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FairyMiddlin

Reflections on finding peace and magic in the middle of…

A Little Bit Racist? Maybe…

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I both laugh and cringe at the delightful song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the brilliant Broadway musical Avenue Q, in which Sesame Street-style puppets sing about making rent, having adult relations, and surviving existential angst in riotous, bawdy joy:

“Everyone’s a little bit racist
Sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
Princeton:
Now not big judgments, like who to hire
or who to buy a newspaper from –
Kate Monster:
No!
Princeton:
No, just little judgments like thinking that Mexican
busboys should learn to speak g****n English!”
I really love those puppets. They’re calling it like it is: we humans are a little distrustful of folks who look and live differently from ourselves. Different customs, clothing, and speech (everyone’s a rittle bit lacist!) plague us all, if we’re honest.

But over on a different end of the racial conversation spectrum, I just finished a powerful book, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. I really like Picoult’s narrative style- it’s simple, clean, and full of rich metaphor. Her characters struggle with things that all of us encounter in the span of living a normal life: loss, faith, suicide, dreams. Those you encounter in her books are complex, full of contradiction and beauty.

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Her books always affect me. This one almost physically hurt.

It’s about race. Right here, right now, in these United States.

There is no way to live in our contemporary society and be oblivious to racial tension. Every week it seems there is another shooting or violent attack. And most of us white people don’t want to be racist- we’re horrified by the very idea! But maybe…just maybe, this book posits…we are.

Small Great Things puts us into the lives and thoughts of a Black nurse (the capital B is Picoult’s device), a white supremacist, and a white Liberal lawyer. A baby dies, a law suit is filed. And everything that each of these three people thinks they know about how the races relate to each other is challenged.

The character I most identified with, not surprisingly, is the white Liberal lawyer, Kennedy: she’s toiling away in the Public Defender’s office, spending her days working so that all defendants have a shot at justice. She knows about the inequity of sentencing for Blacks, it’s part of why she became a Public Defender- she is on a mission to balance the scales. Her desire comes from what seems like a good and noble place: an acknowledgement that the system is flawed and her position is privileged. And yet…she takes her privilege for granted. She is made to realize that she sees Ruth, and other Blacks, as victims. And that makes them Other. Less than. In need of rescue rather than true equity. Kennedy reminds me of what it was to teach in a  public school in Texas, where so many different ethnicities pile into buses, cafeterias, and classrooms with no choice but to figure it out.

I really struggled to read the sections from the White Supremacist’s point of view. These pages were so filled with anger and vitriol, described in language that I could barely stomach, that I told my husband I didn’t know if I could stay with the book, even though I have such admiration for the author. But I read reviews that indicated that others had struggled with this character and his world view, but that the journey was worth it. And it was.

I remember one time, back in my mid twenties, living in Abilene, Texas, and telling my husband that “I never held a slave. And none of the Blacks living now ever were slaves. So why are they still angry? Why can’t they just move on?” I cringe now that I was ever so callous. I have learned about systemic and historical oppression, and what it does to a people.

The book’s main protagonist, Ruth, is a Yale educated labor and delivery nurse who is raising her son alone- not because she was an always single mother, but because her husband, a soldier, died in Afghanistan. Her experiences on a day of shopping, being tailed by TJ Maxx sales clerks, being the only customer required to show ID at the cash register, then standing at the exit while security checks her receipt against the contents of her shopping bag while the white shoppers all exit unimpeded, rang true to me. Not because I have experienced those indignities, but because when I was working retail as a high school and college student, that was exactly what we were told to do. The shoplifting training videos all featured Blacks as the perps. When African Americans wandered into the men’s clothing store where I worked, my manager would send me over with instructions to follow them.

How many times might I have said “Ya know, if those Black people would just lay down and be still, the cops wouldn’t have to shoot them?” before I understood that might not be so simple? That when your people used to wear chains and be sold, that subservience can be a tough pill to swallow? And that sometimes, you can say “Sir” and still be shot.

How many times have I, without realizing it, clutched my purse a little tighter when a Black man passed me on the street?

Growing up, my mom taught me that I shouldn’t associate with people of other ethnicities- it was okay to be polite to them at school, but that was it. When I made a new friend when we moved to a neighborhood in a Dallas suburb, she was worried that they were Italian (their last name was Peters for heaven’s sake) and Catholic. I had to plead with her that religious topics never came up, and that when I worked up my courage to ask what the family’s religion was, discovered they were Baptist, which was okay. When my neighbor, Mrs. Hogeda, invited me in one day and showed me how she was making flour tortillas, I had to lie to my mom about where I had been because her disdain for Mexican Americans was so strong. When I developed a crush on one, I thought the roof would collapse on the house because of her fury. Shopping at the five and dime among Spanish speakers was an opportunity for her to mutter about people needing to go back where they belonged.

I have even heard a family member recently use the word “wetback.”

And a completely different family member, whose rep I want to protect, shared the wisdom that the Blacks are happier if they stay in their own neighborhoods, schools, and churches. That particular conversation occurred when I was a young college woman endeavoring to figure out how race fit into my world view. And though I voiced respectful opposition to the idea that benevolent segregation was American or godly or right, I still found myself, for all practical purposes, living in an all white world.

Once, as a younger adult, I asked myself the question: Would I want to be black? And the answer was, without hesitation, no. Not because I believed Black people are inferior, but because I knew that to be white in America was, and continues to be, a position of privilege. I have never been tailed in a retail store. I have never been denied service in a business establishment.  I have never had to worry, when pulled over for a traffic stop, that I would be shot or arrested if I wasn’t appropriately deferential.

