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!

What’s The Story About?

the woman in the willow by christine dente

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

(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

Finding Freedom In Confinement

finding freedom in confinement

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

Living With Limitations

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

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

finding freedom in confinement

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

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

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

The new limitations and tough choices are shocking.

Sudden Seclusion

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

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

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

Chance for Change

finding freedom

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

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

I Am Finding Freedom From…

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

I Am Finding Freedom For…

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

Are You Finding Freedom To…

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

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

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

 

3 Creative Ways to Move Toward Emotional Health

3 pug dogs move toward emotional and mental health

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

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

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

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

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

1.  TELL YOUR STORY

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

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

There are many ways to tell your story:

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

2.  WRITE A SONGemotional mental health

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

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

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

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

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

3.  SING OUT YOUR SADNESSemotional mental health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy with Your Lot in Life?

living with your lot in life

Every spring, people get an itch for something new, something different. Many people move to new homes in this season, looking for a different situation or a change of view. They are imagining a better lot in life.

This spring, I have an itch for updating, remodeling, and just cleaning out the house I have. Yet, I am starting to look around, too. I’m noticing all the for sale signs and wondering, “is there something out there that could be better than what I have?”

Turn-Arounders

As a kid, I lived in several rented and temporary homes. No matter how many times we moved, Mom always kept my sister and brother and me in the same school district. But I didn’t like the impermanence of the shifting address, the change of neighbors. I wanted to settle in and stay for awhile.

These days, I live in a house of my own at the end of a cul-de-sac in a small suburban neighborhood. Cul-de-sac literally means “bottom of a sack.” The name says it all. In a cul-de-sac you can’t just drive through. It’s a dead end of sorts for those who don’t live there. My family and I call them the turn-arounders, the cars that come in to find they must follow the circle around to get back out to where they meant to go.

Not me. I belong here and I like being at the bottom of the bag where I can see who is coming and who is going, where I can watch the kids play and the neighbors can have an eye out too.

Permanent People

There are nine homes gathered around our little circle of macadam. Almost half of these have had the same families in them for as long as my family has lived in ours. Scott and I and our three children moved to this house in December of 1995. That same week, a Christmas card from some neighbors in the same circle appeared in our mailbox. Robert and Linda live three doors down and around. Amazingly, they had been in the cul-de-sac for many years before welcoming us and they still call it home these 24 years later.

Also, Joe and Amy to our left and Austin and Diane next to them have been here longer than we have. These four families, including ours, have grown up together. We watched each other’s daughters and sons grow up and go on to adulthood. We didn’t pick each other as neighbors, but we’re happy with the lot we got.

Camels and Change

When we moved to Nashville in 1988, Scott and I decided to live in the suburbs. Having both grown up in suburbia, he in River Vale, New Jersey and I in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, we imagined that living downtown would be expensive or unsafe and that living rurally would be inconvenient. Thus, when we were ready to leave our suburban apartment and buy a home, we settled on a nearby little neighborhood still under construction. We loved the lot we got and the area was spacious and safe.

At the time, the neighborhood was perched on the edges of development. It bordered farms and woods in an unincorporated little town. Not surprisingly, in the 20+ years since then, new towns and houses have sprouted up around us. Now, the traffic growls along the main road for most of the day. It rumbles in the background of our backyard into the evening.

 It wasn’t always that way. The birds and bugs used to be the loudest performers in our backyard haven beneath the trees. These days, I sometimes strain to hear them above a muffler’s roar or a siren’s wail. With city growth comes the inevitable sprawl. We are certainly part of the problem as our neighborhood was just the camel’s nose under the tent.

Convenient and Clean

Nevertheless, our subdivision is still a splendid place to live. Our kids say it was a great place to grow up. Friends were a sidewalk skip away and the nearby neighborhood pool was uncrowded and clean. Community in the front yard and privacy in the back. Grocery stores just a quick drive down the road and a homeowner’s association to keep our property values up to snuff.

Scott and I also found our Nashville suburbia to be the perfect place for making our music. We did all of our recording in local studios. Our first two records came to life in a nearby strip mall studio and the next several emerged from the Art House studio which was only a 5-minute drive from home. Nowadays, our own home studio is as convenient as it gets.

Back in the 1990’s, when we were touring a lot, we would board our tour buses in nearby grocery store parking lots. Our record label was only a town away. Managers and booking agents were close by, too. The airport is a quick 25 minutes on a light traffic day. What more could we want?

