From Wallowing to Reaching Out {On Friendship}

DSC_0310A friend texts to say she appreciates me, and that I make a difference in her life. Just like that, lickety-split, my mood shifts from somber to celebratory, from grasping to gratitude. My energy morphs from wallowing in my own gunk to remembering to check on an older neighbor who is ill. On a gray-sky day in Nashville, a handful of words from a fellow pilgrim in a different time zone seek me out and everything shifts. I don’t know if it’s some sort of spiritual manifestation of the butterfly effect or not, but I’ll take it.

Now go tell someone she matters.

“Her Name Is Martha” {A Prayer for My Mother}

MarthaI type these words as I email my prayer request to some folks at church, people who might be aware my mother is still living but who don’t necessarily know her name. They might even have a vague recollection that she’s in Mississippi, but they can’t know that we used to dance together in the living room to “I’m a little teapot,” or about the memorable conversation we had while riding the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard, or how she used to sign her letters “Love, Me.”

“My mother has been hospitalized with pneumonia,” I write. “She is 93 and has dementia. I worry that she’s afraid. Her name is Martha.”

We hate this for her, my sisters and me, her body being subjected to multiple injections and further indignities. She’s had breast and colon cancer; blood clots in her lungs; gallbladder surgery; Crohn’s disease. Hasn’t she suffered enough? I pray for her not to linger, and wonder if I am trying to outmaneuver God.

“Do not be afraid.”

This is what I would whisper to my mother at her bedside, but my sisters tell me not to drive the 400 miles south toward the town of our births.

“She’s stable,” they say. “We’ll keep you posted.”

We’ve been at the brink a couple of times, so close that my sisters and I once gathered in the hospital lobby to go over our notes about what Mother said she wanted at her funeral and draft her obituary. We sometimes pretend we are prepared.

Several days after penning that prayer request, my mother was released from the hospital. She does not remember what was done to her, or why. And maybe that is for the best.

So we continue on, grateful for today, and trying not to borrow trouble for tomorrow.

“Do not be afraid.”

MayBelle Gets Labeled {On Being Called “Obese”}

IMG_1913MayBelle was proud of herself for figuring out how to sign up for her doctor’s web-based information system, so that she could schedule appointments online, request prescription refills, and access all sorts of other helpful materials, like maybe how to get rid of night sweats and hot flashes you’re still having some three years after being told you’ve “gone through” menopause. (Can you say “vaginal dryness,” anyone?) So imagine her disappointment when she logged on today to arrange a follow-up visit and found the following in her file: “Mildly obese.”

MayBelle quickly double-checked to make sure she hadn’t accessed another hapless patient’s account, like, you know, someone who is, well, fat. Still MayBelle.

Now MayBelle is keenly aware she needs to lose a few pounds but deliver me, she said, looking around the room to make sure no one else had seen those two life-changing words.

“Those doctor’s office scales always seem to weigh me heavy,” she said, pulling in her stomach and sitting up just a bit straighter.

For a minute or so, MayBelle thought about going to buy a pie at the farmer’s market, or eating some cookie dough she just might have stashed in the freezer.

“Mildly schmildly,” she thought. “I’ll show that doctor from obese and move right up to ‘moderately.’”

Apparently once you’ve been labeled “obese” you don’t place much import on qualifiers.

But MayBelle knows that’s not the proper, or healthy, reaction. So instead she logged off, took a deep breath, and texted her trainer.

Take a Seat {On Mindfulness}

Photo by Christie Walkuski.

With thanks to Christie Walkuski for use of her photograph.

“This is mindfulness,” said my insight meditation teacher last night as seventy or so souls from various walks of life sat together in silence, all of us letting go of our baggage and our histories and our dreams for an hour in the sanctuary of a church in Nashville.

“This is mindfulness,” he repeated. “Knowing your experience with compassion.”

I’m trying to get the hang of this mindfulness thing and to me it means, at least in part, being able to sit with what you’ve got, whether it’s sadness or anger or fear. Anticipation or joy or nervousness. We’re invited simply to be, which can be tricky if you’ve got even an ounce of Type A in you or if you’re prone to wanderlust or if you like to keep score. Can I get an amen?

So I sit. Day after day I set my Insight Timer app and go to my favorite spot in the front room of my house. Or the faux wicker chair on the deck. Or the parking lot of whatever restaurant I just had lunch in. Some days it goes better than others, this fledgling practice of mine. Sometimes I can hardly believe it’s been twenty minutes when the bell rings, and other days it seems like the timer will never go off to signal my release.

And I read. I search online for “centering prayer,” “insight meditation,” “the contemplative life.” I look to Cynthia Bourgeault, Thomas Keating, Tara Brach. And I listen to Gordon Peerman with Insight Nashville every chance I get.

And then I sit some more.

As far as I can tell, mindfulness is the opposite of running from your emotions or tamping them down or eating your way through (my personal favorite) them. It’s about sitting still with your experiences, without judgment or reaction or censure.

Then there’s that tricky part about being compassionate with yourself. Is that allowed? This will be news to some of us, that it’s okay, even necessary, to care for your own heart with the same understanding and tenderness you use to love your friends and family members. Apparently your soul counts, too. Don’t forget that.

How can you bring mindfulness into your life this very day?

