“MayBelle Monday”: On Being Highly Sensitive During Covid 19

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Sometimes MayBelle gets overwhelmed by the world. Pretty often, actually, and fairly easily. Like last month, when she saw a woman on the corner, this one with a sign that read, “Lost job. Can’t feed family. Anything will help.” MayBelle worried about that woman for days.

Or that time in 2002 when she forgot to invite someone to her wedding. Since she was forty at the time, she thinks her shock about the whole thing even happening affected her memory. But still, she feels bad about it.

It’s just MayBelle’s nature. “Highly sensitive,” she’s called. People shamed her about it when she was younger, and tried to alter her nature with such phrases as “don’t worry” and “calm down” and “stop crying.” Most often their judgment was stated with such simplicity and sternness that it could have been an historical fact passed down through the ages: “You’re too sensitive.”

Back in the early 1990s, when MayBelle moved to Nashville, she spent a lot of time in bookstores as she got to know her new town. One Sunday afternoon—MayBelle remembers the day clearly—she found a book entitled The Highly Sensitive Person, by Elaine Aron. There a few books that MayBelle can say actually changed her life. This is one of them. Never before had a “label” felt so right to MayBelle, someone who has spent most of her life trying to avoid such. And several years ago, when she found out she’s a four on the Enneagram—MayBelle likes to think of herself as a “flaming four” so individual does she try to be—she felt seen, and known, and understood in way she never thought possible. What a gift in allowing yourself to be categorized, which MayBelle fervently differentiates from being pigeon-holed. (Her favorite Enneagram folks are Richard RohrSuzanne Stabile, and Hunter Mobley.)

At fifty-eight, now MayBelle just goes with it: her sensitivity, her wonderings, her longings. All of it.

Being highly sensitive makes you a good friend, she thinks, as you’re hyperaware of what the people around you are going through. And you’re not scared of sitting with folks during their hard times. You can take it. And it fuels your creative work, what with being able to make something out of scraps and bits you pick up along the way. Discarded beauty others might overlook.

As you might imagine, MayBelle has been affected mightily by the pandemic. She’s been on high alert, you might say. And she’s spent more than a few minutes wondering how she might help, trying to figure out how one middle-aged goober could make a difference.

So she’s going back to the basics. MayBelle was pretty much raised by volunteers. By that she doesn’t mean that strangers came to her house in the afternoons to help her with her homework, only that her parents were often so busy doing good in the community that she felt, well, abandoned.

“We knew you could take care of yourself,” said her mother one day decades after the fact when MayBelle had the gall to complain about it. “It’s not like we left you out in the street as a toddler,” said her father, ever the pragmatist.

In addition to checking on her family and close friends, MayBelle decided that because she can’t save the world, maybe she can assist one person. Her “who” is a former co-worker who has had recent job struggles and doesn’t have any family nearby. Her “what” is calling to see what her friend might need. Her “when” is right now. And her “why” is because she can. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because her mother would want her to. Because she’s highly sensitive.

MayBelle Gets Schooled During the Pandemic

MayBelle has already learned a lot during the first ten or so days of this whatever this is we’re going through. To wit:

  • You can freeze bananas! Just as she was noticing the bananas on the kitchen counter turning brown, and wondering aloud to herself, “I wonder if you can freeze bananas,” one of her friends posed that same question on Instagram. Voila!
  • Facebook is not all bad. In fact, MayBelle is learning, dare she say it, to like Facebook. She’s been a naysayer for a while—sometimes it takes MayBelle longer to catch on than others—mainly because she can’t stomach the political vitriol. (Or the cat memes. Pluto the talking dog, though, that’s something MayBelle can get behind. Seriously, that dog makes MayBelle’s day.) Poor MayBelle can’t handle confrontation of any kind very well, if the truth be known. It’s one of her weakest points. If you yell at her about something, she’ll have a great comeback between six and eleven hours later, but in the moment the most she’ll be able to do is clam up. Or cry. And maybe tell you off in her mind.
  • Even middle-aged goobers can learn how to use Zoom. What an amazing, technological world it is out there, boys and girls. Look for MayBelle to start hosting something or another on Zoom in the near future. 
  • Taking the time to connect with people you’ve meant to get to know better is worth every minute. Through extending her reach just a tad, MayBelle has found another soul-sister; met a neighbor she’d never seen before even though they’ve both lived in the subdivision for more than a decade; formed a bond with a former student from her divinity school days; and been exposed to this fabulous YouTube video from The Moth, “About to Eat Cake”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_969XrYeuw4

Just think what else MayBelle might encounter before this is all over.

