A clear and steady climb: emerging from a temporary disability

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When I was staring my graduate program at UCLA I had a very difficult year because I was taken down with a temporary disability. Due to tendonitis/carpel tunnel syndrome in both hands and wrists, I found myself unable to write, or play guitar, or even really use my hands much at all. I could not chop vegetables. I could barely brush my teeth. It scared me deeply. I was at a very competitive graduate program with tons of high-quality people and a lot on the line including a big scholarship.

When I got diagnosed I hit this weird place. Traditional medicine first offered me a rolling office chair and ice packs. That didn’t help. Their next offer was surgery on both hands. That seemed an extreme option.  I had a hard time knowing what to do because they were the experts, but, something in my gut was telling me not to go that route. I prayed about it for some time and one night I was filled with the knowledge of what was ahead. I’m not sure how, but I simply knew.  I understood that I had two pathways ahead of me –  either get the surgery, and become worse and need more surgery, or, handle myself. Make some real changes in my day to day life and commit to that. Be willing to change at a fundamental level. Be willing to stop the train I had been on – just – stop. Let go of it.

The second option was the path I took – to make a real change. It scared me because it immediately made me different from all the other people I was competing with. I took advantage of every bit of assistance at school that was offered (like a note taker for my classes when I could not write my own notes). And I reached into the realm of alternative medicine. Some of it was just not for me at all. There are definitely a lot of quacks and clueless people out there.  But I found a few things that fit very well.  Yoga therapeutics was one. Stress management another. Ayurveda medicine had some good remedies for nerve damage. Introspection and prayer became my regular start to the day. And I walked a lot, taking time to really look around me and not be so focused on competing or proving myself.

The hardest part was not being able to play my guitar for about 9 months. I was terrified that I would possibly never play it again. For me that would have been a hard life because my guitar is my outlet. I was also scared that I might not be able to work a job because my hands were weak and sore and I couldn’t use them. I could not envision any future careers where I could do them without typing or writing.  I worried that my future was just going to be horrible.

Slowly I found release from the injury and the fear. Strangely, people I didn’t know that well would reach out, offer help, give me options and free or inexpensive treatment resources. It was sometimes hard to accept help.

I was used to being the top student and so being injured was a real shift. I had to let go of this sense of not being able to compete with my classmates. They were all fully functioning and I was sidelined.  I took notes with an audio recorder. I took exams verbally instead of writing them. I had to work all these modifications and alternatives. I was really frustrated because none of the other students had to do that. It felt so awkward having to admit I couldn’t do what they were doing. I was the only one who had to deal with that and work around it.

Well, when that academic year was done and the rankings came out in letters to each student, I was amazed that I was ranked number one in my class. Even though I had to modify, I kept up and learned all that I needed to learn and then some. I kicked that year to the curb.  I didn’t do it by going along with what everyone else was doing. I did it by taking the time for contemplation and prayer and by listening deeply to my intuition. This led me to take a path that was much different from the people around me. I trusted that and the results were very satisfying.

My injuries healed to a moderate level in about a year. I was able to make it and get out of the sidelines and back into the norm. But even better, about 4 years after that, I was not only back completely, I was stronger than before. I could notice stress in my body more quickly and adapt long before it got to be an ongoing problem. I found that I could play a three-hour set on guitar with hardly a break, something I’d never done before the injury. That to me was an amazing accomplishment – a testament to my own power and also the spiritual wisdom available when we make the decision to listen.

I’m aware that not every story of injury or disability will have a happy ending. However, for me the pathway out of that horrifying experience was a clear and steady climb. I made my way by accepting lots of help, and trusting my instincts about how to make things better for myself, even when it meant doing something very different from everyone else around me.

