Using My Voice: to Sing, Whisper, or Roar?

I’m standing on a stage in a converted Vaudeville theatre. The house is empty. It’s the final week of dress rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone and I am belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glide with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I plant my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I take a deep breath, open my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. The director’s face freezes in horror as I cough and gasp, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager runs toward me with a bottle of water and I drink, but I still cannot squeeze a sound out of my throat. I end the song with tears streaming down my face. There’s no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome, had undergone prosthesis surgery to replace, was my undoing, just two days before opening night.

I’m standing on a stage in a church auditorium. I am flanked on both sides by middle-aged men, and I clasp my husband’s hand tightly as he bares his soul to the congregation, laying down his ministry, our mission, and our livelihood for a crowd of over 1,000 church members. Their eyes are wide and my spirit is shattered; the only sound in the room is my husband’s broken and trembling voice as he confesses his sex addiction for the whole world to see. I have nothing to say, and wouldn’t be permitted to speak anyhow. My church preaches and practices the silencing of women.

I’m standing on a stage in another sanctuary, an earlier one, clad in white satin. It’s a different brand of church that allows my voice to speak not only my wedding vows but also to sing all the love I feel for my new husband that day. We sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. We mean it. My voice rings clear and true that afternoon, it is quite beautiful. As I sing, I trust that my uncle and grandfather will keep my mentally ill and drug-addicted mother calm. She has hinted at a scene in my dressing room and again as I hand her a rose during the processional. For a few minutes, I stop worrying about her to bask in my husband’s blue-eyed adoration.

I’m standing on a stage in my senior year of high school, performing the song “Memory” from Cats for the Senior Farewell Talent Show. My accompanist is absent, having not found the sheet music in her bag. I sing a cappella after the speech teacher gives me a pep talk just before the lights turn on my frightened face. I haven’t yet learned that my voice is resonant and strong enough to make a melody without the help of a piano, without the crutch of another person on stage with me. I stand in the spotlight all alone and sing of moonlight and beauty, skipping the final verse when my nerve abandons me. After the talent show, my mother slaps me in front of what feels like the whole school, and I sense the heat of all those curious, sympathetic eyes as I flee to the shared dressing rooms, where my friends form a barricade to protect me from my own mother as she rages.

I’m standing on a different sort of stage, not a stage really, but oh-so-exposed anyway. In my own backyard, between the side of the house and the neighbor’s fence, my six-year-old self pulls down my pants and allows a little boy to put his tiny erect penis in between my legs. He sticks his tongue in my mouth, his friends watch, and I can utter no sound. I am silent. When it’s over, I hide in my room and cry. He does it again, then again, and I never speak a word. I stay silent and I suffer shame.

But my first time on a stage is joyous, though still quiet. My beloved Uncle Steve, who performs at Six Flags Over Texas in the early ’70s, invites me to sing with him at the final rehearsal of the amusement park’s Crazy Horse Saloon. Only six years old, I never utter even a peep. Yet it is so profound a moment that I will always know that I was wearing my white tennis dress that had red and blue edging and looked just like something Billie Jean King would wear. I will always recall the encouraging expressions of the invited audience as I gape and stare. No trauma, just stage fright and an introverted little girl.

So quiet. In so many key moments of my life, I have locked my heart, soul, and voice up tight. Lips compressed. Spirit screaming, though. Screaming, wailing, thrashing, and hurting. No more. No, no more. I am learning to speak my truth, from the small honesty of what I do or don’t want to eat when with my family to calling congressmen to press for justice; from expressing, rather than clutching, hurt feelings to setting a boundary to protect myself from a tyrannical boss. And when the spoken word is not sufficient unto the task, I write my soul’s truth, pouring heart and mind into words that I sometimes share.

I am discovering that being quiet is okay. Quiescence is beautiful, it implies a hush that is grounded in rest. But healthy tranquility is not the same as resentful placidity. Living quietly, in a place of hope, requires muscular work. Diligent mindfulness. Rigorous self-examination. The Divine Creator, She who holds our hearts and minds in such compassion, is present in our quiet; is heard best when we are still. And it is Her voice that can either sing, whisper, or roar through me if I will but avail myself of Her power and courage.

My voice returned in time for opening night, by the way. I belted about bluebirds and “dawn’s blinding sunbeams” as though I’d never known a day of vocal cord paralysis in my life. But underneath my voice was a support network not just of muscle and lung, but of love from family and friends, and the breath of the Creator.

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Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

Yesterday, as I arrived home and walked in the door to my house, I heard a squeal as my 14-month-old granddaughter walked away from me in that precious, stiff, wobbly way unique to toddlers, hoping I would chase her. Of course, I dropped my bag, slipped off my Skechers, and crept after her, sweeping her sweet little self into a giant hug. Giggling children remind us of all that is joyful, don’t they?

