Teaching has brought amazing students into my life. And families. The Gentuso clan is one gang I’ll never forget. The three boys’ ACT scores were in triple digits while their wrestling pins racked up powerful points. I loved that they were avid readers, creative, interesting, and best of all, all heart. Knowing them has made my life richer.
Stephen, the eldest, was part of my AP English “Dream Team.” He was an incredible writer… articulate, thoughtful, and sensitive. In a word…perfect. Then came John– energetic, curious, fun. He was in my daughter’s class and became my son’s hero. He still coaches Cole in wrestling. John didn’t just think outside the box. Long before I met him, he’d scaled it, jumped over its side, and never looked back.
And now I teach Andrew, a high school junior, who I met as “Monkey” when he was in the seventh grade. He and Cole wrestled off to the side as his older brothers were at varsity practice. His first big paper for me is below. Be ready to be moved. The pictures were taken by their mom, Tammy, the lady behind the camera at every match…except when she’s in Africa as the official photographer for Hanna Project, a non-profit humanitarian and medical aid NGO.
I saw Tammy’s first photography exhibit when I taught Stephen. A freelance journalist, she describes herself as “a registered nurse by training, who traded in her stethoscope for a diaper bag more than twenty years ago; and then traded a worn-out diaper bag for a pro camera bag in 2005.” Her portfolio may be viewed here: http://www.gentusophotography.com.
Tammy and Paul are a cool couple. They lived in Africa as medical missionaries and now make hours at wrestling invitationals all the more fun. Tammy’s my go-to mom for advice on practical parenting with eternal impact. I’m sharing their story–Andrew’s through words and Tammy’s through pictures–because their mom/son team is a picture of loving others well by serving side-by-side.
The New Responsibility
by Andrew Gentuso
The reek of rotting flesh and infection assailed my senses, smothering all else as the makeshift splint supporting the mutilated leg was taken away. The appendage was contorted and tattered, much as I imagine a motorcycle accident victim’s leg would look. But there aren’t many motorcycles, or roads for that matter, in the savannah of Northern Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. The injury must have been a severe break at one point, but infection and a lack of medical attention had caused it to steadily worsen until the leg was well outside the limits of our small open-air clinic, which was nothing more than a few tackle boxes filled with first aid equipment. The owner of the mutilation was given oral antibiotics after my mother cleaned off most of the mud and maggot-ridden flesh. He was then directed to go to the closest hospital around, which was luckily only about a dozen miles away. Our surgeons there could hopefully be of more assistance.
Next in the line was a small baby being held by his mother. I hadn’t noticed at first, due to the general ruckus of an entire excited village being gathered in one place, but the child was wailing. It became apparent for what he was crying when the mother pointed to a short, puckered gash on his distended stomach. It was a part of a pattern of cuts around the baby’s naval like the rays of the sun. However, unlike its seven other companions which were now healing into keloids, this slash had ruptured. I cleaned the wound gently with betadine, applied bandages and gave the mother medicine to help with the malnutrition and parasites causing the swollen belly. She, like all the others receiving medicine, was given instructions on when and how to take the pills by one of our translators.
During the van ride back to the hospital compound I asked what the pattern of cuts on the child’s stomach were, although I thought I had a shrewd idea. As it turned out, the slices had been made in an attempt to alleviate the distension of the abdomen by providing an exit for evil spirits, the obvious culprits. This was apparently a common practice and one deeply rooted in the fetish worship practiced by the Lobi tribe. This is the tribe from which I obtained my name as a baby: Olo Dablo, which means “third-born son, white boy”. This is the name African children who I had never met would call out to me as I rode by in the back of a truck or walked past on some errand. It seems that the American boy born in their village was still famous almost ten years after he had left Doropo—the largest village in the region and the location of the small bush hospital my parents ran many years ago.
It was partly this love shown to me by the people of Doropo, whether through a cheerful greeting or a gift of a carved and painted wooden bird made by a man who was my parents’ friend of old, which brought me to the reality about the vast need in places where clean water and a quality education are precious commodities, and simple medical aid is in such high demand. Each face I had seen in these situations was a distinct individual, just as much a human being as I. These weren’t just villagers waiting for the privileged Americans to swoop in and save them; they are our brothers and sisters who fight everyday for their very survival, against starvation, disease and war. I have been impressed by the urgency of their plight. We, who have so much, need to remember those who have so little. And not just remember, but assist in every way possible. The thought that the people of Africa, South America, South Asia and other suffering places are our fellow human beings and deserve just as much as us the love and saving grace of the God who created us all equal should stir some emotions and produce some actions.
This trip to my birthplace during the school year of 2009 opened my eyes to the needs felt by so many outside the borders of what the average American teenager sees. It has given me a new standard by which to judge hardship and kindled within me a desire to serve my God through serving needy people. My throat may be sore, but I at least don’t have a bone tumor the size of a football extending from my mouth and breaking my jaws apart, as one of our patients did. You know, that’s the kind of perspective I mean. Now that I know the realities of life in other places, I am more responsible to do something about them. This is a responsibility that needs to be fulfilled through whatever path I may take and is one that will help shape the remainder of my life.
Summer afternoon – Summer afternoon… the two most beautiful words in the English language.
Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.
All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.
I love getting lost. In summer I can do what Julia Cameron calls “artist dates,” wanton wanderings to inspire creativity and cultivate sanity. I can stop racing down a linear path like the March Hare late for the Mad Hatter’s tea party, and thus, avoid going mad myself. And when folks say I’m “slow-walking,” KentuckySpeak for wasting my time, I can tell them to take a hike, preferably down a rabbit hole.
Yesterday I had lunch with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare at The Italian Market. Growing up four months and one street apart, my daughter, Taylor, and niece, Emily, were in Alice together their freshman year of high school. Many-an-audience-member said they stole the show, and I felt again like we were in Wonderland. Like childhood Sunday lunch that lasted all afternoon at Mama Sargeant’s or Torino dinner that went til near midnight at Anna and Antonio’s, we took our sweet time…Limoncello Torte and all.
