A LeAnn Rimes Sort of Intervention

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LeAnn Rimes’ soaring alto grabbed me at the sink as I cleaned a skillet of salmon leftovers. I was minding my own business and boom! the song shook me right up.

It’s important to know I’m not generally a country music aficionado though I admire its production value and talents. I’m not a very sentimental person, just occasionally nostalgic. I go for Debussy and Berlioz, Miles Davis and Diane Reeves and Bill Evans among many more. But sometimes I need country’s brand of liveliness, its overriding warmth. Even its simplistic and frank commentaries. So as I tackled kitchen clean up from last night’s late dinner, I thought LeAnn might do the trick. The song playing had a great chorus that insisted everyone has their highs and lows, love can stand strong despite life going right or wrong. What I heard was less regarding romantic love, more about life’s highs and lows.

And I thought: that about sums it up. And started crying.

I was elbow-deep in suds as tears slid down my cheeks and mingled with soapy sweet potato bits and salmon flakes. I wondered what on earth was going on but let them quietly fall. I’ve gotten good rest, plans are in order for my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and summer hasn’t yet been utterly vanquished.

Yet, something was up. I am not an easy weeper. Country doesn’t figure strongly in my musical repertoire because I have had enough of broken hearts, longings for more love, sizzling nights and crazy-fast cars, lalalala baby. It was once dizzying and fabulous and nuts but from this perspective, a bit overrated. Well, I mostly have had enough. I admit a lapse into old daydreams from time to time when I have nothing else to do or think about. Or a vivid memory catches me off guard.

But this morning something else happened. Music found me and whispered secrets, awakened dormant feelings. I began to recall cherished friends who have come and gone (or I had to leave due to circumstances), love held close then torn apart, life’s hopes and disillusionments. It seemed the spot where loneliness lives was unlatched, then let out to roam. It dogged me from pan to plate to gleaming countertop. The harder I scrubbed the more tears fell. I need to get a grip, I thought, right now. And I could use a bigger support system–how’s that epiphany for a retired counselor?

I looked around for more to do. I’m an action person, and like to think on the fly, multi-task. Feelings are appreciated, too–as long as I also get things done.

But the sadness intensified. My parents and long-gone friends hovered about like visitors. Faces from twenty-five years ago came forward, those I had counted on and cared for, reluctantly said good-bye to. My mother, having left earth thirteen years ago, may as well have entered the room. Of course she knew I needed her. I nearly felt her hand on my shoulder; her easy laughter came to me like a freshening of breeze. I imagined what she would say to me right then:

“Well, some things are out of our control. But the rest you can work with and have a good time doing it, too.”

I had to sit down.

I guessed it all made sense. A wedding for my youngest, A. is soon–but my mother is no longer here to ask for advice, to celebrate or commiserate with. She would have had a word to offer on everything, like it or not. Soft hugs and prayers that targeted bothersome specifics; mom was affectionate but never wimpy. Somehow she could corral unruly life, place it into a manageable perspective. And I know she shed plenty of her own tears.

I thought of the necklace, earrings and bracelet A. will wear with her vintage bridal gown. I sniffled a bit more. They once belonged to my mother, given to another daughter, who is sharing them with her sister.

The wedding preparations have required a concentration of multiple energies. I’ve gathered up scattered information and tried to execute ideas with a level of skill I’ve at times felt was lacking. There have been few to assist me due to others’ life obligations (a twenty-two year old granddaughter helped a couple of times, thankfully, and daughters have chimed in a bit). I’ve relied on my own problem-solving and hoped for the best: May it please not rain on the forest ceremony! Let the food be savory and hot! May the music be lively and the sound system good enough for what we can afford!

And all the time I have been thinking of A. and how her life has been in a fantastic upheaval, with a move to another state, a brand new career and her best friend/fiance who is looking for his own job. Wedding yet to happen, but soon, so soon.

