Life on the farm…

My brother jokes about that line from the old John Denver song,  Thank God I’m a Country Boy.  While I agree with that (Girl, in my case), I’m not so sure about this part:

Well, life on the farm is kinda laid back….

Hm. Sometimes, but not usually.

Friday afternoon I walked down the driveway to collect the mail. What greeted me but this scene:dead box

I let loose several choice (French) exclamations. Post…still standing. Mailbox…in the ditch. (The mail, fortunately, was still in it.)This wasn’t the work of a baseball bat, but a car – someone wasn’t paying attention and took out our mailbox, as well as his or her rearview mirror, which was found nearby.

Now, we had a few baseball bats when we first moved here (for me, it was moving back here), but quickly solved that problem with a little Cajun Engineering.

inside new boxTwo different sizes of mailboxes, one sunk inside the other with an insulation of cement. On a 4 x 4, sunk in more concrete. That put an end to joyriders with baseball bats. Can’t y’all respect other people’s property? And isn’t destroying mailboxes against some federal regulation?

Our rural Postal Carrier, bless her, brought the mail to my door on Saturday and asked about the box. Her eyes grew big when I told her what happened. She just shook her head and said “get off the phone and drive, huh?”

Even though the baseball bats have stopped, this is the third – or is it the fourth – cement-reinforced mailbox we’ve put up. Every few years, some drunk couillion takes the curve too fast and winds up in the yard or the ditch. Occasionally they take a mailbox with them. Although the curve is very well marked and drivers are given plenty of warning, there’s always that special someone who just doesn’t pay attention.

Like the guy who recently flipped his F150 pickup and landed on the top of a cane tractor across the road. A sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door and very politely asked if we knew anything about what had happened. Seems that the driver took off after the accident. I’d actually seen the truck earlier, but it was perched so perfectly I didn’t realize that it wasn’t quite intentional (you really never know around here).

Another time someone put their jeep through my cousin’s fence. He, too, took off. I don’t know if the penalty is stiffer for leaving the scene of an accident or for a DWI, but I’m sure those drivers found out.

It’s never dull in the country. And it’s not exactly laid back, either. A couple of months ago, David asked “did you see the alligator in the pond?”

My response:  “Another one?!?!”

Petey the Pond Gator stuck around long enough to be named, but took off eventually. Probably a good thing.

gatorThere’s always work to be done here, but pleasures and rewards are many. I walk to work in the morning to the song of birds and the view of the pond (with or without gator), with occasional egrets, blue herons or ducks (and even a pelican) dropping by.

CardinalThese are precious sights that keep me grounded and make me laugh about things like the gator and the mailbox.

sunsetflying

Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle….thank God I’m a country girl.

On the 12th day of Christmas…

When asking someone “how was your Christmas?” we often receive a reply along the lines of “it was lovely! And I’m so glad it’s over!” I heard that just this morning, and on this, the 12th day of Christmas, I was reminded of something I read recently on Twitter.

It was a retweet of something posted by @theodramatist: “What are some ways that we can start reclaiming/celebrating ALL 12 days of Christmastide?”

nativity dog

How can we keep the magic of Christmas?

Responses to this tweet included ideas old and new, and some great ones at that. While the Christmas theme continues in church until Epiphany, the secular world has mostly moved on. Retailers put Christmas stock on sale Dec. 26th, and – for the most part – wishes of “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” has become “Happy New Year!”

Christian churches do, of course, stick to the liturgical calendar. And while I understand that Christmas is a busy and exhausting time for staff, how about keepin’ it “high church” for a while if that fits your congregation? (Um, incense is optional.) I had a crazy idea of a midweek carol sing – a week after Christmas. (Why not? Everyone finally has time for it!)

nativity 2

A Nativity scene made from cypress knees on display at Epiphany Church, New Iberia (2018)

In recent years, my church has started doing the children’s Christmas pageant as an Epiphany pageant, which I think is a great idea. My own home decorations stay up until Epiphany. Here in the the sugar country of south Louisiana, families whose lives follow the calendar of grinding often find alternative dates to celebrate when grinding isn’t finished by Christmas (often the case).

But the feeling of relief that “Christmas is over until next year – WHEW!” is a little sad and bittersweet.

