Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Performing a backwards "Ariel" (apologies to Little Mermaid fans)

The "Laudate Dominum" movement of Mozart's "Solemn Vespers" is one of the loveliest pieces of music written for a soprano and chorus.  Its long, lyrical phrases climb through the warm part of the voice into the light, silvery part of the voice, and then return to earth.  It's a piece I fell in love with the first time I heard it.

And it's a piece I've only sung twice in public. The story of the first time I sang it, as an "oh, did you know you're doing the solo this morning?" surprise on a Sunday morning, is one that I regularly dust-off for laughs at dinner parties.  It's only funny because it's true, and because nearly every choir singer I know has had a nightmare that goes like that... kinda the singer's equivalent of the "giving-an-important-presentation-at-work-but-you-forgot-to-wear-pants" dream.

The second time I sang it in public was this past Sunday, for my beloved church congregation, who, I swear, would smile and tell me I was wonderful, even if I got up and sang "Jesus Loves Me" in whole notes, acappella, and flat.  This time, although it wasn't that bad, I am in a season where my voice is not exactly full of youthful, crystalline purity.  The seasonal coughing-bug, and the crying I've done lately (see my post on "sneaker waves"  ) have conspired, perhaps along with age, I don't know, to make my vocal folds a bit thicker and less responsive than they were even a year ago, and I can get away with far less in terms of mindless singing. It's a different voice right now, and it's all I have.  There's not much flash or dazzle to it, no effortless vocal spin.  It was a different feeling, singing with my ego stripped down to "this is all I have, and it will have to be enough", and then hearing that people were moved by it, liked it.

It was one of a number of moments lately, of finding my voice, and discovering that it has changed.

And it's not just my singing voice that I'm finding, and finding changed.  I have written already about "silencing" myself to keep the peace in my marriage to Andre, and about not stating clearly who I am, what I'm capable of, and what my boundaries are.  But lately, I'm finding that I have to somehow tune-up that voice as well.

Recently, I have been working on my "personal statement" , a kind of short autobiography that I need to write as part of my grad school application.  Since I like to write, it didn't really feel like work, until I dug into it and realized that I was going to have to advocate for myself, make some clear statements about who I am and what I am capable of.

And then it felt impossible.

A recent blow to my self-confidence, unrelated to singing or writing, had penetrated deeper than I had first thought, and my inner critic was completely in-charge. So, I automatically reverted to my least-offensive voice.  I softened and equivocated.  I filled each paragraph with "perhaps" and "possibly".  I understated things. I used tepid, weak verbs : "read" instead of "devoured", and "interested" instead of "fascinated", "most interested" instead of "I loved".   And I didn't even realize I had done it.  I sent it off to several friends for a read-through, and got the usual, wonderfully encouraging responses, but somebody was "listening" to it instead of just reading it, and he remarked, "this is not your usual voice; it's not the one I hear in your other writing", and he was right.  With that bit of feedback, and some specific suggestions from another friend about what, specifically, I was glossing-over and leaving-out, I re-wrote the essay.  I found my voice again. I'll be sending it out in a day or so.

With those two warm-ups, I had one more opportunity in recent days that required me to find my voice, admit how scared I was to use it, and then, feeling the fear, move forward anyway.

There's a person in my life who really has no right to be in my life.  This person is so unhealthy in her relating patterns that she is toxic, both to me and to my children.  It's been seven years since she was told to get out of our lives, but in that time, she had gotten used to contacting Andre and bargaining with him, trailing the promise of money, using guilt, playing innocent, whatever tactic appeared to work for a while.  Since Andre's death, this person has tried repeatedly to contact me, to contact the children, to find a way to insinuate herself into our lives, again using money and guilt.

And this week, I finally reached my "enough is enough" point.  I dread, dread, dread having ANYONE mad at me, unhappy with me, annoyed with me. I don't even like to have to flag down a waiter to ask for water. It's a weakness of mine.  I might look big and assertive and able to take care of myself, but I'm a wimp when it comes to standing up for myself.  It doesn't take much to get my Irish up on someone else's behalf (someday, I'll have to share my "I-punched-a-swim-coach" story... talk about misguided righteous indignation...) , but it's not at all the same when I have to face confronting someone on my own behalf.

