Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Kissed on the Shoulder

He stared at me from across the way. I sat peddling newspapers, excited for people to read about the news we’d recently unearthed. He paced back and forth, just watching. 

I guess I must have looked thoughtfully at him at one point because he returned the action. Sometimes I wonder if people with down syndrome can be like that, simply honest and unassuming. 

As the day continued, I decided the man must have been in his early twenties and obviously seemed to be pondering something.
My thoughts suddenly turned to my son who died.  He’d had birth defects and the doctors thought he was mentally handicapped. They kept saying that if he ended up growing to be an adult, he wouldn’t have a good quality of life. 
There was a part of me that wondered if they’d been right. He died from health complications, but I’ve always wondered what he really would have been like, as an adult.
At first they thought he’d have down syndrome, then trisomy.  They performed  all sorts of tests before he was born and afterward, when nurses cared from him in the NICU; experts studied all sorts of tests there too.
Anyway, I thought of all of this as the man with down syndrome watched me at the fair last year. If my boy would have been mentally slow, what would that have been like?

I’m normally so happy, and I’m not totally sure why but I suddenly descended into such a sadness as I sat there that I almost started crying. 
I just wished for a second that I could feel the arms of God wrap around me and just take the pain surrounding sickness and death.  It seems like when my son died he left a hole that will never be filled – not unless I can somehow be surrounded by God’s love, just to know that He has a plan.
Suddenly, when I’d gotten to the very worst of this feeling, the man with down syndrome gracefully zig-zagged toward me.
“I like you,” he said. “I just do.”
“Well, thank you.”  I blinked, and then brightened, for his sake. “And, I like you!”
“Hug?” he looked down and kicked a rock by his shoe.
“Ummm. Sure.”  So I held out my arms extremely wide and he placed his head softly on my shoulder as I hugged him. I swear that somehow it felt like the presence of God surrounded both of us, wrapping us in this crazy-strong warmth. 
He kissed my shoulder lightly before walking away. As he was about to round the corner, he yelled back, “I love you, k!”
Tears filled my eyes, not because I was sad, but because I’d witnessed something amazing. 
“Thank you for that,” his caregiver quickly said.
“He’s pretty special isn’t he?”

“Yeah, he really is.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

An inadequate musical composition

The thick, maroon curtains are closed, but the background stage lights provide just enough illumination for me to keep working. I’m sitting at a black, baby-grand piano, creating a symphony reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

It’s a feverish business and the countermelodies fit more intricately than any novel I’ve ever written. It’s a puzzle that grows and crescendos with each passing eighth note.

Then suddenly, I’m thinking of people who might hear it and how it might show my worth.

We’re only on this earth for a short time. Will they remember me when I die? What will I be remembered for? How long before the memories will fade on this earth—and what makes my life matter?

Still holding the sheets of music in my hands, I remember the people who have judged me.

When I was a pregnant teenager, before getting legally married, someone told me I was going to Hell. Another person, later, claimed that I was one of the kindest people they ever met and I would “absolutely go to Heaven.” I remember mulling over their words, perplexed that people could see me so differently.

Still holding the masterpiece, I step to the center of the stage, somehow knowing that the thick curtains are about to open. It’s hard to even think before a performance and my breathing is shallow.

The moment suddenly feels so much like death, not because I’m scared, but rather because I know people stand on the other side of that curtain, and they are about to judge me imperiously.

The curtain flies aside with such force that a wind ruffles the air. The beautiful black, satin dress I’m wearing sways at the bottom and a chill rushes past my bare shoulders. It takes just a minute for my squinting eyes to adjust to the bright spotlights. And after a moment, I step toward a microphone positioned in front of me.

I can see thousands of people staring, waiting to hear the song of my life: what I’ve created, who I am and what I’ve done.

I’m desperate, wanting to prove that my life-song is powerful, worth something, that my time on earth mattered. I want to tell them this before I play the piano’s portion of the symphony I’ve written. I finally decide on the words to say as I’m staring out at these souls who are anxious to judge me. But my speech must start with the name of my composition.

