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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Homemade Grits, Changing Tastes, and The Constant Redefining of Ourselves

On Thursday morning, we pulled out of my dad's driveway in Alabama around 8:30 am to head back to Pennsylvania after a wonderful, full week with the family. We stopped at a coffee shop just before hopping on the interstate. I ordered a peppermint mocha latte and began to peruse the breakfast menu. When I saw grits listed, my decision for breakfast was made. Behind the espresso machine sat a black vat of homemade grits. Not the instant grits I buy in Pennsylvania that I microwave for 90 seconds then shove a dollop of butter into for flavor. These were full-on, homemade, Alabama grits. Slow cooked to perfection.

So imagine my surprise when I took a big bite and almost spit them out. Since I left home over twenty years ago, I haven't had homemade, slow-cooked grits. My entire adult life, my grits have come from a Quaker box. And that's how I like them now.

I pulled onto the interstate with my delicious and predictable peppermint mocha with three shots of espresso, and thought about what other tastes of mine have changed since I left Alabama twenty years ago for Atlanta. In 1991, I didn't drink coffee. In 1994, when my roommate, Jill, and I drove through the night to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Michigan, she convinced me to drink a big, plastic vat of coffee with at least ten servings of vanilla creamer in it. Now, I not only like to drink strong coffee, I drink straight espresso in their tiny cups of heaven. When I practiced law in Miami, I loved to stop at the counter across from the courthouse and grab a Cuban coffee.

When I moved to Miami for my first job, I worked six days a week. Monday through Friday were twelve hour days with six to seven hours spent in the office on Saturday. So I cherished my Sundays. I would sit on the beach and read. I devoured "The Winds of War," "Les Miserables," Neitzsche, Kafka, Kundera. I loved deep, philosophical books that challenged me and flipped my perspective, causing me to examine every bit of me. As a twenty-something, I sought my place in the world and needed to understand the layers of my relationships and beliefs before I could define my own identity and boundaries.

Now, as suburban mom, I read Jodi Picoult books, Parent magazine, and skim snippets of the news online in an attempt to remain plugged into what's going on in the rest of the world and in the sphere of my own society. I'd love to spend hours pontificating the complexity of everything around me. And its simplicity. The layers of what surrounds us. But the demands of being a responsible adult often interrupt these contemplations in their infancy. We have to instead figure out how to squeeze laundry, groceries, bills, the kids' sports, and a shower into a finite period of time. Doesn't really lend itself to Nietzsche and lying on the beach searching the stars.

As a kid, I loved Twizzlers and Twinkies. Now I love sushi and hummus. I loved soda and cheetos. Now I love broccoli and tomatoes. I loved cartoons and comics. Now I love National Geographic TV and poetry.

Tastes evolve and devolve, just as our priorities do. We redefine ourselves constantly. And the most important part of this is remaining true to our authentic selves and not allowing popular culture to dictate our interests and what is important to us. So embrace whatever is relevant, important, and defining to you. The extraneous doesn't matter.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Things I learned from a two-year-old: Part 2

In my last post, I introduced you to the adorable McKenzie Bishop (I had to include another picture. She's just too cute.) Over the past few days, she's continued to remind me of some basic, but profound, principles:

1.  Ask for what you want. Otherwise, you'll never get it.
2.  Use as few words as possible. Because people will try to actually listen and figure out what you're trying to say.
3.  Show your love unabashedly. Those you love will never grow tired of your hugs and affection.
4.  Eat when you're hungry and sleep when you're tired. Enough said.
5.  Cling to those you love as if they're a lifeline. Because they are.
6.  Always eat the inside of the grilled cheese first. It's the best part and if you eat the crust first, you'll be too full to enjoy the gooey goodness.
7.  Love your Daddy without condition. That's how he loves you. And no one else will ever love you the way he does.
8.  Laugh as loud as you can and express the pure joy you feel in your heart. Nothing else will ever feel as good.
9.  When you need help, look to your brother. As annoying as he might be sometimes, he will be your best friend and protect you. Blood is thicker than friendship.
10.  Dig your toes in the sand. Eat pudding with your hands. Drink your milk with both hands. And sleep with your mouth wide open. In other words, live life.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What I learned from a 2-year-old this weekend.

