Monday, February 28, 2011

The Heart of This Woman

Writing can lead to some interesting places and people.   I never dreamed I’d be speaking at the N.C. Women Writers’ Conference in Winston-Salem one year, where I met keynoter Maya Angelou, well-known internationally as a poet, best-selling author, historian, musician, theatrical producer, screenplay writer, autobiographer, performer… and the list goes on. 

A bird doesn't sing
because it has an answer,
it sings because
it has a song.
~ Maya Angelou

That morning she owns the auditorium.  She stands and sways like a tall oak tree, solid and deep-rooted in truth.  When she speaks a hush falls over the place.

Here is a woman who exudes confidence, compassion, and grace - without a trace of pretentiousness.   One who radiates wisdom, warmth, courage, and dignity.          

What I learn from her that day I take home with me, integrate into my psyche, employ throughout my days to the best of my ability.

She is among the wisest of contemporary teachers, able to convey the simplest of truths in the most captivating fashion while fully engaging the imagination.   

 Lessons Learned

Maya Angelou’s language of freedom is universal and speaks to every human heart.   We are all slaves of the system - in greater or lesser degrees – and programmed to equate self-worth with having learned to jump through all the right hoops at someone else’s command.         

Some are slaves to perpetual victimhood and remain stuck in their whining and self-wallowing, which Maya calls “… just unbecoming.”

Others are slaves to their own haughtiness and hubris, and have learned to turn up their nose at those who by worldly standards might be less than successful or less than attractive.

The Beauty of  a Smile

She tells the story of being in a grocery store and seeing someone whom she knows has spotted her.  But instead of acknowledging her presence, that person just turns and looks the other way rather than risk eye contact or – God forbid - conversation. 

The woman averts her eyes and pretends to be reading labels on the cans of peaches, treating Maya like a gnat to be brushed away.  But how much trouble would it have been to simply smile and say hello?

How difficult is it to offer a smile and acknowledge the existence of another?  You never know what a difference that simple gesture of kindness might make. 

A smile can lift the gloom from a person’s day and remind them that they are worthy of recognition.  That they are special enough to merit attention.  That they are somebody.  Period.    

From Maya Angelou I learn to smile at everyone, strangers included.  And mean it.  A smile is a form of blessing, pure and simple.       

What writers have made a lasting impact on you?  And why?  

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

East Meets West

Ever heard a concert so engaging that the cares of your day were swept away like dust?  What effect does music have on you?

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Day Is Done


On the evening of February 17th Delmastreo Auditorium’s parking lot is spilling over with cars. Not an empty space in sight.  We follow the line of traffic in the same predicament: all searching for a single place to park.  At last we pull into Sallie B. Howard’s lot and walk to the concert. 
As expected, the auditorium is jam-packed.  A woman ushers us to the front where we miraculously find four available seats near the stage.  Now we can all sit together: my daughter and me, a friend of mine, and one of my students, all of whom rode with me to the event.  
Within a minute of taking our places, the music begins.  In chorus we rise for the Sri Lankan National Anthem.  From there Udeshi transports us into the heart of her native land on skillful wings with her violin bow and strings. 

Far from a foreign tone-producing instrument, Udeshi’s violin is an extension of her physical self, voicing pure and melodious the songs of her homeland: Danno Dudunge…Gajaga Wannama…Lanka Lanka…Ratna Deepa… Babi Archchige…    
She is accompanied by Dexter Ruffin on piano, and Horace Raper on percussion.  (You can see a few of Horace’s paintings – renaissance man that he is - in an earlier post of mine, “Literary Friends,” from the January archives).

We sit captivated primarily by the music, but are also enchanted by the images of Sri Lanka via Mark Hargett’s background slideshow.  Mark is Udeshi’s beloved husband, a local architect – who is also handy with a camera. 
Later that evening the acoustic trio presents a few of our western treasures: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik…Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring… Adoration….The Pink Panther Theme…William’s Theme from “Schindler’s List…Praeludium… encore!       
Prior to performing Theme from “Mission Impossible,” Udeshi reminisces about her growing-up years in Sri Lanka, and tells her audience how her family and friends enjoyed watching American films.  These movies inspired in her a desire to uproot and move to the United States.
Mission accomplished.  Udeshi ends up at Barton College, one block over from my house.  And now lives just a few houses down my street with Mark, the love of her life. 
Stay tuned for lessons we’ve learned from our friends Udeshi and Mark. 

Ever heard a concert so engaging that the cares of your day were swept away like dust?  What effect does music have on you?

Friday, February 11, 2011


Have you ever suffered an affliction in life that you later discovered to be a blessing in disguise?  Or endured a hardship from which you learned an invaluable lesson?

Everything has its wonders,
even darkness and silence… and I learn,
whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.
~ Helen Keller

In the film, The Piano, Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) hasn’t spoken since childhood.  She has willed herself not to speak.  This is the story of a mail-order bride and mute woman’s rebellion. 

Her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), acts as intermediary between her mother and the speaking world.  They converse secretly in sign language. 

My silence was not for the same reasons as Ada’s.  Muteness crept up and struck me like a sudden cloudburst.  Not long after my mother died, my voice departed too.

