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  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Someday I hope to become better at dancing with elephants. This is an important skill because they are everywhere: in the center of some family gatherings when that "friendly relative" acts out because of the disease of alcoholism and everyone looks the other way; in the parent lashing out in anger and breaking the heart of a young child because that is all he knows how to do; in the kitchen with a wife who stands silent because to acknowledge the elephant in the room is too painful. But I can no longer sit and stare at the elephant before me, and I want to not only acknowledge it, I want to accept its invitation to dance. For this elephant is present in every life at every waking moment, and none of us know of its existence until the sudden phone call, the hard words spoken at the doctor's office, the unknown now known and placed before us---

Death. When my mother and I climbed back into my van following her doctor's appointment to determine the cause of a large lump in her chest, the elephant was there waiting. Small talk tried to invade our space; false comfort tried to creep in.

The same voice that spoke in my head about finishing my dinner because of all the hungry children in China now accused me that to lose someone who had lived to 94 was somehow a blessing, as though there were some magical age when losing a loved one didn't matter. This was an elephant I did not want to acknowledge, but it was sitting in the back seat staring at me in the rear view mirror, silent and waiting. I took a deep breath and turned to my mom, who is hard of hearing. "Is there anything you did not understand about what the doctor said?"

Mom asked a few medical questions and I clarified as best I could. Then I swallowed and asked the question on the elephant's mind. "Are you afraid of anything?"

She was quiet for a moment. "I am not afraid of dying," she said, "but I don't want it to hurt." There it was. The elephant breathed.

"Marijuana is legal in Washington State," I answered, " and I make great brownies." I do not know what made me crack a joke, but I have been doing that with my mom for the forty six years since my dad was killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver. It is my job in the family…one that I have mastered.

Even though the family joke is that the shortest book in human history is called Four Hundred Years of German Humor, she laughs outloud. For years, mom, who is an immigrant from Germany, did not get jokes. But over the years, she has learned the nuances of American humor, and I am comforted by what passes for a belly laugh. A memory crowds into the space in our conversation, one of when I was about eleven, and my mom came home from Germany with a stuffed white elephant as a gift. When I asked her from the back seat of the car why she brought a white elephant, my dad answered, "it is the damaged car in a used car lot that no one wants." He meant it another way, but today I think he was right. No one wants this white elephant, and yet all of us live with it every second of our lives. We labor under the illusion that we have all the time we need to dream and plan, and yet there it is lurking in the corner of every experience we will ever enter. And so, I decided today that I want to dance with the elephant. I want to embrace it fully and surrender to the lessons I am supposed to learn.

The "what if's" in this situation would fill a universe, and so I am learning to breathe in deeply when one bangs at my door, and I release it to the unknown future. I am learning to stare at the Light that illuminates only the step in front of me and plan no further ahead. I am learning to follow the lead of the Author and Perfector of my faith, the One who carefully plans each invisible step.

For in the certainty of death, there exists the uncertainty of the timing, and so I have to learn that the only moment I can live in is the one happening right now as I write these words. And in the process, I am learning to dance.

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

In the world we live in with all its fears and uncertainty, its frailties and capriciousness, having an Inner Sydney is a necessity.

Sydney is my eight year old granddaughter, and she was born with a sensitivity to textures and sensory experiences. As a very young child, everyday experiences often created a landscape of deep and immediate emotional reactions.

One would think that being wired this way would create a young woman who would be trapped in fear and anxiety. But Sydney is one of the bravest people I know.

As I write that, many memories surface of when I witnessed this first hand, but the freshest example is from the first day of third grade this year.

For the first time, Sydney was facing elementary school without her older sister, whom she adored. When we pulled up, the sidewalk was nearly empty and the school loomed large.

I felt her momentary hesitation and took her hand. “Syd, do you want me to go in with you?”

She stared right into my eyes, totally clear and open. I saw the beginnings of tears forming. Then, she took her hand away and smiled a weak smile.

Oma, I got this.

She closed the door of the van, squared off her shoulders, readjusted her backpack, and headed for the door.


A night later, she was standing on the field of the local high school stadium preparing to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” acapella before the start of a soccer match.

