Putting your voice in the room

I just returned from Orlando and the #BlogHer17 conference. I’d like to say I am a mover and shaker who has accumulated thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter, but the truth is I got an Instagram account just before going, a handful of posts to my name and a Twitter following of under 300; a woefully underachieving blogger compared to my colleagues, most of them half my age.

I am a writer. And the fine judges of the Voices of The Year submissions deemed me a good enough writer to be selected for my piece, Two Roofs One Home. So even though I was just returning from Europe 48 hours earlier, I got on a red-eye and flew to Orlando to stand among my fellow honorees.

It was awesome. They even put our words on easels in the lobby, larger than life. I was humbled by the honor.

Having been to women’s conferences in the past, I knew somewhat what to expect – lots of chatter, excitement, and primping while absorbing all the information and inspiration the keynotes provided. Part learning environment, part estrogen fest, I remembered fondly the eWomen Network conferences of years past. Only this one was different, this one encompassed a wide variety of influential women, with half of them (at least) being millennials. Each one of us at a different stage in our blogging careers, some seasoned with thousands of followers, some just sticking their toe in the water, wanting to begin putting their voice in the room.

One woman I met stepped timidly to the mic and said she was afraid to put her voice out there. She is accomplished in her career and has much to say about what she reads online. She wants to set some things straight. We all offered her support and I spoke with her afterward about helping her get started. She introduced me to her beautiful daughter and we spent the next few hours hanging out together. This is what makes these events so worthwhile. Connection with incredible women who you know you will stay in touch with. I know she will reach many with her wisdom.

All this would not have happened had I not had my piece rejected first by the New York Times Modern Love column. After working long and hard on it I decided I would submit it to other places, one being the BlogHer VOTY. You never know what can happen when you put yourself out there.

So do it. Take a risk and put your voice in the room, like Elizabeth did, like I did. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. Be willing to be rejected and keep telling your truth. Amazing things can happen.

 

 

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My journey to Lucca is woven with love

piazza.jpgWhen my great-grandmother Zelinda was born in the Tuscan walled city of Lucca, Italy in the later part of the 19th century, I’m sure she never imagined that her youngest daughter Bruna’s granddaughter would travel from America to the place of her birth and fall in love with it.

As I walk the streets of this ancient city I feel a deep gnosis of belonging and a connection to my Nonna. This is my second visit in three years, and the return is quite sweet. The winding cobblestone streets feel familiar under my feet as Mark and I stroll past churches that have stood for centuries, and along narrow thoroughfares lined with shops filled with Italian leather and wine. Our favorite shopkeeper, Vladimiro, has moved his shop to a piazza in the center of the city. We found it easily, and upon arrival his face lit up as he greeted us, remembering the couple from San Francisco.

vladamir-e1496740514210.jpg“Where’s your hair?” he said to Mark, whose trademark gray locks were tucked in a ponytail to combat the humidity. They embraced with large smiles and then he turned his attention to me offering the customary European kiss on each cheek. Swoon. Vladimir reminds me a lot of Robert Downey, Jr. except with an Italian accent. Dio mio.

His shop is Zazzi, a small boutique that makes handwoven scarves on a loom that sits in the center. It is as charming as he is. The walls are lined with the most magnificent display of the finest scarves I’ve zazziever seen, each draped over a clear loop and assorted by color. As a scarf whore, I lusted over the sensual fabrics immediately upon my first visit a few years ago and knew this was not a passing fancy but the stuff of True Love. I happily parted with a couple hundred bucks to take one home with me. The silky cream confection is loosely woven with translucent sequins dotted throughout and it is the most expensive, and treasured, piece of clothing I own.

The weaver was mesmerizing as she worked on a similar piece as mine but in black. Her hands were steady as she expertly loomthrew the shuttle back and forth, creating an even tension between warp and weft threads of cashmere delicately laced with shimmering sequins. Her contentment in the repetitious work of this ancient craft was as stunning as the work itself.