 

 

 

 

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Roses for Nona Mae

The gift of good memories – that’s what she gave me, and many others. My maternal grandmother Nona Mae Knight Prichard lived a long and valuable life, contributing hope and encouragement while maintaining a strong barrier against the forces that can knock us down: discouragement, despair, loneliness and regret.
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The best part of growing up, hands down –  the annual visits to Sunflower County, Mississippi. Early on out in the country by Macon Lake, and later in the very small town of Inverness.
Driving there recently, I felt the pull of these good memories like a strong magnet. I made the trip to visit the cemetery where my grandmother was laid to rest. The air was alive with memory; a breeze lifted the leaves on a nearby tree, and scores of dragonflies hovered high in the air like living kites.
The time shared in the company of someone you deeply love makes a mark on you. Though she was like all of us –  imperfect – my grandmother had values that I admire. To focus on blessings and be thankful, to invite everyone to the table – including ex’s, new spouses – I mean, everyone, and to always love deeply the things that are most special about a person.
It was a gift she had – to recognize someone’s passion or that thing that made them light up – and get them talking about it. She also had a knack for the small details that made gatherings special – the ever-present red and green foil-wrapped Hershey’s kisses, Mr. and Mrs. Claus skating on a mirrored surface on the coffee table in the same spot every year, and that moment of arrival where she burst through the front door to come out and welcome you. That moment made the long drive well worth the effort.
As I knelt and placed roses on her grave, I thanked her for all of these good memories. They are strong enough to last a lifetime.

 

“It was just a big beautiful blue kite” – Interview with Matthew McGee about Johnny Bertram’s Neon City

Friday, July 11, 2014
10 am
Downtown Jackson

Laurel: So how long have you known Johnny Bertram, and how would you describe your musical connection?

Matthew: A few years. Let’s see, about six or seven years. I met him at a show in Jackson. Wooden Finger was playing. I think he was opening up for us, and he said, hey man, you want to be in our band? (laughs).

Laurel: He did? That night?

Matthew: Yeah, that night! And I was like, wait second, who are you? (laughs).

Laurel: That’s bold.

Matthew: Well, then I heard his music, and he was great. So, I was like, very cool. He was making the record Sing Your Song and also Days That Passed and was needing some violin parts. So I just came in and played with them, and it was easy.  It was like…when things come together and it’s easy…easy to play with him. And I loved the songs. There was one song that I played guitar on. And I just picked it up and it made it to the record. I really enjoyed that one.

Laurel: Did that surprise you?

Matthew: Yeah, well, I was just playing around. I’m trying to think what year it was. It was the year that Jamie Weems got married. Whatever year that was!

Laurel: So, as far as the record Neon City, can you talk about your involvement in that project?

Well, I was helping produce him, and what that means is actually to get it done. Let’s actually make something happen. I had a bunch of recording equipment and I was like, let’s make this record. And that’s what happened!

Laurel: So you said, this is gonna happen?

Matthew: Yeah, because he was about to move, and we only had a certain amount of time. You know, I had all this equipment, and I just went into the 121 Studios (now NMAC) and did a lot of tracking there. And then, he would work nights, and around the clock.

Laurel: Well, I think a lot of people don’t know how much is involved in recording. How much time and focus. So having somebody produce that way and say, yes, we’re going to do this, here’s where we are, keep this rolling…

Matthew: Yeah.

Laurel: Did having that deadline that he was moving, in a way, was that a good kind of pressure?

Matthew: It was a really good pressure. I think it was like, we got to get this done, because we want to release something we’re proud of. And let’s work really hard to get it done, and that’s what happened. And Johnny worked really hard on it, I mean he just spent night and day working on it.

Laurel: Did he have his own gear at home that he was using or was he coming back in there to the studio?

Matthew: He was using mostly..I think we had one of my laptops, and a lot of ProTools interface kind of stuff. He was doing it all around.

Laurel: So you would share files…?

Matthew: Mm hmm. He did some of the tracking in Boise, Idaho, where his family lives.

Laurel: During that time period?

Matthew: Yeah, he made a trip up there…

Laurel: He just brought it all with him…

Matthew: Yeah! I think he put some Rhodes on a song, and maybe a Casio keyboard.

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Laurel: Well it’s neat sometimes how using an unexpected instrument can really put a new spin on a track.

Matthew: One of those songs there’s an organ that goes (demonstrates a sound, like rrrrrrttttttt!) but I wasn’t expecting that and it sounds so good.

Laurel: What would you say about working with Johnny that made the strongest impression on you?

