In service to the song: a sociologist takes music lessons

“How does that note get to be in this song?”

It was one of the questions I asked at my last violin lesson. My teacher and I were looking at a song in the key of C minor: Besame Mucho’ (which I refer to privately as ‘that slinky Italian kissing song’.)   The sheet music in front of us had the notes and the guitar chords. He was teaching me bits and pieces of improvisation—particularly how to join in a song when others are playing by playing notes that belong in the song. And as I looked through the page finding patterns, there were two parts of it, two chords that didn’t seem to fit. So I asked: how can that chord belong in a song played in C minor?  It doesn’t seem to fit.

He said: “It’s a fifth of a fifth.”

Then I said:  “Oh, of course. How could I forget about that?!”

I actually did not say that. I said nothing. I cocked my head to the side and scrunched my lips and narrowed my eyes at him.  This means:  “You think I know what that is but I don’t and apparently it’s something that EVERYONE knows so let’s end the awkward silence with you explaining it already!”

Thankfully my teacher is good at reading body language because he sat down at the piano and started showing me what a fifth is and then where the fifth note of that note is and so on. And these are called the ‘roots’ of the chord. And haven’t I ever seen the ‘circle of fifths?’ (sure…)  And when it was all done, what I heard was:

It’s like you’re at a night club and your name isn’t on the list, but Bubba Junior is on the list and you know Stanley Joe who is friends with Bubba Junior so they let you in. You’re a friend of a friend. You get to be at the party because you know a guy who knows a guy who’s invited.

Then he showed me how eventually, when you travel far enough on the keyboard, you get all the way back to where you started—C. And on your journey there, you played every note (or at least every white key). Every single one of them belonged at the party via relationship to the note before. Every note got to be in the song.  Every one connected by their root.

“But”, he said, “you’re right—not every note sounds good in every part of the song.” He got out his guitar and played the chord I was looking at and then played one of the notes in the music with it. And some of them sounded off. He said “It’s unpleasant.  But, there are no wrong notes. There are notes that sound good and there are notes that are taking you to notes that sound good. This one that sounds kind of off because it’s just taking you somewhere else. It’s on its way. So when you play it in this sequence, you accept it because it got you exactly where it needed to get you. By itself it was unpleasant to your ear, but in relationship it works.”

What I heard:  There are no wrong moments. No wrong people visiting your life.  Only those that feel good—or those that are taking you somewhere else. There are ones that hurt, and they are allowed to be there because they are allowing movement. They are part of something bigger, not standalone moments. They are moments in relationship to your life song and so they are allowed.  The people, the moments–they are there in service to something greater, in service to the song.

See, this is what happens when a sociologist tries to learn music. She learns about music, sure. AND she remembers what she’s already learned about relationships and human connection:

Everybody gets to belong—because everyone is connected at their roots.
Every moment, every visitor—even the ones that hurt—get to be part of the story because they are taking you somewhere in service to your lifesong.
Why do those lessons matter so much to me? Because I am standing in or dangerously close to a dozen stories of pain and loss.  In many of the stories, I am in a position to lead others through the terrain.  This lesson reminded me of my opportunity to belong in my own story.  I can turn away from reality–avert my eyes and disconnect.   Or I can turn toward it, and allow it in the song, allow it to take me somewhere.  I can find root-level connection with the others in the story or I can hide.

If a slinky Italian kissing song can allow such connections in service to the song, then I suppose I can too.  Besame mucho…Amen.

besame mucho

He was all the ages he’d ever been.

Anne Lamott once said: “You are all the ages you’ve ever been.”

dad owen baby

It’s true:  My dad was all the ages he had ever been. It’s tempting to see and remember only the 70-year old guy who was overweight, his body wrecked by decades of smoking and alcoholism, high-cholesterol foods and too many orthopedic surgeries to count. The man who recently didn’t have enough energy to go up and down the stairs too many times but who still took my kids to the park, played legos with them in the floor, and found a way to always say yes to their requests. He was also the 35 year old father of two. He was the man with the suave blue convertible that he drove cross-country. The wild teenage boy who grew up on a farm and knew everything there was to know about hay and cattle and what made a good meal. He was the 20-something air force man who worked on Nightwatch and helped ‘catch’ the U2 spy plane as it landed on base. He worked all over the world—Germany, Greece, Mexico, Viet Nam—and always came home to us.

