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.

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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.

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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.

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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?                      

And thou shalt love

Today’s scripture in my Bible Gateway app is Deuteronomy 6:6-7. I recognize the Sh’ma and V’havta :

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.

 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.  And these words which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart;  and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up.  And thou shalt bind them as a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.  And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house and on thy gates.

(Deuteronomy 6:4 – 9, KJ21)

A perfect followup to yesterday, when I was accepted as an associate of the Community of St. Mary, Southern Province. The Community is a women’s Benedictine order within the Episcopal church, and I wrote about beginning this journey here and about my first visit to “The Mountain” here.

Love the Lord thy God… When I was accepted as an associate yesterday in the presence of my faith community at Epiphany Church, Sr. Elizabeth spoke about the Rule of Love/Rule of Life. Yesterday, the readings were about the commandments. Jesus, as we know, summed it all up when He pointed out the greatest commandment. Paul echoed it when he spoke of faith, hope and love: The greatest of these is love.

Sr. Elizabeth, one of the nuns from the Community, was in for a visit and to give a presentation at Epiphany’s “Programs and Potuck” on the Benedictine way and the Community of St. Mary. She stayed with friends Diane and Vickie, and I had fun showing her a few highlights of the area on Friday.  Our tour was filled with places born of love.

First, we spent time at Solomon House, which is Epiphany’s outreach ministry. This ministry grew out of the Brown Bag program, and serves clients with not just food for the body, but food for the spirit.  Minister Ellen Nora is the director, and we had a great visit. I love and support the mission of Solomon House, but life is often busy and I don’t always get to visit there as often as I’d like. We saw the brand new client-centered food distribution, and I also identified a way for our DAR chapter to help with the ministry beyond our individual volunteer efforts.

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Ellen Nora, Sr. Elizabeth and me at Solomon House. Deacon Diane and Solomon House were instrumental at bringing the Women at the Well program into the world.

Next, we went to the Rosary House in New Iberia. Here, handmade rosaries are offered for sale alongside statues of saints, holy medals, prayer cards and books. It is Roman Catholic in focus, but it’s all God.

Our next stop was Jungle Gardens on Avery Island, a favorite stop of mine when entertaining out of town guests. This wildlife sanctuary and botanical garden was born of Edward McIlhenny’s love of nature and concern for conservation. The Tabasco factory is also on Avery Island, and McIlhenny began making Tabasco sauce here after the civil war. Sr. Elizabeth was delighted to see snowy egrets as we wandered through the gardens. “Just wait,” I kept telling her. When we made it to “Bird City,” an aviary on the island, she saw what I meant. This sanctuary literally saved the snowy egret from extinction and today is home to thousands of nesting egrets.

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Egrets at “Bird City,” a wildlife sanctuary at Avery Island, Louisiana. 

Finally, we went by “Homeplace” – my own little corner of the world. Our time was short, so I borrowed Pop’s golf cart and Sr. Elizabeth, SweetGirl (my furry 4-legged child) and I took a quick tour. My husband was working in the yard, and my brother and Bubba were working in the garden – all labors of love.

Today is Monday, and if it is a typical workday I will face challenges. I will hold the medal I received yesterday as an associate of the Community of St. Mary, breathe deeply, and remind myself to love my neighbor (even if one is driving me nuts).

At least, I’m going to do my darndest. I usually fall short, but following a rule of life and love gives me some extra help.

Just for today….
I accept myself as I am, allowing Divine Love to work through me
I am my own compassionate witness
I allow myself to make beautiful mistakes.
I ask for and receive Divine Help and Grace.

The Quagmire

I told myself months ago that I wasn’t going to get into political musings on this blog. So this isn’t intended as a political discussion, but rather my own musings on trying to “remain untainted” by the dirty business of politics in our flawed world.

