ON ANXIETY: GLEANING NEW WISDOM FROM OLD WORDS

 

 

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“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

“To have and to hold from this day forward…”

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…”

“For God so loved the world…”

Words mark the passages of our lives. The most powerful or memorable words of all – such as those at the beginning of this post – become so familiar they require no explanation. But sometimes their very familiarity can lessen their impact.

Let me pause right here to explain something for the benefit of new readers. I write this blog for a general audience. Because it is personal, it inevitably reflects my spiritual beliefs, which run deep. But I have many friends and readers who respect those beliefs without sharing them, and if you fall into that category I hope you will keep reading today, and that you will find something to take with you.

Last week I found a particular Bible passage popping up multiple times. It showed up in different devotionals that I receive from two different denominations (Methodist and Baptist), and in my Facebook newsfeed from a couple of different people.

When something or someone repeatedly shows up on my radar – especially from unrelated sources – I take note. So when I read Philippians 4:6-7 for the fourth time this week, I gave it some thought.

Here’s the New American Standard Bible version.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

And then, Friday night, I was having an online conversation with a friend when she shared with me a particular issue that was worrying her.

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I wanted to ease her mind. The passage from Philippians came to mind, but I didn’t want to come across as having an “abracadabra” approach to prayer, treating God like The Great Magician – you know, just say your prayers, and poof! – all worry is gone, all problems immediately solved.

In fact, my friend actually asked me that. Did these verses mean that if she prayed, God would just take away her worries? Suddenly I knew she needed more than a pat, orthodox answer. And just as suddenly, I realized the Apostle Paul had written words with a very practical application that in all my years of reading these verses, I had never comprehended.

“This is very practical advice,” I found myself responding. “In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see that even for someone who doesn’t believe in God, this is practical advice.

“First, in the process of articulating your request (or, at least your need), you’re identifying the source of your anxiety, which reduces it from a huge cloud of amorphous YUCK to something specific and finite. This step alone helps it to seem more manageable.

“Second, the verse tells you to focus on the positives and enumerate the things for which you are thankful. This also reduces fear. Either or both of these steps can help free your mind up enough for your natural problem-solving abilities to kick in and for you to think creatively toward a solution.”

Obviously, these exercises in positivity begin their work by helping us to alter our internal mental landscape. That can, in turn, lead us to solutions for the external sources of worry. It’s a tried and true approach to life. “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” Or, as the Carter Family sang, “Keep on the sunny side of life.”

But much is beyond our control. And for those of us who believe in a loving, personal God, that faith brings an added measure of hope and comfort.

I come from a long line of worriers. Whether it starts as a general sense of protectiveness and concern for loved ones, or mulling over personal issues and struggles, a certain amount of worry is a knee-jerk, natural human reaction to the stresses of life. But I’ve found that if I indulge in it, over-thinking can easily cross the line into chronic anxiety, gnawing fear and downright panic.

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Next time, I’m going to follow the advice the Apostle Paul first gave to the church at Philippi, that still resonates in our stressful, harried world: first, prayer, putting your fears, hopes and needs into words; and then, thinking with gratitude about all that is good in your life, and in the process, remembering that everything changes and the current difficulty will pass.

It’s still a winning formula.

A Safe Place To Write

Recently an acquaintance posted on Facebook to express her disdain for the word “compelling,” calling it “the dullest, most non-descript, dead-giveaway word” that people use “to prove…value instead of contributing actual value.”

This startled me. I had never thought of “compelling” as a posturing sort of word. I found myself anxiously scanning my most recent Bemusings post to see if I had described anything as “compelling.” And then I thought, “Wait a minute. What if something I read or heard or watched compels me to take some sort of action? To reevaluate my priorities or my opinion of something or someone, to make a phone call to someone I’ve not talked with in a long time, to volunteer for something? What if ‘compelling’ fits? I’ll use the word ‘compelling’ if I want to.”

I get it. I do. I get the need to stay away from clichéd phrases that lose their impact from overuse, or lose their meaning from misuse. I have a few pet peeves of my own: for instance, “each and every.” I personally would like to fish-slap everyone who uses that phrase.

