“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.

On Birthdays {My New Normal}

ALW-BabyPicI turned fifty-three two weeks ago today, and for the first time I didn’t hear my mother’s voice on August 5. It’s been almost two years since her dementia diagnosis, so her memory is not what it used to be, not like it was when she would call and sing “happy birthday” to me whether I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, or Washington, DC, or Richmond, Indiana, or Knoxville, Tennessee. And now, Nashville.

Sometimes Daddy would chime in, even though harmonizing was not his finest gift. But sang they did to their baby girl, the one who was supposed to be a boy, the one who keeps looking for the next big thing. The one who is now more than half a century old.

Since Daddy died in 2000, Mother has been carrying the tune on her own. Last year a family member was able to help Mother call me, and even though her voice was shaky she managed a verse or two. This year, though, my mother’s hold on the present day is looser than ever.

“You could call her,” said Precious, when he realized, at day’s end, how sad I was not to have heard Mother’s voice.

“I know,” I said. “But I think it would be too hard. She’s sometimes more anxious in the evening, and even if I didn’t tell her why I was calling, I’d be too emotional to sound normal.”

When I was a child, I would tell people my birthday was “August and the fifth,” trying to make sure, I guess, that they wouldn’t separate the day from the month and run the risk of forgetting when they should bring me a gift. Or call me on the phone.

On Monday Morning {Sitting Down to Write }

DSC_0255I’ve promised my friend Sheri that I will write for one hour every day. I think it was my big idea, trying to get us both motivated to do what we say we love to do: write. So now I’m sitting here on a Monday morning, coffee hot, candle lit, jazz on the radio, and I’ve got nothing.

When working with clients, I advise them simply to start, when, of course, there’s nothing simple about this, except maybe the tools you need. Most everyone has pen and paper, and potential. But that motivation part is tricky. “Sometimes,” I say in my kind writing coach voice, “I make lists if nothing is coming to me during my writing session. Just begin.” And so I do.

  • Today I feel a little less sad than yesterday. Maybe it helped that I showered and dressed before 8:30 this morning.
  • I know the writing life requires a lot of solitude but sometimes it is too much for me.
  • A friend emails to tell me a young man in our city has killed himself; his grandparents are friends of hers. Only 28.
  • I should have my email off while writing.
  • I’ll be 53 soon, and if one more person says “it’s only a number” I might clock ‘em.
  • I’m in the process of getting rid of stuff I don’t need, use, or love. There’s more of it than I care to admit. Out it goes into the world to be needed, used, or loved by someone else.
  • Last week, unbidden, two people let me know how much I mean to them. A gift.
  • Fingers crossed that my precious stepdaughter gets the job.
  • The nurse from the retirement home called last night. Mother was sad and wanted to hear the voice of one of her girls. I needed to hear hers, too.
  • I fear I’m becoming one of those people who treats her dog like her child. Wait. I may have been like that since Quay Girl.
  • A volunteer training I just completed did not work out like I had hoped.
  • I called my priest friend to tell her I want to do more in the church. She wants more time to write. Such is life.
  • Maybe I should just “be.”
  • You’d think the meditation and centering prayer would be paying off by now.
  • I need to lose weight.
  • The hour is almost up!
  • Why haven’t those people called me back?
  • I miss Indiana.
  • I’m not sure how much longer I can keep watching the news.
  • What is it about the future that keeps captivating my attention?
  • Self-employment is hard.
  • I may have cut my hair too short.
  • Yay! It’s the Diane Rehm Show, one of my favorites.
  • Finished a great book last night, something I picked up on the road at a used bookstore: The Scent of God, by Beryl Singleton Bissell. Now I want to read everything else she’s written. Maybe I’ll pass it along to my friend Karen. I think she’ll like it.
  • My neighbor is having her windows cleaned. I’ve lived in this house for ten years and it has only now occurred to me that washing your windows from the outside might be something to consider.
  • Now more than an hour has passed since I first sat down to write. I must tell Sheri.
  • If I had a dime for every time someone has said to me, “You’re so sensitive,” I’d have a bunch of dimes.

Father Knows Best {Remembering Earl}

ERWBefore my father died in 2000, he bestowed a lot of advice on me. Much of it helpful: “Just get enough education so you can support yourself,” after I dropped out of law school following a dismal semester that I don’t mind sacrificing on the altar of fading memory. “You need to read as widely as you can,” when I looked at him with exasperation as he handed the teenage me copies of Scientific American, The Wilson Quarterly (no relation!), and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some of it practical: “Be sure to keep at least a quarter of a tank of gas in your car at all times,” upon meeting me by the side of the road, my car on empty. “Preferably half a tank.” And, “If you marry a jerk and I’m not around to help you, don’t stay in a bad situation,” as he bemoaned my singlehood. I married at age 41, two years after Daddy’s death. My husband, Precious, and I celebrate our twelfth anniversary today.

A bit of it subjective: “It’s not appropriate to put ketchup on steak.” I promise I don’t anymore, but I think I was about ten at the time and not yet schooled in the fine art of dining out anywhere other than Morrison’s Cafeteria. And, “Don’t ever wear that tie-dye shirt with that skirt again. It upsets your mother.” I must have been in my hippie period. Oh wait. I still have that shirt…

In the end, some of the best advice my father gave me, through example and instruction, can be summed up in two takeaways: keep your own counsel, and “to those whom much is given, much will be expected.”

One of my sisters said to me just this week, “I wish Daddy were here, so I could get his take on something.” I’ve thought the same thing over the years, wondering what he might say to me when presented with this situation or that problem. I can’t know, of course, but I think it would go something like this: “Trust yourself.” And so I do.