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

 

 

Mother’s Day: A Song for Mom

christine and her mother, Sandy on mothers day

You Were There

Verse 1
I can see you
Running beside my bicycle
Holding me up as I try balancing by myself
I can see you
Making the meals and making ends meet
Soup on the stove, snow days at home
Love in my lunch box wrapped around a treat
   And through all my days of playing outside
   The door was open wide
Chorus
You were there
You always made a place for me
You were there
In ways I could and couldn’t see
And I only made it here ‘cause you were there
Verse 2
I can see you
Driving me everywhere I needed to go
Steady and safe, never afraid
Knew I was always gonna get back home
And I can see you
When it was time for going my own way
You let me leave and let come back
Never a question of where I would stay
    For a place to land and time to be
    I could always turn the key
Chorus
You were there
You always made a place for me
You were there
In ways I could and couldn’t see
And I only made it here ‘cause you were there
Verse 3
I can see you
Standing beside my bed at night
Saying “give it a rest, just close your eyes
Wait ’til the morning, it’ll be all right”
    When I couldn’t see beyond that door
    I always knew for sure
Chorus
You were there
In ways I could and couldn’t see
You were there
You always made a place for me
Bridge
And if ever you look back
     and wonder where the days have gone
     Oh if ever you forget all of the good that you have done
     Just remember that you haven’t missed a thing
You were there
You were there
And I only made it here ‘cause you were there

I wrote this song for my mother. She will turn 80 this year. I wanted to remember her and remind her of the ways in which she showed up for me.mother's day song

My picture of Mom from childhood is one of constancy. I had no fear of her not being home at the end of the school bus ride or a long day playing outside.

She was always there. Even when she had to go back to work after divorcing my dad. A tough choice that she made for her 3 kids. When we were young, Mom drove us everywhere we wanted and needed to go. Whether on a one-day trip to the beach or a quick visit to the mall, she drove with steadiness and safety. I never had a doubt that we would get to where we were going.

mother's day
My mom, Sandy, holding her 13th great-grandchild

Eventually, I went to college far from home. Even then, she drove me to and from many times. And HOME was always there. A place for me in the summer months and on holiday breaks. I never questioned whether or not I was welcome. Mom offered a bed to sleep in and food to eat. Coffee to drink and a place to think.

Mom, I honor and thank you. I wouldn’t be where I am today if you had not been there, where you always were.

 

Villains and Victims: Is There More to The Story?

big bad wolf attacks little red riding hood

Villains

The young man sat in his truck in my neighbor’s driveway, laying on the horn. No one came outside, so he kept beeping. Five minutes of this and I’d had enough. I stepped out my front door and made a knocking fist sign to the kid in the drive.

He rolled down his passenger window, leaned toward me, and said, “I’m trying to get my friend to come out.”

I sighed and frowned. “Could you try knocking — or texting, maybe?” I was mad.

Just then my husband’s car arrived in the cul-de-sac and we greeted one another in the garage.
He said, “What was that about?”

I explained my frustration at the teenager’s obnoxious horn. Later, as we made dinner, he chided me, suggesting I pick my battles more carefully. He was right. A beeping horn in the middle of the day was the least of our trouble.

When the new family moved in next door, a mom and two teenagers, it was like watching a bad movie. Especially at night.

A variety of humans and vehicles passed below our bedroom window. Trying to ignore the nighttime disruptions, Scott and I turned up the volume on our Netflix and resisted spying through the blinds.

Victims

Two years ago, when these neighbors moved in, they were hard to miss. Their house angles in like the rest of the homes on our circle and their driveway slants close to our second-story bedroom window. Scott and I and the nearest families welcomed them and introduced ourselves to the lady of the household. I’ll call her “Cathy.” We had high hopes for this new relationship. She was friendly at first but distracted. Though we learned her name, she didn’t absorb ours.

Backstory: We have lived in this home for 22 years. The previous people were terrible to live beside: barking dogs penned up between our houses, dogs let loose at 5 AM to terrorize morning joggers, decaying vehicles in the driveway, etc. The final insult was the ranting man blaming us for the sheriff’s department depositing their belongings on their front yard. After years of reaching out to that family, we were glad to see them go.

Certainly, the new owners could only be an improvement.

In the weeks following their arrival, “Cathy” shared with us a part of her traumatic and tragic story. We connected and commiserated. Over the next few months, our interactions became intermittent, a mix of positive and negative. As their first year stretched into the next, she and the kids averted their gazes when we sought a natural hello across the yard or out at the mailboxes.