This week, a jury handed down an innocent verdict in the Philando Castile shooting. It’s one of way too many killings of Blacks by panicked police. The phrase my daughter pulled out of Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show commentary was, “Clearly, black people never forget their training.” The training that, for all intents and purposes, keeps the “Massah” relationship alive and well in the United States:

 

We tell ourselves that the race issue is complicated. But is it? Is it really? Or have we made it so because we are afraid to truly own what is happening in our country?

In the Oprah Magazine’s May issue, Oprah and her staff confronted the issue of race in America. With photographs meant to compel thought, such as white women giving Asian women pedicures or a Black child looking at a shelf of white dolls at a toy store, the magazine challenged us to think about the subtle daily discrimination that we take for granted. Topics like Southern shame (I’m guilty), refugees, and ethnic traditions are laid bare. In one of the articles, entitled “A Force For Good” by criminologist David Kennedy, the author quotes the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Terrence Cunningham, who said that “police had often been ‘the face of oppression,’ and needed to ‘acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.'”

http://www.oprah.com/inspiration/why-we-need-to-talk-about-race

Look, I am not targeting the police in this blog post. I get that they are under pressure and work in difficult situations. But Philando Castile should not have been shot. That jury reached the wrong verdict. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland should be alive. And we white Americans have got to start being honest: we clutch our bags tighter, we sometimes cross to the other side of the street or make jokes or judgements. We do. And yes, I know it goes both ways. But whites have power in this country, by virtue of being white. And we need to admit it. I need to admit it. Picoult says, in her afterword, “Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than just discrimination based on skin color. It’s also about who has institutional power. Just as racism creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them.”

Back to Small Great Things: I loved the book. The storytelling was taut, the points of view were thoroughly researched and rang true and clear. The characters were raw and vulnerable, and nearly all learned and grew from the journey. My heart was fully invested as I read, breathless as the trial drew to a close. The stakes were huge in this book: career, college, reputation. The stakes in our real life America are even greater: Peace and Life itself. I hope we all can embrace change and growth. I am ready to embrace the philosophy preached by martin Luther King, Jr: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” May my small life affect change. Hallelujah and amen.

http://www.jodipicoult.com/small-great-things.html

 

 

 

 

Birthdays Blow.

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I hit a big milestone birthday tomorrow. A really big one. You know the one- Party City has a whole rack of “Over the Hill” black decorations for it.

It’s got me thinking about things like the MEANING OF LIFE (how trite and predictable is that?), what happens next (career is at a crossroads), knee pain (oh my god, it is excruciating), and learning to care less about pudges and plumpies on my tummy. It’s got me wondering what happens when my kids are grown but all I ever really wanted was to be a wife and mother, so what the hell do I do now? It’s got me wondering if I want to stay where I am: it’s comfy and safe, but the wanderlust that I have held at bay for thirty years is getting really itchy.

It’s got me looking back.

I was kind of “The Girl Without A Birthday” throughout my entire growing up. I know, cue the sappy violins. But seriously, I never had a birthday party. Not one. The only cakes I had as a child were when I turned one (so all I have is a  photo, no memories) and six, and it was an awful thing with shredded coconut on top. I didn’t even eat it. Who gives a six year old a coconut-topped cake? I don’t think my mother even waited for my dad to get home before she gave it to me, cut me a piece, then went to lay back down on the couch. I ate it (or rather the ice cream- no way was I eating coconut) pretty much alone.

That was it until seventh grade, when my friends Tricia and Angela brought me a Carmex jar filled with dried flowers and my very first bag of gummy bears. They delivered them at the cafeteria lunch table, sang the song, licked the gummy bears and stuck them to my chest like a corsage, and that was probably the best birthday of my life until my Travis came along (for my nineteenth, he proposed by way of decorated birthday cake at one of the swankiest restaurants in Lubbock). When you’re in junior high, the public demonstration that you actually have friends goes a long way, especially when you just humiliated yourself with an ill-timed cartwheel at cheerleader tryouts. And when you’re nineteen and came from a broken up mess of a home, being publicly told you’re loved is pretty awesome, too!

Sorry for the seemingly unrelated cheer photos- I don’t have any birthday ones!

When my sweet newlywed husband learned of this birthday party deficit, he planned a big shindig for my twentieth birthday. It was my first birthday party! We held it in our tiny little apartment on 34th Street, just a bunch of college kids in the middle of finals. Probably only five of the 20 invited guests came, but that was fine with this introvert- all that really mattered to me was that I had a cake (blessedly coconut free) with candles that I could blow out, a few gifts to unwrap, and a handful of good friends.

I healed. Unconditional love will do that.

When you look at Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook, it’s clear that the elaborate birthday party is a crucial measurement of how much one is loved as a child. At least it seems that way. Intricately decorated gourmet cookies, giant bouncy houses, and even, for the love of all things holy, pink limousines are how today’s American youngsters celebrate another year on the planet.

 

For our kids, we alternated parties-one year would be a party for friends, and the next year would be family dinner at the restaurant of their choice. I did my best to decorate theme cakes with zero training and no fancy supplies, I usually made the decorations out of what was in the art cabinet in my classroom, and enlisted the help of elder siblings. Hilary had a rainbow party at seven, Travis had a Nintendo party at nine, and Libby had a makeover party at the same age. Other themes over the years included Thomas the Tank Engine, Hippy, Secret Garden, and Teddy Bear Tea Party. Family dinners usually involved Valley Ranch BBQ in Tomball, Mr. Gatti’s Pizza, and later, as their tastes became more sophisticated, the Olive Garden or Buca di Beppo.

