Friday, January 27, 2017

Feed Them



If we examine our opinions, we can trace the tpuzzle seams between where we've been and what we truly know. I strive to be responsible with my opinions. Feed them a balanced diet of facts, perspective, narrative and whimsy. My opinions don't aspire to be big and strong. Just healthy. They don't yearn to be popular or franchised, just authentic and, hopefully, sturdy.

Even when they appear to match, opinions have unique owners. "Defending" our opinions should mean sketching their lineage: origin, influences, close relatives, familial mergers, adoptions and a nod to the season they spent "discovering themselves." Opinions offer shorthand for our emotions, experiences and unasked questions.

Question your opinions.

Test them in private to see if they can answer for themselves. If they're nervous or insecure. Are they loud? Lazy? Misinformed? People pleasers? How do your opinions respond to inspection or opposition? Are they holding a grudge? Wearing the same jacket from high school? There is no forever mandate on opinions. Quietly retire the ones that don't feed or reflect you, like the ones you boxed up from your parents' home, the ones your ex left all over the place, or the ones you thrifted with friends back in your twenties.

Not only will obsolete or unchecked opinions consume precious space in your thoughts and dealings, the feral ones tend to snap, bite and behave poorly under pressure or in mixed company. I have opinions that fidget, that lean, that refuse to eat their vegetables. The prickly, raggedy and ungenerous opinions are stored on high shelves, carefully labeled and out of the reach of unwitting children, robotic idealogues and unfamiliar dinner tables. They aren't all attractive, but all of my opinions are mine. Even the ones I've absorbed, even the ones under constant review and even the opinions not permitted to join polite conversation, I try to examine and own them all.

I see my opinions for what they are: my distillation of the world live in ... alongside 7.5 billion other humans and all their #@$& opinions. My opinion doesn't know everything. My opinion isn't always proper or even fair. Sometimes, my opinion only knows that it is. Even in this nascent stage, mushy and vulnerable, my opinions are emblems of my life journey.  How could I not take responsibility for that?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Next to the Last Drop

We were all hugs in the middle of the coffee line.  Ours was a long overdue sit down now gift wrapped in a new project. We chatted through the line to a table by the window.

Our sitting tipped the tiny cafe's count to "half full," joining a man with the newspaper, a pair of women studying and a shop regular who tittered with the barista while buying her bulk beans. My coffee mate and I were laughing and catching up, taking advantage of the holiday time warp. Not long into our conversation, a young guy walked through space and asked if we knew Mr. Wilson. We didn't. The young man moved on, melting into ambient cafe shapes and noises behind our conversation.

Standing on the opposite side of the high table next to ours, the young man blurts out "HOW MUCH?" but to no on in particular. He walked out. We raised our eyebrows and kept talking.

Image result for broken coffee cup
We were coasting into the brainstorming portion of our meeting when my coffee-mate's gaze was pulled beyond my shoulder.

"Are y'all seeing this?"

The woman directly behind me asked as she was pushing away from her table.  The young man was back and had taken the open seat at the woman's table.  He sat in her colleague's chair, staring at the open laptop, unresponsive to the woman's queries and requests for him to move. Her friend returned from the ladies' room, the manager approached at the same time and all of our antennae were attuned. I nod to affirm that, yes, we were all seeing that this young man was not mentally among us in that moment.

The woman sprang from her chair, wringing her hands and mumbling, “...something’s wrong with him...” Her fear was palpable. . The sympathizer in me felt a mild pinch at her reflex. I cataloged the footage as a worse case reaction to someone with mental illness. I didn't want her to be afraid of him by default.  Then he screamed again.

This time, the sound escaped his depths like a colony of bats. He used all of his musculature to expel the noise from his gut.  The woman stumbled backwards into the high table. The manager positioned himself between her and the boy.  The study partner swiftly reached in to collect their things. The young man sat quietly again, his eyes unfixed but facing forward.

A young woman enters the shop, cell phone pressed to her face. She'd been outside for some time. Through the cafe window we'd seen her scowling at an open car hood and its steady column of smoke.  The first responders from the fire department had arrived to help her gawk at the disabled car.

The Cell Phone Woman huffed with irritation at the sight of us all suspended on a shared held breath, eyes pinned to her friend. She went back outside to flag the first responders. The team of five entered the cafe and stalled into a semi circle around the boy. They tried to engage him verbally but some awkward inertia held them at a curved distance. My coffee mate and I repositioned ourselves to armchairs at the back corner of the shop; our wide vantage included everyone.

