Posted on March 31, 2020
First and foremost, I pray for those fighting the Coronavirus around the world, families grieving loved ones, and all feeling global angst and loss. I pray for protection for those on the front lines, like my daughter and sister in patient care, first responders, and grocery store employees who are caring and kind. I pray for wisdom for researchers seeking a vaccine, leaders around the world, all of us facing something so frightening, evasive, new.
COVID-19 has stolen income. It has postponed or cancelled lifelong dreams. Instead of graduation and milestone birthday celebrations with families… honeymoon dinners in piazzas… spring break escapes overlooking azure seas, we are on lockdown–many in solitary seclusion– practicing social distancing. We never dreamed going to the grocery (for those of us able) would be our only “getaway” where we hold our breath, swerve to miss other shoppers, and shake our heads at empty shelves.
March 2020 proved a 19th century proverb wrong–the one that says if the month comes in like a lion it will go out like a lamb. Tornados ripped through Nashville March 3 and made global headline news. Since then COVID-19 has ravaged much of the US and the world.
I started the month trying three times to outrun the outbreak. When my travel blogging conference in Sicily was cancelled last minute (thankfully, given the crisis that hit full force a week later), I considered using my connecting flight to New York City and spending spring break there. When the Coronavirus was reported there, I booked a flight to Florida but canceled within 24 hours because they were being hit, too. For most of us, there’s nowhere else to run and home is the only place to hide.
The university classes I teach have gone remote for the rest of the year, and with no more commuting, I have more time and technology to be in touch with those I love. I’ve traveled via books and movies which I suggested here, and I’ve discovered some new music that sweeps me away.
I’ve remembered teaching English in a small village in Italy one summer and my own childhood where families ate hot lunches together in the middle of the day. I’ve been cooking more and through food, music, and memories returning to some of my favorite places. It started when I cancelled birthday reservations at an Irish pub and made my first corned beef brisket at home.
For almost three weeks I’ve gone nowhere except to buy groceries and my birthday present– plants for my patio — knowing it would become my home office and world. Spring rains have made everything I see Ireland-green grass and pink blooming trees. As the bulbs push through soil in Italy-blue pots around me, and the natural world comes back to life again, I’m reminded daily to trust God who sees what I can’t… knows what I don’t.
But this I do know. Neighbors I’d never seen before have come out of their homes. They are walking and playing as families six-feet away. They smile, wave, and nod at Ella (my yellow lab mix) and me. The world–once a blur of motion– has slowed down for many and the value of health, relationships, connection has come sharper into focus.
Several of these ingredients are used in more than one dish. I shop multiple groceries–especially now when some shelves are bare–but have linked to Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh organic products for health and convenience. Those with Amazon Prime can get groceries delivered free–important to many during self-quarantine but also a reason why they may be out of some of these products periodically and locations/terms of delivery may change.
Disclosure: SouthernGirlGoneGlobal has an affiliate relationship with Amazon. If you make a purchase from an Amazon link in this post, I will receive a small commission which does not affect your cost but helps a bit to keep this blog going.
One more thing…I’m also a big believer in improvisation. While living in Morocco without a car and some ingredients I needed for recipes, I learned to substitute or do without. When I wanted to make clam chowder, one of my go-to comfort foods, I couldn’t find clams. No worries–I used shrimp which were plentiful and inexpensive. Thankfully my grandmother taught me that cooking isn’t an exact science. It’s “a little of this, a little of that.”
With the right music while cooking… a dance in the kitchen… and a pretty place setting (pun intended), we can exhale calm. We can taste escape… and hope.
Playlist: Music to wake you up and want to dance on Amazon
My first trip to Europe was with my students in the early 90s, a Grand Tour of England, France, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Standing on my balcony in the Swiss Alps between snow-capped peaks and Lake Lucerne, I drew in a long breath of cool, clean air to the jingle of cowbells. I wondered later as I climbed under the crisp, white down duvet if I’d stay warm enough–it was so lightweight!–but I did and have slept under nothing since. I met the group in the regal dining room the next morning where sunlight streamed through large windows spotlighting a sumptuous spread. We’d been told we’d have only “continental breakfasts” on our tour so not to expect eggs, bacon and biscuits, staples in the southern US. In London we’d had dinner rolls every morning, in Paris croissants served with butter and jam. But in Switzerland at a hotel/hospitality training school, waiters in white served fresh fruit, marmalade, and plates of delicious cheeses and cold meats– sausages, salami, hams. It was the beginning of a love affair I still have with charcuterie served anytime of day.
Spanish Guitar and Pablo Segovia Gardel on Amazon Music and Soundtrack of Vicky Cristina Barcelona on Spotify
Above: Sangria with lunch here
If you have shifted to a later sleeping/waking schedule, you can imagine you are in Spain. There breakfast starts around 10 AM, lunch at 2 PM, tapas (appetizers) and drinks late afternoon/early evening, and dinner at 10 PM. I love the food culture, climate, people from Vigo to Madrid , across Andalusia and Catalonia … everything about Spain.
