I enjoy taking walks to get inspiration. This is the story of the walk in the park that changed my life.
Let me set this up for you.
I was a year and a half into college at Emerson in Boston when I was forced to drop out because I couldn’t afford the tuition. Dejected and needing to pay the rent, I took a job as a waiter at an IHOP. I was a decent waiter, but my heart wasn’t really in it and I was constantly asking for time off to audition for shows - I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream quite yet.
After a year, I ended up auditioning to get in to one of the best musical theatre conservatories in NYC. Getting in was one of the best moments of my life. Once in school, I took on way too much - I was also working as a waiter at an Olive Garden to make ends meet – this increased my stress and caused me to have trouble staying awake in class. Even though I was in a great school, it became harder and harder to support myself, and survive in this city.
Around this time, one of my professors, Brian, invited me out to lunch. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I accepted. Who wouldn’t? Being asked out to lunch by a teacher is exciting, in a way, but I couldn’t imagine why he would care enough to even ask.
Over lunch at a diner, Brian told me how special he thought I was. He told me he could sense that I truly loved theater, and it showed in everything I did in class. But he also felt that I was trying to do too much and that I needed to focus.
Then Brian dropped the bomb - he had brain cancer and doctors had given him only a year to live! He offered me a FREE place to live as well as personal tutorials in everything about theater, if I helped him by taking care of things around the house, and being there when he was too sick to do things for himself. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, I thought. But there was a catch: the entire arrangement had to be kept a secret from everyone – especially other students.
I sat back in my seat. My fries were getting cold. My Coke was getting warm. I was blown away. I was amazed. It all seemed so weird and so surreal. I had to accept. How could I turn down a chance like this?
Over the next nine months, Brian and I would stay up late tearing apart songs and putting them back together. We analyzed characters. We figured out show plots. He taught me how to act through a song. He was a genius. And he became more than just a teacher - almost like a parent giving me some badly needed order and discipline. But there was also the dark side: I stayed with him at the hospital during chemo - watching him lose his hair, and holding him as he vomited. Only when he regained his strength, would we go home to the piano for the incredible and life-changing private tutorials.
Additionally, the stress was killing me. I mean – everything was a secret! I was a 19-year-old kid and I couldn’t tell any of my classmates about my “job” or where I lived. In the middle of all of this – I was deeply missing my boyfriend back in Boston and we talked about me moving back up there. The chance to be with him seemed like a beacon in the midst of a wild storm. It was a convenient way out. I decided to leave Brian. When I told Brian, he exploded. I said some really awful things, and he also had a few choice words. I betrayed the most significant role model I ever had. But I had made up my mind. And when I make up my mind, I do what I want. I left.
As soon as I got there, I took a job at a mutual fund investment firm, and decided to give up theatre. Playing house seemed more important. Within six months, my relationship had ended….badly. From my little cubicle one afternoon, I decided to write a letter to Brian asking him to forgive me. He never replied. Soon, a friend told me that Brian had died. I was too late and I was devastated. The news of his death was life-changing. I decided it was a sign that I had to return to theater. Once again, I left Boston for New York - this time, for good.
Over the next few years, I performed around the country, and ultimately was cast in an off Broadway show. I should have been happy. But I wasn’t. Then, one night, Brian appeared to me in a dream and changed my life again. Now, about that walk in the park…
I was walking in Central Park on a sunny day with the temperature just crisp enough to be thankful for long sleeves. I was dreaming. I saw Brian sitting on a park bench looking healthy and with full head of hair. As I sat down next to him, he turned towards me and smiled. He spread his arms, and we hugged. He then started to hum a melody I couldn’t quite place. It was dissonant and beautiful. That hug was intensely spiritual. As if our pasts came together in that moment and he forgave me.
But he didn’t set me free. In fact, with the melody he was humming - he gave me the first step in my new life. The next day, I couldn’t get it out of my head. Sometimes dreams get lost in a fog, but not this one. It stuck with me all day. After work, all I could think about was getting home to the piano to plunk out the tune. It took me awhile, since I never really played the piano by ear. I had taught myself how to read music and play when I was 11, but never tried to play something original. But, I persisted until I found it. I remember how satisfying it was. In that moment, I realized that I must fulfill Brian’s attention and dedication by upending my acting career to focus on composing songs. Something I never thought in a million years I would ever do. From that moment, I began to write songs that recognized life’s basic challenges and provided a path to move on – just as he had for me. Creating the vision rather than acting out other’s ideas.
That melody became “Cautiously Optimistic,” my very first song!
Looking back at that walk, I realized I found more than inspiration - I found purpose and it was much, much more than just a dream. It was Brian’s last gift.
If you have ever had a life changing moment (or moments!), I would love to hear about them. Comment below and let’s continue to inspire and support each other.