Jan DeGaetani and Houlka, MS

I’ve got a lot on my mind, Friends.

I have friends who marched in Washington yesterday for the environment. One tells me today she is beleaguered by all she heard on the streets. It’s bad. To be in Washington now is like entering the lion’s mouth.

I have had my share. When I’m at my dad’s cabin, the news I hear (and sometimes [study] watch) is Fox. And this week on the heels of O’Reilly’s ousting. Mr. Tucker Carlson really messed up when he grilled actor Tim Daly about proposed arts funding cuts, reverting to this argument: rich actors (producers, directors…) should PAY for the arts in this country, not the government. (I wonder, has it yet occurred to him that wealthy landlords, land owners, developers—ah, the President–should be building housing for the homeless in this country?) Anyway, here’s the line that made me throw my fork at the television [not really, this just sounds good]: Look, Mr. Carlson says, I like to do stuff, too. I like the arts. I think the arts are good. I like to fish. Should the government fund the thing I like to do when I just want to relax?

Dramatic Pause.

Oh, I see. I missed this memo back in my early childhood when I knew I could sing, that this made me want to do a thing like no other; when I listened to musicals on our stereo over and over and over. When I danced in front of the mirror. When I sat beside a friend who could play piano to sing my favorite songs over and over and over. Because I had to. I had to get inside them, the songs, the movement, the play, the words, the emotions. Had to inhabit and release, make something good from it. When I studied theory formally at Peabody Prep all through high school, the still-foreign-to-me marks on the white paper, lined and staffed, trying, trying so hard, my palm sweat smearing my tentative pencil lines. Breathing hard and wanting to understand. When I went to Eastman and met the woman who would change and direct my life, (whether or not I actually internalized this then), and learned to enter music in new, multi-layered ways, inhabit it, return it to the environment, outside myself, in order to make something of it. The hours. Hours. [They say 10,000 and you master it.] Hours at a keyboard, writing on paper, to try to do something good. OH, I see, I didn’t realize all this was just my feeble effort to relax.


Tim Daly did a decent job trying to speak against this idiocy, this reductiveness, but he didn’t do enough. Who could?

OK, so here’s the connection to Jan: I’ve been thinking about jobs lately. Because I had a really great one before I moved to Raleigh, NC in 2014; even so, I was ready for a break from teaching. I don’t regret this. But I also don’t have a job now, this season of my  marriage ending, and moving into a new home, and it’s necessary to continue working for money because my writing does not support me financially. I knew a couple months ago that my year of travel was coming to a close. I’d planned to spend April and May in two different beautiful locations because of the generosity of friends (who by allowing me to stay in their homes are supporting the arts). But my dad got sick, and my plans changed. Now, I’ve been facing the question, What will I do next? a little sooner than I’d thought I’d have to.  And it has to include finding a new job.

I mentioned in my last post that I have applied for teaching jobs here in Mississippi where my dad lives and where I’ve rented this beautiful home. I am happy to be thinking of teaching again. I want to. I’m so glad I want to. [The break did its job.]

As I’ve navigated this very quick turnaround of events these past few weeks, I’ve listened to many of my beloveds who champion me, champion my work, this book on Jan, in fact, say: You have a job. You are writing your book.

This morning I started a new little gem of a book about writing. I love this genre. I find myself often leaning on the words and encouragement of writers who write about their work and lives. These books buoy me, get me back to work when I’m slipping into inactivity. This one is by Colum McCann (author of TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin) called Letters to a Young Writer.  On page 14, he writes, “Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. You have to show up for the work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room…You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.”

I think the only reason I don’t yet accept my book– and essay–writing as “my job” is because it rarely results in payment. It is not (yet…I hope) work I do that results in a paycheck.  It is still hard for me to think–every single day—that THIS is my job.

There are so many ways in which artists–the arts–are oppressed: If you’re not having fun or if it’s not recreation, you’re not doing it right, or it’s of no value. If you’re not bleeding for it, you’re not doing it right, or it’s of no value. If you aren’t making a lot of money from it, than it’s of no value, or it’s not really art. [You’re a writer, huh? Which book did you write?] Art is about making money. About fame. About celebrity. [There are artists other than actors and directors, Mr. Carlson.] Making art isn’t a serious endeavor. Get a job.

