The Longest Night: a Survivor’s Story

a full moon shines on a snowy winter forest

Have you ever lain awake for hours, unable to sleep, knowing you had to get up early?

I’ve had many nights like this: Each hour on the clock reigniting my brain. Every thought in my head stirring me further awake. The impending alarm looming in the dark. It can be a torturous experience.

Quite recently, I had one such long night.

The Darkest Hours

Last Thursday, December 21st, was the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. In my hemisphere, it marks autumn’s end and winter’s beginning.

Before bed, I stood in the doorway between hallway and bedroom, planning a new start for myself.

In the morning, the first day of winter, I’d get up earlier than usual and get right to my new regimen–reading, meditating and writing. Instead of letting the sun wake me up, I’d become an early morning person this year, starting tomorrow when it was still quite dark.

“Don’t wait for the New Year,” I encouraged myself, “make a resolution for the new season instead!”

Alarm set for 6:00 AM and covers tucked, I closed my eyes. Despite the dark and cold, I’d be up for the challenge. I expected that my 9:30 PM lights-out would usher me slowly to sleep by 10:00.

But 11 o’clock came and went. My body remained tense, refused to unclench. My neck stayed stiff like a fallen pine on a forest floor. Sure that pillow was soft and supportive, the mattress firm yet giving. But no, the tree of me refused to acknowledge the fall. A season of life — if even just a day — was over, and now was the time to let go. But my body was not cooperating.

Best Intentions

And it wasn’t just my body. There was also my mind. I watched it squirrel around unearthing sweet memories of my daughter’s and granddaughter’s visit that day. 

“Alright,” I observed, “my thoughts need a chance to scamper a bit.” So I let them rummage through some other joys of the past.

But then came their forays into the future, trying to solve imagined problems:

My throat was suddenly scratchy: “Oh no, am I getting a cold? I’ll take extra vitamin D in the morning, a little bit of zinc…” Then a news story I had read resurfaced: “Will the political order really collapse? How can I make a difference? Dear God, please keep the peace!”

Enough! I heard myself think. Time for a rest, for sleep. No need to entertain every last little thing that pops into your head….

Worst Nightmare

I checked the clock. Midnight. Crap.

Have I slept? I can’t tell if that noise from the floor was a creak, creature, or dream. Darn it, I set the alarm allowing for eight hours of sleep. 

My necessary eight had whittled to six. My heart pounded out the deficit, counting down to a bleary winter morning.

I got up and turned off the alarm. That helped settle the part of me–who is she?– that freaks out when a deadline looms at the end of rest.

She could be the me who, through years of touring, learned life on the road made sleep unpredictable. Or me as a kid whose evenings were disrupted by her dad’s drunken rampages. Maybe that part of me won’t relinquish the luxury of sleeping in.

Alarm off, I still saw 12:46 AM on the clock. But that was the last memory of my waking nightmare. I awoke at 6:40, December 22nd, quickly dressed and rushed downstairs to my husband’s coffee brew. What a long night. Welcome, winter. 

Dawns on Me

Did I fail that night in my winter’s resolutions? Lose momentum for real change? No, I don’t think so.

Yes, I’ve met some mornings earlier since then. And though the days are still short, they lengthen from here to June’s summer equinox. I have plenty of time to practice early-rising for getting a jump on the day.

This last week of 2023, I have looked back at the 12-month sweep to remind me that the years are built on seasons, filled with months of change, weeks of work and days of rest. Some nights are long and many hours have come and gone. But I’ve learned that the moment for change is always here, always now, always new. 

The Power of the Tales We Tell

The power of the tales we tell

Our thoughts have a lot of power. They come out of nowhere. They say things that may not be true. And if we don’t rein them in, they make up stories that take us to crazy places.

On top of that, our bodies believe the tales our minds have to tell. Apparently, our nervous systems either freeze, take flight, or get ready to fight with the right kind of threat.

To be honest, I tell myself lots of stories. My imagination generates situations that haven’t happened and most likely will never happen.

These thoughts often involve my family. When I am not with them, I am often picturing them and praying for their safety. If I let my mind wander too much, it makes up scary scenarios.

It gets worse when I add to that an app I have on my phone.

