Speak Up…If You Can. Part Three.

Recently, I auditioned for a musical. Mamma Mia. It’s one of those show’s I’d really love to do. It wasn’t always, but as I moved into the casting category of MOM instead of ingenue, it became a show that really appealed to me.

It was the first singing audition I had braved in almost five years.

I have been telling a story over the last couple of weeks, a tale in which I, the lifelong vocalist, lost my voice due to a surgical mishap; in my last post, I described the agony of having two specialists confirm damage. There is a moderately happy ending to the whole thing, and I will get to that. Clearly, I couldn’t have auditioned for Mamma Mia if some sort of healing had not occurred. I did manage to do a couple of musicals after my throat was finally repaired, getting to that point was only possible, really and truly, because my husband was the director of the shows and he was willing to risk casting me.

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That first post-repair show, The Drowsy Chaperone,  wasn’t smooth sailing. I had rehearsed for the audition secretly, singing in private to build up strength and flexibility in the cord and in the muscles of the throat. I didn’t want to let on what I was doing, just in case I failed spectacularly. My voice had always been the source of my self esteem. It was my identity. Having lost it, I was bereft, heart broken, my confidence completely gone. So when I went to auditions and announced I was singing the big belt song instead of a simpler, easier one, I saw my husband’s hands clench under the table. He’d had no idea I might be up to this. I did it, I did it well, and that precious man cast me.

The show wasn’t easy, though. In the final week of dress rehearsal I was belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glided with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I planted my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. Director/husband’s face froze in horror as I coughed and gasped, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager ran toward me with a bottle of water, and I drank, but I still could not squeeze a sound out of my throat. I ended the song with tears streaming down my face. There was no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome was my undoing, just two days before opening night, and I felt just as I had on the day I left the doctor’s office in September of 2011.

On that particular day, I cried all the way home because my throat was damaged; it got really quiet at my house, in my classroom, and in my spirit. As soon as the doc gave me the diagnosis, I cancelled an acting gig I had booked for the months of October and November. It put a burden on the show, I know it did. Blessedly, there’s always another actress waiting in the wings, and the show went on.

More difficult, though, was my classroom. I remember standing in front of groups of 30 or so students each day, trying to quiet them when the tardy bell rang. After a week or so of me standing at my podium, tears in my eyes and jaw clenched in frustration, waiting for rambunctious teens to quiet down, there was a change in the climate of my room. There were kids who realized how I struggled, and they began to get the room quiet for me. I lectured in a whisper, it was utterly exhausting. But then something happened: the students began to hush themselves, without a classmate doing it for me. Even the most stubborn, rowdy kids showed compassion and self-restraint, facing me with mouths closed when they heard the tardy bell. I wish I could say that behavior hung in all year, of course it didn’t. Freshmen and sophomores were particularly difficult to manage. In an effort to save expensive audio equipment in our auditorium, I screamed (an attempt for volume, not anger) at a couple of boys who were horse-playing on stage with our microphones. The pain of that attempt to push air and sound through my throat hurt as badly as anything I have ever, ever experienced. There was a day when, surrounded by misbehaving freshman boys, I couldn’t make myself heard, and I called the HR Department of our school district sobbing, they struggled to hear me as I begged for help on the phone.

Image result for prosthetic vocal cords

For twelve months, I couldn’t breathe without gasping, I couldn’t speak, and my soul simply went into hiding. I had ever been an introvert, but at least I had the power to speak when I wanted to. I could talk to friends. I could advise or comfort my kids. I could teach and act and express myself. I began to hear rumors of gossip, that there were “friends” who believed I was faking my silence as a way to garner attention or get out of obligations. I turned even more inward.

So I began to write. I look back now, at my first attempts at writing, and they amuse me. I had to develop the writing muscle with as much rehearsal as had ever been needed when I sang. While I was mute, I found my authentic voice. In that twelve months of early writing, it was the only way I had to communicate with the world. I started speaking my truth, because words were so precious and painful to articulate that I didn’t dare waste them on false flattery or needless babble. I learned even more powerfully that listening was the key to connection and leaning in to speak so that I could be heard enabled me to draw closer to the people with whom I shared space.

I learned who my true tribe was.

One year, to the day, after the spinal surgery that cost me my voice, Dr. B. implanted a silicone cord, it’s attached to the paralyzed right one. I could, once again, speak and sing, though with not as much power or range. I began to rebuild my confidence brick by brick, I shed relationships with those who had proven during my silent time that they could not be bothered to listen well. I performed in two musicals, then stepped away from the theatre world because it felt unhealthy. I didn’t sing for a long, long time.

Then came a show that tempted me enough to hazard an attempt. Mamma Mia.

That audition? I learned something. As I prepared a recording to send to the director, I kept breaking. My voice cracked, my eyes filled, my throat clenched. My daughter, who was coaching and recording me, observed, “Mom, it’s like you have all those years of silence straining to pour out. It’s all been so tightly held. Your creative spirit just needs the space to let go.” It took us an hour to get a take that I could send, one in which I managed to sing calmly through the one minute clip of “Take a Chance on Me.” That song choice was no accident. But it wasn’t the director I was begging to take a chance, it was my own wounded heart. I didn’t get the part, the director chose to take a chance with a different actress. That’s okay. It’s way more important that I take my own chance on me. It was, ultimately, an exercise in resilience. Gotta keep singing, speaking, and writing my story. You should, too.

