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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Distillation: A Quarantine Meditation

Day 28.

When stay-at-home orders came down from local and state governments, when all three of my places of employment closed their doors for the time being, when I drove eerily deserted highways across the country to bring my 31-year-old daughter home from California, when I stood still while a nurse took my temperature before allowing me to climb the stairs to my orthopedist’s office, I clung to my hope for normalcy.

After that appointment, when my doctor and I finally began to discuss full knee replacement and I scheduled yet another MRI, I defied my damaged joint and ventured a Target run just a couple of blocks from the clinic to grab milk, bread, and additional outlet covers so the grandbaby wouldn’t electrocute herself in her home explorations. My usual joy found wandering the home department, perusing throw pillows and baskets and sniffing candles was absent, though. The store was populated by employees who seemed nervous, moms in scrubs shopping before/after a shift at the nearby medical center, and a couple of rambunctious teenaged girls whose loud giggles and rowdy running interrupted the subdued energy of the store. The empty aisles seemed as holy as the aisles of a quiet cathedral, as still as a church awaiting its Sunday congregation. I had a realization.

We are being purified. I am being purified.

When I returned home with my meager purchases, I carried supplies to my laundry room where I was assaulted by scent. My laundry room reeked of the vinegar-soaked rags my intrepid housekeeper had used to wash light switches and doorknobs. The bitter-sweet, pungent aroma knocked me off-kilter, I detest the smell of vinegar; I cleared the washing machine so that I could toss these rags in, eliminate the scent.

We are, like the vinegar, being distilled; our lives heated by pandemic-driven fear and isolation. The fluff of life is seemingly boiled away, evaporating all but the truth of our natures, the honest crux of our lives. My own nature is being revealed as a little sharp, all angles and abrupt retorts. Anxious.

I fell back on a coping mechanism that has almost always served: cleaning. I have pulled weeds and pared down closets, cabinets, garage, linens, even playlists on my iPhone. My Disney playlist is shorter by 33 songs today. And yet… reducing stuff wasn’t quite enough. A different tactic was required.

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In response to the storm around me, after months of neglect, I resumed my meditation practice; my spirit was crying out for grounding.  I turned on a meditation app and spent ten minutes breathing, mind wandering as I struggled to bring focus back to the breath. The practice broke me open, though not all at once, but within an hour, I found myself alone on my sofa, sobbing. Weeping for the shared grief of those who have lost loved ones, for the fear I saw on the faces of those who were required and needed to work, for the loneliness of those who may live alone or who do not find themselves surrounded by love in this time of social distancing. My tears were cleansing, washing my soul much like the vinegar had washed parts of my home. Since those tears were shed, I have been cultivating a sense that both less and more are the pure and healthy way forward. Less stuff. Fewer obligations. More time with the ones we love and feel safe with. More time for story, less time for arguing.

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I don’t have a handy list of activities to keep your kids busy during this weird time. I am not a counselor who can publish lists of coping techniques or a chef with 25 healthy recipes for feeding your family in a time of crisis. I have no interest in creating a quiz that tells you what sort of potato your personality matches, I don’t know how to craft toilet paper or make non-toxic fingerpaint for preschoolers. Thankfully, we have Buzzfeed, Pinterest, and Google for all of those, don’t we? That’s not how my mind works. Not how my spirit rolls. What I can do is offer a meditation, a benediction:

May we be purified.

May our lives be distilled, refined into what is most crucial: love. Love for those on the front lines of fighting this virus, love for those confined with us, love for ourselves.

May gratitude and generosity be the energies that ignite our souls. May we seek ways to support each other: tip delivery personnel generously, contribute where possible to organizations whose work mitigates the damage of a world-wide shutdown, purchase a piece of handwork from an artist who just lost their source of income.

May we grant grace to those who see the world differently from us, understanding that they too are nervous about the future, also understanding that their faith may not leave space for ambiguity or doubt.

May we also grant grace to ourselves, for none of us is going to navigate this situation perfectly. We will each, without a doubt, say something we don’t mean to. I already have.

May we learn to appreciate quiet: quiet streets, quiet parks, quiet homes, quiet spirits; for if we can hold to the beauty of hush when this time of enforced rest is over, we may discover that there is healing, peace, and immeasurable strength in stillness.

May we also remember the beauty of noise: laughter at family dinner tables, chatting in  restaurants, classrooms, or church fellowship halls, excited players, moms, and dads at little league games. School choirs. Outdoor concerts.

May we move forward in soul with a renewed love for our collective humanity.

Stay well, friends.

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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.

Loving a Quiet, Ordinary Life

How did you answer the question, the one single question that every adult asks every kid when they need to start a conversation, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a tough one, kids only really know the careers they see on TV or in their own small circle of people. They share those big ones, the ones that their families have encouraged: astronaut, football player, doctor, the President.  I usually said I wanted to be a famous singer like Marie Osmond or the beautiful ladies called Dawn who sang with Tony Orlando. I loved their pretty clothes, I loved that people clapped for them, and I knew I loved to sing. In my secret heart, I wanted to be a singer all the way through my growing up years. And I could sing, I really could. I don’t mean in the way that we’ve all heard some poor, deluded American Idol candidates, who show up to audition so sure their voices are awesome because their moms always thought so. No, I had a voice that could have played pretty much any Rodgers and Hammerstein lead; if I had chosen to do the work, to study and rehearse and push. I had the instrument. 

