Divine Time

How does it feel with your god strapped to your wrist, and him leading you such a chase?”- Roy Harper

I write today as a woman who is in a deep, deep struggle. I have, against all I wanted to do, overcommitted myself. Pick your metaphor: juggling balls, spinning plates, whacking moles, I am frantically doing all of those.

I know I am not alone in this phenomenon. When I was a high school teacher, I observed students cracking under the weight of homework, practices, and jobs. When my husband was a youth minister the calendar was so packed with skate nights and service projects there was barely time for quality fellowship with others. Not for him, not for the kids. I still see exhausted parents next to me at the red light, in the throes of carting their kids to extracurriculars, children wolfing down their dinner while strapped into their booster car seats;  millennials are spinning like dervishes moving from job to job to job, staying awake through sheer force of will and way too much latte. Authenticity and presence are replaced with hectic hustling.

I had somehow anticipated that this new phase, the empty nest, would be slower. That I would have more time for sitting on the back patio sipping chenin blanc while reading contemplative memoirs. Nope. Not a bit.

We’re all just buzzing around, frantic like the violins in “The Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Interesting, well-composed music has a variety of tempos, of rhythms. Fast, slow, and everything in between. Think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony:

Duh-Duh-Duh-Duuuuuuhhhhhh. Duh-Duh-Duh-Duhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

Da da da duh, da da da duh, da da da Daaaaaa!

Slow. Then quick.

The well-lived life has a variety of rhythms as well. But here lately, it seems my life’s tempo is picking up speed and it’s affecting how I feel. My vibration accelerates; my spirit snaps.

Today, I was five minutes late to yoga because I couldn’t find my slip-on sandals, which is a clear indication of how my lack of time is affecting me. I put things away, pretty much always, and so to not know where something is signals trouble. When I opened the door to the yoga studio, a dozen hopeful faces looked at me, the instructor was late as well; he was a substitute who had gotten his times mixed up. By an hour. Once he arrived, I committed to the entire hour-long practice, knowing it would set me behind for the day. I disciplined myself to stay for the meditation at the end of class, but my zen was interrupted when the teacher of the next class let our instructor have it for his tardiness.

Namaste indeed!

It’s not that time doesn’t matter. We need specific times to start classes, open stores, and see our doctors, else we’d all just be wandering around aimlessly or waiting for others to arrive. And yet…

is there a way that is better than being enslaved to a schedule?

Since my daughter’s family has moved in with us, I have had the joy of spending time with my six-month-old granddaughter. Bless her, Hazel has no concept of the passage of time. She plays, sleeps, eats, and cuddles as her little heart commands. The ticking of the seconds means nothing to her. Author Carol S. Wimmer describes it this way:

“Babies live in divine time, but their parents live in temporal time … Grown-ups have this 24-hour clock in their heads that ticks out chunks of time, rings alarms, and establishes calendars… Little kids don’t know anything about clocks…As people grow old[er], they wish they could get rid of the clock. Old[er] people look forward to living in Divine time.”

I need some Divine time.

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When I committed to so much, I attempted to create a schedule for each day so that I would maintain maximum productivity. It’s hanging on the wall of my home office and breaks the day down into specific increments. I hate it. It reminds me of my years as a teacher, my days divided into chunks that were announced by bells and enforced by tardy bells. I don’t want to live with my cell phone alarm sounding every hour to remind me of my next task. I want to live in Divine time. My soul needs time to write when it feels called, my brain needs the freedom to approach organizational tasks when it is sharp, and my heart needs client relationship building when it’s open and receptive. Those things cannot be dictated by an alarm.

On my way home from yoga, with my Disney playlist singing my way, this gorgeous lyric from Mary Poppins touched my heart as I drove just a little over the speed limit:

“You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone, though childhood slips like sand through a sieve…”

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It’s not just childhood, though. With each passing day, I realize that life itself slips through our fingers, unwinding in a long spool of meetings and obligations. Without enough stillness; enough Divine time.

Though I have no clear plan of action, I do know that I will be trashing the giant grid of time chunks. To-do lists will remain, but they’re going to require flexibility and grace. There may not be enough hours in the day to do every little thing. But I am going to move my spirit toward Divinity: walks and words, conversations and calculations, spreadsheets and savasanas. All synchronized to the needs of my soul. I mean to work with intention.

