Once Upon a Time in Christian Music

once upon a time in Christian music: Christine and Scott Dente pose in the early days as Out of the Grey.

Gatekeepers

Have you ever bumped up against a gatekeeper? You know, the person in charge of a thing who bars entrance to their domain? They’ll let you through only if you dutifully bow to their power, repeat their creed, or maybe pay the right price. It helps if you have a nice face.

Once upon a time in Christian music, there were gatekeepers who stood along the boundary walls, deciding whose music was fit for Christendom. Their job was to keep offbeat outsiders from entering the rarified realms of Contemporary Christian Music, aka CCM.

A short list of the guardians included:

  1. the record labels who signed–or passed on–new artists.
  2. the radio stations who played–or wouldn’t play– the songs.
  3. the retailers who sold–or refused to sell– the cassettes and CD’s in their stores and catalogs.

Unified in their goal of keeping the name of Christian music pure, they often worked against each other, pretending not to be in it for the money or defending the fact they were also in it for the money.

I should qualify that this was my experience as a CCM artist.

In the 1990s, my husband Scott and I, aka Out of the Grey, joined the Contemporary Christian Music scene. Our songs rode the waves of CCM radio and we played for CCM audiences all across the country. Privileged to have been a part of that world, I’ll share some stories from behind the scenes.

Strangers at the Gate

The record label that signed us had initially passed on Out of the Grey (then known only as Christine and Scott Dente). They didn’t dig our first demo tape which was a mix of other people’s songs and styles. We had compromised a bit to try to fit the CCM mold. Chastened by rejection, we returned to the studio of a friend who encouraged us to be authentic and showcase the sounds we wanted to make.

We did just that. The four songs we wrote and recorded were truly us. This time, the record label signed off on our musical style. We gratefully signed the dotted line for their risk-taking investment in our first official Out of the Grey album,first official Out of the Grey album, which would include the songs from our demo. We had taken our first steps through the outer walls into the world of CCM.

But back in 1991, that record would still be a stranger at other gates of the CCM industry, aka the mindustry. The people in charge understandably wanted to keep the status quo. They were wary of new music that diverged from what was current. So, though we had crossed a gauntlet, Scott and I soon came upon more hoops to jump through.

The Power of Labels

Our Christian record label had taken a chance in signing us but they also did their part in guarding the CCM fortress. They were careful to sign acts that fit the definition of Christian artistry:

  1. sing songs about Jesus.
  2. behave like Christians.
  3. clean up nicely with hair and makeup for a photo shoot.

Back then, Scott and I fit those descriptions. One exec even checked in with us: “You know, I only know how to sell music to Christians. You good with that?”

We were good with that. We were Christians making music!

However, we were not interested in making musical mush to be spoon-fed through the conduits of acceptable art. We wanted our artistry to reach a deeper level of beauty and mystery, combined with Christian truth. This proved to be an elusive target.

Religious Litmus Test

For example, for the first Out of the Grey record, we wrote a song called, “Time Will Tell.”

In the lyric, I lamented the tyranny of perfectionism and worry about the future. In the chorus, I sang about giving up the struggle and trusting in the help that comes in time. Through cliche and personification, I hoped to convey a universal human theme. I can’t say what the future holds but, Time, indeed, always tells.

However, before we had recorded the song, our record label insisted we modify my original lyric to fit the Christian bill. “To get Christian radio to play it, it needs to be a Christian song.” 

“What?” I was miffed, already suspicious of the word Christian being used as an adjective. Now it was a litmus test for artistic expression within a simple song? 

Why did I have to put a God-shaped bow on it? Especially since every other song on our record would pass the religious litmus test. Well, okay, maybe not “The Dance” or ”The Only Moment.” But those had no hope of being radio singles anyway.

Scott and I really wanted the song to stand as a portrait of human struggle without forcing a God-leaning lyric. Instead, we gave in to the pressure and I made a minor change in the second and third line in the chorus. 