What are you discovering?

Food as Memory: Meals That Sustain Me

 

Firefly Grille in Nashville, Tennessee
My favorite neighborhood restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, has closed. I had many great meals–and have just as many great memories–from this lovely, quirky place: work lunches to Valentine’s Day dinners, celebrating a book deal to honoring friends on their birthdays. Thank you, Firefly Grille, for all the years of hosting me and mine.

Oftentimes, food is about more than nutrition. It can be about holidays, like the Thanksgiving my middle sister, Ginny, volunteered to make the dressing. Why she did so is a question I don’t think will ever be answered satisfactorily. Continue reading “Food as Memory: Meals That Sustain Me”

Learning to Wait: Walking the Dog as Contemplative Practice

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Norval takes a rest.

This is pretty much how our outings go. I move, Norval doesn’t. If he’s not sniffing, relieving himself, eating sticks, or barking at Gus the Goldendoodle, he’s most likely defying me. He knows he gets rewarded for “good walking,” so when he loses the mood, and he doesn’t see me reaching for the treats in my pocket, he simply plants himself. Dog as immovable object.

“No peanut butter crunchies, no walkie-walkie, Lady Who Thinks She’s in Control,” he seems to say.

“Spoiled,” offers a friend.

“Stubborn,” declares Precious.

Just as with some other concerns in my life, I need to adjust my thinking about this daily routine. For if I continue to focus on my frustration, we’ll never make any headway, the dog or me. If I see only what’s going wrong—dog not training as fast as I would like—I won’t notice what’s going just fine—dog making some progress and spring on its way.

Lately I’ve been feeling put upon, what with Precious being sick, and my books not being published. Granted, I haven’t written them yet, but several authors just had readings in town and I’m hooked on the acclaim and the accomplishment, not the hard work and the hustle.

So this morning, while Norval splayed himself on the pavement, I listened to the birds and admired the trees about to burst. I gave thanks to God for the progress Precious is making with his cancer treatments, and for my writing that has been published. I waved at the new neighbor, and wandered down memory lane upon seeing the forsythia on the corner, as that particular yellow always takes me straight back to Grandmother Lyles’ house on South Ninth Street in Oxford, Mississippi.

These are simple things, and they may sound hokey to you. But such small shifts led to my looking heavenward and saying a prayer, instead of cursing under my breath. They reminded me how adorable Norval is most of the time, and what he means to Precious and me. They convinced me that pulling on the leash was not the answer. Waiting was the answer. And so I did.

Eventually, Norval deigned to move, and we made it back home at our own pace, one paw in front of the other, with our behavior, and our gratitude, intact.

My Husband Has Cancer: Does It Matter What Kind?

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In the waiting room.

When I tell people my husband has been receiving treatment for cancer, many ask—almost reflexively—“What kind?”

After thoughtful consideration, much of it conducted in waiting rooms, doctors’ offices, and pharmacy lines, I’ve decided this is not the most appropriate, or helpful, response.

At fifty-seven, I am sometimes fixated on causes of death for folks my age and younger. Hoping, I guess, that I might avoid their fates if I just have the facts. Take a different route, get a second opinion, stop the unhealthy habit.

So I get it, the curiosity. I just don’t like it.

If the answer to the question “What kind of cancer?” turns out to be one of the more aggressive types, will you label my husband a goner? If it’s categorized as “lifestyle related,” will you condemn him?

Each time I’m asked this question, I’m taken back to occasions when I’ve inquired, or wondered, upon hearing such announcements from others. All the times I made assumptions. I hope I never do that again.

From where I sit now, in a chair beside my husband as he receives chemotherapy infusions or next to him on the couch as he rests after radiation, the only real question is, “What can I do?”

 

 

Hiking Toward Home: In Which a Middle-Aged Woman Forges Her Trail

IMG_8334I have hiked five miles of the Appalachian Trail. It’s true, but I usually announce this with my eyes cast downward. Not because I think five miles is paltry; for me, it’s an accomplishment. My reticence is due to the circumstances of my achievement.