A few shiny objects later (what my son calls distractions but I call decisions when I get off the clock)… buying lavender and cilantro, book-hunting at McKay’s, snapping pictures of a church in Sylvan Park… we parked in the shade of the Parthenon. At The American Artisan Festival, our original destination, we talked to artists, patted dogs, sipped strawberry lemonade in the shade. I bought an “original” sketch from a boy with his grandmother working the crowd for camp money. He’d traced a crow, either Heckle or Jeckle. The perfect souvenir.
We’d blown off the direct route, “the way a crow flies,” to the park. Like freebirds we picked up bright and shining things along the way…good conversation, laughs, leisure. We met artists who reminded us we are all made in the image of the Great Creator. By honoring their inner children with their work, they invited ours to join and play.
My friend, Cindy David, of Cindy David Designs.
Monica Chantada, another friend modeling one of Cindy’s latest designs.
While many may think I’m at a salsa party on NYE, I’m not. I wanted a last night by the tree, my son in the next room playing video games. He’ll graduate in 2012…too soon…and I haven’t had the chance over Christmas break to look back on the past year and thank God for all His blessings.
Many firsts in 2010…my students doing a book study with Sherry’s class in Ecuador via Skype. Classic Coup featured in Her Nashville, then my writing for the magazine. Examiner interviews with amazing people, like Alberto Fuguet and a salsera who inspired me with her story, soon to be published. Loving Middle Eastern food and eating it while watching the Super Bowl. First trip to Vegas and to Kansas City. Sharing Go-Jo with a friend before he hit the Road Less Traveled. Our bathroom restored over Thanksgiving when 8 Days of Hope came to town. The kindness of strangers.
And speaking of Tennessee Williams…my first trip to NOLA. Why had I not gone sooner considering it’s the most European-feeling city in America? There Kim did a reunion concert with her former husband/band member that loyal fans, Kim’s high school friends, and five of us from Nashville traveled to see. She sang like an angel, he played up a storm, and they bantered like June Carter and Johnny Cash. I’d met Kim post-Bill and her Rockabilly days. Seeing them slip back into something onstage so familiar and so different reminded me of the lives we all live and leave behind. Their reunion foreshadowed my own last fall when I saw girls–classmates most of whom I hadn’t seen since my high school graduation. Girls from ’77– different and yet the same.
2011 marks not only a new year. It begins a new decade. Since 2000 I’ve lost both grandmothers. Others have moved away or moved on. I look back each year to embrace the comfort of Wordsworth’s words: “We will grieve not, rather find/ Strength in what remains behind;/ In the primal sympathy / Which having been must ever be.”
In the last decade ten more senior classes graduated. My kids, pets, and I continued celebrating life with birthdays, vacations, Pokeman, American Girl, movie nights, soccer, drama, cheerleading and wrestling. I’ve seen my nieces grow up one street over, alongside my children. I became part of a salsa family that taught me to celebrate EVERY birthday–even the once-dreaded milestones. I’ve seen my sister, mother, and daughter see Italy for the first time. I’ve gone to the beach and Barcelona with friends, explored from Santa Monica to Malibu with Taylor and Cole.
New friends, new passions, new places…like Garden Brunch Cafe, Lassiz, Cantino Laredo, McNamara’s Irish Pub. And old favorites, comfort food, like clam chowder and beef stew, Radnor Lake and Mad Donna’s. A tradition, taking my sis out for her birthday, became new when Penny and I saw A Scattered, Smothered, and Covered Christmas at the new downtown dinner theater. Family and friends still here…passages as we change and move on. Welcome home from Africa, Sally, friends forever since we started Mrs. Monday’s K-5 class together. And hello friends-yet-to-be in 2011.
Once Upon a Time in Dublin in 2000…
And in Destin circa ’05 or so…
And all the time in-between…
It has been a wonderful life…decade…year…
Court of 2 Sisters
Full Circle…I grew up near Fairview where family reunions were held at the “Jeff Davis” monument.
Home in film, The Curious Case of Benjamen Button
Sandra Bullock’s home
One school of Brad P and Angelina J’s children
Mike, our Southern gentleman and host, showed us sites after my first night of Zydeco.
High school friends of Kim at Stanley, my favorite restaurant named for the character I love/hate–especially when played by Marlon Brando.
Carnival at Lime with Em
Classic Coup featured in Her…photo by Jude Ferrara
Birthday dance …photo by Anthony Jure
Author/Director Alberto Fuguet
Teaching my seniors to salsa in the park
Taylor reading my favorite contemporary Southern novelist in Destin
Thanks to Emily and Cindy D, our resident photographers.
Fun with Nashville Writers Meetup at Southern Festival of Books
Founder of Hands on Nashville, Hal Cato, speaks at our Career Day
Senior Prank…my knight captured
My TA, Margarita, consoles me with random acts of kindness.
Examiner article covering Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Awards–Spanish translation
Sonja and Elle’s launch of the Superwoman benefit for battered women
Volunteers from 8 Days of Hope…two families rich in love who blessed mine
I felt like such an imposter. Exposed. Naked. And in the very place I thought would be the answer to all my dreams.
Feeling like I didn’t belong wasn’t about money. Thankfully, I’d never been a gold digger. I was too much a romantic for that. I’d take Heathcliff over Edgar every time. If I married, it would be for love, not for cash. For a soul mate, not a sole provider. My prince could be a pauper as long as he had character and intelligence… and an edge that made him a little fearless and a lot fun. I would never be a “kept woman” because depending on someone else for money seemed the opposite of freedom.
Raised on the Beatles, I knew money couldn’t buy me love. Or at least not new money. Jay Gatsby had the biggest house and car, even a pink suit, but he was snubbed in East Egg (the West End of Nashville) where old money lived. And like his character, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote himself to death trying to maintain the high life to which his debutante wife, Zelda, was accustomed.
Like Gatsby and Fitzgerald, I was chasing down a dream. I had mapped my quest to not just any Starbucks but the one in Belle Meade. Why? Because I associated it with The Best. Even their Kroger carried rare cheeses I’d discovered in Italy. In Belle Meade people obviously had it all together. The place where little girls wore smocked dresses and wore big bows in their bouncing bobs. The place where the J.Crew sipped on coffee and leisurely read newspapers or wrote novels all day in the middle of a workweek. The place where couples in North Face jackets and custom running shoes grabbed a hot chocolate together. They all looked like winners, golden boys and girls, and I wanted to be one, too.
