They were crowding the bench on one side of the table and filling the chairs on the other side. I was afraid of them. Old people can be scary. Really old people can be downright terrifying.Read More
[I pulled "Blue Chip Stamps" out of my Magic Box. I wish I could remember what made me think of this long ago throw-back with I first wrote the words who knows how long ago. I have no idea, but this is what has come up for me now.]
Blue Chip Stamps and One Million Miles
My husband is obsessed with Mileage Points. He has strategically flown and credit-card-charged his way to Million Mile status on United. Granted, it is a lofty place to be and I don't begrudge his accomplishment because, for one, I am a beneficiary, too. As his spouse, or more appropriately, his Chosen One, I also enjoy an upgraded status just 'cuz he loves me.
Now that we are here, I get what all of his obsessive manipulations and maneuverings have been about. The perks are awesome. But honestly, because I know his history, I believe there is more to my husband's propensity to play the point game than the perks. (See how I did that? For all you alliteration lovers!)
Remember Green Stamps? Are you old enough to recall Blue Chip Stamps? Before grocery store membership cards and frequent flyer mile programs, there was S&H Green Stamps and Blue Chip Stamps. To my knowledge, these were the original buyer-loyalty programs enormously popular in the 1970's, wherein customers would get a set of stamps when they made purchases from participating stores. Grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, (and eventually even brothels and mortuaries in some regions of the U.S.) gave you the stamps with your purchase at check out. Then you save up the stamps, lick the backs and place them ever-so-carefully into the collection booklet. With a book full of stamps, you could redeem them at the Green or Blue Chip Stamp Redemption Store for all manner of merchandise-- clothing, furniture and housewares, even toys.
As children, both my spouse and I were all about it. He, on the East Coast, collected S&H Green Stamps, and I, on the West Coast, hoarded Blue Chip Stamps. I love knowing that when we were both very young, we were participating in this parallel obsession at the same time. It tickles me that our mothers were both discarding these precious stamps or throwing them in that catchall kitchen drawer, then forgetting about them. But he and I were not forgetting. Instead, we were studiously collecting those stamps; obsessively perusing the beautiful catalogs of possibilities-- those picture books of merchandise that informed us of what we could buy with our stamps. We would decide what we wanted and save the stamps based on our goals--he in Rochester, New York and me in Los Angeles, California.
Let me just say, though, this was the ultimate exercise in delayed gratification because it took a WHOLE LOT of stamps to "buy" anything substantial, even a toy. He and I have discussed how much time, patience and perseverance it took to end up with an item in hand. But here's the thing-- I cannot for the life of me remember what I bought when the requisite books were full. I cannot think of a single redeemed item. I collected those stamps for a long time, relatively speaking, but I can't remember what I bought. Not. One. thing.
I can, however, summon up the excitement I felt when I was only a half sheet of stamps away from some long planned-for prize. I remember negotiating with my mother to take me to the Redemption Center. And I remember how accomplished I felt when I handed over my books of stamps at the counter. In hindsight, I can see clearly what I could not have known then-- that the fun was more in the anticipation and the effort. It was the dream and the secret acquisition of the stamps. The prize itself was icing, but not even memorable. There are lots of behavioral studies that bear out this reality-- that delayed gratification and anticipation tend to bring more satisfaction than the end prize. A study even looked at vacation planning and found that when people are planning a vacation, they experience more sustained pleasure in the planning and anticipation than the vacation itself. We don't really process the vacation experience the way we think. We attribute all of the joy to the actual vacation, and forget all about how the vacation planning helped us continue go to our sorry jobs each morning, or how looking a brochures and websites of our destinations and imagining ourselves there sustained us through other challenges of our day-to-day.
So can it be that my spouse's One Million Mile effort is just a part of his programming, his well- trained brain's need to find a pursuit that creates a heightened anticipation and delayed gratification scenario? Of all of his higher pursuits-- in business and life, perhaps he needs this kind of Green Stamp pursuit-- something simple and pure, sure and certain-- something that ties him to the simplicity of his past and the enduring truths of his right now.
I will contemplate this as I lounge with my glass of wine in the United Club next time around.
A Magic Box is what I use to keep the index cards and scraps of paper that hold my story ideas and pieces of brilliance that come up when I am writing. Plots, scenes, memories and themes. They are the thoughts that deserve some attention, just not in the moment that they arise. So I store them for later.
On Mondays, I take a look inside one of my Magic Boxes-- I have three-- one on in my purse, on the night stand, one on my desk--and pick a piece of magic to write about and share.
This week the scrap of paper simply says, "Nancy." And so I offer this:
Nancy then Cindy
When I was small, I had an imaginary friend named Nancy. She was, in essence, me when I was my least shy. And I was a painfully shy child. But Nancy was a character, as my mother would say, meaning that Nancy was eccentric. That is, if "eccentric" were ever a term used to describe children, which it never is. A child is not eccentric-- she's just boldly odd, peculiar or different. You only become eccentric when you have agency over yourself so that it's clear your oddities are of your own choosing. Only adults get to be eccentric, and not even all adults... But I digress. Nancy was my freewheeling alto ego, she was that part of me that was not inhibited by my Catholic guilt or my fear of my father's arched brow. She was able to free-think and do. She was allowed the kind of full expression that eludes real flesh-and-blood children who can feel a spanking on their flesh-and-blood hind parts.
It was Nancy's idea, for example, to paint my room bright shamrock green. And her suggestion that we adopt a pet worm. She was the one who thought it wise and necessary to meet in the linen closet for planning sessions by the dim light of match sticks, lit one at a time. She came up with the details of the secret raids we made on my big brother's bedroom. You see? She was fearless and dangerous. Who lights matches when they are surrounded by blankets and sheets? And who ventures into the den of the devil?
I was very devoted to Nancy and she to me. Ours was as committed as these imaginary friend relationships tend to be. One does not, after all, befriend a spirit unless one really needs her. We were inseparable and dependent. We were dependent and inseparable, that is, until Cindy showed up.
Cindy was a little miniature black poodle. She was not imaginary. She was a flesh-and-blood canine given to my family to care for when her previous owner, a young woman, unexpectedly passed away. Cindy was already fully grown. My mother brought her home the same week that Nancy and I were away at summer camp. When Cindy arrived at our house, she was sad, angry, and not about to take shit from anybody. Her former family was very similar to ours-- a mother, father, older boy and younger girl. The two kids were teenagers, and the now-deceased girl was Cindy's favorite person in that family. But when Cindy got to our house there was only a boy. And that boy, my brother, had to tread very, very carefully. If he rushed up on her, she would retreat, growl, bare her teeth and snap back. So my brother offered her food every day, and spoke sweetly to her. By the end of that first week, my brother was her new person.
I came home from camp knowing, from my mother's letters, that a new dog was waiting. I was so excited. I'd been wanting a dog for some time--- years really. My family had been unlucky with our previous dog experiences. (There are many stories, many dogs--each one deserving his/her own time.) Suffice it to say, we had a poor record and my parents only agreed to Cindy as a favor to a grieving friend.
On the day I returned from camp, I was exuberant. I was happy to be home and ecstatic about the new dog. I burst through the front door and run to my new puppy. Well, Cindy was not a puppy and she was not having it. She ran and hid behind my brother and then came at me baring her fangs and preparing to bite. I jumped up onto the kitchen counter to avoid certain death by mangulation (new word?).
My brother started to laugh heartily. He knew this scene would unfold exactly as it did. Once Cindy chased me onto the kitchen counter and he recovered from his laughing fit, my brother scooped up the dog, cradled her sweetly, turned and walked away. (Did I mention that he was the devil? ) My mother explained to me Cindy's traumatic loss and her neuroses about "meeting" new people. She assured me that if my brother could win Cindy over, so could I.