I still haven’t found my slip-on sandals. But I do think I am beginning to find my rhythm.

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Let’s Go Fly a Kite!

Daddy and me, 1970I believe kites are dreams. I mean, really, when you’re flying one, don’t you feel as though you’re floating alongside it, aloft like a dandelion seed, rising and falling on unseen wafts of air? I have not flown a kite in years, but I used to love to send a kite up into the air, running with the string, giving it slack or yanking it taut to keep it soaring.

My daddy loved to fly kites. When I was a kid, he would sometimes bring an armful of newspaper to the kitchen table and call me and my brothers into the room. We gathered scissors and tape; I would usually decorate the kite, and Daddy always stressed the importance of the tail. On other occasions, Daddy would see a kite at the store and on impulse, he would snap it up and take it excitedly to the cash register. This was a real splurge for us, money was always scarce. I think maybe Daddy bought kites when he was feeling discouraged and needed a lift.

Perhaps kites are prayers, too. Though always a man of faith, church was not something my daddy attended regularly. I am not sure what his personal faith journey was, I know there were some devastating hurts inflicted by well-meaning but misinformed church leaders. I know that in my own arrogant twenty-something faith years, I probably landed a few good blows, too.

Perhaps my daddy sent kites up when he wanted to connect with the Almighty;  by shifting his focus away from the heavy gravity-soaked earth under his feet and onto the vast expanse of blue sky, he could send a little whisper to God on the breeze. I like to believe that God whispered back.

The year my daddy turned fifty, I learned something new about him. While visiting us for Christmas, he and I stayed up late to chat in the living room speckled with tree-light glow, whispering so we didn’t wake my sleeping toddler. He told me, for the first time, that he had always wanted to be an Air Force pilot, it had been his aspiration throughout childhood. When he applied for the Air Force, his eyesight prevented him from being accepted into flight school, so he went to the Navy instead.

Maybe for him, kites were also Air Force jets.

Anyway, once our kite was ready, Daddy would load us three kids in the car and we’d head to a field, usually at the nearby elementary school, and we would fly our kite until it broke or darkness fell. Those are some of my favorite memories with my dad and my two brothers.

11427195_10152818410851097_4664171811351207828_nRecently, my eldest daughter, Hilary, posted a photo on Facebook of she and a friend flying kites on the beach in California. She’s another dreamer, off in L.A. pursuing a career in film, putting away doubts and only listening to voices that encourage. I love that image- sun, sand, kites aloft, and my daughter’s smile.

My daddy was not the only one who loved kites. The Chinese are credited with inventing them thousands of years ago. The Afghan people fly kites competitively. Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner is an exquisite chronicle of a father and son who run after fallen kites.

When I taught junior high theatre, there was always a day after standardized testing when the kids took the kites they had been building in math class out to fly. The halls were filled with such laughter and excitement– flying a kite is way better than sitting at a desk doing endless formulae, and I know that flying their very own colorful creations is probably one of their favorite school memories.

Charlie Brown

Poor Charlie Brown never could get his kite up past the kite-eating tree. Dreams denied, indeed. The classic loser can’t fly a kite.

And then there’s the classic Disney film Mary Poppins.

I always cry at the end of the movie. Somehow, the Sherman Brothers, who wrote the song for Walt Disney’s film, perfectly captured the joy that comes when you fly a kite. With its lilting melody and hopeful lyrics, a kite lover can close her eyes and remember exactly how it feels to send a kite soaring, all at once “lighter than air.” In that film, the kite is a symbol of a healing family: “Up, through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear, come, let’s go…fly a kite!” A family needs a moment when the air is clear. So does a dreamer, or a God seeker, or a middle-aged former teacher who wonders at every turn what in the world she’s supposed to be doing.

Mary Poppins kite

Life is kind of like kite-flying, I guess. Wind dictates direction, sometimes we go in ways we never envisioned. The glass-covered strings of our enemies can cut our own fragile strings and send us plummeting to earth, shattered and broken. Hopefully, a kite runner, maybe a loving family member or an attentive friend, occasionally even a random stranger, picks up our damaged kite and, with glue and tape and love, puts us back together so we can give it another go.

All this talk of wind and adventure and dreams has made me want to go kite-flying. I’d better go find tuppence for paper and string. Time to build my own set of wings.

