(don’t) Burn This

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I’m stuck on this thing I’ve been writing.

That’s not an excuse, it’s just the way it is. It’s a piece of fiction, drawn heavily from my own experience, and I’ve been chipping away at it for so long that I’m embarrassed to say.

Ok, fifteen years. Fifteen years, you guys!

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. I had a few kids, moved a few times, wrote other things, painted a little, mostly to avoid writing. Mixed in there was work and a few deaths and…well, I have my reasons. But lately I’ve been back at work on it, only, after so long, it barely makes sense to me anymore. Although I’m attached to the characters, and I like some of the story, I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, and that’s driving me nuts. A mentor of mine keeps saying not to worry about that, but I can’t help it.

OK, I’ll only admit this here: I want a guarantee that it will be at least a little good. No one gets that guarantee, of course, and that’s what has made me leave it in a drawer for long stretches of time, sometimes years. After reading that crazy tidying-up book, I went on a binging binge. I found the files on my computer labelled STORY, and dragged them into the trash. I took the box of notes, handwritten pages and chapters I’d printed out, and dumped them in the compost. Then I pulled them out. Finally, I left them, smeared with coffee grounds, on the floor under my desk and waited for the nerve to cut the cord (and my losses) and move on.

Then this happened:

My friend Wendy asked if I could come over and help make some decorations for a big event at our UU church. I said sure, and was looking forward to spending an afternoon crafting it up, cutting and stringing and doing whatever else she told me to do. A few other women would be there, and the three of them would most certainly be on to something amazing, I thought. These three together remind me of those witches from Sleeping Beauty, only more badass, with power tools and oil paint. They are artists. Magicians, in a way, or at least that’s how I think of them. They just seem to know how to make the ordinary beautiful. I was happy to be their lowly helper for the afternoon, in whatever they were cooking up.

I was a little surprised when I got there and in her driveway was, to use an expression that I really hate but sometimes fits the bill— a hot mess. There were huge pieces of paper, recycled something or other, splashed with opaque watercolors and smeared, preschool style, with some glitter thrown in there. My friends were circling their work with brows furrowed, swooshing brushes over it in wide arcs. Wendy got an idea and came back from the depths of her garage with a big box of still more paper—patterns, mismatched, some awesome and retro, some downright hideous. The other two brightened.

“Should we splash those too?”

“Yes. Uniformity!” They began the same process with the paint, the splattering and laughing. When the wind began to blow them away, Wendy insisted we could just chase them down when we were all done, but then ran away and came back with an armful of gigantic homemade hula hoops, to weigh the papers down. (Duh.)

“Who set their paint bottle down here?” Jill asked. It’s true, someone had left  dark purple ring on the paper. Uh-oh, I thought, that can’t be good.

“Oh, that was me,” Dena answered, sweeping her brush over a puddle of fuchsia.

Jill smiled wide. “I like it!”

When the wind died down, we stopped and hula hooped for a spell. You know, like you do. We worked up a good sweat.

After the paper dried, we went inside and tried to un-purple our hands, but it was no use. A few ginger snaps later, we sat at the kitchen table and we cut. We folded. We talked about politics and sex and movies. Looking around, I saw our mess evolving into something, not exactly great, but not so bad, either. And then, gradually, into something pretty, with hints of fucking brilliance! How did it happen?

“If I had been doing this by myself, I would have given up a long time ago,” I said, folding and snipping the painted paper, careful to sweep scraps into a bag by my feet. “I would have burned it in the driveway, when it was so ugly.”

“No, that’s when you have to keep going,” Jill said, looking over her glasses at me. The other two laughed a little (laughter might be their secret ingredient), and kept snipping.

“I want to burn everything I make at least once in the process,” Wendy added.

“Really??” This, I couldn’t believe. Even though I’d only seen her finished products, the drawings, decorated cakes, jewelry, clothes, rugs, gardens, and meals, art just seemed to grow around Wendy like weeds, uncultivated and effortless.

Dena pointed her rusty scissors in my direction. “It doesn’t matter what you’re working on, at some point you’ll think it’s shit. But you keep layering. Or taking away. Or whatever. Eventually it takes shape.”

They nodded, knowing just what she meant, and went on to talk about something else.

