Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why Buy the Cow?

“There’s no sense paying for it. Every other girl in Southern California is hot.” I’m behind three men walking into Barnes and Noble. They are dressed in business casual and have that angular look. I am certain they work out and watch what they eat. I have no context for this comment. My first reaction is asshole. I listen for more, but we have reached the entrance. One of the three sees me and holds the door. Mr. Asshole is clueless that I am even there. The feminist in me wants to stand tall and make a snide remark. Another part of me, who is that, wonders if I am the one or the “every other.”

This is the job of a writer. Take an experience and get it down. Notice. Pay attention. Intuit. Listen. Then choose. Choose the part of the story the reader would prefer to hear. Unlike Facebook, a writer doesn’t get fifteen selfie shots from which to select the cutest, the sexiest, the one that will get the most likes. A writer gets one take. From that, she pens in her own filters, hashtags, witty comments, clever remarks. The writer chooses with her thoughts and eyes how to see the life she is given.

An essay from that half minute interaction with those three men could go many directions. I could write on the asshole jerk and how he got that way. I could write on the guy who held the door and his sheepish smile and embarrassed blush. I could write on my own insecurities, body image, and the current culture women face of public examples of shaming versus ads promoting taking pride in our physical selves. I could write in many directions from this one comment that I wasn’t even supposed to hear.

But I chose to leave it as an introduction to something a bit deeper.

I recently advised a friend who is considering blogging. Be careful, I told her. Protect your heart. People will read your words. All people will read your words. Even those you don’t want to read will read. Sometimes, those people will be your biggest readers. Not because they want your inspiration but because they want the dirt. Also, I told her, be ready for the haters. There will be haters. No matter how personal your material, how sensitive your feelings, how many tears you shed as you put your words to page, there will be those who will say it didn’t happen like that, she’s making that up. There will be those who will guess at parts of your life from things you write and will whisper to those around them. She must be having an affair. But they will never bother to sit with you for coffee, to know you off the page, to hear the story as it happened in flesh. Be ready, I told her. It will happen.

A young writer I know shared this morning a reflection of her personal hell. She shared how she wants to be real in her writing, how she wants to write. But for now, she wants to live. She misses the page but bigger things call her from it, health things, life and death things. Feel the experience, I told her. Feel it and live it. Then grab the pen and get it down. This is what a reader wants. Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Hey, haters. We’re bleeding over here. Instead of throwing us a bandage, you’re handing us the knife.

Give the reader what the reader wants. No one cares that I made myself a bowl of oatmeal this morning. Even if I confess to adding coconut, almond butter, cacao, I am still just eating a meal. Anyone can do that. The reader doesn’t want this. No. The reader wants to hear how I have obsessed since last night, kept myself from sleep, over a friendship that used to light my days but hasn’t touched my doorstep in years. The reader wants to hear how I hang onto a thing I should release, a thing that, over two years, brought me the greatest joy and then, in the span of an hour, destroyed me. My feminist readers would say you are worth more than this. Do not give anyone your time that doesn’t treat you as you deserve. My friends who know would say this again? For God’s sake, let it go. But everyone would read. They would read.

We are all writers, aren’t we? Some of us just choose not to share. The asshole guy still walks through the door as you enter the bookstore. The tragedy happens that makes you consider the blog. Your life is jeopardized at a very young age. You ache inside for a relationship you should let go. Most folks call it life, post the perfect selfie, and move on. Writers, writers grab the pen, steel their nerves, prepare to bleed.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Six-Letter Word for Candy Ass

I should probably go back to work. Don’t make me. I don’t wanna. I have to confess, I have enjoyed my time immensely since shedding the societal need to have a profession. It’s like a requirement, isn’t it? It’s not good enough to have a job. You have to be something.