And then I remind myself that I’m not always right. That not everyone agrees with me. That not everyone who uses the phrase does so without thought. That legitimate uses for the phrase do exist. That some people use the modifying phrase for its original purpose: to give extra emphasis to its object. (That my 10th grade English teacher would give me a big fat zero for writing an entire paragraph composed of sentence fragments.)

In short, I remind myself that I am not the Language Police, and I should not judge others harshly for using a phrase I despise. Some people like the phrase, and (*sigh*) that’s ok (I guess). Some people just haven’t thought about it one way or the other. Should they be told to sit down and shut up? And if someone tells them to sit down and shut up if they can’t use a more original phrase, should they?

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I am slowly but surely working my way through a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. The book’s premise encourages readers to trust that creativity exists inside each of us. Encouraging us to tap into our own creativity, Cameron tells us to give ourselves a safe place to start trying. We must give ourselves permission to be a beginner, and to not hold our first stumbling efforts at whatever we’re doing (writing, painting, singing, knitting, whatever) up to professional standards. The goal, initially, is to simply take the first steps on the creative journey.

In the beginning, when you’re just finding your way, you sabotage yourself if you apply harsh self-criticism to your endeavors. Plenty of other people will happily point out the flaws in your creations without you doing it to yourself. And no matter how much experience you gain, you will find your faith in your creative worth sorely and repeatedly tested. You will need to muster every ounce of your faith – specifically, faith in the belief that God, the Creator, created you in His image and therefore created you to create as well – to keep moving forward. You simply have to give yourself permission to sometimes produce work that just isn’t that great. And even when others write scathing commentaries that (even if they’re not about you) nearly paralyze you with feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, or make you wonder if you’re setting yourself up for ridicule and humiliation because you’re just too cliched, or naive, or whatever – well, what of it? Nobody died of humiliation. So, take courage. Persevere. Work to get better at your craft.

When I began this blog a few weeks ago, I set a goal to post on a weekly basis, as I had essentially done for nearly five years as a small-town newspaper editor, with a weekly column. There were times when inspiration came slowly, if at all, and I was pounding out a column mere hours before press deadline. Sometimes quantity trumped quality.

In my few short weeks as a blogger, I’ve encountered a new element: the capacity to measure my own writing against that of other bloggers. I find it exhilarating. Perhaps I should find it intimidating, but, I confess, I do not. Rather, it challenges me to be more mindful in my approach to writing, to pay attention to and be more adventurous with the use of design, photos and videos. It challenges me to be mindful of the quality of my content. But it also provides a place for me to grow, and to learn from others: iron sharpening iron, as it were.

Before reading The Artist’s Way I preferred to write well or not at all. You would think that blogging would make that more of an imperative than ever. So many people out there – some who don’t even consider themselves writers – write beautiful, witty, emotive, powerful, substantive prose and poetry. Some include artwork to go with their writings. Some focus on particular topics, while others, like me, write whatever comes to mind.

I tend to follow the adage to “write what you know.” Occasionally I find my own company so boring I wonder why anyone would want to read my work. But sometimes I find myself in the throes of an experience many others have shared, and I know people will relate.

It’s been a few days now since I posted anything, and I haven’t felt particularly inspired. But I feel compelled (see what I did there?) to write anyway. Some weeks will just flow more easily than others. And that’s ok. I’m writing again. The rest will come.

THE EMBRACE OF HOME

Above: Mom and Dad leaving for church on Easter Sunday 2016.

Like most jobs, my job entails duties of a certain cyclical nature. It holds a certain natural ebb and flow, so that – while it’s a stretch to say it is ever stress-free – periods of long hours and high stress alternate with periods of manageable work loads and lower stress.