He’s the guy who, less than a year ago, shouted out “Daddy’s little angel!” at a professional event where I—his 35-year-old daughter-received an award in front of my peers. I know I’m lucky because I’m someone whose dad made sure I knew he was proud of me. I knew my dad loved me.

He’s the man who, despite having very little financial wealth, started saving money for my kids’ college from the day each of them were born.

He’s the man who took care of his parents—looked after them, their home, their affairs.

He was the rascal of a three-year-old who held the farm cat by the leg.  The first-grader with the less-than-stellar report card.

His heart broke once when his dad died in 1998. He sat at his dad’s bedside and fed him, talked to him, held his hand. He’s the man whose heart broke again when his son, my brother, died in 2000. He sat with him at Lynchburg General Hospital in the Neuro ICU, willing him back to life after his body had worked so hard to try to heal what couldn’t be healed from the drunk driving accident. He’s the dad who held space for my grief too—even when his was more than he could bear. He’s the man who carried around enormous guilt and anger for what he felt was his part in Chad’s death. He’s the man whose heart broke a third time when his mom died in 2011. He saw her every single day. He brought chocolate to her—the woman who kept her beautiful figure until her death at age 98 and swore by her diet of farm food and daily desert, savored with joy.

My dad spent his years after retiring from the military in service to his community. He worked at a place that was once called the sheltered workshop—a place of employment for individuals with disabilities. He was so proud of them too and brought me by his office many times when I was just a kid to show me the good work they were doing. He worked a maintenance job for the County—cleaning buildings, shoveling snow. He worked at the County nursing home, supporting the work of the nurses behind the scenes, getting up in the middle of the night to give them rides to work when it was snowy or icy outside. He was what they called a swamper with Summit Helicopters—very physical labor outdoors in high temps and on the road for months. He was a truck driver for Loomis Fargo. He was a volunteer with the Rescue Squad. He was a security guard at Bedford Memorial Hospital. He sat with ECO patients while they waited for a bed. He helped ailing people get in and get comfortable in the ED, holding doors open and getting wheelchairs for those who were struggling to move. He brought refreshments to the nursing staff and was great at ‘shooting the breeze’ with the doctors when the nights were too long and hard. He loved taking care of people and protecting them.


He was a man who knew great heights–literally and figuratively; and a man who knew great depths.  A man who experienced the joy of flight and the darkness of grief.

I think I knew that I was about to lose my dad. I had been in Florida for work the days before his surgery and I called him from the Tampa airport Sunday afternoon to wish him luck—and to say that I’d see him after he woke up. It’s no coincidence that my last really lucid conversation with him took place while I watched planes take off and land. We joked a bit—he sounded really good—and then he told me that he had eaten liver and onions for lunch at Forks Restaurant. I held my breath. Liver and onions was the last meal my granddaddy Woodrow ever ate. My dad fed it to him just days before he finally died. My dad knew the symbolism of that meal and I knew it. He never ate another real meal after that. Clear liquids only. Well, there were those powdered eggs…

In the hours and days following his surgery, he looked gray to me. His eyes were dreary and weak. His temperature wasn’t right. He felt like someone not getting better. I could feel myself detaching from him. He didn’t seem like my dad anymore. Each day I would leave the hospital and weep in my car before heading home—I had a sense that what was happening was much heavier than it looked. On Thursday from his room in the PCU, he began telling me about his biggest regrets—and checked in to see if I held any grudges against him. I promised him I did not. That I loved him. That I, too, had done things I wasn’t proud of. That I had let go of all that old pain. I skipped visiting on Friday—I went to my office in Roanoke, willing him to get better by me moving on with normal life.

Through all this, I was watching You Tube videos of the surgery he’d had; learning more about A-Fib; looking at diagrams of what his heart might have looked like. I asked Google questions about his chances of getting better. I wondered if he was ready to come home. I wondered if his body had really been ready for the surgery. I wondered why he wasn’t a candidate for the TAVR they were doing in Roanoke. He told me when he woke up on Monday that if he had known it would feel the way it did, he’d have rather died.  He said he’d try–for those two grandkids.

