Ode to Cheslie . . .

What do you say when a beauty queen leaps to her death, pushed over the edge by the crushing weight of turning thirty in a youth-obsessed culture?

I said: Fuck.  

How can a woman with such intelligence, grace, commitment, passion, success, and incredible beauty believe, in her own words, that “turning 30 feels like a cold reminder that I’m running out of time to matter in society’s eyes”*? Is it really still that bad?

The answer is: yes, it apparently is that bad.

It is clear now that Cheslie suffered from high-functioning depression. Though her essay on turning thirty eludes to the pressure she felt by getting older, perhaps causing her depression to become severe. It sounded like aging felt dangerous to her, and not the opportunity to be free of youthful image expectations like it is for some of us.

There is a certain freedom I’ve felt since I entered my sixties. No more am I concerned with my appearance like I was as a young woman. My relationship with my face and body has been down many a dark road, and I can see the photos in my mind’s eye of when I thought I looked good. Skinny jeans are likely part of that picture. I have never considered myself a beauty though I know I can clean up nice and I have a certain sparkle that makes me prettier than I really am. But that sparkle didn’t really make its debut until I was well over 30—over 40, I’d say—when I turned my attention to more passionate work. A boring job can really take the shine out of a girl. Withering away in a cubicle as a project manager had me longing for a career like I had in my twenties making movies and touring with rock stars. While LITE-FM played from a clock radio on my desk, I dreamed of being an interior decorator or a therapist, calculating how old I would be when I finished school for those jobs. It always seemed too old, as if forty-two or forty-three made me ancient, too old to start anew.

“V-veterinarian, veterinarian,” Raymond sputters in Fight Club, while Tyler Durden holds a gun to his head, demanding to know what he wanted to be. “Too much school.” Was his excuse for not following through. When Tyler threatens to kill him unless he goes back to live his dream, we feel his terror and know he will go back and do that school. With stakes that high, what choice is there?

When the gun was pointed at me, it was in the form of a layoff post-9/11, a couple months before my forty-first birthday. It led to a life coach (with a winning essay about why I wanted to reinvent myself) which led to coaching school and the best career I have ever had (and I’ve toured with rock stars.) Luckily, my face had nothing to do with my success, and I took the time and energy to find out what really made me shine.

Whatever Cheslie learned in her pageant life that led her to believe thirty meant she was running out of time is a tragedy. My heart breaks for beautiful women who have come to believe that as their beauty fades, they become irrelevant. We need to do better. We have to do better! We need to tell every young woman—and the middle-aged ones, too—that their sparkle comes from the inside. That aging is messy and gorgeous, and on the other side of forty is a world of joy if you deliver your gifts. That your sixties and beyond can be magnificent. We need to teach them to seek support when they feel scared, that we will hold them up.

We need to convince them that turning 30 is barely the beginning in the life of a woman.

(Mental Health is so important for all of us. Watch out for one another and reach out if you need help. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 800-273-8255)

*Allure article written by Cheslie Kryst https://www.allure.com/story/cheslie-kryst-miss-usa-on-turning-30

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In the Days Before Birth . . .

As the clock ticks down to the final weeks before my memoir – my long-gestating baby – is birthed into the world, I have paused to think of all the hours I’ve spent sitting, sitting, sitting in this chair, and others, pouring my words onto the page. It is a Lot. Of. Hours. Yet that is not the only time I spent writing it. There were many hours on hikes and walks puzzling out what I wanted to say, countless hours in the bath or shower ruminating over how much to reveal of the complicated relationship I shared with my gay dad – and how my mom would feel about what I wanted to share. There were full days, and even weeks, in classes, workshops, retreats, and on the couches of friends who listened while I told my story aloud, wrote snippets and recited them, cried tears of frustration, melancholy, and joy as I let the words out of my heart and soul and into the world.

So the birth itself feels more like a relief than anything else. The days I spent writing my story are long past, days I finally came to cherish as the chair called me back to sit and say more. Editing became a beautiful challenge as I wrestled over 100,000 words into a 280 page book, a task that became a joy in the middle stages and a real pain in the ass at the end when I read the book a dozen times looking for – and finding – the last tiny typo, wrong capitalization, and extra space as my editor did the same. Dressing my newborn was the most fun for me, designing a cover that would show off her personality, her true colors. And even then I had to ruminate on CMYK color match and precise template placement with my designer.