What makes this even more meaningful is that in 1899 my Nonna listed on her immigration papers at Ellis Island “weaver” as her profession. Her entry to the US was with her three young children (there would be five more, the last one being my grandmother who was born after her brother died as an infant). They traveled in steerage to meet her husband in Chicago and begin a new life. Several years later he would journey back to Italy and die on the boat, leaving her alone with seven children to raise. She took in sewing and the boys left school to work as much as they could to take care of the family. Insisting the children speak English, she embraced her American life as I embrace my Italian heritage. So much so that I adopted her birthplace as my name.

We chatted with Vladimir for nearly half an hour, listening to his excitement over the addition of handwoven leather handbags to his collection and having his designs in a boutique in San Francisco and at fashion week in New York. We promised to see him again before we continue on to Venice and my cousin’s wedding on the Riviera, insisting he look us up on his next trip to California.

I feel blessed to have made friends with this place, with these people. I will return again and again to my namesake city to enjoy the beauty and charm of Tuscany. And perhaps one day I may treat myself to another of Zazzi’s luscious creations.

Because I really want to take home that black one.

 

 

 

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On Being The Black Sheep

black sheepSeveral years ago I brought my boyfriend home to meet my family. We all went to dinner at Tom’s, an iconic restaurant that had hosted a half-century of our important celebrations: my parents’ engagement, my 10th birthday, my wedding reception, and eventually Dad’s memorial luncheon. Gathered around the table were my father and his boyfriend, and their BFF, my mother; my sister and her girlfriend; my tattooed son and his tongue-pierced date; and us, the California hippies. Somehow, Mark and I were the oddballs, we were the weirdoes. The ones who were teased for asking for veggies to add to the iceberg lettuce with a cherry tomato they called a salad. The ones with long hair in middle-age who engage in conversations that dare to dive deeper than, “How about those Cubs?”

Being the black sheep of the family isn’t something one aspires to, it is a mantle that is bestowed upon you once it’s noticed that you are one of the rare ones with wooly fleece much darker than the rest of your flock.

By the time I was in high school I had a fairly hearty rebellion going on and already knew my life was going to be extraordinary. I wasn’t sure yet what the extra was that would be added to my ordinary Midwest suburban existence, but I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of Dodge to find out. Dropping out of high school to manage my boyfriend’s band, I took the GED on a bet for a bag of weed and scored 6 points higher than my pal; I won the bet, walking away with the prize and a great story, my ebony coat shining.

I ran off to California a few years later, sight unseen, to make a new life. My family, unable to imagine leaving the flock like that, did their best to understand. Landing in San Francisco, I found other black sheep who shared tales of departure from their own white flocks. Finally, a place where I fit in.

My travels took me around the world on a rock tour which landed me in the South, married to a good lookin’ redneck hillbilly who loved my exotic, dark coat, but couldn’t quite keep up with my need for good grammar. I returned to the flock of my youth to raise my young son; most of the time counting the days until I could leave.

While my son has a somewhat mottled fleece, for the most part, he has happily assimilated into the flock. When he lets his freak flag fly it’s because no one has suggested he shouldn’t, he has no contrasting siblings to compare himself to. My sister is lily white compared to me, fairly conservative and private. I wear my life on my sleeve, letting my black wool grow full and lush, proud of my perversity. This makes her uncomfortable. Once she half-jokingly warned me before a BBQ that I better not do “the life coach thing” with the family.

“We don’t like to go deep,  Lis, we’re all pretty shallow. So, don’t go asking anyone what their passion is, just talk about the weather or the Cubs. If not, we’ll have to send you out to a meditation bench in the backyard.”

I broke her rules, of course, and quizzed my cousin, a VP of Finance for Pepsi, about her job satisfaction.

“I hate it,” she admitted, “And the sad part is that I don’t even know what I would do instead. I’m afraid to give this up to find out, and I pray when my daughter grows up she’ll pursue what she loves instead of money.”

Ah. Pursuing your passion is not for the faint of heart, and may mean breaking from the flock. Fifteen years ago I did the scary thing after a corporate layoff and pursued a meaningful career, a choice that made my family wary. In the end, my waywardness has led me to a calling that allows me to help brave souls dye their fleece whatever color they want. Seeing them thrive is part of my compensation; part of my legacy is to see them live theirs.

I also found my way back to California, where I belong.

