It’s been six months since my parents both died, eleven days apart. Sometimes it feels like six years, sometimes it feels like six days. Several friends have contacted me this week to see how I am doing. Maybe they made on a note on their calendar about it, but I doubt it because their check-ins didn’t even have to do with them knowing it was an anniversary (and I didn’t even mention it to most of them). I think God just tapped them on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you check on Pam?” They are all the kind of people who listen and respond to God – even when they don’t know it’s Him – and so they did. Someone suggested I write about my experience. When I hesitated they said, “You never know who you might help.” Since I also try to be the kind of person who listens and responds to God, and to help people, I am going to write about it. I think God just tapped them on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t you check on Pam?” They are all the kind of people who listen and respond to God – even when they don’t know it’s Him – and so they did. Someone suggested I write about my experience. When I hesitated they said, “You never know who you might help.” Since I also try to be the kind of person who listens and responds to God, and to help people, I am going to write about it.
On September 11, 2018, my dad’s life came to its conclusion. He was 87 years old and his health had been deteriorating for a few years. But while we knew it was coming sooner rather than later, his death felt abrupt. On September 22, 2018, just eleven days later my mother, at age 83, suddenly and unexpectedly slipped away as well.
There. That’s the story in its barest essentials. The details leading up to their deaths, the emotions and experiences during that difficult time and its aftermath have been a labyrinth for me. Since my heart still can’t handle the story as a whole, I will share it in pieces. Since I am an inspirational writer and speaker, I’ll share what I have learned through the process in a way that emphasizes God’s faithfulness.
You may ask how this fits in with the theme of this website and blog — discovering, equipping, and pursuing your purpose. Just wait. You’ll see.
Come check out the series when it begins next week.
I press the accelerator and pull away from the shallow water, leaving the shore and all that is on it behind me. The cool, salty air rushes against my face and pulls at my hair. I take in deep relaxing breaths. I see other jet skis in the distance doing giant circles and spraying high pillars of water, but all I want to do is glide over the undulating water and head straight towards the horizon. Escape.
If I go slow, I slide smoothly through the swells. With some speed, I bounce over them – the rate of speed determining how out of control the feeling is. I choose fast. There is an island not too far off in the distance. I’ve never ridden all the way out to it before and decide that today is the day. Usually the open water brings a slight, underlying sense of fear in me, but I easily shake off the thought of the deepness and darkness of the sea beneath me and break away into adventure, leaving the worries of the day behind me.
As I go, a prayer wells up inside me unbidden, “Oh God…” but I stop it abruptly because I am afraid of what His response might reveal. Life is in a rough patch at the moment and I don’t want to think about it. I want to hide in the great openness of my surroundings. But it still comes to me. Against my wishes I begin to think about what I do not have: a place to live, a job to pay the bills, someone to understand the complexities of my fears, and how I have lost the passion to follow my dreams. I also think about what I do have and can be thankful for: a car, a friend’s couch, a small amount of savings that covers my minimum needs. As for my dreams, there is a very small, very slim, very vague sense of hope. But it’s nothing that I want to disturb. I’m afraid that if I try to even touch it, it will disappear in a puff of smoke. My need weighs too heavily, I can’t think of losing more.
Prayer wells up inside me again, “Oh God…” comes to my lips. The great aloneness that surrounds me causes the great aloneness inside me to open up. “Oh God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water…” Psalm 63 burns up and out of me. I’m saying it out loud, fairly shouting it over the sound of the engine and the spray of the water and the rushing wind. I finish with a personal postscript, yelling “Oh God, my hope is almost gone and I am about to perish!”
At that moment, less than fifty yards away and running parallel with me, I see a large, dark mass rise out of the water. Someone had mentioned earlier that there were some humpback whales that had been seen in the vicinity. The massive creature breaches silently, smoothly, glowing in the wet. I freeze for a moment staring at her majestic beauty. I think, “How absolutely amazing. Oh, please please please, don’t come any closer.” She does three more dips and then disappears, leaving no evidence of her presence behind.
