Symbol Life: The Good, the Bad and the “How-To”

Even my mail looked different in April.

As I wrap my fourth month of living like Prince, I marvel at how things that would have made zero sense to me as little as a year ago now seem like logical no-brainers. Erase my name and replace it with a symbol for the month of April: Why not!

The symbol experiment started when I took up painting during my month of color in March. The logical next step (and I use the term “logical” loosely) was to deploy my newfound painting “skills” (again, speaking VERY loosely) in the interest of April’s theme. That’s because it had come to my attention that there’s no possible way to live like Prince for a year without reproducing Prince’s ballsiest move in a career full of ballsy moves: Changing his name to the Love Symbol.

THE HOW-TO

The immediate problem I faced as April opened was how to create the symbol itself. Fortunately, when I called my talented friend Michelle Palko Smith (who designed the cover for The Rise of Prince: 1958-1988) in a complete panic (she’s getting used to these calls by now), she cool-headedly pointed me to a method that you could dub, “Creating a Symbol to Represent Everything You Stand for … for Dummies.” After patiently listening to my ill-conceived scheme for finding a designer on a services marketplace like Fiverr who would magically come to understand me, my dreams and fears and aspirations through osmosis and email, and within a time period of 24 hours produce a symbol for me for $25 maximum, Michelle gently suggested an alternative: Search up some free clip art and trace it.

Tracing! Now here was an art form that was within reach.

Michelle is clearly a genius.

I knew I needed to incorporate a heart because I had come to love the heart mirror bracelet that my friend Michelle Kasimor Streitz had gifted me and that I wore throughout February. And then, perhaps spurred by a Vitamin D deficiency caused by a long Minnesota winter, I decided sunshine was also in order. I went to openclipart.org and searched up “sun heart” and voila! Several images appeared. I chose one, printed it and got to work.

Herewith, a glimpse inside my artistic “process”:

This was the point where I texted a photo to Michelle Smith and said, “Should I add the banner?” “No banner” came the reply. Michelle did branding for the likes of Quaker Oats, so who am I to question her judgment? No banner it is (and she was clearly correct).

While I was tracing, crumpling up tracing paper in frustration, using up Sharpies and running to Office Depot to buy more supplies, I had plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of my new symbol. During the month, I kept the meaning of my symbol secret, in true Princely fashion, but now I can reveal its hidden meaning (if everyone can act as if they’ve been waiting for this all month, it would be GREATLY appreciated). My symbol is of course love and sunshine, and it has a deeper meaning too, which is wholeheartedness, a word I’ve come to connect with Dr. Brene Brown’s work about vulnerability. My symbol is a reminder to me to be vulnerable and put my heart on the line, even if it’s inevitably going to be hurt at some point. My symbol reminds me that it’s a good thing to share myself with others even when it scares me. The fact that my wobbly, imperfect hand drew this and the result is a wobbly and imperfect symbol felt right.

On to the pros and cons of adopting a symbol as one’s name:

THE GOOD

  • Adopting a symbol as my name felt mischievous and trickster-like.
  • I felt as if I was gaming the system, and winning.
  • It was amusing to see other people do a doubletake when I wrote my symbol on a nametag or asked them to write it on a Starbucks cup.

THE BAD

  • Some people responded by looking puzzled and practically squirming. I felt uncomfortable making others uncomfortable.
  • I hate asking for special treatment!
  • Doing something so far out of the range of “normal” drives a wedge between you and everyone else. It sets you apart in a good way, yes — but it also makes it clear that you have no interest being part of the group.
  • I worried that I’d get made fun of and that people would think I was weird. Guess that ship has sailed …

NEXT UP: I take the next logical step in my Princely evolution. Tune in tomorrow for the announcement!

New Prince Release Will Spotlight His Many Identities

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Prince during the Sign O’ The Times Era, when his identity as Camille reigned supreme.

Yesterday, Prince’s Estate, in partnership with Warner Bros. Records and Tidal, announced that on Prince’s birthday, June 7, it will release Originals, a 15-track album featuring 14 previously unreleased recordings by Prince of songs that he gave to other artists. The news was greeted with joy by Prince fans and also by me, because the Prince Estate has unwittingly tied in perfectly to my April theme of names and the virtues of having multiple identities.

According to Jem Aswad, writing in Variety, “By the mid-1980s, in addition to releasing nine of his most commercially successful albums, he also wrote and recorded many dozens of songs for proteges The Time, Vanity 6, Sheila E., Apollonia 6, Jill Jones, the Family, and Mazarati, and countless unreleased tracks.”

And, I would add, Prince wrote many of those songs using aliases — his other identities.

According to an article penned by brilliant Prince writer and friend Erica Thompson in Columbus Alive back in May 2016, some of Prince’s best-known aliases included Camille, who is recognizable in any Prince song where you hear sped-up vocals.

Camille holds a place in my heart as she/he is featured on some of my personal favorite Prince songs, including “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “Housequake,” and “U Got the Look,” which featured Sheena Easton. Speaking of Easton, Prince used the name “Alexander Nevermind” as the writer of Easton’s single “Sugar Walls” and on “Eternity” as Rocker Happyfeller for keyboards and Freddie “The Phantom” for guitar.

