Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone. Or to know if what you’re doing is helping, and you should do more … or should you do less? Maybe a little bit quieter … or louder. Maybe do it from way over here. Or not at all. Then again, maybe just shut up and get to it.
My brother’s wife died in January. She was mid sixties, a vivacious woman who finally collapsed into the Parkinsons that took over her body, and her mind. Bob was at work when the call came from Kathy, Lyn’s caretaker:
“You need to get home. Now.” He hung up the phone and rushed to the house.
I don’t know the particulars; I do know the doctor was there. And that it was, sadly, time. Lyn could not have weighed a hundred pounds. She deserved to finally be at peace. So, that January day, she let go.
My brother texted me: “Lyn’s gone.” When I saw the text, I called. He was his typical stoic self, but I thought I could hear past Bob’s weary “take care of business” voice. He was drifting, and putting together what needed to be done now, and next, and next, and then … it was a sort of roadmap that kept him tethered to the ground, kept him from collapsing in an exhausted, heartbroken heap.
I’m his big sister. He’s my little brother. We grew up in the family foxhole together. We dodged many of the same alcohol-fueled, rage-filled bullets. We are the only two of the six of us kids who share that childhood. Our parents changed as parents do, with successive children. But we were the first: Thing one and Thing two.
So I felt a sort of desperate need to help hold his pieces together. I went to him in Memphis.
Through the past six years, when Lyn was dealing with, then coping with, then had no clue about, what was happening to her, Bob had enlisted my help a few times. I was glad to give it. We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.
When I got to Memphis after Lyn’s death, I walked into the house. I was a bit startled; by the looks of things. The house itself was heartbroken.
Lyn didn’t want a funeral, and she’d asked to be cremated. Bob honored her wishes, and instead threw a party in April, on her Birthday. By now we’d chosen paint colors and freshened up all the public areas of the house. The party was a great success, and a weight was lifted from my bother’s shoulders.
Now, he’s learning how to live a life where he can go, and do, whatever he wants. It’s both a blessing and a curse; full of stops, starts, and those moments when the ache of missing her takes his breath. But he’s got this. And I’m here for him, always, ready to help in whatever way he needs.
The weather’s finally turning cool. A fall nip is in the air, the one that tells me, “cozy nights by the fire” are not far off! I smile as I sip my coffee, and am happy that I’ve once again turned my attention to shoeboxes. I mean the shoeboxes filled with gifts that Samaritan’s Purse gathers. They spend their Holiday carrying them to children across the world who might otherwise not have a Christmas at all.
My boxes for this year are just about ready. A couple more things to tuck into them, and I’ll be done.
A couple of years ago, I was in a very tight space financially. In my life, money has ebbed and flowed, and I’ve always been pretty good at rolling with it. But that year the money was especially thin.
I was watching TV one morning that autumn, and heard Franklin Graham talking about Operation Christmas Child. He was saying that people could fill shoeboxes with items for children in third world countries. He explained how the process worked, talked about what to put in the boxes, shared video footage of children exploding with excitement over these shoeboxes, and … while he was still talking …
I went upstairs. I went to my closet and opened the door. Almost like a robot, I dumped shoes out of two large shoe boxes, turned, and carried them downstairs. How will I afford this, I thought. But even before that thought was finished, the answer came: you’ll figure it out.
I pulled out wrapping paper, and went to work. These shoe boxes were the big ones with hinged lids, so the wrapping took its own time. I’ll tell you with no pride whatever that I’m a perfectionist. It is a curse more often than not. The results are usually worth it, but when it came to these boxes I’d call it a draw. I re-did them. Twice.
Once the boxes were ready, I had to find things to put in them. I poured the loose change out of the money canister in the kitchen, counted it … it came to about 12.37, I think. I put the money in a baggie, put the baggie in my purse. I grabbed my coat, got my keys, went to the car, and drove to the Dollar Store.
What was I looking for? I wasn’t sure. Tooth brushes, maybe? tablets, crayons, combs, stickers, a stuffed animal. Two.
I spent more time than anyone should in that store, parsing pennies and figuring out how to get the most with what little money I had. I was able, with my meager sum, to get everything I needed. Yay, Dollar Store!!
I then went to Kohls. My Kohls credit card had a little room left on it, and I knew they had stuffed animals for $5.00 each. I went in and selected a monkey (Curious George) and a bear (Classic Teddy). I found a cute girl’s jewelry set on clearance, and a boy’s shirt.
I went home, and tucked everything inside the boxes. They were looking so cute! My heart was soaring, even though my pockets were empty. EMPTY.
There were only a couple of days left to deliver the boxes to the drop off location. I looked up the address for Lighthouse Baptist Church, put the boxes in the car, and headed out.
When I walked into the church, there were several ladies waiting there.
“Welcome,” they chorused. One woman — whom I learned was “Miss Rita” — came toward me to take the boxes.
“You’ve brought shoe boxes! God bless you!” I had a grip on my two boxes. Strange sensation; I didn’t want to let them go. But I let her take them with only a slight tug; we walked to a long table where she placed them and began labelling them for gender, age, etc. I looked along one wall and there were filled boxes, several deep, stacked about twelve feet high.
