Thursday, January 20, 2011

She's Making It Through the Rain

I often say that working as a singing waiter was the best job I've ever had. In fact, if you are a regular follower of the blog, you have even watched me say it when I vlogged with two of my former co-workers (e.g., Paul and Pam).

They, of course, were my husband Mark's former co-workers, too. Clearly, the best part of my job at Carvers Restaurant was meeting him: my soul mate. But a close second was the opportunity to regularly stand around a grand piano and sing my heart out during two to three dinners shows each week (five to seven during the holidays) plus a weekly Saturday morning rehearsal. Great song selections, talented coworkers, charming atmosphere, delicious food. Music wove this enchanted environment together in a way that continues to evoke peace, belonging and joy, eons after we lived those moments in real time.

This week I've picked up a vibe from Pam's Facebook updates. It's a vibe I recognize: Life isn't comfortable right now. The details of what she is dealing with day to day don't match the feelings associated with life as it should be. Unfortunately, that's the way it is when you live year after year with cancer and cancer treatments (and she's doing it as a single mother of a preteen). It's also the way it is when your life has been shaped by the needs of an adult child with disabilities for close to 20 years, and you realize those years will extend either the duration of your life - or his.

When you are living with chronic health issues, the demands of daily life regularly override how you want to feel. You have to fight to keep yourself above the threshold of what you personally find tolerable. Some days you want to be alone with your struggle. Other days you want people to recognize that you need support. Rare is the day you ask for the support you need. You simply don't want to become another person's tidal wave.

In Involuntary Joy, I attempt to describe the sensations that shape this type of existence using water. I acknowledge times I have felt overwhelmed - swallowed by the latest wave created by a personal financial storm, a poor health storm, a dysfunctional relationship storm, or an employment storm. Sometimes a perfect storm of emotions - created by swirls from each crises - threaten to drag me down.

As I describe in the book, I have learned to employ nostalgia therapy when I recognize that I am standing in torrents of rain. At those times, I whisk myself back to when life felt magical and pregnant with possibilities that I had yet to ponder. For me - and for Mark as well - that time, that place, is Carvers.

Here's what I shared in Involuntary Joy:

Carvers Restaurant had been our Camelot, the magical location of our first meeting and subsequent courtship...No matter how many dined in the restaurant's Chalet Room those glorious evenings, I could always count on one pair of eyes to lock on mine across a finely laden sea of glassware and candlelight...At Carver's I had never seen pain in Mark's eyes. But sitting in the exam room room where we learned of our miscarriage, I could see his pain - feel it even. Had it been possible, I'd have transported us back to the place where our dreams had essentially begun-back to a time when he was the tenor with a huge smile, and I was the flirtatious alto who always managed to be near him ...

I sense that Pam is experiencing a flood that feels overwhelming - things caused by drenching emotional rain that shows no sign of stopping. But those like Pam (and Mark and me) who have stood in such a rain know that it eventually does stop, even if we can't anticipate when or how.

We also know that when it stops, we will find ourselves standing with our shoulders back again, with smiles feeling easy again, and words coming out softer and measured again. And, we won't need to cry tears of release just to breathe deeply anymore.

Essentially, we will find that we have made it through the rain, and - as Barry Manilow helped us recognize - we may even feel respected by the others who have been rained on too and have also made it through.

This is for you, dear Pam. I respect you. I believe in you. I am with you. I hope this bit of nostalgia therapy will help you ride out this storm.

Love, Joy

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I See ... You!

The blogosphere's connectivity fascinates me. I guess it's actually the bloggers, or those who create the blogosphere's essence, that hold my fascination. As a blogger, I am even fascinated by myself. It's why I blog. I am compelled to analyze what makes me, me - and then I write about it.

But who cares to learn anything from what I've written other than me?

According to my blog's tracking program, visitors from around the world come and go. Some drop in and leave quickly; others stumble upon an entry and then spend time clicking through or reading through a string of previous ones. Some find their way to my blog because a key term alerted them, while others find their way via a reference from a friend. And then there are my regular readers. When I post something, they read it. Of course, I'm partial to them - whomever they are. If you are a regular reader, please know I am deeply grateful for your companionship on my journey.