Country Cousins

My sister, her husband, and their seven children started out on the outskirts of Nashville near us. Now, they live far out in the country, closer to the border of Alabama than to Nashville. They asserted their aversion to homeowners’ associations and close neighbors early on after their move from Pennsylvania to our neck of the woods. Twenty years later, they have a home on a lovely hill surrounded by their twenty-nine acres. Although their church and community are quite close, their nearest neighbors are tucked out of sight and their closest grocery store requires a twenty-five minute drive.

They certainly have their freedom from associations. What Scott and I sometimes get are nosey board-member neighbors reporting  that our moldy siding and paint-peeled eaves aren’t up to neighborhood covenants. Or we get letters threatening fines for unruly lawns and other debatable infractions. At its worst, our homeowners association has been a small cabal of localized tyranny.

There are more reasons to envy others’ rural isolation. If I lived at the end of a dirt road, I could go out to get my mail in my underwear — if I wanted to. Additionally, it would be nice to not have that middle-of-the-night barking of the next-door dog, consistent and persistent these many years. There was one early morning, around 3 AM, that I actually went from my bed to the dog owner’s door in my underwear, half-asleep as I was from the disruption.

“Please stop letting your dog run around and bark in the cul-de-sac every night at this time. We are trying to sleep here!” She was shocked—by the accusation or the underwear? Both, I suppose. The barking stopped but only for a short time.

City Friends

Those we know who live in cities have a more eclectic community experience. Their neighbors are much more diverse. Our New York City family brushes shoulders with people from an amazing array of cultures and countries. I have family and friends who live in East Nashville and South Nashville neighborhoods who experience a lot of economic, racial and cultural diversity. With some intentionality, they get to know people who look, think, and live differently than they do. They also hear the occasional gun shots and keep their kids inside at night.

In my song, “Cul-de-sac Cathy,” I sing that all of my neighbors are somewhat like me. For the most part it’s true: we stay within a certain income range and have a lot of the same choices of schools and provisions for our kids. I did have an Afghani friend in the neighborhood for a while before she and her family moved away. I enjoyed learning about her views of Islam and America and family life. Mostly, though, I interact with people I can relate to. Seems to be a human propensity. Something about birds of a feather….

American Dreams

What am I trying to get at in my song and in this article?

I am reminding myself to be happy with my lot in life!

Perhaps I imagine judgements from city and country friends alike. These projections drive me to ask myself:

“Who are you to choose convenience and safety? Do you recognize the privilege in your choices?”

  • Do I have a right to affluence and permanence?
  • Is this middle-class American guilt?
  • Would you call it white privilege?

It’s definitely underpinned with lots of gratitude: I like my lot in life!

However, I do not want to sleep-walk in an American dream. I want God’s design for me and my family above all. The questions, however, don’t always get answered. Guess I’ll have to live in the tension.

In deed, I know I’ve got a lot that isn’t just a house. No more rented and temporary for me, I get to settle in and stay awhile. Thanks to the circle, Scott and I see our neighbors and they see us. We belong here. To this day we are all sharing our lives and dreams. In defense of suburbs and close associations, I’ll just say something about if the shoe fits….

                                                 Cul-de-sac Cathy

Everybody’s got two cars in the drive

We’re all working hard to give our kids a life

Tell me then, who am I to criticize?

The shoe is mine

 

I’m Cul-de-sac Cathy

Happy to be

Here where the world is convenient and clean

All of my neighbors are somewhat like me

Getting to work on American dreams

 

Why would I trade away my pretty little yard

Where the kids can play and life is not too hard

And it’s safe to stay outside even when it’s dark

It doesn’t get better than

 

Cul-de-sac Cathy

Happy to be

Here where the world is convenient and clean

All of my neighbors look somewhat like me

Falling asleep with American dreams

 

Well the country cousins say the isolation gives them freedom from associations

And my city friends seem so progressive in their accommodations

I must admit I wonder what I’ve missed by playing it safe,

playing it safe, am I playing it safe?

 

Guess I’m gonna live in this middle ground

Cause I got a lot that isn’t just a house

Location of the heart they say is everything

 

Cul-de-sac Cathy

Happy to be

Here where the world is convenient and clean

All of my neighbors are someone like me

Living our lives and sharing our dreams

 

Check out the other songs on my 5-Song EP, Closer to Free.