Take a moment to close your eyes and remember the games you played as a child: tag, red-light-green-light, heads-up-seven-up. Do you remember the warm sunshine, the chirp of crickets camouflaged in the verdant grass, the breathless anticipation of waiting for your thumb to be pressed down to your fist by your best friend? I was a hide-and-seek master as a child. I was small enough to hide in very creative places and patient enough to hold my breath if required to remain hidden. Safety was paramount in my game;  I was afraid to try for home base because I didn’t want to give away my prime spot, nor did I relish being tagged in a way that felt physically aggressive.  I’d climb trees or tuck into the laundry hamper to evade my brothers and the neighborhood kids.

When I was a teen attending a church youth group retreat, I remember playing a version of hide-and-seek called Capture The Flag. I don’t recall the rules; what I do remember is that I hid so well and for so long, listening to new friends run around in the inky night of a countryside retreat center, getting caught and laughing while I remained silent and solitary, that no one ever found me; to my knowledge, no one even tried. I finally gave up and went back to the cabin, where the entire group including the chaperones had moved on to a new activity. No one had noticed my absence, and certainly, they had not sent anyone to find me.

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Hiding didn’t always mean literally tucking myself away in a wee spot. Sometimes I hid in plain view. One day in my senior year of high school, my friends and I were goofing around in the choir room with some inflatable frisbees I had in my car trunk from the water park where I worked. All five of my friends struck silly poses and someone snapped a picture. That pic ended up in the yearbook, and my friend Celeste wrote “Kim, where are you?” beside the photo in the book. Where, indeed? I was standing beside the photographer, waiting and hoping that one of my friends would notice I was not in the picture and invite me in. Same thing happened in college at a club Christmas party- my entire group was getting a picture made by the Christmas tree and I was standing off to the side, waiting for someone to notice me.

I tend to hide as an adult, too. I tuck away in my office or my home, surrounded by comforting items that make it too easy to cocoon. My bedroom has always been my refuge, I would happily spend days tucked into my bed surrounded by books and sunshine spattered yellow walls. Travis is always telling me to call someone to set up a date. I can’t. I just can’t. But the presence of my daughter’s family, with those sweet little baby faces, has given me a reason to leave my nest.

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I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert and a survivor of childhood trauma; I am not unique in that. How many of us find safe, cozy places and huddle in there, waiting for our friends, lovers, children, parents, co-workers to seek us out and pull us from our isolation?

Leaving the hidey-hole means risking vulnerability. There is a journey to be made between the safety of darkness and the safety of home base. You may get tagged, knocked down, or made “it.” You may risk love and not be loved in return. Even when you are loved in return, there is even more at stake, because nothing hurts worse than the pain inflicted by a loved one. You may express yourself artistically and not be understood. You may try a new career and fail. You may initiate a new friendship and be ignored.

As a middle-aged adult, I have owned that I have often been complicit in my own isolation. If I had jumped into the photos, I’d have been welcomed. If I’d run out into the darkness of Capture the Flag, I’d have been tagged, sure, then invited in with the rest of the group for snacks.

Yet I don’t know if I will ever be comfortable enough to jump into the photo or invite the friend over. If Travis is ever gone from me, you will probably find me tucked away like a hermit, reading books and eating saltines in bed. I won’t send out an S.O.S. But if you come to find me, let me know you’re around by hollering that old standby: “Olly-Olly-Oxen-Free!”

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Let’s engage!

If you’re an introvert or simply a survivor who tends to hide away or blend in, what are your go-to strategies for taking a risk and engaging? What are your defense mechanisms that might not be healthy?

I tend to hide behind organizational matters and busy-ness.

Present Light, Third in a Series

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” – Nobel Peace Prize recipient, philosopher, physician Albert Schweitzer

Lately I have been making a conscious effort to step out of isolation. In my introversion and my insecurity, I tend to keep myself to myself, to hide my light under a bushel, so to speak. To be honest, I have doubted whether my light was of any value. But i realize it is. It truly is.

So I reached out to my neighbors on Facebook, asking who might be interested in a monthly gathering for the purpose of cultivating authentic friendships, the sort where we can ring on each other’s doorbells if our kids are sick, relationships that extend beyond friendly waves as we pass each other walking our dogs. Not a group for gossip and wine, no, but a company of genuine friends. A handful of neighbors want to embark on this project with me! We’ll see how our experiment goes.

I photographed these street lamps outside Westminster Abbey in London. I was struck by the two lamps standing side-by-side, in such close proximity to each other, as if to lend light not only to the street and its inhabitants, but to each other as well. Like people do. Like my neighbors do. We are light.

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Women, Rooted in Kindness

It’s World Kindness Day, a day for wearing cardigan sweaters a la Mr. Rogers and for random acts of kindness like paying for the latte of the lady behind you in the line at Starbucks. I am stuck on my sofa, snuggled up under a crocheted mossy green blanket, post-surgical bandaged knee propped up and crutches nearby for my occasional forays to the kitchen for cookies. I am not out and about in the world to share my own sprinkling of kindness, so I will do the next best thing: tell you of two of the kindest women I have ever known; women whose unexpected impact on my life and the lives of others cannot be measured.