I look down at a stack of papers containing melodies, countermelodies, the beginning sonata, and finally more minor minuet. But the name..... What is the name????

At this point, I know I’m dreaming.

As I stare down at the sheet music, the title of the song becomes numeric: six written three times. Six.... Six.... My hands are shaking. Six.... I’m dropping the composition; and as if the sands of my life are falling, too, I falter.

No one knows, no one in the audience knows yet how inadequate I am. I could walk back to the baby-grand and play brilliantly; hide it from the masses. But instead I don’t even want them to hear this piece I’ve written.

In my dream, I just stare at the never-changing faces in the crowd and realize that nothing I did really mattered. The good.... The books I’ve written.... The degree attained.... All I’ve done, trying to make an impression that would last. It wasn’t enough.

I woke up, sweating and nearly crying. If something as impressive as a symphony wouldn’t really matter when I die, then what would?

The song had been beautiful, but in the end, all of the effort didn’t matter. And it left me thinking about the word I decided to live by for this year: refine.

There’s so much I need to let go of: Seeking approval from others. Finding worth in outcomes and accomplishments. But there’s so much more; I hope I’ll be up to the challenge and figure out how to let go.

Of course I knew refinement would be a hard word to choose, but this feels insurmountable.

Isaiah 64:6
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.

Monday, June 8, 2020

She waited and I never came

Preface . . .
Over ten years ago, I was accepted into a local university nursing program.  I volunteered at a rest home, and even though the nurses treated me terribly, often making me and the other volunteers cry, I stayed, hoping to learn.

When ninety-year-old Rose talked, the past came alive.  She’d met her best friends and later her husband at extravagant dances and parties.  She’d been quite a prankster, witty, rich; I saw it in her sparkling blue eyes.  In her picture, sitting on the tiny dresser, Rose looked like a movie star.  Yet now she sat in a stained chair, and wore faded clothes.  She frequently felt too cold despite warming weather, or the crocheted scarf she wore every day.

I spent my breaks with Rose because she was something special.  On my last day, I asked her why no one came to see her.  “They’re all gone,” she said.  “The older generation has passed on.  The younger ones are too busy.  And it seems as if I’m the only one left.”  Her shaky hand picked up the picture of herself, still stationed on her dresser.  She used her precious scarf to wipe dust off the glass.  It felt strange seeing her wrinkled hand next to what she’d looked like decades before.

“It’s your last day?” she asked, and I nodded.  “Promise you’ll come back.  I get so lonely.”
“I promise.” I hugged her thin frame close to myself.  “I’ll be back when I can.  Things are busy at home with my kids, but we’ll make time. We’ll all come to see you.”

Rose opened the top dresser drawer and gently handed me something wrapped in tissue paper.

“For me?” I asked, trying to be careful with the gift.

“I’ve been working on it since the day I met you.  I hope you’ll like it.”

I slowly took off the tissue paper, revealing the most beautiful jewelry box.  Rose had crocheted it, using some type of stiff material to keep everything together.  “It’s amazing!  I’ll never forget this.”  I hugged her again, and then went out the door to finish my shift.

At the end of that day, I went to the nurses’ station to grab the jewelry box, my coat and keys.  “What’s that in your hand?” a short, brown-haired nurse asked.

“It’s a jewelry box. From Rose,” I said, wondering if that nurse’s picture is in the dictionary--under the word bitterness.

“Ya know, Elisa . . .,” she said, digging her fingernails into my arm before I could leave.  “I never figured you’d be one of them.”

“One of who?”

“Those volunteers who take advantage of old people.”
I gasped.  “I would  never–”

“Yet, you have.  Does Rose have much in this life?”

“Well, no.”

“And you’ve taken something from her?”

I thought hard.  “But she made it for--”

“And you took it from her.  Didn’t you?”

“Yes.” That was all I could say.

“Elisa, you took something from a woman who doesn’t have anything. YOU are a terrible person. I’m ashamed any teacher would recommend you as a volunteer.”

