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 Twilight Years of Benjamin Button

As an English teacher who has taught The Great Gatsby for 25 years and started an annual Twenties Day where students celebrate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s achievement, my cloche is off to Eric Roth. Accomplishing a rare classics coup, the screenwriter of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button improved upon the canonized author’s 1921 short story.  Granted, an epic almost-three-hour film should be more developed than the germ that inspired it. But changes in setting, plot points, characterization, and even dialogue have earned the film five Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (David Fincher), and Best Actor (Brad Pitt).  Pushing the story past the Twilight Zone, the movie is transformed from a merely bizarre tale into a piercing masterpiece of Everyman’s mortality.

The Lost Generation’s icon began his tale in 1860, just prior to the Civil War, while Roth gave birth to his Benjamin on the day WWI ended. Perhaps the movie’s Benjamin is so amiable because he is born at the dawn of peace rather than on the cusp of war.  Moving him from Fitzgerald’s East Egg to The Big Easy works.  Though Forrest Gump’s gait was that of a racehorse, his slow storyteller’s pace was fitting for Southern Savannah. Likewise, Benjamin picked up his step once he shed his cane, but his N’awlins drawl lulls us throughout.  An as “old soul” he persuades us to patiently “sit and stay awhile.”  Both boys were loved by their mamas—strong, single women, though I preferred Benjamin’s Queenie.  Gump and Button were shoved through rites of passage–work, women, whiskey and war– by drunken, tough talking, good-hearted sea captains, Lieutenant Dan and Captain Mike.

Like Gump’s never knowing what he’ll get in a box of chocolates, Button’s mantra is, “You never know what’s coming for you.” And as with Gump, Benjamin is made richer with historical characters and allusions.  Benjamin is briefly a lover of Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) who dictates he must never see her in the daylight.  Like Blanche DuBois, her aging beauty threatened her confidence.  Decades later Benjamin sees her on television interviewed as the first woman to swim the English Channel, validating the adage that age is just a number.  And characteristically, Benjamin smiles.  As long as it is in his power, he tenaciously and graciously survives–even thrives.  And as a bonus, like the floating feather that frames Gump, Button‘s  reccuring symbol is the small but fierce hummingbird which ties together the two main characters and the theme.

Brad Pitt delivers a more sympathetic Benjamin than Fitzgerald’s Brain Child. The audience feels sympathy for the old man in a baby’s body who is abandoned by a cowardly father.  While Fitzgerald’s protagonist is also born with the wrinkled visage of an elderly man, we first see him just after birth in the hospital nursery– in the body the size of a sixteen year old. (I have to wonder if Fitzgerald wrote this after a late night of jazz.)  Though Benjamin’s father is not much of a sympathetic character in either work, in the short story when Benjamin refuses to walk home in a blanket and sends Dad off to a department store to buy him proper clothing, I envision a Saturday Night Live‘s Best of Will Ferrell skit where a woman delivers a fully grown man who comes out swinging–sassy and grotesque.

In contrast, for most of the film, Benjamin’s mental development is in sync with his age, making him more likable than cocky.   Though precocious, young Benjamin is as endearing, optimistic, and sweet- spirited as Simon Birch.  We watch him play with his toy soldiers from his wheelchair with much the same delight we felt at seeing Tom Hanks dance on the piano in FAO Swartz.  And like the main character of Big, Benjamin falls for a woman who only briefly is “age-appropriate.”

The name of Benjamin’s love interest is changed for the movie to Daisy, an unfortunate choice since it’s the name of Gatsby’s fickle and shallow suitor. It’s a relief that Cate Blanchett’s Daisy may be a ballerina, but she’s no prima donna.  She’s as true-blue as her eyes.  Physically, she fits Fitzgerald’s description: “slender and frail” with “honey-colored hair.”  And in the movie and short story she tries to seduce Benjamin first.  In the latter Daisy boldly declares: “You’re just the romantic age…fifty… I’d rather marry a man of fifty and be taken care of than marry a man of thirty and take care of him.” (The antithesis of  Ivana Trump who said of  dating younger men:  “I’d rather be a babysitter than a nurse.”)  My favorite movie moment is the scene in the 1960s where Benjamin and Daisy take care of each other.  Obviously the time’s they are a’changin…

In the short story, Fitzgerald apologizes: “And here we come to an unpleasant subject… There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.”  He couldn’t have known that today 50 is the new 40 for women and men and that an AARP poll shows 34% of women over 40 are now dating younger guys.  Fitzgerald’s Benjamin finds his wife no longer pretty or interesting, “devoured already by that external inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.”  Benjamin  considers his wife simply too old–a crone at the age of thirty-five.

Thankfully in the movie, Benjamin adores Daisy—body and soul.  Defying aging himself, Pitt looks as handsome as he did in Legends of the Fall.  ( I was thrilled to see his former leading lady, Julia Ormond, also in this film.  She plays the aging Daisy’s daughter–a role similar to the granddaughter of Titanic‘s Rose.) Pitt is as beautiful in his t- shirt in Benjamin as he was in Thelma and Louise, and in one beach scene he channels Robert Redford’s Gatsby.   Through it all, Benjamin and Daisy are soulmates.  Their core–their love for each other– slips the bonds of time.  They face obstacles we can’t imagine…but I cried more because of the ones I can.

Like everyone else leaving the theater, my daughter and I didn’t speak until almost to the car.  We talked of my mom’s caring for her ninety-three year old mother.  I thought of a couple of guys for whom I have cared deeply.  Is love just a number or are some age-related differences too insurmountable to scale?  Is real love sometimes leaving someone in the flesh while still loving them in spirit from a distance?

I loved the lines: “It’s a funny thing coming home.  Nothing changes.  Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same.  You realize what has changed is you.”  I’m reminded of Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and left wondering which  are The Wonder Years?  I think of William Blake’s Organized Innocence and Wordsworth’s proverb, “The child is father to the man.” I appreciate that in the movie, Benjamin grew up in a retirement home (much like the one my mother worked in) where death is natural and residents realize for the sake of what really matters–relationships–we must “let things go.”  According to one of my favorite books, The Sacred Romance, God created all of us to embrace beauty, intimacy, and adventure.  Beyond that, as Daisy said, “We all end up in diapers.”  But the sweet part… we can’t wait for dessert.