More like this: I Wanted My DogDead

Finding the Blind Spots

rear view mirror

I looked in the rear-view mirror twice to be certain no one was in that lane.

Turn signal on, I made my move across that dotted white line.

“Watch out!”

My husband had been looking in the same direction as I had, but he saw the car I had not seen.

An angry horn blast added to my addled nerves as I swerved back to my side of the road.

“I never even saw that car. Must’ve been in my blind spot,” I muttered, hands shaking slightly on the wheel.

Defensive Driving

We all have them.

Not that we know what they are exactly.

Blind spots are elusive but we’ve made enough dangerous moves to know they’re out there. Shouldn’t we conclude then, that there are things other people see that we are blind to?

My husband, Scott, and I made a deal early on in our relationship: When safety is on the line, we can say anything to each other.

We made this pact when we started having babies. Safety was tantamount back then, especially when driving around in vehicles. For example, if I saw some moves he was making that didn’t seem safe, I could tell him so. And he wasn’t supposed to get defensive.

Conversely, if he thought I was driving too fast, even if I didn’t agree, he could say it without fearing my justifications.

Or so it went, in theory.

We tried to acknowledge areas where we could be in error, not seeing straight. We agreed to stay open to another perspective.

The question is: What are my blind spots?

I don’t know exactly. But some of my friends and family do. Hopefully, I’m open enough to invite honest revelations from someone who cares: Christine, you’re over the line, with eyes off the road, and headed the wrong direction on a one-way street.

“OK,” I say, “thanks for letting me know.” Or so it goes, in theory.

Three Ways To See It

We approach the intersection of what we see clearly versus what remains murky with three choices:

1. We Can Help Others: Identify and point out the blind spots that others have.

Have you ever dared to tell someone what you see that they do not?

A dear friend of mine, who will remain nameless, was what I call a ‘nay-sayer.’ He’d often respond negatively when I first presented an idea to him. I did not think he was aware of this negative habit.

For example, I once asked, “Do you think we should try putting the couch on that side of the room?”

“No,” he said, “it won’t look right there.”

“Well,” I suggested, “can we at least try it?”

Minutes later, he admitted, “Wow, that does look pretty good over there!”

“You know, you do that a lot, saying no automatically before opening up to a possibility,” I mentioned.

He did not like the remark but took it to heart. A few days later, he responded to something affirmatively instead of a knee-jerk no.

It worked! When I dared to point out his blind spot, my ‘nay-saying’ friend reined in his bad habit.

Mostly though, people do not respond well to these types of observations and instead, they feel judged, threatened, and downright defensive. Honestly, it’s rarely worth the risk to help others by pointing out their blind spots.

2. We Can Help Ourselves: Another choice is to just notice others’ blind spots and learn from them without attempting to correct their vision. Spotting other people’s headlong rush to self-destruction, or just their annoying habits, is easy and we may even have a plan to get them straightened out. But usually, we do better to keep our observations to ourselves.

For example, I had an acquaintance who related to her teenage daughter more like a friend than a mother. I was certain they were headed for some rough roads if she didn’t step in and act like a parent. However, I decided not to go poking my fingers into their business. As the years unfolded, the girl grew up and turned out just fine. They did not need me to set them on the right path.

In other good news, my angst and my judgment did cause me to take a look at my motivation and try to find my blind spot in that situation.

3. We Can Humble Ourselves: The best choice I know for finding blind spots is to admit there’s always more than meets the eye. When looking at others and ourselves, humility is key to breaking us out of our pride and insecurity, two-sides of the same prison cell.

If I look for my own log jam and give the benefit of the doubt to others–also known as compassion–I’m on my way to finding freedom.

Consider the Blind Spots

Why do we defend first before considering assertions? I have noticed how I leap to justify myself when someone questions my moves.

For example, a few months ago, my daughter challenged me about a certain attitude of mine that boiled to the surface:

Two high school boys approached us as we were leaving a store. They had a box of candy which they were selling to raise money for something at school. Or so they said.

I was immediately suspicious and just told them, no thanks. The store manager had come out by then and asked them to move away from his storefront. As we walked to the parking lot, I told my daughter they were probably just scamming us, not really raising money for their team but for themselves. Her jaw dropped and she asked me if I might be judging them because they were African-American boys.