I saw this as a challenge. As soon as I found out that Cindy's former "person" was the girl, I knew I would steal her heart.
Nancy was not impressed with Cindy. "Tell me again why you want to befriend that beast?" she asked. "We don't need her. She is dangerous and we have each other," Nancy added.
But I already had my eye on the prize. "We want her because she is beautiful, because she is a girl, and because we cannot let the devil win," I said.
And so, it was on. I took over feeding Cindy. It was a hostile takeover only requiring that I rise early in the morning to feed her before my brother could. I let her sleep in my bed. I played with her in the yard. I snuck her table scraps. And she began to love me. The truth is, I was a mini version of her previous girl-person, she wanted to love me. We all knew the transition was fully complete when, on one occasion near the end of the summer, my brother and I were horsing around. I tagged him by hitting him in the back of the head and running away. He gave chase. Cindy was barking fiercely, clearly not enjoying this game of aggression. When my brother caught up and reached to grab me, Cindy closed in with her tell-tale teeth bared and started to bite my brother on the ankle.
Cindy was protecting her person. My brother did not take his defeat well, and I didn't help.
"I am so sorry," I taunted, "I think she loves me more."
"Forget that crazy dog," the devil said.
"Payback is bitch," I wish I had been clever enough to say then, but I wasn't.
What I did do was scoop up my dog, cradle her sweetly, turn and walk away.
Nancy, to her credit, saw the writing on the wall, as well. I had Cindy, now. I was her person. She was my dog. She was warm and real. She was dangerous and quirky. She was my confidante and my protector. And she kept the devil at bay.
What is happening at home when you are not there,
once you leave for work and abandon your lair?
I'll tell you what happens-- high noon comes.
Its light dances over and through your privacy
and changes things,
exposes corners and crevices
that you, hitherto, had artfully avoided;
If a secret befalls a house when no one is home,
does it really befall at all?
This is a what if story. It is a story about the story that was supposed to happen, but mercifully went off track. And it is about what you do when you are spared. What you do when your life is barreling down one path to what seems an inevitable end, but something simple and mundane happens that stops fate. The thing that is supposed to stop is the heart. But it doesn’t.
And so what do you do with that almost thing, with finality that is thwarted?
On the eve of our thirtieth anniversary, my husband, Jon, is thinking about how fleeting life is, how fast and mercilessly it carries you along. At age fifty-one, he is thinking that he still feels like the young kid he was thirty years ago, and thus how shocking it is that he is so far down his life road, with five children, demanding businesses, and so much left to do. And as a result of these thoughts and the need of a business loan, Jon pursues more life insurance. In order to up his insurance ante, he must have a physical exam. It is this insurance-mandated physical exam that saves the life he is contemplating.
People who feel fine should not have abnormal EKGs. Their cardio stress tests should not show substantial blockage in their hearts. People who have no symptoms should not have to go into the hospital for a couple of vascular stents and end up in quintuple bypass surgery. People with only one unobstructed artery ought to know that they are a walking time bomb. But Jon had no idea.
And so the heart attack that should have happened when we raced from one terminal to the next to catch our connecting flight to London, didn’t. And when Jon jogged jovially up that long stairway, keeping pace with me as I rode the escalator from London’s Underground, nothing but a little breathlessness occurred. The heart attack that surely could have happened on the transatlantic flight to Europe, or on the flight coming back, those didn’t happen either. That catastrophic heart failure that would surely have ended his life, since there was only one blood vessel still left clear, did not occur.
The point here, really, isn’t about the heart attack, or the heart that just kept working despite itself. It’s about second chances.
When your spouse is spared in this way (when so many people are not) you can’t help but wonder why. Why him? Why us?
The brilliant surgeon, who waltzed into our lives and performed the difficult surgery as if he were simply replacing the plumbing under our kitchen sink, assured us that he would fix Jon’s heart and that Jon would be a new man. While he took the hours to do that, I sat in the waiting room in deep conversation with God. It’s the longest conversation God and I have had yet. Longer than the talk we had the night before the California bar exam; longer than our chat before my follow-up ultrasound after a questionable mammogram; even longer than our conversation between the amniocentesis and the obstetrician visit about the results when my last-born child was at risk. This particular God-me conversation in the heart center waiting room was not a series of negotiations, like all of the others had been. This was a conversation of gratitude. I knew that Jon had already dodged the bullet. We had the luxury of discovering his struggling heart before it cried out. We had the luxury of shopping for the right surgeon and preparing ourselves for the necessary life changes.
And so I thanked God for giving me another chance to care for Jon the way I should have all of these years. I should have been tending to his heart. It is my job as his wife to take care of the one organ that never rests. I knew that he had a family history of heart disease, and I knew his cholesterol was high. I knew that the ice cream we shared as a bedtime ritual was not good for us, and especially not him. But I didn’t take heed. Most importantly, I did not make him go to the doctor every year, as a wife is supposed to do. I let him squirm his way out of basic self-maintenance, with excuses and complaints about work conflicts.
Jon’s heart is what has guided him through this life. He is an acutely intelligent soul. But mostly, he navigates the world by feeling. When the doctor showed us a diagram of Jon’s heart and all of the arteries through which blood could no longer travel, I couldn’t help thinking of downtown Los Angeles at rush hour. We know that our diets and lifestyles must change. But in a larger sense, one must contemplate what it means when all of the routes to your city center are too blocked to get through. What is the real cause of that perpetual traffic jam?
The sudden reality, when you think you are a healthy person and you find out that you are not, is like a religious conversion. In that moment when your life changes on a dime, you get the sense that you were, just one second before, asleep—sleep-walking through your life, one foot in front of the other, tending to important things. You get the call, the report or the diagnosis, and you are instantly awake. You become crystal clear about what you need to change. You spring into action, because you must. But also because you’ve been jolted from your dream state of complacency and all of those previously “important” things fall away. The shift is so abrupt and so clear that it is both invigorating and terrifying at the same time.
Because heart disease is still the number-one killer of both men and women in our own circles, when you find out you have it, you instantly recall the people you know who have died. And you’re happy to be a part of the living club, the people with a story that is still in midchapter and not at book’s end. You are happy and grateful and scared and inspired.
And you hope beyond hope that yours and your lucky spouse’s inspiration and gratitude stick.
I've read a fair share of mother-daughter travel memoirs and so I think I know how this road trip with Jessica, my youngest daughter, is going to go. In all relationship memoirs, underneath the unfolding of what happened, the story is a study of self-exploratory interplay between author and loved one- as in, what does the creation of an "us" say about me? A mother-daughter memoir, however, is a special kind of relationship study, wherein genetics, the parent/child dynamic and gender alignment make for something altogether unique.
Mother/daughter memoirs written by mothers are very different from those written by daughters. Mothers, of course, endeavor to focus on the daughter, lovingly examining this incomprehensible being that is a woman-child-- how did she turn out like this? Why is she so different from me? Or, OMG, this child is me! How did I manage to pass on to her that habit or mannerism or world view? Ultimately, though, the mother's story ends up being about herself.
When the author is the daughter, inevitably, the examination is about how Mom's ways have created who the daughter has become. Almost always, these mother-daughter memoirs are about how fucked up Mom is. To be fair, the mother-daughter relationship is almost always complicated. And mother-daughter travel memoirs show how these complexities manifest while on the road-- the makings of good drama, always.
