Monday, April 12, 2010

Red, red wine

I spent my 13th wedding anniversary wiping blood of my child’s hands. We were playing bocce ball and Truman had thrown himself on Rick’s back, full spread eagle in the air, after I proclaimed war – us against Daddy – in what was shaping up to be an impossible battle. Upon coming down, my precious son landed on Rick’s rear and, swinging his arm around his waist, made contact with Rick’s glass of red wine. The glass bowl shattered on contact, sending a splash of red wine over Rick’s pressed, white shirt, and an icing sprinkle of glass over the green grass. My son melted in tears as a faint red line appeared on his hand. It grew into a drip and then a line that flowed ever so gently over his other hand, into the creases of his knuckle. I wiped it off with the tail of my 30-A T-shirt. If it stained, it wouldn’t matter. Rick threw the box of Band-aids down from upstairs, and I set off to mend a broken spirit with stretchy beige bandage.

He said, “But there is blood all around me,” and it mixed with the rich, red wine that covered his hands. I said blood was good. It is what binds us together. Makes him ours and only ours. Had it not been for that night 13 years ago, when I gave my life to his father’s, there would be no Truman bleeding here, in my arms, in the soft patch green of our backyard. At 6, this is still so strange for him to understand.

We walked to the house to clean the blood, now dried in brown streaks on his hand. Rick stopped him on the deck steps, and there Truman stopped to settle on his father’s knee. I rubbed the wet cloth over my son’s dirty hands, then pressed it against the fresh blood on my husband’s. “He was happy when he did it, you know?” I said. Rick nodded, “Yeah, I know. I know.” And there, with blood and red wine flowing over us, I kneeled down to kiss my husband. “What a glorious anniversary, my love,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “It really is.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How do you write?

A Pulitzer Prize winner once told me that he hates writing. He does, however, love having written. I’m trying to tell this to 25 Kindergarteners. An hour earlier, while driving my son to school, he tells me writing stories is not what Community Helpers do. Community Helpers, like the ones lined up to speak to all the Kindergarteners at his school this week, do things like put out fires and make sick children feel better and, you know, talk on TV.

I say, “People pay me to write stories for them. This gives us money to buy your lunches and your HotWheels.” He says, “Oh.”

But I am here, with a short stack of books and magazines under my arm, staring at 25 pairs of impatient eyes who would rather I read to them than talk about what I do. I hold up Kate McMullan's book, “I Stink.” She was at the school last week and the kids adored her. Truman says, “She looks like Grandma, but she’s only 29!” Only 29, and already a popular author. What have I done with my life?

I don’t write stories 6-year-olds would find entertaining. I write about sudden and unintentional acceleration. I tell stories about people who had reactions to medications that left them jerking out of control. I write about women who sue birth control pill makers for blood clots and strokes.

And sometimes I write about my son.

“How do you write?” This question comes after a lengthy pause from one of my son’s favorite friends, who had his arm waving in the air from the moment I started speaking. I want to tell him that sometimes it’s easy. That the words spill out of me when I’m trying to sleep or make breakfast for my son. That sometimes I have to run to the computer to get it all out before the words fall on the floor and disappear forever. And this is when writing is a joy.

But sometimes my mind is silent, and I have to listen for the whispers. I have to coax the words to come, like I did when Coco was a scared kitten, hiding in the bushes where she was tossed by someone who didn’t want her. Sometimes they stay hidden, and I have to leave them be until they are ready to be heard.

But instead I look across the room at the little heads before me, futures of promise brimming just underneath their soft hair. “How do I write?" I say. "Why, I type on the computer.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

But, I love him too much

My sister told me it would get easier to handle – that painful, pathetic love I have for my child that debilitates me sometimes. I think I love my son too much, and I am told it is not possible. My sister’s girls are grown now – or close to it. The teenager is old enough to fend for herself and badgers her mother for money and more privileges. (A typical teen?) My sister rolls her eyes at her, fusses sometimes. I said, “Does it stop feeling painful, that love you have for them?” She said, “Yeah. It’ll stop hurting someday. When they get older, more independent.”

I think that’s when I’ll worry about him more. Will he make the right choices? Will he hang out with the right crowd? Will he stay safe for me?

I didn’t always make the right choices when I was a teenager or even a young adult. I’m not sure my choices now are the best, but everything I do has new life because of him. I breathe because of him.