I've spent the last few days in picturesque Seaside, Florida with my cousins and their families. Seaside is an amazing, quaint little town on the panhandle of Florida. Quiet, serene, and relaxing. We've spent lazy days where lunch isn't over until 4 pm and we simply sit on the beach together talking. Although we haven't seen one another in years, the forty-plus years I've known them erases any hiccups in time between visits. We seamlessly fall back into a familiarity that wraps me in warmth and love. No expectations. No awkward silences. And no make-up required. Although we're hundreds of miles from home, we're home.

My cousin, Ann, has a beautiful two-year-old daughter, McKenzie (that's her cherubic face in the pic). Until this weekend, I'd only seen her in pictures, which belied her beauty and sweetness. Yesterday, she sat watching a movie after having a full morning of play and pool time. Her eyelids kept slowly closing with fatigue. Her head bobbed. Her arms twitched. And just as she succumbed to sleep, she jerked her head up and protested, "I not tired." We watched her, laughing and breathing in her innocence and fortitude.

It reminded me of my own life, and that of most people I know. Our lives are filled with family, friends, activities, obligations, vacations, work, commitments to community. We become overloaded and our heads bob as our metaphorical eyelids beg to close, but we fight it. We continue to say "yes." We add that one more thing. Allow our child to play one more sport. Take on one more committee. Agree to one more additional task to our already bloated work load. When what we really need to do is stop. Say no. Breathe. Close our eyes.

The publishing world is a hurricane. It doesn't simply end when you edit the last page. That's just the lightening before the storm. There are then re-edits and re-writes and query letters and cover designs and website designs and marketing strategies and publicity. When I first began to write books, I did so to tell a story. Because writing is a compulsion for me. I didn't realize the enormity of the world of publishing. But even if I had, it wouldn't have stopped me. My heart. My soul. My innermost person bleeds through my fingertips and onto my keyboard. It's a sneeze I can't suppress.

But the choices I make in my daily life about the responsibilities I assume are my choice. I must learn to step back, take a breath, say "no," and allow my eyelids to close.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Emotions Trump Actual Words Everytime

If you had told me five years ago that I would be involved in working with middle school students--actually taking time away from my family, sharing a shower and a room with a bunch of messy, disorganized girls, and eating camp food for four days straight, I would have laughed. Although I've lived my life trying to find ways to give to others, it's always been with the idea of helping those in need like the homeless or battered women. In law school, I volunteered at the Achor Center, a women and children's shelter. We loved going down as a group every week to play with the kids while their moms had time alone. As I continued through adult hood, I've tried to always give back and pay it forward. But it never occurred to me that simply opening my heart to middle school students would be so important.

We live in an upper-class suburb, Manheim Township. My friend's kids and my own have iPhones and Ripsticks and Wii's and Abercrombie clothes. If they want to play lacrosse or dance or travel all over the place on the weekends to play a sport, we shell out the money for the equipment, the uniforms, the hotel rooms, the food. Because we can. For some families, the cost of a lacrosse stick is a week's worth of groceries. A year of dance is a mortgage payment. We have so much, but expect so little from our kids when it comes to giving back. Yes, we want to give them everything. Yes, we want to provide what we didn't have as kids. Yes, we don't want them to want because we can prevent it. But is that the best thing? Should our kids have flat-screen TV's, game systems, smart phones, and expensive clothes simply because we didn't. Or because we can give it to them.

