Jazzed about Josephine Baker and Riad Star

Play Me

Riad Star, Marrakech Medina
Photo Courtesy of Riad Star

When people ask How? Why? I moved to Morocco sight unseen, I think to myself, I didn’t.  Though I’d never been to Africa, my soul brimmed with vivid images from exotic Arabian tales my grandmother read to me from my dad’s childhood book.IMG_8289

I was lured by sultry desert tents, regal riads, and secret gardens where princes and princesses lounged in plush, cushioned comfort.  In my imagination birds sang- by- day and lanterns glowed- by- night in arched Andalusian courtyards of fabulous fountains, mosaic tile, and intricately carved woodwork.  I was meant to come here–a place where so many desires of my heart have been fulfilled for which I am forever grateful.

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Photo Courtesy of Riad Star

Likewise, for some time I felt drawn to Riad Star, former home of Josephine Baker, Queen of the Jazz Age.  I was first attracted by the place and a moment in time–the blending of beautiful Marrakesh design with an era I’ve loved since I was a little girl dressing up in my grandmother’s  drop waist dresses and pumps.  As an adult obsessed with Post- World War I Paris expats and Harlem Renaissance artists, I teach The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and Jazz, and when living in the US had students play dress up, too, for annual ’20s Day events.

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Recently I finally stayed at Riad Star and met  “Jazz Cleopatra,” the legend for whom the boutique hotel is named.

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I now realize that what drew me there was more than one period of history.  It was a Renaissance Woman who before and beyond Harlem and the 20s never stopped changing, growing, giving, and overcoming.  A woman of tenacity and tenderness.

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Josephine’s photos smile at guests throughout the house, and in the dining area her costumes invite us to try on her life.

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More shocking than flapper dresses in 20s America was Josephine’s skirt of artificial bananas which she wore in Paris for her performance in Danse Sauvage.  In France she was an overnight sensation.

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When Aziz greeted me at the taxi, walked me to the riad, and placed my bag in her very suite, The Josephine Room, I was in awe.   There, under a photograph of her close friend, Grace Kelly, my favorite American Hollywood actress since I was a teen…

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I devoured Josephine’s biographies found in my room and the library downstairs.

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In the afternoon sun on the rooftop

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near the cool courtyard,

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and under the covers at night,

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like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris I was transported  to another time.

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There  I discovered a new treasure in Marrakesh..the “Black Pearl”…the “Bronze Venus” who Ernest Hemingway, her fellow expat in Paris, called “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”

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Before Beyonce…

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Or Rihanna

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Or Angelina Jolie…

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A dancer, singer, movie star, and mom energetically entertained crowds for fifty years and raised her “Rainbow Tribe.”

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Josephine:  “We must change the system of education and instruction.  Unfortunately, history has shown that brotherhood must be learned, when it should be natural.”
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Josephine said when called “beautiful”:  “Beautiful?  It’s all a question of luck.  I was born with good legs.  As for the rest…beautiful, no.  Amusing…yes.”

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Baker was the first black woman to star in a major motion picture,  Zouzou (1934) and to become a world-famous entertainer.  A superstar before Marilyn or Madonna, Josephine was named in 2012  Time magazine in the Top 100 Fashion Icons of All Time.

Likewise she was muse for artists and intellectuals of the 1930s such as  Picasso, Pirandello, Georges Roualt, Le Corbusier, and e.e. cummings.  Dance Magazine explained the allure of  Josephine –the “geometry” of her oval head and lithe body–during the Cubist and Art Deco movements, both influenced by  African art and sculpture.IMG_1738

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A World War II spy for the French Resistance, Josephine Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur by General Charles de Gaulle and the Rosette of the Résistance. At her death she was mourned in Paris by 20,000 people including Princess Grace who gathered for her funeral procession. She was buried with military honors in Monaco, a place she and her family visited often as guests of the royal family.

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A civil rights activist, she was the only woman who spoke  at the 1963 March on Washington alongside Martin Luther, King.  She told the crowd that day:
You are on the eve of a complete victory. You can’t go wrong. The world is behind you.  

Later she said of her personal victory:

Until the March on Washington, I always had this little feeling in my stomach. I was always afraid. I couldn’t meet white American people. I didn’t want to be around them. But now that little gnawing feeling is gone. For the first time in my life I feel free. I know that everything is right now. 

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Josephine in Washington with Lena Horne

And for a time, she lived in Marrakesh in a room I just stayed in.

