Interview with Margaret Becker for her book, Coming Up for Air, with Christian Book Previews' editor, Debra Murphy
CBP: Would you share with us your Christian testimony?
Margaret: I've had a really lovely, lovely early life. My parents were both devout Christians and raised me in a devout Catholic home, that had a unique emphasis on Christ. Always from the beginning I knew who Christ was and what he had done, and it was very much emphasized in my household. At the same time as I was maturing as a young woman, I started to ask questions, not only of my life but of my faith. My faith then became a more integral part around 17 or 18 years old that I didn't have before I started to realize I could apply it to more areas and I needed to devote myself to it. I kind of fell in love with the concept and with the philosophy and the being behind it. That started what I've done since.
CBP: Where did you grow up?
Margaret: I grew up on Long Island, New York.
CBP: Tell me about your career, because you've done quite a bit.
Margaret: From cook, bottlewasher, busgirl to ... I went to college for a bit, and then in the middle of that I was studying voice privately with a teacher in New York, and auditioned for the Met. That audition led to a second call back, which led to a critical time in life where I realized that if I was going to do these things I had to do them now. I stopped probably after about 2 1/2 years of college and started to pursue music and then at the time the Met responded with the call back, about that same time, some of my songs had made it to some people here in Nashville. I'd been writing and performing locally in the Tri-state area of New York, and they asked me to come down and have a meeting. At that point, I realized that this is what I wanted to do, so I packed up and moved down here.
CBP: You proceeded to travel and sing and produce records?
Margaret: Yeah, the first year was with Sparrow Records, that's who I wound up being with. But they were a very unique family-owned company then, and they said, "You can come on staff as a writer, but we're not going to do anything until we see how you live." They want to see you live for a year, and then decide if they want to give you the lags to be an artist. This was a different time, you know, the criteria were quite different. So I lived in Nashville on 16th Avenue, music row, and I worked. I worked a part-time job and I wrote and lo and behold, about 10 months later they offered me the artist contract.
CBP: At what point in time, where did this turning point happen to you, where your life disconnected?
Margaret: I have always arrived early at life transitions. I'm the kid who's thinking about where I'm going to live, when I'm 15 years old I'm already planning how I'm going to get my first apartment. I started working when I was 11. I always arrived early. I think I probably arrived at midlife, truthfully, at about 34 years old. I kind of got there early. I'm the youngest, and my parents are older. My parents aging, seeing my nieces grow up, and seeing the passage of time and realizing that not only was I able to reach my all-time dream, which was to do my music and to do it in such a way as to draw attention to Christ, but I realized that I needed to have some new dreams and some new dreams to conquer and change the pace of my life to incorporate more community and family. Rather than just professional pursuits.
CBP: So it was a transition time, and you knew that there needed to be some changes, but how did you handle it? How did you decide what you were going to do?
Margaret: Yeah, that was the hard part. For me, this was the height of my music career, so I knew that at that point I had to be responsible with how I transitioned. I decided that I would begin to seed different areas and see what took, and see which areas started to grow. And continue on with my commitments. I knew that my contract would be completed 5 years from then, and I decided to start seeding other areas in knowing that in probably 5 years I'd move into different things.
CBP: So you recognized that this transition time was happening, but not taking the time to be alone?
CBP: Why did you think the downtime, the alone time, was so important? Some people might invite others to come in and talk with them, but you took alone time.
