Kids, Chaos, and Puppy Love

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Mine would say Cindy.

No joke.  I truly thought when my children left the nest I’d fly away, too.  If I didn’t make it as far as Italy or Ecuador, I’d migrate south to Seagrove or west to Big Sur.  I’d park my vintage camper (circa 1959) and chase seagulls, collect shells, and make a mermaid my muse.  I’d bake pies like Sylvia Plath and burn rubber if I met a Ted Hughes.  I’d brunch with friends every Sunday, do book tours, and sell shirts at book fests from Austin to Boston.

My baby moved to college last August.   I’m still on Jenry Court.  It seems that while the gypsy- in- me has fantasized for years about holding up a sign on the Church Street bridge that reads, “WILL WORK FOR TRAVEL,” the mommy- in- me isn’t going anywhere.  Not for now anyway.  Maybe when my kids are out of college and in careers they love.  Maybe when I’m over teaching.  Maybe not.

We moved to this old house when Cole was three months old, and he’ll be twenty March 8th.  Outside my bedroom window, the magnolia tree, leathery leaves rustling, recollects when my boy fell from a high limb, chipping the growth plate in his ankle.  The dogwood creaks in the winter wind, bare arms spread protectively over the resting place of Annie, our golden girl three years gone.   The swing that held Taylor and Precious, her Persian, sways silently, patiently waiting for the little girl to return.

And she does.  Running ahead of her to my front door are Lindsey and Laila, the four and seven year-olds she loves like her own, my precious “grandgirls.”   They can’t wait to climb all over Cole, a 6’4” Gentle Giant come home from college, and love on Ella, my late-in-life child.

I had been on dog rescue lists for about a year, and my friends, Emily and Kim, had Facebooked me pictures of dogs in need of homes, but I wasn’t sure I could handle loving and losing again. Likewise, since my niece, Abby, started volunteering at the Bowling Green Humane Society, she’d texted photos of puppies.  I wasn’t sure if this time I’d go for a petite poofy pooch—a cuddly couch cohort–or another Golden Retriever—a hiking companion with a watchdog bark.  As a Romantic, I just knew I’d know it’s time when I saw The One.

When Abby sent a picture of a beautiful 4- month- old yellow lab with the softest fur, velvet ears, soulful eyes, and sweet face, I knew she was my baby.   The nesting I did last year– the unexplainable energy to grow a garden, paint walls, and make cupcakes pretty- as- Pinterest–all makes sense now.  I knew I was cooking like Paula Deen to lure my kids home, but I didn’t realize I was feathering my nest for new chicks.  The angst I felt a year ago, the need to make a move since Taylor and Cole were moving on, settled down and not because I settled.  Though I planned to heed the lead of my globe-trotting friend, Rawsam, and downsize to a single box of possessions, freeing me to fly, I found myself filling a sole box…for Goodwill.  Becoming a mom again didn’t ground me.  It was grounding.

Like a decade ago when I stockpiled frozen casseroles and decorated nurseries with Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh,  I’m now filling Hello Kitty totes with crayons and coloring books and a dress-up trunk with feathered boas, head pieces, and old evening gowns.  I’d worn those formals out-on-the-town, then Taylor wore them trick or treating, and last New Year’s Eve, Lindsey and Laila wore them too.

Bringing in 2013 was wild.  Cole, Taylor, Chris, the girls, the pets and I gathered at my house for a sleepover.   We popped popcorn, ate candy, and watched television till midnight—just like I’d done with my grandparents, sister, and cousins.  The girls had never stayed up so late.  Laila lined up Taylor’s dolls as we watched Marley and Me (sans the sad part).   We laughed at how much Baby Marley looked like Baby Ella.  Then I didn’t laugh at how much they are alike.

As the ball dropped on Times Square, Lindsey twirled around the room in my satin formal, saying she was at a “beautiful ball.”  Then she squealed—not because she had lost her glass slipper, but because    Ella had pooped on her dance floor.  Since some parts of 2012 had been poopy, we said all the more reason to look forward to an even better 2013.  I insist the poop fell before the ball, and I’m sticking to it.

As for Ella, the adventure continues.   She licks me awake every morning and still tries to  jump like a jackrabbit to my chest, on the couch and sometimes on the cat despite doctor’s orders and my commands not to.  While I was at work, Houdini bent the kennel with her nose, escaped, and chewed my favorite shoes.  Pulling fast ones, she switched toys and rawhides to chew her leash and the foot of my antique sofa.  Though I puppy-proofed the bathroom,  she apparently climbed on the toilet seat, yanked the Venetian blinds from the top of the window to the window seal, and chewed them like bubble gum.  When I came home, she limped to see me as Cole did when he fell from the tree.  Ella fractured her tibia crest near her growth plate, scaring me to death and sending the vet on a vacation.  I wasn’t invited.  But as a friend with four golden retrievers said, I’ve invested in a companion and Europe will be there.  My mom, sis and daughter rallied around the patient, offering to sit with her if needed.  She’s family, and I couldn’t love her more.

Guess I’ve come full circle.  With a twist.  Keeping with tradition, I might take Ella to Florida this spring since Cole went there after his foot fracture—his cast covered in plastic.  Maybe the whole gang will go. Or one day we may pull that camper to Cali, Ella riding shotgun, my kids and their families following behind.    Home is where the heart is.  I hope mine always beats with kids, chaos, and puppy love.

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Abby’s pic of The One
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Cole and Magnolia
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Baby
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Cole’s move
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Laila and Lindsey at the New Year’s Eve Ball
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Taylor, Laila and me Christmas Eve
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Someday

 

 

 

 

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Finding an Old Love in New Venue…Italian Lights

Last weekend was full. Saturday at lunch I caught up with Andrew, a former student who graduated almost a decade ago and wants me to read Replay by Ken Grimwood. That night I danced with friends at Jonathan and Pablo’s, the guys who invited Kim and me into the salsa world in March of 2008. Sunday night I ended the weekend with the usual suspects at Las Cazuela’s. But that was after I rekindled an old love…

In 2000 and again in 2004 I fell in lust with Italy–the food, the beauty, the romance and history of Venice, Rome, Pompeii. But when I taught English in the summer of 2005 to adults from Torino and Milan, I fell in love with people who would become life long friends. At Le Due Cascine I was taught the meaning of La Dolce Vita by Italian pals. I’ve sustained it not only in their homes on return visits but also in Italian classes and events in Nashville, often thanks to Patti Franklin Nelson of Italian for Fun. Last Sunday was such an event.