Mike and Lucie Wood, British owners of Marrakech Riad, added Riad Star in 2010 to their collection of boutique hotels in the medina.  Mike explained their mission:

We bought our first riad (Riad Cinnamon)  in 2005 after I was introduced to Marrakech by a Moroccan friend.  We are passionate about introducing our guests to Moroccan culture, especially first time visitors.     As well as the riads we are very involved in a charity which we founded with another English couple.   It’s called Henna Cafe and has an active programme of education.  

The Pasha Thami el Glaoui formerly owned what is now Riad Star,  a guest annex to the palace which is now the Marrakech museum.  Mike says  he learned Josephine Baker stayed there when talking to a neighbor.  The people of Derb Alilich still remember her warmth and  she appreciated theirs.  In the Josephine Room  there’s a window looking onto the street–nonexistent in most riads where windows, doors, and balconies face inward toward private courtyards. It is believed the Pasha of Marrakech paid children to sit outside Josephine’s window and read for her while she was convalescing after a nineteen-month stay at a hospital in Casablanca  in 1941-42.

Mike Wood says of the purchase:

The restoration was extensive and took two years with a team of highly skilled local craftsmen.  We did not really change much except adding the rolling roof which is very practical and putting in more bathrooms.  

Ah, but the details the Woods added are symbolic of a spirit whose beauty, sensitivity and toughness transcended adversity.  There are nine rooms at Riad Star, each named for a part of Josephine’s life, such as the Jazz room, Paris room, Chiquita room, and Rainbow room.  Though historically themed, each room has modern conveniences, such as refrigerators, WiFi, and flatscreen televisions.

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Josephine was  born in 1906 in St. Louis to Carrie McDonald, daughter of former slaves, and vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson who carried her onstage when she was a toddler but left the family soon after. She cleaned houses and tended children for white families who told her not to kiss the babies.  One mistress burned her hands for using too much soap when washing clothes.  At age twelve she began a waitressing job at The Old Chauffeur’s Club which led to being married off unsuccessfully at thirteen.   At fifteen she was noticed for her street dancing and recruited for vaudeville. After witnessing the St. Louis race riots and experiencing abusive treatment which led to a time she lived on the streets and ate from trash bins, she moved to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance and performed at the Plantation Club.  As the last girl in the chorus line, her role was to make the audience laugh–something she loved doing her entire life.  But in 1925 Paris she moved from last to superstardom overnight when she opened in  La Revue Nègre at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees.  Continuing to amaze crowds with her sensual dances, costumes, and charisma, by 1927 she earned more than any entertainer in Europe.  And then she took on another continent…

In Josephine: The Hungry Heart,  Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase wrote of Josephine’s “Arabian Nights” when “she came to Northern Africa with twenty-eight pieces of luggage and her animals.”  Before she adopted twelve children from various countries (she suffered miscarriages and “many surgeries” trying to have her own and a complication that confined her to the Casablanca hospital ), she had a menagerie consisting of Chiquita, her famous leopard she walked on a leash;  Ethel, a chimpanzee; Albert, a pig; Kiki, a snake, and a goat, parrot, parakeets, fish three cats and seven dogs.  In Morocco her monkeys played in the orange trees.

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Baker records accounts of his mother’s time at Riad Star :

Every morning, as soon as the birds started singing, Josephine was up and running around  in the buff going to the kitchen to help the servants cook… The house had four bedrooms—one which had her big brass bed from France… She adopted Arab customs. She liked eating with her hands, wearing the loose djelleba, going with her maids to the hammam, the Turkish baths, once a week.

….And wasn’t it queer that Josephine, who had spent her childhood dreaming of kings in golden slippers, should find herself there? In a place where, even more amazingly, racial discrimination did not exist? Thami el Glaousi, pasha of Marrakesh and the most powerful tribal chieftain in French Morocco at that time, was himself black.

From northern Africa Josephine was safe from Nazi racism.  Langston Hughes wrote she “was as much a victim of Hitler as the soldiers who fall in Africa today fighting his armies.  The Aryans drove Josephine away from her beloved Paris.” Nonetheless, while in Africa as she’d done throughout Europe, Josephine continued entertaining troops for Charles de Gaulle and carrying information for the Allied forces from Spain.  Among dignitaries who visited her while in the hospital in Casa was Jacques Abtrey, Head of Intelligence against the Germans.  Outside as a military parade with American, French, and Moroccan troops marched by, he and Josephine toasted with champagne.  He recalls: “We raised our glasses to America, to England, and to our eternal France.”

Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Director of the African and African-American Studies Research Center at the University of California – San Diego and author of Josephine Baker in Art and Life: The Icon and the Image wrote of Josephine making Paris her home and learning not only French but Italian and Russian:

As a black woman, had she stayed in the United States, she could not have accomplished what she did….She never made a Hollywood film.  But at the same time she was recording in France, you had the likes of Hattie McDaniel playing maids in Gone with the Wind…[She] was among the early path-breakers to use performance celebrity for political ends.

When in the US she refused to perform in venues that did not admit minorities.  Says Jules-Rosette: “She was the first person to desegregate the Las Vegas casinos, not Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.”

Still, in 1951 she was refused admittance to some hotels and restaurants, and when she charged the Stork Club in New York City of racism when the owner would not serve her, she was placed on the  FBI watch list and lost her US citizenship rights for over a decade. In 1963 she returned with the help of Attorney General Robert Kennedy to speak at the March on Washington.  She told the crowd:

You know I have always taken the rocky path…I never took the easy one, but as I get older, and as I knew I had the power and the strength, I took that rocky path and I tried to smooth it out a little. I wanted to make it easier for you. I want you to have a chance at what I had. 

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Summing up her journey, Josephine said:  “I did take the blows [of life], but I took them with my chin up, in dignity, because I so profoundly love and respect humanity…I believe in prayer. It’s the best way we have to draw strength from heaven.”

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When not reading at Riad Star, I chatted over dinner with a lovely group of ladies on holiday from England.  All moms, they had decided to treat themselves to a girls’ getaway. For information on package deals including a Girls Getaway and other specialty escapes, go here.   I spent breakfast with a little bird by the pool, then took off with Aziz to see two other properties owned by the Woods.

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Though all guests are provided a downloadable App and cell phone to navigate the medina, after two years here and still taking wrong turns at times in the medina, I was thrilled Aziz was happy to walk me to and from the taxi as well as show me two other riads.

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Riad Cinnamon has five suites, each named for a city in Morocco: Fez, Essaouira, Chefchaouen, Casablanca, and Meknes.  Since I’ve been to all but Meknes, four of the rooms transported me to fine Morocco Moments across the country.

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After raiding my grandmother’s trunk for dress up clothes, I’d wear them out into her garden to watch butterflies playing in the flowers.   At Riad Papillon (Riad Butterly), imagination takes flight in rooms named for blooms, such as Bougainvillea, Jasmine, and Rose known to attract those feathery-winged wonders.  The riad is just off Dar El Bacha, one of my favorite shopping streets in the souks, while Star and Cinnamon are just around corners from Merdersa Ben Youseff, a medina must-see. All are also near the Spice Square and Henna Cafe.

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I enjoyed the morning and my Midnight in Marrakesh experience.  HBO’s 1991 movie, The Jordan Baker Story, winner of five Emmys and a Golden Globe now tops my list of Must-see films.  In “My Josephine Baker” her son explains in The New York Times how and why he had to write a biography of her: “When she died, something was taken from me. I suffered a loss and I wanted to know who she was, that woman I had seen in so many ways, sometimes a criminal, sometimes a saint.”

When she passed away in 1975, no doubt there were mixed opinions of her because she was– and her critics are– after all, human.  Her legacy lives on in Riad Star in the Red City where others find rest and shelter and at the Henna Cafe that promotes appreciation of diversity, cross-cultural communication, and understanding.  Though Josephine left school to work as a child, she later learned French, Russian, and Italian, an inspiration to language learners everywhere.

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Thank you to Riad Star for the hospitality.  As always, the opinions here are my own.

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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My Cup Runneth Over

“Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”–Howard Thurman

The most creative people I know seem to be defined by vision, passion, sensitivity, and need—specifically the urgency to manage and express the chaos without and within.  Some sneer at the “starving artist.” The paradox is that no matter how much money one makes, a true artist must continue to starve–to thirst and hunger for truth and love– with abandon.  Likewise, no matter how little one earns, life is rich– in its intensity, diversity, and complexity.  I decided in 2009 to finally blog about the wealth of  joys I’ve found through the arts, travel, my family, friends, and faith.