For the last lingering weeks of this summer, I found myself suddenly feeling spread thin. It caught me by surprise. By Labor Day I found myself mentally and physically drained when I stumbled through my front door at the end of the day. At night I would sink into the mattress, but often could not rest my muscles until my mind finally slowed itself down. In the mornings – two alarm clocks notwithstanding – I would find my body reluctant to accept that I was indeed asking it to get up and propel itself through a shower, to the office, and through the demands of the day.

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I needed a vacation. Being an introvert, I longed for nothing more than to go somewhere – preferably to a beach somewhere – alone and do nothing except sleep, eat, read, and go for long walks in nature, with no need to meet any demand or expectation of anyone.

But I found a different (and as it turns out, a better) option. Last week I took a few days off from work and drove home to stay a few days in Mississippi with my parents, who obligingly cleared their calendars and stocked their fridge so that I felt no obligation to go anywhere nor do anything – neither cook nor clean nor help fold a single dish towel – nor see anyone that I did not choose to go or do or see.

“Whatever privacy you need, you just take it,” Dad said.

“Sleep as long as you want, and do whatever you want,” Mom said.

And they were as good as their word. They went about their business, including me and happy to have me whenever I chose to go along, but leaving me to my own devices. So instead of being alone in a strange place, I found myself in familiar surroundings, with ample time to sleep, journal, pray, surf the Net, watch TV, read a couple of books, and – as always when I go back to Mississippi for any length of time – to reconnect with my childhood self.

In bed at night, I would listen to the barking of the little Shih Tzu in the fenced yard of the neighbors across the street, tied to a tree with its crate nearby. Deep into the night the little dog would yip and howl its loneliness, begging to be with its owners in the house. I would find myself carrying on an imaginary conversation with it in my head.

“You matter, little one,” I would send out to the dog mentally. “I wish I could take you home with me and play with you and love you and show you that you matter.”

“But this is my family,” I would imagine its reply. “My family that gets off the school bus, and that plays with me and feeds me. I appreciate your concern but I know them. I would rather stay with them. One day they will love me more.”

And eventually both the dog and I would drift off to sleep.

I would awaken in the mornings to the “Cheep! Cheep!” of a family of cardinals bustling in the bushes outside my bedroom window as emerging morning sunlight began to outline the edges of the window blinds. Mourning doves would trill and coo softly. From the other end of the house I would hear the shower running as Dad got ready for the day, and the clacking of Mom’s house slippers as she made her way to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee.

During the day I would drive the streets of the little town and pass the house where my grandmother lived and my siblings and my cousins and I spent hours in our coming-of-age years, an era where innocence and optimism ruled our young lives in spite of social upheaval and racial unrest in parts of our country and a war in distant Asian jungles. I would feel stirrings of that same eternal optimism. I would remember that, because of my parents and brother and sister, my grandparents and cousins, I am, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians, “rooted and grounded in love.”

I visited with my nephew, and my niece and her new husband and my brand new great-nephew. I visited with my first cousin Lisa and her husband, children and grandchildren. I enjoyed Bible study with my parents’ Bible study group and a sociable meal with the group that my parents meet for dinner most Friday nights.

Some vacations involve seeing new places and experiencing new things. Those vacations are a lot of fun and rejuvenating in their own way, but they aren’t always restful. I hope I can have a vacation like that sometime next year. But for now, this vacation worked for me. It offered just the right balance of rest, privacy, and interaction.

My parents – who happen to also be my best friends – plan to travel to Colorado soon to visit with my brother and my sister and her family.

(They have always been “have suitcase, will travel” people and they love road trips. They never fly when they can drive. For them, traveling truly is as much about the journey as it is the destination. I find it strange sometimes that I didn’t inherit their wanderlust. I like going to new places, and then if I like that place, I’ll just keep going back to it over and over again. There’s a place for the familiar, but I have to fight getting into a rut.)

Even though my visit with my parents is over and I’m back in my Tennessee home tonight, I will miss them while they’re on the road. I’ll worry a little and anxiously track their progress and visit Accuweather.com at least once an hour to check out the radar between Mississippi and Colorado. I’ll pray there’s no snow and ice on the roads in Rocky Mountain National Park, which I know they will visit while they’re out there.