Matthew: Oh man. Well, just his drive to do something great. It’s an awesome friendship to have, and musical friendship…

Laurel: Mm hmm, he’s got that drive, and it sounds like that may have inspired you to say, “yes, we’re going to make this happen.”

Matthew: Yeah…we were playing a lot of shows as Johnny and the Golden Bicycles, we were playing all over…

Laurel: It was almost a wave…

Matthew: It was a wave!

Laurel: I remember being a part of that – I think it was Jacktoberfest – it felt like the city was responding with you in this way…

Matthew: Yeah, it was so…just, awesome. I loved it!

Laurel: I bet it was nice to be a part of that, from the stage side.

Matthew: Yeah, it was.

Laurel: Do you think that when Johnny Bertram left, that he left a gap or a hole in the music scene in the city of Jackson?

Matthew: Mmmm…I like to think so. I mean, I still wish he was here. Just because I miss him, and loved playing with him and hanging out with him. He’s one of my best friends ever!

Laurel: And that kind of friendship…it’s rare.

Matthew: And I really miss him. But, you know, I talk to him a lot, texting and all that (laughs).

Laurel: So you stay connected…

Matthew: Yeah. I’ve been meaning to go up there, but I’ve just been crazy busy.

Laurel: Well that leads directly into my next question, which is, do you yourself have any connections to Portland, Oregon? Have you been out there? Is it a special place?

Matthew: YES! We did a tour one time, and we went from Jackson to Portland.

Laurel: With Johnny?

Matthew: Yes. I think that’s where we turned around (laughs) it was like, we got to Portland and then, we can’t go any further!

Laurel: (laughs)

Matthew: But it was great, and I love the town. I spent a few days there…you know his wife’s family is there. So we spent time with them. And went out to Cannon Beach.

Laurel: Oh! I went there…

Matthew: So amazing! I bought a kite….we flew a kite there…

Laurel: You did? What did it look like?

Matthew: Oh it was just a big beautiful blue kite.

Laurel: The wind there is just amazing.

Matthew: Oh, I know. But the day we were there was just the warmest day of the summer and the whole band was out on the beach just watching the sunset. It was just, really really really cool.

Laurel: Wow!

Matthew: Yeah, but we spent about a week there, just hanging out, and playing, you know, it was really, really really great.

Laurel: When you all play, do you write new material together, or is it mostly Johnny?

Matthew: Mostly Johnny comes in with some songs, and we’ll listen to them, and then he’ll have the ideas and you can just kind of improvise. That’s the way I play.

Laurel: So it’s not necessarily that he says “play this,” but he’s got the framework and you jump in on it.

Matthew: Yeah, exactly.

Laurel: So do you think you might ever do a project with him again?

Matthew: Oh, yes. Yes! Yes, indeed.

Laurel: What would you like to do? I mean, is it shaped in your mind yet, or do you just know you want to?

Matthew: We just know we want to.

Laurel:  Is there anything else you want to add about anything we talked about?

Matthew: Well, hopefully sometime in the future we’ll make another record. That’s what I hope. The thing that we did already…I’m just so glad to be a part of that.

Laurel: Yes! I remember when my husband Daniel put “Neon City” on the record player for the first time and we just looked at each other…!”

Matthew: Me, too! I was just like “whoa” I put it on the record player and laid on the floor and just listened to it with my eyes closed and…I don’t know…it just made me feel great.

After the microphone was off, Matthew and I talked a bit more about the power music has to keep us connected, and how the musical communities in Jackson have something special that keeps people together.

My personal connection to Matthew has been in and around the Jackson music scene for years – he is unfailingly cheerful and polite. I saw him about 4 days after a serious bicycle accident in the summer of 2014. Matthew said, now you have something new to write about! And he was right. I was grateful to him at a time when my spirits were low. His enthusiasm translates to his playing, as he genuinely shines in the joy of music each time he performs.

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This interview is the second in a series of interviews connected to the making of the record “Neon City” by Johnny Bertram (2012). The next interview forthcoming will be with Richard Stowe, manager of the building where “Neon City” was recorded.

