Walking with my daughter, Carina, on a lakeside trail recently, I happened upon an epiphany:
I project when I don’t connect.
What I mean is, I create mental projections on the wall of my imagination if I do not have real-life interactions and conversations.
Like when a friend has not called me in a month, I might picture all the ways in which I have probably offended her. Another example is how I will tell myself a tale of rejection to make sense of an unanswered message I’ve sent with the sincerest of emoticons.
By creating a movie on the screen in my head, I can come up with all kinds of fictions explaining why someone hasn’t called, texted, emailed, “liked,” or otherwise given me a thumbs-up to acknowledge our relationship. When real-life conversations have fallen away, my brain works overtime to fill in the blanks.
For instance, while side-by-side with Carina on the trail, I was explaining to her how I had been feeling disconnected from my brother who lives in another state. I admitted to her that I hadn’t called him because it was clearly his turn to call me. Way past his turn, actually, because I had been doing all of the connecting in the past year or so it seemed. I felt a bit hurt and had listed in my head all of the ways in which I deserved better.
Also, I had projected on the broad screen of my skull a colorful parade of the reasons he’d been neglecting, avoiding, and even rejecting me. I had come up with some scary scenarios and worst-case worries.
Maybe some of my mental projections were true. My feelings were definitely real. But I had gone too far. You see, I had left the mainland where the wires and synapses fire at the sound of human voices. I had crossed over to the island of extended imagination where weak signals send scrambled messages at best.
My phantom brother, in that far-off country without communication, had become a flickering kind of figure. Like Princess Leia’s holographic image projected from inside R2D2, he was trapped like an apparition in my memory. I could only tell myself stories about what was going on between us for I did not have the facts.
“Carina,” I said, “I finally just decided to call the guy, whether it was his turn or not.”
I had pressed the green icon on my smartphone. When he answered, I told him immediately what I’d been thinking and feeling. My throat got a little choked. He said, “wow, you got to that pretty fast.”
I did. We talked for a long while. He told me about how busy he’s been with his job and family. We laughed about some of the tales I’d been telling myself.
Thank God for smart phones with good connections. When we pressed our red icons good-bye, I felt so much better. I remembered my little brother. The kid he was and the man I love. There’s nothing like an honest conversation for dispelling hallucinations.
With Carina it’s easy. Together on the path, we connect before there’s a chance to project. With others I love, there’s just more distance to cover. It can be done though. All it takes is making connections.
Henceforth, I will remember this lesson: don’t project–connect!
Instead of playing old movies on my wobbly mental screen, I’ll shut off the projector and use that modern machine. Just press green.
— If you are like me, your parents were far from perfect.
— If you are like me, you’re realizing that you have much less control of how your kids turn out than you thought.
When you’re in the middle of raising kids, trying to provide food and a roof, not to mention an education, how do you do it well?
All the parenting books you read can’t get under your skin enough to scrape out some deeply ingrained flaws. Will you transmit them to your kids? Are there any parenting essentials you’re missing?
You probably already know this but here goes:
Great parenting begins with the parents’ relationship.
3 Relationship Essentials
You can do a lot to become a great parent and mitigate the effects of your imperfections and ignorance about child-raising. You can:
DEAL with your history
WORK hard on your marriage
Make GRACE the guiding spirit of your home
Take an honest look at the baggage you’ve individually brought to the marriage relationship.
After that, share with each other what you’ve discovered.
Now that you’ve acknowledged what you’re both dealing with, let grace find its place in the center of your relationship and home.
Let me tell you a very short story. I recall one tender moment when my dad hugged my mom and she hugged him back.
I was maybe 8 years old. My heart wanted to explode with joy and a sense of well-being in that moment. It had nothing to do with me but I still remember them in the dining room doorway more clearly than many other memories I have.
It was a rare show of love and acceptance between my parents. If they had cared for each other this way on a daily basis, my childhood would have been a completely different story. Their broken relationship impacted me more than the hundreds of parenting mistakes they made.
But where did their brokenness come from?
My mom grew up with some family dysfunction which she never dealt with as a child or as an adult. My dad had his own traumas and personal impairments which he tried to drown in alcohol. They brought these hidden forces to their marriage, which was a train wreck waiting to happen.
At the start, Mom and Dad had very few tools for maintaining their relationship. With 3 kids in quick succession and Dad’s desire for autonomy not going anywhere, their break-up 13 years later was inevitable.
Forty years after the fact, I am still feeling the effects of that crash.
Long Story Short
If you are like me, you’ve seen a lot of marriages going off the rails. Maybe yours is one of them. You may think the kids in these situations are too young or too busy to be affected by carefully hidden flaws and faults. We may hope they don’t notice the broken parts of us driving us toward total derailment.
