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This is a re-post from 9/20/13, which I wrote (and sang) as a gift for my mom’s birthday. Mom has been fretting about me a bit because I’ve been writing about worry and stress. She is asking me what she can do to help. I am reposting this 1) to remind her that I know that I am resilient even if my life is complicated at this time and 2) to remind her that she has already and continues to do so much for me, just by being herself.

 

Martha MacKenzie is my wonderful mom. And today is her birthday. In addition to being a mother of six and a wife for nearly 59 years, my mom is a singer. She has a glorious voice. Mom has almost no formal vocal training but comes from a family of musicians, especially singers. Her singing style can best be described as sacred classical. In other words, she is a church singer. Mom has been singing in church choir since she was six years old. Her oldest sister, Gloria, sang for KIRO radio’s Uncle Frank’s Kiddie’s Hour for a number of years, until she was about 12. Mom and her middle sister auditioned for and were accepted into the children’s choir for an opera production in Seattle, starring Metropolitan Opera’s Rise Stevens. Mom still remembers what she was asked to sing for the audition.

Mom  was SMART and graduated from high school at age 16, after which she took a music performance class, along with her older sister, Barbara at Seattle University. We have recordings from those times of my mom’s clear soprano and my aunt’s animated mezzo-soprano singing songs from 1950’s musicals. Shortly after, Barbara moved to New York City to try to make it on Broadway. She was an amazing performer but like many talented performers did not make it in the Big Apple. During the Koren war, Mom was in a singing trio with Barbara and their cousin, Betty. They wore glamorous dresses and pulled off those unbelievably dark lip stick shades that were popular in the early 50’s, while performing for the USO.

Mom continued to sing in church choirs all of this time through marriage, rearing six children, and throughout my father’s post-retirement years. She is a member of the St. James’ Cathedral Choir in Seattle. It is a wonderful choir, which has toured Europe singing at noted cathedrals such as Notre Dame in France. They also sang at the Vatican and had an audience with Pope Benedict. My mom likes to tell us how she was trying to hike up the waistband of her support hose just as Pope Benedict walked by.

Wow, Elizabeth your mom sounds great. And you’ve talked about being a musician in your youth. You must have sung. You must have sung for your mother.

Well, it’s complicated. I was in band but did belong to the choir during 7th grade. Our claim to fame was performing, “The Sound of Music” during a middle school JAZZ competition. And no, it wasn’t a jazzy rendition of the song. I don’t know what that teacher was thinking. Then I stopped singing except for a few months during college when my mom convinced me to come to St. James to rehearse for a special community choir mass. (Regular choir members must audition. Soloists are professional opera singers.) I remember singing “A Mighty Fortress” and learning a piece based on Psalm 84 (“Yeah the sparrow hath found a house…”). I learned how to articulate words differently for singing than for speaking. It was a lot of work but was really fun.

So I did a little singing in groups. But NEVER alone in front of people. (Okay, one time five years ago I sang “Goody Goody” for my neighbors Jim and Deana. I’m not sure why I did it.) Not even for my mom except for a few bars of something and even then that was when I was much older, like 35 years old. People, singing in front of people is even more mortifying to me than wearing a swim suit in public! Zoe is the only one I have ever sung to and I sang to her a lot when she was little. I would sing with her now except that she only likes to sing alone. (Annoying teen.)

My mom used to sneak next to the bathroom door to try to hear me sing in the shower. (Watch the comments section, she will deny it!) If we were in church together and standing next to each other, she would sing really quietly so that she could listen to ME. I knew that it was really important to my mom to hear me sing but it was so hard for me to do this and I’m not sure why. She wanted to know if I had “a voice”. I performed frequently as a flutist, despite my nerves, and even performed in two master classes. (A master class is when some well-known musician comes to town and students are selected to get a lesson by that person in front of an audience of a bunch of students and music teachers. I did it twice as a college student.)

