Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"I want to do hair"

Woman and her stylist-therapist
I've been reminded of a hard thing I want and love, but which I have been avoiding because of its potential to be very, very painful.  Naturally, this occurred at the salon. 

I met with my stylist on Saturday morning after a week of unmet writing goals, with a head full of have-made plans for the upcoming week, and jumpy focus that had me on my own nerves. 

The thought of two hours in a chair discussing the sliver of things that my stylist and  I have in common just seemed like work. Worse though, would have been to say, "You know, I  just don't feel like talking today, okay?" The "what's wrong" question this would have generated was beyond me. So instead, I soldiered over to my chair and prepared to get my chat on.

"So," said my stylist, lifting sections of hair, "What are we doing today?"
"You know, I don't know. I don't even feel like making a decision on my hair, so just do whatever you think will work. I trust you."
It was an atypical start to the session but she fell in and got stylist-serious. 
"Okay, first it should be shorter," she said.
"Agree."
"And I'm thinking let's do the caramel highlights."
"Okay."
"You need some angling toward the front."
"Whatever you think."

She left to mix the color and I opened my book.
She came back and went to work. A few minutes later, I watched what she was doing in the mirror.
She caught my eye and said, "So? Famous yet?"
"No. Not famous, and the writing thing is everywhere. I'm all over the place. Doing everything, doing nothing. Submitting my book that took me forever to write. In a week, I'll be opening 'thanks but no thanks emails' and  I'm trying to write short stories, and I'm trying to submit essays and everything I do feels like it's keeping me from something else —"
"Tilt your chin."
"—and I'm wondering what I really want out of this, and so I'm pulling back for a while. Taking stock. Less time on social media, less worry about stats and traffic and not meeting my fiction goals and not keeping up with my blog. I'm just tired, tired, tired. Period."

"So you're overwhelmed."
"I'm overwhelmed."

There was a long pause. And then I said, "I have no right to be overwhelmed. I have the life I want, I have great kids, husband, friends. I can write whatever I want. I've been published where I didn't think I would be. But last week, I had an editor turn down my essay. She said, 'I'm afraid this doesn't quite work,' and I thought, 'she's right. It didn't work because it has no me in it. It was empty.' What the hell is my problem?"

"You sound like me when I decided to stop teaching."
I looked at her in the mirror. "Tell me."
"I was a teacher. I studied classical music, and got my teaching degree. I worked with kids on the violin. Every day I woke up to a stomach ache. Kids didn't want to play. Parents didn't make them practice. I forgot what the point was."
"You taught the violin?"
"Yes, and I hated every minute of it."
"You taught the violin?"
"It sucked. And then, one day I drove by a hair salon and remembered how I did my friends' hair when I was younger and how happy it made me to create and make other people happy."
"And," I said.
"Well, I remembered what that felt like - to love something - it made me realize that I didn't love what I was doing now at all. I thought, 'Well, I want to do hair,' but...okay, how do I say this, hair stylists back then were sort of...there was a stereotype. Did I want to be seen as someone who was doing hair because she couldn't make it in her profession? Did I want to go to my parents and say, 'guess what, you know that college education you paid for?' No, I did not."

I imagined my twenty-something stylist driving past that salon, not wanting to want that.

"But," she said, tools poised, "I did want to be happy, and I was not that either. And even with the tears and frustration and stomach aches, I was still doing it. And then I said, 'enough.'"

For a long time, I wondered if I was holding onto my book to avoid starting another. The truth is, the harder you love something, the harder will come the rejection. If writing an impossible scene or sharp line of dialog made me feel alive, it was hard to think the failure to publish it wouldn't kill me. 

Writing essays is easy love and publishing them is instantly gratifying. Not publishing them stings like it stings to sit in your car on a cold morning before the heat comes on. Eventually, you'll forget you were cold. 

But easy love can be habit forming, while the hard love stands there and says "still here."

I want to do hair.