It’s called, “Find My Friends.” It shows me where family members are with the touch of an icon. Sometimes I use it to see where my son is when he is on tour with a band. Or I may confirm one of my daughters is safely back at her house after a visit. The benefits of locating those I love speak for themselves.

Yet this tracking device has drawbacks. Lots of times, seeing someone’s location makes me wonder and worry: “Why are they at that place? How come they’re not home yet? Has something bad happened?”

Three Stories

One evening last month, I opened that app to see if my husband Scott was almost home. And I noticed that my daughter, Carina, was at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. My heart started to pound. My brain began to scramble. My mind was trying to fill in that huge gap of ignorance: I knew not why she was there but I had my guesses.

In the next two hours I told myself three different stories and morphed through multiple states of mind and body.

♦ Story number one: “It’s 7:30 PM so this cannot be good. It must be that my daughter and her husband had to take their daughter to the emergency room! What has happened? What’s wrong with my granddaughter, Callaway! Why didn’t Carina tell me she was headed to the hospital?”

“Breathe, Breathe,” I told myself. “Pause and practice a non-reactive response. Let the panic pass. There’s no need to call or text her yet.”

The gap between my fictional catastrophe and what was actually happening was as wide as the miles between us.

Honestly, I was shocked at myself for how quickly I’d escalated the danger in my mind. And embarrassed that I could find my daughter’s whereabouts so easily. She didn’t need to be reminded in my panic that I was tracking her with my app.

I reminded myself, “You don’t know if this story is true.” True, I’d used the app in the past to confirm what I already knew. My daughter’s icon was in that very spot at downtown Nashville’s Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital countless times in the last three years. Since their daughter was born, she and her husband had shown up on the map at that location a lot.

Their emergency room visits began on Callaway’s third day of life. After nearly dying, Calla received her genetic disease diagnosis.

Later, after months of metabolic crises and then her liver transplant at 1 year old, she began a new tale of suffering, healing, and recovery. Add to that the ensuing hospital stays and tests and check-ups and I became quite familiar with that hospital. No doubt, I had good reason to be telling myself the frightful story.

Except that, at 3 years old now, my granddaughter had been steady, stable and thriving.

“Was she really rushed to the hospital tonight?” The tension in my neck said I’d better get the story straight.

♦ Story number two: “Ok ok, she’s just picking up Callaway’s prescription medication, the one that suppresses her immune system so she won’t reject her transplanted liver. Sometimes it’s convenient to go to the in-hospital pharmacy at night, right? Yes, that’s it. Carina has just dropped by to get some meds while Calla’s daddy gets her ready for bed at home. Phew.”

I closed the app and pushed my phone across the table. After a few deep breaths, I pledged to check again in an hour. “I’m sure she’ll be home by then.” 

♦ Story number three: It’s 8:30 PM and I have re-checked my phone to find my daughter’s icon now smiling at me from the middle of the Children’s Hospital.

“Ugh, that’s not where the pharmacy is and anyway, why would she still be there?” 

The app is quite precise — I can see she’s not in the emergency room or pharmacy area but actually in the hospital section itself. “Why would she be in a regular hospital room? Why hasn’t she texted me?”

My chest was getting heavy, my nerves were jangled and vibrating. “I’ve got to call her right now to find out what is wrong!”

“Breathe,” I tell myself, “and hold on. You really don’t know if the worst is happening.”

I relaxed my shoulders, opened my fists. Let my brain shift to a lower gear. 

“Wait a minute…oh yes, oh now I remember! My friend has a baby in the hospital and Carina has visited twice since he was born. That’s it! She’s visiting that newborn baby with special needs like her own child three years ago. My girl has a heart of compassion and fierce kindness that would send her back to that place which stirs her with so many memories. Yes, that’s it, Carina would definitely go in at night to support a suffering mother and child.”

The Power of Thought 

I did check again at 9:30 PM to see that Carina was safely home. Two hours and three stories later, my pulse had finally slowed.

The next day, she told me of her hospital visit and holding my friend’s sweet little baby boy. I admitted to her my two hours of silent storytelling. She smiled as one well-acquainted with the practice.

