I remember as a young girl my Daddy pointing out the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes with age, he said. Well, he finished, it ought to. It occurs to me—I am trying not to worry about it, really—that because of life’s circumstances, there are many “words of wisdom” I have not taught my children and may not ever have the opportunity to tell them. Help me, oh God, put some of them down here.
Be happy with how you look—love your body; it contains your beautiful spirit. Your body will change as you get older; help it along with kindness. You don’t ever have to think of unpleasant or embarrassing moments from your past; banish them as soon as they enter your mind if they bring you pain. Try to forgive your parents; they are deeply flawed. Know that you are loved, and it’s ok to feel the love from generations before you. Fill your life with non-human animals; you already know they love you unconditionally. You can feel it. Carry yourself with pride without being prideful; it just means admire yourself with humility. If you have children, teach them the Bible stories and make them learn some verses; if you have forgotten, learn them again. Don’t be afraid of the dark; don’t be afraid to fly; don’t be afraid to travel. Stay away from negative people; trust your instincts if you have doubts about someone’s integrity.
Never settle when it comes to a partner; never be with someone who is settling for you. Go outside. Go see some old ruins. Go to New York City and Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Go to the Pacific Ocean. Go stand in an old cathedral and an old country church in the woods. Remember to look up at stars. Find a job you like and stick with it. Save enough money, but don’t worry about not having a lot of it. Don’t accumulate a lot of things; curb your desire for things. Let yourself be enthusiastic. Let yourself be awed. Remember that children are raised to grow and go—whether it is you or your children. Read. Pray for guidance when making decisions: let your litmus test be, Will I regret more if I do it or don’t do it? Sing. Learn to do something fun that you are proud of. Eat dessert now and then. Keep a journal. Know that when most people say “happy” they mean “instantly gratified.” Those aren’t the same: be happy. Be kind. Let yourself be a nerd when it comes to learning. Never stop learning. Have integrity. Look at some art, and learn something about it. Take care of earth however you can; we’re using it up and won’t get another. Help people. Take help from people when you need it. Learn poetry. Believe in God so that you can know that God is with you and has been there through all of it.
This is my prayer, God, for my children. Amen.
Prompt from Mindfulness: A Journal (Price, 2016)
Make a list of ten everyday activities that you find relaxing or soothing–even those as small as calling a friend or making a cup of your favorite tea. Try it! Do one of the activities on your list and write about your experience.
The List, in no particular order:
1. read–theology, queer theology, JFK assassination theories
2. watch television–documentaries, period pieces, docu-dramas, biographies
3. having my afternoon cup of espresso made with my luxury-item coffee maker
4. playing piano
5. tidying up
7. listening to music, which kind of music depends on my mood
8. reverie, including porch time with close friends
9. meditating with my Calm app
I realize this is probably a sad little list for many people. I can’t even think of a last item offhand. But I think my simple list hints at my capacity for finding joy in the simplest of experiences, noticing a blue bird, for example. This capacity, in turn, points to my state of being generally, happy. I have, though, always had a facial expression that belies this inner state; I found out it has a name: bitchy- or angry-resting face. Challenge enough, without the surly-resting face that Bells Palsy begat. These days I have to work to put my best face forward.
It has almost been a year since Bell’s Palsy took over the left side of my face. I’ve written about it~the depression and frustration and then hope-full-ness. So, after a year I realize that I have some important takeaways from the experience. The most important is when God wants to get your attention, God finds a way.
What else have I learned? Well first, people look instinctively at the face for a clue as to how any given interaction is going to go, whether it is saying hello or engaging in conversation. I have learned to flex my smile muscles when I’m walking down the hall or into someone’s office or into a meeting. Otherwise, I can see in their eyes that they’re bracing themselves. This is different than before the BP~~now I can actually feel the muscles pull when I try to look pleasant, or when I smile. If, as the author of The Surprising Psychology of Smiling, below, is correct and smiles tell you something important about the wearer, I must intentionally craft a message of authentic friendliness if I expect folks to tell my important thing!