I didn't say that to my stylist. 

But I did say this:

"I'm not writing new fiction right now. I miss that."
"So, do that."
"I'm worried about how my book will do."
"So you're avoiding it."
"And I don't have time for non-fiction."
"So stop for awhile."
"And if my book fails, I'll write another one but what if that one fails too?"
"Tilt your chin."

I left the salon with two things: First, a reminder that what we love, but which may never love us back, doesn't go away. Whether we have time or freedom for it or not, whether we crave or fear its joy, it comes back and says, "still here." And yet, to feel an unending  pull toward it is better than feeling no pull toward easier things.

The other thing I left with was much shorter hair than I would have asked for.  But it was what my stylist thought I needed. On Saturday, she also knew that I needed an example of someone who figured out a hard love, faced her obstacles and said, "Screw it. I want to do hair."

I still can't believe she taught violin. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kick-ass kid.


Jacqueline Bonifant, 10/11/14 at the Chicago Expo , Chicago, IL.
Four years ago, our daughter Jacqueline ran in the Cape Cod Marathon. I was stupid-impressed, and blogged about watching her go through the process from registration to bouncing on her heels at the starting line.  (Further down is that post from 2010). 

About a year ago, she announced that she would run with a friend in the Chicago Marathon to benefit teen oncology at the Advocate Children's Hospital in Chicago.  She has been typically low-key about the ambitious decision and quiet about her training progress. Ambivalent at first about raising funds, she exceeded her campaign goals just last week.

Six weeks ago, when  it would have been ideal to shuffle a few life priorities to focus on training, she started a new job and moved into a new apartment. Her training became tough to keep up with.  A stubborn ankle problem was back. Nonetheless, on the phone last night, she was focused, happy, upbeat - and ready. 

"I just want to finish," she said, something marathoners say when what they would really like, please, is to finish with a kick-ass time. 

Today she started running at 8:23, and finished at 1:24, five hours and one minute later. 

I don't need a reason to admire my kids. I wake up in the morning admiring my kids. But this madly driven and frankly, sometimes ever-so-slightly intimidating little girl just makes me shake my head and say, "Who knew?" But of course, we all knew: 


THIS IS ONE KICK-ASS KID.
  


From October, 2010


Here is class.
Here is determination.
Here is confidence in the making.

A few months ago, Jacqueline quietly signed up to run in the Cape Cod Marathon and without fanfare, went about the business of “training.” Periodically, there were updates about her running schedule (twenty miles before dinner two weeks ago), diet regimens and other things she was doing to meet her goal. Most of it she kept to herself, as though the sudden need to bow out might present itself and would be easier to handle without having raised anyone’s hopes, including her own.

On Saturday, en route to our hotel in Falmouth she said, “I don’t want to say ‘after the marathon,’ anymore. I shouldn’t say that as if I already did it.”

Sunday morning, at 6:15, she checked in and received her bib. At 8:31, a cannon sounded and she was off, her black and orange hair ribbons visible for only seconds before she was engulfed in a crowd of 1100 runners that rolled from the start line like a wave.  Her only goal she said at the beginning was to finish, to reach the end of the 26 mile route. She could have focused on the higher goal of placing, but she opted to bring it down a peg, zeroed in, and went for it.

I was at the finish line a good hour and a half before she appeared. Many runners sprinted to the finish, others limped purposefully across, some collapsed. One had to be carried. At around five hours and twenty minutes, Jacqueline rounded the corner several blocks away. Her pace was steady. She passed me, looked at me with a huge smile of “I did it", then crossed the line, arms raised. She was wrapped in a blanket and awarded a medallion. I was too awed to cry. At first. 

Finally+there.jpg (320×480)
This is the Jacqueline Bonifant route to confidence: Consider what you can probably do with very hard work. Then shut up and do more. Be constantly surprised by your own strength. Be motivated for the next challenge that comes along. Repeat above steps.