Of the tracks that will be featured on Originals, many were penned under one of Prince’s aliases. “Manic Monday,” made famous by The Bangles, was penned by Prince under the alias “Christopher.” “You’re My Love,” on Kenny Rogers’ 1981 album They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To, was credited to mysterious songwriter Joey Coco (aka, Guess Who?). And “Make-Up,” from Vanity 6, was produced by one Jamie Starr.

Prince’s astrological sign was Gemini, and he certainly overachieved in that area. He was not only a dual personality but a dual personality times twenty. A Prince.org thread from 2004 had fans vying to list all of Prince’s aliases. They came up with 37!

How Many Identities Do You Have?

Taking on a new identity means exploring an exhilaratingly badass side of myself that I never knew existed. Photo: Phillips Photos

Adopting a new name has created a big aha moment for me: I already have many identities and my newly adopted identity as ☀️💛 is only one. This morning, I jotted down all of my various identities, and I was astounded at the number. Here goes:

Mother, Wife, Daughter, Sister, Aunt, Friend, Writer, Content Director, Advocate, Congregant, Spiritual Seeker, PEO Member, Style Fan, Prince Fan, ☀️💛.

That’s 15, and I’m sure I could come up with more. At first, I thought, wow, this explains why I feel overwhelmed at times. But then, I reconsidered. Perhaps having many identities is a good thing. Perhaps the more identities we have, the more we have to fall back on if we lose one. If I lost my job, then I can fall back on my identity as mother and wife and writer. Making the list pointed out some gaps where I’ve neglected identities I used to value: Yoga enthusiast, runner, book lover. I want to bring those back into my life this year. It’s important to look at your identities and ensure that you’re attending to all of them over time — maybe not all in a day, but using myself as an example, if being a mother and writer and wife is taking up all my time, I need to make a conscious effort to spend time and effort on other areas. So for example, I need to make sure to attend monthly PEO meetings, call my brother, and participate on my favorite style website, YouLookFab.com.

When Alex Hahn and I wrote The Rise of Prince, it opened up a world that I never knew existed: A community of Prince-loving souls. As my interest in Prince grew along with my research and writing, the question was clear. Would I join in with the community, or would I stay on the periphery? Would I keep my interest in Prince as a small part of my life?

As an author, I could justify staying on the periphery and keeping an outsider’s point of view. But the joy of a shared interest was beginning to lure me in. Until 2016, I knew I liked Prince, but it had been years since I’d invested time or energy into my interest. When he died, I unearthed my CD collection and was shocked at how many Prince CDs I had collected over the years, including all through the 1990s and into the mid 2000s. But it had been a long time since I’d gone to a concert or bought a book or album.

This time, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake: I decided to fully embrace my ongoing interest in Prince, even after the book was published. I leaned in and made the Prince community a big part of my life. I started putting commitments on my calendar. I attended Celebration 2018, a three-day “Prince conference” hosted annually by Paisley Park. I went to live shows by bands and artists associated with Prince, even if I had to go by myself. There, I struck up conversations with fellow fans who have since become dear friends. I joined Facebook groups and instead of lurking in the background, I jumped in and added to the conversation. I listened to podcasts, notably Michael Dean’s Prince Podcast. I cleared off a bookshelf in the family room and started filling it with Prince-related books. My interest in Prince was filling my calendar and my shelves. It was influencing how I was spending money and how I was spending my time. I invested a lot in my Prince interest, and I began to reap the benefits as friendships grew and deepened. As I built my identity as a Prince fan, I gained many new friendships with people I would never have met otherwise. This shared identity as Prince fans gave us all a reason to hang out. It led to deepening relationships with people who I wouldn’t have met otherwise, but with whom I shared an instant bond over our shared interest.

Life is Death Without Adventure

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Who are the list-making, planner and organizer types out there? Raise your hands! LOUD AND PROUD, list-makers! You are my people.

Dig if you will the picture of a list-loving person like myself who has everything planned and organized months in advance, each morning facing the blank screen of a yet-to-be-written blog post with no clue about what to say. True confession: I am doing these posts in real time. I don’t plan them a week in advance; I tried doing that in January, and it didn’t work because there wasn’t enough urgency or creativity or curiosity driving them. (Or perhaps better said, panicked desperation! Ha).

This project is an organic journey. Not only do I have no idea what I’m going to write about when I wake up in the morning, I have no idea what the theme will be for the upcoming month until about two weeks before it starts. Sometimes I have an idea a couple of months in advance, but as I get closer to the launch, I realize it’s wrong. That sucks, you guys. I hate having my plans upended. For example, I didn’t know I was going to change my name to ☀️💛 until I saw Tami Foster make an innocent comment on a social media post suggesting it. It hit me over the head like a big two-by-four from the sky. DUH. Of course I need to change my name, and of course, April should be the month! Panic ensued. But March’s theme of color had led me to paint in my Open Art Studio class, which then led me to paint my symbol.

I guess you could say I’m going kicking and screaming into The Flow.

This entire process is incredibly uncomfortable. I am a planner. I live for the high that I get from checking items off lists. (If I do a task that by some oversight I have not written on my list, I will add that item to my list to give myself the satisfaction of checking it off. I need help, clearly).

If I had to gamble I would say Prince was not an enthusiastic list-maker. Nor do I think my new identity, ☀️💛 would be a list-maker. So I’m learning to relax into it and enjoy the energy that comes from discovering the next step in real time. I trust. And I grow in faith.

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.