I move pretty quietly through the world. I do not change the social temperature of a room by walking in. I listen and observe more than I speak. It’s not that I am afraid of speaking, in fact my voice has, at times, caused friction in relationships, especially in relationships with those who have certain ideas about how I am meant to interact with the world, or with women who, though friends, are competitive. My innate quietness has served to isolate me through much of my life. Even if it looked like I was surrounded by friends, I was likely lonely. But when the time was right, when my spirit, heart, and intellect were ready for new lessons, when I could hear what the Goddess had to tell me, She delivered two amazing women into my adult life. In my youth, there were women who filled that need, but when I became an adult, there weren’t as many. These two women fully attended to what I had to say. They heard me. We don’t often talk about the power of female mentoring. These mentors are not family members, they are just women who befriended me; and beyond friendship, they gave wisdom and advice and profound examples of something I wanted to emulate.

Ellen-Ketchum

Ellen was brassy and clever, with the mouth of a sailor and the heart of a warrior artist. She was a former administrator with a Tony Award winning regional theatre, and I met her when I auditioned for the role of Julie Jordan in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Carousel. I walked into the theatre not really knowing much of anybody, but knowing that I loved Julie Jordan. I had a good audition, I got the part; and from that moment on, I had a new mentor.

Ellen made my family her own. She harmlessly flirted with my husband so he’d feel a little sexy, she grabbed on to my theatrical daughters and coached them, particularly the older daughter, who was beginning her college studies in theatre. For me? First, she reignited my confidence. I had struggled to find a home in the theatre community of our area; but she nurtured my talent and endorsed it. Publicly. Once, I walked into her theatre, where she was holding an acting class, and she introduced me to her students as “one of the best actresses in the Houston area.” Now, there are many amazing actresses in Houston, so the validity of that proclamation might be in question. But no matter, because there is, quite literally, no measure for what that compliment, coming from a former South Coast Rep staffer, did for me after years of being shuffled to the side in the town where I have struggled to do theatre.

Ellen had me choreograph, assistant direct, act, and sit. We would sit and talk shop after rehearsals. We would sit in her living room and drink glass after glass of white wine and pet her dogs, laugh with her roomie and swap stories about kids and other actors and husbands. In her bedroom, she displayed a gorgeous black and white photo of herself: in her forties, laughing a huge laugh. Ellen was the first ballsy woman I had ever truly known and deeply loved. She challenged and cultivated my bravura and my art.

Even as she languished in chemo for ovarian cancer, Ellen kept her toes bright red with professional manicures. She wore sandals, even though her ankles weren’t narrow and her feet were wrinkled. She brazenly lifted her shirt to “shoot up” with insulin, she didn’t care who saw her stomach. She didn’t wear makeup but she wore a smile as wide as her face and as big as her voice.

I miss Ellen every day. I miss her spirit, she radiated joy and tenacity and authenticity, no matter the cancer or the gray hair or the bastards that tried to hold her down. 

There has been another mentor, too. One who nurtured my spirit and mothered my soul. Dorothy.

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In our final youth ministry position, Dorothy was a church elder’s wife. She is a well of deep wisdom. Her walk with the Divine One is potent and real; it is her life’s work to act as an intermediary between God and Her beloved people, especially women. When my husband had to face the church and confess his addiction, it was Dorothy who sat in my living room and listened to my heartbreak, fury, and worry, without judgement. The next Easter, when I was barely able to walk with my chin up, it was Dorothy who took me shopping for my very own Easter outfit and shoes so that I could stride into the church building with a little spark of confidence. When I struggled with the temptation of attraction to another man, it was Dorothy I entrusted with that burden. She has been present through all the physical relocations, hers and mine. We have been involved in each other’s family weddings; my youngest was a flower girl in her daughter’s wedding, and they all came for my daughter’s wedding. We got to live with Dorothy and her husband one autumn for a month. Just at the time when my relationship with my son was undergoing a sea change and a prolonged silence, Dorothy was there to prop me up and keep me going. Here’s the thing about Dorothy: she is sweet, for sure. Gentle and kind and nurturing, yes, but she is sharp and wise and discerning, too, and when she perceives a threat to a loved one, she is resolute in her protection. For me, whose own mother was such a disappointment and void, Dorothy became Mother.

Both of these women listened with their full attention, they weren’t waiting for me to stop talking so that they could start. They didn’t interrupt. They didn’t have an agenda. There was never a sense that they wanted to change who I was. They just loved. They heard me. They saw me. They spent years cultivating these deep and precious friendships.

For learning how to love in the healthiest of ways, I had Dorothy to nurture me.

For learning how to live in the most courageous of ways, I had Ellen to show me.

For learning what authenticity really looks like, what finding my life’s mission and then embracing it wholly, I had both. Their kindnesses came not in syrupy-sweet, cutesy packages but in brave and truthful love and the living of it.