To be sure, Christmas IS a sad time for many, filled with bittersweet moments for nearly all of us. We are reminded of loved ones who are no longer with us; we are reminded of the changes in our lives and the lives of those around us. We look at the changes in the world, and (human nature being what it is), we focus on the things we lack and the things we miss while often glossing over the positive changes.

nativity 4

a handmade clay Nativity displayed at Epiphany last year

Even the wonderful things about the Christmas season (time with loved ones, community worship, giving) tend to overwhelm us, and I think it’s because we try to squeeze it all into such a short period of time!

Shouldn’t that be a good reason to remind ourselves that yes, there are twelve days of Christmastide, and we all pretty much get started celebrating Christmas during Advent anyway. So why all the stress?

Maybe it’s because we want to ignore the things that hurt us, the painful memories, and the wondering-what-next-year-will-hold. The sad irony is that the very gift of Christmas, the miracle of the Incarnation, should be the healing salve that tends the wounds of the less-than-Hallmark-perfect holiday – and so often we forget about that miracle.

nativity 1

One of the many Nativity scenes displayed at Epiphany church on our feast day

I’ll be packing up my Christmas decorations today and tomorrow, with the exception of the Nativity. (After all, the wise men don’t arrive until tomorrow, anyway.) As I do so, I’ll be revisiting the memories of Christmas past and be grateful for them. I’ll challenge myself to bring the beauty and miracle of the Incarnation into all of 2019. Tomorrow, I’ll watch our Epiphany Christmas Pageant, sing Christmas carols, and enjoy the first king cake of the season – and maybe find a plastic baby Jesus inside the cake.

I’m welcoming baby Jesus into my heart, and hope that you do, too.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us everyone.

Love came down at Christmas

Last night at the Christmas Eve service, Fr. Matt gave his usual children’s sermon about the young boy, Emmanuel, who wanted to know what language God spoke. The answer, of course, is that God’s language is love. The “grown-up sermon” changes each year, but we’ve heard Emmanuel’s story before and I’m always glad to hear it again as the message remains fresh.

Some years Christmas is hard. For some people, it’s always hard. It’s a time marked by memories and traditions, and traditions change out of necessity as life changes us and our circumstances. The season smacks us in the face with happy-ending-miracles on the Hallmark channel, and we are drenched with messages of the perfect family and the happily-ever-after. Real life is so much more messy, as families deal with dysfunction, illness, division, poverty, and those loved ones who are no longer there. (Then, there are those who have no family.)

Christmas whispers in God’s language to our weary souls, and it can be hard to hear those whispers over the din of the season. Christmas whispers of hope in a broken world. Christmas reminds us that in the face of all of the messy-ness, the smallest, most seemingly inconsequential event brings love and light. I think that God often hides miracles in plain sight. Maybe Christmas will bring healing to the sick, dignity and sustenance to the impoverished, and reconciliation to the divided. Or, maybe not just yet.

If we listen, though, Christmas brings hope, light and love. We are broken, and remain in this human condition. The media’s message of Christmas is perfection in an imperfect world; the real message of Christmas is love and redemption in spite of our imperfection.

Love came down

What a relief. I invite you to let go of the “if onlys” and the “what ifs” this season. Think about God’s gift of love to the world, even if it doesn’t seem very evident to you

Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; Love was born at Christmas, star and angels gave the sign. – Christina Rossetti, from “Love came down at Christmas”

May you have a blessed Christmas, filled with love.

image from the Graphics Fairy blog

The Charming Face of Evil

I rarely watch movies in a movie theater. There aren’t that many that tempt me to sit in a semi-comfortable seat for a couple of hours. Last night, I made an exception and went to a movie that woke me up at 4 AM, unable to get back to sleep.

It was a movie about America’s most prolific serial killer, who was finally – after three decades of murder – apprehended, brought to trial and put away for life. Surprisingly, it’s not filled with gory scenes and graphic death. It’s a true story: Gosnell, The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer. It’s the story of Dr. Kermit Gosnell.

Gosnell was a doctor in Philadelphia, who ran an abortion clinic, The Women’s Medical Society, for over 30 years. His clinic had been the subject of numerous complaints and an occasional reprimand and fine from the Pennsylvania Health Department. He repeatedly ignored health regulations, utilized unlicensed and untrained personnel, and had many patients with complications. In fact, over 40 lawsuits had been filed against him over a 30-year period. Yet, his clinic continued to operate.