Tears came to my eyes.  That stupid nurse glared up at me, finally smiling.  That sickening red lipstick practically symbolized her craving for discord.  That’s all I could focus on as she spoke slowly, her lips moving over bleached teeth.
“I’m glad you’re done volunteering. And I hope you’ll never come back. We don’t need users like you.”

I hated myself. My own skin crawled with heat and embarrassment.  I clutched the jewelry box closer, knowing even then that I would never see Rose again.  Not because I didn’t adore her, but because I was too scared to face that nurse.

A couple of years after this, I decided to go see Rose and tell her how sorry I was.
But...she. Was. Gone.

I learned something that day: I should have gone back to visit my dear friend.  That friendship would have been a blessing to both of our lives.  But instead I listened to a cynical nurse.

Life’s not worth living for other people, especially if we compromise our convictions just because of fear.  

Today, I keep thinking about Rose, waiting and waiting for me to come back. I once heard that if God gives us “a mission” that we pass by, He’ll give it to someone else.  I hope this is true, that a wonderful soul started visiting Rose--and I hope they stood up to that nurse.

Moral: We should never let judgement or fear deter us from doing what is right.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Man heroically saves dog from fire

It’s been hard losing my job as a publisher/managing editor/reporter.
But today I had something kind of miraculous happen....

I’ve been writing for a few other newspapers – which has been a total godsend. What’s different is how I don’t talk to the readers. In my previous role at the newspaper, our readers would come in every day and talk with me about the stories. The subjects of the stories would also visit, so excited to see themselves in the paper.

To lose that aspect of work has been hard....

As I sat thinking of all this, one of my favorite stories came to mind—when I met Melvin, a man who rescued his dog from a burning car.

The story was so memorable not just because of the content, but the aftermath and how this strong man decided to be positive even through this difficult moment. I’d been driving to work, when suddenly a car burst into flames. I couldn’t pull over for almost a mile, and once I did I was so worried I missed the story, I immediately started live-streaming the event, and ran over a mile in high heels just to reach the source of the smoke.

I messaged my boss, and she started watching the whole thing too from another state. Unbeknownst to me, my entire office even watched  as I ran on the side of the freeway, and then interviewed the heroic man. When I got to the office later that day, it was pretty hilarious to hear everyone’s comments—especially the “office mom” who vowed to buy me a reflective vest.

But what amazed me was what I found through that story! Who would have guessed that Melvin had survived another devastating fire, or that he would have such a powerful history to share (I’m sure it helped many other people who were experiencing hard times). And to think, I could have passed by the car and moved on with my day, but by running back I got: one of my favorite stories from 2018 to 2020, a new friend, AND the office had something to joke about (running in high heels)...for months.

Here’s that story:

Anyway, remembering the story brought a nostalgia, but also some sadness. I thought of how I’m still writing (which is wonderful) but I don’t always feel like I’m connecting with readers. That’s when I got an email.

“I really enjoy your articles.” The words flashed on the screen and my heart swelled. “Thanks for adding so much to our newspaper.”

I read the text over and over—feeling increasingly grateful to both a dear friend and the newspaper’s publisher who generously started putting my writing in that paper each week. I had no idea I would get emails too!

I responded,  telling this gracious man how much his message meant to me. How did he know that I needed to read those words at that exact moment?

I thought of the email, life, and Melvin again. Looking back, Melvin seems like some sort of treasure...waiting if I just had the stamina to run back to hear his story.. He was so inspiring, completely worth every bit of effort that it took to meet him. So much in life is that same way.

You never know what might be around the corner, but if you're willing to keep your eyes wide open, listen, or even chase dreams in high heels—life-changing moments can happen. Here’s to more adventures!

I can hardly wait to see what’s around the next corner.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Playing with a symphony orchestra

When I was 15 I wanted nothing more than to be in the Utah Youth Symphony. This was such a big deal because as part of the youth symphony, members would play alongside the actual Utah Symphony at the final event. Each one of us would sit next to a professional musician—and even get to talk with them!

Not just anybody could make it on the youth symphony, though, and auditions were intense.