Beginning way back in childhood, I was the tag-along friend, the one who was, quite often, passive in the relationship. I have owned that- too often I waited to be included, standing to the side for silly photos instead of jumping in, keeping my ideas of what might be fun pastimes to myself, holding the secrets of my family safe. So many times, I have, in the presence of, shall we call them “strong personality” friends, just acquiesced and enabled my own hushed invisibility. To be honest, I was lonely in my own friendships.

What I have begun to understand as I write my life, is that authentic friendship is multi-directional. When a friendship is one-sided, when all conversations are from one point of view, when a friend no longer asks about you and interrupts your story to redirect the conversation back to herself, it’s time to rethink the friendship. Time to walk away and search for healthier relationships. I have learned that there are women who, when they are friends with someone like me, a quieter presence, will take care to include and invite, who don’t compete, who seek meaningful conversation, and who are trustworthy in the very best ways. Women who are actively kind, like I hope to be.

The Divine One has been kind enough to place people in my life now who, with nurturing and time, will be life-long friends. Friends with whom cynicism is not the regular language and score-keeping is not the modus operandi. Friends who, knowing I have been lonely, have stopped by the office to say hi, or sent encouraging messages, or sent precious gifts. People who are proving how powerful and nourishing it is to be seen and heard. Some of these women are from college, some from grad school, some from teaching, some from theatre, some from old churches. I love their diversity.

  Women can, and should, hold each other up. When we are together, our collective voice resonates and proclaims victory and strength. Vulnerable, authentic friendship with women I trust has become a non-negotiable aspect of my life. Kindness of the sort that is sacrificial, ongoing, and world changing is a constant, conscious effort. But it’s worth it. Ever so much.

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I loved this story of two English women using their gifts for crochet to spread a little kindness!

https://www.kenilworthweeklynews.co.uk/news/people/kenilworth-women-pass-out-crochet-hearts-with-messages-of-hope-for-world-kindness-day-1-9141537

 

“Are You Okay?” Ask the Question.

Last Monday, I found myself walking in the LAX airport, searching for a soda and trying to get to my 10,000th step before boarding a plane to head home to Houston. It’s a busy airport. Really, really busy.

You know how there are some people who are blissfully unaware of the existence of others as they move through the world? They stop in the middle of paths, their grocery carts block access, they bump into people and don’t say “Excuse me” because they are so clueless?

I am not one of those people.

I am the person who’s constantly ducking out of the way of oblivious elbows and shopping carts and jaywalkers.

lemonade12016-11-22-06-47-03So as I walked, I observed the people I shared the vast, echoing space with. There was a young man, clad in orange safety vest, uniform, and work boots, sitting on a low tile wall just near the Lemonade restaurant, head down in his hands. His shoulders were slumped, he seemed so very despondent. I wondered, is he okay?

And I kept walking. Gotta get the steps in.

When I returned, he was still there. Head still down. Shoulders still slumped. I kept walking. Did another full round of the terminal. He’s still sitting. And I start to wonder if maybe he needs something, maybe he’s gotten bad news, maybe he’s lonely. I resolve to stop and ask if he’s still sitting when I finish the lap of the terminal.

When I finish, he is, in fact, still there, and I find myself facing a test. No one but me knew of my resolution. I processed a whole lot of  excuses as I stood to the side of the tide of people rushing to their gate:

He’s a stranger.

I’m an introvert.

He might be dangerous.

He might think I am weird.

Or nosy.

He might not speak English.

It’s not my business.

I am in a hurry. What if they call my plane to start boarding?

I might be rejected.

That’s the big one, isn’t it? Rejection.

I took a deep breath, I crossed to him,  touched his shoulder, and asked, “Are you okay?”

He looked at me with eyes rimmed red, fatigue carved into lines beside his mouth, surprise evident in his expression, and replied, “I’m just so tired.” And he started talking, almost without prompting, as though he really just needed to. Seems he’d worked six straight 16-hour days, and had four more to go before a break. He fills jets with fuel, and it’s hot on the tarmac, he’d come in to just cool off for an hour on his lunch break. We chatted. I held my hand up for a high five that turned into a tight clasp as we looked into each other’s eyes, strangers, and told each other to hang on.

It was just a small moment of connection, nothing earth-shattering, just a couple of moments in which one human talked to another. No screens, no agenda, no products to sell or meetings to schedule, just connection without cost.

I believe connection is the thing each of us needs most. Real, authentic, meaningful connection with another person. Attentive listening accompanied by unguarded eye contact. Stillness that says, “I am here, I am hearing you, I am not rushing away to my next thing. I will plant myself here and wholly attend to what you’re saying.”

And you know what? I asked that man if he was okay, and I was the one who walked away healed. I cried tears for a moment, somehow flooded with feelings in that moment that needed to leak out my eyes. A week later and I am still weeping over that moment. That tiny little conversation followed by a hand clasp.

