3 Spiritual Lessons I Learned from Prince

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When I first laid ears on Prince, back in the 1980s, I was a rebellious teenager thrilled with the shock value of his music, a thrill that was only enhanced by the fact that my parents disapproved. I would never have expected that Prince would become one of my spiritual teachers. But life takes unexpected twists and turns, and more than 30 years later, I found myself moving with my husband and two sons to Chanhassen, Minnesota, for my husband’s new job.

What I didn’t realize was that three miles from our house, my musical idol was living out the final days of his illustrious life. After Prince died unexpectedly on April 21, 2016, author Alex Hahn and I decided to take a look at what made Prince what he was. Together, we wrote The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988. As I dove headlong into research about Prince’s life and work, I had a revelation. Among the hundreds of songs he wrote for the dozens of albums he released in a prolific 38-year career, many of them carry spiritual messages.

Here’s what I’ve learned from studying Prince’s life and music.

Be a friendly neighbor

In the 1980s, Prince rose to worldwide fame, in the process achieving arguably the greatest run of creativity in the history of pop music. After the success of his 1984 smash album and movie Purple Rain, Prince did something unexpected: Instead of decamping to a major cultural capital like New York or Los Angeles, or buying boats and mansions, Prince chose to invest the proceeds from Purple Rain into building a sprawling studio and recording complex in Chanhassen. He called it “Paisley Park.” In doing so, Prince invested his newfound riches in two things he held dear: his music and his home state.

Prince was a loyal Minnesotan and good neighbor who gave many locals the opportunity to work at the highest levels of their profession, whether that was costume design or sound engineering. Paisley Park provided space for everything Prince needed to make music, videos and movies, but it wasn’t only Prince’s place: Paisley Park was designed to be a gathering place for the creative community and it attracted stars like Madonna and Stevie Wonder, who recorded there.

Prince offered fans an unprecedented level of access to a star of his stature by opening the doors of Paisley Park for spontaneous performances and DJ dance parties. Lucky fans who responded to a last-minute invitation on social media might find themselves in an exclusive group of 40 or 50, listening enrapt as Prince played a marathon set of live music.

Unlike Prince, I didn’t have superstar cache or my own live music venue. But through his example, I learned to extend myself in other ways. In the name of book research, I went out dancing at Paisley Park, browsed at Prince’s favorite record store and attended concerts at a jazz club where they marked his former table with a purple flower. The people I met at Prince-related events were remarkably open and welcoming, and I quickly adopted the same attitude. Friendships formed naturally as I would bump into familiar faces at concerts or gallery openings.

One of God’s gifts is community and connection, and I marveled at the richness and diversity of my new friends, who were of all races, ages and creeds, and held jobs ranging from corporate executives to musicians, nurses and academics. We shared one thing in common: We were always up for seeing a show. Jumping up and down together and singing along, I knew we were in harmony and in sync. I had learned from Prince to be open to new people and new experiences.

If God gave you a gift, share it

Longtime Prince keyboardist Morris Hayes said that Prince once told him, “Everything is finished in my head, so all I got to do is execute it.” Yes, Prince was a musical genius who heard music in his head, but here’s the truth: He had a choice about what to do with that music. He could have ignored it or procrastinated until the melody slipped his mind. Instead, when inspiration struck, he threw himself into his work, never wasting the opportunity he’d been given. Prince often composed and recorded for 20 hours a day in a flurry of nonstop creativity.

Conversely, Prince also gave other musicians the chance to shine. When he created the band The Time, he placed his friend Morris Day in the spotlight as the front man in the world’s baddest funk band. Then when he created the band The Family, he gave then-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin and Minnesota native Paul Peterson the same opportunity. In his later years, Prince lifted up aspiring artists and behind the scenes, helped them be the best they could be. He found joy in seeing other artists be successful.

God endowed each of us with our own unique gifts. For the sake of being accepted or keeping ourselves safe from criticism or ridicule, some choose to minimize or hide their gifts. But if we, like Prince, let our gifts guide us, we can achieve the life God intended for us. Prince showed me that by sharing my gifts, I too could find myself laughing in the proverbial purple rain.