 

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Speak Up: Part Two

September is a great month, isn’t it? The light is just starting to shift from high-octane sun to a softer diffused version of itself, breezes begin to tickle cheeks and make leaves dance. Rain falls and the scorched earth of August relents. The grass is verdant again and shadows lengthen on the pavement ever so slightly. School is back in, students are, for the most part, still excited to be back in the classroom, and teachers have renewed purpose and fresh, unmarked lesson plan books. In our family, we have two birthdays to celebrate, the Astros are still playing, and we are usually preparing to open the Renaissance festival that we’ve worked for twenty years now.

I love September. I have been a teacher/professor for twenty four years now, and I always look forward to the opening of school (which technically happens in late August here, I am taking a wee bit of poetic license- the relevant stuff happens in September, I promise). It was no different in 2011, when I opened a new year with a black eye because I dropped my first gen iPad on my face while checking Facebook before getting out of bed. Those early model tablets are no joke in the weight category! Each class began with excited chatter that quickly silenced when I took to my podium after the tardy bell. My poor new high school students were afraid to ask what had happened, so I began each of six class periods with an introduction and an explanation.

IMG_9669I spent the first week of school swallowing Gabapentin pills (as prescribed) to numb the nerve pain that tingled from the base of my spine to the tips of my fingers and back again, all while learning students’ names, playing warm up games, and preparing young actors and student directors for the fall play auditions. We were putting up the Don Zolidis farce The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, and some seniors were going to assistant direct the various scenes, to give them a bit of practice applying what they’d learned in three years in my program, but also to give me much-needed assistance since I’d be recovering from spinal surgery.

My assistant principal had endured the same procedure just a couple of years before, she assured me that she was back on her feet and working within a week. I requested the day of my surgery (a Tuesday) and the Wednesday and Thursday off from work to recover, with a plan to return to my classroom on Friday.

On a warm, sunny September first, I walked into the nearby hospital, all prepped for spinal surgery, which went well. My spine was fused, and the extreme, debilitating pain I had been suffering for months was gone.

On an equally sunny day, just two weeks later, my world was rocked by a new doctor’s diagnosis: paralyzed vocal cord.

When I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, I included just one mention of what I had been since childhood. Just one word. One measly word to tell you, dear reader, who I had always, ever been: a singer.

Not just a sing-in-the-shower singer. A state-level soloist and all district, area, and region choir qualifier in one of the most vocally competitive states in the country. A voice major in the early years of college who switched to elementary music so she could get married and have babies instead of pursuing a grueling performance career. A singer that brought some listeners to tears, others to laughter, and a few to envy.

I sang on stages and in sanctuaries and by cradles.

In recording studios.

On the radio.

I sang. It was the only thing I thought I did well. My only gift.

Chorus 1985-1986

I had warned my neurosurgeon that my voice had to be protected when my throat was pushed aside so he could get spinal access, I asked if he could access my cervical vertebrae from the back of my neck instead of the front of my throat. His answer: “No. but in the twenty years I have been doing this surgery, no one’s voice has ever been damaged. Of course, I can’t make you a promise, but the likelihood of your voice being affected in any way is negligible.”

I went for my follow up appointment with my surgeon three weeks after my surgery, when I had already had my throat scoped by an ear, nose, throat specialist. When Doc entered the examining room and cheerily asked how I was feeling, I beckoned him to lean near and whispered, “My voice is gone. The cord is paralyzed.” He went pale, his eyes widened, he was clearly and authentically horrified. All he could say was, “You’re a singer. Oh, no…this has never, ever happened to one of my patients, and it had to be a singer.” He couldn’t say he was sorry, that’s something doctors really can’t do. Apologizing is like admitting guilt, or a mistake, which can become a legal liability. No, he couldn’t apologize with his mouth and his perfectly working voice. But it was in his eyes.

The ENT who had made the initial diagnosis referred me to a specialist in Houston, a physician who has dedicated her practice to saving voices. I made an appointment, my husband drove me as I worried what she would say. I doubted my own ability to remain calm enough to navigate Houston’s infamous high-traffic freeways. It was good he was there, because the news was not good.

Dr. B. sprayed my throat with vile banana-flavored numbing medicine, and ran the camera through my nasal passages, down my throat. I attempted all sorts of vocalizations: vowels, consonants, sung tones; nothing came out. The cord didn’t vibrate even a tiny bit. It was dead. Kaput.

The physician wanted to wait a few months, see if the nerve endings would wake up on their own.

I left the office, bereft, silent tears ran down my cheeks and dripped off my jawline for the hour of the drive out to our suburban home. I climbed into bed, and I despaired. My throat was silent, but my spirit screamed; I was, as Shakespeare described, an empty vessel. Though I made no sound that was audible to the world, my inner world was a cacophony of noise as I railed against fate and wept out all my world-shattering grief.

I wouldn’t speak again for a year.

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Cathedrals: Fourth in a Series

Ah, the Grande Dame of churches, the towering structure that has loomed over the Seine for around 900 years now. 900. As an American, citizen of a country where we’re amazed to find a building still standing from just two centuries ago, a country where we demolish the aged to make room for the new (in architecture, in cars, in people…), this church just rocked my world. It’s crawling with tourists now, I would have loved the opportunity to visit in stillness.