I continue on my circuit around the island thinking about the huge creature now hidden beneath the water. My body flexes in remembrance. A thought bursts into my mind: she is like my big, overarching dream that God has given me. It runs down deep beneath the surface – living, moving, growing out of sight and not revealed except for rare moments that spark awe and wonder. I think about all that God has for my life and the moments I am allowed to see the big picture, so overwhelming it almost makes me want to run. My spirit flexes in remembrance. I also realize that my humpback is most certainly not alone. Others of her pod are near. They too are below the surface, unseen and unknown, along with a great quantity of smaller sea life like the seals, dolphins, and fish. They all lurk there too – like smaller, more easily understood and handled dreams and goals. I am gliding along heading for the island, a clear destination I can see. They are gliding below me in deep, smooth currents as well as in rough waters. They are always there, just not always seen. Then a phrase I have often used to encourage others comes to me: “God is always hard at work behind the scenes on our behalf, even when we can’t see it or sense it.”
I don’t know when I will see a whale emerge from the depths again, but the seals and fish I do see remind me she is out there. I don’t know when I’ll see my big dream again, but I see small things that remind me of it. And just like that island in the distance I’ll keep heading in the direction God has me going and trust that He is always at work behind the scenes – and beneath the surface. His purpose will rise in my life.
For three long years I have been performing a balancing act on the ledge of indecision. Up for grabs was whether the passion that had provided the momentum for my life’s purpose would be be allowed to die a slow and uneventful death, or whether I would fight to stir it back into being.
November 2014 was my last blog entry and all my other writing (except for a random journal page now and then) ceased shortly after that. I’m not able to chalk this development up to the hardships of life, since Burn Bright Coaching and Consulting was originally birthed from the complications of displacement, discouragement and distress. This time was different. It went past the intellect and the emotions. This time it went to the dividing point of joint and marrow. If that sounds familiar you may be acquainted with Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow… (NIV)” Yes, this time it was spiritual.
While I never despaired about the status of my relationship with God (although the quality of it was in question at times), it was never a given that there would be a come back for my passion or this blog. But there came a particular moment on a particular day in this rather long journey that I made the choice to bring life back to the Burn Bright blog. Not because friends encouraged me to do so, not because I have any urgency of “God told me to,” or even that my passion has completely returned. I have come back here and am writing because I have a God story to share, and God stories are always too good to keep to yourself. Each time one is shared it stirs something up in both the narrator and the listener, the writer and the reader. So I hope that in the days and weeks ahead, as I share the details of my return journey, it will stir up not just a passion in you but also your God story.
For 25 years I have been part of a singing ensemble. Different members have come and gone but the group has continued on in one form or another and I have remained a part of it, until this year. This year the group finally came to an end. It’s quite odd not to have regular Tuesday night practice, not to be in the holiday mood early because of working on Christmas songs in September, and not to have a reason for a new holiday outfit this year.
To keep from missing it too much, I chose to begin lessons with a vocal coach – not only to continue to have music in my life but also to keep me in front of an audience on a regular basis (if I have too long between public appearances, whether speaking or singing, I tend to develop a touch of stage fright). Right now I am preparing a piece for a recital. While it’s strange to be working on only one song instead of fifteen, it’s fun to be laser focused on making that one song completely mine – crafting it to take advantage of my abilities.
It’s an interesting process. First I found a song I liked. Then I searched the internet and listened to 38 different artists to find a version that suited me. I found two I liked equally well and couldn’t decide between them. My vocal coach and I decided to combine them — take the best pieces from each and splice them together. In order to do that I needed to learn to sing the parts of the songs EXACTLY as the original singers do: their notes, their timing, their inflections. Once I mastered that, only then was it time to work on folding them together. And after that, I was finally able to put my own spin on it and make it MY version.
That’s pretty much a basic formula for anything one wants to do well in life:
find something you enjoy and for which you have a natural aptitude
find someone to mentor/coach you
find someone to model who does something similar with excellence and study them – duplicate their movements toward success until you know what you are doing very well; then step away and put your own spin on it.