My friend April invited me to Nashville’s first Italian Lights Festival where we listened to live music, checked out the bocce court, and found jewelry that spoke to and from my heart. Apparently designer Shelbi Lavendar shares my determination to “Live, Laugh, Love…and never forget what made you smile.” And then there was a new adventure… Ernesto, former owner of the The Italian Market, insisted I enter the grape-stomping contest. I did. As I stepped into the tub I romantically remembered the wine-making scene from A Walk in the Clouds though I’ll admit fellow Examiner Kathryn Darden was closer to the truth when she wrote: “In a scene straight out of “I Love Lucy,” there was also a grape stomping competition with fresh grapes and bare feet..”

In my head…

Weekend in New Orleans: Lesson One

Written January 11th, 2010…

Reentry into reality is rough after a NOLA weekend.  Maybe that’s why my first day back I tried to sustain the sugar high, having a praline before bed last night and another for breakfast this morning.  My Café du Monde bag is on the kitchen table, and if I weren’t so tired I’d bust out the beinget mix for tomorrow’s buzz.   Tonight after cooking Jambalaya—albeit an imposter exposed by red roux and a Zatarain’s box—I just downloaded Lil’ Nathan from iTunes.  Lawd, Kim and I found him beautiful at the Rock’n’Bowl.  “Ballin’ on Zydeco” makes me smile…and move.

My son calls from downstairs, “What are you doing up there?”

“Just dancin’ darlin,’” I say in an exaggerated Southern drawl, as if I don’t have one already.

Though I can’t see his eyes rolling, I hear his disapproval:  “I asked Josh if you said ‘Nawlins’ in his class today.  He said, ‘Yes, and it was annoying.’  Why do you have to be so weird, Mom?”

He’d have shaken his head if he’d seen my Facebook status my first night away: “I love me some zydeco.”  He’d have downright disowned me if he’d known I’d stalked Lil’ Nathan on Myspace, downloaded his album from iTunes, and considered buying his ringtone from Myxer.  He’d call this my “New Orleans Faze,” embarrassed by my sharing my enthusiasm for other cultures again with his peers.  It’s tough being a teacher’s kid.  Especially when the teacher is me.  Again, he’d ask, “What about Italy? Or salsa?” though I’d just shrug my shoulders and keep writing this post.  He doesn’t get that I can love more than one place, more than one group of people, even more than one dance at a time.  But to be honest, I HAD FORGOTTEN I can love more than Latin dance since I became addicted to salsa two years ago and began writing about it as the Nashville Latin Dancing Examiner.

Before leaving Nashville, Kim and I had naturally planned to check out the salsa scene in New Orleans.  In fact, for the past couple of years we’ve planned all vacations around Latin dancing.   In Barcelona we hit the two biggest clubs on the Spanish coast.  In California I showed up for street salsa in Santa Monica to the horror of my two teenagers.  On the plane last Thursday we talked of sooner-than-later salsa destinations, like Miami, and those for the long haul, like Puerto Rico and Argentina, favs on our bucket list. But this trip was different—much to do.

We went to NOLA for the reunion concert of the Swingin’ Haymakers, Kim’s ‘90s rockabilly group nominated “Best Country Band” four years in a row by Offbeat and the Big Easy Awards.  Having lived in New Orleans eleven years, she had friends to see—those still living in the city and others who were flying in from Nashville, Tampa, Atlanta, and Chicago. The show was scheduled for Saturday and there would be hours of rehearsal. Still, whether from denial or force of habit, we crammed our salsa shoes in suitcases overstuffed with sweaters, scarves, gloves, and hats, sat on them until they’d zip, and headed out on yet another adventure.  As usual, our salsa quest turned more Monty Python as we found it not-so-easy to find salsa in the Big Easy.

On Thursday we planned to meet our friend, April, a longtime dancer, at a salsa venue.  All three of us were disappointed when a championship game—and possibly record cold weather—cancelled the event.  Though she couldn’t join us on Friday, she suggested other places to try.  At The Balcony the band was good and the crowd friendly, but again, the cold kept most locals away.  Not quite the scene we’d hoped for…

No doubt I’d wanted to return to Nashville and write on Examiner about all the amazing places we had danced.   I’m not sorry we tried.   But I realized having an agenda can mess with my usual “When in Rome” approach to travel.   I was like the tourist who spends precious vacation time frantically searching for souvenirs to remember a trip at the cost of making memories while there.  And though I learned long ago not to be that girl who eats at a favorite chain restaurant instead of trying the local cuisine, I had to remind myself to step out from behind the camera long enough to be part of the action.  As a friend tells me to do often…it was time to let go of expectations, to embrace the moment, to stop worrying about what I’d write in the future and instead live in the present.  When I did that, I was free to fall in love with a city full of soul— an eclectic place alive, festive, and rich with friends, food, and fun. And when I tried dancing to the beat of another drum–literally– I fell into the rhythm of zydeco and the spirit of a magical place.  For photos of this NOLA getaway go here.

 

 

 

 

Girls’ Night In–Happy Valentine’s Day!

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My Hopeful Romantic Valentine’s Eve Party theme was “Celebrating the Many While Waiting for the One.”  I wanted to honor the women in my life with a Girls’ Night In. How and why I started these parties to survive…even thrive on V-Day is here and here.

Keep the menu simple: “Let ’em Eat Cupcakes.”  Cupcakes stacked on crystal cake plates makes an elegant centerpiece.  (I propped a picture from Marie Antionette against the base.) Last year my sister, Penny, made cupcakes for my party.  Her cakes are perfection, and if she ever opened a bakery, Gigi (of Nashville’s Gigi’s Cupcakes) would have some competition.  A black fitted sheet makes a great tablecloth, especially with a pink and red ribbon as a runner.  I used  mirrored squares as serving trays (You can buy six in a box at Lowe’s or Home Depot for about $20).

If you are serving more than cupcakes, easy suggestions would be  chocolate truffles (boxed), stuffed mushrooms (caps filled with cream cheese, onion, garlic, and fried bacon–broiled a few minutes), chocolate fondue with fruit, pecans (boiled, then tossed/coated in confectionery sugar, deep fried in peanut oil, and sprinkled with paprika), and artichoke/spinach dip with corn tortilla chips or simply  cheeses with crackers.

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To get to know each other better,  have guests draw slips of paper with the following questions.  The person has to answer the question and then choose someone else to answer it. (Or have guests write a question they want answered when they arrive and draw from those.)

Suggestions for Girl Talk:

What was your most romantic date ever?

What guy from your past would you most like to run into?

What was your worst date ever?

If you had a time machine, what day would you revisit and why?

If you’re married, how did you meet your spouse?

What did you first notice about your guy?

What’s your  movie scene?

