Unleash That Inner Voice

Sandy Eichel shares her journey toward authentic, exuberant living
 By Jenie Gao

A photo of a young woman flashes on the screen behind BRAVA speaker Sandy Eichel, and Eichel begins to explain to us who this woman is. She’s “perfect:” golden hair, petite figure, beaming smile—and she’s holding up a lattice-top pie as flawlessly styled as she is. She’s a pastor’s wife and professional opera singer, and she bakes 20 pies every year for her church’s fundraiser.

She is also miserable, because she feels like a fraud.

Who is she? Turns out the woman on screen is none other than Sandy herself from another era. When you look a little closer, beneath the coifed façade of that “perfect” Sandy, we see the unmistakable smile and playful energy of today’s Sandy, who stands authentically before us on the stage.

In that moment when Sandy uncovers her former identity, she sets an expectation that carries through her talk: Things are not always what they seem, and we can expect to be surprised.

From there, Sandy embarked on a story that was as shocking as it was familiar, as transparent as it was veiled with anticipation, and as comedic as it was tragic. The story began with her parents’ difficult divorce, followed by her father’s marriage to a woman who was cold toward her. At an early age, Sandy felt deeply what it meant not to have acceptance.

But the core of who we are will always find ways to reveal itself. True to her goofy charm, Sandy told a story of her young self standing on an orange ottoman belting out  ’80s songs. Sandy’s voice was loud and clear. Her gift was (and is) obvious to everyone, though it was many more years before the purpose of this gift became equally so.

An experience of separation cannot exist without a quest for connection. Sandy’s father wanted her to take classical voice lessons, and out of a desire to be closer to him, she agreed. It was a decision that launched her down the long road of becoming “Sandra,” a serious and dedicated professional opera singer. Her story became that of a woman with a big voice that she used for everyone—except herself. When a choir boy raped her, she told no one, instead opting to be strong, maintain who she was in others’ eyes, and keep singing and living up to the “perfect image” to please others. “There is safety in being what everyone wants you to be,” she explained. “There is safety in being someone who makes everything perfect.”

When her husband decided to pursue the ministry, they moved to Iowa for his theological studies. They rationalized that while they would never be rich, they would never be poor. They would live a safe life. “Sandra” would teach her voice lessons and pursue opera on the side of cultivating herself as the perfect pastor’s wife.

But Sandy’s big voice was not meant for the sidelines. She demonstrated the strength of this voice throughout the talk. Her story would pause and the lights would dim save for a spotlight. Sandy would then enchant the audience with a song and a glimpse into the heart of someone who has always been willing to give a great deal. She traveled all over the world to learn from the best voice teachers. Over and over, Sandy would say, “I had this big voice, and nobody knew what to do with it.” And she left us to ponder this with her.

Though intuitively, the answer was always there. Hers is a voice as inseparable from her identity as she is from those she seeks to serve, and if connection is why we are here, then it only makes sense that we seek to be useful and helpful to others. In that regard, maybe one of the best takeaways from Sandy’s talk is this—to learn to speak for others, you must first learn to speak for yourself.

After 14 years, Sandy left her husband, and in those years of transition, she let go of each of the things that made up her old identity. She admitted that in the busyness of her overwhelming former life, the scariest thing was the void, where she learned nothing but self-blame. But when she finally ceased being Sandra, the serious opera singer, she created the open space necessary to become Sandy again, and to pursue a new career in financial planning for the organizations and people she cared most about. She came out of the closet as a lesbian, and in the open space left by her pastor’s wife identity, could find the community she wanted, love whom she wanted, and become an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. She changed her last name to Eichel, German for acorn, which contains everything it needs to become a big oak tree.

Toward the end of the luncheon, Sandy asked, “Am I doing things out of obligation or because I want to? How many things do you do out of joy?” She continued, “Every single woman in this room does something impressive every day. But that’s not what gives you worth,” which brings us right back to connection and why we are here.

Perhaps one of the best lessons from the ups and downs of Sandy’s story is that the most extraordinary stories are those of our neighbors. If we can learn this, then we can look in the mirror and out the window, and see more friends than enemies. We can become the everyday advocates that we are thanks to our experience, for ourselves and for those who need us.

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