Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The biggest fan

Just look at the face on that adorable book.
Once, I went to Boston, an hour away, to attend a writer's conference. For the first time, I would meet an agent, and pitch a novel. 
I was nervous.  
I accessorized this future memory with the most luxurious detail available. I booked a limo and a room at the Boston Harbor Hotel, which is a place one doesn't visit, but experiences, between the Molton Brown skincare products and view of the harbor alone. 
I ordered lobster and stared at the water. In twenty-four hours, I thought, I would be mulling over new information about my career, because back then, I didn't know I already had that information.  
I carried a book by Elizabeth Berg, an uber-relatable writer who seemed a little like me, but who actually seems a lot like everyone. I wondered if people would ever think that about my writing.
I brought a collection of Enrico Morricone songs played by YoYo Ma. This, I planned, would be the soundtrack for my experience if down the road, I forgot the way this felt, to chase a dream that probably wouldn't come true, but, oh my God, might. 

And there we sat, me and next-me, eating lobster and looking at the harbor. Not the me helping kids into college, or encouraging a husband through a rough patch in his business, or running a household, or being a good sister or friend or daughter or community volunteer. 

The afternoon darkened over the water and I began to think about giving up. Next-me would be too hard. But how hard? I was afraid. But I was euphoric. I was going to lose something in the morning. But I was going to gain something in the morning, too. The something was hope.

Today, I'm a few years and two books and many articles away from that weekend at the Boston Harbor when I was introduced to the two people who encouraged me to stay in the game: the agent who requested a full manuscript, and next-me, my often fickle, but honest and lifelong fan who has been at my side every day of my writing career, saying if you quit, you won't know how it turned out.   
In May, I am planning to go back to that conference with another book to pitch. I'll meet an agent who might request a full manuscript. I'll send it and maybe I won't get a response. Maybe I will. I don't know. What matters is that I will not be figuring it out, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, on my own. 
I'll be in the company of my biggest fan.  We're looking forward to it. 
Be that. Be your own fan. Be next-you. 
Never give up.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

First baby, first a lot of things

Courtney Elizabeth Bonifant Watson Dollface,
Birthday girl of my heart
When Courtney Elizabeth Bonifant Watson Dollface was born thirty years ago, after a labor that was several years longer than I'd expected, I had two thoughts other than, "Wow, they weren't kidding about how much THAT hurts."

The first was that life as I'd known it now seemed behind me, a large room I'd exited in which the shades had been mostly, but not completely raised. Life had been a place I'd learned to navigate with my own welfare at the center of my travels.

But this – this new life was wide, brilliant and brighter. Anything was possible in this travel and my own welfare stepped right up and said, "I'm all set, give her my place." 

The other came later on when I realized I believed in God after all. I had no formal take on God, I wasn't feeling the robe and beard and walking stick kind of God, I had to make God up in my head. But I propped my tiny baby against my knees, stared into her drifty, navy blue eyes, and promised her everything in my power to protect her. From my heart, slipped a word aimed at something bigger than both of us, which was, "Please." 

There was no scary roar, the walls didn't shake, it wasn't like when Endora was mad at Darrin. Nor was it like the time I put my hands together as a child, closed my eyes and asked God to turn me into a cat for a day. God didn't respond with "Please what?" My God just went straight to the business of quid pro quo: 

Every minute of my life, I would love this being with my own, and in turn, I would find answers to questions in my head of how and what and what-if inside that big, brand new love in my heart.

Today, my tiny Dollface is thirty. I have asked my God more times than I can count to help me trust that she is safe when she's far away, that she's happy when I can't consult her eyes for proof, that she'll be strong in times of conflict, and that she'll know each minute of every day that she is loved for the brilliant, bright being that she is.

"Noted," says my God when I ask, because my God remembers that day like I do, when we all met.

Happy Birthday, my girl.

You are loved like you read about.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Fifteen things I observed in 2015

This is not a picture of Gus. It
is the last sunrise of 2015.
Knowing a writer is like hugging a pickpocket, someone once said.

I grew rich in 2015.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time watching people and thinking about what they do and, of course, eavesdropping in restaurants. If you've read this blog before, you know about my field trips to the supermarket, where connections between people are always on sale.

In 2015, I walked into a bar where my husband and I go for dinner now and then. A regular, about fifty and a dead ringer for Neil Young, squinted at me for several moments before he pointed at me with his glass. "I think I know you," he said. "You a townie?" I said, "Define townie." He slid a chair up, and in a half hour, we were arguing over which was the best Rolling Stones song ever.    

In 2015, I had a conversation with a man on a plane that started when he unplugged from his iPod, folded his arms, stared out the window for several minutes, then looked at me and said, "So what takes you to Cleveland?" Before the plane landed, I knew where he'd spent childhood summers, the siblings he was closest to, and the massive struggle each were facing as the first Christmas since his mother's recent and sudden death loomed.  "We got together last night to decide who would make her favorite dishes," he said. "It was pretty rough."