But the situation was what it was. Nothing changed in the time I spent fretting and flailing. Reality remained the same though mostly unknown to me. What changed was the state of my mind and my heart, depending on the story I was telling myself. 

This illustration of the power of projection, the impact of reacting with few facts, reminded me of why I am learning meditation and mindfulness.

I only see in part. A small part. New information can tell me a totally different story. Taking care to watch where my thoughts go, to notice the stories I’m telling myself, makes all the difference in my body and mind. In taking the time to breathe through the horror story, release my grip on a possible fiction, I found the space to stay present and wait, respond rather than react. 

One of these days, I’ll delete that app. But until then, I promise to use it more judiciously.

For more on this, read: “Have You Noticed What You Notice?”

For more about Callaway, read: “A Mother Shares Her Daughter’s suffering”

Are You Happy Now?

Are You Happy Now? Christine Dente

People tend to live for the future. We hope to be happy someday. As soon as our eyes flutter open on a solid new morning, our minds close in on the hours ahead.

Like this morning, when dawn glowed outside my bedroom curtains, I could have lingered in her dreamy calm. Instead, my inner manager shoved her aside:

“Ugh, it’s later than I thought. What is happening today? Oh yeah, friends are coming for dinner. Before that, I gotta clean the house, make a few calls, take the dog to the vet, and figure out what to cook. I’ll never get it all done!”

Good-bye, happy zone, hello, troubled future!

My mood went from glad to anxious in a snap. My mind mapped the morning to plan the day to actualize an evening. Exhausted before my feet hit the floor.

And I live my life–I mean–I plan my life that way.

Delayed Gratification

As a little kid, I didn’t think much about happiness. Instinctively, I reached for my pets, my blanket, or my mom for immediate satisfaction. Later, I learned to hold out for future fun. Like planning a visit to cousins next weekend or a trip to the beach in the summer.

I recall as a ten-year-old, my euphoria before visiting my dog at his new home. My parents had recently separated, forcing Mom and us kids to move to a smaller place. We had to give our big mutt away. My mother had promised we’d visit him. The anticipation of seeing the pup I loved was swelling in my chest that morning. A bliss resting on that future reunion.

Now as a grandma, I sometimes placate my grandkids by explaining, “Your daddy and mommy will be back in a few hours” or “Nonna and Poppa will visit again in 2 days.” Children learn early that some of their happiness is outside their grasp but held in a predictable plan.

Happy Ever After

When I was in my twenties and thirties, I believed in and lived for future bliss:

  • I put my hope in Christ and in a heavenly afterlife
  • I expected great things that God would eventually do on earth
  • I prayed for speedy relief for people in distress, including me
  • I longed for the moment when contentment would settle in my soul

I knew that happiness was not the highest goal in life. Love and purpose and sanctification were bigger and better concepts to chase than were contentment or a sense of well-being. They promised loftier rewards.

However, we humans naturally seek happiness. We want pleasure, not pain. We move toward food that tastes good, music that enhances our mood, people that love us, information that matches our beliefs. We pursue comforts that keep us comfortable.

Sometimes we avoid the donut to gain the pleasure of losing weight. Often we save our money for the reward of spending it later. We even take up our crosses in the hope that Joy approaches along the road. She may be miles away, meeting us when we’re old or even dead. But still, we all want happy-ever-afters.

I Wanted Everything

In the Out of the Grey song, “I Want Everything,” I wrote and sang of wanting everything that God had promised me:

You’ve given me a heart for the journey
You’ve given me a part in this story of yours
I’m a new creation, I can’t stay the same
I have an expectation someday things will change

I’m gonna keep searching, I gotta keep hoping
‘Cause I want everything, I want everything
I’m never gonna settle ’cause I want better, I want everything
I want everything you promised me

It’s all about longing for the good to come. I had an expectation that someday things would change.

Today I am as old as I’ve ever been. My vision is diminished. Less focus and more floaters cloud the field. Now I see that many changes I’ve waited for will not arrive. Physical issues and relationship predicaments probably won’t get fixed and may actually get worse. Many of the prayers which I lifted to the heavens, I’ve let fall like lead balloons.

I still want everything. But maybe what I want is what needs to change. Perhaps I already have what it takes to be happy now.