Cut brussel sprouts in half and place on a roasting pan. Sprinkle with minced garlic (3-4 cloves), salt, and paprika, then drizzle with olive oil. Back at 400 degrees about 20 minutes or until tender. Pair. with Spanish wine or sangria (recipe below).
Playlist: Morocco, Traditional Music Around the World and Berber Musicians of Morocco on Spotify
In Morocco, I taught at the American School of Marrakesh which had no cafeteria. Students’ hot lunches were delivered by drivers or they packed cold ones as I did. All produce was organic and sold in the grocery markets, hanuts (Moroccan form of minute markets) and on fruit and vegetable carts. Fresh produce coupled with having no car and walking everywhere made me feel more fit than ever. Lunches were salads and clementines ( peeled and eaten like candy or sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon). Oranges, lemons, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and mint for tea (or for expats, mojitos 🙂 were available year-round.
(Left) Strawberries in season, avocado, and balsamic vinegar
(Right) Sliced Tomatoes, Green Peppers, and Cucumbers with Vinegar and Olive Oil.
These guys are ubiquitous in Morocco, found in bowls on restaurant tables beside loaves of bread. At school, the elementary teachers loved the shade of the olive trees at recess but had to keep watch over students tempted to pelt each other with olives. I’ve thought a lot lately about a Thanksgiving spent at Peacock Pavillions when Maryam Montague decorated the table with olive branches, symbols of simplicity and peace. She spoke about another global crisis–that of refugees and displaced people groups.
A tagine is a traditional dish named for the the clay pot in which vegetables, fruits, and meats are cooked on a stovetop or open fire. It is loved for its savory-sweetness in modest homes, restaurants, and palaces throughout the country. I ate lamb, chicken, and vegetarian tagines with friends from Marrakesh (where our favorite waiter at Chez Joel and favorite manager at Riad Mur Akush uncovered the dish with ceremonious flair) to the Sahara desert gathered on the ground family-style in a Berber tent.
While living in Marrakesh I made only one tagine because my housekeeper, Sayida, made the dish for me often. I did enjoy the lesson at the La Maison Arabe Cooking School, and when a former student and friend visited me, they enjoyed learning from the ladies at the Amal Center. Last week I craved comfort, so I made my first tagine unsupervised. Sayida would probably roll her eyes at me with a grin, but I spiced it up and loved it.
Spray or rub lightly the inside of the crockpot with olive oil. Layer vegetables in the bottom of the crockpot. Place meat (optional) and prunes on top. Mix seasonings with garlic, tomato paste, and broth, then pour over all.
The best couscous I’ve ever had was at Riad Hikaya. Making it like they do is on my Cooking Bucket List.
Playlist: French and Italian Cooking Music (one of my favorites of all time) on Sptofiy
Boil the pasta. Saute the anchovy paste and garlic in hot, melted butter and oil in a saute pan. Cook for 2 minutes and add 2 Tablespoons of pasta water. Add tomatoes and cook until they pop. Drain pasta and mix with other ingredients in a saute pan. Add shrimp and red pepper flakes (if desired) and parsley until all is heated through.
*For another easy, super-fast pasta dish, mix a jar of pesto and 8 ounces of pasta. Eat hot or cold.
Heat 1 T olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook onion until soft for about 2 minutes. Add carrots and celery, then garlic. Add a splash of wine if desired. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, and stock. Simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender (about 10- 15 minutes).
If the only recipe or ritual you take from this post is to peel an orange and let its juicy goodness run down your wrist while sitting in a spot of sunlight… mission accomplished. From Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman who inspired me to make the leap and live abroad… a word on the art of cooking and eating from her Eat, Pray, Love…
There’s another wonderful Italian expression: l’arte d’arrangiarsi—the art of making something out of nothing. The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this, not only the rich…
I walked home to my apartment and soft-boiled a pair of fresh brown eggs for my lunch. I peeled the eggs and arranged them on a plate beside the seven stalks of the asparagus (which were so slim and snappy they didn’t need to be cooked at all). I put some olives on the plate, too, and the four knobs of goat cheese I’d picked up yesterday from the formaggeria down the street, and two slices of pink, oily salmon. For dessert—a lovely peach, which the woman at the market had given to me for free and which was still warm from the Roman sunlight. For the longest time I couldn’t even touch this food because it was such a masterpiece of lunch, a true expression of the art of making something out of nothing. Finally, when I had fully absorbed the prettiness of my meal, I went and sat in a patch of sunbeam on my clean wooden floor and ate every bite of it, with my fingers, while reading my daily newspaper article in Italian. Happiness inhabited my every molecule.