But they did. And they do.
From the outside looking in, others sometimes spot the problems in the relationship long before the parents do. Hard to miss the disconnect between the story they are telling and the way they are living. Their body language says more than their words. Likewise, his extra drinks and her bitter jokes make us want to brace for impact.
Children riding on this crazy train know something is wrong, too. They may be too young to register in cohesive thoughts but their bodies and souls know it. Their cells vibrate in the fear and anger frequencies of Mother simmering in the kitchen. Father’s baloney smells up the house whether he’s selling it on the phone or right there in the living room.
If you are like me, you’ve had or have a few blindspots of your own in parenting.
My husband and I have 3 grown-up kids who’ve told us what it was like to be on board when Dad and Mom were conducting their lives like crazy people.
Some of the disconnects? Too much fear in the decision-making. A little too heavy on the helicopter parenting. Not enough practicing of what we preached. Just a couple of dumb thirty-somethings acting like we knew everything.
As a homeschooling mom, I’d thought my nurture plus their “perfect” education would equal all kinds of easy for them. Turns out they borrowed some of my baggage and even added some pieces of their own. No magic formulas.
Notwithstanding the personal flaws we must own apart from our parents’ influence, what hope do we have with so much history to overcome?
1. First Parenting Essentials: Name and Release Your Elephants
Your number one priority is to DEAL with the forces that have shaped you. Each marriage has two individuals who bring some baggage to the bedroom, living room, and kitchen.
When we acknowledge and name the elephants in the room, they begin to shrink and find their rightful places. Then we can send them on their way to a sanctuary for worn-out animals.
My husband and I each lumbered into our relationship encumbered with our fathers’ alcohol addictions and our mothers’ anxiety. It took us awhile to begin dissecting and dismantling their effects even as we were raising our three children.
Recovery groups, counseling, bravery, and honesty gave us the traction we needed for growing up as grown-ups.
(I offer a small disclaimer: our work is never done. I think I will be working on growing up until the day I die.)
2. Next Parenting Essentials: Get to Work on Your Marriage!
The saying goes, if you are coasting, then you’re going downhill.
How parents relate to each other is of utmost importance. If kids know Mom and Dad are solid, they walk their own paths with a bit more confidence. If kids can trust the love Dad and Mom have for each other, they are likely to trust in their own ability to love and be loved.
But we married people know that stress and time can jangle the nerves and loosen the love we once had for each other. We are going to have to work at it if it’s going to last. No matter what the movie stars say, I say we’d better get some good tools for the long haul. Gotta keep the wheels greased because the friction is inevitable.
Get counseling. Ask hard questions. Tell hard truths and don’t be so defensive!
You’ve got this because people have been making marriages work for a long time. Find those people and ask them how it can possibly be done! Put lots of tools in your marriage tool box and then use them.
3. More Parenting Essentials: Grace is a Superpower
GRACE is essential for any lasting relationship. It is impossible to have a good marriage and solid family life without that 5-letter word for getting more than you deserve. Gifts for the bratty. Kisses for the prickly people.
The reason for hope even if you think you’ve already done too much damage:
— Grace is a superpower.
— Grace works forwards and backwards, bending and softening the boundaries of space and time.
— Grace hangs out with other commendable characters like Mercy and Humility.
“I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” “I forgive you,” and “I love you” are their constant conversation.
These 3 characters can mend a multitude of wrongs. Their love steps back over time boundaries and transforms what once was bad into the shape of a blessing. They move magically through space, waving wands that heal wounds and turn scars into touchstones for others.
I have a friend whose 25 year marriage should have been history 10 years in. Her name isn’t Grace but it should be. Her response to his adultery, after her initial shock and anguish, was an attitude of “let’s start over from here.”
Instead of condemning him and leaving, my friend stayed. She offered forgiveness and grace in huge quantities. She began to look at her part in the mess. And together, they began the slow and painful work of sifting through their baggage in the wreckage.
Grace, mercy, and humility permeate their home to this day because together, they found — and still find — a way to stay. This has had an immeasurable impact on their children.
End of Story
If I had refused to look at the sickness I brought to my marriage 30 years ago, would I be married today?
If I had refused to compromise and not let my husband’s needs and desires soften my hard edges, where would we be now?
If I had let resentment and un-forgiveness simmer in my kitchen, would the smell and stench have overwhelmed the entire household?
Yes, our kids did get some of the brokenness their mom and dad brought to the relationship. However, the honesty we brought to our struggles, the work we did separately and together, and the grace we gave each other on a daily basis were like fresh layers of blacktop. They smoothed over some of the roughest bumps on the road.
