When I go for a walk, I’m usually focused on the ground at my feet, the sidewalk in front of me, the problems in the back of my mind. Pausing to look up periodically gives me a different perspective. My worries begin to seem pedestrian. My viewpoint shifts and expands outward. My soul feels poised for liftoff to a planet of possibility. Sometimes I start to feel so trapped in the physical space I inhabit — my house, my town, my routine. When that happens for too long, I can sense my ideas getting smaller and smaller. Looking up reminds me that I live in a cage of my own making. That I could sell everything I own and be a gypsy. That I could live anywhere I want to if I’m willing to take the risk of being lonely and afraid at first. That I don’t even have to do any of that in order to free my mind. I just have to look up and out of myself.
I’d forgotten how a Friday night alone feeds me with something I can’t get in a bar or restaurant. Tonight, I made a bison burger and slaw from scratch. Added a couple of glasses of Malbec and an all-Sinatra playlist and I could feel my soul curl up like a cat in a patch of sunlight. Alone but not lonely. Remembering but not regretting. Sometimes it feels as if I rushed through my life, with one crisis or passion or loss piling onto another so fast that I couldn’t stop to assimilate them. But when there’s no work or man or worry to distract me, all the ghosts come to the campfire. The ones I loved, the ones who slipped through my fingers, the ones I struggled with, the ones I didn’t fully appreciate, the ones I never made amends with — their stories elbow me, demanding attention, asking for someone to remember them. I have a barely born hope that their stories will begin to come through me someday.
When I decided to go part-time with Skirt! in order to work at home more and focus solely on the writing/creative side, I didn’t expect to be consumed by a totally different side project. But life continues to surprise me with what comes out of its piñata — from a late life love affair to jumping into politics feet first. A friend and I tired ourselves out with bitching about how difficult it is for women to run and win an office in South Carolina. We have ONE woman in our state senate, for instance, and one of the most powerful boards in our state — the Medical University of South Carolina — has ZERO women. Oh wait, they used to have one woman, but our female governor replaced her with yet another white male. Just as she ousted Wall Street financier Darla Moore from the University of SC board of trustees, despite her experience and national reputation, despite the Business School being named for her and despite her pledge of $70 million to USC since 1998. And she replaced her with — surprise! — another white guy who donated to her campaign. That leaves the USC board with one remaining woman. So it’s not just the good old boys who are the problem; it’s the lack of moral and ethical leadership that keeps us stuck in the bad old days. And don’t even get me started about the legislator who asked a female candidate for the Public Service Commission (a paid position) what her child care situation was in the screening interview. And no, none of the male candidates were asked that question. Project XX is right now working to have more women appointed/elected to state boards and commissions in order to reflect our 51% female population. Politics in this state is a dirty, dirty business. I’m not an extrovert and I have no political experience — both of which make me feel like a piece of meat being thrown in a lion’s den when I spend the day at the SC State Assembly. So sometimes when I’m working on XX at night after a day of also working on Skirt!, I want to say “screw it,” but I believe in the saying that if women don’t have a seat at the table, they’ll be an item on the menu. And I’m tired of not having a seat at the grownups’ table.
This water tower is a block away from my house in the little town I like to think of as Not UnPleasantville. I’m always trying to escape it because I hanker after bright lights, big city. But after I’ve had a dose of that, I wonder what I’m running away from. Neighbors who don’t shoot guns into the air or fly a Confederate flag? The prayer flags and wind chimes on my porch? The unfailingly, astonishingly firm bed that receives me like a solicitous lover every night? Then the big idea of New York or London creeps in, and I’m chasing a dream of who I could be there. As a Libra, I’m always swinging between two opposite poles, trying to find a balance that rarely occurs. During group meditation after yoga I can sometimes feel myself poised on the fulcrum of Now, not yearning forward or glancing over my shoulder at regrets or in a whirlwind of desiring something I don’t have. I wish I could achieve that every day but I know myself too well to think it will happen. (Unless my yoga teacher pounds on my door and home-delivers some OM cooking) The closest I usually get is halfway through my second glass of wine on a week night after work. When the house is silent, when the computer is off, when my phone is muted, when I’ve given up on being brilliant, when I’m not planning my next escape, when I’ve accepted that I’m beautifully wounded and imperfect.