It’s similar to learning to write in cursive in grade school. At first it’s all about holding the pencil exactly right, then following the patterns of each letter perfectly, row after row after row. Then in the end you’re free to write any way you choose, with your own personal flair.
photo courtesy of Internet Movie Database (imdb.com)
Remember the Von Trapp children from The Sound of Music? Once they knew the notes to sing, they could sing most anything!
It’s true professionally. There are hundreds of financial experts. All of them have the purpose of increasing their clients’ financial portfolio. But each one has their own variation on it. Suze Orman, the Motley Fools, Clark Howard, and Dave Ramsey are all people who are in tune with the same basic principles and do what they do very well, but very differently.
It’s also true personally. Whatever your purpose is, take advantage of the people out there who are doing it well now. Don’t be too proud to ask for assistance – ask questions and try out their methods. Read books, visit websites, go to seminars, or plays, or concerts, or sporting events and watch and learn.
Why start from scratch when you don’t have to? Get the basics down, establish a foundation, and then move out and find your own style and make your own kind of music.
Born in 1868, Florence Foster Jenkins, above anything else, loved to sing opera. When she was 17 years old, her wealthy father refused to let her go abroad to study music, so she eloped. In 1909 her father died and she used her inheritance to kick start her career, taking lessons and becoming active in Philadelphia and New York City musical social circles. Florence made several recordings and began giving public performances in 1912. There was great demand for tickets to the recitals, but ticketing was typically limited to a few favored associates and friends. Then in 1944, at the age of 76, she gave in and gave a public performance at Carnegie Hall – the event sold out weeks in advance. One month after that success, she passed away.
And so here is the secret about Florence Foster Jenkins: the girl could not sing.
Not a note. She was known for her lack of pitch, tone, and rhythm. She couldn’t even pronounce the words in her foreign language songs. She was popular for the amusement she provided. And while she was aware of her critics (and the laughter her performances evoked from audiences), she really didn’t care. She was doing what she loved. “People may say I can’t sing,” she said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
On the surface it seems like just a precursor to contemporary famous-for-being-famous non-talented reality TV stardom (shudder). But Florence’s story stirred something up inside me. There’s something about her saying, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” There’s something about passion.
When I look back on my life it’s the things I did not do or try that I regret the most. I have more, “I wish I would have…” than “I wish I wouldn’t have…” Thinking back, the reason I didn’t do things was because I was afraid of failure and what people would think of that failure. The funny thing is that in the opportunities I did take, and did fail at, and people did deride me for – I don’t really regret them. In a funny way I have gained strength from them, a sense of increased self-knowledge, a sense of survival and ability to endure and persist through the next challenge.
The library and the bookstore are full of books. You may have received 20 rejection letters from publishers. Does that mean you shouldn’t write? There are millions of corporations and companies around the world. You may have failed all your business courses. Does that mean you shouldn’t start your own business? There are thousands of bands and singers in the world. You may be refused by “American Idol.” Does that mean you shouldn’t sing? Florence Foster Jenkins didn’t think so — and I don’t think she had any regrets.
Who said it was all about success anyway? There’s something about passion.
There’s a different flavor to this entry – much more personally vulnerable than usual, but hopefully helpful to those facing a similar situation.
Alteration, modification, variation, transformation, adjustment, amendment. I like all of these words better than plain old “change”. More syllables somehow gives a sense of fluidity and even feels gentler verbalizing than the abrupt and harsh “change”.
I am facing unwanted, fast change in my life. I don’t mind things ebbing and flowing over the natural course of time. I don’t mind a surprise now and again. But massive, out-of-the-blue change – the kind that knocks you on your rear end and the breath out of your lungs? Or how about the baited change – when you expect one thing and get the other. Of those I’m not much of a fan.
You can utter all the platitudes, repeat all the affirmations, read all the quotes, get patted on the back by friends, and try to pick yourself up. And, most times, in your head you know that things will eventually smooth out and you’ll get back on track again.