Right now, my youngest daughter, Jessica, and I are road tripping from Los Angeles to Houston. This trip is significant for two reasons. Firstly, Jess has just returned to the states from graduate school in the UK. She has been gone for a year. We have a lot of catching up to do. I am anxious to learn how her studies abroad have changed her (plus she has a British boyfriend I have yet to meet or even see a picture of). Secondly, our home-town, Houston, has just experienced the devastation of Tropical Storm Harvey. When I left to meet Jess in Los Angeles for the purpose of helping drive her car back to Houston, I had to postpone the trip for a week and then wrench myself from the efforts to put our family and the city back together. The current condition of our Houston family, neighbors and friends weigh very heavily on our minds. It's difficult not to rush home to the detriment of car and person.
Traveling with your daughter both tests and strengthens your bond, obviously. While travel is considered an expansive act-- branching out from what is familiar and comfortable, and embracing what is new and unknown, in a very real sense, travel can also be an intentional isolation. When you are traversing a foreign land with one other person-- whether it's in the city right next door to your own, or somewhere far and abroad, you are extracting yourself from your familiar settings and your community, except for this one companion. The isolation allows for some mutual concentrated focus on each other. And it creates this shared experience between you that is unique to just you two. If you are traveling by car, on a road trip, this isolation is all the more intense. You are closed in together...for hours...Just. You. Two.
Kimberly Meyer's Books of Wanderings is the ultimate mother/daughter travel memoir. Meyer sets out on a part personal/part academic quest and decides to take her daughter with her. She is reconnecting with her own wanderlust with the very person who embodies why she had to abandon her early travel yearnings in the first place. I do not envy her attempt to reconnect with her 18-year-old daughter, who she endeavors to get to really know before she leaves for college. And as expected, in accomplishing this, Meyer rediscovers pieces of herself. Theirs is an epic journey from Venice to Cyprus, the Holy land, the Sinai desert and Cairo.
My little three-day excursion with Jess across the American Southwest does not come close to Meyer's trip with her daughter. But we do get a serious dose of concentrated face-time. This is both the beauty and the challenge of road trips-- these hours of one-on-one. Jess and I have so much to talk about. It's been a crazy political year here in the U.S. since Jess left. She had to cast her absentee vote for a U.S. president in the midst of Britain's Brexit debacle. This makes her professional timing perfect. What better time and place to attain her master's degree in international relations? We spent hours discussing the state of our own country and the world. While I pumped gas at our first stop into Arizona, Jess was on the phone calling our Texas Senators about the President's new attack on DACA. She was, I imagine, motivated to act just then as we entered into the embattled state of Arizona. We talk about her desire to work on Houston's human trafficking problem. We talk about what we will do when we get home to help people rebuild their hurricane ravaged lives.
About a half-day into the trip we agree to listen to Trevor Noah's book, Born a Crime, on audiotape. And as it turns out, Born a Crime is a mother/son memoir. Noah writes about his early years. He weaves various stories about his unique and dangerous childhood and adolescence--extraordinary. But this book is really about his mother. The traveling that Noah does with his mother is far more existential, however. Together they traverse, Black mother and mixed child, across South Africa's transition from Apartheid to post-Apartheid, with all of the oppressive risks and challenges that come with that journey. And boy is this memoir a trip! Jess enjoys the story as much as I do. She has been in love with Trevor Noah ever since he burst onto the American comedy scene long before he took over The Daily Show. But we keep stopping the tape to talk. I am supposed to be sleeping and the tape is supposed to be keeping Jess company as she drives. But I cannot sleep. There is so much to talk about.
When my children were little, I would take special one-on-one excursions with each of them. I had forgotten that I had done this. In an earlier conversation, Jess reminds me and asks me why I felt this was important, and was there an incident or a concern that precipitated these efforts. I say no. I just thought each of my five children deserved some Mom time of their own, especially the younger half, who spent so much time at their older siblings' activities as the tag-a-long toddlers. So, as we are driving through the California dessert, I think about those times that she and I spent together. I remember that she liked to go to Color Me Mine, the ceramic painting place. And she loved the zoo. I ask her if she remembers some of the excursions. "Oh, yes, I remember a lot of them," she says, "we went to the dollar store." It's funny, as a parent, how you never know what will be significant in the mind of a child and what will not.
We make our way to Sedona, Arizona. We'd made a loose plan to spend each full day of the three-day trip driving to wonderful places on the way home. At each location we planned to do three things, stay over and then head out early the next morning. Perhaps our first stop should not have been Sedona. Sedona is our kind of place. It's is breathtakingly beautiful, it is spiritual and we have never been. You can't do Sedona in a day. Our three things: Oak Creek Canyon, Amitabha Stupa and Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Market. We discover to our chagrin that this is monsoon season for the region. We learn that if heavy rain is in the forecast, we must be very conscious of flash flooding, especially in the Oak Creek Canyon gorge. Just as we pull into Sedona, the rain clouds appear and it starts to rain. I am usually adventurous and overly committed to my travel itinerary, but I was not willing to have just survived the Tropical Storm Harvey's massive flood in Houston just to suffer a flash flood in Sedona. So, we skip Oak Creek Canyon and go to Amitabha Stupa. We wait out the brief downpour in the parking lot and traverse up the hill to the sacred shrines of the Stupa. This is a special place-- peaceful, well-trodden. The shrines, a collection of large and small Buddhas and beautiful prayer wheels look especially radiant after the fresh baptism of rain. My first time at a Stupa, I learned that they are sacred Buddhist architecture designed to promote spiritual deepening, healing, prosperity and peace. They are welcoming of every person, regardless of religious tradition, for meditation and prayer. You are encouraged to pray for yourself, your loved ones and for the end of suffering in the world. We are so happy to be here in this moment. We feel that this is exactly where we need to be. We have much and many to pray for- prayers of supplication, but mostly gratitude.
Then we proceed to the arts and crafts market for a little shopping...Then we eat not-the-greatest Mexican food. As we eat our not-the-greatest Mexican food, we watch, out of the large restaurant windows, the full moon slowly crest the mountain range, clearing the clouds and dropping its silver blanket over Sedona's massive rock formations. We hurriedly pay for dinner and leave the restaurant to find the best place to capture the moment.
The moon, the moon-- we have a special affection for the moon, we Carroll women. Ending the night under the full Sedona moon is the perfect end to a lovely day.
The next morning is clear, sunny and cool. We have a hard time saying goodbye to Sedona. We stop every five minutes to take pictures. It's like the Turn-Out Tour--we pull over at every scenic exit, because as the desert transitions into forest, there are exceptional vistas in every direction. This makes us late in our schedule for Santa Fe. But we don't mind. We are inspired.
Yesterday was the first day in years that we did not have Sunday dinner at my parents' house. We are a very fortunate family. We live a short distance from my parents and as our children have grown up, they've had the benefit of having loving, supportive and very active grand and great-grand parents nearby. Sunday dinner has become a closely protected tradition. The days we miss a Sunday are rare and for good reason. Yesterday, instead of saying grace around my parents' dining room table, they were meeting with their contractor and packing up the last of their salvageable toiletries. They can no longer live in their damaged home.
My parents' house is an important part of why our Sunday dinner ritual is so special. When they moved to Houston to be near their grandchildren nearly fifteen years ago, instead of downsizing into a smaller utilitarian home for themselves, my parents bought a bigger home that could accommodate my grandmother, who lived with them, and that could allow for large gatherings and frequent guests, just as their home in California had. And they quickly made their new abode into a place of refuge and comfort for all who enter its doors. They have a gift of creating sanctuary. Every single one of us love to visit my parents. Even as teenagers, my brother's and my children love no other place like they do their grandparent's home. Our out-of-town guests love to be invited to my parents home as part of their visit. Our dog comes with us every Sunday for our Sunday dinner visit and we have to force her back into our car when its time to go home. She and my father have a special pact. He sneaks her bits of Sunday dinner under the table.
