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Issue Date:  July 29, 2005

The cadence of a new career

Former jazz singer lends trained ear to hospice patients


In casual conversation, Maggie Finley bandies about film titles the way most people employ adjectives. She describes a Cancún beach she once visited by likening it to the seashore featured in “Contact.” She compares her work as a hospice chaplain to a Catherine Zeta-Jones scene in “Entrapment.” And the movie references that pepper Finley’s personal lexicon aren’t limited to lightweight cocktail party chitchat. In graduate school, she wrote theological analyses of films like “Chocolat” and “Educating Rita,” hardly the usual starting points for spiritual reflection. Even a brief visit with this vivacious 59-year-old, in other words, is enough to provoke one’s sense of pop culture illiteracy.

But celluloid-centered parlance comes naturally to this former professional jazz singer and entertainer, whose performance career spanned more than 20 years and whose venues stretched from Chicago to Cancún. For Finley, life has always been marked by the interplay of narrative and story. She has spun musical tales in jazz clubs and on cruise ships. She has created scenes on stage. She has interpreted characters for film roles.

These days, however, a new career as a hospice chaplain means that life has evolved into a different sort of tale for Maggie Finley. As she makes her rounds ministering to the patients of Providence Hospice of Seattle, where she has worked since September 2004, her venues are not stages but skilled nursing facilities, assisted living centers and private homes.

She’s not the primary storyteller anymore -- she’s the listener now. And she loves it. For Finley, this dramatic career change, from performance to pastoral care, allows her to tap into narrative and story, but in a radically different way.

“Obviously I won’t be jumping up on stage in a nursing home,” Finley said. “But I touch into the same place in my heart that I did when I sang -- music is storytelling, and when I sang, people could hear a story unfolding.”

According to Finley, her role as a chaplain is not so much to tell stories, but to encourage patients and their families to reflect on significant events and people in their own lives, with the hope that it leads to healing.

“Story is central to spiritual or pastoral care -- it’s often about helping people to remember parts of their life story, maybe helping them remember a time when they showed resilience or ingenuity, and this will evolve into a coping mechanism for them,” she said.

Musical roots

Finley, who lived in St. Louis and Chicago before moving to Seattle in 2003 with her husband, Ted, grew up in Philadelphia in what has been referred to as one of America’s first families of jazz. Her father, Ace Harris (from whom she created her stage name -- Asa Harris) was known for his bluesy piano and vocal style and for his work as an arranger for the original Ink Spots (1935-38). Her uncle, Erskine Hawkins, a celebrated jazz trumpeter from the swing generation, wrote the jazz classic “Tuxedo Junction.”

“My uncle and father were on the road a lot,” Finley said, “but my whole family made sure I had a lot of advantages that none of them ever had.”

While her uncle and father inspired Finley with their public example, performing at prestigious clubs like New York’s Savoy Ballroom and Chicago’s Black Orchid, she credits many of the women in her life for cultivating her artistic career behind the scenes, especially her mother and aunt.

“They made a lot of sacrifices for me and encouraged me,” Finley said.

But it was the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters at St. Philomena Grade School in Landsdowne, Pa., and at Archbishop Prendergast High School in Drexel Hill, Pa., that Finley describes as playing the most critical role in launching her singing career.

“The sisters really took it to the next degree,” Finley said. “They put me on stage at every opportunity, and I had a classical education from them. They were truly people of letters, women who had very ordinary lives on the surface but did extraordinary things for others.”

Finley was the first black May queen at her grade school, and also the first black student to be awarded the religion medal for academic achievement in religion classes. It wasn’t until a conversation with a sister years later, however, that Finley discovered how an Immaculate Heart of Mary superior had stood up for her in the face of parental opposition to awarding a black person both of these honors.

“She had defended not only my scholarship but my character,” Finley said.

After graduating from high school in the late 1960s, Finley headed for the prestigious theater department at The Catholic University of America, where she studied alongside Susan Sarandon (“Dead Man Walking”), Chris Sarandon (“The Princess Bride”) and John Heard (“Home Alone”).

After leaving Catholic University, Finley traveled the country singing for audiences on cruise ships and in casinos and clubs. She landed a small role in the 1996 movie “A Family Thing,” which starred Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. She recorded her CD, “All in Good Time” (recorded under her stage name, Asa Harris) in 1999.

“I saw and did a lot, that, if it had been a matter of my social and economic status, I never would have done it,” Finley said. “But my status as an entertainer gave me an entrée into a different world.” This period of extensive performance and travel allowed Finley to try on many personas on stage.

“It gave me the chance to walk around in somebody else’s skin,” Finley said. “ I can, like St. Paul said, get down and empty myself,” she said with a laugh. “But I can clean up too.”

