When Nikki was an energetic, jumping puppy, I asked a dog-loving friend if he would ever mellow.
“When he’s old. He’ll just lay around and stay out of trouble.”
That was over 10 years ago and Nikki is still living the jumping, energetic puppy life.
He’s like the Peter Pan of dogs, never wanting to grow up.
His new favorite game is to stand on his hind legs,
wedge his sharp little claws into the pull-out cupboard where we keep the trash can,
and then scavenge for trash like a vulture swooping in on roadkill.
I usually know he’s been up to trouble when I go downstairs and he stays at the top of the stairs
in a guilty lump on the landing.
Or when I walk into the kitchen and he’s hiding from me.
I use my low, leader-of-the-pack “Dog Whisperer” voice and say, “Nikki, what have you been up to?”
Then he gives me this look…
Or, I see him under the table like he’s put himself in timeout.
In addition to his new scavenger life, he’s developed a bad habit of waking up in the middle of the night. And it’s always oh-so-urgent for him to go outside.
We follow him blurry-eyed downstairs and let him out the back door and dutifully wait while he sniffs, snoops, and roots around in the backyard.
Instead of getting impatient and angry, I’ve developed some weird nighttime habits of my own like emptying the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, and do I dare admit…looking at my game boards and playing a word on “Words with Friends?”
He also decided to start barking when I’m on important conference calls.
I’m not sure where that came from or how he even knows when it’s an important conference call.
I told my sister about his bad habits and she coolly said, “Today might be a good day to put him down.”
“Put him down?”
Now before you dog lovers get all offended, my sister is a major jokester and my all-time cracker-upper, so take that into consideration, please. In other words, she didn’t really mean it.
Her son moved home recently and brought a dog with him even though he knew her “no-pet” policy.
The dog, Liv, chewed up her furniture and then fell so in love with her that when she gets home from work, Liv jumps up and down with such excitement that she can’t contain herself or her bladder, and then she pees on her.
So in frustration, and as a joke, she started saying to her son,
“Today might be a good day to put Liv down.”
They laugh about it, and they keep working with Liv to teach her that glee should not equal pee.
As I listened to friends and colleagues discuss Whitney Houston’s life and premature death there were two recurring themes.
First, she was universally loved and admired for her amazing musical talent.
“Pure music royalty,” one person said.
“Her voice will never be forgotten,” said another.
And, “Her voice was the perfect combination of richness, intensity, and brilliance.”
They spoke of her loveable personality, her hometown roots, her devotion to Christ and her church, her work ethic and commitment to developing her musical gift.
Then they talked about her downward spiral, her anguished fight, meteoric rise and slow fall. I heard Billy Bush on “Access Hollywood” say how drugs are so “mean,” and how they took away everything from Whitney.
She had the perfect combination of beauty, talent, and greatness, and yet she wanted and needed more.
Even Whitney Houston, the star of stars, still wanted more.
She struggled with and a nagging feeling that she was not enough.
Like all of us, to one degree or another, she couldn’t hold on to a healthy image of herself.
She could only compare herself to some unrealistic standard of the woman she thought she should be, which was some exalted, perfected version of the woman she saw in the mirror.
With airbrushed images of flawless women all around us, it’s a daily battle not to compare ourselves to that standard, even when we know those images are false.
Can we learn from Whitney Houston to somehow separate what the world values from what we value?
I think about Demi Moore’s comment that she wonders if she’s lovable.
That, right there, is a tragedy. And, her quest to make herself more loveable by starving herself nearly to death is another example of a woman feeling like somehow she is not enough.
Some friends of Whitney Houston’s said that she gave everything to her audiences and then left the stage and felt empty and alone so she turned to drugs to numb her pain.
We hate seeing the Whitney Houstons of the world tumble to the depths right in front of us not only because it reminds us of the fragility of life but also because it reminds us that none of us are immune to crippling vulnerability.
Doug is studying coaching, learning how to help people move from one place in life to another. In his recent session of classes, he learned about the saboteur we all have in our heads, the voice that screams so loud sometimes that we can’t hear anything but its critical message telling us not to even bother trying to change because for this or that reason, we will never succeed.
Clearly Whitney’s saboteur got the best of her. Her life shows me that either we learn how to be sass the saboteurs or we fall prey to their deadly clutches.
I’ve been trying to identify my saboteur. I’ve decided it’s the voice that tells me I can’t succeed at my goals because I’ve tried and failed too many times. “Look at how many times you’ve failed. You might as well not even try.”
So how do we shut them down or at least tame them? According to Doug, the almost master coach, we first identify them, and then when they open their loud, negative voices we talk back to them, put them in their place, and refuse to believe what they tell us. He said if we try to ignore them, they get louder. So it’s best to acknowledge them, like a child throwing a temper tantrum, and then go about our business, trying to do what we set out to do in the first place. We know they’re there but like the screaming child in the grocery aisle, we see them, and then we walk around them, not giving them the negative attention they’re seeking. Pretty soon, they figure out that screaming tantrums don’t get them what they want. Sometimes they’re sneaky and figure out another way to get your attention, but sometimes they learn to be quiet.
