Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Mandolin.

Me and Isaiah this morning

That's me in the corner. 
That's me in the spotlight.

- R.E.M. , Losing My Religion

Today I was sitting in church by myself. Isaiah had joined me this morning but he'd gone on to his middle school service and I to the adult one.

Which was fine with me.

Summer is weird for schedules. At least it is in my family. So a lot of our regular routine relaxes a bit. Harry had a late evening so was breathing heavily and not stirring even though I was moving all around the room. I decided to let sleeping husbands lie. Zachary was as still as a statue--not even the fake, smirking one that appears on most school days--when I tried to rouse him from sleep. I left him be as well. Isaiah was up and said he wanted to come with. "Wait for me," he said quickly pulling on his sneakers. "I'm gonna come, too."

Which was also fine with me.

He's getting older. Twelve now. Full of his own ideas, some of which are still adolescent half-baked, but still very good ones. Views and attitudes. Somewhere along the way he has decided that he likes attending church. Which feels really good since it's of his own volition. The fact that we can wear whatever we want, bring a cup of coffee or a water bottle right into the sanctuary, or even chew a stick of gum without admonishment doesn't hurt either.


I was sitting in church this morning. I'd chosen a corner seat, the first on the aisle. The kind of seat that makes you swing your legs to the side or stand up every time someone comes up. And probably, it's one of those things that, if you really, truly were to ponder it, is kind of selfish. But I just kind of felt like sitting on the end this morning. Which, as it turns out, was fine, too. Summer-schedule weirdness apparently isn't just limited to the Manning family. The church services are generally less full this time of year so no smiling usher-person came over to wave gently in my direction asking that I slide down.

I was glad.

So, I guess all of that had me in a peaceful place. The week had been full. I wanted a peaceful moment of fellowship. And, while I know that not everyone is a believer in God or a follower of any organized religion, I do think we can all agree to knowing that feeling of just wanting a peaceful moment. One not tainted by someone moving you from the place where you want to sit or forcing you awake and guilting you into doing something that, just maybe, you kind of aren't in the mood to do. So yeah. That's where I was.


That's when I heard it. Hauntingly beautiful. Painstakingly tender. Like a rub on the shoulder when you feel sad or a very, very tight hug when you feel super happy. The room had fallen quiet, as often churches do when lights go down and doors close. But instead of someone talking or singing, it was just this sound, this melody.

I looked up from my corner seat. And there was this light falling upon this one man, head down and eyes closed, playing a mandolin. His head was waving rhythmically, almost choreiform and trancelike. Lost in the sound of his instrument.


I could see the other musicians on the stage, too, but that soft, bluish spotlight was on him. Eventually the rest of the lights filled in to reveal the rest of the band and they began singing. But for some reason, I couldn't hear them. All I could hear was him. And that mandolin.

Hauntingly beautiful. Painstakingly tender.

Like the flash of lightning, my eyes filled with gigantic pools of tears. They spilled over my lashes and onto my cheeks. It all caught me off guard. It did.

But that mandolin. So tender, so beautiful . . . it reached straight into my chest and clutched at my heart. Squeezing it tight and bursting from it every single moment of my week, of my life. And let me be clear: Life is good, it is. But it is, like always, full and complex. It is.

The more he played that mandolin, the more I cried. Tear after tear. Eventually, I just stopped wiping them away and just surrendered to it. All of it.

I'm taking care some very sick people at Grady right now. Sick in ways that I cannot really fix. And all of that feels so dark, you know? But then, right in the middle of all of that, are these enormous bursts of light that shine like sunbeams. People saying and doing unexpectedly amazing things. Some of them patients. Some of them not patients at all but just a part of the teams who signed up to care for them.

This one lady on my team was so sick that she could barely catch her breath when we came to see her. We were seeing her as a team and I felt guilty asking her to answer my questions or even sit up with such short wind and pain. But she did and I was able to assess what was happening with her from that. So I talked to her about the plans and answered our questions. And that was that.

Then, just as we prepared to go, she pointed at my medical student Joav and said to him, "Hey, you're the only guy on this team. How's it feel being surrounded by all of these ladies?" And we all just sort of chuckled as Joav made a small talk comment back. So we left the room and that was that.

But that wasn't really just that. See, on this team, I am working with a med student who is a transgender woman. She, along with all of us, is navigating a territory that is, to put it mildly, new to a lot of people around her. And with new or unknown things, people say and do things that catch you off guard. Some of them extremely hurtful. But some hauntingly beautiful. Painstakingly tender.

Kind of like that man randomly playing a mandolin in my church today.

Or like a lady gasping for air who points out the obvious. The obvious being that there was only one man on our team.

Yeah, that.

So I saw my student Holly's eyes when listening to that mandolin. That flicker that went across them when that patient spoke those words. And, to quote Holly, a lot of trans women will never look like Laverne Cox. They won't have the "pretty" advantage or mysterious ambiguity that some others enjoy. But still. That woman--that woman who pulled her oxygen mask to the side to say what she said--didn't seem to care about all of that. Yeah, so that was part of what made me cry.