And as Easter, time of rebirth, nears, my prayer for us all is…
May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!–Romans 15:13
Posted on May 23, 2018
Summer travel season is here–my favorite time of the year! PLEASE JOIN ME FOR A WAY TO SAVOR TRAVEL EXPERIENCES AT HOME in a course I’m teaching in July at The Porch, Nashville’s Independent Writing Center. GO HERE FOR DETAILS: Travel Tales: Writing Our Journeys Near and Far is for anyone wanting to join a community of explorers with various writing goals. Whether you’re a blogger or journalist seeking ways to hone your craft of transporting readers through story, someone simply seeking to create a personal souvenir of a special time and place, or a writer ready to excavate treasures on excursions in your own backyard, this course is for you.
My Ireland- bound friend, Carol, sent me the poem below–a sendoff for sojourners– as I packed for Spain and Morocco.
Travel Lovers are everywhere. Recently I enjoyed another cooking class taught by Chef Paulette, I met a group of ladies who have grown close on her culinary tours of Italy. As we braided bread in her kitchen, we bonded over a common thread: travel. We were transported to Italy again by four pasta dishes and tales of soul food…the beauty, adventure, and relationship… travel has given us. In Chef Paulette’s classes you can create delicious dishes, meet kindred travel spirits, and enjoy Italy at home.
Another way to savor travel experiences at home is in a course I’m teaching in July at The Porch, Nashville’s Independent Writing Center. Travel Tales: Writing Our Journeys Near and Far is for anyone wanting to join a community of explorers with various writing goals. Whether you’re a blogger or journalist seeking ways to hone your craft of transporting readers through story, someone simply seeking to create a personal souvenir of a special time and place, or a writer ready to excavate treasures on excursions in your own backyard, this course is for you.
Posted on December 18, 2016
Nine trips to Italy and I’ve just planned the next one. This year I spent New Year’s Eve in Venice, my birthday in Tuscany (below), and Easter in Rome, but I’m asking Santa for an extended holiday in the land I love.
“I was ALWAYS attracted to the road less traveled. The idea of a suburban life in a house with a husband and 2.5 children made me squirm a little. Somehow I think I was always afraid that my brain and spirit would be lulled to sleep and all my creativity would be silenced. Probably not true, but the idea pushed me in another direction.
From a little girl I wanted to be a dancer. In high school I wanted to an actor. In college I wanted to be a writer. All the things I’ve wanted to do—the things that compelled me forward– were always endeavours that didn’t make money unless you were a star and involved a big population that was trying to do the same. I really think an artistic life is like a calling. It comes from inside. You can try to ignore it but it is very insistent. And if you leave yourself open to listening and following its call then you’re always off the beaten path. Some people have to ignore it because of commitments. There’s a great book about women who have had to do this: Tillie Olsen’s Silences. I was always so afraid of being silenced, of not getting my visions made into something out there…and still…I feel like I really haven’t done it yet! SO many stories and ideas still jam my head constantly.”
She said career highlights were interviewing survivors for the Holocaust Museum tour in Houston. There was also the day Israeli and Jordanian producers were in the NY studios together. Paulette smiled and said, “It was fine. I remember thinking, ‘You see. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. Everyone is into creating great stuff for kids.'” She recalls making a video for choreographer Loretta Thomas: “We shot on the streets of NY for 24 hours straight. At 3 AM Martin Scorsese pulled up to his apartment in a limo in Tribeca. We made eye contact and he smiled!”
Christmas is a great time to thank those who call us to taste la dolce vita. The new year is a great time to host others at our table and celebrate the good together. Her book offers more than amazing Italian cuisine. It offers soul food meant to be shared.
*Chef Paulette’s winter cooking classes are sold out. However, you can buy friends gift certificates or contact her for information for the spring classes starting in March here.
Chef Paulette on Channel 4 making her Walnut Chocolate Biscotti
Posted on January 4, 2016
And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.–Rainer Maria Rilke
I preferred one waltz with a beauty to a lifetime with someone less rare.–Marlena de Blasi, author of A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance
I wondered if I’d feel the same after seven years, Venice. Were the times proof that you are my first love or just flings? And there have been so many others. Like Casanova, you have had throngs of lovers; for me, your rival was only St. Petersburg last year.
Each time you pulled me close with seductive strength but stayed guarded. Dignified, decadent, detached. Silently allured me to taste your beauty, to wander your world, to seek and find exactly what my soul craved. You led me down streets that ended, forcing me to retreat and start over. Or were you teaching me to find other paths? Promises, then departures; neither ever felt permanent. You’re the romance of unrequited love, the sighs of all that’s unfulfilled and ever longed for. The ecstasy in the moment and the promise that maybe one day…
And then I saw you, poignantly the night before New Year’s Eve–a time to look back and peer forward–as I stood on the deck of the water taxi. You appeared through the mist and cold. Luminous and lavish. Still standing. And I? Still feeling. Alive.
You are no Don Juan. Like Elizabeth who married England, you carry a great burden for all who love you. With grace buoyed by hope and faith, you beckon us to enjoy the time left on this earth before all goes under.
