I felt like such an imposter.  Exposed.  Naked.    And in the very place I thought would be the answer  to all my dreams.

Part One:  Life Ideal

For years I had wanted to begin the Life of a Writer, one of the holy grails I believed would finally render Life Ideal.  But wanting wasn’t getting the job done.  As my mother used to say, “Wish in one hand and pee in the other and see which hand fills up faster.”

Of course, I hadn’t merely wished away twenty years.  I was a single mom raising two children while teaching high school and college English. But writing seemed to be my true north…even if I had taken a few roads south.  Then again, I began in the south– born and bred to keep my performance high and my expectations low.

Despite my teachers praising my work so that I sometimes secretly tried on the title of Freelance Writer, I chose the road more traveled–a safer route to feed the children.   I reasoned that becoming a writer was just a phase—like when I dreamed of being a dancer after watching West Side Story or of being an actor after seeing Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.  Dancing required moving to New York and acting meant relocating to LA; and as the first in my family to attend college, I had no idea how one would get from Hopkinsville, Kentucky to the other side of the world.  I didn’t know where writers lived, but I knew that it might as well have been somewhere over the rainbow.  So I went with education– a sure thing, and much easier to explain as a career choice at my grandmother’s on Sundays over the fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

My love for literature convinced me I needed to teach secondary English—that and an elementary ed music course which culminated in our playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a plastic recorder. Teaching small children wasn’t my thing. How could we discuss Kafka?

I enjoyed my high school students and challenged them to be Renaissance Men and Women. I called them to “Seize the Day,” even stand on their desks (though they didn’t have to call me “Captain, My Captain.”)  I exhorted them not to settle—to find their passions and pursue them.  But it wasn’t until my forties that I decided to practice what I preached.

I didn’t need Vanna White to solve the puzzle that starts with “mid-life.”  Everyone knows what follows: crisis. Facing the gap between what our life is and what we imagined it would be can be soulful and sobering.    Some people accept defeat, paralyzed with regret over what should have been.  Others grab a quick fix, such as buying a Harley, Botoxing their brows, or browsing for a younger lover.  But I wanted more than temporary relief.  I wanted a cure.    I wanted to write a New York Times best seller.

I wanted to talk about it on The Today Show. And once it was made into a movie, like Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nia Vardalos, I’d play the starring role.  When James Lipton of The Actors Studio asked me to reveal my least favorite sound, I’d be ready to answer...

I never let go of my dream, but no amount of magical thinking had changed the reality that teaching all day and grading/ parenting all night barely left me time for a haiku, much less a novel.   I suspect many an artist-turned-teacher besides Mr. Holland has experienced the frustration of Opus Interruptus.  But before my heart for writing flat-lined and my dreams of publication were suffocated under the Bell Jar, I decided to get serious and go-all-Thoreau.  I would live a deliberate life rather than a random one.  I would live deeply, sucking out the marrow of life, rather than live bitterly, whining that life sucks. I refused to go to the grave with my song still stuck in my throat. I refused to allow mid-life to escort me to the cheap seats of Lifetime Original Movies. I would believe that mid-life– with or without Viagra– is far from impotent.  It’s The Impetus.

From the mid-life point I could see not just time lost, but time left.  I recognized that nothing had been wasted, but rather banked, yielding a high return from life experiences—the very stuff that made me who I am.  Maybe I had the talent to write all along, but I lacked the courage and the material.  I had been conditioned by the hardest blows and was now tougher for it. And my experiences were currency—the life savings an expatriate exchanges into rupees, euros, or yen– to buy a ticket to a new life.

For years I had been packing my bags with stories from the trenches—from over two decades in the classroom, over a dozen years as a mom, and over a decade of dating again.  Bridget Jones’s diary and Carrie Bradshaw’s columns had nothing on me. I had traveled abroad where, like Elizabeth Gilbert, I had eaten, prayed, and loved.  And long before anyone had heard of The Secret, my mid-life mantra had become: “Live the Life You Have Imagined.” I knew what I needed to do.  There were signs everywhere.