There is this business of the family morphing… again. I have been through it a few times. This idea of losing a daughter, gaining a son… We have known D. many years and care for him, root for him, too. I know how to welcome folks into my home as well as adapt and this was no new person. No, it was all this shifting gears, making things happen, accepting all outcomes. Today varied impressions manifested as a tender sorrow, a pressure within that left no bruise yet radiated pain. And beneath that, a swift, deep river of feelings. To cross over to the other bank where a more productive day awaited meant fully acknowledging them.

So LeAnn was singing away and I was at the oak table weeping and praying: This is how messy it is to be human. I hate it sometimes. How inconvenient to feel so sad when I have things to do and much to celebrate. So help me, Lord, because this life’s drama and comedy will go right on until it does not. Help me, Jesus, to be strong in the compassion you have shown me. Give my soul safe harbor when things get out of hand out there. Show me how to be of use, how to exemplify your Love. Lord, let these tears cleanse any sore spots I have neglected to ask You to heal. And never let me forget the blessings I receive every single day…And please, I need a better sense of humor! (An Aussie puppy might help…but later when I can catch my breath…) 

I thought of my two best friends, both struggling with illness, who may not be able to attend the wedding. I thought of my sisters, one close and one far away, both of whom are dear to me. They also have health issues and demanding lives. One brother is nearby but I rarely see him and one lives across the country but will come and also photograph the events. We’re getting older and time and place separate us more than I would like.

But sometimes what I think I need doesn’t seem to be what I get. Today it was the comfort of someone who knows me well and to whom I could say: “Change in my life is hard, I admit it. And it can make me feel discombobulated and lonely for what used to be. Even though that wasn’t a sure thing, either. Even though I’m curious about what awaits around a next corner.”

After a few minutes I’d had enough of crying. I washed my face and put on more lively music–a little Ry Cooder and his Cuban pals–and got ready for the gym. When blurry or low on spiritual and emotional power, getting active is a way I can circumvent a descent into lethargy or self-pity. I brushed my flyaway, greying hair and put on tennis shoes, already feeling some brighter.

And then A. texted me.

“I’m feeling overwhelming sadness and I don’t know why! Will you say a prayer for me so I act like a normal person at my new job for the rest of the day?”

Just like that, God stepped in closer to do some work.

I texted back. “Me, too…maybe that’s why I shed some tears today. Well, I have my own stuff. It’s all these changes, a roller coaster of ups and downs. When you move out of the temporary place and make your own new home you’ll feel better, I promise. It takes time to fit the pieces together after a big, sudden move like you’ve had. And the wedding on top of it all! I’m proud of you for just coping with it, carrying on.”

We chatted awhile. The topic changed a bit. But I texted prayers and held her close at heart. She went back to work with love sent my way. A. is such a good egg. And she will work work like mad to do a great job. Her new job is a marketing and community outreach position at a performing arts center. It is work she was meant to do and she feels fortunate. But her needs extend beyond work and this transition has been trying.

Sometimes–though I’ve worked in human services most of my adult life and have loved the work–I don’t know what I need. I believe I’m competent overall and have faith in my daily decisions. But what requires most attention can be a blind spot until something jars the truth out of me. It could be music that excavates a clue, writing a poem that sheds light or the natural world enlargening my vision. I start each day with a meditative reading and prayer, yet still I might need more sharpening of focus. But generally what matters to me is a steadfast faith in God, helping others including family, the courage of kindness, the phenomenal resilience of love, and the fulfillment and freedom of creative work.

And as I finish this, it finally hits me: LeAnn Rimes is to be a performer this season where A. works. I’m surprised, but it all comes together. Her song must have been waiting to reach and teach me today, along with my daughter. Such clever timing, when my soul needed a dollop of sweet on top of sour. Didn’t I, in fact, get what was most needed? A pause that allowed some tears, a sharing of love, a refreshed outlook. Now I can better set aside useless longings, make more room for the present and future. More living will certainly occur; stasis is useful but not permanent. There’s no holding back change once events are in action. Life has its own velocity, clears it own paths. We just have to decide how many directives we want to issue and how much work we’re willing to do. When we want to jump in and step back. Sometimes it means letting the aches of living rise up, burble and shimmer, transform our vision and help set us free. To be truly human and glad of it.