When he came home, we visited. I took my kids to see him. We brought easter dinner and he didn’t touch it. We brought sugar free jelly beans and they were never eaten. The last time I saw him he looked like he had aged 20 years in a week. His speech was like someone else’s.   His body was so tired. His breathing sounded like a man about to collapse. Short, labored, heavy. He couldn’t sleep. He didn’t have an appetite.   I knew something was wrong. Everyone said it was normal. The home health nurse, the folks at the doctor’s office. This was all to be expected.

Tuesday, I called him on my way home from work.  I told him that I had just put oil and coolant in my car, filled it up with gas, and replenished the wiper fluid. He liked it when my car was well-maintained. He said, “Mandi, I’m a mechanic. I always know what’s wrong and how to fix it. But something is wrong with me and I don’t know how it will be better. I don’t know what to do.”

The next day—Wednesday—the last day he lived, I called. Mom said he had had a better day—at least in the morning. He had gone outside and they got to sit on the porch together. The nurse was adjusting his meds to help with blood thickness. They felt like they were figuring out some new things to help him feel better. But by noon he was tired again and went to bed.   I didn’t go that night.   I felt in my gut I needed sunshine and rest. So I took a long walk alone and stayed home for the night. Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I got a call from my mom that he had collapsed. I raced to her home—just 5 minutes from mine—and we held each other as we believed we had lost my dad.   The ambulance took him to BMH. We followed a few minutes later. When we arrived, we met Dr. Dove—whom he loved—in the doorway. He was gone.

I kissed him on his forehead. On the place that had hurt so badly when he was in the hospital.

I stayed with my mom awhile and came back home at 6:30 Thursday morning. My oldest son, Owen, was awake. He asked me what happened and I told him Grandaddy Jimmy had died. He immediately threw up. I thought that was just about right. He was “#1 grandson” and my dad took care of him many, many days in his life. I still have notes from days my dad babysat him where he outlines, hour by hour, the activities of Owen. “Pooped, loose. Peed. Drank milk. Played with toes. Laughed. Pooped again. Spit up. Peed again. Went outside. Looked around.” This man who knew how the engine of the government spy plane looked was dedicating his days to the basic functions of my baby boy.


In the days following his death, my kids and I wrote him letters. They drew him pictures. We tucked those inside his pecan casket as we said our final goodbyes to the man who loved us so well. We dotted lavender oil on his forehead—the place where he felt so much pain. We said we were glad he has a new body now. And that we will see him again someday.

I tucked my youngest son, almost 5, into bed on Friday night. He asked where his heart was—where did it hurt when your heart hurt? So I placed his hand on his chest and he felt it. He said “I can feel it!” And then he said, “how can it be beating so hard when it is broken?”

My dad got my boys off the bus every afternoon. Life will not be the same for them when they arrive tomorrow  and there’s no granddaddy Jimmy waiting.

Some of my hardest moments in this life have been with him. He was a man in pain—physical and emotional. His hurt turned inward as he drank himself numb and it turned outward as he hurt me, my brother, and my mom in ways we will probably never fully understand.

Some of my deepest lessons have been learned in my relationship with him. Forgiveness. Grace. Real love.  You can only learn these lessons when you live in the open–vulnerable, human, real.

His death has broken my heart. And it has opened it. I have received enormous amounts of love, grace, support. My kids’ faith has grown 10 years in a matter of days.

My dad was an airplane mechanic, a janitor, a proud father, an alcoholic, a listener, a writer, a talker, a caretaker. He was a farm kid, an iconic older brother, a daredevil cousin, an affectionate gentleman. He was a playful grandfather and joke-teller.   He was courageous. He was broken-hearted.

I’m grateful that the last three years of his life were sober ones. They were years that he was fully present for what was happening. Not numb anymore. I’m grateful he died at home—not attached to tubes and wires. I’m grateful that of all the dads in the world, he was mine. I’m grateful that my kids got to see him almost every day of their young lives. I’m grateful that he was never shy about telling me he loved me and was proud of me. I’m grateful that he was a living, breathing example of grace.

My dad was all the ages he had ever been.  And now he is is ageless.  Now he knows what it is like to have peace. To be healed.  To have comfort.  The kind of peace he never knew in this life.


The magic of ‘maybe not’.