Let’s face it. Even though I am about to wrap up my first half-century of circling the sun, even though I have a job with many responsibilities, and am responsible for my own finances and my own life, even though I haven’t lived closer than a two-hour drive away from my parents since 1983 – there is a part of me that remains a child, emotionally tied to my parents in a visceral, immutable way. And based on what I have observed of others, I’m not alone. We all grow up, but separation anxiety appears to be a permanent condition.

Today my parents left for church while I stayed behind to pack and get on the road for the drive home. Before they left, they hugged and kissed me. Mom packed food for me to bring back and slipped me a $20. As they started to back out of the driveway, Dad poked his head out and called out, “The angel of the Lord encamps round about those who fear Him, and He delivers them!”

Thus blessed in practical and spiritual ways, I took to the road. A cotton field bursting with big white bolls waved me goodbye, and the Natchez Trace Parkway took me over the Tennessee River, a figurative gateway from childhood to adulthood. But the child in me still feels the warm embrace of home.

Below: Cotton waiting for harvest; the Tennessee River flowing beneath the Natchez Trace Parkway bridge.

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MAGICAL MUSICAL MOMENTS

Picture this: a standing-room-only crowd in Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium, everyone in the audience on their feet, clapping, dancing and singing (in harmony, because, well, this is Nashville), “Help me, Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda, help me, Rhonda, yeah, get her out of my heart.”

On stage, legends Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin backed by a band of multi-talented musicians, performed for well over two hours: Beach Boys original songs, some later works, some deep catalog pieces, then the entire Pet Sounds album, and finally, a rousing sing-along of hit after hit songs I have heard my whole life. Then Brian closed with a tender rendition of “Love & Mercy,” and we filed out, subdued but suffused with…well, with love.

I had the great joy of experiencing this moment last Friday night. I’ll be singing Beach Boys songs for the next month or so, probably. They make me happy.

You don’t have to live in Nashville, or L.A. or New York, to know there’s something incredibly special about hearing a song performed by the person who created that song. It’s a transcendent, magical moment. Anybody who has ever been to a concert to hear a favorite artist has experienced it. But some places make these moments more accessible than others, and Nashville is one such place.

I have been fortunate to experience such moments more times than I can count. But no matter how many times I experience it, it never gets old. It’s new every time. It thrills me to my toes, every time. It seems like a miracle. And if creativity is an expression of the divine inside each of us, then I guess maybe it is.

When I first arrived in Nashville in late 1990, I found myself working for a television syndication company on Music Row, in an office on the first floor of a music publishing office building. Soon I was having the time of my life. I fell in love with the live music experience and I have embraced it ever since.

Some of these magical moments have happened in the intimacy of a dark, smoky little dive of a nightclub watching a handful of songwriters in the round. Some I have shared with hundreds of thousands of other fans, such as the three times I have seen the Rolling Stones in concert. Some came as an extraordinary privilege granted to me by virtue of the years I worked for WSM Radio, where I often stood to the side of the Opry stage and watched the artists performing from the famous center-stage circle of wood, or sometimes even listened in a dressing room as they rehearsed before going out.

I’ve seen John Prine singing “Paradise” and Paul Davis singing “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” and “I Go Crazy” at Douglas Corner. I’ve seen Mac McAnally singing “All These Years” at City Winery. I’ve seen Keith Urban at the Bluebird. I’ve seen writer’s nights in nightclubs, in hotel lounges, in church fellowship halls and elementary schools. Kenny Chesney, Neil Diamond, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Beth Nielson Chapman, Dean Dillon, Fred Knobloch, Radney Foster, Larry Carlton, Ed Bruce…and on and on.

I watched and listened to Vince Gill singing “When I Call Your Name” on the Opry House stage with the incomparable Dawn Sears by his side on harmony vocals. I heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band singing songs from their first, second and third Will the Circle Be Unbroken albums, along with hits like “Mr. Bojangles” and “Fishing in the Dark.”