My feathers ruffled, I said, “no, I just didn’t see any official looking stickers on the box or have any sense that they were legit. I’m not prejudiced!”

She suggested, however, that I could have been reacting to them based on their skin color without realizing it. “They did have an official-looking document explaining it, Mom. You just didn’t see it.” Blind spot. Ouch. I had to reconsider my reaction.

(I found out later that, before she went to where her car was parked, she found the two young men and apologized for how the store manager had treated them and she wished them the best in their endeavor. That’s my girl!)

Poor Judgement

Jesus told us to remove the plank in our own eye before trying to nab the speck of dust in someone else’s. He says I will be judged in the same way I judge others. Is that really what I want?

No way!

My judges won’t see all of the extenuating circumstances or hidden situations in my life. They’ll make projections and false accusations. This gives me pause–a long inhalation of introspection–before I dare go pointing and poking.

Jesus’ point, I believe, is to focus us on our humility–or lack thereof.

Humbling myself is a slow-motion scenario. It involves an interlude of reflection before reaction or projection. Check the mirrors. Check them again. Ask what my fellow-travelers see. Look over my shoulder and proceed with caution.

Cultivating this sort of honest accuracy in your self-assessment will help you to know where your talents and limits truly lie, saving you from embarrassment in some situations while ensuring greater success in others. Meanwhile, you will have an honest and accurate sense of which areas you truly need to improve.

We know blind spots can crush us. If we refuse to look where we’re going, examine bad habits, and listen to what people are trying to tell us, then we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Three Best Case Scenarios

Here’s what we should do when it comes to blind spots:

  1. Give the benefit of the doubt to those we’re tempted to correct. Assume we don’t see the entire picture.
  2. Stop being defensive when someone points something out to us. Consider their perspective.
  3. Humble ourselves by taking an honest look in the mirror. Be willing to really see what’s there.

Through meditation, introspection, journaling, and just journeying, we can find some of our own blind spots!

But don’t stop there. Especially when you’re already in the car and picking up speed.

Ask for help from another set of eyes. Invite others to tell you some things about you. Seek another perspective before you make a lane change. Who knows, maybe if you drop some of your defensive maneuvers, the people around you will do the same.

 

*A word about Self-Compassion: This article is not meant to be one more way of beating ourselves up or driving ourselves to do more. Self-compassion is at the heart of a beautiful life. The instruction to love others as we love ourselves implies that we love ourselves. It is not a given that we actually do. In fact, some of us despise ourselves and it shows in the way we live. If we start with love and acceptance of ourselves, we can then find the freedom to live an honest, open, humble, and joyful life! More on this in another article.

Check out my related article: Making Connections, Not Projections.

Learning to Breathe

learning to breathe

I have been learning to breathe again.

I’ve been practicing breathing for a few months now. You know, the kind of breathing that requires a concentrated effort to simply listen to the sound, the sound of your breath.

No thoughts allowed. Just create a small wind tunnel in your throat and focus on that sound for twenty minutes. It’s supposed to be healing; a meditative exercise in calming the brain and body.

‘How does one not think thoughts?’ I wonder in my head as I try to listen to my breath. The sound reminds me of ocean waves on the beach in some small town along the Gulf of Mexico, and I picture myself on the sand, and, oh, I could use a week at the beach and–oops, there I go thinking thoughts again!

Letting Go of Tension

When I do this practice, I usually lie on my back on the floor with my knees up on a chair. This creates a release for my lower spine and gives me the best chance to not use a single muscle. Except for my breathing muscles.

I hold a lot of tension in my body, even when lying in this completely relaxed position. My neck is tight and my feet and hands slightly clenched. Honestly, when I roll out of bed every morning, I have more tension in my hips and back than when I rolled into bed. How does that happen? Do my muscles ever loosen their grip? If not in sleep, then when?

That’s why I am re-learning how to breathe, how to tell my brain that all is well. Then maybe my brain will give my muscles a vacation. Take a few days off, go to the beach, ahh the beach, the ocean, oh my thoughts are running off again and I was supposed to be just breathing, just listening…

Learning to Die

Have you noticed how an exhalation makes your torso collapse a bit? The rib cage shuffles down and the shoulders drop as the diaphragm forces the lungs to let go of their air. If I push all of the air out of my lungs, my entire body drops more deeply and more heavily toward the floor. Pausing between that full exhale and the next breath in, I lie in stillness like a corpse.