Making a book is a lot less fun than making a baby.

Yet, the joy in weaving sorrow, rage, history, love, and growth into a story I hope others can connect to is worth every moment of the angst that went into making it. And as I await the October 19th birthday of this beloved child – I can’t wait to get busy giving her a sibling.

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Revisiting Parenthood

I recently watched the Parenthood series again, and when the finale was over, I sat alone on my couch recalling all the memories I shared with the Braverman family: the tragedy and triumph of Kristina’s battle with cancer, the struggles of acceptance she and Adam faced with a child with Asperger’s; Julia and Joel’s challenges with growing their family and growing apart; Crosby’s antics and their consequences; the spectacular highs and lows of Amber as she moved from teenager to young mother, striving to be independent, but still so needy of her mom, Sarah, my favorite, the hippie divorcee  trying to find herself and love while raising willful kids without their dad. She was my mirror, the one that reflected back the burning desire to get her own life right if only to be a better model for her offspring. Oh, and the wonderful big family dinners. I loved the dinners.

Needless to say, I sobbed.

My own small family didn’t offer much in the way of big family dinners. Sure, there were big, noisy holiday dinners with extended family, Auntie hosting in her basement. At summer barbeques we gathered in backyards for birthdays and 4th of July. But my immediate family yielded only a mom, a dad and one sister. Once my parents divorced it was my Ma and her girls who gathered around the table, with Gram a frequent addition.

As I got older, I was drawn to guys with large families. Both my marriages brought lots of in-laws, my first husband being one of four kids, and my second one of six. They both brought me stepchildren, too. My one and only son has had a slew of half and step sibs over the years, none of which he is touch with now.

More than wanting a bigger family, I wanted a normal one.

Once I moved back to Chicago, and my dad did also, we would get together a few times a year for a holiday as a family. By then many years had passed and my mom was over the shock and humiliation that came when she learned her husband was gay. She weighed that against her love for him. Heavy and true, that love won out against her pain.

They were best friends since high school, and she softened over the years to allow him to be a big part of her life. He loved her. More than he loved us girls, I think. They reestablished a strong friendship by the time his new partner came along, and she accepted Benny as part of her life, too. By now my sister had come of her own closet and she and her partner were firmly established as a couple. Our family dinners for Christmas eve or Dad’s birthday included Mom, Dad, Benny, Deena, Doreen, Zac, me, and whichever man I was dating at the time who could hang with such a bunch.

I love my family, I do. I just sometimes wished I had a different one. I wanted a dad who was strong, who would scrutinize my boyfriends (no, not like that) and carry the other end of the couch I dragged into my first apartment. It seemed my dad’s feelings were always getting hurt and I had to tiptoe around his emotions. We battled over who hurt who the most. He was emotionally distant or difficult given what button I pushed. I learned from him about emotional abandonment. He was self-centered and I wanted to be the center of his attention. While he often appreciated how smart I was, I rarely felt pretty. By my twenties, when we both lived in San Francisco, he felt more like a girlfriend than my dad.

I loved my father and reconciled with him before he died, and even more so as I wrote my memoir, Ashes to Ink, that shares our complicated story. I have accepted that he was the dad I was destined to have. Still, watching these people gather around the table, I can still feel the pang of wanting a dad like Zeek Braverman.

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Ode to the Word Goddesses

A Trio of Word Goddesses – Cheryl – Lidia – Pam

Mercy! I’m dancing, in my office in front of my laptop, crying. Like, the good kind. I have just watched this masterpiece, https://pamhouston.net/events, a Pam Houston book event in 2019 for her memoir, Deep Creek. I stumbled upon it when I sought out a bit of memoir validation after my Big Moment in which I felt supported and heard, yet the novelists got the Big Break.