I first saw Thoreau’s challenge reprinted prophetically on a greeting card, affirming my desire for reinvention.  I read pep talks in More magazine spurring me toward a career/life change.  Then I heard the same six words serendipitously spoken by a friend, catapulting me into action. By the time Brooke told me that she credited her new life to something she read while still in college, “Live the Life You Have Imagined,” my philosophical stance became a full speed gallop toward my own renaissance.

My friend had married a lawyer and was headed to Chicago—a Mt. Juliet, Tennessee girl who made good.  We had shopped in NYC one spring, staying in a boutique hotel with poached eggs and espresso.  At home in Nashville, we had frequented Rumours on Tuesday nights, sharing the “Artisan Cheese Plate” under trendy paintings by locals.   And in our Talbots hats and Ann Taylor sundresses, we had attended Steeple Chase lugging our cooler up the hill rather than driving a Lexus SUV into the infield—literally  the In Place  to be. We hated being on the outside looking in.

Though we had the right food and clothes, there was no place in the cheap seats where we could unfold our lounge chairs and spread our picnic blanket without some shirtless drunk stumbling across the grass threatening to land in the middle of our sangria and chicken salad.  The crowd on the hill had the look of fans at a Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam while the ones in the inner circle had the appearance of patrons of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony.  The infield grass definitely seemed greener, and we longed to be under the Gatsby-esque tents eating cucumber sandwiches on tables with white linens and bouquets of hydrangeas and English roses.

But though we had been barred that day from the inner circle, Brooke had arrived.  She was headed for the Windy City and a new life.  She and Mark would later explore Istanbul and Turkey and would live one street from the Miracle Mile and three from Lake Michigan.  They would spend Christmases in Paris–twice.  Maybe a Hoptown, Kentucky girl could do the  same.

I knew, however, that my ticket out wouldn’t involve marrying well based on a fetching face or figure.  The doors that open for girls in their twenties usually slam shut for  women in their forties. And though Brooke had worked hard at her education and career,  she was also a black haired, blue eyed, flawless skinned beauty–gorgeous and twenty-five. While told I look younger than my age, I knew that in a youth obsessed culture—confirmed daily by my daughter who is disgusted each time Hope and Bo on Days of Our Lives make out– my best bet was to bank on my brain, not my looks.  For ten years I had dated more guys who were younger than me than older, but when it came to settling down, they almost always wanted someone their junior.  Not to mention that after recovering from a near fatal divorce over a decade ago, I wasn’t about to depend on a man for my life—much less my livelihood. I had read too many self-help books and had the support of too many friends for that.  I was indeed “Co-dependent No More.“

I had realized that for years I had given some people the power to grade my life– to decide my worth.  Like an amateur on American Idol cowering before  Simon Cowell or a contestant on The Bachelor groveling for a rose,  I often accepted harsh criticism and rejection from arrogant “judges” while ignoring the rave reviews of kinder souls.  I allowed people and events from formative years and my inherently melancholy personality to determine my low self –esteem.  It would take me awhile to understand that while some people would always matter,  their critical report card of me…not so much. Not if I had done my best with pure motives.  I finally understood what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said, “No one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.”  A soundtrack started playing in my head, clicking off Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive,” Smash Mouth’s “I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again” and finally, my grandmother’s anthem, “It is Well With My Soul.” Though the fatality of my marriage had already been harder to survive than two miscarriages, my parent’s divorce, and even my dad’s unexpected death, I knew with God’s help I’d live through it. Even if it meant losing a man I’d known since seventh grade and loved since our senior prom.  Even if my social security number follows his consecutively.

Though we are still friends, those first years my heart was so damaged that at times it physically ached. And though I couldn’t sit through a church service without crying, I wasn’t about to give up on God, love, or men.  This was quite a miracle considering my mother had always told me that most males are definitely more trouble than they are worth.  No, I believed God would bring someone new into my life—and soon.  So soon that I thought my counselor was well meaning but crazy when she said I needed two whole years to heal before starting another serious relationship.

Ignoring this advice, I told my aunt and uncle who took me to dinner to cheer me up that I had bought the Martha Stewart Weddings magazine.  I was getting ideas for a second wedding—a small but tasteful gathering of friends and family celebrating that happy—no, happier—days were here again.  They were too polite to point out that to choose flowers, food, and music before having a potential groom in mind might be putting the cart before the horse.  They were too kind to say that I could clip out as many of Martha’s good things for the nuptials as I wanted, but a good man might be much harder to find.   They just nodded mechanically in support of my optimistic plan, doubting I’d ever marry again.     Some say I’m too picky, but in those early single-again days, friends didn’t offer a lot of hope.

