Enough

In the early eighties, I was living in New York City, wondering if it was remotely possible to have it all. Judith, my long-suffering therapist, said to me: “A career, marriage, and family? You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.”

Discouraging words in 1984, especially since I didn’t have anything, let alone everything. I was divorced, dating two completely inappropriate guys—one of them married, a compulsive gambler, and twenty-three years my senior; the other sneaky, smart, and movie star handsome. I almost married the handsome guy for his real estate, but found out that while he was seeing me, he was also dating a man-boy named Steve. My so-called career consisted of dashing from one five-star Manhattan hotel to another, playing the piano for chiropractor conventions and drunken delegates to the Toy Fair, and occasionally being cast in an off-off-awful Broadway show, with a script written by someone just as depressed as I was. I tried to have it all; instead I had nothing, except for a closet full of black evening gowns and a nice cat named Lucky. New York City, back then, was an artistic hamster wheel for people like me. The more we suffered, the better we fared, at least in our own minds. None of it mattered, because no one cared. Round and round and round we went, gritting our teeth, drinking over-priced white wine, and assuring each other that we were having so much fun.

Three decades later I’m shocked to find I do have it all—in a circus juggler, European plate-spinner kind of way. A musical marriage to the world’s best (and most appropriate) guy, two brave and funny kids, and, yes, a career. In many ways, Judith was right all those years ago—a woman’s life is one of compartmentalization. Most working mothers wear so many hats we could work as quick-change artists for the finest London milliner. Over the course of one day we might be chefs, taxi-drivers, glamor girls, math experts, IT queens, bartenders, craft masters, gardeners, toilet cleaners, laundry mavens, and soothers of broken spirits (sometimes our own). And that’s just in our down time, before we’ve started whipping up the crème brulée, toasting the goat cheese for the roasted beet salad, and heading to the office (in my case, the piano).

It’s hard to make a living while you’re trying to make a life.

Judith was also wrong in a way—occasionally it is possible, for one ephemeral moment, to watch various components of a life—career, family, personal values—collide and morph into a genuine feeling of roundness that produces a gorgeous boom of affirmation. I experienced one of these moments recently.

Geneva, Switzerland, November 3, 2014: The United Nations

boat

Mountains. Alps, actually. And a lake. My flight from Düsseldorf circles the airport and prepares to land. From my airplane porthole, Geneva offers itself to me with an touch of arrogance, like a well-endowed woman so certain of her powerful beauty that she only needs to strike a pose to soak up admiring stares. The words to Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” float through my mind. I don’t know if lyricist Mitchell Parish ever visited Geneva, but I like to think he did.

I am headed to the United Nations—the Palais des Nations­—to perform a song I was commissioned to write with my daughter, Julia. The piece, called “Maybe It’s You,” is the theme song for the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Regional Review, an international forum on the status of women. The event will be attended by over 700 of the world’s most influential and politically-active women. At the closing ceremony I’m going to play this song on the piano for them. And my daughter will sing.

I’m familiar with the United Nations in New York, and I thought that the Geneva branch would pale in comparison—sort of the European hillbilly cousin to the real thing. But when my train arrives outside the Palais I am stunned by the scope and beauty of the grounds. Julia, who has worked as a UN intern for the past week, runs outside the gate to greet me. She has been serving as a Youth Ambassador for FAWCO, a UN-accredited NGO, for the last five months, and I haven’t seen much of her. We wrote the song back in May, before she left on her travels. Julia is eighteen. Wearing a chic business suit she bought at Swiss Zara—the “UN intern look” she calls it—she bounds across the big square where we’ve arranged to meet, and escorts me through a security gauntlet to get me inside where the first general meeting is taking place.

We hold hands as we walk a long distance from the entrance to the main hall. I try to catch up on everything I’ve missed about each her. But the UN, with its audacious history, high ceilings, and glorious artwork, puts our personal conversation on hold. We stride through magnificent corridors.

Act/Advance/Achieve/Women’s Rights. Music will be the tiniest part of the equation. This is a serious conference on human rights for women and girls. We’ll learn about slavery, genital mutilation, the sale of girls for marriage, domestic violence; we’ll learn about our lack of reproductive rights, lack of equal education, lack of gender equality in the workplace. We’ll learn about how much we’re lacking, when it comes to human rights. And we’ll learn about the heroes trying to change things for the better, step by step.

“Look, Mom. Look at the way we’re walking. You can’t help it. When you’re in here you start walking like you’re important. Sort of like the principal of my high school, except faster. I call it the Important Walk.”

I know exactly what she means. It’s silly. I have been here for about twelve minutes and I am already feeling important, that the world respects my opinion. I haven’t done or said anything at all, but  because they let me through the front door I find that my head is higher, my shoulders are back. I am taller. We enter the Plenary Hall. Seven hundred women, wearing earpieces, sit at desks and listen to a panel discussion called: Women’s Rights: A Power to Create Change. I grab an earpiece and listen in.