Happy Now: 3 Happiness Practices

Some say the feeling of happiness is available at any time.

In our inner confusion, in the hard parts of marriage, the craziness of raising kids, the chronic pains of aging, the mundane patterns of daily life–surely bliss isn’t dependent on these problems resolving.

Isn’t it there in the spark of happiness as we enjoy the coffee, as we warm to the physical touch of someone we love or enjoy the neon greens of a burgeoning spring? There is no time for delight like the present. For in reality, all we have is now. We cannot experience more than the moment we are in.

So how to practice happiness?

1. Have Gratitude: We all know that counting our blessings is the best way to bliss. Wanting what we have is all we need. You may even be living the dream you had of your life years ago. What part of now is exactly what you hoped for then? What a gift!

2. Mark the Memory: Recall a sublime moment and then hold the emotion. Create pleasant thoughts of someone you love. Lift a smile to your lips. Feel, memorize, and translate it to the here and now!

That little girl who visited her lost dog lives on in me somewhere. Remembering my bliss in anticipating his thick fur, my contentment at discovering he was OK without me: all are part of the past I can transfer to my body now.

3. Know Now: Take notice of the present moment. Use your senses. What do you see, hear, feel? This is where life exists and where satisfaction can be developed.

Do worried thoughts and harsh voices harangue your inner world? Take notice–then let them pass. Don’t believe everything your brain has to say. When mental language is not defining experience, experience is free to be free! Mindfulness and meditation practices are great for getting present.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I still hope and pray for good things to come. Yet, I also soak in happiness now. What I feel is somewhat within my grasp. What I know is this moment we’re in. May I, may you, may we be happy now.

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, 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!”

What’s The Story About?

the woman in the willow novel by christine dente

The Woman in the Willow: A Tale of Hope and Redemption

I wrote a novel about a woman facing old age.

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

Will my body and spirit succumb to the stifling effects of gravity and pain? Or will I find the strength to keep growing and bending with the wind? I don’t want my heart to close but to stay open like a willow tree, sharing grace and beauty in the place God plants me. I pray my trajectory of 58 years has not taken me too far afield of the accepting, compassionate old woman I wish to become.

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

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

Here’s a sample chapter: “God on the Lawn”

What’s the Story About?

(From the Ingram Spark Book Description)

Christine Dente delivers a moving story about a woman struggling to forget her traumatic past by hiding away in her backyard haven. The Woman in the Willow offers an exquisite invitation to engage in life’s flowering and flow despite the heart’s instinct to tighten and close. 

Catherine Hathaway has no intention of letting another child into her life.

Retired schoolteacher Miss Hathaway longs to be left alone inside her beautiful backyard garden. Just because the new family next door includes a precocious but lonely five-year-old named Tazzy, doesn’t mean the 70-year-old woman must open her haven or her heart to the neglected girl. Catherine is having enough trouble, losing her balance and her vision, without the disruptions of the unsettling memories that the child provokes.

Catherine’s 8-foot fence keeps her precious dog Percy safe in the yard but can’t keep Tazzy out. The spirited child finds a way through the unlocked gate, drawn by sweet Percy and the enchantments of the backyard garden. When she appears with suspicious red marks on her arm and other signs of abuse, Catherine spies on the family, convinced that the single mother is abusive like her own mother was.

The mysterious willow tree hovers throughout Catherine’s story. A refuge from her past, it is now the crown jewel of her garden. Waving from the creek’s edge behind Catherine’s home, the enchanting tree has a life and story of its own.

the woman in the willow by christine dente

Memories of the sister she lost and the mother who left her sweep Catherine toward her destiny with the willow, the river, and the child she must find to save her life.

Can this disenchanted old woman rise from the flood of grief and loss?

Will she find the spirit of God moving among the ferns and birds of her haven?

What part will the willow play in transforming Catherine from the woman she is into the one she wants to become?

Journey with Catherine in her search for growth and flowering in old age.

Read The Woman in the Willow

Read a sample chapter here!

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.”

Does Your Mind Have a Mind of its Own?

does your mind have a mind of its own?

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 2-part series 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.

God Hasn’t Changed, But I Have

young woman holds a pile of books and contemplates a banana

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.

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.