Time Will Tell

The original lyric was:

And I give up on myself again,

help will come, I can’t say when,

but time will tell

And I hold on for a better day,

how long I’ll wait I cannot say,

but time will tell, I know time will tell 

I changed the first half to say:

And I give up on myself again,

help will come but only when 

it’s in Your time

By adding “but only when it’s in Your time,” I transformed the song to fit the shape of the record label gate.

Playing with Radio Heads

Yes, we and those guardians of the CCM galaxy had played our part in keeping radio programmers happy.

We prayed that that capital Y was our ticket to the ears of tuned-in Christians. The squeakiest listeners couldn’t complain that our music wasn’t safe for the whole family.

However, just after the release of “Time Will Tell,” Scott and I were spending a day at the label promoting the single to radio programmers.  From a padded cubicle, we were phoning radio stations, asking the programmers and DJ’s to add our song to their playlists.

Many were happy to add Out of the Grey to their rotations and thanked us for making the music. But Scott and I remember well the wall we hit during a call to a particular Contemporary Christian radio station in Alabama. We knew beforehand that they had refused to put our song on the air. 

“Why?” we asked the head programmer. He said, “not Christian enough.” Nope, not an overt Christian theme, even with the modified “in Your time.” Just an artistic look at a mundane conundrum. 

Anyway, that DJ’s refusal bruised our brains. I think Scott asked him, “Did you play Stephen Curtis Chapman’s huge hit ‘I will Be Here?’ That doesn’t say anything about Jesus.”

The guy hung up on us. Probably never rotated any Out of the Grey music after that. 

Mom and Pop, God Love ‘Em

Still other would-be power players were the small (and large) Christian bookstores meting out their limited shelf space. With careful, sometimes persnickety, criteria, Mom and Pop (God love ’em) balked at the slightest whiff of worldliness or weirdness. They didn’t want their customers getting skittish. It was their business after all to decide which cassettes would sell as well as their Christian knick-knacks.

I remember the story of a best-selling artist (God love her) who revealed her face without make-up on the cover of her latest CD. Rumor had it, the photo made Christian retailers uncomfortable. They refused to display it in their stores. Too raw? Too real? Who knows? The CDs were recalled, their covers made-over to fit the look of a true Christian singer.

Who can blame the owners of those businesses? They had a living to make. Plus, the holiness of God was tied up in all they sold. As uncomfortable as many of us were, mixing business with ministry, we did have families to feed and a faith to uphold.

Now for Some Real Christian Music

One more story about gatekeepers. Out of the Grey bumped into a few shining Christian stars whose parameters for real Christian music were also quite narrow.

Once, after we performed a 4-song set at a CCM festival, the artist next in line took the stage and shouted into his microphone: “Hey y’all, I hope you don’t mind if I sing some songs about Jesus?”

I am complaining a little but mostly I am grateful. Out of the Grey got to make lots of music and work with top notch industry people along the way. And make a living! It’s just fun to look back and realize how silly were some of the games we played.

I’m not sure how it works nowadays. Back then, when Christians scanned the airways for orthodox art, they often got regurgitations of what worked before. Too much of it was predictable and boring.

I get it: powerful music can get past the brain’s gatekeepers and travel straight to the heart. When we’re driving in the car with our kids, we don’t want provocative ideas slipping in without warning. Yet, adults and kids alike tend to tune out an old cliche unless it’s expressed in a fresh way.

Time and Time Again

There’s always a rub when someone new comes to town. The elders have their doubts while the youngsters gather around the spectacle. Artists innovate to find their voice and gain an audience. Art asks the big questions, leaving room for listener interpretation and new ideas.

Who can say if we needed all of those gates. Christendom itself is a big word for a wide space.

Yes, Religion has its creeds and boundaries to keep the bad guys in disguise from breaching our truth structures. But squeaky clean can make for sterile living and weak immune systems. And change is always at the gates.