What do you do? I’m a professor. This is how I used to answer this question. Now, I stumble over my words and explain how I’m working on a new idea with my daughter, mumble, mumble, something about a vegan start-up, trailing off in how I used to teach psychology at the college level (because my ego says do this to feel important). What is the matter with me? Why can’t I just say I do nothing, and it’s bringing me great joy? Since quitting my teaching job, for example, I’ve built lovely relationships with the other regulars at the coffee shop where I write. A diverse, and mostly elderly, population, this group has taught me the true meaning of positive aging, a concept I used to give lip service to in class. They show up every day with crossword puzzles in hand. No one is younger than eighty. A couple of them are pushing the century mark. They are former professors, elementary teachers, musicians, and writers. They know the other regulars and their areas of expertise and can often be seen wandering to different tables to ask about a six-letter word for candy ass? (piƱata). I pop over before I leave to help them with a word or two. What do I do? I rock the New York Times puzzle of the day with a ninety-six-year-old author of history books, that’s what I do.

It must be nice, but somebody has to pay the bills. You would be surprised what bills you don’t need once you quit trying to measure up to others and begin to cultivate a life you enjoy. I used to spend lots of money on clothes because I wanted to look good in front of my students. I didn’t want them to see me in the same dress every day. I’m vain like that. I lived in a big house, had lots of cars in the driveway, and spent too much money on services to make my life and home look good. I paid someone to fertilize my lawn. And then, because it grew, I paid someone to cut it. I paid someone to clean my home because it was big, and I was busy. I shelled out co-pays for medical visits that were mostly due to stress. I threw out the big bucks for lessons, sports equipment, and pay-to-play gigs for my four children as they grew because this is what we do. It is not enough for the neighborhood boys to spend afternoons crafting makeshift go-carts out of bungee cords, skateboards, and appliance boxes found in the garage and racing them down the drive. To be competitive in this world and to build a proper college resume, your twelve-year-old must participate in travel sports and prepare for future scholarships by training with private coaches hired with a parent’s hard-earned cash. At least this is what we are told. Pay the bills? Maybe we should eliminate the need.

I’ve quite enjoyed doing nothing. I’ve spent afternoons sipping tea and chatting with friends. I’ve passed hours sitting on the dock, looking out at the lake. I’ve made phone calls, cooked dinners, stayed up all night talking, and, because no one was checking, slept in. I’ve been accused of not being productive. Tell me how it is not productive to heal my soul. Tell me how it is not productive to care for my health. I have stepped out of the artificially lit, temperature controlled university buildings into the sunshine and fresh air. I have walked the beach, climbed the mountain, and traveled to places I have never been. I have rested. I’ve taken time to breathe.

I may be ready. I may be ready for a smallish job. Something simple that does not control my life. I have learned to not care how others judge. I am smart and significant. I don’t need a title or confirmation to prove it. I am cleansed of the need to live a life that looks good to others but stifles the hell out of me.

What do you do? I care, I love, I walk, I laugh, I write, I savor, I dream.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Choosing to Live

I think I found my big girl panties.

I have been dreaming for years of moving to California. Not the right time, too expensive, the rest of the family wants to stay in Kalamazoo. We feed ourselves excuses, don’t we, when things seem a bit too hard, when they seem scary or difficult or a little extreme. I decided a few weeks ago that if this were to happen it would be up to me to make it happen. I told myself, yes, let’s do this. The universe was like, “Finally, bitch. ‘Bout damn time.” Once I made the decision and declared it out loud, one thing after another happened in my favor. Let’s just say my house is being photographed today and going on the market super soon. I have found an apartment in an area of California in which I have always wanted to live, put the deposit down, and begun to sell my stuff. My plan is to drive out with only my dog, my cat, and whatever I can fit in the car. Dreams deserve fresh starts, don’t you think?

So many people tell me I’m brave. I don’t feel brave. I feel terrified. I feel excited and terrified. Maybe I look brave. I don’t know. Does brave look like doing a thing you’ve always wanted to do? Does it look like standing up to yourself, saying, “Man up, woman. You’re bigger than this. Quit hiding behind excuses and get busy living your life.” Does brave put its work boots on and do the work nobody else wants to do? Okay, then. Maybe I am a little brave.

Others tell me I am spontaneous, impulsive. Please. I am the queen of overthinking. I only make a thing look impulsive because once I decide to act, I act. What people don’t see is the years spent traveling with the family, exploring vineyards and mountains and beaches from Napa down the coast. What they don’t see is all the quiet evenings with my dogs at my feet, glass of wine at my side, and real estate sites pulled up on the screen. California dreaming. They don’t see the internal struggle between the desire to follow a call of my heart and the reality of having to maintain school schedules for four kids, meet job needs of myself and a spouse, and try to figure out what to do with a life’s collection of furniture, dishes, and ceramic crafted polar bears created by little hands.