Then there are those times when forced change can spin you into the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. (Here’s a quick list so you don’t have to search: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.) I think there should be another step squeezed in there somewhere: being frozen.
For more than a few months now I have been going through a tough time spurred by a rising river of unwanted, uncontrollable change. I was expecting some change, but it came in greater number, speed, and force than I had prepared for. It spilled out of the river banks and wiped away the sandbags I had stacked around certain areas of my life. Nothing was protected. All I could do was stand there and watch it pour over me and around me and watch it carry everything in every area my life away with it. There has been nothing that hasn’t been affected. I haven’t really talked about it with anyone at any length and prayer bounces off the ceiling. Writer’s block has taken full root (this entry is one of maybe three things I’ve written in months). I put up a barricade by freezing myself from feeling anything or reacting to anything, relegating myself to a sort of half-life: there physically but not emotionally.
Then last week, something sort of happened. I continued to be deluged by unexpected blows and watching myself not responding. Maybe it was a “last straw” type of thing but when I received one certain piece of news I sunk down into the chair I was sitting in and thought to myself, “But I don’t want to be an empty shell person.” When you stop fighting all the changes, but not in a let’s-figure-this-out-and-move-on kind of way, then you allow the changes to beat you up and toss you emotionally and spiritually into nothingness. I’ve seen people like that. They’ve resigned themselves to victim status and accept whatever is thrown their way, thinking it is what they deserve, too worn out to hope for anything more. Their lights go out. And they never recover. I said, out loud, “I don’t want to be like that. I want to recover. I don’t want other people to face that, I want to help them recover before it’s too late.” And a little spark was lit.
It wasn’t a blinding revelation, there was no instant transformation. I still feel very deflated. But there is a spark. A lot of tears have blurred my eyes as I’ve written this entry. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen from here. I don’t know if Burn Bright will change (or even continue) as a blog or business. I don’t know where I’ll be living or working or worshipping or people I’ll hang out with, or activities I’ll participate in this coming year. But rather than roll up in a frozen ball and be tossed in the waves as the changes continue, I’m going to try to thaw, stretch out, bodysurf, and ride them to whatever shore they are taking me.
I am a Seahawks fan. (Don’t let that make you go away – there’s a good application coming!) They became a franchise when I was a freshman in high school, about 60 miles south of Seattle.
I was born and raised rooting for the Dallas Cowboys back in their glory days. It was hard moving allegiance from a dynasty to what, at times, felt like a high-school league team. But Jim Zorn, Steve Largent, Steve Raible, Norm Evans, and the rest of the gang all loved football, loved Seattle, loved the fans. That made it easy to love them. My fandom was solidified when I was a freshman in college and watched the Seahawks play a charity basketball game as the “Rainhawks.” They won my heart with their humor and humility. They weren’t a very good football team, but they had their moments and the 12th Man (as we were eventually called) has learned, if nothing else, to lean on each other for encouragement. This was often needed as the Seahawks’ success progressed and we became arguably the most hated franchise in football.
As you are probably aware, the Seattle Seahawks are now the reigning Super Bowl champions. Maybe you don’t give a rip about football, perhaps you are one of the many who love to hate “us”. That’s okay with me. But don’t let it keep you from learning the four things the Seahawks have taught me.
1. You don’t have to do everything perfectly (especially in the beginning).
Set your goal and continue to strive towards it. When you fall on your face, try again and again and again.
2. You don’t have to be loved by everyone.
Haters gonna hate. Find the people who do support you (even if there’s just one or two) and keep them close and build your relationship with them.
3. Change it up.
Win new supporters (and build new skills) when you branch out and go beyond what you are currently known for. Let people see who you really are, aside from your resume.
4. Don’t be afraid to be good.
Sometimes it’s hard to be successful. It’s hard to change people’s perceptions when it’s taken you a while to break through. Don’t let that stop you from achieving greatness.