“Why the fuck should we care about some fictitious character?” Cheryl Strayed says when defending the genre for the bashing it gets as we share our secrets and intimate stories. The ones we are told not to tell, and if told, could help those feeling isolated. Thanks, Lidia Yuknavitch. I know my fan-girling is on full display while I am pulling myself up to this table, but it feels okay. I nod in knowing that my story, too, is about how I “show generosity to my parent while holding him account.” (more Cheryl, thank you.) Pam reminds us of our other parents, the rivers, and mountains, and the ocean, which claimed me from afar and dragged me West, answering a call from beyond and within me.

“Who would I have been?” Lidia asks. And I nod, and cry, baptized by these goddesses I have read, and listened to, and joined in moments of connection in a writers workshop. But not quite like this. Not to answer my need – right now – to trust the truth path, the one that makes us see ourselves so clearly it gives others permission. Making us truth-tellers for a living.

I was undone when Lidia read, “If you live long enough, you quit chasing things that hurt you.” Oh, Pam. And if you’re lucky, you start following the things that heal, which you have, like a pioneer. When Pam talks about being a mentor, I know she is breathing the same air as my fairy-goddaughter, Garnet, on Vashon Island, who I met when she was the beautiful embodiment of grief and strength. It warms my heart to imagine you at adjacent tables at Cafe Luna.

I nod when Lidia says we are birthing new men, grateful for mine, and all of ours who see us. Especially the ones who come from us. My heart skips a beat when Cheryl says Pam sent a note that she “Loves this fucking book” after reading a draft of Wild, and makes me believe a champion for my book is alive and waiting to read it.

Until then, I will keep going back to the well, keep making it better, putting it in the hands of those who have come before me. Who know truth.

If you are a writer – WATCH THIS. If you are a woman – WATCH THIS. If you are a human – WATCH THIS.

Thank you for your beautiful book, Pam. But this night? I wanted a time machine to be in this room with the three of you. Thank you all. ❤

https://pamhouston.net/events

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The Colors Of New Motherhood (excerpt from Out of The Ordinary)

I haven’t spent much time at all with my grown son since Covid-19 hit, and while we talk nearly every day I missed his physical presence, the familiar profile I watched change from infant, to child, to man. We have lived in different parts of the country for a decade, mostly a fact that doesn’t bother me. Until I saw him up close and felt the minutes tick by swiftly until we had to part again.

But we certainly didn’t start out that way.

When he was born, his presence was nearly zipped into my skin, barely a sliver of light between me and his ever immediate needs. I was alone for weeks on end, something I would not wish on any new mother. This is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Out Of The Ordinary. . . .

The choices we make to marry and have children are colored by the people we choose to have them with. In my case, instead of the abundant Crayola 64-count box of crayons I lusted for in my childhood, the one with teal blue and burnt sienna and the built-in sharpener, my life was filled in by the value pack of ten basic primary colors, a limited palette with which to paint my life as a new wife and mother. Choosing to marry Jimmy felt less vibrant than I had imagined married life to be. But then, I hadn’t really imagined it that much.

The vision of my life as a 64-color masterpiece didn’t always include a child, either. The love I felt for my newborn son was diluted by frustration with the amount of care he needed that I alone had to provide. New mothers aren’t supposed to be alone with their babies for days on end, week after week, with such a narrow prism with which to view the world. Yet, there we were just me and Zac.

My naps on the couch between reruns of Mary Tyler Moore and Cheers left me like a zombie during my endless cycle of laundry, dishes, and caring for my baby’s every need. That first month felt like one long, exhausting day.

Yet, alongside my numbing fatigue were moments with my baby that carried an almost holy quality. In the bubble of our endless hours together, I memorized every inch of him, all his expressions, each cry. An invisible thread tethered us in a way I knew could not be broken. Eventually, a rhythm to our life emerged, shrinking my resentment to a manageable size. As a result, my previously exciting single life faded as my infant son’s burgeoning one became my reason for being.

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Covid Creative

25c1088bd09e7dad6ebd9311429bb022--the-portal-alphabet-soupDuring this crazy time of the global pandemic, I have used up more than my fair share of time posting on Facebook about staying home and wearing a mask (please do!), commiserating about not going out and missing travel, and chiming in about the need for us to have a fair society for all and preserve our fragile democracy.

