few “make it” in music and so everyone has to fend for themselves. I bought into the idea of scarcity without ever really admitting it. Sometimes I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle against all the other musicians out there. In my mind, we had to metaphorically duke it out over a limited number of fans who would either attend our show that night or go to someone else’s… The victor was the band with the biggest crowd.

In this unhealthy state I would sometimes find myself fighting off emotions like jealousy and impatience and entitlement. I am not proud of these feelings, but in my darker moments they were definitely real. I have always enjoyed playing, but competitive thoughts like these were a sure-fire way to suffocate that joy.

Now it is 100% true that the Tiny Desk Contest was a huge boon and I would be naive to think that it didn’t alter my musical path dramatically. But nonetheless, a lot of the artists I have met on the road this year didn’t get that kind of a lucky break. Instead they made the choice to start playing out, then they started touring, and over the years they built up their career piece by piece.

Regardless of how anyone got started touring, the people I most respect and enjoy spending time with on the road are not tripped up by the idea of competition. Instead, what I discovered was this beautiful network of individuals who are not sizing each other up, but are in fact helping each other out whenever possible – giving tips on venues or playing shows together or offering up a place to stay or helping to plan a show in their hometown or even just grabbing a beer together and trading stories at the end of the night. It seems one of the greatest joys of being a touring musician is connecting with other artists — indeed, other people in general! It’s truly about connection.

170403_151904_COLLAGE-1When artists support each other, build each other up, truly care for each other and root for each other’s success, we all do better. None of us do well if the arts are not valued or if the community is stale, insular, or stagnant. People are drawn to art precisely because it is vibrant, expansive and evolving. Promoting the arts in general not only helps every artist do better, but also has a more lasting impact than just our own fleeting success. When we realize this truth our focus changes and the whole world feels a little lighter. When we connect our art to a message that has a greater purpose, such as raising awareness or funds for a social justice movement, that light joins forces with determination and altruism. When we remember that we are interconnected to all of humanity, our main goal in life becomes love and not outward measures of success. In the broadest sense possible, we all rise together.

Just as I have received so much wonderful advice and kindness on the road, I want to be an ally and a helper and a source of encouragement to other artists I meet along the way. If this realization seems blatantly obvious to you, have compassion on me. We are just starting out on this touring journey and it’s a steep learning curve. I know we still have a lot to discover and that my views will continue to evolve… But I am so grateful for what we have witnessed so far. The world is complicated to be sure, but there is light in the darkness. And we can bring that light to each other with compassion, altruism and a desire to see each other succeed. We can and do rise together.


Focus and the Future

I must admit, today’s Inauguration is leaving me in a weird head space. But I don’t think engaging in an online political debate or reading another news article is going to do my mental health or the state of the world any good at this point. So I’m left pondering – what should I be focusing on today? The best answer I could come up with so far is this: I am going to try to focus on my Circle of Influence – the things I can control. I didn’t invent this idea… it’s from from Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I posted an excerpt of his book below.

I can’t control the 45th President… in fact, I can’t control anyone else but myself. I can control the words I say, the food I put into my body, the ways in which I choose to get involved in advocacy or politics. I can control the music I make and the thoughts I put to paper. But I can’t control what other people say or think or do, and I can’t see into the future. So for now I will have to set these concerns aside and re-focus on making the my own corner world a better place, from the inside out. We never truly know what ripples our actions might have on the bigger picture… Let’s see where this kind of focus takes us as we move into a new era. Peace be with you, everyone. ♥

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“All of us have a wide range of concerns in our lives – our housing, our health, our friends and family, the environment, world politics, the price of a pint of beer…

Within this whole universe of our concerns, there are some things we can influence and some things we can only stay concerned about. Now we have a choice about where we focus our attention and energy. We can choose to focus all our attention on the area that is outside our influence. We can get annoyed about the shortcomings of other people, we can blame the government, global capitalism, the weather, a rotten childhood, bad luck, or fluoride in toothpaste. This focus leads to more and more blaming and accusing, to feelings of victimization, ‘poor me’. This negative way of thinking, accompanied by inaction to change things, results in the circle of influence shrinking.

Alternatively we can choose to focus on things that we can influence. This does not mean just the more immediate or ‘trivial’ concerns. It might mean focusing on those aspects of really huge problems that we can exert some influence over. And ‘influence’ does not mean direct ‘control’; we can influence things in an indirect way, for example in our own personal, daily behaviour. By focusing attention and energy on our circle of influence, we become increasingly proactive. The energy we expend is enlarging; each little victory motivates us to find new ways of exerting influence. We don’t waste energy on things we can do nothing about, but direct it towards what we can change. With each step we feel stronger and more creative. And so our circle of influence expands.

It often happens that, in widening our circle of influence, we also widen our circle of concern. It becomes worth caring about some of the really challenging things in our world if we learn we can influence them. It can be incredibly liberating to realise that, in choosing how to respond to circumstances, we affect those circumstances.”

– Excerpt from Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (1989)


To My Fiddle Students: Thank You.

13254298_838491599590371_8510922114584464018_n (1)On May 6th, 2013 I very nervously taught my first fiddle lesson to my friend Robin. And now, after over 3 years and 50 students, I am taking a hiatus of undetermined length to embark on a new touring adventure with my husband Paul. I am sure I’ll be back to teaching someday (because I love it), but for now life has laid out a different path that includes performance and public speaking and living more or less on the road. 🙂 This transition is exciting but extremely bittersweet.

As I teach my last week of lessons, the reality of leaving my students is beginning to sink in… Next week I’ll be packing up the studio and moving on to another musical journey. It’s been so hard to say goodbye to the children and adults who have become regular fixtures in my life.

Teaching music was the first job that felt completely “right” to me, Connecting with my students and watching them learn and improve has been extremely rewarding. It was both challenging and excititng to explain musical concepts and encourage growth while still fostering a joy for music in my students. Teaching is a skill that would take many lifetimes to perfect, but these last three years felt like a good start!

11337055_673204549452411_3175272448469701564_oMy students are complete joys. Over the years my students and their families have become friends. They have given me the priceless gifts of laughter and kindness and inspiration. I am so grateful to have been involved in their violin journeys and I am excited to see what they do in the future. I will definitely miss them, although I am determined to keep in touch!

To my students: I love each of you very much and I am so grateful for the honor of working with you over the last three years. Thank you for being you – the world is a better place because of it! I will forever cherish our time together and I hope we will be able to stay connected in new ways as we write the next chapters of our lives.

Love,
Gaelynn Lea

 


A Lifetime of Fear-Facing

So I’ve been thinking… The last four months have been amazing and exciting and humbling and terrifying… But mostly they’ve felt like a mysterious unfolding. Music seems to be the calling that I never planned on but have been so grateful to discover, bit by bit, in this lifetime. NPR Music’s ‪Tiny Desk Contest and the adventures that ensued still seem surreal. I feel incredibly blessed that I had the opportunity to share my music with people across the country in a way I never anticipated before.

Lately I’ve been reading the book called “The Art of Work” by Jeff Goins and he describes finding your calling as a “lifetime of fear-facing”. How beautiful is that? Just because something makes us nervous or afraid doesn’t mean that we’re not cut out for it. Music has continually pushed me right up to the edge of fear, and every time it does and I somehow survive, I feel myself grow as an artist and a person… But I still get scared, and often. I have very slowly begun to make peace with that fear.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s OK to admit that we are human and that we often feel afraid and like we’re in over our heads… That’s all part of the journey. So whatever good thing it is you long to do, find a way to make it happen despite the unknown or your fears… The world needs your light and your passion and your goodness. Cheers to finding your calling and chasing after it!

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