It’s OK if you are already in the midst of parenting. Even if your kids are grown, there’s hope because it’s never too late to work on relationships. Being honest and humble with our grown up kids keeps the door open for unexpected graces to drop by.
Here’s what I’m saying: Great parenting is not easy, pretty, or tied up in a lovely bow. But it’s good, solid, and strong. Like a sturdy train on a steel track with a gentle grade.
I heard a Christian pastor announce that he had decided to stop worrying about what other people thought of him. He needed freedom from judgment. He chose to be honest with himself and say,
“Yeah, if they are judging me, they’re probably right. Not only that, I am actually worse than they think I am.”
My friend, Cathy, once lamented about her selfish and judgmental thoughts rearing their ugly heads in one of her college classes.
Her impatient and mean thoughts about some of the other students surprised her.
I said that’s why it’s a gift that we can keep our thoughts to ourselves. If everyone could hear what everyone else was thinking, the world would erupt in all our private wars made public.
“Fake it till you make it” makes a lot of sense in this context. This has worked for me many times.
Or has it?
Maybe my faking it is like a teenager who cleans up her trashed house after her illicit party but before her parents get home. They don’t see the breach in trust but the lie hovers in the house and does some hidden damage of its own.
Perhaps finding freedom from people’s judgments of me AND freedom from my own judgments of others is going to cost me more than a hurried house cleaning.
Is there a better approach to finding this kind of freedom?
My Ugly Underside
I was walking along with a crowd of typical American families recently — judgment alert— and noticed the many overweight people around me, their soda straws pressed between their lips and the french fries pouching on their hips.
I pulled my husband Scott aside.
“I have a really mean joke that I just thought of,” I giggled.
“What?” He grinned, warming to this rare confession of my judgmental cruelty.
I said, “imagine a T-shirt for kids that said, ‘Destined for Greatness’ only the ‘Greatness’ is crossed out and below it is scribbled, ‘Fatness.’ Ha! Get it? All of these fat American parents are raising their kids to be fat!”
He was shocked. It really isn’t funny. It is quite mean and arrogant of me. Easy for me to laugh when I’ve done the parenting and nutrition thing perfectly—NOT!
Hear My Confession
The next week we were hanging out with friends and Scott began to tell this story. Midway through, he realized he was about to confess my sin. Giving him a sideways glance, I picked up where he’d left off and finished the story in all its gory detail.
I’m not sure if any of our friends thought it was funny. But if they had any lingering doubts about my proud and wicked heart, I certainly dispelled them.
That night, I lay awake regretting the revelation of my depravity. A vulnerability hangover of sorts. BUT—was I sad about my judgmental heart or just embarrassed to be outed?
The next morning it dawned on me that I could be glad that the blackness of my heart had been laid bare. Especially to friends that, I think, love me.
No more pretending. I am free to be me. I had a taste of freedom from judgment. Yum!
What’s The Point?
I write this for people like me who long for freedom from pretense, long to tell the truth—show the truth about themselves.
I write for Christians imprisoned by the belief they have to present a picture-perfect, “what would Jesus do” kind of life.
I write to encourage self-righteous or shame-filled people to find freedom by telling the truth about themselves.
I write at my own risk of losing (or gaining) a reputation, friends, acceptance, and love.
The ugly underside that we try to hide is actually the key to finding freedom from judgment.
When we stop pretending, we can also let go of the judgments we make and the ones we fear from others.
Finding Freedom From Judgment
I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to look good—be good—when in fact I am not all that good.
Some of my sins I can keep between me and Jesus. He says He loves and forgives me unconditionally. Not every confession need be public.
However, other transgressions are painfully obvious so I’d better get honest with myself and others.
Pretending has created lots of space between me and would-be friends. I have presented myself as a whole-grain-cookie-eating, Bible-reading, clean-freaking woman.
Why would someone want to come under my radar?
Why should I be surprised that people think I’m better than I am?
Do I really think my friends don’t smell my baloney from a mile away?
Am I afraid they won’t love me when I’m not awesome?
Will they love me because I’m not perfect?
Will you love me even though you know the truth?
Now that I am not pretending and defending my own righteousness, I can look at you without condemnation. Admitting my own mess frees me to have compassion for your struggle.
It’s true: I am judgmental, proud, and mean sometimes.
So if you are judging me now, you’re probably right.
3 Unusual Ways to Move Toward Emotional & Mental Health
I sometimes totter on the edge of despondency. Especially in winter.
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? Maybe a shapeless grief you can’t explain?
What if some unique and creative activities could alleviate melancholy for people like us?
I have found 3unusualways to keep despondency at bay. I’m not suggesting changing anything your doctor has prescribed — just bringing a little color to the palette.
These 3 exercises are not easy — but they are good!