Walking past Washington Square in New York on a Sunday afternoon, I heard beautiful, haunting music and discovered this man sitting at a piano outdoors playing for money. Further in, there was a guy making an elaborate chalk drawing and another one helping kids blow enormous soap bubbles with just two sticks and some string. It was magical to stumble across this after a spur-of-the-moment weekend that included falling and hitting my head hard on a plate glass door, having a subway turnstile boomerang into my thigh so hard it brought tears and bruises to the surface and getting my flight home cancelled. Add to that the knife-edge cold which my blood is not used to, and I was feeling worn down and done in by the city. And starting to really hate everything about it and wishing I’d stayed home. I didn’t even want to leave the apartment but finally dragged on clothes and dragged myself out. As I watched this art being made, I started thinking about how we are here for a fleeting moment like the iridescent soap bubbles, or the notes of music that disappear as soon as they’re struck, or the chalk that’s washed away by rain. Instead of worrying about whether I have a concussion or complaining about the bruises all over my body or the inconvenience of traveling, I want my life to be like a work of art that is intensely there for the moment it exists and possibly leaves a vibration in the air after it’s gone. I know for a fact that I will forget this tiny transcendence and fall back into despair or irritation or ordinary kvetching because that’s just being human. But I hope the surreal image of a man and a piano out of everyday context will return to me at odd moments and lift me up in the same way it did on a Sunday in the park.
Walking back to my office at lunchtime, I saw the daytime moon barely there in the afternoon sky. I always think there’s something magical when that happens, as if we have a brief view of another more fantastical world breaking through the ordinary work day of coffee breaks, emails and watching the clock. Like the universe is winking to let us know it still has some secrets. It’s so hard to believe in magic in the world we live in now. Thanks to the internet and tabloid journalism, everything is exposed, revealed, uncovered. And thanks to technology and science, we know how everything works, from the tiniest cells to the big beautiful moon. But some things are still mysteries to me: love at first sight; synchronicity; where poems come from; why someone calls when I’m thinking of them; deja vu; music that makes me cry. I love my computer, my iPhone, my Google search, my Wiki everything, but even more I love not knowing all the answers. I love the blue hour, when I can imagine that the past and present overlap and time travel is possible if I only I believe enough. I love liminal spaces where you stand on the threshold of possibility, between two worlds, like the line on the shore above the tide and below dry land or the moment you let go of one trapeze bar before you catch the other one. Mostly I love the hope that magic is alive and well and if I squint my eyes I might see its blurry outline or catch it disappearing just around the corner.
I’ve learned to play pool several times, and yet every time I face the table, I forget how to hold the cue, who is solid and who is stripe, or if the 8 ball is my friend or not. It’s frustrating because I desperately want to be a player. But that’s not the only game I’ve failed to learn. I don’t know how to flirt, for instance. Where was I the day that lesson was scheduled? Probably skipping school to get naked with my football player boyfriend before it was time for classes to be dismissed. Or how about Lesson 2: makeup? To this day, I don’t know how to apply foundation properly or understand why I should. Eye shadow? One of the great mysteries of the grownup world. Lesson 3: playing the corporate game. I wish I had learned this early on, but my face reveals what I think of playing Bullshit Bingo. As they say in poker, I have too many obvious “tells.” And now that I’ve become involved in state politics by helping to create a nonprofit and PAC dedicated to getting more women elected to office in SC, I can barely keep a straight face when my co-founder and I are told to be “nice,” to be careful not to piss off the men in the legislature, to wait our turn. As we’ve been doing for decades. And being nice hasn’t put more women in office. So I try to bite my tongue when I’m counseled not to take things so personally. Not to weep inside about mountain-top removal in my beautiful Kentucky birthplace. Not to be frustrated when the NRA wins again. Not to rage against the machine when the senators who are supposed to represent me vote against the Violence Against Women Act. I’m learning to play the game, but I’ll never stop taking it personally. Because I have to believe that eventually the Magic 8 ball will say, “Signs point to yes” when it comes to making up our own rules.