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

Who is your favorite male singer/actor?

What’s your love language–words, touch, gifts, service, quality time?

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

What’s something none of us know about you?

My movie pick to watch or have muted in the background…Chocolat.  The only guy allowed is Johnny D.

Valentine’s Day Survival Guide–Pt 2

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As I said in Part One yesterday, 2007 I had a new plan and a new attitude for surviving Valentine’s Day.

When I was married, it never occurred to me how much I needed women in my life.   I was too buried beneath diapers to change, birthday parties to plan, coupons to clip, papers to grade, and a house to clean.  My husband and children were my center.  Anyway, all my girlfriends had also been body snatched, living for the men and kids in their orbits as well.

But when my world was thrown off course by the end of my sixteen-year marriage, my worldview was shaken.  Despite –-no, because of—a lot of pain, I learned to reorganize my priorities.  With the help of some wise, older women who helped me start over, I began to take care of myself so I could better care for my children.

I freed myself from the “shoulds”that said before I could play with my children, exercise, or see friends, I “should”… have a straight house, an organized desk, and an empty briefcase.  But the one should I couldn’t shake was that to be totally happy I needed to be loved by the right man.  While I’d refused to settle for dating just for dating’s sake and while I enjoyed time alone, I still believed a significant other was required to navigate Valentine’s Day.

Christmas can be filled with family gatherings, office parties, even Rudolph and Bing, but Valentine’s Day is for couples.  And while kissing is part of New Year’s Eve, friends celebrate in droves whether at parties, bars, or Times Square.  There’s something painfully exclusive about Valentine’s– tables for two.  Having a soulmate is the sole focus.

Previously, if a friend had told me there’s anything better than romance and chocolate on Valentine’s Day, I would have thought her to be lying, denying, or just sadly settling.  If she then really pressed her luck and told me there’s something better than spending Valentine’s Day with The One, I’d have told her to stop worrying.  Though I am pathetically passionate which makes the weeks leading up to mid February painfully poignant, I really didn’t need her to go on Suicide Watch.

Then again, Homicide Watch might have been a good idea. Waiting on Cupid had become Waiting for Godot..  I really wanted to take a hit out on the little sucker for directing my dating life as absurdist comedy as I watched and waited for a leading man over a decade.   He knew I wanted nothing more than to be  Heathcliff’s Catherine…Johnny’s June…McDreamy’s Merdith… or Harry’s Sally.  In fact, for the girl who fell in love with Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights as a high school senior, anything short of finding my soulmate who would proclaim, “I am Cindy!” seemed to be settling.  But not settling meant I had to be patient.  And again, instead of focusing on what I lacked, it was time to focus on what I had.

And that’s when I thought of Chocolat—not just because I love Juliette Binoche and all things chocolate. Not just because I adore Johnny Depp as Roux more than any other part he has ever played.  And not just because I, too, have a pair of red shoes and my child asks me why I can’t be like “all the other mothers.”  Like Vianne, I wanted to reach out to others—particularly the women in my life—because I think goodness is defined by what we do, not what we don’t do, by who we include, not who we exclude.    Rather than invite only close friends from this group or that, I decided to bring together the amazing and unique women I knew.  It would be a chance for them to network, to make new friends.

So I abandoned the usual ritual on V Day of taking an annual inventory of guys I’d dated over the past 12 month.  Rather than analyzing why each love connection short circuited or never even had enough electricity to fizzle at all—I had dated guys ranging in age from their twenties to their fifties and in occupations from songwriters to businessmen to blue collar workers.    Most had been the usual One-Date-Wonders.  Turning my attention instead to my guest list, I found my women friends were even more diverse…and interesting.

Sports nuts and Art lovers.  Nurses and teachers.  A publicist, a coach,  counselors.  Never marrieds, remarrieds, forever marrieds.  Moms and Grandmothers.    Dog lovers, vegetarians, democrats, republicans.  Horsewomen, runners, farm girls.  Californians, New Orleanians, Yankee Italians.   A band leader.  A band leader’s wife.  It could have been a disaster.  But something told me to chance it anyway.  I was worried no one would come. Valentine’s Eve fell on a weeknight and everyone is so busy.  But shortly after the invitations were sent, the replies began rolling in.  Everyone was excited.

Thus commenced the “Valentine’s Eve Hopeful Romantic Party.”  Those with sweethearts could still celebrate with their guys and those without would be too tired from the party to care.  Either way we’d all usher in the Big Day together.

So….make your guest list and get going!  Whether you use Facebook,  send an Evite or an invitation by mail—store bought or created by you—do it now.  Just one week till V Day.  And this year it’s on a weekend—a real bonus.  If you’re inviting women who have sweethearts, then make it next Friday, on Valentine’s Eve.  That way you can still see your honey, and if you don’t have one, you’ll be too tired to care.

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Valentine’s Day Survival Guide–Part 1

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My best friend Kim always inadvertently refers to Valentine’s Day as Halloween. Some sort of brain switch she says. Given the terrifying nature of February 14th for many singles, I get it. Just when a girl survives New Year’s Eve, she is stalked by that little hood, Cupid. At least Father Time, a gentleman, plays fair. He confines his Love Fest to one night and even designates the stroke of twelve as the official time for couples across the globe to make out. This gives a single woman the chance to make-like-Cinderella and head home.

Eros, however, doesn’t give a girl a break. No sooner than she finishes her black-eyed peas and cabbage in front of the football game and changes ESPN to the Food Network, the Barefoot Contessa starts dipping strawberries for Jeffrey, and Paula Deen commences  frying up some love for Michael. The rapid fire of V Day reminders—candy, hearts, flowers, and getaway package deals—leaves singles shell shocked—especially since we know we’ll get sweet nothings…literally. Six weeks of all-inclusive hype leading up to a day that bars singletons from participating. Not cool.

Cupid is especially hard on the Hopeless Romantics like a never-married-forty-something friend I haven’t seen in years. She used to say, “Valentine’s Day shines a spotlight on all who haven’t been chosen.” I wonder if she still grins and bear it, then the next day drags her bruised heart back to the gym–business as usual–carb counting and cardio classes.

And to be fair, 2/14 isn’t always easy on guys either—and I’m not talking about the Commitment-Phobic (aka Friends with Benefits). These guys fall off the radar, following the groundhog into his hole on February 2nd to ask if they can crash with him for awhile until, say, February 15.

No, I’m talking about the few, the proud, The Good Guys who are truly in love. Some of my guy friends confess that they get performance anxiety when faced with the pressure of planning the perfect Valentine’s Day for their sweethearts.  I’ve got some ideas for you, too.

