Try a Little Tenderness

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Harry Woods, born in 1896, could attribute much of his success in the music business to his mother’s guidance and encouragement. Born without fingers on his left hand, his mother, herself an accomplished singer, encouraged Harry to learn to play the piano, and he developed his incredible talent covering much of the keyboard with his right hand, while hammering out a bass rhythm with his deformed left hand.

Harry was so successful as a piano player and vocalist that he put himself through Harvard singing in choirs and hiring himself out as a musician in various groups and bands. When he was drafted into WWI, despite his handicap, he began to write music in his free time. Once the war ended he moved to New York City and began to make a living as a songwriter, crafting dozens of great Tin-Pan Alley and depression-era hits, such as “I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover,” “Paddlin’ Madeleine Home,” “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along,” and “Side by Side.”

Because of his malformed left hand, because of being drafted into “the war to end all wars,” because of the difficult economic times he lived through, Harry Woods had plenty of reasons to be down, to wonder, “why me?”, but he chose to adopt a life philosophy that accepted the hard things life seemed to toss his way, and reached out with his music to lift up and encourage those around him, living through many of the same difficult circumstances.

One of my favorite Harry Woods’ songs is “Try a Little Tenderness,” published in 1932, and covered by many greats, including Otis Redding and Three Dog Night. I don’t know, but I imagine that through the post-war years and the Great Depression, Woods must have felt tremendous compassion for the wives and girlfriends also affected by those tough economic times. In the lyrics, Woods urges men, husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, to be gentle with the women in their lives:

She may be weary, women do get weary, wearing the same shabby dress,

And when she’s weary, try a little tenderness.

You know she’s waiting, just anticipating, things she may never possess,

While she’s without them, try a little tenderness.

It’s not just sentimental, she has her grief and care, and a word that’s soft and gentle,

Makes it easier to bear.

You won’t regret it. Women don’t forget it. Love is their whole happiness.

It’s all so easy.

Try a little tenderness.

It’s really good advice for all of us. As the saying goes, we should be kind to everyone we meet because we never know what kind of battle each one is facing. It’s not easy, waking up each day to look for joy. Some days it just seems more and more elusive, and the smiles do not come as easily. The light itself is so dim it is more discouraging to seek and see it than it is to just stare into the darkness. It is so tempting to give up hope in some circumstances, to snarl back, to growl, to snap in self-defense.

So what do we do? We try a little tenderness, with ourselves, with others. In my last post I wrote about forgiveness. It is so much easier to write about than to offer sometimes, and often it is most difficult to extend it to ourselves and accept it.

Whatever your situation today, whether the sun is shining brightly for you, or if you’re in a deep, dark cavern with no visible way out, try a little tenderness, with yourself and whoever might be there beside you. If what you’ve been doing is taking you along a joyful path, be sure to speak tenderly to those along the way who don’t seem to be making forward progress. You may just shine a little hope and light on the route that helps them get moving again. If what you’ve been doing has your wheels spinning, maybe it’s time for a little tenderness. Remember, “a word that’s soft and gentle makes it easier to bear.”

Thanks Harry…I needed that.

 

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A Little Laugh

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“You grow up the day you have the first real laugh – at yourself.”    Ethel Barrymore

There are lots of different kinds of laughs. Chuckles, guffaws, titters, giggles, roars, snickers, snorts, and they all describe the reactions that take us beyond smiles. This past week I had a good laugh with a former student I taught sixteen years ago over something silly I used to do at my school.

The middle school where I spent my last eighteen years teaching had two Lees, me, Mrs. Lee in sixth grade Social Studies, and Mr. Lee in eighth grade Social Studies. Most students assumed we were married and so we played along. Each time we passed in the halls we would greet one another, “Morning darling,” or “Hello dear.”  If anyone asked we told them the truth, but otherwise it was just a running joke that brought a smile to a sometimes very stressful environment.

Fast-forward to this past Tuesday evening when I attended  a presentation by a young lady I taught in 2003. It was a great opportunity to catch up with her, to see one of “my kids” grown and starting her music therapy business, and to learn more about a topic I was interested in. She was endearing, spoke eloquently, sang and played beautifully, and captivated us with stories from her chosen profession. The program ended, she spoke with several attendees, and then as I stepped up to introduce myself her eyes popped wide and she exclaimed, “Mrs. Lee!” and gave me a great hug. We laughed together and I told her how much I admired her talent and how proud I was of her utilizing it and especially of her service with dementia patients. She asked if we live on the north side of our community because she sees Mr. Lee every once in awhile. I told her yes, we’ve been here for about twenty-five years. We finished our conversation, shared hugs once more, and I left. As I started my car I wondered how she knew my husband.

And then it hit me. That silly little joke Mr. Lee and I used to play, was still rolling along, and I laughed out loud. For just a split second she was that innocent little 11-year old, taking in the world around her and organizing her understanding of it according to the evidence she observed, and I was an adult in her life, sharing a morning greeting and a laugh with another adult, oblivious to the questioning eyes looking up to us. And in her mind, we have been connected all these years, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Social Studies teachers at the local middle school. I pictured her imagining us grading papers together, eating dinner together, riding to and from school together. And I laughed again, loving her as a child, making sense of her own little world.

