Sunday, December 8, 2013

Picking up the guitar again.....

It seems that every day bits and pieces of   “Old Theresa” returns in one form or another. Sometimes I have to work really hard to confront the “old, negative thinking…unworthiness…bitterness…sadness, pain, etc.” and the characteristics and habits that led to my obesity and sadness and that I’ve tried to so hard to change in recent years.  But some things, like compassion, determination, strength, joy, and perseverance have returned in a better, more mature way and have helped “New Theresa” to grow and change.

As much as I always used to enjoy the holiday season, I’ve found myself on some days this year just wishing that it was over. I’ve been tired, extremely busy, and pre-occupied with other concerns, and yet, Christmas is going to come with or without me. This Christmas will be different for sure. I’ve lost 3 family members this year, beginning with my stepdad, Tony, in January, my aunt Bev in May, and recently my cousin Bridget. Their absence will be felt greatly by my family and I’m sure there will be moments of intense sadness,  but I really have two choices: Either I can dwell on my loss, or I can be grateful for the years of love I shared and draw strength from the memories of Christmas’s spent with them. I decided yesterday that I was going to just embrace reality….and all the emotions that are bound to be present…. and make this year the best ever.


Music has always been a big part of my life. In my previous career in ministry, I directed a children’s church choir and music and dancing always filled the hallways of the school during November/December as we practiced our songs for the school masses and Christmas programs. In my younger years, I’d gather the young cousins and we would do some singing on Christmas Eve. My step-dad Tony always played carols on his harmonica as we all sang along. Last year, when he was very weak from a recent surgery and an extended hospital stay, we were fortunate to have him home for Christmas. His presence…although weakened and frail….was the greatest gift ever. Our visit got even better when he used his walker to go into the living room and pick up his harmonica off the end table and proceeded to play me one of his favorite songs – Jingle Bells. Tears flowed from both of our eyes as he struggled for the breath and the strength to play….to continue on with a tradition that was part of my life for almost 40 years. That moment was the best Christmas gift I could have been given. I don’t think I will ever forget that moment. I need to draw strength from that memory, and so many others over the years, and continue on with the tradition of music and singing. Certainly there will be a lump in my throat every time I hear Jingle Bells, but it is only because I loved and was loved deeply. For that, I am so grateful.


Inspired by that memory, I did something yesterday that I have not done in at least seven years:  I pulled out my old guitar. Playing guitar used to be a big part of “Old Theresa” and my former job as Director of Religious Education and teacher. I’ve never been very good at it, but those memories are of happy days. The pain of losing that job….a job that I loved so much and defined me….was so deep that I simply put the guitar away and haven’t  played it in many years. That part of my life was over…and any reminder of those days was too painful to deal with. Although I’ve thought about those days many times over the years, I never had any desire to ‘revisit” those memories in any concrete way. Ten years ago my life was very happy and I felt loved, valued, and at peace. But life changed very quickly when I lost my job, my grandpa died, my priest friend became sick and later died in my arms, I went back to college…got sick, gained weight. You know the story. Memories of those days were buried very deep….and the guitar was a reminder of the life I used to lead many years ago. For the past 7 years, I didn’t have any desire to go back there.  The development of the Rheumatoid Arthritis and the pain and crippling of my hands only made it easier to avoid the guitar.   BUT…..the time has come… resurrect the music….to find the song in my heart again….to create new traditions and new memories!!!  And so….Yesterday I began to do just that.  Tony would want it that way. Tony would want the music to go on. Tony would want me to play…and remember the times we played together. Even if there are tears…they will be tears of gratitude that death cannot take away love and because my faith assures me that we will be reunited with our loved ones again someday. I encourage those of you that are missing lost ones...because of death, divorce, military, distance. anger….whatever the reason….. to try to get in touch with your pain and sadness. It will be difficult and you may even want to “just skip Christmas” or avoid dealing with the emotions because it hurts too much. Like me in the past, you may want to “feed” the pain with too much eating or drinking just to get through it. Trust me…that will only be a temporary solution. I encourage you to give yourself permission to feel whatever it is you feel so that come the New Year you will be ready and free to begin your new journey. Try to find a way to honor your loved ones; perhaps lighting a candle or displaying a picture to remind yourself that they are with you in spirit. Whatever you do, don’t give in to the temptation to emotional eat, drink, spend, act out, or say things you’ll later regret.


Picking up the guitar again after all these years was a bit awkward. For one thing….I discovered that the guitar didn’t “fit” anymore! I put the strap over my shoulder and it just literally fell off.  The strap was adjusted to a much larger body and I was surprised…and pleased…. to have to move the strap about foot shorter!  It was great and a very visible reminder of how far I’ve come by the grace of God.   I also discovered that “I am way out of practice.”  I haven’t forgotten the chords or the finger placement, but certainly my chord playing needs work. I was muting the strings and my fingertips no longer have the calluses necessary to play a clear, crisp strum. It’s much harder to hold the pick as well because my hands have weakened from the RA. The guitar was out of tune….the chords sounded off-key…and I broke a string, but I managed to plunk out a version of Jingle Bells that slightly….very slightly….resembled the song. Certainly I need a lot of practice!