The movie begins as FBI agents and state police execute a raid on the clinic. They aren’t there to investigate the filthy, shoddy medical practices; instead, they are investigating the “pill mill” that Dr. Gosnell was running, selling prescriptions for painkillers to drug dealers. As the team moves throughout the clinic, we see conditions that are filthy, dangerous, and disgusting.

Detective James “Woody” Woods prepares to enter Gosnell’s clinic.

Biohazard sacks are filled with medical waste and stacked up everywhere, in freezers and even in the stairwells. Cats roam freely, and Gosnell proudly informs the team just how many rodents had been dispatched from the clinic by one particular cat. Anyone with knowledge of how ANY medical clinic is set up will be horrified to see the setup and filth and the broken, unused equipment.

Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer (2018)

Gosnell said there was a “problem” with the medical waste removal company. From www.imdb.com

In the refrigerator were specimen jars, with tiny pairs of perfectly formed feet. Each one was neatly labeled. DNA purposes, said Dr. Gosnell. He calmly attended a woman who was waiting on her abortion while the team was there, and then proceeded to munch on Chinese takeout while still wearing his bloody gloves.

The story unfolded as the case proceeded to a grand jury and on to trial. We hear from witnesses and learn the story of the death of Karnamaya Mongar, a woman who had gone to Gosnell for an abortion. The Department of Health had decided to ignore the incident, but Detective James “Woody” Wood (played by Dean Cain) makes it a point to NOT ignore the death.

While there is plenty of evidence at the clinic and in Gosnell’s home to confirm that he is indeed selling prescriptions for Oxycontin and other painkillers, there is also much evidence that he has routinely performed abortions well past Pennsylvania’s 24-week limit on abortions, and has, in fact, murdered babies who were born alive.

ADA Lexy McGuire (played by Sarah Jane Morris) prosecutes Gosnell. While witnesses are badgered by defense attorney Mike Cohan (played by Nick Searcy), we think that the jury just might decide in favor of the defendant…until one former employee of the clinic, Betty Goodwin (played by Dominique Deon) approaches Woody and another detective with a photo of “Baby Boy A,” a child who was delivered alive by Gosnell. Baby Boy A breathed, moved, and cried until Gosnell snipped his spinal cord, ending the life of this newborn.

ADA “Lexy” McGuire, played by Sarah Jane Morris

We don’t see the child’s photo in the movie. (It is available on the movie website.) We only see the reactions of those in the courtroom as they look upon this perfectly formed infant. In that moment, we realize the true evil of this killer, described by many as “charming.” Indeed, Gosnell (played by Earl Billings) is the smiling, charming face of evil.

Earl Billings plays a charming Dr. Kermit Gosnell. He offers to cook breakfast for the detectives executing a search warrant in his home. They decline.

Gosnell’s clinic was an abomination, and we wonder how he was left to operate for so many years. We learn that the governor of Pennsylvania had told the Department of Health “hands off” Kermit Gosnell’s clinic. Perhaps this is because abortion is seen as a “hot button” topic. Regardless of where one stands on that issue, no one could possibly agree that Gosnell was acting in the best interests of his female patients.

Even the most staunch pro-choice believer would have to agree that Gosnell’s killing of infants who were alive is clearly murder. While the trial found him guilty of murder of three infants and one adult woman, there were other infant bodies that pointed to the fact that these three babies were just the tip of the iceberg.

This was a movie well worth my time. I had read the book, and so had some knowledge of the facts about Gosnell. The book, Gosnell: The Untold Story of America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer (Ann McElhinney, Phelim McAleer) is completely documented. The scenes depicted in the movie were not exaggerations, they were based on actual evidence from the crime scene. Interestingly, the New York Times initially refused to list the book on its bestseller’s list – even though it was number 3 on Amazon and Publisher’s Weekly lists.

The movie shows only a small part of his activities, but does a masterful job of telling the story accurately and with sensitivity and even compassion. The movie broke crowdfunding records – it raised $2.3 million from nearly 30,000 donations. As sad as the subject matter, we are left with a positive ending, and the satisfaction that, at least in this instance, justice was done.

Go see it.

Trailer: https://youtu.be/ttwkr8MM9Rk

Visit the movie website for information and theaters: http://gosnellmovie.com/

You’ll find the heartbreaking photo of Baby Boy A under the “resources” link.