I spent this weekend with my daughter and eight other middle-school girls in two rooms. Yes it was messy! And loud! But they were unplugged. No TV. No game systems. Minimal cell phones. No time for make-up and flat irons and multiple wardrobe changes. And it was amazing. Without the shellac of their daily lives, they could just be. There was no pretense. No trying to be "cool." No multiple mirror readjustments. They just lived in their skin (albeit stinky) and had fun. They were open and loving and amazing. It has been said that people don't remember what you say. They remember how you make them feel. This was evident this weekend in living 24-7 in close quarters with a group of middle school girls. I hope that I made the middle schoolers I spent the weekend with understand that I love them and are there for them simply because I made them feel accepted.

With writing, authors often try too hard with imagery, vocabulary, and metaphor. We seek depth and levels in our writing that end up being forced and insincere. We powder our words with unnecessary frosting because what matters isn't always how we say it but what we say. You might not remember character names or plot lines or settings, but you will remember that you loved a certain book. Or that an author consistently makes you unable to put her book down.

I hope to evoke such an emotive response with my readers. More importantly, I hope my own children feel my love every morning when they come down the stairs. When they're 30, they might not remember that they got a "morning hug" before anything else, and that the last words they heard at night were "I love you." But they will remember and know that they are loved.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fitted Sheets, Summer Heat, and Little Annoyances

Just a few minutes ago, I was in our guest bedroom trying to put clean sheets on its queen-sized bed. My honey and I (and the pups) sleep in a King, which is a square that doesn't require thought. So as my mind is in a million other places, I grew frustrated at trying to get the fitted sheet on the rectangular bed. In my frustration, I became annoyed with our three dogs underfoot who required me to step over them simply because they wanted to be near me. I also mentally complained about how because I'm growing my hair out, I'm hot. Last summer I didn't have hair on my neck. Then, as quickly as these ridiculous complaints registered, my mind involuntarily slapped itself.

I stepped back and thought of the thousands of homeless people who would appreciate a clean mattress, much less clean sheets. Privacy versus a shelter full of people. A bathroom to themselves instead of waiting in line simply to brush their teeth. I thought of my best friend's mother with a chemo-therapy-caused bald head and how she would love to be able to hold her hair up and complain about the heat. I thought about those who don't have the arms, the strength, or the mental capacity to make a bed. I thought of my mom who, if she were only aware, would love to be making that bed instead of sitting in a wheelchair unaware of her surroundings.

I'm not saying we never have a right to be sad or annoyed or angry. But we also have a responsibility to recognize and appreciate all that is good in our lives. And find the good even in the mundane. The ordinary. The annoying.

Oftentimes, writers will describe scenes or characters who appear to contribute nothing to the plot or dynamics of the story. But nothing we write lacks purpose. Isn't intentional. In trying to capture a reader's imagination and convince them to lend hours of their busy lives to the words we've written requires authors to be judicious with their words. Purposeful.

In fighting with the fitted sheet tonight, I was reminded that I need to live my live with gratitude and awareness. Purposefully.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What Makes America Great, Our Diversity, and Why "Bless Her Heart" isn't a Blessing

Yesterday, we celebrated our country's birthday. It caused me to pause and reflect on how vast and diverse our nation has become over the past 236 years. We landed on Plymouth Rock as one group of people and have since welcomed emigrants from all over the globe who have contributed to the uniqueness of our country. From the Cuban food and Flamenco dancing in South Florida to the deliciously ethnic dishes and cultures found all over New York City in China Town and Little Italy. Every continent and most nations have representatives who enrich our culture. Contribute to our society. And make us the great country we are. I'm not trying to incite a debate on immigration. To prevent provocation of nasty commentary, let's assume I'm talking about legal immigrants. The bottom line is that our country is great because of how much its citizens want to be American. Even if they weren't born here. It is Patriotism born from a love of what America represents and holds dear, and not simply from being born here.

