Present Light, Second in a Series

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

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

I cherish the memories of the people I love.

I ache that some of them are gone.

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

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

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

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“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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Resilience: Body and Spirit

Today, I went for a walk. I do this all the time, my Fitbit data reveals that I make my 10,000 step goal nearly every day. When I don’t, it’s usually because I spent an hour doing yoga instead.

I haven’t been hitting those goals this last week though. I’ve injured a knee, a knee that has been in steady decline for years. I’ve visited the doctor off and on about this knee since 1998, it may have finally reached its tipping point. It’s swollen, it’s limited, and it hurts.

Laid up on the couch with ice packs around the poor, beleaguered joint, I didn’t feel especially resilient, nor strong. What changed this morning? What enabled me to head out on the trails and manage a full hour of brisk walking? Tools. I equipped myself for the task. In physical therapy yesterday, I let the therapist assess my Nikes and she vetoed them immediately: not enough support, not enough cushion, sole worn down. She recommended shoes and a brace, described what I needed, then sent me on my way to do my work: I had to follow through. I had to buy the shoes. I had to purchase the brace. And then this morning, I had to actually put them on. My tools couldn’t help me if they sat in their boxes.

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I had to admit to my doctor, to my physical therapist, to the woman who helped fit me for new Asics, and above all, to myself, that I needed help. That I am in pain. Our bodies can’t recover, they can’t be resilient, if we don’t recognize their need for rest, support, boundaries, and equipment.

Like the worn soles of my old Nikes, our spiritual souls can become threadbare, too. It’s important to learn what is needed for resilience: Boundaries. Meditation. Creative expression. Meaningful relationships. Sleep. Faith. Time with nature.

I’ve bounced back over and over and over: abused as a child, codependent with an addict, lost jobs, damaged voice… every setback made me stronger. How? I drew on the love that surrounded me and nourished my spirit with the joyful memories and experiences I had created and stored in my heart.

Brene Brown says that “Joy, collected over time, fuels resilience- ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen.” And they do: injuries and illnesses, divorces and deaths, betrayals and bruises. I am about collecting joy. I hope you can be, too. Let’s help each other to do that. Blessings, friends.

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What I Know for Sure

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

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

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

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

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

I am loved.

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

That’s okay.

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

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

My cousins Rebecca and Jen.

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

My colleagues Sylvia, Teresa, Darla, and Melody.

College pals Kayla, Cheryl, and Heidi.

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

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

The mother of my heart, Dorothy.

My angel-in-heaven mentor, Ellen.

My children, Hilary, Travis Austin.

My husband, Travis.

Back of Family

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

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

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

I know it. For sure.

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

 

 

Present Light, First in a Series

“I am going to notice the lights of the earth, the sun and the moon and the stars, the lights of our candles as we march, the lights with which spring teases us, the light that is already present.”
Anne Lamott

I have ever been a person who is drawn to light, to sun, to brightness and joy. Not for me the shadows and darkened nights. And yet, I know that darkness is essential, that a life spent in an eternal and endless glow is not chromatically rich. Variegated hues of gray and the negative spaces of art are what allow for rich texture and depth. In photography, in music, in painting, in life.

But still … I prefer light. It is my prerogative to do so. I choose to shine on! For it is in choosing to turn toward the light that I find resilience, and it is in resilience that I find life itself.

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Middle-Class Gratitude AKA “bougie kthxs”

I just had the most lovely afternoon.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

So my espadrilles from Spain mean something to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you grateful for?

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Short and Sweet: A Lunar Love Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish that we can love each other more.

I wish that we will learn to listen better.

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

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

I wish.

What’s your wish?

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Speak Up…If You Can. Part Three.

Recently, I auditioned for a musical. Mamma Mia. It’s one of those show’s I’d really love to do. It wasn’t always, but as I moved into the casting category of MOM instead of ingenue, it became a show that really appealed to me.

It was the first singing audition I had braved in almost five years.

I have been telling a story over the last couple of weeks, a tale in which I, the lifelong vocalist, lost my voice due to a surgical mishap; in my last post, I described the agony of having two specialists confirm damage. There is a moderately happy ending to the whole thing, and I will get to that. Clearly, I couldn’t have auditioned for Mamma Mia if some sort of healing had not occurred. I did manage to do a couple of musicals after my throat was finally repaired, getting to that point was only possible, really and truly, because my husband was the director of the shows and he was willing to risk casting me.