The only advice most of them gave on husband hunting was offering not a means to an end but that the end should be the means.  “Oil that is, Texas tee.” Money.  Never mind if the guy was as old as Jed Clampett or as dense as Jethro.  But whether to my credit or to my stupidity, I’ve never considered marrying for prestige or wealth and I don’t anticipate doing so in the future.  So yes, I wanted to remarry, but not until after, in all my financial independence, I could throw my hat into the air like Mary Tyler Moore as friends serenaded, “She’s going to make it after all.”  I didn’t have to have a man to be successful.  Even if Mr. Grant had been single, Mary Richards would have never married her boss just because he was a man of means.  And maybe like me, she didn’t find dating someone twice her age tempting.  Come to think of it, even the men I met in my age bracket who weren’t married, weren’t gay, didn’t prefer dating a fetus and were emotionally available, looked more like Mr. Grant than Hugh Grant.

Of course, there was that guy on eharmony from  Washington.  The one who in his first email wrote: “ I have decided to put my heart into a relationship with you.  Let’s move forward, sealing the deal with matrimony.  I hope to hear from you (at which point he gave me his phone number.)  I await your beep like the birds await spring.”

Too much.  Even for a romantic like me.

No doubt my ticket to bliss wasn’t cashing in on the right man.  And while I
appreciated Tennessee voting in the lottery to help fund my children’s college, I stopped dreaming of winning the lottery years ago.   Guess I’m not one of those single moms who, it was lobbied by some of my Bible Belt friends, would weekly gamble away the milk money on the Lotto.  No, for me, writing was the way…the Grail…

I reasoned a best seller would lead to  more time for my children and those things I love.  Time to paint, study Italian, and live la dolce vita— here and abroad.  Writing might even lead me to a soul mate who shared my intensity and passion—like a Heathcliff or Lord Byron (though I realize now I probably needed someone real or living, not quite so brooding, and in the case of Byron, faithful).  Maybe he would meet me at a book signing–drawn there by my witty words and winsom face smiling at him from my book cover.  We could be the next Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, writing and living out our later years “under the Tuscan sun.”

I was ready to do more than cheerlead as I sent my high school seniors out into the “real world.”  I was ready to get out there, too.  I had been eating lunch in the school cafeteria since I was five.   I had been teaching since Bryan Adams, Def Lepperd, and M.C. Hammer ruled.  Since my students thought IROC Z’s were “bad” and Tom Cruise was Top Gun rather than Valkyrie.  Through Reganomics, Desert Storm, Monica Lewinsky, and O.J. Simpson,  kids had looked at me from under Big Hair, no hair, mullets and Mohawks.  I’d stayed in contact with many of them long after they graduated and a few had become close friends.  But as much as I enjoyed teaching and Mr. Holland’s Opus, hoping, I, too had made a difference, I wanted to complete my masterpiece.  I wanted to finish my book, and sell it–big. Rather than just teach about dead guys who wrote, I wanted to be one —a famous writer, that is, not a dead guy.  I was definitely ready to live that passionate life I’d told others to live…that life I had imagined…

(to be continued in Part Two: Great Expectations)

Earlier dreams of dancing
Earlier dreams of dancing

Party’s Over and the Jig’s Up…or Let Them Eat Cheesecake

Obviously the holidays are over and all that “goodwill to men” business has expired.  I went to lunch at Cheesecake Factory with my sister and our girls.  After waiting—blinkers on—then pulling into a parking place, my sister was given the double-barrel bird by a spike-haired young man who gunned, then braked for the same spot.  He not only attacked like Jasper-on-a-paper-cut but bore a faint resemblance to the bloodsucker from the Twilight series.  I know because we got a closer look when he stomped toward the hostess shaking his head.