Last night my son had dinner at his grandparents’ house while Rick and I caught a quick bite at Gianmarco’s before Rick went to soccer coach training and I went to a reception to get roped into PTO obligations I both want to and don’t want to jump into. We sat at the bar next to three people, one of whom we were already acquainted. Like conversations at bars often do, our words tangled together and it wasn’t long before we were talking artichokes and brunch and Natalee Holloway. I had watched the rerun of the TLC special about Natalee on TV the other night and, coincidentally, there are new reports that the primary suspect in the case may have confessed on German TV. I shared the same empathy for Natalee’s mother as the woman next to me. I said, “I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t.” And she said she couldn’t either. Not even now that her son – an only child – is in his 30s. She said they talk on the phone or text each other everyday. They always say, “I love you.”

“I thought it got easier,” I said. “I thought that painful, pathetic love for your child got easier when they grew up.”

“No,” she said. “It gets worse.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Benefits of Entering Writing Contests

Three years before my midlife crisis swelled up and pushed me out of my torturous day job writing press releases for a nonprofit, I sat in my office with a girl I helped hire to raise money for our organization. We were throwing out crazy dreams we had failed to accomplish in our 30-something years. It was mostly she who was doing the talking, telling me how her “old money” upbringing was to have landed her at The Club every day playing tennis and lunching, but she felt compelled to stoop down and lift up those of us who had to work for a living. I leaned back in my office chair, there in the windowless office I affectionately called “the cave,” and admitted that my long lost dream was to write again.

Perhaps it was naive of me to think she would be impressed or even slightly supportive. Instead she perked up and yelped, “Me too! And I know the book I would write. It would be about growing up in Mountain Brook and how I thought we were poor because we had to go to The Club to go swimming.”

That was the very moment I realized that in order to be a writer again (I had written for newspapers for 10 years before getting sucked into PR), I would have to write again. And as long as I remained closed in an office tracking media impressions, I would be just the same kind of writer as my shallow coworker – a writer wannabe.

I have a lot of resentment for writer wannabes. Writing seems easy. We all have ideas and dialogs that float through our minds while showering or trying to sleep. We think one day we’ll get around to recording those thoughts. But it is not until we actually sit down to compose a story that we realize just how difficult it is to capture that voice, that nuance, that feeling you got when that story floated freely through your thoughts.

To make a long story short, I quit my job in August 2007. (It took another 6 months for me to leave the joint, but mentally, I was already gone. And in that time, my freelance business was slowly beginning to take off.) What I quickly realized is that though I had worked as a writer for 10 years, the following 10 years stuffed in an office writing drab press releases about the walk-a-thon-du-jour sucked the creative writing juices out of me. It was like riding a bike, though. Those first few pedals felt clumsy and I wavered a bit, but the basics gradually came back. What I realized then was that my writing had been pigeonholed by the same newspaper editors who hammered traditional newspaper writing style into my brain. Magazine writing required a more gentle hand, and to learn how to broaden my style I sought out the master of beautiful writing, Pulitizer Prize winning author (and visiting professor in creative narrative nonfiction at the University of Alabama) Rick Bragg. As a student in that class, I was able to sit next to Bragg and have my stories critiqued line-by-line. I also welcomed other editors’ comments of my work whenever they were willing to offer it. And I submitted my published magazines stories (there was only one in the calendar year 2007) to a local writing contest. I entered one of the most populated categories, knowing I likely wouldn’t win or even place. What I craved was the comments from the judges. Sounds strange, I know, but I was – and in many ways, still am – hungry for any opportunity to become the writer I always dreamed of becoming. After all, I had lost 10 years on my writing goal by swimming in the sea of public relations. (And Lord knows, I am still far from obtaining that goal.)

Needless to say, I didn’t place in that competition. And when I got my entry back, the only comment the lone judge offered was, “this sucks.” OK, maybe not that exactly. More like “doesn’t make sense.” It left me both baffled and frustrated. What part didn’t make sense? The lead? The same lead that Rick Bragg had called “beautiful”? (I had rewritten that story as one of my papers in his class, but kept the lead.)

This is the second year I have been saddled with heading up a writing competition for the group I’m affiliated with, Alabama Media Professionals (AMP). First-place winners from this local competition move up to compete in the National Federation of Professional Women (NFPW) contest. Last year I floundered trying to figure out the process. This year I have a better idea what I’m doing and I’ve initiated some changes.

The first was convincing our president to look at the competition as a professional development opportunity. Our members are all writers – most of them freelancers. Just as doctors are required to take continuing education credits, we should be, too. Lord knows the media business has changed tremendously over the years. And with that, so has writing styles to conform to different audiences and new platforms, like the Internet.

With our president’s blessing on changing the perception of the contest, I went to work on the judges. First, more than one judge will review each entry. It makes no sense for one judge to be the sole voice in deciding whether an entry is or is not qualified to compete in the national competition. Secondly, the judges are strongly urged to offer a written critique of every piece they read. Meager comments like “this sucks” just won’t suffice.