I don't get to track readers by name; but I can see where they come from, for the tracking program lists the city name for their Internet service provider. Each time I glance through the roster of cities I am reminded of Miss Sally from my Romper Room watching era. Her magic mirror allowed her to look into the television camera and see children who were watching her at home. Her magic began with a special rhyme that caused the mirror to become transparent.

Romper, bomper, stomper boo.
Tell me, tell me, tell me, do.
Magic Mirror, tell me today,
have all my friends had fun at play?
The credibility of her magic powers solidified with the names of the children she greeted: "I see Cindy and Mary and John. I see Bobby and Mark and Jenny. And oh, look, there's Becky and Marcy and Pamela and Robbie and James and Karen and Paula."

Most days her listing of names felt incredibly long - especially to a young girl who was waiting day after day for her name to be said. But Joy was an uncommon name for that decade; I cannot recall her ever calling out my name in greeting during the after-school hours of the late 60s or early 70s. If she did, I believe it must have been on a day I missed the show. And that's likely what occurred, yes? Because I am certain Miss Sally knew I was there. (At least I strongly hoped she did.)

And I know you are there, dear blog reader. Perhaps you have a blog of your own and are checking out what other bloggers are doing. Or maybe you are having a lonely night and are just doing some surfing in the blogosphere. Or perhaps an internet search or alert of some sort had this entry grab your interest and with one click you entered my blog version of Romper Room. Or you saw I posted something new, so you thought you'd check it out.

Well, I see you. Check the list below to see if your city is named. I've been compiling this list for a few months now; but I'm not confident I have them all, so if I've missed your city, please post it in the comments.

And if you've never seen the wonder of the magic mirror or if you want to relive the experience from your own early days, check out this 1984 clip. Especially listen for the greeting this Romper Room hostess gives to a young woman named Olivia Joy. Lucky little girl!

Orange Beach
Forest City
Cedar Rapids
Washington, D.C.
Sun Prairie
New York
West Des Moines
Mason City
Lake Mills
American Fork
Des Moines
Buffalo Center
Lake View
Iowa City
Kansas City
Charles City
De Witt
Queen Creek
West Union
Mountain View
Kuala Lumpur
Los Angeles
Saint Marys
Lake Crystal
East Lansing
Cedar Falls
Rio De Janeiro
St. Paul
Fountain City
Orange Park
Battle Creek
San Diego
Blue Earth
Sulpher Springs
Eagle River

Friday, January 7, 2011

Anxiety: Why Fight It?

My day. Do I dare describe it for you? Do I let you in on what most would hold as a personal secret?

Yes. I am Joy. It’s what I do.

I’ll need to begin by describing my morning. It took me a while to recognize the phenomena and call it what it was, but here’s what happened this morning: I found myself fighting anxiety that threatened to present itself as a full-blown panic attack. I had not had a panic attack in so long – probably 10 years – that it took me most of the morning to call on those emotional memory muscles and shift into coping mode.

My panic attacks present as a feeling of insatiable restlessness, then a near breathlessness that only lessens if I keep moving. Because constant movement is impossible, I attempt to stop – sit, stand, something – to prevent myself from getting lightheaded; but then, no longer moving, I start to feel achiness throughout my body. Trapped, restless energy, I guess – an uncomfortable feeling makes me want to keep moving again. Sometime during this heightened state of flight, my sensibilities kick in, and I recognize my anxiety. That’s what finally happened this morning.

Had I let my attack mature, I would have been bent over trying to catch my breath and crying large, tension-releasing tears. As it was, I found release in brief, tiny tears – tears of disappointment and a sense of failure. I hate anxiety. It means I’m not acknowledging something, and I take pride in my self-awareness.