The let’s make the world a better place energy is palpable in the hall. It’s contagious and waves of inspiration wash over me. It’s hard to believe that Julia and I, with our theme song, are part of this meaningful forum. Half of me feels overwhelmed, a little freaked out by the magnitude of the event; the other half feels ready. I feel important. As I will learn over the next three days, far too many women and girls in the world never get the chance to feel important. Maybe that’s the point of this conference. We’re important. We count. Every single one of us.

“Isn’t this the best thing ever?” Julia says.

I can’t answer because I am fighting back tears. That’s what feeling important can do to a fifty-seven year old woman. It can make her cry. I’ve lived a privileged first-world hamster-wheel life, but still, I’ve been waiting a long time for this. It is one thing to be acknowledged by my family and friends for being a good mom, or to hear the applause of a generous audience after a successful concert. It’s quite another to know that the world’s policy makers are listening to the concerns of mothers, working women, and girls. My concerns. My daughter’s concerns. Whether the world community will act on our concerns remains to be seen. But at least they’re taking notes. It’s a start.

Flags

November 4th, Sound Check

A perfect Steinway B had been delivered to the UN the day before the conference began. It now sits in the front of the Plenary Hall, close the speaker’s dais. The participants’ desks surround the piano in a “U” shape.

We are scheduled to meet with the head technician at 12:30 for a sound check while the conference attendees are having lunch. I’m worried about the sound situation—it’s a huge room and a technical nightmare. Every single desk has a headset and controls that allow the listener to switch from English to French to Spanish to Russian. It’s an amazing device, and an amusing distraction when bored—wow, wonder how this lady sounds in Russian. Here’s the thing—there is no “live” amplification in the room. You absolutely need the earpiece to hear what’s going on. How they are going to get around this for our song concerns me. But it’s the United Nations, so they must know what they’re doing.

The IT coordinator, Valerie, meets us at the appointed time. Smart and funny, she is also beautiful—a tall woman with long white hair and no make-up. She’s both Bohemian and elegant. But right now she has bad news, which she delivers in a Bohemian, yet elegant, way.

“There is no microphone,” she says. “There is no live amplification in the room.”

“What?” I say. “This can’t be.”

She calls the head technician to the floor. There is much shrugging of shoulders and use of the word “compliqué,” and I begin to understand that we are screwed. I suggest we bring in an outside sound crew. Valerie is willing, but the union technician won’t allow it—“a security nightmare,” he says. Plus the outside system would cause feedback on the 700 earpieces at the individual desks. I imagine the sound of 700 earpieces squealing all at once.

One would think this might have come up in pre-conference technical planning, but for whatever reason it didn’t. Merde. I know a losing battle when I hear one, especially when it’s in French, so I smile and say: “We’ll make it work.”

“We will?” says Julia. “How?”

“You’ll have to sing acoustically.”

“For seven hundred people? Are you nuts?”

Oui.”

“Well that’s stupid,” she says. “But I can do it. I’ll have to channel Aretha or something.”

I am very proud of my daughter right now. As the snarky sound guy sneaks away, Valerie apologizes a thousand times. We assure her that we will make the best of the situation.

“Of course,” she says. “This is what women know how to do. We make things work.”

We do a sound check even though there is nothing to check. The room is very bouncy and bright and performing unplugged might actually work. There’s no choice. If everyone listens, we’ll be heard—sort of the theme for the entire week. I wonder if the interpreters in the booth upstairs will translate Julia’s words as she performs. I wonder if they will sing along. In Russian.

Non Sound Check

Non Sound Check

November 5th, Show Time

Julia and I are staying outside Geneva in the elegant lakeside villa of former FAWCO President, Kathleen Simon, along with eight other FAWCO members and Kathleen’s good-humored husband, Andrew. Ten women staying in one residence, all of whom need to eat breakfast, shower, and dress for the day so we can leave at 7:30 sharp. The whoosh of blow driers, the gurgle of a designer coffee machine, the mingled scents of L’Oreal hairspray and Jo Malone perfume greet me as I round the corner into Kathleen’s kitchen. The irony of this scene—a gaggle of privileged women lining up for their organic morning beverages so they can adequately hydrate themselves before a dead serious meeting about the perils of being a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa—does not escape me. We are ten upper-middle class western women, decked out in cashmere and silk, off for a day of talk about saving those less fortunate. Yes, we have beautiful homes and enviable wardrobes; but we also have big hearts, working brains, and the desire to spend our time, energy, and extra cash doing whatever we can to make a difference. Maybe guilt has guided us here. Maybe we are saving ourselves.

Reeling from the previous day’s roundtable discussions—Women and Poverty, The Girl Child, Human Rights and Migrant Women, Violence Against Women—we’re ready to head to the UN for more, more, more. Julia and I are dressed for our performance at noon. We’re wearing coordinated black and white dresses and I’m hoping no one says we look like the Olsen Twins. I’m nervous about technical issues—is it really possible to sing acoustically for 700 people? Julia is worried about her panty hose, which seem to be slipping down. Crotch sag—any woman will tell you it’s a major drag. All this women’s rights stuff is important, indeed, but really, someone needs to invent suspenders to hold up our tights.