In a way, identifying and quieting our carping saboteur is like embracing our vulnerability and then turning it into something that can work for us instead of against us.
I know it’s not that simple in the case of Whitney Houston but what if she had successfully stared down the saboteur that screamed at her as she walked off a stage? What if she found the inner strength to shout back at the saboteur before she got into drugs? Could it have changed the trajectory of her life?
Could it change the trajectory of mine?
Whitney’s horribly sad death makes me wonder why we feel so much pressure to hide or run from our vulnerabilities. Why can’t we accept that we are human beings, not perfect flawless, magazine cover people? We’re all imperfect so why are we so ashamed of that?
Somehow, we have to learn to deal with the stuff we hate about ourselves. We all have them. Why can’t we accept them with more grace and less struggle?
Probably because we’ve accepted that for some reason the saboteur’s voice knows what it’s talking about. We believe it. We give it credibility and figure it knows more than the quiet insecure voice that has learned to just be quiet in the din of the saboteur’s clamoring you-can’t-do-anything-right noise in our heads.
We need to practice talking back to our good-for-nothing saboteurs. The more we subdue them, the more we free ourselves to be ourselves with all our imperfections and vulnerabilities.
Maybe the secret is to see our weaknesses as simply part of what makes us unique and wonderful people. It’s hard to grasp that weaknesses or at least less-than perfect aren’t bad. They are normal. Even the people we think have everything, don’t.
Pretending we don’t have areas of weaknesses is what’s bad. It takes so much energy to pretend to be something we’re not.
Whether we’re running from the opinions of others or just running from our selves, the outcome is the same. I think Joan Didion said it best, “We run away to find ourselves, and find no one at home.”
At Whitney’s funeral, Kevin Costner said, “The Whitney I knew, despite her success and worldwide fame, still wondered: Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Will they like me? It was the burden that made her great.”
Whitney’s life and death teach me about embracing my burdens and taming my saboteur.
The lesson I take from Whitney Houston is to accept my vulnerability because it’s what makes me both real and human.
At some point, we have to learn that it’s not our weaknesses that do us in. It’s running from them, agonizing over them, and beating ourselves up because we’re not the quintessential people the world holds in such high esteem. Comparing ourselves to that made-up, fake version of people is the sure road to self-destruction.
It was a link to a story written by one of my favorite writers – Emma Lou Thayne.
I clicked on the link to the Huffington Post and discovered Emma Lou writes a religion blog.
“How did I not know this?” I said aloud, waking up Nikki who was sleeping peacefully by my feet.
“How did I not know she blogged? How am I not a follower?”
I clicked through her blogs and then googled (love that verb) her name and discovered that not only does she regularly blog, she also has a new book called “The Place of Knowing: A Spiritual Autobiography.” I immediately went to Amazon and purchased the book. I can’t wait for it to arrive.
By googling her name, I discovered she was in a terrible car accident that took away several years of her life. Her book is about what she experienced during those years.
Lois Collins, a reporter for The Deseret News wrote, “For a long time, people told poet and writer Emma Lou Thayne that the six-pound metal bar that flew through the windshield of the car she was riding in should have killed her. It smashed the glass and then her face above her right eye socket before lodging in the rear window. For her, it meant a number of surgeries and a sensory-numb recovery that seemed to lack color, joy and life.”
“You could have died,” friends said, exclaiming over the nearly three-foot L-shaped rod that lives now in a corner of the coat closet off her living room, a not-too-ready reminder. It was built to hold a mud flap on a semi.
She said she lost three friends or parts of herself in that accident – the wizard in her head who could “plan, create and figure,” the genie in her heart that “could fathom joys and woes,” and the tiger in her bones who “could muster, leap and frolic.”
Now 86 years old, she said she felt like she was in someone else’s skin, which is exactly how I felt during my fight with cancer.
I cherish Emma Lou’s deeply personal writings. An autographed copy of her book “As for Me and My House,” sits prominently in my bookshelf, and has been there since it was published in 1989.
Her “meditations on living and loving” as she subtitled the book, sank deep into the soft cavities of my bones all those years ago where I’ve tended and nurtured them ever since.
When I had my first daughter, almost 22 years ago, the world was a confusing place for women. I grew up listening to the loud, shrill voices of too many feminists who made motherhood and homemaking seem like the most fulfilling, demeaning jobs in the world. I used to joke about “housewifery” and how I could never be “just a housewife.” I couldn’t imagine myself staying home all day with children and not having a job outside the home. I felt claustrophobic just imagining the drudgery of such a limiting lot in life.