My singing anxiety does not just apply to my mom. Objectively, I have a pleasant, untrained alto voice with limited range. I think I could have been an excellent singer if I had trained to do so as I had with the flute. Perhaps the difficulties started as a combination of my perfectionism and the fact that my mom’s eagerness stressed me out a bit. And then as irrational anxieties do, it gathered its own steam from my continued avoidance, and took on a life of its own.

Last July, I wrote about the co-existence of grief and joy as being part of resilience in the post, How Can I Keep from Singing? The post title is the name of one of my favorite Christian hymns. I included the lyrics in the post followed by a little message to my mom asking her to record the hymn so I could post it on this blog. She offered me the deal that she would record it if I sang WITH her. I replied to her comments with a “definite maybe” type reply. I don’t think she ever saw that reply because she hasn’t mentioned the topic even once in the last almost two months. Or perhaps she has been playing it REALLY COOL.

I subsequently decided that I wanted to record the song both for my mom and for myself, to face my fear of public singing. Unlike going on loop de loop roller coasters, I actually enjoy singing quite a bit. It’s the only kind of music I still make. My original vision was for my mom, Zoe, and I to sing one verse apiece and the last verse together. However, Zoe was not at all interested in participating at the time I asked. My mom kept going camping with my dad all summer. I ended up not talking to her about it.

I decided to go solo and a cappella. Actually, a cappella is my favorite for this hymn. Plus, I don’t play piano and ukulele accompaniment by Zoe would probably not sound right.To me, the hymn sounds a little Irish. However, it is American and although there is a somewhat complicated history behind it, the authorship for the music is attributed to a Baptist minister, Robert Wadsworth Lowry. There are a number of different versions of the lyrics. I chose the one that was closest to the one I’ve sung in church many times as a member of the congregation.

I started practicing the song on and off about three weeks ago. Then I had to figure out how to audio record myself. (No way would I have a videotape made. This audio recording is a big enough step as it is.) I finally decided, as time was passing quickly, that I just needed to get it done. So I downloaded a free recording app onto my smartphone and started recording myself. I spent enough time on it to give myself a few tries but not so many as to activate my perfectionism.

Happy Birthday, Mom! Here is a song for you. I am posting it on my blog as my kind of “performance” so you can have a cyber stage mother experience.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.

Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear it’s music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?

Oh though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
Oh though the darkness ’round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?

When tyrants tremble sick with fear
and hear their death knell ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near
how can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
how can I keep from singing?

As most of you are aware, the Superbowl was played yesterday. It was the 48th Superbowl but only the second one in which my hometown team, the Seattle Seahawks, played. They played against the Denver Broncos, who in contrast, have been to the Superbowl seven times, having won in both 1997 and 1998.

I used to be an avid sports fan. I watched all kinds of sports including Monday Night Football. I lost interest in football after college, I must admit. The fact that my husband knows and cares less about team sports than I do (with the exception of the Oakland A’s as he still speaks fondly of attending the World Series with his late father in ’72, ’73, and ’74), made it easy for me to stop watching. And I know that a lot of people disagree with me but I also stopped following football because it’s a brutal sport. It’s just not safe and we get young kids to do it.

Yesterday, though, I put my concerns aside and watched the game. It was really exciting. But the game wasn’t close at all. The Seahawks dominated from the very first play. The Broncos made a lot of mistakes from the very first play, giving two points to the Seahawks on a safety only twelve seconds into the game. A safety is a weird little way that the defense can score. In other words, our team scored without ever having position of the ball. That kind of start off to the game had to have been pretty discouraging for the Broncos.

 

The Broncos really didn’t ever recover and the looks on the players faces just got more and more defeated. Yes, they are totally overpaid and what they do is grossly overvalued by our culture. And their humiliation is not akin to the pain of starving to death. But the pain was real and I felt sad for them. When I played softball as a kid, my team was never any good. I remember we once got incredibly routed. It was incredibly frustrated. I was mad and just wanted the game to end. But I also had a job to do so I kept trying to do my best through the entire game. The Broncos didn’t stop playing. They probably didn’t play as well as they would have otherwise but they kept playing until the end.

