Musical lyrics can contain the soul of life

My musical career is checkered.

When I was in sixth grade my class and school intensely prepared for an annual Music Festival. As we neared the big date the school’s music teacher, A Dominican nun, approached me and five classmates. She carefully seated us toward the front of the school’s bleachers in a tight group. This was my big moment. We were obviously being prepared for a big solo or ensemble piece.

Without much affection or gentility the good Sister said, “you six just mouth the words.” I was crushed. I suffered the same indignities throughout my academic career and when I was a fairly accomplished actor in high school and college I was doomed to the non-singing roles in musical theater. People look askance when I sing the National Anthem too.

The crowd of musical experts was not wrong. I can’t carry a tune and I don’t know a musical chord from a bungee cord. I do love lyrics, however. As I have reported in this blog before I am a fan of something called alternative country music largely because I find the lyrics so compelling.

Saturday night I was profoundly moved by a Paul Thorn concert at Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum Theater. Thorn, a former boxer, is a very funny man. His humor entertained, his singing seemed great to my tin ear, but Paul Thorn’s lyrics were captivating and often stirring.

Thorn is the son of a preacher and though he is somewhat sardonic about that experience, his father’s vocation has obviously bred deep roots of philosophy and spirituality. Some of Thorn’s lyrics are funny, like “It’s better to be the hammer than the nail,” but many provoked a couple of days of introspection.

One of his Most powerful songs was “I hope I am doing this right.”  This lyric really got me:

BEFORE I GO TO BED
I KNEEL AND PRAY EVERY NIGHT.
I WONDER IF GOD’S PROUD OF ME.
I HOPE I’M DOIN’ THIS RIGHT.

But then Thorn hit me with the chorus;

THE MORE I LEARN THE LESS I KNOW
THE MORE I CHANGE
THE MORE I GROW.
I PRAY THE ROAD I’M TRAVELIN’ ON WILL LEAD ME TO THE LIGHT
GOD I HOPE I’M DOIN’ THIS RIGHT.

I deeply admire a folk singer who can pose such a fundamental question of life with verve and talent. I don’t know about you but I wonder all the time whether I am doing this life thing right. Thorn’s words are not going to leave me soon.

But the talented musician wasn’t done with my soul for the evening. He asked another question I ask myself constantly, but probably don’t act on enough with the song titled “What Have You Done to Lift Somebody Up?” That powerful chorus goes like this:

What have you done to lift somebody up?
When have you helped someone who’s got it rough?
Oh we can change the world with a little love
What have you done to lift somebody up?There is a chance I was in a particularly reflective mood Saturday night, but I think an artist who can explore the basic lessons of life and entertain at the same time is a precious natural resource.

We all get motivation and provocation from strange and different places, but Saturday night a folk/rock artist from Tupelo, MS made me think good thoughts about life on this rotating sphere of ours. I hope those powerful lyrics make me act too.

Tim J McGuire is the author of “Some People Even Take Them Home” A Disabled Dad, A Down Syndrome Son and Our Journey To Acceptance

The battle metaphors around cancer are probably beside the point

My friend Steve Buttry couldn’t sleep the other night and wrote a dynamite post about the battle metaphors surrounding cancer.

Steve quoted Stuart Scott’s now famous ESPY speech when he said, “When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.”

Steve had made a very similar point on Dec. 12 when he disclosed his cancer diagnosis. He contended he won the battle against cancer because he survived his first cancer bout for 15 years and had lived a fun, rewarding, fruitful life.

Steve also wrote this : I did recall when I was writing in November that Jean McGuire’s obituary last June said: “In her last days she promised to haunt her husband if he included in her obituary that she had ‘lost a courageous battle with cancer.’ She despised such metaphors. She faced death as she faced the challenges of raising a Down syndrome child, with grace and class and humor.”

My wife Jean did hate the battle metaphors around cancer. She often said, “this is a fight I didn’t pick.” She personally thought it was poppycock to think that her attitude could change any outcomes and she was not interested in chasing around the country for cures. She would have participated in clinical trials but she was told she was a bad candidate. She trusted her doctors completely and firmly believed that courage was accepting “what happens will happen.”

Clearly, that attitude is too passive for many people. I have smart, courageous friends who have entered countless trials and fought like hell until the last dog was hung. Jean looked on treatment only as a vehicle to a better quality of life. If it didn’t help her do the fun things she wanted to do,  or “fix” her, she wasn’t interested.