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Why, I wonder? I think it’s because I let my protective shell crack open a little. Like poet Leonard Cohen says, a crack is “how the light gets in.” I cracked open, and light has been doing the work of washing away some hurts old and new. Washing them away in tears. Not sad tears, but cleansing ones.

I don’t know the name of the man I spoke to at LAX last Monday, I hope he had a good week. I hope he got some rest Friday. I hope he spent some time loving and being loved on his first day off after a busy holiday filled with harried travelers.

I meant to be the one doing the healing, instead I was healed myself. That’s how connection works. How risk pays off. How resilience grows.

Friend, are you okay today?

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Short and Sweet: Of Sun and Shade

We all know them. Those people whose energy simply glows over everything around them. They are often pretty, usually smiling, they seem to have the right words readily waiting on the tips of their tongues. If/when they welcome you, it’s genuine. When you call or email or DM, you hope they’ll reply- it would be so affirming if they noticed you! Their lives seem … enchanted.

Since I am a woman, but a woman who couldn’t quite figure out how to move confidently in the world until her 48th birthday, my memory is littered with other girls who seemed to be the epitome of feminine perfection in my limited sphere of knowledge:

M. in third grade- with long, golden hair that she wore in bows and headbands, a cute 1976 wardrobe of Holly-Hobbie-inspired maxi dresses, and a bright smile.

K. in high school- varsity cheerleader, impeccable dresser, genuinely friendly. Everyone’s favorite person.

E. in college- same as K. friendly, smart, a leader. Perfect hair. Probably had 27 literal bridesmaid’s dresses.

S. in grad school- that star that every graduate cohort probably has, every assignment seemed perfectly accomplished, she gathered a group of friends that was propulsive and influential, a dynamic that has continued into postgrad undertakings.

J. in just general adulthood world- pretty, eloquent and clever, everyone’s favorite pal. So smart. So talented. So photogenic.

I always hoped to be:

asked to scale the monkey bars alongside her

asked to sit at her prom table

asked to be a bridesmaid

asked to work on a group project

invited to the birthday party (which I was, score 1!)

And it’s not just the girls and women I have known that are sunshine. I am married to a man who is everyone’s favorite.

I notice a pattern here. I waited to be asked. Always. Monkey bars, weddings, projects; I lingered to the side as if a shadow and waited for an invitation to join the sunlight. But it is shadows and dark silhouettes that make the world beautiful. That make it bearable. That provide rest for eyes and spirit.

I have decided, finally, to make my own light. To sparkle in my own way. I will always be quiet in a room full of noise, but I am more like the lightning bug that flickers as she flies in the warm summer dark than the showy monarch butterfly that catches all eyes as it flutters in the hot afternoon sun. Both are gorgeous.

Quiet is a beautiful and strong thing for a woman to be. I don’t have to roar. I don’t have to blaze. Shine on.

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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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French Fries and Legos

In 2016, my husband and I bought a new car. It’s  Ford Escape (we aren’t big spenders, no BMWs or Caddys for us, at least not in this current life), but I splurged and opted for leather seats and a sun roof. This was our first post-child-rearing car, it was the one I wanted to drive for a long time, and I kept its interior clean. No jelly smudges on the upholstery, no milk stains on the carpet.

Oh my stars- milk in the carpet! Once, when my kids were little, I smelled something truly vile in my car, a little red Ford Escort. Or maybe it was the white Ford Tempo. It’s all a blur (though it’s clear we’re loyal Ford folks). I searched and searched, until I found a bottle under the driver’s seat. The milk in it had curdled, was leaking gas and fluid, and smelled to high heaven. It was rank like a boys’ locker room laundry hamper; like rotten, sulfuric eggs or fresh skunk spray on a humid morning. The smell lingered for months, no matter how much scrubbing or Resolve I used.

This new cinnamon-red, tan-leather-upholstered, luxurious clean crossover was my reward for all the years of driving three kids around, pulling through McDonalds to grab them sustenance before a game, piano lesson, or orthodontic appointment. Since we were new empty nesters, we anticipated a good five years of clean, quiet road trips to little wineries and out-of-the-way art galleries. I even got my nose pierced to celebrate the Empty Nest! I was ready to rock!

Just last week, while cleaning out the SUV, my husband found a french fry wedged between the seats. A french fry.

You see, our life took a major shift lately. A good one, a happy one, but still: a shift. We became grandparents. And not just grandparents of one little newborn. Our daughter’s partner has two children, and so we are insta-grandparents (just add white wine and stir).

Thrown in the deep end, so to speak. In it up to our eyeballs. Trial by fire. Zero learning curve.

So now, we have added trips to the children’s museum and Chik Fil A back into rotation.

My husband just glommed right onto this grandpa thing. Maybe it’s his silver beard. Quite possibly it’s his jolly, extroverted personality. More likely, it’s his big heart. I took a little time to adjust to the idea. I am an introvert who likes neatness and order and quiet. I willingly relinquished those things while raising a family, and I was pretty excited about having them back for a bit. Also, being a grandparent means you’re in phase three- the last phase- and that’s sobering. Then I met the kids who would be joining our family, and fell in love. The girl is seven, a second grader who reads well and instinctively mothers her little brother, a four-year-old with a glimmer of impishness in his eyes. Now I couldn’t care any less about a french fry in my car.