Margaret: I think it's critical to hear your own inner chatter. I think we spend most of our lives trying to silence the tapes that go over and over in our head, or the thoughts we have. And for me, the way I silence them is by being OCD about every little thing. Like, is my lawn mowed? Is my house swept? All these things that really have no eternal significance whatsoever, manage to drown out the ones that are saying, "Hey, there are other things I want you to do." You don't ever want to look back and think, did I do that or did I do this? So for me, the only way to really get in touch with that inner chatter and to either figure out was I doing things that excited me or whether I need to transition, was to create some silence. Uncomfortable silence. Horrific silence. There's nothing worse than being alone with yourself, when you haven't done it for a long time. Because it's so unnatural, and it can be frightening because you've long pushed down will all of a sudden come up. And now you have to deal with these things that you've been effectively closing off for a long time. One of those things that came up for me, well, many of them, how are you going to live your life relationally? The whole marriage issue for a single person. The financial issues. The aging of parents, how do you handle that and how do effectively address that and become an integral part of their support system without offending them. All these things that I've sort of haphazardly look at every so often, they all came rushing to the front. My response to that was "Oh my gosh, I don't know what I'm doing. I need to start figuring out how I function in life. Not only as a unique person looking forward to expressing Christ in different ways but also as a part of a community."
CBP: And you describe that time as coming up for air. I thought that was a beautiful description.
Margaret: Yes. And you know it's interesting. That unknown, that distance between when you decide "I've got to make a change," and when you actually begin to see the fruits of the change, that is an excruciatingly dark time. It's horrible, and it's filled with self-doubts and self-flagellation and all these things, but it's necessary. And you come out of it with growth, but boy, it's the most horrible, painful growth. It's like teething.
CBP: So you wrote about, journalled about this disconnect. Did you always journal?
Margaret: I've always journalled since I was eight. Of course, those journals weren't so interesting.
CBP: How did you turn it into a book? Or, what brought you into actually sharing that?
Margaret: I wasn't sure I'd actually tell anybody about it. But after a while, I could begin to see that it was working. I started to realize that a lot of people I met along the way were going through similar things. I thought, I'm going to give this a couple of years, and if it actually starts to bear fruit, then I'm going to chronicle what happened so people could see that it's not a unique experience. That's when I sat down and started pulling all those journals out, and pictures, and everything. I started thinking what would be high points to touch on without being to heavy? And to bring in the humor. And the book contains a lot of misfires as well. Things that I meant to do that I didn't do, or tried to do and failed at. It also promotes acceptance of failure. But also recognizing that success will continually help define where you need to go. But the failures help to do that as well.
CBP: The failures are the training.
CBP: You wrote for yourself, and now you've shared this book. What are women going through that are helped by this?
Margaret: It's more of a socio-graphic than it is a demographic. I've presented this at universities where young people are. And men and women both. I've never thought to make my own template for success. I'm so glad I heard this now. I never thought to ask myself what I want out of my career. So it's a real pertinent stamp to put on somebody early in the game, but it's also a pertinent stamp to give somebody at transitional parts. Someone who's hitting a milestone birthday. Or, someone who's not really sure where their career goes. It's people who are restless in their life and want to figure out how to figure out the real concerns from the imagined ones. How do I then begin to build a life around the real ones? How do I really begin to plug into things that I really enjoy? Like simple things, like holding my mother's hand, or things that eternally meaningful but that are so hard to recognize.
CBP: I think you also describe them as women who are suffering through the comfortable but mundane routine of life. It's like, I'm really good at what I do, I do love it, but what else can I do? You talk about surrendering in your book.
Margaret: The way I like to spell surrender: N-O. Surrendering. It's what I do the worst. I'm great at saying I'm sorry, I'm great recognizing when I'm wrong. But giving up and actually giving myself over to an unseen element, that's a little beyond my comfort zone. A lot actually. For me, I realized that at a certain point all my knowledge in the journey between here, where I realized I had to start moving forward, and where I arrived, that all my knowledge had no effect after a while. I had to throw it all in the mix, and this is where the spiritual element comes in, to sit back and allow God to choose, highlight the things. And allow myself the luxury of letting go, even some of the things tied to finances. Let those things go.
CBP: Speaking of knowing from God, you said, "I hardly get a direct word from on high." So how do you discern, how do you know?
