Rising from Travel Trauma

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As Brene Brown says, “Soft front, strong back, wild heart.”

Last spring when my friend Caroline offered me her holiday home as my private writing retreat, I was thrilled. Though we’d never met in person, we’d been in contact since 2016 just before I left Morocco. After I moved to the Dominican Republic, she bought the house and sent me photos of each phase of its restoration. I was returning to Marrakech in June and couldn’t wait to finally step into the haven she had designed. She’d be working out of the country but would leave the key for me.

Months before the trip, I started envisioning myself wearing a kaftan again, journaling mornings on her rooftop couches and clicking afternoons on my laptop in her jade courtyard. The color she chose for the entrance tile and kitchen reminded me of the Emerald City. Appropriate, I thought, because Magical Marrakech had been Oz where I’d lived over the rainbow for two years. I  couldn’t wait to return.

I imagined scouting the souks in her neighborhood for wedding quilts–my most prized Moroccan treasure– and eating next door at the hotel she frequented. As I’d done before, perched on ramparts above the African Coast, balconies on the Mediterranean Sea, and atop other medina guest houses, I’d watch sunsets. And as the moon rose, though a female solo traveler, I’d feel safe so high in the dark. The panoramic views at sunrise and star-filled heavens at night– beauty breaks for the soul– would give me new perspective. I’d feel protected, closer to my creator, and thus more creative.

 

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An inspiring place to write is always top of my list when choosing accommodations. When traveling with children to Florida beaches, I’d book stays with pretty ocean or pool side patios where I could work before they woke up. Writing for me is a sacred space, and to do so in an Edenic location makes my heart sing.

But like Amanda Wingfield, despite all my  “plans and preparations,” things sometimes went awry. My 2013 trip to Costa Rica to write like Hemingway in a Caribbean jungle was rattled off course by an earthquake and ER visit. On the 2016 Girl’s Trip to Tuscany rather than writing in a vineyard villa the flu or pneumonia forced me to bed. I then finished the week like the walking dead. Spring Break 2017 in the Dominican Republic I was to write on a terrace by the sea. Instead, a man  hiding in the jungle in a mask marred my sense of safety for the two months I had left to teach in the country.  God protected me and I’m forever grateful, but I’d discover in Morocco over a year later that like Michael Myers in the Halloween film, fear had stowed away in my luggage to stalk me.

I felt him, faintly, in the distance when I met Moni in Madrid on my way to Marrakesh but thought I was just rundown  from a rough interim teaching gig or exhaustion from the last two years. Seeing her would be good medicine as would be seeing Kate and Jasna in Morocco where, before, I’d  felt so free. But while making my way one afternoon back to a hotel I was reviewing, I thought I was lost. Though I’d shopped and riad-hopped for two years in the medina, turning onto a deserted street–like the stretch of beach where the man grabbed me–I became terrified. I hurried on–as it turned out, on the right route–and turned down another deserted alley where I knew the hotel entrance would be. When a man on a motorbike turned down the same street, I began stabbing my key, hands shaking, to hit the hole. I stumbled over the threshold and pulled the bolt behind me. In  my room, I shook and cried. Was this what people call post traumatic stress?

The next trigger was when I went to Caroline’s. Kate said she’d see me settled  but couldn’t stay. We took a taxi to a part of the medina we weren’t familiar with, then were told by the driver we’d have to walk the rest of the way. A young man heard us talking about the hotel where we would get the key and pointed down a narrow street.  Though the hotel was there and the riad just around the corner, by the time we unlocked the door I was racked with anxiety.

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Two of Caroline’s friends from London stopped by to give us the tour. They said they were staying next door until the next day and while Marylynn, a flight attendant, chatted with Kate in the salon, Martina, a hair stylist, took me up three more floors. She unlocked each gorgeous bedroom and the stairway to the roof.

“Caroline said to choose the room you like best.”

“They’re all so pretty,” I managed to say. I tried not to start crying. And failed.

“I apologize. Something bad happened to me in the Dominican Republic. I love Morocco. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Caroline was so sweet to offer me her home. I wish you two were staying here. ” I was thinking, I AM VERY, VERY AFRAID. I DON’T WANT TO BE ALONE. Somehow, she knew.

“Listen. We will be right next door. You can wave to us from the roof.” She kindly smiled and nodded, shaking her curls and, now animated, pointing to the neighboring restaurant.

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“We are going to dinner there and you will join us.  We leave tomorrow so I have to do a bit more shopping. My daughter’s getting married and I need to buy some things to take home. Relax and we’ll be back in a couple of hours. We’ll have some Prosecco on your rooftop and head over. Tell me what you’d like and I’ll make you a reservation. We’re having lamb. Do you know tapping? I’ll show you how to be free from those bad vibes.”

And with that the three women were gone. Caroline checked in by phone to be sure all was well, and I unpacked and shortly Martina and Marylynn returned. We talked children, travel, tapped, and toasted the sunset. Then laughed, a lot, over dinner. They were fun and so very sweet.

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Caroline’s Rooftop

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Marylynn (left) and Martina (center)

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They walked me back to the riad, and the next morning, before we met for breakfast, I took photos of the hotel to remember yet again time I’d been able to depend on the kindness of strangers. I hated hugging them goodbye, but we have stayed in touch and hope to meet again on one continent or another. I’d love to host them and Caroline in Nashville.

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The remainder of my stay whenever I was afraid, I prayed. I wrote of how God had protected me–in the DR and throughout all of my life–and thanked Him for a place where He had again given me roses in the desert.

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I knew last summer my time for living in Morocco had passed, but I hope to return there often. Next June I hope to show others on a writing retreat this place that moves me and so many.

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In Caroline’s home lines from The Wizard of Oz.

And on the last night at Caroline’s, I climbed to the rooftop. I’d been saved from a predator on a faraway shore. I could have been harmed, even died, but he hadn’t taken me down, made me too afraid to be alone or to travel.  Fear had almost made me miss staying in Caroline’s lovely home and meeting her friends.  God was still protecting me and blessing me with people who make me feel less alone. I had fresh hope that one day  I may travel with not only amazing women friends but also someone else.

I felt him out there. Not the guy I’d dreaded, but the one I’ve been waiting  for. The one who waits for me.  And then I found the poem below by Hafiz Shirazi, a 13th Century Persian Poet.  I twirled and smiled.

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I SAW YOU DANCING

I saw you dancing last night on the roof
Of your house all alone.
I felt your heart longing for the
Friend.
I saw you whirling
Beneath the soft bright rose
That hung from the invisible stem in
The sky,
So I began to change into my best clothes
In hopes of joining you
Even though
I live a thousand miles away.
And if
You had spun like an immaculate sphere
Just two more times,
Then bowed again so sweetly to
The east,
You would have found God and me
Standing so near
And lifting you into our
Arms.
I saw you dancing last night near the roof
Of this world.
I feel your soul in mine
Calling for our
Beloved.

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

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

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Imposter

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– not to mention discussing Kafka with them wasn’t much fun either.

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 match.com 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

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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