In 2015, I published two of the most honest essays I'm capable of. In one case, the piece connected me to others on an emotional level that astounded me. It brought multiple comments of appreciation and expressions of deep love. In another, I hit a nerve in readers who were not inspired, but eager to be vicious. One took a swing and the rest piled on.

Gentle essayist that I try to be, I was suddenly Piggy in Lord of the Flies.

But I learned something I will never forget. People, all people, will find and cluster around those who identify with their deepest feelings, the good, bad and ugly. They may be too blinded by their relief at belonging to know or care how they affect others. But if they can belong, they will actually take part in killing Piggy.

On the surface, we want to be like some, and try hard to be as different as possible from others. But when people are honest, and when they are asked with sincerity, and when they know their deepest feelings won't be held against them, it is stunning to realize that we crave commonality enough to find it in a conversation with a stranger.

Connection is that important.

For some, happiness is elusive and for others, impossible. I believe however, that for most, happiness is within reach. But it's not free. It takes real connection with another that is void of judgement, and heavy with truth and acceptance and curiosity about what is in the heart and mind of someone else. It takes trust, something I believe people hold onto like their biggest, private secret.

With that, I give you my unscientific, but honest impressions of how we get along, how we don't, and how we should, in 2016.

1. We need to recognize when someone's reaching out to us and respond. We're more important to people than we realize.

2. People are as loving as they feel loved. Judgmental, critical people show how little love exists in their own lives, and it goes the other way; loved, happier people are more open and accepting and tend to forgive their own mistakes more easily.

3. We should think about our words and why we must say them, but we should think hard about how another will hear them, which may not be at all the way we intended.

4. Solutions to other people's problems that seem obvious to us may not be easy, or even possible for them to carry out. Rarely are we the experts on another's true life that we think we are.

5. If there's a right thing to do, and for some reason we won't, our rationale will not look the same way, years from now. Even if it takes a long time, people should do the right thing. Even if it's complicated. Even if it hurts.

6. Pessimists are generally unhappy people, but they weren't born that way. It only takes a little heartbreak for people to believe that bad things are inevitable and good things are accidental. We should feel for them. We won't catch anything.

7. When we wrong someone unintentionally, and we've said we're sorry, and tried to show that we really are, and they still wish to hold it against us, it's time to realize they can't forgive because they don't want to. Sometimes, apology only moves one of us closer to the middle. 

8. It is not loving someone to tolerate who they are. Loving someone means wanting them to be nothing less than their truest, real self and changing your ideas of them accordingly.

9. We should not share personal, private things about our kids, and we should never tell people what they make. 

10. Some people who are stupid about what to say, would die before they'd hurt you on purpose.

11. We speak in headlines too often. We should have real points of view that mean something to us and let other people think the way they must.

12. If others insist on seeing us as we were, and not as we are, give them time.  You didn't change overnight.

THIS is a picture of Gus.
13. Those moments when you are doing something and think you should be doing something else are your mind's way of telling you it needs to play.

14. Don't lie to people who know who you really are and love you.  They'll know you're doing it, and they won't say so.

15. And finally, after a year of field trips to stores and banks and restaurants and doctor's offices, after months of observing people – all people – who are most real when they don't know someone is watching, I offer two essential rules to getting along with others:

First, let people come out before you go in. And second, don't block the intersection.

In 2016, be honest, be kind and may your happiest connections grow stronger.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Love and kindness at life school

Some of the subjects offered at life school
I saw a couple the other day at the supermarket, where I attend life school. 

They were mid-late seventies, although she seemed younger. He wore a cap imprinted with USAF, and he was in a wheelchair. She was dressed simply in a long skirt and sweater. Her hair, which she clipped in the back, was mostly gray with a little blonde. While he wheeled the chair along, she kept her fingers loosely closed around a handle.

They traveled the aisles, stopping when she spotted an item that she wanted to show him. They chatted about dinner.

"Oh, that would be good with..."
"You know, later this week we could have it with..."
"Maybe you could make  that recipe where..."

And so on. 

I'm assuming they were long-married and that this routine was a regular one, spending time at the store, engaged in planning a dinner they would go home and make together.

They were unaware of others unless she needed to wheel him out of someone's way.  
They talked about company they were expecting.  
They shared a story about someone they'd seen last week. 
They commented on the crowd today.

She laughed when he made jokes. He nodded when she spoke, "Uh-huh, that's true." She asked his opinion, "How about," or, "what do you think of..."

I imagined them in their youth. Maybe he was the more outgoing, while she was possibly the quiet one. Maybe he hung around the kitchen while she made dinner, telling stories of his day, and maybe she shared funny moments with their kids. Maybe they engaged in the self-congratulatory boasting that we all do in our own intimate company, when we agree that we are probably the most blessed people on the planet for all we have, all we've done together, and maybe, all we've survived.

