“Yams? I don’t want yams!” The woman ahead of me yelled at the cashier of my local grocery store. “I want sweet potatoes.” She slammed down a plastic bag and got in the cashier’s pale face. “And I want them now.”
I checked my watch and bit the inside of my mouth until I tasted blood. I was late and my arms hurt from holding two bakery boxes of muffins and a half-gallon of orange juice.
All of the self-checkout lanes were getting their yearly computer upgrades and I was in the “10 items and under” lane which had a short conveyor belt I couldn’t reach yet. So I kept my gaze on a nearby flyer. White paper with black letters that had two words.
“But these are sweet potatoes,” the soft-spoken cashier said. “They are the same thing.”
“Yams are not sweet potatoes,” said the woman I’d just dubbed Yam Girl. “I am a certified organic chef and I want to see your manager.”
“He doesn’t come in until noon.”
Everyone is certified for something these days.
Yam Girl glared at me.
Had I said that out loud?
Whatever. I didn’t have time for this. I was on my way to a meeting. A meeting for my best friend who’d died days earlier. A meeting to plan her funeral. So I sent back my best death stare.
Bring it, Yam Girl.
Yam Girl went back to abusing the cashier, with a few choice cuss words thrown in, until the bagging man/bouncer came over and asked her to leave. At his arrival, Yam Girl huffed and puffed and went away.
Minutes later, I was loaded up and on my way out when I bumped into a woman setting up a small table on the sidewalk. She was handing out chocolate bars and a flyer. She said I was her first for the day.
I took both, secretly pleased that Yam Girl didn’t get any chocolate. (And yes, I do take candy from strangers.)
Once settled in the car with the heat high and the radio on, I heard words like missing planes, DMZ, Ukraine, Crimea, Chinese debt, and war. As each horrible thing was discussed and contemplated, my limbs cramped. And my thoughts went back to Karen, my CP, who’d finally succumbed to her brain tumor.
So much bad news. So much suffering. So much death.
I still had a eulogy to write and her burial dress to choose. No wonder my body felt like I’d been beaten with a baseball bat.
But I couldn’t get Yam Girl out of my mind. Her shrill voice, her snarl when she verbally attacked the cashier, her final sneers. My shoulders tightened, my hands gripped the wheel. Within minutes my molars would be crushed into dust.
I once read that a person speaks only twenty percent of the words that they hear in their own head. So if the words Yam Girl spewed were any indication of what when on inside, I couldn’t imagine the pain she carried around.
I wanted to care. I really did. But she’d been mean and I was late.
A car appeared in front of me. I slammed on the brake and honked the horn. Then I cussed like my teenage nephews. I’d been cut off. By Yam Girl.
Yam Girl gave me a hand signal I’d never use in a manuscript and flew toward the shopping center’s light twenty yards away. She ran the red light and I heard a chorus of horns.
Why am I not surprised?
I took three deep breaths and kept moving. My muffin boxes lay on their sides, dented and abused. My vision blurred, my fingers ached, and I couldn’t stop shaking. As I turned at the light, I saw another one of those signs attached to a street sign. Black letters on white paper.
It took me twenty minutes to drive four miles. By the time I arrived, I was so wound up I couldn’t get out of the car.
I was still annoyed at Yam Girl. Noises drilled in my head. The cacophony of grief, sadness, anger, impatience, frustration—you name the negative emotion—had moved in and thrown a party.
I’m fairly certain there was a keg.
Except I had to get through the day. I had people counting on me.
The tears I’d held back for days decided to show up. I was late, with squished muffins and warm OJ, and ugly red cry face. Perfect. I was meeting Karen’s husband, two of her boys, and eight other women from her neighborhood.
How do people do this?
I closed my eyes and focused on what was important, what needed to be done. After a long moment, I opened the generic chocolate bar and rearranged my thoughts. I needed to move on from the difficult emotions of the morning. I didn’t want to go through the day angry and grumpy like Yam Girl.
While I waited a minute to see if there were any side effects (you never know with stranger candy), I read the flyer that came with it. White page and black letters.
I flipped it over. No other identifying information. Was it an ad for a church? An indie band? A new choral group?
The heaviness in my chest lightened and my eyes dried. I didn’t have it completely together, but I’d moved out of the red-faced danger zone. I gathered my things and went inside. But the mystery stayed with me as I went through the meeting, assuring everyone I’d have something to say at the funeral, staying strong when I heard there’d be over two hundred people at the church.