One by one, the small cafe community aroused. Man Reading the Paper in the back of the shop kept saying We need to call somebody. The Store Manager assured us that an ambulance had been called. The Woman Buying a Bag of Whole Beans kept calling on the Lord. The fire fighters explained that they couldn't just examine him or remove him from the building if the boy didn't want them to. The Frightened Woman starts a slow-simmering rant about how the firefighters, four white and one black, didn't care about him or about any of "us." The Study Partner offered that rationalizing with someone in an irrational state was pointless but antagonizing the rescue team wasn't helpful either. The atmospheric pressure in the room was tinderbox weighty.

"HOW MUUUUUCH?!" the boy bellowed again. Doubled over in his seat, the knots in his expression relaxed once the scream had been freed.

The responders had the prompt they apparently needed to begin poking and prodding at the boy.   The Frightened Woman continued to grumble about the boy, commenting on the last time somebody snapped out in her presence.

"He lost it and almost killed me," she said.  For the first time, I spied the scar, a long cord of shining flesh that stretched down the side of her neck, across her throat and down into her shirt.  Of course her fear of the mentally ill would be a default...

Around the room, everyone had emit their own scents of fear and foreboding.  The Study Partner and the Newspaper Man discussed whether to record the responders on their cell phones. The Manager amplified his customer service smile, watching the windows for an ambulance. When a police officer entered instead, my coffee mate wiped at an early tear. Could this be the spark to a combustible room?

The boy is screaming again. Cell Phone Woman complained that this is the third day in a row she had to deal with this. Someone had given him a pill to try a few days ago, she said, and he'd been tripping ever since.  The responders stay on the job even when a second team arrives. The officer was another cafe regular, in and out.  My colleague and I finished our brainstorming session.

Entering the coffee shop, I was adding my fresh cup and conversation to its anonymous hum. Leaving, each voice, face and fear was distinct and beckoning.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Eight is Enough

One: Last year during my trip to Botswana, a local woman did a double take after hearing me speak.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"US," I said.

"Agh!" She perked with surprise. "You look like Botswana woman. You have Botswana fi-gaah."


Two: Arriving in Botswana this year, the customs agent droned her questions: nature of visit, number of days, country of residence, country of birth. Hearing me say "USA" twice, I noticed that she hovered above a thought before deciding to speak it aloud.

"You look African."

I thanked her and asked what would distinguish an African woman from a black American woman.

"Your fee-chaas," she said, using an index finger to make a circular motion around her face. I thanked her again, smiling.


Three: Chatting with my hosts as we were leaving a cafe, I overheard two ladies comment as we passed their table about being surprised at my accent (funny. me. from Wisconsin. with an accent) and that I looked like I was from "here."


Four: I'm riding to the airport, leaving one city and on to the next. The team that hosted me has become like a new family. We were discussing my return trip in the fall and about how deeply I appreciated these trips feeling like homecomings. Not in the cliched "return to the motherland" kind of way, but truly a place that feels intrinsically familiar. I told them about my events, being assumed Botswana. About my "fee-chaas." About my "fi-gaah." We all laughed, and they all nodded. Unloading the truck, one of my new friends stopped me, discreetly, to compliment my body frame. "It is nice," she said, plainly. "Not too big. Not too small. Right in the middle."


Five: I've been tugging at my clothes recently and bypassing the garments that, suddenly, hug too tightly. Well, I can't say "suddenly."  This slow expansion of my waist has been in the making since fall, one large fry and turtle sundae at a time. Not that I plan to excise either from my diet, I just think I got a bit liberal, forgot that, without exercise, my body will turn those fried and fudge-covered treats into a plethora of unwanted dimples. And, now, I've reached my personal outer limits where I'm wincing at mirrors and editing my favorite outfits. I don't want to spend the summer bemoaning my body and not wearing my best skirts and sundresses. I know what I have to do; I even packed my gym shoes on this trip.

Six:  Like most women, my relationship with my body has been a storied one.  I've had seasons where I was much bigger, but I've always been ... um ... formidable. Amazonian, even. As a preteen, my petite mother and I were confused for sisters. (Now we get confused because she's ageless!) She wouldn't let me buy a mermaid dress for prom and I thought it was because I was too heavy. Back then, I didn't appreciate that what I have are called CURVES and she just didn't want me to hurt nobody at prom. Ha!

I attended predominantly white schools, so all of my peers who were considered to have great bodies were still a size 6. Yes, I was aware that there were different criteria for "white girl's good body" and "black girl's good body."  Best I could tell, though, the credentials for a black girl's good body still involved dimensions I didn't have: rounded breasts, a tiny waist and an ass you could rest your algebra book on.