In April, much of the world watched in horror as the cathedral burned, we worried about the safety of people, but also we grieved what seemed to be a complete loss of a monument to faith and architecture that’s been visited and loved by countless children of God for nearly a millenia.

But praise and blessed be! Only her roof was destroyed.

Do I understand that the Catholic Church has some things to answer for? Yes. And rightly so. But I separate the Godly house from the inhabitants who have abused. Instead, I think of the penitents and faithful who have found comfort, wisdom, and fellowship within those stone walls. May we all find our own holy place, be it cathedral, woods, meadow, or home.

 

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

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Speak Up! Unless You…Can’t. Pt. 1

Oh, boy. There is a lot of noise happening in the world right now. It needs to, in my opinion. We need to make noise about equality. About human rights. About Earth care. Our voices should be used for justice.

Not only that, there are the other, wonderful things that our voices do. They tell the ones we cherish: “I love you.” They sing lullabies to cranky babies. They shout encouragement to our Little Leaguers. They pray. They counsel. They order cocktails.

TRF 2_42I had always been a singer, an actress, a teacher.

What happens when you can’t make noise? What happens when you can’t talk? I don’t mean just that you’re uncomfortable talking, that you’re shy…I mean: what happens when you physically can’t talk because your vocal cords have been injured?

That happened to me. One day I was rolled on a gurney into a surgical suite to have my cervical vertebrae fused, the next day I was wheeled in a chair to my car, assisted upstairs to my bed, and didn’t talk again for a year.

In that time, I learned what it meant to be silenced.

Silence isn’t a concept we westerners are terribly familiar with. America and Canada are “speaking cultures,” but Nordic and Asian countries are “listening cultures.” In the US, we fill silences with chatter, we are uncomfortable with conversational lulls and jump in to fill them, we may even interrupt each other to be assured that our points can be made (we’re not as prone to interrupt and talk over each other as Italians though, they speak over each other as an accepted mode of conversation).

And it’s not just talking that fills our ears. We inhabit a noisy world. There are televisions, radios, and video games blasting media racket. Birds and dogs and bubbling water and trees branches in the breeze create a nature melody. Dishwashers and plumbing gurgle and swish. Children scream. Adults bicker. And for the “normal” person, the one who can both hear and speak, it’s pretty easy to chime in. Even if you’re a bit timid, you can probably make your voice work. You likely are able to open your mouth, expel air across your vocal cords with the use of your diaphragm, send signals from brain to tongue and teeth to manipulate sound, and get your message out. You really don’t have to give a thought to the mechanics of it.

Unless there is a physical impairment, this skill develops naturally in us. I have been watching my granddaughter as she learns to vocalize, she’s added the hard *g* and *d* to her repertoire of pre-speech sounds this week, and my response, as her Lolly, has been as rapturous as if she had just trilled a perfect Mozart aria.

The realization that my voice was gone was a slow process. When I first awoke in the hospital, I couldn’t make any sound at all, my throat was magnificently swollen. The neurosurgeon and his team had intubated, of course. That’s standard for any surgery. Once I was intubated, though, they moved my esophagus out of the way to get to my spine. It was to be expected that my throat would be swollen, my voice nonexistent when I came to. No alarms raised at all. When I began recovery at home, I lay in my bed for several days, pretty much alone while I rested. When a family member checked on me, I tried to speak, no sound but a rasp emitted from my throat. When I got out of bed, I found myself breathless and gasping like a goldfish who’s been dropped on the kitchen counter while its bowl is being cleaned. We kept assuming it would get better. A couple of weeks later, it hadn’t.

I made an appointment with an ear, nose, throat specialist.

VocalcordparalysesThe doc ran a camera up through my nostril and down my throat, encouraging me all the while to relax. I tried, I really did. As I attempted to vocalize, the doc watched a monitor. Finally, after several minutes of awkward grunts and whispers, he shook his head, “The right cord isn’t moving at all.”

I left the medical building with a referral to a voice specialist in Houston and what felt like an iron cloud floating above my head.

I had no voice.

Over the next few posts, I will be exploring the story of losing my literal voice, what it took to get it back, and what I learned about myself, my relationships, and my mission in that time.

For now, I will share a thought from Brene’ Brown, a personal hero. It rings true because the only thing that sustained me for the grief that would be a constant companion in the year to come was the deep well of joy that my husband and kids had been filling for all our life together: “Joy, collected over time, fuels resilience – ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen.”

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Playing Church

When I was a little girl back in the mid-1970s, my brothers and I visited my grandparents during summers in dusty, windy Lubbock, Texas.

My grandmother was a professional seamstress and my grandfather was a carpenter, these were folks who made their living with their hands. Salt-of-the-earth people. Humble people. Wonderful people.

 

There wasn’t money for lavish entertainments when we visited, and my grandmother was always in the middle of sewing for paying customers, so our play was very simple. Simple and quite wonderful. In the cabinet where toys lived was a Dennis the Menace doll that I always played with, I am pretty sure it belonged to my father when he was a boy, or maybe one of his little sisters.  A can of Lincoln Logs kept me busily occupied, the can was of cardboard with a tin lid, they rattled and shook within that canister, letting us know that they were ready to build. There were board games and puzzles and paddle balls, lawn croquet was a favorite. I loved the way my grandmother said the word, “Wicket.” Her head kind of wiggled almost imperceptibly and her consonants were eloquently crisp.

