Valerie June: Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Valerie June

Valerie June Hockett, known as Valerie June, is an American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Memphis, Tennessee. Her sound encompasses a mixture of folk, blues, gospel, soul, country, Appalachian and bluegrass. She is signed to Concord Music Group worldwide.

“I feel called to share light and to shine through my art.” – Valerie June 

I was delighted when Valerie June’s rep told me that Valerie was on board to be interviewed for the series of profiles I’m writing. I am a big fan of her music. Her lyrics intrigue me and are a sure sign that she is connected to a higher power. I wanted to learn more about that connection and how it moves her through life. She is a stunningly beautiful woman, but her soul easily outshines her physical appearance. Talking to Valerie is like having a conversation with your favorite guru in funky packaging. She is an evolved soul. Her sweet southern drawl reveals someone who has no pretenses. She has worked hard to overcome her doubts about who she is.

Valerie was raised in a loving close-knit family. Her parents encouraged her to dream and to put her energies into something she was good at, something that lit her up. At the same time, to be safe, they nudged her in the direction of college. 

“They never really pushed us to become anything in life other than just good people. I feel like my parents always followed their hearts, and so then that was my earthly start to it.”

Valerie is the quintessential artist. Not only does she play any stringed instrument that she can get her hands on but she writes songs, poetry and loves to draw and paint. I wondered if she had always followed her passions? Did she ever support herself with work that was against her nature?

“I’ve had so many jobs in my life. I tried to do all of them from an inner place. I just feel like you’ve gotta have a lot of heart, and a lot of spirit and soul in what you do, or else what’s the point? So even when I was cleaning toilets – it was like, you know, this is my heart right now. I gotta give it everything I’ve got.”

Cleaning houses is where Valerie developed a spiritual practice that she carries with her to this day. She needed something to occupy her mind while she worked so she began using affirmations to keep her mindset in a positive place. 

“As I would go dust a house, or vacuum, I’d be saying, ‘Thank you, Goddess, for I am now beautiful. Thank you Goddess because I am now confident. Thank you because I’m now respectful. Thank you because I’m now mindful. Thank you because I’m now gentle.’ I felt everyday I’ve got to have something to keep me rising, keep lifting me up because discouragement is always waiting.”

Valerie uses those affirmations to this day to fortify herself from the challenges that come her way. She has learned that you have to protect your dreams. When she and her ex-husband first started playing in Memphis in her early 20’s, somebody ripped up a dollar bill, and threw it in their tip jar. 

She laughs, “My ex-husband took it out, and taped it up and put it on the wall and said, ‘Not everyone is going like what you do.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’ So what’s going to get you out of it? You need to just keep quiet and tell yourself things like those affirmations to build yourself up.”

Valerie in Memphis

Valerie Playing for tips in Memphis.

Fifteen years later Valerie’s career is on a steady rise. In 2017, Rolling Stone proclaimed her album, The Order of Time, to be one of the 50 best albums of the year. Surprisingly, Valerie says she never made a formal decision to play music professionally.

“Well… I think that’s an everyday decision really, you know? Everyday I wake up, and I look at the world, and there’s so many things to do and to be. I’m interested in so many things because I’m such a huge dreamer.”

Valerie is a believer in the value of living in the now – to a certain point. Owning that she is a romantic, she sees the importance of setting goals in her career. Although she believes it’s also important knowing when to rejuvenate and relax. There comes a time when you have to let go and allow the work that you’ve done to work for itself.

“I think that you have to do the physical work within the physical realm, working with the physical laws. Because that’s where we are – on Earth. There are other realms where things happen easier and faster. But part of our lesson here in this school is to go through that process of planting the seed, watering the seed, giving the seed enough light and nurturing the seed. That can be looked at as pushing, or it can be looked at as just part of the process of growing and just part of dealing with time on Earth and the limitations of this realm. You know, [it’s] not really a limitation, either. It’s just a law.”