We had hoped he and his girlfriend had cooled off and were shopping somewhere in the mall for hair products or skinny jeans.  Though my sister’s lane led to a better parking place, she lamented that she hadn’t taken the higher road.  She had returned his gesture in kind.  She wished she had handled his hostility in a different way, mostly as a better example to the girls but also because she feared he’d key her car.  Now she wondered if he’d make a scene.    Though naturally camouflaged by the post-holiday hoard that had left leftovers to eat out, we played it safe and took cover.  We skulked.  Peering at Huffy Britches through the fronds of a potted palm tree, we were relieved to see him roll his eyes at the waitress, throw his hands in the air at the 40- minute wait and stomp out, his female friend running to catch up.  Good thing.  Had they stayed, the scene that erupted next to us would have blown our cover.

A twentysomething woman in a tight sweater and tighter jeans grabbed the elbow of the manager, then folded her arms back across her chest.  She was petite but buff—the image of (and I promise I’m not that into Twilight but my daughter is) another butt-kicking vampire.  Shaking her pixie and tapping her foot, she demanded to know why three parties of two had been seated before her.  Apologizing in a wearily mechanical, forced cheerful/self-deprecating voice, the manager explained that since she had requested to be moved from the table where she and her boyfriend had previously been seated, it might take a moment to work them back in and find a booth more to their liking. An explanation she did not like.  As a Cullen clone she didn’t show fangs but ground out through clenched teeth: “We expect a table now.”  Grabbing the menus from the hostess who had just taken the pager from another couple she was seating, the manager parted the crowd and showed Miss Feral to the table.  Though relieved, I was confused.  She first seemed more vampire than werewolf, but as she berated the manager all the way to their seats, her bark was as formidable as her bite.

At any rate, once seated, we used our napkins to wipe away the spewed venom and had a really great lunch.  We wanted to get our college girls together before they headed back to their respective schools.  My niece would be eight hours away until spring break.  She and my daughter are four months apart.  They’ve grown up one street from each other, our backyards almost meeting.  Three streets over is the school they started as kindergarteners and left as high school graduates.  I still miss seeing them in my senior English class.  Last August seemed last week when we took them to Savannah for a graduation trip and to check out Emily’s art school.  One last fling before they moved away but hopefully not apart.  Over four kinds of cheesecake we reconnected over old times—family stories that made us who we are.  We caught up on new adventures—recent experiences that make us who we’re becoming.  My younger niece, a ninth grader like my son, was there, listening and laughing but probably not realizing how soon she will be where they are—grappling with adult decisions about majors and careers while living in limbo between a dorm and the place they’ve always called home.

Some have lost their festive faces.  I did when I returned home to clean gutters.  As I pulled out black hunks of rotted leaves—mulch really– I thought, “This is rich.” I remembered my broken stove.  I wondered if the external hard drive I had bought and just hooked up actually worked…and why the 1-800 number for support was “out of service.”  Maybe I should rename my blog.  Maybe all that stuff about the joys of a rich life sound too Pollyanna—too hopeful romantic? As a throwback to the days I’d sneer at the “Life is good” sticker on my friend’s jeep (I wanted to snap that stick-figure-man like a twig), I remembered that life is good.  I’m still on Christmas break, and that’s good.  I can go to movies, be a Guitar Hero, and eat cheesecake. Because I’m not at work, I can shop for groceries really early in the morning. When the only other customers in the store are elderly couples still together after a lifetime of hating life and loving it.  Couples who smile at me and say “Good morning.”

2008 As the Other Cindy McCain

Last fall a man claiming to be a member of the “Right Hand party” in Belgium sent me a friend request on Facebook supporting my “ courageous husband, John.”  I wasn’t sure how to respond…again.  I had been hailed as the future First Lady in jest since the summer. No doubt there was a resemblance–strong enough that MTV Canada found my picture on Facebook and persuaded me to do their Hot Topic segment the day after the election.  I was on a split- screen panel via Skype with a John McCain from Appomattox, Virginia, and two regulars, Naked Guy and Skull Man.  Two questions were fired at me:  how l had fared with my famous name and what I predicted was in Sarah Palin’s future.

Previously I had been interviewed on Nashville’s Channel 5 News segment, “Cool Schools” when the high school where I teach was featured.  The reporter asked about political discussions in my senior English classes, but only after he mock-introduced me as the Cindy McCain who had left the campaign trail to make an appearance.  Then there was the police officer who pulled me over for expired tags as I pulled out of the parking lot of an early voting site.  When he saw the sticker on my sweater announcing I’d voted and the name on my license, he softened.   Assuming we were on the same team, he grinned, “Guess you’d like to be the other Cindy McCain.”  I nodded, then truthfully and without defecting quipped: “I sure would.  I’d like to have her money.”