This place between breaths feels like a kind of death. When I empty myself of the breath of life and hesitate before the next inhalation, I am in liminal space. Between rooms, I pause on the threshold and take the time to examine where I’ve been, before moving on to God-only-knows-where.

As I understand it, the autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When I inhale, I engage the sympathetic so that my body is ready for flight or fight. My heart rate increases and my bladder is more than willing to empty itself.

When I exhale, my heart rate should drop as the parasympathetic system kicks in for calming and relaxing my body. In this state, I should be able to digest food and lose some anxiety. The bladder holds on and the bowels loosen up.

Not so much for me.

One Breath at a Time

My sympathetic system seems stuck on hold. Hyper-vigilance might be a good word: ready for anything all the time. It’s as if my body is saying, “no way, José, I’m not letting you die!”

Maybe I learned hyper-vigilance as a child, lying in my bed at night hoping Dad would come home so Mom could relax. Perhaps it was later when we were hoping he wouldn’t show up drunk to wake us up in the middle of the night. Possibly, I learned to be on high alert because of my personality, hyper-sensitive or something.

Let’s face it, the unpredictability of life presents a case for staying on the watchtower, no matter how safe your castle may seem.

What I want to know is: how do I let go and live now? Forget the past; who knows the future?

This very moment is what’s happening!

So, back to the breath.

Learning to Live

When I practice my twenty minutes of doing nothing but breathing and listening, I am learning to live in the moment I’m in. Trust the present being, let the doing take care of itself.

I’m not supposed to be thinking but here’s what I’m thinking:

  • The very first breath we take as humans is at birth. Our life in the womb suddenly opens up to the flow of air through mouth, throat, and lungs.
  • Then comes our first exhalation–a tiny death as life immediately shakes our bodies and creates fear and insecurity. We feel untethered. No wonder most babies start out with a good cry.
  • The next breath in is a tiny resurrection: Oh, I’m still here and I’ve been here before. I’m alive.

Something in Me Just Takes Over

And so it goes. Every breath a birth, death, and resurrection.

If it weren’t a mystery, we’d have stopped thinking, talking, and writing about it by now. But Life is wild. The daily-ness of each day, the normalcy of each creature, the magnitude of every morning. Why shouldn’t every breath we take be as astounding?

As I lie here learning to breathe, my shoulders settle for a better situation. A connective tissue clicks loose in my spine. An electric tingle sizzles on the tips of my fingers and toes. Small signs of change and movement towards release. I’ll take them.

I’m alive, I’m dying, I’m alive again. My soul longs for eternal life even as my flesh lies encumbered by the tension of suffering and death. With all of that to think about, I’m glad I don’t forget to breathe.

(Oh, and here’s a song about breathing: Love, Like Breathing)

The Rock and The Hard Place: Finding A Way Out of Unsolvable Problems

When UP is Not an Option

There’s the rock and there’s the hard place. Then there’s me in the middle.

The sides of these impossible walls are smooth and sheer. They are close enough together to make me claustrophobic but far enough apart to keep me from shimmying up between them. Sure, I can look up but what good does that do? Clear freedom sky to taunt when up is not an option.

So I sit. And think. And whimper and simmer.

Years I’ve been here in this quandary. My few choices seem like no choice at all.

I have tried to kick against the rock and it bruises my toes.

I have turned to pound my fists on the hard place and it mocks my futile flesh.

Is there no way out?

My Rocky Place

Do you have those stuck places in your life? Ever feel like you’ve been dropped into a deep hole out of which neither God nor the universe is offering a hand?

Call it your quandary of (insert your monolithic predicament here). Describe your rock of (insert ineffective solution here) and your hard place of (insert equally-useless option here).

Here’s one of my stuck places: my body doesn’t feel so great. Pain and discomfort have stuck with me for most of my adult life. I have spent a lot of time, energy, and money trying to figure out how to feel better physically.

Over the years, my mysterious aches and pains have driven me to various practitioners of the healing or medicating arts. I always hit a wall. No-one seems able to answer my questions or make me feel better. When I try some new supplement or just plain eating well and exercising, I still end up achy and disappointed.

Therefore, I’m caught between the rock of “trying to make myself feel better” and the hard place of “living with the pain and suffering.”

Both choices have been no choice at all. The first hasn’t worked and the second has not been much of an option. Am I missing something? Is there a third way to grapple with this problem?