These small disconnections weren’t the worst of it. Many bizarre middle-of-the-night and early morning shenanigans aroused a lot of anger and sleeplessness for Scott and me, causing us to consider moving away for the first time ever.

More to the Story

more to the story villains and victims

Now, in a good movie, the trailer sets up a predictable plot without revealing its twists. For example, the preview for Phantom Thread tells a believable tale: a quirky older man taking advantage of a young, naïve woman. But this dressmaker’s story unfolded to reveal complicated histories and relationships motivating the characters. A triangle of adults using and abusing their separate and shared dysfunctions.

As in life, the personalities in the film are multidimensional. On the surface, the dress designer discovers a beautiful creature to display his amazing creations; the young waitress in the country restaurant discovers a man who will display her on his arm; the spinster sister who runs his business displays her domineering jealousy. Their deeper designs, unknown even to themselves, appear for the audience first.

It’s Complicated

In this way, the developing story among the man, the woman, and his sister exposed a mixture of not-so-simple ingredients that led to a complex tale: (Spoiler Alert here, if you haven’t seen the movie)

  1. The artisan dressmaker wasn’t just a selfish man using a woman for his ends. He was also a conflicted, mother-afflicted soul who had given much of his emotional and personal power to the whims of his older, competent sister.
  2. The sister wasn’t just a jealous and controlling woman who waited to get this young woman out of the home and their disrupted lives. She was a woman with a history of loss and learning to live with an eccentric, unpredictable, selfish artist who was also her brother.
  3. The young woman was much more than a naïve, attention-seeking natural beauty. She discovered and wielded her own power in the game of who-needs-who. Her warp and woof surprised me most in the materials she used to get what she wanted from the man.

All were villains and victims. I related to them and found compassion for each.

Which brings me back to “Cathy.”

Finding Grace for Neighbors

By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

A glimpse of the woman next-door triggers annoyance. And judgment.

Oops. There I go again, making her life about how it affects me. I notice her garbage, her friends, and a thin slice of her lifestyle. What I do not see and sadly forget, is her history, her heartache, her humanity.

Like a character in a bad movie, “Cathy” remains one-dimensional to me — until I let the story unfold.

more to the story villains and victims

A first glance tempts me to frown and shake my head. A second look reminds me there’s always more to the drama. If I search for the third lesson, I see that I am a villain and victim in my own story. My humanity and heartache inform my relationship with the woman living beside me. My garbage may be well-hidden, but it’s there and has a smell of its own.

Someone more famous than Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that I shouldn’t judge unless I wanted to be judged in the same way.

My neighbor could tell herself stories about me based on a cursory glance out her front window. She does not know me, but if she gave me grace, she’d imagine I had suffered as she has. She might even walk across the lawn, offer a smile, and ask, “What’s your story?”

Please comment in the section below and let me know your tale of Finding Grace for Neighbors.

Read more about my perspective from the cul-de-sac in Happy With Your Lot In Life?

Finding Freedom In Confinement

finding freedom in confinement

Are you finding new freedom in this self-imposed confinement?

Living With Limitations

Social distancing and sheltering in place in the time of Coronavirus have created a unique situation for many of us.

For example, a friend who lives alone is now working from home. This could double the loneliness for her, but at least she can spend more time outside in her yard. And she’s finding ways to connect with friends at a distance. I’ll be seeing her face when we talk via screens this weekend.

finding freedom in confinement

I know an older couple in my neighborhood who thrive on shopping and dining out. They will suffer from cabin fever, no doubt. But the neighbors are checking up on them through calls and texts, keeping tabs without touch.

My default mode is homebody. Staying put to avoid contaminating crowds isn’t much of a hardship. Walking in the small creek behind our home is as good as going dancing for me.

However, my husband, Scott, and I have a baby grandson and a daughter and son-in-law who are expecting in June. Should we stay away from them? We adults are trying to decide if full quarantine is smarter than the less extreme social distancing we are practicing. Can we actually keep from seeing and hugging family members? Some unfortunate people are truly cut off from their families. They are choosing this for safety or because someone is sick with this invisible, insidious virus.

The new limitations and tough choices are shocking.

Sudden Seclusion

One of my greatest fears is being disconnected from my family. The horrors of history tell of those who’ve suffered in gulags and POW camps. I do not linger long with thoughts of solitary confinement. The idea of forced isolation, alone with no husband, no kids or grandchildren, makes me ask, “How would I fare; would I find a way to be free inside a cell?”