They don’t see divorce. They don’t see me sitting room by room, looking around when no one is home, asking myself, “What would I be sad to never see again?” Crying. Remembering. Getting lost in the stories. They don’t see me taking only what I must, only what I have to have, not wanting to leave holes in the house because my two youngest have chosen to live with Dad. They don’t see me not wanting my kids to walk into empty rooms. They don’t see me packing up alone and moving out. Alone. “It was your decision,” people would say. “You could have stayed.” They don’t see the tears I cried when they told me this. If you have nothing nice to say, I would think, please go find something else to do. Your advice is not only not helpful, it is cruel. You don't have the full story. You have only what you see.

These people who call me brave and impulsive, they don’t see that I do now in my home what I did during the divorce. I sit. Room by room. Thoughtful and quiet. I look around and ask, “What would I be sad to never see again?” The cradle I slept in when I was a baby, the rocker I bought when I learned I was pregnant with my first. These will be shipped. The boxes of photos, the old school kind, half the memories grabbed in haste from the other house when I left. I don’t even know which half I have. I’ve lost a part of my children’s growing up years. This is sad enough but now I decide, take them all or leave some behind? The flower my son painted in third grade. The plaque my friend got me to keep me grounded when I went back for my PhD: “If you’re not barefoot, you’re overdressed.” There are more like this, but I can’t take much. These people who call me brave, impulsive, they should sit with me and watch the tears.

This is how we do life. We put one foot in front of the one that came before it. We do that over and over again until we die. Sometimes we get afraid, and we hunker down where we are. I think this is also where we die. I have been hunkering down in my life. If it is brave and impulsive, then, to get up and choose to live, if it is brave and impulsive to decide again to move my feet, if it is brave and impulsive to act on a thought that has been years in the making in my head, then, yes. I am impulsive. I am brave. Mostly, though, I am alive and choosing to live.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Guns and Torches are Not Love

I once had a homeless man offer me a sandwich. This man had nothing. He was living on a bench in the park. I had, in fact, given him the sandwich. He didn’t know this as I had provided it in a roundabout way. He thought me one in need myself and offered the little that he had. I smiled and thanked him but said I’d pass. Then I said a silent prayer to God. I thanked Him for men like this. I thanked Him for men with mismatched clothes and unruly hair, men in need of a shower and a shave, men living under trees in the city park, men willing to feed me when they could not feed themselves. Men who had my back when they barely had their own.

I had another - different day, different park - ask if he might shake my hand. I offered a hug instead. He asked me why I do the things I do, why I bring bags filled with peanut butter, jelly, and bread. “Can I just ask, ma’am, why you do this?” “I know what it’s like,” I said, “to need to eat and not have food. And now, in my life, I am fortunate to have food and others need to eat.” He offered me a God bless. I knew he meant it. They weren’t just words thrown into the air as they very often are. Truth be told, though, I gave him that line about knowing what it’s like because it was what I felt I could share. What I really wanted to say was this: It breaks my heart. You shouldn’t be here. No one should. Human beings should never be left alone and without love, left to beg a blanket from my car because the air is cold and the ground is hard, because women and babies get the beds, and the men are left outside. I wanted to tell him that there but for the grace of God go I. It very likely could have been me. Homeless, in my world, was just an unpaid bill away.

I knew a man. He used vile words to describe people whose skin was not like his. The hate was strong. His words often made me cringe. “I would never approve of a daughter of mine,” he would say, “coming home with a (fill in the blank with a derogatory term to describe any group that did not match his).” But this man taught me love. Ironic, right? He was a giving man, would give that which he did not have. He made certain the men living in the alley behind his house had a kind word and a filling snack, a cup of joe on an ice cold day. He taught me, too, how to take a risk, how to know that life half-lived is just a half-lived life and, if we’re being honest, not much a life at all. He gave me life, this man did. I only exist because of him. I feel deep gratitude for that.