The Reconciling Third

After I have spent my energy in seeming futility, I imagine what else I could do with all of this drive to find a way out.

In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr reminds me to survey my surroundings with different eyes. About necessary suffering, he says,

“Being held long and hard inside limits and tension….allows us to search for and often find the ‘reconciling third’ or the unified field beneath it all.”

Jesus reminds me that in this world I will have trouble but, through suffering, He has overcome the world.

St Paul says that I can rejoice in my suffering, knowing it will produce endurance and character leading to hope.

Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade shows me that a step of faith can reveal a hidden and unimaginable way forward.

Hard-Pressed Hebrews

Long ago, Moses and the fleeing Hebrews found themselves in an impossible situation. Pressed between an Egyptian army and a watery wall, they saw no options. The ‘reconciling third’ was nowhere in sight. What they had forgotten, as I often do, is that sometimes the third way is the way God comes through. In the case of the hard-pressed Hebrews, it was a miracle: the supernatural broke into the flow and carved a path through the impassable.

Miracles like this have not broken into my predicaments. Often, my problems resolve in the natural flow of time and space where step follows step and a small erosion brings change and freedom. Like when I realize my feet don’t ache as much or my low back has loosened a bit.

A true miracle for me, though, is when I surrender to the suffering and my suffering reveals itself as a blessing. God sometimes comes through for me by shifting my perspective.

Paradigm Shift

hard view new perspective
pixabay

This shift in my paradigm, my frame of reference, reveals a new angle on an old point of view. A tiny shaft of light breaks into the space.

Like when I accept my physical limitations and suddenly the permission to rest and relax feels like a miracle!  Or when I stop thinking and worrying about the pain and it somehow loses its intensity.

When the situation has not changed but my heart sees it in a different light, I realize that the change I have been searching for is taking place within me. My narrow place gives way to more space.  Hallelujah!

Two Hard-won Nuggets

1. Keep moving.

I will always have seemingly unsolvable problems. However, I’m old enough to realize that many struggles work themselves out as I get up and on with life each day.

  • Any kind of faithful obedience in the same direction, despite hardships and intractable issues, reveals the next step on a journey of hope.

2. Find freedom within the prison.

I try to get a new perspective, letting Surrender and Acceptance be my purview.

  • Any kind of faithful obedience in the same situation, despite hardships and intractable issues, reveals a beautiful new view within the confines of my condition.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not done searching for a way out of my pain and suffering. But my body must give way to the hardness of the way things are. My heart must soften and yield to what is yet to be revealed.

Who knows, maybe someday I’ll find a foothold in one of these walls after all.

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Finding Life in Creativity

finding life in creativity

Creativity 101

I wrote my first song after leaving home. creativity

At eighteen, I’d moved out of my house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and landed at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh as a college freshman. It was my first time living away from home.

Feeling the loneliness of being a 5-hour drive from all that was familiar, I wrote a song for my boyfriend called, “Baby, I’m Missing You.” That’s all I remember of my first song but I’m certain it was not very good. 

However, this creativity had awakened something new in me. I sensed songwriting was a door to discovering more of myself, healing deep hurts, and dealing with some confusing emotions. Maybe the creative life was for me!

Little did I know how far I would have to go to become a true artist.

Secondary Education

We have to start somewhere. Singing was my beginning. First in elementary schooI then all the way through high school, I sang other people’s songs. I still remember my first solo in a choral Christmas concert. I got to step out and sing a short verse of Wintertime Aglow. The local TV station aired it which thrilled my mom. That performance had a huge impact on my 15-year-old self. What else would I be brave enough to try?

I sang my heart out in every high school talent show that came my way after that. Linda Ronstadt and Pat Benatar inspired me to belt out many a rock ballad for my peers. I was always mimicking the singer’s inflections, matching the song’s sentiment without really comprehending its message. In one show I sang “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” by Linda Ronstadt. The chorus went like this:

Someone to lay down beside me
Even though it’s not real
Just someone to lay down beside me
You’re the story of my life

Thankfully, it was not the story of my life. The message went over my head but tapped into my heart’s desire. I wanted to sing out my sadness with passion.  

The Singer and the Songwriter

That first semester in college, with all its disruptive changes and challenges, I decided to give my feelings a voice. With a borrowed a guitar, I plunked out the 3 chords I knew. I created a melody and lyrics to match my loneliness. And to fit my writing style.

creativityWell, my emerging style.

