Woke Yet? There’s Hope for Our Myopia

hope woke wokeness

In the Eyes of the Woke Beholder

I know some folks who believe that the earth is flat. Although others consider their views a joke, they consider themselves woke.

So, too, academy-awarded actors who proclaim their enlightenment from their platform. They clasp the golden man and parrot the current political narratives. They would say they’re woke.

As do the many politicians who prove their woke-ness by publishing their pronouns and making progressive promises. And the news anchors weighing in with their opinions while claiming to be without bias. Even the ball players play the game with their broadcasted slogans and postures of woke-ness.

In his book, Waking Up, Sam Harris teaches mindfulness and meditation as remedies for sleepwalking through life. He and other enlightened gurus would say, ‘we’re woke.’

I think I’m woke. From my God to my politics, my eyes are certainly wide open.

We all think we’re seeing things as they really are. So we preach it, share it, tweet, and retweet it. We blog our truths and post our outrage, signaling to skeptics and fellow-believers alike: we, too, are woke.

Awake in the Matrix: Are there elephants in the room?

Hope for our woke-ness myopia

But how can we all be so sure? Perhaps some of our woke is myopia.

An atheist may be seeing just the tip of an elephant’s trunk. A philosopher’s view may encompass only the animal’s flank. A scientist, Hindu, or Muslim merely touches the tail. A Christian believes she sees the entire beast. Until it stomps on her from a place she wasn’t looking.

Hope for our woke-ness myopia

Admitting I may be near-sighted stirs up fear in me. Cognitive dissonance is quite uncomfortable. Do I double my efforts to prove my truth? Or do I make room for a shift in my views?

In The Matrix movie, Neo chose the red pill and awakened to a shocking reality. At some level, we are also seeking reality when we hunger for woke-ness. Some of us are suspicious that we haven’t yet tasted or touched the truth in its fullness. How can I be sure that my flavorful steak isn’t a convenient illusion?

Living With Tensions, Not Without Questions

Competing ideas have been around forever. Some are more dangerous than others. There is a place for fighting for what we know. Without One True Truth, we risk being left with nothingness. Without certainty, truth can become relative and meaningless.

You can’t go on “seeing through” things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.                                                         C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

The Believer in Anything seeks to see through lies, abuses, and delusions to get to the truth. We’re certain that we’ve encountered the entire pachyderm when the shape of the thing makes sense to us. Believers in God and in a bigger story have found great solace and happiness in their assertions of ultimate truth.

But some people neglect nuance and get swept up in extreme ideas. Like a parasite of the mind, a system of belief can take command of our rationality and run its own agenda through our bodies and emotions. Millions upon millions died in Stalin’s gulags, Hitler’s holocaust, and Mao’s cultural revolution because dangerous ideologies took root in ordinary humans. Let’s not forget the many who have died at the hands of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other ideological zealots. Too many people have become mindless, spineless, and ferocious perpetrators of atrocity.

A Plea for Humility: Can we all keep talking, please?

Humans will always have disagreements. Unlike some postmoderns, I do believe in ultimate truth. I just can’t say I’ve touched every corner of the beast. Or cornered the market on what it means to be woke. The question is, what will we do with the conflict and the friction? Maybe we can humbly agree on these:

  • Each of us has biases and blindnesses. Can we acknowledge the weakness of our woke-isms?
  • Each of us can learn more about other perspectives. If the extent of our argument is an echo in our own head, we’ll never hear what others are saying — or seeing or feeling.
  • Each of us could hold our beliefs with a solid but relaxed grip. I haven’t the hubris to cancel your opinions. Nor would I try to silence the truths you hold dear. But I will risk asking you to listen. And ask you to reconsider.
  • Each of us should listen and learn from other points of view. When our arrivals appear to be black and white, remember the elephant — or whatever this thing is that we’re all arguing about — is gray.

Let’s continue the discussion, keep our eyes and ears wide open to the best in all of us. Then woke can be just another word for hope.

Read more about Finding Our Blind Spots.  Discover more about the flat earth.

 

A Letter From My Future Self

a message in a bottle from my future self

Dear Me,

Your life is NOW.

I know you try to be in it, to stay present, to be here as it is happening.

But I admonish you to try even harder. Not with sheer willpower, but with surrender.

Surrender as hard as you can. Surrender to life as it is. And trust. Trust in the good despite your experience.

As Jordan Peterson says,

Resentment and simmering anger, no matter how justified, are rough tools. You may use them to build a future but they will carve out an ugly hut for you to lie down in.

You, my dear, will not build that ugly hut. Instead, you drop your rough tools, open your chest and shoulders, throw your arms back. Lift your chin and declare yourself alive, hopeful, and the kind of person who lives in joy.

How? All I can tell you is that you get there. Here. And it’s worth it.       silhouette of a woman with lifted chin, arms and chest wide, head thrown back: a letter from my future self

Believe,

Me

 

Have You Noticed What You Notice?

be present with mindfulness and practice paying attention

Mindfulness Part 2: The Nature of Attention

The natural world rejuvenates my mind and spirit, helps me be present.

A slow walk on a lovely rustic path improves my mental and spiritual health. Living in Tennessee, I have access to many outdoor havens including Cheekwood Gardens, Warner Parks, and my pretty little yard. Absorbing the benefits of God’s creation, like taking a forest bath, helps me unplug from technology and ground myself in a bigger picture. It can help me be present in the moment. A little de-stress and lots of re-connect.

Sometimes, though, I stay lost in thought even when I’m taking a break outside. My mind doesn’t know how to relax and let the here and now be here and now. Lately, I’ve realized I need to learn to be present.

But how do I take a slow mental stroll unencumbered with the habitual internal noise? No agenda to drive me, no lists to measure my productivity, can I let the mossy gray matter between my ears take a cogitation vacation?

Attention’s Deficit: What have you noticed?

Daily life requires our minds to focus, concentrate on the work at hand. Whether writing a coherent email or driving a congested road, we must attend to the the task at hand. However, the digital age has made concentration and staying present difficult.  Myriad devices, tabs, and apps compete for our attention, sending notifications and silent signals to draw attention to themselves. This constant barrage depletes even the strongest of minds. Thus, the importance of paying attention and noticing what we notice.