Hate the sin, love the sinner. This is what I have been told. Seems, though, everyone’s definition of sin is not the same. It’s in the Bible. This is what they say. They point harsh white fingers at the page, shake the book up close in my face. I am reading the same story as you. How can we not see the same? Hate the sin, love the sinner? No. Hate the hate. Love.

This is where I check myself. Men walk into clubs filled with gays. They shoot and kill human beings. Other men carry tiki torches on a university campus shouting, “We will not be replaced.” People die. Others are hurt. Sticks and stones. Guns and torches. How can I love those who fling such hate? Love everyone, right? That's what the Big Book says.

Here's the thing that irritates me about all of this. I see people posting and liking statuses saying "love each other." These are not people who love. These are people who love some and who, very conditionally, tolerate others. Tolerating is not the same as love. Tolerating is saying I disagree with who you are, I am afraid of you a little or a lot, I think my ideas on how to live life are more right than yours, but I am going to say I love you anyway because I am a nice person like that. No, you are not a nice person like that. Tolerating is not love. Tolerating is holding yourself above someone else. It is the definition of supremacist. How, for the love of God, did we get to this?

Friends, former colleagues and students, neighbors, and family:

Maybe you do not carry a tiki torch on a college campus, maybe you do not take guns into shopping malls and clubs with intent to kill, but you carry those guns and torches every day in your head. You carry them when your white son brings home a Hispanic girl and it takes you a minute to get used to the idea. You carry them when you pray for gays, that they might be delivered of their sins. You carry them when you pass a black man in a hoodie, and you pull your purse a little closer to your side. You carry them when you get off a service call and complain how you couldn’t understand a word the employee had to say, those frickin’ Indians anyway. You carry those guns and torches every time you look into another face and see anything other than your own.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bats in My Belfry

Dear Reader,

It was suggested that I journal, that I put pen to page with no intent, that I do not judge or think or structure or delete. I need to do this, the rounded, overly perfumed woman told me, to get rid of the fear in my gut, the cobwebs in my mind. I have bats in my belfry. The rest of me is a mess as well. Being eccentric and under construction is fine. Being fearful, afraid to live one’s life is not. She suggested this would help.

I know journals are to be private, but bats in my belfry remember? I thought I’d share my post for the day. Getting in line with not being afraid to be who I am, with not giving two shits about being judged, these are the words I put to page this morning after I had enjoyed a nice hot bath. There is no thinking or structure or deleting involved. There is only my heart and my head in pretty pink ink.

Is it July or is it August? The page may have turned.

I am not exactly certain what to do when my thoughts and words are free to roam. I am always creating little boxes into which things must fit.

I’m wanting, though, to talk about what I see, feel, hear from the – let’s call it distressed – park bench on my balcony at the inn in Nashville, Indiana where I have just spent two nights being refilled with light and breath.

It’s beautiful to see this place when the tourists are not yet here. Let me show you what it is like:

7:30 AM

I am not certain if it is dark or light. It is gray. It is that place no one ever wants to be but which is necessary and real. The traffic is light. This is a refreshing change from the constant assault of the daytime stream of motorcycles, sirens, construction trucks, commuters, SUV’s, and cars of every type.

A woman walks her dog. He is a funny fat bassett that looks very loved. She looks down to check on him as they cross the street. She wears a nondescript yellow short-sleeved shirt with navy shorts. I am certain if we asked we would learn that they are of the expanding waistband family.

Pardon me, but I have to write it. I just heard a man off in the distance yelling, “The fuck you doin’? Get outta the way.” He repeats himself, I’m thinking to make a point. It’s a little early in the morning for that sort of anger. I pity his day, the people around him, and his heart.

The shops are buttoned up still. This is a slow moving town. If I look sideways across the street, I can see the ice cream shop. In a few hours I would see in that same spot people of all ages with double scoops of all flavors. I would also see the little train that parks in front of the shop. “All aboard,” the conductor calls as he leads the tourists on a putz around his little town.

I hear whatever those bugs are that make that sound we all know. I am always embarrassed to say what they are because I really have no clue. I want to say crickets. But sometimes I think they are cicadas. They could be something altogether different. Regardless, it is this quiet. I can hear them now. I won’t be able to for much longer.