It also means I’m not coping as well as I thought, and I take pride in how I navigate (or seem to) the uncommon demands of our family’s existence too. Today’s near anxiety attack must mean I’m not coping well. Obviously. Therefore, the next part of today was spent attempting to answer this question: What is bothering me?

I regard my anxiety as instructive. Therefore, I cannot keep moving forward until I know the answer, so imagine my helpless frustration at not knowing.

Back in my previous panic attack era, my main causes of anxiety were obvious: Stross, insurance, money. My panic attack seasons were also obvious: the first of the year (when insurance deductibles begin) and just before the start of school (when I had to prepare for another year of issues related to Stross’ special education needs).

I learned to cope by remembering to breathe, intentionally exercising and allowing myself to grieve things I believed I had lost. And I gave myself permission to do all of the above as often as necessary.

But none of my traditional causes seem to be the culprit right now, and my coping techniques are – evidently – not working. Therefore, I spent a great deal of this afternoon and evening musing about my life, wondering what to make of the sensation I have about being trapped in a paper bag that I want to punch through from the inside.

As I learned 10 years ago, this isn’t the kind of anxiety that can be prayed away, for casting of cares is not possible. My cares live within my home, personified in human beings that I love deeply. As a decade ago, the best I can hope for - should I attempt to cast cares - is to let go of control to the point of not caring. But how can I do that with loved ones?

Music provided a bit of insight this afternoon when I put on some GLEE to help me with my breathing. As Lea Michelle began singing “What I Did for Love,” I closed my eyes and got lost in the lyrics. With tears spilling from closed eyelids, I attempted to kiss today goodbye and point myself toward some type of tomorrow. I just wish I knew which direction to point or, as with that annoying paper bag, which direction to punch my way out.

I’m confident I’ll figure it out. The suffering will become perseverance, and persevering will further shape my character. My character knows the nature of hope. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I know that hope does not disappoint.

I am not hopeless. Just caught inside a metaphorical paper bag. I will eventually punch my way out. In the meantime, I’ll breathe, exercise, grieve things I feel I’ve lost … and, now, I think I'll add listening to wonderful music. That worked today. So maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a more specific idea of what’s bothering me.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

One Foot, Two Foot - Heal

Twice this fall Stross has needed to have an ingrown toenail surgically corrected. First his large right toe, then his large left one. As part of the healing process, his foot needed to be soaked twice a day in a warm iodine solution and the wound gently scrubbed. The process ended with rinsing, drying, and bandaging.

None of the steps involved could be performed by Stross independently. In fact, after the first procedure, the doctor had me treat both feet even though he had only removed the toe nail on one. The doctor said that soaking alone might be enough to heal the second toe. Unfortunately, it was not enough to spare Stross the second procedure only a few months later, so once again I got an empty ice cream bucket out for a second round of soakings. And again, for four weeks, I washed Stross’ foot.

Each morning and each night I got the iodine solution prepared, helped Stross get into position, and watched the clock until it was time to rinse, dry, and bandage his wound with antibiotic cream.

Stross loved it.

And the holy intimacy of the act never escaped me, even though holiness sometimes did.

Ancient civilizations practiced foot washings for practical reasons. The hospitality shown immediately bridged any discomfort visitors might have had prior to arriving while assisting them in maintaining their health.

Many Christian denominations latched onto this cultural practice, evoking the examples of humility and servitude tied to foot washings that were described in scripture.

Muslims engage in foot washing as part of a ritual cleansing necessary for entering a state of prayer called Wudhu, where purity of body lends itself to purity of mind.

For Stross and me, foot cleansing was tied to healing – his physical healing, my emotional one.

Now his feet are healed, but I am not. I am closer, though. Each year that he grows older, I get closer.

I will forever have a son who needs my assistance in intense portions. Not only can he, at nearly 20 years of age, not wash his own feet, he cannot do many things that most adults can.

Enumerating them here is pointless. And, yes, we are all dependent upon one another for help to get through life. I understand how that makes him no different than anyone else.

Yet his state of dependence is entirely different.