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Middle-Class Gratitude AKA “bougie kthxs”

I just had the most lovely afternoon.

Houston, Fieldings Kitchen + Bar, July 2015, pizza
The margherita and a glass of wine at Fielding’s

It began with a sunny drive during which I listened to a podcast I love, Astonishing Legends. Scott and Forrest were doing a deep dive into the exorcism case of Anneliese Michel, a gripping story that kept me alert as I drove to one of my favorite restaurants, where I ordered a really yummy Pinot Grigio and Margherita pizza.

Next, I strolled to the spa, where the chipper and absolutely beautiful, trendy young women who checked me in loved my coral shoes and saffron lace kimono. I was wearing my Gaimo espadrilles. Made in Spain, they are not shoes I could typically afford, but I found them on sale at Marshall’s for about $26. The young ladies gushed about my footwear while I drank the chilled coconut water that they brought to me.

 

Then I enjoyed a facial with some sort of “skin brightening” treatment that is meant to begin the herculean task of minimizing the sun damage from all those teenage years of slathering baby oil on my skin, setting a lounge chair in a kiddie pool filled with reflective water, and sizzling while listening to Madonna and Wham! on my Sony walkman. The room smelled like every perfect flower and herb, music was soft and soothing. I am new to the facial thing, I was given one as a gift in December, then decided to keep them up. At fifty-two years old, my skin is now paying the price of my misspent youth. I’d like to save it if possible.

 

I explained to the aesthetician that I was new to the facial thing because, well, you know how moms always put themselves last, aw-shucks.

The aw-shucks attitude was a facade, though. My hesitation to treat myself has deep, old roots, like a gnarled, ancient oak.

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I was a poor kid. I shouldn’t have been, my dad was a CPA, which is a job with a good salary. But my mom was a drug addict and my dad wasn’t great at managing a household income in which the spending was spinning out of control. We kids did without a lot. I don’t just mean we didn’t get Disneyland trips, though those were as impossible to contemplate as a trip to the moon. No, I mean we did without enough clothes and dependable electric service. Daddy worked two jobs, laboring twelve or more hours a day, so our lawn was always overgrown; when I walked home from school with friends, I stopped at the corner of my street and waited for them to get far enough down the block that they wouldn’t see which house I entered. I was deeply ashamed of its unkempt appearance. Sometimes our house was filthy and had bugs crawling all over.

When I was in fifth grade and was chosen to dance in the “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” number for our spring concert, we were asked to wear a solid color pastel tee shirt. I didn’t own one. We couldn’t buy one. A simple top that would have cost no more than $5, quite possibly less at the local TG&Y was out of our reach. The morning of the concert, our music teacher, Mrs. Bell, asked us to show the shirts we were wearing with our skirts made of green paper leaves, and I had to confess, “Mrs. Bell, I don’t have one. My dad doesn’t have the money to buy it.” Do you know how humiliating that is for a child? She was as gentle as a teacher can be when she is thrown a curveball on the day of the big show and arranged for me to borrow from a classmate. Daddy drove me to their house when he got home from work and I had a lilac tee shirt to wear for the concert.

So my espadrilles from Spain mean something to me.

Now I live in an affluent master-planned community. It’s one of the first that was developed in the country, actually. My aunt and uncle moved into this community when it first opened in the late 1970s, and when I visited them for an Independence Day family gathering, I fell in love with the neighborhood’s trees, bike paths, and park fireworks. To be honest, I fell in love with what upper-middle-class cleanliness and architecture looked like; I wanted to move here when I grew up. I finally got my wish when we bought a house in 2017.

I don’t reside in the most affluent part of the neighborhood, our community has homes that range in the millions, owned by oil executives and professional basketball players. I live in a modest (by community standards) 2500 square foot home. It’s fifteen years old and we haven’t updated any appliances or floors. I don’t care. It’s bright and clean, my tiny well-manicured yard is lush and green, and there are flower beds and a screened-in sun porch. We’ll get around to changing out the carpet at some point, but it’s not a priority. I don’t drive a Jaguar, I drive a late model Ford Escape.

But here’s the thing: when I walk into a restaurant in this utterly white-bread upper-middle-class town, I look like I belong.

You know what that makes me? Grateful. Grateful beyond what can be described.