Eventually, however, the cycle of rejection and the itinerant life of a performer wore on Finley, and she began a period of soul-searching. She shed the trappings of her singing career bit by bit, exchanging her gigs at secular venues for events with more of a spiritual focus.

“I finally got to the point where I got wounded around the business part of it so often,” she said. “I just got tired of the brick wall of rejection; I just got tired.”

The soul-searching took another turn when Finley cared for her beloved Aunt Gloria until she died, and the experience sparked her interest in pastoral care as a career.

“I just thought to myself, ‘No one should have to go through this by themselves,’ ” she said.

Like paratroopers

Finley pursued a master’s degree in pastoral studies at Loyola University Chicago. When Ted’s career as a marine surveyor took them to Seattle in May 2003, she completed her training to be a hospice chaplain, thus launching her new career at Providence Hospice of Seattle.

“She brings a lot of life experience, which makes her wise -- wisdom that is critical for effective work with families,” said Finley’s supervisor Rob Luck, the social services supervisor at Providence Hospice. “She’s down to earth, but enough of a rascal to survive. This work can be very sad and you can’t survive it without a sense of humor.”

According to Luck, Finley’s background as an entertainer has prepared her for the daily experience of dropping in on a patient’s home during a delicate, difficult time.

“Just like when one is performing with a new audience, it is necessary to establish a quick rapport and win trust quickly -- then take that trust and not manipulate it, but to be an effective guide,” he said.

Finley provides her own unique image for the itinerant work of a hospice chaplain.

“Chaplains are like paratroopers,” she said. “You drop into a situation with very fragile boundaries, and you are on very sacred ground. You have to get oriented really fast, and you’re often not prepared for what unfolds.”

Finley spends her days crisscrossing the greater Seattle area by car, visiting her patients in their homes and care facilities. As part of each patient’s hospice care team that includes a nurse, a medical social worker and a home health aide, Finley regularly checks in with her coworkers, keeping abreast on changes in a patient’s health condition throughout the week. Though sometimes she is asked to lead funeral services for patients who do not belong to a faith community, her primary responsibility is to serve as a listening ear, offering spiritual guidance when appropriate.

On the road

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Finley pays a visit to Evelyn, an 85-year-old living in a tiny apartment in Ballard, a working-class neighborhood on Seattle’s west side. A feisty former Army nurse who served in the Philippines, New Guinea and Australia, Evelyn has end stage cardiac disease.

Though worn down by congestive heart failure, Evelyn launches a lively conversation with Finley about what will happen to her after she dies, proposing a variety of possibilities.

“I think I’m just a being who will stop existing,” Evelyn tells Finley.

Finley nods thoughtfully.

“I think it’s the kind of thing where you have to use your imagination a little bit,” she says.

The doorbell rings, and an old friend of Evelyn’s stops by for a visit. He hands her one of her favorite foods -- a tangerine. Finley carefully peels the tangerine and gives it to Evelyn on a napkin, listening her talk excitedly about her upcoming trip to France with her son, a trip that will most likely require all of her remaining strength, but will allow her to visit her extended family there one final time.

After leaving Evelyn’s apartment, Finley closes the car door and lets out a deep breath.

“That’s the first time she’s ever talked about death like that,” Finley said. “And you know, when all that unfolded in there, Eucharist came into my head. We had the sharing of memories, we had food, we had a key person in her life stop by. There really was something eucharistic about it.”

When, while driving south on Interstate 5 to visit her next patient, Finley is asked to provide a metaphor for her life, she chooses one of the literary variety.

“Maybe it’s because I recently read The Secret Life of Bees,” she said. “But lately I think of myself like a bee that is always moving around from flower to flower, looking for beauty.”

Almost as if on cue, Mount Rainer, 85 miles southeast of Seattle, comes into view, a towering, snow-capped presence -- natural beauty incarnate. Finley pounds her steering wheel with delight, as many Seattle residents do on the rare clear day when the mountain makes its presence known.

“Her majesty is out today!” she exclaims with a smile.

It’s the first day of spring in Seattle, and it seems an especially appropriate day to spend with Finley. She is someone who has discovered new life -- new life in a career that builds on her rich past, and allows her to stay engaged in the storytelling she has always loved.

“I’m living into the authenticity of this work,” Finley said. “It seems obvious that there’s a fit here, and I haven’t felt that fit since I first turned away from performance.”

And Finley isn’t the only one who has senses a good fit.

“We have a saying here at hospice that people are not hired, they’re called,” said Rob Luck. “I think Maggie has found her calling here.”

In other words, it’s kind of like a Jedi knight in “Star Wars.”

Renée LaReau is the author of Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation (Orbis). She lives in Columbus, Ohio.

National Catholic Reporter, July 29, 2005

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