Paper Clip Miracles: The Children’s Holocaust Memorial

While I am a regular congregant and chorister at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in the deep south of Louisiana, I have sung for my “other church family” at Temple Gates of Prayer. The setting of the season of High Holy Days is a perfect time to share with you a miracle – that to me, just goes to show (again) how much God can do with the smallest, simplest things.

 

Over two months have passed since Joshua and I visited the Children’s Holocost Memorial in Whitwell, Tennessee. I can still barely find the words to write about it.

 

This amazing memorial is at a middle school in the mountains of Tennessee, northwest of Chattanooga. Friends Diane and Vickie suggested we visit there after we’d spent time with the sisters of the Community of St. Mary in Sewanee. I’m glad I had that dose of peacefulness to strengthen me before visiting the memorial, which still has me in awe.

 

Over the years, the 8th grade classes at Whitwell Middle School have learned about history, prejudice, and the holocaust through this amazing project that has changed hundreds of thousands of hearts and lives.
 
Whitwell pause sign

Sign at the entrance of the Memorial.


 
“You should go see this,” said our friends. “It may not be open right now, because it’s at a school, but you could at least try” and they tried to describe the Paperclip Project. In the end, Diane sent us off with a DVD that we watched later that evening.

 

Neither Bubba (Joshua) nor I said a word as we watched this nearly 2 hour long documentary. (We are never at a loss for words.) As the credits rolled, we said in unison, “we’re going.”

 

I will quote the Whitwell website to give you an idea of the Memorial:

 

“In 1998 eighth grade students at Whitwell Middle School began an after-school study of the Holocaust.  The goal of this study was to teach students the importance of respecting different cultures as well as understanding the effects of intolerance.  As the study progressed, the sheer number of Jews who were exterminated by the Nazis overwhelmed the students.  Six million was a number that  the students could not remotely grasp.  The students asked Sandra Roberts and David Smith if they could collect something to help them understand the enormity of this extermination.  The teachers told the students to ask permission of principal, Linda M. Hooper.  She gave the students permission to begin a collection, IF, they could find something to collect that would have meaning to the project.  After some research on the Internet, the students decided to collect paper clips because they discovered that 1) Joseph Valler, a Norwegian Jew is credited as having invented the paper clip and 2) that Norwegians wore them on their lapels as a silent protest against Nazi occupation in WWII.”

 

The rest, as they say, is history. The students began collecting paperclips, with the goal of 6 million paper clips. After a slow start, the idea exploded, with help in part from a German journalist husband and wife team who were working in the United States.

 

Over the following years, the students collected over 30 million paperclips from all over the world. In 2004, a documentary film was made (the DVD that Diane loaned us).

 

The project expanded exponentially, and became much more than just a class exercise. The project came to change the entire town, and impact everyone who has seen it.

 

The day that Bubba and I went was a quiet summer day, and Whitwell is off the beaten path and away from the tourist attractions of Chattanooga and Nashville. The town and school are not diverse in population, which is initially one reason why the school chose to learn about the holocaust. In addition to learning about history, there were lessons in tolerance to be learned as well.

 

We found the school, nestled on the outskirts of town. The gates to the schoolgrounds were wide open, and they were beautiful gates with artistic butterflies incorporated into their design. As we rounded the bend in the driveway, I began to wonder aloud where the memorial (which, we’d been told, was in an authentic cattle car – yes, one of those) might be near the school, behind the school, or…
No need to wonder:
 
Whitwell LS for blog

Still, no words.


 
We drove up in silence. The car sat on a length of track, which rested on limestone. A wheelchair friendly ramp led to the open door of the car. Butterfly bushes were planted nearby, and mosaic butterfly stones and sculptures were around the car, as was an iron fence.
 

 
On a granite monument, we read the words of the poem, The Last Butterfly:

 

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone…
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto. 

 

This was written by Pavel Friedmann, dated 4.6.1942 . Pavel was born in 1921 in Prague, and was deported a couple of weeks after the poem was written. He was murdered in Auschwitz in September of 1944.
 

 
After spending a long walking in silence around the outside of the fence, Bubba finally spoke.

 

“Want to go inside?” he said. “But it’s locked,” I replied. “We can get the key. Look.” He pointed out the sign on the gate that I’d missed; the key was available at a local grocery.