Valerie was raised in the Church of Christ. As the years go by, her faith in God has deepened and broadened. She admits to doubting herself at times, but she never doubts her connection with The Creator.

“I’m a very doubtful person, which is why my practice is important. It’s the only way I can stay in line. But I don’t have doubts that there’s a power greater than me. I can feel it in the earth I walk on and in the music I get into. I can see it in the skies and in the plants I watch grow and in the people that have come in and out of my life. I can just see it! It’s so visible to me.”

Valerie considers the songs she writes to be living things. She allows them to come to her at their own pace, making writer’s block a near impossibility. 

“The biggest thing I can do is not put any pressure on them and go about my daily life and let them come whenever they want to. I’ll be washing dishes or watering the plants or walking through the airport and they will come into my head. I keep them in my head on repeat until I can right them down. When I don’t get the whole song, I call it a skeleton. I have all these books filled with skeletons.”

Valerie’s looks at each song she is given as a doorway to another existence. Some of her songs she sees in colors. She describes the place she visited when she wrote, Astral Plain as being “colorful, etherial, otherworldly and iridescent.”

“They have other worlds these song do. My songs are like a portal. When I play for an audience, I hope they get to go to the world they originated in through me. I hope they get to sit in that world where the song was when I wrote it.”

Interestingly, Valerie doesn’t give every song she writes to her fans. The same goes for her poetry and the pieces of art she creates. She believes that no matter what size the audience, beauty shared raises the consciousness of humanity.

“Not everything that you do for your life’s purpose is for everyone in the world. Sometimes it’s just for your best friend or your mom or your dad or your loved one. I feel like every song creates something in the world, whether it’s heard on the radio or not.”

Valerie is grateful for being raised in the church. Her robust spiritual life is her foundation for feeling safe. Even so, at times she falls back into uncertainty and worries about the future. Will she be able to continue to support herself? Will she remain in good health? What if she loses her voice?

“How are you going to survive in the physical form is always on a person’s mind, you know? When I do my daily budget I can get scared and think what happens if…? If, if, if! I remind myself not to get carried away with the future. Be here right now. Calm down. Having people in my life, like my 93-year-old grandmother, who does so many things, gives me confidence that I’m going to be just fine. I’m going to make it. She made it! We have elders in our lives that can guide us when we start to get scared.”  

“Is there a light you have inside you can’t touch? A looking glass can only show you so much.” – Valerie June, Astral Plain

Valerie is a constant reader. She recently came across a book that supports a theory of hers. In Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry she read that each and every one of us is light. We all shine if we don’t dumb ourselves down. In fact, if an alien with evolved vision looked down on our planet it would see that every human being shines their own unique color of light. It’s like a chemical fingerprint.

“That just blew my mind that we all have different lights! I was like,‘Wow, how beautiful!’ If it’s true that everybody’s light really is different then we definitely have a reason to come and be fearless about shining. Just giving it our all and loving the hell out of it. The world would just get so bright. We would be so elevated. Maybe there would be things in the universe that would open up to us. Answers that we need. Answers that have always been there, but they would become clear to us at a higher level of consciousness, you know? Sometimes I feel like we’re not ready to receive all of the information that’s available. So shining is the only way to get to it!”

And shining is being yourself? 

“Mmm hmm. It’s about being individuals and being fearless about it. Tapping into your inner light is the true reason you came to Earth. If that color is already out there, why do you need to shine? I’m telling you that no color is the same. I don’t care if we got blue, if we got purple, it’s not your shade of blue or purple. So come on out and shine, you know we need it!

Valerie herself is a colorful person. These days she is admits to wearing shiny cloths to remind people to tap into their inner light.

“I feel like we should be a little kinder to each other and live in a beautiful light. If you fail, get yourself together, so you can go back out there and shine. Your light gets stronger every time you dust off and get up. It’s the true reason you came to Earth. You don’t have long here, you know?  You got to keep moving forward. Everyday you wake up just go for it. Just be like, okay I’m the star of this show. I’m going to make it happen today and shine. It is your life.”