Three exhausting hours later I headed for my local cafe. I had an hour before kids got home and I ordered a latte. I needed to write something meaningful for the funeral, but that silly flyer haunted me.
Desperate for answers, I showed it to the barista and a few regulars and ended up with a short list of ideas written on a paper napkin.
The snap-crack of the boy’s bat hitting a baseball.
The laughter of a girl growing into a woman.
The skip, skip, skip of a boy throwing stones.
The whoosh-splash of his perfect dive.
The slurp of a preschooler and her ice cream cone.
The pop-fizzzzz of a contraband Coke.
I sat back to drink my latte, still unsure. These sounds were wonderful, they evoked memories and emotions, but they were too literal, too predictable. They were happy sounds. But were they Joyful?
Frustrated, I ordered another latte. I really needed to get back to work.
Suddenly, someone stood in front of me. Yam Girl.
“I was sitting in the corner when you came in,” she said in a low voice. “I want to apologize. I was having a bad morning and took it out on everyone else.”
“It’s okay,” I said feeling tired and weightless and small. “I understand.” And I did. “I hope things are better now.”
She lifted on shoulder. “A friend of mine passed away a few days ago. And I wanted to help do something, to honor her. But I didn’t know her that well and no one really needs me.”
“I’m so sorry.” And I was.
She nodded and picked up the flyer. “You got one of these too. It’s from that new church down the road. Do you know what it means?”
I showed her my list I’d written out on a napkin. “This is a first guess. But I’m not sure if it’s right.”
“It’s not.” She looked away and tucked a hair behind her ear. “The candy woman said Joyful Noise is more than just sounds that bring about smiles, sounds that bring back memories.”
“Then what is it?”
She put the flyer on the table. Gently. “Joyful Noise is the sound the heart makes when you listen to words that reside in the soul instead of the words that come from your head. You know, the negative ones that tell you you’re stupid and such.”
Oh, yeah. I knew. My Internal Critic and I had a very difficult working relationship.
She handed me her napkin. “Here’s my list. I did feel better after making it. The anger had lifted. I felt . . . free.”
I read slowly, feeling the tension in my shoulders ease, the heaviness in my head lifted.
You are talented.
You are wanted.
You are smart.
You are not alone.
You are loved.
You are strong.
You are brave.
Yam Girl wasn’t a brat. Yam Girl wasn’t mean. Yam Girl was in pain.
But, more importantly, Yam girl was brilliant.
I re-read the list, but it was the last two that kicked up my heart rate and made my hands shake. I found it difficult to say, “Your friend who died. What was her name?”
“Karen. She was a writer.” Yam Girl waved to the flyer on the table. “I think she would have liked this.”
She would have. “Can I keep your napkin?”
“Sure.” She turned to leave.
“Wait. Please.” I reached for her hand and squeezed. All anger and annoyance had vanished, replaced by a deep gratefulness and that tingly awareness when one has come in contact with an act of fate. “I want to let you know that are helping. That you did honor Karen.”
Her eyes shone with tears. “How?”
I held up her napkin. “You just gave me an idea for her eulogy. Thank you.”
Yam Girl gave me a half-smile and disappeared.
But I still held her list of soul-words.
Her list that made the heart sing.
Her list that made Joyful Noise.
Her list that would help me write what Karen wanted me to say.
For the first time in days, I smiled the smile of a woman at peace, a woman who knew what she had to do. The words poured out and I wrote as quickly as I could, capturing every last one. And I knew, if it hadn’t been for Yam Girl, I would never have let go of my anger in time.
If it hadn’t been for Yam Girl, I would never have honored Karen’s family with a eulogy worthy of the woman and writer she’d once been.
If it hadn’t been for Yam Girl, I would never have understood the lesson of Joyful Noise.
Karen passed away on March 4, 2014 and we laid her to rest on March 14, 2014. I know many of you knew her and miss her. I published her eulogy on my blog and am still collecting comments to forward to her family. If you’d like to leave one, here is the link: Be Strong. Be Brave. Be Dauntless.
Now I want to hear from you. How do you honor the words in your heart instead of your head? What is your Joyful Noise?
All photos courtesy of Sharon Wray and the Johnston Family.