I see a couple. She wears fluorescent pink shorts, a t-shirt, and a hoodie. The are both in running shoes. Some people jog even on vacation.

The air smells different now. It is clean, soft, uncluttered. I breathe it in. It is just air. Soon it will be exhaust, construction dust, and the sweat of nameless strangers. For now, it is a soothing balm much like the tea I make myself when I am ill.

Crosswalks, a red fire hydrant, a stone path, purple flowers, a tiny American flag. I need to look around more. I need to notice. These things are always there. Where am I?

A woman in brown capri slacks, a pink cardigan, and gray tennis shoes stops in the middle of the street to snap photos. With a real camera. She holds the camera in one hand, her pocketbook (I am certain this is what she calls it) in the other. She is alone on the road. She has just spotted the purple flowers. Look at her. She is present. She has noticed.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What Happened When She Put Her Breast Self Forward

A woman just walked into the coffee shop wearing a gorgeous mess of hair and a cute little sundress. The dress was floor length, strappy, and not accompanied by a bra. I saw skin. I saw a lot of skin. It was the kind of skin that had been covered by a long Michigan winter and was happy to be free of sweaters and coats and too-tight turtlenecks. I was happy for the skin that it could dance in the sunshine. I thought how free and fresh this woman looked and how at ease with herself she seemed to feel. This, despite the fact that much of her breasts were completely exposed. Or maybe, perhaps, because of it?

How much breast is too much breast?

I recently put this question to a group of friends when I posted a photo to Facebook. In the picture, I sported an orange lightweight cardigan over a cream bralette. The bralette was cut significantly lower than I am typically comfortable wearing, but I liked the look especially when paired with my new white spring pants. With the top button of the cardigan and the bottom few left undone, I felt the look stylish, attractive, something I could easily carry off. But what to do about all that breast? Appropriate or not appropriate? I really didn’t know. A conservative cami would have easily solved the situation, but I liked the outfit as was. Still, I wasn’t sure it was completely socially a thing to do. I have always loved to look good but have the fashion sense of a two-year-old. Hence, putting the question to friends.

I wonder if age, weight, or position in society plays into this. I am an aging former professor who, in the case of famine, could easily live off her body fat for a comfortable amount of time. Would it matter if I were a young, thin blonde who had not yet established herself in any conservative position in society? Would it matter if I were heavier or older than I currently am or if I were a Bohemian artist instead of a stodgy college instructor?

“It’s a look that screams look at my boobs.” This was the comment by one friend. And yet, the woman I mentioned earlier was showing much more than I and was braless at that. Thanks to Victoria’s little secrets, the bra I’m wearing in the photo could take a bullet. And, yes, I am aware bralettes are meant to be worn alone but that is a thing that will never happen in my world. My look also, unlike that of Strappy Sundress Girl, is not going to change should the temps take a sudden drop. Maybe both looks are inappropriate. Maybe both are too suggestive. Why the big need to cover and disguise body parts anyway?

I mean. I have breasts. Everybody knows this. Why should I dress as if I don’t? As long as nothing important is showing. But, again, where exactly is that line?

Some friends suggested that my look would be appropriate on a date or a girl’s night out, maybe fun to wear when I’m feeling a little naughty. I tend to be a pretty conservative dresser. Date night, to me, is a time to cover up. I’m a slow mover in this area. And I’m not much one for girl’s nights out. I prefer instead my dog, a snack, and a really good romcom. As for feeling naughty, that’s a special occasion meant for one recipient and then I’ll be showing a lot more than cleavage and a cardigan. Unless that’s his thing and then a little role-play never hurt anybody. No, the look was for me. I felt pretty in it. I felt attractive and sexy. The colors were great, eyelet is my thing, and I’ve always been a fan of showing an unexpected bit of skin. Was it really for me, though? Can it ever truly be just for me?