 

But the game I remember best was when we “played church.”

It was always at Grandmother’s suggestion, but I didn’t mind. I was a little girl who loved church. My grandparents’ church was a beautiful one, with a sanctuary awash in sunlight. It was open and airy, with acoustics that made the robust a cappella singing that is the hallmark of my tradition reverberate through one’s chest and very heart. I remember Bible stories told on felt boards and enacted with puppets and singing “Roll the Gospel Chariot Along” with exuberance, running right over that old Devil with my tiny, righteous fists. There was a gentleman who kept his jacket pockets full of peppermints each Sunday morning so that the little ones in the congregation could slip their hands in for a treat and a sweet smile.

Back yard church was warm, the air sweet and juicy with the scent of my grandmother’s muscat grapes ripening on their vines. Bugs buzzed around our heads, as cicadas chirped an accompaniment to my song leading and preaching. My congregants were my two little brothers and some dolls; Grandmother fetched aluminum pie plates from the cupboard and set a handful of saltine crackers in them, and we were given a jelly glass of grape juice. With these sacraments in place, we passed the plates and imagined we were partaking of the body of Jesus.

I remember feeling loved and sensing God in those moments. It was a sweet game, a pretend with nothing but the purest heart of a little girl at its nucleus. Perhaps these memories are why I feel most in tune with the Divine One when outside, or in a small home church instead of in a building. Quiet worship suits me best.

Lots of folks “play” at church as adults, but their games are not genuine and wholesome. For too many, their faiths are not conduits to a true experience of God, they are instead a set of criteria, like chess rules, that are used to manipulate others into fear and compliance. Sometimes, the game-players strenuously clamber over others to be king-of-the-mountain, instead of walking in the shadowy low places, where humans hurt. The draw of the powerful is, to these churchgoers, more alluring than the ache of the broken and disenfranchised.

broken_cross_by_cantabrigianWe are, of course, seeing this play out on a national level, and our country is cracking under the pressure. There are politicians and public figures who are donning masks of piety, fooling some into believing there is no rot behind the facade. That matters, oh yes, it does.

It matters down here where the regular folk live, in church organizations where members play “politics-by-tithe,” more money is spent on smart lights or interior designers than on feeding the poor, or just plain old kindness is a rarer and rarer commodity. I don’t think that the problem in America is that we need more Christians, I think we need kinder Christians.

Put simply, faith is about kindness. It is “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” It is “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” It is “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

I know I am imperfect in this. I sometimes speak cruelly. I often miss chances to serve, sometimes because I don’t realize, but also sometimes because I am just not into it.I can really screw this thing up.

There are days when I wish I could turn back the clock to when I was nine years old, confidently waving my arm back and forth as I sang “Blue Skies and Rainbows.” But I can’t. No, I just try to keep my soul connected to the One who matters. I watch and listen for Christians who aren’t playing games, who use the tenets of their faith to nurture, not needle. And I remember my sweet grandmother, her grapes, and pie plates of crisp, salty crackers.

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WTF is a #CuratedLife?

I have been trying to figure out social media. God, it is hard.

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I fell in love with Facebook eleven years ago, here’s my first post, in fact, from March 25, 2008: “Aaauuuggghh! I don’t know how to do this Facebook thing!” I have evolved from silly posts like that one, with some stops along the way for oversharing or airing professional grievances online, in an effort to live a truthful life. Now I am more judicious about where that truthful life really belongs. I have gotten better at using filters and hashtags and presenting my best public self. Mostly.

About five years ago, I found Pinterest, and I could, if I let myself, scroll through pinning pictures of beautiful living rooms and historical costuming all day long. I have boards called General Geekery (for Star Trek and Harry Potter), The Democratic Diva (mostly inspirational quotes about my core values), and Women I Adore (Streisand, Streep, and Alcott). I save photos from Gilmore Girls and Supernatural and I have a new board called “It’s a Grand Baby!” That’s where I save a ridiculous number of nursery décor pins and ideas for entertaining one’s grandkids. My first one’s here and I am wrapped around her tiny finger.

And now…Instagram. I just joined that one a few months ago. It’s so dreamy! Here is where meals are perfectly plated, fashions are always forward, and delightful dogs make me smile. This is also where my favorite authors send what I pretend are personal exhortations and juicy little details about their lives (Did you know Glennon Doyle loses her keys all the time, just like me? We are so sympatico!)

No, really. My BFFS are Liz Gilbert, Brene’ Brown, Martha Beck, Glennon Doyle, Cheryl Strayed, and Oprah. All of them. They talk to me every day on Instagram. And podcasts! How could I not mention podcasts? Magic Lessons, SuperSoul, Robcast, On Being, What Women Want; these podcasts fill me up! I have a whole other genre that I love, spooky podcasts like Lore and Pleasing Terrors.

Here’s the thing about all this social media, all this curation: while I am a little bewildered, my daughters get it. In spades. It’s just how they live.