If I had access to books, I would be free to read, read, read. With pen and paper, I could write, free of distraction. But without family interactions, could I survive through meditation or cogitation? Or die a slow death in lonely rumination?

I guess I’ll never be locked up in solitary. But I’m feeling the walls closing in. What do the walls of my home offer that I haven’t grasped? From those whose worries are weightier, I ask, “Are you finding any freedom in this sudden seclusion?”

Chance for Change

finding freedom

Our limited choices, whether chosen or thrust upon us, magnify our chances for positive transformation.

Obviously, no one looks for change by putting on chains. But when we find our wrists shackled by circumstance, we naturally crane our necks for different ways to move, to live, to be. For some people, the challenge is discombobulating. For others, this season is downright earth-shattering. Yet, it’s an opportunity for all to discover freedom within our confines. Our physical, mental, and emotional health depend on our healthy response to this stress.
Here’s what I’m thinking:

I Am Finding Freedom From…

  1. Choice. Choice can be overwhelming. Like a restaurant with a ten-page menu, my lengthy to-do list is more of a menace than a blessing. Self-employed people, such as Scott and I, wake each morning to a bottomless pit of a list. Or an agonizingly blank slate. Either way, we start from scratch each day. I have been enjoying the simple menu of fewer choices.
  2. Worries. When the bigger story concerns a killer microbe, I worry less about writing perfect prose or if I should exercise more.
  3. Myself. Okay, it may be a stretch, but I am free to forget my face for a while. My body, my clothes, the pimple on my nose. Who cares? Yes, many working people are video-conferencing and Face-Timing and Insta-gramming like crazy. But lots of us can just stay in our jammies. Skip the mirror and quit the navel-gazing for a minute.

I Am Finding Freedom For…

  1. Creativity. More reading, more writing, yay!
  2. Thinking or not thinking. Quiet sitting or a slow walk are no longer a waste of time. I’ve got lots. Like today: I haven’t accomplished any tasks except trying to write these ideas about freedom. It’s rather liberating.
  3. Being Present. No outside events call to me. I’m not missing anything because nothing is happening. I am here. Now. In the moment in which I am.

Are You Finding Freedom To…

  1. Connect with your kids more? Your spouse?
  2. Let go of a busy schedule?
  3. Be thankful for what you have?
  4. Share with others who are suffering more than you?

People suffer without human interaction. This virus crisis amplifies our discomfort. The current limits on our ways of life have added countless new stresses. I suspect, though, we will unearth certain blessings in this mess. What freedoms have you come up with in confinement?

For more thoughts on health, read: 3 Creative Ways to Move Toward Emotional Health

 

Babies on the Bus: Trust in Life Unfolding

Trust in life unfolding

Volunteer Babysitters

“Hey, Out of the Grey, here’s your babysitter for the day,” said Ron, the road manager. The teenage boy stood at the door of our tour bus and reached to shake our hands. Gulp. My husband and I exchanged a quick glance then invited him into our home on the road.  Up the steps came another test of my trust in the unfolding nature of life.

Scott and I were touring with Steven Curtis Chapman as his opening act. Our 8-month-old baby was along for the ride. Therefore, the road manager had arranged volunteer nannies at each venue so we could do a quick soundcheck, graze through catering, and play our 20-minute set.

In each town, generous people donated their time to care for our baby. They came in many shapes and ages. We often scored a wonderful middle-aged woman partial to babies and unimpressed with performers.

Occasionally, Scott and I punted the sitter for the day. Like the woman we met in the green room at an arena show. Our would-be nanny was a tough-looking lady, part of the local load-in crew. Waving her cigarette, she reached for baby Julian and told us how good she was with kids. Probably she was. We just weren’t good with smoke in our precious baby’s lungs.

“Um, we’re sorry to say we don’t need you today. But thank you for offering to help.”

Eager Teenager

However, the eager teenage boy was a toss-up. Could he take care of a baby? And why would he want to? The road manager brought him to the bus because Julian was asleep in his portable crib. We were due on stage for a soundcheck. I hesitated.

“If the baby wakes up, bring him right into the venue,” I said.trust in life unfolding

Concern crossed the boy’s face. “He might wake up?”

Ron clomped up the bus steps from the street. “Scott and Christine, they’re waiting for you. C’mon or you’ll lose your soundcheck. Doors open in 15.”

Ugh, we had to go.

Scott said to the young man, “He’ll probably keep sleeping. Christine will be back soon. Just check on him once or twice. Oh, and thanks.”