I went to a yoga class this weekend and the teacher was someone new to me. It was my same studio in my same small town, but I had never had a class with this particular instructor. She was so friendly and warm. And she was super-fit so I figured if I did everything just like her, then I’d be a size 2 by the morning.  I’d like to say the class was high-intensity, but I think that really I have just been away from the studio for about 6 months so laying in the corpse pose for more than 1 minute would have felt high intensity. It was all strength-building stuff which I love. Core and back and legs. Lots of shaking and clenched jaw and big breaths and sweating.

I really enjoyed the class. I was happy to be back on the mat noticing how my own body felt. Noticing my thoughts and releasing them. Finding the edges of my strength and then relaxing just a bit beyond.

But something was missing.

I’ve only ever had yoga instruction from one teacher (mostly). There have been one or two other teachers here and there, but mostly one woman has been my person. She was the first person to ever teach me the basics of yoga four years ago, just after my second son was born. She was the first person who ever witnessed me doing the crow pose. She’s the one who taught me warrior three and happy baby. She’s great at the physical part—noticing when you can shift a half a centimeter with one finger and change the way the whole pose feels. She’s great at the emotional and spiritual parts too. Her language is powerful and she kindly and boldly leads us through what feels like church with her centering scripts. Today, she used the analogy of a conversation with a dear friend to keep bringing us back to the present moment; encouraging us to give ourselves the same respect.

And there’s one phrase she says many, many times during class. And I almost took it for granted until I went to a class without her. It’s the one thing that was missing with the new teacher: “Maybe not.”

My main teacher will guide us into a pose. She’ll then suggest that maybe we bend our arm. Or maybe we set our gaze upward. Or maybe we bend our leg. Maybe we reach just a bit beyond where we are. And then she says, every time: “or maybe not.” Maybe not is code for ‘you don’t have to do what the teacher says.’

It’s another way of reminding you about what’s most important on the mat. What’s most important is not what you think you should do or what the thin lady next to you is doing or even what you did yesterday on the mat. It’s what your body says to do today. So she can kindly suggest it, and then she kindly gives you permission to take whatever shape feels good to you. Maybe you want to do this standing stretch thing, or maybe not. Maybe you should be in child’s pose resting instead.

Maybe not is permission to choose. It’s the anti-should.

‘Maybe not’ is a reminder to listen to your best teacher:  not the woman in the front of the room, but the body you are living in right now.

It’s a reminder that yes, you can trust yourself to know what shape you need. You know when to push and when to relax. You know what will serve you well and what won’t. And you can trust that as long as you’re on the mat, there’s no judgement for the choice you make.

There was a series of core work that the new teacher led us through at the end of our practice. Lots of heavy breathing in the room and a little grunting because we were doing a pose called ‘boat’. It sounds lovely, I know. Relaxing, almost. Boat! I’ll do that! It’s like vacation! But it’s really more like abs on fire with your legs in the air.  After the third round of these boat things, I was wondering how many more times she’d want us to do it. And then I remembered ‘maybe not.’ So she said once again to lift our legs in the air and I said out loud, ‘or maybe not.’ And everyone in the room giggled and exhaled and relaxed. And I gave myself permission to get out of the boat.

I grew up involved in sports like track and basketball and I would hear daily that I needed to push myself. We used to practice so hard that we’d throw up and our coaches and teammates applauded. So there’s this old story-line in my head from that—and probably also from some of my early workplaces—that says if you don’t push yourself to exhaustion you aren’t really working hard. You’re weak. Lazy. Never going to get any better. Destined to lose. There’s no room for ‘maybe not’ because we were too scared of not improving, not winning.  Giving up.

My journey for the last year has been about trusting myself again. It’s never God I lose faith in. God I can trust for sure. When I’m struggling—physically or emotionally—it’s usually because I’ve quit trusting myself. Or I’ve quit listening long enough to even know what my gut is saying. Every day provides hundreds of temptations to turn the volume up so loud that we can’t hear. Every day also provides hundreds of opportunities to get quiet. The magic of ‘maybe not’ is the magic of choice. The magic of maybe not is that you have all you need and you are enough—no matter what you choose. You have permission to go fast or slow. You have permission to push or pull. Either choice is the right choice. You’re enough—with or without the headstand twisty pose.   In or out of the boat.



fiddle lesson #2

My husband and I haven’t bought gifts for one another at Christmas in probably 8 or 9 years.  The first few times it didn’t go especially well (like, the year he bought me a VACCUM, for instance.)  So when, on Christmas morning, he walked in with a fiddle-shaped package, I was thrilled.   I’ve had the slightest music-crush on Amanda Shires (wife of Jason Isbell, whom we’ve seen many times) for some time.  The violin is like a voice–when I hear it, it sings to me.  And I’ve been wanting to learn it.