Can we find the balance, trusting God to guard our open minds and hearts?

I can’t say if, in time, the story of art finds the perfect fairy tale ending.

This time, I’ll let Time speak for itself.

Am I Doing My Best?

doing my best

doing my bestSometimes I feel stuck, like I can’t change despite my efforts. From physical afflictions to moods and attitudes, there are parts of me that seem imbedded beyond any self-helping or God-healing reach.

I usually feel better when I spell out my frustrations, either by journaling, conversing, or meeting with my counselor.

At the end of a recent counseling session, I blurted out to her,

“I’m doing my best!”

Then I burst into tears. It was a breakthrough for me to make such a statement.

Why? Because:

 

  • I had spent an hour telling her about all the ways I was trying to be a better person. And how I was failing.
  • I have spent decades trying to become better, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And changing too little.
  • I have often insisted, either silently or as an aside, No-one ever does their best.          

Of course, I include my self in this judgment. My counselor helped me dig for the roots of this damning belief:

For one, as a kid, I saw my dad refuse to control his own impulses even as he commanded obedience from his wife and children.

For two, I learned from the Bible and church to have high ideals. When I miss the mark and do not live consistently, I blame my character flaws.

For three, there’s often a weak part of me that stays in bed a little too long, a bratty part that refuses to be kind.

However, speaking of parts, my therapist pointed out another part of me: my inner child.

I know you’ve heard of that inner child. She or he is the little kid you wouldn’t lift a finger at, let alone accuse of slacking. For that child, we have gobs of compassion. We tell her or him, you are loved, no matter what.

Or do we? Do I?

It turns out, most of us don’t have enough self-compassion. We are hard on ourselves even though we can’t imagine being that tough on our sweet grandchild or the neglected kid next door.

Why don’t we love ourselves better?

doing my best

When I was eleven years old, I was invited to be in a fashion show. Of all the clothes offered for me to model, I chose a plaid suit with snaps on the jacket.

As a young adult, I always smirked at that kid in the photo. I didn’t have much love for someone with such bad taste and bad hair.

But a few years ago, I decided to love that little Chris who felt so good in those snazzy cuffs. She wasn’t worried about how good or bad she was or about what other people thought. She was her best self in that moment. In fact, despite the turmoil of her divorcing parents, she was definitely doing her best.

Christine reads to her 3 year old grandson, Asher                  doing my best                doing my best

Lately, I have more grace for my shortcomings. The passion I have for grandson Asher and granddaughter Callaway trickles down to the hidden parts of my heart. Aided by the panoramic view of grand parenting, I can sense the little girl in me who still needs love, and hugs, and healing.

Today, things are looking up. I feel better about my stuck-ness now that I’ve shared it with you.The changes do come, usually in tiny increments. But one big measure of my progress is the fact that, sometimes, I have compassion for the little child inside me and I say the phrase out loud,

“I’m doing my best!”

My Mother in Pieces

dementia in pieces of my mother

Overgrown Toenails

Oh no! My mother’s toenails, clipped just this morning, are now strewn across my kitchen floor. Pieces of my mother I’d meant to throw away. 

I’ve just spent time with her in the Memory Care facility. After my one-hour drive there, I had arrived in fear of what condition she’d be in. 

Last time I visited, only a week ago, I’d found her propped in a wheelchair in front of the communal television. Three other residents stared at a daytime drama, but my mom’s eyes were shut tight, her chin hovered above her chest, her neck swayed like a tree branch strained from the weight of her matted head. I’d moved close and whispered her name, “Sandy…Mom?” 

She’d stirred and surfaced slowly. That day, it had taken her more than an hour to emerge from the land of catatonia. For months now, she has not stepped outside the realms of dementia. 

Broken Mind

But this morning when I went through the double doors and saw my mom upright in the wheelchair at a table, I said to myself, “Thank God, today is different.”