I realize by doing this I may be scaring away some participants. Constructive criticism isn’t easy, but how can we be expected to grow as writers – or in any field – if we don’t open ourselves up to other opinions and perspectives?

The contest deadlines February 11, 2010, and so far I’ve received no entries. Surely members are saving them up for our next meeting, which coincides with the contest deadline. We’ll see.

Whether or not you are a member of AMP, or even if you don’t live within the great state of Alabama, you are welcome to enter our writing competition. The more entries, the more opportunity for us writers to learn from others. For more information about the 2010 Alabama Media Professionals Communications Contest, visit the official Web site at

Friday, January 8, 2010

She married at the courthouse!

My sister got married today. There was no white wedding dress or gauzy veil. No overdone bridesmaids or hung-over groomsmen. No lavish rings or candlelit church. Just the two of them – my new brother-in-law and my sister – with the justice of the peace. She wore my mother’s wedding band, but otherwise, none of us were there. Not our father. Not me. Not her two daughters or his son. They even drove separate cars to the courthouse.

And I believe it was perhaps one of the most beautiful ceremonies.

My father called it “lovely.” This, the nuptials he didn’t see. I had to agree. It was a second wedding for them both. They had each married the wrong person before. Those unions gave them darling children. There is nothing to regret with that. And because Craig is the father of my nieces, I will always have a special bond with my sister’s ex-husband even though we almost never speak.

But my new brother-in-law, Dave, is the “meant to be,” that missing piece that completes lives. I know this; I married mine. My friends know this about me, about us. That Rick closed a drafty window in my heart. It has sheltered me from cold and wind and has been my shield against the intermittent pains that have rained down on me through the years. My father knows this completeness, too. My parents had this bond, and when my mother died, my Dad floundered until he found Anni. She grounded him again.

I had sensed it a million times since that year my sister admitted trouble in her first marriage and through all the inadequate men that blew into our Christmas gatherings and Easter dinners since. She still hadn’t found it, her “meant to be.” That’s the thing; You know when you have it.

The month before she met Dave, Heather sat on my couch and said she was giving up. She was taking her profile off the Internet dating site. She was going to take a break from men, heal her heart, find her soul, be her own missing piece, because sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we can make that fit. And then came Dave. It seems love always happens when you least expect it.

I used to think all good weddings deserved big church productions and extravagant parties. I now know better. Love surpasses crinoline and lace and cases of champagne. It lasts longer than something old and something blue. It grows in hearts and minds and souls, and when it is right, it fills all the in-betweens.

And that, well, that is just meant to be.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Calgon, Take me away!

We had barely cleared the house of pine needles and fake cranberries that my cat had bitten off the garland when Rick says he wants to buy me something. He has just set the iPod to play some sexy jazz, made a fire, and is sauntering up to me with dreamy eyes and a low-ball of three cubes of ice and a splash of Christmas-gift, single barrel, aged appropriately bourbon. He looks like one of those old-time actors who’d wear smoking jackets and grip cocktails and sit in rooms with cozy fires and flanked with bookcases. Well, three out of four isn’t bad – Rick’s wearing a Gap hoodie. I am saddled up to the kitchen counter making a dinner of I-don’t-remember-what and trying to keep Truman away from raw meat juices and sharp utensils. He says he wants to make dessert and he is pulling my largest pot out of the cabinet, lid and all. He sets it on the cooktop and then opens the pantry, stands in front of it like I often do, wondering what he can use for his masterpiece. This is when Rick glides up to the kitchen island. He says he wants to buy me something and I have to put him on pause or else Truman would try to rappel the pantry shelving and grab the sugar, and we all know what a disaster sugar on the floor makes. I pull out some jumbo marshmallows and some sugar sprinkles, and that satisfies him enough. He pulls the stepstool over to the (unlit) stovetop and starts dumping. Rick starts to speak again and Truman interrupts that by banging through the ultra messy spoon-and-spatula drawer and pulling out three items to stir his mixture.

“I want to do something nice for you for Valentine’s Day,” my romantic of a husband says.

“But you got me everything on my list,” I say, which is true. Everything, except for the bike, which he, understandably, said I’d have to go to the bike store and select on my own, and maybe I should wait until spring and he’d get one, too.

“No, I..,” he says, and as I try to tell him that between Christmas overindulgences and the unexpected four-figure car repair and the six-month car insurance premium that's come due, we need to engage in some financial recovery, but Truman is grabbing my arm now. Seems he’s been trying to get a word in edgewise (imagine!) but Rick and I just keep talking. He needs something for the dessert he’s making. He’s pulling my arm, wailing at the top of his lungs, “I need something from the oil group, Mommy. From the oil group! I need something!”