I’ve been writing for awhile.  I first thought writing would kill three birds—maybe even a whole flock– with one stone.   First, it would provide income–for travel, for Lancome eye cream, for groceries.

Second, it would provide therapy as I released the stuff ricocheting in my head, eliminating the need for Wellbutrin.  I concur with my favorite Bad Boy Byron who said: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”  Writing would uncover my usually stifled rebel yells and free my muddled, melancholy musings.

Third, writing would help me see where I’m going and help me remember where I’ve been.  With writing I could comfort others with the comfort I’ve been given.

When I was a little girl in Kentucky, the Mother of All Field Trips was going to Mammoth Cave.  While I was told not to fear the Natural Wonder, I wasn’t all that excited about going deep into the black unknown, feeling my way down damp, winding paths. (This was before Pan’s Labyrinth or I might have seen it as quite the adventure.)  The tour guide seemed so calm.  She had a light to guide us but no map.  She had obviously been in that cave before—many times–and was so familiar with it she could  have led us through that vast cavern even if the batteries in her flashlight died.

The only good I can make of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to have gone into some terrible darkness but emerged again into the light.   I’ve survived the death of two unborn children and of two marriages—my parents’ and my own.  I’ve survived the death of a father and then a grandmother who was my mentor and muse.  I’m still surviving the life of a single mother and a woman dating over 40.

Though I have survived great losses, I rarely emerged from the black by way of a blowtorch or floodlight.  God usually just gave me a candle—one that flickered—and He whispered He wouldn’t let go of my hand even if the flame went out.  I still grope but know He’s there.  Even if I can’t feel his fingers interlocked with mine.  Even if I can’t feel his hand at all and seem to wander in the dark for days…or weeks….or years.   I write to share my cave experiences—those I’ve emerged from blinking in the light as well as those I’m still mining through—looking for something of value as I wait and work and wait for release.

Some say we read to know we’re not alone.  We write for the same reason—especially when we’re gut honest and still raw.  I write of the familiar and lonely—like playing Santa solo for twelve years as I placed gifts under the tree.  Or of the frustrating and embarrassing–like when I didn’t know how to tie my son’s first real necktie.  While I cried, cursing my ineptness as a parent, he emerged from his bedroom with a perfectly tied knot.  Thank God for youtube.

But mostly I write of the joy I’m finding on the path not taken—that place I landed when derailed from the life I imagined, the L.L. Bean or Southern Living picture-perfect family I so desperately wanted.   Truly God has made “all things work together for good,” and He is still conforming me to the likeness of His son despite the fact that in the words of one of my favorite hymns, I am weak and “prone to wander.”  He never gives up on me.

And so I write… of playing volleyball with Italian friends in a pool at midnight, of walking through a fishing village in Ireland, and of leaving Montmartre with my daughter, all lit by the same gigantic moon. I write of riding The Hulk with my son at Universal Studios—teeth clinched, tears squeezed out the corners of our eyes as we held on for dear life…literally…under a hot July sun.  I write of feeling alive and blessed—even when the virtual mob of Guitar Hero World Tour shuts me down because my kids, though unhappy,  don’t kick me out of the band.

I write about the absurd—trying to find a social scene somewhere between the Senior Citizens Center and the haunts of hot pants herds.  And then finding it.

2008 was full of surprises, so I write…
Of a new passion that left me addicted…but never so free.  As sleep-deprived as when I nursed infants…but never so fully awake.  Though my old friends say I’m MIA, I no longer feel invisible.  I’m immersed in a foreign culture…but I’m so completely at home.  Maybe because I’m NOT  one of the twenty million American women sitting on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars. Instead I’m dancing under them.  With friends from Colombia, Chile, Dominican Republic, France, India, Peru, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, and Syria. In Nashville.

Of the closest of friendships between a conservative suburb/girly girl/ teacher/soccer mom and a liberal urban/athletic/ folk singer/dog rescuer.  (Sure to come in 2009 is the continuing salsa saga of two Renaissance women with gypsy souls whose quest to become Dancing Queens often turns Monty Python.)

Of a baby girl whose finishing her last year of high school and moving to college made her mom very sad.

Of her brother whose getting his permit and doing well his first year of high school made his mom very happy.

And, no surprise, she’s proud of them both.

I look ahead in 2009 and look forward to fun with my mom on her first trip to Europe.  Wish my sister were going.  She’s been listening to me ramble since we were kids.  Oh, and Christmas Eve rocked!

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