After years and years of deprivation, then joining forces with my husband to do the work to get financially stable, I am, quite simply, grateful.

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A bench at the park by the entrance to my neighborhood, there are 130 parks in our development.

Recently, I encountered a man on our neighborhood’s Facebook group, he was going on about how people who live where we do should not have to deal with rude salespeople in the mall. I questioned him: “The right to common courtesy isn’t limited to people living in ——–. Maybe I am misreading your intent.” No, it turns out I wasn’t. He doubled down, speaking of entitlement and property values and expecting a certain level of service because we all pay a premium to live here. This attitude of superiority and exclusivity rears its ugly head pretty often where I live, to be honest. Sometimes I just want to say, “Neighbors! Friends! Notice our parks and the crews who work so diligently to keep our little hamlet looking pretty! Look beyond your tax rate and resale values to see the people who do the work! And know that it’s all, every bit of it, temporal.”

I was deeply bothered. Perhaps it’s because I came from little, perhaps it’s just my nature, but I can’t respond to the gift of living in this place with anything other than gratitude and joy. Accumulating possessions and running a race to beat others doesn’t resonate with my soul.

Gratitude is, I believe, a spiritual practice. To notice one’s surroundings and be thankful is to nurture one’s own soul; it enables us to walk in a way that opens us to the gifts the Divine One bestows. When we are grateful for shelter, food, transportation, and even amenities, we are ready to receive all the abundance the Universe has to give. More importantly, though, we are able to hold loosely and share graciously. Our priorities shift and we become equipped for seasons of less.

Sometimes I think the residents of my town don’t really know what it is like to be that poor kid who just wants to have a lilac-colored tee shirt to take for the school concert. That’s going to have to be their journey, though. Mine is to just walk an authentically grateful path, to recognize the gifts I have been given, and to share what I can along the way.

What are you grateful for?

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Short and Sweet: A Lunar Love Letter

It’s a big day for the moon; or more specifically, it’s a big day for humanity’s relationship with the moon. Fifty years ago today, Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon while Michael Collins flew the command module in orbit. American kids have watched the spine-tingling recordings of Neil Armstrong since we were old enough to sit still, eyes wide:

https://www.cnn.com/videos/us/2019/07/18/apollo-11-moon-landing-scn-orig.cnn

It took some 400,000 people, working together, to make that miraculous trip possible. Collins said in the Google doodle dedicated to the anniversary that when the astronauts journeyed around the world, the refrain was “We did it. We did it.” Our common love for that beautiful orb and for the courage and ingenuity of our brothers and sisters connected us.

Being a Houstonian, I have visited the Johnson Space Center and stared at the moon rocks, nearly unable to comprehend the distance those rocks traveled. The module the men were in is so tiny, it’s hard to conceive of the courage it required to suit up and shoot beyond Earth’s atmosphere with so little protection.

Last Tuesday evening, after a busy day working, babysitting my grandkids, exercising, folding laundry, and writing, I wearily trod upstairs to my bedroom to soak in a warm bath and go to bed. The blinds in my bedroom were open and the bright, silvery light of the moon caught my eye. I stood at the window, just drinking in her beauty, breathing, and allowing my spirit to settle.

A little later, face washed and teeth brushed, I climbed into my cool percale sheets, fluffed my feather pillow, and curled up with my iPad for a few minutes on Facebook before reading myself into sleepy oblivion. My friend Kyle had posted this lovely, eerie photo:

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Isn’t it heavenly? I commented, “I  stood at my bedroom window to watch the moonrise tonight. Beautiful. Glad to know my sweet friend was watching too.” A few minutes later a mutual friend chimed in from New York City, she had also been taking in the sublime view from her hotel room. Three friends, touched by beauty, connected by a celestial light.

The moon connected the human race in a vast way in July, 1969. She connected three friends in a small way in July, 2019.

We often tell children to wish upon a star. I love the song from Pinocchio, it’s a perfect message for children about having the courage to wish. But tonight, on this momentous anniversary, I am going to wish upon the moon:

I wish that we can love each other more.

I wish that we will learn to listen better.

I wish that we will allow grace to scatter its beams into the dark corners of our lives.

I wish that the moon’s glittery light will light a lost one’s way home.

I wish.

What’s your wish?

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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.

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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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