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 We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.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.
Things in my life are the way they are, based on every choice I’ve made. They laid a road, end to end, that brought be here to this table today. Good or bad, for better or worse, here I sit; my greasy hair under a ball cap, my thoughts scattered and the censor in my brain telling me that what I’m writing now is not worth a damn.
I get sick of hearing my own voice tell my own stories. Are other people as sick of it as I am? I don’t want to write cute, or clever. As Hemingway says, write real, about what hurts. I’ve kerfed around the edges of the pain for years, never hitting it dead center. I guess that’s real if you’re digging a trench, but I’m sort of stuck down here, looking for truth. And trying to dig my way out.
I could write about birds. But then my brain goes to the parakeet we had at 1135 South Quaker. My mother named it Perry Como. He was blue, with black wing tips, and a spot of lime green between his eyes. Thinking of him now I can smell his birdseed and that cage with the newspapers in the bottom.
When they let Perry out of that cage, he flew up and sat on the curtain rods. Every time he flew his wings made a loud flapping sound that scared my little brother.
Sometimes my mother would open Perry’s cage door, and wait. When my brother came walking through the livingroom, suddenly Perry would swoop down. My brother would scream and dive under the table, clutching the legs and sobbing. My mother raised her eyebrows, took a drag off her cigarette, and laughed. That taught me some pretty twisted things about how people treat those they claim to love. So yeah … count that little nugget as a lob to the center of the pain from the trenches.
Or maybe I could write about being a teenager. And dating.
Maybe I could write about the night a boy came to pick me up, and he had a long fringe of bangs. My little sisters peaked around the door giggling, “It’s a Beatle!” My Dad growled, “Is that your hair, boy, or is that a wig?”
Or I could write about another time my date arrived to take me to the school dance. He drove his car, parked, and my Dad drove us to school in our ’51 two door Pontiac. The two door thing is relevant because my date and my Dad sat in the front, I climbed into the back. In my formal. The thing I’ll never forget is the hood ornament. It was a glowing orange Indian Chief. I locked my eyes on that thing all the way to school, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
Maybe I could write about the faith, and the sense of humor, that have carried me on angel wings through the darkest of days, the brokenest of hearts. How, even in those moments … my date with the Beatles hair, me sitting in the back seat of that car … even then, in the recesses of my mind, I knew: “this is the rich stuff of which stories are made. I will write about this one day.”
Maybe today, sitting here at this table, wearing my ballcap, is that time.
The other evening, I was on the internet at my desk. To be specific, I was on YouTube. To be even more specific, I had been there for about an hour, watching video after video of singers auditioning before Simon Cowell and friends.
It’s easy to get pulled in by these clips. They’re inspiring; sometimes the performers have overcome incredible odds to be standing in front of that panel of judges. So I watched, and cried, and cheered, pumped my fist in the air. But the last woman woman who sang that night has stuck with me. I can’t stop thinking about her. When she told her story, it was as if I was listening to myself.
She was in her thirties, and Simon asked why she’d waited till now to give it a try. She said, “I was born loving music. I have sung my whole life, but all along, people told me I couldn’t. That I shouldn’t. And then,” she paused. “I was in an abusive marriage. He was cruel, and destroyed my belief in myself. So, for many years, I didn’t have music at all. But,” she smiled … “I am single; I am free now. I’m free to sing whenever I want to.” And then she did. She blew the roof off. I cried.
I shut down the computer and tucked in for the night. And that night, I had a dream. I dreamt that I approached a male friend who had a band, and told him I wanted to be their female singer. Even when I was dreaming, the “lucid” me shrunk back from that idea. Was not sure that I could. If I should.
In these later years I’ve had to make peace with the fact that my hopes/wishes/dreams regarding music have not materialized like I thought they would. I’ve also had to give myself a break in the ‘lack of determination’ department. And part of that is embracing the truth that God’s plan is at work in me, regardless of the path I’m on.
As far as my past, it’s one thing to be a cute little baby who sings before she talks; whose first words were “Ickle ickle ickle.” That’s something that new parents think is cute, and smart.
It’s something, in fourth grade, to be singled out to sing a solo in the school music program, with no clue that how you sang was unusual. It was just you. Singing.
Then again, it’s something else entirely to sing while washing dishes as a teenager, and have your dad walk into the kitchen and hiss in your ear that if you’re going to make that racket, go to the back of the lot to do it. Singing — me singing — was suddenly not cute. Not okay. Stop.
My folks were very strict, which I guess may have helped drive my love of music. It was my salvation; my only escape. I could go into my room, tune my little Philco radio to KAKC, make the volume barely audible, and sleep with my ear against it.
During the divorce from my husband of twenty five years, one of his complaints was that I was always singing. We were both in the music business, but he was determined to keep me as far out on the fringes as possible. He was fairly successful at that. But not as successful as I thought at the time. Many years later I’ve had conversations with music industry people who make it clear they were aware of the gifts I brought. Of what my contributions were, and can still be.
At first, that was hard to wrap my brain around. I’m still learning to be okay with people who acknowledge my talents, what I’ve done, and what I do. I’m getting better at that.
Like the woman standing in front of Simon, I am single; I am free now. I’m free to sing whenever I want to.
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!!
Things tend to make sense in ways we don’t expect. Sometimes situations or events go what we’d normally call out of control … all we can see is the chaos. But a step back reveals the wider net, the bigger picture. The choreography, the symmetry of all things.
Relationships. Blood, love, hate, passion. The binding thread that brings them all together is fiery red. But in it … when we’re in it … it feels like drowning, or flying, or crashing. No color at all. Just the grit and grind and focus of getting through it, or holding on to it, or getting rid of it, or expressing it. That is the experience of the thread itself. We are that thread.