 

We drove into town, sharing few words. The grocery was on the main thoroughfare, and I pulled in next to a motorcycle. “I’ll get it,” I said, grabbing my wallet. After all, they would want some ID, right?

 

“Hi, is this where I get the key to – “ the young lady smiled, said “yes m’am, here you go” and handed me a key (on a giant paperclip keychain). I stopped in midsentence.

 

“Do you need an ID, or do I need to check it out, sign anything?”

 

“Nah, just remember to bring it back when you’re done.”

 

Wow. Thank you. I got back in the car, unused to this simple, honest, open greeting.

 

We drove back to the Memorial. I walked over to an area near the parking lot, with stones lining a drainage ditch, and selected a small, smooth one. I walked along the sidewalk, and also selected a piece of limestone. We unlocked the gate, and stepped in.

 

Whitwell CCar 1
I don’t know how long we stayed . There was no sense of time. I walked around, finally getting the nerve to touch the cattlecar. It had been cleaned, repaired, and “disinfected.” The car had been used for the most nefarious of work, bringing innocent souls  to the slaughter of the camps. Blood, tears, secretions of body and of spirit were soaked into the wood. After the war, it had been adapted to use for hauling grain.

 

From hauling innocents to death, to hauling food – grain. Was it on the path to being forgotten? Or was this a metaphor as well?

 

Whitwell door

 

I expected the wood to scream at me, saturated with grief and terror. Yet, it didn’t scream as I’d anticipated. It whispered, and I couldn’t quite make out the whispers. It wept. I walked around the outside of the car, the open doors eye level with me. I left one piece of limestone on the outside of the car, and saw where many other visitors had left their stones of remembrance.

 

Whitwell rocks

 

I saw life in the butterfly garden. One memorial stone was placed in honor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were murdered by the Nazis. Coincidentally, about the same time as I visited this memorial, my mother was back home, having coffee and visiting with a relative from New York – the daughter of a cousin who was a Jehovah’s Witness.
 

I finally walked up the ramp and into the car. The doors were both open, and the sides were partitioned off by plexiglass.

 

Behind the plexiglass were 11 million paperclips.

 

Whitwell not forget you

 

Clearly, the paperclips were from all over. Not all were “standard American paperclips.” There were plastic ones, differently-curved ones, from all over the world. Tucked in with the paperclips were other memorials:

 

~A vintage, battered suitcase from a school in Germany filled with letters from German students, written to Anne Frank.

 

~Kippahs from Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, adorned with paperclips.

 

Whitwell kippahs

 

~Books, and a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

 

Whitwell Mourners Kaddish
~A beautiful Mezzuzah, sent from a Jewish Congregation (in Ohio, I think) was on the door of the car. God’s word welcomed all who entered, regardless of faith.

 

Whitwell Mezzuzah

 

Above the paperclips, a sign read:
Whitwell inside

Sign above the paperclips, and the suitcase from schoolchildren in Germany. My own reflection, witnessing.

 

Standing in this car, I wondered how many thousands of souls were forced to ride it, in misery and terror. Today, this cattlecar stands as testimony and reminder: Never again. It serves as a focal point for former, current, and future students who are all involved in the Paperclip Project. Students greet visitors, give tours, answer questions. The heart of this project has grown to encompass the entire community of Whitwell, and people all over the world; art blossoms at this Memorial, reflecting the desire to be a part of this reminder, this hope, this healing.

 

Whitwell my rock

 

I left another stone at the edge of the paperclips, and prayed. As much of the Mourner’s Kaddish as I could remember,  Hail Holy Queen, and the words of my heart. (After all, what else is an Episcopalian with Catholic roots who says “my other church is a synagogue” going to do?)  It’s all God, after all, and prayer is prayer. I prayed, and I listened, actually somewhat confused at what I was feeling and at what I was not feeling. One thing was certain: I will not forget. 

 

I was anticipating angst, fear, horror.
I felt horror…but also some calm, peace, hope, and healing.

 

The lives lost can never be regained. Yet the healing power of this project which grew into an international effort cannot be denied. I was left awestruck by the power of a simple paperclip and a desire to make a difference, no matter how small.
Whitwell touch
As I write, I recall reading something about a man who bartered his way to a house, starting with only a paperclip. The students of Whitwell Middle School started with an idea, and a simple paperclip. Even the smallest thing, teamed with love and vision, can make a huge difference.

