Friday, June 29, 2012

The Squirrel

            When I saw the small brown mound in the road, I knew immediately what it was. “Oh, no,” I cried. The squirrel. Although it had no distinctive markings, I knew it was the one who lived in the trees in my yard.
            She was a brassy young thing, not afraid of me or my dog. She’d scamper across the driveway and stop at the bottom of a tree, her mouth stretched by the fat pecan she carried. A bold little thing, she’d look us straight in the eye. Ripples of energy ran through her body, ending in quick flicks of her tail. “I’m alive,” she seemed to say, “catch me if you can.” Then she’d scramble up the tree leaving the dog and me open-mouthed and speechless, stuck to the earth. She defied gravity as she ran about, playing tag in the trees with her friends, teasing my dog, planting loquats and pecans in all my pots of flowers. I’ll miss her.
            I parked the car in the garage and got some paper towels. I couldn’t let her lie out there on the street. Her little body was nearly weightless in my hand. I carried her into the backyard and found a spot under her pecan tree. I buried her there. Her little face was composed in death, her body neat and tidy. Her friends came by to watch for a moment and then ran off to play. They seemed to understand the laws of nature better than I. I was acting as if I’d lost something forever. They knew that nothing is lost. Everything changes, is always changing. That’s the only constancy in life. The memory of that little squirrel exists still in me and in the dog. (I’m sure that’s what she dreams of.) The elements of that little brown body are changing, nurturing the pecan tree, which in turn is nurturing the squirrels, who will in turn…The never-ending cycle. And for a brief moment in time, a little brown squirrel, my dog, and I shared in the miracle of being alive together in the cosmos.

Friday, June 22, 2012


I’ve been walking a tightrope lately, or at least it feels like that. Oh, it’s not a real tightrope. It’s a metaphorical one, but just as tricky.
I watched an inspiring TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert recently and it got me to thinking. She’s the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a book that was an international best seller. She said the question everyone is asking is, “Can you write another best seller?” Wrong question. Then she went on to explain that in ancient Greece there was a Genius. It was a muse, a something that was out there. Anyone could call on it, learn from it, gain inspiration from it. The Romans did the same, only they called it a Daemon. And then at some time in Europe, someone pointed a finger at an individual and said he’s a genius. Big mistake.
            I felt a huge sense of relief when I heard her say that. When I was twelve, my grandmother sent me the book A Tale of Two Cities. It was a well-worn library edition, a book from her library. I loved it and carried it for days after I finished reading it. Didn’t want to let it go. I longed to be a writer, but knew I would never be one, as I was no genius. I didn’t have the talent. Now if you’d have asked me what that word “talent” meant, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. But I did know there were certain people, like Dickens, Austen, and the Bronte sisters, who did have that talent. They were writers. I was merely a reader. It wasn’t until my children were grown that I even considered writing. Then it took the nagging of my father and my children to get me to even try.
            But now I know differently. I now know how an idea can come, uncalled for, pesky, demanding to be jotted down. I have experienced waking at 2:00 in the morning with a full paragraph asking to be saved. Getting lost on the freeway is a common occurrence as my mind works over a tricky scene. I am humbled by the way subconscious thoughts can blossom into full chapters. I now realize that “genius” is still out there, a “genie” just waiting to have its tummy rubbed.
            And that’s where the other side of that tight rope’s edge comes in. What’s also needed in order to produce writing is that familiar BIC—butt in chair. It’s the discipline needed to sit down at the computer and work. It’s making the time for the editor in me to get busy and turn that meandering thought into sense. It’s the perspiration part of inspiration that’s necessary.
            It’s a tricky balance for me. Too much of the muse side and I wander about lost in my head. And if I spend all my time on the other side, the writing is stiff and boring. So I’ll continue slipping into one or the other and righting myself as quickly as possible. Walking the tightrope keeps me on my toes. Not a bad place to be.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An Autobiography

I have a good friend who keep encouraging me to write my story, my autobiography. (He’s the one who needs to write an autobiography as he had a fascinating childhood.) But I've decided to not write mine. Even if I did an outstanding job, crossed all my t’s and dotted all the i’s, wrote in a fascinating literary style, broke new ground, it wouldn't sell. I’d never be invited to appear on talk shows, never be interviewed for the local newspaper, never be reviewed by Kirkus. 