Scott and I traded worried looks as we hurried through the stage door. Singing a quick verse of a song while Scott played guitar, I got a good balance of sound in my monitor. Then I rushed back to the bus to discover the young caregiver sitting in the front lounge, tossing a cassette tape in his hands. He jumped up when he saw me, relieved. Julian had stayed asleep.

After thanking him, I said we wouldn’t need him for the rest of the evening. He held out the cassette.

“Do you think I could meet Steven Curtis Chapman and get him to sign this for me?”

I laughed. “Yes. Let me pick up the baby and you can follow us inside to find Steven.”

Trust in Life Unfolding

trust in life unfoldingThe song, “Unfolding,” comes to mind when I remember these scenarios. We wrote it in the throes of performing our music and raising our children. It became part of our third Out of the Grey record, Diamond Days.

How many times did I worry about my baby boy in the tumult of travel? And then our two baby girls who followed to journey with us? How many miles did I sit and stare out the window of a rolling vehicle that carried my family down another highway, wondering how this touring-artist thing would turn out? I never knew what was around the bend, waiting at the next performance, the next tour when this one ended.

However, my 2020 hindsight tells me that trusting the changing nature of life was the only way to go. The unfolding was inevitable. Better to surrender to the flow.

But I didn’t trust the unfolding much. The erratic character of road life made me anxious. I longed for predictable patterns and solvable puzzles. Also, I needed my kids to be safe and have the best situation for their growth. My desire to impact the lives of others, to be engaged in the great adventure, added to my angst. The tour bus window, wide as it was, only framed a small stretch of sky. Sometimes, I couldn’t see beyond mere survival.

The years rolled on. Scott and I eventually hired nannies who rode the buses with us when they weren’t helping at home while we worked on another record. These dear ladies also became dear friends. Eventually, the added miles and experiences subtracted from my stress. I kept my eyes and my mind open. Companions in cramped buses and audiences in wide venues showed me I was playing a good part, in my children’s lives and in the lives of others. My clenched fist unfolded a bit.

The Changing Nature of Life

In the upheaval of touring, my questions to God were always: How does each soul fit into the big picture? Can You really care for me, my family, and each stranger we meet along the way? From the middle of my tiny story, I scanned the horizon for the grander scheme.

Now that I’m off the road, I volunteer as a babysitter for my grandson. Watching my grown son and his wife work on their version of the unfolding story, I know they know how the future gets done. They try to live the moments one by one. May they trust their small choices and acts of love that add up to compose the bigger picture.

As a fifty-something, my energy for engaging the wider world is flagging. But I continue to ask the big questions: Can I still have an impact, make a splash in my little pond? Believing it is possible, I write. I write to the young adults puzzling it out as I did almost three decades ago. I write for the older folks, too, who wonder at their purpose and position in Creation.

My hope and prayer are that we may all enjoy life now, trust in its unfolding nature, its steady, relentless stream. We cannot see our impact in our small stretches of imagination, but we always have a part in the grandeur of the grander scheme unfolding.

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trust in life unfolding

 

3 Creative Ways to Move Toward Emotional Health

3 pug dogs move toward emotional and mental health

Get Out of Your Head and Into Emotional Health: 3 Ideas

If you are like me, you get stuck in your head and need help moving toward emotional and mental health.

Do you have a secret sadness or a shapeless grief that keeps you down? Do you lean toward despondency, especially in colder seasons?

What if some unique and creative activities could alleviate melancholy for people like us?

I have found 3 creative ways to keep despondency at bay. I’m not suggesting changing anything your doctor has prescribed — just bringing a little color to the palette.

1.  TELL YOUR STORY

In my early twenties, I had an eating disorder called bulimia. Looking back, I realize I was using food to stuff down parts of my story I could not face. Fresh out of childhood, my feelings were trying to surface, but I didn’t have an escape hatch for them. The disorder distracted me from dealing with my history.

Then I met Scott, who later became my husband. I took a risk and told him about the bingeing and purging. A tiny shaft of light broke into my cellar. My worst secret was safe with him. Other hard truths emerged. From there, he helped me look honestly at my experiences and bring hidden suffering to the surface. Slowly, I let go of coping with food and moved toward mental and emotional health. My book Lifelines is a continuation of this work of a lifetime.

There are many ways to tell your story:

  • Talk to a friend, spiritual advisor, or counselor to pop the lid on bottled up emotions. Our negative emotions have a way of dissipating when they decompress and spread their weight across other shoulders.
  • Journal. Pen on paper helps disentangle the jumble of thoughts and feelings in our minds and bodies.
  • Pray. Our creator knows our weaknesses and fears. He listens well and won’t be surprised by anything we have to say.
  • Form a fictional tale from your experiences or current turmoil. You don’t have to be a writer to create a character that acts as a mirror. Can you create a short story to represent what’s stirring deep in your soul?