Seven: For the past decade or so, I've come to truly love my body --dimples, frame, thick limbs, curves. Thanks to Botswana, I will strut about knowing that my body isn't an accident.My Love likes to tell me that my body is ancient, a silhouette of womanhood that has been exalted since the beginning of time (Reason #3865 why I love him).



Eight:  I have Botswana fi-gaah. Not that I needed a reason to affirm my body beautiful, but I'll cherish this one. For life.






Monday, March 16, 2015

Chick it Out


Image result for permission grantedIt's astonishing how regularly my life compass swings back to hover and twitch above the idea of Permission. (Clearly, with a capital P.) I mean, how many times must I relearn a sharp lesson, like how many shakes of red pepper is too many for the sauce or how this wannabe shortcut fails into a one way street or how the spindling seed of every liberating decision in the past 10 years has been to grant myself permission to be good and kind to myself? To honor my gifts. Pursue my dreams. Expect exceptional love. Splurge every now and again. Prune my inner circle of brush and thorns. Speak my truth, always. Be good and kind to me for no reason at all.

I've had the "Permission" conversation with myself to release the internal tension all these things have produced. For more than a decade, for instance, writing anything that hadn't been commissioned or wasn't being shaped expressly for the stage felt selfish and indulgent with so many emails to check, laundry to fold and PB&Js to make. My brain categorizes an evening of pampering my feet + DVR as "life balance" so the hours might remain somewhat guiltless. After my divorce, kicking the tires of potential "situation-ships" seemed more efficient than expecting a *snort* perfect romance. Thifting is my only anxiety-free shopping. Again and again, I negotiate and campaign with my own self for Permission to pursue bliss, without qualification.

This time it's about dresses.  Well, one dress.

The Permission talk does work. I can testify to that. Focus on writing? My novel releases nationwide in May. ManiPedi Therapy? My fingers and toes pop with new colors every week. Holding out for a perfect romance? Well, I'll be bride again next summer.

We decided, right away, on a destination affair with our closest family and friends, which means much of the hard work is already done. There's still the business of invitations and a videographer, but everything else will be rather nontraditional. No wedding party. No centerpieces. No reverend. No garter toss. No housewares gift registry. Exquisitely unassuming, much like the two of us.

But that dress.


Even when a wedding was just a prospect for us, I pictured a simple, elegant silhouette. No lace. No tiny buttons. No long, opulent train. No losing my grown-up mind over a dress.

"I know it's silly," I told my then-boyfriend, "but I can't shake the idea that I've 'spent' that girly chit already. Y'know, we've both done this before and, y'know, we're not twenty-something. I know. Silly."

Now, a season later, my boyfriend has become my fiance. The confetti excitement over the ring and the proposal and the date and the colors are settling and, now, I've started thinking about the dress. Elegant. Simple. Flattering. Functional. Practical. Reasonable. Wait-a-minute...

I'm not interested in a couture ballgown to rival Cinderella's, but realized that I didn't want ... "functional," "practical" or "reasonable" as guiding filters for finding a wedding dress, either. Aside from an outrageous price tag, what is "too" fancy or "too" white or "too" youthful or "too" elaborate or "too" much when it comes to my own wedding?  When it comes to giving myself what I want? When it comes to giving myself Permission to be a giddy bride-to-be?

Image result for stack of bridal magazines"Babe, I bought a bridal magazine today," I told my fiance, hearing the yellow tape warning in my voice.

"I'd be surprised if you hadn't," he said.

"Well, I wasn't going to," I said.  "We don't need them to help us plan but ... I've decided to go ahead and chick it out over this dress."

I could hear him smiling into the phone. "You should," he said. "You're going to be a bride, and you're going to be breathtaking."

I told him how lucky I was to find him and he told me he loved me, too, and then reminded me of my promise not to obsess over doilies. I confirmed, but reminded him that I reserved the right to fixate on at least one inexplicable, got-to-have-it accessory. "So far," I told him, "it's looking like the eco-friendly wish lanterns."

The agreement will be an easy one to keep. Neither the "small stuff" nor the pomp of tradition are of interest to either one of us this time around. We're more mature about our needs and less democratic with the outside world about what we want. We are intent on crafting a milestone more than producing an event. For what we have in mind, we won't need any doilies. Or place settings. Or raffia napkin holders. Or cake tastings. Or candelabras. Or Jordan almonds. Or shoe dye. Or suspenders. Just this dress.