What Seems Weird Might Be Holy

Prince was someone who was unapologetically himself, even when that meant enduring criticism by people who dismissed him as “weird.” When we encounter a person who seems strange or unconventional, our first reaction is often to push them away. Weird isn’t for us. Weird is something that must be kept at a safe distance. Before we know it, “weird” becomes a wall that we build around our hearts.

Prince was a good example of how we should all look for the positive in others and the special gifts they have. Prince was open to bringing people into his band who weren’t necessarily stars, or even widely known. Instead, he offered work to local Minnesotans who he saw performing at small clubs and in later years, musicians he discovered on YouTube. Many people who worked for him were otherwise ordinary people who were good at what they did professionally – and were willing to stretch and try new things when Prince would challenge them. Prince would see something special in someone and try to cultivate that talent.

I wanted to be like that, too. Now, when I encounter someone new, I never judge them. I simply treat them as someone whose story I have not yet heard, and I make an effort to reach out and to listen and pay attention, because we are all vessels of God.

April Snow

It’s April snowing in Minnesota (AGAIN! we get it already!) and I’m off on a weeklong work trip to fabulous New York, where I hope to squeeze in one Prince-related outing. I will return on April 22. Until then!

April Brings Surprising Personal Challenges

CONFESSION TIME: April’s challenge is forcing me to face some demons. Until this month, I had no idea these demons even existed, which makes them even more demon-y. On a personal level, April is my birthday month and now, the month when Prince died, and my intuition is telling me there’s a big emotional reckoning at hand. April came in like a wrecking ball!

Changing my name to a symbol has gotten me into tight spots numerous times, and it’s only April 11. It’s gonna be a loooooong month and right now I predict that May’s theme will be, “She’s Seeking Therapy!” It’s one thing for a global superstar to change his name, because he’s PRINCE, dammit, and I’m … well, who am I, anyway? I’m a white, middle-aged suburban mom who’s trying to be more like someone I admire. I couldn’t be more different from Prince. I know that. About all we shared was the same zip code, and that was only for a month’s time. I’m one of the millions of people who looked nothing like Prince and had lifestyles nothing like his but yet, who were inspired by him. And still, the inner demons keep asking me: Who are you to try to be like him?

I blame the process of running around as ☀️💛 for surfacing this existential crisis. I really think it’s rooted in the fear of drawing attention to myself. Until now, I never felt like I was shrinking back and making myself invisible or that I was afraid to be seen, but man, I have been quaking in my four-inch heeled booties!

Here are the social and work situations where I’ve found myself squirming:

  • Answering to roll call at the meeting of a women’s group
  • Wearing a pre-printed name tag in that same women’s group
  • Filling out a name tag in art class
  • Signing for an in-store credit card purchase
  • Signing work emails
  • Participating in work conference calls

First off, I like my name and would never consider changing it. I know a lot of people who don’t like their names and I always feel for them. So when I deny my name, it feels like a big bummer (also, what would my poor mother think!). But mostly, my discomfort stems from how much I hate drawing attention to myself. Making a fuss over my name feels physically painful. I swear this must have been drilled into me as a child. Is it a Midwest thing? A Norwegian thing? A female thing? None or all of the above?

Yes, I’m an introvert, as are a whole lot of writers, and as an introvert, I avoid being the center of attention. In fact, I was one of those seemingly rare women who did not look forward to having a wedding. To be clear, I wanted to be married; but I didn’t want a wedding, because the idea of being the focus of so many people was absolutely petrifying. (I did it anyway, and it was more than fine).

But I digress. The underlying issue is about more than introversion: It’s about feeling like I’m actively seeking attention, and changing my name to a symbol feels like I’m becoming a big attention-seeking missile. But perhaps becoming an attention-seeking missile is exactly what I need to push myself to do.

What helps a lot is what my friend Mary O’Donohue told me: If you have information to share that could potentially help someone, and you don’t share it because you’re afraid of stepping up and allowing yourself to be visible, that’s selfish. That makes sense to me. And I don’t want to be accused of being selfish. It helps too, to remember that Prince was shy, and had to force himself to overcome that shyness so that he could share his music.

Later in his career, Prince encouraged others to share their gifts by the way he found and promoted new musicians. I’m going to keep sharing my gifts too, the way he would want all of us to do — stage fright be damned.

Are Names Limiting?

From @soulthirtythree’s Instagram

Prince’s cosmic nature must be infiltrating my brain, because this thought occurred to me: What if one day, we’re all known as symbols?

