Monday, May 28, 2012

Into the pot, lest it rot

Leftovers? Or a fresh start? May 2012.
Into the pot, lest it rot
Give whatever you have got
Into the pan, all at hand
Best if you don't have a plan

Give it a turn, lest it burn
What you knew you'll now relearn
Give it a toss, add some sauce
Coax a win from certain loss

Not left over or behind
What you need is what you'll find

Prayer #211: In the Pantry

Stocker of tucked-away shelves:

When I doubt I have it what it takes and wonder if I have enough to keep going, may I recall that You have already packed my cupboards to the brim. Then may I find the footstool, clamber up onto the counter, and pull out all the cans and jars until I find exactly the ingredient I need, knowing that all You want is for me to have it.

Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

So you want a revelation

Khalil Gibran Garden, northwest DC. 2012.
The revelation occurred as I was chugging through my to-do list. It didn't come via lightning bolt or earthquake. No heavenly chorus or sudden blindness. It was not about my past or future. It did not bring answers or invite questions. It was simply a fact, quietly stated: Everything is as it should be.

The revelation stood there with its head cocked to one side, hands in its pockets, rocking slightly on its heels. It didn't want acknowledgment; it just wanted to sit with me as a bruising weight lifted off my heart and a deep, comforting solidity -- like being under three wool blankets in winter -- settled over me instead.

Secure in that warmth, I understood it signaled rightness. Not right in the sense of correct -- right in the sense of good. Moreover, it did not signal that everything was perfect, or happy, or easy. But it did show that I was surrounded and buoyed, supported and believed in -- in short, loved.

I encountered a quote from Kahlil Gibran earlier this week that said, "When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, "I am in the heart of God."" That's where my revelation put me: square in the heart of God, to-do list and all.

I better write this down. I might need it later.

Prayer #210: Jailbreak

Spirit of subtlety and strength: Dismantle the cell that has welded itself around my faith and left me no room to swell with love for You. Disregard the padlock. Tear it off. Reach in and pull out what's left of my groggy, soggy soul. Resuscitate at will. Remind me what it -- and You -- are capable of when you're together.

Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The torch singer within: A tale of nature vs. nurture



The three judges sat about six rows back in the middle school auditorium, waiting for me to launch into my audition song for the Arlington Singing Competition (sort of an ‘Arlington Idol’ for local songbirds). I blinked against the stage light, willed my allergies to disappear, and began to sing ‘How Are Things In Glocca Morra’ a cappella.

I had barely gotten through the intro when the judges cut me short. Oh crap, I thought. Was that worse than I thought? I'd signed up for the competition with a simple goal: audition. Didn't matter if I made it -- the point was to stay in practice with overcoming nerves and doing a good job in front of certain judgment.

But now that I was about to get the axe, I realized that maybe, deep down, my goal had been to make it at least one round in to avoid embarrassment.

The judge who cut me off spoke first. "You have choir experience, don't you?" (I nodded.) "Well, my advice to you when you're auditioning is to pick more of a solo song, not so much of a choir song. When you dropped lower, I heard something sultry in there. That's what I would like to see from you -- the sultry."

Judge #2 piped up. "I disagree completely. You strike me as a very nice and sweet person, and that was a perfectly nice and sweet song for you to sing. I thought you bottomed out when you went low -- best to stay with what fits your voice."

Judge #3 smiled at me. "I don't care either. I thought you sounded lovely and it was great!"

The emcee asked the judges for their votes. Judge #1 = no. Judge #2 = yes. Judge #3 = yes. Embarrassment averted! I grabbed my golden ticket (a Word doc on 8x11 yellow paper) and went home for a very late dinner and hot tea.

But the saga's not done yet, largely because I have zero clue how to incorporate the judges' feedback into my next audition round. After hearing only 16 bars of music, they identified a personal conundrum I'm struggled with for years: What should I do when I have the sentiments of a torch singer but the voice of an ingenue? How can I be sultry and sweet at the same time? Is that even possible?

See, in the movie in my head, I am a tough broad. People know when I enter a room. I am fun and funny, sexy in my own way. How does that jibe with reality, though? Maybe my singing voice reveals my true nature -- friendly, inoffensive, not entirely memorable.

Which then makes me question, do I fall back on the ingenue because she's easy? Have I nurtured the tough broad enough and forced her to speak? Or am I caught in the middle, fulfilling neither and making less of an impression as a result?

The judges have no idea what they hath wrought. They're just waiting to hear what I come back with and hoping I won't make their ears bleed. But I will say this: I'm grateful to the first judge for saying what she did. She heard something I have long believed to be a part of myself, and I feel like I now have permission to explore it.

My goal now is to push my limits and sing in front of others what I sing in my imagination. It could very well be an exercise in self-delusion. A stage is not a shower stall, and my ingenue voice might really rule the day. But what's the harm in trying, right? The tough broad needs some lovin', and she's going to get it.



Prayer #209: Pitch Imperfect

Siren singing on a distant baby grand
I am power
I am motion
I am jazz and smoke and a very late night ...