So to the shell shocked and the somewhat confused, relief is on the way…

In the next few posts I’ll tell singles how to not only survive but thrive in V Day’s wake. I’ll explain how a couple of years ago I learned to embrace the power of love for one night, launching a more passionate affair with life. Valentine’s Day looks different than what I imagined…maybe better. Rather than being a hopeless Romantic, I’m now a hopeful one.

So whether you’re solo or in a couple, I’ll offer ideas for making the Big Night more special. I’ll start with the singles because you have to get busy planning. You’re throwing a party, and here’s why…

I’ve been called a Hopeless Romantic all my life. I’ve lived so much in a Dream World I could instruct members of the Witness Protection Program on how to vanish from Reality. At the age of 4 rather than having just any imaginary friend, I had Ringo Starr–my very own boyfriend. Only in a child’s fantasy would I drop a drummer (always been attracted to the band boys), but I traded up for a Pretty Boy lead singer—in fact, solo act, the King himself. Christening my Maiden Voyage toward netting the ideal Catch—the tall, the dark, the handsome—I began fancying the father of my dolls to be Elvis. He had left his love interests in  Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas to settle down with me. We were very happy.

Contrary to popular belief, my incorporating fantasy males into my childhood play did not make me Boy Crazy. I’ve always been monogamous. I’ve always wanted to cut to the chase and live happily ever after with THE ONE. So as a preteen, I’d lie on our den couch reading Going Steady, imagining what it would feel like to snag a guy’s class ring and my first kiss. Desperate to find a boyfriend, I began contemplating the upside of a sprained ankle. It would be worth the pain because I imagined the cutest boy in the school carrying me to every class.

As I grew older, I became bored with my Davy Jones Fan Club and even more impatient to find true love. I sympathized with Pinocchio who longed to be a real boy; I longed to date one. When I finally did, although the feat didn’t require swooning or breaking bones, I became such a pain to others they conspired to drown me in the Gulf of Mexico. It was Spring Break 1977 and I was one of six girls who piled out of my mom’s Buick Electra onto Panama City Beach. Though once inspired by a coming-of-age classic to experience firsthand Where the Boys Are, I no longer cared to find them. I was hooked on one boy, maybe even The One, and not interested in a spring fling. So while the other girls hit the waves with a group of Alabama guys staying at our hotel, I never left my lounge chair. Eyes closed tightly for a solid week, I mouthed Leo Sayer’s words: “When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you.” I visualized seeing my boyfriend, counted off the days, and finally returned home. The only thing I had to show for my vacation-turned-vigil was a strange tan line in the shape of the portable 8-track tape player I had clutched tightly to my chest.

I didn’t think much then about ditching the girls… and not just because my focus on The Guy seemed to pay off when we married three years later. Ditching girls for guys was what teenaged girls did. It wasn’t until twenty years with The Guy morphed into ten years without him that I realized grown up women do the same thing. Once they find the One, they are too often bodysnatched, leaving their friends to talk to them via Facebook or the occasional phone call.

Meanwhile, trying to prove my patience as I optimistically waited on love, I bravely went solo to Valentine’s Day openings of radically romantic (and critically bad) movies like Bed of Roses. Though I sowed faith in love, I reaped only thorns (scary dates I didn’t like OR guys I liked but who didn’t like me.) More often the primrose path I had hoped for was a desert—a No Man’s Land of dry spells that stretched out before me for months…and years.

Trying Plan B, I traded one kind of Magical Thinking for another. Rather than believe my prince was Map Questing the way to my front door, I traded my romanticism for stoicism, pretending I didn’t want a man anyway. Though this approach seemed like a textbook case of Sour Grapes, it was really just another form of Magical Thinking. Secretly I hoped the adage was true that if I’d just forget about love, Cupid would find me. He didn’t.

Moving onto Plan C, I tweaked Dinner and a Movie. My version was Champagne and Cable. If I couldn’t do a night on the town with a date, at least I could do a romantic movie marathon home alone.

In 2006 Plan D, my most creative coping device for surviving the Big Day, was buying a $100 ticket to see  Bon Jovi and pretending Jon was singing just to me.

2007 required something really radical. For all my crying that I hadn’t found The One, I finally realized I’d found instead The Many–girl friends who had been there for me where males feared to tread.    The very reason I love Sex and the City–the soul mates the girls found in each other–was what I, too, had grown to cherish.  I’m convinced that  only when we’re single again, or single-all-along do we fully realize what our girlfriends mean.

I decided in 2007 I’d celebrate what I had—not mourn what I didn’t.  The invitation is self-explanatory and follows. More on the guest list, activities, food and fun tomorrow. If you’re a single female reader, get ready. Tomorrow I’ll tell you how to plan your First Annual Girls’ Night In…Celebrating the Many while waiting on The One!  If you’re a guy who needs to plan the big day for your girl, stay tuned.  We all know most of you won’t sweat it till the 11th or 12th hour anyway.

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Starbucks in Reality: Final Chapter of “Imposter”

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.

 

Sara (who invited me to be the World's Oldest Bridesmaid), Me, and Brooke in Chicago '06 in the fall that followed my Starbucks Summer of My Discontent
Sara (who invited me to be the World’s Oldest Bridesmaid), Me, and Brooke in Chicago ’06 in the fall that followed my Starbucks Summer of My Discontent

The Great Escape to Starbucks: Part 5

Taylor and Me Spring 2006
Taylor and Me Spring 2006

Playing Author- at -Starbucks would jumpstart my writing career! Not to mention it would prevent me from “going Edna.”  Unlike the mom in The Awakening, I wouldn’t walk into the sea (or worse, jump off the dam at Percy Priest Lake.) To be less dramatic… if I gave writing my best shot, I’d at least avoid sinking in the proverbial pool of regret.

So it was settled.  Wednesday mornings during June and July I’d write at the Belle Meade Starbucks.  By immigrating to that side of town, I hoped the natives’ charmed lives would rub off on me.  Some say getting published is a crap shoot.  I wanted to increase my odds.  All this and I’d be back home before my teenagers rolled out of bed!

That first Wednesday of Summer ’06, I gave my kids and pets the slip.  Coasting out of the driveway, I was hopeful.  I felt like a real writer at last.  I would enjoy the thirty- minute drive, listening to NPR without Cole trying to crank up 107.5 The River. But before I was out of the subdivision, I heard rumblings in the back seat.  Relentless as ever, my very own A Team– my entourage of Angst– had camped out in the car. Like the imaginary companions that followed the Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind, they started their usual banter:

“Sooooo Miss WannaBe, you really think you can write something that hasn’t been said before?  Something funny, smart, and… this is really rich…helpful.  Your life is just so happy now, isn’t it?  You who swing from spiritually hopeful to dazed and confused.  You who say you love your life one minute, then wail, “I’m destined to be alone forever!” the next.  I mean, come on…you are, after all, a little out there.  Dreaming of moving your kids to the Cotswolds…then to Ireland…then to Italy?