I needed to write a bestseller—to pay off debt, fund my kids’ college, and insure I could one day retire. I needed to write a best seller to free my schedule, free my mind, and maybe free others by giving them an escape—an excuse to laugh or cry. I wanted to tell them they mattered to God. And I wanted to write a bestseller…to matter.
The girl who used to joke that if she had money, it would have to be old money to count.
The girl who teared up watching the Academy Awards because she knew even if she were a movie star, she wouldn’t be enough unless she won an Oscar.
The girl who knew even if she had graduated first in her class, it wouldn’t matter unless the degree was from Oxford.
The girl who had always had such big dreams that she often felt she had accomplished so little. The girl who set the bar so high she was always straining to reach it–sadly obscuring her vision so she often lost sight of the blessings that surrounded her.
And as for the A Team, my insecurities hadn’t ambushed me that day in Starbucks. The stowaways followed me from home, escaped from the glovebox, and pulled up a chair once I finally stayed at one table.
“Just look at them,” they whispered—“the stay-at-home moms who aren’t staying at home. Isn’t it enough that they get to sip their coffee Monday-Friday from here or from china tea cups in their breakfast nooks while you’re chugging yours from a thermos on the way to work? How can they afford to give up a paycheck and treat themselves and their children to Starbucks when you have a fulltime job and do good to get here once a week? But of course, they have husbands to support and love them. Wouldn’t it be sweet to have their lives? Bet they have maids and nannies who watch the kids while they get their facials, massages, and manicures. And even if they don’t, they can give their kids 100% because they are never torn between their little ones and their jobs.”
And then the cruelest cut of all…”Bet they’re even caught up on their scrapbooking.”
Trying to dismiss such miserable thoughts, I turned to hopeful ones: That available looking guy over there is cute. He’s reading a book even. Maybe he’ll look my way. I don’t feel like writing anymore and I’ve got to get home, but maybe the day won’t be a total bust.
And then, just as I willed him to look up, he did…at some skinny, plain, smug girl who strolled over and hugged him. No doubt my feeling naked and exposed had turned into feeling jealous and angry. I was sick of being alone, of being rejected—by everyone but my own insecurities, that is. By the misery that loves my company…
The A Team was now tuning up for a full-on opera:
“Well what do you expect? Your divorce has benched you and your kids for life. So you’re on the B team. That’s really not so bad.”
“At least you realize now, before embarrassing yourself further by putting it all out there, that best leave this writing thing to others. To those who really have something to offer.
You gave it your best shot. I mean, since you were, what, twelve, you’ve told yourself that God is supposed to be enough? That is, you thought it, but you’ve never felt it–at least not for long, right?”
Despite my trying to ignore them, I realized that through the years, I had worked on myself and my faith… and I had not worked on myself and my faith—trying instead to rest in God since only He can show me the acceptance and unconditional love for which I ache. I really wanted God to be the lover of my soul, my truest soul mate, but I still struggled because I wanted a flesh and blood lover as well. He’d shown me I could survive—that I didn’t need a man. But He hadn’t stopped me from wanting one.
Still, I tried to refocus. A best seller would be my new Grail. Since my divorce, I’d been disappointed by too many gentleman callers. I’d depended on the kindness of strangers and been badly burned. I’d learned the lesson of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, that finding The One or the Whatever we think will make us happy—that “long delayed but always expected something that we live for”— is dangerous territory. Because when our dreams are deferred, we can become bitter. While it may seem we have more control over building a career than finding a mate, there’s danger in basing our joy on any one person, on any one goal. Especially when we see neither realized.
Then the A Team belted out the biggest lie of all…
“Wonder why God is withholding from you? I thought that Bible of yours says he gives good gifts to his children? Wonder why so many have been married off to good guys, but you’re still alone? It’s kind of like it’s Christmas morning and your sister just got a new bike, but you just got a stocking full of oranges. Or maybe you’re the female Charlie Brown…it’s Halloween and you’re left holding a bag of rocks.”
They really were cracking themselves up.
And honestly, I didn’t have the strength to pray. Maybe this writing thing was a bad idea…just like thinking I’d ever find The One. Just like thinking I’d ever had anything to offer…
And that’s when He cleared the seats at my table.
He left the agitators to find their own ride– but not to my home. One of my favorite college professors once teased me about my faith: “Do you really think Jesus shows up at your barbeques?” I told him I did, and we agreed to disagree. I’d love to see him after all these years and tell him that He even shows up at Starbucks.
Somehow, my panic-turned-resentment attack had subsided. And while some might understandably give credit to Jack Johnson singing softly from the speakers or to my own emotional exhaustion, I give credit to the only One who can ever really straighten me out and calm me down.
I saw the Starbucks crowd through neutral eyes. I saw them for who they were—no more, no less.
There were the bikers, the businessmen, the boy doing his summer reading. There were the fifty to sixtysomething guys in untucked, dress shirts, madras shorts, and loafers without socks—those who’ve retired and those who make their own hours. I even smiled rather than rolled my eyes when I (and everyone else in the room) heard an obnoxious guy loudly seal a deal from his headset. I couldn’t believe he was actually saying: “I get it—ok—NOW SHOW ME THE MONEY!”
There were artists and students in t- shirts, baggy cargo shorts, and flip flops. There were thirty and fortysomething career women who were well groomed, well exercised, well fed. There was even the occasional surprise, like the confident, twentysomething girl who looked like she might be a dancer at Ken’s Gold Club or Christie’s Cabaret—platinum hair, fake breasts, killer calves, dark tan. They all put on their pants, skirts, shorts, and g-strings one leg at a time, I thought. God levels the playing field. Their worth and mine rests in having one thing only: a God who loves us. Any true security and confidence we have has but one source.
Success doesn’t come from physical strength, riches or brains. It comes from knowing God as He really is—as He really wants to be known–kind, just, and loving. It comes from trusting that He is good even when my circumstances aren’t. That He is God and that I’m not. As much as I want a writing career to spell success, to be my Holy Grail, as much as I want to live somewhere between being too full of myself and cowering in a corner, the only thing I really need to remember is that I matter just because God loves me.
