In high school I was told to choose. And each of the tellers told me to chose the thing that was theirs:
Sister Mary Judith said to choose writing
Sister Mary Thomas said to choose music
Sister Mary Dominica said to choose fine art
Sister Josephine said to choose fashion design
You MUST choose this one, each said. This is your gift, each said.
I said no. Was it the best answer? I guess I’ll never know, but I knew in my gut it’s the only answer I could give.
I saw each as one of my children. How do I choose one, and leave the others, orphaned?
How do I nurture one, and leave the others fallow? It was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. But I was just a kid, what did I know? These were brides of Christ telling me to do this. But I couldn’t.
First of all, as I now know, what the creative well is filled with is beyond my control. It is a central space whose energy flows through me. I cannot dictate to the well how it is to express itself. I can only say “yes” to whatever shows up.
I am not the boss of it. I am the steward; the guardian. It is up to me to facilitate, not to dictate.
In my adult life, there are creative threads that have expanded; writing grew to — not only prose or poetry, but a career in songwriting. Design grew to — not just fashion design — but a career in interior design. Music grew to a career as a vocalist. I guess you could say my ‘children’ had ‘children’ of their own.
I sometimes wonder if this is just me, not wanting to “settle down” with something that could organize my life in a way that some would call “adult.” But when that thought comes to mind, the counter argument is always there to ask me, which of your creative ‘children’ would you have abandoned in favor of others?
The answer is, I cannot choose. I have not chosen. They choose me. Even now, in my dotage, I do not regret saying “YES” to all of them.
A recent checklist:
Have you locked in on who you were put here to be?
Are you accomplishing all that you were put here to accomplish?
How much longer is your life’s to-do list?
How’s that memoir coming?
Will your work projects pay off?
What will be written on your grave marker?
Will you have a grave marker?
Will your grands know how much you loved them?
Will you have made a difference in any positive way?
What is the one thing, if you had to choose, that you’d want to be remembered for?
How will your children carry on once you’re gone?
What will happen to your writing?
What will happen to your artwork?
What will happen to your design work?
Once you’re gone, will you even care about any of this?
Questions that, once posed, tend to send me into one of two places: a deep and thoughtful period, or a moment of ironic flippancy where I say, “Who cares about that? I can only handle ‘now’.”
And really, those questions generally pop up only when I’m down. And I’m down so seldom that I had to conjure to bring them up at all.
I keep my eyes on the horizon, and my heart in Gilead. My path is my testimony, marked by my feet, which I put one in front of the other each day.
It is a varied, and a beautiful life. Trouble? Yes, we see trouble all around us. But we are not the trouble itself. No one is. We are the very love we seek; we are the center and the stillpoint of this amazing planet. And what we focus on increases. Think about that.
So, as I look back on this list of questions I raise, I can quietly and with blessed assurance say,
“It is too soon to tell. But I’ve read the Book. I know how this ends.
“And it is beautiful.”
These days we’re like a two way mirror.
Or through a glass, darkly.
At the grade school on Grandparents’ Day, if he shows up he is brittle and distant. He wears a starched smile, the kind that never reaches the eyes. When he looks at me, he doesn’t. Perhaps he can’t bear the reflection of himself that he sees there. Or perhaps I’m making too much of it, and he’s forgotten who I am. Like that time at the Film Festival when I saw him and called out to him. He looked at me, quizzically, then moved toward me, head shaking slowly, hand extended, with the words,
“I’m sorry, you’re going to have to help me.”
I did not take his hand. I looked at him in disbelief, and said,
“Cece.” He was embarrassed that he didn’t know who I was that day. But I realize now that he never really did.
Looking back at the years we were together, I recognize the holes he crawled through to go from our life together into his other life. I couldn’t see it at the time. The camouflage of home and family clouded my vision. But distance brings clarity. And friends who were there then have come to me from time to time since; as an act of confession? To clear their conscience as accomplices? I can’t honestly say.
While I don’t know every detail about what was going on then, I know more than I ever wanted to. Sometimes information serves no good purpose. Except, you know … it helps me realize that I was in a completely different relationship than he was. And it’s confirmed for me that he had no clue of the goodness that was present and waiting for him there. Loving him there. Knowing this is a different kind of heartbreak all by itself.
When someone becomes addicted to dancing with the dark, the light is just an irritation.
We’re living in very difficult times. We have every modern convenience, every means of communication, yet we live lives of anguish and isolation. Our ability to communicate, and to assess the subtle nuances of truth-versus-lie is tied directly to our face to face human interaction. You’d think we’d have more of that than any generations before us. But we don’t.
Ironically, psychologists tell us that our children will have less ability than any generation in history to interact with others in healthy and meaningful ways. The reason is because they spend far more time looking at a tablet screen than they do looking into the eyes of another human being.