As the kids played with their new toys and slime on Christmas morning, I watched youtube videos and learned where the notes were, how to hold the thing, what the rosin was for,  how to tighten the bow, all of that.  I could read music because my mom taught me when I was little and I had learned other instruments growing up–piano, clarinet, guitar.  But this fiddle is different.  You don’t play by sight so much as you play by feel and sound–two things I’ve never been trained to do and two things that don’t come naturally.

I signed up for a lesson at the music story where the instrument was purchased.  My first lesson, titled on my calendar ‘fiddle lesson #1’ was just OK.  The instructor talked an awful lot about himself, all the instruments he played, how long he’d been playing, how much his fiddle was worth, and how he hated playing ‘second fiddle’ in the orchestra.  I can’t say I learned anything  about playing that I hadn’t learned on youtube–which was disappointing because the point of lessons is to have real-time feedback.

A friend told me about another place that gives lessons so I gave them a try.  ‘Fiddle lesson #2’ showed up on my calendar and I went.  As I waited, I spied on the lesson in the next room over.  The door was wide open so I could hear the teacher with the student.  He had her sing a little and play a little.  And they talked about how music was like a language.  When you’re new at reading words, you register the steps slowly and methodically.  That’s letter ‘C’.  And the ‘A’ and ‘R’.  That makes the sounds k-a-r.  Car!  Once you’ve been reading a while, you see those letters in a sentence and it’s automatic.  The car turned the corner.  You don’t even consciously think about it.  That’s how it is with music, he said.  Right now you’re still registering each note and it’s a lot of work.  But it won’t always be as long as you keep reading.  I thought, yeah.  That’s exactly right.

It was my turn.  The teacher asked a lot about me.  Where did I work?  What kind of music did I like?  What about the fiddle did I enjoy?  What did I want to learn?  He looked at my instrument and decided that the pegs needed to be more ‘sticky’.  This would help it tune better.  So he worked on sticky-ing up my fiddle pegs.  And while he did, he explained how it was built, how it was put together.  Why the substance he put on it would work the way it did.  Then, while he worked, he said he wanted to hear what I could play.  So he handed me his instrument.  It was old and beautiful and sounded amazing.  I played one of the few songs I’ve taught myself, “Just As I Am”–an old hymn that was played at my wedding.  I did a terrible job because I was nervous.  And I was giddy because I was actually enjoying myself.

After he finished the work on my pegs, we talked a little.  About the ways you could hold the bow and the physics of it.  Where on the strings made what kinds of sounds and the physics of that.  He drew pictures of where the notes hit and we talked about frequencies and pitch and why certain things sound good to our ears and other things don’t.  He showed me a few tricks about how to learn chords and it was mostly math and science.  He tuned my instrument by ear while he played it.  He made me some worksheets and gave me some real homework to do.  We talked about posture–playing with confidence–and he even referenced the TED talk by Amy Cuddy.

Then, before I left, he said: “Every year or two I pick up a new instrument and try to learn it from scratch.”  Why?  He did it because he wanted to always remember what it was like to be a student–to not know anything about what you were doing.  He said he thought it helped him be a better teacher.  I said I thought it was working.  I took my homework, packed up my newly sticky fiddle and went on my way, saying I’d call to set up the next one.

An hour of my life couldn’t have been better spent anywhere else.  He taught me about trust when he handed me, a novice, his antique instrument.  He taught me about the importance of being a student, especially in our quest to lead.  He reminded me that I could, in fact, learn something new.  He created a space where I could have fun doing it.

A few good friends have reminded me about two things I could stand to do a little more of in 2016: To start fully receiving the good that comes my way; and to play a little more.  I’m grateful that this tricky little instrument will allow me to do both.