My yard is dead and mostly dirt, but if I look out my back door I can see the tops of the bamboo trees that when I planted them were barely as tall as me and now look they were transplanted from Jurassic Park instead of the local nursery. They let me ignore the sand spurs and the stunted fig tree and the rose bush that never dies but never gets any bigger and instead pretend I’m in the beautiful bamboo forest I hiked through on Oahu once. I’m trying to focus on the good things in my life right now because my life is changing in a big way. Starting next month, I’ll be going part-time at the magazine I started 18 years ago and letting go of the current version of the job that became my identity. The upside is that I’ll have more time to concentrate on writing for Skirt! and creating new features and maybe even doing some writing just for myself. The hard part is letting go and trusting that something else will come along to fill those empty parts. But I worry about the transition. If I’m working from home, will I start drinking at noon? Will I start going to Starbucks in my pajamas? (Okay, I’ve actually done that before once or twice.) Will I start watching porn, or even worse, daytime TV? And the biggest question of all…who will I be in a new room of my own?
I’ve been so accustomed for a long time to fending for myself, working for the future, dodging heartbreak and trying to be strong that I lost sight of how I was freezing up part of my personality. And why did I think that was even necessary? I haven’t been under siege. I haven’t been a failure. I haven’t been broke. I haven’t been out of a job. I haven’t been unhealthy. I haven’t had my heart broken beyond repair. But I’ve been acting as if all of those things were possible or imminent. Instead of living as if I were resilient, capable of joy and able to survive sorrow or setbacks, I’ve been braced for a fall. When you’ve been frozen and you come out of the cold, it’s a little disconcerting, as if your feelings have frostbite and they have to be warmed up gradually. For instance, I’ve never been comfortable addressing friends or lovers with sweet nothings, so when I find myself casually calling someone “baby” or “sweetheart,” I’m amazed and amused all at the same time. I have to pause and get my bearings and figure out who is this person whose defenses are melting, who’s willing to have open-heart surgery on her emotions? Being tender and tempestuous and taking risks makes me feel more human than ever in my life. Why did it take so long?
I read an article today on TheRumpus.net that quoted author Jess Walters as saying, “No one goes on Facebook to announce he has herpes.” I laughed till I ached and then thought of all the things in my own life that never make it onto Facebook. On my FB page, it would seem that my friends and I are all socially aware, funny as hell, fond of our dogs and children, politically astute and have rainbows shooting out of our asses while kittens chase yarn and kids say the darndest things. Oh yeah, and every photo we post on Instagram is brilliant because we don’t have to bother to learn how to use a camera–Instagram does that for us. Our shadow selves never make it onto Facebook, Match.com or eHarmony, and yet without those bits, we’re Flat Annies starring in our own cheery sitcoms. Yes, I like to “Like” the things my friends post just to be able to give them a metaphorical hug across the miles that divide us…it’s a way of staying in touch, no matter how long distance or tenuously. But it also exhausts me in some fundamental way that I can’t quite figure out. I’m completely guilty of posting my own relentlessly Facebook-friendly life that is more like living in a staged magazine moment than going backstage at my messy, often unmanageable, frequently boring, sometimes sad life. It’s not that what I put on FB is false or fake, but it’s only one side of me–my good side, my activist side, my sunny side, my creative self. I miss being three-dimensional me, but it’s true that nobody reveals that they have herpes on Facebook and you won’t find me posting that I’ve cried myself to sleep over a bad-for-me lover I still still miss when I’m low, impulsively spent too much money on something I’ll never wear more than once, embarrassed myself by having one too many glasses of wine at a party, have a Tom Daley pinup calendar in my kitchen, got my wrinkles spackled (wrinkles are winning — see above), or for one wild moment when I was a young single mom, had a fling with an encyclopedia salesman. Facebook is more like a high school yearbook for grownups in which everyone writes cute messages and dots their i’s with little hearts. I get it, I really do, but sometimes I just have to play hooky from high school.