She sits in the dining area among 4 equally silent, semi-comatose adults, some younger than her 82 years, others a bit older. I don’t know if they have Alzheimers or vascular dementia like my mom. It all looks the same to me.

“Hi, Mom,” I catch her eye from where she stares at something across the room. Her eyebrows lift and her head rotates slowly my way.  

“Oh, hi,” she says, “what are you doing here?” She seems to recognize me, her middle kid of three, all of us now in our fifties. All of us awed and alarmed at the swift changes in our mother this past year.

“I came to see you.” I touch her arm and ask if I can hug her. 

“Sure,” she says and leans in with a weak sideways squeeze.

Karen, the nursing assistant I recognize from my last visit, is handing out lunch plates. She places some mystery meat and peas in front of my mother then snaps a bib onto her neck. “Your mom got up late today, 10 o’clock.”

“Who got weighed today, what?” Mom is a bit hard of hearing and her mind scrambles the words that actually do register. 

“She said you got up late today,” I keep my tone light, a smile on my face as I smooth the bib on her chest.

Mom says nothing, plays with her fork but doesn’t lift it.

Karen continues, “She had a shower and I washed her hair but she didn’t like it much.”

I touch my mom‘s head and sift her damp gray-brown hair with my fingers. 

Heavy Head

“Play with my hair” she used to beg when a headache was heavy on her. “I’ll give you a nickel for every minute you do.”

The money was rarely tempting to 10-year-old me. Mom didn’t complain when I half-heartedly massaged her scalp. She was  satisfied by the least amount of attention she got from her busy kids. But I loved my mother so much that, even then, I had the sense to feel guilty for giving her less than 5 minutes of my time. The kind of guilt that fades fast but resurfaces in times and places like this. 

Mom looks down at her plate, makes no moves to eat. I lift the fork to her lips and she takes a bite.

Sitting across from my mother at the dining table is Janet. She’s 70 at most. Plump and smiling, I’ve seen her in the halls with a baby doll in her arms. Here at the table, no doll in sight, she’s smiling and glancing at Mom and me.

She says, “Divorced or dead, I seen him on this end but he’s not swift.” Then she chuckles, catching my eye, like we’ve shared a joke. I laugh with her for 2 seconds then quickly lift some peas to my mother’s lips.

I guess Janet, like my mother, retains some of her mannerisms even as she loses her mind. Her contagious laugh and my mother’s lifted eyebrow as she pats my cheek in pretend scolding, are old patterns their bodies hold. Though their words contain the right tones, most have lost their meaning.

Familiar Limbs

After feeding Mom a few more bites, I look around for an appropriate place to clip her toenails. No one wants to see other people’s overgrown and outdated body parts flying around the room. I wheel her to the sitting area. 

An old man named Jack is pacing back-and-forth in front of the emergency exit, his long limbs jerking in agitation. Karen asks him where he’s going. He says he’s going home. Karen tells him his daughter has his car and she’s probably running a few errands. 

“Is she coming back to get me?” 

“I think so.“ Karen lies like a pro and guides him to a chair on the other side of the living room. A fake fire flickers on the TV screen, replacing the fake aquarium from last week. Jack sits and stares at the floor, a confused look on his face.

Seeing no waste basket, I spread my jacket across my lap and cradle Mom’s size 5 foot. I peel her sock and note that her heel still bears the bruise-like bedsore formed when she lay sick from Covid nearly a month ago. I haven’t seen the bedsore on her backside in weeks and the staff says it’s not getting worse. Or better.

I try to direct the clipped nails to the jacket in my lap. When some go pinging across the room, I notice no one notices. Handling her familiar limbs, I note these crooked toes are not much different from when I was a kid, from when she was a young woman.  

Tired Feet

“Rub my feet or just squeeze,” she’d often plead from the couch as the sun was going down. I almost as often said, “No, Mom,” because my summer day was still going strong even if hers was a worn nub from her thankless job. Gilligan’s Island blared on the tv and if I did squeeze, it was distractedly. 