It follows that our first step in learning mindfulness, learning to be present, is the development of concentration.

In “Mindfulness Part 1, Becoming Aware,” I pointed out how our minds have minds of their own. They wander off when we’re not looking, taking time and energy away from what we’re learning, creating, or attempting to recall. Noticing the nature of what goes on inside our heads can be a welcome step back from our headlong dash into the day. With mindfulness, I am honing my ability to notice what I notice .

It’s like leaving your front-row seat in the movie theatre to watch the show from the wall at the back. You see the drama and the audience at the same time. In other words, you become aware that there’s a show going on rather than being caught up in it.

For starters, when we focus on our breathing or sounds around us, we harness our mind’s power to concentrate, to be present. The habit of seeing our focus drift then bringing it back is the practice of awareness. It goes like this:

Concentrate for as long as you can on an object. Notice you focus has diverted from that object. Bring your focus back to the object.

In so doing, we notice the distinction between finding focus and becoming lost in thought. The practice is the placing of attention back on the object again and again. The noticing shows we’re making progress in mindfulness and the practice makes the progress.

Get a Glimpse: What is here now?

 What is here now when there is no problem to solve?

Sometimes our practice of awareness is deliberate. Sometimes, though, mindfulness is effortless. We need not meditate for long stretches or retreat for weeks at a time. We can find ourselves in the present moment in any moment if we remember to get a glimpse.

Meditation teacher, Loch Kelly, calls this a micro-meditation or a glimpse: What is here now if there is no problem to solve? It is a question to settle the problem-solving mind.

When I’m outside, taking a break in nature but still mentally preoccupied with things on the inside, this question helps identify the distractions tugging me from being present:

“I should be getting to work.”

“Do I need to go to the store today?”

“I hope this headache goes away soon.”

When I let all the problem-solving drop for a moment, I suddenly see the trees, hear the birds, notice the beauty surrounding me. My mind and body are no longer disconnected from each other and from my environment. I can remember to hear the hum of bugs and bees, smell the damp, pungent earth, see the crystal stream, feel the spongy moss beneath my feet. When my mind won’t let me be present, only mindfulness can return me to direct experience. Sometimes a glimpse is all I need.

Be Present: Can you call it what it is?

After noticing the difference between mental drifting and present awareness, the next step is what some call, “noting.” It’s recognizing an arising sensation, thought, or emotion, and calling it what it is: feeling, thinking, hearing, seeing. 

This “noting” works best in a deliberate time of mindfulness. With eyes closed, we’re awake to the sounds around us and the movements of the mind itself. Learning to notice, we can silently “note” what is actually happening.

Here’s a simple mindfulness practice that adds “noting” to the mix:

  1. Sit with eyes closed and focus on your breath, what it feels like
  2. When your mind drifts to thinking, smile and focus again on your breath
  3. When you notice your mind has drifted again, smile and return to your breathing
  4. Now let go of that object of attention and notice what else appears in awareness
  5. If you become aware of a sound, silently say: hearing, hearing. If a body sensation comes to the forefront, whisper to yourself: feeling, feeling. When you notice you’re thinking, then note: thinking, thinking
  6. Engage in this practice every day for a week

Mindfulness: Will you trust the process?

Mindfulness is not difficult but it does take time. And, just ten minutes a day of focused practice is a lot more than ZERO. Imagine if your mind could learn to relax more! And the accrued benefits of mindful meditation and attention—well, that’s what we’ll talk about in “Mindfulness Part 3.”

Obviously, this is a small introduction to a big topic. I encourage you to reread Mindfulness Part 1. And set aside some time to try the exercises. Also, one resource many people enjoy is called Headspace, a practical application of these ideas.

Thanks for engaging and please leave a comment about your own mindful—or mindless—experiences.

Does Your Mind Have a Mind of its Own?

Mindfulness: a serene face of a woman with eyes closed

Mindfulness, Part 1: Becoming Aware

For me, it started with prayer. Prayer has always been a challenge for me. A challenge to spend time with God, focusing on Him entirely. Maybe amazing saints pray for three hours a day on their knees in the snow.

But not me. Five minutes into my devotional thoughts, I’m planning dinner or worrying about paying the bills.

Thankfully, I’m becoming more aware of how my mind behaves. It seldom stays present. The moment in which my body sits finds my mind racing ahead to the future. Or wandering off to the past.

 This morning I tried to savor my coffee, really taste that first delicious sip. Just focus on one thing, I told myself, notice what is here and now:
dark-haired woman sips coffee with eyes closed
Ah, yes, the heat on my lips on this cold winter day. Now that toasty Italian roast flavor mixes with the sugar and cream and… 

Three minutes later, I’ve planned half the day and become mired in angst about how little I got done yesterday. On top of that, I heap recriminations on my brain for its inability to stay focused.

Do you mind?

  • Have you ever driven your car for miles but forgotten the entire journey due to an inward conversation?
  • Have you ever started to work at your desk and then “come-to” half an hour later, your mind a thousand miles away?
  • Have you ever had an entire argument with someone within the narrows of your own headspace?

In this series of articles on Mindfulness, I will explore the basics of becoming more conscious. Also, I will share resources for diving a little deeper. Whether dipping your toe in the water or renewing your practice, you can follow me on this path to gaining more awareness and to finding a bit more peace.

Fear Not: The Tool of Meditation

Meditation is a bad word in some circles. I absorbed the notion that we open ourselves up to nefarious influences when we meditate. But this practice is not about emptying the mind. Rather it is about learning to observe how full of ideas our heads really are.

It’s like leaving your front-row seat in the movie theatre to watch the show from the wall at the back. You see the drama and the audience at the same time. In other words, you become aware that there’s a show going on rather than being caught up in it.