I don’t have a poker face; I cannot remain neutral whether I am pleased or aggravated. The other day I learned the term for this: microexpressions. A microexpression is an involuntary facial expression that occurs in around 1/25 of a second and exposes one’s true emotions. Wikipedia tells us that they occur when a person is trying to conceal all signs of how they feel about an interaction or situation. Microexpressions seem to be universal; everybody has them. People with good social skills learn how to recover from them faster than others. Still, I am not sure there is much “micro” about my expressions. They go directly to macro. Now I actively practice relaxing my face so that it can achieve a neutral expression, and I savor the feeling of the muscles at peace.
My face isn’t always doing what I think it is. This is particularly noticeable in the morning when my face is waking up with the rest of me. It takes a second of extra effort to raise my left eye completely. One morning I looked at myself in the mirror while I was singing. The sound was coming out as usual–I sounded like myself. But only one side of my face was animated and expressive; the left side was still lagging behind. My mouth looked more like a “D” than an “O.” I’ve really had to practice this one. During choir, I have to work those same smile muscles in both my mouth and my eye while singing. And while it feels from the inside like I have a pageant smile on my face, it’s actually forming my old singing face. This reminds me of how you have to exaggerate expressions and voice on the stage during a play. It may feel like over acting, but it comes out sounding natural.
I have learned to take cues from my face. When I become frustrated or irritated, I can feel the large muscle in my cheek–the one that runs from my eye to my mouth, which makes it a serendipitous mindfulness check. Stress almost certainly triggered the BP in the first place, so I use its manifestation to my advantage. And, I continue to search for a spiritual meaning in it all. For example, one charge to Christians is to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet, which is another kind of mindfulness cue~~one toward compassionate service, of love. I like the thought of this, of seeing the face of Christ in ourselves and others, but Jesus’s expressions were not just happy ones. He suffered from emotional, psychological, and physical wounds. Jesus got mad; he too was under stress. I guess that is really an important lesson I had not thought of~~to accept my new natural face. If ultimately this is the most muscle control I ever recover, which I reckon to be around 87% (when I can whistle properly, I’ll round it up to 90%), then I must lovingly cherish my face, deliberately, as I have not had to do before. I mean, of course I used to wish that my nose were pointer and my smile bigger, but it was my face and I loved it. I am learning to love it again now, and in the process I am learning so much more.
When I was in fifth grade at Littleville Elementary School, something magical happened. One day, our teacher announced that the band teacher from the nearby high school would be coming to Littleville to talk to kids and their parents about joining the band. It was 1973, and resources for extra-curricular activities–heck, resources for curricular activities–were limited. I remember in previous years, our musical exposure at school had been the on the rare occasions when our teachers had brought out a box with mostly percussion instruments and let us play with them, mostly trying to keep time while a record was playing. This was different. This was band. I could hardly wait for the meeting. When the evening came, the band director, Mr. Wright, brought a variety of instruments so that we could try them out and, with his advise make our selection. I realize looking back that, of course, he wanted a well rounded group of instruments, which is probably why I became a flute player. From that point on, I was in love.
I went to high school in a football town, and a football town doesn’t scrimp on its band. We were the Marching 100. I remember the day I was issued my uniform. I remember band camp and big, chartered band buses, chocolate sales and Homecoming parades. I can still remember how to play The Horse–if you have ever marched, you know The Horse. I remember our signature parade song–a marching mix of China Grove and Smoke on the Water. I still remember–and feel–lining up on the sideline for the halftime show, and I can feel again what it felt like then standing on the field, horn up, knees slightly bent, leaning back to hold the last note until the crowd stood and cheered. And they did. Every time.
