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.

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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

 

 

 

Short and Sweet: A Dragonfly Day

This morning, I found myself walking with my granddaughter, feeling a bit blue. Disappointed that plans that didn’t pan out. Stuck. Ordinary. Small. With such a sweet companion, it seems impossible that I might have felt so, but there it is.

 

 

But then, as I pushed the stroller into a sunny patch on our walking path, a dragonfly hovered mere inches from my face just as Nancy Wilson sang, “The Best is Yet to Come.” It seemed that maybe the Universe was sending me a message, telling me that I am okay where I am. That good things are coming. That pleasure and purpose can be found in the insignificant and mundane moments.

Sometimes I wish I was living a big life, the kind in which I have influence and connections, a substantial platform from which to speak, tangible evidence that I am leaving a legacy; a life without limits. My spirit’s wings are itching explore the skies far beyond the one I have been living under for so long. But that doesn’t seem to be where the Divine One is sending me. Instead, She sets me at home, keeping me humble and grounded as I endeavor to make small ripples in a tiny pond.

A beautiful life is not made by enduring the ordinary moments, but by being fully present in them. By imbuing them with love and joy and gratitude. And that, dear friends and readers, is a choice.

Diapers. Music. Hugs. Dirty dishes. Walks. Invoices. Glasses of cool, clean water. The changing of seasons. It’s all magic. Ordinary magic. And that may be the most powerful magic of all.

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If you have never heard this delicious song by Nancy Wilson, give it a listen!

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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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.

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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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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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Sometimes, I Am Sad. And Pissed.

I need to be honest, dear reader.

Sometimes, I am sad.

It doesn’t always make sense- what have I to be sad about?

My husband loves me. My children do, too.

My body is healthy, though aging is hard. Joints hurt. Menopause undoes.

I love my home, with its sunlight and hardwood floors and fairy garden.

My bills are paid. Just.

Food is plentiful and I usually eat like I am supposed to- foods rich in protein and low in processed carb and starch. Vegetables. Fruit. I have set aside the old habits of self-medicating with high fructose corn syrup and sugar.

I feed my soul by listening to Super Soul, Rob Bell, and Liz Gilbert, I read a meditation each morning, I peruse stories of empowerment and encouragement over my breakfast of Grapenuts and low sodium V8 juice, hoping to plant seeds in my heart, kernels of courage and contentment.

I exercise, though on sad days, not with much felicity. There is a heaviness to my legs, it’s work to take the steps, not joy. The breath of yoga would make me cry today if I attempted it. Maybe I should do it anyway. Probably should. Definitely should.

I have anxiety medication. I take it.

I have a first world life, with only first world problems.

And yet…I live and breathe with diagnosed and medicated anxiety. Perhaps that’s a first world problem, too? Do women in countries where they must haul clean water in baskets even have time to be anxious? Do they have time for needless worry over credit card balances and cable TV bills? Are they compelled to track calories in a fitness app? Do they fret over every plastic water bottle they see in the hand of a passerby, knowing it might very well end up floating in the ocean?

Relevant and True: Knowing that women in Africa are struggling with weightier issues does not make my anxiety less. It simply does not. We harm others and ourselves when we say: “Look at that person. Her suffering is worse. Buck up.” What we should say is: “I see you. I hear you. I hold you.”

My anxiety is my legacy from my mother, a desperately addicted and acutely mentally ill woman who hurt her own body and the bodies and spirits of her children.

In the days leading up to this melancholy, hands shook. Heart trembled. Breath accelerated. Sleep evaded. Body ached. Soul hurt.

And, dear reader, I will go one step deeper into authenticity. Into the place where good women, sweet women, gentle women, are not supposed to go.

Sometimes, I am angry. Angry as hell.

But this? This, unlike the random bouts of sadness, makes sense to me. I am angry at my past. I am angry at family members who seem to have abandoned me. I am angry at a world in which people can be unkind, dishonest, and abusive and not be held accountable; but are venerated instead. I am angry at a world that believes that Viagra is a legitimate prescription for insurance to cover, but hearing aids for small children are not. I am angry at a country in which walls, not bridges, are solutions, and where millionaire politicians would rather spend money putting guns into schools instead of books and hot lunches.

I am angry because sometimes I feel trapped and confused, and I yearn to walk away; or to find the courage to really say all the things I want to say to those who, from the landscape where I stand, set me aside years and years ago.

I am, on a minute-by-minute basis, endeavoring to live authentically. To be transparent, even amid anxiety and anger and hormones and menopause. To be rigorously truthful in the gratefulness I feel daily for the family I have created, a clan that includes the dear friends who have stood in the gap so often in place of blood.