 

We were leaving, and had locked up the gate when another car drove up. Somehow, we found our voices to greet the newcomers.  “Get ready,” Bubba said to them. “It’ll hit you.”

 

“I know,” replied the young woman. She told us that she was a teacher, who came to visit the Memorial every summer.

 

We unlocked the gate for them, and brought the key back to the grocery. “We unlocked it for someone who got there when we were leaving,” I told the young lady at the register. “They said they’d lock it when they left, unless someone else came by.”

 

“That’s fine,” she said.

 

“Thank y’all for keeping that key available,” I said as I left. “Being able to walk inside was – incredible.” She smiled. I had no words; it was hard enough to find those.
 
Whitwell childrens sculpture

Artwork at the Children’s Holocaust Memorial

I’ve thought of two words to describe the Children’s Holocaust Memorial: Healing Miracle.

 

Beyond that, you’ll have to visit it yourself, and I urge you to do so.

 

The Last Butterfly accessed from:
For information, visit
and

 

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Submitted to the DAR Women’s Issues Essay Competition. It received state honors (Louisiana). OK, Charlotte, here it is. 

I suppose I’ve come to that “wise woman” part of my life, even though I don’t feel wise. I am a wife, mother, office manager for my family business, songwriter, and vocalist. I am occasionally asked for advice by young singers.

I tell them that a vocalist can never replace their instrument. If it gets damaged or broken, we can no longer sing – or we must find a way to deal with the damage.

sing 1

This is the story of my own damaged instrument. Not my voice, but my ear. My advice to young vocalists has expanded to include: If you ever experience sudden hearing loss, it is a medical emergency.  I tell them about the symptoms of Meniere’s Disease.

I juggled singing with job and family life. I sang with my blues band, at my church, at our local Jewish temple, and with my music partner in our Gospel duo. God makes each of us an instrument, and I did my best to learn to use and care for my musical instrument. Call me “Queen of the Earplugs;” I treasure my ears.

sing 2

Earplugs don’t help with allergies, though. For years, I’d have occasional bouts of clogged ears and dizziness during high allergy seasons. One December day a few years ago, my ears clogged.

I thought it was allergies, or possibly I’d caught my husband and daughter’s virus. I had things to do at the office and two sick ones to care for. I knew what this was, took ibuprofen and antihistamines, but it got worse.

I couldn’t hear anything clearly in my left ear. While it had been several years since my last “spell,” I’d had a severe dizzy day recently, so I saw my ENT, who was familiar with my history. I expected the usual cortisone pack, but this time he looked at me with concern when I told him this had lingered for three weeks.

I knew from his expression that something was different this time. This should have run its course by now, he said. He prescribed cortisone and an antifungal.

“When will my hearing return?” I asked.

“Let’s wait and see what the medication does,” he replied.

I took what felt like a never-ending course of cortisone and Valtrex.

After a month of medication, Dr. Robert ordered an MRI. Fortunately, there was no tumor, but no answers either. I went to the audiologist for a baseline audiogram. There was nothing but noise and pain in my left ear. Results? My right ear was good, but my left ear showed a profound hearing loss. I took a copy of the report home, filed it away, and cried. I cried me a river, as the song says. How ironic.

sing 3

I told only family and closest friends. I quit scheduling band gigs; even with earplugs jammed into my ears, I was afraid to take any chances. Meanwhile, a bizarre group of sounds had moved in where my hearing used to be: Tinnitus. In different keys. All at once.

Dr. Robert had told me that we needed to wait a year, as there was a chance that my hearing would return with time. Meanwhile, I had this invisible, sudden, crippling loss that I couldn’t even talk about or escape. After asking my husband to repeat something for the third time one evening, he voiced his frustration. “Are you DEAF?” he cried.

I fell apart.

“YES, I AM.” I replied. “In one ear. Half of everything I hear is GONE.” He felt terrible. So did I.

I began telling a few people about my loss. I was shocked at some of the responses.

“Well, I guess so, all that loud music you play!” A laugh. “I could have told you THAT was going to happen!”

Really? I’m the one wearing earplugs, remember? I have the small band that is known to be considerate of noise levels.

My response was anger. Then, there was the well-meaning advice about earwax, about this doctor, that diet, this treatment, etc. No, a cochlear implant would only destroy the way I hear music.