A Dream Realized {On Writing at Chautauqua}

Me, in a hat, realizing a dream.

On one hand, it might not look like much, for it’s just a picture of me in my favorite hat. And for those of you who know how much I loathe having my picture made, I’m actually okay with this one. Because it’s not about image; it’s about a dream come true.

Last week I had the honor of leading a writing workshop at the Chautauqua Institution (“The Language of Loss: Putting Grief into Words”). Since first stepping foot on that magical spot some twenty years ago I’ve known it would change my life. And it has.

I’ve learned a lot about subjects ranging from history to religion; made friends; eaten really good food at the Brick Room and the White Inn in nearby Fredonia, New York; heard Garrison Keillor, Carol Channing, and Salman Rushdie, to name just a few; wandered small towns with names like Ashville and Westfield and thereby come to love a part of the country I hadn’t known before. All that has been great. But now, now the best part is that I got to commune with creative-soulfuls for a week, people who were willing to write their hearts out with a stranger.

Each day we came, gathering around the table in an unairconditioned room in a former elementary school turned community center. We brought our pens and our journals and our deep-down stories. We opened the windows, turned on the fans, and wrote. In so doing, we formed a community where it was safe to tell our stories without fear of critique, or judgment, or comparison. No one cared about split infinities or potential for publication or increasing blog followers.

Instead, our concern was forming a kindred-spirit container for the sacred act of sharing those stories we don’t often get to talk about, the ones from the gut, the ones that hurt. Those writers were brave, and considerate, and willing. They were “good with words” and lovely with one another. I was inspired, humbled, and made grateful. Thank you, Chautauqua, for the experiences and the memories, yes. But especially the people.

Writing Prompt: What step can you take today, this very minute, toward realizing one of your dreams? I’ll set the timer for 20 minutes. Go!



Everyday Redemption

support-handsI’ve been thinking about redemption a lot lately, the ordinary layperson kind, not the overwhelming Biblical sort. You might call it garden-variety grace, whatever that otherworldly “thing” is that softens your day and lets you keep going. It might not be grand enough to wash away your sinful past, but it will carry you through to dinner.

I’m talking about the kind of mending that allows you to realize, deep down in your gut where it counts, that you did the best you could, that you meant no harm, that you will try again tomorrow to do better. That you are a well-intentioned Everywoman making her way in the world with as much awareness and intention as you can muster, and that sometimes you don’t get it right. (Why do my mistakes, even the small ones, shame and haunt me so?)

You might call it a spiritual do-over, a chance to say you’re sorry; give money to the man in front of the grocery store; rescind the honking of your horn at the driver who hesitated too long to suit you at the corner of Hillsboro Road and Abbott Martin; call your mother because she gets scared at night now that your father is dead.

Maybe it looks like an opportunity to be forgiven my own self, this everyday redemption I dream about.

Amy Lyles Wilson

Writing Prompt: When did you first experience redemption? I’ll set the timer for 20 minutes. Go!

Childhood Crockery {Or, How I Cleaned Out My Pantry and Connected With An Old Friend}

IMG_4415I ate a lot of leftovers out of this dish as child. Creamed potatoes on one side, black-eyed peas on the other. Cheese grits and fried okra. Maybe corn pudding and salmon croquettes, if Mom was feeling adventurous.

I pull it out from the back of the pantry as I make attempts to shed my home—and thereby my self—of items (attachments?) I no longer need. I am listening to Joan Armatrading. In an instant I begin to cry.

“Show some emotion, put expression in your eyes” she sings. “Light up if you’re feeling happy, but if it’s bad then let those tears roll down.” And so I do, as I make my way off the stepladder, fearful I might fall because I am breaking down on an otherwise lovely, sunny day on which I do not have a care in the world besides losing ten pounds and a leak in the guest bathroom.

The dish–which I took when my sisters and I divvied up the spoils from our childhood home after Daddy died and Mother moved to a retirement community–takes me back to my childhood, a precious time that I thought everyone else enjoyed until I grew up and met folks who didn’t so much revere their parents as despise them; people who couldn’t look back fondly on late afternoons spent running behind the bug spray truck because they were too busy trying to dodge what happened at night in their homes; friends who wouldn’t dream of honoring their past and instead had to bury it deep and hard.

The song takes me back to my days at Millsaps College, a place—and a people—that saved me after a disastrous freshman year at Ole Miss. It is one of those tunes that transports me across state lines and through decades with such speed and force and accuracy that I would swear I am altered physically. Hearing this song on this day makes me think of certain people, one in particular: a high-school and college classmate I haven’t seen in twenty-five years.

Now that I am in my fifties, I try to follow my gut immediately instead of taking time to “mull it over” or “weigh my options” or “worry how it might look.” So I Google this person and find his work email address. I fire one off, telling him that I saw this piece of crockery from my childhood while listening to Joan Armatrading and it made me think of him, of the times we spent together with like-minded folks, how I always knew, even back in high school, that he was one of the few who understood. I knew he could take it, that it wouldn’t freak him out. He emailed back within half an hour and we reconnected, just for a few minutes. It is enough.

For a while longer, at least, the dish, and the memories, remain in place.

I heard Joan Armatrading live once, in New Orleans. I can see her now, belting it out, moving me to tears. That was then, and this is now.