For example, my younger daughter just posted a gorgeous selfie of herself with her cute boyfriend. They look lively and flawless, with great big smiles…and she throws an ironic mouse ear and nose filter on it from Snapchat. Now it garners winks: look how pretty and yet silly they are! When my older daughter hits a gorgeous yoga pose, she somehow manages to photograph it and post it on Insta with just the right hashtag. For my senior pictures, I wore a fluffy pale blue boa and sat in front of a swirly brown background with the photographer hired by my school. For my younger daughter’s senior pictures, she scheduled two photographers and an independent studio space, complete with multiple changes of clothes, a variety of backgrounds, and my yellow bicycle with silk flowers wired to its basket.

When I was in my twenties, if Instagram had existed, it would have been full of photos of me dripping milk all over the front of my shirt or char-marked skillets full of cheeseburger macaroni Hamburger Helper (I grew up on the stuff, I raised my kids on it, and I still love it, I don’t care what anyone says). My wedding would have needed about $10,000 more to spend so that I could have all the details that make for perfect pins. My kids’ birthday parties would had to have been bigger and louder so they would stand out on Facebook and they’d would get #invited to all the #coolkids parties.

I am so glad I didn’t live my twenties that way.

Though I sure as hell am doing my fifties that way! I have learned about hashtags pretty recently and I am working to figure out which ones grab attention; because now I am actively trying to create a new life- an author’s life- and I feel like I need to learn what resonates. It’s not that I am being disingenuous, nor am I trying to use people; but I am working to be a story teller, and in the year 2019, that just doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I have been known to post some sweaty, unflattering photos of myself, but I still keep trying to figure out the perfect angle to get a good selfie (what my mother in law charmingly called “facies” early on). When I walk outside, I am always looking for just the right bit of nature to photograph to add to my online presence, to cultivate the recognition and love of daily magic that I think is my calling. I use my bright yellow bike as a prop for my “brand,” even though I worked an acting gig eight years ago to save up for it, long before I had any knowledge of Instagram, WordPress, or Medium; or any idea that I would make a career change that would lead me to want to write and require “branding.”

I even created a Pinterest pin of my new yellow living room chairs, we’ll see if it gets re-pinned!

Here’s where I have landed on all this social media stuff: it is, for me, a gift. I can stay in touch with childhood and college friends and see baby photos of my cousins’ infants. I can post requests for advice on taking care of plants, and one of my green-thumbed buddies will help. I can see the creative work my friends are up to: wire-wrapped jewelry, nature photography, writing, or acting. I can be inspired by the aforementioned authors/encouragers. I can feel a moment of gratitude and share it unironically, with the hashtag #lovemylife.

When I feel super courageous, I can post that photo that shows the realest me: wrinkles and spots and squish and dark eye circles.

I love the online stuff, it’s like a scrolling scrapbook. I can click on any year in my Facebook timeline, and I am instantly transported. What was I doing? Where were my kids? Who did I go to eat sushi with? Why did I wear that?

Of course, there is danger in the temptation to live and love only that way, so I take care. Take care to set the phone down. Take care to look into my husband’s real eyes, not just the ones saved in countless photos in my online accounts; all while he hugs me tight. Photos of gorgeous dinners aren’t nourishing, only in the eating and sharing do we savor the flavors and reap the nutrients. Snapchat pics of our loved ones, no matter how silly the filters, don’t replace the need for touch, for listening to each other sigh or laugh or cry. Hashtag activism isn’t enough, action is required. And Pinterest images, those perfectly lit tableaux of exquisite home furnishings, can never outshine the comfort of our own homes, even if they’re cluttered or not perfectly staged. That’s life. Life is lived by being present.

PS: Here are some of the various accounts referenced here. Both my girls are building careers on SM. Give them a look!

https://www.instagram.com/hilaryallysonbryant/

 

https://www.instagram.com/libbyy.june/

 

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Dandelion Wishes

I love to go on walks, especially long rambling ones out amid nature. Walking on a track or treadmill is no fun, it sparks no magic. It’s great for exercise, but not so nourishing for the soul. So I walk on the 55 acre festival site where I work, or on the trails that connect the various neighborhoods in my master planned community. I used to walk at Lake Brownwood, when my Pop lived there, when I am particularly blessed I find myself walking on a beach or sea wall. During today’s walk, I passed so many yellow dandelions! And I remembered…

When I was a child, we kids still roamed freely in our neighborhoods, without parental supervision. There were no tracking apps to keep us on the radar. We played at neighbors’ houses until the sun started to go down, then listened for our parents to call us home. We walked to school- no moms or dads- just kids that met each other along the way and joined up to make the trek to school in laughing clumps. Since I am, and always have been, a quiet girl, my clumps of friends might only be three or four girls, but we laughed as much as any larger group. At least, they did. I just breathed little huffs of laughter- nothing to bring attention to myself.

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On the corner of our street in a Dallas suburb, there was an empty lot. In early spring, a season of soft blue Texas skies and crisp mornings, this lot was bright with abundant dandelions. You may be cringing at the very word, especially if you’re a gardener or if you grow a perfectly manicured lawn of St. Augustine grass, but I happen to believe dandelions are magic.