My kids turned out just fine.

I am not especially excited about this birthday. I know I should be- my mom died when she was 46, so I have already lived longer than that. At a recent Willie Nelson concert, he sang a song called “I Woke Up Still Not Dead Again Today.” That’s a pretty excellent song! I truly am grateful for each day that I wake up.

But there is  shadow with it. A life-is-short-so-what-are-you-still-doing-in-the-same-place shadow.

A your-kids-are-grown-so-you’re-not-needed shadow.

A your-body-is-changing-and-you-can’t-do-a-damn-thing-about-it shadow.

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Heck, even Pres. Obama looks birthday sad! Maybe he’s as worried as I am about our current POTUS.

It’s all quite silly, I know. I am actually in a good place: happy marriage, wonderful kids, good health (except for the goldurn knees), a job that I like. Friends who sang “Happy Birthday” at Sunday Drunch (that’s not a typo, Drunken Brunch=Drunch) last weekend. I adore my house. Look at all those blessings!

But still.

Am I the only one who gets blue on birthdays? Surely not.

I imagine we will have a simple birthday- we are working a big event, so there’s really no time to celebrate. When I wake up tomorrow, I will try not to cry as I curl up in my chair with my dachsund for daily meditation. I will try to remind myself that getting older is okay. Some people even say (rightly so) that it’s a gift.  I will try to be grateful and ignore the handful of grey strands in my hair and the deep wrinkles on my forehead. I will endeavor to remember how dearly I loved my grandmothers, and that there are older women in my life like my mother in law, aunts, and dear Dorothy, whom I love, and who continue to live beautiful lives.

I will not, repeat NOT, accept any black over-the-hill cards or decorations.

And by God, I will start figuring out what I want next out of life. Because time’s running out for dilly dallying.

http://www.peacelovefree.com/2013/10/08/15-things-to-do-when-you-wake-up-sad-on-your-38th-birthday/

 

 

 

 

Letting Go of Lucy

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Lately, my heart and head have been swimming in thoughts of friendship. I think it’s because I recently had the last birthday that begins with a 4. I am living the last year of my fifth decade. I have started saying goodbye to friends who no longer live and walk this earth. It makes you think. It makes you remember. It makes you evaluate.

And what I have been evaluating is friendship.

If you’re a grown up of a certain age, you probably remember the Peanuts cartoons by Charles Schulz. I always loved the Peanuts gang: droopy Charlie, thoughtful Linus, and sassy Sally were favorites. I loved Snoopy, but he puzzled me with his ambivalence toward Charlie.

But I never loved Lucy. Never did. I thought she was mean. I thought she had a big, rude mouth. And I hated that she always pulled the football out just as Charlie swung his leg at it. What kind of friend does that?

As you grow up, you find out just what kind of friend does that. When you’re in junior high and high school, you may be so desperate to be included, that you allow teasing at your own expense, or join in the laughter at someone else’s, just so you can belong. You allow the queen bee at the lunch table to proclaim your outfit out of style in front of the whole group, or maybe you snicker at the overweight kid right along with everyone else, even though you know it’s hurting their feelings.

“Mean Girl” behavior doesn’t stop when you throw that mortarboard in the air at graduation though. And it’s not limited to girls. It can continue right through college and into adulthood.

In adulthood, it plays out in a veiled comment about weight, or maybe resentment about someone else’s promotion or new car or nice vacation. It may be seen in catty comments over cocktails, or invitations denied.

One of the things I am discovering as I near my 50 th birthday is that my tolerance for unkindness and gossip has gotten significantly smaller. I am not world-weary, it’s not that. And I am not superior to others- most definitely not that.  It’s more a realization that I want the things that influence my life and impact my spirit to be healing and nurturing. I want to live life as a daily celebration, even if it’s a small one. And to do that, I need to surround myself with people who also see the world as a beautiful place, who approach life through a filter of love, not envy. I want to spend time with people who count blessings, not who find reasons to complain.

This realization hit me hard a couple of weeks ago when we came back from vacation and heard about some pretty ugly things that had been said by friends. I really faced what I had suspected for a long time: I have to protect my heart and mind from pettiness,jealousy, and score-keeping (you know what I mean- counting who has the best wardrobe, fanciest vacation, best tv, or more dinner dates). When a friendship is one sided, when all conversations are from one point of view, when a friend no longer asks about you and interrupts your story to redirect the conversation back to him- or herself, it’s time to rethink the friendship.

Somehow, I don’t think I am the only one who  struggles with these issues. This showed up in my Facebook feed this morning:

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The world has always been full of toxic people. Social media has made it easier for them to spew. Sarcasm has become the language of the land, with celebrity watchers like Perez Hilton tearing people right up, and readers swallowing their blogs and tweets whole. But I prefer following Brene Brown. This lovely lady’s entire career is spent helping people feel empowered and loved. A research scientist at my alma mater, the University of Houston, her life’s work is teaching people authentic leadership skills and how to live wholeheartedly.

Connection-Quote-Brene-Brown-lge

Of course, since I can’t have Brene’ (we’re on a first name basis, even though she doesn’t know it) over for tea and chat every week, I can hope to find friends like her. More importantly, I can strive to become a friend who empowers and encourages others.