There was another super bowl lost over the weekend. It was a loss of a literal bowl. I accidentally broke my yellow 4 quart Pyrex mixing bowl.

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There it is in shards. It was an ordinary mixing bowl but it was a super bowl, nonetheless. It originally belonged to my grandmother MacKenzie, my dad’s mom. I never met her as she died in 1957, before I was born. She was a child of German immigrants who lived in the Midwest, Chicago and then later in St. Paul, MN. She had four children, three of whom survived past infancy and were born in three different decades, Bill in the teens, Helen in the 20’s, and my dad in 1932. By 1940, my grandmother had lost both an infant son and her husband. The mixing bowl is a bit big for cake making so I typically think of  her having made yeast breads in it. It is the perfect size for proofing dough. Or perhaps she made apple strudel. I know that she was fluent in both English and German but when I’ve asked my dad whether she made German food he says, “She just made regular food.” She sounded like a very interesting woman. In addition to raising three children and becoming a widow during WWII, she worked for the Veteran’s Administration. She was also known on bitterly cold Chicago winter days to invite the African American postal carrier inside to warm up and eat a bowl of soup. This was in the 1940’s. I think this showed a great deal of class. My dad is a very fair person and it sounds like his mom was, too.

My mother inherited this bowl before I was born. She used it to make bread and cakes. And yes, I said that it was too big for cake but not too big for the cakes that my mom made for our family of eight. I remember the sweet and yeasty smells that the bowl contained. I licked leftover cake and cookie batter out of that bowl. When I married, my mom gave the bowl to me and I have had it in my kitchen for nearly 24 years.

My mom did not give me the bowl because I am the only daughter in the family. It wasn’t because it was something traditionally feminine. She gave me the bowl for the special significance it holds in my life. I was a premature baby. I stayed in the hospital for some time but even by the time I was taken home, I was too small to bathe in an infant tub.

Mom bathed me in that yellow Pyrex bowl until I was big enough for a regular tub. I broke a family heirloom. It has made it through multiple cross country moves. On Saturday I was trying to separate it from a larger bowl in which it was nested within the cabinet and it dropped to the floor. It wasn’t a long drop. I can be clumsy in the kitchen because I move too quickly. I have to believe that I’ve dropped that bowl many times before.

The bowl fragments will go out with the trash tomorrow and end up in a landfill. It’s cliche to say but it is true that the memories will live on. And not just the memories of three generations of cooks but the shared memories of mothers who have nurtured their families with food and with physical care taking. And as our culture has changed, we have more men who understand the meditative aspects of baking as well as the feel and smell of a baby when you take her out of the tub to dry off. She’s wet but you hold her to your chest and rub her with a towel. You feel the warm water seeping into your clothes and you smell Johnson and Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.

We win and we lose. We struggle and thrive. We build things and break things. We will continue to care for each other.

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This post was inspired by the Health Activist Writers’ challenge for the month of April. I write “inspired by” because I have yet to use one of their suggested daily writing prompts.

As a child psychologist, I am often advising the mothers of my patients to take more time for self-care. A frequent response is, “I know, but I just don’t have time,” to which I reply, “If you feel you have no time for this than you have been without time for yourself for far too long and this is even more reason to do it!”

I know I am asking a lot of moms who are already taxed with parenting, work, and household responsibilities. I have struggled with the same life balance issue myself over the years, especially since becoming a mom 14 1/2 years ago. One of the valuable lessons I am continuing to learn as a breast cancer patient is to take care of myself, I mean REALLY take care of myself. It’s not that I was living a martyr’s life but I was not taking sufficient care of my health. To do this properly, takes time.