And Rick says, “… want to get you something…,” and Truman is pulling and I drag him to the pantry, and Rick pivots as we pass, and I pull out the olive oil bottle which is almost empty. I hand that to Truman and turn to Rick and Truman is pulling my arm again. “Not olive oil!” and I say, “but it’s from the oil group,” and Rick is saying, “…indulgent,” and just then it hits me like a ton of bricks. What I want. No, what I need.

“Spa,” I manage to say above the John Coltrane coming through the speakers and the 6-year-old tap-tap-tapping on the edge of the pot and the simmering veggies that need sautéing and the ice clicking in Rick’s low-ball and the wine glass next to me that must be refilled. “Spa gift certificate, please, and at least two hours to sit in the quiet room and eat that almond-and-cranberry mixture and drink sparkling water and sip that herbal tea that tastes better there than at my home and read a book and be away from everything. Like, ‘Calgon, take me away.’

And Rick nods. I think he understands.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Finding a reason for the season

In the days just before the birthday-Thanksgiving-Christmas chaos we like to call the Celebration Season, I got a most touching letter that helped put the spirit of these holidays into perspective for me. The story of the letter dates six months earlier, when I was trying to decide how to recognize the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s death. For some reason I felt it should be marked by my doing something that kept her memory here on earth. I mentioned this to a friend whose mother had died a few years ago. She said she called the anniversary of her mother’s death Dead Moms Day and did things her mother loved – like eat ice cream and drink her mother’s favorite wine.

I couldn’t think of a favorite food of my mother’s, and wasn’t in the mood to sip Beafeaters. I think it was Rick who suggested making a donation to a nonprofit in her memory. But which one? My mother was a juvenile defender in Memphis. That means, she defended kids whose families could not afford a lawyer. She assisted with custody battles and misdemeanors. She even defended kids against murder. She called the ones she defended, “my kids,” and she truly cared about them. She mentioned several times wanting to invite some over for Thanksgiving dinner, and my sister and I in our ignorance would simply roll our eyes. She never got the opportunity to make that dinner for “her kids.”

I did some research and learned that in Birmingham the Department of Youth Services has a campus dedicated to rehabilitating young men who have gotten into trouble. I called and talked with several people there, explaining that I wanted to make a small donation, and finally reached Kennedy, who was almost speechless at my offer. Vacca Campus isn’t a “charity” in the true sense of the word and its funds are greatly restricted. But donations, while rare, were accepted and appreciated. He said he would find a way to put mine to use. I mailed the check on June 18, 2009, the 10-year anniversary of my mother’s death, and while Kennedy said he would let me know how the money was put to use, I didn’t expect to hear from him. I knew his work and that of the others at Vacca Campus was hard and often under appreciated. He owed me nothing but a promise that he would make my donation mean something special for the boys. That was all I needed I needed to know.

Just days after Thanksgiving, at the height of our Celebration Season, in the midst of Christmas parties at my son’s school and in our home, I received a letter from Kennedy. I expected it to be an acknowledgement of my donation, but it was so much more.

On behalf of the students and staff at Vacca Campus, we would like to express our appreciation for your generous contribution in honor of your mother. We would like to apologize for our delay in sending you a letter of appreciation. Man people outside of this line of work will never know who challenging, dangerous, and frustrating a career with youth can be with oftentimes limited results. With resources stretched thin and prorated budgets, your donation could not have come at a better time.

We immediately began debating the best use of the funds you provided. One thought was an outside volleyball court but we already have a gym where we can play volleyball. There were other discussions as to the best use of the funds. Finally we decided to use the money to help fund our yearly Fall Festival held in our school gym on October 30, 2009. I regret that we were unable to invite you due to legal restraints but I can assure you that all the students enjoyed the festival. Your donation went toward an eventful day including a basketball tournament between dorms, which the winning dorm received a pizza party. Also we were able to buy popcorn for our popcorn maker and provide the students with barbecue chicken and all the fixings. Our students rarely get charcoal grilled chicken. Also, the dormitory with the best decorations won a pizza party.

The festival was a big success and the students were very grateful. On behalf of the Department of Youth Services and especially the 80-plus students on our campus, we want to thank you again for the monetary donation you gave in honor of your mother.

I read the letter out loud to my husband, breaking up a bit because I’m pathetic that way. My mother never got to host a handful of “her boys” at the house for Thanksgiving, but in a way she was able to give those 80-plus boys at Vacca Campus some holiday joy. And that was worth every penny of my small donation.