I quit the band just before my senior year for a very, very bad reason. It’s a story for another time, because this one is about joy. But I must say–for the rest of it to make sense–that over the next thirty years I had recurring dreams about being back. Sometimes, they would let me join them again for just one performance. Sometimes, in my dream, it was entirely acceptable for an alum to join up years later. Whatever the scenario, I slept happy. Then woke. It was not unlike dreaming of someone who has passed then waking to sadness when you realize it was only a dream.
The cat hated everybody. Everybody, that is, except me. And Sarah, of course–but she had owned Sarah for seventeen years, so that was to be expected. I only knew her for five months, and I didn’t really expect her to warm up to me. More than that, I never expected to warm up to her. So when we helped her to her final sleep on Monday, the last thing I expected was to feel what I felt and react how I did.
First of all, I am not a cat person. I had a cat once, and I despised it. Yes, my cat-loving friends will be shocked at that. Kitty was part Siamese and was mean. Worse than that, she caused me to lose sleep every night. If she was outside, she wanted in; if she was inside, she wanted out. Day in and day out. Why didn’t I just leave her in or out, you might ask? Well, I believe if you ask that, YOU are not a cat person. She would come to my bedside and claw at the blinds until I was awake. If I shooed her away, she’d wait till I lay back down and begin again. When she was outside, she would come to my bedroom window and claw on the screen, which is not a sound conducive to sleeping, especially as I lay there envisioning a trip to Home Depot to replace yet another screen. When I moved from Louisiana to Georgia, I gave the neighbors a bag of cat food and $20 to take care of the cat. I drove the U-Haul truck away as fast as I could so that Kitty couldn’t somehow attach herself and hang on for the cross-country trek. I was free of cats. Until Diana.
Sarah called her Hissing Ball of Fury because that’s what she turned into whenever anybody tried to touch her. Over the months, as I met Sarah’s friends, they all asked, “And how are you getting on with the Little Cat?” Only they don’t say “Cat.” They had learned the hard way. “Oh, she’ll like ME,” they had said, one by one. “I’m good with animals,” they had said, one by one. And one by one, they had approached Diana talking softly and reaching to pet her, only to have her turn into Miss Fury. Diana had been banned from veterinary practices in two states because she bit. I witnessed this myself when we took her to the vet three months ago. Two young techs had assured us, “Oh, she’ll be fine with us,” only to bolt from the room to fetch the doctor to do this first-year vet school procedure himself. “Diana bites” was written in bold red letters across the top of her chart. And so she did.
So what was my secret? I think it was that I let Diana be Diana. I let her come to me. When she sat with her back to us, which was her usual position until she got ready to be petted, I let her be. I only spoke to her when she looked at me, and never reached out to touch her. Then one day when she came to Sarah for her evening head-butts (Diana was a head-butter), she walked right into my hand. Then one morning I awoke with a cat sleeping on my head. On my head. She only hissed at me once. I had reached down to pet her as I walked by the couch where she was lying, foolishly thinking that we had bonded over the head-sleeping. “Don’t get to comfortable with me, old gal,” she seemed to imply in that hiss. “I come to YOU.” I only picked her up once. It was the day before she died. That is how I knew it was over.
The vet must have felt the same way when he picked her up on Monday morning and said, “This is the first time I’ve really gotten to examine her completely.” He gently felt her frail body and asked Sarah if she was sure of her decision. She was. We had set up what Sarah called “Kitty Hospice” at the bungalow over the weekend, administering IV fluids and concocting what looked like an awful mess but was evidently a cat delicacy Sarah called “duck soup.” Diana would take a little, then lie on a pile of Sarah’s clothes and her old teddy bear, Ted, until we took her outside to lie in the grass warmed by the sun. The fluids never pepped her up as Sarah had expected; she was that far gone. So we fed her duck soup and let her be outside as much as she wanted. She even hissed at a stray cat once. We had one brief second of hope, then watched as she turned away all but a bite of food. I am glad we had that weekend. As we watched Diana, I watched Sarah say goodbye to her friend of seventeen years.