I rub and squeeze her feet tenderly now, sharing with her these memories of mine. She nods with an absent mind. I forgive myself for my childish selfishness, just as I would forgive my kids. Just as I know my mother forgives me.

This morning, her swollen left foot and ankle showcase those gnarly toes she’s complained about for as long as I’ve known her. Today, they sprout like the grotesque legs of a bloated tick, attached but somehow not part of the overall organism. Her ankle’s been this thick since my sister, my brother, and I made the decision last year to get help with our mother’s decline. Professionals in facilities provided an outside view of our ingrown worry about what was happening to our mother’s mind. In this past half a year, her body changed, too. New meds, institutional food. The hallucinations finally dissipated but her body holds on to the swelling. 

Stiff Legs

When I straighten her leg to get a better grip for filing her toenails, she winces, though her eyes are now closed. Is she dozing or zoning? Her dementia and her weeks in bed have weakened her. And tightened the back of her legs. Too many hours in the fetal position. I hadn’t seen it. Quarantined from it. From her. 

During my last visit, her twice-a-week physical therapist said Mom still wasn’t walking. In fact, she could barely stand.

“She should be doing more stretching.” She demonstrated how to stretch her legs back into shape. I hoped the staff was watching. I could not be there every day to rehabilitate her legs. Was this above their pay grade?

This morning, Mom seems satisfied with the wheelchair. But the staff would benefit if she could bear some of the weight of her showering, her toileting, her shuffling to and from the dining area.

My mother is mostly cooperative with those paid to care for her.

“We love Sandy, she’s always joking around,” her caretakers insist. They say she sometimes refuses to do what they ask. Who would blame her? Strangers are putting her in the shower and on the toilet, pulling down and up her adult diapers every two hours. Getting her in and out of her bed.

Today, the toenails are up to me.

Invisible Tears

When I finish clipping and smoothing those old toes, I wrap the scraps and dust in my jacket. Tucking it into my bag, I admonish myself to remember to shake it out in the trash when I get home.

“I’m going to go now, Mom, I love you. ”

“Okay, I love you too, Chris. Thanks for coming.”

Nothing in her tone to indicate emotion but she lifts the tissue in her hands and dabs at a fake tear. I can’t tell if it’s a cover up of some un-shown sadness or one of her many ways of being funny.

When I kiss the top of her head, a trickle of grief begins to fizz in my nose, thicken in my throat.

I buckle up in the parking lot and start the car. Anguish cascades through my heart and crashes in the deepest parts of me. By the time I drive the many miles home, I’ve let the waterfall wash through and forgotten all about those pieces of my mother gathered up in my jacket.

At home, I lift it unthinkingly from the bag and it spills its contents onto my floor. Oh no! She has come home with me in those jettisoned remnants of a body now broken. Always there, my mother, and now I marvel and weep to sweep her up like any other piece of dust. 

 

 

UPDATE:

My mother passed away on June 2nd, 2022 after dementia took its toll on her body and mind. Though, to me, it felt like a slow-motion nightmare, the time between her dementia diagnosis and her death was less than a year.

I had the painful privilege of being with her almost daily in her final weeks in a skilled nursing facility. She ended up there due to a bedsore she developed in her Memory Care facility. While under a covid quarantine there, she was so badly cared for, the bedsore became a deep wound that needed skilled intervention and attention. Those two weeks in bed and in isolation had left her body weaker and her dementia worse. Despite the skilled nursing wound care, she never regained her ability to walk or her ability to heal.

So there she was in the end, my dear mother, in that hospital bed, her limbs rigid, her mind lost to most of her memories.

The spring flowers waved at me each day as I passed them when entering the housing I knew would be her last. As I rode the elevator to her room, my mind and heart left the clear skies of spring and entered the murky world of a hospital corridor.

Each day I arrived in her room trying to be ready for whatever I would find. Some days, Mom seemed to recognize me and lifted her lips in a slight smile. Other times, she stared past me, and refused to eat or drink.

