Age: Angst, Ambiguity, Acceptance

I am fifty-two years old. God. Yes, I am fifty-two years old.

I have never said that to anyone except my immediate family. It’s not that anyone couldn’t have done just a little math to figure it out, it’s not a secret. I just haven’t wanted to admit it.

Fifty-two.

And still so completely … unfinished.

Not incomplete– that’s a different thing, implying a belief that I am a living error, a woman missing a vital piece, like a jigsaw puzzle that can’t be glued and mounted in a frame because a corner fell on the floor and was devoured by the family dachshund (I speak from experience on this); a book in which vital chapters of pages have fallen from the binding, like every volume of Harry Potter that our family has owned over the years.

There are no missing pages in my story, all fifty-two years are in there, the book a little frayed at the edges, its pages stained with droplets of Diet Dr. Pepper and dribbles of salty tears.

But my story is definitely unfinished; there is a sense of ambiguity imbuing nearly every aspect of my life right now.

Ambiguity. Apathy. Anxiety. Angst.

The angst has become a crutch for me, a companion in my waking and in my rest; it forces me to repeat over and over every single day a litany of financial debts I wish were paid off, it compels me to scrutinize my body for fat, it necessitates constant and unrelenting worry over my job and whether I want to be in it. When we’re teens, we’re expected to be riddled with this angst. The journals of my adolescence are filled with my looping scrawl, passages of woe and worry, wondering what I was meant to do, who I was meant to be, hearts used to dot my letter “i”s as though a charm to lure love. Then I got married and made babies. I raised them. I raised them well. I stayed in a marriage that grew healthy and strong. Deeply rooted. So why the angst? Why the anxiety? Why the ambivalence? Why, in middle age, do I find myself so crippled by the looming question: what am I supposed to do now?

I fear I have become addicted to the inner drama of that one weighty question. What’s next?

img_0186.jpgOr worse– what if this is it? What if, at fifty-two, I have already accomplished any great thing I might have done? What if it’s too late to write that book or land that dream job? What if all that’s left is spreadsheets about ops and procedures and fees and days of hellacious knee pain and buying jeans a size bigger? What if I don’t have another day? And that, my friends, is why I had to face the truth that is at the core of every truth that matters: There is no guaranteed next. There is only right now. This very moment. This very breath.

Oh, sure, it’s good to make plans. Last evening Libby and I were having fun talking about the wood-forest-creature decorating theme for her baby shower next month, and I definitely need to check my bank balance and see that a couple of bills get paid today. I have already ordered a couple of Christmas gifts and started saving for retirement (way too late, I am sure, but better late than never). I just bought the prettiest yellow mitten/beanie/scarf set at Target just in case it ever gets cold in Houston again.

But really, it’s just the right now that is mine.

When I was a first-year teacher, preparing for my first lessons and decorating my first classroom, I spent hours cutting out little laminated shapes for our classroom calendar. Our university had drilled into its teacher prep students that buying ready-made bulletin boards was a cop-out, so I was diligently doing what I believed demonstrated my commitment to my students’ education. My one-year-old would stand, wobbly on her feet in front of me, arms outstretched, and I’d brush her off and keep working. My mother in law, sitting nearby, wisely said, “Kim, you’re only going to have these hugs from her for a little while. Think about putting down the laminated shapes and hold your child.” Good advice. I was missing the now of my toddler for the tomorrow of my classroom. I think it’s easier for us to grasp that lesson when it’s the lives of our children at stake. But I would like to walk this a step farther: our own lives are worth that consideration, too. The beauty of our own journeys as human women and men is as worth intentional presence as are the moments with our babies.

It’s what I have been learning very, very recently. This week, even. We’re raised, from infancy, to look forward. To know what we want to do for a job when we’re five years old. To choose a college track when we’re thirteen. To always strive forward, look ahead. And while that can be good, can propel us to invention and innovation, it can also be demoralizing. To always and ever push forward is out of balance. That skewed way of living can rob us of the joy that is found in being fully present in each moment as it is lived. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says:

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

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Photo by Kim Bryant, NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art

I recently spent ten hours listening to Tolle teach about this principle, and it was tough to grasp at first. How do I lead an organized life and do excellent work if I am only in the now, just contemplating the present moment? But that’s not what I think he means. I need to set goals and move toward them, but always stay rooted in the beauty or pain that is now. I must notice the smiles of my loved ones, acknowledge the needs of my physical body, savor the sip of white wine, take a moment to feel sun on my face, and listen to the sound of my breath as it fills, then leaves, my lungs; all ways to remain present. But it’s okay to dream about the future, too.