So, yes, I did cover a handful of miles of the North Carolina portion of the AT. But I did it with guides, people who walked before me as an example of where to put my feet; how to navigate a root-heavy curve; when to steady my pace. Those same people also toted my luggage from inn to inn as we spent our nights in soft beds after eating delicious meals prepared by hands other than ours. We awoke to smiling hosts and hot coffee before setting out for the day. (Over the course of the trip we logged more than five miles, only part of which was on the AT.)

Does it matter that I’ve never “roughed it” a day in my life? What if I mentioned the ice storm that cut off our power for four days, causing my parents and me to huddle in blankets around the fireplace, or reminisced about rolling out my sleeping bag onto the hard ground outside Mentone, Alabama, while at Camp DeSoto, or noted the semester I spent in Indiana living in a cold, sparsely furnished rooming house while teaching? Without wireless or cable? Without my husband?

If I were to talk about any of those experiences as real challenges, you would not reward me with your awe.

There are other things I might impress you with, like not marrying until I was forty-one and being okay with having lived alone so long. Trusting that my life has purpose, even though I never had biological children. Spending three days in the hospital with an undiagnosed infection that threatened to wipe out my white blood cells.

Still, I have not “roughed it” a day in my life. When I was single, I had good friends and encouraging role models who crafted fine lives for themselves without romantic partners. When I was diagnosed with endometriosis and told that any fleeting chance I might have had for bearing a child had passed, I did not think that meant my life had no meaning. I had not dreamed of having children, even though almost everyone around me assumed I longed for offspring. And with the hospitalization two years ago, I was lucky to have access to good healthcare, and to be blessed by a peace that passes all understanding.

In my younger days, I needed your approval. Never one to take a chance and then beg forgiveness, I sought permission even when none was required. Back then, I hungered for your acknowledgment. If you praised me, all the better.

My younger days are gone. It’s one of the joys of aging, this trusting of Self. At long last I no longer crave the noticing of the world. My own awareness is enough.

In the writing workshops I facilitate, we write in response too prompts. I wrote this after reading “The Hike,” by Genie Zeiger, as printed in The Sun Magazine. I encourage the folks gathered around my table to go where the writing takes them, without worrying if it relates directly to the prompt. So I took my own advice, and this is what I came up with on a Saturday morning in Nashville. What does the poem bring up in you? Write for twenty minutes. I’ll set the timer. Go!

https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/395/the-hike

 

On Mary Pipher’s “Seeking Peace” {This Is Not a Book Review…}

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Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

I’ve only written a few book reviews in my day, mainly because I don’t really understand them. Or maybe I don’t appreciate them properly. Is one person’s opinion of a book supposed to sway me, even when I’m not familiar with the reviewer’s background or interests? What if I love the author and disagree with the reviewer’s take? (I will admit, when the topic is one I’m not familiar with, reviews have helped me understand better about the issue/theme at hand.)

So, instead of formal reviews, I’m going to be in conversation with the author’s words when I find books I’d like to share.

First up: Mary Pipher’s Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World (Riverhead)

Mary Pipher: “Religions are metaphorical systems that give us bigger containers in which to hold our lives. A spiritual life allows us to move beyond the ego into something more universal. Religious experience carries us outside of clock time into eternal time. We open ourselves into something more complete and beautiful. This bigger vista is perhaps the most magnificent aspect of a religious experience.” (p. 176)

ALW: Just as we do with writing, or whatever our creative outlet might be, we want to move from the personal to the universal, to make room in the story or the painting for others. I love thinking about how religion, and art, both allow us to experience a wider world. (P.S. If you don’t yet have a creative outlet, get one. Holler and I’ll help you…)

Mary Pipher: “I had many meditation sessions in which I felt both joy and despair, and peacefulness and anxiety. I had moments when I disappeared into a connected golden universe, and others in which I raked myself over the coals and feared I would never be free. I would have weeks when I felt I had made no progress. Then I would have an experience of openness and compassion. I began to depend on meditation for emotional centering. My body responded to it at some level I didn’t understand. I was beginning to trust something other than reason.” (pp. 184-85)

ALW: This is not the only passage that makes me want to jump online and try to find Mary Pipher so we can be friends. I still have sits that make me want to give up, and meditation is not yet a daily habit for me, but I’ve done it enough to know it makes a difference. And her last line in that paragraph—“I was beginning to trust something other than reason”—speaks to one of my greatest challenges: learning to trust instead of trying to figure it out. And I’m open to whatever can help me do that: religion, meditation, walks around the lake, staring at mountains, writing.