Miss Rita finished up and snapped a rubber band around each of my boxes. “I had to do this,” I croaked lamely. My throat was tightening up. Why am I so emotional? My heart was racing.
“You had to do this?”
“Yes. Because I’m broke. I’m flat broke.” She looked confused, so I continued.
“This for me is an act of faith. God will take care of me. He sees me helping these children. And yes. He will.” My eyes welled up. “He will. He’ll see me through this. And Lord, it feels good to give! Doesn’t it?” My speech brightened and I smiled, but there was a tear rolling down my cheek.
“Baby, God sees you, He KNOWS you, and He knows your heart.” She reached up and wiped my cheek, wrapped her arms around me. “Would you like some hot cider?” I nodded, blinking fast so I wouldn’t cry. What in the world is wrong with me, I thought.
She handed me the cider, and said,
“We always pray over the boxes, and we would also like to pray over you today. Would that be alright?”
“Oh, my … yes, I would be so humbled. Thank you.” Eyes welling again. I looked down, swallowed hard, and took a sip of cider.
The ladies gathered in a circle around me, hands linked. Miss Rita prayed. She prayed loud, and proud. She asked God to bless my shoe boxes, and to bless me. She prayed me so big, and so full, that when she ended it and all the ladies shouted, “Amen,” I could hardly breathe.
I hugged Miss Rita. “Thank you. So much.”
“No,” she said, “thank YOU. Baby, you are the blessing. And God uses you to bless others. He’s got His eye on you.”
We said our goodbyes and I went to my car. The woman I was climbing into the car was different from the woman who had climbed out. I’d been changed. I was lifted. Lightened.
I turned on Christmas carols; I sang, and cried, and laughed along with them all the way home.
A few days later, I was watching a morning show and there was a handsome young man who was talking about the scarf he had around his neck. It was a muffler like we wear in the winter. But his story was incredible:
When he was a little boy, he’d received that muffler in a shoe box of gifts at Christmas. He said that shoe box was all he got for Christmas, and he chuckled when he talked about taking out that scarf. He said,
“Where we lived it was never cold. Ever. I had no idea what that scarf was for. But I knew it was something important. So I kept it. I used the toothbrushes, and the crayons, and the toys … but that scarf I kept with me.
“And now, here I am, a grown man in New York City. It’s winter time here, and look:” He held up the tail of the scarf around his neck. “This scarf. This is my shoe box scarf. I’ve always kept it with me. And I always will. It’s more than just a piece of cloth. It’s a message that I’m not alone, that the world is bigger than I know, and it’s filled with good people.”
That man’s message stopped me in my tracks. I pray that the shoeboxes I pack will help fill the hearts of those little children with hope, and the knowledge that God sees them. God loves them. They are never alone.
That’s also true for me.
And for you.
It’s a grey Monday, and I’m ‘working at writing’ in a session with Amy Lyles Wilson, my editor. I say ‘my editor,’ because that sounds very official, doesn’t it? And she is my editor; she’s also a dear, trusted, and longstanding friend. The fact is, I’m not sure how a writer/editor relationship could work otherwise.
It’s a courageous thing, writing. As Hemingway says, ‘There’s nothing to writing; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ That’s the long and the short if it, right there.
The first draft of my book is finished. Yes, I deliberately “buried the lead” here. Because I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’ll tell you this: it was with a weary, a relieved, and an ultimately dispassionate resolve that I finally finished that draft. And I’m a bit nervous about all the soul bearing stuff I wrote down in those 177 pages. I’d like to change my mind about some of it. But that would require a rewriting of my little piece of history. Truth lives on those pages, for better or for worse. Now, all I can do is breathe.
Writing is an excavation of the heart. When it’s about your own life, about how you got to here from there, it is a staunch enterprise. There are days — many — when you’re riddled with the thought that nobody could possibly be interested. Why would they care? Why am I doing this? But you continue on determined to, at the very least, finish what you started.
And so, you do. It might take twenty three years. You might, in 1995, get an official invite-to-submit from a major New York agent and knock yourself out writing enough to send her a sample. You might even get a letter back, saying she loves your work, that it feels “introductory,” and to please send more when your book is further along.
It’s March, 2018. That letter is in my file drawer. Wonder if she’s still interested.
The fact is, we all have stories. Amy’s slugline on her website is, “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.” And nothing could be more true. The funny stories, the heartbreaking stories, the stories that, when the readers read them, make their eyes well up or their hair catch fire … the hard stories.
The stories that don’t want to be written; the ones hiding in the shadows. THOSE are the stories we must write. And that’s what I’ve done.
There are more stories from different periods in my life that may need telling, if only for my children. Stories of my own childhood. Stories of my dreams, what they were, when some of them were abandoned, and why. For whom. And the resulting life that came after. The fact that, in this one lifetime, I’ve lived what could be classified as three distinct incarnations.
I’m in the third incarnation now, and closer to the end than I’ve ever been. With each passing day I pray, and wonder, and hope, and love. Even at this age, I feel the same creative passion and zest for life that I felt in my twenties. Those of you reading this who aren’t yet where I am, you’ll be here one day; you’ll think of this passage and realize the truth in what I’m saying to you now.
