Keeping Kin

StPetersCemetry“I’m Earl’s youngest.”

I must have said it ten times as a reference point for people who looked familiar but forlorn as we came together to bury my aunt in Oxford, Mississippi.

My father’s been dead for fifteen years, and my mother is out of touch now due to dementia, but these folks—blood kin and otherwise—gathered at the funeral home on Highway 6 still link me to my heritage. They are my people.

Oxford is where my parents met in elementary school, attended University High, and were graduated from Ole Miss. It’s where my family went throughout my childhood to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. Cousins. It’s where I had my first panic attack in my early twenties, realizing I didn’t belong in law school and that I was about to undo years of dreams–other people’s dreams–by dropping out. It’s where we buried Daddy. And it’s where I married the love of my life at age 41, in the same church where my parents said their vows in 1948. Lafayette County will always have hold of me.

St Peter’s Cemetery embraces more family members than I care to remember. But remember I did, tiptoeing over ancestors as I made my way to the Wilson monument on the hill to escort another loved one across the threshold.

“We’ve saved a plot for you,” my mother said to me once when we visited the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a Wilson or a Lyles. I was single then, and my “bless your heart” parents thought it would always be so, that I would end up next to them in death, close by, just as I had been for most of my life. Too close, perhaps. It did not seem the time or place to tell her I plan to be cremated, married or spinster, my remains cast to the wind hopefully in North Carolina, where I feel more at home than I ever did in my hometown.

“Thank you,” I said.

My father is there, both his parents, my mother’s parents, too, second cousins twice removed, a couple of relatives I have no clue about (why don’t I remember Roxie Malinda?), and a precious child who died soon after birth. They’re all accounted for, surrounded by friends known to several generations of my family. I recognize names like Clark and Howell and Ivy from years of recollections offered up during holiday dinners and family reunions.

When I was younger—I’m 53 now—I thought I knew enough of my family’s lore. But on that day, as we said another goodbye, I realized I do not know enough.

Taking the Long Way Home

Today my idea of exercise was to walk the mile from my house to Whole Foods, eat lunch, and walk back. All I could manage.

Soon after I hit the sidewalk, I noticed a woman up ahead who kept turning back to look in my direction. Her steps were steady, but after every two or three, she turned. Was she confused? Lost? In need of medical assistance? Surely I could be the one to save her!

Taken while on retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery.

Taken while on retreat at Magnolia Grove Monastery.

When I caught up, she told me she’d been looking for her husband, who had started out after she did.

“My eyesight isn’t what it used to be,” she said, “so I wasn’t sure who was walking behind me. You know your body starts playing tricks on you when you get older.” She was smiling when she said it.

“Yes ma’am,” I responded. “That’s one reason I’m out here today. I’m fifty-three and am trying to get in better shape. I haven’t been all that physically active up until now so it’s a bit of a challenge for me.”

“I understand. I’m eighty-six, and I do three miles every other day.”

“Eighty-six?” I might have said this with a little too much gusto, but this woman looked fabulous, trim enough to pull off wearing one those skirts over her leggings.

“Had a birthday last week. My husband, he’s ninety. He does five miles, every day, no problem.”

“Five miles!” I might have been screeching by this point, what with the shame of it and all.

“Yes,” she said, smiling again. “We’re doing what we can to stay in the game.”

Indeed, I thought, but what I said was, “You’re inspiring me.”

“Well, you’re doing good too, Hon, getting in the habit.”

We introduced ourselves before I walked on.

I made it to Whole Foods, ate my salad (no cheese! no dressing!) and drank my green juice.

And then I took the long way home.

The Bright Light of Day {Can I Stand the Heat?}

DSC_0104

I saw this fabulous Chihuly sculpture several years ago at the Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville.

During Holy Week I heard a lot about being in the dark. From speakers, priests, books I’m reading. Dark, dark, dark.

Barbara Brown Taylor spoke about how she thinks some folks spend too much time focused on “full solar spirituality,” neglecting entirely the darker side. A priest noted that she learned things about herself, and her God, while struggling through a rough time in her life. Much of what I’m reading now focuses on Buddhist and Celtic practices, which reminds me that I have to go through the desert in order to experience and appreciate renewal.

I wonder about people who refuse to acknowledge the death and destruction in the Bible. In our lives. I believe in the power of positive thinking–and prayer–as much as the next gal, but life is hard, people. Denying that reality does not equal faith. Always seeing the glass as half-full does not make you a more steadfast believer. It might make you less able, in fact, to deal with the half-empty days. And there will be such days.

Sometimes I see dark when things are simply murky, though, and that’s a problem. I worry that I’m more comfortable wandering through the night than embracing the bright scrutiny of day. I’m working on it. But I’m not afraid, not on any cosmic level, to sit with people who are grieving or hurting or scared. Maybe it’s easier to companion others than it is to befriend my own soul. What is that about? 

“This is the day that the Lord has made,” read the Episcopal lectionary during Easter. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I respect the darkness, and value what it has to teach me. But today I choose the light, trusting full well there are lessons there, too.