I practiced for three hours a day, perfecting my audition piece and even working on back-up selections in case the judges asked me to play more. It was amazing how quickly I got better and better; the notes would resinate with emotion—the accents became incredible. And I hoped beyond anything that out of the hundreds of people auditioning, I would land a place in the symphony. But when the day came to audition, people sat expectantly in chairs that lined both sides of the hallway. Cellists stood with their large instruments. Violists talked about their craft.... And everyone looked just as serious as I did. That’s when I realized that no matter how much I had practiced, I needed something special to help me stand out.

During the audition, the beautiful woman stared at me alongside a man who seemed to know my past, present and future. As I played, the woman—the conductor of the youth symphony—took notes. At the end, I really felt that while mildly impressed she seemed unmoved by my performance. Nerves had taken over instead of the music. And where I would normally let melodies drive, I had played perfectly without feeling. The woman told me I was excused, but just before I left, I set down my violin and faced her.

“Listen,” I said. “I want this with everything in me. I don’t pray much, but I even prayed for this! I’ve been practicing for three hours every day—and I’m willing to practice more. My heart and soul is in this. If you pick me for the symphony orchestra, I promise you won’t regret it. You want a group who can make a difference. You need members who play with their souls! That’s why you need me.”

The air hung with silence. I didn’t really know if she “needed” me—but I hoped she did!

I turned toward the door, but the woman’s voice stopped me.

“You’re in,” she said sternly. “You are in.”

I tried not jumping.... I tried not crying—or yelling out in excitement. Instead, I told her she wouldn’t regret it, and I know there was a twinkle in my eyes.

I’ll never forget what it felt like performing with a symphony orchestra. I played second violin, and had so much to learn. But just to be up there on that stage, playing with other musicians, hitting notes perfectly in unison, swelling and crescendoing on command. It was unreal.

I think what made the whole thing phenomenal was when I got to play with the actual Utah Symphony. The woman I sat next to was awfully kind even though I was a teenager and a burgeoning violinist. We spoke about the passion we had for music, and how the best melodies could change the world. I told her how I made it on the youth symphony, not because I was the most talented violinist who auditioned, but because I had a lot of heart.

“You know,” she said, “you can be the most talented person ever, but if you’re not willing to put in the work—and you don’t have the heart for it—it won’t matter at all. In the end, people with passion will pass you by. You’re lucky. Because I can tell you have talent AND passion. Do you have what it takes to not just be good, but to be excellent? I think you do.”

I never ever forgot her words. And as my family—my parents, siblings, and even my grandparents (who had driven over five hours just to hear the performance)—watched as we performed in front of thousands of people.

It’s strange looking back, because some of the places I have played throughout my life have been truly phenomenal. I’ve opened for a big bands like Cracker and Shanandoah. I’ve played for hundreds and even thousands of listeners in various venues where the lights shone so bright I couldn't see anyone in the crowd. I would pretend to play for God alone, at the end of all time. Where no mistakes mattered and the light cleansed my soul.

But despite the wonderful career music has brought, I’ll never forget that conductor who generously let me be part of a youth symphony. I know they were taking a gamble with me, but the difference their choice made changes my view on life. It really showed me how the generosity of others can buoy us through, and how having heart is worth far more than initial burgeoning talent that’s never fully honed.

This post is basically to say that if you have passion about something, whether it’s an innate talent and or not, just try. It won’t be easy, but if you want it, go after your dreams.

I remember points, practicing for multiple hours each day, where my fingers would bleed and I would feel like I couldn’t do it anymore. One of my violin teachers—in an effort to help me with hold my violin correctly—would tape a thumbtack to the neck of my instrument, just so I wouldn’t rest my wrist against it. And so I learned despite the pain and struggling.... Because that violin had somehow gotten into my soul.

The point is that I wanted it. If you want something, go after it – no matter how hard. It will be worth it in the end; you’ll look back on all those years of struggling and realize what a beautiful journey it was. Sometimes the journey is far more beautiful than the destination ever could be. Enjoy it. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of chasing a dream.
This is a photo where I got to jam with Ryan Kirkpatrick and his band when we opened for Cracker.