There’s a single Lego sitting on my fireplace mantel. I found it under the TV stand while looking for the remote, just sitting innocently on the hardwood floor, thankfully out of stepping-upon range, waiting for its owner to get back down to floor level and play his games of imaginary build and destroy.

A friend teased yesterday, learning about my newborn grandchild, “I bet you have your own car seat in your car.” I do. I bought a car seat, a pack-and-play, and a swing. There’s baby shampoo, formula, diapers, and wipes in what has been my yoga room and is now a shared space. My asanas are now kept company with Pampers and that wonderful smell of baby shampoo. And atop my refrigerator I have current family photos with four new and welcome faces.

grandpa magic

There’s no instruction book for being a grandparent, though I did stumble across an amazing book called Grandpa Magic: 116 Easy Tricks, Amazing Brainteasers, and Simple Stunts to Wow the Grandkids while at Barnes and Noble(see below for link). It was one of my husband’s favorite Christmas presents. I found him studying the tricks Sunday afternoon in his home office. He has big plans brewing, I think.

The kids? They’re the easy part. Spending time in the back yard playing school, coloring pages, bubble baths? I know how to do that stuff, though it’s exhausting. One afternoon of helping them ride their new bikes in our neighborhood wiped me out. Now I understand why my in-laws looked so frazzled after my kids visited.

I fear that the hard part is going to be knowing when to help my daughter and her partner and when to back off; when to offer advice and when to hush. When to let them stumble while they figure out the best way to parent. Parenting hurts. When your child is sick, when someone hurts their feelings, when they fail, your heart aches. I don’t think that’s going to get any easier.

I just want to be the safe place. The lap that offers the best cuddles for the little ones and the ear that provides unerring support and love for their parents.

Maybe I’ll even practice a magic trick or two. Everyone needs a fairy grandmother with a little magic in her wand.

 

 

 

 

Curses!

Just a couple of days ago, freshman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib lit up the internet and news outlets with her statement, saying she wants to “impeach the mother f*@&er.”

Without any desire to further any political agenda, I posit this:

It was her choice of language, rather than her intention to impeach, that has folks up in arms.

We like our women demure, after all.

Recently, while teaching my film appreciation class at the local college, I showed my students a great scene from 2017’s Oscar nominee, I, Tonya. Allison Janney is ripping into her daughter Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, and Janney drops some spectacularly foul and cutting language. Janney is a classy lady, though character LaVona Harding most assuredly is not. The cussing was glorious.

Unlike LaVona Harding, or even Rashida Tlaib, I don’t talk a whole lot. Not really. I move pretty quietly through the world. I do not change the social temperature of a room by walking in. I listen and observe more than I speak. I wait for invitations to be included.

It’s not that I am afraid of speaking. One of the common misconceptions about introverts is that we are quiet little mice hiding in a corner. Not at all. If I feel something is crucial, I am saying it. If one is in need of a vocal advocate, I am the person for that job. If I think injustice is happening and I can do something about it, I cannot be hushed.

Once, in my freshman year of high school, I got thrown out of my English class by my favorite teacher. We were studying poetry, and he was reading Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to the class as an example of poetic lyrics. I seethed until my hand shot up in the air, interrupting his recitation. “Yes, Kim?” he called, eyebrow raised nearly to his hairline. “I cannot listen to this poem. It is full of Satanic backward masking.” Yeah, I did that. Every head turned to me as I argued what I had heard my youth ministers teaching us about the entire summer before, a summer whose sunshine I wasted, spending hours in my room searching for subliminal Devil messages in magazine ads. I stuck to my guns, even as my beloved teacher was at first courteously incredulous, then irritated, then angry enough to ask me to leave the class. I had never been thrown out of a class before. In fact, it was the only time I ever was.

I am still that way. If I see injustice or rudeness, I want to say something. It’s gotten me in trouble more than once. Instead of multiple photos of my adorable yet exasperating dachshund, I tend to use social media to proclaim causes, even political ones. I have been taken to task by a couple of family members for it, folks who just want me to be vanilla. Passive. Like any introvert, I don’t enjoy small, meaningless talk about weather or traffic, though I can fake it just fine. I enjoy getting to the heart of things.

When I speak, I want it to resonate. I want it to land, to impact, to preach. And I want to be articulate, with colorful vocabulary. Cussing is one of my favorite ways to accomplish that.

Now, I know what you might be tempted to say: it’s not Godly. It’s not ladylike. It shows a lack of vocabulary development. Only less intelligent people resort to cussing. I say, “Bullshit.”