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That first post-repair show, The Drowsy Chaperone,  wasn’t smooth sailing. I had rehearsed for the audition secretly, singing in private to build up strength and flexibility in the cord and in the muscles of the throat. I didn’t want to let on what I was doing, just in case I failed spectacularly. My voice had always been the source of my self esteem. It was my identity. Having lost it, I was bereft, heart broken, my confidence completely gone. So when I went to auditions and announced I was singing the big belt song instead of a simpler, easier one, I saw my husband’s hands clench under the table. He’d had no idea I might be up to this. I did it, I did it well, and that precious man cast me.

The show wasn’t easy, though. In the final week of dress rehearsal I was belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glided with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I planted my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. Director/husband’s face froze in horror as I coughed and gasped, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager ran toward me with a bottle of water, and I drank, but I still could not squeeze a sound out of my throat. I ended the song with tears streaming down my face. There was no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome was my undoing, just two days before opening night, and I felt just as I had on the day I left the doctor’s office in September of 2011.

On that particular day, I cried all the way home because my throat was damaged; it got really quiet at my house, in my classroom, and in my spirit. As soon as the doc gave me the diagnosis, I cancelled an acting gig I had booked for the months of October and November. It put a burden on the show, I know it did. Blessedly, there’s always another actress waiting in the wings, and the show went on.

More difficult, though, was my classroom. I remember standing in front of groups of 30 or so students each day, trying to quiet them when the tardy bell rang. After a week or so of me standing at my podium, tears in my eyes and jaw clenched in frustration, waiting for rambunctious teens to quiet down, there was a change in the climate of my room. There were kids who realized how I struggled, and they began to get the room quiet for me. I lectured in a whisper, it was utterly exhausting. But then something happened: the students began to hush themselves, without a classmate doing it for me. Even the most stubborn, rowdy kids showed compassion and self-restraint, facing me with mouths closed when they heard the tardy bell. I wish I could say that behavior hung in all year, of course it didn’t. Freshmen and sophomores were particularly difficult to manage. In an effort to save expensive audio equipment in our auditorium, I screamed (an attempt for volume, not anger) at a couple of boys who were horse-playing on stage with our microphones. The pain of that attempt to push air and sound through my throat hurt as badly as anything I have ever, ever experienced. There was a day when, surrounded by misbehaving freshman boys, I couldn’t make myself heard, and I called the HR Department of our school district sobbing, they struggled to hear me as I begged for help on the phone.

Image result for prosthetic vocal cords

For twelve months, I couldn’t breathe without gasping, I couldn’t speak, and my soul simply went into hiding. I had ever been an introvert, but at least I had the power to speak when I wanted to. I could talk to friends. I could advise or comfort my kids. I could teach and act and express myself. I began to hear rumors of gossip, that there were “friends” who believed I was faking my silence as a way to garner attention or get out of obligations. I turned even more inward.

So I began to write. I look back now, at my first attempts at writing, and they amuse me. I had to develop the writing muscle with as much rehearsal as had ever been needed when I sang. While I was mute, I found my authentic voice. In that twelve months of early writing, it was the only way I had to communicate with the world. I started speaking my truth, because words were so precious and painful to articulate that I didn’t dare waste them on false flattery or needless babble. I learned even more powerfully that listening was the key to connection and leaning in to speak so that I could be heard enabled me to draw closer to the people with whom I shared space.

I learned who my true tribe was.

One year, to the day, after the spinal surgery that cost me my voice, Dr. B. implanted a silicone cord, it’s attached to the paralyzed right one. I could, once again, speak and sing, though with not as much power or range. I began to rebuild my confidence brick by brick, I shed relationships with those who had proven during my silent time that they could not be bothered to listen well. I performed in two musicals, then stepped away from the theatre world because it felt unhealthy. I didn’t sing for a long, long time.

Then came a show that tempted me enough to hazard an attempt. Mamma Mia.

That audition? I learned something. As I prepared a recording to send to the director, I kept breaking. My voice cracked, my eyes filled, my throat clenched. My daughter, who was coaching and recording me, observed, “Mom, it’s like you have all those years of silence straining to pour out. It’s all been so tightly held. Your creative spirit just needs the space to let go.” It took us an hour to get a take that I could send, one in which I managed to sing calmly through the one minute clip of “Take a Chance on Me.” That song choice was no accident. But it wasn’t the director I was begging to take a chance, it was my own wounded heart. I didn’t get the part, the director chose to take a chance with a different actress. That’s okay. It’s way more important that I take my own chance on me. It was, ultimately, an exercise in resilience. Gotta keep singing, speaking, and writing my story. You should, too.