I endeavored to alleviate the suffering we were sharing in that sunny room with a view of which she wasn’t aware.

Each hour we spent together, I smoothed her frown and combed her hair. I cleaned her eyes and urged her to sip water, maybe playing her some music. Whether plying her with her favorite ice cream or soothing her with her favorite Out of the Grey song, I did my best to say good-bye to my mom many times along that long road of suffering.

Days before she passed in her sleep, I told her the story of her life and mentioned her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren by name. I let her know that each of us loved her, were safe and happy, and that she was safe and could be happy, too,

“Be free, Mom, free from worry about the people you love. You’re free to finally just be.”

God Hasn’t Changed, But I Have

take a break and change like the woman in the willow

Bananas

As a one-year-old, my daughter, Chloe, ate a banana every day. I’d mash up that meal for her like cashing in a guarantee: she’d get a solid breakfast to help her grow, no matter what other foods she’d refuse throughout the day. 

By two she was peeling and eating the fruit as she toddled in the wake of her big brother and sister. Whatever the mood or the weather, Chloe’s days contained bananas. She loved them. 

Until she didn’t. 

One morning when she was three, she refused her staple food. Something inside her had changed. It was as if her body told her brain, “enough is enough.” It needed to take a break. So the bananas went away for awhile.

God Words

I can relate. When my kids were kids, I ate up Christian scripture like Chloe gobbled her bananas. Each day,  I took in the words of the Bible like nutrients for my soul, a daily dose for growth. I loved it.

Until I didn’t.

Unlike Chloe’s sudden loss of taste for bananas, my appetite for studying the Bible dwindled in the span of few years. For decades, I’d heard a sermon every Sunday, read a Bible devotional daily, and often listened to favorite verses on my Bible app. I took in a variety of good theology including books by R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and Tim Keller.

But I seemed to be digesting less and less. I was trying so hard to assimilate truth and see real changes, yet much of life wasn’t turning out the way the sermons promised.

Still, I kept holding out my cup, desperate for any drop of personal touch offered in the Word of God. 

Until that one Sunday sermon. 

The preacher was parsing a psalm. His three points couldn’t pierce my clogged ears. All I heard was, “blah blah bleh blah, bleh blah, bleh blah.” 

Uh oh.

The drone of his voice, the mincing of minutiae, the glut of information. I couldn’t take it in. The weight of the words made my head hurt. My throat was tight. I couldn’t swallow another bite.

It was as if my body told my brain, “enough is enough.” Something inside me had changed. I needed to take a break.

Trying

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christian habit of sifting scripture for wisdom. 

My habits were the problem.

I had devoured the God-words, waited decades for certain prayers to be answered, for certain promises to have their impact. My striving had not yielded the results I asked for. My chronic pain remained. The peace that passes all understanding had not made its way to my heart.

All of my trying began suppressing my hunger. My efforts misled my expectations. All that remained unanswered had soured my search.

Is my faith too weak to work His healing power in me? Are my physical and spiritual disappointments just thorns I have to live with? Is my analytical grip too tight to transfer God’s words to the unconscious parts of me, the parts where the heart beats on its own and opens to joy without effort?

For years, I’ve been trying to answer these questions.

Take a Break

It’s hard to explain and I do not completely understand what was and is changing in me. Obviously the subject is bigger than this format allows. But it’s a start for uncovering what I have yet to discover.

My recent writing doesn’t contain many scripture references because too many God words auto-fill their definitions. For me, their overuse has drained their power, becoming jargon that crowds out the passageway to my heart.

Like many of the lyrics I’ve written, these paragraphs untangle my past to get my story straight. By refusing to use band-aids, I touch upon some unhealed wounds. 

Life is neither static nor settled. The unfinished story leaves room for doubt and discovery.

More than just practical application, I’m looking for a real change. A change of heart. For that, for now, I need to take a break from trying to control my heart’s response. Perhaps I can leave that up to God.