I circled back through the parking lot. Her husband was standing there talking with a couple of folks who had attended his wife’s program, and I briefly told him the story. Because he had previously been a teacher at the same school, he knew Mr. Lee and me as well, and this brought him a good laugh also, since he had questioned our status when he first came to our school as a teacher. I asked him to shed some light for her, with her, and set straight what had gone amusingly awry all those years ago.

It wasn’t a belly-laugh. We didn’t roll around with tears streaming down our faces at the hilarity of the situation. We simply shared a humorous reaction to a mistaken assumption several years old. It was a light moment, a joyful and peaceful moment, and those moments always come with the hope that there will be many more to follow.

May we all be able to laugh more at our mistakes and at ourselves, and live always expectantly watching for joy and the next reason to smile.

 

And the song of the day is…

In 1989, I signed a contract to begin teaching in the county of my birth. A complete physical was required. I made the appointment, showed up, and was immediately chilled  to hear the LPN say she had detected a lump during my breast exam. I had recently graduated, separated from my husband, moved back home to accept this teaching position, and felt very alone and frightened. My friends were far away and I hadn’t really re-established myself in my former hometown. A mammogram was scheduled. I was 24.

A week passed until the test. Almost another agonizing week of waiting for the results, and then great sighs of relief. The lump was a cyst that would soon resolve itself. I learned I had very dense breast tissue and fibrous cysts that might arise occasionally to cause concern, and which I would need to monitor with regular self-exams. I had no family history and did not smoke, so I was happy to put all that worry down and move on. I didn’t do the self-exams, and figured since I went for annual exams, they would find anything that might need attention.

It makes it easier to understand then, why I was not alarmed to feel the little lump, about the diameter of a pencil eraser, right after my clear mammogram in August of 2012. By October though, it seemed a little bigger, more like a small pea. When I asked my OB-GYN to check it out for me in October, she ordered another mammogram, “just to be sure.” Again, I got the all-clear. In November it seemed more the size of a plain M&M, and again I called my doctor. She ordered an ultra-sound, which lasted for nearly forty-five minutes before I got up from the table, nerves frayed, and again she patted me on the shoulder, comforting me. “Let’s watchfully wait,” she suggested, “And if it gets any larger call me, since the technician really can’t see anything worrisome.” December came and went, winter finally ended, my 48th birthday passed, and the school year ended, stressfully as usual. When I went for my annual exam mid-July, she began the breast exam at the spot we were monitoring, and I saw her face change instantly. “Why didn’t you call me?” she exclaimed. And thus began the most frightening day of my life, July 31, 2013.

Because all three of my daughters were still in school, I was immediately concerned for them and how my illness would affect their lives. I was also especially concerned for my husband who was dealing with health issues of his own and his oldest brother’s recent unexpected death. My mother-in-law’s words came to mind, “We can either laugh or we can cry.” On August 1, I determined that each day I would look for something beautiful, good, cheering, positive, some silver lining that might ordinarily be overlooked in each day’s busyness. While washing breakfast dishes, I heard The Rascals on the radio, “It’s a beautiful morning. I think I’ll go outside for awhile, and just smile, and drink in some clean, fresh air…”.  It became a daily game. What song might characterize my observation or experience for the day, that I could share with my family and friends to encourage them to hope with me? It would be something to look forward to each day, and because my chemotherapy drugs made me nauseated 24 hours a day, for almost two weeks after each treatment, I looked forward to this mental game I could play to keep my mind occupied when the workday was finished, all the laundry done, supper dishes washed and night falling.

One day might be characterized by a hymn, another day, Aerosmith. One day’s inspiration might be Broadway, while another brought forth a medieval madrigal. There was never any predicting where the song might come from, or what time of day it would appear. And with each song came a reflection that I could share with friends on Facebook. The game lasted as long as my chemotherapy lasted, into the middle of December, and then with my father-in-law’s death, the songs stopped coming and the game ended.

While it was a dark time for our family, the light of hope burned, sometimes more steadily, sometimes barely flickering. Through mastectomy and thirty-three rounds of radiation, through baldness and pain and scars and sadness, still the previous joy of the game sustained me and bolstered me, until the burns healed over, the scars stopped aching, and a fine fuzz covered my head. It seemed with the longer light of the new spring, I too might emerge, like the delicate, pale leaves unfolding from the birch branches outside my window.

I don’t know what scars or pain you bear. I don’t know their origin, their purpose, or their destination. I only know we can laugh or cry, and both feel good in their time and both are needed.

Whatever it takes to get you from one day to the next, sometimes one hour to the next, and sometimes even one moment to the next, hang on to this miracle of life. For all its rivers of misery, there are great gushing waterfalls of inexpressible joy tumbling down over our heads, if we will only look up to drink them in. Joy may be in fireworks and raucous parties, but it doesn’t have to be. In my experience, joy is more often found in quiet moments and in still, small voices. Joy may be found in a delicious meal, in a familiar hug or a stranger’s smile. It may be experienced in pulling on a soft sweater, or snuggling into a comfortable pair of shoes. You may locate it in a banking cloud, or hear it in a bird’s chirp. Perhaps you’ll find it gazing into a candle’s flame, or taking a walk just after a summer rain.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear a song that lightens your heart, even for a moment, to give you peace enough to get to the next moment, and the next…

waterfalls