That year was one of adjustment, resignation, and hope. In many ways, I had to relearn to sing because I had to learn how to hear again. Our brains are wired for stereo, and that was lost to me. I quit going places where a large group of people gathered because I could no longer discern voices in a conversation. I quit going to movies and concerts and any live presentation because they were hard to follow. Everything was a wash of noise, coated with a blanket of anxiety and occasional panic.

I considered hearing aids, although I had no idea how to pay for them. We had two children in college. This was hope, though: One day, I can get hearing aids. 

I longed to hear in stereo. I wanted the safety of knowing where a sound originated. If someone called my name, I had no idea of where to turn. I don’t know where a siren or horn is coming from in traffic.

I wanted to hear music in stereo.

When the year was up, I went back to Dr. Robert and the audiologist. I was hopeful, as Erica, the audiologist, had successfully fit my father with hearing aids. I was determined to put up with whatever adjustment was needed. Surely no hearing aid noise could be more obnoxious than tinnitus!

The testing was similar to a routine audiogram. Erica explained that the noise and sounds and speech I would hear in the headphones would be adjusted just as it would be with a hearing aid, so we would find out whether or not a hearing aid would help me.

Whether or not? I hadn’t realized there was a chance that this wouldn’t work.

Today’s hearing aid technology is phenomenal. From what I knew about audio engineering, the ability to adjust amplification of specific frequencies in a device so tiny was nothing short of a miracle.

Unfortunately, this miracle was not to be mine. No amount of amplification or adjustment made a difference – only physical pain. I sat in Erica’s office and sobbed as she held my hands and offered tissue, understanding, and honesty. The cilia, the microscopic hairs of the inner ear that enable us to hear, were dead. No diet, supplement, medication, procedure or technical device would restore them. I faced a life in monaural, but at least I had one functioning ear.

She also offered a tentative diagnosis: Meniere’s Disease. My decades-long history of periodic dizziness was a clue. I’d had several particularly violent dizzy periods in months preceding the hearing loss. During the worst dizzy periods, I always spun to the left. I had become so used to a dizzy period during high-allergy months that they just became a part of life, diagnosed previously as “Benign Peripheral Vertigo.”

I learned about Meniere’s Disease, and saw my history written in what I found. Dr. Robert’s suggestions to address the vertigo were basically the same as for Meniere’s, but I felt defeated as I learned that no one knows the cause of the illness, and there is no cure. My years of periodic spells, interspersed by periods of feeling normal, had a name. Interestingly, it affects more women than men, and the possible causes include infection, allergies, head injury, stress, fatigue, migraines, respiratory infection, and an autoimmune response. I wasn’t too surprised that women experience Meniere’s more than men. It usually affects one ear, but sometimes attacks both over time. I cannot dwell on that. It is critical for me to maintain my balance, and I mean that metaphorically as well as literally.

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Balance.

It’s not always obvious that I have a hearing deficit, but an astute observer will notice. I’m getting better at lip-reading. In music, I seek the right position to hear what I need to hear in order to sing. In any group seating situations, I tell the person on my left “I’m deaf in this ear. If you say something and I don’t respond, it’s because I didn’t hear you.” I’ve learned to deflect the still-painful topic of hearing aids by saying “it’s a sensorineural hearing loss, which cannot be fixed by a hearing aid.” I’ve learned that such queries are usually out of concern.

I also tell others that sudden hearing loss is a medical emergency, even if you’ve had it before and you think “oh, allergies.” I also tell them about Meniere’s Disease.

On the positive side, the dizzy spells have mostly stopped; this, too, is typical of Meniere’s. As for singing, I’ve had to hyper-focus my sense of pitch, which has strengthened my vocals. I’ve heard of other vocalists who have experienced a similar hearing loss who have quit singing.

I can’t not sing. I have found a new way of listening, and a new way to focus on the experience of singing. It is a whole-body expression, as you must feel the vibrations and melody in your body. Your mind, throat, ear, mouth, lungs must know how the notes feel as well as how they sound. Perhaps it’s similar to the heightened sense of hearing that some vision impaired people have; I am partially deaf, so I have an enhanced sense of certain facets of singing that some take for granted.

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How can I keep from singing? At a Women at the Well concert. Photo by Rev. Kemper Anderson, at St. James Church in Cedartown, Ga.