To dream without anxiety is the key. Worry and angst rob me of joy in the now, and they are as addictive and habitual as any chemical. But learning to stay present, connected to my own spirit and to the greater universal Divine is so much better. Already this morning, I have walked the baby while taking in the beautiful sunlight and cooler autumn air (Houston’s temperature finally dropped below 90 degrees yesterday), enjoyed some sparkling water, and answered some work emails. All without angst. All without worry. Without anxiety.

To live this way will take practice. It will call for thought and accountability. It will require surrender to what is balanced with a willingness to look for what can be. 

This, my friends, is where freedom lies. In each moment lived, one by one by one.

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“Everything Becomes Magical.”

That’s what life coach extraordinaire Martha Beck says. She says when you find your purpose, when you listen to your heart, everything becomes magical.

What I am learning this minute, this second is that finding your purpose is a winding road; purpose can evolve; at least it has for me. I am surrounded by theatre teachers today, sitting in the exhibit hall of a hotel while gregarious, committed women and men equip themselves for a new school year of inspiring kids to create, perform, and design. These educators are full of joy and intention.

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That’s me on the left, directing my high school vampires to attack Harker in “Dracula,” 2007

I was once like them. This is my umpteenth conference, but I used to attend as a teacher. Attending my first convention in 2001,  I was starry-eyed, thrilled to be teaching in a field that so closely mirrored my own passion for storytelling. I attended workshops without stopping for food, from the first class in the early morning until the last one after dinner. I took everything I learned about improv and projection and creating special effect makeup back to my junior high and then high school classrooms and stages, and there were days I’d say to my students as we started rehearsal, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” I knew my purpose. It was clear: to teach theatre and equip students for creativity, yes, but more it was to be someone who loved kids. But I couldn’t sustain. I couldn’t go the distance. The grind of the schedule, the needs of the adolescent students, and the antagonism of a new administrator wore me down until I was a shadow of myself. So I fled to the world of the Renaissance Festival, where I’d been a seasonal entertainer for a long time. In that office, my purpose became to provide support for teachers who were creating learning opportunities and to advocate for the artists who show their wares at the festival. For five years I have navigated the unexpectedly turbulent waters and now the job where I first found respite seems no longer to be the right place to be. My spirit began to nudge me to look afield for a new place to work. I am a person whose spirit needs to feel called to what she does to earn her keep. I know not everyone is wired that way, but I am.

I recently finished an unexpected series of interviews with the Disney Corporation for the second September in a row; though it ultimately did not pan out, it did get me thinking: to work in a magical place, a Magic Kingdom that embraces and sets the standard for best practices, seemed the perfect place for my spirit. Creativity, stability, excellence, and magic call me.

When I was young, I sensed it sometimes. Even in the household where I struggled to feel safe and nurtured, my introverted little dreaming heart searched for magic and longed for purpose.

I donned it in the form of a green tulle prom dress that I bought with good behavior coupons in Mrs. Hoover’s second-grade classroom. When I wore that gown, nothing ugly or lonely could touch me. I was beautiful, I sang and danced. I was fully myself.

Alcott

I felt it in my grandmother’s June’s attic in New Mexico, my own wishing place, just like Louisa May Alcott’s March girls. I played dress-up and danced, wrote stories and read books while the sun streamed in the dormer window.

I stitched it when sitting on the daybed in my grandmother Juanita’s bedroom, I cut and sewed scraps of fabric to make clothing for dolls while she hummed hymns and made garments for the women of west Texas. More, I carried it in every stitch of clothing she ever made me.

I earned it with every report card A and spelling bee trophy, and there were many, evidence of my commitment to be better, to excel.

I became it when I walked down the aisle with my father, the Sound of Music wedding march ringing all around me as I married my husband.

I birthed it each time I pushed a child out of my body then held him or her close.

I created it when I realized that solitude is a gift, that being alone can be healing.

And yet … and yet. Amid all those moments of magic tucked away in my heart, I still feel lost. Without a clear purpose. Recently, I had thought it might be to return to the theatre classroom, but multiple applications around the area didn’t provide a teaching contract. So that’s not it. Nor was Disney, to my great disappointment. I love to write, but there is an infinite number of moments when I find myself debating whether my writing merits a broader reach beyond sweet family and supportive friends. What is the why of my writing? Who is it for?  Who even bothers to read? And here’s a secret revealed: I want to find a purpose that is beyond caring for my grandkids or being the wife of an admittedly great guy. I yearn for an identity and a purpose that is solely my own. I  love my husband, my kids, my grandbaby. But I want work that is my own. In that, I am a true woman of my generation. Our mothers didn’t question that family was all and enough. Our daughters don’t doubt that they can do both or neither.