Blue. Of Jazz, pain, loss, rain, regret. The thread of blue awakens quickly with each event. Fluid and flexible or vulcanized and unyielding … this strand goes from silk to steel in an instant, its transformation governed by the emotional dictates of experience.
And yet, when we lay our heads down in the dark, all threads come together; as we sleep through the night they work in concert, weaving another length in the tapestry of our lives.
I believe in the inherent goodness of people. I believe that, when we’re born, deep down at our core, even in the worst of us, goodness abides. Time, and relationships, and places; experiences we have can, in many ways, play a role in determining whether that goodness blooms and flowers. Or not.
There are very few people that I’ve allowed into my inner circle; to know my story. They each hold parts of it, but nobody’s privy to all of it. I’ve always thought it too heavy a burden for anyone else to carry: abusive alcoholic parents; rape; a marriage where emotional abuse was so pervasive, the final betrayal so breathtaking, that it’s taken me almost a quarter century following the divorce to even get back to square one. Those are the highlights. Every creative dream, save motherhood, sabotaged. Save motherhood. Motherhood saved. It saved me.
I sit here on this chilly November morning, coffee in hand, and think back on the chapters I’ve lived through. They’ve been difficult; the few close friends who know some of the intimate details swear I should be dead. They look at me in awe. And I laugh. No, I should be alive. Very MUCH alive. In my dreams, I should be twenty seven and feeling this way, but I’m not. Time marches on, and so have I.
I’ve come to realize that the people in my life who betrayed me through the years−while they never should have been so abusive or cruel−needed something I couldn’t give them. They were coming from their own pain. I know that. And pain takes many forms: anger, judgment, cynicism, betrayal, violence, addiction … and too many more than I have space to list here.
It took me a couple of self-examined decades to arrive at this philosophical place. I’ll admit, I don’t always like being here. It would be easier to sit in judgment, to make those who hurt me “wrong.” But the thought that always rings in my heart when that judgment creeps in is: “Finding their way.” They were finding their way.
When my father died in March, I went home to Oklahoma. My daughter came here to Tennessee from Atlanta and we rode together.
I’d dreaded the funeral gathering for decades. A quarter century, to be exact. Since my youngest sister and my husband had their very public affair. Yes. That. But the time that stretched between then and now was made up of the self-examined decades I mentioned earlier. The woman-of-me who arrived at the funeral home that Friday evening was not the same sleepless woman whose hair and eyelashes had fallen out from the betrayal back in 1990.
I was in the viewing chapel with my children when I saw my sister come in. I walked over to her and wrapped myself around her. I took her face in my hands and whispered to her that everything’s okay. I had no preconception of what would happen; I’d just kept asking the Holy Spirit to take over. And He did. It was probably the hardest and the most natural moment I’ve ever experienced in my life. After twenty five years, we stood together to bury our Daddy. In each of our worlds, with a relationship broken by choices that could not be undone, we’d known this day would arrive. And now here we were. We’d found our way.
So getting back to me, sitting here with my coffee. I have to chuckle, because I started writing this morning as a way to share my thoughts about the whole kerfuffle surrounding a cup. A coffee cup. A red coffee cup. I haven’t heard from anyone who’s actually upset about that cup. But I’ve heard plenty from people who are upset about the people who are upset.
First, I think the company whose cup it is (and I won’t mention their name, because wow! Their “anti-campaign campaign” is already off the charts successful) has executed this brilliantly. And a cup with no graphics is cheaper than a cup with graphics. Another win for them. Just … genius.
Second, the ingredient at the center of this branding creativity is the required manipulation of people. It’s the use of “human capital” and their proclivities, in order to achieve “trending” status; instigating the posting, and the pitting, of people against each other. Persons of one “group” calling those in a “group” with opposing views names. Really? This is not who we, at our core, truly are.
But yes. It’s happening. Over a paper cup. And unnamed coffee company is LOVING it.
There’s even rumor that one presidential candidate called for a boycott of said coffee company. I checked before writing, to make sure I quoted him accurately, and discovered there was actually no call. In fact, his first words on the subject were, “Maybe we should,” and his last were, “but seriously, I don’t care.” Again. It’s a coffee cup. Yet so much faux sturm und drang. Smart people of all stripes are embroiled in this non issue. Well played, unnamed coffee company.
And as things do, I’m reminded that this, too, shall pass. Next week there will be yet another deliberate media manipulation of well meaning people. Good people, on every “side;” people who are finding their way.
What I’m saying, in probably way too many words, is that part of the “finding” of our way that’s required is the brutal task of self examination. The minute I think I’m better, holier, smarter, more evolved, more caring than you or any other thinking person, I’ve entered the ranks of the Pharisee. My daily call, first thing in the mirror, and at various times throughout each day is: “Check yourself.”
For today, part of finding my way is collecting shoeboxes to fill with goodies for children who might otherwise get no Christmas. I’m going to fill as many as I possibly can. I’ll do it because it’s fun, not because I’m wonderful. I also do it because I enjoy the thought of making the lives of children somehow better. So I have to be honest about the fact: I do it mostly for me.
And during the course of days I’ll make my own coffee. I’ll drink it in my own cup. I’ll pray for my Daddy. I’ll love my sister. Yes, I do. And will. I’ll wish my ex well, though I have to admit, sometimes that still has a glitch to it. I’ll love my children and grandchildren as big as I possibly can, which is the easiest thing I do in my life.
It’s just the story of me, finding my way. And praying for you, that you are finding yours.