1.TELL YOUR STORY
When I was in my twenties, I had an eating disorder called bulimia. Looking back, I wonder at how much of my story I kept stuffed inside, rarely sharing the hidden parts of myself. Fresh out of childhood, my feelings were trying to surface but I didn’t have an escape hatch for them. This disorder kept me from dealing with the story of my past.
Then I met Scott, who later became my husband. He helped me take an honest look at my life and begin to tell my story. When I told him about my bingeing and purging, it was like a tiny shaft of light broke into my cellar. My heart felt less heavy and I began to let the truth about my childhood come out.
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 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 SONG
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 lyric?
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.
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 a lot around the house or even in the car. I stay too much in my head and must remind myself to sing.
So sing in your shower, house, or car!
Join a band or choral group which can be especially healthful and uplifting.
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 those 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!
He startles me as I walk up to the well. I hadn’t seen him sitting there under the trees. I turn around to face him as he begins talking to me. He says he wants some water to drink. I think it strange that he is alone. We are in the middle of nowhere. In the heat of the day. He has no way of getting to the water. No jar and such a deep well. He’s obviously parched. What is he doing here all by himself?
People come from all over to sit and drink where Jacob himself once watered his flocks. He and his sons had walked these surrounding fields. This place is holy to us even if it isn’t to the Jews.
I mess with him a little. “You’re asking me for a drink? A woman of Samaria?” I know Jews don’t want to have anything to do with us. With me. Yet here he is, needing my help because he’s worn out. Thirsty. He is depending on me. How funny.
He answers me, saying something about if I knew who he was, I’d be asking him for a drink of ‘living’ water.He seems a little crazy. Well, I’ll take the bait.
I say to him in my sweetest voice, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” I’m smiling at him like I do when talking to a little kid who tells me that the stones he’s holding are real gold.
Who does he think he is, anyway? This well has been here for thousands of years and probably took months to dig. Out of nowhere he’s going to produce this so-called living water and I’m going to beg him for it? I don’t think so.
“You’ll never be thirsty again,” he is saying. If I drink the water he could give me, he says it will become in me a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
Wow, that sounds fantastic. Water that just wells up in my body. Exactly what I need so I don’t have to come back again and again to this damned well just to stay alive and keep my dishes clean.
I’m so sick of trudging up and down this path alone with an old container that empties as fast as I fill it, with no kids to help, no man who cares to lift a finger for me, and flocks of women moving aside when they see me coming. Sure, fella, I’ll take some of that living water.
Of course now he tells me to go get my husband. Always turns out this way: women need a man to speak for them. A man to head the household. A man to stay around and do what he said he would do. I haven’t had any men like that in my life since my first husband died. After that, the others left or divorced me as soon as they realized they weren’t getting any sons and daughters out of me. Those liars are long gone.
“I have no husband,” I tell him.
“You’re right,” he says, “and the man you have now isn’t even your husband.”
His accusation is right. But how could he know that? He hasn’t been in town or hung around long enough to hear the gossip. And gossip they do, those heartless witches. No compassion- only judgment for a girl who tried to live by the rules but got stepped on and left behind by those rules instead.
He must be a prophet or something. This is getting interesting… and a little too personal. I wonder what he’ll say about those rules for living God’s way. If it is God’s way. So many rules that I can’t seem to keep to satisfy anyone around here.
“You Jews say we’re supposed to worship in Jerusalem even though our fathers worshiped God here on this mountain.” That’ll get him talking about what all men want to talk about: religion and politics.
He’s looking at me with a sweet smile on his face. “Woman, believe me…”
The way he called me ‘woman’ just now almost made me cry.Like I was someone he cared about. Someone he knew.
He’s saying that the time is coming and is even now happening- that it won’t matter where we worship God. He says true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. He’s even saying that the Father is looking for those kind of people.
I’ve never heard anyone talk religion like this! It feels like he’s just toppled over a rock wall inside of me. I’m tasting the dust of fear and freedom at the same time.
I mumble something I’ve heard all of my life, something about the messiah someday coming to tell us everything we need to know.
“That’s me,” he says. And I know he isn’t lying.
All of a sudden, some guys are coming up to him, looking shocked that he is talking to me.
I don’t care. My insides feel like churning water. My legs are weak as if I’m ripe wheat, just cut down and gathered up into the arms of God. Something in me wells up and I begin to run for joy. I float and fly into town. Suddenly I love everyone and want to hug them and tell them about the man who knows my story better than I do. The man who saw right through me. The man who saw ME and still smiled as if he loved me, cared about ME!
That day they all followed me back out of town and down to the well. I must’ve sounded like a crazy person. But I must’ve looked like a prophet because they followed me and for some reason, they believed me. Like I was somebody that had tasted something they were thirsty for.