And yes, Venice. Though I fell in love with Saint Petersburg last March, you seem to be still The One.
An Italian friend once told me I’m simpatica—that I understand what it means to live The Life and that I’m a woman meant for a Grande Amore. I was definitely fashioned from birth a romantic, and the entire country of Italy has always felt like a soul mate. With many questions in 2016 looming, returning to a place that is meant to be wandered was, like the “fit” that is Morocco, a choice made for me, not by me.
Some call it serendipity, others destiny. I call it God. Marrakesh was exactly what I needed when I stepped off the plane sixteen months ago. Starting 2015 with the loves of my life, Taylor and Cole, in London was the best NYE ever– a blessed beginning of one of the most amazing years I’ve ever experienced. And likewise, watching fireworks from the Bridge of Sighs— choosing to exhale in trust and love rather than weariness and worry—I watched 2016 light up the sky. A sight I’ll remember the rest of my life.
I knew I’d love hearing church bells and Buon Anno spoken in the most beautiful language on earth. How do I love thee, Italy? Let me count the ways.
Paradoxically, Venice is unified by bridges and divided by dead ends. As with life, without warning a seemingly good road can suddenly plunge one into dark depths. Or maybe each halt teaches the art of retracing, rethinking, then rerouting a new course.
The Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs named by Lord Byron in the 19th century, is a place of blissful beginnings and tragic ends. Prisoners who crossed the Rio di Palazzo to the Doge’s Palace prison were said by the poet to sigh as they looked upon Venice’s beauty a final time. Yet couples who kiss on a gondola under the same bridge at sunset as St. Mark’s bells toll are said to be blessed with eternal love.
Italy and life abroad continue to teach me. Here’s seven secrets Venice shared for 2016…
1) Wandering can do wonders for the soul.
“Not all those who wander are lost.”–J. R. R. Tolkien
‘It was one of those architectural wholes towards which, in any other town, the streets converge, lead you and point the way. Here it seemed to be deliberately concealed in a labyrinth of alleys, like those palaces in oriental tales to which mysterious agents convey by night a person who, taken home again before daybreak, can never again find his way back to the magic dwelling which he ends by supposing that he visited only in a dream.’–Marcel Proust
Like the Marrakech medina, Venice is constructed as a medieval maze of mystery and adventure. Jasna and I enjoy wandering both. I’ve learned since moving to Morocco that when I let go and relax, God always brings peace and sometimes the world brims with bliss. So when Jasna pointed at the Giudecca Canal restaurant and said, “Let’s eat there, it’s pretty”– neither of us having any idea we had chosen for lunch a historical literary hub– I accept it not as a coincidence, but as a gift. Both English majors, we were thrilled to learn that Hotel La Calcina, (aka Ruskin’s House) was where creatives such as John Ruskin (who I studied in a Victorian prose graduate course) lived and Ranier Maria Rilke (one of my favorite writers), Marcel Proust, Bortolo Giannelli, Giuseppe Berto and Francesco Maria Piave gathered. A muse to many, Venice fed free spirited expats Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Truman Capote, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Mann and continues to inspire art today. A magical place to christen a new year of writing.
2) Trust the journey. Relax, wait, move, live passionately patient in faith and hope.
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”–Ranier Maria Rilke
5) Con Dio tutto è possibile. (With God all things are possible.)
Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. –John Ruskin
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.–Ephesians 3:20
In Venice everything seems possible. I’m grateful for Anu’s invitation. She’d made plans to be there a week in an affordable hostel she found 4 minutes from St. Mark’s Square. Jasna flew from England and I from Marrakesh to join her a couple of days. My round trip ticket was $125–and our triple room cost me 57 Euros per night. And though December hit me hard with new challenges and I questioned my decision to go, I knew I may never spend New Year’s Eve in Venice again– particularly at such a price. Thus, I moved forward with plans prayed over and made in good faith. I refused to let regret rob me of joy. I let go and received the gifts of the trip from the moment a kind Italian man grabbed my suitcase as I was running to find a train to the last night when Anu invited me to dinner with her Italian family–sweetest people ever.
I highly recommend Casa per Ferie La Pietà, more a hotel than a hostel, with a panoramic view from the terrace, a beautiful breakfast room, clean accommodations, and nice people. I’d never stayed on the island before–usually too expensive–but here there is no commute by water taxis. The three of us stayed in a huge room with restrooms/showers across and down the hall. It is quiet, family friendly, and a great place to escape alone or meet other travelers.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.–Truman Capote
“I don’t pretend to understand these feelings, but I’m willing to let the inexplicable sit sacred.” –Marlena de Blasi
Posted on September 17, 2011
Kim and Mayuresh
Last Saturday was as good as it gets. A year ago my friend, April, invited me to Italian Lights, calling me back to my first love affair with a culture. Check it out here: http://atomic-temporary-5988497.wpcomstaging.com/2010/09/18/finding-an-old-love-in-new-venue-italian-lights/. This year, I invited a gang and I was back in Italy again. I spent hours at table exchanging stories, laughs and food with friends I’d met through my salsa world, Kim K, Dorothy, Jose, April, Jason, Emila, Tricia, and Mayuresh; my sister, Penny, and brother-in-law, Jeff (It was his birthday!); and Kim R.
