“Ten Tiny Changes”: The Artist’s Way

 

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I’m beginning to realize that my current sensitivity around the state of the world and the state of my own emotional well-being is not just a day or two of the blues. It is a tender stage of life I must make my way through.

At fifty-six, I find myself restless, wondering if I’ve done enough and curious about what more there might be to do and what it might look like. New career? Different town? Stay the course? Get a facelift?

Some folks say I think too much, worry more than I should. Guilty as charged. But I’ve spent a lot of time trying not to be what I am: highly sensitive and hyper aware. And I’m too old for that now. Instead I choose to embrace these qualities and work with them as best I can. There are some upsides: curiosity, empathy, creativity, trustworthiness, and a willingness to hang out in the trenches with people who are hurting. Some of the challenges include: taking on problems that aren’t mine to solve; an inability to filter out what I don’t need to absorb; overreacting to perceived injustices; and accepting what’s mine to do and laying down the rest.

In order to make my way in the world without becoming completely overwhelmed, I need to get quiet and listen deeply—to myself and my Creator. One way I’m doing that right now is by working my way through The Artist’s Way Workbook. The current assignment is to list “Ten Tiny Changes” I’d like to make and then crafting goals from those. This an effective way to streamline what’s important to me. For example, from “I want to publish a book,” I get, “I will write every day.” From “I would like to teach part time,” I move to, “I will apply for the adjunct job at the university.” From “I would like to start my spiritual direction practice,” I come up with, “I will reach out to friends in the spiritual community for advice.” Wanting to lose weight morphs into, “I will walk five times a week.”

It may seem straightforward, like a “no brainer” to those who are more single minded and pragmatic, that you would list your goals and then set about tackling them. But for someone like me, who can become convinced fairly easily that I should be doing something else–or worse, that I should “be” someone else–the act of breaking my goals down into “tiny changes” is helpful. Let’s see how it goes…

Amy Lyles Wilson

P.S. How do you focus and make progress on your goals and dreams?

A Good Enough Day

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Upon returning home from an idyllic two-week trip to my favorite place, Chautauqua , I was met by a frantic puppy with sharp little teeth, loads of laundry, work to catch up on, and a world in upheaval. Being the highly sensitive person that I am–a middle-aged goober who can feel overwhelmed in crowds or when witnessing conflict–it all seemed too much. So yesterday I concentrated on the basics: Take a shower, make at least a little progress on an editorial assignment, and keep the two appointments I had scheduled. I’m glad I did, as I’m always made better when I get up and go, even if the movement is slight, like a short walk through my neighborhood. As evening settled over Nashville, I headed for my gratitude journal. This practice of stopping and taking stock both reassures and renews me, and I can get off center fairly easily if I don’t do it. Honoring that which matters is a sacred act.

To wit: Friends who didn’t freak out when I met them for lunch and said, “Good to see you. I may cry while we eat.” Instead, they offered, “Go ahead. We might, too.” The three of us are in that stage of life where we’ve lost—or our losing—our parents; our health is throwing us curve balls; and we’re letting go of some time-bound dreams while still pursuing the ones we care about the most. We are doing the best we can, and we are not giving up even if we have to slow down a bit and order salads instead of cheeseburgers.

In my younger days, I probably thought “good enough” meant I wasn’t living up to my potential, or that I was settling. At this stage of my life, I know it means the freedom and self-assurance to live well, without comparison to others’ accomplishments or accumulations, without wondering “Would my life have been better if…?”

So on this day, I’m thankful for a good therapist, the playfulness of said frantic puppy with the sharp little teeth, a husband who knows how to cook, my writing partner who sat across from me for three hours as we wrote our hearts out, and this amazing sky.

It is good enough and plenty.

Amy Lyles Wilson

P.S. What are you grateful for, at this very minute?

MayBelle on Marriage {Don’t Worry, This Won’t Take Long}

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Back in 2002, at age forty-one, MayBelle, who theretofore had been considered an “old maid,” transitioned to someone who “married late.” She resents both those descriptors, as you might imagine MayBelle would, because there were no guarantees—or requirements—she would ever marry. MayBelle is delighted that cultural norms have shifted at least somewhat although not enough to suit her–especially in the Deep South where she lives–toward realizing marriage is not the only route to happiness.