All of us being made of a spectrum of colors of light is a beautiful thing to ponder. That lead me to my final question for Valerie, “What color of light do you shine?” 

Looking at the rings that adorned her fingers, I shouldn’t have been surprised when she responded, “Turquoise.”

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*Coming up next: Thinker, writer, speaker and wisdom keeper, Gordana Biernat. She is one of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100 teachers,

Text and images © Sue Shanahan and Valerie June

All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

A New Year – BE TRUE. BE YOU.

“We don’t realize that we are actually perfect just the way we are. We are born perfect, but spend a lifetime trying to be something we are not, and then feel inadequate for failing. Your only purpose is to BE YOURSELF, otherwise you will deprive the universe of who you came here to be.” ~ Anita Moorjani

The other day my son, Brian, told me that he wants our grandson, Cameron, to grow up and do what makes his heart sing. He doesn’t want “who he should be” imposed on his little guy. I found my son’s conviction so heartening. He already knows what’s taken me a whole lifetime to learn. Be who you are.

I was born into a world that already had perimeters and guidelines set into place to mold me. Being Catholic and female, left little room for my song to be sung. Add my parents fearful life-view into the mix, and I was a shell of the gift I was born to be. Needless to say, I felt stifled and unhappy. The harder I tried to fulfill others expectations the more empty I felt. Disillusioned and certain something was wrong with me, I began looking for ways to fix myself. Somehow what I was searching for in self-help books always alluded me. Today I see that what I really was seeking was permission to be myself.

I’ve set the intention to believe it isn’t selfish to love myself in 2016. I am going to stop criticizing my every move and allow myself to be me. I’ve come to the conclusion that loving who you are can only honor the Creator. Your uniqueness is no accident. Without your gifts and quirks there would be a hole in the tapestry of existence. Einstein was known for being a little peculiar but wrapped in his oddness was the ability to see things differently. What if he had stifled himself? The world have been deprived of his genius just like it will be deprived of yours if you keep the “real you” reigned in.

By being ourselves, we allow the Universe to work through us. Some may say, “But how can I do that when I don’t even know who I am?” The easiest way to discover the true you is when you’re making a decision ask yourself, “What would I do if I loved myself?” And then do that. A life lived this way is certain to take you to places you never dreamed of when you were holding yourself back.

This year when presented with a choice I’m going to ask myself, “Is this something that brings me joy or am I doing it out of obligation?” I’m going to check in moment by moment and really listen to how I feel. Once you start practicing this, you’ll be amazed by how many of your choices are not your own. It feels risky to quiet the mind and listen to the heart but doing so yields much joy.

This year, I am going to open myself up to having more fun. Trying to fulfill the world’s expectations is serious business and leaves little room for lightheartedness. I’ve resolved to ban self-help books from my library. I’ve decided I’m going to be reading for enjoyment. I am looking to be entertained not fixed. I will love my body and eat and exercise in ways that feel right to me. I am through with bowing to the standards imposed on women by advertisers and the diet industry.

Truly, the best New Year’s resolutions don’t come from the outside but from within. Many of us have tried for too long to make ourselves into something we’re not. It takes radical trust to believe that God knew what he was doing when he created you.

In working with the dying, palliative nurse Bronnie Ware, found that her patient’s biggest regret was that they wished they had lived a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them. I’m determined to never let that happen to me. When I reach the end of my days, I don’t want to be hit with the realization that I’ve lived someone else’s life. No, from this day forward the life I am living is my own.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Knowing When to Unfriend a Friend

Troll. ogre, fairy, giant

“When you don’t know when you have been spit on, it does not matter too much what else you think you know.” -Ruth Shays