When the dandelions were bright yellow flowers, they were inhabited by “tickle bees.” I don’t know what they are really called, but that’s what we called them. We left our houses a few minutes early so that we could spend a few minutes hunting for tickle bees in the empty lot, and if we found them, we gingerly caught them in our fists. They couldn’t sting, so they buzzed around in our hands until we put them in our pencil boxes and let them out at lunch recess, by which time our pencil boxes were covered in yellow pollen.

As the days lengthened and the temperatures climbed, the dandelions became fluffs of white, upon which I made secret wishes. When I blew on the puff, the wishes scattered into the air, magic would awaken, and my wishes just might come true.

My wishes were for a mother who was well, books to read, friends, blue eye shadow, Sean Cassidy records (and to marry Sean in my boldest wishes), spelling bee victories, and dance lessons. For my grown-up self, I wished for a handsome prince to be my husband, sweet babies to play with, and a pretty house that was always clean.

I got most of my wishes. Some I left behind in childhood, like marrying Sean Cassidy. Some I regret, like the shimmery blue Maybelline eye shadow. Some I never saw come true. But most, I did.

Dandelion wishes were seeds of a life. A messy, magical, life.

I used to love watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show with my parents. I didn’t really understand all of it, but the opening credits were so exciting: beautiful brunette with confident stride and wide smile throws a beanie into the air and gets a perfect freeze frame set to a musical button. I am not the girl who “turned the world on with her smile,” I am too quiet to make that much of an impact. But I have learned to make a “nothing day…seem worthwhile.” That’s what most days are, right? Nothing special days filled with jobs and meal preps, laundry and carpools.  My friends, that is where magic lies. In those nothing days.

Sure, I have taught some kids, earned a master’s degree, and shared a few blog posts, but nothing big. Nothing impressive.

I have just walked a quiet, normal life of maintaining a marriage, raising three kids, teaching school, walking dogs, dieting, and making new throw pillows.

I am just the average middle age lady, with a little extra on the hips, a few crepe-y wrinkles on my chest, an inordinate fondness for the color yellow, and a deep love for my sweet husband and kids.

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Empty lots and front lawns not only contained magic dandelions, they also hid vicious stickers: little burrs surrounded by sharp points that embedded in skin, socks, and even bike tires. They were awful. They drew blood. They sometimes buried themselves so deeply that it took a deep breath and fierce courage to pull them out of my foot. Is life full of magic wishes? Yes. But is it also full of stinging hurt? Oh, hell yes.

I feel like maybe my story is like a lot of people’s. Lots of little bits and pieces that make up a life. Touchstones that lie alongside each other on the path that makes the road that makes a journey. That make up a person. That make up a soul. Dandelion seeds that, once blown, float in the wind, sometimes landing in fertile soil. Sometimes landing upon rocks or thorns. Sometimes coming true but turning bitter. Like the Biblical parable of the sower, sometimes we have a say in what seeds take root, and sometimes we are at the mercy of the wind, the rain, the sun, and the birds.

And thorns that leave scars.

I believe, down deep in my bones, that life is magical, and that making the attempt to approach each moment with a sense of wonder enables us to live beautifully, no matter our circumstances.

I believe that my mission, my personal legend, my work is to help others see, create, and accept the magic of their own lives. I listen. I write. I hope. I pray. I dream…

But I don’t dream of big stuff like fame or a million dollars. My dreams are made up of tiny glittery thoughts, like dandelion pollen, a fine yellow dust that softens what’s hard and enables new growth. I dream of my children’s affection, the comfort of my home, reading and telling tales, belonging to a group of friends, and great big glasses of pinot grigio.

I dream of feeling secure.

I dream of feeling content in my own skin.

But mostly, I dream of joyous, magical grace and forgiveness.

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A Magic Kingdom

I recently returned from five days in Orlando, exploring Disney World for the first time in my 52 years. I cried a lot. I cried on the first afternoon, when I watched the show in front of Cinderella’s castle as Minnie, Daisy, Elsa, Anna, Tiana, Rapunzel, and a chorus of dancers sang about imagination and courage.

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I cried that evening as the fireworks exploded and projections lit up the castle while Tom Hulce’s Hunchback sang “Out There.”

I cried when I rode the Pooh ride and when I saw stuffed Dumbos. I cried when the Peter Pan float passed during the 3:00 parade. I cried when Lebo M’s voice chanted:

“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama”

while I stood in line to enter Animal Kingdom.

I cried one last time, sitting on a grassy knoll at the Polynesian Resort, watching the fireworks show from a distance, making a memory with my niece and nephew.

Heck, I am crying right now, just typing this.

Why? Why do I cry so much?

Well, there’s the obvious answer: Disney is my children’s childhood. I didn’t grow up with much Disney. Some of that is simply because of when I grew up. During the 1970s, Disney animation was in a slump, resulting in limited access to the stories. We didn’t have a Disney channel, we just had Sunday night’s Wonderful World of Disney, which featured Disney shorts, sometimes Disney features, all hosted by Walt himself. My mom didn’t want to watch it. My parents did take us to an anniversary release of Bambi in 1975, I was just eight years old; and the only other Disney film I saw in theaters until I took my three-year-old daughter to see Beauty and the Beast was Herbie Rides Again. 