I did not grow up hearing cussing. My mom may have been strung out much of the time, but she was a strung out Lady. I only remember one “bad word” coming out of her mouth when I was about seven and didn’t like any of the shoe choices on a shopping trip; she told me she was “tired of my crap.” That was the only time. The. Only. Time. Oh- and I remember my dad telling her to “stop bitching” at him just once. Not a lot of colorful language in my house.

We were not allowed to say fart (I still really hate that word) or pee or anything even more risque’. Darn? Nope, that’s just a substitute for damn. Gosh? Nope, that’s just a substitute for using the Lord’s name in vain; though my Pop used awesome substitutes, my favorites were: “For crying in the beer” and “Foot.” These were used a lot when playing cards or dominoes.

Sometimes, when I was feeling dangerous, I would sneak a look at the back of Tiger Beat magazine at the Safeway (when I wasn’t perusing home decorating mags), and there were ads that showed really gorgeous rear ends in those little terry cloth shorts that had the stripe down the side, and the captions might read: “Do you want a great butt?” And I would think…”I guess so. But what I really want is to say the word ‘butt.'” It’s a great word. So one day, while sitting in line on the blacktop, waiting to go back inside from fifth grade recess, I put my head down and whispered into my own lap, “Butt.” I cannot tell you what a thrill it was- I think the hair stood up on my arms as I looked around to see if anyone had heard. No one had, so I repeated it once for good measure. The freedom! I didn’t instantly become a sailor, though, I was still a church girl, after all.

It would not be until my junior year in high school that I would start to really get going with the cussing. I sat with Richie in Theatre class, and he was an artist in profanity. Like the dad in A Christmas Story. A real artist. He loved the band Rush and he was very cynical and a really great friend. He committed suicide within a year of graduation; he had developed a drug habit and one night walked out of the grocery store where he was working, carrying the store’s entire cash deposit for the night. He called me in despair to tell me, and took his own life soon after. I loved him like a brother. From Richie, I learned them all, the myriad great combinations of cussing that only come to those with bright, agile minds.

I had to shut them away in my brain when I went to Christian college, and when we were in youth ministry, of course I watched my mouth diligently. It was appropriate and right for me to do so in those settings. Even though I cuss now, I don’t do it in the wrong settings, even I know that wearing a shirt with “F*&k the Patriarchy” to the mall might be off-putting, and when I am around all family except my cousin Rebecca, I keep it clean (I love you, Rebecca!)

Once, when we were still in ministry, I said a bad word at home, to my husband. His eyes got big, and he gently reminded me that Christian ladies probably shouldn’t say such things. He had fallen in line. I snapped him right back out. Now he knows better.

Travis knows that he’s married to a quiet but fierce woman. He doesn’t get to hush me. He lets me say what I need to say; though there have probably been a few times when I should have let him hush me. But a strong-willed woman’s going to make some foolish comments some times.

Studies from places like Yale and Keele Universities have actually shown that cursing or using strong language helps with eliciting emotional response and catharsis. People who cuss have been shown to be both more honest and more intelligent. People who cuss have integrity. Hell yes.

Some words jolt the listener. Every so often you want to give a little verbal shake to make your point. Not always, of course. There are times and situations when a gentle word is what is needed. Cussing that is too frequent or plentiful can deafen people to your message.

On the whole religious aspect of cussing, I guess I get it. The apostle Paul warns against “unwholesome talk.” Jesus warned his followers not to use words of contempt for people, to speak kindness instead. These are good things. Worthy concepts. Let’s get real, though, we have all known people who, without a single “D@^^it” or “F*&k off” manage to wound, maybe with gossip, sarcasm or neglect, manipulation or oppression. Unwholesome talk is a lot broader than cussing.

So…

Who gets to decide what those forbidden words are? Societal norms? Church ladies? Teachers? Bosses? Yes. For me, yes. So, when I am in my home or hanging out with certain friends, I may spice up my speech with a well-placed “S&!t.” When I am watching certain politicians on the news, I promise there is liberal use of the word “a$$h@!e.” When I am in a church for a wedding or funeral, or with my sweet aunties, I am careful and courteous- I am not so used to cussing that it can’t be curtailed. Loads of cussing is really not my default setting.

I guess some of my mom’s lessons stuck after all. Crap.

Turning Back

Did you ever pick at scabs when you were a kid? Those big, juicy ones that crusted on your knees and elbows from all the falls you took when on the monkey bars or on your bike? I did. It hurt, it made my scrape open up and bleed some more, but I just couldn’t help reopening the wounds. It didn’t matter if the grown-ups explained that I was going to have scars if I didn’t leave the scabs alone. Potential infection didn’t deter me, I just picked away!

bandaid-heart-As I got older, the wounds became less literal. Not skin and bone- heart and soul. When I was seventeen, I broke up with a boyfriend that I had been dating for over a year. He was a good guy, but timing just was not right: he was in college, I was a senior, yada yada yada. Weird thing, though, I kept driving by his house. I would sit outside, not crying, really, but grieving. Pretty dramatically, I suppose. It felt good to wallow.