But again, I'm learning that I have an incredible support system in place.  There are so many wonderful people who, for some reason, love me enough to cheer me on, offer suggestions both serious and outrageous, and hold me accountable to do what has to be done.  I drew on those suggestions and support, wrote out my "script", made my phone call, and somehow survived.

In story of The Little Mermaid, Ariel gave up her voice, in order to be loved.  I guess I'm doing a backwards Ariel these days.  (Try not to picture me doing a backwards arial--not with a cup of coffee in your hand, at least.  Keyboards are expensive :-)

 With the help of people who love me, I'm taking back my voice, and I'm learning to use it in new ways.

Psalm 96 begins, "Sing to the Lord a new song..."  

Ok.  I'll try.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rip Van Winkle and the Sneaker Waves

No, that's not a new pop band on my kids' iPods, although I kinda wish it was...

As of last Sunday 1/13/13, we passed the six-month marker since Andre's death.  We're halfway through this first trip through the calendar, with all the ambush-filled dates of holidays, birthdays, and "firsts" of all kinds.  And right among the predictable grief waves connected to these significant dates, there's a "sneaker wave" of grief that hits when I least expect it, when the sun is shining and there's only a slight breeze, just like the actual sneaker waves that the weather folks warn us Northern Californians about:  you're playing on the beach, in a tidepool, sitting on a rock, and WHOOSH, one of these waves washes up and knocks everybody over, sometimes sweeping people away and drowning them.  The grief that has been washing up lately, unpredicted in many cases, has mixed with the everyday frustrations of life, until it's hard to tell what's grief and what's just the growing pains of life as I continue to move through the calendar.

In my most recent round of "consolidation" (doesn't that sound nicer than "shovelling-out"?), I re-discovered, in a specially-designed space in the console of my minivan, a forgotten stash of cassette-tapes.  (For those of you born after 1980, cassettes were an ancient, pre-MP3, pre-CD format for music...ask your parents.) .   It was mostly stuff from my life before I was Andre's wife, before I was the mom to the four Hedrick kids.  It was tapes of a Celtic folksinger named Ed Miller, The Austin Lounge LizardsTish Hinojosa, and the Paul Simon "Graceland" and "Rhythm of the Saints" albums, along with an obscure skiffle band that played the campus quad at UT Austin back in the late 80's, Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom .  I think I must have stashed those tapes in the only place in my life that still had a cassette player, once it became clear that my days as a minivan-driving homeschooling mom had begun in earnest.  They hadn't been played in the car in a long time, although a few songs found their way, via iTunes, to my iPod running mix last year, in preparation for the half-marathon.

When I unearthed those music tapes, and started playing them on my rounds of errands,  it felt like I had opened a "time-capsule" of who I was before I began altering myself to fit my chosen role.  Playing those tapes, (and singing along, drumming on the steering wheel and "seat-dancing",  much to the chagrin of a certain teen and pre-teen), I was re-introduced to that person who ALWAYS sang in the car, a person who knew that Saturday mornings were made for morning shopping, and coffee out with a friend.  That person was an unabashed liberal, a cat-lover, a Shiner-Bock drinker, a fan of ethnic music of all kinds, an avid Spanish learner, a wearer of cute undies, a connaisseur of the art of harmless flirting, and an expert flash-mob dinner-party hostess. ( I once even turned an ironing board and a red bed-sheet into a Christmas buffet table in my tiny studio apartment, and felt no need to apologize... can you imagine?

It feels like an odd, RipVanWinkle awakening after 18 years of silencing and shrinking myself  into a kind of hyper-vigilant coma.  In that state, I was acutely aware of needing to keep things stable, of needing to buffer my husband from the world and the world from my husband, of needing to keep the kids out of my husband's cross-hairs... and to do that, I had to mostly anesthetize the silly, sensual, passionate, spontaneous side of myself for the soul-surgery required, that would make me capable of living within the confines of my role as Andre's keeper, and then later, my kids'safety buffer. I decided that it was pretty hazardous, and mostly futile to stick up for myself.  I learned to deaden and silence, to quickly accept blame, apologize, and work on the "fix".

In my non-expert opinion, the homeschooling mom-gig, even in ideal circumstances, calls for a certain necessary buttoning-down of the self.  There just wouldn't be hours in the day, and energy left in the body to lobby on behalf of a few causes, work on those samba knee/hip movements, phone a few friends for a potluck dinner party, try-on something cute from the clearance rack AND have the meatloaf on the table for 6 at 6, and get all the lesson planning done for the next day, while taking the kids through their various assignments at home while the kids are home all day.