Later that summer, I met the author I’d seen get her book deal in Starbucks back in ’04. Turned out we had a mutual friend, so I asked her if she had time to read this very piece and give me some feedback. She declined, saying she was swamped with her own work. Though I had shaken my posse, I was tempted for a moment to recoil into my old imposter pose—the fetal position. To be fair, I realize now I may have seemed like a stalker. I had rattled off names of our mutual acquaintances and must have seemed like people who stake out local places where Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman drink their coffee. Or worse, like Kathy Bates in Misery just before she pulls out the sledgehammer.
Even if we hadn’t become fast friends and grabbed a Cappuccino, one of her books helped me that first Wednesday in Starbucks. She had dedicated it to every woman who had ever felt like a wallflower and said Christ invites us to dance. He’s wild about us. With Him, there is no rejection.
I already knew but had forgotten that His passionate love can even free imposters …something we all are when we persistently pose or push our way into some imaginary club where we think winners huddle. Whether we’re married or single, have kids or don’t; whether we live in Donelson or in Green Hills; whether we were a geek at a community college or a Greek at Vanderbilt; whether we’re a stay-at-home mom who stays at Starbucks or a career mom who doesn’t, none of it matters.
When I remember Christ loves me deeply and passionately just because I’m His child, I feel deeply accepted. And I know that he wants me to write—because of rather than in spite of—my imperfections and insecurities. He uses broken people—which we all are whether we realize it or not.
I called Brooke at the end of that summer to make plans to visit her in Chicago during my fall break. I shared with her that Starbucks hadn’t been the writer’s silent sanctuary, magical muse, or direct path to the Holy Grail I had hoped it would be, but it had been an arena for slaying inner dragons that huffed and puffed against me as a writer and as a person.
Without missing a beat, as a problem solver and PR major, my friend suggested I try instead Fido, a hip, privately owned coffee shop near Vanderbilt’s campus. And I should try Bongo Java…and Frothy Monkey near Belmont where songwriters gather. Creativity was bound to be in the air if not in the coffee.
I wondered…maybe I’d be inspired there, what with a younger, smarter, and more beautiful crowd. And I can report, now three years later, that I have written at all three places she suggested. Next on my list is a new shop in East Nashville… but honestly, I now really enjoy writing as I am now—my twelve-year-old golden retriever by my side, my son in his room, my cat staring at me from the other couch.
I’ve realized—and I’m not proud to admit this– that my insecurities aren’t always stowaways. They sometimes disguise themselves as pretentions, and I am ashamed to admit I often invite them along for the ride. Acting ugly or not, I often assert my Southern self (a paradox in terms), and tell them I will write without their escort. But I know they’ll come calling again.
I learned in the Summer of ’06 that I was already a writer. I knew I had no great revelations—only the desire to remind others of what I have to remind myself every hour of every day. That the holy grail of Life Ideal—or as close as we can get to it in this life—is not achieved by finding the golden key or magical portal, by running to keep step with the culture, by looking across at the competition, or by hanging behind in regret. It’s learning to live within the paradox of finding self worth and contentment in gratefully seizing this day—ordinary though it may be— while still trusting that God will fulfill dreams He has placed in our hearts in future days. Mid-life is just that—the middle– not the end.
And I must remember that even Type A girls with Team B complexes can rest in a little less striving and a lot more trust.
Since my first book was a call to a Classics Coup, exhorting readers to put away their fluff fiction and pick up their Shakespeare, I appealed to Oprah as a fellow lover of great works. Hailing her as the Most Powerful Woman in the World who loves to make wishes come true, I threw myself on the mercy of her court. I sent her a DVD, offering my masterpiece as a pick for her Book Club. I included precious pictures of my children reminding her that she could change our lives with a simple nod. Illustrating my ability to hold an audience spellbound with the likes of Hawthorne and Hemingway, I included footage from my English class, showing my students as a captive audience. (I hoped she wouldn’t realize that they were, in fact, captive.) Finally, I pointed out the fingernail scratches on the whiteboard where I was trying to hold on financially and mentally– teaching 80+ students all day and mothering two small children all night. Touting myself as profound and prolific, I knew she would respect my proactive approach. I would write my way to a better life rather than codependently wait for a knight-in-shining-armor for rescue. I assured her that if she read my book it would change my life and hers.
In retrospect… I may have looked needy, merely bypassing the prince on a white horse to lay prostrate before the Queen of the Harpo Dynasty.
Sadly I never heard from her—no doubt because the DVD never reached her desk. I believe a keeper of the gate, someone on her staff—probably a perky intern with hopes of publishing herself—spitefully threw my pitch on the slush pile.
So when two agents and one publisher nibbled at my book, then swam away in August of 2004, I stuffed the manuscript in a box, slid it under my bed, licked my wounds, and returned to the classroom. As recommended in The Artist’s Way, I mourned my artistic loss an appropriate amount of time, but still I wondered… what went wrong? Wasn’t I born to be a writer? Didn’t my 40+ journals attest to the fact? And don’t my friends say I’m never at a loss for words, analyzing everything to death? In fact can’t my writing style be compared to Virginia Woolf’s and my dialogue to a Tennessee Williams’ character? Wouldn’t this explain why more than one guy had in John Wayne fashion grabbed and kissed me mid-sentence just so I’d shut up?
Down the Rabbit Hole…or Chasing a Rabbit Trail
No, I definitely had something to say, and I knew I could write. Maybe I simply needed to change genres. The first book had been nonfiction—more an academic tome than a page-turner. This time I would try a novel!
My main character could be a hopelessly romantic Queen of Angst fraught with the Perils of Parenthood and traumatized by dating over 40. After disasters with blind dating, online dating, and even speed dating, she would fear she was destined to never find The One—certainly a universal conflict. Though slimed with the human condition, she’d overcome hand wringing and despair…and I was pretty sure how she’d do it.