I’m often asked how I became part of the salsa world in Nashville, a global community who loves Latin dance. My response in short: Italy where I first learned to just BE.
I’ve written other posts on why I love Italy…how it all began one summer when I taught English there. I’d gone with students-in-tow in 2000, 2004, and 2009, each time loving sharing with them places both ancient and beautiful—Venice, Rome, Florence, Capri, Naples, Sorrento, and Pisa. But it was 2005-2007 when I met, then stayed in homes of Italian friends, Antonio, Anna, Fabio, Antonio, Vilma, and Georgio, that I learned firsthand how to live La Dolce Vita. Still framed on my daughter’s wall is a picture of her dancing with Antonio at my surprise birthday party in Torino. She says in just one visit Antonio and Vilma were like grandparents to her.
Meanwhile, Kim Roberts was spending summers with friends in Spain, sometimes doing weekend trips to Italy. We met in an Italian class, sharing a love for travel, the romance languages, and the passionate people who speak them. I liked her instantly as she burst into the first lesson, swishing a bohemian skirt with stories of dancing till dawn with some girlfriends the night before.
Kim admitted that she’s a closet expatriate, that she ached the first time she left Spain. I understood and confessed I felt the same way the first time I flew out over the Italian alps. In Spain and Italy we love the way meals last hours over good wine and interesting conversation. We’d both said, “When I’m there, I finally feel more alive. In a strange way, I feel I’m home.”
Though we’ve never been to Italy together, our simultaneous travels bonded us. In the early fall of 2007 I was on the shores of Lake Como while she was on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, we found through travel joy, serenity, adventure, and relationship. But in 2008 when our slim bank accounts prevented our escaping by the usual flight plan, we were forced to embrace what Gilbert says is the main point of her book—that to change our lives, we don’t have to go far. We just have to shift. So our gypsy souls resolved to refocus. Like Dorothy, we would stop chasing rainbows and find contentment and happiness in our own backyard. We had to find what Kim calls, our people…those who seek joy and find it in a celebratory culture right here in Music City.
And we did…first in folks like Patti Nelson of Italian for Fun and later in the Latin dance community. More on that later… Off to make potato salad for today’s Chilean Independence Day Celebration and a trifle for the Hicks’ Copacubana party. For some serendipity, check out my tribute to Latin culture and the Hicks’ house parties, just published on Italian chef, Paulette Licitra’s award-winning food journal, Alimentum. Ciao!
Posted on January 25, 2009
Posted on January 19, 2009
Since my first book was a call to a Classics Coup, exhorting readers to put away their fluff fiction and pick up their Shakespeare, I appealed to Oprah as a fellow lover of great works. Hailing her as the Most Powerful Woman in the World who loves to make wishes come true, I threw myself on the mercy of her court. I sent her a DVD, offering my masterpiece as a pick for her Book Club. I included precious pictures of my children reminding her that she could change our lives with a simple nod. Illustrating my ability to hold an audience spellbound with the likes of Hawthorne and Hemingway, I included footage from my English class, showing my students as a captive audience. (I hoped she wouldn’t realize that they were, in fact, captive.) Finally, I pointed out the fingernail scratches on the whiteboard where I was trying to hold on financially and mentally– teaching 80+ students all day and mothering two small children all night. Touting myself as profound and prolific, I knew she would respect my proactive approach. I would write my way to a better life rather than codependently wait for a knight-in-shining-armor for rescue. I assured her that if she read my book it would change my life and hers.
In retrospect… I may have looked needy, merely bypassing the prince on a white horse to lay prostrate before the Queen of the Harpo Dynasty.
Sadly I never heard from her—no doubt because the DVD never reached her desk. I believe a keeper of the gate, someone on her staff—probably a perky intern with hopes of publishing herself—spitefully threw my pitch on the slush pile.
So when two agents and one publisher nibbled at my book, then swam away in August of 2004, I stuffed the manuscript in a box, slid it under my bed, licked my wounds, and returned to the classroom. As recommended in The Artist’s Way, I mourned my artistic loss an appropriate amount of time, but still I wondered… what went wrong? Wasn’t I born to be a writer? Didn’t my 40+ journals attest to the fact? And don’t my friends say I’m never at a loss for words, analyzing everything to death? In fact can’t my writing style be compared to Virginia Woolf’s and my dialogue to a Tennessee Williams’ character? Wouldn’t this explain why more than one guy had in John Wayne fashion grabbed and kissed me mid-sentence just so I’d shut up?