Just as my vocal style wanted to amalgamate all of the singers from the ’70’s and ’80’s whom I wished I could be, my writing style wanted to combine Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, and Janis Ian to create the perfect blend.

In the end, though, I had to be me. My songwriting morphed into a vehicle for my limited vocal power and the message and emotions I had to communicate.   

Creativity 201

At Berklee College of Music I began writing in earnest. I had transferred to this college in Boston because I wanted to move beyond the classical voice training from my first college. Now I could work on becoming a singer-songwriter. Berklee was perfect because it was all about the pop and jazz!

My songwriting and theory teachers taught me so much. I studied jazz harmony, ear training, voice, and performance. Also, I got involved in ensembles, gained recording studio experience, and performed in some shows on Berklee’s big stage.

My singing and songwriting improved as did my performance chops. Probably, I wouldn’t want to record any of those early songs I wrote. But they are still a part of my bigger story.  

Scheduled Creativity

Scott Dente and I had met at Berklee during my second semester. We became an item soon after and have collaborated on music ever since. After graduation and marriage, we loaded up the truck and headed to Tennessee. Nashville, that is. 

As Out of the Grey, we got to make 7 studio records. After that, he and I worked on my solo projects and several outside collaborations. Throughout the decades of our musical marriage, we always had to make the time to write. We called it scheduled creativity.    

In fact, we’re doing it that way still. He works on new music constantly with his production company called Global Genius. He has a lot on his plate and maps the days for creative space.

Creativity has never been easy for me. I can’t just drop everything when a bright idea strikes. Mostly, I like to schedule my creativity and hope for inspiration to show up. She usually does. If not, I come back again and again until I get my writing up to snuff.  

Tools For Creativity   

creativity
A Handbook and A Workbook

Recently, I put together a few songwriting tools for my songwriting students. The Singer and the Songwriter is a handbook and workbook for singer-songwriters. It’s based on my training and experience.

I put in some teaching elements as well as exercises, prompts, and reminders to help writers to get creative.

  • I mapped out 10 steps to keep your flow of creativity going so you can start–and finish–your song.
  • I created a section for developing your lyrics by using figurative language. 
  • I included a section on basic music theory and harmony so you know what chord patterns work well and how to write a good melody.
  • My vocal technique section teaches you how to gain strength and range while releasing vocal tension.

The other tool is my Creativity Journal which has lots of space for getting creative with emotions, images, and lyrics. Using samples of some of my lyrics, this journal inspires writers of all kinds to create a flow of imagination and artistry. (If you want to get creative using an autographed Songwriter Handbook, you can find it here and I’ll also write you a nice note!)

Also, I created my 10 Tips for Better Songwriting on this site. 

The Bigger Story

Looking back, I see how far along the road I had to go to hone my artistic expression.

At the end of the day, the joy, the sorrow, and the chaos of life drive us to draw some creative conclusions about what’s going on. 

When I sing,”Walk By Faith,”  it’s because I can’t see straight in the broad daylight. I’m looking for a way to live in the big picture without having all of the answers. 

When my son sings, “Hallelujah,” I lift my hands and agree that I don’t know why I’m alive. Sometimes I don’t have to wonder why.

“Oh hallelujah, I am alive
Yeah and I don’t know why, why
No I don’t know
Hallelujah
I don’t have to wonder”

When You Create….

We all get creative in some way. Trying to put our lives into perspective, we write, draw, paint, or play.

  • Who did you sing along with as a teenager?
  • What artists have impacted your story? 
  • When did you create your first song, story, poem, or painting?
  • Have you tried getting creative lately?

Vulnerability’s Voice: See Through Me

As a grubby little tomboy climbing trees, I longed to be seen. vulnerability

“Watch me, Dad!”

He didn’t see me because he wasn’t around. My mom was always there but the “Bad Dad” impact seems to override a lot of the “Good Mom” effect.

Once when he was there, I had run crying to him because my kitten was trapped between two tool benches in the basement. As I remember it, (sorry, Dad, if my recollection is wrong) he rushed with me back downstairs to rescue the trapped cat. When he saw how she had gotten her head caught and was not hurt, he laughed and lifted the poor little thing up and out, showing me how easily I could have done it. I had made a stupid mistake and he teased me about it.