Excited about my new idea and especially my fascinating protagonist, I started characterizing this complex woman in ways that would translate well into film, saving me time for when I’d inevitably be asked to adapt the book into a screenplay. The movie would begin as the camera zoomed and focused on books stacked beside her bed: The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers who Underachieve; The ADHD Handbook and Parenting with Boundaries and Consequences; Teaching Lolita in Tehran; Intimate Kisses; The Bible; and A Thousand Days in Venice. These plus any title by four of her favorite writers, Jill McCorkle, C.S. Lewis, Donald Miller and Anne Lamott, should cover her character’s many layers. In fact, later in the novel when the protagonist wrote a New York Times best seller and an Academy Award winning screenplay, I knew exactly who she’d thank as she accepted her Oscar. First, she’d recognize her mentor, Jill, for answering her email regarding the first book. Then she’d thank Anne and Donald for being her muses–for showing her how to talk straight, to be real.
But then I stopped short. (And not because the most common mistake new authors make is to write too much about themselves.)
I needed to write about my own experiences. It’s what I know best. But I needed to come clean. To step out of the shadows. To stop hiding behind a fictional character. For me, writing a novel would be taking the easy way out—something I’ve seldom done. As usual, I liked the challenge. I blame my decision on Frost and his whole taking -the- road- less- traveled -shtick.
I would write a memoir, and I’d be gut honest though still raw.
Now I knew from watching my dad fillet fish, that guts are gross. I knew from seeing him empty his bag after bird hunting that when you shoot birds, feathers fly. I knew if I was totally honest with readers there might be enough feather fallout to tar and feather me. I might be disowned by friends and family who don’t share my candid sense of humor or who might judge me for my many mess-ups, mishaps, and sometimes, downright meanness. Having grown up in the South I knew the taboo against “acting ugly.”
I might be accused of rocking the boat if I asserted that it’s the huddling together at one end of the dinghy—at one end of the political spectrum—which really tips the boat over, drowning us all. Polar extremes seemed to alienate, making communication impossible. Running from the culture by isolating oneself or combating the culture with disdain– in the name of whichever political party—makes everyone miss the party…and the point… altogether. Being drawn closer to Christ and then modeling him means, like it or not, drawing closer to each other. His unconditional love for us despite our failure to love others well must be the only reason He hasn’t fired us on the spot and hired a whole new PR team.
But a few people have gotten it right—mostly because they confess to so often being wrong. Reading Donald Miller and Anne Lamott gave me the idea to forget the novel and do the “novel”– write the “naked truth” about my own life. I appreciate their courage to admit their humanity as they seek to do the divine–to love others as we love ourselves. I appreciate their humility, admitting they often fall short. Miller’s books are more popular in college frat houses than in many churches. He reaches so many people because he addresses where we really live–where we really struggle. Maybe because loving others well is one of the most radical things any of us can do—ironically the only way to Rage Against the Machine.
Before Miller and Lamott, my greatest fear was that I’d cause others to falter in their faith–especially when I had questions about mine. Since a sorority sister gave me my first “quiet time” journal and instructed me to write out my prayers to God, I’d offered Him all the drama in my life. I could clearly see how He had answered countless prayers, which had no doubt strengthened my faith. But it was the unchecked items on God’s “To Do List”–the one I’d given him– that bothered me. Those chronic unresolved problems that stood in the way of my writing sooner from my heart as well as my head. Shouldn’t I wait until the major kinks in my life were straightened out and I could write a feel-good romantic comedy? Then I could encourage others because everyone likes a happy ending. My story would prove to everyone that wishes do come true someplace other than the Magic Kingdom.
I decided it was time to begin writing my story even though I wasn’t sure how the loose ends would finally come together and be tied up in a nice big bow. Could I raise questions without offering hard, fast answers?
Then I remembered that I had always suspected writers, and for that matter, people who offered neatly numbered steps to anything. In fact, the most effective counselors, doctors, and even pastors I had known admitted that life is messy. Two of them immediately came to mind.
Every summer while I’m not teaching, I schedule yearly checkups. Right alongside an oil change for my car, immunizations for my pets, and teeth cleanings for my children, I see my OB-GYN. My gynecologist is a really nice man. He delivered my nieces and his former partner delivered my children. We go way back. He always asks how life is treating me. More than once I had wanted to reply, “So roughly I’d like to swear out a warrant.” But when I wasn’t feeling so dramatic, I’d just laugh flippantly:
“No news really– still single, still financially challenged, still hoping I’m a good parent, and sometimes still wanting to run away to Europe. Oh, and I’ve decided I’m too young to go through menopause…ever.”
Each year he listened and nodded, ignoring only my last comment. But that summer of 2004 he added seriously, “I know it must be lonely trying to raise your kids alone. And I’m certainly no expert on parenting, but I think all any of us can do is just be consistent. Let our kids know who we are and what we believe. And that we’ll always be there for them.”
Maybe it was the embarrassing position I was in each year— with the stirrups and all—that caused me to feel so vulnerable and emotional, but the forced humor I’d always lead with would turn to quiet tears. Somehow his honesty made me feel a little better—like I wasn’t the only one who found life disappointing and confusing much of the time but who still tried to press on in faith.
Likewise, a counselor I know had the same effect on me that summer. Rather than just whine that God had apparently lost the item on His To-Do-List that plainly stated I needed my very own Miracle Worker—the perfect husband and step- father to help me– I presented her a To-Do-List of her very own. I said that I wished there was a support group for single parents—something I could really use– considering I was a single mom and my son had just that week fashioned our dog a vest from a squirt bottle of mustard—then wrote the word “Dubs” (luckily in chalk) on the rims of my new tires. I suggested this new support group meet in her office so we’d need no secret handshake. We could all talk freely about our exhaustion without having to protect our kids or ourselves from people who would rather judge than help. Rather than take the ball and run with it, she passed it back to me:
“You should start that support group, Cindy,” she said brightly.
“But I’m a mess. You know that better than anyone,” I protested, thinking I was not only unqualified but much too depleted to take on one more thing. I thought that psychologists were supposed to tell us not to bite off more than we could chew.
“Exactly. That’s why God can really use you. He can ONLY use people who know they are a mess and in need of His help. Don’t think you have to have it all together to start a group, or for that matter, to be in a relationship with a man. If a good man comes along, date him. None of us are perfect or ‘fixed,’ so never let that fact hold you back. It’s why we all need to support each other, to be in community with others.”