Let’s face it, these minds of ours can take us places we need not go. Our thought patterns carve deep ruts into which fear seeps, flooding our bodies with stress and tension. Awareness of our mental gymnastics can create space for disengaging with all of the places our worries try to take us. Eventually, we gain our footing and can stay longer in the present moment.

Practice Make Progress

We can practice becoming more mindful. Here’s a sample meditation. Set aside 10 minutes and find a comfortable spot.

  1. Sit with closed eyes
  2. Focus on your breathing and notice what it feels like, in your nose or in your chest
  3. When your mind drifts to thinking, smile and focus again on your breathing
  4. When you notice your mind has drifted again, smile and return to your breath
  5. Engage in this practice every day for a week

What’s key to practicing mindfulness is remembering that your goal is not to stay focused on your breath for a solid ten minutes. To some extent, you measure your progress by how often you notice your drifting into thought. Success is returning and returning again to the breath.

Be Kind

Meditation and Mindfulness have been my go-to tools lately. As I practice becoming aware of how my mind works, I pick up on the messages my inner voice whispers:

“If you make the wrong decision, it’ll be a disaster!”

“Nothing’s ever going to change, things’ll only get worse.”

Have you ever noticed how mean you can be to yourself? You wouldn’t say things like, “You are such an idiot!” to a friend, would you?

For me, learning to focus and notice what I’m thinking is a Godsend. This awareness lets me decide to follow a train of thought or jump off that thing before it wrecks me.

I hope you’ll give it a try. Leave a comment below and let me know how it’s going.

Thanks for joining me in Part 1 of my series on Mindfulness. Sign up for my newsletter to stay tuned for the rest of the series.

A Mother Shares Her Daughter’s Suffering

A Mother Shares Her Daughter's Suffering

She was only 3 days old. We knew something was off: her breathing a little labored, her body a bit limp in her mother’s arms. But her vitals were within range and the experts on the phone said everything seemed all right. What could be wrong with my granddaughter?

The Wonder of What’s Coming

My daughter, Carina, gave birth to a baby girl last June. In the months before her baby was born, Carina would sit in her rocking chair beside the waiting cradle, filled with the wonder of being a mother. She was preparing for something as close as her own body, yet far from her experience. The parenting books she read as she rocked could not presage or prepare her for what was coming.

If the darkness of 2020 could not be redeemed, it could at least be brightened by the impending arrival of this precious child. A month before Callaway True arrived, I wrote an article titled: My Daughter Shares in the Wonder of Being a Mother.

Carina and I had planned for me to be in the birthing room, a scenario that enlivened us both. However, weeks before her due date, we learned that extra people would not be allowed in, thanks to the Covid-19 threat. This loss felt huge as I wanted to be there to help my daughter, share in her experience. But we adjusted to the fact that I would see her baby at home, a mask on my smiling face.

The Onset of a Mother’s Suffering

The first time I saw Callaway, day 2 in her life, she was a typical infant: sleepy and learning to nurse. Carina was also sleep-deprived and learning to nurse her baby girl. Visiting on day 3, I noticed our Callaway still seemed quite sleepy. Her mom was struggling to get her to eat. Typical newborn and new mother stuff, right?

Luke, Carina’s husband, was just learning the ropes too. He was excited and exhausted by his new role as a dad. None of us in the family who met Calla those first few days had an inkling of what was to come. But, by day 3 she just wasn’t looking right. Her chest heaved slightly and her limbs were getting droopier.

By mid-afternoon on that Saturday, it was obvious that Callaway needed some medical attention. The emergency room staff at Vanderbilt Hospital confirmed that our girl was in trouble. By evening, she was admitted to the Children’s Hospital with a suspected infection. After many tests and expert opinions, the doctors determined it was a genetic condition threatening baby Callaway’s life. Ammonia was flooding her body and brain.

She almost didn’t make it. Methylmalonic Acidemia (MMA) is a rare genetic disease in which the body can’t break down certain parts of proteins. This leads to a build-up of toxic substances and a metabolic crisis. Calla couldn’t safely digest her mother’s milk.

The Suffering of Wondering

Stress and trauma filled the subsequent days. The suffering of this small family intensified with a long week in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. This led to 3 more weeks in the hospital. They endured their hospital experience without any friends and family allowed inside. We could only support them from afar and in brief visits outside.

On one of those first days in the PICU, Carina asked me to gather a few things from Calla’s nursery at home. As I entered the bedroom, I lamented to see the rocking chair beside the empty crib. I feared Carina would never again hold her daughter here.

Thankfully, after weeks of wondering and suffering, that little family did return home again. Those shell-shocked and exhausted parents began the long journey of caring for their daughter and living with MMA.

The Sharing of Suffering

a mother shares her daughter's suffering

For 7 months now, I’ve witnessed Carina’s suffering because of her daughter’s suffering. From the daily needle injected in her leg to the manufactured low-protein formula she must be fed, Calla puts up with a lot. The drugs, the physical therapy, the upset stomach, the feeding tube. Yet, she and her parents have risen to meet the obstacles. They press on through the hardest experiences of anyone I know.

Carina posted an update recently, describing how she’s learning to bow down, to accept their suffering:

So I’ve been doing a lot of bowing…. Trusting I don’t have the full picture. Gratefully and gradually releasing control, as it’s the only choice to make in this moment. I bow, and my chest loosens for a moment. I bow, and a joy in my (our) present suffering shows up. I bow and remember that this is Callaway’s story, Callaway’s life, not mine, and it’s my job to keep making the best decisions that exist for her until she gets to pick up her suffering and decide what she will do with it. I bow, and I get to keep living my own life with my hands as wide open as possible.

AND Carina’s arms hold Calla close as she rocks her to sleep these days. In the room with the crib we feared she’d never sleep in, I, too, have the pleasure of rocking and holding Calla. I am privileged to share, with my daughter and her daughter, all of our suffering and joy.

Visit CaringBridge for the latest update about sweet Callaway!

 

Something Special: An Interview with Scott Dente

Scott Dente plays acoustic guitar

Scott, as your wife and co-member of Out of the Grey, I have witnessed and been a part of your creative process for more than thirty years. I thought it would be fun to get your perspective on creativity in general and songwriting specifically.