And then there was my patient who, while fighting for her life, shared on rounds with me that her biggest concern was getting some diapers to her auntie's house for her baby. That was her big, big worry. She said her baby probably has a washcloth on her. And then she started crying because, honestly, there just wasn't any sort of solution.

To get diapers, that is.

And me, I was just thinking about her medical problems, you know? How serious and life threatening they were and just how totally first world, in comparison, that getting a box of pampers was.

Except that it wasn't first world to her. It wasn't. To her, it was just her world.

So I thought of that, too. With each cord of that mandolin wailing into the heavens, I did. That brought more tears.

This week, at least three different nights, I woke up and felt something right in front of me in my bed. It was my youngest son, Zachary--ten and a half years old and up to my shoulder, no less. But somehow finding himself under his mama's bosom just like when he was a little toddler. So savvy that he even figured out how to do it without even waking me up.


And so I asked him, "What's up with you coming into my bed, son? Big ol' boy in my bed!" And mostly I laugh about it since it was as unusual as it was funny.

"I don't know, Mom," he replied. "Something just told me that you needed to feel my love this week. Plus I just sort of wanted my mom. So I got in your bed."

And he was right. So very right. Which was also something I thought about as that mandolin played.

Hauntingly beautiful. Painstakingly tender. My growing, athletic and outwardly tough baby boy. Who somehow hasn't lost that inner compass to his mama's heart.

When he was about five or six, he tried to get in bed with me late one night. It had been a long time since that had happened so it startled me. I lifted up my blanket for him, and he started crying when I let him under the comforter next to me. I asked him why he was weeping and he said, "I'm getting big so I thought you'd say no. But sometimes I just want my mom."

To which I replied, "Remember this: Your mom always wants you, too."


I decided right then and there that I love the mandolin. Which probably I should have already known since one of my favorite songs of all time is "Losing My Religion" by R.E.M.  The irony of that song, to me, is that listening to it is always a bit of a religious experience for me.


The rest of the service was amazing. I learned some stuff and was given some good ideas to reflect upon from the sermon. Nobody sat directly beside me or coughed or smacked gum or kicked the back of my seat. They didn't try hugging me when I was crying or intrude upon my mandolin-induced emotional outburst with words of consolation or inquiry. And I'm super glad, too, because I wanted none of that. I just wanted peace on the corner seat. Which was exactly what I got.

On the way out of church, I chatted with Isaiah about a whole bunch of nothing. He told me about what they did in middle school church and I did my best to explain the mandolin making me cry. "I love the sound of the mandolin," I told him. "It makes my heart fill up when I hear it." And since Isaiah said he didn't know what a mandolin was, when we got into the car, I immediately played R.E.M. for him from my iPhone and pointed out the mandolin parts.

He just sort of shrugged and said, "Uh, okay, Mom." Then looked at his phone.

Which was also fine with me.

So yeah. Today, that was me in the corner. Not necessarily in the spotlight. But  as filled with emotion as that man in the spotlight playing that mandolin.

Hauntingly beautiful. Painstakingly tender. Like darkness and light existing together. The light always wins.

"Hey, Isaiah, get that paper and that empty bag off of the back seat for me," I said as we got out of car at home. He did as I asked of him and then walked toward the garbage can to toss the stuff in the trash.

"What'd you get from Target yesterday?"

"Some diapers," I replied. "And some wipes."

The garage door went up and Isaiah just sort of scowled at me. Then he just shook his head, deciding not to bite. "Diapers and wipes. . . . Uh, okay, Mom."

That was all he said before trotting up the stairs two by two and out of sight.

And you know what? That was fine with me, too.


Happy Sunday.

Now playing on my mental iPod. . . . the song that me and my friend Mary Moon have connected over and that, just maybe, had something to do with her own baby playing a mandolin. (That might be in my own head, though.)


  1. And if it wasn't for the mandolin, Jessie and Vergil never would have met and there wouldn't be August and there wouldn't be this new little boy on the way. They met in a mandolin workshop and I think they knew right away that they had the seeds of a family inside of them.

  2. This is just beautiful, the way you connect the experiences, the way you understate the Target run, yet somehow i knew that you got that baby some diapers, even before i got to the end. Your boys have such tender hearts, even as they put on that growing up bravado; they love their mama. My son plays the mandolin, too. He began learning it when he was sidelined and healing from a torn ACL surgery, and its one of the things i miss now that he's moved out the house, the sound of him sitting there, playing his mandolin. I am glad the sound offered you some release. I could tell right from the start of this post that you'd had a tough week, that there are some new stages of life creeping in, and you're navigating, figuring things out, and sometimes needing the release that mandarin player offered you. Thank you for sharing your journey. Love.

  3. I stopped by and read this post and you've re-centered me and I thank you.
    I hear you about tears - when they are flowing as much from the heart and brain as from the eyes, it can feel so soothing and whole to just let them flow, let them wash your cheeks and chin and drop cold and salty on your chest and hands.
    And letting your son know that "Your mom always wants you, too." is a gift - for him, and for you.
    And for me - my Mom's been dead over 20 years now and I cannot curl up next to her ever again, but I know she loved her daughter more than she loved herself.
    Thanks for writing this piece of you here for us.

  4. You got me crying in the dentist!!!! ����


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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