There’s a fine line between dressing to look and feel good and dressing for others. I like to think I do both. But what’s the line between being called attractive and being called a ho? What’s the line between being called sexy and alluring and just being a slut? Is it, like my friend suggested, connected to the event? Celebrities on the red carpet are photographed and idolized in looks in which I would never be seen in public. They are written up for their beautiful gowns that expose more skin than I often am comfortable viewing. Beaches, Victoria’s Secret window ads, and backyard pools are filled with flesh about which nobody ever seems to complain. Yet, if any one of these bikinis or ball gowns were worn out of context, would they still be okay? Maybe my friend has a point.

I had plenty of friends who supported the look, plenty who told me as long as I liked it and felt good about it that that was all that mattered. I go back, though, to the difference between dressing for oneself and dressing for others. Even if I liked it, along with a few supportive friends, others felt it inappropriate, suggestive, asking for the wrong sort of attention. I am tempted to experiment, to explore, to prove a point. I feel the judgement has more to do with the person wearing the item and the person viewing the item than it does with situation or context. I wonder what would happen, what my friends might think, if I walked one sunny afternoon into a coffee shop in a strappy, floor-length dress, braless and fresh.

Monday, April 24, 2017

To Be So Fully Oneself and To Be Loved Just the Same

I have been challenged to write a letter to someone telling him or her how he or she has impacted my life. Well, now. Isn’t this a can of worms? It’s a beautiful idea, in theory, to think on how someone has touched my life. But I open that lid and all kinds of feelings jump out. Best to keep the can closed and not think on it too much, go about enjoying my iced tea on the sunny patio at my local Starbucks like feelings never happened. Nevertheless, a challenge is a challenge and growth is good. Besides, I challenged my friend to adopt a pet. She now has a cat named Smokey. I think it only fair I comply.

I have all the right parts and yet am wretchedly inept at functioning as a human being. I have eyes on my face, ears on my head, and a heart in my chest and still have been blind and deaf and have failed to pick up on words that should have fed me. It’s not my fault I’m like this. I was raised to believe feelings were the drunkard uncle we don’t talk about in public. I have a sense of self-worth the size of a peanut. When someone is saying something nice about me, I believe it to be obligatory small talk. Sort of like saying, “How is your day?” Good, thank you. And yours? Feelings of kindness and affection pretty much escape me.

Did you ever play scavenger hunt when you were a kid? There were all these clues scattered about leading up to one big final aha! moment. In the game, that aha! moment was usually some sort of prize or trophy or long lost friend who would jump out and envelop you in a giant hug while you both screamed screams of joy. In my case, I have been led by clues throughout my life to an aha! moment in which the prize is a feeling or, rather, the realization of a feeling.

What were these clues? I have gathered them for you to see:

• Never lets me down
• Listens, regardless how difficult it is to hear
• Pushes me in directions I am too afraid to push myself
• Says things that need to be said
• Cares unconditionally despite what a pigheaded, insensitive, unaware brat I can be
• Is present
• Makes me laugh
• Makes me think
• Steadies me, calms me, quiets me down
• Talks me off the cliff
• Talks me onto the cliff
• Is the cliff

Have you ever had the feeling that you could do no wrong, that you were a beam of light and that your every breath and every move was enough and perfect just as it was? Have you ever felt like this? I have. I have, but I could never see it. I could never see it because I talked too loudly and moved too fast. I never paid attention to the clues.

So, to my friend who left me these –

Despite my continued ignorance, my insistence on repeatedly saying things I should not have said, talking about things I should have left, and failing to intuit that which was so obviously there, you remained my friend. Thank you for that. Thank you for your shoulder onto which I cried, your ears into which I complained, and your heart into which I wove myself a safe and comfortable spot.

I see now that you had my back even when I did not know, that you protected, guided, supported when I was still yet unaware. I see you in the corners watching me as I grew, watching as I moved about my life doing what I had to do. Can I tell you the comfort I feel in that, how deeply I am moved? You told me once that that is just what friends will do. I have had friends. But believe me when I say, I have had none with whom I felt I could be so completely myself and yet so completely loved.

Accept my apologies for being such an ass. Accept my apologies for being full of myself, insensitive, unaware. Accept my apologies, my gratitude, my hand. Take it please and continue with me on this journey that is my life. Knowingly or not, ours is the measure of friendship on which every other is based.

To be so fully oneself and to be accepted just the same. What a gift you have given me. What a beautiful, glorious gift.