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 James. Blackbird. 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.