I often hear comments like “I avoid politics” and “I vote, but that’s it.” Sometimes I think that may mean “I vote, but don’t actively engage in supporting specific candidates.”  Fair enough.  Or perhaps it means “I don’t want to talk about it.”  I can understand that, too.

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To ease the pain of a political post, here’s a photo of a happy dog. You’re welcome.

But what if it means “I’m going to vote the way I always do because I don’t want to be exposed to the negative energy of the election?” Therein lies the spiritual challenge to each of us.

In writing this blog, I try to apply spiritual principles to everyday life.  I subscribe to the idea that I am what I think about most – and who wants to think about politics?  It never ceases to amaze me how we can wind up with so many candidates for so many offices that disgust us so much. “I avoid all that! I don’t want to go there!”

Neither do I, but I do. It is one of the challenges of living as a part of a community, one of the lessons we as humans must learn. To say one is disengaged from the political process “but vote, and that’s it” is to abdicate power and participation in the process.  It’s irresponsible.

We hear much in the media about “uninformed voters,” which can mean “someone who doesn’t vote the way I do.”  Unfortunately, most major news outlets are extremely biased, and even closely following major news outlets does not necessarily result in being informed.

Personal disclaimer: I did not vote for either presidential nominee in the primary. So, I am one of those who may be tempted to not vote, or to write in the name of my initial choice.  But I won’t. (Didn’t. I voted early.)

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Louisiana’s “I Voted” sticker. Not necessarily a political commentary…

WikiLeaks.org and projectveritas.com have released (and continue to release) bombshells.  I won’t use this space to dig into the findings of either of those websites – why deny you the fun of doing it yourself?

Here’s where our challenge comes in.  United States citizens have a right to vote.  It is also a responsibility, not to be taken lightly.  Don’t give up the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the candidates presented because it’s depressing and you really don’t like either one of them.  If we took that attitude towards all distasteful tasks, the human race would have died out long ago because dealing with babies means dealing with a lot of merde.

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I also urge you to avoid the easy way out.  “_______ is a ________!”  Ask yourself truly: am I just repeating a soundbite?

No candidate is perfect.  We are all flawed human beings, and most of us do NOT live our lives planning a run for political office.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve pissed some people off with careless comments.  We may have mismanaged our own affairs – which provides one with great lessons.  Some of the “regular” questions are easy to ask: What has A achieved?  What is B’s stance on C?  

The big questions facing us about our candidates are ones we never thought we’d ask, and hate the idea of having to address them: Has X seriously endangered national security?  Can Y be bought?  Did Z commit treason?

Am I making the right decision?  Is there a right decision in this election?

Yes, I do believe there is. There is no perfect candidate, so each must voter choose an imperfect one. I am reminded of Louisiana’s 1991 gubernatorial election: “Vote for the crook, it’s important.”  A choice between Edwin Edwards (who was later convicted for racketeering and served 10 years in a federal penitentiary) and former KKK wizard David Duke taught me to never say never.  I didn’t like Edwards, but I held my nose and voted for him anyway.

Jesus hung out with sinners, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors and took on the establishment of his day.  He didn’t let the “bad energy” dissuade him from bringing light into the world.  King David was a pretty flawed guy, but did great things for God anyway.

I’ve always said you couldn’t pay me enough to run for political office – I wouldn’t even run for dogcatcher, as the saying goes.  (I’d want to take all the dogs home!) Politics challenges us as individuals, and as spiritual beings.  We want a world with peace, equality, hope, opportunity, love, religious freedom.  We don’t want to have to go “slumming” in the stinking gutter of the political quagmire and would just rather steer clear of it all. We don’t want to have those discussions with friends that vote differently from us. We say why can’t we just all get along?

This is the human condition, so participate. Pray for the process, our country, and the candidates. Don’t sink low. Realize that you can dive into the yuckiness of politics and still be a light in the world.  In spite of her flaws, America is still an example of freedom in the world.  Exercise your free will and vote.

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Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.
–Ronald Reagan