I think things happen for a reason. Like finding an abandoned kitten two weeks ago–one that has pretty much taken over our lives by blessedly taking up our attention during the last week. I’ve heard the old saying that we don’t find pets–rather, pets find us. This one was put in our way at precisely the appropriate place and time. Just like Pastor Kim’s prayer in church on Sunday. As I sat there in the choir loft during the service, the words startled me out actually praying, hoping that it might in some way bring Diana’s human some comfort. Give us the courage and grace to live through the dying season, was the prayer. The grace to understand death, as well as life, even though the dying–the perpetual winter–dims a light in our souls.
As we sat outside with Diana Saturday, Sarah told me that she had chosen her name from Edith Hamilton’s famous book Mythology. It is appropriate–and somewhat ironic now–that her name had come from that book. In it, Hamilton quotes from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon:
Drop, drop—in our sleep, upon the heart
sorrow falls, memory’s pain,
and to us, though against our very will,
even in our own despite,
by the awful grace of God.
Aeschylus describes the process by which we come to the understanding for which the pastor prayed. Drop by drop upon the heart by the awful grace of God. How profoundly simple that it might come from the great blessing of being owned by a pet. But, if you are a cat person–like I am now–that is no surprise.
The blessing and curse of being an academic is that whenever I come across any really interesting “thing”–whether it is an experience, a news story, situation, work of art, or take on the human condition–my first thought is, “Wow, that would make a great paper!” I wonder if my other egghead friends do that. It isn’t all bad; the blessing is that clearly there will never be a shortage of topics to write about. The curse is that everything around me becomes a potential scholarly topic. And I start planning out where to begin the search of existing literature before I finish feeling and experiencing whatever it is. A case in point is divinity school. For the first two weeks of being at Candler (School of Theology at Emory University), I felt like a researcher doing an ethnography of seminary. I still think that’s a pretty doggone good idea! It took almost a month before I began to feel the experience as something other than a research project. What’s so bad about that? Well, this world is best experienced by feeling our feelings every single minute we are going through it. I’m sure there is research to support that claim.
It happened to me again yesterday, but luckily I caught myself. I was at the kitchen counter finishing up my annual review and listening to Elvis on the Sirius radio I had managed to hook up to my home stereo speakers, the coolest thing ever invented. Back in the fall, it had taken me a whole day to figure out how to make my old dvd player into a tuner through which to conduct music into the speakers (Is my technical language impressing you?). Because I had a home kit, the Sirius radio was easy. But figuring out how to hook up the Apple devices was less intuitive. Yesterday, though, as I looked from the kitchen to the system in the living room, the obvious solution just came to me, kind of like how I can think of things the minute or two as I am waking up in the morning that I cannot think of during the day (That happened this morning; I was able to think of the song title, Shine On Us, that the choir had sung Wednesday night. Yes, I did forget the title of a song between Wednesday night and Friday morning. That’s not the point….). So, I disconnected a wire from the radio, plugged it into my iPod, and viola: my music!
I’m going to try here to explain what I feel when I listen to music. It’s harder than it may sound. I am inspired to do this after having countless conversations with one of my friends who loves music so much she moved across the country to be able to hear live music every night of the week–something, interestingly, one can’t necessarily do in Atlanta. I was also inspired to try to express what music feels like to me after reading my friend Alan’s book, Symphony #1 in a Minor Key: A Meditation on Time and Place. I don’t have it in front of me to quote (I’m at Starbucks) or I would share some of the beautiful imagery and language he uses to portray the importance of music to him as an embodied and emotional experience. That’s what it is like for folks like us, it picks us up and does something to us and puts us back down while something electric courses through us. Yeah, we like music.
I confess I am not current on music. Whenever I meet someone who is, they have to catch me up some if they want me to be able to talk about it with them. I like it, but there is something about the old songs, the old groups. New music that sounds like it was old. I do like that, but it’s kind of cheating. As I scrolled down through the almost 3,000 songs on my iPod to test out the speakers, that is the kind I chose. A new (well, fairly) new song with a 60s Phil Specter beat: Doin That Thing You Do. And I was not playing around. I turned the volume up on 35 to see what those speakers would do. Drums. I am a sucker for music that features drums. Sixties rock beat. Refrain that shifts to a slightly minor key. The Wall of Sound. Here is where I wish I had the language to describe musically what was happening. I can’t, so you should play the song to hear what I’m talking about.