I know that life, age, struggle, can weigh people down until it becomes something to deal with, like the days themselves. Conversations, expressions of our minds and hearts, can stall for the effort of launching them. Smiles can creep away, and faces can freeze in a state of half-interest and half-disappointment.  I see it all the time, and so do you.

But if the USAF man struggled to live in and out of that wheelchair, he wasn't bitter in his companion's company.  If his companion was tired, she was gentle, still, in his. One could see, that each looked forward to whatever ritual was in the plans for later, if only the preparation and sharing of dinner. 

It's what we all need, a later.

In line, checking out, she looked around at the day's crowd. The tender expression changed to a watchful one, a bit guarded, slightly puzzled.  But when her companion spoke to her, back it came, the other face, lines relaxed, eyes soft, her smile like a pretty day.  

Love and kindness.

It's what's for dinner, at life school.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A chat with IRS Agent Raselle. (Not his real name. Not his real job.)

I'm pretty sure Agent Raselle does not work here,
where they have 800 numbers.
Last night, I came home to a missed call and this message on my phone:

“This is the Internal Revenue Service calling with a final notification that a lawsuit has been filed against you. Call this number to confirm that you have received this message.”

My problem isn't that I sometimes answer the phone to a number that's suspicious. Everyone does that.  My problem is that if I'm unprepared, I can't play with them, and that is disappointing.   

But this message came with a number. So, I called back and sure enough, the person answered, "Internal Revenue Service."

"Is this really the IRS?" I asked.
"Yes, that's correct."
"I understand I'm being sued by you."
"What is your name?"
"What is your name?"
"Raselle," he said, (I'm guessing at the spelling).
"What is your name?"
"Hold on. You're really with the IRS, right?"
"That is correct. What is your name?"
"Wait, why are you calling me from a cell phone, Raselle? I think the IRS has an 800 number."
"You were called to settle a lawsuit."
"I don't recall being notified about a lawsuit. And yet it said final notification. Have you already called me from your cell phone?"
"I need to verify information, before I can give you details about the lawsuit."
"And you're the IRS person to talk to, right? You're not going to just put me on hold?"
"That is correct."
"Okay, go ahead."
"Is this (address) correct for you?"
"No, that's not correct."
"What is your address and zip code?"
"I can't give you that, Raselle."
"This is a serious matter and you have been contacted already."
"No I haven't."
"Yes you were."
"No I haven't."
"Yes you were. You received two letters."
"No I didn't."
"Yes you did."
"No I didn't."
"Well, that's your problem."
"Okay,Raselle. I don't think the IRS speaks to people that way."
 A call beeped in and I held the phone out. It was my son.
"Raselle, I have to go."
"You will not be notified again."
"Well, that's also my problem."
I hung up on him, and talked to my son about his ugly-sweater party.

I know I shouldn't have even returned the call. My number was obviously a tick on the scammer wheel of fortune and calling back is how victims set themselves up for continued harassment.

So, nobody try that at home.  

But I couldn't help myself. Scammers (not to be confused with telemarketers who don't prey on the elderly), are like mosquitoes and black flies. They are aggressive, they are rude, they are relentless. They'll come at you even if you've been told how to protect yourself and eventually, you'll answer the phone without checking the number and they'll scare you into listening to them. 

Or, if agent Raselle has his way, you'll see the unfamiliar number and return the call anyway because it could be a child or friend or an emergency. And then, agent Raselle will offer you a way out of the lawsuit being filed against you in exchange for your debit card number, which agent Raselle knows, some people will offer to avoid so much as a dirty look from the Internal Revenue Service. 

If that call does come, hang up and do what they suggest you do over at the real IRS, where they have 800 numbers:

If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and asking for money, here’s what you should do:

If you know you don’t owe taxes or have no reason to believe that you do, report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 1.800.366.4484 or at www.tigta.gov

You can file a complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant; choose "Other” and then “Imposter Scams.” If the complaint involves someone impersonating the IRS, include the words “IRS Telephone Scam” in the notes.

June, 2015

Or, if you get that call, and you're in need of amusement, you can let your fake agent know that before you answer any of their questions, you'd like them to answer a few of yours.

I think that's only fair. 


Thursday, November 19, 2015

In the cards

About ten years ago, when our daughter Courtney was attending the Aspen Music Festival, I flew out to see her perform.  I met Jordan Allen, a cellist Courtney had met in college. 

I am generally shy, it takes time for me to engage on deep personal levels with people I don't know well. But Jordan liked that I was a writer. His enthusiasm to get acquainted and trade artist stories was uncontainable. It took fewer than five minutes to hear about things which might have taken someone else years and possibly as many drinks to disclose. I loved this open, guileless young man immediately.