This is what happens when you live like Prince. All sorts of unexpected notions take hold of your mind. By the end of 2019, you might find me hovering over Chanhassen as I levitate my way through each day in the fifth dimension.

Freedom, flexibility and keeping an open mind are going to be hallmarks of future generations, according to generational experts. Today’s world is so multi-faceted and fast-paced that I can imagine people feeling constricted by having only one identity for their entire lives. Why keep the name you were given as a child if you’ve morphed into something else? Labels, too, will go the way of the dinosaur (and well they should — labels are dangerous things indeed. If you’re labeled “shy” as a child, guess what? You may take that to heart, and become it). Future generations may shy away from labels, avoiding identifying themselves as “soccer moms,” for example, and refuse to acquiesce to the siren call of the minivan.

As a writer, it’s hard to imagine a world without words. While I can agree that symbols communicate on a different level, words carry immense meaning for me, as do individual letters. “Floral” makes me feel one way, “stingy” another. These words sound like they feel, and their letters form a distinctive shape that I recognize. But I wonder if future generations will feel that way. As our kids read less and watch videos more, they are becoming attuned to visual learning.

Would a symbol be able to convey more meaning on more levels than a word composed of letters ever could? Could a child be born and given a symbol, and at some future date, be able to add a flourish to convey new meaning through her existing symbol? I can imagine a world where the answer is “yes.”

Changing Your Name Is Like Moving to a New City

View from The Home Depot parking lot, Minnesota, 2016.

Some months ago, I was listening to Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, “Happier,” in which she espoused the virtues of a virtual move. The term “virtual move” was used as a term for an act in which you tell yourself you’re packing for a move, so that you will declutter and get rid of items, as if you were getting ready to leave. What would you take, and what would you give away?

In the first eight days of changing my name to ☀️💛, I have come to equate it with moving to a new city. The landscape is different. You look at the mundane things of life with new eyes. (Can you imagine going to the DMV as ☀️💛?). As I learned last week at art class, even the simple act of being presented with a blank name tag can create a state of existential angst.

We moved to Minnesota from Illinois three years ago, and although a lot of the newness has faded, I recall how jarring the differences felt. The zipper merge? What’s that? Hot dish with tator tots, for real? MEA weekend? What’s up with all the wild rice soup? Also, why don’t they salt the roads – does no one notice that it’s slippery? Why is summer vacation three solid months long? Does everyone have a cabin up north? Aren’t we far enough north already? And isn’t it endearing how Minnesotans love their state? They put Minnesota on dishtowels, bottle openers, jewelry, cutting boards, buffalo plaid blankets. Yes, it really is endearing.

Although our move only entailed going from a (large) Midwestern city to a (smaller) Midwestern city, it was a shock to the system. That shock was much needed, even if it came with challenges related to there not being enough salt on the roads for my taste. For at least a year after you move, you pay attention to every small detail. Once, after loading my groceries, I stood in the Lunds and Byerlys parking lot marveling at the sky. I was stopped dead in my tracks, in awe of the beauty. Everyone carrying their grocery bags of wild rice soup looked at me — not even glancing at the glorious sky — and kept walking. But because I was a stranger in a strange land, I had noticed something they took for granted. I don’t blame them: It’s human nature.

How Gen Z is Redefining Identity

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Move over, Millennials. A new generation is pushing its way onto the scene. Born between 1995 and 2010, the oldest members of Gen Z turn 24 years old this year and are making their presence known in the workforce.

I’m a member of Gen X raising children of Gen Z, and while some generational generalizations can be unfair, overly broad and too sweeping, the core principle of this generation caught my eye while reading a McKinsey & Co. report. (You didn’t know that this intrepid Purple Guinea Pig was such a fancy-pants researcher, did you?).

“The core of Gen Z is the idea of manifesting individual identity,” the report states.

Manifesting individual identity? Sounds Princely, I thought. Tell me more, McKinsey consultants. I’m all ears (adorned with my crescent moon ear wraps).

I really like things that are unisex! I think it’s absurd that stores and brands split everything into “male” and “female.” After all, fabric is genderless.
—Female respondent to McKinsey & Co. survey, 22, Goiânia, Brazil

Sound like someone we know?