If I let it, it would become a full-time job.

While maintaining my coaching practice, hosting a radio show, and overall self-care are ongoing pursuits, the thing I am most proud of during the COVID 19 crisis is finishing my memoir.

How did I have the time for that?

Well, I put my butt in the chair and kept at it. I forced myself to turn away from the distractions of news and social media, even for a short time. I did a little every day. The thing about creative endeavors is they happen in bits and pieces, in stolen moments, and when you have the time and the muse on your time, in a flow of hours that transport you to another place entirely, so that when you look up and are surprised to notice the light has faded, you haven’t eaten, and it’s been hours since you left the chair you are sitting in. Those are the moments I cherish the most. The transcendence of creativity.

I was talking with an author friend yesterday about the high you get when you are in that zone, the reward of following a thread with a pen, or a paintbrush, or a gardening spade. The bliss of creating from our memory, or imagination, or a tiny seed of thought or flower, is a precious, precious gift. For it is the thing that delivers our gifts into the world.

This time of pause that has us up in arms, weary of the caution, and inconvenience, but it is also a gift to the Earth and our spirits. Many of us are grieving the loss of loved ones, the loss of freedom, the hardship this virus has inflicted on humanity. Creativity can help us heal. If you haven’t already, perhaps this is a time when you can pick up an old project and continue it, or complete it, or if you don’t have something underway, begin it. 

This time is ripe with possibility. Let’s seize it.

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I won.

The hard thing about writing is actually allowing others to read your words.

I know, the whole point should be to have readers, right? Well, yes. But hitting the Send button to submit to a contest, editor, or anyone you don’t know very well is daunting. I know I can send my BFF anything and she will read it and say nice things. But putting my words in front of smart people, in a competition against other smart people, tends to freak me out.

But I do it.

Luckily, I found the folks at wow-womenonwriting.com, a phenomenal bunch who truly care about writers. Each quarter they devote a lot of time and energy to provide fiction and non-fiction contests. They accept up to 300 pieces in each category. The winners receive an opportunity to be published on the site, and the lucky top three win cash. But more importantly, the winners have an opportunity to find new readers for their work.

My first submission to them was this piece of writing I have worked over many times, an essay that begins my book (the first draft of which I finished last week! Finally.) My piece was returned with wonderful comments from their rockstar non-fiction editor, Chelsey Clammer (well worth the nominal critique fee), and an offer to try again with a few tweaks. I took every one of her suggestions to heart and resubmitted.

This time, I won. First Prize.

The moral of the story is that fresh eyes by a pro can be transformative if you are willing to take their advice. Also, that all writing is rewriting.49192750_1027074580798562_4299540559996911616_n

As I get underway on the second draft of my memoir, I will continue to look for ways to share pieces of my story with my future readers. Stay tuned.

Read my essay here: WOW! Women On Writing Q1 Non-fiction 2018 Essay Contest  (scroll down past my bio)

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MIA . . .

black-sheepTime has a funny way of slipping away when you turn your attention elsewhere. When I returned home from the BlogHer conference last year I decided it was time to get serious about finishing my memoir.

I mean, like, finish it.

This meant making weekly dates with myself to get pages written, and working diligently with a professional to make me turn them in. Much like when I help writers finish their books. In fact, exactly like that. So for the past year, I have been writing. And writing and writing and writing. (But not here.)

My manuscript just reached 94,004 words, which is three pages shy of 300. With only a few more chapters to go, I can see the end of this story. Holy shit, I’m almost there. After all the years, the tears, and the sitting on my ass, I am almost done.

With the first draft.

Wait, what? You mean I get to do this a few more times? Until I really get it right? Until I capture the essence of the characters on the page, leading the reader into a Divine dance with their own memories? Until I tell my whole truth without pissing anyone off (much)?

Yes.

Yippee! No, really. I am very excited to get to the next phase for it means the book will have grown legs, and may one day walk into the world. I just can’t imagine writing anything else until I’m done.

So please excuse me for the long absence, and for not posting here much while I have my head down finishing my book. I’m immersed in the story of a black sheep’s search for love and herself. Hopefully, one day you will be, too.

 

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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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