I don’t know what life is gonna be like around here now that Jesus has come through. He only stayed a couple of days. That was long enough to make believers out of a lot of people in this place. They said they know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.
Everybody’s talking about him. They feel the way I felt.
But I met him first. I got to talk to him alone when no one else even knew how awesome he was.
Now, every time I go to that well, Jacob’s well, I remember the man who gave me a taste of living water. Sometimes that visit seems more like a dream than a memory. But I know it’s real. I remember how he told me about my crazy history. How he said that he was the Christ. How he looked at me and loved me.
I don’t worry now that I can’t get to Jerusalem to worship. I don’t just hope that the Father knows I want to worship him the right way, because He already knows. Because even though I’m way out here in no man’s land, He came through once, looking for me.
I recently published a book for those wanting to know more of my story and the story behind some of my songs! These stories trace the lifelines of God’s healing and grace in my life.
Here is an excerpt:
I grew up in a house on Horseshoe Road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the midst of Amish and Mennonite farms, that drafty rental formed the backdrop of my playing days.
An Amish family, the Kings, lived across the road, and their kids sometimes invited us to run around in the barn or whisper through the house. I’ll never forget the smell of that natural-gas-heated kitchen or the smooth, simple surfaces in that dimly lit Amish home. Or the fact that the cats and kittens lived in the barn and were only there for the mice and rats.
It made me wonder and worry at the practicality of their lives. The horses’ main purpose was pulling their black buggies. The dog that hung around the gravel lane was less a pet and more a second thought. The scraggly cat with the oozing eye would never see a veterinarian for her ills. Even the mules seemed to be just tools for fieldwork.
Dogs and Cats and Mice, Oh My!
In my house, the animals were everything. They formed the basis of love in my early years. My cats and dogs were there for touching and hugging. Had I a mule, I’d have coddled him and kept him in my room. What would the Kings have thought if they knew I had a mouse in a cage in my house? I can’t remember her name, but I can still picture her fresh litter of wriggling pink babies.
My hamsters were a staple and scores must have scurried through my childhood. Added to their naturally short lifespan came the playful but deadly tosses from cats and kids alike. I remember coming home one evening to a dark bedroom where Spooky, my Siamese, was batting something around on the bed. I flicked the light to find my Sophie mostly dead beneath his playful paw. I have no idea how the poor thing got out of her cage.
The Birds and the Bugs
Many damaged birds found their way into my living room infirmary. There was a sparrow with a tumor that would have died peacefully had Spooky not followed his feline instincts when no one was watching.
I even had a pet praying mantis named Herman. Each day I fed him freshly whacked flies. With lovely circumspection, he’d examine the squashed insect I dangled before him, then, swift as a whip, those spiky forearms grabbed that fly from my fingertips. Herman ate with relish and refinement, keeping those black-dotted orbs on his dinner and me simultaneously.
A few weeks later I discovered that he was a she, as I found my lovely green friend dead in the jar with an egg sack snugly glued to her twig. Her babies by the hundreds eventually hatched, and, like Wilbur keeping his piggy promise to Charlotte, I set Herman’s brood free to carry on her legacy.
Spooky was my best cat and had stayed on with me through my high school years. He made the move with us when my parents split up and we left the house on Horseshoe Road. After a few years in a mobile home, we moved again twice, and he came along. Osteoarthritis and old age had hobbled him by the time my turn for college arrived. I had to put my childhood constant to sleep and bury him in the yard a few days before saying good-bye.
I still dream about Spooky and some of my other cats. Something about the way they smelled and felt in my young, unsteady world. I could count on their warmth, their love and acceptance.
They needed me, and I needed them.
Puppy, Puppy, Puppy
Of all the pets we had, the family dogs were beyond compare. My sister Ginny and brother David and I had three dogs across the years that we named “Puppy.”
Puppy #1 actually was a puppy that never lived to see her doggy days. I remember the accident like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning and David and I were playing in mud puddles in a low strip of grass that bordered Horseshoe Road.
Our backs to the macadam, we hadn’t thought to leash our wandering Puppy. Duh-blunk. I heard the thud of what could have been a brown paper grocery bag run over by a car. I straightened and spun to look. There was my puppy on the road and a shock-faced woman coming from the side of her car.
I ran screaming into the house where my dad rushed downstairs from deep sleep. He met the apologetic driver at the door in his underwear, so afraid it was one of his kids who had been hit. Realizing what had happened, Dad left to dress. A minute later, I followed as he went to see what was left of our Puppy. She was alive for a few more moments as we cried there in the middle of Horseshoe Road. My eyes still fill up when I retell the story.