Tonight we feature a story about love and grace and collard greens from a guest writer, Mauna Hair.  Mauna lives in Virginia.  Despite (or because of) being cloistered like a nun while babysitting (for 30 years), she still has a pretty positive attitude about people.  Her hopes?  To one day catch up on the laundry and have the basket remain empty for 4 whole hours…and to be left alone to read a book.  She and her husband have been married for 37 years (and they still like each other).  She is one of the biggest pieces of evidence I have that God does, in fact, love me very much.


I stand gazing at the collards at the local hometown grocery store. I think about how much I hate to clean them, how long it takes and all for the smallest handful of return after the boiling water has wilted them. For a reason I will never know I feel a wave of affection for my husband because he really does love them. I throw them in the cart: enough, but not so many my hands will shrivel up before they are all washed. I take a picture of them soaking in the water and send it to him, telling him I am cooking him collards because I love him. He will know this is true because he knows I hate to do it. I get them cooking and go off to clean windows, which always takes me much longer than I think it will. I leave the weaving room to answer the phone and I smell it. Scorched collards. Racing to the kitchen I find them so burnt I will not only lose the whole pan, but incur another dreaded kitchen chore–scrubbing.  The heater (which has been running non-stop because it is finally cold outside) has drug the burnt collard smell into every small corner of the house. In an effort to try to cover up the smell I spray Lysol into the heater area which not only doesn’t cover the smell, but if possible, makes it much worse.   And just in case the smell in the house wears off before he arrives from work, he’ll know the stench well because now my hair also reeks.

I think this is how marriage is a lot. I have this small feeling of kindness in me that for some unexplained reason spurs me to do something, only to have it not work out quite like I think it will. A spoken word, a small gift, collards. It feels worse because there is sometimes clean up to do, and no amount of “Life Lysol” can cover up a botched plan.

I think how God must feel, sending small blessings, little gifts, affirmations, love taps to us. We are too busy or distracted, or in a bad mood to receive. How he keeps trying anyway. Unmerited grace and mercy and love. And I think I know where those unexplained waves of affection and do-good-ish-ness come from. Spill over. When my head and heart are in the right place I am full of the soul food God sent me, so full it spills onto others.

I text my husband again telling him I hope my good intentions count for something, but to not get his taste set for collards with dinner. Maybe his next wife will love collards and love cooking them, but I hope she sucks at making gravy.

the music never stopped

We recently took our 7-year-old son to his first concert.  Because it’s what my husband and I have been listening to almost daily for the last couple of years, one of his favorite artists is Jason Isbell.  Isbell came to play at a venue about 45 minutes away so we made plans to take the kiddo.

Leading up to the show, he would grin every time we mentioned how cool it was to go to your first show at age 7.  He wore his Jason Isbell shirt the day of the concert.  We dropped his brother off at a sitter and we took him to deli that we go to every time we see a show in this town.  Sandwiches piled high with processed meats and cheeses.  Cash only.  Delicious and so bad for you and perfect, really.  The kiddo ordered a kids meal–a huge grilled cheese sandwich, potato chips, a pickle, a soft drink, and a cookie and ice cream…all for $2.95.

We finished our meal, paid up, and headed to the auditorium.  We were there in time to see the opening act that started at 7pm.  The band was good, but not quite our favorite kind of music–and certainly not who we were there to see.   Kiddo’s attention was drifting.  Finally, Jason Isbell came on stage.  His face lit up and I could tell he was a little overwhelmed. He played the opening song, which we all knew every word of, and it was so good.

By the third song in, I looked over at our son and he was sound asleep.  It was right at 8:30 (his regular bedtime) and he was completely out.  I wanted to wake him.  I didn’t want him to miss the music.  Especially when I heard the beginnings of “Flying Over Water”, an older song that I didn’t expect–and kiddo’s absolute favorite one.  I patted his leg and whispered in his ear but he did not wake up.

The music played on.  We were there for our son–not for ourselves.  We have seen and heard Isbell live a few times, once at the Ryman in Nashville.  After that, nothing will sound better.  We were here so our son could be blown away by live music.  He wasn’t really blown away.  He was just sleeping.  We enjoyed the show which seemed to last forever and then left before the encore so we could make it to the car ahead of the crowd.  He slept the entire way home.

The moment illustrated a haunting truth: the music plays on even if we miss it.

The kids play happily, pretending they are fast cars in a race and help each other to the finish line.  Pure joy expressed while you are on the phone in the next room.  

Trees drop their leaves in a beautiful act of surrender and you are in the house vacuuming.  