Down the Rabbit Hole…or Chasing a Rabbit Trail
No, I definitely had something to say, and I knew I could write. Maybe I simply needed to change genres. The first book had been nonfiction—more an academic tome than a page-turner. This time I would try a novel!
My main character could be a hopelessly romantic Queen of Angst fraught with the Perils of Parenthood and traumatized by dating over 40. After disasters with blind dating, online dating, and even speed dating, she would fear she was destined to never find The One—certainly a universal conflict. Though slimed with the human condition, she’d overcome hand wringing and despair…and I was pretty sure how she’d do it.
Excited about my new idea and especially my fascinating protagonist, I started characterizing this complex woman in ways that would translate well into film, saving me time for when I’d inevitably be asked to adapt the book into a screenplay. The movie would begin as the camera zoomed and focused on books stacked beside her bed: The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers who Underachieve; The ADHD Handbook and Parenting with Boundaries and Consequences; Teaching Lolita in Tehran; Intimate Kisses; The Bible; and A Thousand Days in Venice. These plus any title by four of her favorite writers, Jill McCorkle, C.S. Lewis, Donald Miller and Anne Lamott, should cover her character’s many layers. In fact, later in the novel when the protagonist wrote a New York Times best seller and an Academy Award winning screenplay, I knew exactly who she’d thank as she accepted her Oscar. First, she’d recognize her mentor, Jill, for answering her email regarding the first book. Then she’d thank Anne and Donald for being her muses–for showing her how to talk straight, to be real.
But then I stopped short. (And not because the most common mistake new authors make is to write too much about themselves.)
I needed to write about my own experiences. It’s what I know best. But I needed to come clean. To step out of the shadows. To stop hiding behind a fictional character. For me, writing a novel would be taking the easy way out—something I’ve seldom done. As usual, I liked the challenge. I blame my decision on Frost and his whole taking -the- road- less- traveled -shtick.
I would write a memoir, and I’d be gut honest though still raw.
Now I knew from watching my dad fillet fish, that guts are gross. I knew from seeing him empty his bag after bird hunting that when you shoot birds, feathers fly. I knew if I was totally honest with readers there might be enough feather fallout to tar and feather me. I might be disowned by friends and family who don’t share my candid sense of humor or who might judge me for my many mess-ups, mishaps, and sometimes, downright meanness. Having grown up in the South I knew the taboo against “acting ugly.”
I might be accused of rocking the boat if I asserted that it’s the huddling together at one end of the dinghy—at one end of the political spectrum—which really tips the boat over, drowning us all. Polar extremes seemed to alienate, making communication impossible. Running from the culture by isolating oneself or combating the culture with disdain– in the name of whichever political party—makes everyone miss the party…and the point… altogether. Being drawn closer to Christ and then modeling him means, like it or not, drawing closer to each other. His unconditional love for us despite our failure to love others well must be the only reason He hasn’t fired us on the spot and hired a whole new PR team.
But a few people have gotten it right—mostly because they confess to so often being wrong. Reading Donald Miller and Anne Lamott gave me the idea to forget the novel and do the “novel”– write the “naked truth” about my own life. I appreciate their courage to admit their humanity as they seek to do the divine–to love others as we love ourselves. I appreciate their humility, admitting they often fall short. Miller’s books are more popular in college frat houses than in many churches. He reaches so many people because he addresses where we really live–where we really struggle. Maybe because loving others well is one of the most radical things any of us can do—ironically the only way to Rage Against the Machine.
Before Miller and Lamott, my greatest fear was that I’d cause others to falter in their faith–especially when I had questions about mine. Since a sorority sister gave me my first “quiet time” journal and instructed me to write out my prayers to God, I’d offered Him all the drama in my life. I could clearly see how He had answered countless prayers, which had no doubt strengthened my faith. But it was the unchecked items on God’s “To Do List”–the one I’d given him– that bothered me. Those chronic unresolved problems that stood in the way of my writing sooner from my heart as well as my head. Shouldn’t I wait until the major kinks in my life were straightened out and I could write a feel-good romantic comedy? Then I could encourage others because everyone likes a happy ending. My story would prove to everyone that wishes do come true someplace other than the Magic Kingdom.
I decided it was time to begin writing my story even though I wasn’t sure how the loose ends would finally come together and be tied up in a nice big bow. Could I raise questions without offering hard, fast answers?
Then I remembered that I had always suspected writers, and for that matter, people who offered neatly numbered steps to anything. In fact, the most effective counselors, doctors, and even pastors I had known admitted that life is messy. Two of them immediately came to mind.
Every summer while I’m not teaching, I schedule yearly checkups. Right alongside an oil change for my car, immunizations for my pets, and teeth cleanings for my children, I see my OB-GYN. My gynecologist is a really nice man. He delivered my nieces and his former partner delivered my children. We go way back. He always asks how life is treating me. More than once I had wanted to reply, “So roughly I’d like to swear out a warrant.” But when I wasn’t feeling so dramatic, I’d just laugh flippantly:
“No news really– still single, still financially challenged, still hoping I’m a good parent, and sometimes still wanting to run away to Europe. Oh, and I’ve decided I’m too young to go through menopause…ever.”
