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!

 

Something Special: An Interview with Scott Dente

Scott Dente plays acoustic guitar

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

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

A. You have readers?

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

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

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

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

needle arm of a turntable playing a vinyl record

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to rock.

side view of man playing electric guitar

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the Grey CD cover

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

A. Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

A. Uh oh. Too many to list just one:

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

Christine and Scott smiling in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A. Sure, I have a few muddled thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

Cloudy Today? Get Out of the Grey!

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

Puff Piece: As It Is

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

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

Out of the Grey: As It Was

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

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

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

I suggested Christina and the Waves but that fell flat.

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

Blame it on the Grey

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

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

What Does Out of the Grey Mean?

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

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

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

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

A Whole New Meaning

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

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

Jesus asked:

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

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

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