Special Report: Small Woman, Big Message

Darren Danielson
May 15, 2017 10:47 PM

The search to find our purpose in life can be a lifelong quest. Some people find it early, some never do. One Northland woman began at a very young age to search for her purpose and from all outward appearances, it appears she is on the right track. 

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Thirty-two-year old Gaelynn Lea is a Duluth girl who has stayed in Duluth to carve out a life close to her parents and three siblings.  Family and friends are important to her.

"My family is mostly in Minnesota," Gaelynn says.  "So yeah I'm pretty rooted here. I graduated from UMD in 2008."

She tells us her story from her electric wheelchair, in her Duluth apartment. "I have brittle bone disease, so my bones can break easy, and there's the reality that if I were to get into a big car accident or something, I probably wouldn't fare very well you know?"   

That reality, she says, follows her around.  It's something she is continuously aware of, and there is something else that follows Gaelynn around -- her love of music.

She grabs her violin and maneuvers it around using her short arms, deformed from birth and her bare left foot peeking out from her colorful little dress.  At 10 years old, she figured out that if she held a violin in an up and down position, like a tiny cello, she could play it.  And today, she plays it well.

Her soothing melodies and harmonies, combined with thought-provoking lyrics draw listeners to a place of new ideas - it's almost magical.  Her concert during Duluth's Homegrown Music Festival two weeks ago was packed.  You could see it in the eyes of all the faces in the audience at Clyde Iron Works that Gaelynn Lea has a gift.  

"What music does for me creatively, is it allows me to connect with something beautiful and challenging." She adds, "it allows my brain to be fully engaged in a way that I don't feel when I do other things". 

Life for Gaelynn picked up steam last year, when she won a National Public Radio song contest. Of the nearly 6,000 artists who entered, she was the judges overwhelming favorite. That win suddenly introduced her to a larger, national audience.

"It's been a really intense year, in a good way," she laughs. "We've been touring for the last six months and have only been home for maybe a week here, or four days there since we left in September."

That multi-city tour was arranged by her agent, to take advantage of her new national exposure from the NPR win. 

"We've seen 37 states since Sept. 30, which is pretty cool, and four countries, too. So it's just been a really neat year," she says with a smile.  

A year that has also launched another entirely new chapter. "Back when we were planning the tour, I got asked to do a Ted Talk out at Yale University."  

Ted Talks are short, impactful presentations that are recorded and made available online.  Many of the world's greatest thinkers have given Ted Talks, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, even Pope Francis to name a few.

Seated in her wheelchair, before this impressive audience of academics at Yale University, Gaelynn's speaks into the microphone and says, "I have a physical disability called osteogenisis imperfecta, or brittle bones disease.  Before I was born I broke 30 to 40 bones inutero, and they healed in the womb so my arms and legs have been bent since I was born."

You could hear a pin drop.  Her focused, well-articulated presentation expanded into her primary message, which is to live authentically, with whatever life gives you.  As photographs of her life appear on a huge screen above her dwarfing her already small physical frame, Gaelynn tells the audience that although we all have doubts and challenges in life, we should not give in to society's unrealistic standards of happiness, success, beauty or self-worth.  She pauses and look straight at the audience and says, "I didn't fit the standard of beauty, and therefore I felt no one would ever love me, or want to get married, which is something that I very much wanted to do."

And eventually she did.  A love story of her very own started in 2006 when she met her now husband Paul, at an open mic night at Duluth's Sir Benedict's Tavern.  

"Musically, Gaelynn has a message that people are responding to," Paul tells us. "It makes me feel very proud and privileged that I get to share her with other people," Paul says nodding.

Even in a short conversation it's easy to discern that Gaelynn is an extremely intelligent woman.  And she's enjoying this new chapter in life, being able to bring encouragement and her thought-provoking music to the world.

"You are beautiful and deserving of love," she tells the audience at Yale. "Even if society makes you feel invisible, you matter. Regardless of race, ability, gender, economic background, you matter. Your task is not to fit in, your task is to live authentically with love."

Gaelynn says her life, her discoveries and her challenges, have made her who she is.  And with a microphone and music, she's helping us discover who we really are too.  

Her closing words to the audience at Yale University were, "I wish for you that you can live from a place of courage and conviction in your full person-hood, so that you too can inspire others to be who they really are ... thank you."

A standing ovation.

Gaelynn's calendar continues to be busy.  She just got invited to Washington, DC to perform at the U.S. State Department on Friday. You can stream the performance live on Facebook. She also just did a second Ted Talk two weeks ago, a regional one, which will go live online in June. Gaelynn has amassed over 1 million views on YouTube, has two albums out now and plans to record another later this year.    


Darren Danielson

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