Connection Essay by Ashley Neese

Ashley Neese

The first time I sang in public was last summer solstice out in Joshua Tree, California. I’ve been taking voice lessons on and off for over thirteen years and never had the courage to sing in front of people.

I began my journey with signing while in graduate school in San Francisco. I was well into my art practice at the time and was looking for a new way to get really vulnerable in front of others. I wanted to connect to myself, and the people around me, on a deeper level. Every work of art, poem, and project I created since I was a child was about opening my heart and connecting to the people around me. After many years of dancing, photographing, and writing, the next logical step in my mind was singing. Little did I know at the time how much it would shape my life.

Up until last summer live singing scared me so much. Even with years of experience teaching and sharing very intimate details of my life in recovery groups, it felt like signing was a whole new level of honesty. In a way it felt more like dancing than drawing or taking a photo. When you’re dancing or singing you’re using your own body as the vehicle of expression, there is nothing between you and the people you are sharing with. This is why singing terrified and excited me all in the same breath. It is filter-less. Singing shows people your essence. It exposes your heart and soul and gives others a very clear entry point to connect with you. When you’re singing, your heart opens to great depths. The essence of who you are shines through one of the most powerful channels in the world, your own voice.

After that semester ended in graduate school I stopped taking voice lessons until I moved to Portland, Oregon and enrolled in singing classes at the community college for fun. I showed up for all of the weekly classes but when it came time for the recital I bailed. I didn’t show up. I told myself it was because I already had a master’s degree and it didn’t matter if missing the final exam hurt my grade. The truth was, I had major anxiety about singing Billy Bragg’s Little Time Bomb in front of one hundred college students and decided to stay home that night.

I felt bad about skipping out on what might have been an amazing growth opportunity but eventually softened and kept signing on my own. I had a set of songs I learned to sing, and over time they turned into my mantras. I sang myself all the way to a beautiful apartment in Berlin, and that was one of the best years of my life. I practiced and practiced. I stretched my voice over the entire city and my confidence blossomed. That was the year I became comfortable in my skin and I know signing Robyn’s Dancing On My Own most nights to my neighbors was a huge part of that.

Flash forward to last summer when I got up to share my gratitude for the summer solstice to our retreat community. The fire was in full force. I jumped up when I felt called to and threw my offerings into the fire. I asked for grace. I asked for healing. I asked for courage.

After a few minutes of speaking my intentions through a cracking voice and buckets of tears, I was asked to sing something. I froze. My mind went completely blank. I couldn’t think of one song to sing after so many years of singing. I looked out to the rocks and everyone in the group was just sitting there, smiling, waiting patiently for me to open my mouth.

One of them's off her food and the other one's off his head

And both of them are off down the boozer

To drink a toast, to the one, he hates most

And she says there are no winners, only losers

Well, if there are no winners, then what is this he thinks

As he watches her complete a lap of honor

And he sits in the stands, with his head in his hands

And he thinks of all the things, he'd like to bring down upon her

Revenge will bring cold comfort in this darkest hour

As the jukebox says 'It's All Over Now'

And he stands and he screams, what have I done wrong

I've fallen in love with a little time bomb

I've fallen in love with a little time bomb......

And I forgot the rest of the lyrics. I just stood there mid song looking into everyone’s eyes waiting to feel embarrassed. Waiting for someone to laugh. Waiting for that voice, see, you suck at this. Never sing in front of people again. Never get that vulnerable again. Ever.

That voice never came. Nobody in our group laughed. They kept smiling and holding space for me to experience the rush of energy that comes from taking a huge risk and doing something that really scares you. Instead of feeling badly, about myself and full of shame for ‘messing up’, I felt the connection I was longing for. I felt the love of the universe flowing through me and I connected to a part of myself that changed my entire life.

Shortly after returning from Joshua Tree I had another opportunity to sing in front of a huge group of women and I felt nothing but the presence of something bigger than myself with every note, every lyric of the song. Singing by the fire transformed me. By taking a big step into the fear of looking like a failure and not being accepted in front of people healed a very old wound.

This experience showed me in such an effective way that healing has its own timeline. We show up and do the work but it’s not up to us when we heal. When I look back at these last thirteen years of exploring vulnerability and human connection through learning to sing, and to eventually share my voice with others in that way, I see that the timing was perfect. I wasn’t in a place in my life when it came time for the recital in Portland where I could have understood the level of healing that took place that solstice evening around the fire. Call it fear, call it intuition, the truth was I wasn’t ready. Because when I was, the words came out as perfectly imperfect as possible.

Returning from that weekend in the desert I took up voice lessons again with an amazing teacher. I’m committed to continuing to open and consciously direct my channels of self-expression. Over these last eight months my life has been shaken up in all of the best possible ways. So much has transformed since the solstice; and when I look in the mirror, I am in awe of the unfolding. The grace and courage I asked the fire to give me has become an integrated part of my daily living. The fear that kept me from getting on stage all those years ago and singing my heart out no longer has a grip on my stomach. I am freer, lighter and happier than I have ever been.

Singing is primal. It connects us to such a central part of ourselves. Singing is empowering because your body becomes the instrument from which you reveal your true heart. It’s filter-less. There is no computer to hide behind, no words from your spiritual teacher to lean on.  It’s just you, baring your soul in all of her glory, and all of her seeds of unworthiness. When you sing all is equal because you’re in the moment and it is the moments that matter. It is the moments that connect us all to the longings of our hearts.

When I look back at all of the ways I’ve used creativity to express myself, learning to open to the power of my own voice has in some ways felt like the final frontier. I’ve spent my entire life sharing my heart with the world - the light, the dark and grey spots in-between. Observing the big picture of my journey to connect through the vulnerability of my own voice fills me with endless gratitude.  

These days I don’t feel called to focus on singing in front of people because I got what I came for in every way possible. All of these years of practice leading up to that moment around the fire was the exact initiation I needed to step into this next phase of my journey. I sang my way through one of my biggest fears, being in front of people and not being perfect. That was the medicine my heart needed to access the love and connection I’ve been seeking since I was born. In that moment, around the fire, singing like my life depended on it, I became the love and connection that I craved.

All my heart,

Ashley

Photo | Lani Trock


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