Q. Do you mind answering a few questions for me and my readers?

A. You have readers?

Q. Very funny, yes, more readers than you have. So here’s your platform to disseminate all of your accumulated wisdom, (that shouldn’t take long)

What is your first memory of discovering the spark of Life (with a capital L) in relation to music?

A. Thanks for asking. It’s fun to go back and think about these things! I have quite a few memories of coming online to music in my young world.

Being born and raised in the ’60s and ’70s, as you were, we both know that there was so much amazing music being made. 

needle arm of a turntable playing a vinyl record

It was 1967. I have a hazy memory of being 4 years old and singing along to The Doors’ “Light My Fire“ as it played on the radio in the suburbs of Los Angeles. My parents liked music, so the radio or record player was always on. I remember hearing the songs of Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I also recall singing along to hit songs like “Band On The Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings and “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan. Of course, my sister and I loved The Partridge Family. 

As I got a little older, Elton John and Billy Joel found their way into my ears. I knew every word from The Stranger album. The Eagles plus Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Neil Young were also hugely important in my young musical formation.

Then, in late 1976, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen became a massive hit. Even though it was 6 minutes long, it played on the radio constantly. The sheer force of that piece of art caused a shift in me: I didn’t just love listening to music anymore, now I needed to learn to make it.

I rode the bus to school in those years and remember a very dramatic and wonderful eighth-grader named Michael Sinatra. He made sure that all of us kids on the bus were entertained for the short ride to Holdrum Middle School. Together, we sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” every day for what felt like months. We tried the harmonies, the call-and-answer parts— it was the best!

Soon after, I asked my parents for guitar lessons. They were hesitant to buy me a guitar, imagining I’d abandon it like I’d quit football that year. I persisted.

So, one week when I was sick and out of school, my mom gave in and signed me up for guitar lessons. I played a rented nylon string guitar for a year or so. I practiced my etudes and classical technique until my teacher Sal made the mistake of bringing an electric guitar to a lesson. He played the opening riff to “Free Ride” by The Edgar Winter Group. Bye-bye classical music. Hello Les Paul.

It was time to rock.

side view of man playing electric guitar

That began my fascination with guitar riffs, song structure, Led Zeppelin, and The Who. And all the good and not so good that came along with them (think young hippie kid). I caught the performing bug at our high school talent show when I got a great response covering a Neil Young song. Playing the guitar and harmonica just like Neil, I also noticed that the girls were finally noticing me. Hooked. It’s an old story. 

I must say that Peter Townsend of The Who was probably my biggest influence as a young musician. His honest introspection about what it was like to grow up feeling alone, alienated, and confused resonated with me. And he wrote those emotions into his songs and made another guy in the band sing them!

I realized that great music, poetic lyrics, and the conflicted feelings of a young man could all come together in a song. Also, the way I used to beat the crap out of an acoustic guitar, well, I borrowed that from Pete. Many nights, I played the Quadrophenia album in my room over and over again. “Can ya see the real me, Can ya, Can ya?” 

Q. With all of those sparks for your own creativity, when did you write your first song?

A. I was in a band in high school with 3 really talented dudes. We called ourselves Perpetual Change and we covered songs that were somewhat difficult to pull off from bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and The Who, ( Tommy medley ). We also composed some ridiculous instrumentals that only our best fans/ friends liked. At the time, I was experimenting with recording my own original bits in my bedroom using the old “sound-on-sound“ technique with 2 cassette recorders.

I can’t remember if I ever finished any of those fragments but I wrote my first song for Perpetual Change as we were about to graduate and call it quits. It was called “Remains of A Runner.” If my memory serves me, it was an autobiographical lyric about me causing the band to break up. I think I was the “runner“ that the title refers to. Sorry fellas, you see there’s this girl I’m gonna meet and we’re gonna… never mind.

Out of the Grey CD cover

Q. So about that girl. When I first met you at Berklee College of Music in 1985, you played me a song you wrote called, “Empty Pages.” I think I started falling in love with you after hearing that song: it was so emotional and romantic. Although I was already working on my craft, you inspired me with yours. We didn’t co-write until a few years after that. But aren’t you glad we did?

A. Yes!

Q. Okay, tell me about your strengths as a songwriter, and how do they show up in our Out of the Grey music?

A. It’s taken me a long time to develop and embrace my strengths as a songwriter. As a younger songwriter, I had very little faith in my ability to present and complete an idea, even when we worked together in Out of the Grey. I was always good for a title, a verse here or there, an effective bridge, and the guitar parts to hang it all on.

You were very prolific from the start, so I was always happy to give your songs some guitar muscle or help edit and shape an already excellent idea. Then there were what I call your small beautiful songs, ones that needed no help at all from me. They were usually the super-fan favorites and deep album cuts. It was always a pleasure to collaborate with someone who is as meticulous with the craft as you. Your melody writing, interesting harmonic structures, and care for every word of a lyric inspired me to write more and get better. And that’s the truth.

As time has gone by and I’ve shifted focus into my music licensing company, Global Genius Productions, I’ve had a lot more opportunity to write for all manner of situations and I’ve been able to grow immensely as a writer. I got better in the second act and I’m really grateful to have had one!