It’s funny, once you find where you’re supposed to be, going back to where you came from is easy. As long as it’s temporary. I love visiting my flock these days, which I do more frequently now that Mom is getting older. We do deliciously ordinary things like play Rumikub and listen to LiteFM, singing along to the songs of my youth when I felt awkward and couldn’t wait to grow up. We’re good as long as I don’t talk about anything deep.

My son has a place of his own now and he floats in and out of the flock. I see his black wool coming in more fully as mine turns gray. Staying with him is the best part of my visits, observing what he has kept of the things he learned from living with me, and noticing how he lives differently.

I was there the night the Cubs finally won the World Series, whooping it up with Zac and his friends, drinking champagne. It was exciting to be part of the flock that night and to celebrate history with the dyed-in-the-wool fans who couldn’t imagine anything more extraordinary.

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Why I write . . .

diaryI must have been about 11 or 12 when I started writing in a diary.  Each page was gilded with gold edges and there was a tiny lock and key that secured the tab that wrapped around them, creating a private sanctuary for my deepest thoughts.  Dear Diary, I would write in my large loopy script, and I’d be off and running about my day, my world, my life.

By my teens, aside from writing about boys, I shared with my diary how upset I was over my parent’s divorce; the moments I missed my dad and the ones where I didn’t want to see him ever again. Like most teen-aged girls, I was a hormonal stew just bubbling with all the flavors of my adolescence; a need for self-expression, understanding and attention, to name a few. Finding out Dad was gay during that time boiled me right over the top.

Writing my feelings of betrayal and confusion provided a relief unlike any other. My parents were coping with their new lives, and didn’t realize I might need to talk to someone about how it felt to hold a secret that was bigger than my understanding of it. My shame went onto those pages in my diary, a container to hold the loathing I felt towards my father who dared to be so different from everyone else’s.

As I sought out counselors on my own, I learned the power of my feelings, and my words, and put more of them on paper. Filling dozens of journals over the years has been my therapy, helping me to sort out the flood of thoughts in my head. Each entry creating a snapshot of a moment in time that allows me to remember vividly the tears, or the victory, or the embarrassment of the captured event when I have some distance from it.

Eventually, I became brave enough to share my words with others. I wrote slice of life essays on everything from motherhood to life purpose, rarely going into any depth about my family of origin. Dad loved my writing and it was the one thing I did that I knew he was proud of, although writing anything about him was tricky as he loved to debate our versions of how an incident unfolded. Arguing to defend my truth against his was too hard.

Then he died.

Like a capped well that has been opened and allowed to see daylight, my father’s death unsealed in me a deep reservoir of memories, assumptions and beliefs that I had held tightly inside for decades. Aside from a few rants to my mother, or even directly at Dad, my feelings about being his daughter had been kept in a dark, hidden place. Sure, I could talk about what I thought of having a gay dad, but how it felt? That was another thing entirely.

Rich with raw emotion, the journal entries since that time have become essays, and I’ve felt emboldened by my desire to speak out loud about this family secret. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality I knew, on that day, that my relationship with my gay father would be the thread that ran through my book, a story that had been growing in me since I was a girl. I sought out other Rainbow Kids and found Laura and the Gay Dad Project, adding my voice to the growing chorus of gay families.

It feels safe to tell my story now, so I write for all those who struggle with family secrets, but even more so for those who struggle with accepting themselves and the people who brought them into the world. For when we have acceptance we can find peace.

My hope is that others will find solace in the truth of my struggle for acceptance of my parents, and the choices they made. And maybe, just maybe, my son accepts me and the ones I’ve made, too.

 

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Love Trumps Hate

lth
The day after the Women’s March on Saturday, an event I was extremely proud and humbled to be a part of, I went to see Hidden Figures, the story of the incredible African-American women of NASA who helped put men in space. It truly humbled me further. I sat squirming in my chair, so uncomfortable to see the racial prejudice that black people endured in my own lifetime. It’s not like I didn’t know this, but seeing the incredible injustice of segregation was staggering to me. I am glad to be reminded.