Puppy #2 was the love of my life when I was 9 years old. He sang for joy every time the family returned to the house, always ecstatic that we had come back. His acceptance and availability was exactly what we all needed. I was crushed when we had to give him away because my parents separated and we weren’t allowed to have a big dog in the trailer. Losing him seemed the saddest part of my parents’ leaving each other.
Puppy #3 came from the shelter and was small enough to fit with us in the mobile home. She lived with our family for 14 years. We walked many roads together. She also went boating, swimming, river-rafting and jogging—wherever her people were! She died long after we three kids had grown and gone away to college.
Signposts and Symbols of Healing and Grace
Who can account for the impact of these pets? Their lives seem to be signposts and symbols of a sort.
My first Puppy died early, as did my innocence, marking a time of loss and death that probably prepared me for some losses ahead.
My second Puppy could be a symbol of grief and heartache that eventually healed.
And my last Puppy lived to tell of life’s longevity, normality, and dependability even when it begins in disruption and confusion.
Spooky, like the dogs, showed me unconditional love for all of his years by my side.
Maybe I am reading too much into it. But maybe not.
Whether insects and rodents or cats and dogs, these wonderful creatures mark the cycles of life and death on a small scale, which were, for a little girl like me, exactly what I needed.
As a little girl, I made pretend by trying on my grandmother’s old dresses. These garments from her younger days made me feel older and beautiful. Even though most of the fabric draped disproportionately on my frame and settled in piles on the floor, I would still stand on tiptoe admiring myself in the mirror, hoping to someday grow into her clothes.
In high school, I overcame adolescent insecurity by trying out for all sorts of roles too big for me: cheerleading, plays, talent shows, marching band, and other popularity contests. I got good at exuding confidence 3 sizes bigger than I felt. Making pretend on many stages, I began to grow into the parts I played.
I arrived at music college largely self-assured and full of ambition. My singing and performing talents increased with the training and the experience that came with the classes and the shows we put on.
For my new acquaintances, I also played the good little girl from Small Town, USA, who’d had a great childhood and didn’t have a care in the world. I didn’t know I was kidding myself. Thankfully, my act did not fool everyone and some new friends began to tug at the loose threads of my story.
I call it coming out of denial.
The costumes I had grown into began to fray in my twenties. I was bearing false witness against myself, refusing to look deep and admit to the small and broken parts of my character. For sure, the story I lived in high school was the one that kept me tethered in my fragmented family life. My dad’s alcoholism and my parents’ divorce had been a devastating part of my growing up.
New college friends helped me to recognize this as they began questioning my happy narrative. The “me” I wore on my sleeve was actually a plastic jacket everyone could see right through. Other hard truths and feelings about childhood and about myself began emerging. I started to shed some of the dress-up and become more grown-up than I had ever been.
Keeping Up Appearances
I have been a singer, songwriter and performer for several decades and have learned to put on the person I want to be when I take the stage. There is a lot to be said for keeping up appearances when putting on a show. The audience expects competence and engagement so I make eye-contact even when my self-confidence is flagging and my voice feels weak. Sometimes the best advice is ‘fake it ’til you make it.’
However, the pretense can get out of hand and we can lose our true selves by hiding behind ‘false selves,’ projections of what we want others to believe about us. We also grow out of some of our roles and can confidently let them go. I am now 53 years old and recognize that I must let go at last some of my personae from the past. There’s a thrill and a qualm in moving on.
My story might go something like this:
In the afternoon of my life, I decided to disband my circle of loyal ladies. I was in no rush, wanting to slowly let go of my cadre of steady companions. But go they must.
So I stood to face each one in turn. I thanked Competence for her good service, shook her hand and let her go, surprised by the weakness I felt without her by my side.
Control was the next one to step forward. She’d kept me in a lovely blind spot for many good years. But now her veil was lifted and must list to the wind, leaving me quite vulnerable. Goodbye, my dear friend.
Her closest kin, Self-control, came out of the shadows and reminded me that she was more a phantom than a friend over the years. We waved as she slipped down the road behind me.
I looked ahead, greeting Beauty and Talent, my leading ladies. They’d always preceded me on the road and now they too must say goodbye. I thanked them for their good service and moved past them, grieving the journey ahead without them. Who else is here, I asked, that I must bid farewell?
Miss Good Health and Mrs. Good Mother have been quite faithful friends. Yet even they must take their place in the line behind me. They kissed my hands with tears in their eyes and bowed into the background.
The path ahead looks desolate. A lonely place. Space has been made for a Truer Companion. I stand on tiptoe to see who might be strolling down the road towards me.