So more than just my parents were devastated when Tropical Storm Harvey flooded their home last week. During the storm, my mother called with frequent updates--
"The water is up to the second porch stair, we're moving the furniture up."
"The rain has not let up here, It's at the first porch stair, we've unplugged the appliances and the TVs."
"The water is in, we are going upstairs."
It might be odd for non-Houston folk to understand, but only in this instant- when I get this call from my seventy-six year old mother that her house has finally succumbed to the storm- that I regret not evacuating. The truth is- we never even discussed evacuating for this hurricane. People in Houston don't leave their homes in a Hurricane unless they are forced to.
Until now, we Houstonians had been inflicted with what Malcolm Gladwell refers to as an Invulnerability Syndrome similar to what survivors of the great world wars experienced. Since the vast majority of us survived the last hurricane (and the one before that) relatively unscathed, we think we are invincible to their damage. And to prove that our homes are safer than trying to escape, we have Hurricane Rita and the very fresh memory of over a hundred people dying in cars and buses trying to evacuate, while those of us at home quietly watched television and waited as the hurricane veered off and missed Houston altogether. We also got through Hurricane Ike with some wind and water damage but not much else. The City employs a Flood Czar, for Heaven's Sake, a brilliant career engineer whose job it is to optimize our infrastructure to handle such things. Houston knows flooding. We'll be fine, we thought.
Today, we Houstonians no longer suffer our notions of invincibility. Hurricane Harvey has cured us all of that. There's no preparing for a 1000-year flood. My parent's stylish sunken living room became a fish pond, complete with fish. And the water kept coming- into the kitchen, the dining room, the study, all of the bedrooms. It kept getting higher- the garage, the laundry room and then up the stairs to the second floor.
At that point, too far away and blocked by roads that became flowing rivers, I was in a panic. I am on the phone with my mother who is contemplating how they would get to the roof. How do you pull that off from the second floor? No way are my parents going to set up a ladder and climb in the pouring rain onto their very high and pitched roof. Now I am pleading for them to call someone to get them out.
My father is calm. The power is still on-- they've got air and their big screen TV. They've got a small refrigerator full of food and wine. Their phones are charged. "We are good," he says, "don't worry." And then: "the safest thing to do is to stay put." And for them, he was right. Most of the deaths that occurred with Harvey occurred in cars. Some people had to break out of their attics through the roof to escape. Boat rescues are still going on in some parts of the city.
So even with their beautiful home destroyed and uninhabitable, they were and are extremely fortunate. They've got a salvageable home and flood insurance to claim. They've got a place to go and people to help. They've got their lives.
But as we sifted through the wreckage (the sofa that floated around the living room during the storm like a massive, aimless ship in a murky sea, is over forty years old. I and my kids grew up on that sofa), I can't help but contemplate the meaning of home and the significance of a house. Our homes and all of our stuff-- those outward manifestations of our inner selves-- really have their own lives, don't they? They have their own stories. You don't really realize this truth until your home becomes just a holder of wet and soggy things totally devoid of their purpose and value. Corpses that ought to be eulogized. If the sofa had died of natural causes, you could properly mourn for it. You could tell stories about the many Christmases and parties it has seen, afternoon naps and awkward boyfriend visits it has witnessed. If the winged-back armchairs inherited from Granny were the only casualty, you could pause properly for them. But they are currently in a pile out on the curb along with the mattresses, the area rugs, the ottoman and the dresser that you thought was of good quality wood but actually wasn't.
These things are not what makes a home a home, but they do hold entire life stories--meaning beyond the wood and upholstery. I've been watching how my mother is processing all of this loss. She has very quickly shifted and is in all-business mode. My parents have that luxury-- to cut their emotional ties to this replaceable house and furniture. Someone is going to come in and fix everything. My parents get to make new choices and begin again. They will busily create a new sanctuary. Its what they do. They are good at it. They have the resources.
For now, my parents are living with us, in our home. We are a fortunate family for this fact alone. We will all be under the same safe roof. Sunday dinners will continue here. Our dog doesn't quite know what has happened to create this happy situation, but her tail does not stop wagging. I am happy, too!
HOW TO HELP THOSE IN NEED IN HOUSTON:
We are in the Thinking Room at Houston's Museum of African American Culture. Karen Walrond, the mega-talented photographer, author and find-your-magic muse, has asked me to talk about my style, and we have agreed to meet at my favorite place in the City. I am excited to have Karen to myself for a brief moment.
Not accustomed to being asked about my style, I think about it all week. I decide to focus on my work attire, because, in truth, I most like dressing for work. I am not an office-casual kind of person. In fact, I never do casual Fridays (unless I am headed to the airport). I NEVER walk to the office in my suit and sneakers (even though I lost the cap of my heel on a sidewalk grate the other day and had to click-clack my way into a meeting). I feel most awesome in a structured dress or a suit. I believe that I am most productive at work when I am dressed for business. My clothes, I suppose, remind me of my purpose.
I know-- so Catholic School.
I say all of that, but then, on the other hand, I prefer to write in my pajamas. I know this is a contradiction because writing is work, and productivity is important to writing, as well. I suspect that this preference for pajamas-while-writing has to do with the habit and ritual I've long set up for myself to write in the early morning hours. For my first book, I'd get up super early (like 4:00am), put a solid couple of writing hours in and then, as a reward, go back to bed for a delicious little nap. Thus, the pajamas.
I should also own up to that long span of time between my early law firm life and my current spell of gainful employment, when I was child-bearing and rearing. In those years, through all five kids, my uniform was black yoga or running pants and a t-shirt. Period. Everyday. Was I working out then--other than running from school to school, child activity to child activity? No. Well, occasionally. I aspired to exercise regularly. My uniform, then, was aspirational in that regard. But to call it aspirational is to elevate it beyond it's true value as just easy. If you show up at a parent-teacher conference in yoga pants and a t-shirt, the pervasive assumption is that you are trying to fit self-maintenance into your otherwise sacrificial day. You get points for this and you are forgiven.
Yep, that is what I told myself.
I don't share all of this with Karen as we talk under the watchful gaze of the Museum's gigantic David McGee painting of a modern man wearing a dramatic minstrel-like costume. Perfect. Yes, the costumes we wear. Our conversation travels the spectrum of work and motherhood, culture and art. Though I am the interviewee, I am hanging on Karen's every word. She is, after all, such a finder and creator of beauty; such a force of power and connection for others; such a kind and generous spirit. And well, she is funny and fun.
So I encourage you to pop over to her website, Chookooloonks.com, and not just to check out the interview. You need to grab you some Karen! Look around the entire site while you are there. Take it all in. I guarantee you will become a Karen Walrond fan, too and you will want more of what she is offering, namely, positivity and light!
Thank you, Karen! The fact that there are margaritas in our futures is making my days! :-)
I spoke with Charlene Jones, the open and ever-positive host of Soul Sciences Podcast, this past week. Charlene's podcast explores, among other things, memoir in the context of healing, meditation, dreams, neuroscience. We launch into a discussion of my book, A Story That Matters, and a fair number of other topics, including mothering, siblings, the craft of writing memoir, my favourite memoirs of the moment.
Charlene has a compelling story of her own, which you can find here. Before the interview she helped me with my challenges with meditation, for which I am deeply grateful!
I hope you enjoy the interview HERE and Charlene's website.... Now I am off to practice being still!