About three years into this journey, my music partner and I were preparing to go on a short tour of several churches in the mid-Atlantic states, performing our original Gospel program about Jesus’ women disciples. We had recorded several of the songs from the program, and I longed to re-record some vocals and add harmonies.

Singing overdub harmonies is a challenge when you have only one functional ear. I managed by notating the harmonies, placing the headphone behind my one good ear, and forging ahead in spite of fear deep in my soul. What if I couldn’t do it?

But I could, and I did. A few days later, after the vocals were mixed, we shared the tracks with a friend. Danny is a gifted pianist who tours worldwide and has done a lot of recording and harmony vocals. He knows of my hearing loss, and was floored when he heard the harmonies.

“That’s a miracle,” he said, “that you could do that.”

It is a miracle, and one for which I am profoundly grateful. I still ache over the loss, but on the other hand, I now sing more sacred music and chant. Sometimes frustration still rises to the surface. That’s when the words and music of the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing sustain me:

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing

            It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?                      

Too much.

Two highly visible suicides this week bring that subject into the forefront for the time being. For survivors (family and friends left behind), suicide will always be with them. For those who live with depression, thoughts of suicide are often there.

For the rest of the world, well, we’d just rather not think about it, right?

I’m not practicing professionally right now (I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker), but keep my license current and never stop learning. Suicide prevention is a subject that people will ask me about, and I know in at least some instances they ask me because I’m NOT currently “working in the system.” So I urge them: If someone has verbalized thoughts of suicide, take it seriously.

How often have you heard “I just can’t see how someone can do that?” When someone takes their own life, they’re not thinking right. It’s not a rational act, no matter how much the Suicide may rationalize it. “I have no way out.” There is always a way out, a way through that doesn’t entail leaving this world.

Remember, that person is in a dark, dark place. If you can’t see how someone can do that, you don’t understand the darkness. Be glad you’ve never been there. And if you ever find yourself there, I pray you’ll hang on to a glimmer of hope that things can get better, and seek help.

Hope – and help – is always on the horizon.

If you’re one who believes that suicides are eternally damned, I ask you to reconsider your view of (and relationship with) the Divine. I recognize that this is a long held belief in many branches of Christianity, that suicide is “the unforgivable sin.”

That’s just bull. The God I know isn’t like that. The God I know can – and will – forgive anyone! Is the soul’s journey over at the end of human life? Of course it isn’t. The body’s life is done, and so are the physical limitations of the body. I believe one can ask forgiveness even free from the earthly body. I don’t believe that God says “too late, had your chance, muffed it” and zaps the soul into eternal hellfire.

Besides, deep depression has a physiological component. I’ve heard news-chatter over the past few days that “more people are taking antidepressants than ever, but we have more suicides than ever, so…they’re not working?” That’s a pretty simplistic way of looking at things. There is a great sense of despair, confusion, and uncertainty in the world – and we’ve become a more secular society (to the point of forcing God out of everything as much as possible).  Hmmm, could the two be connected? The almost total elimination of the Divine from our public life is a far cry from “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.…” We don’t have a state religion, but God has been shoved aside in public life because heaven forbid we should bring, um, heaven into the discussion!!

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Take time.

The explosion of antidepressant use has many reasons, and I think that one reason is that it’s no longer as much of a stigma to seek help for depression. Another is that we live in a sea of stress. Fr. Matt recently gave a sermon on keeping the Sabbath. We don’t really do that anymore. Even for families who attend church on Sunday (or possibly on Saturday afternoon for my Roman friends and family), the rest of the day is often taken up with work. And if you enjoy Sunday dinner, someone had to cook it.

The point here isn’t that taking a day off will prevent suicides. But perhaps reshaping our societal values so that we value down time and use some of that down time to reconnect with the Divine would help to ease the stress.

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When was the last time you noticed the little things?

Take time to relax. Get outside or dive into an art museum. Read a book. Go for a walk. Go fishing and enjoy the world God made for you. Do something nice for someone else. Tell someone you love them. Listen for the still, small voice inside of you. That still, small voice may guide you to be an angel to someone else who really, really needs an angel. God can, and will, use us if we allow it, and if we listen.

Be kind. Smile at friends and strangers alike. Sure, we can show the love of God in big ways, but it’s the little opportunities that come up a lot more often, so smile because you’re a beloved child of God. Smile because we’re all in this together. You never know the inner battle someone else is fighting, and a simple smile just might make all the difference.