It’s taken me far too long to comprehend when a friend isn’t truly a friend. I’ve accepted camouflaged, insulting behavior for many years. Being raised by an emotionally abusive mother was a setup to tolerate abuse, however subtle. Her outright cruelty made it hard to recognize covert mistreatment. Growing up that way made me a ready target for people who didn’t honor me. For example, in the past I had a friend who I thought of as a sister. Most times when we were together I felt so understood and supported. Yet there were times when she turned on me, pointing out my flaws “for my own good.” I felt the distinct “ouch” of being stung even though she spoke to me in a benign voice. It was so confusing. At least in dealing with my mom, her delivery left no mistaking that she meant me harm. Digging deep, I saw that even though my friend’s actions were hurtful I was getting something out of them. Part of the gain was the safety of familiarity, but an even bigger part was that it was comfortable for me to play small. Living that way is so undemanding. I got the security of not having to stretch by accepting the role I was assigned to as a child.

Friends who don’t honor you are a reflection of what you believe about yourself. Having the courage to no longer accept another’s unkindness says you’re ready to claim your power. But what if by doing so your bond disintegrates? In the past, I clung to harmful relationships out of the fear of abandonment. Today I know that when I no longer allow myself to be treated poorly, the connection shifts. I may lose a friend. Indeed, that’s exactly what came to pass in my example above. It’s true that when you assert yourself there may be a hole in your life, but not for long. Love abhors a vacuum. By no longer putting up with being treated as “less than,” we make room for real friends to enter. And enter they always do.

One thing is for certain, it’s not my job to figure out why the perpetrator feels the need to put me down. I’ve spent way too much energy analyzing why people do what they do. That somehow made their bad behavior OK and kept me stuck in an unhealthy situation. The watercolor above illustrates this in a fun way. Like with a troll, it’s futile for the fairy to figure out why she angered him. Could it be she was flying too low and disturbed his sleep? Or did he, once upon a time, have his heart broken by a fairy? Perhaps he was raised to believe her kind are just nasty pests. Most likely he was just doing what miserable ogres do when someone gets too close to them. In the end it’s not important what provoked him. All that matters is getting away from him. It’s up to you to keep yourself safe from brutes no matter how nice they appear to be on the surface. Be mindful of your surroundings. Sleepwalkers disturb bees or worse yet, get in the way of trolls. 

Recognizing that I’m the fairy in the painting makes me smile. Even though she has wings, she cowers clearly immobilized. How in the world did she forget that she can fly?

Flying Fairy

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

Five Ways to Step into Freedom

“So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key ” ~ Already Gone, The Eagles

My family of origin wasn’t the healthiest. My dad, an alcoholic, was married to my mom a beautiful, spoiled woman with narcissistic tendencies. Being raised by that pair was not the optimal foundation for a healthy life. For as long as I can remember, I felt shame about who I was. But buried inside all the emotional abuse I suffered was a gift. That gift was the belief that there was something wrong with me. That conviction is what lead me to seek help. Years of unraveling through self-examination and therapy gave me so much insight. They left me knowing who I was and what I wanted, but I was still afraid to live it. My parents where no longer the key holders of my prison of living small. I was.

Many of us let outside circumstances define us and have dumbed ourselves down in an effort to keep ourselves safe. If you’re ready for more than just surviving life, below are five tips to help you to begin to move forward and live free.

1) The first step to being fully alive is the recognition that you are the one holding yourself back. This is the cornerstone for all the other steps. When you get that at a deep level, you can decide your path to freedom. Whether it’s therapy, a twelve step group or the support of good friends, use the resources that are available.

2)  There is a lot of wisdom in the phrase, “acting as if.” Visualize what it would feel and look like to not hold yourself back. In the words of Dr. Wayne Dyer, “You’ll see it when you believe it.” Then visualize a self-aware confident you throughout the day and before you go to sleep at night.

3) Practice not playing small in one area of your life at a time. One place I really held myself back was in my writing. When I made a pact to speak my truth in my blog, I did that one post at a time. I was surprised and touched that so many readers related with the real me. That helped me to extend speaking my truth in other areas of my life. The thought of living your authentic self in every aspect of your life, all at once, can be overwhelming. Baby steps feel safe and build confidence.