All of these feelings are as veritably me as those that more usually govern my days- those of joy and hope and creativity.

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Last night, I dreamt I was having a baby. My father, who is deceased, was there to calm my worry over the late-in-life pregnancy, as I fretted over my own dangerous, impossible pregnancy and my daughter’s healthy, vibrant one. My subconscious seemed to be bidding goodbye to my fertility, through the precious echo of my father’s voice and calming presence, both of which I miss terribly.

I understand why anger happens. But why does depression happen? I have to be honest- I don’t know. What changed from two weeks ago, when I was I excited about my new camper, career possibilities, and my granddaughter-to-come, who is, right now, about ten inches long inside my daughter’s womb?

Why, in the midst of lovely things, do I isolate myself from friends and withhold myself from family? True, I am an introvert by nature, and so it is way too easy to hole up inside my house. Most of my family of origin is dead, and the one remaining person has little interest in a relationship. He has his own life and loves, and he is very happy in it. Many, though not all, of my most trusted friends are hours away. My stubborn, aching spirit will not call for help. Another legacy of my mother’s, who spent years holed up in her living room, angry, bitter, and heartsick.

Anxiety feels like a rushing river in my veins, something I cannot impede, though I erect dam after dam. It feels like muchness; too much muchness, all quivering inside my fragile shell. It feels like my clenched abdomen and jaw. It feels like darkness and piercing light, all simultaneous.

It feels like fear.

I have spent an entire life with it. I’ve done the self-harm, the mental hospital, the therapy, the religion and its renunciation. I turned a corner. I recovered most of my life, my agency, my courage. I learned to start speaking up sometimes, even when it costs me.

A year ago, I decided to be intentional about what I thought my life’s mission would be, and I started writing about it:

” 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…”

Today doesn’t feel very magical, unless it’s a darker magic. A Maleficent kind of magic. Moon magic. Winter in the midst of summer. As I have dug deeply inward, trying to discover whether my moments of rage or sadness make the rest of my life’s message fraudulent, I say no. I am a complex being, with the inescapable right to conflicting emotions and not entirely consistent behavior. I just have to keep coming back to what I know is the core of me: life is beautiful.

Perhaps, it is these intervals of shade that enable me to enjoy the days of sun that I know will come. Today, I will lean into the feelings of sadness. Instead of masking them or eating them away, I will just let them be. I will take a nap, I will move my body. I will talk to a precious friend. I will spend a few moments communing with the Goddess.

And I will trust in fifty-one years of living, when the gray days always gave way to the sunny ones.

 

The Magic of Comfort Food

 

 

 

Just last night, I cleared off a space on my sage green corian countertop for a new-to-me Cuisinart CBK-100 bread maker. I found it on Facebook Marketplace after watching a video on which Zooey Deschanel described the making of store bought bread, and a friend who lives very wholistically posted about the bread she had just baked. After a short FB convo in which I described how I used to bake bread but can’t anymore due to a shoulder injury and arthritis in my hands, she sought out some whole grain bread maker recipes and sent me the links. Well, of course that necessitated a bread machine.

So there she is. I think I will name her Wilma. As in Flintstone.

This weekend I baked my first loaf, using organic flours and local honey, and I have decided to keep unsalted butter softening on the counter always, just in case I want to nosh on a slice of bread.

Reading bread recipes started me thinking about comfort foods, all those delicious tasty treats that I turn to when my soul is feeling in need of a little TLC. Macaroni and cheese, Brach’s orange slices, a big pot of pinto beans simmered for twelve hours with a slab of salted pork and a little pickle brine…yum. Yum, yum, yum.

I had two really amazing grandmothers. One’s homemaking gift was sewing. The other’s was cooking. Whenever my brothers and I went for a visit, we’d wake up on the first morning to the scent of boiling chicken. Once the chicken cooled, Grandma June de-boned it and put all the little pieces back in her big, heavy stock pot, all the while pretending she didn’t see us snatching little bites of chicken off the cutting board. Then she rolled out the dough for dumplings, letting us sprinkle flour atop the dough to prevent it sticking to the rolling pin. She cut the dumplings into strips with a knife and dropped their floury goodness into the pot of simmering broth and chicken. If memory serves, there were little bits of celery and a good amount of salt and pepper. She served it with an iceberg tossed salad, which I skipped so that I could have seconds of her wonderful chicken and dumplings. I have never, ever found their equal.

And her snickerdoodles? They had just the right amount of density, and she rolled the dough balls in cinnamon sugar to coat them all the way around, every bit of the cookie had sweet coating. I have not had one since 1982. I thought I would never, ever find one as good, until last fall, when a friend from the Renaissance festival where I work brought a batch in. They were just like my grandma’s. I actually teared up when I tasted them. So perfect.