Q. Will you tell a story about one of your favorite OOTG songwriting experiences?

A. Uh oh. Too many to list just one:

  • I remember sitting in our first little apartment writing “The Deep” for our first project. So simple. so lovely. I can also feel the stretch of finding that hard-to-grab first guitar chord in “He Is Not Silent.” That was a couple of years before anyone cared or would ever hear our first album.
  • Writing for the second album, I remember the first time you played me “Dear Marianne.” We were backstage before our opening set at a Charlie Peacock concert. You played it for me on the dressing room piano. One of your perfect songs that needed no help from me.
  • The night we recorded “All We Need” for Diamond Days. I remember feeling like we had gained entrance to an exclusive club that night. The amount of talent assembled in the studio to record a song that we had written was overwhelming. I cut the guitar solo later that evening after everyone went home. My favorite solo of the few I’ve ever recorded.
  • We wrote “So We Never Got To Paris” sitting at our kitchen table in the first house we owned. I wrote down that title after turning down a trip to France to make a music video with Steve Taylor because you were pregnant with Carina. You ran with that title and wrote a killer lyric. I wrote a good guitar part too. 
  • I remember that we took a year off from touring to write the songs for See Inside, our fifth studio album. We were exhausted from being on the road and the pressure to deliver another album. But we dug down deep. I wrote a lot of the riffs for those songs on electric guitar trying to bring some muscle back into the music after the lighter pop Gravity album. 
  • “Shine Like Crazy” started as a guitar hook on my Gretsch 6120 in our music room. We needed a catchy radio song for our sixth album, 6.1. I came up with that bouncy riff and you sang your butt off on the tracking session. The kids loved that song and I remember dancing to the mix in our living room as a family. Wonderful memory of a great time in our family’s life.
  • It’s hard to pick one from our 2015 album, A Little Light Left, but one song that stands out for me is “Dropped Off,” which is a song about my dad. I feel like it took me my entire life to be able to write that song. I’m very proud of it. Also, “Travel Well” is a song where I gave myself a difficult task to solve a lyric problem and I think I pulled it off. It’s a love song to our life and our family and always chokes me up when the last verse comes around.
  • I feel like I have to mention your solo album, Becoming. Even though I didn’t really write anything on it, it’s one of my proudest achievements as a producer and editor. I remember that we worked especially hard on the background vocals and arrangements. I can’t believe that was 17 years ago.

Christine and Scott smiling in 2020

Q. Yikes, I can’t believe it either. Moving right along, how has your approach to songwriting changed since the early ’90s and our first years as Out of the Grey, through our latest recording in 2015?  And what is your songwriting focus currently?

A. I think that my songwriting has changed in the same way I have personally changed. I used to care a lot more about being clever, doing something unique, being recognized and appreciated by our peers. This was reflected in the early albums when you and I had particular rules about what was cool and what wasn’t. Seems kind of funny now. These days, my songwriting is stripped down, a bit more basic when it comes to chord structure. Lyrically, I’m taking a more minimal approach, trying to get to the real emotion with less flower and fewer words. In some ways, I’ve come full circle and feel like a singer/ songwriter, more like the artists I grew up listening to.

Q. Very cool and so true. On a related subject: Scott, your love of literature and various book genres has always inspired me. I often turn to you for editing and critiquing of my fiction and non-fiction writing.  

Can you describe how fiction and other genres (like biography, personal essays) add to your life? Give examples.

A. I’ve loved books my entire life. As a kid, I had a rich interior life populated with books and stories. Literature, biographies, and personal essays continue to be the main source of inspiration for my songwriting. I don’t think it’s easy to write well unless you’ve read some great stuff. I’m no genius and I need a lot of fuel and inspiration to be creative. If indeed our lives are a story, the great stories will provide lots of clues for creating a purpose-filled life. There’s so much inspiration, hope, and beauty in the stories that others have written. This has always been the case for me. I find it hard to believe when people tell me that they don’t like to read! 

From Mark Helprin’s miraculous novels to Michael Chabon’s insightful essays, there are far too many to list in between. Perhaps that’s a separate blog: What Inspires The Dente’s?

Q. Do you have any advice or insights about the creative process that you’d like to share?

A. Sure, I have a few muddled thoughts:

Scott Dente gets creative in his home studioI think the beauty of the creative process is that there are so many ways to travel and so many places to stop and look around. It took me a while to learn that waiting for inspiration to strike is a sure way for me to get nothing done. Songwriting is a craft that can be learned like most crafts. But you have to put in the time and seek out the masters of the craft. Study them, absorb, and emulate. It’s hard work finding your own voice.

Remaining a fan of others’ work and knowing that their glory and brilliance don’t detract from my own, has been hugely important. I can enjoy and even revere someone else’s creation, knowing I can’t be them and that’s okay. That’s great actually!

Loving and listening to good art gives me fuel, and love for the colors in my own paint box. I’m pretty much the result of everything I’ve taken in over the years. Hopefully, whatever I create adds my own nuance to the conversation of Art. I know more about music than anything else in this life. My heart was captured, shaped, and maybe even saved from loneliness and confusion, by sound and beauty and art. I owe so much to the creative life. It hasn’t been easy, it’s rarely been smooth, but it’s how I know to live. So I’m grateful. 

Thanks, Scott, for engaging my questions about songwriting and creativity. I’m sure readers will have thoughts and questions for you in the comment section.

Dear Readers, for more about Out of the Grey, read “Cloudy Today? Get Out of the Grey!”

Cloudy Today? Get Out of the Grey!

out of the grey aka christine and scott dente walk across a dark lawn toward a bright future

Puff Piece: As It Is

Grey clouds have shrouded the better part of this year. Even a sunny summer can’t hide the insecurities of the season. In the past week, I have been working on an article about suffering and grief. My family has had its share lately. Yours, too, I imagine. We found out our new granddaughter has a difficult genetic condition. And we lost my lovely mother-in-law, Gloria when she died in a nursing home. The list could be longer….

But today, I decided to punt and write a puff piece, explore a topic as fluffy and light as a foam-filled pillow or a cotton-ball cloud. What does “Get Out of the Grey” mean? It’s is not about silver linings. Instead, it’s about finding life in a brighter story. Accepting existence as it is.

Out of the Grey: As It Was

Way back in the day, my husband Scott and I named our band Out of the Grey, under duress. We were signed to Sparrow Records, working on our first project, and had yet to make a name for ourselves.

Should we call our group The Dance? No, we don’t want to scare off non-dancing Contemporary Christian Music fans.

How about Denté with an accent over the e? Confusing ethnicity: are they Italian? French? Where’s the Inferno?

I suggested Christina and the Waves but that fell flat.

Somehow we settled on a song title Scott had scribbled in his notebook: “Out of the Grey.” Not gray with an a but an e to reflect what Tolkien might write of mysterious havens. We liked the way the phrase out of the grey hinted at an imminent and vibrant surprise. Uncertain then of what was coming, we are no wiser about our future now.