4) Don’t use the words like he, she, it, or they coupled with the phrase, “…made me feel a certain way.” Switch it to, “I allowed them to make me feel that way.” For example change, “She makes me feel bad about myself” to “I allowed her to make me feel bad about myself.” That comes from a place of power not victimhood. After all, we do have choices. When you live as a victim, you’re helping yourself to stay stuck.

5) Get strength from a power greater than yourself. I seriously don’t believe I could have moved past my self-defeating behaviors without that kind of help. Call it grace, or call it God, there is a force for good that can be summoned. Ask.

“The power you give others belongs to you. Take it back and take yourself where you would go.” ~ Alan Cohen

Liberating yourself is empowering but also can bring up some fear. Don’t let it turn you around. It’s just the frightened child surfacing, trying to keep you safe. Taking directions from fear may have actually kept you from harm at one time, but it’s now outlived its usefulness. To break the pattern, observe your feelings but don’t give them any credence. Simply let them pass through you. You are a grown-up now and have the right to experience life to the fullest. By holding yourself back, you deprive the world of an irreplaceable gift….you.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com

In Art and Life: Perfectionism is the Enemy

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 12014 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Perfectionism is the enemy in art – and just about everything.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve developed a pattern of procrastination when I begin a new illustration. I circle over my Arche’s hot-pressed watercolor paper like a hawk stuck on repeat. I think about it, plan out my method of approach, resolve to zero in on it and then am interrupted. It’s always something that is a faux “can’t wait” situation. What is this? I’m an artist. Isn’t painting supposed to be my passion? Why am I so easily pulled off course? Next, I berate myself for becoming distracted and vow to start my image first thing…tomorrow.

After about two weeks of this push and pull, I finally force myself to begin. I sit down, grip the pencil tightly and have my eyes inches from the paper to begin the preliminary drawing. It must be perfect. I must be perfect. No wonder I have trouble getting started. I’ve discovered that in pursuing flawlessness I was perfecting the joy and life right out of my art.

“It’s very important to enjoy what you’re doing or else you are always going to procrastinate.” – James Altucher

The more I’ve evolved as a person, the more I’ve embraced my humanity and know many of my character defects are simply survival skills gone awry. Unbeknownst to me, the more I accepted myself, the tighter I gripped my paintbrushes. Losing the enjoyment of my craft, made me wonder what would happen if I painted with abandon. Would it bring back the pleasure and make my artwork come alive? I was ready to experiment. The above piece, I Heart the Moon is the result. I had labored over an earlier version of it in 2012. That one took me six weeks to complete. The new interpretation took two weeks, and l loved painting it. I let the watercolor swirl and land where it wanted to. Unrestricted, filling in the details with colored pencil was no longer drudgery but fun. I felt free. Procrastination didn’t mean I was lazy or a failure. It was just signaling to me that my method wasn’t working.

I Heart the Moon © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

I Heart the Moon 2012 © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

Next, I decided to post both pictures on Facebook and take a vote to see which illustration my followers preferred. I was happy to know the new rendering was the favorite, but it wasn’t unanimous like I thought it would be. Some still liked the one that I had done in my “being perfect” stage. Did that mean I was wrong about my up-tightness transferring itself to my art? I don’t think so. What it did confirm is there is an audience for every phase of my work, something  I’m particularly grateful for.

“Safety is all well and good: I prefer freedom.” – E.B. White

My art and it’s process are a metaphor for my life. When I pay attention to both, so much is revealed to me. Holding back who I am in any area, not only does a disservice to myself, but to the world too. Dumbing down the “gift of me” is something I learned in childhood. It kept me off the radar of unsafe people. It took years of unraveling before I felt secure enough to risk living uncensored. Letting go, something I resisted, has ended up bringing me great rewards. The truth of who we are is revealed in every spontaneous action we take.  And for me, hiding is no longer an option. I know too much.

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved. www.sueshanahan.com