Margaret: I think for me, I say this in the book, I don't want everyone to go into the cans-and-string world, but I think for me I believe God has gifted us with really sensitive senses. Our senses are so much a part of what he's trying to tell us. But we are almost in a puritan-centric faith--we're taught not to trust them. I think Eve herself is a good metaphor for knowing how to answer and knowing what God spoke, but the serpent telling her, "Consider it again." She looked at the tree, that had the apples on it, she looked. So now she mixes in her senses and she comes out with a different answer, "Okay, maybe it's okay." I think we look at that and say that senses are bad. But I don't think that's exactly true. I think there's God's Word, and then senses fall underneath that. Senses can guide that word, and for me that's what I do. If I feel like I need to do something, I just go forward. And I follow my senses. God is a big God, and he can close any door any time and he can open any door. But he can't move you forward on the road if your feet aren't moving. And that's, for me, I see, I think, I hear, I go. When I'm not going the right way, he puts me back on the road and I go a different way. Now, some people might look at that and say, "That's dangerous. You could get off track." No, I can't get off track because I'm following this out of my Master's leading. I'm following his leading. Yeah, I may step off of one step, but isn't that right? Don't we all step off, and all do wrong in different ways?
CBP: You said, "Maybe this is just all a normal part of maturing." Where you take stock and reinvent yourself. What do you think now?
Margaret: I think it is part of maturing. I think it is part of healthy maturing. Because a lot of people fight against it, hence our big beauty face-life industry. And guys who buy Corvettes at 42. You know? Good maturing recognizes you are to be certain things in life, and you represent certain things in life overall just by reason of use of your body. And there are times to move into the next phase. If you remain in one phase your entire life, you're going to be a very unhappy person. And that's not the way we were designed. Community was designed to function with different phases of life all working together. If we try to stay forever in a youth state, or in a carefree, we cheat ourselves out of what we're supposed to become in the end of it.
CBP: You put a big emphasis on setting intentions. About what you do every 10, 20 years, and you really walk people through. I don't think it's that easy for people to set their intentions.
Margaret: It started when I was at a beach for a retreat, and I just started to write a story. I pictured myself in my wildest dreams in 20 years from then. Then I started to write all these things, and I realized it was very important to me to make sure I had my own set of teeth, to try to keep my body weight manageable so I wouldn't harm my joints, all these things I wouldn't have normally thought about as being important to me, became important to me. It was important to me to not be running around the earth playing guitars on buses, that wasn't going to be what I wanted to do in 20 years. I knew that already. It became important to me to plug into community. It also became important to me to not work at a job I didn't like, so all of a sudden money took a different tone. All these things I wouldn't have physically known or planned for.
CBP: Do you think Christians are ready to take a leap of faith when they know they might see the rewards in 10 years, or do we tend to have fears of taking one day at a time?
Margaret: I think as Christians we do take one day at a time almost to a fault. When people do that, I laud them for that because that's difficult to do. But when you do it as a way to escape responsibility, or to escape inevitable truths, I think it's just foolishness unfortunately. Christ planned. When he was on earth, he'd be with his disciples, you know, the loaves and fishes, he had a plan, "You go, you do this, you do that." Or he would have a plan to see the other side, so there was always a plan there. There was also a long term plan as well. We're not excused a Christians from planning. We should be the biggest planners because God is the biggest corrector of planning.
CBP: What other topic do you want to explain from your book?
Margaret: Time. Time is the biggest commodity we have in our lives, personal commodity I'll say. It's the biggest thing under attack, hence our technological world that we could be hooked up anywhere anytime doing three or four different things. What that robs us of is the ability to be in the present moment. The present moment is where Christ is. He's only here right now in this second. And he'll be in the next one if you still live to see it. So the fact that we are being pushed to return more results on our lives in shorter spans of time, I think is a robbery, and it absolutely distracts us from the real true meanings of life. So it's important to weed those things out.
Success. I think it's important to understand what success is to you. We are bombarded, again, by media all day long in different forms that's trying to define success for us so we will buy a product. Although I appreciate capitalism, it is not Christianity, it is not Christ. So, let's drive our economy, yes, but let's not also make our own values dependent, even subtly, on these things.