Singing through migraines

Me caught in a dazzle of sunlight: something like a migraine aura

A few weeks ago, 200-odd people sang Donizetti’s Requiem to an appreciative audience in the Wellington Salvation Army Citadel. And one of those 200 people was me.

I love this annual workshop, organised by the Wellington Region of the New Zealand Choral Federation. Anyone can join in, anyone at all! On Friday night we start learning an interesting choral work under an exciting director. 24 hours later we perform it, with stunning soloists. In a word, it’s a buzz — intensive learning in a supportive crowd, culminating in one all-or-nothing performance.

The migraine obstacle

Only one problem: I usually get a migraine and don’t make it through to the performance. Staring at little black marks page after page. Sunbeams striking at a particular angle. Bright lights. Heavy concentration. Yep, that’ll do it. But if I go home I’m still happy and satisfied, because I’ve still had most of the experience.

The challenge is always, how long can I last? Two hours, four hours, six hours?

A well-designed score and cunning tricks almost save the day


Some years we sing from scores that look like ants on the march. They’re tiny, cramped, more black than white, barely readable for me. Usability: fail. Page design: fail.

But the Donizetti score has good margins and layout and plenty of white space. Yes, that helps! I placed myself where the sun didn’t shine, took aspirin, drank loads of water and in short played all my anti-migraine cards. Almost made it.

Perfect timing: singing blind

The audience is waiting. We’re ready to perform. The beautiful soloists walk in. The conductor raises his baton … uh oh, is his face a tiny bit blurry?

Here comes the aura, a shimmering zig-zag lightning that grows and moves along its own sweet path. The conductor is a blank. The score is a blur. But I can’t leave now.

I know the first bit. And I feel fine, just blind, no other symptoms. I won’t lip-synch, I’ll sing. And I do, for the entire performance.

I make concessions. I skip the risky bits, like all those fabulous ff opening high notes. My greatest dread is of singing during a solo — imagine that!

The aura wriggles away in time for the applause. I’m fine, really just fine.

Life lessons for me

  • Learn your music really really really really well. I mean really.
  • You’re not a soloist. A kindly crowd will carry you through.
  • Adapt to circumstances.
  • Do your best. Your best is good enough.
  • Listen to the music in the migraine.
  • Rejoice!

A riff on “old people are…” by Renee

My friend and fellow New Zealand writer and role model Renee just did a rant and a rave on the theme of “Old is an all-purpose synonym for bad. Old people is an all-purpose synonym for  50 shades of bad.” Renee regards herself as fairly old — stereotype her at your peril! I just had to share. It starts like this…


Boozers, losers, out of jail bruisers. Jockeys, cockies, once were great soccies. Litterers, knitters, reliable house sitters. Miners, diners, intelligent signers. Gardeners, cooks, some who write books. Piano and guitar players, definitely some Gays.  Singers, clingers, ringers and wingers. Wealthy, stealthy, against all odds healthy. Runners, gunners, dedicated punners. Winners and players, sinners and swayers. Rich, poor, curious, bored. Patient, walker, creepy grey stalker. Painters, fainters, always some ranters. Fat, skinny, tall, short. New, old, borrowed, bought. Fraught, taught, occasionally sought. Preachers, teachers, some who make Features. Bad-tempered, kind, clear-sighted, blind. Some bold, some rolled, some polled, some sold. Doctors, nurses, lecturers, bursars.  Bouncers, prancers, dedicated dancers.  Happy, sad, conniving, bad.  Lout, devout, chock full of doubt. Whingers, Ginjas, society’s fringes.   Packers, actors, determined hackers.  Loving, hating, dating, waiting…

You can read TWO and THREE on her blog.

Renee’s Wednesday Busk: Old People Are …

Horrible question: What is your goal in life?

Your goal is your own goal. We are not all mountaineers.

Here’s a quote from one of my favourite blogs, A French Toolbox.

I’ve been asked one day about my “goals in life“. I have been very disturbed by this question, which is so… all about efficiency. I couldn’t think of a goal, even one. I feel like Cioran, in shock and in anger, after being asked about what he was “preparing”. If a French says he has “goals” in life, he sounds ridiculously Action Man, that’s it. The idea itself is a nightmare – at least when you’re more than 22 years old. I don’t want to be efficient, I just try to live, right? Dreams, maybe… Dreams, OK.

I couldn’t agree more. I resent headlines like this one, and there are thousands out there:

You must embrace a purpose-driven life and serve mankind in some way.

Oh, I must, must I? Why? Who says so? Get stuffed, you big bully. What a bloody nerve. (Really, I know you’re only trying to help, but I’m giving you my gut reaction.)

Your life is a life, not a business

Da Vinci's study of the foetus plus words: I am not a business

Soberly, I see no reason why we should apply the concepts and strategies and jargon of business to our private and personal lives. We are dropped into the world — often by accident. As we mature, sure, we may discover a burning passion, a purpose, a specific personal reason for living, and if so, that’s pretty wonderful.  It might be a task that needs finishing. People who need our support. A problem that needs solving. A mission, a faith that we must fulfil or share.