“Are You Good?” {Please Don’t Ask This Question}

Taken from the High Line in New York City.

I took this picture while walking the High Line in New York City.

I volunteer at a hospital once a week, helping out in a clinic. I greet patients and get them signed in, do assorted clerical tasks.

Last week I overheard someone ask a small child, who was waiting with his grandparent, this question:

“Are you a good little boy?”

There was a pause, and then: “Sometimes.”

I was cringing behind the filing cabinet, but what I wanted to do was leap out into the waiting room and scoop up the child and reassure him that yes, of course, he is good, good in the eyes of God, for one thing, and that we shouldn’t label people as “good” or “bad,” even if we’re tempted to classify individual actions as such. That we are not just one quality or another and that on any given day we will do things some people will consider proper and others will question. That when we mess up we get to try again, and we’re not—hopefully—branded as “good” or “bad” for a lifetime because of how we acted in our younger days. Or the mistake we made last week.

I’m not really comfortable with that kind of language, “good in the eyes of God,” but it was what came to my mind, and heart, as this precious, tender, toddler tried to decide if he was “good” or “bad” because some stranger had the gall to ask him such a loaded and unfair question.

He’s a kid, for crying out loud. Why not ask him if he plays with Paw Patrol (my great nephew’s current favorite), or what he likes to eat for breakfast? Inquiring about his age would work, or if he has brothers and sisters. But not, for the love of all that is holy, “Are you good?”

Letters from Home {“Love, Mother”}

IMG_4019The return address was my niece’s, so I assumed my precious three-year-old great nephew had sent me a card. Upon opening the envelope, I found a folded-over piece of green paper, with a thickness between typing and construction paper. 

That adorable boy made me a card. I knew I was his favorite…

Although I did not recognize the writing on the front, upon turning the page I quickly knew my mother’s penmanship, that familiar cursive that has seen me through sleep-away camp, moves to Knoxville, Washington, and Nashville, the death of my father. A little weaker looking now, but still full of heart.

I’ve been crying a lot lately. A sister tells me it’s because I’m in my fifties that everything has suddenly taken on an increased tenderness. She says one day I’ll wake up and everything will be all right, but that it might take a while. She’s just past sixty and doing great, so if she says it gets better, I choose to trust her. 

In my current condition, a teenager waiting at the bus stop, who looks like maybe she had to work a shift after school, still in her fast-food uniform at night, makes me cry. The bearded man whose truck stalled next to me at a traffic light makes me cry. He tried to crank the engine four times before sliding slightly into the intersection. The truck looked like it had been pieced together with scraps, a patchwork of parts, and in that short span of time I convinced myself the man was down on his luck and all alone in the world. Please let it start. Please let it start. Please let it start. Please let it start. And it did, just after the light turned green and before anybody started honking. We both went on our way, me thanking the universe  and driving straight down Woodmont, him puffing on his cigarette, changing lanes as he turned onto Hillsboro.

I’ve always been sensitive, mind you, but it’s more pronounced now. When I realized my ninety-two-year-old mother had made me the card, and not a toddler, the tears came fast and fell for what seemed like a full minute. Mother was diagnosed with dementia two years ago, and she lives in a residential facility for people with memory issues. My family’s Christmases are not the same as in the days of yore. Daddy’s been dead for fourteen years, and the rest of us can’t always gather together during the holidays. Chances are slim you’ll find us on Facebook in matching outfits holding mugs of steaming cocoa in front of a garland-draped fireplace. We are wandering a new land now, full of misplaced memories and far-flung relations.

There was a time not so long ago that imagining my mother sitting around a table with other aging, confused souls during “craft time,” putting stickers on colored paper while singing Christmas carols off key, might have made me blush with embarrassment, or shame, or pity. Who knows? Now I consider it a blessing.

I will treasure this green piece of paper with the snowman stickers and the slanting salutation, for it is what my mother can give. She offers what she has left of herself to me and I stand ready to receive. IMG_4021

May we all give what we can, whatever it might be, for as long as we can.

Amy Lyles Wilson

On Creativity {And Buying Books}

IMG_3945Just when I think I’ve seen every book there is on creativity, I find one at the library sale that doesn’t look familiar. I say “look” because I have, more than once, bought a book I already owned only to come home and find the first copy glaring at me with shame from the overstocked shelves in the den.

“I’m right here,” author Alan Jones seemed to scream after I bought a second copy of Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, which I had re-shelved after deeming it “too much” several years ago. Now the book is required reading for my training in spiritual direction and I can say without exaggeration that the book, still a bit chewy but worth all my effort this time around, is changing my life.

Happily I did not find an extra copy of The Creative Spirit by Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, when I got home from the library sale so I dug in and here is some of what I learned. (This edition of the book was published by Plume in 1993 as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, which ran in the early 1990s. I do not have a memory of watching the show, but sometimes it takes me longer than the average middle-aged goober to catch on.)

Stages of the creative journey:

  • preparation (get all the information you can and hand it over to your imagination);
  • incubation (sit with what you’re thinking about and invite your unconscious to the meeting);
  • daydreaming (allow your mind to cast aside its daily responsibilities and unnecessary distractions for a bit); and
  • illumination (put your ideas into action).