I have written about my mother many times, both in fiction and nonfiction. You will find at least one story about her in my book*. My mother managed to raise me without any noteworthy drama or discord—no abuse or trauma. I had a happy childhood in a sanctuary of a household with two successfully married parents, who remained gainfully employed until retirement. In the child-rearing race, my mother and father reached the finish line with their healthy and optimistic notions of the world intact. Some would argue that this is why I am not a better writer. The craft of memoir writing seems to be best mastered by people whose childhoods held at least some form of well-entrenched dysfunction. And many writers, a disproportionate number, lay their family’s dysfunction squarely at the feet of their mothers.
There are so many published mother memoirs that I could open up a bookstore, if it were currently prudent to do such a thing. I could call it About Mom and sell mother memoirs exclusively, with such a large inventory of choices that books would spill out of the front door. Often, writers begin their stories with no intention of writing about their mothers. Lori Gottlieb says as much about her memoir, Stick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self: “It’s not that I set out to write about my mother.” Gottlieb says. “It’s just that it’s virtually impossible to write about your childhood without writing about your mother, and people who grow up to be writers generally have some less than flattering observations to share.”*
My mother is how I have high self-esteem. She taught me about excellence and beauty and work ethic. She is the reason I had a childhood full of laughter and meaning. I suggest that perhaps she is the reason I am not a better writer because every body needs to have at least one complaint about their mother. This is the best I can muster-- that if she was not so damned perfect, I'd have more to endure and to overcome, and thusly, more pain to wrench out of my soul until beautiful prose drips out. There would be more complexity to my personality. I'd had greater reasons to triumph and the victory would be more meaningful, if only my mother were awful. But alas, she just isn't. I know I am lucky and there is just no drama or intrigue in this truth! But it is what it is!
Happy Mother's Day to everybody's Mama. The one's who have created great writers and the one's who've managed not to!
*Partial excerpt from A Story That Matters: A Gratifying Approach to Writing About Your Life
I made a batch of chocolate chips cookies today because I've had Nana, my grandmother-in-law, on my mind. Her birthday was Tuesday and she used to bake outrageously delicious chocolate chip cookies. All of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren coveted her cookies. I am reminded by her cookies how happy you can make a person when you offer them a lovingly prepared sweet treat. And I am also reminded of how nostalgic food can be.
I am no foodie. And so, by baking these cookies, I do not in any way aspire to top Nana's delicious cookie recipe. Some recipes can never be improved upon. They are so much more than the sum of their ingredients. They are magical. Nana's cookies embody Nana. They invoke her meticulous way of doing things; the way she gave herself to her grandchildren and great-children; her uncomplicated love for her only child's, my husband's mother's, offspring.
For me, when I think of her chocolate chip cookies, I remember my first visit to her apartment and her small, immaculate kitchen. I remember on that visit as the new wife of her youngest grandson, Nana had cookies waiting-- covered in wax paper on a plate. I remember when she disclosed that she had baked cookies, my spouse and his oldest brother reacted with excitement.
"Nana makes the BEST chocolate chip cookies!"
And I have already said, I am not a foodie. I know that people love some foods from their childhoods, dishes they've grown up with that they believe to be special because they have nostalgia baked in. They rant and rave about how the dish is the very best possible version of that particular food. And so you, the newcomer, dive in to taste. But sometimes the dish is not the best version. You discover that their loved one's best dish is an acquired taste, or that its just plain nasty. This happened to me with a good friend's auntie's macaroni and cheese. I was joining my friend at a family gathering,
"You will love Auntie's mac and cheese. Best mac and cheese EVER!
I was excited. I loved mac and cheese. You can't mess up mac and cheese, right?
Too much cheese. Overcooked macaroni pasta. No salt. I am no foodie. I'm just saying, you can't eat everybody's food.
So when spouse and brother said, "Nana's are The Best." I was a little wary because I was the new wife and therefore I must eat the cookies with relish if I am to successfully take my place in my new family. So I'm nervous but then again, I am not one to pass on dessert. Nana offered me the cookie plate. I took the smallest cookie. And I took a bite.
Delicious! I agree on the spot. Their characterization was true. And no one was happier than I. I ate three in rapid succession. Not good early impression behavior. Of course, over time, Nana's cookies began to embody for me all of the wonderful things about her, too. And thus, over time, they become even more of a treat.
We have other dishes in our family that have taken on mythical importance. My brother's seafood gumbo is THE BEST anywhere by anybody. Undisputed. The whole family has his recipe but why? No one can make theirs taste like his. No one. Perhaps cooked into his gumbo is an ample helping of holiday meal and celebratory memories; of warm bellies on cold winter nights and glistening foreheads on steamy summer afternoons. His gumbo invokes Houston and that brief period of time when our entire family lived in one Southern city.
My mother has a strawberry cake that no one else can make. We have this cake several times a year because everybody wants it on their birthday. And so there is a whole tradition of birthdays baked into Mama T's special strawberry cake. Pieces of this cake are fought over. It's a I-can't-believe-you-ate-the-last-piece kind of cake.
For my part, since I am no foodie, I am known for more simple fare. I can make a mean omelet, a reliable lasagna, and a respectable shrimp scampi. If you ask my children what they like most of my dishes, they will almost certainly say my fried catfish or my hamburger pasta. I believe I make delicious fried catfish. I have secret spices that I employ. I have a tried and true method for removing the fish from the fryer right when the batter is cooked to an optimal crisp. The dish is so popular among my people that when I told my parents that my old reliable electric fryer stopped working, I came home from work three days later to find a new one delivered by Amazon to my front door. I think I understand why they love my catfish...
My children's affinity for my hamburger pasta as adults, on the other hand, is beyond comprehension. Their affection for this simple dish is, I suspect, wrapped up in major childhood nostalgia. When my children were small, I was even less of a foodie than I am now. Meaning, I barely... rarely cooked. I was an expert at putting a meal together without the use of stove or oven. Our refrigerator was a desolate place. I believe that this desperate dish, my hamburger pasta, a slightly glorified version of Hamburger Helper, reminds my kids of Houston summers- trips to Astroworld, playing in the rain in the front yard and catching jars of tadpoles in the gutter. I am thinking that this is true because the lazy days of summer would be when I most often resorted to this quick and reliable whole-meal-in-a skillet offering. A group of children might be at the house, just out of the pool around dinner time, when the blazing sun should have set by then, but hadn't. I could whip up hamburger pasta to fool my kid's friends into thinking I was a proper parent. Perhaps my kids were appreciative of the ruse. Perhaps hamburger pasta is a meal of gratitude.
All of my children are good cooks, even the youngest...especially the youngest. They all make exotic, delicious, wholesome dishes with commitment and with ease. When they reminisce over a bowl of my hamburger pasta about their mother's scant provisions, as they laugh about the desolate refrigerator and those week-long runs on fish sticks or tofu hot dogs made almost inedible by microwave cooking, I remind them that motivation to cook well is often born of deprivation. And then I say, your welcome.
Charlie Murphy was the last comedian that I saw perform live. He was hilarious. And not in the way that his younger brother, Eddie Murphy, is hilarious. He had a way about him that felt real, not so carefully composed as other funny people. He was like that really funny uncle whose arrival at family gatherings marks the moment when things really jump off-- that uncle who just seems to live his life so that he is always at the right place at the right time AND the wrong place at the right time. And he can recount his wild and crazy experiences in a way that makes the stories sound both outlandish and totally true.
And that's just it. Charlie Murphy was, above all else, a masterful storyteller.
I am a true lover of stand-up comedy. My Sirius radio is programmed only to NPR and the comedy stations, almost always on the Foxxhole. When I go to see live comedy, I am like that woman on the CD or HBO Special soundtrack, whose whooping, loud laughs obnoxiously sound off just before the punchline hits. And as you listen, you ask, "who laughs like that?"
