Whitney Houston

When I was in high school in the late 1980s, I wait­ed tables at the Cantuckee Diner just off the inter­state. The din­er sport­ed a dent­ed, two-for-a-quar­ter juke­box that the staff called The Outlaw. The Outlaw offered the hits of Waylon, Willie, Johnny, Tanya, Merle, and Dolly. Every shift, I would slide a quar­ter from my tip apron into The Outlaw and choose a Dolly Double Shot: G3’s Jolene and G4’s I Will Always Love You.

As I topped off cof­fee and brought extra corn­bread, I often schooled my road-weary guests. “Did you know that I Will Always Love You was a good­bye love let­ter to Porter Wagoner? Dolly want­ed to leave his tele­vi­sion show and start a solo career. They fought all the time, but she loved him and was grate­ful that he took a chance on her. She just need­ed to move on, you know?”

I thought of it as my song, learned to play it on the gui­tar, an easy arrange­ment writ­ten in the key of G. 

Fast for­ward a few years to 1992. I’m a fresh­man in col­lege, home­sick and heart­bro­ken, hav­ing just bro­ken up with my high school boyfriend. It was February, the bleak­est of months in the South. Lying on the floor in my dorm room, I stared into space as the radio blared in the back­ground. That’s when I heard it. My Outlaw song. But it was Whitney Houston’s vel­vety voice singing Dolly’s lyrics. I turned the vol­ume dial all the way right. 

1992 was the year Whitney final­ly mar­ried Bobbie Brown, though they had been dys­func­tion­al­ly togeth­er for years. Looking back at the trail of abuse, drugs, and death that would soon fol­low, it’s easy to hear only despair in her ver­sion. But I believe her ver­sion is about triumph.

“But above all this, I wish you love,” she croons. And then comes the great­est pause in musi­cal his­to­ry. There is space. A beat of silence. A fris­son of ener­gy coursed through me as I took an audi­ble inhale in antic­i­pa­tion. Then, a sin­gle drum beat and a key change. Whitney’s voice hits a stratos­pher­ic note as the lyrics “And I …….” trans­form the song from heart­break to victory. 

It wasn’t ever my song. It wasn’t even Dolly’s song. That song belongs to Whitney because of that pause. It’s the line between her sad good­bye and her watch-what-I-do-now. 

But if that pause is where the line lies, it’s also where the life lives.

Scriptio con­tin­ua was the clas­si­cal writ­ing style that eschewed all space and punc­tu­a­tion. Can you imag­ine read­ing a doc­u­ment with no mar­gin or space? Not even a sin­gle com­ma to remind you to take a breath? Without space, there is no meaning.

As a yoga teacher and mind­ful­ness coach, I most­ly spend my days teach­ing peo­ple how to notice life’s paus­es. The ancient yogis called this pause the kumb­hak, or the space that lies between the inhale and exhale. It’s the mar­gin sur­round­ing the give and take of res­pi­ra­tion, a place of qui­etude that nev­er aban­dons us as long as we breathe, a sweet empti­ness between what we car­ry and how much we can haul. What holds us still holds us steady. 

Once we notice that still point in our breath, we start to notice its pres­ence in life’s best moments. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.” 

That space lies in that moment of sus­pend­ed ani­ma­tion at the top of the swing’s arc, when we’re weight­less but unafraid, fly­ing instead of falling. 

It’s in the green light that occa­sion­al­ly flash­es on the hori­zon just as the last rem­nants of the sun dis­ap­pear into its watery grave.

We find it in the chrysalis, that hang­ing bag of soupy cells delin­eat­ing one crea­ture from some­thing com­plete­ly different. 

On April 10, 2005, Tiger Woods won The Masters. I know this because I was in labor at the hos­pi­tal, scream­ing through con­trac­tions still too far apart to be of con­cern to the nurs­ing staff. The giant tele­vi­sion in the deliv­ery room was tuned to the golf tour­na­ment, the vol­ume low. While I know lit­tle about golf, I love the qui­et, sooth­ing announc­ing, feel calmed by the vibrant green. My hus­band held my hand on one side, a nurse checked my blood pres­sure on the oth­er; all three of us watched Tiger’s his­toric shot.

It was an impos­si­ble chip that rolled down the green and then … the ball wob­bled and came to a stand­still just at the lip of the hole. There was a great, preg­nant pause, absolute silence on the green. You knew Tiger was pray­ing for a Hail Mary gust of wind. We held our breath, an extend­ed, hope­ful kumb­hak.

Then I inhaled sharply and, as a con­trac­tion ripped through me, the ball plopped gen­tly into the hole. No one noticed my screams, inter­min­gled as they were with the screams of every­one else in the room, my baby momen­tar­i­ly for­got­ten as every­one cel­e­brat­ed Tiger’s miracle. 

It became a habit as I would rock my daugh­ter to sleep to sing three songs in order. Sweet Baby JamesBlackbird. And, of course, I Will Always Love You. Though I sang it in Dolly’s key, I imag­ined it in Whitney’s reg­is­ter. And I always – will always – pause for effect before the last chorus.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.