New School

New School

The great teachers fill you up with hope and shower you with a thousand reasons to embrace all aspects of life… The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in Lonesome Dove and had nightmares about slavery in Beloved and walked the streets of Dublin in Ulysses and made up a hundred stories in The Arabian Nights…–Pat Conroy, author and former teacher

Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, William Golding…writers who were also teachers. The latter based his classic, Lord of the Flies, on his classroom experience. The Harry Potter creator began her saga as an English teacher in my now-neighboring country, Portugal. (So almost did a legendary songwriter from my home in Nashville, Kris Kristofferson, who after studying literature at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, took an English position at West Point. Though he resigned to move to Music City it’s a fun fact for me to remember that he and Conray have Southern accents, too.  I first worried about having the only drawl on staff until some of my new coworkers told me they like it.)

I have to remind myself that despite the demands of teaching, there is no excuse not to keep up with blog posts. As Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat told me in an interview when I asked how she managed to teach and write: “The way anyone finds time to do what they most want to do. The time is there. It’s just a matter of priority.” By the way, she taught at the school of one of two of my brilliant new English department colleagues, who, like the rest of the faculty, work really hard daily and care deeply about our students.  One of the many firsts this new school year is being the only female and non-Brit  of the department.

IMG_5417 I’ve been teaching as long as I’ve been writing.  After elementary school each day, I’d run from the bus to play teacher to my sole pupil, Granddaddy Ladd.  My grandmother, Mama Lou, had taught in a one-room schoolhouse before she married, at a home for special needs children after my grandfather died, and in an elementary school until she was eighty.  She gave me my father’s book, The Arabian Nights, from which I’ll teach a story this year alongside The Alchemist, a book that inspired my move to Marrakesh. Although I’ve been at this teaching-thing more than thirty years, the first day of inservice I felt like a kid again. Like a first grader, I had little idea of what to expect, and not since a ninth grader had I boarded a bus for school.  Most of the teachers live in the same complex and ride the bus into work daily.  Our stop is just around the corner.  Since our school doesn’t have a cafeteria, teachers who don’t pack lunches pop into the hanuts to grab fresh baked bread or snacks for the day on the walk to the bus stop.  I either take leftovers or, more often, though I’ve never been much of a bread eater I find myself stuffing a loaf into my backpack and pinching off pieces throughout the day; that, a Fanta, and a 1.5 liter bottle of water are plenty for me in summer heat.IMG_5489 IMG_5399 IMG_5415

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My thirty-minute commute has rendered many firsts–passing a neighborhood mosque,  posses of pigeons in parks,  donkey-drawn carts of chickens, weary workers gathered around tea in an alley before work (we leave for school at 7:15 AM–an American school schedule that lasts till 4:30–atypical of Morocco where families eat dinner/sleep/open shops later). Terra cotta apartments topped with satellite saucers give way to suburban living– villas and turnoffs into  spas and luxury hotels along a boulevard lined with bushes trimmed into poodle tails, palm trees, olive groves, and walls laden with cascading bougainvillea.  As we turn off the now -country highway, the guards swing open the huge wooden gates.  Our bus driver parks, we gather briefcases and bags and  walk through the school’s orchard.  After two weeks I still marvel at the beautiful building and massive grounds– the arched doorways, long stone hallways, private alcoves, scrolled iron balconies, and olive trees on the playground tempting children to pelt each other with olives. IMG_3391 IMG_3390On Day One new teachers meet off the courtyard for inservice where most of the children eat lunch.  Our headmaster reminds us we’re one of only five schools in Morocco recognized by the US State Department.  We discuss the Mission Statement which begins, “The American School of Marrakesh is a multicultural community of learners.” True.  My colleagues from Morocco, France, England, Scotland, Singapore, the Philippines, Russia, India, Canada, and many US states and assorted countries do work and life together, whether interpreting for the French and Arab teachers at faculty meetings;  discussing curriculum on the bus or movies or vacations together at our Friday night rooftop gatherings; cheering on a colleague’s son who rides his bike without training wheels for the first time in our complex courtyard; or taking a coworker’s daughter home so Daddy can play Friday afternoon soccer after school with the faculty and staff. Like many 21st century schools, ASM strives to “foster excellence through critical thinking and creativity; build resilience and character; promote responsible, global citizenship, and encourage lifelong learning.” But unlike most international schools, students are expected to not only master English and their native language but also become fluent in French and classical Arab (different from Darija, the local language). IMG_3388 IMG_3374     IMG_5411 My room, which I now affectionately call “the annex” has its own private entrance.  It’s beside the basketball courts and has its own rose garden at its doorstep.     IMG_3376 IMG_3381 IMG_3382   IMG_3383 Last summer I made posters for “windows to the world” using my travel pictures to entice students to read world literature and embrace global citizenship.  They want to know where I’ll take them and when, and I’ve assured them class trips are being discussed.  My students are high energy–most movers and shakers (kinesthetic learners and/or highly motivated), social and warm–and they all greet me each period with a “Good Morning/Afternoon/Hello, Miss!” and bid adieu with a, “Thank you and have a nice day, Miss!”  I really like them.  I have 15 in my 9th Grade Advanced, and a dozen in my 10th Grade Standard, 11th Grade AP, 12th Grade Standard.  I also teach an elective, Journalism.