2.  WRITE A SONGemotional mental health

I am the kind of person who spins and spins inside my head until I make myself dizzy and sick. Songwriting has helped me work out a lot of sadness, confusion, and anger in my life. In the process, I found a lot of hope and healing.

Years ago, I wrote a song called “Tell Your Story.” As a recording artist, I had the luxury of writing and recording my kind of crazy. Call it music therapy.

Writing a song can be tricky but it’s not as hard as you think. You’ve listened to countless songs in your life and even followed the lyrics on a page as you listened to a favorite artist. What if you grabbed one of those song lyrics you love and used it as a model, a template for writing your own lyrics?

  • Try to write and sing your lyrics to the same rhythm and melody as the song you are using as a framework. You’re not trying to plagiarize and publish here.
  • Connect to the emotion of the song you love and write your own words and music.
  • Build on snippets from your journal or a poem that connects to your soul.
  • Create a tiny soundtrack with your own melody. Go with the flow of emotion that comes from listening to a favorite song.

See if songwriting is therapy for your soul. If you want to go deeper, here are 10 more unusual tips for songwriting.

3.  SING OUT YOUR SADNESSemotional mental health

As a teenager, I belted out a lot of Linda Ronstadt ballads. Singing along with her soulful voice, I found a connection to my own soul. These days, I don’t sing much around the house or even in the car. I stay in my head and must remind myself to sing out loud.

  • So sing in your shower, house, or car.
  • Join a band or choral group which can be especially healthful and uplifting.
  • Worship with friends on a Sunday.

Time Magazine explained the reasons why singing can lift the spirits:

“The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. Or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness.”*

I let go of the bulimia when I learned to find words for my feelings.

Can you bring your hidden insides out to help lift the weight of heavy emotions?

When I find myself wearing winter blues or spinning inside my head too much, I get to work on one of these 3 ideas. Let me know how it goes for you!

If you want to hear the song I wrote and recorded with my husband as Out of the Grey, check it out here: “Tell Your Story.” (lyrics here)

If you want to learn more about songwriting and singing, my handbook/workbook, The Singer and The Songwriter can help.

10 Songwriting Tips for Better Songwriting

Scott Dente writes a song on his acoustic guitar

We songwriters can all use new songwriting tips. Even tried and true songwriters can do better from time to time.

Inspiration can come from unlikely places. For example, whenever I hear the intro to Steely Dan’s song Ajajoy wells up in my chest. 

I was studying songwriting at Berklee College of Music in Boston when Steely Dan became a favorite band. Their perfect mix of pop and jazz captures me to this day.

In one songwriting class, my teacher Pat Pattison drew attention to the lyric from another song of theirs titled, “Deacon Blues”:

Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel

To us young wanna-be songwriters in that classroom, that ambiguous line about dying behind the wheel was a puzzle and a revelation. Does the singer mean literally dying because he’s drinking and driving? Or is it metaphorical for being in control all the way to the day he dies? Or both?

Steely Dan’s lyrical and harmonic complexities sparked my desire to write songs with depth. Yes, I wanted my audience to discover a new layer with every listen. For those like me who are still students of songwriting, I offer these ideas:

1) Listen before you write.

You can write a better song if you hear a great one first. Find some inspiring music. For example, I like to set the bar high and get my creativity pumping with some Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell. Maybe a song from my teenage days that connects on a hidden plane.

Joe Walsh’s “Indian Summer” gets me every time. I find myself back on our family boat, cruising the Susquehanna River near Pequea, Pennsylvania. It’s September and I’m 13 years old. The longing and loss of innocence and freedom wash over me like the wake of a waterskiing fall. I’m ready to write that song now.

2) Write every day.

Yes, schedule your muse and expect her to show up. She might be groggy. Feed her some coffee and get to work.

Release your jewels and your drivel in the privacy of your writing room. You are practicing a habit. Later, you can pick and choose which ideas get to go outside and play. The rest can remain your sad and sappy little secrets.

Consider it your job to produce Quantity. Quality will emerge in spits and spurts. Sometimes pieces of one song actually belong to pieces of another song. Puzzle it together.

3) Spill your guts.