Because I sometimes find myself edging the pit of depression (especially during winter months), I appreciated this reminder: “Although no one enjoys frustration and despair, people who sustain their creativity over the course of a lifetime do come to accept periods of anguish as necessary parts of the whole creative process. Accepting that there is an inevitable ‘darkness before the dawn’ helps in several ways. When the darkness is seen as a necessary prelude to the creative light, one is less likely to ascribe frustration to personal inadequacy or label it ‘bad’” (p. 19).

What a gentle idea, separating our self-worth from our inklings. I think I’ll give that a try, just as soon as I re-work the draft (self?) I labeled useless yesterday.

And because I have long valued intellect and the ability to “figure things out,” however misguided such an approach is to a life of contentment, seeing that we really don’t have control over much, I needed to read this: “We often underestimate the power of the unconscious mind. But it is far more suited to a creative insight than is the conscious mind. There are no self-censoring judgments in the unconscious mind, where ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations in a kind of promiscuous fluidity….Another strength of the unconscious mind is that it is the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can’t readily call into awareness….Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words. What the unconscious mind knows includes the deep feelings and rich imagery that constitutes the intelligence of the senses. What the unconscious mind knows is often more apparent as a felt sense of correctness—a hunch. We call this kind of knowing intuition.” (p. 20)

And of course I loved that the authors, noting the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, value creativity in older age, providing examples of folks who didn’t give up after retirement and who instead fostered their desire to paint and dance and write: “Grand generativity is a wise and creative approach to nurturing others, an affirmation of life itself in the face of death” (p. 34). Oh how I long to be a grand generative. I think we should start a movement labeled thusly. Please join me.

As to flow, the authors, natch, mention Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi , and then offer this as a description of the sought-after condition: “Your skills are so perfectly suited to the challenge that you seem to blend with it. Everything feels harmonious, unified, and effortless” (p. 46). When you’re in the zone, so to speak, your self-consciousness disappears. What a lovely state that must be, like the Zen calligrapher whose focus is “just the stroke” and nothing else. No worry of failure, no questions about technique. This “no mind” approach is not about vacancy or lack. Instead, it’s a “precise awareness during which one is undisturbed by the mind’s usual distracting inner chatter” (p. 48). This is what we strive for in Buddhist meditation, of which I am a fledgling, but determined, practitioner.

In the end, the authors remind us of those key points that most creatives know but don’t always take to heart: stay playful (curious); remain alert (listen to yourself and others; don’t be intimidated); and be willing to make mistakes (use them as information, not excuses to give up). Remember that passion and perseverance are vital. Mechanics can be learned.

And I’ll add this: Drive and belief and self-confidence can be had, too, they just need to be nurtured.

I hope that on this very day you will feel inspired to go forth and be your best creative self.

Looking forward,

Amy Lyles Wilson

On Dreaming {Waking Up Worried}

dsc_0066.jpgThis morning I woke up wondering how to make amends for having offended someone. We were at a conference and I’d tried to sit next to him during the lunch break.

“You can’t sit here,” he said. “I don’t want to be around you because I saw you do something I didn’t like.”

It might be merely sad if I were worried about someone jerky enough to refuse to sit by me because of a perceived slight I might not even have been aware of making, but the thing that makes my concern even more pathetic is that it was all a dream. After dreaming about a man, someone I did not recognize from my waking life, being rude to me, my response was to blame myself and beg for forgiveness. All this before I’d even brushed my teeth.

This can’t be good, right, that I allowed a dream to make me doubt myself? That my first inclination upon waking was not, “What a beautiful morning” (which it is here in Nashville) or “Aren’t I lucky to have a husband who brings me coffee?”

Instead, I opened my eyes and thought: “I can’t believe I made this guy so angry with me. What could I have done wrong?” Blink. Blink. Blink. “What can I do to make it right? How can I make him like me?”

“That’s a stretch even for you, Babe,” said Precious when I told him I woke up worried. “Usually we make it to noon before you take to fretting.”

I think he was kidding, but he knows I’m an anxious sort, that I have the potential to assume responsibility for actions that take place five counties over. That I can imagine all manner of things to be sorry for just sitting in the den.

But I’m working on it. I’m learning the art of presence. I’m practicing being centered in today instead of borrowing trouble against tomorrow. I yearn to be respectful of, and grateful for, this very instant. This one right here. I don’t want to be the kind of old woman who wanders too far afield into the unknown of the future or stays mired in the over and done with of the past. Today, though, I feel like my dream conspired against me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In training to be a spiritual director, we’re doing dream work, which is new to me. We’re asked to make notes of our dreams and sit with images that come up. Maybe this dream is inviting me to let go of what people think of me. Maybe this dream is reminding me that I can’t control how others react to me and that, alas, not everyone will like me. (This one still breaks my heart, that not everyone thinks I’m fabulous. And that there’s not a darn thing I can do about it.) This wouldn’t be the first time such propositions have been hurled in my direction. Maybe now I will get the message. If not, there’s always tonight, where another dream awaits.