I sat down with my bridal magazine and a turtle sundae (extra pecans. Always extra pecans) and began folding page corners. This cap sleeve. That bodice. This website. That store. I considered the long and the fitted and the lush and the intricate and the romantic and the rebellious. I bought another magazine last week and folded a few more pages. I went to the flagged websites and starred a half dozen pictures. I looked at them again this weekend and unstarred more than half. I visited more websites in between searching pre-college camps for my daughters and editing a grant application, and bookmarked more webpages. Yesterday, I think I found The dress. Simple. Elegant. Flattering. Nonfunctional. Impractical and Unreasonable. Today, I found The dress again, and anticipate several more perfect discoveries before the year ends. All the while, I'll keep ogling and cooing, flagging and starring. Dreaming and anticipating. Permission, once again, to be good to me.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Visitations

When you start referring to your new protagonist like a colleague you're hoping to connect with for lunch, this is how you know you’ve found your next story.

That’s how I know, anyway.

For months, I’d been sending lunch invitations to a character I’d met in a short story. He was a young boy then, and I wanted to know what his story might become. How did he recover? What was that thing churning in his chest? Would he be chasing life or evading death? I couldn’t know. From our brief exchange, the only thing I was certain of was that he was quiet, observant, and deeply affected by the scenario I’d written him into.  I was eager to finish his story, but he would not come. He wouldn't even give me his name!

I thought, maybe, I needed to speak of him out loud in order to make him Pinocchio-real. I thought, maybe, I should start another story to coax him from my mind’s shadowed alcoves. I thought, maybe, he wanted me to sit patiently at my laptop and wait. Once, I tried luring him forward with frenetic research on separation anxiety, commitment anxiety, Oedipus, abandonment, criminal profiling, red heads, only children raised by single dads, only children raised by single dads who date a lot, only children who were the “secret” other child, boys without mothers who became men without hope, boys who became men pirating shiny place holders for hope. The boy was neither swayed nor impressed; he would not come.

This went on for over a year. I blamed myself, of course. The rest of my life is so busy –the life with teenagers and utility bills and workshop dates and an empty cat food bin. My writing life was routinely neglected. Sitting down in this chair to write has always been challenging.  Correction: sitting down has been easy. Writing, not so much.  Corrected correction: writing has been easy. Shaking the guilt of selfish and irresponsible indulgence, not at all.  

I mean, there are, literally, a few hundred emails I need to address, like, yesterday. Receipts for taxes to uncrumple and sort. Non-profit applications to file. Summer camp dates to plot for my girls. Statuses to update. Websites to update. Letters of recommendation. of intent. of understanding. of humble requests to draft and send. How dare I use my limited time in this chair to write. Finally, finally, finally, someone ripped the duct tape from my inside voice and it bellowed at me. My inside voice has a lot of bass in it and rumbles like a Harley-Davidson anniversary when it’s not pleased.    

“How dare you not write?" it said.  "How. Dare. You.”

So, I’ve been determined to find ways to wrangle both lives into a healthy coexistence. I don’t have a writing schedule, per se, but am writing regularly again. It’s a relief, to be honest. Investing my creative energies in … my own creative energies has been replenishing. I grant myself permission, each and every time, to sit down and write without needing a deadline or a publication date or a W-9 or a point or the awkward dance of trying to make someone else feel at ease with my disappearance into these lines. Relieved. Replenished. Reclaimed.

I decided to let that no named boy be, but left the invitation and my door open. In fairly short order, it was another character who crossed my mental welcome mat. Shay had been here before, briefly, but we hadn’t planned on seeing one another again. She’d been discussed by other characters in another project, but there hadn't been room in that story’s construction for her voice. I wanted to tell Shay’s story now, but hadn’t quite figured out how.



And there she was. Letting herself in to roam my mental spaces like a house guest who’d been elevated from the status of “guest.” Shay floated through my thoughts, glancing at some, peering at others. She wandered about freely, taking in my knick knacks, bookshelves, sea salted snacks and framed pictures. She was clearly studying me as much as she was acquainting herself with my ideas.  

Shay began giving me her story a few weeks ago. She’s insisting that I write it out long-hand, to begin. I don’t mind. In fact, I welcome the accessibility and ease of scribbling into notebooks and the essential nature of muse-in-mind, pen-in-hand. Last week, she had me practicing her signature. I’ll take that as a promise that she’ll join me for lunch again tomorrow.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

One thought about stars

A mournful black sky stretches in dutiful silence
Contracted for a millennium to canvas the night
To drape an infinite stage
To withstand the urgent infernos fastened to its darkness
The stars hiss and crackle in their banter
Impetuous in their spinning
Precocious in their tumble and games of chase

A mournful black sky stretches in dutiful silence
The stars dance shamelessly, anyway


Sunday, February 01, 2015

Serenade

I'm reordering letters in my head, deciding the optimal combination for describing the sound below me.