Answer: I do.
A good comedian gets me going. I can't stop. My mother calls this "getting your tickle box turned over." I get my tickle box turned over every time. I've watched Kings of Comedy dozens of times. I will likely watch it dozens more. It is my go-to pick-me-up. It never fails me because laughter is most certainly my best medicine, and I was raised on Black comedy- Moms Mabley; Redd Foxx; Dick Gregory; Richard Pryor; Flip Wilson; Bill Cosby-- did I already mention Richard Pryor? And I've followed all of the wonderfully talented people who have come along behind these comedy greats.
I honestly still have not recovered from losing Bernie Mack.
Most of Charlie Murphy's stories were "20 feet from fame" types of stories- as witnessed by the sibling of Hollywood royalty. As part of Eddie Murphy's entourage, Charlie was protector, party-starter, party-closer and bad-boy. He seemed to have been always getting into fights, fending off women not really intended for him and starting and ending some kind of high jinx. He watched and he participated as a part of things, but also very much apart from things-- the observer. And it was this perspective that was so interesting. When David Chappelle, in all of his brilliance, put Charlie Murphy on the map with The Chappelle Show's Charlie Murphy's True Hollywood Stories, suddenly we all "discovered" Charlie Murphy. I am not sure if Murphy was doing comedy solo before his television coming-out, but his stand-up was a continuation of this true Hollywood stories theme, only his act was simpler, purer. It was just Murphy and us, the audience, no need for TV magic. I laughed the entire time and I was utterly charmed from that night on. I had hoped that I could catch his show again live. But this never happened.
And now he is gone. Fortunately, we can still enjoy his wonderfulness on tape again and again. But still, I'm gonna miss him, Man!
So…I got some bangs. I asked my hair stylist to cut me some bangs because I noticed that my hairline is receding...
Vanity is a bitch, isn’t she? And I don’t mean Vanity, the late Purple Prince’s girlfriend, the singer. She was lovely and purportedly a kind person…and she died…and you shouldn’t say bad things about the deceased. So, no, not her.
I’m talking about Vanity, the seventh deadly sin. THAT Vanity is a bitch. She makes you toil trying to hold onto a beauty that you never really ever had. You are chasing and chasing youth—Vanity does that!
Look at what she does to your Facebook profile picture, for example. You take your best picture and then Vanity drives you to crop and Photoshop and airbrush. You lay on a bunch of filters so that you look like you did when you were twelve years old.
THEN you post it.
And all of your friends and family say—“beautiful!”, “stunning!”, “gorgeous!”
You think they are talking about you, as if they are agreeing that you actually look like that. But they are not admiring you. They are admiring your artwork! That Profile Picture isn’t really for them, though, is it? No, Friend. it’s for you and Vanity. You posted it there so that you and Vanity are happy. Vanity helps you forget all that you had to do to create that vision and you very quickly believe that this is how you actually look.
Yes, Vanity is a bitch. But Aging is a relentless bastard, isn’t he? That asshole never sleeps. Aging and Vanity work together to make you miserable. He does his damage—encouraging you to take part in your own downfall—“Here, eat this cake.” “Drink this wine.” "Oh, let’s lay out in the sun a little longer. You don’t need sunblock! Here—use this metal suntanning reflector!”
And then Vanity has to run behind Aging. “We can fix it! We can fix it!,” Vanity is saying—she and Sephora and that scary woman behind the Neiman Marcus cosmetic counter who has created her own lips where there aren’t any with aggressive swipes of MAC Viva Glam red lipstick.
Pretty soon Vanity makes you take out all of your bathroom mirrors and install new rose-tinted, opaque ones, so that in the morning, you always have a view of yourself that is glowing and smoothly unfocused. You don’t see how Aging has darkened the circles under your eyes ever deeper. You go from your rosy, opaque bathroom mirrors to your Facebook profile picture to keep your positive notion of yourself in tact. When someone requires a picture ID, like the airport TSA officer or that flirty bartender at happy hour, you hand over your driver’s license face down without ever looking at it, don’t you? You don’t need that police-line-up-photo-atrocity to remind you of how you actually look, now do you?
But then you go on vacation. You leave town because you believe you need this break. You are going to turn off your phone and your laptop and power down, escape your crazy life. You get a luxury suite somewhere quiet. The suite has a bowl of fruit and wine waiting at check-in--slippers by the bed. You think—this is going to be great for me, this moment to breathe, to EXHALE, sleep in, eat room service in bed. So you do. You go to bed early—fall asleep with grapes on your chest and the TV on. You wake up late. You get up, slip your feet into the pillowy hotel slippers waiting by the bed and shuffle off to the bathroom. And it’s a luxury bathroom…Your pillowy slippers are a welcome barrier between your feet and the cold Italian marble floor. You look up and there are mirrors EVERYWHERE! On EVERY SIDE. And they are not rosy or opaque. Nope, these are HD mirrors!
And you see your reflection. And you are horrified. “JEEZ LOUISE,” Vanity shrieks! (She actually says “JESUS CHRIST!”, but you gave up using the Lord’s name in vain for Lent…so “JEEZ LOUISE!” she shrieks.)
Aging is snickering in the corner—he pushes that little round magnifying mirror that is anchored to the luxury bathroom wall toward you and you see those deep crags around your eyes and the corners of your mouth. Vanity shrieks again and you both grasp each other, and cower to the floor in the opposite corner. Now you are in a fetal position on the cold luxury Italian marble floor.
You’ve seen the hag!
Vanity is in a panic. She springs into action—“We can fix this. We can fix this!” she is saying as she gathers your cosmetic case and your exercise mat. “We can fix this!”
But you know in that moment that the truth will always find you. Aging will always be one step ahead. And Vanity is just delusional.
Anyway, yeah, so I got some bangs…
What are Black families supposed to do for Black History Month? Is Black History Month even for Black people?
Of course, it is. Of course, the month is important for us—a time to commemorate-- a few days to remember all that Black folks have contributed to our communities; this nation; the world. But in a real sense, Black History Month is for everyone else. It’s an opportunity to teach others about who we are, and why everyone, certainly in this country, should know who we are-- how much we are sown into, have sown, the fabric of this country; how much of our blood is in its soil, and therefore, a part of everything that springs forth and grows therefrom.
So for this Black History Month, write something about yourself, your history. Tell a story about your family, because Black History Month is not just about knowing. It's about being known.
For the last few weeks, I have been contemplating what happened at the Women's March in DC on January 21st. I attended the march with my seventy-five-year-old mother and my twenty-five-year-old daughter. The march was a moment when the three of us found ourselves in a distant city, pressed on every side by angry human beings. Even though I am a touch claustrophobic, from the beginning, on the packed train (sardine-like train car), in the train station (wall-to-wall chanting people), and along the crowded streets, I felt at ease, I will even say comforted, by this sea of diverse folk. We were, all five hundred thousand of us, marchers in spiritual unison. Many of us were motivated to travel here by our profound frustration, incredulity, fear and disbelief. We had been in a state ever since Presidential election night. We came to the march because we all felt unmoored, unable to fathom a future. We came to get our bearings and our game plan. And we came for commiseration.
Ever clever and passionate protest signs expressed our outrage. But also many placards reflected our commitment to love, compassion, justice, and truth-- the values that keep America America. In this crowd, every kindness, every smile felt like camaraderie. And after so many months of bitter divisiveness, this wholesale alignment of purpose felt like a return to center. After the long (nearly too long) string of eloquent and passionate speakers, the wholesale alignment of purpose began to feel a lot like hope.