The report’s authors continue: “For Gen Zers, the key point is not to define themselves through only one stereotype but rather for individuals to experiment with different ways of being themselves and to shape their individual identities over time. In this respect, you might call them “identity nomads.”

Prince became an identity nomad in 1993. You could say he spent seven years in the identity wilderness as the Love Symbol (there is something to those seven-year cycles, isn’t there?). The report goes on to state that Gen Zers hold the right to morph their identity at will, that they will defend causes related to identity.

“Gen Zers are always connected. They constantly evaluate unprecedented amounts of information and influences. For them, the self is a place to experiment, test, and change. Seven out of ten Gen Zers say it is important to defend causes related to identity, so they are more interested than previous generations have been in human rights; in matters related to race and ethnicity; in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues; and in feminism.”

Something tells me that if Prince had been a member of Gen Z, his peers would hardly have blinked an eye when he became the Love Symbol. As it was, back in the Dark Ages of 1993, people judged and ridiculed him.

So far, Gen Z is shaping up to be one impressive generation. I don’t know how much credit Gen X can take, but I am proud of how we’ve raised them.

What’s Your Prince Name?

At the Riley Creek tunnel near Paisley Park.

Random name generators are fabulous, but today I am introducing something far better: the Prince Name Generator. This generator exists inside my brain and I am happy to use it for anyone who wants a Prince name of their very own.

For the uninitiated, here is an example of a perfectly fine name that was elevated by Prince to new heights: Patricia Kotero. Nothing wrong with “Patricia.” But does it really rise to the level of this woman?

No, it does not. Prince suggested that this woman should be “Apollonia,” the name of a picturesque village on the Greek island of Sifnos. Thus was born Apollonia Kotero, his co-star in Purple Rain.

I think my Prince name would have to be “Laura Aurora.” “Aurora” means “dawn,” and Prince used the phrase “Welcome 2 the Dawn” on the back of many of his albums. Plus, Prince was a cosmic individual, and “aurora” has a cosmic feel to it. And of course “Laura Aurora” has the benefit of just rolling off your tongue, doesn’t it?

What’s your Prince name? Ask for help if you need it and I’ll chime in with some ideas!

ETA: Savvy readers suggested that I shorten my Prince name to simply “Aurora.” Aurora it is!

Prince’s Lifelong Fascination with Names is a Clue About Why He Dropped His

Prince gave Denise Matthews the name “Vanity.” Photo credit: Paul Natkin

Prince loved naming people. Denise Matthews became Vanity. Tara Leigh Patrick became Carmen Electra. Mark Brown? Brownmark. (Clever, huh?) Paul Peterson became St. Paul Peterson. Thomas Elm became Tommy Barbarella. Mayte Garcia almost became Arabia but resisted (good call).

Prince gave himself a number of aliases and pseudonyms, from Alexander Nevermind to Joey Coco to Jamie Starr. But for someone who clearly was happy to name almost anyone, it’s unclear if he enjoyed being on the receiving end of a nickname. His family called him Skipper. For a time, and to Prince’s dismay, his neighborhood friends called him The Great Gazoo. But of course, some nicknames are flattering and endearing, while others can feel hurtful. The nicknames Prince gave, at least the ones I mentioned, are more an invention — a vision for the persona and image that person could embody. Tara Leigh Patrick brings to mind a charming Irish lass. Carmen Electra could be no one but the glamorous actor and model that she is still today.

Even surnames were a source of fascination for Prince. Of the surname “Johnson,” he said that his best friends and worst enemies all had the same last name. Presumably, he was referring to his friends from childhood, brothers Keith and Kirk Johnson (Keith is a minister who married Prince and Mayte, and Kirk is a drummer who became Prince’s right-hand man in managing Paisley Park). In the enemy category, I’m guessing we can put C.J., the columnist for the Star-Tribune who was Prince’s #1 critic, at the top of the list.

To name someone is to bring them into existence, in some ways. As a parent, one of the great joys is naming your child. In the book of Genesis, Adam names the animals as part of the creation story. There is something beautiful about giving someone their name.