Over the course of a few hours, that pile of trash in the driveway became something more. Something beautiful and useful. A gift. And those women, who I had decided belonged to a coven of the gifted and talented, revealed themselves to be, also, much more: They were hard working makers, who had the same doubts as me, but trusted the process more.

I got the message.

On my way out, that afternoon, Wendy called to me, “Take a hula hoop with you!” I did, of course. But she gave me else. She gave me a blessing, without even knowing it, and it was this: You’ll want to burn it, we all do. Don’t. Take a breath and a hula-hoop break. Get messy, use your mistakes, and above all, keep on going.

Happy MLK Day

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It’s that time of year, y’all! Time to celebrate the late, very great, Martin Luther King Jr.  I love Martin Luther King Day because it’s one day that people in our country remember a leader who stood for our very highest values. Unlike the outdated and, in my opinion, pretty shameful Columbus Day, on Martin Luther King Day we celebrate what’s possible through peaceful means, commitment and love. I am inspired when I revisit MLK’s many accomplishments as a community organizer and leader. I hear something new every time I read  his words, or watch his historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It’s a grand holiday, all around.

This past week, my kids and I finished the book Jump Into the Sky, by Shelly Pearsall, for a middle grade book club we are in. It’s a fabulous story set in the US during WWII and, even if you don’t have kids of this age, I highly recommend it. At one point in the book the main character, a thirteen year old African American boy named Levi, while shelling peanuts, describes how sometimes he would like to crack his skin open like a shell and take it off, changing it for another color. My son, almost the same age as Levi, stopped reading and said he didn’t believe a kid his age would think like that. He didn’t think it would occur to a kid to wish for such a thing, changing his skin.

If you didn’t know already, we’re white. When I mentioned to T that maybe he hasn’t felt the way Levi feels in the book, because he happens to have been born with white skin in a country that has a history of white privilege, I saw the wheels in his mind turning. As he began to see his own American experience in relation to that of a character he had come to care about, it was like watching a flower open.

It’s possible that the only way he’s ever going to have an inkling of what racial prejudice feels like is through his imagination, since I’m not sure you can reach compassion and understanding any other way. You travel, read books, watch plays, movies, play pretend, and, most importantly, meet people different from yourself. Listening to their stories, you are able to see  through someone else’s eyes. You trade your skin for another, if only for a moment.

I was born in Tennessee in 1965. Desegregation was still an open wound for some and race wasn’t talked about in my elementary school. Not much time for it, what with all the Bible stories the teachers would read to us. Later, I attended a private school, where we frolicked around in a liberal pool of denial. “No racism here, people!” Meanwhile,  I went to a girls’ camp for several summers during the 70’s, where we were required to stand and sing Dixie every night after dinner. I never knew the history, or what that song represented, so I sang along, clapping and stomping at the end, with all the other white Christian girls. Finally, one summer, no one stood after dessert to sing the song. Just like that, it never happened. And, because we were “young ladies” no one mentioned it. Just like no one talked about why the words to “The Watermelon Song” changed, or Eeny Meeny Miny Mo. The important thing is that those changes happened, of course. Slowly (too slowly) the south moved forward. Inch. By. Inch. But what a missed opportunity to look at where we were coming from, and where we wanted to go.

So maybe that’s why I want to read these stories and listen to these speeches over and over. I want to feel it over and over, and talk about it over and over. I want to imagine what it would be like to have another shade of skin in the army in WWII,

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at the lunch counters during the 50’s,

ANTI INTEGRATION

 

and on the school buses in the 60’s,

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and on the streets of our cities today.ac6qxuw3ogsc6chngc5o

I’m forever grateful for the photographers, journalists, authors, actors, artists and storytellers who, through their work, offer us communion. And, of course, today and every day, deep gratitude to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

Raising a glass, raising kids and raising a question…

glasses-919071__180I drank more than usual during the months of November and December.There was Thanksgiving, Christmas, a few parties, and my birthday thrown in there. Good friends wanted to get together, laugh, trade stories, and this always seemed to included a drink or two.