Pour your heart out and let emotions lead the way. Trust me, if your heart and gut are connected to your song subject, you’ll be able to go with the flow for a long time. Stay slippery and don’t let the inspiration dry up before you’ve caught and landed all of your choicest ideas. I have a few exercises for doing just that in my Singer/Songwriter Handbook.

4) Start with a title.

Have you written some pithy lines and ideas in a notebook somewhere?

Do you have a few titles that make you want to sing?

Start with one of these and see where they lead.

“He is Not Silent” is one of my lyrics inspired by a book titled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer. I got all fired up while reading so I sat at my piano, pencil in hand. Borrowing ideas like “we are not quiet, we are not listening,” I came up with the chorus first. My creative burst followed closely on the heels of an inspiring title. Catch any thread you can and don’t let go!

5) Tell the truth.

Honesty is appealing, like the song with that title by Billy Joel. We’re all human and we love vulnerability in others (even though we hate to reveal it in ourselves). Show some brokenness, a chink in your armor. The Chainsmokers have a cool song called “Honest.” They sing the truth about life on the road and on the radio. Their candor draws me into their artistry.

Read my short blog here about vulnerability in songwriting and recording new music.

6) Play with plagiarism.

What am I saying? Plagiarism is a dirty word. Don’t do it! But, hey, we are all imitators. None of us comes up with a completely new song idea.

All creativity is derivative except the original Creator’s stuff. Everybody copies His work. So celebrate your influences.

Borrow—don’t steal—a few ideas from a good song. Next, get to work crafting it as your own. Be certain there’s no direct copying. You know what happens when you infringe on a copyright, right? Write!

7) Be relatable and relevant.

No one gets a pass in this life. Hard is part of living.

If you’re like me and you struggle with faith in God every day, then say so.

Do you want to write a song about living with pain? Go for it, but I might beat you to it.

Want to sing about how staying in love is not easy? Then write that song. I did just that in “To Keep Love Alive.”

Teens love Taylor Swift because her music is relatable and relevant to their lives, like in the song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

8) Run with scissors.

Take some risks. But only if you’ve got a point.

Controversy for the sake of drawing attention and outrage is not legitimate artistic expression.

However, there will always be blurred lines. From Randy Newman’s “Short People” to Madonna’s “Papa, Don’t Preach,”artists often try to shine a light on an important topic. Certainly, we write at our own risk. Everyone in the crowd won’t be jumping up and down. But some may be getting the message for a change.

9) Make every word count.

Should I use “the” or “and” in this line? It is a solid question when writing a pop song. The nuance of such little words affects the song’s meaning.

Also, pop music doesn’t give you time to spread your ideas out. They’ve got to be short, sweet, and carry a lot of meaning. Like poetry, each word can have a well of eloquence beneath it if you take the time to dig in.

10) Hunt and Kill your throwaway lines.

Admit it, you’ve held on for dear life to some crappy lyrics.

You wrote them on the fly and they fit.

  • They came so easy.
  • They made a great rhyme.
  • They’re so clever you can’t bear to snuff them out.

But they’re so predictable, so done already. Get more creative!

Much of modern worship music, for example, has lots of cliche´and little imagination. Many mainstream pop songs, too. Boring.

They can be placeholders but eventually erase you must. Hire someone or cover your eyes and take a stab.

Kill those darlings because you know they’re just no good.

11) Bonus Tip: Be an Expanding HuMan.

Learn to work in a new way, try something you’ve never done in your songwriting.

  • Sit at the piano instead of with a guitar. 
  • Find a co-writer.
  • Learn a few new chords, would ya?

You are not gazing through the glass anymore.You’ve bought the dream.

Remember, songwriting is the privilege of sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind.

PS If you want more Tips and Tricks and Techniques and lots of exercises to improve your songwriting (and singing), check out my book: The Singer and the Songwriter Handbook and Workbook on Amazon.

PPS If you want other posts like these, sign up for my newsletter on the right side of this page and I’ll let you know when my next blog posts. CHEERS!

The Art of Compromise or The Compromise of Art

art of compromise

Gravity and Relativity

Out of the Grey lite. That’s what my husband Scott and I call Gravity, our fourth record. Actually, a fan came up to our CD table after a concert one night in 1995 and bestowed that description.

“I love all of your albums up to this point but this new one is more like Out of the Grey lite.”

Yikes! He was right.

Before recording Gravity, we’d written our ten songs and were ready to head into the studio. Monday morning, 10 AM downbeat. However, the Thursday before our scheduled session, the record label decided we didn’t have enough ‘radio-friendly’ songs.

What?