You see I had a happy childhood. Lived at a beautiful lake with acres of woods to play in. Had a loving gentle family. Liked school. Made good grades. Had friends. Married the man I loved, who loved me. Had darling children who grew up to be wonderful adults. No skeletons in my closet. Damn!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Being Me

Her name was Dorothy and she was the tribal chief in her neighborhood. It was during the late 60s and Civil Rights was the issue. Dorothy’s neighborhood was about 60% white, 40% black, and 100% poor. I was part of a small group of white middle-class women who were having things happen in that neighborhood. We had started a credit union and were busy putting together a plan of housing where residents would be assisted as either renters or owners. We also were hassling absent landlords and the gas company. I was never arrested, but we were constantly risking the law, pushing the envelope. It was an exciting time.
            I had set up a steering committee made up of the residents of the neighborhood. Dorothy was one of the people who attended our weekly meetings. She was older than I by at least ten years and wore loose fitting muumuus. Every time she arrived at the storefront we had rented, she plunked her bulky body down into a chair at the head of the table. Someone always brought her the black coffee she liked and made sure she was comfortable. It was obvious the residents respected her and looked to her for guidance. Dorothy had no front teeth and it didn’t bother her one bit. She was obese and seemed to enjoy her body. Her battered tennis shoes had no laces. But she was serene and sure of herself. There was no doubt Dorothy was royalty, a queen.
            I did everything I could to be like “them.” I wanted to fit in, to have them like me. I dressed “down,” felt guilty that I was white and lived in a wealthy suburb. But no matter what I did, Dorothy never looked me in the eye. She had a way of talking around me as if I weren’t there.
            One morning, as I was dressing to go to our weekly meeting, I looked in the mirror. A feeing of anger flashed through me. “Look,” I said loudly to the person in the mirror. “This is the way I am. I can’t help it if I was born white and if they don’t like it, too damn bad!” I was shocked. But also realized it was true. Dorothy was true to herself. She would never prostitute herself. I took off the old sweats and dressed as I would if I were meeting my friends for lunch.
            Dorothy arrived her usual 15 minutes late and plunked herself down. I took the chair at the other end of the table and looked at her. She grinned and looked me straight in the eye. “Welcome, girl,” she said. “It’s about time you showed up. Now we can start our meeting.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