IMG_3393 - Version 2   IMG_5428 IMG_5427   IMG_5430   And though my first couple of days the temperature was 108 degrees and I wondered how we’d ever manage without AC, the weather has dropped to the mid-90s and become bearable.  In fact, the mornings have been 70 degrees and I love preparing for my day, windows open to nothing-but-green– soccer field in the front, flowers in the back– as my daily visitors, wee birds, fly in, land on the floor, and say hello.  It also helps in a new place to be surrounded by not only new friends…but old ones, like Bronte and the crew, as well. IMG_5486 IMG_3400 IMG_3401 IMG_5426 The library is full of classics and other interesting reads.  Teachers check out books regularly for pleasure. IMG_5439 IMG_5438 During inservice we were treated to hot mint tea, pancakes, and pastries, and catered lunches of traditonal Berber tagines served on china.  Yesterday we celebrated our first week of teaching with a high tea–mint tea, chilled strawberry and avocado drinks, pastries, and assorted almonds and other local nuts. IMG_5405 IMG_5424 IMG_3402

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    As students and teachers we get two new starts each year–one in January, the other now.  Then again, we all can learn something new everyday for the rest of our lives.  From the land of oranges, pomegranates, and figs, here’s to a fruitful year. IMG_5521

Kids, Chaos, and Puppy Love

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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Native Son and Mom on a Mission

Native Son and Mom on a Mission

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Andrew, Stephen, and John

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All that Glows: Summer 2011

All that Glows: Summer 2011

The 2010-11 school year is over, and I’ve moved back into my summer home. Vacating the classroom means taking up residency here, on this blog, where I can exhale. Having done my penance of papers, I can stop grading others and maybe even myself. Though it will take a miracle not to measure the next seven weeks by how much I cross off my bloated to-do list– writing projects, preparing Classic Coup for POOL, finishing sessions I’m teaching at a conference–it’s all good. Especially more time with family and friends. So far despite my extreme sports in 90 degree weather– banging on a tube behind the boat (the Ladd Sisters–Penny and me–ride the waves again), playing volleyball at night with friends in a pool, batting cicadas with a fan as they kamikaze into me, stirred up by Kaziques at an outdoor concert– I breathe easier in summer. It’s a time to collect my thoughts…like lightening bugs in a jar…and see all that glows.

Farewell 2010…and a decade

Farewell 2010…and a decade

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…

Throughout Italy…

Salsa…

And all the time in-between…

It has been a wonderful life…decade…year…

NOLA–January 2010
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

…and out-on-the-town

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

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

Imposter (Pt 3): Pleading My Case

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)

Imposter (Part 2): Great Expectations

A Mouseketeer dreaming of becoming a Musketeer
A Mouseketeer dreaming of becoming a Musketeer