Blame it on the Grey

Grey is a trendy color these days. This morning I tossed my soft grey blanket across a couch cushion and nearly lost it in the blend. Their colors melded in the same way my cozy wool slippers disappear into our shaggy ash-colored rug.  Walls and pillows boast—no, suggest— shades of grey. My grandkids wear clothing in cool takes on the color. Some of their soft toys lie mute and missing on the non-descript floor.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the way grey looks most places. However, it has set the tone for this year, the perfect backdrop for the storm created by an invisible, invading virus. It started for us in the wintry March madness of cold social distancing. Led to the isolating overcast of self-quarantining… but, hey, I said I wasn’t going there.

What Does Out of the Grey Mean?

Thirty years ago, when I was 26, I believed in black and white. Answers to my myriad questions hovered on the horizon like geese headed north in the heat. I could live with a Winter Sun when summer was always coming.

Mixing fear of the future with theological certainty, I wrote tunes I hoped to whistle all the way home. The future was bright and I was wearing the right shades.

Our Out of the Grey songs reflected black and white truths in the midst of grey areas. I wanted to make solid statements in a world of swirling uncertainty, provide clear images for those of us who couldn’t see straight in the broad daylight.

To get out of the grey meant to trust that this tainted world would one day be saturated in the perfect Justice, Love, and Mercy for which we longed. Complex ideas wrapped up in three little words and three-minute songs.

A Whole New Meaning

The rain is falling this summer day and I’m okay with it. Our thirsty lawn needs the drink. My skin appreciates the break from the heat. Despite the overcast sky, my face is lifted. Of course, grey will always shadow our days. Embracing its nuance means taking life as it is. NOW is as good as it gets. And it is good.

I don’t always get the big picture but I am getting better at living in the present. Much of what clouds my vision is a concern for coming struggles.

Jesus asked:

“And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?”

Not me! My thoughts can’t capture or control a hazy future. NOW is where I exist and HERE is where I sit.

The bright red pillow on my heather-gray couch matches the flashing red coffee cup in Scott’s hand. Our story accents the fact that stuff happens and yet, here we are. Fluff the cushions, toss the throws, and forget the clouds today. Just for the moment, get out of the grey!

Sample Chapter from The Woman in the Willow

the woman in the willow

Chapter 11: God on the Lawn

The crepe myrtle looked dead. Catherine twisted the tip of a branch. She broke off the brittle twig and concealed it in her palm—unable to bring herself to look for green inside.

She had neglected the slender tree this year, forgetting to feed and water it, tucked away as it was between the gate and a wall. Two years ago she planted the sapling at the side of the house, the end of her walkway. Last year new growth showed up in late spring and waited until summer to grace her walk with vivacious pink buds. Later still the buds burst into tiny magenta bouquets. They displayed such glory then: waving like hands in a congregation of praise, the gratitude of a tree coming back to life.

Not that Catherine had ever been part of such a congregation. Any praise-gatherings she attended were proper conservative church services, sedate and civil. Hands in the air would disrupt the peace. She kept hers resting on her lap where they couldn’t pressure the undemonstrative into guilt for their stillness or prompt agnostics to make a mockery with their pretense. Plus it just wasn’t natural. Didn’t matter anyway. She could not remember the last time she went to church.

Catherine preferred to worship in her backyard garden beneath a stately oak.

A tree that looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray.

This was her kind of church: let the birds and trees extend unselfconscious gratitude to the one who made them.

Lift her hands with the branches? Sometimes. But she rarely sang with the birds in their joy of being alive. No, not on days when old age rendered her cursing and complaining to her maker, the one who allowed her life to unravel as it had. God could have made matters easier, better. Instead, he let confusion and loneliness become the bookends of her seven decades. Adventures in anguish and grief filled the space between.

Gee, thanks for the invitation to your pity party, Old Woman.

Miss Catherine, only God knows how you’ve suffered.

A chill dampened her Sunday morning. Catherine tilted her face to the sky, hugging her heavy coat close and soaking up the sun’s spare heat. Percy deserted her to poke around on the far side of the house. A faint wind changed direction, sending church bells shimmering her way. They rippled through her layers of rough coverings, stirring her like a tremor in the earth. She warmed to the subtle shift that words couldn’t touch. Her hands tingled with a quicker pulse. Arms at her side, she strolled to her favorite bench and sat down.

Growing up in the South, the girl Catherine had absorbed a detached and vague kinship with God, untaught and uncertain about his direct relation to her. Mother had no communication with God except her curses in his name. She taught her daughter no specific religious position save that Religion was the disease driving people to keep people like Mother and her at arm’s length.

Catherine was a mongrel born of a mongrel when it came to pedigrees of faith. She learned that Mother’s lineage contained a great-great somebody who was a solid Christian pastor or preacher. But the trickle-down effect diluted any honest faith she may have inherited. Mother’s family were like ghosts, haunting the spoken and unspoken oaths that hovered on her mother’s lips and throughout young Catherine’s life. By default, she was an outcast like her mother. Close relatives disowned them both. The rare Christmas gifts or guilty checks in the mail were godsends or windfalls, depending on how you looked at it.

Mother despised her family either way. Father’s family wanted nothing to do with Mother or her child. Maybe they didn’t realize Catherine existed. She wasn’t sure. Mother wouldn’t say. Regardless, the familial ties disintegrated in their disuse, leaving the mother and girl virtual orphans.

Catherine’s school friends intrigued her with their descriptions of church attendance and Sunday school lessons. Their mysterious God club stirred her curiosity. They invited her along once or twice, but Mother would not allow it. And so Catherine’s creator defaulted to absent father. She regarded him wistfully or accusingly, depending on the day. On occasion, he resembled a kindly grandfather she hoped to meet one day.

Once, after a friend described her prayers to the Lord, young Catherine decided to give it a try. For weeks as an eight-year-old, she spoke to him every night. Eyes on the bedroom ceiling, hands folded under her chin, she’d tell the Almighty what she needed and ask what he would do.