Scott and I dug in our heels for a short minute then went with the pressure to play the game. Over that weekend, we scrambled to write a few new songs with more pop appeal. Our producer, Charlie Peacock, helped us win approval by co-writing the songs, “When Love Comes to Life” and “Hope In Sight.”

Half of the songs and a lot of the production came out lacking what we thought of as Out of the Grey artistry. We did get some radio play, though.

At the end of the day, did we practice the art of compromise or did we compromise our art?

A Play on a Play

art of compromiseHave you seen the film, Bullets Over Broadway?

You could call it a play on a play. The story examines artistic integrity and how far an artist will go to protect and defend it—or lose it. It poses a question about the sometimes-dirty word compromise, asking if it has its place or if it is always reprehensible.

At the beginning of this 1994 release, David, a young playwright, tries to gather funds and cast members to perform his beloved work of art. Time constraints, human foibles, and money woes assail his stance on artistic integrity. At first, David stands his ground, refusing to give up control over his writing and his role as director. Nevertheless, when an underworld thug with the funds for production materializes and seems a godsend, David compromises. The catch of the money deal is that the gangster’s talentless girlfriend must play a small part.

After David softens his stance regarding talent and economics, taking the production money plus the girl, his agent leads him into other small compromises. As the play unfolds and rehearsals progress, David’s artistic integrity slips so far that he rewrites dialog at the behest of the manipulative lead actress. However, the playwright’s climactic sin is letting the goon who babysits the talentless young actress make changes in lines, scenes, and the plot. David recognizes that this mobster hitman is more talented than he. In the end, David is not an artist who is willing to stand by his original work.

This play about a play never reveals what the playwright’s play was actually about. We get the gist, though, that more drama, sex scandals, and realism are what the people want. Are the characters speaking our language? Does the plot mirror our own struggles? Have we left off the lofty and abstract so that the crowd can get the message point blank? Bullets fly at movie’s end when the story descends into an action-filled thriller.

Popular Art

The population at large loves what it can enjoy and comprehend without extra effort. As a pop music snob, I pooh-pooh much of the stuff that seems all fluff. I prefer a more complicated theme than, say, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Having said that, I’m aware that other types of music-lovers wouldn’t call pop music ‘art’ at all.

To be sure, inside a fine art gallery, I might lift my eyebrows at the abstract and inaccessible. Impatient and ignorant, I don’t take the time to find the deeper meaning, moving further along the wall in search of served-up messages. When it comes to Art, I dig in my heels in relative places, drawing my own particular lines in the sand.

For example, I have written some artistically obscure songs like, “Becoming,” not caring whether anyone heard them or at least not worried that some might miss its message. However, I have certainly written songs with radio play in mind. Economic forces drove my compromise in the form of pressure from the record company and the mortgage company. One argument for concession goes something like this: if some of my art compromises its beauty for popularity sake, it will expose my more artistic pieces to a wider audience.

Mass Appeal

Many an Out of the Grey fan found us first on the radio. Before Gravity, our popularity had been growing. A lot of people told us they liked our fresh, left-of-center sound. Record sales were adding up and we wanted to capitalize on the momentum. It’s an old story.

art of compromise

The pressure to compromise can sideline even the best of intentions. When something good gets more popular, getting more becomes the modus operandi. For example, in the 1990s, Starbucks was just a cool cafe on the west coast. Scott and I had to mail-order their exotic blends and dark roasts. Nowadays, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, the McDonald’s of coffee some say. Compromising quality for quantity some complain.

However, mass-appeal has its appeal. It allows me to find a cheap knock-off of the expensive version of something or other I could otherwise not afford to purchase. As Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada about the origin of the color of her cheap cerulean blue sweater, so I should take a lesson and remember that design is a gift with a steep price.

Mob Mentality

I am an artistic snob when I care to be and part of the mob when I don’t. If I don’t sink my toes into certain artistic fields of expression, I am tempted to pass by quickly with a quick judgment. I may think you are crazy if you only buy a carefully curated olive oil while you may drop your jaw at me for spending so much time choosing between “a” or “the” in a song lyric. You may secretly judge my mall clothes as fashion mongrels while I am arguing internally that you can’t possibly enjoy the ‘music’ of Florida Georgia Line.

art of compromise

From Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling to Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, with so many in between, who decides what is good art or bad, high quality or low? Certainly, mass appeal isn’t a consistent measuring stick because watered-down art proliferates even as the cream rises to the top.

Relative Obscurity

Positively speaking, compromise is a humbled move toward peace. It need not always be an act of artistic cowardice.