And what happened to your Martha Stewart phase?  The English teas on your front lawn?  Reading your kids bedtime stories with a British accent as if you’re still doing Noel Coward plays?    Dressing them in velvet capes and knickers so the Christmas cards would look like the perfect little family?   What kind of mom leaves her kids in bed to run off to Starbucks?  And what’s up with Belle Meade?  Think you’re too good for your Donelson ranch, hey?  Remember the Green Hills guy who said he’d pick you up for a date, then laughed: ‘Now where exactly is Egypt…I mean Donelson?’ They won’t even let you drive down West End if they check out your bank account. Stop pretending …”

“Yeah, well I’ve had enough of your crap!” I snapped.  Stuffing them in the glove box, I drove on. Though they had bullied me since elementary school back in Kentucky, even they couldn’t ruin my morning.

The sun was shining and I was wearing something Starbuckish—a white eyelet skirt—a must- have for the season—a Lauren tank, and flip flops topped with grosgrain bows.  I was toting my new vintage straw purse.  I was driving my new car— sporting new tires.  Things couldn’t be better.

That is …until I turned off of West End into the shopping center parking lot, cut the wheel too close, and ran up on the curb to the horror of Starbuckers who were reading The Tennessean at the outside tables.  I prayed I hadn’t burst my new tires already.  Not sure if I should apologize to the onlookers for the scare or depend on their goodwill that no harm was done, I hid behind my Jackie O glasses and sprinted by them.

Once inside, I was relieved to learn that no one could have heard my wheels squealing as I took the curb– not over the voice of Sinatra crooning in surround sound.  He was smooth, sexy…LOUD.  Despite my habit of denial—especially when I plan something, am on a mission, and refuse to be denied– I may have conceded to myself that writing amidst all the noise would be daunting.  But rather than face this fact, I had to deal with a bigger dilemma.  Only two tables were vacant and the line was long ahead of me.  Should I save one of them with my laptop considering it wasn’t mine and I couldn’t afford to have it stolen?  Especially since technically, I had hijacked it already?  Maybe better to hope the people ahead of me were grabbing their coffee on the run.

Better keep the laptop with me.  But then again, everyone there seemed so sure of the protocol… and of themselves.  They ordered quickly, efficiently—no holding up the line by hunching over the counter, fumbling for money while a laptop swung off one shoulder and a purse swung off the other.  Not to mention that even after I got my order I’d have to add half-and-half, then sweet-and-low to my coffee—possibly creating another clumsy scene with a bulky computer in tow.

To lay it down or not to lay it down—that was the question.  Did I mention that one of my favorite books is The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers who Underachieve?  My mind was stuck spinning—like the wheel that spins on the computer when a new screen is loading, making you wonder if you should wait a minute longer or reboot and cut your losses.

But if my mind was bogging down, my feet were boogying.  I got into line, then walked out of line, then took two steps back toward the line, then balked– causing the guy behind me to bump into my back.  (Obviously he never learned the Driver’s Ed rule about the hazards of tailing someone too closely.)  Though annoyed, I swung around quickly to apologize for cutting him off.  Forgetting that my laptop extended almost a foot past my shoulder, I almost took out the guy’s Grande at the table beside me.

Enough already.  I had to lay down my burden.  (Mind you, Dells of yesteryear were not exactly lightweight.)  And this was Belle Meade for goodness sake.  Why would anyone there need to steal a laptop?  Lucky for me, right beside the guy with the salvaged Grande was a vacant table.  I wasn’t crazy about sitting so close to the counter and all, especially since I could only get to Starbucks once a week and I wanted a perfect experience, but it looked really roomy.   I hung the laptop on the chair, waited in line, and stepped up to the counter: “I’d like your largest coffee with a shot of chocolate, please.”

While the young, hip guy (probably a doctoral candidate named Rufus) taking my order  didn’t correct me, he edited my request as he shouted it to the girl behind the espresso machine:  “A Venti with a shot of mocha.”   Making a note to self to avoid future faux pas and learn the lingo, I grabbed my coffee and cinnamon scone and skulked toward my seat.  Though I shot an apologetic smile to the guy whose Café Americana I had almost capsized earlier, he frowned, then looked down through his bifocals at his USA Today. I needed to get to work anyway.

When I reached my chair, my face reddened again.  On the left corner of the table there was a handicapped sticker.  I knew it looked extra wide (the table, not the sticker which was the size of a post-a-note), but who knew back in ’06 that coffee shops allowed extra space for wheelchairs?  I thought that was just a bathroom thing.  Oh well, that settled it.  I moved to the table near the window.  I love the sunshine anyway.  Upon attracting the stares of people who wondered why I’d trade one handicapped table for another one, I reached the second table to see the same exasperating sign on it.  I decided with no other tables available, I’d just have to use it anyway.  Hadn’t two women been sitting there—both perfectly mobile—when I first came in?  And wouldn’t the same unspoken rule apply here that says it’s ok to use a handicap stall in the absence of a handicapped person?   I sat down, unpacked my laptop, and started her up, ready to begin this very piece and my virgin voyage of writing that summer.

I typed two paragraphs.  Then I was flashed a warning I’d never seen: “Save all work before losing.”  Apparently my battery was going down.  I found the electrical cord the computer guy from work had showed me how to use but realized I had zoned out during his demonstration.  Frankly, it didn’t register I’d ever need to plug it up.  When I saw people working on laptops, they were always unplugged.  Like songwriters on Austin City Limits, isn’t unplugged the best way to perform anyway?  Not once did Carrie Bradshaw use an electrical outlet.  How could her long legs in hot pants encircle her laptop as she wrote on her bed if there had been a cord to negotiate?  Reality had struck  again.

I  plugged up and rebooted.  Then I noticed the sun was now coming into the window so brightly that I couldn’t read the screen.  I needed to move again—back to the only table left—the other handicapped one.  Again, I attracted scrutiny.  Even though I thought I had locked my insecurities in the car, somehow they were there waving at me from the table by the window I’d just vacated. Making sure that I felt like such an imposter…

The girl who sat at home watching Brady Bunch while all the popular kids were at the first big party in 8th grade.

The girl who paid her sorority dues by eating mac and cheese or sausage and biscuits every night in the dorm because she knew how hard her mom worked to send her money for college.