 My hope is to bring the guitar and the assorted instruments (bells, sticks, wood blocks) to our family gathering on Christmas Eve and have then little ones sing for their parents and grandparents.  I’ve done the same thing with their parents….and the now-teenage cousins….many years ago. Thus, the tradition lives on!!!!  But…if this is going to happen…then I need to do some serious practicing in the next two weeks. I need to strengthen my hands and build those calluses. I need to practice…and do it over and over each day. Admittedly, it sounds terrible now, with many mistakes and out of tune “plunks”, but it will get easier with time and effort.

I couldn’t help but think of how this relates to us on our journey to better health. Perhaps we have done the whole “diet, healthy lifestyle, exercise, habit-kicking….whatever” before. Very likely, you weren’t always ‘overweight, out-of-shape, addicted…..or bitter, angry, jealous, selfish, or self-centered”. Perhaps you used to have better habits….going to church, saving money, visiting relatives, giving to the poor…..  But, like me, you may have encountered “hardships…..disappointment….hurts….illness….grief…..depression….unemployment (whatever it is)” that caused you to stray off course, or just “lay it aside.”  Perhaps you want the best parts of your old life….your healthy life….your happier days….to happen again. Perhaps you are trying to make a change….or you are anticipating changing your life in the New Year. Perhaps you are ready to “pick up that guitar”….to let go of the pain….to deal with the grief or addiction….to bury the hurt and make a NEW…JOYFUL SONG….To live a new, happier healthier life.  I hope so!!!!!

Like me and my guitar…you likely already know how to do it. You’ve either done it before….lived the healthy lifestyle before…but you have either “forgotten how” or “deliberately left it behind” because it got hard, or you didn’t want to “deal with” the emotions. Perhaps you’ve been successful in losing weight but have gained it back…and then some. Perhaps you were once committed to exercise or visiting the gym, but let your membership lapse or quit the aerobics class. Perhaps you just got too busy or allowed other things to become more important. Now is the time…Now is the time for you to pick up your “guitar”….knowing fully well…that it is going to take a lot of practice. You are going to make mistakes (gosh, that sounds AWFUL)…you are going to “forget how” (how do I play that B7 chord again?) ….you are going to want to give up because it’s hard (ouch, my fingers hurt). You are going to be too busy (I’ve got cards to write, gifts to wrap, decorating to do.) You may have to pull out the books (read labels, get an APP to check calories, read about nutrition, join a gym) to re-learn to do what was once second-nature. You may need to find support and help from others. There is no doubt that you are going to have to put a lot of effort and work into it. You are going to have to find time in an already busy schedule to devote to your new lifestyle. You may even wonder if it’s all worth it…..will it even matter….will you stick with it this time. It’s just like me and my guitar….(I’m too busy to practice…it’s going to be a pain to haul the guitar downstate for Christmas…will it just be for a one day thing or will I continue to practice and play into the New Year….Will anyone even care or appreciate it….will it even matter).  It may not matter to anyone else in my family, but certainly it will matter to me. Playing that guitar on Christmas Eve will be very significant for me personally. It will be a reminder of the joy that is day-by-day being restored. It will be a reminder of pleasant days long ago. It will be a sign that the good parts of “Old Theresa” are returning, but in a new way. It will be a way of healing…or remembering…of carrying on and building new traditions. It will be a way to express gratitude to God…for putting a song in my heart again.


 Changing your life may not matter to those around you. In fact, you may find that those closest to you prefer the “old you.” They may become jealous and want to sabotage you. They may give you grief about the cost involved of joining a gym or buying fresh fruit and produce. They may try to give you guilt about the time you must spend for exercise or meal preparation. They may try to persuade you to give up….because it may not matter to them. They may like the old you better. But like me and my guitar…IT WILL MATTER TO YOU!  Make these changes for YOU!  Start “practicing” now for your new life….even if you aren’t planning to start until January.  Start parking at the other entrance to the mall and walk to your destination while Christmas shopping. Start eating only until you are full at the parties, not until your plate is empty. Start making better choices. Start mixing low-fat or fat free sour-cream/cheeses in your holiday recipes. Start telling yourself that you can/will do it. Start allowing yourself to feel and process the emotions that are likely to surface over the holidays.  Practice good habits….knowing you are going to make mistakes….start convincing yourself that the time is coming…and that you are worth it…and you are going to be successful so that come January you will be ready and it will be easier. I know and believe that you, too, will make a joyful song….that you will change your life but you will have to practice it…be willing to mistakes…and practice some more!

Old Theresa

Tony and my cousin David leading us in Jingle Bells