What’s my point? Humility, I guess. If pride in my fine taste stiffens my stance in one corner of the rug, someone will surely pull it out from under my feet with revelations of what I am missing. More than likely, what appeals to you has merits I haven’t investigated. Maybe you love every song and sound on Gravity. I’m glad if you do!

In keeping my knees unlocked and soft, I can walk your way and experience the view from your side of the room. You can show me what I’ve missed in Picasso and I can point out the genius of Sting. We can meet at Starbucks, maybe stop to shop at the mall, and go from there.

Out of the Grey’s fan base fell off sharply after the release of Gravity. Our follow-up, See Inside, never found the listeners we thought it deserved. Scott and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d held our ground on how we wanted to shape our sound. The question will remain: does gravity suck or is it just a natural force that no artist can escape? The answer lies in the ears of the beholder. The rest is left to relative obscurity.

Change–Going The Distance

I don’t like change very much. I cried every time I tried to finish the song,“The Distance.” It’s a song about my son growing up and out of the house. It took me 5 years, really, to put the final lines together and then let it go, move on. Planted on my padded piano bench, my hands gently pressing into the chords, I would sing the first few words in the verse:

The sun sets as we drive the Trace

I’ll never forget this side of your face

It’s not the same as it was, so much has changed since I met you.

My heart would immediately connect with the image in my head: my young teenage son and me driving together on the Natchez Trace, a winding, scenic roadway close to our home. Although it stretches from Nashville, Tennessee to Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a short section that connects a friend’s house to ours.

the Natchez Trace bridge in Nashville Tennessee

Way back then, Julian and I were crossing the lovely Natchez Trace Bridge which spans a yawning valley. The sky was sunset orange. In the glow to my right, I saw that my son was a young man in transformation. Soon, he would be in the driver’s seat and I would be the passenger. Not long after that, he wouldn’t need me at his side at all. The road before us began to stretch out in ways that my heart didn’t want to face.

Julian had already changed so much in the fourteen years I’d known him. But I knew there was more change to come. For that reason, whenever I sat at my piano determined to finish the song, the words got stuck in my throat.

Transatlanticism

In the awkward silences of Julian’s early teenage years, music was our connection. What kept us talking was our love of the melody and lyrics. A great song can really go the distance, keep its impact despite the flow of time all around it.

In the car, we’d sing along with our favorite songs, working out the harmonies and talking about the lyrics. One particular song by the group, Death Cab For Cutie, was a puzzle to both of us. What did “Transatlanticism” mean? What deeper message was hidden in the song’s images?

Part of its attractiveness was its mystery, the blank spaces left for us to fill. Somehow, it was a bridge in the growing gap between mother and son. It helped me to forge ahead with finishing, “The Distance.”

Change:young Julian DenteWe can’t always connect what’s between us now

And these silent stretches are longer somehow

We turn the music way up loud

And wonder what the song’s about

And the music spans the distance

It’s our transatlanticism

Love and Letting Go

As my son became a man, I finally finished and recorded my song about change and going the distance. Julian writes and records his own music now. He drives his own roads and goes places far from where we first traveled together. His songs keep me and the whole family talking. We all love the chord changes he chooses and sometimes we embarrass him with our enthusiasm.

Thankfully, I can say that I’m glad he has grown up and gone on without me. It’s good when sons—and songs—grow up and move on. He certainly comes back to visit and keeps me up to date on his latest favorite songs. The music he’s making is all his own yet has hints of his beginnings, links that connect him to home.

change: going the distance

Yeah, we always go together now

But I know what I know, soon I’ll slow you down

The time will come when I can’t keep up

And you’ll go on without me

Whether in small increments or large sweeps, change is a guarantee. How I traverse it is key.

Julian has a lovely wife and a son of his own now. I am learning to live with the distance that makes for a great relationship; mothers and sons are complicated! I am still listening closely to every lyric he writes and wondering what the song’s about. But I don’t have to figure it all out anymore or even assign meaning to every little bump in the road.

Trying to enjoy this ride we call life, I can see the mystery as attractive rather than scary. Find the beauty, deal with the impermanence, and go the distance with change. I’ll finish one song so I can move on to write the next one, connecting the changes in a chain of love and letting go.

Now we’re staring at that last bridge

And it feels like the Atlantic

Let the music span the distance

Read more about this and other songs in my book, Lifelines and the article, “Animal House!”

Listen to “The Distance” song and 9 others in A Little Light Left.

Thanks for listening and for going the distance with me.

Full lyric for “The Distance”

change: going the distance

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