CHAPTER 3 -"Calling all angels"

Someone caught the tail end of this beautiful moment: Singing with my Grandmother Lois' sisters for the first time. It was the all-time best funeral moment ever…I just wish we'd done it when she was still alive! 

"Calling ALl Angels" - A ROUGH DRAFT FROM Diane Thiel's Non-Fiction class at Sewanee School Of Letters

Inspiration is a spirit all it’s own. It’s the intersection of the earthly and the divine, the creative breath of some mysterious and possibly mythical muse. Where it comes from is another subject entirely, and one that I can merely speculate on as one might speculate about whether or not there is such a thing as “guardian angels” or why it is that we feel like we’ve been here before. (Although, I know how I feel about those things as well.) But there are some things I have accepted that I may never know, and really, we can only expect to understand so much. After all, we are only human.

But what I do know is that for me, inspiration exists, whether divinely inspired or simply imagined, and I believe that it is as much a part of my being as my faith has always been. Inherent and perhaps appearing dormant at times, but still very much at work behind the scenes and out in the ether, wherever mysteries live, working all things out for the good.

People always ask me: “Where do you get your inspiration for songs from?” I usually tell them I get my ideas from real life, and by that I mean I don’t have to look too much farther than my own life to find plenty of interesting writing material. The things that happen to me on a daily basis aren’t exactly what you would call normal - which is good if you’re the kind of person who can use a lot of inspiration. This “gift,” shall we say, has been both a blessing and a curse, because on the one hand it’s given me plenty of things to write about. However, at times, being the conduit for messages from another world can be kind of overwhelming (…to the point of making me question my own sanity, actually.)

Who inspiration touches is as great a mystery to me as where and when it will fall, but I can tell you I have always been in contact with the creative world. Even as I child I felt the calling to do something, to channel my feelings into some kind of art, and thus make sense of the overwhelming flood of emotions that constantly had its way with my little artist brain. That’s actually how I became a songwriter. I was in college at the time and, having recently gotten my heart broken by my latest tryst with love (lower case “l,” that is) I decided I needed to find a new way to express my feelings.

Then out of the blue one day - while I was walking my dog, no less - a melody for a song came to me. I’d never tried to write a song before – I’d never known I was capable of such a thing. But here this entire thing just started flowing right through me, lyrics and music and everything. So I ran back to my apartment and grabbed my journal and wrote down everything I had just heard - but only the words. I didn’t own an instrument so I couldn’t play it, but thankfully the melody was stuck in my head. Afterwards, I stepped back from the page and realized I had just written a song. And that was it; I was born a songwriter.

I find that what is so magical about inspiration is that you don’t choose it…it chooses you. In that way, it has been tempting at times to be elitist about the fact that I am part of a special group of chosen people on earth who is regularly touched by the muse. Thankfully, my selfishness about these things has faded over the years as I discovered a much deeper identity and a greater sense of purpose through the sharing of my music. I guess that was when my inspiration first intersected with my faith – when I realized even the very ability to play and sing music had actually been given to me and thus, was and still is not mine to boast of. It’s actually a gift for the people.

 I take it for granted that other people are always so fascinated by the fact that, as songwriters, we are able to come up with melodies and put them together with lyrics and suddenly out of thin air, voila! A song! It is truly a remarkable thing when it happens – the spark of inspiration followed by the burning desire to put your feelings into words, to hear the sound of your own heart breaking. And in my experience, it often seems to happen at the most inopportune times. You get a tap on your shoulder while you’re walking through the parking lot with a bag full of groceries or having a fight with your spouse or just opening your eyes in the morning, almost like it’s a test of your willingness to respond.

But when it comes, you better believe it can excite such a rush that one will feel compelled to go sit at the piano immediately or sprint the four flights of stairs back up to your apartment just to get a pen because you are so scared that if you don’t put your thoughts down on paper RIGHT THIS INSTANT or start playing that melody outloud RIGHT NOW you might forget the greatest song you were ever meant to write or worse, you might forsake the muse. And God forbid that happens…what if it stops inspiring you?? Then you’ll be just like everybody else!