The women portrayed in the film, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, were extraordinary American individuals whose gifts and commitment were responsible for one of our finest hours of the times. Not only as women but women of color, they represented the dawn of a new era of inclusion by white men of those not like themselves. Their reluctance to include us is portrayed in the film with consideration of their own needs at the helm of this inclusion, not as a desire to offer an opportunity to women or people of color. This is important because it amplifies that these women could do what they could not. Their brilliance was the key to the success of that program.

gettyimages-498635002At 97 years old, Katherine was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her contribution, an amazing testimony to how far we have come. Seeing a room full of white men making decisions for women just yesterday shows how fragile that progress can be.

My participation in the Women’s March was driven by love, acceptance, and freedom, wishing not to protest against our new administration but to raise my voice for those freedoms we have already won that must be kept in place. There is no room for hate in this process. For Love trumps hate.

As I continue my support of these efforts by taking action where I can, I see that I need to turn my attention to the work I am here to do, to follow the lead of Katherine and Mary and Dorothy and deliver my own gifts. I have spent way too much time here debating with 7db499ae9img_0090-jpg-mobilethose who feel our March was silly or unnecessary, who don’t see the world as I do, and it is chipping away at the time I have to sharpen my own pencil and put my head down to work. I have a book to finish.

We all need to see Hidden Figures and rejoice in the beauty of our diversity, our talent as a nation, as a people. To remember how far we have come and work to keep those freedoms we have fought for so diligently. And then sharpen our own pencils and get to work.

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Dad’s Ashes

“I’ll take his brains and heart,” I told my sister when we were given the divided remains of our dad. My half is enshrined in a pale blue box and hers in a tube resembling a wine bottle gift holder, a photo of a golf club adorning the outside. My father never golfed a day in his life. His interests were more suited to belting out show tunes or shopping for drapes.

dad&lisOur share of Dad’s ashes is really a bit less than half each as a handful of him is forever trapped inside a golden rose his partner chose from a catalog at the funeral home. He will keep this on his dresser alongside other mementos from their nine year relationship. Since my sister and I will both be scattering Dad’s remains, we chose between the two free temporary containers Sax-Tiedeman had laying around.

I picked the one Dad would hate the least.

Now that box sits on a credenza beside my TV where an elderly Frankie Valli is singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You”, a song that flowed from the stereo in the dining room of my childhood.

I’m pretty sure Dad sang this song in a talent show on the stage at Nippersink Manor Resort in Wisconsin when I was 12. Handsome and confident, he sang with gusto, his shaky hand holding the microphone while my mom, my gram, my sister and I applauded from the audience. We were his biggest fans.

That was the summer before I found out that my dad was gay.

No one actually told me this, my parents having been very careful to keep it a secret, instead I sort of figured it out by osmosis. Being gay wasn’t even widely called that yet; queer was the term I remember, or fairy or homo or fag. There were a few references on television shows like All in The Family and even those were vague or steeped in shame or bigotry. Perhaps there was a dialog about being gay in the early 1970’s in New York or San Francisco, but in the Midwest suburbs of Chicago, no one talked about it. And especially not in front of the children.

My suspicion came a year after my parent’s divorce when I noticed Dad wasn’t dating. Instead, he had a constant companion in Terry, a cute young guy in his early twenties who joined us for Sunday visits and then moved in with Dad.

Add that to my father’s pickiness about cleaning, never watching sports or wrenching on cars and his love of musical theater. It didn’t take much to start asking questions.

For the next several decades we took turns rejecting each other and longing for one another, each of us wanting something that didn’t come easily. I wanted a “normal” dad. He wanted me to accept the dad he was.

Tears flow as it hits me again that he’s gone. For someone I spent many years despising because he didn’t love me the way I wanted him to, I am devastated that he has died. Even though in the past few years there were many signs his health was failing, the reality of his body reduced to ash is startling.

Yet here he sits inside this boring blue box.

A decorating diva, my flamboyant father could barely stand to see a wall with more than twelve inches of blank space on it. This plain box just will not do until his next birthday when I scatter him across the lagoon behind my home. There he will rest for eternity, floating beside the painted ladies he loved during his years living in San Francisco. Until then he needs something with a bit more flair.

Pouring myself a second glass of wine, I begin pulling out magazines. Pictures of hearts and clocks get ripped out along with a tampon ad filled with butterflies. I tear out clichéd words of bereavement and inspiration. Threshold. Serenity. Memories. Wisdom. A love that can endure. The things I want for him and those he left behind for me. They all land in a pile on my lap.

