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!
I’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.
Writing Prompt: When did you first experience redemption? I’ll set the timer for 20 minutes. Go!
I must have said it ten times as a reference point for people who looked familiar but forlorn as we came together to bury my aunt in Oxford, Mississippi.
My father’s been dead for fifteen years, and my mother is out of touch now due to dementia, but these folks—blood kin and otherwise—gathered at the funeral home on Highway 6 still link me to my heritage. They are my people.
Oxford is where my parents met in elementary school, attended University High, and were graduated from Ole Miss. It’s where my family went throughout my childhood to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles. Cousins. It’s where I had my first panic attack in my early twenties, realizing I didn’t belong in law school and that I was about to undo years of dreams–other people’s dreams–by dropping out. It’s where we buried Daddy. And it’s where I married the love of my life at age 41, in the same church where my parents said their vows in 1948. Lafayette County will always have hold of me.
St Peter’s Cemetery embraces more family members than I care to remember. But remember I did, tiptoeing over ancestors as I made my way to the Wilson monument on the hill to escort another loved one across the threshold.
“We’ve saved a plot for you,” my mother said to me once when we visited the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of a Wilson or a Lyles. I was single then, and my “bless your heart” parents thought it would always be so, that I would end up next to them in death, close by, just as I had been for most of my life. Too close, perhaps. It did not seem the time or place to tell her I plan to be cremated, married or spinster, my remains cast to the wind hopefully in North Carolina, where I feel more at home than I ever did in my hometown.
“Thank you,” I said.
My father is there, both his parents, my mother’s parents, too, second cousins twice removed, a couple of relatives I have no clue about (why don’t I remember Roxie Malinda?), and a precious child who died soon after birth. They’re all accounted for, surrounded by friends known to several generations of my family. I recognize names like Clark and Howell and Ivy from years of recollections offered up during holiday dinners and family reunions.
When I was younger—I’m 53 now—I thought I knew enough of my family’s lore. But on that day, as we said another goodbye, I realized I do not know enough.
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!
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.
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.
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?”
The 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.
May we all give what we can, whatever it might be, for as long as we can.
Just 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.
This 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.
We buried my father’s body fourteen years ago this week. His spirit remains. I feel him in my heart, daily. And I sense him other times, too, like when I’m reading late into the night or eating smoked salmon, two preferences we shared. I miss him still, but not like those awful, slow, days of early grieving. Now I can think of him without bursting into tears, or wonder what he might say to me without breaking down. So on these final days of September, I remember him not so much with sadness, but ever-increasing gratitude.
Something in me, something big, wanted to speak at Daddy’s funeral. Maybe it’s because I knew he liked a personal approach, contrasted with a funeral we attended together in which the preacher made scant mention of the deceased. Maybe it’s because I thought I had something to say. Maybe it’s because it was the last thing I could do for him. Maybe I still needed his approval.
I started writing in my journal almost immediately after my sister called to tell me Daddy was in the hospital. Writing down my thoughts is what I do. The night after he died, I stayed up late, searching the Internet for a poem I had heard “somewhere,” which I thought might be perfect for the eulogy. I did not find the poem, so I simply started writing about what I knew: my love for my father.
“Are you sure you can do this?” my mother asked when she saw me hovered over the computer keyboard, crying. “You don’t have to do this. Your father would understand.”
“Yes,” I responded, between sobs. “I want to do it.” And even though I cried through each practice run in the living room, I was able to deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral without shedding a tear. Only at the bitter end, when I looked down at his coffin and said the final words did I choke.
After the soloist sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and one of the preachers read some Scripture, it was my turn. Here is my Eulogy for Earl.
“As a writer, I imagined myself weaving an eloquent, insightful, and evocative eulogy for my father, making reference to ‘crossing the bar’ and ‘not going gentle’ and such. As a daughter, though, it was tough.
“Then someone said this to me: ‘That Earl was a class act.’ Bingo, I thought. For even if I had had a month to prepare remarks for today, I could not have found the words to do my father justice, this brilliant and precious man who tended me for 39 years.
“If we could find the proper phrasing, my mother would speak of a husband who provided her with a ‘blessed union of souls,’ of a soulmate who said, ‘Just give me fifty years with you, Martha,’ and got fifty-two. I think Earl’s brother, Bob, would try to articulate how much Earl meant to him growing up, as they lost their father at a young age.
“My sister Ginny would thank Earl for tolerance during her Grateful Dead period, a time we’re all still trying to forget—and for inspiring her to be a caring person first and a productive lawyer second, which she and her husband, Harbour, will strive to continue being in Earl’s memory. Sister Ann would surely mention the friendship between Daddy and her husband, Henry, and the guidance Earl bestowed on his precious grandchildren, Wilson, Lyles, and Martha Grace.
“As for me, I can told you of a person who taught us the importance of standing our ground while finding our way; a man who surmised that orange was not my best color; an intellect who respected the art of soliciting varied opinions; a connoisseur who could choose dry white wines under twelve dollars. A pilgrim who exemplified the true meaning of the word ‘compassion.’
“Just last week a friend sent me this poem, which her son read at her father’s funeral: ‘When I come to the end of the day, and the sun has set for me, I want no rites in a gloom-filled room, why cry for a soul set free? Miss me a little, but not too long, and not with your head bowed low. Remember the love we once shared, miss me but let me go. For this was a journey we all must take, and each must go alone. It’s all part of the Master’s plan, a step on the road to home. When you are lonely and sick at heart, go to the friends we know, and bury your sorrows in doing good deeds, miss me but let me go.’
“Earl had several requests for his funeral: he knew the preacher, he knew the songs and the soloist, and for some reason he requested, and I quote him here: ‘sufficient wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ I’m not sure what ‘gnashing’ means, really, but I’ve always been the obedient type, so I can assure you that the wailing has commenced.
“One friend and peer said this about Earl upon hearing of his death: ‘Earl Wilson’s life cast a long shadow. He personified visionary leadership combined with concern for his fellow man in everything he undertook. I was blessed to have known him as a colleague, as a mentor, and as a friend.’
“You think you were blessed, I thought. We got to be his girls.
“My family was comforted beyond measure today by your presence. Since the second this happened to us, we have been relying on the kindness of friends and the steadfastness of our God. And for those of us who are Christians, this cannot be viewed as a tragedy. My father was an amazing man who lived an extraordinary life.