A customer in the next line pays it forward in an act of simple generosity while you are busy thinking of what you’ll order.  

A musician belts out poetry to indescribably beautiful sounds and you’re asleep.

Last week I wrote about false choices.  Our awareness is a different story.  Our awareness forces us to be single-minded.  To choose.  We can’t be two places at once.  Our awareness has boundaries.  We can’t be fully present with our spouse and also be outside talking to a friend.  We can’t be at work and playing blocks with our 2-year-old at the museum.  We can’t be asleep and rocking out at the concert.

My first reaction to my son’s sleeping at the concert was disappointment and a little bit of panic.  He was missing out.  We paid money for him to see this and he never got to take it all in.  He was missing the beauty, the sound, the fun.  How could I allow that?

My second reaction was joy: the music plays on.  For those of us who are awake.  Even for my sleeping son.  What better lullaby than this?  The music plays on.  If for no one else, for the one playing it.  There’s something really humbling and magical about living in a world where beauty happens just for happening’s sake.  Flowers bloom whether you see them or not.  Babies smile in rooms all by themselves.  The music plays on while you sleep.

There’s a big difference between “I’m missing out” and “the music plays on.”  The first says that there isn’t enough.  That the world is a scarce place and I must hustle to get my fill.  The second says the world is a place of abundance–so much so that even when I don’t show up, there will be enough.  As Geneen Roth says, “Enough isn’t a quantity–it’s a relationship to what you have.”

We are surrounded by more magic and beauty than we’ll ever be able to take in.  I am reminded to pay attention. To be a witness to the life around me.  I am reminded that the problem of scarcity is a problem of my own attention.  The problem isn’t that the magic doesn’t exist–it’s that I miss it.

Here’s to a 2016 of awareness and attention and gratitude.  Here’s to a 2016 of the second response: The music plays on.






Hard to lose (a poem)

Even the dog’s
Eyes make me sad
For living
is being with life which
looks at you
through lashes
or the other kind too.  Yes,
even the sores
are hard to lose. 

Even my dad’s
Eyes make me sad
For living
is being with life which
looks at me 
through glasses
or the other kind too.  Yes,
even the drink 
is hard to lose. 

Even my brother’s 
Eyes made me sad
For living
is being with life which
looks at me 
through memories.  Yes.  
The living are hard to lose.  

-Amanda Lynne Noell, May 10, 2002

Mighty. Small.

“Oh, the Mississippi’s mighty, but it starts in Minnesota with a place that you can walk across…”

This line is from one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs, Ghost.  I listened to that song a LOT in high school, especially when I was driving my 1988 Honda Accord.  The music played through my disc-man connected through my tape player.  Back in the days before digital music and bluetooth.

The song is about a relationship and there are many references to water throughout it.  This one line is so powerful because it reminds us that one thing can be at once mighty and almost unnoticeable.  A river can be so wide, deep, and powerful that it drowns you–and yet at its source it’s possible you would miss it altogether.

At work I am a little bit famous for not believing in false choices.  We give these to each other and to ourselves all the time and I just don’t think they’re helpful.  We can either do what’s right for our staff or our clients.  We can either have fun or follow the rules.  We can either save money or get the best product.  And I always wonder (and often say out loud): “Why not both?  How about we say AND instead of OR?  I love the line in this song because it’s proof on planet earth that big and small can co-exist at the same time.  Sure, sometimes we have to choose.  And…there are times we don’t have to.  It’s helpful to offer up ‘and’ instead of ‘or’ to see what’s possible.  One of the worst ways we often see this is in our understanding of God.

When I was a camp counselor at Camp Little Crossroads (now named Crossroads Camp and Conference Center) in Amherst County, Virginia, we had vespers every night.  This was a time when we worshipped God out in the woods.  We walked our campers there from our cabins and sang fun songs all the way up the road.  One of those songs went like this: “My god is so BIG, so STRONG, and so MIGHTY, there’s nothing that he cannot do!”  We acted it out with motions by making big muscle arms and big wide out-stretched arms.  I guess when you’re little, it feels comforting to know that God is bigger than anything you could ever be afraid of.  It’s good to remember that God can do all the things.