While I didn’t start that local support group, I realized that even larger community could be created through writing. (What I didn’t know then was that writing would lead me to new friends in my community as well—like Julie, a newcomer to Nashville who I met just yesterday for coffee because she identified with the experiences I’ve written about on this blog.) I had finally realized that God wanted me to write– not despite but because of my inability to fix anything or anyone. All I could do would be to offer readers the comfort I’d been given by pointing them to the One who comforted me. The only wisdom I had was to know I knew nothing…except the Guy who knows everything. All I could do was to be gut honest—to speak the truth in love– about my own fears, my own issues as I struggled with many of my own unanswered prayers.
As a writer, I would offer no ten easy steps to anything. I could only offer honesty, admitting life is not about me, even though I often wish it were. And then to admit I’m glad deep down that it’s not…most of the time. A writing career was a way to contribute—to cry with others and to laugh at myself. It could free up more time for my kids, my family, and my friends. And yes, it would introduce me to new friends and adventures… a way to love God by enjoying Him forever. Writing would be my door to an ideal future. I just had to figure out how to lunge across its threshold.
But before I would start Book #2, my Carpe Diem self seized not just a day, but the whole summer of 2005. I took a detour in writing my way to the sweet life. Ironically—no, Providentially–I found life sweeter that summer—both while abroad and when I returned home. I went to Italy for ten days and taught English to Italians. They, in turn, taught me that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence—or in this case, of the ocean. They reminded me of blessings in the US which were very sweet. Yet they also taught me how to relax and how to enjoy friends and all- things- bella. Their friendship, something taken very seriously and valued very highly in the Italian culture, continues to give me a richer life. A clearer vision of what is important. And they’ve given me more joy to share. That summer, as well as the times I’ve been reunited with them since, left me renewed, hopeful, ready to write again. Perfect timing because I had the whole Summer of 2006 to begin a new project.
Preparing to Lunge
But something kept nagging me: Even if what I wrote this time was more appealing to readers than what I wrote before, maybe good material wasn’t enough. Maybe the first book didn’t sell because I had neglected some vital step in the writing process. Maybe I still needed to find that golden key to unlock the door that barred me from publication.
Then it dawned on me. There was no golden key—no key needed at all. The way was free and clear, open to the public practically 24/7. But of course! I had failed to observe the sacred rite to write: the ritual to be observed at the pinpointed spot on the map to the Holy Grail (a.k.a. writing success). According to the Arthurian legend, the Grail was found in a sanctuary—a sacred place. But of course! How could I have missed it?
The only logical reason my first book hadn’t been published was because I didn’t write it in Starbucks!
(To be continued in Pt 4: The Rite of Passage to the Rite of Passage)
I felt like such an imposter. Exposed. Naked. And in the very place I thought would be the answer to all my dreams.
Part One: Life Ideal
For years I had wanted to begin the Life of a Writer, one of the holy grails I believed would finally render Life Ideal. But wanting wasn’t getting the job done. As my mother used to say, “Wish in one hand and pee in the other and see which hand fills up faster.”
Of course, I hadn’t merely wished away twenty years. I was a single mom raising two children while teaching high school and college English. But writing seemed to be my true north…even if I had taken a few roads south. Then again, I began in the south– born and bred to keep my performance high and my expectations low.
Despite my teachers praising my work so that I sometimes secretly tried on the title of Freelance Writer, I chose the road more traveled–a safer route to feed the children. I reasoned that becoming a writer was just a phase—like when I dreamed of being a dancer after watching West Side Story or of being an actor after seeing Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. Dancing required moving to New York and acting meant relocating to LA; and as the first in my family to attend college, I had no idea how one would get from Hopkinsville, Kentucky to the other side of the world. I didn’t know where writers lived, but I knew that it might as well have been somewhere over the rainbow. So I went with education– a sure thing, and much easier to explain as a career choice at my grandmother’s on Sundays over the fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
My love for literature convinced me I needed to teach secondary English—that and an elementary ed music course which culminated in our playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a plastic recorder. Teaching small children wasn’t my thing– not to mention discussing Kafka with them wasn’t much fun either.
I enjoyed my high school students and challenged them to be Renaissance Men and Women. I called them to “Seize the Day,” even stand on their desks (though they didn’t have to call me “Captain, My Captain.”) I exhorted them not to settle—to find their passions and pursue them. But it wasn’t until my forties that I decided to practice what I preached.
I didn’t need Vanna White to solve the puzzle that starts with “mid-life.” Everyone knows what follows: crisis. Facing the gap between what our life is and what we imagined it would be can be soulful and sobering. Some people accept defeat, paralyzed with regret over what should have been. Others grab a quick fix, such as buying a Harley, Botoxing their brows, or browsing match.com for a younger lover. But I wanted more than temporary relief. I wanted a cure. I wanted to write a New York Times best seller.
I wanted to talk about it on The Today Show. And once it was made into a movie, like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nia Vardalos, I’d play the starring role. When James Lipton of The Actors Studio asked me to reveal my least favorite sound, I’d be ready to answer...
I never let go of my dream, but no amount of magical thinking had changed the reality that teaching all day and grading/ parenting all night barely left me time for a haiku, much less a novel. I suspect many an artist-turned-teacher besides Mr. Holland has experienced the frustration of Opus Interruptus. But before my heart for writing flat-lined and my dreams of publication were suffocated under the Bell Jar, I decided to get serious and go-all-Thoreau. I would live a deliberate life rather than a random one. I would live deeply, sucking out the marrow of life, rather than live bitterly, whining that life sucks. I refused to go to the grave with my song still stuck in my throat. I refused to allow mid-life to escort me to the cheap seats of LifetimeOriginal Movies. I would believe that mid-life– with or without Viagra– is far from impotent. It’s The Impetus.
From the mid-life point I could see not just time lost, but time left. I recognized that nothing had been wasted, but rather banked, yielding a high return from life experiences—the very stuff that made me who I am. Maybe I had the talent to write all along, but I lacked the courage and the material. I had been conditioned by the hardest blows and was now tougher for it. And my experiences were currency—the life savings an expatriate exchanges into rupees, euros, or yen– to buy a ticket to a new life.
For years I had been packing my bags with stories from the trenches—from over two decades in the classroom, over a dozen years as a mom, and over a decade of dating again. Bridget Jones’s diary and Carrie Bradshaw’s columns had nothing on me. I had traveled abroad where, like Elizabeth Gilbert, I had eaten, prayed, and loved. And long before anyone had heard of The Secret, my mid-life mantra had become: “Live the Life You Have Imagined.” I knew what I needed to do. There were signs everywhere.