Thoomp. Thwump. Thmp.

I'm in the tub: candles, lavender salt, merlot, ear buds, the whole nine. When the soundtrack plays itself out, I nestle deeper into the warmth, calm and, now, the quiet.

Thrump.

Almost immediately, I hear the sound of water dripping. Dripping steady and boldly where it shouldn't. Beneath me, beneath the tub, beneath the sub floor, I'm listening to the metered threat of a pipe leaking from my second floor bathroom onto the first floor ceiling. In breaking news fashion, my daughter comes upstairs to report that water is, in fact, leaking onto the floor outside her bedroom.

"It's coming through that panel," she said sleepily. "Y'know, where they fixed the pipes before...?"

"Yes, Baby," I said. "Thank you."

Whhoum. Thomp. Ahmp.

The heavy pulse of the water coursed my thoughts into ominous terrain.  I imagi-calculate the obscene amount of money this drip will cost. The number has been escalating in my head for quite some time, truth be told. Not this drip, but the first drip that originated outside my bathroom as dimple in the ceiling paint. That drip has since matured into a gnarled hole, under which I position a plastic bowl from time to time. Okay. All the time.

Thwaangmp.

I've avoided calling a plumber because I'm afraid he'll make spinning tally board in my head a real thing. I envision him on a step ladder, reaching up rugged hands into the ceiling maw. With each twist of valves and pipe, I imagine his invoice swelling by digits and commas and zeros and Pay Day loans and pawned appliances and stripper shoes and a diet of canned tuna.

Thwaap.

I take a sip of wine and consider, for the zillionth time, seeking out a "real" job. Different from the patchwork of contracts, performances and projects that currently comprise my 80-hour work week, I reminisce about the j-o-b type jobs with my name and healthy numerals typed on biweekly checks. The kind of jobs with health insurance, a retirement plan, holiday parties and discount tickets to Summerfest. I flirt with this j-o-b diversion all the time because --all the time-- I need more money, more security and more people to keep me up-to-speed on the latest goings on in pop culture. I rarely follow through, though. Instead, I combat these attacks of panic by counting off daily confirmations on how the --air quotes-- work I do is truly my purpose. Writing. Building. Inspiring. Celebrating. The poetics of this truth soothe my nerves right. up. until. the phone screen cracks. the drivers' side window won't roll down. the garage door won't roll up. the tooth filling chips. the bathroom pipes begin to leak. again.

Thump. Whuuhhm. Hoowump.

I shift in the bath. The warm water slaps the sides of the tub and my thighs and and my breasts before settling into a quiet embrace around my silhouette. My eye follows the water line, evaluating. Yep. More of my belly is protruding above the water than usual. The rounded pouch doesn't elevate my stress, though. I know how this bonus stomach got here and I know how to shrink it back down. I know that I need fewer coffee breakfasts and turtle sundae dinners. More sit ups, water, fruit and rest. This, I know how to fix. This, I can control.

Thwomp. Tthwaah.

I hear my daughter clanging about downstairs. She's probably moving a pot --the one I use for popcorn or collard greens-- from the kitchen rack to a spot under the water that's crashing in syncopation outside her door. Not a soothing sleep sound. I would know. Positioning the pot there, however, will be worse: plink. plink. plink. I started tossing a sock into my plastic bowl to mute the incriminating sound: plunk. plock. plonck. Still not soothing. More like a serenade to imminent disaster. to running out of luck. running of steam. running in the wrong direction. Running, running, running.

Thwaadt.

The water is tepid. I look at the clock. The start of this bath was so warm and perfect before the dripping started beneath me. Or maybe the dripping was there at the first submerging and I chose not to hear it. Chose to wait for this problem I don't know how to fix to miraculously self-correct. Like the ache inside my knee. The broken curls of hair in the palm of my hand. The letters from the tax people. The letters from that one inmate. The soaring hormones of two teenage girls. The plummeting spirit of my only sibling. The first drip from my ceiling. The second drip from a different ceiling. The worries that elude my focused attention, my task lists, my clever ideas and fervent wishing.

Thaagcht.

I watch the small flame wriggle and stretch inside one of the candle jars I've perched along the edge of the tub. I resist the urging in my head to get out now. That my irregularly-scheduled program of relaxation is now over. That my time is up. That I don't have nearly enough time for anything. For everything.

Thohmp.

Then I see it.

Thohmp.

The letters arranging themselves in my head.

Thohmp.

The best spelling to capture the dripping sound beneath me.

Thohmp.

I solved something today, after all.