“Are you nervous?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she replied without hesitation and strode off with her mother towards the field. She was led off by an official to be in position for the start, and I saw that once she was settled in, she stood there silently holding her mic, waiting.


When the player introductions finished, her name was announced over the PA system,and the crowd stood. Standing by herself on the field, she seemed even smaller than her eight years. I felt her inhale, and then she sang with a confidence way beyond her years.

When she was done, I asked her how she handled her nervousness.

“I held a stress ball in my hand.”

That was all.

As a parent, as a wife, as a friend, as a grandma, when others express their fears, I often find myself giving pep talks, or at least what I think are pep talks, to help them “get through”. But this little girl has learned what many of us never do.

Strength has to come from the inside.

Strength from the inside is a strength that sustains. It is a strength that admits frailties and marches ahead anyway. It is a strength that gives voice to fear and then walks through it, head held high.

It is an "Inner Sydney strength" forged in the crucible of fear.

Someday, I hope to develop my own Inner Sydney and stare down the voices of resistance - to acknowledge my fears but not let them own me.

Someday, I hope you find her too

  • Writer's pictureChar Seawell

Bright yellow egg-shaped shakers, it appears, are highly prized items in senior song settings. We discovered this quite by accident while playing music in a small adult family home.

One of the residents, who recently celebrated her 98th birthday, expressed frustration every time we came because she could not sing, though she loved music. One day I found at the bottom of my purse a leftover shaker from band practice, which I handed to her.

Throughout the hour, she experimented with the sound. Basic shaking came first. Then as her confidence grew, so did her repertoire of sounds until she soon could do not only the first beat, but the subtleties in between the measures as well. As we were saying our goodbyes, she remarked, “I can’t sing, but I loved doing this. I was able to participate.”

Because of this reaction, we began to bring other eggs shakers to pass out before performances. And we noticed something unexpected. Sometimes, like our 98 year-old friend, making rhythm came naturally. However, other times, the shakers would sit unused until between songs. Watching from the front I would see listeners pick up the egg and roll it around in their hands, as if examining it under some kind of microscope. Then experiments would begin in the pause between songs. A shake here, a roll there…like explorers in uncharted territory.

For some,however, the shakers became an invitation to boldness. One senior, notable for a sometimes surly response to the world, became the lead shaker in a large group setting.

From her chair at a table, her shaking of the egg became more complex and rhythmic until it seemed the very movement itself compelled her out of the chair and across the room to where we stood. Leaning on a support post beside me, nearly blind and hard of hearing, she stood and sang full volume, her feet, moving in time to the shaking of the egg in her hand.

The shaker moved her from discontent to bold leadership. When an old favorite tune ended, she stood, marched up to us again, and started a new chorus of the song, leading the room in an acapella reprise of one of her favorite songs. In the end, when we went to greet after the music was done, she announced,

This was the best day of my life.

But these best days come ”at a cost.”. Though we arrive at our senior sing-a-longs with a certain number, and though we always say we are collecting them, new "owners" are reluctant to give them up. They get slipped under napkins on the table or into pockets or into purses. We know this is true because as we wander, we hear the telltale signs of the rattlesnake-like rhythm punctuating the air. A little like a game of hide and seek, when we are near, quiet reigns. But as we move away, we hear the quiet rattling dares of captive eggs in the hands of their kidnappers.

After seeing this pattern develop, it occurred to me that apparently, that egg-shaped shaker is not just a noise maker. It is a symbol of what happens when people gather to relive memories through music and create new ones through participation. It is a symbol of curiosity about things that are new. And it is a symbol of what a person can still do well when other abilities are gone.

Someday, good Lord willing, it will be me sitting in that dining room while someone is singing the songs of my youth… Crosby Stills and Nash, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and, yes, Arrowsmith. And I hope when they do, that someone hands me a shaker. Something small that fits in the palm of my hand and is brightly colored so I don’t lose it through blurred vision.

Something that gives me permission to be part of the music and not just a silent subject.

And when they do, I want to shake it with every fiber of what’s left of my body. I want to shake it as my primal victory cry to the world that I made it…

I sang my song…I lived my life.

And no matter what lies ahead, I want to shake with all of my being to announce to the world that I will live, to my last breath, not on the sidelines of life, but celebrating the life song I was given with a joyful noise.

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