I first saw Thoreau’s challenge reprinted prophetically on a greeting card, affirming my desire for reinvention. I read pep talks in More magazine spurring me toward a career/life change. Then I heard the same six words serendipitously spoken by a friend, catapulting me into action. By the time Brooke told me that she credited her new life to something she read while still in college, “Live the Life You Have Imagined,” my philosophical stance became a full speed gallop toward my own renaissance.
My friend had married a lawyer and was headed to Chicago—a Mt. Juliet, Tennessee girl who made good. We had shopped in NYC one spring, staying in a boutique hotel with poached eggs and espresso. At home in Nashville, we had frequented Rumours on Tuesday nights, sharing the “Artisan Cheese Plate” under trendy paintings by locals. And in our Talbots hats and Ann Taylor sundresses, we had attended Steeple Chase lugging our cooler up the hill rather than driving a Lexus SUV into the infield—literally the In Place to be. We hated being on the outside looking in.
Though we had the right food and clothes, there was no place in the cheap seats where we could unfold our lounge chairs and spread our picnic blanket without some shirtless drunk stumbling across the grass threatening to land in the middle of our sangria and chicken salad. The crowd on the hill had the look of fans at a Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam while the ones in the inner circle had the appearance of patrons of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony. The infield grass definitely seemed greener, and we longed to be under the Gatsby-esque tents eating cucumber sandwiches on tables with white linens and bouquets of hydrangeas and English roses.
But though we had been barred that day from the inner circle, Brooke had arrived. She was headed for the Windy City and a new life. She and Mark would later explore Istanbul and Turkey and would live one street from the Miracle Mile and three from Lake Michigan. They would spend Christmases in Paris–twice. Maybe a Hoptown, Kentucky girl could do the same.
I knew, however, that my ticket out wouldn’t involve marrying well based on a fetching face or figure. The doors that open for girls in their twenties usually slam shut for women in their forties. And though Brooke had worked hard at her education and career, she was also a black haired, blue eyed, flawless skinned beauty–gorgeous and twenty-five. While told I look younger than my age, I knew that in a youth obsessed culture—confirmed daily by my daughter who is disgusted each time Hope and Bo on Days of Our Lives make out– my best bet was to bank on my brain, not my looks. For ten years I had dated more guys who were younger than me than older, but when it came to settling down, they almost always wanted someone their junior. Not to mention that after recovering from a near fatal divorce over a decade ago, I wasn’t about to depend on a man for my life—much less my livelihood. I had read too many self-help books and had the support of too many friends for that. I was indeed “Co-dependent No More.“
I had realized that for years I had given some people the power to grade my life– to decide my worth. Like an amateur on American Idol cowering before Simon Cowell or a contestant on The Bachelor groveling for a rose, I often accepted harsh criticism and rejection from arrogant “judges” while ignoring the rave reviews of kinder souls. I allowed people and events from formative years and my inherently melancholy personality to determine my low self –esteem. It would take me awhile to understand that while some people would always matter, their critical report card of me…not so much. Not if I had done my best with pure motives. I finally understood what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said, “No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.” A soundtrack started playing in my head, clicking off Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive,” Smash Mouth’s “I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again” and finally, my grandmother’s anthem, “It is Well With My Soul.” Though the fatality of my marriage had already been harder to survive than two miscarriages, my parent’s divorce, and even my dad’s unexpected death, I knew with God’s help I’d live through it. Even if it meant losing a man I’d known since seventh grade and loved since our senior prom. Even if my social security number follows his consecutively.
Though we are still friends, those first years my heart was so damaged that at times it physically ached. And though I couldn’t sit through a church service without crying, I wasn’t about to give up on God, love, or men. This was quite a miracle considering my mother had always told me that most males are definitely more trouble than they are worth. No, I believed God would bring someone new into my life—and soon. So soon that I thought my counselor was well meaning but crazy when she said I needed two whole years to heal before starting another serious relationship.
Ignoring this advice, I told my aunt and uncle who took me to dinner to cheer me up that I had bought the Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. I was getting ideas for a second wedding—a small but tasteful gathering of friends and family celebrating that happy—no, happier—days were here again. They were too polite to point out that to choose flowers, food, and music before having a potential groom in mind might be putting the cart before the horse. They were too kind to say that I could clip out as many of Martha’s good things for the nuptials as I wanted, but a good man might be much harder to find. They just nodded mechanically in support of my optimistic plan, doubting I’d ever marry again. Some say I’m too picky, but in those early single-again days, friends didn’t offer a lot of hope.
The only advice most of them gave on husband hunting was offering not a means to an end but that the end should be the means. “Oil that is, Texas tee.” Money. Never mind if the guy was as old as Jed Clampett or as dense as Jethro. But whether to my credit or to my stupidity, I’ve never considered marrying for prestige or wealth and I don’t anticipate doing so in the future. So yes, I wanted to remarry, but not until after, in all my financial independence, I could throw my hat into the air like Mary Tyler Moore as friends serenaded, “She’s going to make it after all.” I didn’t have to have a man to be successful. Even if Mr. Grant had been single, Mary Richards would have never married her boss just because he was a man of means. And maybe like me, she didn’t find dating someone twice her age tempting. Come to think of it, even the men I met in my age bracket who weren’t married, weren’t gay, didn’t prefer dating a fetus and were emotionally available, looked more like Mr. Grant than Hugh Grant.
Of course, there was that guy on eharmony from Washington. The one who in his first email wrote: “ I have decided to put my heart into a relationship with you. Let’s move forward, sealing the deal with matrimony. I hope to hear from you (at which point he gave me his phone number.) I await your beep like the birds await spring.”
Too much. Even for a romantic like me.