“Dear God, will you help me with my math like you helped my friend Annie with her spelling test?”

“Dear God, can you make me stop growing so the boys don’t tease me all the time?”

“Dear God, are you really out there?”

She waited. Her stomach rumbled. A muffled television boomed through the wall. The scary neighbor lady shouted two doors down. God’s voice remained muted, his message muddled and mysterious. Without obvious answers to her simple prayers, the girl put her search on hold. She held on to the image of a God-out-there-somewhere, hoping he’d show up later in life.

Now, in her old age, in her new haven, Catherine began to look and listen for him again. This time, she expected no audible voice. She didn’t look for him in every favorable turn of circumstances. Didn’t search for divinity in the people who pressed pamphlets into her palm. Couldn’t imagine that people in the pews had a relational advantage. Nor did she think she heard the Spirit when it was just the ladies’ rancor filling her head. She wished for no special deliveries, no secret notes behind the bookcase, no personal messages between the lines in a storybook.

She invited him instead to the secluded places of her mind, the empty spaces between breaths. Moments when the ladies were silent and Mother didn’t intrude, rare as those moments were. Catherine met with God on the lawn. She searched for his face in her flowers, strained to hear his voice in the trees, and even sought him in the flow of her days.

Her faith was primitive, a crude altar to the awesome God of creation, revealed in more than his glorious plants and animals. No, she did not think every butterfly and bird deserved her worship. But both her cultivated garden and her untamed surroundings spoke of a Magnificence and Power deserving her reverence.

Her heart held the tales of God’s love and redemption in a tentative embrace, resonating with the story of a sacrifice that set people free. With hope she imagined his touch of healing and forgiveness. With certainty she wrapped her head around the ideas of mercy and grace. The best ideas the world had going. She just didn’t know how to sift and shuffle them through her old gray head to the blood-red flow of life in real time.

Catherine did know that her best days were bare feet on the lawn. The voices of chickadees and nuthatches tuned to the creek’s musical chortling spoke volumes to her soul. When the wild wooded paths whispered of hidden dangers and the front door opened to chaos and decay, her world behind the wooden walls, beneath the arching sky, brushed up against her like the mingled breath of a mother and infant. The Spirit of God might be an invisible wind streaming along the surface of the creek, rising to fill her nostrils with fragrances from a distant land. Or it breathed in the tangible love of her dog. Perhaps it glowed in every graceful glory in between.

A gray squirrel scrambled along an oak’s high branch. Catherine stretched her neck to follow its scrabbling ascent. Effortless and fearless, it left the limits of its dwindling branch and leaped across space in graceful suspense. For less than a second, the common rodent transformed into a spectacular singularity. It landed on a solid limb and clambered down the other side of the tree.

Percy returned and leaned his body against her heavy leather boots. Catherine curled her toes inside thick socks to buffer the chill. She tucked one hand into a deep pocket. Her other clasped the crepe myrtle twig, concealing death or restoration. She would let it take its time to tell.

Closeness to God was more an idea than a feeling, more a longing than a fulfillment. But someday, if she believed what people said, she hoped to follow on his heels along the hidden paths that stretched beyond her homemade heaven.

What would you be, if free to be anything you wanted?

what would you be if free to be anything

Free to be anything? You might be surprised by your answer. I sure was.

3 Parts to the Story 

My friend, Melissa, asked this intriguing question one evening at a gathering of friends. Whenever she and her husband, Ken, throw their doors open, my husband and I join the party. The conversation spins up a notch when Melissa invites her guests to invest some energy beyond the small talk. She posed this question to a group of four couples who had gathered to eat and laugh in her kitchen:

“What would you be, if you were free to be anything you wanted?”

Each of us eight answered with unpredictable and somewhat surprising dreams. My answer popped into my head and bounced out of my mouth before I could edit and filter it:

“When I am old, I will live alone in the woods. I will know the names of every tree and the songs of each bird I meet. My hair will flow long and silver-grey upon my shoulders. My name will be Willow.”

Everyone’s eyes widened, then slid sideways toward my husband, Scott. He said, with half a smile, “Where am I in this story?”

Okay, so it wasn’t very nice to erase him from my old age. But his absence in the picture made me wonder what was at the heart of my imaginary scenario. Was there a bigger story lurking in the shadows of my answer? Upon examination, I discovered 3 parts to my rough sketch of who I’d be if truly free.

what would you be if you were free to be anything?

Part 1: A Fairy Tale

First, living alone in the woods is my fantasy of freedom from the challenges of human relationships. I am an introvert. Social interactions sap my energy. Sustained focus on the faces and feelings of those I most love requires an output of energy that asks for rest and space—sooner rather than later.

Also, I grow calm and strong whenever my feet sink into the earth’s mossy soil and I can listen and look for God in His creation. Plus, learning the names of the trees and the calls of the birds has been my passion lately.

However, pure peace in isolation is just a fairy tale. Even though a hidden forest path enchants me, I realize any magical setting in a sunny wood could become a nightmare when the sun went down. The big bad wolf of loneliness would surely come knocking at the door of my little haven in the woods. Indeed, I love my husband and my people and I know I need them close.

Part 2: Observing the Woman in the Willow

But, the image of an old woman with silver-grey hair comes from an actual place:

Mrs. Zook lived close to the home I grew up in. As a child, I only glimpsed her across the parking lot that connected our houses. Her austere dresses and tightly contained hair—always up in a traditional Mennonite bun—created the impression of a stiff old woman. However, the graceful weeping willow tree that shrouded her lawn drew me with its mystery. I remember the day I dropped my bike to creep in for a closer look. Skirting the outer edge of the unfenced yard, I parted a few of the willow’s draping green branches.

Old Mrs. Zook stood beneath the tree in a cottony nightgown, brushing her freshly washed, silver-grey hair. It flowed long and lovely as the willow branches under which she hovered.