And in my case, the to-do list also included  keeping the kids from triggering their Dad's rages, keeping them quiet while Andre' wandered around the house with a conference call phone on his head, cleaning up after his various snack-food-making sessions, and grabbing the remote to turn down the volume on Fox News when he'd left the room.  A few parts of me had to be chopped-off, or at least folded-away in order to fit in the box I had chosen to live in when I married Andre. ( Make no mistake: I chose the box, and I did my self-alteration to fit it.  I am not a victim.  I'm a person who made a series of mistakes, and I'm an unbelievably blessed person to be given now, under outrageously ugly circumstances, a second chance at life, both for me, and for my kids. )

With Andre's death has come a kind of un-planned-for, un-guided, un-buttoning of my boxed-in state.  The kids and I are actively in the process of calling-out non-functional (Ok, we do call it "crazy"..sorry. ) thinking when we spot it in our patterns of interacting.   Andre's pictures are gone from the walls, except in the kids' rooms where they have each chosen to keep a picture of their dad.  I've rearranged, and continue to re-arrange the furniture and decor.  I'm selling-off whatever I can of his money-pit hobbies.  And I'm beginning to let my heart out to play a little in the world of adult relationships, pitfalls and all.

And so, the sneaker waves of grief continue to roll in, and I'm doing my best not to let anybody get swept out and drowned in them.  Lately, I'm finding myself clinging to the rocks of my close friends, and trying to remember the other piece of advice we hear on the Northern coast--don't turn your back on the sea.  For me that means knowing and accepting that I can't predict when the waves will hit, but trying not to deaden this process of exploration and growth by living in fear of pain.

"For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love and of power, and of self-discipline"
 2 Timothy1:7

Not even sneaker waves can wash that away.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Breaking trails through this year's snow

Maybe it's because I grew up in New England, playing on the neighbors' sledding hills in the winter, but I LOVE the snow.  

Given where I live now, it's easy to forget how much I love the snow, until I'm taken by surprise all over again by it.  It's a "do-I-laugh-or-cry?", breath-catching moment, like what happens when someone surprises me with a gift.  (That part is not very New England, I guess... I'm not nearly stoic enough to live there anymore.)   I got that feeling on Sunday morning, driving up Highway 50 toward Echo Summit, when my aging minivan rounded a bend just past Kyburz and we were suddenly in the midst of tall, snow-marshmallowed pines, with the morning sun showering sparkles on the breeze between them.  

This year's snow-play-day was another step in our journey through the calendar for the kids and me, a round of "first"s without Andre.  I've been warned that each "first" will be difficult.  But this one seemed surprisingly easy, mostly.  And we even had enough snowgear for my nearly-six-foot-tall son, who is, at age 14, now as tall as his father was.  Over the years, I had bought a stockpile of the good stuff: alpaca socks, insulated, waterproof gloves, polypropylene thermal underwear, a good down-filled coat, LLBean winter boots, for Andre, hoping to keep him comfortable on our adventures.  He usually rejected wearing them, for one reason or another, and was usually uncomfortable on our adventures.  This year, it was easy to divide up that stockpile between my older kids and me, and keep everybody warm. 

 It sounds awful somehow, to talk about things being "easier" for the kids and me, when we are not even 6 months past Andre's death, but that is the unvarnished truth.  It's the telling of that truth that's been problematic lately.  I catch myself wondering if it's really ok to be honest and say that I am doing rather well.  Is that a betrayal of Andre's memory?  Do people think I'm being disrespectful of the dead?  In the moments when I'm feeling defensive and judged, I  suppose I could go on chugging the "whine" of "people just don't understand", but that seems unproductive at best, and certainly unloving in many different directions. Whether or not people are judging me negatively as I emerge into my new life, is really not my concern, I guess.  Most likely, it's just my own defensive sense of wanting to do it all "right", that's sneaking up behind me and bopping me on the head (another chorus of "Little Rabbit Foo-Foo, anyone?  )  What's becoming clear to me, at a level deeper than intellectual assent, is that there is no clear template, no plowed trail through the snow, for how this process of simultaneous grief and healing is supposed to proceed.