But after about two years of trying to work and take care of my family and home, I decided to quit. I couldn’t seem to hit the right balance between my work and home lives. Plenty of women can and do. I could not. It initially overwhelmed me. I couldn’t help looking at the clock and thinking of how much more productive and confident I felt in the office than at home.
Emma Lou elevated my perspective. “Nothing is more personal than the house, the home, the place that I live in. Nothing more reflects my sense of the world or my regard for what is important. Through it stream my passions, my people, my phases, and my philosophies. Into it I allow the programs the pages, the food, the habits that persuade my days and occupy my nights. It is my shelter, the husk of me. In it I am warm and cold, from happy to sad, thoughtful or automatic, active and passive, sometimes touched by the divine, always subject to being human…How I live in it counts, not only to me and mine but also to others who are beneficiaries…of the good will that derives [from it]. Every household, like every person, makes a difference.
On the days I wondered whether my staying home mattered, I thought of her essay “On Mattering.” She wrote “We all need to matter – to someone else, to a project, to a day, to ourselves, to God.” She logged the activities of her life and all the seemingly mundane tasks of her day and showed how she made them all matter, mostly by keeping perspective. At the end of the day she said, “The jobs are done and I can’t even remember doing them. Only that I liked it – a lot. It’s the people, not the jobs…I must remember I can endure enormous stress or enjoy generous contentment if I feel that what I am doing matters.”
I learned from her to give myself a night out for my own creative endeavors. She dedicated Wednesday nights for her personal writing time, and even set up an office where she could go every week just to concentrate on her writing. I followed that example and took one night class a week for several years to earn my master’s degree in writing, something I will never regret.
In another essay on “Learning by Being There,” Emma Lou wrote, “Things happen. They simply happen. In a home or away from home. Dealing with what happens is most crucial to being part of that home. To ask why? or why them? or why me? Can be the least productive of concentrations. Why not me? Why not any of us? would seem more reasonable. And more efficacious. The unpredictable life is often the best teacher, the saving grace of flexibility, the thing learned. And faith to pray not so much for “Please, with your omnipotence change all this,” as for “Please, with your strength help me to manage.”
I’ve learned that truth for myself over the years, starting with when my dad died unexpectedly in 1992. Asking “why” never led to a satisfying answer. I quickly learned to ask, “What can I learn from this?” When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was hard to ignore the begging “why?” questions, but I did the best I could, and focused on asking, “What can I learn from this? How can this make me a better person?” Those kinds of questions make all the difference between short-term pain and long-term misery.
A few years after becoming acquainted with Emma Lou’s writing, Utah State University, my alma mater, invited me to serve on the university’s alumni council. It delighted me to discover that Emma Lou’s husband, Mel, also served on the board. So at one of our council meetings on campus, I met Emma Lou. We sat next to each other on a bus when we toured one of the school’s new facilities.
I introduced myself, swooned over her book and all she had taught me through her writing. She asked how my writing was progressing, and since I had a toddler and a baby at the time, I told her writing in my journals was about the best I could do. She said, “Well, just keeping turning the corners of your life, you never know what you’ll find on the other side.”
What a lovely motto for life I thought.
“Just keep turning the corners of your life.”
It suggests a degree of grace in the journey.
I titled my graduate school thesis, “Turning the Corners” because it consisted of a compilation of writings that represented just that – the corners I’d turned during a transitional time in my life.
I subscribed to Emma Lou’s blog and I will devour her book, hoping to soak up any wisdom she might have for me now, after suffering through a terrible accident, and looking at life through her crystal clear 86-year old eyes.
It doesn’t matter that Emma Lou doesn’t even know me. What matters is that even without knowing me, she’s taught and inspired me.
We all need at least one Emma Lou. Who is yours? I’d love to have people share.
Who makes you think? Who makes you recognize what’s good in your life? Who brings you to your senses, and back to the true you when you lose perspective?
That person could be your Emma Lou.
The Emma Lous are the people who remind us that we matter, and that our lives, in all their messiness and constant change, are uniquely and wonderfully ours, and we should own them, be proud of them, and never stop trying to make them better.
I’ll leave you with one last gem, a piece of her poetry that at one time I memorized:
Each of us wants to be friends with time,
Comfortable waiting for toast to pop,
pleased to pull at the garden knowing
no season is going off with us.
The trick is to find out
whether a minute is worth more
crammed or empty.
And, either way, to get on with it.
Thank you, Emma Lou Thayne for reminding me by your poetry, your books, and your life“ To always get on with it.” I’m sure that when I read your book I’ll discover that’s exactly what you’ve been doing all these years — trying even harder during the dark times of recovery and healing — to get on with it.
I just know it.
I can’t wait to read all about it and to soak up every life lesson I know you’ll share.