Art is work. Hard work. Work that is so hard, seemingly impossible, that every time you think about doing it, it’s time to wash your hair.  Colum McCann: Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.

I think about Jan. The first time I remember her telling me that to be a classical musician, a professional singer I had to accept responsibility for the job of it. It’s a job. Your work, and you must go about doing it as you would any other paying job to which you’ve made a commitment.

Of course, the tricky thing about making art is this: the only foreman, manager, boss is YOU. The commitment is to YOU.  The schedule, deadline, output, all you. And for some reason, it’s always easier for me to act when the commitment is first to other [including Jan]. 

No one had ever spoken to me like this about music, theater, art. Making art. No one had ever said, If you don’t like this, do something else. It’s the reckoning I bet every single artist makes at some juncture in order to cross the line over into a life of making art. It’s the reckoning of this: pleasure, joy, fun, and pride with diligence, discipline, perseverance, faith, hope, disappointment. Commitment.  It’s this serious. And joyful.

Jan was teaching me something essential about this thing which is an expression of self: it’s an honorable line of work worthy of all your respect.

I’m pretty sure Mr. Tucker Carlson wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about.

Here are some pictures from a ride I took yesterday on Mississippi’s 50+-mile Tanglefoot Trail.

Tanglefoot Trail

Whistle Stop!

Started in Houlka and went a few miles beyond Algoma. 25 miles total. Beautiful. IMG_5011Those of you who know me know I ride a lot. I like to ride. I also loathe hills, mountains. Wind. Like the pre-storm ones kicking up yesterday as I rode the 12.5 miles back. But I do it anyway. Keep doing it. Keep putting my arse in the chair.

Hmmm.Tanglefoot Trail


About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
This entry was posted in Cycling, Dawn's Journey, Photo, Quotes, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Jan DeGaetani and Houlka, MS

  1. John Kramar says:

    God Bless You, Dear One! Your words today truly touched my soul. I love your job. I love your thoughtfulness. I am so happy that we have reconnected.


  2. Karen Holvik says:

    Hello Dawn,
    I’ve been binge reading your blog posts and this one has made me stop long enough to leave a note. I’m so sorry that we have continued to miss each other when you’ve approached me about getting together to talk about Jan. Reading your blog, I am totally transported to what was one of the richest periods of my life – when I was at Eastman as a grad student, and when I was in Aspen for five summers studying and singing with Jan. ( We were in a production of “The Medium” together – I’ll never forget it as long as I live.) She transformed my life, as she did yours, and all of the people you mention are/were VIPs in my life as well.
    You write beautifully – truly beautifully. And I love that you use one of my favorite phrases from Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark” as your blog title. If it’s not too late for me to make a contribution to your marvelous project, please let me know.


    • dhaines54 says:

      Karen! thank you so much for your lovely support and memories, and yes! I am still able to speak with you at your earlier convenience.
      The next two weeks are terrific for me. Then, it will be harder to schedule during the day because I start teaching full time, but evenings can work.
      Let me know if you’ve got any time in the coming two weeks.

      So good to hear from you.


  3. Dear Dawn, I have been connecting all day to Jan, on this her birthday.I cannot thank you enough for finding the words which elude me. I am so deeply grateful to you ! My daughter Amanda Mester,
    a writer living in New Orleans (Jan and Phil performed the Vaughan Williams Blake Songs at the Prince of Peace chapel for her christening in. Aspen in 1988 I think…she was born on Feb. 11th, 1988). Through my daughter, I have also been exploring the southern U.S., not having been there
    since tours with the Roger Wagner Chorale and the Gregg Smith Singers and the Waverly Consort.
    I hope that you and your father are well and send affectionate greetings !


    • dhaines54 says:

      Hello, Kimball!
      Thanks for your support and kind words. And for the reminder! I just posted a bit about how I NEVER remember birthdays…even as I sat and worked yesterday, I failed to remember! So thank you and to others for reminding me!

      I am happy here in Mississippi and excited for my new teaching post. Thanks for reading, Kimball. Be well.


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