Mary Poppins is the one exception to the paucity of Disney in my life. It blessedly ran on television frequently enough that I came to know it by heart. Julie Andrews as Mary was my hero. She, with her magical carpet bag, lilting soprano, and penchant for order, was the epitome of womanhood. I loved that she showed up unexpectedly, floating through the sky with an umbrella, feet turned out, impeccably dressed.

Spit Spot!

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What I loved about Mary was that she could come into a house with miserable, neglected children and heal it. She could sing to the toys and they would put themselves away, birds were fed, and the parents eventually learned to see their lonely kids by the magic of flying kites. When I met Mary Poppins and Bert beside the swan topiary near the Sleeping Beauty castle in Anaheim, or in the English pavilion in Orlando, I was overwhelmed with joy. I understood completely that I was meeting gorgeous actresses. Truly, I did. But here’s the thing that happens, if one can set aside cynicism and just embrace the whole scenario: I met Mary Poppins, who spoke to me with flawless diction and loved my Jolly Holiday skirt and ears. I would say I was a child again, and maybe that’s a little true. But I was 51 years old, too. Fifty-one, and just really starting to recognize in a visceral way how short life really is and how essential it is to look for love and drop little seeds of it wherever one finds oneself.

I did not encounter the Mary Poppins of the books until adulthood. The literary, non-singing Mary is a little more acerbic. In the movie, there’s an underlayer of sweetness just under Mary’s efficiency, less evident in the books. In Travers’ hands though, whimsy is abundant and imagination is the cure for boredom, sadness, and grouchiness. In the very first book of the series, the grumpy author writes this simple yet profound sentence, when Jane and Michael ask Mary where she’s been all day and her answer doesn’t match their own expectations: “Mary Poppins gave a superior sniff. ‘Don’t you know,’ she said pityingly, ‘that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?'”

My mom wasn’t much for fairylands, nor for stories, nor for books. I do not remember a single instance of being read to, and the only book I owned was a copy of Bible stories that my grandparents gave me. I didn’t have books with Disney stories, or records like my husband remembers having, ones with “Bare Necessities” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to listen to in my room.

My family was too poor to pay the light bill, never mind a trip to Disneyland; so when my first child was born in the same year that Ariel made her debut, I hopped right on board the Disney steam locomotive train (figuratively speaking, anyway. I wouldn’t get to ride the real thing until I reached middle age). We watched Little Mermaid over and over, I have the most precious photo of my dad on the floor playing with Hilary and her Ariel doll. When my son was just three, he went through a Dumbo phase: every morning, between 3:30 and 4:00, he sleepily stumbled into our bedroom, shook us awake, and asked for Dumbo. He was having bad dreams nightly, and the sweet blue-eyed baby elephant chased away the scary things happening in his brain. We began to leave the VHS cued up and ready before retiring to sleep each night, so that we could get him tucked in with as little fuss as possible. My youngest daughter chose Finding Nemo for her sixteenth birthday theme- unlike the other high school girls who were making duck lips and wearing too much make up, my girl dressed as a Pixar character. We read the stories, we sang the songs, we raised our kids with Disney magic all around us.

I cry when I think of it because Disney resonates: Disney is fueled by love.

I know that millenial ennui dictates we poo-poo that. But bear with me.

Disney, as a brand, is driven by story*; and the stories all center around one common theme: love.

Walt’s love for his granddaughters inspired him to create Disneyland so that they would have a place to play and imagine.

Disney is:

Love of story itself, whether revealed in orchestral pieces as in Fantasia, or in written words, as in the Milne Winnie the Pooh stories.

Love of planet. What is Moana but a great big hug for Mother Earth? The 1950s were a decade of documentary shorts like Nature’s Half Acre, all opportunities for Walt to share the wonders of eco-science with the country.

Love of parent/child. The Mama Bear character in Brave stands in for protective moms everywhere, and when Dumbo’s mom sings him a lullaby while rocking him in her trunk, I weep with melancholy. Gepetto’s wish for a son, made real by the Blue Fairy? Perfection.

Love of friendship. Are there two more sympatico friends than Woody and Buzz? Who doesn’t hope for a group of friends to stand and protect in times of vulnerability, like the dwarves did as Snow White slept?

Love of romance. I have my own Prince Charming, and so I love the romantic stories when shoes are left behind on staircases and hairy beasts are redeemed by the tears of a true love.

Love is magic.

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We know it, deep down, but we forget. Walt knew that sharing these stories and building these worlds would give us glimpses and doses. It was his mission. They still take that mission very seriously in every facet of the company, as I learned when I attended the Disney Institute last year. Their people love what they do.

 

And so, when I immerse myself in the environment, it is a hug for my soul.

When I watch a movie, it’s an infusion of affection and strength.

When I don a Daisy tee or drink steaming hot tea out of a  Tinkerbell mug, it’s an inoculation against despair and bitterness.

When I hit “play” on my Disney playlist, I feel joy. For the woman whose childhood was so devoid of play, of imagination and joy and connection, Disney gives me a place to act like a kid again.

I know I am not alone in this. The parks, cruise ships, and resorts are overflowing with other humans who love the stories. I daresay even the dad I saw in the Magic Kingdom, wearing a shirt that proclaimed in Disney font: “Most financially irresponsible day ever” encountered magic that day with his small children. Disney parks are brimming with all ethnicities, all physical types, all ages. Big, burly urbanites pose with Goofy, silver haired grannies get kisses from Minnie, and tiny boys hug Woody’s legs. We love it.

