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Drawing inspiration from Gaelynn Lea

Gaelynn Lea during a performance at Sacred Heart Music Center. (Photo by Michael K. Anderson)

At the moment this paper goes to print, I'll be entering a new decade by completing my 40th trip around the sun. Time keeps moving. My 41st orbit commences right now to the tune of 66,600 miles per hour.

It has never been an easy journey for me. With good looks, plenty of cash and an easy manner, it can feel like others have an easier go of things. While they seem to enjoy a picnic, I hold on for dear life — with grimace and digestive juices tamped down for the sake of propriety — barely able to handle the centripetal force as we spin at a velocity exceeding 1,000 mph.

Upon closer inspection, and with a gaze away from my own navel, it's easy to see that very few people float through life with a charmed existence. Loneliness, sickness, struggle and heartache visit us all.

Earlier this year I enjoyed a visit with Gaelynn Lea, a local musician who just this past week achieved national prominence. You can read about our incredibly candid conversation on my blog. Since then she has gone on to win National Public Radio's Tiny Desk Contest. Her humble entry — heart stirring, soulful, honest, unabashed — was selected from among thousands sent in from across the country. Many of these were slick, MTV-like professional productions with action, intensity and larger-than-life rock 'n' roll personalities.

Then there's Gaelynn. She's so slight of frame, perhaps weighing 50 pounds, that her violin is held upright like a cello. The instrument is nearly as tall as the woman who wields it.

"Bird Song," an original song of hers, contains soaring lyrics and a subtle reference to her genetic disability, Osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease). "Bird, why do you sing? Fate has clipped your wings ... "

Lea's condition has resulted in nearly 50 broken bones in her body. Thirty of these known breaks occurred in utero. Her arms are shaped the way they are because they healed without the aid of a cast or splint while she was still in the womb.

Lea is familiar with obstacles of all kinds. Rather than give up when arriving at a barrier, she keeps moving forward until she finds a way through. After getting to know her, I hardly even think of her as disabled.

She helps us see that we should never lie down and quit due to limiting factors, regardless of severity, which we all experience. Gaelynn is representative of everyone who considers themselves underdogs or even weak. She embodies the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven ... Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

At a time when strength, power and braggadocio appear to capture the attention of the nation, Lea provides hope for us all.

I met with her at the Amazing Grace Cafe, located five levels below Lea's office within the Dewitt-Seitz Building in Canal Park. Since she gets around in a motorized wheelchair, having a workspace within a handicapped-accessible building that houses numerous businesses and creative types is a real boon to her independence. She is grateful for it in the winter especially, a particularly challenging time of year for people with disabilities.

Though she can barely afford it, she rents this office because it gets her out the door every day and forces her to be intentional about her work. When her husband picks her up late into the night, most evenings, he'll set down two wood planks as a "ramp" to enable her to get into their aging minivan.

Lea receives no disability payments. These benefits were lost when she got married. A partner in life is worth so much more than a check, but the mortgage and other bills are relentless.

Gaelynn Lea inspires us all not to wait around for circumstances to become easier, but to use the gifts God has given us. She is doing what she was built to do while letting her light shine. Each of us is called to do the same.

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is the author of a newly released book, “The Emancipation of a Buried Man.” Discover more at

Eddy Gilmore

Monthly Budgeteer columnist Eddy Gilmore is a freelance writer, father of twins and husband of one. Connect with Eddy at