Waiting is hard. Stillness is excruciating. Hitting the pause button on the deep inner heart while still going through all the busy motions of earning a living, doing dishes, and nurturing relationships feels nigh impossible, even and especially when you deeply and truly love the ones you are surrounded by. To love family well is its own purpose, its own commitment. It’s just that for me, it’s not enough.

Waiting is what I must do. I don’t believe I am the only one living this quandary. Many people in my little sphere seem to be fully confident of where they are and where they’re headed. And for some of them, it’s true. They do know. But I bet others are faking it, just like I am. In the musical Little Women, Jo March, she of shared attic magic, sings of her need to find her purpose, her way:

“There’s a life
That I am meant to lead
A life like nothing I have known
I can feel it
And it’s far from here
I’ve got to find it on my own
Even now I feel its heat upon my skin.
A life of passion that pulls me from within,
A life that I am aching to begin.
There must be somewhere I can be
Astonishing.”

Though I am unclear whether the life I need will take me any farther than the literal road between Houston and Austin, I am certain that something will call to me soon. Some purpose is going to make itself known; so I am going stay soft and spiritually open, to keep listening to the breezes that just might bring a little whispering hint of what I need to do and where I need to go. I think the Divine One has things to tell me. I just hope I recognize when She does.

Do you know your purpose? I would love to know what yours is!

I found this wonderfully helpful article about tools and strategies for finding one’s own unique purpose:

How to Find Your Purpose

 

 

 

Present Light, Second in a Series

“Past and future, ever blending,
Are the twin sides of same page:
New start will begin with ending
When you know to learn from age;
All that was or be tomorrow
We have in the present, too;
But what’s vain and futile sorrow
You must think and ask of you”- Mihai Eminescu

There’s been some angst lately. Getting older is a mixed bag; I love the increased confidence and reduced worry over the opinions of others, I hate the knee and shoulder pain that accompany my disintegrating bones and cartilage. I love having the freedom to make career choices that are risky. I fear the consequences.

I cherish the memories of the people I love.

I ache that some of them are gone.

In my mind and spirit, it all blends. Past and future: victories and setbacks, loves and losses, scars and comforts. Secrets kept. Betrayals felt. Forward. Backward.

I loved this lantern in Seattle, it’s in front of a beautiful old building that stands beside a modern skyscraper. The contrast of recent and ancient was beautiful. That’s life, right? full of contrast and contradiction. But when we can see the inconsistencies and accept them, when we can look both forward and back while living in the present, we build beautiful, resilient, rich lives.

Lives of light. Shadow, too, yes. But mostly: light.

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What I Know for Sure

Sometimes life is funny
You think you’re in your darkest hour
When the lights are coming on in the house of love- Amy Grant*

Each morning as I drive to work, I try to get my brain and heart into a healthy setting, one that enables me to walk through my day in a way that’s uplifting. I am not the greatest at living with a happy face, my sunshine-spreader is faulty, I think. It needs a little nudge every day. So I listen to Oprah. I love Oprah deeply, though I have never met her. No matter, I love her. Sometimes I play a little movie in my mind in which my doorbell rings and when I open it, she’s standing there in all her Oprah-ness and I essentially collapse to the hardwood floor inside my entry, sobbing in joyous abandon. She picks me up, wraps me in her arms, fixes me tea, and we curl up on my sofa for an afternoon of chat.

Funny, right? Her podcast is as close as I may ever get (I refuse to phrase that as a definitive “will ever get” because I have listened to enough Oprah Super Soul to know about manifesting what I speak. But still.) to meeting her and basking in her sunny aura. So I listen every morning. I need fortification before entering my workplace.

Susan's Special Needs: Oprah Talks to Cheryl Strayed About ...

Today, she asked Cheryl Strayed (another hero) a question that I have heard her ask so many times: “What do you know for sure?” I don’t always have a response, usually, my brain is a little too foggy at 7:45 in the morning to snap to attention for the question. But not today. Today, my brain, no, my heart, had a ready answer. What do I know for sure?

I am loved.