The girl who took her young kids to the Renaissance Fair to teach them how to shoot bows and arrows.  She had learned the skill and joined the college archery team—all to please her dad who had no sons to take hunting.  Maybe her dad couldn’t teach her kids archery because he died when they were babies—and maybe it would have been nice if their dad had been around more to teach them such skills.  But surely she could do this. As a teenager, she had practiced on a target in her backyard. Because she was double jointed, the string would pop the inside of her left arm which steadied the bow every time she’d pull back and release, but she’d keep at it until her arm bled.   Finally it would all be worth it when she impressed her kids by hitting a bull’s eye and then helped them do the same.  Apparently shooting a bow wasn’t like riding a bike. She had forgotten how to hold the arrow tightly against the bow.  Unable to get even one shot off, she grabbed the kids and headed for the car, ashamed and angry with herself.

The girl who forgot to show her daughter how to put the car lights on high beam the day of her driving test.  Though Taylor passed anyway, she said she knew she should have brought her dad with her instead.  And the girl knew it, too.

The girl who was so busy talking in the stands at her son’s middle school football game that she mistook a boy on the opposing team for Cole.  Forgetting the home team wasn’t wearing white and only seeing a boy wearing her son’s #20, she thought it surreal that her son had intercepted the ball and was dashing through the defensive line as they dove at him but missed.  For a confused moment, she thought, like Willie Loman, that her Biff’s time had finally come.  Though she lunged forward, thank God she caught herself before screaming his name.  As everyone around her asked why she looked so shaken, she realized her mistake and played it off:  “I just wanted one of our players to stop that #20.”She wasn’t about to admit she was inwardly screaming wildly for the wrong boy on the wrong side.

She already felt stupid enough for asking the coach at the start of the season where she should buy pads and the rest of the “outfit.”  Even worse, she had later slipped and, flashing back to her own ballet and tap days, had referred to his uniform as a “costume.” When it came to sports and “men things,” she’d always felt inept–knowing as much about tying a necktie as she did about buying a jock strap.

She’d had a 4.0 as an English major and held a Masters degree.  She’d been Head of the Department for over twenty years, taught college courses, and was a reader for the national Advanced Placement English Literature Exam  She had led school groups and traveled to a dozen countries numerous times.  She stayed in touch with friends and former students scattered all over the US and abroad.  She had raised her kids with the exceptions of every other weekend and Tuesday nights since they were two and five.  She and her sister had been the executors of her dad’s and grandmother’s estates.  They had planned their dad’s funeral, and while still in shock, each gave a speech about what he had meant to them.  But despite all of this,  when friends teased her with blond jokes, she sometimes took them seriously.  Because while she always seemed to give others slack, she spent so many years trying to be perfect.  The girl who even at four or five couldn’t wait to be grown up— because grownups were in control.  They weren’t blind-sighted.  They were in charge of their lives.  They didn’t have to depend on anybody.

But for all her trying to be grown up, to “arrive,” to have it all together and live happily ever after, she could never completely shake feeling like a little girl inside.  She might go months or even a year or two thinking she’d outgrown that powerless child and she’d outrun those childhood bullies, but sooner or later they always showed up.  That girl had always shown up.

From Magical Thinking to Wretched Retreating

No matter how hard I had always tried, sooner or later a single embarrassing moment could send me into the corner, feeling that’s exactly where I belonged.  The slightest mistake could inflate and then translate into a life of failure.  Who was I to think I had anything to offer?  I was an impostor on so many levels.  It was 2006 and again, in that moment in Starbucks, the A Team reminded me I wasn’t  good enough.  I’d never been pretty enough.  I’d never felt loved enough. At least not for long.

The monster I had always feared and hated most was the feeling of rejection. I’d always wanted the inner security and outer radiance of a woman who is loved.  Not just desired, but cherished somewhere by one man.   For ten years I’d tried dating services, set-ups by friends, even eharmony, but I couldn’t make myself attracted to someone I didn’t find attractive—even if he was a nice guy.  Nor could I make someone I was attracted to be attracted to me—at least not for the long haul.  In school I had studied hard, made good grades, and got a job.  I had set goals and reached them.  But getting the right guy wasn’t the same as getting the right job.  I realized I couldn’t control when– or if– I’d find The One.  Thus I started heeding the advice of those who claim that just when a person stops looking, her prince arrives.  The advice that says God will provide what—or in this case, whom—we need just when we need him.  The advice that says rather than sitting around waiting, I should use the time to work on developing the very qualities in myself that I desired in a mate.

So focusing on personal growth, I’d tried new things– traveling with total strangers, learning a new language, discovering a latent talent.  I found I could paint and entered an art show.  I learned I love ballroom dancing and “muddin’” (4-wheeling in the rain).  I tailgated at Titans’ football games and joined the Nashville Film Circle.  Some of my closest friends became people who seemed at first so different from me–like a group of guys and girls who were coaches at my school.  We spent four summer vacations in Florida together—them reading Friday Night Lights, me reading An Italian Education.   I was the world’s oldest bridesmaid in two weddings of twentysomething friends, where I danced all night long at both receptions—not to mention their bachelorette parties.  I sang bad karaoke when my sister and friends surprised me with a limo on my fortieth birthday.

And I hired a limo for my daughter and her friends when she turned twelve.  And I took her to Europe and back when she was sixteen–introducing her to beloved Italian friends–showing her the world from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the peaks of the Italian Alps.   I stretched us both in new ways, and I carried on with familiar traditions. I continued hosting Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners.  I settled into the life of being a single parent—a rare breed at the conservative Christian school where I taught.  Some days I thanked God for all the good stuff in my life.  Other days I felt despair over the bad.

I looked around at the Starbucks crowd.  Half-serious, I had called them “my people.”  I was as educated as they were.  For years I’d driven to their side of town for restaurants and movies my side of town couldn’t offer.  In fact,  I’d laughingly shot back at those who gave me a hard time about driving across town:   “Money might determine where I live.   It might determine where I teach.  It might determine where my kids go to school.  But it WILL NOT determine where I drink my coffee.” But that first Wednesday, it felt as if it did.
(to be continued in Part 6, the final chapter…Starbucks in Reality)

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Imposter (Pt 4): I’ll Take One Muse Please

Volvo in remission--sighted at J. Alexander's in Bellmeade, 2007
Volvo in remission--sighted at J. Alexander's in Bellmeade, 2007

I’d found the key to my success.  For years I had read books there,  graded papers there, even people –watched, hoping to meet Mr. Right there. Many a weekend when my children were with their dad, I had treated myself for an hour or two at Starbucks, sinking into a deep purple velvet chair and sipping on a White Chocolate Mocha.   I’d peruse (ok, cruise) men who were deep in thought, clicking away on their laptops, wondering if one of them could be a cool, intelligent author at work.  Yet ironically, I had never written there!