A couple of times before I had tried living the dream. As it turned out, I was only living in a dream world. I decided Christmas 2003 I would claim my book deal. I was, after all, on a winning streak… one for one. In 1991 upon submitting my first-ever manuscript, a riveting piece called, “Creating Camelots,” I was published in The English Journal. I had known I had a winner, so I wrote past maternal guilt. Every mommy knows that it’s impossible to shake off a tenacious toddler. We can run but never hide. Even Calgon can’t take us away from a boisterous baby pulling up on the tub, then trying to eat our bubbles. So in order to concentrate, I had to reframe my thinking. Contrary to her crying and clinging, Taylor liked playing under my computer table while I tried to write. The one-year-old’s death-grip on my right calf was her way of contributing to the writing process, forcing the blood up from my leg and into my brain. No doubt she understood that I had chosen a teaching certificate over a law degree to allow me more time at home with her. Likewise, I had gladly bid acting good bye when, opening weekend of my debut in Blithe Spirit, I found out I was pregnant. At the end of the show’s run I retired from community theater to focus on the family. So of course she supported my plan to launch a writing career from home. And on the off chance she didn’t…well, she would adjust.

A mere twelve years and a lifetime later, I sat down to try writing again. This time my kids were older, and I was better informed. I had read about the realistic timeline of getting published—the year or two required for a book to come off the press. (Of course, I chose to ignore the bothersome fact that this timeline referred to the period AFTER a book was bought by a publisher—that the period BEFORE a book was purchased could be years..even decades.) It all sounded so simple. Textbook stuff really.

So after hiring a professional photographer to do my cover shot, I cast my net far and wide– sending my proposal and sample chapters to everyone listed in The Writer’s Market. Then I waited, confident the calls would begin as NYC publishers would fight to wine and dine me, vying for the chance to snap up my first masterpiece. I didn’t want to jump at the first advance that came along and miss a bigger check offered later. If I made at least the $15,000 all reference guides said I should for a first book (I wouldn’t presume I’d have the luck of Nicholas Sparks and snag a million dollars the first time out), I’d have enough for an Xterra and a laptop. My then thirteen-year-old Volvo would be retired at last. Once I accepted the best deal, I would simply finish the book and look forward to the call coming that would place me across from Katie Couric on The Today Show. We’d both be wearing pumps and pencil skirts and she’d be asking me how it feels to be a best selling author. My NOT getting published seemed as unlikely as her leaving NBC and defecting to CBS…

Into the Cave
Already a legend in my own mind, I entered my cave (our basement family room) in 2003 to work on my one-and-only computer—a green bulky iMac– a prehistoric and PIP model. (PIP stands for Pre-iPOD—the eighth natural wonder of the world because it made Macs universally cool. Well, the iPod plus iTunes and the marketing campaign that pits the paranoid, paunchy PC Patriarch against the hot, hip Mac Daddy.) And for the next eight months, my basement– though damp, dark and lightly scented with our dog’s pee– became my writing cell. But I couldn’t complain–not after visiting Patmos on a cruise of the Greek isles. After standing in the black niche of the cave from which John humbly and peacefully wrote the Book of Revelation—the concluding chapter of the hottest selling book of all time– writing in a cinder block basement didn’t seem such a sacrifice. There I spent every free moment of ’04– weekends and summer break– working in self-imposed exile.

Finding the “bright side” of writing underground when other obstacles presented themselves wasn’t always easy. First I had to condition myself with an “Early to bed, Early to rise” mantra if I wanted to beat the kids to our only computer. Next, I had to learn firsthand that the best defense is a good offense. To hold off Taylor’s blitz to Instant Messenger and Cole’s run to Zelda Online Player’s Guide, I had to tackle our phone aggressively. To prevent telemarketers from waking the kids, I started each day by taking the phone off the hook and smothering its cries with my pillow. This kept my kids out of the game and bought me more time, that is until they enlisted more team members–The Boys of Summer, five neighborhood kids who daily hoped to wake Cole so he could come out to play.

Once Taylor woke up, trying to defend the computer from her downstairs– while simultaneously guarding the front door from the boys knocking to wake Cole upstairs– required a defense strategy that would have stumped even Bear Bryant. So choosing yet another offensive move, I invented a new rule–no one could approach the front porch before 1 PM. I soon discovered two loopholes in this edict. One, it didn’t cover backyard strategies the boys used to wake my son– like jumping on the trampoline or shooting hoops underneath his bedroom window. Squeaky springs and balls bouncing off the backboard were signals I hadn’t counted on. Second, compliance with the 1 PM rule probably never happened because Cole said he “forgot” to tell them about it in the first place. Once the boys broke through the lines and rescued him from the house, it was harder to concentrate on writing, what with hip hop blaring and bottle rockets exploding.