And yet, I think that’s where Jean’s attitude intersects with that of Scott and Buttry. All three of them see and saw that the end game is not death. We all will arrive at that end-game. For all three of them the real end game was the quality of life one enjoys and demonstrates when they are still up and taking nourishment.

Jean was a model for many with her incisive humor all during her treatment and right to the end. Stuart Scott inspired with words and actions. Steve Buttry makes us all wiser with his transparent musings.

It is indeed all about the living and not about the death.

Think for a minute about what Ed Catmull calls “life’s two inch events”

One of my favorite recent books is Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull. Catmull is the head of Pixar Animation studios and he has been a creative and leadership force in a number of pioneering animation efforts such as Toy Story.

Catmull is fascinated with the role fate plays in shaping our lives. He writes about  life’s “two inch events.” His point is that if I wouldn’t have awakened just as a pal was falling asleep at a very dangerous curve when we were 21, several stories, including that of our children, would be fundamentally different.

On one trip to the badlands and Mt. Rushmore, when my son Jeff was about three, we left an amusement area and encountered heavy traffic. Our Down syndrome son Jason was seven. An oncoming driver obviously lost patience with the traffic and attempted to pass four or five cars only to find the McGuire family directly in his sights and no way to get back into his lane. He was certain to hit us but my defensive actions were limited because there was a steep ravine on our right. With fate on my side, I turned the wheel hard right to avoid the oncoming car. As we precariously skidded on the edge of that ravine I jerked the wheel back hard left to avoid guaranteed tragedy.

I had just saved my family from one of our scariest encounters ever, and possible death, when my two little boys simultaneously and gleefully shouted “Wheeeeeeeeeee.” Not the kind of acclaim I expected for my life-saving maneuver.

It was one of those “two-inch events” and you would not be reading this blog if I had come just a bit closer to that ravine. My daughter, Tracy, and her family probably wouldn’t be around etc, etc.

I don’t tell this story to be macabre but rather to stress the sense of gratitude we all should feel. I am willing to bet every reader of this post has a “two-inch event” for which you should be grateful.

I have a friend who survived dangerous action in Vietnam and who survived alcoholism. He shakes his head in amazement when he considers the “two-inch events” in his life. But I marvel at how this man connects people and boosts people’s self esteem. His retirement job is helping people be better. As I talked to him the other day I couldn’t help but think how much the world would have lost if “two inches” would have ever gone against him

Life is fragile and our job is to make the most of it with joy and enthusiasm. We have to avoid anything that looks like passivity because that two inches could easily go against us the next time.

Robin Roberts made made me grieve but, strangely, it was a happy grief

Robin Roberts of ABC’s Good Morning America made me grieve and sob Monday when she accepted the Walter Cronkite Excellence in Journalism Award. Strangely it became a sort of happy grief.

Roberts has navigated the same journey as my wife Jean–cancer and then a Myelodysplastic syndrome blood disorder (MDS). Roberts survived. Jean did not.

Grieving spouses I have talked to candidly tell me “I found it hard to hear about people who made it.” I admit I initially had the same feeling. I was often incredibly jealous when I heard someone had survived cancer or an MDS. I also found myself doing a slow burn when I would see a happy couple in their 60’s and 70’s. I just couldn’t help but ask “why did they make it so long and I will never see a 40th wedding anniversary.” I am ashamed to admit those feelings but I would be surprised it it’s not a pretty common characteristic of grief.

Yet, as Roberts told her tale of triumph I cried for Jean and felt joy and happiness for Roberts. Roberts survival has clearly meant so much to her fans with her platform and her inspirational messages. She has done a lot of good. She tells her fans she has been molded by the three D’s taught to her by her parents. “Determination, drive and da Lord.” She is a clear believer and the crowd noticeably buzzed when she advised “When fear knocks, let Faith open the door.”

I had a chance to say a few words to Roberts in a private conversation. I told her that Jean’s journey was similar but she had lost. Roberts was generous enough to say “but her journey had value too.”

That is a hard message to appreciate because my wife is gone, but if  I am honest with myself I think it is true. I have been struck by the number of people over 60 who have told me that Jean’s death provoked conversations between spouses about the possibility of losing each other. That makes me proud. It’s a small victory if  Jean’s passing and my grief have forced couples to confront hard questions about their future, but it is a victory.

The other emotion that overwhelmed me as I listened to Roberts inspirational words is that life is for the living and I must make the most of every day.

I am certain I heard Roberts Monday in an authentic way which I would have been incapable of 30 days ago.