Gluing the words and images to the box, a large and colorful Feeling Good is front and center on the top. This is the thing he wanted most and what had eluded him for the last decade of his life; so many years were focused on numbing his pain, real and imagined. Like a ransom note, I piece together the words remember your family all love you. A message to be deciphered in the afterlife since I’m not sure he really knew this when he was living, at least not all of us at the same time.

By now the tears and wine are really flowing. The bottle is almost empty. My memories of my dad soften with each stroke of the glue stick. My love for him and who he was are reflected in the quotes chosen for the sides of the box, the things that he may not have directly taught me, yet I learned from him by all the same. Things about believing in yourself and doing what you love.

Flipping through the last magazine I find the letters RIP on one page in an elegant, curvy script, an exciting find. I cut them out and carefully glue them beside a purple heart.

Rest now, Dad. You lost the battle but you’ve won the war.

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Dear Lisa . . . Dad does love you

When asked to write a letter to my 17 year old self, beginning with a four word title of what I most want her to know, this is what came out:

Dear Lisa,

What a tumultuous time you are having in this, the 18th year of your life. You have so much passion in you, and so much rage, which you will come to learn in time is simply fear. Those days when you were little in the house on Elder Lane felt so warm and cozy. You were Daddy’s little star. But once Mom and Dad divorced, things changed.

We moved to that townhouse, found out Dad was gay, and ylisagradour world went sideways. You hated him because you loved him so much. You hated him because he wanted you to understand his lifestyle instead of wanting to understand your pain. No one understood how isolated you felt in your rage. Not Mom, who was coping with her own feelings; not your sister, since you were sworn to secrecy; not your friends who you dared to tell. Poor girl, you were so alone.

These high school years could have been such a wonderful time for you. You’re smart and love to learn, yet your rebellion draws you towards the fringe kids, the ones who like to drink Mad Dog 20/20 before school, a breakfast club of John Benders who you have fallen head over heels for because you want love so bad. The love you think that Dad took away when he went off to be with men. Sadly, you will reject any love he offers you, settle for the groping hands of teenage boys and call that love instead.

For years you will chase the love of men to replace the love you thought Dad took away. Fear of abandonment will have its way with you. But, you will never get what you crave from them, sweetheart. Never. That love is inside you. This is what you need to learn most, and it will take you a very long time to learn it, bringing you years of unbelievable heartache. Yet, as this shapes you and defines who you are, you will figure it all out eventually, and teach others to love themselves, too.

You know that feeling you have that you are here to live an extraordinary life? Follow that thread. You will do the amazing things that your heart dreams of now. You will move to California on your own soon, you will travel the world with rock stars, you will be on movie sets and produce TV, you will have a wonderful son and coach people to live true to who they are. You will write books, too, so keep those journals close and continue telling your truth in them. Most of all, know that part of the not-so-ordinary life you want began with the parents you chose; they are part of what makes your life extraordinary.

I searched all over for a picture of us at 17 and the only one I found was in an envelope I have of pictures Dad kept. There were tears in my eyes to find he saved every school picture along with every photo you will ever send him. This one is your graduation picture, inscribed: Dad, I made it! (almost) This is to remind you of my” glorious high school days” Love, Lisa 1979. It will be taken before you drop out of high school for the second time, halfway through your senior year.

Mom will be worried when you drop out of school, but she loves you no matter what. Dad will be the only one who doesn’t give you a hard time, and say, “You’ll be just fine.” Soon after, when you take your GED on a bet with a boyfriend, your 96% score will beat him by six points. Glorious, indeed.

Dad truly believes in you, but you will doubt this for years because of the numerous ways he disappoints you. Grudges held deep in your heart are hard to let go of, but you won’t feel supported until you forgive him and accept who he is, Lis. Once you do that, you will be free to feel his pride in you.

Watch for the small signs. He will smile from ear to ear as your date at Lucasfilm movie premieres and save every one of your screen credits to send to you in a video clip for your 50th birthday. He will be one of your most devoted advance readers and write the first 5-star review of your book on Amazon. He will be generous in his later years, especially to your son.

Because in spite of what you are feeling right now, Dad does love you.

Love and hugs,
Your older, wiser Self

 

 

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