And then I wake up, away from a stage, with a hummingbird trill and a sunny outlook and a dimple I didn't know I had.

What have You made me? What will You make me? Are these two selves -- present and future, inner and outer -- necessarily opposites? Or are they refractions -- evidence of Your own infinite permutations, and a promise of constant evolution, depending on the light?

Amen.

Monday, May 07, 2012

When memories outweigh dreams: A reflection on aging

Claude learns how to take a smartphone picture. May 2012.

The grocer kept a store book -- a ledger with my family's running account. One day my mama sent me to the store to pick up a pound of hamburger meat. The grocer told me our account had hit $90: "Claude, I can't do anything more for you until your daddy pays the bill." I thought that was it. We were all going to starve.

If only I had a video camera rolling, I often thought this past weekend. There I was, riding shotgun to my 88- (soon 89-) year-old pen pal Claude, an old friend in the most literal sense. He had asked me to meet him in the state of his youth, Tennessee, so he could share the stories and places that hadn't dimmed in his mind even after so many years away.

I have visited with Claude several times since our correspondence began in 2005. This visit was especially poignant; I was heart-full with memories and emotions about my grandfather, and Claude for the first time ever was feeling his real age.

The past year has not been the kindest to my elderly friend. It's thrown viral infections, hospital stays, moves across state lines, an ailing spouse, and all the other usual trappings of age that Claude had somehow managed to avoid up until this point through luck, genes, outdoor work, mental vigor, and old-fashioned stubbornness.

You can't beat time, however, and unspoken acknowledgment of that fact became the bedrock of our visit. Ever vigorous, Claude got me up at 6 am on Saturday to show me all his old haunts -- the ramshackle house where he was born, the homestead where his parents lived, the winding creek that ran through every holler and every memory. His job was to drive and narrate; my job was to double-check his spots and listen. We each fulfilled our duties admirably.

Claude as amateur genealogist. May 2012.

My brother Pate was always bullheaded. When he was in high school, he was on the verge of flunking out. The school sent a letter to my parents telling them as much. Pate intercepted it at the post office, wrote 'Go to hell!' on it, and mailed it back. My parents were called in ...

As I sat there for mile after mile of Tennessee road, I couldn't help but ponder aging -- not mortality, but the actual process and state of getting old. There were so many things I wanted to ask him:

  • How does it feel not to hear everything happening in a conversation?
  • What do you think when your body betrays you in small ways every day?
  • How does it make you feel when others insist on driving?
  • What did you think when you left the home where you'd raised your children, served your congregation, and walked to the post office every day?
  • What are your new fears? What's the state of your old ones?
  • What do you wish for yourself now?
  • What has changed in and about you?
  • Are you lonely?
  • Are you satisfied?
  • What do you think is coming next?
  • Have your memories finally outweighed your dreams?

I'm not sure that younger generations listen closely enough to our elders to answer these questions. We either don't think to ask or don't want to know.

But our older folks are not a breed apart. They, god willing and that ubiquitous creek don't rise, are us in 60 years. They have lived and laughed and hugged and sobbed and made mistakes and kept going. They might have once again assumed children's needs, but their knowledge and experience are that of adults. What are we missing by not asking them more? What are we missing the chance to learn for our present lives?

Hot on the historical trail, Claude visits some old friends for inspiration. May 2012.

When my daddy and mama were courting, they lived on opposite sides of the creek and had to cross back and forth in a buggy to see each other. Daddy had asked Mama several times to marry him, but each time she just laughed him off. Finally, one day when they were crossing the river, he just stopped that old buggy right in the middle and said, "Now either you say yes to marrying me or I will stay in the middle of the creek." She must have said yes.

This weekend I heard Claude tell me how to grade and pave a road. He also pointed out which local families had Civil War veterans, shared aviation history, divulged Depression-era country customs, explained tie bricks to me, and complained about the lack of local preservation efforts.

Here's what I learned, though: Staying connected to your past deepens your present. Other people are lifeblood; do your best to maintain those connections. Whatever craft you choose, do it well. Do not be afraid to reinvent yourself. Be an active citizen; know your civics. Hold out for the right kind of love. If possible, be auto-didactic and keep your mind sharp. Yard work keeps you physically sound. Oral history is subtle, quiet, and largely untapped; always be listening, before it's gone.

I sat shotgun to my pen pal this weekend and listened as best I could, mindful of the sand slipping through the hourglass in my peripheral vision. I will happily listen to all his stories, even when I can't follow the details or he repeats himself or the dates seem off. I just hope that one day I'll have stories too, and that someone will sit shotgun and listen to them.

Claude. May 2012.

Prayer #208: Storylineage

God of the tallest tale --

First make me a story-keeper, as an act of respect and a show of devotion. Give me huge ears to capture details and vast stores of memory for filing them, and whenever I have a chance to participate in marking time and memories, let me recognize the moment and do so.

Then make me a story-teller, in that I live the kind of life that begets stories at all. And if my mind should falter, and my gaze grow clouded, surround me with story-keepers who will hold my hand and prompt me to remember, bringing clarity to a life so full and rich that it moved beyond focus.

Amen.