Which brings up another important myth about inspiration. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all beautiful, fairy dust moments. In fact, sometimes being inspired feels more like, well, a haunting.

This only dawned on me after everything that happened to me while I was living in my house on Shelby Avenue – the thought that I might actually be a channel for these things, that I might even be attracting some otherworldly “muse.” I became all too familiar with ghosts in that place (both my own and those of others) on account of the fact that the house I lived in was built upon unmarked Civil War graves in East Nashville. (Also, the feng shui was really jacked up in that house…) Looking back, I’m still not sure whether I asked for the things that happened to me in that house or whether I was just unknowingly open to them. But I can tell you that the night I wrote “Calling All Angels” was the night I realized just how thin the line between this world and the next really is.

And this is where the story starts to get a little weird...

 

“Calling All Angels” 

I was baptized Pentacostal at my Grandma’s church back in Waco

They laid hands on me when I was only five

They told me I was why baby Jesus died

And I prayed with all my might

Like I’m praying here tonight

 

Cause the ghost of Janis Joplin is here in my house, yes, here in my house

And she’s singing right through me

I hear her soul cry through my mouth

And I pray with all my might

Cause I don’t wanna end up like her tonight

 

Calling all Angels

Surround me surround me surround me

Calling all Angels

Surround me surround me surround me, yeah

 

I’ve got fireflies in my bedroom they must think that I’m gonna die soon

Cause their blinking lights keep me up all night

Like a neon S.O.S. to the afterlife

And I pray with all my might

That they’ll lead me back to the light

(Bonnie Bishop, Copyright BMI/Writer’s Den Music 2010)

 

Last night I had the craziest dream. Or at least, I thought it was a dream...

 I was standing alone in my kitchen in the old house on Shelby Avenue, the one that everyone said was haunted, only I wasn’t really alone. There were spirits all around me. I could feel them brushing past, could hear them clinking around in my glass like cubes of ice, their footsteps on the hardwood floors. One of them was running circles around me - taunting me, begging me to try, just try, to pretend that he wasn’t there, to pretend that I wasn’t hearing his voice. I saw my half-empty glass of whiskey on the counter and went to pour another - to drown them out. All I wanted to do was drown them out. But that’s when I heard another spirit cackle out loud, “That’s right girl - you can’t fight it. It’s easier this way! Here, have another drink…” I could smell the whiskey on her breath - or was it mine? - and I could almost see through the thin veil of time and space to make out her face. She was female and she had long scraggly hair and a mouth full of crooked yellow teeth. But just as my eyes came into focus, the spirit morphed and became a mirror and I saw myself:

 The ghost in the house was me.

…..

There is an enemy to inspiration. It is as old as the air we breathe, and as timeless as the war between Good and Evil. It is that four-letter word that evokes images in my mind of a stranger’s face at the window, of people clawing at their faces and gnashing their teeth, of demons creeping into bedrooms and a little girl running hysterically, always running and looking behind her at the thing that is trying to get her, always searching…searching for somewhere safe…

The enemy I’m talking about here is fear (and I’m purposely not capitalizing it’s name.) As artists, we talk a lot about fear – particularly our fear of failure, which usually poses the greatest threat to one’s creativity. In the War of Art, Stephen Pressfield names this threat “Resistance,” which he says is something the artist has to discipline himself against. It is in the practiced skill of showing up to the page (or strumming one’s guitar) that, over time, dulls the voice of Resistance in our minds - that is, that voice that plays the running script of all our past failures and possible worst-case-scenario future failures, and ultimately gives you the power over the enemy (whose goal is to keep you from being who you are meant to be.) The challenge as an artist then, is to continue to create in spite of the fear of failure that constantly threatens to undermine everything you do.