Last week, I took a couple of days of vacation and traveled to DFW to spend time with some of my dearest college friends. We had not been together, all four of us at once, since December of 1985. We had gone through freshman orientation together, endured pledging together, sung together, gone to Dairy Queen together. Heidi and I were the quieter ones, she with a hip asymmetrical haircut and me with my first pair of Justin Ropers. Cheryl and Kayla were the attention getters, Kayla with her fantastic fashion sense and Cheryl with her amazing alto belt. Between us are six marriages and twelve children. As adults we have endured illness, job loss, and addiction. When we were undergrads we had disagreements about borrowed clothes, boyfriends, and social club obligations. And these three beautiful women reminded me what forgiveness and grace look like. They served as a reminder of what sorrow over hurt inflicted and the power of an apology can do to help a relationship heal. They are a reminder of what shared history can mean.

The universe has been kind enough to place people in my life now who, with nurturing and time, will be life long friends. Friends with whom sarcasm is not the default language and score-keeping is not the modus operandi. Friends who, knowing I have been lonely, have stopped by the office to say hi, or sent encouraging messages, or sent precious gifts. People who are proving how powerful it is to be “seen, heard, and valued.”

To be a good friend, parent, spouse, child, sister, niece, or coworker takes intention. It takes thoughfulness. It takes grace.

 “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.Love never fails.” (I Corinthians Chapter 13)

Someone recently asked me if I’d rather be “loved or feared.” There’s no question there- I’d rather be loved. And I’d rather love. The world doesn’t need more fear, there’s plenty of that to go around.

So I am vowing to make a change. I can’t change a lot in this world, like policies about guns or hunger in third world countries or corrupt governments. But I can change me. I can keep eyes and ears open for opportunities to share grace. I can choose the energy I walk through my days with. I will probably never be the big life of the party. But hopefully I can begin to create and encourage connection.

Anyone up for a game of football? I promise to let you kick the ball. Hut, hut!

Texas Girls Don’t Always Wear Boots!

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Recently, while perusing the gift shop area at a Buccees on I-10 between San Antonio and Houston, I found myself surrounded by Texas paraphernalia: earrings in the shape of longhorn steers, bluebonnet shaped magnets, bronze Texas star yard art (every block in Texas is required to make sure at least one house has one of these over the garage door. It’s a law, I am pretty sure. On my block, it’s the neighbor two doors down).

I attended my first rodeo a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty nervous, afraid the animals would be mistreated (they weren’t) or that the country music concert would grate on my ears (it didn’t). The animals were beautiful, the horsemanship phenomenal, and Little Big Town put on a hell of a show. I didn’t dress any differently than I normally do, and I wondered if people would stare at my bootless, hatless self and banish me from the grounds for not being a true Texan. But for every bona fide cowboy or cowgirl whose boots and jeans looked authentically worn, there was someone in spanking new Wranglers and fringe looking like an extra from a movie about a dude ranch, and for every one of them, there was someone like me- in soft pastel jeans or hipster skinnys or urban baggys. There were as many Toms, Converse, and Nikes as Justins and Tony Lamas.

I come from a long line of Texans. Though I was not born here because my Texan parents were temporarily living in Tennessee where my daddy got his first post-college job, I have been here since I was three, all of my memories are of living in Texas. I love my state (though it’s become a little harder lately, not sure if that’s because the politics keep shifting to the right or because I have just leaned a little more to the left), but there are assumptions that folks have about Texans that I would like to set straight:

We don’t all wear cowgirl boots.

We don’t all listen to country music.

We don’t all own guns and/or horses.

We are a pretty famous place. I guess it’s because of so many western movies, maybe our performers  like Beyonce and Matthew McConnaughey. Or maybe it’s because of George W. Bush. Being President during the 9/11 attacks makes you a household name, like Churchill or Roosevelt from WWII. When my daughter, who lives in Australia, mentions where she’s from, she’s always quizzed about all sorts of “Texasisms”

My youngest daughter’s Australian boyfriend is in Vietnam, and he just sent us a photo of a fast food joint called Texas Chicken. Basically, it was the logo from Church’s Chicken.

You can be a Texas girl without wearing cowgirl boots and listening to country music.

What we do do:

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1. Love bluebonnets and have requisite bluebonnet photos: Right now is the time of year when driving on a Texas highway you’ll see families pulled over with their little ones squatting in the fields of bluebonnets. We all have these photos, except for the poor folks who live out in the panhandle. Bluebonnets don’t grow out there. Their kids take photos with tumbleweeds.

2. Most of us own at least one piece of James Avery jewelry: I actually own two charm bracelets (one for theatre keepsakes and one for family), an angel bracelet, a necklace, and a ring. My eldest daughter has just one ring and a charm bracelet, and my younger daughter has at least three rings, a charm bracelet, and a necklace. She jokes that all sorority girls are required to have at least one piece. I sort of took the ubiquity of James Avery for granted, until a recent trip to Arizona. While there, I received frequent questions and compliments about my jewelry. A Texas silversmith out of the hill country, James Avery makes beautiful stuff that has a distinct Texas aesthetic. I love mine.

3. We always clap four times when someone sings “The stars at night are big and bright…” Do you remember, in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” when Pee Wee proves he’s in Texas by singing the opening lyric and everyone on the street stops and finishes the line? That really happens here. It’s ingrained in us starting in our early education classes. However, on rare occasions, it flops. Recently I was in San Antonio for the state music teachers convention, having a drink at Durty Nellie’s Irish Pub. The piano player, knowing the room was full of music teachers, started the song. “The starts at night are big and bright…” Nothing. I think the music teachers needed a break.