I saw Eric Clapton rocking “Layla” at Bridgestone Arena. That’s also where I went to hear Simon & Garfunkel with Phil and Don Everly. When they sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” their voices intertwining, Art Garfunkel’s clear tenor soaring, “I’m sailing right behind, like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind…” I wept.

After the Ryman Auditorium reopened in the early 1990s, I began attending events there. I saw the King’s Singers, and the Canadian Brass Quintet, and the Harry Connick Orchestra, winter Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, and innumerable Bluegrass Night at the Ryman performances.

I danced the night away at Vanderbilt Stadium when I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time on their 1997 Bridges to Babylon tour. Sheryl Crow opened for them. I didn’t sit down all night. On the shuttle ride back to our car, my friends and I named about 20 hits they hadn’t had time to sing. I saw them again in 2002 at Bridgestone Arena and yet again in 2015 at LP Field.

In July 2012 I attended the Friday Night Opry the night Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees performed there for the first time. It was barely two months after the death of his brother Robin, and Barry was the oldest and the only living brother left. He sang “To Love Somebody,” one of the Bee Gees’ standards and probably their most covered song. Then he began singing “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” a song which Robin had traditionally opened on lead vocals. His voice cracked, just the tiniest bit. But he soldiered on, because that’s what professionals do.

In my mid-40s I left Middle Tennessee to go to law school. When I returned, one of the first things I did was go to Ryman Auditorium to see the Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza, ablaze with its contagious rockabilly cheer. Afterward, as I stood in the shadows and lights of the Batman Building, I felt Nashville welcoming me back home.

Once my sister Anita came to visit me, and I had a chance to share with her firsthand how easy it is to find this magical experience in Nashville. We went down to the world-famous Station Inn on 12th Avenue South to hear the Sidemen. One of their standard numbers was a song written by songwriter Paul Craft called “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” which Anita and I knew from Linda Rondstadt’s 1974 album Heart Like A Wheel.

On this particular night, Paul Craft was in the audience. Terry Eldredge, then one of the lead vocalists for the Sidemen, invited Mr. Craft to the stage to sing the song with them. Anita turned to me and said, “Liz! Liz! The man who wrote ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away’ is on stage, and he’s singing ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away!'”

“Yes,” I smiled. “Yes, he is.”

Clockwise, from top left: 1) Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the Jumbotron at Nashville’s LP Field in June 2015, performing “Far Away Eyes.” 2) Me with members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen, Bob Carpenter and Jimmy Ibbotson – backstage at the Opry House, 2002. 3) The Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza 2014, Ryman Auditorium. 4) Me with Barry Gibb backstage at the Friday Night Opry, July 27, 2012. 5) The Del McCoury Band at the 2009 International Bluegrass Music Association awards show at Ryman Auditorium.

Photo Challenge: Edge

Sunlight filters through the stained glass windows of Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, illuminating an edge of the sanctuary with color. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., served as pastor of this church for six years; its basement served as operational headquarters for the Montgomery bus boycott.

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An Afternoon in a Prison

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I am an attorney. My particular field of law frequently requires me to go to jails or state prisons to visit clients.

Last week occasioned such a visit. I traveled to the jail in another county to meet a new client. After checking in and waiting for about 15 minutes, two young guards escorted me to the pod where I would interview my client.

The pod, a gray cinderblock cul de sac, featured a central common room with rooms opening up on either side and along the back wall. As the guards ushered us to a small interview room on the left, I heard, from across the way, a male voice expressing, shall we say, a frank appreciation for my appearance. Instinctively I shied away from turning to acknowledge that person, and it was easy enough to ignore the voice as the guards opened the door to the interview room and left my client and me to our discussion.

About halfway through our conference, the man across the pod began to sing a reggae song in a passably good voice, accompanying himself by beating against the walls and doors in time to the music. He sounded quite cheerful.

“Do you listen to this all day?” I asked my client.

“Nah, I’m on a different wing,” he said, then added, “But he’s in solitary. I imagine he gets pretty bored.”

Our meeting concluded, we left the interview room for the outer common room and buzzed the intercom to let the guards know we had finished. As we stood waiting for them to come for us, my client told me we might be waiting quite awhile.