No doubt my ticket to bliss wasn’t cashing in on the right man. And while I
appreciated Tennessee voting in the lottery to help fund my children’s college, I stopped dreaming of winning the lottery years ago. Guess I’m not one of those single moms who, it was lobbied by some of my Bible Belt friends, would weekly gamble away the milk money on the Lotto. No, for me, writing was the way…the Grail…
I reasoned a best seller would lead to more time for my children and those things I love. Time to paint, study Italian, and live la dolce vita— here and abroad. Writing might even lead me to a soul mate who shared my intensity and passion—like a Heathcliff or Lord Byron (though I realize now I probably needed someone real or living, not quite so brooding, and in the case of Byron, faithful). Maybe he would meet me at a book signing–drawn there by my witty words and winsom face smiling at him from my book cover. We could be the next Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing and living out our later years “under the Tuscan sun.”
I was ready to do more than cheerlead as I sent my high school seniors out into the “real world.” I was ready to get out there, too. I had been eating lunch in the school cafeteria since I was five. I had been teaching since Bryan Adams, Def Lepperd, and M.C. Hammer ruled. Since my students thought IROC Z’s were “bad” and Tom Cruise was Top Gun rather than Valkyrie. Through Reganomics, Desert Storm, Monica Lewinsky, and O.J. Simpson, kids had looked at me from under Big Hair, no hair, mullets and Mohawks. I’d stayed in contact with many of them long after they graduated and a few had become close friends. But as much as I enjoyed teaching and Mr. Holland’s Opus, hoping, I, too had made a difference, I wanted to complete my masterpiece. I wanted to finish my book, and sell it–big. Rather than just teach about dead guys who wrote, I wanted to be one —a famous writer, that is, not a dead guy. I was definitely ready to live that passionate life I’d told others to live…that life I had imagined…
“Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”–Howard Thurman
The most creative people I know seem to be defined by vision, passion, sensitivity, and need—specifically the urgency to manage and express the chaos without and within. Some sneer at the “starving artist.” The paradox is that no matter how much money one makes, a true artist must continue to starve–to thirst and hunger for truth and love– with abandon. Likewise, no matter how little one earns, life is rich– in its intensity, diversity, and complexity. I decided in 2009 to finally blog about the wealth of joys I’ve found through the arts, travel, my family, friends, and faith.
I’ve been writing for awhile. I first thought writing would kill three birds—maybe even a whole flock– with one stone. First, it would provide income–for travel, for Lancome eye cream, for groceries.
Second, it would provide therapy as I released the stuff ricocheting in my head, eliminating the need for Wellbutrin. I concur with my favorite Bad Boy Byron who said: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” Writing would uncover my usually stifled rebel yells and free my muddled, melancholy musings.
Third, writing would help me see where I’m going and help me remember where I’ve been. With writing I could comfort others with the comfort I’ve been given.
When I was a little girl in Kentucky, the Mother of All Field Trips was going to Mammoth Cave. While I was told not to fear the Natural Wonder, I wasn’t all that excited about going deep into the black unknown, feeling my way down damp, winding paths. (This was before Pan’s Labyrinth or I might have seen it as quite the adventure.) The tour guide seemed so calm. She had a light to guide us but no map. She had obviously been in that cave before—many times–and was so familiar with it she could have led us through that vast cavern even if the batteries in her flashlight died.
The only good I can make of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to have gone into some terrible darkness but emerged again into the light. I’ve survived the death of two unborn children and of two marriages—my parents’ and my own. I’ve survived the death of a father and then a grandmother who was my mentor and muse. I’m still surviving the life of a single mother and a woman dating over 40.
Though I have survived great losses, I rarely emerged from the black by way of a blowtorch or floodlight. God usually just gave me a candle—one that flickered—and He whispered He wouldn’t let go of my hand even if the flame went out. I still grope but know He’s there. Even if I can’t feel his fingers interlocked with mine. Even if I can’t feel his hand at all and seem to wander in the dark for days…or weeks….or years. I write to share my cave experiences—those I’ve emerged from blinking in the light as well as those I’m still mining through—looking for something of value as I wait and work and wait for release.
Some say we read to know we’re not alone. We write for the same reason—especially when we’re gut honest and still raw. I write of the familiar and lonely—like playing Santa solo for twelve years as I placed gifts under the tree. Or of the frustrating and embarrassing–like when I didn’t know how to tie my son’s first real necktie. While I cried, cursing my ineptness as a parent, he emerged from his bedroom with a perfectly tied knot. Thank God for youtube.
But mostly I write of the joy I’m finding on the path not taken—that place I landed when derailed from the life I imagined, the L.L. Bean or Southern Living picture-perfect family I so desperately wanted. Truly God has made “all things work together for good,” and He is still conforming me to the likeness of His son despite the fact that in the words of one of my favorite hymns, I am weak and “prone to wander.” He never gives up on me.
And so I write… of playing volleyball with Italian friends in a pool at midnight, of walking through a fishing village in Ireland, and of leaving Montmartre with my daughter, all lit by the same gigantic moon. I write of riding The Hulk with my son at Universal Studios—teeth clinched, tears squeezed out the corners of our eyes as we held on for dear life…literally…under a hot July sun. I write of feeling alive and blessed—even when the virtual mob of Guitar Hero World Tour shuts me down because my kids, though unhappy, don’t kick me out of the band.
I write about the absurd—trying to find a social scene somewhere between the Senior Citizens Center and the haunts of hot pants herds. And then finding it.
2008 was full of surprises, so I write…
Of a new passion that left me addicted…but never so free. As sleep-deprived as when I nursed infants…but never so fully awake. Though my old friends say I’m MIA, I no longer feel invisible. I’m immersed in a foreign culture…but I’m so completely at home. Maybe because I’m NOT one of the twenty million American women sitting on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars. Instead I’m dancing under them. With friends from Colombia, Chile, Dominican Republic, France, India, Peru, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, and Syria. In Nashville.
Of the closest of friendships between a conservative suburb/girly girl/ teacher/soccer mom and a liberal urban/athletic/ folk singer/dog rescuer. (Sure to come in 2009 is the continuing salsa saga of two Renaissance women with gypsy souls whose quest to become Dancing Queens often turns Monty Python.)
Of a baby girl whose finishing her last year of high school and moving to college made her mom very sad.
Of her brother whose getting his permit and doing well his first year of high school made his mom very happy.
And, no surprise, she’s proud of them both.
I look ahead in 2009 and look forward to fun with my mom on her first trip to Europe. Wish my sister were going. She’s been listening to me ramble since we were kids. Oh, and Christmas Eve rocked!