The night I wrote “Calling All Angels” was as epic a spiritual battle as it was a creative one. In that moment, my guitar became a shield and I wielded it against the forces of evil that came upon me like my life depended on it, calling out to Heaven to deliver me through that melody. There was much more at stake than a song that night and in that moment the fear I felt was more real – more present - than anything I had ever experienced.

That was also the moment I felt the battle away from me. It became painfully clear that night after I'd finished a bottle of wine and started opening a bottle of whiskey. I heard cackling from some faceless voice, some low-vibrating version of myself that had started to take over and was encouraging me to be my worst. When I was singing those words, “Calling All Angels,” I was literally calling for backup. I was crying out to every angel in the universe to save me from the demons that had somehow crept back into my life, like a sequel to those bad dreams I'd had as a child. And in that moment, from somewhere up above or perhaps from way back in the corner of my memory, I suddenly heard a choir of angels singing. Literally, they were in my kitchen. I couldn't see them, but it sounded like the music was floating down from somewhere above, like a TV had been left on in the bedroom upstairs. Only I didn’t have a TV in the bedroom upstairs. In fact, there wasn’t anyone else living in the house but me at that time.

The sound was faint at first, and I couldn’t make out any words so much as there was just this unified choir of voices coming off the ceiling above the kitchen table. It sounded like a rumble, a hum, like a bass choir backed by an army of voices. And then there were layers of voices, mids and highs, and their singing was like a wave now, rising up from all corners of the room and washing over me in large sweeping motions. And then out of nowhere, the thought of my Grandmother Lois came to me. I didn't know why. She had been in a nursing home for years. But in that moment, when I heard the angels singing, I thought that Grandmother must have died and this experience I was having in my kitchen was somehow her intercepting on my behalf, letting me know that she had crossed over, that I was loved, and that she was singing with the angels now...

(If thais sounds a bit far fetched, keep in mind: I was extremely high and intoxicated at the time.)

And just like that, I had the memory. I saw myself as a child, that night at her church years ago. I suddenly had this vivid recollection of holding Grandmother Lois' hand and her walking me down to the altar and how everyone came up and put their arms around me, how they prayed that hedge of protection over me. And right there in my kitchen, I realized was safe because I was surrounded by love. I remembered that I was forever safe from the demons who were chasing me, and I started to sing even louder because in that moment, in that house, I felt it all around me. It was the love of God and angels and my not-so-dead Grandmother (who at the time I believed was an angel but wouldn't find out until the next morning when I called my father to find out that she was still alive).  I just started beating those guitar strings and pouring out this song with all my heart, wailing at the top of my lungs, “CALLING ALL AAAAAAAAANNGEEELLLSS!!! CALLING ALL AAAAAAANGEEEEEEELSSSS!!!” 

And suddenly everything stopped. The little girl stopped running, the windows stopped staring…even the ghosts stopped circling around me. They had to.

Someone flipped the lights back on and I woke up.

…………….

Grandmother Lois’ funeral was like something out of a movie.

We had had little contact with my father’s side of the family after my parent’s divorce in 1986, so I never really got to spend much time with my Grandmother’s relatives. My father had purposely not kept in touch with them, having apparently been so scarred by his upbringing that he wanted little to nothing to do with even his own mother. I guess it brought up too many bad memories for him, although I still for the life of me can’t figure out what exactly was so terrible about his childhood. Then again I didn’t grow up being forced to go to the Pentacostal church 5 days a week...

Grandmother had been in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s for the last several years of her life, so it felt like a blessing that she had finally passed on. But apparently Alzheimer’s is quite common on her side of the family (which unfortunately also means my side of the family.) At the funeral home the night before Grandmother’s memorial service, I met my Aunt Belle for the first time – and several times after that, in fact, as every time she saw me she would reintroduce herself, always leading with the question, “Now Bonnie…where do you live?” (She also repeatedly asked my sister whether or not her hair used to be black, which it never was.) Aunt Belle is the tallest of Grandmother’s sisters at five-foot-nothing, flat-footed, and she has this high pitched winnie of a laugh, which is almost as charming as her dementia.