I am always so excited to be in the process of recording new music. Unrecorded songs seem small and shapeless in their infancy. When I handed these 5 new songs of mine, just tiny demo recordings on my phone, to my producer, I recalled this process from years gone by.
Every record that Scott and I worked on together, whether as Out of the Grey or my solo projects, began in this way. Baby songs ready to be born and begin to grow up. What fun when players and producers and engineers join the mix. It was exciting to see what my babies would grow up to be. They just need some extra love and attention to make them grow.
Perils of Vulnerability and Creativity
Songwriting is fraught with the perils of vulnerability and creativity. The hardest part of the process is the initial sharing what I’ve done with others. Others who have their opinions and judgements and their own creative ideas. In song meetings with the record labels, I felt like I was lining up my children for scrutiny. Do you like this one? Isn’t this other one amazing? No, you want to move on to the next one already? The producer would then have his say on how best to dress the chosen ones before launching them into the world. It was exciting and exhausting too. I have a chapter in my book Lifelines all about the recording process.
New Music With a New Producer
This time the situation is a bit different. I do not have a record label. What I do have is a new producer with lots of new ideas.
I know him as Julian Dente.
He is my firstborn and he grew up in the studio, on the road, and at home making music. These days he’s a young man recording his own new songs and adding brilliant touches of creativity to the world.
I decided to hire him before he gets too busy to work with me. He co-wrote and produced 3 songs on the most recent Out of the Grey recording called A Little Light Left. I love his sonic style and I think you will too. The tracks are done and the music is exclusively digital. You can download them here or find all 5 on Spotify and Google music.
P.S. Julian definitely has his opinions and judgements and suggestions for making my songs better. How can I stop being Mom and let him tell me what to do for once? This is getting a bit tricky!
Oh, my muggy mid-July state of mind! Can’t seem to focus my thoughts on anything productive. The air is heavy on my shoulders and drapes itself in a shiny layer onto my skin. I feel stuck and can’t find the energy to make a move. My musings take a turn for the worse as my wondering and worrying settle in. To be sure, I do like the moist warmth of summer with my bare feet on a mossy lawn, wearing shorts and t-shirts all day long. But this mid-summer ennui muddles my head. I am not bored exactly. “Bored” is a four-letter word in our house. I am just at a still point in my experience of time and meaning. It reminds me of a another July from years gone by:
Was wishing my head was as clear as this midnight sky
Spread across my muggy mid-July state of mind
Was wanting my heart to be free like this summer breeze
Singing through your fingers on the guitar strings…
Under the Weather
In my family, we often blame bodily afflictions and bad moods on the weather patterns. Feeling head-achey today? Could be a low-pressure system coming in. Feeling lethargic or sad? Maybe all of this rain is getting to you, stirring up mildew and mold allergies.Honestly, the seasons affect the way I see the world. I would not be surprised if the sultry atmosphere literally clouds my vision and clogs up my body and soul. Maybe mid-July is a natural time for looking back over my shoulder, wondering where spring has gone and for stretching my neck ahead, worrying about fall coming on:
But I’m looking back, wondering where the time we spent went
I’m looking ahead, worrying about time that hasn’t been yet
The Only Moment
I wrote this lyric many a mid-summer’s night ago. Like a dream, 27 years have passed since that moment in my life. Before kids and current concerns, I was young and wrestling with my experience of time and meaning. Some things never change. Scott and I were sitting on that tiny slab of patio behind our one-bedroom apartment in Nashville. We were newlyweds and newly-moved, wondering what was to come as we worked on our music together. I remember that particular July night in which Scott was relaxed and playing his guitar while I was anxious and struggling to be in the moment. We were about to record our first CD and make our way in the music world. As usual, my heart was off kilter, tilting backwards in wonder at the time gone by and also leaning forward in worry about what was to come. However, I knew where I wanted my head and heart to be:
The only moment I can see is here as clear as your love for me
The only moment I should be living is this one we’re in, this one
In this moment in 2017, another summer swelters and Scott and I sit on the back patio of our home with so much to be grateful for. The kids and the music have come and gone in sweet succession. I can look back and ahead with lots of evidence against speculation and fretting. Some things do change and I realize I am saturated in back-patio peace. In spite of the weather, my head and heart are clear. As I revel in the pleasure of where we are, I can treasure the time–this time– and let the music and the days take my heart where they will. I can’t live the moments all at once. The only moment in which I can live is this one we’re in, this one.
Learn to work the saxophone I play just what I feel Drink Scotch whiskey all night long And die behind the wheel
To the young wanna-be songwriters in that classroom, that ambiguous line about dying behind the wheel was a puzzle and a revelation. Does the singer mean literally dying because he’s drinking and driving?
Or is it metaphorical for being in control all the way to the day he dies? Or both?