In college, I auditioned over and over to be a hostess for our annual Follies. I never did get to do it. That was tough, because I had to sit in the auditorium for chapel every day, and look at the stage where I felt so defeated.

1988_2Until I decided to stop auditioning for the thing I was never going to get and direct my club’s show, a sentimental journey through the tunes of the Andrews Sisters, which won first place. Then that space, that stage, became a symbol of power (as long as I governed my thoughts). Wounds don’t just come from romance or falls. Sometimes they come from being shut out.

When my husband changed jobs and we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, I used to sit at my picture window, gazing out while wistfully wishing to move back to a town that, if I am honest, I was miserable in. I even envisioned my own woe, creating a mental picture of the melancholy pose I struck as I sighed. I looked, in my own mind, as gorgeous as any Gothic heroine. I should have been dressed in a while linen empire-waisted gown, though in truth, I was probably covered with graham cracker goo and baby spit-up, hair going every which way.

When we left Oklahoma to go back to Texas, after two weeks I called a church deacon and begged, “Please let us come back. Please.” They said no. They said, “Look forward. Not back.” It would be a while before I understood how to do that. And did it. I had to figure it out myself, because I hadn’t really seen it before.

Ten years after her divorce, my mom still sat with her wedding album, flipping through plastic-encased portraits of her happy day, remembering a time when she was joyful, healthy, and surrounded by bridesmaids. Really, her entire adult life was spent, I believe, looking back: wishing to undo mistakes, wishing to be young and happy, wishing to have close friends.

Revisiting sites of injury was a family trait. Sometimes those sites were physical, like boyfriend’s houses, scabs, or stages. Sometimes not, though.  I could not possibly account for the hours I have spent, in my own mind, replaying scenes in which I hurt someone or someone hurt me.

But now I don’t. I just don’t go to places that hurt. I have made the conscious choice to avoid hurting myself. When I reflect on it, I think I made the decision to stop visiting hurtful places around the time I also made the decision to stop cutting myself with scissors.

I was a late comer to the cutting thing. When I was a teen, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do to alleviate sorrow and anxiety, so I tried the pursuit of perfection and the allowance of boys defining my identity, with a bit of disordered eating thrown in for good measure. In my thirties, though, I found it. Cutting, I mean. Sometimes I escaped to the little office in my theatre classroom to grab scissors from the apple crock in which I still keep pens and pencils, and I would dig deeply into my arm. At home, I might grab a kitchen knife and lock myself into the bathroom, cutting my thighs. It burned. It hurt. And it gave me more scabs to pick at.

I don’t cut myself anymore. I am not ashamed of that chapter, I will talk about it if I am asked. But it’s not my favorite thing to revisit.

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There are also places I don’t visit. I have only been to my mother’s grave once, and to my father’s never (beyond the days of their funerals). It is too hard. It opens floodgates of sorrow, sorrow that is close enough to the surface of my heart that tears and heartache don’t need gravestone markers to incite them. For some, visiting those graves is a comfort, and I say, “Go. Please, and tell them I love them while you’re there.”

Churches are a no-go. Way too much hurt inflicted when my husband was in, and then out, of youth ministry. Way too many Sunday mornings when no one said hello. Way too many judgements and proclamations and “encouraging words” masking an assumption about who I am and what I need.

I tried going into the auditorium of the high school where I spent eight years building the theatre program from the ground up, and which I left because of a combative administration. The day I went there, I was laid low, emotionally tender and teary-eyed for days. So I don’t go back in there any more. I know my former students wondered why I didn’t come see their shows, they were so sweet to invite me, but I just couldn’t.

998293_10151606483607711_2070554230_nWe sold the home we spent the bulk of our child-rearing years in, I can’t drive by it, I just can’t. And the house I just sold last year, the one we built from the ground up? No way. When mail was delivered there for a month or so after our move, my husband had to go pick it up.

I don’t visit the local community theatres, not even to see shows. Those are places that have become like great big, giant triggers. Sitting in them feels like little bits of broken glass all over my skin while I am reminded of so many times of being overlooked.

Some places, some people, some memories, just hurt a little too much. Is there beauty in pain? There can be. Is there growth in pain? Often. Is there a benefit, though, in reopening old wounds, wounds that aren’t festering or infected, but are still vulnerable? Not for me. I have had to learn to stop standing at the picture window, sighing and mooning. No more drive-bys to old scenes of hurt.

Like the Fleetwood Mac song says,

“Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done?
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do.”

Everyone’s life has been bad at one point or another. I suppose we all have different ways to heal and protect.

Shielding my quiet soul means choosing where I go. For me, self care doesn’t look like spa facials and chocolate truffles. It looks like a picket fence, covered in flowering vines, protecting me from turning back. It looks like my yoga/meditation room. It looks like my yellow bicycle. It looks like screen shots of texts from my close tribe of trusted friends. It looks like writing a book instead of directing or acting a play script. It looks like my husband and children. It looks like…my life.

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