 

4. Use the words “fixin’ to” and “y’all”: These are the best words ever coined by Texans. When a Texan visits a place for any length of time, the people around her will, without realizing it, adopt these words. Especially “y’all.” It is the perfect pronoun for a group of people. Inclusive and succinct. Gender neutral and much more pleasant than “you guys,” it works in any situation. “Fixin’ to” is what we say instead of “about to.” I don’t really know why, but I do know I like it better.

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5. We all know where to find our area’s best chicken fried steak:  In my case, it’s either Mel’s Diner or Goodson’s Cafe, both in Tomball. Both of these restaurants bring enormous crispy steaks out, swimming in cream gravy. You never want to finish the whole thing, lest your rump get as big as the Texas panhandle.

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6. Texans have big open hearts to match our state’s big open spaces: Once you get out of our sprawling cities and suburbs, Texas is full of vast open scenery of all sorts- piney woods, beaches, desert mountains, dusty plains, and grassy prairies. It’s breathtaking, really. Equally so? Our kind hearts. Texans love to help folks out- whether it’s with food for the hungry, care for animals, or hugs for suffering kids, we just can’t bear to walk away when someone needs us.

But I don’t think that’s uniquely Texan. One of the traits that ties us all together, whether in Texas or Minnesota or India or China, is that people love to help each other. It’s how most of us are wired.

So whether you wear a cowboy hat, sombrero, or beret, look around today. Appreciate your home’s flora, music, and customs. Love your neighbors. And y’all come visit us here in Texas. We’ll feed you chicken fried steak!

 

TMEA….sigh. (AKA the soprano loser)

 

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It’s a beautiful sunny morning in San Antonio, Texas. The weather is unseasonably warm (highs of 80 degrees in February- paradise!) and I decided to walk along the River Walk to reach the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. As I neared the massive building, I found myself walking  with many members of the All State Choir. Clad in black dresses and tuxes, chattering like magpies, clutching black folders, I could sense their nervous excitement. One young lady who walked up the stairs in front of me had two enormous patches on the back of her high school letter jacket, one proclaiming her a member of the 2014 All State Choir, another the 2015, and she had left one big hole on the bottom right side for this year’s patch, which she’ll get to pick up while she is here (that’s confidence in one’s own ability, that is).

I get so melancholy when I am here. It’s my third time at this remarkable convention, a gathering of music teachers of all stripes: elementary through collegiate, vocal and instrumental. An estimated 25,000 people are here. Rumor is that the city doesn’t charge TMEA for the convention center because with every downtown hotel bed booked, they make enough in hotel taxes to offset the convention center rental. We do things big in Texas, y’all.

TMEA-All-State-Patch-poster

I get melancholy because I didn’t get to attend as an All State second soprano, which was my number one goal from the day I set foot in my high school choir room, a dark room in the basement of the performing arts center in my suburban high school near Dallas. My choir director didn’t let freshmen audition, I got laryngitis on the day of round one auditions my sophomore year. My junior year, I made it through every round, then when I got to the finals, my nerves got me. I can deal with all of those circumstances.

The one I have never quite recovered from was my senior year. I made it to the final round again. I did. But I blew it. And every year now at this time, at this conference, I beat myself up privately.

But this year, I am going to try a different tack: forgiveness.

I had a really fantastic voice. With a beautiful clear tone and a sharp ear for tuning, and the acting ability to help me do more than just hit the right notes, I had a lot of promise.

 

hr-1114-233-578--1114233578005 (2)But my senior year, I was a mess. I lived in a mess. My mom was tormenting us, violent and dangerous, she would spy on us or break into our house and steal things. She would come see me at school and scream at me or hit me in front of my friends. Once, she visited me at work and my boss locked me in the stock room to protect me while he called security. I was in a relationship with a guy who turned out to be abusive, sexually and emotionally, who also spied on me and demanded all of my time, didn’t allow me to have friends, and threatened to commit suicide if I broke up with him.I had to work because my dad was strapped, so if I wanted clothes or voice lessons, I had to pay for them.My house was not a safe haven. Rehearsal in my bedroom was impossible with younger brothers who didn’t exactly enjoy listening to me sing.

There were a lot of strikes against me.

Now, I know there are so many inspiring stories of young people who overcome overwhelming odds to become genius academics, superb athletes, or stellar performers. But I wasn’t one. I just couldn’t get my mind clear and my shit together enough, and when my less-than-adequately-prepared-self got to the identical room where my nerves had betrayed me in the final round of auditions my junior year, I just could not pull it off. My heart was not in it.

Soon after, I tried to be in the chorus of my high school musical, but missed the second night of the show because of the demented boyfriend’s prom (there was no way I could explain to my directors why I had to go to his prom, they just had to assume I was choosing a boy over my art. Which I was, but not for the reasons one would think).

I managed to struggle along until May, when I finally told my dad what was happening with my boyfriend and he gave me the courage and protection I needed to end that relationship. Things with my mom never did improve, but when I left for college and met and married my beloved husband, I had the security and distance to cope with her.

 

So when I am here, and I see all these tremendously talented student musicians, whom I know have worked so hard to be here, I feel guilty and sad. But I think this year, I have to put that aside.

