Rethinking Your Dash

by Paul A. Aitken, Director of Music & Worship Arts

Cathedral of the Rockies, Boise, Idaho

NWACDA R&R Chair: Music in Worship








Each Sunday in worship, composers’ names and dates are listed on the screen at the front of the sanctuary. Some dates are complete with both birth and death dates; others, like mine, show the birth year only. What really caught my attention in all of this, however is the dash between the two dates.  Each one of these dashes infers a lifetime of work and achievement; of love and loss; of joy and pain. The dash is what life is all about. And, as leaders, what we do with our dash is of tremendous importance.  


Each dash is different and there are no wrong answers.  For some, it’s mostly about family and family

experiences.  For others, the dash represents significant professional achievements.  For most, however, It is hoped that at the end of our lives our dash represents a broad mixture of rich experiences and senses and feelings.  It’s important how you live your dash.


Now the idea of the dash isn’t a new concept at all; in reading poetry for prospective compositions, I came across a well-known poem by Linda Ellis that dealt with this very topic several years ago.  But as I inch closer to the half-century mark, I’ve been thinking evermore about my own dash and what I want it to represent when I’ve met my maker.


A couple of years ago, my wife and I were startled to realize that children actually do grow up and move out of the house. We’d always considered that idea to be an exciting concept, but when the oldest moved away to school in Northern Idaho, the reality was not quite what we expected.  It was quieter in the house, our dinner table was a plate short — and we missed him. In talking about our dash, we pledged to do more to create memorable experiences with all four boys.  We began to travel more with them and we’ve attempted to provide memories rather than things. This summer, for example, we tightened the budget and figured out a way to take all of our family to Belgium for a festival I’m headlining there through Perform International.  We had to be creative, but we figured it out so that they can see that there are not only wonderful places throughout the Northwest, but there are things that should be experienced throughout the world. In effect, we are helping them to add to their dash.


Professionally, I’ve also done more to live into my dash.  In noting the dates of composers, I’ve noticed many of them passed away in their 50s, 60s, and 70s which, if I’m being honest with myself, means that I’m likely more than halfway through my dash.  As a composer with a headful of thoughts, this means that there is a finite amount of time to write these thoughts down. It’s time for me to get on it!


Further, I’ve always found it important to find ways to make a difference in this world.  In the church, this means I’m doing everything I can to connect with people so that they know how much I deeply care about them.  In my community, this means that I’m actively connecting with like-minded professionals and finding ways to collaborate on projects large and small. Beyond Boise, I serve others in places such as the NWACDA board — not for my own professional gain, but in order that I may serve others and show them hospitality at workshops and conferences.  In the past several of years, I’ve been creating music festivals outside of the US and presenting concerts of peace and goodness and love. This is all part of my dash.


On social media this morning, a friend of mine from high school asked “how do you keep up with your schedule?”  (And this is likely a valid question since I attended a premiere of one of my work in Edmonton, Alberta last weekend — and I’m presently on a plane to Israel to lead a conversation about presenting my cantata, And None Shall Be Afraid, in the Holy Land In 2021.)  

I’ve actually thought a lot about that and can answer that in three ways.  

  • First, I feel like I have achieved a pretty good balance between home and professional life.  I’ve learned over time how to disengage when I’m at home; I’ve tried to do better at not taking work home with me — because if it’s not on fire, it’ll still be there when I get back to the office tomorrow.  Remember the quote from Gone With the Wind: “Tomorrow is another day.”

  • Second, when people remark about my calendar, I tell that I’m not really that busy, rather, I’m fully engaged in life. Putting a positive spin on the activeness of the everyday was very freeing.  By no longer saying that I was really busy, it freed my mind to be accepting of other ways that I can be fully engaged in others lives.  This opened my mind up to the possibility of going to most of our kids’ activities, to new professional ideas, and freeing up space in my mind for more writing.  Further, it made my life a lot less stressful.

  • And third, I began to focus on the things that truly make me happier as a person.  Your dash is too short a span of time to do things you dislike! You will never be a good leader if you’re not passionate about what you do.  Find the things you love and do them; remove yourself from anything that sucks your soul and depletes your dash.


As a professional composer/conductor, I’m seeing my dash more and more often in print.  This past weekend, the text “1970 - present” was in the program in Edmonton. (But as a frequent singer at funerals, I am keenly aware that the end will come.) For now though, I am living into my dash, experiencing as many new things as I can, and doing my best to create unique experiences for others along the way.


I’m asking you to rethink your dash along with me.  Live fully engaged in life, do what makes you happy, throw off the things you don’t enjoy, and lead in ways that truly makes a difference in the world.

You may contact Paul at

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