And I totally get that. I can’t hear someone’s vocal inflection in a text. I can’t sense their energy or see their facial expressions in an email. In my head and without realizing it I write the story, I infuse the tone, I define the intent. That is what determines how I “hear” them. How often am I correct? How often have I gotten it wrong? I can’t know, because the moment in which it happens is gone in an instant. I’ve reacted based on “my assessment” before I even think about it.
And this, I contend, is how we have gotten so far away from each other.
Then there is the media. Do we really know what’s happening in this world? Or why? Are we given all the facts of a situation, and trusted to draw our own informed conclusions? No. There are extensive, complicated algorithms and processes that media uses to decide what we should be told, when, and how. The goal is to “drive” our opinions and conclusions; to create outrage, cause us to take sides, and define others as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on what we “know.” And the result is that we end up unable to debate or agree-to-disagree.
But … what is it that we really know?
I can’t say definitively. I’m honestly still searching, and I feel more confused than ever before.
But here are a few basic conclusions I’ve reached:
- I know that things are happening at high levels over which I have no control.
- I know that every story or event reported on is colored by the reporter’s bias – be it strong or subtle – so that I will believe I “know” something that may not be the whole truth or the whole picture.
- I know that it takes deliberate and brutally honest energy to dig into the volume of information … to find those missing pieces of the puzzle that make the picture whole, and true.
- I know that if I claim to be a seeker of truth, I have an obligation to the whole truth, regardless of what I might think about it.
- I know that people need each other. The separation we feel is an illusion. We are connected to each other.
- I know that we are more alike than we are different. Like flowers in a garden that thrive in the same dirt, drink the same water, and bloom under the same sun, we are a world of beautiful humanity, all created by the same God.
- I know that hearts are broken every day in a variety of ways. But generally speaking, it’s always about loved ones lost, either through death or separation.
- I know that when any person, anywhere, feels overcome with that loss, that it feels the same everywhere.
- I know that all broken hearts are red.
Birthdays are interesting benchmarks. They roll around on the same date, year after year. As a kid, I generally looked forward to them. It meant “something” would happen; in the earliest years there were celebrations with cake.
Birthday number one was The Event. As the first-and-at-that-point-only child, family gathered round. Photographer Wilmot Dahlem was summoned.
I was put in the highchair, a cake was placed in front of me. I reached for the single candle and literally remember being told, “Nono, don’t touch that.” So, I did what any thinking one-year-old would do: I picked it up with my mouth.
Wilmot documented the moment
The next Birthday I remember is number three. I had a baby brother by then. That’s also the year I found Mama’s scissors when I was supposed to be taking a nap; I cut half my long hair off. Mama documented that one. The expression on that lady’s face tells the story.
My grandmother (Nanny) crocheted me a dress, with hat and purse for my Birthday that year. Wilmot took pictures of me in my dress.The short curls peaking out from under the crocheted hat … made my Mama cry.
As I got older and the number of siblings grew, it became more of a day when — eventually — all eyes glanced at me at some point during the day with, “Hey. It’s your Birthday.” Yes, I knew. I was “waiting for sixteen.” Then, “waiting for eighteen.”
When you’re a kid, waiting and pining to be older seems to be part of the M.O. But there’s a point; a moment. There’s a place in the sequential order of annual things when a body feels the urge to say, “I’ve had quite enough. Let’s stop this now; can we?” Well, no, comes the answer. Not really. Time, and tides, are gonna roll on. The only known way of stopping is leaving. And that’s generally not what one is thinking when it crosses the mind, on some advanced Birthday, to say, “Check please.”
I had such a Birthday yesterday. I felt full ready to call for the check … until a guy at the grocery store started chatting with me. I was standing in the aisle with the motor oil, and reached for the 5 W30 ‘high mileage’. The young man (and I say young because, at this point in my life, isn’t everyon else?) asked me a question about my car. I did a little fake laugh and told him my car needs the OCV replaced. That stopped him for a second; a woman who knows what an oil control valve is … rare bird. Then he complimented me on my sweater. Oy. I could see where this was going; I felt my face flush. I couldn’t look him in the eye. But I knew he had to have been born some year after my children. Holy crap. Nope. Moving on.
I grabbed the jug of oil, mumbled “Have a good night,” and went to self check out. I spied him heading toward the produce section, and was able to get a good look at him. Damnation; he was tall, a bit swarthy, he must work out. He was eye candy-ish … in a much-too-young-for-me-but-god-help-us-all-look-at-you sort of way.
I paid for my oil, walked out to my car, got in, and sat there for a minute. Just breathing. I considered how old I ‘am’ compared to how old I ‘feel’ … and pulled out of the parking lot thinking maybe, just maybe, I don’t need the check after all.
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.