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So, here is what I will say to that 17 year old girl:

  • You did the best you could, without enough life experience to help you make better choices. And pretty much, that’s all we can hope for on any given day.
  • All state patches are great, but they don’t make you a whole person. You won’t have a giant chenille Texas shaped hole in your soul just because you didn’t make the choir.
  • Your own failures will help you be a better mom and teacher. When your own sophomore daughter gets sick the week of the district round, or when the soprano who stakes it all on making All State her senior year doesn’t, you’ll understand.
  • You can still sing for joy. Not for a chair.

And to my grown self, I will say keep singing in the car, Babs is still the best singing partner for the car (her cover of “Make Your Own Kind of Music” is the best anthem), and really, not one of your friends or family love you less because you didn’t make the All State Choir in 1985. A magical life does not require certificates and accolades.

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It’s easy to wish we had taken different paths, usually the ones that would have brought greater glory or less struggle (two completely opposite ideas). But I wouldn’t trade who I am now for anything. I love my husband, my kids, my extended family, and my job. I have a house that I am comfy in, and health that allows me to do lots of stuff I love (as long as I don’t do deep lunges- those are hell on my knees). I’ve gotten to study theatre, do theatre, and take a break from theatre. I have the introvert’s ideal- just enough friends that I treasure. Life is good. Maybe I should just start singing here at my booth. It can be my own TMEA debut. Tra-la!

 

 

 

 

 

To Raise Happy Kids: Dance!

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Walking out on the faire site today, I was listening to music. One of my projects during the quiet December days in the office was to upload all of my old CDs onto my iphone- stuff I have not listened to in years. Really, years. Old Amy Grant, Eric Clapton, and Beatles tunes now have a place in my playlists alongside Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars.

With the sun shining in a blue sky and my breathing ever so slightly elevated, my mind was drifting along, unknotting some tricky work questions, when BAM! The swinging, groovy strains of Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” started, and I was instantly transported. It’s what happens with music, I think.

Suddenly I was in the living room of our tiny rent house in 1993 Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, bare walls streaming with sunlight, dancing with my two year old son and four year old daughter. Silly, goofy dancing. Fingers pointing randomly at the ceiling, feet flexed awkwardly, and our voices raised to the roof, we danced with complete abandon (sometimes we danced when Daddy was home, but I never let myself get quite so…weird…looking then. I danced really weird with the kids- like Julia-Louis-Dreyfus-on-Seinfeld-weird).

dance 3

When my kids were little, we had lots of these silly spontaneous dance parties. Even though I was always doing workout videos (anyone else have that Cindy Crawford workout on VHS? The one where she wore a crimson leotard and perfectly tousled hair and never broke a freaking sweat), my best calorie burn came from these moments.

Dancing really is great. Kids do it instinctively, even boys (until we tell them they have to stop because dancing is only for girls and put a football in their hands instead. Sorry- I got off topic a little).

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The National Dance Education Organization says: “Dance embodies one of our most primal relationships to the universe. It is pre-verbal, beginning before words can be formed. It is innate in children before they possess command over language and is evoked when thoughts or emotions are too powerful for words to contain.

Children move naturally. They move to achieve mobility, they move to express a thought or feeling, and they move because it is joyful and feels wonderful.”

It is! It’s joyful! And what could possibly be better than joyful kids? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Joyful kids and a good cardio workout are not the only things you get from dancing with your young children. Here’s what silly dancing with your kids gets you:

  1. Kids that see an adult being unafraid to look foolish. Rich lives are built on risk-taking. Trying out for the spelling bee, swinging at that curveball pitch, asking for that dream date, applying for that seemingly out-of-reach job, sending that novel off to a publisher- those are all risks on the same continuum. If we want our kids to have courage, to be brave enough to live even when suffering egg on their metaphorical faces, we show them that from the very earliest age by being silly and awkward and breathless.
  2. Relief. That means looser shoulders, a smoother forehead, and a relaxed jaw. It’s impossible to stay tense and stressed when you’re cutting a rug with little ones. We do carry so much when we’re parenting: bills, job expectations, home repairs, health concerns…well, you get the picture. When kids see too much of that in Mom and Dad, they become fearful. Adults can show kids how to let go and get down.
  3. Kids that love music from an early age. Music is awesome. We all know it. Every culture ever has found ways to create music. Get them singing and humming and banging from day one! Oh, and the better music you choose, the better their taste will be (for the love of Pete, no Kidz Bop!)
  4. Memories. Precious, life affirming memories. In my acting training and teaching, we often draw upon the concept of “sense memory” to evoke the responses we want from an actor. How many times have you smelled a scent or tasted a food and been immediately transported to a beloved location, if only in your mind? When you dance with your wee ones, especially if you choose some special songs to always dance to, you and they will always associate that music with fun and family and love. Dancing, play, hugs, and kind words lay a firm foundation for a child’s self concept. In those awful schoolyard moments, when their confidence has been shaken or when their heart is broken by first love, those deep early memories, whether recollected consciously or not, hold the frame of the child intact. Yours too, by the way. And someday, when you’re twirling with them on the dance floor of their wedding reception, you’ll remember. And you’ll cry. And you’ll be thankful.
  5. Kids that read. Again, the NDEO: “Dance helps children develop literacy. To the young child, verbal language and movement are entwined. Preverbal movement expression does not cease when a child develops language. The road to literacy involves the translation of movement expression and communication into words. Learning language and learning dance are not separate threads, but are woven together and incorporated into a fabric of communication and understanding.”

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I tried to find photos of these impromptu dance parties, but discovered I have nary a one. And as I puzzled over that fact, I realized that it’s because I was too busy being connected and truly present with my kids in those moments to bother looking for a camera. I just had to trust that I would remember. And I do. So very vividly.