“Yeah,” chimed in the voice across the pod. “Y’all might as well go back in the little room and sit down.”

I looked for the first time at the man in the solitary cell. He was crouched in a half-sitting position, bent at the waist, so that he could peer through a slot in the door about two feet up from the floor. The slot was the width of the door and about a foot tall, just enough for me to see his face and upper shoulders. His skin shone ebony and he wore mid-length dreadlocks. His shoulders were bare. He grinned a pirate’s smile of white teeth and struck up a conversation, asking if he could hire me, what my name was, where I worked.

I smiled back but politely refused to volunteer information about myself. Undeterred, he again complimented me on my appearance. In return, I told him he sang well.

“Yeah? I thought I was a little off-key today,” he said.

I asked him and my client where they were from. They both answered me, and one topic led to another as they talked about where they had gone to school, what their hobbies and interests were, what their families are like.

And there we stood: me, a woman quickly passing middle age, and two prisoners, both young men in their prime, my client standing next to me in a prison jump suit, socks, flip flops and ankle shackles, and the man in solitary, half clothed (or maybe unclothed, who knows?), crouched and bent almost double for nearly 20 minutes in his determination to make eye contact with us through the slot in his cell door. Talking, laughing, joking, discussing high school football, the Rolling Stones, vacations in Florida, and the presidential campaign. Political talk led to a discussion of books.

“Have you ever read Behold A Pale Horse?” asked the man in solitary.

“No, I haven’t,” I said. “Do y’all have a library here?”

“Yeah, a law library and a regular library,” said my client. “There’s a library cart that’s supposed to go around once a week, but sometimes it’s more like two weeks. And they need more reading material. There aren’t but about 60 books and about a third of those are Bibles. Nothing against Bibles,” he added quickly.

About that time the guards came, so we bade the man in solitary goodbye. I shook my client’s hand and one guard took him back to his pod while the other escorted me back to the visitation entrance. He asked me if the man in solitary had “talked his usual talk,” indicating that he usually makes inappropriate comments to visitors.

“No, he didn’t. He was very respectful,” I said.

“Well, I’m surprised,” said the guard.

“What’s he in for?”

“What’s he not in for, would be the easier answer,” the guard replied.

I realize that, just as my client is in prison for a reason, so this man was in solitary confinement for a reason. There’s no telling what he has done in his relatively short life. If I knew all there was to know about both men, it might make my hair stand on end. And yet…and yet.

All I knew was that while I was in the presence of these two men, it seemed imperative, somehow, to converse with them in a way that might give them a sense of normalcy. Without making a conscious decision to do so, I knew I had to – I just had to – extend to both men the basic human courtesy of conversation – the kind of easy conversation that people outside those walls enjoy daily. I felt compelled to accord them the dignity of simple acknowledgment. And so we talked as though we were three strangers making conversation in a long line at the airport or in the grocery store checkout, sharing our common experiences, acknowledging our common humanity.

I’ll not be forgetting that encounter anytime soon.

UPON TURNING FIFTY (or Stupid Things I Have Done: 50th Birthday Edition)

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via Daily Prompt: Fifty

Fifty. That’s me. Yep. The big 5-0. AARP discounts, bay-bee! Got that card coming in the mail! Fifty: a nice, hefty, round, solid number. (Much like me.)

I crossed the half-century mark by getting locked out of my hotel room in nothing but my nightshirt.

It happened this way.

Last fall, my coworkers and I were at our annual professional conference, held in Memphis, Tennessee, the week of my 50th birthday. On the night before the final day of the conference, a coworker and I joined one of our colleagues and his wife for a trip to a casino in nearby Tunica, Mississippi, for a dinner buffet and a few hours of mindlessly throwing good money after good. We ate, played a few rounds of video poker, then returned to our hotel.

We arrived about five minutes to midnight, and my friends graciously hung out with me until 12:00 a.m. to help me celebrate my 50th trip around the sun. Clocks having chimed, my married friends went to bed, my other colleague decided to visit the pub across the parking lot for a nightcap, and I retreated to my hotel room.