Each year he listened and nodded, ignoring only my last comment. But that summer of 2004 he added seriously, “I know it must be lonely trying to raise your kids alone. And I’m certainly no expert on parenting, but I think all any of us can do is just be consistent. Let our kids know who we are and what we believe. And that we’ll always be there for them.”
Maybe it was the embarrassing position I was in each year— with the stirrups and all—that caused me to feel so vulnerable and emotional, but the forced humor I’d always lead with would turn to quiet tears. Somehow his honesty made me feel a little better—like I wasn’t the only one who found life disappointing and confusing much of the time but who still tried to press on in faith.
Likewise, a counselor I know had the same effect on me that summer. Rather than just whine that God had apparently lost the item on His To-Do-List that plainly stated I needed my very own Miracle Worker—the perfect husband and step- father to help me– I presented her a To-Do-List of her very own. I said that I wished there was a support group for single parents—something I could really use– considering I was a single mom and my son had just that week fashioned our dog a vest from a squirt bottle of mustard—then wrote the word “Dubs” (luckily in chalk) on the rims of my new tires. I suggested this new support group meet in her office so we’d need no secret handshake. We could all talk freely about our exhaustion without having to protect our kids or ourselves from people who would rather judge than help. Rather than take the ball and run with it, she passed it back to me:
“You should start that support group, Cindy,” she said brightly.
“But I’m a mess. You know that better than anyone,” I protested, thinking I was not only unqualified but much too depleted to take on one more thing. I thought that psychologists were supposed to tell us not to bite off more than we could chew.
“Exactly. That’s why God can really use you. He can ONLY use people who know they are a mess and in need of His help. Don’t think you have to have it all together to start a group, or for that matter, to be in a relationship with a man. If a good man comes along, date him. None of us are perfect or ‘fixed,’ so never let that fact hold you back. It’s why we all need to support each other, to be in community with others.”
While I didn’t start that local support group, I realized that even larger community could be created through writing. (What I didn’t know then was that writing would lead me to new friends in my community as well—like Julie, a newcomer to Nashville who I met just yesterday for coffee because she identified with the experiences I’ve written about on this blog.) I had finally realized that God wanted me to write– not despite but because of my inability to fix anything or anyone. All I could do would be to offer readers the comfort I’d been given by pointing them to the One who comforted me. The only wisdom I had was to know I knew nothing…except the Guy who knows everything. All I could do was to be gut honest—to speak the truth in love– about my own fears, my own issues as I struggled with many of my own unanswered prayers.
As a writer, I would offer no ten easy steps to anything. I could only offer honesty, admitting life is not about me, even though I often wish it were. And then to admit I’m glad deep down that it’s not…most of the time. A writing career was a way to contribute—to cry with others and to laugh at myself. It could free up more time for my kids, my family, and my friends. And yes, it would introduce me to new friends and adventures… a way to love God by enjoying Him forever. Writing would be my door to an ideal future. I just had to figure out how to lunge across its threshold.
But before I would start Book #2, my Carpe Diem self seized not just a day, but the whole summer of 2005. I took a detour in writing my way to the sweet life. Ironically—no, Providentially–I found life sweeter that summer—both while abroad and when I returned home. I went to Italy for ten days and taught English to Italians. They, in turn, taught me that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence—or in this case, of the ocean. They reminded me of blessings in the US which were very sweet. Yet they also taught me how to relax and how to enjoy friends and all- things- bella. Their friendship, something taken very seriously and valued very highly in the Italian culture, continues to give me a richer life. A clearer vision of what is important. And they’ve given me more joy to share. That summer, as well as the times I’ve been reunited with them since, left me renewed, hopeful, ready to write again. Perfect timing because I had the whole Summer of 2006 to begin a new project.
Preparing to Lunge
But something kept nagging me: Even if what I wrote this time was more appealing to readers than what I wrote before, maybe good material wasn’t enough. Maybe the first book didn’t sell because I had neglected some vital step in the writing process. Maybe I still needed to find that golden key to unlock the door that barred me from publication.
Then it dawned on me. There was no golden key—no key needed at all. The way was free and clear, open to the public practically 24/7. But of course! I had failed to observe the sacred rite to write: the ritual to be observed at the pinpointed spot on the map to the Holy Grail (a.k.a. writing success). According to the Arthurian legend, the Grail was found in a sanctuary—a sacred place. But of course! How could I have missed it?
The only logical reason my first book hadn’t been published was because I didn’t write it in Starbucks!