Out into the Sunshine
I did finally achieve enough lockdown to send off my first book proposal and sample chapters. In doing so, I had temporarily tasted the joy of working all day in my pjs. Like Claire dressed in her nightgown as she leaps across the stage in The Nutcracker, I, too, saw dancing visions of my own fantasyland. Financial Independence. A life of typing away on a laptop from my deck swing—kids gone to school—nothing but the tranquil company of Annie, my golden retriever; Precious, my Persian; and the occasional annoying squirrel. Just mockingbirds singing—my own version of Mockingbird Hill—my grandparents’ farm which to me had sounded like a utopia.

My grandmother, Mama Lou, would tell me stories of its magic and take me there via her magic carpet—her rocking chair. My sister and I would sit on each side of her on the wide oak armrests traveling to grand destinations. Sometimes we’d stop at Parisian sidewalk cafes—in reality her couch and tv trays.

Wishful Thinking: The Glass All Full
Most of my romantic ideas probably started in her living room. Because I learned to visualize early—of say, casually chatting with Queen Elizabeth when my grandmother’s rocker dropped me off in London—I had no trouble sustaining the habit of dreaming big even as an adult. That coupled with discovering certain Bible verses– like the one that says God owns the cattle on a thousand hills; or the one that says God is able to do infinitely more than all we ask or imagine, hope or dream. I still believe that with God, nothing is impossible. But sometimes I forget that His plans for my life may not dovetail with mine–or at least not on my schedule.

Thinking all things are possible can be problematic. So is being impatient. Setting my sights so high has plummeted me to abysmal lows, explaining why in seasons of tail spins I’ve succumbed to depression. At times I’ve been bitter, proving correct whoever said a cynic is a disillusioned idealist. Many people, like My Sister the Realist, would say I set myself up for disappointment. Her motto is to never get too excited about anything. That way, you can’t be let down and labeled a sucker. She also cautions me on a regular basis not to believe everything I see in the movies.

But with the forgetfulness of Disney’s Dory in Finding Nemo, I always bounce back and just keep on swimming. I’ve been called a hopeless romantic, but I prefer to call myself a hopeful one. And then some people call me crazy. No doubt the owner of a local match making service for “busy professionals” thought I suffered from delusions of grandeur. She became irritated when I complained about the men she kept sending my way. I had been very specific about what I was looking for. Finally I cut to the chase: “Don’t you have anyone there who resembles, oh, I don’t know… George Clooney?” To which she flatly replied: “No, we don’t have movie stars as clients.”

Little did she know that with the eternal sunshine of a delusional mind, I had once planned every detail of the first time I’d hang out with my dream posse—three women who had also suffered but had used their pain to help others. Three women who were interesting, classy, fun, and fashionable. Three women who put their designer jeans on one leg at a time. Three women who I felt could become my closest friends if we were ever given the chance to meet. So going beyond merely visualizing my first night-on-the-town with Princess Di, Oprah, and Jackie O, I hired a seamstress to make me a full- length, royal blue velvet cape. How cool to end up in the 90s as their Fourth Musketeer–even more than in the 60s when I was Annette Funicello’s fellow Mouseketeer. Of course, due to untimely deaths, my dream was never realized. And though my cape still mocks me from my closet, I haven’t given up on other “impossible dreams.” Like meeting Johnny Depp over coffee to discuss politics and other “deep things.” And I don’t have to bother with wardrobe details, since we’ll both be dressed in jeans and black t-shirts. Yea, in my dreams.

But even if my active imagination roams too far because of my optimistic bent, my grandmother’s influence, my selective reading of the Bible, and my watching Roger and Hammerstein’s production of Cinderella a few dozen times, seeing myself as a successful writer seemed more a practical goal than an unrealistic fantasy. In a Hail Mary attempt to sell that first book and at the risk of seeming more like a groupie than an equal, I asked for an audience with the Queen. For real this time.

(to be continued in Part 3…Pleading My Case)

Taylor, obviously unharmed by my writing attempts, in "The Cape" at her school's Victorian Day
Taylor, obviously unharmed by my writing attempts, in “The Cape” at her school’s Victorian Day

blithe-spirit1