It was a deeply meaningful day for all three of us--Baby Boomer--GENX--Millennial. We felt a part of something so huge as to be overwhelming, so important as to qualify as a monumental shift. It wasn't until we reached our hotel that we found out about the other marches world-wide. My text messages were full of pictures from Los Angeles, Houston, Austin and from my youngest daughter, attending school abroad, who marched with a lively crowd in Dublin, Ireland.
By the time we reached our hotel room, I had my legislators' numbers on my phone's "favorite" list and their email addresses in my contacts. I had resolved to be a part of solutions that protect hard-earned rights for people of color and for women and for immigrants and for the poor.
Then...the day after the march, we had the brilliant foresight to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This museum. THIS. MUSEUM.
Affectionately referred to as the Blacksonian, the NMAAHC is a marvel. It is a wonderment. It is a life-altering experience. You can think you that know your history. But do you KNOW your history? I learned SO much in the hours we were there. But somehow, ever since I saw her speak at the march, I was, at the NMAAHC, especially drawn to that spot that featured Angela Davis' story. So much of her message, all the way back to when she was an outspoken, undeservingly incarcerated member of the Black Panther Party, continues to speak precisely to where we find ourselves now, when so much rides on this Presidency, when so many have already lost their rights and many, many more stand to lose theirs.
Lately, I have been using words like revolution and resistance a lot, because this political environment requires it. We are called to be fearless, and we are called to remember. But most of all, we must hold feet to the fire-- those who we voted into office to represent us. Though she said it decades ago, Davis' words are still correct:
"We live in a society of an imposed forgetfulness, a society that depends on public amnesia."
We hear so much right now about outrage fatigue and our inability to sustain our efforts. We have allowed those in power to treat us as if we have no ears and no memory. She was also right when she said:
"Justice is indivisible. You can't decide who gets civil rights and who doesn't."
We cannot claim to be a nation of the people. We cannot be the moral standard holders of the world, when we are willing to allow whole groups to be excluded and deported. Within the span a few weeks, we already look nothing like ourselves and the picture is worsening by the day. People are suffering at the hands of someone who claims he wants to make America great, only to rob it of its greatness. And so we must decide that Angels Davis' words will be our anthem:
"I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept!"
And what does that mean in the context of this moment? Again, I call on the words of Ms. Davis:
"What we need is more unemployed politicians!"
Often, in the face of the constant barrage of news reports about the unreasoned, irrational, self-serving actions currently taken by our elected officials, I am without words. Fortunately for all of us, Angela Davis never is!
Here are ways to get and stay involved:
The Women's March and HUDDLE effort- a list of actionable items to do in the first 100 days of this Presidency, including local gatherings.
Indivisible- The practical guide to resisting the Trump agenda. You can also sign up for their email about local ways to participate.
It’s December 31, 2016. My kids and I are gathered in the kitchen discussing our goals for the New Year. My kids are mostly grown, but I have always been a big believer in resolutions.
I announce that 2017 is going to be my Year of No. “What does that mean?” my middle child sounds alarmed, “You’re going to say no to everything?” They all sigh disapproving sighs. The teenager remarks, “So what else is new?” surely in reference to his limited access to my car. Despite the pervasive sentiment among them that No is not a positive way to embark upon a fresh, new year, I am holding fast to this resolution. 2016 was a bitch of a year, and as it comes to a close, I am exhausted.
Last year, I said “Yes” A LOT, too many times. Here’s the thing-- I pride myself on showing up. I may be late, and I may be disheveled when I get there. But I come when I say I will. And when I get there, I try my best to be fully present. Last year found me running around like a chicken-sans-head-- over-booked, always late, texting apologies and looking at my phone last minute for directions. Plenty of good came out of all of my frantic hurrying. Goals got met, people got served, family and friends got tended to. I got a publisher (yay). I got frequent flyer miles (whoo hoo!). And I streamlined my scheduling process (by sheer necessity). Still, I left too many important things hanging—unfinished and neglected, including my health and that partially completed book of fiction my friends are tired of hearing about..
In 2017, I am trying “no” on for size. You can say “no” in so many powerful ways, for many sound and powerful reasons. So on New Year’s Day, in a quiet moment when no one was in earshot, I practiced saying no in the mirror--
Angry “NO” (loud with grimace, clinched fists, unblinking eye contact).
Firm “No” (quiet with straight face, posture erect, shoulders relaxed, facing subject squarely).
Gentle “no” (almost a whisper with a smile, head tilt, soft touch to subject’s arm).
I can do this.
This year, by saying no, I can simultaneously liberate myself and pull myself back in.
Ironically, one of the motivators for my Year of No is Shonda Rhimes’ inspiring book, Year of Yes, which I happened to read in December. In her book, Ms. Rhimes explores the joys of going outside of her comfort zone; of stepping into the sun and allowing herself to blossom. Although we readers already know that Rhimes is a badass in her field, I believe her book was a bestseller because we all are both surprised and comforted to know that someone so well accomplished still grapples with her own personal development. Each of us has our own personal stuff to deal with: those parts of us that are still not quite right; those habits that are still obstacles that keep us stuck where we are. She reminds us to embrace the idea that everyone is a work-in-progress and that we are not only worth the work, we are worthy of uncovering the greatness within. She also takes the brave step off a cliff when she reveals her dissatisfaction with her own life— she dares to explore what is not working in that privileged world of hers, so full of loving people and satisfying work. So she directs her competitive energies toward the challenge of saying yes to every invitation and opportunity to share her authentic self.
Year of Yes is a testimony kind of story. And it is a religious conversion type of testimony, where Rhimes abandons her well-entrenched belief system—that she is safer and happier if she keeps herself hidden and out of the light—for a new way of being. She looks hard at where she is and decides that this belief system of hers is no longer working for her. She makes a decision and she jumps. I love conversion stories. They show us that real change is possible, that a stubborn mind can shift, that old dogs can learn new tricks. So I am with her all of the way. I want to say YES, YES, YES, too! Problem is—saying YES is not my issue. Saying yes has gotten me in the not-so-great place that I am right now. Tired. Burned out. Anxious. I am, in many ways, the other side of the Shonda Rhimes coin. I am the much less successful, less shiny side of that coin.
“Yes”, as Rhimes convinces, is such a beautiful word. It is brimming with positivity and possibility and hope. Yes means acceptance. And acceptance is composed of all good things, but especially beginnings—the fresh, the new, the dawning of adventure. I am deeply committed to opening myself up to opportunity and stepping up, leaning in-- turning my face toward the bright, warm sun. I love saying yes. I love the feeling of yes and the responses it inspires. I often say yes because I am honored to be asked. And I say yes because I am a person of good intention. I want to be the right answer for you. I want to help.
“No”, on the other hand, is so dark and brooding. It connotes not just an ending but a thwarting— to cut-off, shut-off, hold-up, prevent. Worse yet, No is rejection. And everybody hates rejection. So a part of the effort this year will be to let go of the negative aura of No, and embrace her (yes, I have assigned No a gender) as my savior. She will be my muse. We women must make No at least our friend. We often fail to invoke her when it matters most, because we are afraid, at least hesitant, to disappoint. And this fear and hesitance get us in trouble in so many ways. We end up in places we should not be at work and in relationships. This is why I don’t make the argument to turn my No’s into Yeses. Here, I could recommend some turn of phrase that makes each chance to say No into a cosmic Yes. But sometimes--say it with me-- No means No. Sometimes, we are best served by expressing the clarity of limitation and restraint with a simple “no” or “no, thank you” or “HELL-TO-THE-NO!”