(To be continued in Pt 4: The Rite of Passage to the Rite of Passage)
Posted on January 1, 2009
“Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”–Howard Thurman
The most creative people I know seem to be defined by vision, passion, sensitivity, and need—specifically the urgency to manage and express the chaos without and within. Some sneer at the “starving artist.” The paradox is that no matter how much money one makes, a true artist must continue to starve–to thirst and hunger for truth and love– with abandon. Likewise, no matter how little one earns, life is rich– in its intensity, diversity, and complexity. I decided in 2009 to finally blog about the wealth of joys I’ve found through the arts, travel, my family, friends, and faith.
I’ve been writing for awhile. I first thought writing would kill three birds—maybe even a whole flock– with one stone. First, it would provide income–for travel, for Lancome eye cream, for groceries.
Second, it would provide therapy as I released the stuff ricocheting in my head, eliminating the need for Wellbutrin. I concur with my favorite Bad Boy Byron who said: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” Writing would uncover my usually stifled rebel yells and free my muddled, melancholy musings.
Third, writing would help me see where I’m going and help me remember where I’ve been. With writing I could comfort others with the comfort I’ve been given.
When I was a little girl in Kentucky, the Mother of All Field Trips was going to Mammoth Cave. While I was told not to fear the Natural Wonder, I wasn’t all that excited about going deep into the black unknown, feeling my way down damp, winding paths. (This was before Pan’s Labyrinth or I might have seen it as quite the adventure.) The tour guide seemed so calm. She had a light to guide us but no map. She had obviously been in that cave before—many times–and was so familiar with it she could have led us through that vast cavern even if the batteries in her flashlight died.
The only good I can make of getting older is that I’ve lived long enough to have gone into some terrible darkness but emerged again into the light. I’ve survived the death of two unborn children and of two marriages—my parents’ and my own. I’ve survived the death of a father and then a grandmother who was my mentor and muse. I’m still surviving the life of a single mother and a woman dating over 40.
Though I have survived great losses, I rarely emerged from the black by way of a blowtorch or floodlight. God usually just gave me a candle—one that flickered—and He whispered He wouldn’t let go of my hand even if the flame went out. I still grope but know He’s there. Even if I can’t feel his fingers interlocked with mine. Even if I can’t feel his hand at all and seem to wander in the dark for days…or weeks….or years. I write to share my cave experiences—those I’ve emerged from blinking in the light as well as those I’m still mining through—looking for something of value as I wait and work and wait for release.
Some say we read to know we’re not alone. We write for the same reason—especially when we’re gut honest and still raw. I write of the familiar and lonely—like playing Santa solo for twelve years as I placed gifts under the tree. Or of the frustrating and embarrassing–like when I didn’t know how to tie my son’s first real necktie. While I cried, cursing my ineptness as a parent, he emerged from his bedroom with a perfectly tied knot. Thank God for youtube.
But mostly I write of the joy I’m finding on the path not taken—that place I landed when derailed from the life I imagined, the L.L. Bean or Southern Living picture-perfect family I so desperately wanted. Truly God has made “all things work together for good,” and He is still conforming me to the likeness of His son despite the fact that in the words of one of my favorite hymns, I am weak and “prone to wander.” He never gives up on me.
And so I write… of playing volleyball with Italian friends in a pool at midnight, of walking through a fishing village in Ireland, and of leaving Montmartre with my daughter, all lit by the same gigantic moon. I write of riding The Hulk with my son at Universal Studios—teeth clinched, tears squeezed out the corners of our eyes as we held on for dear life…literally…under a hot July sun. I write of feeling alive and blessed—even when the virtual mob of Guitar Hero World Tour shuts me down because my kids, though unhappy, don’t kick me out of the band.
I write about the absurd—trying to find a social scene somewhere between the Senior Citizens Center and the haunts of hot pants herds. And then finding it.
2008 was full of surprises, so I write…
Of a new passion that left me addicted…but never so free. As sleep-deprived as when I nursed infants…but never so fully awake. Though my old friends say I’m MIA, I no longer feel invisible. I’m immersed in a foreign culture…but I’m so completely at home. Maybe because I’m NOT one of the twenty million American women sitting on the couch watching Dancing with the Stars. Instead I’m dancing under them. With friends from Colombia, Chile, Dominican Republic, France, India, Peru, Puerto Rico, Lebanon, and Syria. In Nashville.
Of the closest of friendships between a conservative suburb/girly girl/ teacher/soccer mom and a liberal urban/athletic/ folk singer/dog rescuer. (Sure to come in 2009 is the continuing salsa saga of two Renaissance women with gypsy souls whose quest to become Dancing Queens often turns Monty Python.)
Of a baby girl whose finishing her last year of high school and moving to college made her mom very sad.
Of her brother whose getting his permit and doing well his first year of high school made his mom very happy.
And, no surprise, she’s proud of them both.
I look ahead in 2009 and look forward to fun with my mom on her first trip to Europe. Wish my sister were going. She’s been listening to me ramble since we were kids. Oh, and Christmas Eve rocked!