In 2002, I was laid off from my very first job following the completion of my post-doc. To make a long story short, the job was ugly. It was the first time in my life that I was treated like I was incompetent. Down deep I knew that I wasn’t incompetent but to be treated this way for nearly three years in my first “real job” and right after becoming a mom was a major blow. The lay off itself was done in a fairly nasty and unfair fashion. It was toward the end of that job that I had my first of two incidences of Major Depression. (The second incidence occurred a couple of years later but only lasted 2 weeks because I got back into treatment immediately after recognizing that I was not myself). It was BAD. It wasn’t just sadness, which is what a lot of people mean when they say, “I’m depressed.” I had no appetite. Food was flavorless. I lost 10 pounds in a week. My sleep was messed up and I had to will myself through each day to have enough energy to parent Zoey who was a toddler at the time. She has always been an empathetic girl and at the time, was learning to read facial expressions. I remember feeling heartbreaking guilt and sadness one day. She was sitting in my lap, looked up at my face, used her fingers to push my mouth into a smile while anxiously asking, “Mama happy?”

Being laid off and depressed was a major wake up call for taking care of myself. And since I was laid off and able to collect unemployment for a few months, I was able to make use of the time to figure out what to do with my life professionally. At that point, I decided that I would never rely on one source of salary again if I could help it. So in 2002, I applied and tested for my psychology license in Washington state and in 2003, started my private practice. Meanwhile, I was writing research grants and ended up being employed through two of them, the longer one landing me on the research staff of the Social Development Research Group at the University of Washington. I worked there until 2007 until the research money ran out. I was unable to secure funding for more grants. As the money ran out, I expanded my practice and then by the time I left U.W. in April of 2007, I was able to build up my practice to full time. Although being in private practice had not previously been an aspiration of mine, it ended up being the perfect job for me.

So although I would not have taken that job had I known what it was going to be like, I got some very positive life lessons out of it. Also, I made a number of friends at that crazy job including my dear friends, Jennie and Lisa, whom I’ve mentioned in my blog. Hmm, taking the opportunities afforded by crappy life circumstances to glean important life lessons? Gee, that kind of sounds like my breast cancer experience thus far.

Fortunately, I was able to use some of those life lessons from my crappy job experience to cope with my breast cancer better and to avoid getting depressed again. Sorry, I hate being depressed. And yes I have grief, but healthy grief and clinical depression are not the same thing.

So having breast cancer and especially the time off after my major surgeries, has given me some time to revise my life plan so that I am a happier and healthier person. As I mentioned previously, taking care of myself takes time and emotional space. I will not always need this much time and this much emotional space but right now I do. At first, this was a hard adjustment for my husband because healing has meant my being more emotionally distant than usual. (And no, I don’t just mean less sex.) We had to develop different ways of spending time together, for example, John started accompanying me on my walks on the weekends. He also eats all of the healthy dinners I make ahead of time in reasonable dinner-sized portions and freeze. The walking and the diet change have been part of the reason that John has lost 22 pounds. My taking care of myself has also meant that John had to take on more responsibility and learn how to take care of me after surgeries. It has also meant John taking care of some of his own health issues better.

For Zoey, my cancer has meant worrying about a parent’s mortality at an earlier age than average. It has meant seeing me less energetic and weaker at times. But overall, I am very happy to report that Zoey has more than risen to the challenge. She fairly quickly snapped out of the angry, eye rolling teen stuff that she was directing toward me and started treating me much more respectfully and affectionately. She is often there with a glass of ice water when she sees me fanning myself during a hot flash and she secretly changed my screen saver to a banner that reads, “I love you, Mom,” just because. Sure we have our moments and she is still able to be disrespectful and her eye rolling muscles aren’t totally lax. And having a mom who is a breast cancer patient when she is a 14 year-old girl makes her life harder. I wish she didn’t have to go through this. But she has grown enormously.

Finally, by taking care of myself, ultimately, I will take better care of my patients. Some of them are feeling a little anxious and impatient because I am off work again for an extended time. But if I don’t take care of myself, I will not have enough energy to do a good job. And as my dear friend, Nancy points out, by taking care of myself and coping positively with a major life stressor, I am modeling valuable skills for the families I see.

So even though the villagers were not initially happy with my changing my life to have a stronger focus on self-care, ultimately, my self-care is reaping benefits for the villagers.

I do believe that there is more than one good solution to every problem but perhaps this lesson could be helpful to some of you readers out there.

 

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