Unaware of my stare, Mrs. Zook seemed free from care in the cool shade on a hot day. That picture of the woman in the willow, one of grace and ageless beauty, enchanted my ten-year-old soul and touches me still.

Part 3: Going with the Flow

The third part of my free-to-be story is that Old Age is creeping up on me. She will, God-willing, knock on my door in a few years. Beyond my desire to live a simple and contemplative life, is the wonder of what I will become. Already, I sense my tendency to stiffen and settle, to give way to a negative outlook. Instead, I’d rather keep stretching, stay flexible, and learn to go with the flow of life.

Will my body and spirit succumb to the stifling effects of gravity and pain? Or will I find the strength to keep growing and bending with the wind? I don’t want my heart to close, becoming pinned like a tight hair bun. On the contrary, I hope to stay open like a willow, sharing grace and beauty in the place God plants me. I pray my trajectory of 56 years has not taken me too far afield of the accepting, compassionate old woman I wish to become.

So, those questions and hopes combined with the memory of Mrs. Zook elicited that unedited answer to my friend’s question. And they became the springboard for my next creative project:

I wrote a novel called The Woman in the Willow.

Finding Freedom in Fiction

With The Woman in the Willow, I was free to try on my character, to create a drama exploring her choices. I wrote my novel, in part, to search for the sage in me, the woman who ages with wisdom. My fiction asks,

Can an old woman flower and flow, despite her heart’s instinct to tighten and close?

It’s the story of Catherine Hathaway, a woman struggling to forget her traumatic past by hiding away in her homemade haven. When a precocious and lonely child challenges her isolation, she refuses to open her gate or her heart to the neglected girl. The resulting tumult stirs unsettling memories and threatens to sweep the woman away in a flood of grief and loss. What part will the willow tree play in transforming Catherine into the woman she wants to become?

Stay tuned to find out. My book will launch into the world on September 1st, 2020!

Perhaps your answer to the question, ‘What would you be, if you were free to be anything you wanted?’ contains an important part of your story.

In it are fragments of your dreams, shadows of your past, and seeds of what you want to become. In between is who you are now. Make that imaginary sketch to test the final portrait you will paint. Let the vision and the dream write the story of your becoming, like the woman in the willow has for me.

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Leave a comment about your answer to the question: “What would you be, if you were free to be anything you wanted?”

 

My Daughter Shares in the Wonder of Being A Mother

my daughter shares in the wonder of being a mother

My daughter, Carina, is having a daughter next month. In early June, a new little girl will arrive in the world. My granddaughter.

At 8 months pregnant, the size and shape of Carina’s baby are obvious—Baby Callaway is definitely in the world though not quite of it. She can hear her parents’ voices, low hums rumbling through her muted, watery world. She moves with her mother in the motions of daily life, throwing punches to keep Mama on her toes.

I used to remind myself in the last month of my 3 pregnancies: the baby is already here, just hidden on the inside!

Waiting impatiently for each of my three to burst into the world, I would sit on the side of my bed, arms wrapped around my big belly, and stare at that waiting bassinet. What an amazing journey we both had to make, to get that baby from belly to bassinet. Never knowing when or how it would go. Oh, the wonder of being a mother.

Carina is 25 and my middle child. She was in a hurry to make her journey into the world. The doctor said when we arrived for her birth,

 “Were you going to have this baby in the car?”

Lately, my not-so-little girl has slowed down a bit. She has been sitting in her rocking chair beside a waiting cradle, filled with the wonder of being a mother. Preparing for something as close as her own body, yet far from her experience.

She already knows a lot about babies. Not only because she searches and researches what to expect now that she’s expecting. But also because she has cared for babies and kids since she was one herself. When her little sister, Chloe, arrived 2 years after her own birthday, Carina’s love of comforting and caring emerged. I can still see her skinny little arms encircling her baby sister. She adored Chloe from the start. Twenty-three years since have witnessed Carina’s love of baby cousins, cousin’s babies, day camp kids, and the foster children she served for several years.

With her early talking and walking and her endless questions and concerns, Carina challenged me to learn to listen well. And hone my answers to meet her scrutiny. These days, I am privileged to spend lots of time with her. Together we celebrate birthdays, holidays, but mostly everydays, enjoying life together as grown-ups. Our conversations bubble with the love and respect we have for each other. We listen and learn, asking questions and looking for answers together.

Last month for my birthday, she filled a card with words of love. Her gift was, as usual, the perfect equation of thoughtfulness + time. She had summed up her feelings for me as she sat in her daughter’s nursery. The parenting book she read as she rocked reminded her that I was the kind of mother the book described: one who would sit and listen and hold space for her, leaving room for her questions and fears.

She wrote: “I sit here in this rocking chair that soon I’ll rock Calla in, and I feel like the gift of your mothering is sitting right here with us. The love that will flow to my daughter will come from me, yes, but also from you, both in your interactions with her and in your 25 years of instilling acceptance and love into me. Thank you for that. We thank you for that.”

Now it’s her turn. Carina’s wonder at being a mother is just beginning. She and Calla will travel together, moving that baby from her belly to the cradle. Then growing that girl from an infant to a woman. And I couldn’t wish a better mom for the little one that’s coming. As Calla learns to walk and talk, Carina will jump to have an answer for the questions her daughter asks. She’ll remember that the answers don’t always add up or satisfy. She’ll have to come up with her own responses for the tough ones too hard for little kids to chew. She will likely say, “I don’t know” more than her mother did.

Most beautifully, Carina will also pause to recall all she and I have talked about across the years. She will recognize that sometimes the answers are placeholders for conversations yet to come. And in the room with the baby and the cradle and chair, she will rock and ponder ways to make space for the love and conversations to come.

Carina kept me on my toes from the first moves I felt her make. She still does. Inside and out, I have loved the gift of being her mom. I look forward to sitting and listening as she instills acceptance and love into her new daughter. And even as a grandmother, I will still feel the wonder of being a mother.            

my daughter shares in the wonder of being a mother
Here’s me at 8 months pregnant with Carina, 1994.

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Read more about families in Babies on the Bus: Trust in Life Unfolding

 

 

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