In the song I mentioned at the beginning of this post, “The River of Dreams,” Joel sings about “something sacred [he] lost.” The childhoods of my offspring are over. Sacred, but lost. But not in my heart, not in my dancing feet.

“In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the desert of truth
To the river so deep
We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams”- Billy Joel

Let the river and the beat carry you and your kids. Namaste, and “shake your groove thing!”

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Enchantment: Crayons!

 

I, like so many adults this year, rediscovered my love for coloring. it started when my boss wanted to do a souvenir coloring book project and brought in piles of Disney coloring books for research. Piled up in the conference room, my eyes landed on the stack of classic Disney and Disney princess pages waiting for hues of pink, yellow, green, and blue. I was ensnared. I grabbed two books and headed to my office, dug through my supply drawer to find the box of 24 crayons I had left over from my teaching days, plugged in my headphones, and set about filling in shapes of Mickey and Minnie in hot air balloons or jungles dark and deep. I was hooked! On an August trip to Target, my husband and I happened to need something in the school supply section, and I sighed over the huge boxes of crayons, settling for a box of 64 when what I really wanted was a box of 96! My husband couldn’t understand my hesitation, but I was worried about spending the extra $1.

In a recent stage production of On Golden Pond, my stage manager gave me that longed-for box of 96 crayons and more coloring books. For Christmas, Santa added a box of high quality metallic pencils and a Benedict Cumberbatch coloring book (be still my heart).

Coloring is a simple, inexpensive, meditative enchantment. Add tunes and a glass of something wonderful to drink and you have your own private party (zen or party animal- depending on your choice of music and beverage). If you haven’t picked up a crayon or colored pencil lately, try it. It’s soothing magic!

Losing My Religion

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It’s the day after Christmas. I am sitting in my quiet house, my sweet husband is napping, my eldest daughter and her fiancee have left for a movie, my son is at work, and my youngest is across the world. It has been a wonderful Christmas- everyone is healthy (I didn’t fall and injure myself severely- just one small second degree burn from a candy-making fumble) and happy, and very much in love with their significant other. I don’t feel any post Christmas blues, but the holiday’s passing has left me feeling reflective about one very specific thing: my vanished faith.

I do understand the actual origins of Christmas- Yule and Saturnalia, Pope Julius I’s decision to create a celebration of Jesus’ birth and using the conveniently placed Solstice celebrations to do so, the Puritans’ refusal to acknowledge the holiday (it was against the law to celebrate Christmas in Boston from 1659-1681), its absence in America throughout the 18th century, then its resurgence in the 19th with the publication of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ novels.

Historically, Jesus is really not “The Reason for the Season.” But in contemporary America, in Texas, Christmas is very much about celebrating the birth of Jesus.

But not for me.

Amy-Grant

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith’s Christmas concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion here in the Houston area. I was so excited! It was a chilly night (a rare occurrence in a Houston December), and poor Amy had come onto the outdoor stage in an emerald sleeveless gown. She spent most of act one wrapped in a blanket, and changed into jeans, boots, and a quilted parka at intermission. Smitty was in a suit, and playing pretty vigorously at the grand piano, so he seemed to fare better in the chilled air. I loved it. They sang back to back renditions of “Jingle Bells” (Smitty sang the Perry Como arrangement, Amy the Streisand), “The Christmas Waltz,” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” I have been listening to these two sing Christmas songs since I was 18 years old, and it was like being home.

But the mood changed in the second half. It became more tender, more reflective, more…worshipful. In this half, Amy sang “Heirlooms” and “Breath of Heaven.” Smitty led a sing along. But this was not a sing along like happens at your child’s elementary school PTO program, with “Rudolph” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” This was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.” The mood became holy. And I couldn’t sing. Clearly, the audience was worshiping, and I knew that to lend my voice would be inauthentic. Counterfeit. It was beautiful, and I felt alien. Throughout the remainder of the concert, I teared up several times; and when the first notes of “Friends” played in the encore, I began to really cry…when the lights went up, I found I couldn’t talk, I could barely hold it together and my sweet husband held me while I wept, truly wept.

Christmas is often a time for heavy-heartedness- that’s not news to most adults (and a few kids). We grieve for lost loved ones. We mourn passing time. I am a little melancholy this year. But it’s not really nostalgia for my childhood Christmases (which were spotty, to say the least). It’s not even nostalgia for the holidays for when my kids were little.

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My grief is for my lost faith.

I no longer believe in the Christian faith. Not because of “hypocrites” or the times when God hasn’t answered prayers. Not because of the insanity of millionaire ministers or the rampant suffering and injustice in the world.

I can’t believe a virgin birth. I just can’t. Nor can I believe that a dead man rose and walked after three days entombed. And I can’t force myself to sit in a sanctuary and recite the Nicene Creed or sing hymns (or praise and worship songs) that strike me as so very, very false. It would be, for me, fraudulent, and an insult to the sincerity of the Christians who find such joy in their faith.

I believe in the teachings of Jesus, wisdom of the Proverbs, the passion and pathos of the Psalms. But I cannot accept that many of the writings of the apostle Paul were meant to be followed verbatim, by all humans, no matter gender, culture, and time, for ever and ever amen. I know enough to know that what we have as the Holy Bible was passed around, rewritten, interpreted, and adapted for 300 years before finally being codified. How can it possibly be infallible?

Unusual-Christmas-Trees uses

But secular Christmas seems so empty.

How does one recover from lost faith?