Mary Pipher: “When we surround ourselves with beauty, we are likely to experience a moment. We have our ‘peak experiences’ on the beach or prairie, in a mountain meadow or beside a river. We experience moments at concerts, art galleries or the theater. … To create moments in our daily lives, we must have a new set of skills for making magic out of the ordinary. Psychology and all the great spiritual traditions teach these skills.

“Fortunately, the more moments we find, the more we learn to find them. The process is not unlike being receptive to the muse. Artists know that to access their creativity, they must somehow be curious and attentive. They learn not to reject the small openings, the little tugs on the sleeve, the miniature portals that open something vast and immediate.”

ALW: Some of my top big  moments out in the world–moments that let me know there’s a connection one to another, and all to the Divine Other–include listening to the rain on the grape leaves in France with my parents; hearing Van Morrison at The Ryman; and watching the sun rise and set in Boone, North Carolina. Smaller moments might include the red leaves I saw on my walk this evening; hearing my dog snore, spread eagled on the couch; the older woman at the bank last week who reminded me of my own precious mother.

As for paying attention, for several years now I’ve been all about creating areas in my home that bring beauty to my mind, appreciation to my heart, and peace to my soul. Little altars, in some ways. Curated collections that might contain some of my favorite memorabilia: pictures of loved ones; small art pieces; rocks and feathers; candles. The more I do this, the easier it is for me to notice inspiration, and give thanks, out in the world. For paying attention is key, yes? To our souls, to our communities , and to our fellow pilgrims.

Looking forward,

Amy Lyles Wilson

Here’s a proper review: https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/view/18886

And, yay! Mary Pipher has a new book coming out at the first of the year, which I will surely read: https://marypipher.com/blog/2018/06/06/women-rowing-north/.

 

Gathering ‘Round Our Grief

IMG_1447This cabin in the woods is empty now, but on two rainy days in early June it embraced twenty-four souls who gathered together to write their hard stories, the ones they can’t share with just anyone. Sometimes not even themselves. Not quite yet.

When I preach, “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us,” I mean it, whether you whisper your story to yourself, mail it to your Uncle Bud, or shout it out for the world.

Not everyone who came to write with us during the 2018 Haden Institute Dream and Spirituality Conference at Kanuga shared aloud what they’d written. They didn’t have to, and that was part of the deal.

“Come write,” I say to anyone who will listen. “That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to say a word if you aren’t moved to do so.”

Even that—the writing—is, of course, challenging. I tell clients that writing is as hard, and as easy, as “Just do it.”

After we wrote in response to prompts in the little cabin, when I asked for readers, three women sitting together would, all at once as if they had practiced, shift their eyes toward the floor. Like synchronized swimmers. They made it clear they didn’t want to speak. I didn’t compel or cajole or criticize. I let them be.

Later, two of the ladies would tell me they just couldn’t talk, but that afterwards, in the privacy of their room in the lodge or on a bench by the lake, the words—and the tears—came. They were grateful, they said, and I reminded them that they had done the work. All I did was invite them to try, make the space as safe as I could, and remind them they are not alone. That’s one of the best things sharing our stories can do: Connect us to others—those who grieve just like we do—which is everyone, if they’re honest. All of us have it, that thing that threatens to silence us and prevent us from engaging fully with the life that remains. The life that is.

You might miss your father, dead some twenty years, while the person next to you in the grocery checkout mourns the children he never had. Your neighbor regrets marrying her husband, and your yoga instructor hasn’t spoken to her sister in three years. We’ve all got something.

My goal is not to force people to dwell on what might have been or is no more. Instead, I encourage people to put into words those tender parts of life so that they might gain a little perspective, perhaps. Make a little space in which they can take a breath between the loss and the present day in order to better absorb and honor the gap. We live more fully when we take it all in, even the loss. Maybe especially the loss. I am among those who believe our greatest gifts are uncovered in our greatest tenderness, those places we hesitate to touch for fear something might break loose. Famous people have said it better than I can, like Henri Nouwen:

“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” (henrinouwen.org)

I believe that “service to others” begins with our willingness to connect to our fellow pilgrims through our hard stories. Heartache to heartache, soul to soul. Story to story.