Sometimes, in spite of all our good thoughts, high hopes, solemn prayers, heartfelt beliefs and lofty expectations, our children don’t accomplish what we think/hope/pray/believe/expect they will, but more.

Jacqueline on Sunday, one month and four days after her twenty-first birthday, was Jacqueline squared.

Congratulations, my girl. I am beyond proud of you.










Thursday, September 25, 2014

Awesome Daniel the car guy

This is not Daniel, but I'll bet he
has a special chair for his foot.
Car specialists scare me.

I'm intimidated by them because after I fall in love with the perfect vehicle, I can't deal. I can't tough-talk trades and money down while I am thinking I wonder if there are cup holders in the back seat.

It's why I've been with the same car make for fifteen years. Better the dealer you know than the dealer you don't. 

But last spring, I became intrigued by another car I'd passed on the highway. I found a dealer, scheduled a test drive and sat down to a discussion of how to "put me in that car": what did I want to pay per month, what did I expect for my car, would I lease or buy, etc. "I'll be right back," she said.

"I'll be right back" only means one thing, which is that now you'll talk to a Sales Manager and, if you're like me, instantly forget how to add or think on your feet.  

This one placed a foot on the seat of a chair across from me (do guys do this only to be intimidating?) and told me I would not get what I wanted for my car, and would not have a payment that low and would not be able to deal on the price of this car because it was "too hot" right now and yes, I might make a deal, but not the one I wanted. "You're right," I said, and left.

Last week, six months later,  my phone rang.

"Hey! Is this Susan?" asked an exuberant twenty-something who spoke in exclamation points and sounded very much like my son (lucky him).
"It is."
"Hey, Susan! It's Daniel from (name of dealer)!! Are you still looking for a (name of car)?"
"I'm not sure."
"Okay. If you were, what color would you want?"
"Gray."
"Okay, awesome. Like a light gray? Dark?"
"Like a charcoal."
"Okay, sweet. Price range?"
"It depends. I'm kind of happy where I am, now."
"Okay, okay. That's awesome, too."

And so on.

"Has anyone called you since you were in?" he asked.
"Not really."
"I can't believe no one's called you."
"No one has."
"You know what? I'm going to find that car. I'm going to find that car right now. We're going to do this. We're going to do this today."
"I'm not in a hurry."
"I'm calling you before the end of the day and I'll have that car so you'll be near your phone, right?"
"Okay."
"Okay, sweet. I can make this happen."

An hour later.

"I have good news!"
"Tell me."

We made a test-drive date for Saturday.

"Okay, Daniel," I said with a serious face. "I am here to drive this vehicle and get a figure for my car. My husband will come back and make the deal."
"You won't be with him?"
"No. We don't do these things together anymore. I pick the car, he does the deal."
Daniel's face fell.
"Daniel, I just get in the way," I said. "I get emotional and then I get angry during the standing up and walking away part and it's just bad for our relationship."
"Okay, no worries. I get it. So, is he going to rake me over the coals, or what?"
"No, of course not."
"I mean is he going to be mean, or what?"
"No, he just does exhaustive research before we buy a car."
"Is he a big guy?"
"Not especially."
"Okay, that's fair. That's cool."

While we waited for the sales manager to get off the phone and come over to put his foot on the chair, I asked Daniel how long he'd been working there.

"Three months," he said.
"Wow, not long. You like it here?"
"It's awesome. I love these guys. But it wasn't what I planned."
"No?"
And without batting an eyelash, he said, "No, I mean. People think car dealers are sketchy. And I never thought I'd get through that. But then it's just really awesome when they work with you and see that you're not just total cheese, AND they can get a car they love, too. How awesome is THAT?"

The car sold to someone else. Within twenty-four hours, he'd found another.

And dozen phone calls and 71 texts later Daniel and I made the deal over the phone. No husbands. No sales managers.  