After Aspen ended, Jordan, who called me Movie Mommy, shared regular updates over the phone - the men in his life he hoped would make him happy, and the ones who would not.

Once, during a bleak stretch, Jordan asked me how anyone could ever know if real love, marriage and children were even in the cards for them. That conversation, more than any other, stayed with me. The only answer I could offer, as unhelpful as it was true, was time. 

Jordan joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra and got his life gig underway. His updates, less frequent but longer, kept me up to speed for a while.

A year passed, and then two, when I saw on Facebook that Jordan had become engaged.

I had no words that could convey my joy for him. And yet, later that week, didn't Jordan email me and ask me to write the reading for his wedding? Yes, he did.

And, so, with Jordan's permission, I'm posting my little contribution to the celebration of hard-earned love, which, yes, it turns out, is in those cards. 

For Jordan and Kyle
Married 10/24/2015

When real love speaks 

Inside our open hearts is a resting place, for what may be love.
Indeed, it travels in, what may be love.
It lingers there, haunting hopes, occupying dreams, igniting imagination.

Open hearts welcome what may be love.
It's always wanted,
There's always a place for it.

But when it leaves, what may be love leaves the heart as it was found
A work of art begging for detail.
A circle longing to close.
As empty as it is full.

And so, the open heart waits
and says...


Until eventually, real love watches
and says...


It doesn't look like anything else, real love.
It doesn't drift into that open heart and out again.
It doesn't thrive beyond your grasp.
It can only live in your open heart.
You aren't afraid of it.
You can't be.

Real love only answers the ready voices which beckon it.
It rewards those who coax it into the light.
It moves into the hearts which connect two people
and says...

I'm here.

Real love is one end and the other both, which close the circle
It makes you unable to recall the feeling before you were found
It defies your ability to describe it.
It is all you feel, now.
It is all you need to feel to do everything.

Occasionally, you will remember
when what wasn't love
 left you.

You may pray.

And real love will watch
and surround you
and say...

I'm staying

Monday, November 2, 2015

Grow Down

Moments after students arrive on college campuses everywhere, parents begin receiving alerts in their email inboxes that go like this:

"Nothing fights homesickness the way a thoughtful care package like THIS will from Mom and Dad." 

Or, "Don't let your college student be the only one who doesn't receive one of THESE fabulous care packages." 

Or, "Dial down the stress in your college student's day with one of THESE thoughtful care packages."

Thoughtful care packages are pictured ranging from the modest (cocoa packets and granola bars) to the extravagant: organic brain-boosters, gluten-free fruit and nut assortments,travel mugs, popcorn, energy bars, clothing, K-cups, trail mix, etc.

There is always an 800 number. There is always a deadline. There is always an extended deadline.

And what do you mean, your college student doesn't have a Keurig?

Get him one.

For God's sake. 

It's part of being a grown up to be thoughtful. It's part of being a parent to twitch with the feeling that every parent is caring more thoughtfully for their faraway student than you are.

In related news, the other day, I received a greeting card from my friend, Jane. On the front, it said:  "Don't grow up, it's a trap."  I like this message so much, I took everything off the refrigerator door and placed it there by itself.

In this spirit, and because Halloween was approaching, and because I miss our grown-up children most in the holiday months,  I hung up my writing for a day last week and spent most of it assembling a gift box for our college person and his housemates. 

They're veterans, all seniors. They aren't especially homesick, they aren't inordinately stressed. They're just young guys who have a growing awareness of the real world that will come with the spring, and a 24/7 appetite for fun - still. 

There was nothing grown-up about this box; the only healthy thing I sent was a surprise.

I lined it with a vinyl Halloween tablecloth covered with ghosts, skeletons and the word "boo." Inside I placed three dozen just-baked cookies, glow-in-the-dark wands with skeleton heads, several plastic spiders, and a gigantic bag of mini candy bars.

Then I went to Dunkin Donuts and bought four gift cards. Then I went to a card store and bought the most juvenile Halloween cards I could find, with pictures of cats, and pumpkins and witches on the outside and phrases like "Have a frightfully Happy Halloween" on the inside. I slipped a gift card into each one and taped a plastic spider to the outside envelope. I tucked these in last.

I brought it to the UPS store and filled out an address label.

"So, contents?" asked the clerk, who has sent things from me to this address before.
"Halloween items," I said.
"So, like candy and stuff?"
"Exactly. And some toys, too."
"That's awesome," she smiled.

I sent it off and drove home picturing these twenty-something guys as they unwrapped the box, laughed at the spider cards, ate the cookies and peeked at their surprise coffee cards.

"This. Is. Awesome," someone would say.

But, I'm pretty sure my experience was Way. More. Awesome. 

And, I'm pretty sure I will find new ways to grow down and find other grown up people to take with me.