Those who are quick to say “but what a blessing” have likely not been the beneficiary of such a blessed gift. If so, they would know that the blessing must be self-infused. It is an intentional acceptance of life as it is, while denying a wish for life as you once assumed it would be.

When the process of acceptance works, you get the type of involuntary joy I talked about in the book of the same title. When it doesn’t, you simply wait and try again. Perhaps the next time your 20-year-old son’s foot needs to be soaked, rinsed, dried and bandaged.

Stross’ baby feet symbolized hope for his future – a future that would be full despite the fact his feet or ankles could not (and still cannot) move.

Stross’ man feet symbolize hope for my future – a future that will be full despite the fact his life shapes my every move.

His foot is healed; I am not. But I am closer. Much, much closer.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Did You See What I Saw?

Mark and I sang "Do You Hear What I Hear?" for the prelude to our congregation’s Christmas Eve service. Beyond the lyrics and melody, what most of the people there will likely remember is how the song ended. Our friend Kelsey, smiling brightly and speaking excited words of greeting, joined us on the dias for the final verse and chorus. She didn’t join in singing, but she certainly joined in sharing a message.

I think the song was a secondary delight for Kelsey. She was simply pleased to be with Mark and me, friends she hadn’t been able to hug or speak with in more than a month; for Kelsey, that amount of time might as well be a year.

As for the song, Kelsey heard what others heard. That’s how she found us. And, those who saw what I saw noticed how Kelsey entered the sanctuary while we were singing. In typical style, Kelsey’s feet carried her forward with an eager and ever-so-slight bounce. It’s apparent she loves coming to church. She loves touching base with people in the church who accept her for who she is. I am proud to be in that category, along with Mark.

That’s why I didn’t mind what Kelsey did next, even though I recognize that some in the congregation did.

After taking a few steps into the sanctuary, Kelsey’s head snapped our direction in recognition. I watched her recognize us by sound; and then, after visually confirming that it was really Mark and me who were singing, she did what I anticipated she would. She traveled with charming swiftness to stand directly in front of us, waving and calling out: “Joy!” Her voice carried over our piano accompaniment. “Mark!”

I knew that she would continue to call out and wave until we both returned the motion, if not the greeting. So I waved (a small motion at my hip) while singing and watched Mark do the same.

I credit the added energy of the Christmas season to what occurred next. While Mark and I continued to recount the lyricist’s poetic description of Christmas Eve’s night wind, shepherd boy, and mighty king, Kelsey moved step by step up the stairs that shape the boundary of the altar area until she was close enough for us to touch her outstretched hand.

“Joy! I heard you singing!” She said even as we were, in fact, still singing. And then she hugged the side of me that wasn’t holding a microphone. When our hug ended, I kept her by my side, leaving my left hand around her shoulder while continuing to hold the microphone with my right hand. Mark and I were on the final chorus, and the least distracting place for Kelsey at that moment was to be exactly where she was: by my side quietly listening to us finish the song, oblivious to every other person in the congregation – even though they couldn’t miss her.

I hope most saw what I did: a loving young woman following her heart to a place where she felt accepted.

And I hope those who didn’t see what I saw understood this: The gift of Christmas is a gift of acceptance so that all children might know they are God’s.

Kelsey gets it. Her response to the question, “Do you hear what I hear?” was to coming running to a place she felt accepted. And to anyone who might have been appalled by her boldness, I extend the same invitation. Come on over. Come on up. Come to wherever you feel the love of God is and then revel in the acceptance you find.

Don’t worry about the conventions of “church” or “religion.” The God of the Universe is calling your name, every moment of every day. Open your eyes. Or open your ears to listen. Follow your heart, for you are loved; you are accepted - just the way you are.

Note: The middle photo gives you an idea of what happens whenever Kelsey hears us singing. It was taken two summers ago when our band was playing in a local summer festival. This video below (which I post with her mom’s permission) was made at the same festival this summer. Watching it will help you meet Kelsey. She loves music and loves being part of what music means. Enjoy her joy!