To be clear, I’m not talking about binging, beer pong (what is that, anyway?), slurred words or hungover mornings. I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not, but I’m kind of a pro at drinking. I know how much is enough and I always stop there. I learned this through years of diligent study during my 20’s. Thank god I lived through that decade without Instagram or Facebook, although I’m sure there are more than a few incriminating polaroids floating around junk drawers on the east coast. Anyway, I learned my lessons and now I’m a very responsible social drinker, IMHO.

Which would be fine, except that eventually kids came into the picture, staring at me with their giant eyeballs that say “teach me how to live,” and made me take a good hard look at one of my life’s simple pleasures.

Having grown up the child of an alcoholic, I am aware of how a parent’s heavy drinking can erode a kid’s sense of reality. You feel scared but you’re not sure why. Other adults say they love you and yet no one protects you. You have to be the parent of your parent— wtf? Or, you pretend everything is normal, only, since you have no idea what normal is, you get it from The Partridge Family and Love American Style. Except for the go-go boots and tambourine playing, I wouldn’t recommend it as a blueprint for happiness.

So when I had kids, I was going to do different. (Can I hear an amen!?) And I have succeeded in many ways, including the fact that, unlike my mother, I am not an alcoholic. I’m not even what I would consider a heavy drinker, but I am a drinker*.

Which brings me back to the kids. Those little people who, all too soon, will be offered a drink (or several) at a party and will or won’t say yes. They will or won’t have the genetic predisposition to alcoholism that seems to run in my family. They will or won’t down a few and get behind the wheel of a car. They will or won’t make the kind of stupid choices that are scattered, like mines, through the trippy land of adolescence. I dodged a hundred of them as a teen and young adult, so I know they are there, but I can’t for the life of me (or my kids) say where.

Maybe, instead of looking down the road for trouble, I should take a peek at my own cozy little life.

At Christmas, we had some people over to our house. There were kids and adults, a good mix. It was a fun night. Over the course of several hours I had some wine, not too much, but more than I would have if I was out at dinner or a bar, since I didn’t have to go anywhere. Late in the evening a few friends left with their kids, to drive home. I had heard a conversation between a couple, in which they confirmed who was driving, and vaguely noticed that the designated driver stopped drinking quite a while before they left. Looking back, I really do believe that everyone holding car keys was sober, but at the time it didn’t occur to me to ask.

It didn’t even occur to me to ask.

I don’t remember the last time I asked a friend if they were ok to drive. It just never comes up. Maybe, with our partying days in the distant past, a big night out now consisting of dinner, a couple of drinks and home by nine-thirty, we assume we’ve  crossed some imaginary finish line and can avoid those awkward conversations. Now it’s civilized, fun, and we’re grown-ups, for god’s sake. In other word, we got this.

Which is exactly what happened that night at my house. But it turns out that there was one person there, a twelve year old kid I love and have known since he entered the world, who, I learned only later, wasn’t so cool with it. He wondered about riding in a car with adults who he knew had had a drink, but hadn’t said anything at the time.

It took that, my friends, to get me thinking.

I remembered how often I felt afraid, riding home from a party with my mother, after she’d been drinking all evening. I remember grown-ups who professed to love me, bundling me up with a kiss and instructions to “keep her talking,” as she weaved her way down the driveway.

That night at our house, I didn’t see anyone drinking like that. But that doesn’t mean my young guest’s worries  weren’t valid. Who knows if the person driving him home  was in some small way impaired? Not me, I was eating leftover chicken wings in the kitchen, by the time they said goodnight. And even though I know it’s not unusual for kids of that age to be pretty judgy about things like drinking and smoking, I hate that it happened on what should have been my watch.

Even though this experience was a wake-up call regarding my responsibility as a host and, most importantly, a friend, I’ve thought before about how alcohol always seems to be present anytime the adults are socializing. Dinner party? Definitely. Friends over to hang out? Yep. Out for a meal? Sure. Drinking is everywhere the fun is, and I wonder about this message. I asked my friend and reality-checker JoDee what she thought:

“Do we always have to drink at every gathering?”

“Yes.” she laughs.

“Even when the kids are around?”

“Especially when the kids are around!” (She’s kidding, you guys.)

“I mean, are we saying that anytime adults are together and having a good time, alcohol has to be there?”

“I think we are. But I don’t really want to hang out at a party without having a glass of wine.”

“I know, but why is that?”