Not by everyone I meet, no. I think one of the blessings of getting older is coming to the realization that it’s not necessary to be loved by everyone. It’s not necessary, nor is it possible. An authentic life is a little messy and an authentic person is too. The rougher, unpolished edges of authenticity will scrape upon some in my path. The vibration that I walk with won’t resonate with everyone I meet. In fact, it will create dissonance with people whose vibrations aren’t compatible.

That’s okay.

I am loved anyway, and by enough people that life is good.

Here’s my shortlist of people who love me. It’s not a definitive list, I will probably think of people to add and add and add.

My cousins Rebecca and Jen.

My friends Whitney, Angela, Eide, Jen, Becky, Sherry, and Rosella.

My colleagues Sylvia, Teresa, Darla, and Melody.

College pals Kayla, Cheryl, and Heidi.

The children I have heart-adopted: Jorge, Rileigh, Mandy, and Trevor. As well as other former students gathered in 22 years in the public school classroom.

My in-laws: Jackie, Tom, Trent, Holly, Mason, and Abi.

The mother of my heart, Dorothy.

My angel-in-heaven mentor, Ellen.

My children, Hilary, Travis Austin.

My husband, Travis.

Back of Family

My heart is full as I type the list. There have been dark days in the 52 years I have walked this planet. Days when I was sure that if I disappeared, no one would notice or care. Do you remember planning to run away when you were a child? Throwing your essentials in a backpack while muttering to yourself, “I’ll show them. They won’t even know that I left. Mom and Dad can just sit around and watch TV and I will go do what I want!” Of course, that’s not likely what would happen, but I know I had a couple of days much like that when a kid. But also when an adult. Once, driving home from a session with my therapist, I contemplated committing suicide. I thought maybe I’d just drive my car at high speed into the cement barriers that separated the lanes of traffic on the busy Houston freeways. As I drove, I tried to imagine whether people would even bother to come to my funeral. I mean, I knew Travis and the kids would. But would anyone else? My brain began to populate the pews of a church sanctuary and before I’d passed too many more exits off the highway, and I realized that there were more people who’d miss me than I had thought. So instead of ramming my Ford Escort into the barriers, I drove on home and gave each of my family hugs. They didn’t know, though I did, how close I’d come that day to checking out.

I think it’s important to know for sure that we are loved. It’s the most important thing there is to know. It’s what enables resilience. Love gets under us and lifts us up when we’re low.

Look around today, let the Divine One remind you of the people who love you. Open your heart to that love. Let it flow through you, break you open, patch you up, strengthen your steps. Accept it. You are loved.

I know it. For sure.

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*”House of Love” written by Greg W. Barnhill, Kenny Greenberg, Wally Wilson

 

 

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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Short and Sweet: A Good Mom

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice. Almost like a burden. I didn’t get the time that so many of my friends did to work for a while, get some money in the bank, maybe get a down payment for a house saved up.

I looked at it as my lost youth.

Not now.

I have had to make a major shift here lately. I had to because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. Empty Nest is a big change. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me.

So I am changing the way I think: I am glad I started motherhood so young! It means I get to enjoy this new phase while I am hip and healthy. I even have a nose stud.

And, more significantly, I am owning this thing that people keep telling me, but that I have had a hard time believing: I was a pretty good mother.

Spring, 1995(2)

When I became a mom, I had to figure it out. I hadn’t had healthy mothering in my childhood, so my tool box was pretty empty. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. I didn’t have many peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in my college class to get pregnant. She and I had been roommates and pledge sisters, and we had our first babies just six weeks apart. She was just barely ahead of me on the question train: how to get the baby to latch on, when to add cereal, how to manage tummy aches, and such.

I am now the grandmother of a six month-old. I was not ready for this. Because I started my family so young, I was looking forward to the span during which my own kids were grown and independent, so I could be a little selfish with my time and resources. I thought I could pretend to be ten years younger and travel the world, just being indulgent and drinking pomegranate mimosas. Of course, that’s not how it worked. Honestly, when do our plans ever really go like we thought they would?

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When my daughter and her boyfriend left our house after they told us they were expecting a baby, I just leaned over into my husband’s arms and bawled, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” “I know,” he sighed, “but are you ready to help your daughter be a good mom?” Of course I am. To do that, though, means that I must acknowledge that I was a good mom. It means I need to figure out how I did it. How I still do it. Because I am definitely not finished being a mom. Nowhere near it.

 

What’s a time when you really rocked your parenting? Maybe you created a memory, taught a life lesson, or protected your child. I’d love to hear it.

If you’re a mom looking for a tribe, try Hello Minder. It’s moms with a lot of love and a desire to help each other more-than-muddle through the mom journey:

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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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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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