Getting Directions

            During my “mom” years, we lived in eleven different cities. Many opportunities to figure out how to get places, and when you’re raising children, there are always places to get to.
            “You go such an interesting way,” they said politely as I’d make yet another U-turn. “We like your long cuts.”
            “It’s around here someplace, “ I’d reply. They often guided me and we always found it. Eventually. I’m deeply grateful for those kid-schlepping days for I learned some effective ways to get where I need to go.
            Some years ago, my friend Eva Marguerite had been teaching a watercolor class in Lucca, Italy while I had visited friends outside of Paris. Her class was now over and we had five weeks ahead of us to “do” Italy. We decided to start at the bottom and work our way up. The headlines had been easy to translate. There was serious mafia trouble in Sicily. Eva Marguerite protested, but I insisted and so we took a train to Naples and from there an overnight ferry to Sicily. We arrived, disembarked with hordes of people who all were greeted by other hordes of people and within minutes, the dock was empty except for Eva Marguerite, her nine-year old daughter Joy, and me. I had made reservations for a car, but the agency was closed. It was Sunday.
            Eva was a worrywart, one who carried on at an extreme pitch. Every terror known to man was brought forth as a reality as we stood on the dock. I quieted her down so I could think. The airport! There’d be an agency there. I hailed a tiny bright orange cab. A tall young man, built like a Sumi wrestler, got out and opened the passenger door for me.
            “Oh, my God,” Eva cried. “He’ll rape us.”
            “Get…in…the…car,” I said. I knew we were safe for I always carry “safe” around with me.
            All the way to the airport, Eva carried on about rapes and killings. I tried speaking over her loud protestations. “Buena,” I said as I pointed to the beautiful scenery. “Multi buena,” exhausting my supply of Italian.
            We arrived at the airport and the driver opened my door. As Eva opened the rear door, he pointed a finger at her and said firmly, “No.” She froze.
            The driver and I climbed the steps past waiting cab drivers and went inside. He vigorously bargained with the agent, took me to the car, inspected it thoroughly, showed me how it worked, then got my luggage and put it in the trunk. He then went to Eva and said, “Out.”
            I tried to pay him but he refused. I put my hand on my heart and said, “Grazie, grazie.” He grabbed me in a bear hug and kissed my cheeks. Then he turned to the watching cab drivers and bowed. They cheered.
            We drove to a nearby village, got cold drinks, and started on our adventure. The road was winding. narrow and steep, and there was a bus coming up the hill. It had the right of way, and so I began to back up. Eva started screaming and shouting. I slammed on the brakes so hard we all flew forward and I turned to her. “You get to ride or scream. You cannot do both with me.”
            With that I became our official driver. Driving the back roads of Italy was interesting (that’s what you say when it’s really horrible and you don’t want to admit it). Few signs, and those I could see were written in what looked like ancient Greek or Hebrew. Maybe Arabic? At one point I knew we were lost so stopped in a village. I saw five older men seated on an old stonewall, whiling away the time between lunch and dinner. I got out of the car, threw my arms to the side, said the name of the village we wanted, and shrugged (Italian for “where?”). The men leaped from the wall and began to argue. Their voices rose, their faces flushed, and five arms pointed in five different directions.
            An old woman came to my side and nudged my arm. She winked. Then she pointed down a side road, mimed driving, and in an exaggerated way leaned left, stopped and spread her hands. I could almost see the destination. I kissed her cheeks, hopped in the car, leaving the men, still arguing behind in the dust. She was right. I found the hotel with time to spare. The rest of the trip was easy, well...there was the Amalfi coast. But that's another story.
           So far, I’d always managed to not drive in major cities like Rome, Istanbul, or Paris, but I had reservations at Hotel Mere Poulard on the isle and had promised myself to attend Christmas Eve Mass at Mont Saint Michel. I’d seen my first picture of that beautiful edifice in a “National Geographic Magazine.” The fact that it is built on rocks and could only be reached during low tide presented the kind of challenge a ten-year-old girl would never forget.
            I’d spent four days in Paris, but now I had to make the trip to Normandy. I’d reserved a car and had no trouble finding the agency. But it was Christmas Eve and they were busy. I filled out the necessary papers. “Now,” the young rental agent said in perfect English, “I can’t take you, but your car is in the lot, the keys inside. When you leave, turn left. From there it’s a straight road to the M.”
            Full of confidence, I found my car, checked it out, and drove to exit the lot. But there was no turning left from this exit. (I didn’t know there were two lots and I had gotten the “other one.”) Not a problem, I thought, I’d just drive around the block and turn left. That turn put me on a circle and soon I passed the agency on my right. Oh no. I went around the block the other way and passed the agency on my left. Now frustrated and fearful of being late I pulled over to the curb. I thought back to my “mom” days. Surely there was something I could do.
            Ahead of me was a taxi stand. They knew the way to the M. I rushed over to the first driver who spoke no English. With my arms, hands, and face I pleaded my case. (It seems that asking directions in France is just like asking in Italy.) I pointed to his car, then to mine. Then showed my hands, the one following the other. The man frowned, and then lit up like Christmas itself. He got in his car. I got into mine and he led me to the M. He refused a tip, hugged me, and grinned. I’d given him a story he could share for years.
            Finding a leader paid off again only this time in St. Louis. I was late leaving The Boeing Leadership Center and they were making improvements at the airport, ones they never seemed to finish. The signs were of a temporary nature which means hand printed and smudged. I followed the National Agency signs, but I kept showing up at the Budget rental office. On my third attempt, I stopped and went inside. A young agent made a map and wished me good luck. Ten minutes later I was at the Budget office again. I raced inside. “I’ll give you $20 if you’ll drive me there.” He almost leaped over the counter. “Mike,” he called. “Cover for me.”
            It took a while but he finally found it. I turned in my car and he and I rode the shuttle to the airport. I caught my plane. My children would have been proud.