 

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Speak Up: Part Two

September is a great month, isn’t it? The light is just starting to shift from high-octane sun to a softer diffused version of itself, breezes begin to tickle cheeks and make leaves dance. Rain falls and the scorched earth of August relents. The grass is verdant again and shadows lengthen on the pavement ever so slightly. School is back in, students are, for the most part, still excited to be back in the classroom, and teachers have renewed purpose and fresh, unmarked lesson plan books. In our family, we have two birthdays to celebrate, the Astros are still playing, and we are usually preparing to open the Renaissance festival that we’ve worked for twenty years now.

I love September. I have been a teacher/professor for twenty four years now, and I always look forward to the opening of school (which technically happens in late August here, I am taking a wee bit of poetic license- the relevant stuff happens in September, I promise). It was no different in 2011, when I opened a new year with a black eye because I dropped my first gen iPad on my face while checking Facebook before getting out of bed. Those early model tablets are no joke in the weight category! Each class began with excited chatter that quickly silenced when I took to my podium after the tardy bell. My poor new high school students were afraid to ask what had happened, so I began each of six class periods with an introduction and an explanation.

IMG_9669I spent the first week of school swallowing Gabapentin pills (as prescribed) to numb the nerve pain that tingled from the base of my spine to the tips of my fingers and back again, all while learning students’ names, playing warm up games, and preparing young actors and student directors for the fall play auditions. We were putting up the Don Zolidis farce The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, and some seniors were going to assistant direct the various scenes, to give them a bit of practice applying what they’d learned in three years in my program, but also to give me much-needed assistance since I’d be recovering from spinal surgery.

My assistant principal had endured the same procedure just a couple of years before, she assured me that she was back on her feet and working within a week. I requested the day of my surgery (a Tuesday) and the Wednesday and Thursday off from work to recover, with a plan to return to my classroom on Friday.

On a warm, sunny September first, I walked into the nearby hospital, all prepped for spinal surgery, which went well. My spine was fused, and the extreme, debilitating pain I had been suffering for months was gone.

On an equally sunny day, just two weeks later, my world was rocked by a new doctor’s diagnosis: paralyzed vocal cord.

When I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, I included just one mention of what I had been since childhood. Just one word. One measly word to tell you, dear reader, who I had always, ever been: a singer.

Not just a sing-in-the-shower singer. A state-level soloist and all district, area, and region choir qualifier in one of the most vocally competitive states in the country. A voice major in the early years of college who switched to elementary music so she could get married and have babies instead of pursuing a grueling performance career. A singer that brought some listeners to tears, others to laughter, and a few to envy.

I sang on stages and in sanctuaries and by cradles.

In recording studios.

On the radio.

I sang. It was the only thing I thought I did well. My only gift.

Chorus 1985-1986

I had warned my neurosurgeon that my voice had to be protected when my throat was pushed aside so he could get spinal access, I asked if he could access my cervical vertebrae from the back of my neck instead of the front of my throat. His answer: “No. but in the twenty years I have been doing this surgery, no one’s voice has ever been damaged. Of course, I can’t make you a promise, but the likelihood of your voice being affected in any way is negligible.”

I went for my follow up appointment with my surgeon three weeks after my surgery, when I had already had my throat scoped by an ear, nose, throat specialist. When Doc entered the examining room and cheerily asked how I was feeling, I beckoned him to lean near and whispered, “My voice is gone. The cord is paralyzed.” He went pale, his eyes widened, he was clearly and authentically horrified. All he could say was, “You’re a singer. Oh, no…this has never, ever happened to one of my patients, and it had to be a singer.” He couldn’t say he was sorry, that’s something doctors really can’t do. Apologizing is like admitting guilt, or a mistake, which can become a legal liability. No, he couldn’t apologize with his mouth and his perfectly working voice. But it was in his eyes.

The ENT who had made the initial diagnosis referred me to a specialist in Houston, a physician who has dedicated her practice to saving voices. I made an appointment, my husband drove me as I worried what she would say. I doubted my own ability to remain calm enough to navigate Houston’s infamous high-traffic freeways. It was good he was there, because the news was not good.

Dr. B. sprayed my throat with vile banana-flavored numbing medicine, and ran the camera through my nasal passages, down my throat. I attempted all sorts of vocalizations: vowels, consonants, sung tones; nothing came out. The cord didn’t vibrate even a tiny bit. It was dead. Kaput.

The physician wanted to wait a few months, see if the nerve endings would wake up on their own.

I left the office, bereft, silent tears ran down my cheeks and dripped off my jawline for the hour of the drive out to our suburban home. I climbed into bed, and I despaired. My throat was silent, but my spirit screamed; I was, as Shakespeare described, an empty vessel. Though I made no sound that was audible to the world, my inner world was a cacophony of noise as I railed against fate and wept out all my world-shattering grief.

I wouldn’t speak again for a year.

dandelion 2

 

 

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