Oh wait; maybe we should just wear pants.

There is no backstage in the Plenary Hall—the space isn’t set up for theatrical events or concerts (UN, The Musical!)—so we sit at a front-row desk, close to the Steinway, and wait for our cue to perform. We whisper back and forth to each other as the former President of Finland gives a speech. I admit it, I’m a little nervous. I’ve played my share of state dinners, but this is different.

“Are you drinking enough water?” I ask Julia, who complained about a sore throat this morning, no doubt the result of the stadium singing she did yesterday at the non-sound check.

Oui,” she says.

“Are you warmed up?”

Oui.”

Do you remember the form of the song?

Oui, oui, oui.”

“Don’t forget the third verse.”

“Mom.”

“And to repeat the refrain three times at the end.”

“Mom. I am fine. Calm down. I just wish my tights would stay up. They’re halfway down my butt. This is making me nuts. I should have worn pants.”

Right.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, NGO CSW Geneva President, winds up the conference with a lovely speech about diversity. I have practiced saying her name over the last three days and now I can do it without stuttering. Nyaradzayi commands attention; she is strong and funny and controls this huge crowd with her rich voice and compelling speech. She calls several women to the stage—a ninety-year old delegate, a disabled women in a wheel chair, a female member of the Roma community, a Muslim woman, a Jewish woman, a token man, and then—big surprise to me—Julia, who at eighteen is the youngest delegate at the conference. She is also the tallest, although that doesn’t count. There Julia stands, front and center, smiling and representing her generation. For what must be the twentieth time since this conference started, I cry. And this is unfortunate timing, because we are on, now.

Simone Ovart, Forum Co-chair, moderates this part of the ceremony and begins introducing us in French. I wipe the mascara smudges off my cheeks and listen. I had provided a brief description of the two us in English, which was successfully translated into French. I sit at the Steinway, attempting to understand Madame Ovart—I don’t have a headset at the piano, so I can only hear the French, a very elegant way to be introduced. She finishes her brief words about me and tucks into Julia’s introduction. I glance at the FAWCO delegation sitting several rows back, listening—with their earpieces—to the simultaneous English translation of the French translation of the original English version. C’est compliqué. The FAWCO women burst out laughing at something they’ve heard. Later I will find out that the translator said that Julia received her PhD at the age of eighteen. Wow. Dr. Julia. And she can sing, too. I glance over at her and she looks completely relaxed. She looks focused. She also looks like she is trying very hard not to tug on her panty hose.

I take a breath and play an A major triad—an axis of wonder in a working mom’s world. Performing for these 700 women is like sliding into a warm bath. Dr. Julia and I are safe here with this audience. They support us, inspire us, and carry us as far as we need to go, which isn’t too far, since we’re only performing one song, but still I am glad they’re along for the ride. I play the piano, because that’s my job, but I listen to my daughter have her moment of importance, because that’s my job, too. I am a musician; I am a mother; I am a human being who cares about the status of women everywhere. And today I get to be all of these things at once. I can have it all at the same time. If this only happens once in my lifetime, it’s enough.

By the end of the song Julia has most of the women on their feet and clapping and singing along. The applause rings out and will echo in my heart for weeks to come. We hug dozens of our sisters and grab our coats. Then, bypassing the hamster wheel and still doing the Important Walk, we dash into the cold Geneva rain and think about flying home.

proxy

See the “Maybe It’s You” UN video here.

 

Maybe It’s You

©2014 Robin & Julia Goldsby, Bass Lion Music (BMI)

You’re as bright as the morning sunshine,

And you light up the day,

You’re as cool as a summer wind,

And you chase the rain away,

So look at me,

You are strong,

Look at me,

You are beautiful.

You can crash through the highest ceiling,

And you do it with grace,

Slaying dragons with words of kindness,

Putting peace in its place.

So look at me,

You are bold

Look at me,

You are wonderful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

You are brave,

You are fighting for a change,

You’ll save,

The life you want to live—

You’re the queen of your private kingdom,

And you’re nobody’s bride,

Education is your salvation,

With your sisters by your side,

Look at me,

You are brave,

You are powerful.

Maybe it’s you,

You’re the one who’s gonna make it,

You—standing up tall and proud,

Maybe it’s you,

You can give it; you can take it,

And rise above the roaring crowd.

Rise above the roaring crowd . . .

FAWCO Youth Ambassador Julia Goldsby with the FAWCO Delegation to the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

FAWCO Youth Ambassador Julia Goldsby with the FAWCO Delegation to the NGO Beijing+20 UN ECE Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.

Many thanks to the women who rise above the roaring crowd on a daily basis: Kathleen Simon, My-Linh Kunst, Monica Jubayli, Maggie Palu, Sara von Moos, Sallie Chaballier, Laurie Richardson, Paula Daeppen, Johanna Dishongh, Suzanne Wheeler, Valerie Bichelmeier, and Vera Weill-Hall—the FAWCO delegates to the UN conference.

You lift me up, you do.

Photos and video by My-Linh Kunst, Maggie Palu, and Johanna Dishongh.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!