On Sunday, after the kids and I got to our sledding hill, put on our warm gear, and took the first couple of runs down the groomed sledding runs, I decided to rent some snowshoes and take off into the woods (leaving the kids on the sledding hill, using the buddy-system that they are quite good at) for a walk through the quiet.    

As I walked along, my heart felt incredibly light, not like the heart of a mother of four fatherless kids, not like a middle-aged widow.  I felt playfully alive.  I texted a friend (yes, I know... leave the technology behind, silly woman!), and chuckled to myself about what a perfect day it was turning out to be.

I stomped along a little farther into the woods, experimenting with what it was like to follow the paths that other snowshoers had made, and comparing that to what it felt like to break my own trail through the snow, guessing at what might be under my feet in the deep snow:  was I walking close to solid ground or floating over the bent forms of smaller, buried trees?  Was that a boulder I just stepped over?  Would I continue to be able to walk along, with my feet only barely sinking, thanks to my snowshoes, or would I suddenly find myself buried up to my armpits? What might it feel like to lose my balance and topple over?  Would I be able to get up?  A couple of times, I passed other snowshoeing parties.  One man called out to me from the packed trail, "you know, it's easier over here".  Maybe it was, I don't know. 

Eventually, I found myself in a clearing, with the sounds of Hwy 50 and the muffled sounds of the sled-riders just a murmur.  In that peaceful cathedral of tall pines on that Sunday afternoon, I found myself thanking God for all the incredible blessings in my life: for my kids, for the beauty around me, for the quiet, for my health, for the many, many people I love; people who have shown their love for me in so many ways over the past months, for my plans to return to school, for God's provision for every single one of our needs over the past months of uncertainty... I was rejoicing.  

And then... BANG !!

It was just a tree-branch popping under the weight of snow, but there is a part of my brain that, given the right trigger, still can't be stopped from kidnapping me right back to that awful moment, that single gunshot, that ended Andre's life in front of me.  (By the way, did you know that mascara that says "waterproof" isn't actually waterproof when you're standing in the middle of the woods, alone, sobbing into your mittened hands?  I guess that kind of disclaimer doesn't fit on the tube...oh well. )  As the loops of horror-film replay ended, I heard a voice inside me realizing, "He left all this behind in that one awful moment!  How could he do that?"  and I felt buried under an avalanche of pity for my sad, angry, frightened, lost husband, a man so unable to receive the beauty of life, the love of a wife and kids, the devotion of friends, the mercy of God, that he chose to leave it all behind in a single, horrible moment.  And then came the guilt: how dare I stand in this beautiful place, thinking about how easy the season had been, compared to what I was told to expect, feeling joyful, warmed by the distant laughter of kids (including his kids) on the sledding hill, his alpaca socks on my feet, wearing a warm scarf given to me by a friend I would never have met while Andre was alive?  How dare I? What kind of widow am I? 

Again, thanks to technology, I was able to phone one of my many wonderful, "call anytime" friends for a  long-distance intervention, still standing out there in the snow among the pine trees, and I was finally able to pull myself together and trek back to the sled hill, my kids and my life at present.  

What that moment, and the conversation that followed, brought into focus for me is that I am mostly breaking trail through this season of my life and I can never be sure when I will trip over a hidden obstacle, or lose my balance and topple over.  True, there are others who have walked similar paths, walking their own way among the hidden obstacles out here in the woods of widowhood.  But their path is not my path.  

I am not completely alone, thank God.  I can reach out and share my small triumphs, and I can cry out for help when I'm lost.  For that, I am unshakeably grateful.  But I am finding that I can't really walk well along the paths that other people have travelled, at least not in this part of the journey.  I just have to keep walking the path where I am, accepting that I will likely run into sinkholes and boulders where I least expect them.  But snowshoes help keep me walking above most of it.  

In the writings of one of the Old Testament's minor prophets, Habakkuk, there is a verse that says:

 The Lord God is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds' feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places.  Habakkuk 3:19  

I had to look up what "hind's feet" were.  They are the feet of a female deer, a hind.  The deer was known for being sure-footed, even in the high, unstable places. 

 Snowshoes, hinds' feet...different forms, same result.  

Time to get back on the path and keep walking, I guess.  It's a new year, you know.  

Just in case you need a bit more snow imagery to carry around (especially my reader-friends in South Africa and Australia), here's a poem that truly LIVES in me... again, blame my New England roots. 

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
and miles to go before I sleep. 

-Robert Frost