So yes, it’s a grey day of writing, and we’re here at this table, doing just that. I wouldn’t be here at all if I had no story to tell. The thing is, we all have stories inside us, wanting to be told. Let’s write them down. It may, indeed, be what saves us after all.
Today is January 1, 2018. I haven’t written prose in awhile — life has a tendency to get in the way, especially as the Holidays come steamrolling toward me. But I’m back with my morning coffee, on this New Years Day.
Here we are at “the morning after;” the “new box of crayons.” It’s the “First blank page, book 2018.” No matter how anyone’s viewing it, I’ll take it. It’s all good.
I’ve seen several online posts today referencing how “difficult” 2017 was. I’m sitting here in my warm kitchen, sipping my big mug of coffee with Peppermint Mocha creamer; the Citrus Bowl on the telly, and I’m thinking about “difficult.”
Like anyone else, I can rack up a litany of things that were/are difficult in my life. Some would include rigid, cold-handed parents who, if not full blown alcoholics, were certainly “problem drinkers.” A complete lack of support — in fact, demeaning feedback — toward my creative endeavors, from childhood through twenty five years of marriage.
Gaslighting was, if I’m honest about it, my family’s brand of “normal.” No wonder I sought out a husband who specialized in it. And the years of betrayals, both emotional and physical, were just “part of the deal.” After severing ties, it took me years of therapy to learn that my kindness does not have to mean weakness; that standing up for Self does not mean I have failed to support others. In fact, quite the opposite.
If I’ve faced anything really difficult in my life, it is the effort to embrace that concept.
Which leads me to why “difficult” is, I think, a subjective thing.
Nick Vujicic knows difficulties. Born without arms and legs, he is an amazing motivational speaker, and now the father of twins.
There’s my sweet friend Gianna Jessen, a young woman, self-described “God’s girl,” who is alive literally “in spite” of being aborted. She lives with what she describes as “the gift of cerebral palsy” — a direct result of being deprived of oxygen during her birth process.
These two people live lives of unbridled joy. What examples they are of “transcending the obvious,” with God as their compass.
A favorite Meme of mine says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
When I was a first grader at Christ the King school, I collected holy cards. Each card had a beautiful illustration of a martyr who lived, and died, for Christ. On the backs of the cards were descriptions of their agonizing demise, and a prayer of intercession.
I tell you this as a way to think through why I pretty much never think of my life as difficult; I tend to “suck it up.” My early childhood references of “difficult” told me, if anything, that I had little to complain about. I was taught to think “other.” And, with proper balance, M. Scott Peck seems to endorse that approach:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” – M. Scott Peck, Psychiatrist & author
So, to all of you, from the heart of me, have a Happy, Happy New Year. Let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s focus on the work ahead of us, and let’s be grateful every single day. Let’s breathe deep, laugh a lot, say our prayers, and let it go. Because “difficult” just doesn’t matter.
Here’s to us all in 2018!!
I am a vocal coach. I just read that sentence, and it sounds a little strange to me. Coach vocal. Voice. Coach voice. The definitions of “coach” are all over the place, from a “four wheeled, horse drawn carriage,” to coach as: “developing a person’s skills and knowledge so that their job performance improves, hopefully leading to the achievement of organizational objectives.”
Voice is defined as: “the sound or sounds uttered through the mouth of living creatures, especially of human beings in speaking, shouting, singing, etc.”
I’m sure Miriam or Webster or whoever it was that determined those definitions … I’m sure they were a sharp couple of guys. I mean, they know the definitions of EVERYthing, and actually put it in a book called a dictionary. But neither one of these guys has shown up to observe what happens when an individual is standing in front of me, aching to sing, but scared shitless to do it.
“I need you to sing something.”
“You mean, NOW?”
“Yes. Now. You can sing the alphabet, you can sing Happy Birthday, I really don’t care. I just need to hear your voice.”
And so it begins. Without exception, every . one . can . sing. I didn’t say everyone is a singing star, but singing is as natural a part of us as breathing. Yet so many tend to be paralyzed at the thought of letting their sound out for the world – or, for that matter, themselves – to hear.
Singing, “being of music,” is natural for us all; we speak the language of angels. So the fear is of speaking in the angel tongue. There resides in many a sense of unworthiness (untrue), of not measuring up (the big lie), born of a lifetime of people telling them they can’t do it well enough, and to stop (defamatorily inaccurate) . So I guess, woven into this work I do, is the psychology of gently leading people back to their own truth, and creating a space where they – when they’re ready – will step into it.
The body is a reed instrument. As with any reed instrument, playing it requires breath.
I tell every student that at the moment they popped out of their mama, with that first breath they gulped in Spirit; they have been doing it every moment ever since. Ironically, when they first start working with me, people often find it difficult to breathe. They become “breathless.” So we work on the process of permissions … to breathe (doing it already), to have a voice (has always been there), to raise that voice, to speak in tongue … angel tongue … the native language of the universe.
I just think Miriam and, for that matter, Webster, should sit in on a couple of my students’ sessions. I think they’d be surprised. Maybe they’d even sing.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.