At one point we were alone together in the viewing room, leaning over Grandmother’s coffin and commenting on what a nice job the funeral home had done with her makeup. Belle frowned suddenly. “There’s something missing,” she said. “The lips are off.”  She was right. Grandmother always wore bright orange lipsticks, and I distinctly remember this because I used to play in her makeup. I remember thinking it odd that all her tubes of lipstick had blunt edges, as opposed to the lipsticks in my mother’s purse which were more pointed at the ends. Whoever had worked on Grandmother post-mortem had painted her mouth a soft, natural pink color, and it wasn’t that it looked bad. It just wasn’t her. 

 “Lemme see what I got in here.” Belle started diggin’ around in her pocket and pulled out a pinkish-orange tube of lipstick, which we both agreed was much more Grandmother’s color. Next thing you know, she leans into the coffin and starts dabbing lipstick on my dead Grandmother’s frozen lips, talking to her the whole time as if she was just laying there sleeping. “There ya go, Lois,” Belle said, clearly proud of her work. I have to say she was right – the orange lips did make her look a lot more life like.

My other favorite part of the funeral was getting bits and pieces of my Grandmother’s story from my Aunt Melba, who seemed to be the only family there who still had all her marbles. I never realized how deep my family’s spiritual roots ran until My Aunt Melba told me all this, but their father actually founded the First Assemby of God Church in Lufkin. He served as pastor until the day he fell off a ladder and died suddenly, leaving their mother in charge of running the church and my Grandmother, who was only fifteen at the time, had to take over raising her three younger siblings. This is probably what made her the way she was…which to put it lightly, was a bit overbearing. (God rest her soul.)

Melba told me all sorts of things I’d never known about my Grandmother - things that my father probably didn’t even know, like the fact that she left Lufkin in her mid-twenties and moved to Ft. Worth because she saw an ad for “Rosie The Riverter.” According to Melba, Grandmother Lois said she wanted to wear that cute uniform with the bandana in her hair and the denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up. So she went to work in a factory building airplane parts during WWII. That was actually how she met my Grandaddy Bean. Grandmother worked beside Grandaddy’s sister, who eventually hooked her up with his address where he was stationed overseas, and she started hounding him with letters until he finally came home and married her. (Or at least, that’s what I could surmise from Melba’s story.)

I also picked up on the fact that my Grandmother was the one who intervened on my behalf when she realized her five-year-old granddaughter was in need of spiritual intercession. In talking to Aunt Melba at the funeral home that night, I realized that it was because I told Grandmother about the nightmares that she took me to her church in the first place. (Well, that or the fact that I said I didn’t want Jesus watching over me…) I was kind of surprised to learn that Grandmother had actually taken the time to call Melba after that happened, just to tell her what I’d said. Apparently, she thought it was hilarious.

 

At end of the wake, we were all congregating in the lobby, saying our goodbyes and making plans for where to meet for dinner and what not, when out of nowhere I heard someone playing my favorite hymn. I turned around to see Aunt Belle pounding away on that old piano that I’d seen sitting against the wall when we first came in. She looked up just then and hollered across the room at me. “Hey Bonnie! What key you do Amazing Grace in?”

She was already playing it in G, but that’s too high for me. So I asked her if she could play it in C, not really expecting her to be able to transpose on the fly. “Well, now, lemme see…C…” Belle moved her hands down the keyboard a bit and fumbled around for a second before she figured it out. She was hitting a few bad notes here and there, but hell, for someone who can barely remember where she is, I’d say she sounded pretty damn good! We started singing the chorus together, softly at first, but then Melba came up and joined us for three-part harmony. Suddenly there was a crowd gathered around us. Even my father, who was fairly anxious to get outta there, came up and put a hand on my shoulder and was kind of singing along. It was a beautiful family moment, as beautiful as if we’d been singing together all our lives.

And at that moment, from somewhere up above or perhaps from way back in the corner of my memory, I heard a choir of angels singing. Only this time, I’m pretty sure one of those voices was Grandmother Lois.

…..