As I walked across the parking lot of the CVS today, a warm breeze blew. Not a cool, refreshing, heat-wicking breeze, but a heat that did nothing to provide respite from the stifling summer. My granddaddy called that kind of breeze the "Devil's Breath." When I thought of this, it reminded me of antidotes you only hear in the South. Like how "bless her heart" is no blessing at all. Instead it means either she's dumb, she's ugly, or she's pitiful (I know it's harsh, but that's what it means). How "y'all" can be singular with the plural being "all y'all." How "pretty" is "purdy" and "pin" is "pe-en." I love when I go home to Alabama and slip back into the slow, beautiful language I grew up around. Its cadence mirrors a hot Southern summer. And each word, stretched to additional syllables, is filled with the emotion it represents. The way "Daddy" holds all of the love and respect it can, and children say "yes, ma'am" and "no sir."

Living in Pennsylvania for the last eight years, I noticed how locals say "wuter" where Southerners would say "waw-ter." They delete the "a" in the days of the week so "Wednesday" becomes "Wednsdy." In London, I heard the locals add "r" to words ending with a. "Agenda" becomes "agender" and "Ella" becomes "Eller." And anything good is "brilliant!" The Australians call a best friend a "mate" and any other guy a "bloak."

Yet despite the different ways we say things, we're all saying the same things. How much we love our family. How much our friends mean to us. How our dreams push us forward. How our lives are defined by the things treasured by us the most.

While writing The Beauty of Grace, I sent beta copies to a couple of people whose opinions I treasure. One of them, my sister-in-law, Stacey, caught an error in the dialogue that escaped me. Growing up in the South, I heard people use the term, "sweetie," all the time. In Grace, which is set in Atlanta, many of the characters used this same term of endearment. Stacey pointed out that it made the dialogue confusing, causing her to halt and re-read who was speaking. To a writer, this is a death-knoll. You never want a reader to stop and have to re-read passages. Although people use this term liberally where I grew up, I realized that not all of my potential readers grew up in the South. While staying true to the setting, I also needed to consider my audience. In her one sentence comment, Stacey changed my view of an important aspect of writing: dialogue. And making it true to the setting while also preventing the reader from having to pause.

Yesterday, I pondered how wonderfully rich our country is in how we bring diversity and perspective to one another's lives allowing us to better ourselves in every way we're human. In the arts. In our legislation. In our daily lives. God Bless America.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Affordable Care Act, "Obamacare," and the Power of Words

Last night, I was reminded of the power of words. My love for words is obvious, as evidenced through the title of this blog and the compulsion to write my novels and memoir. I love their power. The depth of conviction and ideology that can be relayed. Their demonstration of passion, logic, compassion, and honesty. They can also reveal prejudice, hatred, and ignorance. But without them, we cannot express what is important to us. Protect those we love and demonstrate that love. Words are gateways to vast worlds.

So I spent last night with some powerful, life-altering words. I read the Supreme Court's opinion on the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare"). Not what people are writing about it. Or saying about it. But the actual opinion. And I read the actual bill. Not all of it (because of its length), but I looked at the specific provisions that have people shouting obscenities at their neighbors and decrying the end of the republic. I read the actual bill and the Supreme Court's opinion because I want to be informed. I don't want people reducing such landmark legislation to soundbites that I bite and devour with my own ideologies as tasting buds. I want to truly understand what happened with the passage of the bill and not rely on people with agendas to shove their interpretations down my throat.

I know how polarizing this bill is. I've seen the debates it's inspired--which is good. Thoughtful discussion is always good. But I've also seen people argue and yell and even curse over this bill. I just ask that if you want to pound your fists, please actually read the words of those we chose to govern us before stepping onto your pulpit. Because the truth is, whether you like it or not, all three branches of government--the three branches that our constitution and ourselves rely on to provide checks and balances--all approved of the bill.

The point of this post isn't to instigate debate or the hateful bantering I've seen in social networking. I simply wanted to remind of the power of words. Because as I've watched pundits discuss Robert's opinion and Congress's passage of the bill, I'm reminded of the power of words. Not only in how the three branches of the government we so dearly love and defend protect the provisions of the Constitution, but in how it inspires us as a people to examine and clarify who we are individually and as a nation.