Hamburger Helper

My own mom wasn’t much for cooking, so we tended to eat a lot of Hamburger Helper. I could even make this for the family on my own, once I got to be about ten years old. Potato Stroganoff went over well, I was always fascinated by the texture of the dehydrated spud slices. I tried to eat one once, thinking it might be similar to a potato chip. It wasn’t. Sometimes we used Tuna Helper instead. It was okay. But the best? The very best variety? Hands down: Cheeseburger Macaroni. Oh, the heaven of that bright orange powdered cheese! I loved to watch it dissolve in grease and water as I stirred, becoming a cheesy gravy over broken up bits of ground beef and softening noodles. I confess that I fed this to my own children when I became a mom. The bulk of my motherhood years, especially the years when they were little, predate my awareness of preservatives and starches in prepackaged food. My kids loved it, and a box of Hamburger Helper and a pound of ground beef were within my tight budget. No regrets. Not one.

Pancho

When it came to eating out in my childhood, there were really just three places: Whataburger, Furr’s Cafeteria, and my favorite, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. Texans, especially Dallasites, will recognize those spots. At Pancho’s, you walked the line like a cafeteria, and once you ordered your size of plate, the server used tongs to slide an exceedingly hot metal dish into a color coded plastic trivet (the colors told the servers how many items you could have and the cashier how much money to charge). I watched, salivating, as servers filled my tray with cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans, and fried tortilla chips. Later, as an adult, I added sauteed calabacita (squash), but when I was a kid? Carbs and cheeses all the way. My dad loved the chile rellenos.

Each table had a little Mexican flag (sans coat-of-arms) on a tiny flagpole, and when you needed a refill on your drink, you raised the flag and an attendant came to pour tea or fetch soda.

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part was the sopapillas. If you are not familiar with sopapillas, they are pockets of friend dough that you pour honey into. Some other Tex-Mex places serve them with cinnamon sugar on top, and that’s okay, but the best thing was to bite into the corner of the sopapilla and then use your hand to squeeze until the hole you’d made was just the right size to pour honey in. I remember when my dad showed me, then my little brother, then my baby brother how to do it. The sopapillas came in a basket, with free refills. Again, free refills. It was not unheard of to finish a meal with three of them. And a little tummy ache.

When I was about ten, the middle child, Lance, and I decided to play with our baby brother, Chad, and we convinced him that a tiny little man in a sombrero was running under all the tables, magically filling honey bottles and sopapilla baskets unseen. I remember watching Chad climbing over and under the booth seats and table, trying to catch the little man. Lance and I kept straight faces, somehow, until Chad shed frustrated tears and Daddy set everything right.

Halloween, 2003, at Panchos!

As an adult, I took my own kids there. Our last visit was on Halloween of 2003, and we took the younger two (aged twelve and nine) who had just finished trick or treating in our neighborhood. The youngest was still dressed in the kimono I’d sewn for her, and they took photos with the mascot, Pancho, on what ended up being the last night we took our kids trick or treating together. After that, they were just grown out of it.

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When I was newly married and about to host my in-laws, daddy, and grandmother for Thanksgiving in our student housing apartment, I panicked. I didn’t have any idea how to make a Thanksgiving dinner! I ran to my Aunt Molly’s house, and she spent a day teaching me about green bean casseroles and mashed potatoes, turkey basting and yeast rolls. But the best gift she gave me that day was her recipe for cornbread dressing, which has become the centerpiece of every Thanksgiving dinner at our house. Her recipe came from her mother-in-law, Reba, and I have never tasted its equal: mushrooms and almond slivers sauteed in butter, sage sausage, and savory spices make this recipe unique, and our hands-down favorite. That, and the tortilla soup we make on Christmas Eve, are my own family’s two collective comfort foods, the dishes that serve as the accompaniment to our holiday gatherings.

I have spent my entire adult life in a love/hate relationship with food. Trying to be skinny, skipping meals, depriving, then rebelling by eating too much of the things that my body didn’t gain nourishment from.

I am on a new journey now, though, one that is allowing a feeling of joy and peace to return to my spirit: learning that food is actually powerful, and can work magic in a beautiful way. The closer I can get to the foods that nature Herself created, the better for my body and spirit. But sometimes, just sometimes, a generous helping of gooey cheese sauce or sugary candy just hit the spot. Bon Appetit!

What are your favorite comfort foods?

Here’s the recipe I used for my honey whole wheat bread:

https://www.tasteofhome.com/recipes/bread-machine-wheat-bread/

And I use honey from https://www.facebook.com/queenbeehoneyremedies/

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