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.

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?}


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