Come to think of it, once in Starbucks I thought I’d been given a definite sign that my first book would be published.  I had given the book proposal to the VP of a major publishing house.  He was going to look it over and pass it on to one of his chief editors.   Imagine my delight when I looked up from grading papers to see Jonathan the VP smiling at me.   He introduced me to the man with him, one of the very editors who would critique my book!  They were there to discuss a book deal with a writer—a single mom with a sense of humor—kind of like me.  Jonathan had given me a copy of her first book, and I had liked it.

As one who constantly jumps the gun at figuring out when and how God answers my prayers and as one who has taught literature for much too long, I see signs—foreshadowing– everywhere.  Surely seeing this woman who had signed with “my” publisher was a sign.  Surely this meant my book would be published as well. My selective memory forgot all the “signs” I had already misread.  How many times had I announced to friends I was sure I’d found “The One” only to have them ask, “Again?”

One of “The Ones” was my doctor at Vanderbilt.  Before the days of Travis Stork of The Bachelor fame, I hoped my GP would give me a rose.  Handsome, smart, and most of all, caring, I actually looked forward to seeing him, regardless of whatever physical affliction brought me to his office.  He would always take my hands in his, look at me through dark brown eyes, and ask me how I was really doing.  Aware of my constant depression and angst, he always gave me hope—not only of my being “cured” of my melancholy personality one day but also of his being the cure himself.  I even had a sign confirming he would eventually ask me out.  I saw him in the very place (actually one of many places) I think I may find my prince—the bookstore.  While Davis Kidd—the bookstore of Green Hills steeped in tradition and associated with old money—was another of my favorite haunts in those days, seeing him in our Book World, a Barnes and Noble clone not far from my home in Donelson, seemed to be too good to be true.  He was big city Barnes and Noble material—hipper and more egalitarian than Davis Kidd—and he was smiling at me. While the conversation lasted all of five minutes, I took it as a sure sign of our future union.  This delusion continued through a tetanus shot, poison ivy, and strep throat caught from my kids, until the visit where he walked in wearing… a wedding ring.  I left his office and took five flights of steps rather than the elevator so no one would see me crying.

I realized after seeing the writer with her/my publisher and editor in Starbucks but later seeing no book contract of my own, that I must have misread yet another sign. Maybe all roads didn’t lead to Starbucks, but then again…maybe it wasn’t about the plot I saw unfolding that day—a writer discussing a contract—that mattered.  Maybe it was the setting that made the difference.  At Starbucks, something special must be in the air.  The joke has always been that fertility is linked to something in the water. Wouldn’t it then follow that if books are brain-children of their authors, maybe there’s something special in Starbucks’ not-so-average-joe?

Having lived in Nashville the past twenty years, one thing was for sure.  Any book of mine would have to be conceived and born in either the Green Hills or Bell Meade stores. I don’t mean to be a snob or to act ugly.  But for the whole thing to work, it can’t be just any Starbucks.  It must be the real deal—certainly not the only one at that time close to my home in Hermitage.   (I didn’t have the heart to tell my students that I was not impressed when they brought Starbucks cups to class.  I knew they most likely got their Machiatto by way of the drive-through, a red flag that our local store was a sham.   The whole purpose of a real Starbucks is to enjoy the inside ambiance—the big- city- feel one is really paying for.  If all one wants is the name brand coffee, he can get that at Target.  But even for those who ordered inside that first Starbucks in Hermitage, the vibe wasn’t cool.  What could one expect?  That Starbucks was book ended by Andrew Jackson’s birthplace and Hooters– two shrines to good ole boys—the boys I would gladly drive across town to escape.)

To write on the cool side of town I’d need a laptop, an appropriate car, and an alibi.  And just recently, I had cleared the first two hurdles.  I had a laptop, even if I got it in an unconventional way. Still unable to afford one (the first thing I had planned to buy with my first book’s advance), our Tech Guy loaned me a Dell Pentium.  While his condition was that I take it to a school-related conference and then return it to him promptly, I decided to kidnap it for the summer.  Possession is 9/10s of the law as they say, so if he wanted it back before school started, he’d have to come and get it.    I told myself that as a Chuck Norris fan, he’d enjoy the challenge, and as an old friend with a big sense of humor, Mike would forgive me in the end.  That cleared my conscience.  I would not write this book as I had my first—deprived of summer sun and banished to my desktop in the basement. (It’s a wonder I hadn’t developed scurvy from Vitamin C deprivation.)   I felt like Prometheus UnBound—no longer fettered thanks to my wireless router—unleashed to follow my dream at Starbucks.  But I wouldn’t have to make a run for it. God had also provided new wheels.

Although my Volvo station wagon was really the perfect vehicle for venturing across town and across the tracks, my children had never been impressed.  They had been brainwashed into thinking the Suburbans, Yukons and Escalades on our school parking lot were the true status symbols.  When I tried to explain the superiority of old money to new money and that while we had no money, Volvos are the car of choice in Green Hills and Bell Meade, the fact that our car was a 1990 model even began to bother me despite my calling it “vintage” and “classic.”  It became a moot point anyway when we received the sad diagnosis that the Volvo had a fatal illness and had to be confined to the garage. Thankfully a friend offered her 1990 Honda until I could afford another car.  I was grateful for the loan, but because the car’s paint job had worn off down to the primer, I worried that I looked too much like a dealer to wheel up and order a latte.  So for six months I had taken a total hiatus from Starbucks. But the Summer of 2006 was going to be different.  While I still couldn’t afford a BMW, a Lexus, or a newer Volvo, I had bought a Nissan Xterra at auction.  Though I wasn’t crazy about the word “Xterra” on each side and it was an older model, it was affordable, sporty, and had been named the “Car of the Year.”  It wasn’t new, but it was new to me.

Clearly I now had the tools of the trade.  I had a laptop and a SUV—both making me Green Hills ready.  But there was still the biggest roadblock of all barring me from setting up shop in a better zip code.  Could I really just go sashaying around Starbucks leaving the kids HOME ALONE?  I’d seen the movie and abandoning them to write seemed selfish…and dangerous considering my son, Cole McCain, and Macaulay Culkin have much more in common than alliterative names.  And to be honest, before I could justify leaving home to write, I had to deal with my Mom Guilt over writing during the summer at all.