It’s that simple. Once upon a time, I was a lonely, bedraggled, neglected child. I found my prince, I made a family, and I created a life that is full of love, my very own magical kingdom; and the wonderful world of Disney helps me celebrate it.

 

*Yes, I know Disney is also profit driven- it’s a business. A big one. I don’t hold that against them. They craft story and they create a place where even grown ups can pretend their lives are perfect, even if it’s just a respite. I work in the world of theme park myself, and Disney does it better than anyone.

 

I’m Too Darn Hot!

I love Cole Porter. In one of my favorite musicals, Kiss Me, Kate, the cast of the show-within-a-show takes a break in the alley to sing about the heat. They dance an athletic, amazing number which I honestly can’t imagine helped them cool off at all:

“It’s too darn hot
It’s too darn hot
I’d like to fool with my baby tonight
Break every rule with my baby tonight
I’d like to fool with my baby tonight
Break every rule with my baby tonight
But pillow, you’ll be my baby tonight
‘Cause it’s too darn hot!”

I know the feeling.

It’s spring in south Texas: the trees are pollinating, yellow dust covers everything, but mornings are still blessedly cool enough for a sweater. My dog loves to lay in the sun, and baseball season just opened. Spring in south Texas really is gorgeous; wildflowers abound, the light is soft and the flora is a rich green, not yet faded by the brutality of our sun in summer. I walked our tiny yard with my fertilizer spreader last weekend, this Saturday I’ll be digging weeds out and mulching the flower beds. My back hurts when I do this, by the way. Who knew that the simple act of upending a bag of pink fertilizer crystals could be so risky?

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Like many of you, I have been spring-cleaning out clutter as well. “Kondoing” has become a verb at my house, and every item has been subjected to the question: Does this spark joy? My husband is imploring me to stop. I have never been much of a clutter collector anyway, and he fears that if I don’t cease he will have nowhere to sit in the house, as it will just be nearly bare walls and a couple of throw pillows. Oh, and sufficient wine glasses. Can’t let those go.

So I was getting dressed this morning, and decided to see if a particular ivory colored poly blouse sparked joy. I’ve been putting every item on to determine if it gets to remain in my closet. The blouse is a fairly new addition to my closet, nice and flowy with pin tucks at the chest and a lace I can tie at the keyhole neck. I put it on, and within moments I was red-faced, sweating, and ripping the damn thing off.

Spark joy? No.

Spark heat? Hell yes.

Turns out wearing rayon or polyester or basically anything but cotton is impossible when you’re doing the whole menopause thing. These days I find myself wearing cute cotton tees (my current favorite is bright yellow and says “Practically Perfect in Every Way” a la my hero Mary Poppins, though I also love my “We Should All Care” and “Powered my Fairydust and Wine” shirts, seen below). I just throw a sweater or denim jacket over the tee (theoretically making it look more business appropriate), lace up my Converse low tops, and head to the office. Said sweater then gets stripped off in times of flush, then put back on when the radiation fades and the air conditioning makes me shiver. Off and on. Off and on. All day long.

I’ve started collecting cute statement tees just to survive this stage: thin, soft cotton is a must, preferably a women’s cut so it has some shape, and I am happiest when the shirt rocks some sort of motto or a fictional character that I love. I figure if I am fifty-one years old, I can choose what I want to wear and what I have to say. It just so happens that soft, breathable cotton that sweat washes out of easily and requires no ironing is the very thing!

I endeavor not to complain too much. For the longest time, my own shame that I was daring to age kept me muzzled. I wouldn’t admit that I was dealing with the changes to my husband, my doctor, my daughters, or my friends. Mark my words, I carried shame about this! Shame is insidious, and it’s more damaging than embarassment. I couldn’t ask my mom how she’d endured the process, she didn’t live long enough to go through this stage, having died at the age of 46 from complications that arose due to years and years of opioid abuse and mental illness. She barely had time with her first grandchild before she was gone. Last night, I rocked and cuddled my three month old granddaughter as a hot flush swept through me- they seem to start in my chest and cheeks, then the warmth just spreads all over. I asked my husband to turn on the ceiling fan, then rode out the heat with sweet Hazel’s tiny fingers curled around mine. She gives me the kind of joy that enables me to wait until  the heat subsides and look forward to the next phase of feminine humanity.

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Cuddles and tee shirts aren’t my only coping mechanisms: in my purse, there’s a balsa wood fan tucked into a pocket. In January, I wore shorty pajamas lest I find myself awake at 3:00 am, ready to combust. I think I put on my quilted puffer jacket three times this winter, it’s an odd sensation to be flushed with warmth when it’s 30 degrees outside.

But the most vital, necessary coping mechanism has been my sense of humor. For the longest time (well, just the last year or so, really, but it felt much longer), if my body got hot or I got grouchy, my sweet husband would just smile indulgently at me as if to say, “You poor crazy lady, I’ll stick with you through this insanity.” Well, that just made me mad. Until my doc and I sat down and decided to take me off birth control estrogen. She figured it was time to just let my body do its thing. When I tossed that last pill box, its bubble packs all popped and empty, I figured I might as well start laughing at myself.

And ordering tee shirts.

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