Go Collect Yourself

IMG_1875The dream came over the weekend, the one with her dead mother in it. MayBelle hasn’t dreamed about her mother regularly in the two years since her death, although MayBelle often senses her mother’s spirit with her. And certainly she feels her mother’s influence, even lives it out. On separate occasions just last week, MayBelle quoted her mother to a friend, heeded a piece of advice delivered decades ago, and missed her with such fierceness that she had to step outside a restaurant to collect herself.

Maybe MayBelle will make that her Lenten practice, “collecting herself.” She will gather up the pieces she’s lost hold of, the ones she either thought didn’t matter or was told didn’t count. She’ll root around for her childhood dreams and begin to honor those goals she let fall by the wayside. She’ll walk as far as she has to, searching for the just-right shards and fragments. Hers.

Along the way, MayBelle will have to put down some things, she realizes, for one middle-aged goober can’t carry it all. She’ll start with that pesky self-doubt and the tendency to see herself through a distorted lens. Then she’ll move on to a constant need for approval and an everlasting refrain of: “You are not doing enough.”  She’ll get rid of clothes that don’t suit and accessories she doesn’t need. (Why in the world did MayBelle buy that mustard-colored sackcloth tunic?) Out with the affectations that never did the trick anyway, and say goodbye to being unduly influenced by every piece of advice—sought or otherwise—that comes her way.

As she hunts and gathers and sets aside, MayBelle will focus on collecting what counts and what connects. All she cares about and all she can offer. Those dreams, people, and activities she can tend and nurture well. She hopes she will need a big basket to hold it all. For now, MayBelle will start with this basket, one her mother used for taking food to potluck suppers at Briarwood United Methodist Church. MayBelle knew she kept the basket for a reason.IMG_2684

In the dream, MayBelle’s mother is happy. She is not worried or anxious. She is not scared of the dementia that garbles her memories, or the death that looms. Instead, she is laughing merrily with one of her precious great-grandchildren, a young girl with a big bow in her hair who pushes MayBelle’s mother in a wheelchair. They are both smiling, big toothy grins, as they loop round and round. They exhibit such joy that MayBelle chooses to believe it is more than a dream. It is the stuff of life.

Dear 2018: Whatever Happens This Year, Please Don’t Demand That MayBelle Be a “Change Agent,” “Goddess,” or “Warrior”

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Or worse, a “badass.” MayBelle doesn’t want to be any of those things. She just wants to be herself. Maybe, in this new year, a more refined MayBelle, or even the most MayBelle-iest MayBelle she can be. But she refuses to be overwhelmed/intimidated/shamed by messages implying that she needs to be different—that she has to re-create who she is—in order to live a full life or make a mark. Her middle-aged MayBelle-ness—overweight and prone to worry, proud of her accomplishments while embarrassed by missteps, aware of time passing but still hopeful—simply has to be enough.

So in the coming days, 2018, MayBelle plans to “center down” as Howard Thurman says in Meditations of the Heart. She will rise to her strengths as often as she can. She hopes to help those in need when she’s able, tend her loved ones with care and compassion, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, push herself to be healthier, follow her heart, improve her skills, and in all things give thanks. But please don’t tell MayBelle every day has to be awesome, New Year, because some days aren’t. Some days are just plan ol’ days, full of mundane events and interactions. And while MayBelle believes there is usually something extraordinary in the ordinary, other days are so challenging they can only be endured. It’s life. And life requires more than positive thinking and exhortations to be a “badass” or claim one’s inner warrior. MayBelle actually hopes she doesn’t read the word “badass” again in all of 2018, and she’s glad her precious mother is not here to see how commonplace such words have become. (Pardon her prudishness, but MayBelle, for one, does not need the f-word on a coffee mug.)

Surely MayBelle doesn’t have to be a change agent or a goddess to live fully, serve others, pursue her dreams. She just has to be herself. So, 2018, you will not find MayBelle berating herself if every day isn’t off the charts fantastic. You won’t catch her strategizing for world–or even neighborhood–domination.

Instead, MayBelle will be over here doing the best she can. Paying attention to the world around her, writing her heart out, and helping others do the same. Making adjustments as needed, relying on grace, and counting her blessings. If she loses a few pounds or gets a book deal in the process, great. If not, she’ll still be pretty bada**.

Love,

Real Life