You should know I cannot dance, but I don’t think about that when I hear music that moves me. Elvis felt it; he said so when asked about his “gyrations.” He said he didn’t know anything about gyrations–he just felt the music and couldn’t help but move. That’s how it is. I was standing in the middle of my lovely little bungalow yesterday with music blaring, me singing at the top of my lungs and, yes, dancing. I played that song five times. Then I scrolled to the Stars and Stripes Forever and played that five times while I directed it. Listen to it sometime: wait till the very last stanza of it, when Souza puts all the parts together–piccolo, percussion, AND those wonderful loud, blasting TROMBONES. You know how your heart can swell till you cry like mine does when I hear the national anthem at the olympics, or Just As I Am during the altar call? The last thirty seconds of Stars and Stripes Forever goes to my core and comes out something spectacular. Then I scrolled to Martina McBride singing Hank Williams and played You Win Again three times. I don’t have to tell you what Hank’s words sung by a woman in my vocal range can do to me.
I will confess something: I am fifty years old, and I have one of my brother’s old microphones in my closet. I cut off the cord, and on days like yesterday I take it out and have a concert. So, to recap. I felt a surge of sun-shiny happiness that made me want to move like Elvis–which I did (sort of). I danced, sang, waved my arms in the air (in my mind I looked like one of the Chiffons), conducted a concert band, and sang torch songs deep and loud. Think about anything that can make you move, any physical sensation. Heat or cold, a shock, rain, fear, joy. When we feel these things, our bodies move because we can’t help it. That is how I am when I hear music that moves me–it literally does. I feel happy and strong. Sometimes my eyes tear up, and sometimes my stomach lurches like it does when I see someone beloved to me.
Why was it important to write this down? For one thing, it means so much to have music–loud magical music–in my life again after I had lost it for so long. More on this later. I’ll tell you one thing. I won’t lose it again because now I let myself feel it. And, it would make a great topic for a paper.
Coastal areas with their sea turtle preserves have nothing on red clay states like Georgia and Alabama.
Yesterday morning I was walking Duncan. The sky was just a little lighter than the gray of the asphalt paving of my apartment complex. It was warm for a January morning, and the rain had just stopped. As we made our way around the buildings, one sniff at a time, I began to notice earthworms. I will always notice a worm. I invariably think back to when I was a kid we would go digging for worms to take fishing. Back then, I almost never found any, so whenever I see them now, I notice.
These were perfect conditions for them to come out of their dirt to…well, to do whatever it is that earthworms do. Except, I think ideally, they would come out of their dirt to explore more dirt–not pavement. I noted to Duncan, who was mostly ambivalent, that there sure were a lot of worms out. We turned a corner and sidestepped a large puddle under a cypress tree, when I looked out into the street between the buildings. There, spaced out across the deep gray like long flesh-colored surfaced submarines, were about a hundred worms. Sadly, some of them had been flattened by early morning drivers.
It was one of those sights I will stop to see. I took hope for a minute when it looked like more of them were nearing the curb, approaching safety. But taking a deeper look, it was clear they were not coming but going–further out in harms way. I hoped again for the best, since it was still early and the college kids had not awakened and headed to Starbucks in their cars. They would most likely not notice the wriggling armada.
Two hours later Duncan and I made our second round of the day. When we got to that same spot, I saw not a single worm, dead or alive. Maybe they were washed away; maybe they made it. I do not know.
Some people take time to smell the flowers or see the beauty in a sunset. I’ll do those things too, but I’ve learned there is something majestic in the resolve of hundreds of earthworms that know when it is time to emerge.
More on this later.