As a woman of a certain age, I know that I can have all of the things that I want in the way that I want them. I’ve spent my life setting myself up for success and happiness. But at this point, success and happiness mean something different. I want my success to look more like purpose and meaning. I want my happiness to feel more like lasting contentment. I want good food to function more like nourishment. I want my interactions to look more like love and compassion—networking to be more like collaboration; negotiation to end with true win-win. But to have all of that, I must hold out for the real goods. And I must say no to the more superficial trappings that look good when curated on Facebook, but feel empty in real time. I’m not saying no to Facebook, but I am saying no to a “Facebook life”.
As a writer, I am accustomed to saying no. It's true that writers, like any other artist, must be open to the world and all that they can take in. But if “Yes” in writing is the openness required to find and receive ideas and information, then “No” must represent the editing part. Any good writer will tell you that editing is as important to the writing process as getting your thoughts and ideas down. Some would argue, even more important. It takes skill and discipline to say no to a brilliant concept when it is not so brilliant for the particular subject at hand. And this is what editing requires-- saying no to the words that you have already written when they do not, upon second read, tightly fit your message. This year, I am going to fearlessly edit my life in the same way that I mercilessly edit my work. This will mean that I must find the willpower to choose the experiences most vital and valuable to my purposes and cut away all else. And not just on big picture decisions (like saying no to work projects and community work that do not squarely fit with my skill set), but in the small day-to-day choices, as well.
In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character asks Curly, the burly cowboy played by Jack Palance, how Curly had come to live so self-satisfactorily. And Curly says, “One Thing. One Thing.” In essence, pick your one thing, stick to it and the rest takes care of itself. I refer to Curly’s response often. In fact, some friends are thinking right now-- Is she really invoking Curly again? Yes, I am because Curly's one-thing statement uncovers a fundamental truth. Though very few of us choose Curly’s simple one-thing lifestyle, the reality is we work best when we do one thing at a time. Studies show it. Our own experiences prove it. Multitasking is not the best, most productive way to work or live. When we multitask, we rob each undertaking of its total potential. And we deprive ourselves of the full experience of each endeavor. I, for example, always have my computer open on my lap when I watch television. I feel guilty if I am only watching, as if television is not worthy of my full attention. This drives my family crazy because I am constantly asking questions about the TV show we are watching, questions I would not pose if I were fully attentive. Here is how I rationalize this obnoxious behavior— when my family has gathered together to watch television, I want to take part. But by the time I settle down to watch, I am usually already sleepy. So I multitask in order to stay awake. I am either working on the computer, on my phone or asleep. If I fall asleep (I almost always do-- head back, mouth open, soft snore), I wake up intermittently and then ask questions to catch up on what I missed.
This year, I am going to say no to being the worst television companion and other fractured ways of living. No more reading my texts at the dinner table. No more putting on make-up in the car. No more taking notes while listening to a podcast, while cooking breakfast, while getting dressed for work. The morning multitask is serious. One morning, not too long ago, I left the house wearing a lovely, well-cut dress, but the shoes on my feet were not a matching pair. They weren’t even the same color. I only discovered the mistake at work when I looked down to see what the other people in the elevator were staring at. There was one collective inner dialog cloud over their heads, “Wait, is she wearing a blue pump and a black one?”
This year, I will try one task at a time. Focus. Finish. Next! (And I might just say no to late night television!)
...I'll let you know how it goes...
This website is my new blogging home. Some content is moved over, like my post about Prince, below. But most of my past work is archived here. As you may know, most of my writing has been in the parenting and family space. I began other meanderings-- thoughts and ideas-- at Gina Carroll Has Something to Say. I will continue to share my stories in this new spot. I am hoping this new space relays a message of simplicity and the serenity of knowing that this is the right time and place to make a change.
New Year, New Ways. 2017 brings a new book, A Story That Matters: A Gratifying Way to Write About Your Life, and a new business, Story House LA, and a new way of helping people get their stories written, Inspired Wordsmith's New Online eCourses. Yay! Very excited. This new blog is the only one of these three projects that has launched. So please stayed tuned and rest assured, I will keep you posted! I sincerely hope you find something useful here!
When I was in law school, one of my classmates was a Prince FANATIC! Yes, full word, all caps. I was only made aware of her obsession when Prince was scheduled to come to Los Angeles for a concert. The year, 1985. The tour, Prince and the Revolution Purple Rain Tour, with Sheila E as the guest performer. Can you imagine? And my friend, Kim, had a ticket.
I was married and pregnant at the time (wasn’t I always?). But my friend Kim was single, available and in love, true love, according to her, with Prince. We were all fans, as this was one year after Purple Rain, the movie, had premiered and by this time, already a cult classic.
Kim made this concert her very reason for living. She approached her concert preparations with the drama and seriousness of the truly possessed. Thus, the days leading up to the event became an exciting journey for all of us, her law school circle. Kim shared how she snagged a premium ticket and what she planned to wear. I was a part of her wardrobe planning team, proceeding item by item—shoes (always first), short skirt, provocative blouse, and big hair intentions (it was the 80’s, after all). Her outfit assembly did not take long because she did not plan to wear much! She admitted that her plan was to go “full groupie” and she was certain (as are most concert goers planning to go full groupie) that Prince would spot her and only her in the crowd. Kim was a gorgeous and sexy young woman, in all of the ways that Prince required. And she was fully prepared to transform herself into her very best version of Apollonia (no small feat!). If I am recalling correctly, I think Kim even planned to have herself delivered to the concert by limo. I may have dreamed this part up as I, being in full vicarious living mode, bought into her fantasy completely. I wanted her to succeed–to meet Prince, steal his heart and I don’t know, have his baby?
Kim was a brilliant law student, please remember, so she had some substantial stuff to offer the Prince of Pop. What she offered her fellow law students in that brief moment in our history was a respite from our dreary lives. In our little law school world, there was not much excitement. Even in the middle of 1980’s LA, we were focused and struggling to keep ourselves afloat and ahead of our academic workload. This would have been before UCLA Law School had even begun its remodel and modernization. So we, basically, found ourselves either in a dingy classroom or a solemn library. Kim’s flight of fancy—this future Prince concert—was an exciting departure from our norm.
As the date loomed closer, she somehow secured an extra ticket. Honestly, I am not sure if she had the ticket all along or just at the last minute. When I look back, knowing my wily friend, I can see how she lead us all up to this point of the extra ticket. How she set up the drama and excitement, how she lulled us into loving Prince even more, seeing him the way she did, through her adoring eyes. How she made us all want to come along and go “full groupie” with her. I was, of course, out of the running. Nothing destroys your groupie vibe more than a very pregnant tag-along. But suddenly, among our friends there was a competition for that blessed ticket– offers of tempting items like class outlines and paper edits. After much scrambling and negotiation, however, the ticket went to one of Kim’s friends who was not a part of her law school circle.
Too bad we did not have then all of the technology that concert goers have today. Back then, none of us had a mobile phone. So Kim could not take us with her. We could not see the pre-concert dress-up session; or the limo ride; or the selfie pictures with Prince on stage in the background. Those of us left behind at school could only continue on with our sad lives in the library, listening to a Purple Rain cassette tape through shoddy ear phones attached to our Walk Man devices. Pathetic.
Of course, Kim did not meet Prince. But she claims she was close enough to the stage to feel as if he was singing only to her. She said then that it was the best concert of her life. I have been fortunate to see Prince perform live since then. My concert experience happened many, many years later and with many other live performances under my belt. But afterward, I felt the same as Kim during my own encounter with the Prince. It was the best concert of my life so far. Now that he is gone, maybe ever.