Once inside my room, I changed into my nightshirt, brushed my teeth and washed the day’s makeup and grime from my face. I was in bed opening a carbonated beverage and booting up my laptop when I realized two things: 1) I had no ice, and did not remember where the ice machine was; and 2) Mom had told me, “Be sure to count the number of doors between you and a fire escape, in case you have to feel your way down the hall. You just never know.” (I would say this is akin to “Wear good underwear in case you’re in a wreck” and “Don’t eat raw cookie dough, you’ll get salmonella,” except that I actually consider all of these things to be good advice. A couple of years ago Mom and Dad were forced to evacuate a hotel in the middle of the night due to what thankfully turned out to be a false alarm, but the power was out and they had to feel their way to the stairwell.)

I decided I didn’t have to have ice, as it would entail putting on clothes, but I thought I could just get by with poking my head out my hotel door to count the doors between my room and the fire exit. But my hotel door was recessed from the hall, so I took one step out into the hall, just to see, and…

Whoosh. Click.

The door shut behind me. I was in the hall. My purse, cell phone, and both hotel room keys – oh, and my clothes – were on the other side of said door. I was wearing (I kid you not) a gray Victoria’s Secret sleep shirt that said “Angel” across my not-very-perky 50-year-old chest, and not much else.

I stood in the blessedly empty hall, contemplating my options.

My married friends were probably long asleep by now. My other colleague was probably still nursing his nightcap at the pub across the way. Maybe I could get the attention of the desk clerk. But how?

The elevator to the lobby boasted walls of clear plexiglass. A few hours earlier, I had lounged in the lobby watching hotel guests riding up and down the elevator, and making a mental note not to get on that elevator while wearing a skirt. And now? In nothing but a nightshirt? Nope, nope, nope. All kinds of nope.

Ding! About that time the elevator opened to my floor and discharged a male passenger, who took one horrified look at me and turned and walked the other way.

Once he was out of sight, I tentatively padded toward the balcony area around the elevator, to see if I could find a stairwell to the lobby. I didn’t see one, but I was thankful to note that the balcony wall was solid stone, mortar and drywall instead of clear plexiglass. I went to the other side of the elevator and leaned over the desk area. About that time two young ladies heading out for a night of fun walked from underneath me and past the front desk.

“Excuse me! Excuse me?” I got their attention and they looked up. “Can you get the desk clerk’s attention for me?” The girls gaped for a moment, started laughing, and one of them said to the clerk, “There’s someone up there who wants to talk to you.”

“Yes?” floated up a disembodied voice. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I’ve locked myself out of my room –“

About that time, my colleague walked into the lobby. Relief flooded through me.

“Matt! Matt!” He looked around. “Matt! Up here!” He looked up.

“What are you – ”

“Matt, help me! I’ve locked myself out of my room.”

I saw awareness wash across his features and knew immediately that Matt was not going to make this easy for me. Hands in his pockets, he rocked back on his heels.

“And what do you expect me to do about it?”

“Get a key from the desk clerk and bring it to me!” My voice went up half an octave.

“Ok…how many mimosas did you say you’d had?”

“One, Matt, just the one. Now get me a key and bring it to me!”

Matt strolled to the front desk.

“Um, it seems that my, uh, colleague has managed to lock herself out of her room. Do you have a key I can take to her?”

Two minutes later Matt was averting his eyes as he handed me the key card. He turned to go as I slid it into the slot and opened the door, and I barely caught him.

“Hey, wait a minute! You’re on the first floor, right? Take this key back to the front desk for me!” I said. Barely pausing, Matt reached behind him without looking, and I gave him the key and retreated to my room.

So that was the first half-hour of my 50th birthday. I still owe Matt, of course – he’ll never let me live it down – and I spent a little time trying to decide whether to be mortified or amused before deciding there was no way not to be both.

Ah, turning fifty. Every year should start with such a great chance to laugh at yourself.