Thanks, LeAnn. Thanks, A.

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Dina on the Verge

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She had been impressed by far less than this. A petal from a wildflower blown onto damp earth. A horned beetle inching its way across her path. Her old tiger cat leaping for a moth. Even the songs of the wind aroused her interest easily. But she felt strangely intimidated by this and unmoved. She stood at the end of the room and turned to meet their faces illumined by candlelight, registered their cheers. They found her worthy of attention, believed her success amid their failures was a boon for them all. Or so she guessed. It all seemed like someone’s else’s story.

Two years ago she was just the girl who could be seen found sitting on the back porch of Harper’s Inn rather often, sipping a lemonade in the harsh glare summer. She worked at Harper’s Inn as a hostess at the dining room and when she had ten minutes she escaped, ear cocked for the brass bell that customers rang when they arrived and the desk was unmanned. Her disappearance was tolerated because when she was at her post she was good.

It took exceptional good humor and flexibility to greet people for eight or more hours, to inquire of their well-being and offer them a distraction if the wait was long. Most of the girls had quit after six months. Too many diners treated you like you were their servant, like you weren’t smart enough to do anything else or too pretty to be doing such a job. So they said. It was true you got propositions and complaints and you had to smile, nod, write names down as though it was a king or queen needing assistance.

But Dina made it seem a privilege that they found Harper’s Inn.

“My, what a long trip. I hope we don’t to wait more than fifteen minutes!”

The woman was halfway through retying her scarf when she dabbed her perspiring forehead with the blue and white checkered fabric. It looked neater against her white shirt. Her companion had his lips set like an unbroken horizon. His face was pink and veiny and reminded Dina of raw shrimp.

“Why, I can get you iced water while you wait,” Dina said, reaching for a pitcher. “And there’s a place on the bench. Have you been on the road a long time?”

And from there things would move along, the woman enthusing about her new grand-baby, the man stating his opinion about Iowa, both relaxing under the light touch of Dina’s congeniality. She welcomed people. She brought what mattered most to them at that moment. It wasn’t just food or drink. Mostly it was about getting and staying comfortable in an inhospitable world. Or so Dina felt it must be. That’s what mattered to her. And people commented on how nice an atmosphere Harper’s had even though it was pricier than a place on the other side of town.

So when she ducked out back for a few, putting finger to lips when she passed the kitchen, no one complained. Kenneth, the manager found her there after a few days and was about to complain when he heard voices at a table in the garden.

“How about that Dina? She moved here to finish her senior year, then must have gotten stuck here. She should get out. Such a good way with people. Classy but down to earth. Well, Harper’s needed that touch.”

Dina had looked up when Kenneth touched her on the shoulder.

“Hey, just wanted to let you know you’re doing a nice job here.”

Dina shrugged. It was bread and butter money. It helped out at home and in time her measly paycheck might contribute to a better guitar. Because that’s what she thought about out there. Her songs. They skipped about in her brain even when customers were talking to her. People often inspired her. One might have deep forlorn eyes and place a protective touch on a child’s head. A man would wistfully look at the black and silver matchbooks in the little silver bowl as though they reminded him of some place or someone. She saw the expensive women’s footwear and was drawn to high heels even though she didn’t like them for herself. They seemed barbaric. But tasteful. How could she sing about that?

Every person who came in had a complicated history, held close their desires and dreams, had been places she had never seen. So she took them home in her head and got out her guitar and paper and pen. And the best part of her life began. She had written more than eighty songs by the time she was eighteen, some forgettable, many that were better or getting there, a few that stood the test of repetition so far.