But I chose a different path. I met a guy my first day at college. I fell in love and got married at nineteen years old. I changed my major from vocal performance to elementary education. I made the conscious, deliberate decision to follow an ordinary life, to settle down and raise a family and have a little house and a conventional, safe career.

I had my first child at twenty-one years old, my second at twenty-four, and my third at twenty-seven. I probably changed thousands of cloth diapers, washed lots of them in an old avocado green washing machine that I bought from my grandpa, made baby food in a food processor, read Watch Your Step, Mr. Rabbit and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? so often I still feel their rhythms in my bones, graded countless first grade math papers, matched socks, drove to baseball practice and dance lessons, sewed dresses and Halloween costumes, baked birthday cakes, emptied Friday folders, buckled church shoes, made love with my husband, made beds, made lunch, made…a life. An ordinary life.

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Art by Charlie Mackesy

In the quest to instill a spirit of courage and daring in our kids, we encourage them to dream big; and dreaming big seems to mean fame. Perhaps prestige. Most likely hefty cash flow. We tell our kids (both families and teachers do this) that they can be anything they want to, that if they just want it enough and never give up, they will reach their goals. That’s good stuff. We definitely want kids to know that they are smart, that they have talents, that they can do good in this world. They should shoot for the stars!

But that’s not invariably true. Have you ever seen the scene, the incredible moment, in Little Miss Sunshine when Dwayne, the brother character, realizes he cannot be a pilot because he is color blind? To see the realization dawn in his eyes, then inhabit his entire body until his limbs cannot be contained, to see an entire childhood aspiration lost, and so an entire identity erased, is excruciating.

I think a lot of people go through a version of that internally every day. I know I did; not every day, but sometimes. I got lost in the piles of unrelenting dirty dishes, the long rehearsals when I taught my theatre students how to perform instead of working on my own art, or the constantly replenishing pile of bills.

Yet there were so many moments of enchantment- some troubling thorns, but more glittering magical seeds:

Kissing tiny boo-boos and bandaging little knees.

Seeing students hit milestones.

Swimming in a central Texas lake.

Preparing my Aunt Molly’s Thanksgiving dressing recipe.

Loving and losing pets.

Being baptized at age ten, then helping to baptize my own children later.

Giving a daughter away in marriage.

Holding that daughter close when it was time for her to file for divorce.

Being estranged from my adult son for a period.

Seeing the first ultrasound image of my grandchild.

Choosing over and over again to love my husband and to let him love me.

Somewhere along the way I realized that my life was pretty ordinary, and also pretty great.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the beloved Little House book series, has said, “As the years pass, I am coming more and more to understand that it is the common, everyday blessings of our common everyday lives for which we should be particularly grateful. They are the things that fill our lives with comfort and our hearts with gladness — just the pure air to breathe and the strength to breath it; just warmth and shelter and home folks; just plain food that gives us strength; the bright sunshine on a cold day; and a cool breeze when the day is warm.”

What would happen if we taught our kids that an ordinary life is beautiful? That having a vocation, whether it’s accounting or bagging groceries is an honor; listening to music is transcendental; noticing the sunlight in the tree leaves is holy; sometimes sandwiches for dinner are perfectly okay? That life does not have to look like a Pinterest board? That children’s birthday parties don’t have to compete with each other or be Instagram worthy? That wedding proposals can be intimate instead of viral?

As I really dig into my sixth decade on this planet, I am choosing to love my ordinary life, to share my ongoing journey to heal from trauma and betrayal (both in childhood and adulthood), and to be okay in alone-ness. I am learning to be as grateful for playtime with my grandchildren as I might ever have been for grand adventures. Restlessness gives way, inch by excruciating inch, to contentment.

May you know that your own ordinary life is also precious. I hope so. Though we’ve all got to walk our own path.

What are the joys you find in your ordinary life? I’d love to know!

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If you’re in a quandary how to start conversations with kiddos, this article is great. I wish I had had this information when I was raising kids and teaching school.

https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/stop-asking-your-kids-what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up-ask-this-instead.html

 

Live Small. Love Big: A Meditation

After an entire adulthood spent being told to dream big, to live loud, I am done. I simply am. We are not all of us meant to “live loud.”

I am, rather, inclined now to live small: smaller house, smaller wardrobe, smaller carbon footprint. Fewer possessions. Less noise. Limited spending. Streamlined living. Lean…

Not mean, though. The only place I want to live large these days is in all the multitudinous ways that we humans can share love. I yearn for more time spent in nature, more hugs. More forgiveness. More conversations that move beyond the surface.

I want to ask, “How are you?” and be answered with authenticity, though it requires I invest more time to attend the replies, to hear the stories that the people I meet are aching to tell.

I desire engagement.

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And I crave that the Divine One, the wonderful Spirit who created me, will wiggle Her way into each tiny crevice of who I am. I don’t need Her to make me big. I want Her to take the smallness of me and connect it to the stars, to the seas, to the trees. To my grandchildren. To my children. To my husband. My family.

 

And to the unknown strangers at the border. In the Middle East. In the political party which is opposite mine. With relationship to all these, I become vast, my soul expanding beyond what is conceivable should I remain alone. My quiet spirit can then hear all the voices of the universe, my presence is both honored and honorable among Creation.

To live small does not mean timidity, nor a sense of inferiority. It is not self-castigation or minimalization. No, it is, instead, to walk in healthy humility. It is to comprehend that I am a wee part of a greater whole, she who lives among billions: billions of folk, stars, trees, animals. No more important, no. But nor less.

A path both wide and narrow. May it be so.

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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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