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Gohomenew.png From : Eravathur Village, Thrissur District, Kerala, INDIA

My Father’s Ashes

Before last week, I’d always thought funerary ashes were something to scatter – at a beloved place – not something to ever keep. The very idea of having someone’s ashes nearby, or in my home seemed, well, unpleasant. Beyond the obvious, there was a sort of ‘out of fashion” feeling to the idea. In fact I got a lot of laughs out of the scene from the film “Meet the Parents” where the uptight character played by Robert DiNiro reads an ode to his mother. As the family gazes up to the mantel, her ashes ensconced in an urn, there is a shade of the misguided or even perverse in the moment of filial intimacy. (What happens next is really taboo, and will probably either offend you or amuse you).

Still, the message came last week and hit me quick – I was being shipped a portion of my father’s ashes. My sisters already knew what they would do with their packets of ash, arriving via USPS in a cardboard mailer. They would take them to special places…Colorado…California…places of beauty and places of good memories with him. I loved it. Yet I felt anxious and uneasy about my own decision. My Dad traveled far and wide, for business and for fun. He tried everything he wanted to do – from piloting a glider alongside a hawk, to teaching and mentoring business school students, to living fully and completely until complications from Alzheimer’s took his mortal life.

I clenched my fists and tried to fathom it. Ashes. How weird.

As I contemplated what place I’d been the happiest with my Dad, it wasn’t in my home state of North Carolina. I knew the best moment of my time with my Dad – hands down. Though, as it was considered, it turns out there were many to think over and choose from. The best memory was a ski lift, and a powdery breeze on a sunny day, pines and the cleanest air in our lungs, runs that smoothed and bounced us a little and made us wide and peaceful; silent and peaceful and happy. Together.

That run called “Harriet’s Hollow” was the place our finest daughter and father connection lived. Yet as I contemplated going there, or maybe paying a pilot to fly there, I knew I was on the wrong track. What if it rained the day I went? How could I trust a pilot if I wasn’t going to be there? I knew that even when we try and go back we cannot, as the river is never the same twice. Add to that the pace of modern change, and the way that newness brings intensity and at times anxiety to our world. How could I make a day in 2015 compare to that one fine day possibly a decade ago? The day I had with my Dad and skied the best ever, no worries or bumps or spills. Just smooth sailing. I knew trying to recreate that was not possible and possibly could disappoint me.

As it turns out, after some thinking, I understand now that I want to be nearer to the ashes. Nearer! Surprise. Now they are something more personal, something not abstract. And, they are a sacred substance to me. And now I get it – I understand that they are not him. As my partner Daniel put it, that is not him, it is the ashes of a fire that consumed him. What a beautiful way to say it. My father’s ashes.

My father’s ashes are here now in my home, in a special box that stands on end and looks like an old fashioned, fascinating book. I put a picture of it up at the top of the blog. On the book shelf where this book sits, I have my journal, and my daily reader,  and a box he once received that had his name inscribed. It’s a way of remembering this month of my life in 2015, when the ashes came, and where I came to know and understand even more what it means to me to be my father’s daughter.

God bless my Dad, may he rest in peace.

My Fingertip

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This morning as I went to put my bag in the passenger side of my car, I noticed a fly on the rim of the top of the car, just above the doorframe. I peered at it closely to see why it was moving so much, yet remaining in the same place. It had long, lovely oval shaped wings, kind of like a dragonfly’s wings. They weren’t short and stout like a housefly’s wings.

It turns out this fly was upside down. Its wings had become adhered to the surface of my car, stuck there in the moisture that had condensed on my car overnight. Bummer. I waited a moment, to see whether this was a momentary situation, or whether it was more serious. As I observed the fly moving, it seemed that no matter how much the fly struggled, the wings stayed flat and stuck. I worried for this fly.

I know, I know. Some might say, Laurel, why worry about a small fly stuck on your car? I am the kind of person, when given the option, will chose to walk around an ant or a bug rather than stomp right on it during the course of a walk. Also, I was afraid that if I did nothing, the fly would die, and worse, that I would be stuck with that image of a struggling fly in my mind all day long. My mind can be my best friend or my worst enemy. I have learned the value of thinking about how long something will stay in my mind and when I have options, what I can do about it.