Having a “higher” purpose in life is known to be a Very Good Thing: it plays a role in keeping us alive and vital and engaged in the world. That’s what both research and intuition tell us.

But knowing your purpose in life is not universal, it’s not a given, and it’s not necessary. And life without a known purpose can be every bit as joyful, satisfying and worthwhile. Everyone is needed, everyone brings their own gifts to the world.

Life itself is to be relished — and used wisely if we can. That’s obvious. But it’s not a duty.

An older, simpler truth: you already have a purpose

To put it another way, the way of the Dalai Lama (and he should know), our purpose in life is to be happy and be kind. Simplistic? Only on the surface.

I doubt that he means we should pursue a life of hedonistic ecstasy, surfing from one high to another. (I think that to pursue happiness is counterproductive, but hey.) I presume the Dalai Lama means that we should aim to navigate the ups and downs of life from a steady base of kindness to ourselves and others, understanding happiness as contentment and satisfaction with one’s life overall.

My video course Write Over Divorce: Banish the pain with a pen includes a lecture on this dilemma. (It’s a lot more helpful than this blurt.)

If you  honestly feel a need to discover a more particular purpose in life, then do. One way is to ask yourself:

  1. What am I good at?
  2. What do I love doing?
  3. What difference do I want to make?

Maybe you’ll find a “higher” purpose — but maybe you won’t. And that’s fine. Because you already have a purpose: to be happy and be kind.

Jean-Pascal’s blog post: Proust & les Hirondelles : Chronicle 4


Photo of mountain by Pseudopanax @ wikimedia cc-by-3.0; Da Vinci’s study of the foetus, public domain, adapted by Rachel McAlpine

The healing power of writing: poems about dying wisely

Morning glory flowers, one in bloom, one dead

On my blog Poems In The Wild, I will be posting poems about the dying and death of a dear brother-in-law, some years ago, starting tomorrow. When I wrote them, the process was cathartic and the writing helped me to process and learn from the experience. Writing the poems made me feel close again to my brother-in-law even after his death.

You may well find these poems of interest on various levels.

  • If you have lost someone and are looking for comfort or catharsis or clarity
  • If you are interested in the way writing can heal
  • If you too are mystified or frightened by death.

I can’t wash away your grief but perhaps I can stand alongside you for a moment or two.

You’ll find the poems on my blog, starting here with a short introduction:

Facing the unbearable: poems about dying wisely

pic & poem by rachel mcalpine cc-by-2.0

Not a senior moment

I hate the way I (and maybe you) assume that if you’re over 70 (or maybe 50) every tiny temporary slip of the memory is due to incipient dementia and old age.

Senior moment? Never say it, write it or think it.

Forgot why you went into the kitchen? That’s just your lovely brain doing the right thing, segmenting and categorising tasks and working at maximum efficiency.

On the other hand, every threshold you cross is a good moment for a moment of mindfulness. But relax. It’ll all work out.


The woman who wants to fail: me

Image from Life in Ancient Athens 1907

You know how you muse on a mishmash of thoughts when you go walking? And how sometimes all becomes clear?

On Friday morning, on a short walk from Mt Vic to Mt Cook, I caught my own mind in the act. Its hidden motive for self-sabotage was no sooner revealed than accepted, no sooner accepted than acted on. Or in this case, not acted on.

You see, I’d just released my second Udemy course after weeks of dithering and delay:
Write Haiku Love Poems and Thrill Someone you Love. It’s a quaint little course, in fact I love it, but I published it reluctantly.  Why? Because I was dreading the next stage, which involves managing a vast array of mechanisms from mailing lists to YouTube, from coupons to blogging to webcasts and, oh all that fuss. You see, if you create an online course you have to market it.

Or do you?

(By the way this is exactly the same quandary every book author confronts.)

The epiphany: this time around, it would be fun to fail

Yes, my new business strategy is shocking, but is it tragic? Image from Life in Ancient Athens, 1907

Rachel said unto me: Listen to yourself!  You love making these courses — it’s a buzz. You deliberately choose crazy obscure topics because you hope nobody will ever do them. You actually said that, out loud, several times; I have witnesses.

Then I said unto her-me: But I am counting on the income. I left my business last year as you well know.

Rachel: What income? Your two courses have so far earned the princely sum of $8.00 but look at you — hello, not starving! This imaginary income stream is never going to happen.

Me: OK, fair enough, you’re right, dammit. I will start making a really sensible course on how to edit a novel.

Rachel: No, darling. You are missing the point. Create another unique ridiculous course that nobody will want to do… say, A Boot Camp For The Bonus Years. And don’t publicise that one either.

Me: Eureka! That’s integrity. I’ll be the best non-self-publicist on Udemy.

Rachel: Never mind that. You’re seventy-seven: stick to the fun stuff.

Skiting about our fiercely feminist great-grandmother

Ada Wells: suffrage warrior, feminist, healer, mystic, and matriarch.

It’s just over 100 years since Ada Wells became the first woman ever elected to the Christchurch City Council. And what an uproar she caused! A beautiful, brave, bossy, bloody difficult woman. My five sisters and I are proud to be of her tribe.

A short article that catches the flavour of her life: All About Ada