And here is why Daniel's dealership should want very much to keep him.  Because, with only natural enthusiasm for what he loves to do - find the most awesome car - he found common ground with his customer- even when he believed going in that they would assume  he was "sketchy." I know when he's far more experienced, he'll still lead with that excitement for  matching driver and car, and he will accomplish two things in the process: reverse that "sketchy" perception, and make a lot of money.

It's what happens when people do what they should be doing - matching their work with their gifts, much like: drivers with cars. 

It was a good deal. Daniel made money just by showing up, and I won't have to talk to a Sales Manager for at least three more years.  

And how awesome is THAT.







Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Strangers in my heart

At times of transition in my life - after a marriage, after a move, after a baby, after a child leaves, I get lost. I don't worry too much about it, everyone gets lost, but I don't sit around and wait for it to pass either. 

When I'm  sure that no one is listening, I say right out loud to my God, "If I promise to do something nice for someone who's struggling today, can you do me a favor and send down a little clarity?"

Do I know who I'm talking to? No. I only know I have some belief in a presence bigger than my own, and I know that this deal works, as long as I follow through on the fee: let someone go in traffic, compliment a stressed out mother on her patience, leave a 100% tip for a struggling server.

There has not been a time when I've sought the ability to cope, wished for clarity or insight, or wished these things for others, that I haven't found, in a short time, without even knowing when it arrived, that some solace has found me, or someone I love. 

No lights flicker, no clouds stir, no thunder rumbles. 
The cat doesn't run under the bed.
Pictures don't fall off the wall.
There are no spooky voices.

It's just this: suddenly, I'm less judgmental and more forgiving. Hopeful and optimistic, clear-minded and peaceful. One of our children might get good news, change a bad path, recover from an illness. A friend might emerge from a stretch of bad luck to catch a break. 

I don't have a formal religion. But faith, I have. 

It's a many varied thing, faith. How it comes, how it stays, how it goes, who has it, what it looks like.

Since I opened my eyes  this morning, I have been thinking of all the strangers in my heart who lost themselves along with their loved ones thirteen years ago.

"This cross was made from remains
 found at the site of the WTC"
I wonder if for some, and if forever, faith vanished that day. I wonder if others drew upon faith or found it for the first time as they groped their way through that day, and all the days that followed. When I consider what it must have been like to look to the future and find a vast, colorless hole in its place, I wonder what saved them.  

To all the strangers in my heart today, I say this: I have asked my God to deliver you the peace, comfort and hope for the future that I sometimes ask for myself.  I've asked that the lovely things which somehow find me in the shadow of a sad moment, find you, in the shadow of your remembered tragedy.   
Today, you need those things more than I do and I have faith that they will come. 

The fee of a good deed on your behalf is on me today. 



(Re-posted from September 11, 2012)


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Be outraged while you still can be

Outrage isn't pretty.

It's uncomfortable to be around.
It sounds scary. 
It looks scary.
We avoid people who are outraged.
We should avoid people if we're outraged.

We sympathize, we have opinions, we shake our heads, we get mad and post things on Facebook.

But outrage?
Nobody likes outrage.

I can't remember when I felt it last, that powerless, blind fury.
Whenever it was, I'm sure I moved swiftly to dial it down before making any decision or taking any action that might be regrettable.

Because, it feels bad to be outraged.
It makes your head hot and flushes your face. 
It makes your thoughts swim and your hands tingle.
Your breathing changes, you feel like a stranger to your mild self.

But all I feel, still, over James Foley and Steven Sotloff, is outrage.

And, while I believe outrage must be disposed of properly
like toxic cleaning products
I wonder if I should be so quick to dial it down, this rage. 

It's not often that I feel politically emotional.
It's not often that I stop in the middle of what I'm doing to cry for strangers.

God help us if new events drain our capacity for outrage
When that sleep of tired anger and limp sadness settles over us.
And takes the wind out of our outrage 
God help us when we don't stop to cry for strangers.