I couldn’t speak above a whisper for well over a year. A singer’s worst nightmare.  Gone were the days of songwriting, recording, and performing.  

But I could still speak with my hands.  I could still write poetry, and reconnect with deaf friends.

 Kimberly M.

Poem to a Deaf Friend

As I head for my car near nightfall
a Wood Thrush captures my ear
with his flute-like melody
so sweet it seems he’s singing
solely for me.
I carry his joy down this road,
hear his voice distinct and clear.
The sunset has spread its glory
across the western sky.
I’ll bet you see it too. How daylight’s strength
has mellowed into a rose so deep
you just can’t seem to turn away.
As for me, this inner music begs release.
And when at last we meet again
for you I’ll translate with my hands.

During this silent time I taught my daughter the graceful language of signing.  Within two years she was fluent enough to volunteer at the school for the deaf.

Here she taught mime workshops to elementary – high school students, and also spent time in the classrooms, working with younger children.

Later, when she decides to do a presentation on the deaf culture for 4-H Congress, she wins gold medals at both district and state levels.  

Today she still shares the language with others. My friend Jane invites her to teach a scripture verse to her Sunday school class, and here she is in action, showing the children how to sign
Romans 8:28
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

 Back to the question of the day.
 Have you ever suffered an affliction in life that you later discovered to be a blessing in disguise?  Or endured a hardship from which you learned an invaluable lesson? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.


 “Poem for a Deaf Friend” was first published in The Lyricist.         

Friday, February 4, 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

Ask not, “What is the meaning of life?” but “What is the meaning of my life?”
~ Gregg Levoy, author of Callings

Why are you walking the earth?   What is your call in life?  Okay, narrow it down to one call then - just one call for now.     
I’ll name one of mine.  In an earlier post, Defining Moments, I mention that as a child I watched The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller, and was so deeply impacted by the acting that I eventually find myself walking in Annie Sullivan’s shoes.  In real life. 
Down the road I meet my own Helen Keller, a teenage girl I’ll call Liza.  A girl abandoned by her own mother and left in the care of a state institution. 
Far from being indulged and spoiled rotten, as Helen had been early in life, this girl was dumped off at the school for the deaf as a young child and basically forgotten.   Weekends, when parents came to collect their children and bring them home until Sunday night, Liza was left behind.
Little wonder she lost her way and became more like Sybil, whose childhood was so harrowing to her that she developed multiple personalities.  
Alone in her own silent world, Liza is prone to spontaneous outbursts of violence, and it’s nothing unusual for teachers and students to suddenly see books and papers flying across the classroom during one of her tirades.  
Thus my job as governess is created.  So instead of attending classes, Liza remains in the dorm with me all day where she works on her school assignments and seems perfectly normal…. 
Until the morning she assumes a character I’ve never met, and all hell breaks loose… her hands and fingers flying like fireworks through the air…
Face, usually ashen and pale as the moon, now darkening from the sudden rush of blood, black pupils dilated wide as marbles, waning blue eyes glaring at me…
 A legend of demons unleashed.   Before I can even grasp what’s going down she socks it to me and topples me over. 
And is suspended from the school to return home to mommy dearest.
 I have no idea what became of Liza.             
Another year I’m called to set the captives free.  Release them from their prison for a brief reprieve each day.  They’ve been herded like lambs into brick buildings, divided by age, forced to stay inside these walls for the crime of being born deaf.
Dorm parents yes.  Teachers yes.  Their mother’s love and warm embrace, a profound absence. Darkness looms heavy in this place like a long cold winter without end. 
You sense this hunger for escape so strong, this thirst for freedom – every child’s birthright – denied too long.  Yet when they see me, smiles bloom on faces, for I come offering the gift of short-lived freedom.  Time for P.E.            
 These children have no scarcity of energy, believe you me.  In fair weather we play outside, but on rainy or freezing cold days we stay in the gym where they tumble on mats or play Red Rover or tag or whatever inside game I can create. 
When unleashed from their cramped classrooms and taken to the playground they rush off in all directions and scatter like loosed chickens.    
My first impulse is to yell at the top of my lungs, “BACK OVER HERE RIGHT NOW!”  And that’s exactly what I do for a few days, until I realize the absolute futility of shouting to deaf kids.  By the end of each day I’m frazzled from running after them in every direction.
 It takes me weeks to convince them that recess is not a synonym for escape. Although I wholeheartedly understand their elation at recess, they are still in my charge and I’m not about to let them cut loose and flee campus.  Remember, this is not a maximum security prison.   
 I have no choice but to establish clear boundaries:  You see this line?  First big toe that crosses it goes straight back to jail.  No fun, no games, no breather.  Straight back to jail.  No exceptions.  Cry, wail, whatever; back to jail if you dare cross my line.     
 It takes a while but they finally get it.
Thankfully, the meaning of my life wasn’t found in continued employment at this school.  Calls tend to change shape and propel us toward new vistas.  Each step toward our unique destiny is worth the journey, no matter how harrowing at times.

So, what is a call in your life?  And how did you discover it? 
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