Back to Bananas

 “The last thing any of us need is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.”  (Barbara BrownTaylor in An Altar in the World)

My body knows how to digest my food, to absorb the nutrients I need to survive. Thus, I can trust it when it loses its taste for a certain meal.

Chloe eventually returned to eating her bananas. She’d had her break and could begin enjoying the food again. I’m not there yet with my one-time staple although I’ll probably get hungry for scripture soon enough.

One thing I know, God has not changed, no matter my thoughts or feelings. But the vicissitudes of life keep forcing changes in me. So, for now, looking for life in the bigger story includes taking a break.

A Parent’s Blessing: “Travel Well”

Dente family photo from 2009

Seasons End

parenting is a job that does not have to end
the Dente kids in 2009: Julian, Carina, Chloe
The seasons of parenting are gone like the summer. A sense of peace hovers in my memories of those decades. My husband, Scott, and I get a little teary-eyed when we talk about the days of raising our three children. Now that they’re adults, nostalgia for their childhoods sometimes seeps into our hearts. They all live near enough to keep us close but, after the long haul, parenting sometimes feels like a rip-off:
  1. The kids take your planned obsolescence and run with it—showing off how strong and solid they can be without you.
  2. You finally get older and wiser but you’ve already passed on some bad habits and ideas from your younger, dumber days.
  3. Those grown-ups that used to be kids have become great thinkers and conversationalists. But now you have to schedule those precious chats.
  4. The family dog becomes the spoiled kid, getting more treats and leeway than her 2-legged siblings did.

Hope Remains

parenting is an ongoing occupation
Christine with daughters Chloe and Carina
Hope for our kids’ future sweeps in like a fresh breeze. Scott and I smile when we talk about the beauty our three are adding to the world. Like Julian’s love for his wife and son and the music they make together. Like Carina’s love for her husband and daughter and her courage in the roughest of places. Like Chloe’s love for her family and friends and her passion for bettering the world.
Parenting delivers a lot of pay-offs:
  1. You can rest your case and let them take up and examine the stuff you tried to teach them.
  2. You get to let their significant others care for them and carry some of your worry.
  3. You can recognize and receive the wisdom your adult kids have to offer.
  4. You can enjoy the turkey because all they expect from you is the gravy.

Life Moves On

parenting is an ongoing occupation
Scott with son Julian
Scott wrote the song, “Travel Well,” for our most recent Out of the Grey project, A Little Light Left.
He spent a lot of time honing in on what he wanted to say, playing those guitar chords over and over until he landed on the language he was seeking, the perfect way to send our kids off.
But parenting is never perfect. We can fill our kids’ suitcases with light or heavy loads. Or a little of both.

We never wanted to weigh our kids down with excess baggage but we certainly did. We talked a lot about discernment and thinking critically about our culture, but a little less analysis may have led to lighter hearts. Also, in our attempts to keep them safe in the chaotic world of touring and travel, we added worry and anxiety too often to the mix.

Travel Well

parenting is an ongoing occupation

The good news is we’re still on the journey with our kids as adults. Although arrivals are few, it’s never too late to be a better parent. Send-off’s are important whenever someone heads out:

  1. You can seek forgiveness for unnecessary burdens you bestowed.
  2. You can call to connect and keep the conversation going.
  3. You can keep your ears and hearts–like the door–always open.
  4. You can be honest and say, “I don’t always understand your Instagram but I’ll keep following you anyway.”
We talk with our three on the phone regularly. The home they grew up in is still their place to land from time to time.
Yes, the seasons of raising kids end. But the blessings don’t have to. As parents, we can always be improving the lives of our adult kids and their kids after them as we wish them peace, hope, and love. Because, at the end of the day:

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 some 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 might say, ‘we’re woke.’

I think I’m woke. From God to 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 think simplistically. Others latch onto ideologies that match their bent. Extreme ideas can tempt any of us. 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.

 

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!