And today, I hope our intellectually, culturally, socially, mentally, economically diverse population, with all our well-intentioned, outspoken, measured, powerful and mild, especially the mild, can come together to feel at least one thing about the murders of two journalists who absorbed this attack on all of us:

Outrage.
Until some action of magnitude happens, that wouldn't come about if not for that one thing first, outrage.
Outrage is the only response.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

My husband the German Shepherd

This is not my dog.
He is only here to
make a point.


I know this is empty nest season. Possibly there's something under the couch or behind the refrigerator that I haven't already said about empty nest, but today I want to write about marriage.

My friend Sharon Hodor Greenthal is an editor of the online magazine Midlife Boulevard, a popular blogger  and published writer elsewhere of all things midlife. As she has become more public she has, of course, encountered her share of critics. She's learned to deal. But I'm touched by what she says about her husband: "He has my back."

I love the sound of that because if marriage is and isn't a lot of things, it should be one thing:  an alliance - the force of two facing down the challenges of one. 

And so, here is an ally story.

Ten years ago, I described the first book I wrote to someone at a party this way:
"Well, it's women's fiction. It's basically about the choices we make and how we defend those choices when we are challenged to make new ones."

He nodded.

I said, "Probably not a book a man would read."

He said, "My wife would never read anything like that either."

Oh.

I was a new writer and not a very confident one, so I couldn't decide whether he meant his wife was not a reader, or not a reader of women's fiction, or not a reader of  "identity" themes, or not a reader of the drek I would probably write, but that smug tone wounded me.

For days.

"Maybe she's a reader of what he tells her to read," said my husband, the German Shepherd.

There's a reason writers refer to first novels as the "under the bed" book. They're terrible.  They don't have plots, they're about the author, and they are written in such a hurry the characters have the depth of a paper doll. Once, I met an agent who referred to first novels as the "book of me" and I laughed because she was exactly right. 

So that was me ten years ago, a fragile new writer who needed  helpful critique but didn't handle it particularly well,  married to a man who was blessed and cursed with the gift of cutting to the chase. Asking my husband for "helpful critique" without hurting my feelings was like asking a door slammer  to check a souffle.

So, I gave him instructions. "Will you read my book and tell me if it's any good, but tell me the good things first?"

With that, he read my first novel and responded like this: "Well, you know some readers like action and plot but not all of them. Some like character studies and stories that remind them of their own lives."

That was a lot of writing ago.

If you visit me here, you know  I recently finished a third novel and am now getting ready to submit it. If you're a novelist you know this means I've come up with an ending and will be ready to submit it in about a year after I stop fixing it.

Two weeks ago, I detected a problem with flow. The first three chapters were clunky and uneven and "too".  Too much back-story, too little action, too contrived.  I began to panic and flipped through, trying to see where it fell off, where it got fat, and the more I looked at those first three chapters (often the only material your target agent will allow you to send with that query letter that took six years to write) the more convinced I became that nobody's wife would want to read it.

"Oh dear God," I said to Gus, my writer-cat. "We actually really, really suck at this."

My husband was leaving on business, "Give it to me," he said. "I'll read it on the plane."

A week later:

"Okay, I read it," he said.

"And?"

"Sections two and three are fantastic. They flow, it's fast, the dialog is great, I couldn't put it down. Section one? I'll be honest. If I'd picked up this book in the airport, by the time I finished section one, I would have wanted my eight bucks back." 

Because I am no longer a souffle, I laughed.

 "But I found your problem," he said.

We laid the pages out on the table and went paragraph by paragraph. As he read, he described his reading experience, his attitude, expectations and mood:

"See? Here," he pointed, "I'm thinking, don't tell me what she's thinking, tell me what she's going to do, because I am  really waiting to find out."

And so on... where he was confused, where things seemed extraneous, where it worked and didn't, when he was bored.  

It took hours after we figured it out, but I fixed it.

And said right out loud as if I were meeting this book for the first time,  "Okay, this is good."