I think I dimmed the light in my heart a little that day, afraid to risk the feeling of exposure and vulnerability. After that, I grew smaller, wanting to be invisible for a while.

Then came middle school and high school and I cried ‘watch me!’ to all the boys willing to look my way. Exhilarated to be noticed, I clambered up the pedestal which displayed the gold plate inscribed: “talented, pretty and smart !” I got good at balancing up there. Whenever I came crashing down, I climbed back up and fell again many more times.

What Women Want

Have you seen the movie called What Women Want?

I like it because it’s about how people, how women, hide their vulnerability, their true selves. It’s a story that makes us imagine what would happen if we could read each other’s thoughts.

Mel Gibson plays a typical male chauvinist (do we use that description anymore?) who runs an advertising firm. After a strange event involving a hair dryer, nail polish, and lightning, he wakes up able to literally hear women’s thoughts.vulnerability

One of the minor characters in the film is a mousy office worker who gets stepped on and ignored all day long. She is nondescript and sad but no-one notices. Mel Gibson’s boss character doesn’t even know she exists in his workspace until he hears her thoughts in passing. Her perspective of life in the office surprises him as he recognizes her mute cries for help. She wants to be seen.

Her scenes, including the one where the boss discovers she’s been missing and goes looking for her at home, remind us to be attentive to those overlooked people in our lives. People so unassuming and ordinary that we see right through them, like an old shower curtain just doing its job. This actor made me think of all the quiet characters in my periphery whose thoughts might shock me if I could overhear the stories swirling there. Their vulnerability is hidden by invisibility.

What We All Want

On the other hand, we all know those other characters who stand out and rarely get missed. The confident, beautiful women who seem to have what every woman wants. The men with unquestioned charm and confidence. Picture the models in fashion magazines displayed on every page. Imagine the actors and artists and entrepreneurs interviewed before the camera. The powerful ones unafraid to voice their thoughts, able to stand tall in front of us all.

We put these types on pedestals and tell them how much we love them. We do it because we hope their fairy tale lives are true and we want to believe in them.

Of course, it’s not all castles and happy endings. When their worlds come crashing down, the surprise lasts only a moment because we know these posed and powerful are just like us…fragile, unsteady. Their vulnerability is hidden by the brave part they’ve been playing.

What I want

I want you to think I’m smart, talented, and pretty. But I also want you to see through my masks and tell me you really see me and love me.

What’s funny is how we do a disservice to one another by refusing to see through the masks both types wear: the hidden characters and the pedestal people. Vulnerability is scary.vulnerability

I am always worried about what they will think of me. How can I imagine that they are not more focused on what I will think of them? Crazy.

Every once in a while, I glimpse a freedom in which I am completely vulnerable and unselfconscious. Sometimes when I walk my dogs in the neighborhood or meet friends at a restaurant, I forget to care how my hair looks or what my clothes say. Other times, I don’t worry about saying something dumb or being less than special. In those moments, I am neither magnificent nor unremarkable. I am alive and loved in the world.

So Ordinary

I still want to be seen.

As a not-so-young-anymore person, I do not want to get lost in the crowd.  Yet I also sense there’s a peculiar freedom that comes with being ordinary. Have you felt it?

Aging teaches lots of lessons about being ordinary. As I have gotten older, I realize I can hop down off of all my pedestals. I can stop posing to be noticed.

On the other hand, I can step out of the crowd wearing some crazy outfit and wave wildly to my family and friends. I am becoming free to be exactly me!

See Through Me

I wrote this song, See Through Me, because I can relate to being in both positions of vulnerability: the invisible girl and the pedestal girl.

When others see through me as just another face in the crowd, I trust those who love me to notice everything about me.

When I’m feeling proud and tall, I trust those who love me to see through all of my posturing and love me for who I truly am.

When I do fall, I know they’ll gently lift me up again.

When I say, “watch me,” they do!

See Through Me

Look at me, I’m oh so ordinary

Just a face to lose in the crowd

Can you see me clearly unremarkable

Like the shadow of a passing cloud

      I’m paper thin, light as a feather

See through me

 

On this pedestal I look so steady

See my skin, the finest porcelain

Should you dare to shine a light my way

See the shadow of the shape I’m in

      So paper thin, fragile as glass

See through me

 

Another song I sing related to this idea is Closer to Free, also found in my new 5-song EP, Closer to Free.

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