When I posted on Facebook that my thoughts, not prayers, were with the victims of the French terrorist attacks, a long time friend (who is not a person of faith) sought me out two days later to tell me, in person, that that made him sad. That he sensed that the loss of my faith was a grief to me. How profound is it that it was an agnostic to express sorrow over this loss?

That he has expressed more kindness over my loss than nearly any Christian in my acquaintance is also profound. I think I am a pretty big disappointment to a lot of people.

Most days, I don’t really give it much thought. I don’t miss church, not even a little bit. I think years as a minister’s wife, privy to the inner workings of church politics, cured me of ever wanting to belong to a church again. American Christianity has become a frightening place, full of fear and politics.

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In her book Quiet, Susan Cain describes the dilemma of introverts (of which I am most definitely one) trying to participate in American Evangelicanism: ” Contemporary Evangelicanism…emphasizes building community among confirmed believers, with many churches encouraging (or even requiring) their members to join extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable subject- cooking, real-estate investing, skateboarding.” She meets with a man who struggles with his introverted nature, and can’t find the place where he can worship, commune, and serve. I get that. In my last attempts at finding a church home, all I wanted was a place where I could have a few real, genuine friends and contemplative, thoughtful worship, preferably far, far away from LED smart lights and Jumbotron screens.

Oh, and by the way, I still believe in God.

So I try to use walking or yoga time to reconnect with the Divine. In my solo worship time, I have learned that God is also Goddess. That trees and animals carry a bit of the Divine spark. That literature and music do as well. I have learned that kindness can be found and is often practiced by the most unexpected people: the tattooed, gypsy “heathen” is often more benevolent than the most polished Evangelical.

Years ago, when I confided to two of my aunts (on my mom’s side) that I had found myself in a desert place, they assured me that if I was just patient, that God would lead me out of the desert. I don’t feel arid anymore, and that’s a blessing. But I don’t feel Churched, either. I feel like I am in a quiet forest, with a beautiful lake. Pretty alone, but with something Divine whispering to me. Maybe that’s enough.

Merry Christmas, friends.

 

Changing the Tapes: Oct. 6, 2015*

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I had been doing really well on feeling more peaceful with my body. But today, I had a turn. We went to a party Saturday night, and I saw the photos today. I look big to myself, soft around the top of my halter dress.

What’s so frustrating is that I had felt pretty that night. Not Jennifer Aniston pretty, but me pretty. Hair up in curls, my usual understated makeup, pretty coral shoes. Bam- photos arrive in  my inbox and on Facebook.

So I have spent the afternoon trying to change my talk.

Here are my reminders for today:

No woman in either side of my family is willowy. None. We are all, both maternal and paternal lineage, athletic in build. Some are more fit than others, but none of us has that tall, thin, size 4 figure with long slender legs. I have got to understand my gene pool.

I exercise. I do. I don’t try to run anymore, the doctor told me I could stop that nonsense because it truly hurts my damaged knees. But I walk, I do cardio and yoga, I just laid almost an entire pallet of grass by myself. I do bicep curls with rocks and tricep dips on benches. I am as active as my poor joints will allow. I will always try to do more and do it better, but for this moment, with a show just behind me and a faire season three days away, I am doing my best.

I eat fairly well. Could I cut a few carbs? Yes. Could I reduce my wine intake? Probably. But if I am honest with myself, I don’t want to. I don’t have wine every night, but some nights (like last Saturday) I have too much. I know exactly how many donuts I have had this year (for the record, it’s four and a half, so I still get another one and a half in 2015). I rarely have big dessert, but I do allow myself a few shortbread cookies or vanilla wafers every once in a while. I eat salads, but yesterday I had a kids sized mushroom Swiss burger. Because here’s the thing: I honestly believe good food and drink are one of life’s pleasures. Like a beautiful cloud formation lit with a setting sun, or puppy breath, or baby toes, or hugs, or trees (or hugging trees for that matter, which I have in fact, done), food is good. It is part of what makes it wonderful to be human.

Not for me the diet shakes and rice cakes. Life is too precious. Does that mean I eat all of it, every time I want it, in unlimited portions? No. But I eat some. Occasionally.

See, I am going to do a thing that is very brave for me. I am going to publicly say what pants size I wear: a 10. Mostly- today, my pants were size 8. Eight years ago, I was wearing sizes 6-8 in everything, but when I injured my neck, that went to a size 8-10, and there I have stayed. It’s the largest I have been, ever, except when pregnant.

For some people, a size 10 would be their dream size. For others, they will never own pants this big. For me, this seems to be where my middle aged self has landed.

When I see myself in the mirror, I see a healthy looking mom, until I look at photos.

BUT, DAMMIT, I DON”T WANT TO NOT LOVE PHOTOS OF MY LIFE JUST BECAUSE I THINK I LOOK PLUMP! MY LIFE IS ACTUALLY PRETTY WONDERFUL.

The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!
The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!

So here is what I propose: All photos of myself will be looked at through a filter of love. I will be grateful for the experiences being photographed. I was having a blast with my darling husband and awesome friends Saturday night. I was laughing and dancing my fool head off. That must be my photo filter. Not Toaster or 1977 or Earlybird- just me being grateful for a body that is pretty healthy, that can climb around and lift stuff, that can hug my loved ones, that houses me in all my weird, neurotic glory.

Not one more minute of today will be wasted on worrying about my body shape. Only joy. And maybe a shortbread cookie for good measure.

*This is part of an ongoing series in my journey, today is the first time I am posting publicly. We’ll see how it goes!

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