Steely Dan’s lyrical and harmonic complexities sparked my desire to write songs with depth. I wanted my audience to discover a new layer with every listen. For those like me who are still students of songwriting, I offer these ideas:
1) Listen before you write.
You can’t write a good song without hearing a great one first. Find some inspiring music. I like to set the bar high and get my creativity pumping with some Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell.
Maybe a song from my teenage days that connects on a hidden plane.
Joe Walsh’s “Indian Summer” gets me every time. I find myself back on our family boat, cruising the Susquehanna River near Pequea, Pennsylvania. It’s September and I’m 13 years old. The longing and loss of innocence and freedom wash over me like the wake of a waterskiing fall. I’m ready to write that song now.
2) Write every day.
Yes, schedule your muse and expect her to show up. She might be groggy. Feed her some coffee and get to work.
Let all of your jewels and your drivel out in the privacy of your writing room. You are practicing a habit. Later, you can pick and choose which ideas get to go outside and play. The rest of them will be your sad and sappy little secrets.
Consider it your job to produce Quantity.
Quality will emerge in spits and spurts. Sometimes pieces of one song actually belong to pieces of another song. Puzzle it together.
3) Spill your guts.
Pour your heart out and let emotions lead the way. If your heart and gut are connected to your song subject, you’ll be able to go with the flow for a long time. Stay slippery and don’t let the inspiration dry up before you’ve caught and landed all of your choicest ideas. I have a few exercises for doing just that in my Singer/Songwriter Handbook.
4) Start with a title.
Have you written some pithy lines and ideas in a notebook somewhere?
Do you have a few titles that make you want to sing?
Start with one of these and see where they lead.
“He is Not Silent” is one of my songs inspired by a book titled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer. I got all fired up while reading so I headed straight for my piano, pencil in hand. Borrowing ideas like “we are not quiet, we are not listening,” I came up with the chorus first. My creative burst followed closely on the heels of an inspiring title. Catch any thread you can and don’t let go!
5) Tell the truth.
Honesty is appealing, like the song with that title by Billy Joel. We’re all human and we love vulnerability in others (even though we hate to reveal it in ourselves). Show some brokenness, a chink in your armor. The Chainsmokers have a cool song called “Honest.” They sing the truth about life on the road and on the radio. Their candor draws me in to their artistry.
Read my short blog here about vulnerability in songwriting and recording new music.
6) Play with plagiarism.
What am I saying? Plagiarism is a dirty word. Don’t do it! But, hey, we are all imitators. None of us comes up with a completely new song idea.
All creativity is derivative except the original Creator’s stuff. Everybody copies His work. So celebrate your influences.
Borrow–don’t steal– a few ideas from a good song you like. Then get to work making it your own and making sure there’s no direct copying.You know what happens when you infringe on a copyright, right? Write!
7) Be relatable and relevant.
No one gets a pass in this life. Hard is part of living. If you’re like me and you struggle with faith in God every day, then say so.
If you want to write a song about living with pain, go for it, but I might beat you to it.
If you want to sing about how staying in love is not easy then write that song. I did just that in “To Keep Love Alive.”
Controversy for the sake of drawing attention and outrage is not legitimate artistic expression.
However, there will always be blurred lines. From Randy Newman’s “Short People” to Madonna’s “Papa, Don’t Preach,”artists often try to shine a light on an important topic. Certainly, we write at our own risk. Everyone in the crowd won’t be jumping up and down. But some may be getting the message for a change.
9) Make every word count.
Should I use “the” or “and” in this line? It is a solid question when writing a pop song. The nuance of such little words affects the song’s meaning.
Also, pop music doesn’t give you time to spread your ideas out. They’ve got to be short, sweet, and carry a lot of meaning. Like poetry, each word can have a well of eloquence beneath it if you take the time to dig in.
10) Hunt and Kill your throwaway lines.
Admit it, you’ve held on for dear life to some crappy lyrics.
You wrote them on the fly and they fit.
They came so easy.
They made a great rhyme.
They’re so clever you can’t bear to snuff them out.
But they’re so predictable, so done already. Get more creative!
Much of modern worship music, for example, has lots of cliche´and little imagination. Many mainstream pop songs, too. Boring.
They can be placeholders but eventually erase you must. Hire someone or cover your eyes and take a stab.
Kill those darlings because you know they’re just no good.
11) Bonus Tip: Be an Expanding HuMan.
Learn to work in a new way, try something you’ve never done in your songwriting.
Sit at the piano instead of with a guitar.
Find a co-writer.
Learn a few new chords, would ya?
You are not gazing through the glass anymore.You’ve bought the dream.
Remember, songwriting is the privilege of sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind.