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Joyful Noise: Lessons Learned from the Yam Girl

On Tuesday, I reposted the eulogy I wrote for my best friend who died last year on March 4. Today I am following up with the story I wrote about how fate intervened and gave me the words I needed to honor Karen. IMG_2069

“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.

Joyful Noise.

“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.

Thank goodness.

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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.

Joyful Noise. 

How odd. 

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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.

Joyful Noise.

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. 

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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.”

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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.

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How do you honor the words in your heart instead of your head? What is your Joyful Noise?

All photos courtesy of Sharon Wray.

Be Brave. Be Strong. Be Dauntless.

March 4, 2014, I lost my best friend to brain cancer. She was barely 50 yeas old.

Since it’s been almost a whole year, and I still think about her every day, my Kiss and Thrill sisters have graciously allowed me to post the eulogy I wrote for her funeral.

I hope it gives you the courage you need to prevail in your own battles.
KEMJ picture_cropped (JPEG)Nine years ago, I stood in Starbucks with a latte in one hand and my laptop case in the other, eyeing two empty seats near the window.

And I hesitated.

The last two free chairs were flanked by sketchy-looking men. The one on the left, in black jeans, dirty boots and leather jacket, was working on his laptop with files and a motorcycle helmet spread out on the empty table next to him.

So, to sit there, I’d have to ask him to move his things.

The other man, to the far right, was dressed in black jeans and T-shirt. Some biker with a long braid and devil eyes, serious tattoos on serious biceps, and a killer smile whose only purpose was to show off his gun-metal lip piercings. 

My arms ached from holding my bag, and I hesitated, wondering if I should go home. Except I held a ceramic mug instead of a TO-GO cup. So I was stuck.

“Be strong.” The words came from behind as a woman swept past me. “Be brave,” she whispered in a lovely British accent. She was wrapped in a sparkly purple scarf, pink dangly earrings, and bright red hair.

She glanced back with an I-dare-you smile, balancing a pink laptop bag and a ceramic mug.

At least I wasn’t the only paper cup snob.

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She sat next to the pierced man while I stood, still hesitating.

Once she settled herself, she looked at me, raised her mug, and winked.

And curiosity won over fear. With a determined nod, I asked the motorcycle man to move his things and sat next to this fascinating woman. We put our bags between us, said a shy hello, and opened our laptops.

Over the next few weeks, we’d see each other, save seats for each other, even order drinks for each other. Always in ceramic mugs.

Many of you knew Karen as the extroverted, vivacious woman who lived passionately. But that wasn’t the woman I sat next to, week after week.

Although we quickly established an easy rapport, writers have an inherent need for quiet and privacy while they work, lest the perfect words slip away.

As we got to know each other, we watched each others’ bags when we needed a break, made outrageous observations about the regular customers, and I learned new words like loo, knickers, and snog.

We developed an unspoken working relationship. We’d write for an hour, chat for 15 minutes, then go back to work.

We even used a timer.

Yet, during this time, we never shared our words.

Then came the deeper learning. We talked about our story ideas, bonded over our similarities: Both married, with children in the same school and swim team, and both had lost our fathers.

Finally, one day after the timer went off, Karen leaned over and asked, “Are you brave?”

Since I’d just gotten another rejection that morning I responded, “Not very.” I’d hit a point in my writing journey where I was getting rejected regularly and had no idea how to move forward.

Karen lowered her voice. “Would you like to be critique partners?”

I hesitated, again, slightly stunned. Asking another writer to share words is like asking someone to watch your baby. Saying yes requires a level of trust in the partner’s motives, their skill, their passion.

But looking at Karen with her crazy red hair and infectious laugh, I said, “Okay.” Then gave a firmer, more committed, “Yes.”

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What followed were years of sharing words, advice, and dreams.

Yet, while Karen changed literary agents like most women change shoes, I hesitated.

Since my queries to agents often went unanswered, and those that responded did so with a polite “No, Thank You”, I’d stopped the querying process.

It was too hard, too painful. To which Karen would always say, “Remember, Sharon. Be strong. Be brave.”

So I continued to write and query, as Karen cheered me on.

Years passed, we completed manuscripts, and other CPs including Stephanie, Christine, Pintip, Mary, and Danielle joined us, and some moved away. But we persevered with Karen leading the charge for us all, “Be strong,” she’d say. “Be brave.”

Seven years after we met, I went to Atlanta for a writing conference and was offered representation by my dream agent, an agent Karen had urged me to query even though I was afraid.

I texted her after dinner, “Deidre Knight of the Knight Agency asked to represent me. And I said yes!”

To which she replied, “Smashing! We’ll celebrate with lunch at the Clifton Café.”

I read the text quickly, trembling with excitement, barely noticing that most of her words were mis-spelled.

Darn auto-correct. 

I came home with an assignment to revise my current manuscript. A manuscript Karen loved. A manuscript she couldn’t wait to help me finish.

Those first few weeks, leading up to December 2011, were some of the happiest we had together. Her middle-grade books were doing well, and she’d sold a third. She’d chosen a new agent for her women’s fiction books and was looking for one to represent her young adult novels.

We worked every day, both of us driven and fearless, full of hope for the future.

“Be strong,” she’d say. To which I replied, “Be brave.”

We tore apart our manuscripts, came up with prologues, ditched characters, added new ones. After years of struggling and learning our craft, we were moving forward.

Even our other critique partners were finding success.

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Yet, there was one problem. Karen was mis-spelling words in her critiques, getting confused between her manuscripts. And when she asked me to read a query to a new agent for her YA novel, I told her I thought something was wrong.

Her queries, one of her greatest strengths, were flawless. But this one was filled with missing words, bad spelling, and she’d even given the wrong title of the book she wanted to sell.

She told me she was just tired. But I wasn’t so sure. And the pit in my stomach agreed.

Christmas came and went, winter set in and that sickening sensation in my stomach grew larger, almost choking me. So I wasn’t surprised when I got the call that she’d been sent to the hospital. Mary and I rushed over, only to hear words no one should hear outside a horror novel.

Brain tumor. Inoperable. Terminal.

We struggled to stay positive, teased her because her accent had thickened, brought her flowers.

When Mary and Jim went outside to talk to a nurse, I took Karen’s hand and said, “Remember, Karen. Be strong.”

“Remember, Sharon,” she said with a smile that denied the truth. “Be brave.”

And in that moment, she set the course for how she’d fight this disease. With strength and courage. After all, she had a husband and children she loved more than her own life.

And I’d agreed to help, to be there always.

Over the next two years, we struggled to keep her world as normal as possible. We went to lunch at the Clifton Café, shopped at All That Glitters, and still we worked. On my manuscript and her YA novel. We were both desperate to finish.

Yet, as her disease worsened, our manuscripts stalled. How does one write words when there are no words that suffice? How does one write words when the words themselves are too painful?

The cancer first stole her ability to type. And as it murdered her tomorrows, it took her vision, then her voice.

Still, she insisted we work.

When I admitted my second revision was a complete failure, she gave me a fierce glare. “Be strong,” she ordered. “Be brave.”

I just swallowed hard and said, “Yes, ma’am.” For some reason that always made her smile.

Just as our communication options died, my daughter gave me a YA book she’d read and loved. Divergent by Veronica Roth.

Divergent is a dystopian novel about a sixteen-year-old girl who must make a series of difficult and scary choices in order to survive.

Knowing how much Karen loved YA books, I started reading it to her aloud.

As I sat next to her bed, I’d read and keep one hand on her shoulder. When she moved, it meant she wanted to say something, critique the plot, complain about the characters.

In the book, the heroine Tris lives in a world divided into five factions. And she has to choose a faction in which to spend the rest of her life. In order to do this, she’s given a test. But when the test fails, proving Tris is Divergent and therefore an enemy of the state, she must make a blind choice and pretend she’s normal.

She leaves her family’s faction committed to peace and selflessness and joins a paramilitary faction known for strength, bravery, and recklessness. A faction in which she could hide and learn to protect herself.

A faction called Dauntless.

Except, after she chooses, she learns that if she fails her Dauntless initiation, she will be thrown out and become factionless. Which means homeless, hungry and alone.

As Karen and I read Tris’s story, we were both drawn deeply into her world, a world that required a level of courage that Tris wasn’t even sure she possessed. And every time Tris made another difficult choice, a choice requiring a courageous action, Karen would move her shoulder.

In her own way, she was reminding me to be brave. And I’d remind her she was my perfect role model.

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The weeks went by, Karen slept more and more each day, but still I read. We were both determined to stand by Tris, hoping she’d survive.

Then, three weeks ago while I was reading , Karen said in the clearest voice I’d heard in months, “Talk about the book”.

While she fought to get the words out, we talked about the story arc and Tris’ character.

Suddenly, she grabbed my hand. “How’s yours?”

I sucked in a breath. She knew that in December, after I’d finished the third revision on my manuscript, I’d ditched 80,000 words. 80 percent of the book. And I told her the truth, “not so great”.

She squeezed my fingers. “Be strong.”

I squeezed back, “Be brave.”

“No!” she said firmly. “Be dauntless.”

Those were the last words she said to me.

I went home that night and tore apart my outline, again, Karen’s words carved into my heart, but a question cut into my soul.

How does one stand strong in the face of such suffering?

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If I had realized how scary the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized how fragile the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized how desperate the world is, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized the extent of the world’s suffering, I would have chosen a different profession, a different path, I would have chosen to hide. And I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized the world’s woes have the winning advantage, that it’s much easier to stay afraid, to run away, to give up on dreams, I would never have become a writer.

If I had realized that a choice between two sketchy men would lead me to one of the greatest friendships of my life, I wouldn’t have hesitated that day in Starbucks. I would have run to my seat and saved the other for the red-headed woman who changed my life.

If I had realized, If I had realized . . . I would have written about it sooner.

So how DOES one stand strong in face of such suffering?

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By remembering Karen’s perfect example.

Karen’s wish for us all, Karen’s parting gift, Karen’s last words.

Be strong. Be brave. Be dauntless.

All photographs courtesy of Sharon Wray.

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