One element of such partnering is a numbers game, along with a dash or two of serendipity and a handful of what might only be described as “secret ingredients.” MayBelle’s parents did not promise her a prince, riding a horse or otherwise. They were too busy telling her she had to go to graduate school so she would be positioned to support herself. MayBelle is driven to distraction by people who fill little girls’ heads with seemingly surefire notions of weddings and white-picket-fence happily ever afters (is this really a thing?) as if it’s a done deal. Some folks get it, and some don’t. (MayBelle knows she’s talked about this before, but that’s how much it bugs her. She appreciates your indulgence.)

Several of MayBelle’s mentors have been women who never married. Her Aunt Vannie, for example, who lit out from Water Valley, Mississippi, for Greenwich Village and made a life for herself by herself. What a fabulous broad she was. MayBelle still wears a shawl (black and white, from England) and a big ol’ topaz ring she got from Vannie, that enticing woman now long laid low. And her Aunt Theora, who took up painting later in life and developed into an acclaimed, self-taught artist.

Here’s another thing MayBelle loathes: “Why did you wait so long to marry?” Because, she wants to snap back, it took that long for Precious to get here. Plus, if you must know, the only guy who asked her before that was drunk at the time, and the only one she thought she might have wanted ended up marrying a friend of hers. Two friends, actually, after the first one divorced him.

MayBelle may have been a little slow to matters of the heart, not having dated much in her life, but she did know enough not to say “I do” simply to avoid living alone. So when MayBelle and Precious, who is six years older than she, announced they were getting married she thinks they were as surprised as anyone. And really, really, grateful.

MayBelle heard the whispers, though, people saying they wondered if she knew everything about him, and did he know how much MayBelle adored (the word “worshipped” might have been employed, for emphasis) her father?

“No wonder she didn’t marry until after her father died,” was an especially insightful barb tossed her way. (Did MayBelle’s sarcastic tone come through there? If not, let her know and she’ll try again.) Baggage all around. Of course there’s baggage, MayBelle wanted to shout; we’re alive, aren’t we? And in our forties, for goodness sake. No baggage, no fully lived life, thinks MayBelle.

Those comments reminded MayBelle, in an intensely personal way, about the need for minding one’s own business: Don’t think you know best about other people’s lives. Tend your own instead.

And here they are, celebrating fifteen years of marriage. It’s not a lifetime, they realize, or an assurance of fifteen more, but it’s what they’ve got, and they’ll take it. They celebrated, in part, by hiking to a beautiful spot in western North Carolina, even though Precious’ idea of outdoorsy is being on the golf course and MayBelle has only recently taken to exercising. This is what marriage looks like to them: Walking side by side, even when the husband wears shoes meant for strolling, not trail trekking, and the wife keeps asking if they should turn back. Four feet, two hearts, one team.

MayBelle and Precious are not the kind of people who think love is enough. They don’t post on social media (Can you imagine Precious on Facebook?) about having “the most perfect spouse in the world,” and they don’t take much for granted. They think you need love, sure, but you also need luck, and a bit of work. Commitment helps, and trust, and all sorts of other intangible components that contribute to tangible sustainability.

So MayBelle and Precious can both tell you when they “ just knew” they were meant to be together, although they can’t necessarily tell you one another’s favorite flavor of ice cream. And no, they don’t have an “our song,” but if they did, it would be John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

 

 

 

 

Missing Martha {On Mother’s Day}

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Martha Lee Lyles Wilson, 1922-2016

Last month my two sisters and I met in Oxford, Mississippi, to see our mother’s gravestone for the first time since we had buried her just over a year ago. We’d all made sojourns to the cemetery before this particular April afternoon, but it had taken a while for us to get the ledger in place. So we walked from The Square over to St. Peter’s Cemetery, around the small grouping of trees I think are cedar but don’t know for sure. Then, just past the curve of the road, we veered right to the Wilson plot on the hill.

It looked beautiful, elegant and classic, just like Daddy’s. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” it read. Ann, Ginny, and I got her as close to Daddy as we could. It’s where she liked to be in life, right next to our father, and she told me more than once, “that’s it for me,” after he died, some sixteen years before she did. She would quickly add that she still loved being with her family, but I knew what she meant, I think, for something life-giving abandoned her the day he died.

We had a ritual when we got back to Ginny’s house, putting out some pictures, lighting a candle, and telling stories of our childhood. I read a poem entitled “We Remember Them,” by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer, sent to me by soul-friend Sheri Malman when I told her what I wanted to do. She also managed to have a bouquet of flowers waiting at the cemetery for us, which contained calla lilies and roses, my parents’ favorites. That’s a good friend, people.

The last line goes like this: “For as long as we live, they too will live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.”