Ten years ago, my husband believed in my writing more than I did. Had he made that "eight bucks" comment back then, I might have quit.  But when I asked for his honesty this time, it was because I knew it would sting only if he was being honest, and would also be the kind of honest that gets stuff done.

And that is the very nice thing about some marriages; the more you trust someone, the more willing you are to admit when you're lost, and the more willing they are to fetch you and bring you where you belong because that's what German Shepherds do. Even if they must use their teeth to do it.  

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How do you want to look back on this?

My mother.
I know her game.
My mother and I discuss grown children from time to time because, well, we have that in common now. 

Either because she's gracious or because she really doesn't know, every so often, she'll ask how I've handled a particular situation with my adult kids. If it's praiseworthy, she'll repeat what I've said as if I'm the wisest person she's ever met.

I like that about my mother.

The other night, we chatted about Sam, who is home for the last summer before he goes off to make his fortune and buy his father and me matching convertibles.

"How's it all going?" she asked.

Forget that Sam, like the other kids, is a bright and hardworking young adult who knows when he is and isn't doing his best, and which end of that range to stay at. Or, that he is funny and charming and does impressions. Or, that he breaks into song while he's walking around the house complete with instrumental sound effects, including trumpets. Forget that there's a certain sizzle in the air that I can't describe, but which wasn't there before and will not be there in four weeks.

That wasn't what she asked.

Her question was more about the adjustment everyone makes when a kid comes home to the quiet, tidy and formerly empty nest after living with his buddies for a year  in space he has described to his mother as "You wouldn't like it."

She said, "You hear about so many parents dealing with reintroducing rules and finding compromises and just having so many conversations about so many issues."

"Well, you know,"  I said to my mother, "We 'keep house' differently, and, well, I never really know when he's going to be in and out, and well, we run out of stuff a lot, and well,  the laundry room might be free or might not be,"  and so on. "So yeah, it's an adjustment for everyone, but well... "

Sam has been home since the middle of May. I've made one policy request which is to let us know if he plans to be overnight somewhere. If I could, or should, or might nag him about things in connection with keeping our nest neat, I try to remember that he too, has had to adjust. Suddenly people are noticing and commenting on his comings and goings which have drawn the attention of nobody for a long time. I doubt any of his college peers have stopped in the doorway to his room and said, "How do you find anything in here?" Or, "Don't you think you should hang the clothes that are clean?"

We have reached a tacit compromise. He won't tell us to get off his back. We won't tell him when to come home or how much sleep he should get.

I told my mother, "A year from now when he's someplace else, I'll think about this summer, right now. How do I want to look back on it? Do I want to remember how I nagged him? Or that I learned to just let go of stuff that doesn't matter?"

She repeated this, "how do I want to look back on it?" as if I were the wisest person she's ever met. In truth, she has been practicing the art of shutting up since long before my first labor pain. 

I know her game.

My mother is fond of saying about raising children, "Give them a break, the world will knock them over soon enough."  I wasn't an awful teenager, but I was not the chipper, high-honors, volunteer-at-the-soup-kitchen kind either. She was the queen of break-givers. Only once, did she stop what she was doing, turn to me and tell me that I could keep complaining about having nothing to look forward to for the rest of my life, or maybe I could ride my fanny over to hospital and read to sick little children in Pediatrics. I'm not kidding when I say I love her for that, even though I chose a third option of, well, shutting up about my bleak future.

This last summer with Sam has made me remember that moments pass, but don't disappear. We'll look back on them one way or another, and I don't want to remember issues and compromises and new rules and conversations about coexisting. I want to add these good summer days to my archives and remember trumpet impressions.

If you are in the middle of a "last summer" yourself, or, if you have those issues my mother referred to, my advice is this:

Address things as you must, nobody likes a martyr. But also, in the words of a psychology professor I once had, if possible, "Never miss an opportunity to shut up".