“I don’t know. It’s boring.”

Would we ever want our children to hear us have this conversation? Never. Is it the truth? Well, kinda, a little bit. Yeah. So the question is, do we reign it in for the sake of The Big Eyed Ones, or do we make like our neighbors across the pond and live la dolce vita?

My friend Sophie Venable, who is full of sage advice and, by the way, no stranger to a cocktail, says she makes an effort to only drink around her young teenage daughters if it’s a special occasion. So, for example, she wouldn’t just have a beer with dinner on a Tuesday. But, if you really enjoy a good glass of wine with dinner, and you’re of legal age, what’s the big deal? I always thought that showing my kids that one can drink responsibly and demystifying the whole thing was a positive approach.

Once again, I’m stumped. What would Shirley Jones do? I wonder…

Until further notice, I’ve decided to just be more mindful of when I crack open the Malbec. I’ll learn to use Uber, or carpool more, and I’ll tell my kids why.  If you come over to hang out at my house and have a few drinks (and I hope you do!) I might have one, two, none. Either way, I bet we’ll have a great time. I will meet you for a beer, or a coffee, or a hike, because our friendship is what I’m here for, and that, dear one, is never boring.

 

* I can’t help myself. I have to tell you that I’m a little worried that writing a blog post about drinking will make some people worried. My in-laws, my sister. What happens if I apply for a job as a school bus driver? Hey, it could happen. You’re all just going to have to take my word for it that I like to write about things I’m trying to figure out. That’s why I’m writing about drinking and how I sometimes wonder what my kids learn about it by watching me. I’ve talked about this stuff with my mom friends, so I know I’m not the only one. All I’m saying is, don’t look at me funny when I order a margarita-rocks-no salt, ok? Good. Glad we cleared that up:)

 

 

 

Happy New Year! Starting out the year right, I want to thank you for taking the time to check in here on my very humble blog, and especially if you’ve subscribed and allowed me to join the cascade of reading material that fills your inbox. Seriously, thank you.

In the past, I’ve found there to be a a problem with personal blogs, and that was that every time I found one I liked, I would read it for a while, becoming more involved in the author’s daily life, the family problems, goals, setbacks, and I’d end up getting a little annoyed. Familiarity would eventually breed contempt, but mainly because it felt so one-sided. I knew so much about her (the blogs I read are almost always written by women. I don’t know why), but she knew absolutely nothing about me. And pretty soon I’d stop reading.

So, when I decided to try writing a blog, I knew I wanted to make sure that my readers didn’t feel this way. I wanted to avoid the trap of just unloading my everyday life on you, first of all because you already have a life, why would you want mine, and second, because I want you to keep reading.

To state the obvious, there is a whole lot I don’t know about blogging. For some reason I thought I could learn by doing, which I still believe is the best and only way to become a better writer, but the blog thing is different. You’re publishing yourself. You’re saying, “Here. I made this. I worked on it and I hope you like it.” It’s scary, you guys!

When I first started, several friends told me how much they admired my courage. I didn’t exactly get it, but now I do. It’s not the risk of writing about my childhood or high school crushes, it’s the risk of saying that this is the best I have to offer. I write and then rewrite. I think about it and, a day or two later, look it over again. I don’t just press “publish.” My finger hovers there a minute while I think about the grammar and spelling errors, the rambling lack of structure, the cliches and the corny endings. Don’t get me started on the formatting bugs and glitchy links, it’s all there. It feels like the dream where you are grocery shopping naked (what, you don’t have that one?). imagesEveryone will now see my cellulite, cesarian scar and the fact that I never went to college.

Yeah, that last one’s a bitch.

Anyhoo… Back to 2016 and a new way of doing things! In this version, I’m going to give myself permission to find out what this blog wants to be. I’m never going to find out by only writing posts that I think will appeal to a lot of people. I hope that, if you’ve read this far, then maybe you’re a little interested in the creative process and will want to read more. I will write more consistently, which means that, even though I will do my best, I will not fret over each post. I probably won’t rewrite. I’m shipping, as Seth Godin says, and I’m really excited about finding out what that’s like. I hope I’ll surprise myself. I also hope I’ll surprise you.

So, thanks again. And here’s to a year of learning as we go, scars and all.