No doubt I wanted to please the nice policeman.  My Southern Girl upbringing warned me not to act ugly–to remember that it’s better to smile and nod when people assume I voted a certain way than to incite controversy by saying I didn’t. I vowed to defend passionately and logically my candidate when the time was right. I managed to do this a few times, but sometimes my responses morphed into bi-polar fight or flight instincts.  There were a couple of bouts with friends—both which disturbed the peace in two eating establishments—and one which ended in my being accused of drinking the Kool-Aid to which I childishly retorted, “You lost and we won—so there!”  More often I took flight with the smile and nod routine.

As a minor irritation, conducting business took longer when the cable company’s tech guy, the financial aide officer of my daughter’s college, and  telemarketers asked if I realized I had the same name as the presidential candidate’s wife.  A hotel clerk stared hard at me when I checked in wearing my Jackie O glasses, trying to decide if I was indeed that Cindy McCain. But more disturbing than the man from Belgium and two others on Facebook who confused me for the real deal was the assumption that if I shared her name, I shared her political views.

I must disagree with Romeo when he asked:  “What is a name?  A rose called by any other name would still smell as sweet.”  Instead of smelling a rose, some McCain fans looked at me as if they smelled a rat if I fessed up to not voting for their man.  And to be fair, it wasn’t just my name.  I live in the Bible Belt AND a red state where many believe being a Christian (which I am) is synonymous with pledging allegiance to the GOP. Likewise, an Obama supporter tried to divine my political persuasion from my name when I met her at a dinner party the week after the election.  She said, “It’s nice to meet you, but I’m glad you didn’t win.” Suddenly I related to soap opera villains who are accosted on the street because fans confuse the character with the actor.

I know many of my friends with perfectly normal names were entangled in Facebook wars of their own.  But stranger than the usual debate was an ominous message I received from a Canadian man after the MTV segment aired.  Deducing from my prediction that Sarah Palin would  become an anchor on FOX news, then the Home Shopping Network, he said he knew I wouldn’t agree as an Obama supporter but he warned that America had been “DUPED” by Obama and that the election result was “NOT the kind of change the nation wants.” Then he asked about my weekend.

I waited until after the election to tell the gentleman from Belgium I was not the Cindy McCain he was looking for.  Containing his disappointment, he asked if I was a Republican.  I said I vote for candidates, not parties.  He said that was smart and invited me to have coffee with him if I’m ever in Brussels.

For someone who doesn’t enjoy conflict, I learned a lot in the fall of 2008.  I realized I had become defensive when the mailman asked me who I was voting for.  “Why does it matter?”  I retorted.  He laughed:  “Just kidding you about your name.”  I learned that while politics can divide friends, listening to each other and even agreeing to disagree can ultimately deepen friendships.  In political debate we can engage without fighting or fleeing.  We can act ugly or take the higher road.  Many just forward emails.  My drug of choice for the headaches of last fall was The Office DVD collection.  In addition to  comic relief , I used them to master Jim’s way of rising above the fray by smiling smugly into the camera.  Many days as students or friends tried to lure me into argument or drama, I looked over their shoulders and smiled serenely into my own imaginary camera, praying I’d be a peacemaker rather than a rabble rouser.

If posed those two questions on MTV again, I stand by my answer on Palin.  But I’m now as ambivalent about having the name of a famous political figure as I am about it resulting in “Cindy McCain” listed over five million times on Google.  It could be a blessing when I don’t want people snooping but a curse when I hope they do.  I’m excited about our new President despite the fact that his winning reduced my shot at four years of fame to just five minutes.  Recently when a friend gave my manuscript of a magazine article to a New York agent for placement, he said she first thought it was by the Cindy McCain. I’m sure she was disappointed it wasn’t.

I wish Cindy well with her family and millions.  No doubt her fall was harder than mine.  But as 2009 takes my hand, I feel rich, too.  More on why later.  For now, I’m off to salsa…the-one