Let all those who miss their mothers on this day say Amen.

Somehow comforted by hearing Patty Griffin’s “Heavenly Day” on WMOT, the fabulous Americana station I listen to daily in Nashville, as I write, and remember.

 

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.

Searching, Searching, Searching

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I’m like the child who can’t stop asking questions, although I try with all my might not to fidget.

“Why is the sky blue?” becomes, for me, “What shall I do with the rest of my life?”

“I want to be a fireman when I grow up,” sounds like “Should I have been a social worker? A priest?”

“Can dogs fly?” makes me wonder, “Can I get everything I want out of this life?”

“Give me more candy” translates as “Give me more: Time. Energy. Dreams.”

And, like the voracious child, I will have to learn to accept that sometimes the answer is “no,” and sometimes the answer is “maybe later,” and sometimes the answer is, “settle down.”

And every once in a while there is no response that will satisfy.

On Being 52: Trust Me, It’s More Than a Number

DSC_0326Please, I beg of you, don’t tell me that my age is “just a number” or “all a matter of attitude.” I get it, really I do, that you mean well, and that you think I’ve got a youthful spirit and that 52 is not 92. But I am here to tell you that being fiftysomething is more than a number. Regardless of one’s perky outlook, it is the startling—although it shouldn’t be a surprise seeing that I’ve had five decades to get used to the idea—realization that more than half my life is over. With that comes, if you’re paying attention at all, some kind of evaluation about where you are and where you want to go from here. 

Here’s what being 52 is: weakening eyesight, creaking knees, a need for naps, an ever-present countdown toward the rest of my life’s goals, missing my dead father, learning the language of Mother’s dementia, dreaming of going back to school yet again, wanting to make a difference, a longer list of books I haven’t read, grieving misplaced relationships and lost opportunities, wondering what will become of me. Thankfully, being middle-aged (humor me, please; I know I’m stretching the math here) also brings sharpened awareness of even the smallest joy, an appreciation for what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve avoided, a heightened curiosity, increased energy for what simply must get done and a gentle release of what won’t, discarding what no longer fits me—from old clothes to worn out grievances—without guilt, overflowing gratitude for steadfast friends and supportive relations, and trusting it will be okay in the end.

On this icy winter morning, as I consider my next steps, I raise my decaf latte to the fabulous Elaine Stritch, who bears witness to the “courage of age” with such blazing fortitude that I am made bolder simply by listening to her on National Public Radio.

Sing it, sister, I say. Shout it, growl it, live it.

Singing the Blues

IMG_2556Not really, because I can’t sing, at least not in any meaningful or memorable way. Although I’ve been known to belt out a little Van Morrison or John Hiatt when Precious isn’t around, it’s not pretty, or melodic. Just cathartic. These days, though, I’m not much in the mood for singing, or for anything other than reading, napping, and eating. Oh yeah, and wallowing. And maybe a little ruminating.

On paper, I shouldn’t be depressed: loving husband, fine friends, spiritual underpinnings, work I enjoy (although not always enough of it as a freelancer), warm home. But those of us who “suffer” with depression know that paper has nothing to do with it. I put the word suffer in quotation marks because I wonder about what it implies, that maybe people will pity me. I don’t really find pity an appropriate response to depression. I vote for acceptance and understanding instead. Because on this very day, in this tender place, I don’t need you to cheer me up (smiley faces begone!), or pat me on the knee while saying  “it’s going to be okay” (I trust it will be), or remind me I have a lot to be thankful for (indeed I do). I just need you to sit right here with me.

So far, I’ve kept my appointments, met my deadlines, gone to the gym, and, on most days, managed to practice proper hygiene, but I haven’t done those things with my usual levels of energy and involvement. Instead I’ve met the minimum and then hurried back home to hunker down. Sometimes, while hunkering, I find myself mulling over mistakes, worrying about the future, and wondering where I might have made a different move. And although I enjoy a little introspection as much as the next middle-aged goober, I suspect such intense “what if-ing” isn’t healthy, not for the long term anyway, and I’m working to make sure I don’t over do. But I also know this is part of me, this depression, and that it deserves my attention, and maybe even my respect.

It’s cold and gray here in Nashville, without snow to make the weather seem worth it, so that doesn’t help. I don’t know if I might be susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but I plan to check it out just in case. 

So tonight my depression and I are listening to the soundtrack on NPR devoted to cabin fever and trusting in tomorrow. Maybe we’ll light a candle, and even sing a few bars. What do you listen to on dark winter nights?