Marva, for one, liked them. She was a waitress at Harper’s Inn but knew Dina’s mother. She had heard Dina play and sing up in her room, so asked her to come join them on the porch swing and serenade the neighbors, too. She did so, but quietly.

“Why on earth have you not been promoting this child? Why, she has a voice to rival Dolly’s.”

Dina winced. She hadn’t meant to sound that country but there it was–it sneaked in from southeastern Missouri where she was born. The place they had left.

Helen, her mother, laughed. “Yes, she’d going to make a mint and take us all to Paris! Marva, don’t encourage foolishness.” Her face turned hard, the way Dina knew it to be in general. “She’s a damned dreamer, this child. She sings rather than cooks or cleans and I don’t know what to do with her since I don’t have the money to send her off to the state college.”

“Well, our little music maker,” Marva winked at Dina, “stay late on Saturday night and sing a long with Max and the crew. We have some good times.”

Helen rolled her eyes and rubbed lotion on her hands that smelled of slightly rancid lilacs. Her mother feared things, like getting old, but acted otherwise.

So that’s how it started. Marva had come from a bluegrass family; her great-grandfather had taught his children banjo and tunes and it just kept going. Her friend Cap was a piano player and played nearly anything on week-ends to entertain the guests. Carter and Phil were singers from way back, on the other side of thirty, itching to go to Nashville, just four hours from there. They needed more money so they could survive awhile, they said. And more nerve. Far greater pitch would have helped, Dina noted silently.

The first time she sang with the gang her reservations dissipated. It felt good to blend into a group. She’d waited to sing with them for weeks and here it was. A few songs in, Dina closed her eyes and harmonized awhile, then wove back to the melody, letting her voice establish its place while the others filled things out. They quieted down after the third verse and let her have the room. She didn’t notice at first, the piano playing so good and happy, her guitar releasing rhythmic chords like they were scrappy creatures set free.

And then she stopped in the middle of a phrase, confused.

“What are you all doing here? Trying to embarrass the heck of me?” A look of  horror passed over her face and she covered it with a free hand, letting the plastic guitar pick fall to the floor.

Marva clapped, then the rest joined in and hooted and whistled.

“I told these boys how much you had going for you. That was primo singing!”

Marva gave her a hug, bosom squashed against Dina’s thin frame and taking the breath from her. But she joined the ragtag group every Saturday night after work, eleven to midnight. And finally, after a few months, she sang for customers a little, and dared sing a few of her own songs.

“Walk a Winding Path” was one of her favorites, about a boy from Missouri she’d left. She had practiced it a long time, adding here, erasing there, til the chorus sounded right:

I can’t find the sweet end of day
without your hand fitting mine;
you roam the far ends of this world,
and I’m lost without your light.

She knew it was simple but really, life was. She hadn’t hit twenty yet but knew from watching though not completely experiencing it that it about boiled down to love or at least lust, loss, pain, joy, and hope. And God. Everybody needed God sooner or later. Simple.

It was the tune that hooked them, she saw, well, maybe the way the words crowned the melody. They were twins of inspiration. The full room cheered her on. And she sang the next week and the next. Things just happened until she made more money singing three nights a week than hostessing so she quit hostessing.

It all added up to this. Leaving to make a record. A producer had stopped on his way to Nashville and liked what he heard, came back for more and offered her a contract. It was ridiculous, really, how songs made on her bedroom floor, in the empty basement, on the porch swing could be important enough to reveal to the faceless many. Maybe there would be nice money and Paris. But she wondered what would happen to her songs. If they would hide away from her. If it mattered how many people heard them. Harper’s Inn was one thing, a country another. Far less had beguiled her and it had been enough. Sunrises from a hilltop and iced tea with her mother on a balmy afternoon. But her music had found its way out there. She was going to have to follow it all the way. If things fell apart she could come back. Welcome guests. Make more songs.