What to do, what to do? I could see clearly that the wings were flat and smoothed over by moisture, almost like tissue paper would be if someone dripped a dropper full of water onto it. There was complete contact with the surface of the car – no bubbles or edges to pry off. Like a stamp licked and smoothed flat on the surface of an envelope.

I considered gently taking the body of the fly between my fingers and pulling. But, then I thought, what if the action of me doing that sent the fly swirling into a panic that hastened its demise? It was already locked in a struggle it did not seem to be able to win…and I had no way to communicate, “Hey fly, I’m only here to help!” Maybe someday there will be A/I human to non-human telepathic communicators!

Since I don’t live in the world of the Star Trek future, I had to focus on what I could do that wouldn’t make the fly’s situation worse. What if I pulled on the body of the fly, and, God forbid, its wings were torn in two? Or what if its body split from the pressure, even worse!!! Ew, gross! That was definitely not the kind of morning memory I wanted to have in my mind later in the day. That would really freak me out.

I considered taking the edge of my fingernail and trying to slide it carefully under the stuck wing. I hesitated…it’s one thing to leave a struggling being without helping…it’s another thing to try to help and to actively damage that being and make the situation worse. It’s a risk we sometimes have to take. But, I was worried. I know little about biology, but I know that wings are delicate and very important to a fly.

I was stumped. I was also beginning to feel kind of foolish standing out in the street and hoping to help this fly. I needed to get to work. So I took a moment. I took a breath. And I said a little wish, or prayer that I often say when faced with a situation where I know I want to do something, yet I don’t know what it is that I need to do. It went something like this:

“Mind,” I said, “or spirit guides, or God, greater consciousness, whatever might be possibly out there and willing to help this fly live, let me know if I’m missing anything. Let me know if there’s another option.”

Almost with out thinking, I reached my fingertip carefully out, close to the upside down, struggling fly. To my great surprise and wonder, the fly immediately latched on to my fingertip with all available legs. The fly took hold, and within a couple of seconds was able to pull itself away from the car. The wings of the fly were pulled along with it and began to flutter gently. I was stunned. I hadn’t even been able to sense the touch of those fly legs – they were that light! But I saw them hold my fingertip and I was moved by this act of rescue. All it took was allowing the fly access to what was needed so that the fly could take care of business. So that the fly could pull its own wings away and live.

The fly held onto my finger pretty good. As I thought about my next step, I realized that I wanted to give the fly a chance to recuperate. Who knows how long those wings had been stuck? How long those legs and body had been struggling. I’d hate for that fly to be so tired from the struggle that it tried to go airborne and died from a crash landing!

The closest available secure surface was our mailbox, about 6 feet away. I tried to encourage the fly to go to it, but as the fly put one leg onto it there was a sense of “no way, I’m not going on that thing!” while the fly retracted the leg and stayed attached to my finger. I realized that our mailbox is painted white, exactly like my car. I could understand why to this fly that might not seem appealing, given what it had just been through!

I knelt down and moved my hand close to a large rock at the base of our mailbox. All the while the fly’s wings had been fluttering a little. When the fly touched the surface of the rock with its leg, the wings surged in what to me was a joyful flurry of movement! The fly released my fingertip and walked onto the rock with a definite “pep” in its step.

The nature of life is such that, occasionally a single experience can hold deep meaning.

This experience with the fly taught me something profound…maybe more than one thing.

It taught me that there are many options when confronted with suffering. That sometimes we have to be careful not to do more damage when we try to help. That some flies’ legs are so tiny they can hold me and I can’t even feel them!

And that offering a source of strength and letting a suffering being take hold and release themselves can be way more powerful and more effective than trying to do it for them. As someone who struggles with codependency this lesson was perhaps the most valuable. And as a person who has dedicated much of my career to non-profit, “people-helping” types of work, this lesson was the most important.

My heart still swells when I remember those tiny legs taking hold of my fingertip.

(Photo used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

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Keep The Faith

Keep The Faith

This picture is from a place I lived in about five years ago. I got the sign to remind myself of what matters, especially when life confuses or confounds me. It’s also a reminder of what’s to come. Something that might now be only an idea could in time become something real.