I had always considered summer sacred—a time to make up for being a working mom. Being home with my kids in the summer allowed me more time to show–not just tell— them they are my top priority.  As a teacher’s kids, they see me give the first fruits of my patience and energy everyday to my students ten months a year, leaving me dragging by the time my second shift started with them after school.

In the summer my kids and I could catch up on movies—not just the Blockbusters in theaters like Pirates of the Caribbean, but the classics at home.   My daughter and I popped Raisinettes and munched popcorn while watching Fried Green Tomatoes and The Breakfast Club.  My son and I watched Jaws I, II, III, and IV very time they were on, as well as King Kong and Godzilla. While we never felt all that sorry for the giant fish or lizard, we were always outraged and sad when Our Boy Kong had to defend himself against the National Guard from the top of the Empire State Building.  It must be a mammal thing.

Quality and quantity time with the kids in the summer paid off in more than knowing The Best of Will Ferrell and every episode of King of the Hill by heart.  Cole and I could play Nintendo, and Taylor and I could take off for the mall in broad daylight.  We could all eat at Cheesecake Factory on a weekday afternoon when there wasn’t a wait.

But in those days summer seemed to be the only time to launch a writing career—Lord knows there was no time during the school year—what with so many papers to grade; a prom and 20s/Victorian/ Career Days to plan,; ACT workshops to teach, not to mention my own kids’ activities which had included band, drama, chorus, football, cheerleading, wrestling, and soccer.  The first time a fresh crop of students turned in essays and expected them back the next day graded, I set them straight fast: “Sorry, my Super Teacher cape is at the cleaners.  No can do.”   During the school year, I do good to dig out the pets from beneath the debris of books, backpacks, field trip permission forms, sports gear, and dirty clothes.

So in an effort to appease my Mom Guilt, I decided to write my second book at home. The Starbucks thing would just have to wait—at least until the kids were away at college.  I became the reclusive Johnny Depp character from Secret Window who, in an effort to write his book, stayed in his house day and night in his pajamas and a robe.  While this seclusion saved on the wardrobe budget,  I just wish Stephen King had warned viewers not to try this at home. Then again, I guess he kind of did when the character went insane from all the solitude. My problem was I almost went mad for lack of it.

Granted, I now had a laptop and wouldn’t have to compete with MySpace for “my space.” But in a moment of Déjà vu, I recalled measures taken the first time around to insure the kids slept as long as possible.   I would do anything to postpone Taylor’s blaring James Blunt from her iTunes and Cole’s cranking up cartoons from the kitchen bar.  My day started with paranoia as I tiptoed through the house, hating even to flush the toilet.  I cringed at the clinking of my coffee spoon or the clanking of my garbage can lid, terrified I would wake them. A crisis situation arose on any day I discovered Cole had taken a portable phone to bed with him the night before.  I had to retrieve it fast– before telemarketers called and set into motion my maternal duties.  This maneuver took the agility of cowboys in old Westerns who had to avoid stepping on dry twigs that would alert the Indians.  To approach his bed head on, I had to brave land mines of Legos, video games, DVDs, and Nintendo magazines which covered my son’s floor.  Sometimes I chose instead a back door approach.  With the sophisticated stealth of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, I entered his room from the kitchen door and climbed up the back of his bed to the top bunk.   That way I could hang upside down and slip the phone from his hand.

The neighborhood kids had also upped their game.  Writing at the dining room table meant I could meet them at the front door before they had a chance to knock.  So on mornings I forgot to silence the phones, they resorted to prank calling.  Sometimes the anonymous voice that asked for cookies sounded like  Saturday Night Live’s Land Shark; others it sounded like South Park’s Kenny.  Once they rescued their comrade from behind enemy lines, Cindy the Writer was body-snatched by Cindy the Mom.

It’s funny how teens revert to the feeding schedule of infants.  Every two or three hours they expected to be fed.  But unlike babies, teens don’t nap—at least my two didn’t at 13 and 16. Keeping them full and busy was not easy.  Just about the time I’d write two or three paragraphs, the voice of the little girl in Poltergeist would say in my head:  “They’re B-A-C-K.”  My son, already bored, would want to move the troops inside. Explaining I couldn’t deal with the noise, I’d send him with his friends to the garage, telling them they should fix it up into a cool clubhouse.  When that soon became old, they’d sneak into the basement and play Nintendo, watch Comedy Central, or check out Taylor’s MySpace.  Then she’d scream and they’d laugh.  Whether moving out or in, in or out, they always left the door open behind them.  When I had enough of killing flies and steering them away from The Chappelle Show, I’d send them to Cole’s PlayStation, hooked up under our second story deck by a web of extension cords.  Or I’d tell them to go ride their bikes. When really frustrated with all the interruptions, I’d want to tell them all to go climb a tree, but I never did—mostly because the previous summer my son climbed a tree, fell, and spent six weeks in a cast.

But even if I got my chief ducks, the kids, in a row– even if my son wasn’t trying to be funny (like when I’d ask what he was doing and he’d call back, “Jumping on the trampoline with carrots up my nose”)–or even if my daughter wasn’t trying to be social (like when she’d ask to go swimming with friends and borrow the car),  my other ducks would break rank and begin taking flight.  It’s a little known fact that golden retrievers hack up hairballs just like cats do.  With a golden and a Persian, I was often interrupted with janitorial tasks—not to mention the times my dog would sneak meat from the neighbor’s garbage despite the fact it makes her sick… every time.

After fighting the good fight to stay home and write, I heard again the Sirens’ call of Starbucks.   Surely Starbucks was the answer.  Although Taylor could drive, she didn’t have a car yet. My kids and pets couldn’t find me there.   But memories of disasters that had happened while I was home with the kids became pop-ups on my mental screen.  The time as a two-year-old my son went seeking toilet paper after he pooped and found it– my white living room curtains.  Or the time as a three-year-old my daughter walked across freshly painted kitchen cabinet doors that had been laid flat to dry in the sun.  Ok, so they were no longer toddlers and Taylor could keep an eye on Cole.  But who would keep an eye on her?  Though normally quite level -headed, she had covered that same head with Clairol’s Midnight Black #36, leaving her hair the color and texture of a Halloween witch’s wig.  I loved The Addams Family as a kid, but I didn’t want my daughter passing for Morticia.  Not really into the Goth thing, she was as upset as I was.    Maybe, on second thought, I was right in thinking I couldn’t spend the summer in Starbucks.

But then again, couldn’t there be a compromise? Maybe Starbucks could act as my muse—my inspiration.  If I could write there just one day a week, I could get a shot of creativity strong enough to keep me going for the next seven days…

(to be continued in Part 5: The Great Escape)

Cole's waterproof cast
Cole's waterproof cast