Then, just a few years later, I found myself in the small hospital chapel at Lynchburg General Hospital, praying for my brother who was upstairs in the neurological ICU.  He had been hit by a truck on route 122 coming home from a night out with friends.  His 22-year old body was broken all to pieces.  His brain was injured.  He was not the same as he was when he left us earlier that day–my first day back from my sophomore year of college.  I prayed for him.  I prayed that he would live.  And then I learned what life would be like for him if he lived and so I prayed that we’d have the courage to survive whatever outcome.  I prayed that God would be present–with him and with all who were so heart-broken by his injuries.  And I prayed that God would be small.  Tiny.  Microscopic.  I wanted God not to be big and mighty and strong, but small enough to crawl through his veins and neurons and blood cells.  To seep into his innermost thoughts and memories and remind him in his state of unconsciousness that he was loved and he was not alone.  I wanted God to be invisible enough to live in unseen places and do work that wasn’t possible any other way.  Healing work is tiny.  It happens in itty, bitty moments.

It is Christmastime.  December 20th.  One of the times of year we remember that God came into the world as an infant.  For those of us who believe the story that Jesus–not created, but begotten–came into the world as a tiny, scraggly, vulnerable infant: God really was small.  He lived in a womb and entered the world the same way each of us has entered: the human way.  He was god and he entered our world.  He was mighty and he was a helpless infant.  He is an AND god, not an OR god.  From the very beginning and to the very end.  Like the Mississippi River.

I’ll leave you with one other line from the Indigo Girls’ song: “Oh, there’s not enough room in this world for my pain.”  My brother did not live through his injuries from the car wreck.  After eight long (and, somehow short) days and nights in the hospital, he died.  His body was so badly injured and it worked so hard to help heal itself that it gave out.  Earlier on the day of his death, my mom and dad and I sat by his bed.  My dad opened the bible and read from the book of John chapter 3: for God loved us so big that he sent his only son to us.  It was a reminder that I can only now appreciate–God got small just to be with us.  Now, that is big stuff.

Merry Christmas.








the bigger miracle

I love to fly. I was so grateful to recently have an opportunity to be in an airplane. Taking off is my favorite part. I love the sensation of speeding up and lifting up and getting higher and higher in the air. When the small plane took off from the airport this week, I was grinning ear to ear while filming from my iPhone so that I could show my kids what it looks and sounds like to get airborne.

On my final flight to my destination, I had a window seat again (thank goodness). As I approached the row of my seat, I was checking out the guy I would soon be sitting next to. He was old-ish–I had a feeling he looked much older than he actually was. He was really thin, with tan and wrinkly skin and gray hair. He had on ragged jeans and a turquoise sweatshirt and those awkward-looking white sneakers with the soles that are just a tad too thick.

He didn’t make eye contact when I said “excuse me” and shuffled by him to take my seat. He kept his focus on the book in his lap. I sat down, put my giant purse under the seat in front of me, buckled my seat belt. Sent a quick text to my husband, switched my phone to airplane mode, and gazed out the window. Ready for takeoff.

We were airborne and I watched carefully as the buildings and swimming pools and rivers got smaller and smaller. Soon we were above the clouds. To my right was evidence of this great wonder: human beings get to fly through the air. Somehow, because of lots and lots of intelligence and effort and strength and technology and logistical miracles, I was flying above the clouds.

To my left was this man reading this book. I glanced down at it. I recognized it instantly. It was the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous. I started reading along with him the words on the page. They were words of fear and courage. Hitting the bottom and deciding to look up. He read slowly, never looking up. I smiled in his direction because he made me think of the last man I know who read that book–my dad.

I was struggling to decide whether I should say anything to him. I could tell that I really wanted to connect because I couldn’t look away from him.

Near the end of our flight, as we were preparing for our descent into St. Louis, I said, softly, “my dad has been sober two years this July.” He looked up. Eye contact. The slightest smile I’ve ever seen. He said, “me–7 weeks today.” I nodded and told him that the journey took all the courage our family had. That I was so proud of my dad. He said yeah, it was hard.

And that was it. I looked to my right again and wondered: which is the bigger miracle? Flight or sobriety? And I decided neither one had to win. I was allowed to be equally in awe, all at once, with the courage to my left and the power to my right. I sat in the middle and took a deep breath in. I thought to myself as I breathed: thank you for the power and courage around me. May I borrow some for myself for the road ahead.