I believe Prince’s reverence for names is part of the reason why he was so pained at the abuse of his own name at the hands of Warners. And as someone who was deeply hurt by harsh criticism, it might have felt like sweet relief for Prince to tell himself “that’s not me” when people would critique “Prince”‘s work. Because Prince was an artist who worked from the inside out (meaning, all of the music came from inside him, rather than being pieced together externally by a cadre of musicians, producers and the like), Prince’s music was uniquely personal. His music was like no one else’s in terms of the notes he chose and the arrangements he created. Criticism of this was a criticism of Prince’s heart and soul! No wonder he might want to distance himself from it.

Finally, I think Prince saw himself evolving beyond a name. You could argue that a symbol can evoke meaning on more levels than letters can. At least for a time during the period when he identified himself as the Love Symbol, from June 7, 1993 to Jan. 1, 2000, Prince was communicating on another level — something the general public didn’t grasp at the time.

After Three Months, I Feel a Shift

With three months of living like Prince under my chain belt with hearts and peace signs dangling from it, I shake my head at the out-of-character stuff this project has pushed me to do. I’ve fasted; I’ve dressed up every single day during the snowiest February in Minnesota history; I’ve explored how Prince saw color when he heard sound and took up watercolor painting.

And now, I’ve dropped my name in favor of an unpronounceable symbol. The reality hit me hard in art class yesterday — my second day as the symbol ☀️🧡 — when I was confronted with a routine part of class. On a normal day, nothing could be less remarkable than being given a blank nametag and being asked to write my name on it in marker. But yesterday, it gave me pause. I couldn’t write my former name because that was against the rules. I had to draw my new symbol. And then I felt a rush of disorientation. I wondered, what did it mean for Prince to give up his name? How did it feel to adopt a symbol? Prince was a rebel, and I’m a people pleaser. It was uncomfortable to have new people in class staring at my nametag. Minnesotans don’t say much at times, but you know they’re thinking all kinds of things. I could practically see the thought bubbles: “Who does this woman think she is?” It made me squeamish to realize I was making other people uncomfortable. But then, I forced myself to shake it off. Feeling uncomfortable is on them. As for myself, I had an immense feeling of freedom. A bunch of my classmates and I had a good laugh about it. And Prince found nothing sexier than freedom.

In every way, I couldn’t be more different from Prince. I’m a suburban mom. Prince was a notorious bachelor, married twice and divorced twice, and sadly, his only child with first wife Mayte Garcia died only a week after being born. I’m an early bird. Prince notoriously worked all night long, going to bed around the time I usually wake up. I make plans and write lists and stick to a schedule. Prince took the term “spontaneous” to new heights, filming music videos on a moment’s notice and making changes to his shows up until the moment his band went on stage.

What’s more, I’M ALLERGIC TO DOVES (to be precise, I’m allergic to feathers, but that’s a key component of doves). Prince not only sang “When Doves Cry,” but kept two doves at Paisley Park named Majesty and Divinity.

Living like Prince for the first three months of 2019 has been equal parts exhilarating, intimidating and — if I can be really honest — scary. I’m not used to being an “out front” person. If I was in the band I would for sure be hanging in the back playing the keyboards. This project is pushing me to step up, share about myself and let people get to know me. I feel something inside me shifting, and it’s exhilarating. I think it’s a taste of fun and adventure that life can wring out of you as you get older and take on the burden of a million responsibilities. I am not the person I was on Jan. 1, 2019. For that matter, I’m not even the person I was yesterday! I can hardly wait to see where the rest of The Year of Living Like a Prince takes me.

Deciding How to Type and Say My New Identity

Wearing my new identity on my name tag in art class today.

Today finds me in the first day of a new session of art class, where I’m introducing myself to my classmates as the love-heart-symbol-thingy. It was quite the experience to make a nametag with my new identity. People seemed to get a kick out of it. I have very understanding classmates!

I know that many thought yesterday’s announcement was an April Fool’s joke, but the joke is on me, because I’ve decided that for the month of April, I will continue to be known as the symbol. So, April’s theme for Living Like a Prince is: Becoming the Author Formerly Known as Laura.

Now, I am immediately confronted with a conundrum: How can I type my new identity? How can I say it?

Here’s what I’m thinking: ☀️🧡. On a Mac keyboard, you hit “control,” “command” and “space bar,” and then you’ll get a pop up with a bunch of symbols and emojis. I chose one of the suns and the orange heart.

As for pronunciation, I’m stumped. The swishing sound of a heartbeat perhaps?