Monday, May 30, 2011

Pray for Peace on Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, enjoy a day off from work, enjoy your friends and family, the parades and barbeques, but before you do, please take a moment to watch this video and ...please, pray.
Just for a few moments.
Pray for the men and women who have lost their lives in service of our country.
Pray for their families.
Pray, with all your heart, for peace.
Pray that one day, we will no longer need to memorialize those we've lost to senseless, brutal war.
Pray not just for Americans, but for people everywhere who have lost those they loved to violence.
Pray for peace in your own heart, and let it spread to everyone.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Farewell Oprah. It’s Been a Wonderful Ride.

The first thing that flashed in my mind this morning as my son poked me awake at 6:30 am was “Oh my God…this is it. The last Oprah show is today…”

Next thought: How will I deal with it? I thought about flying to Chicago, throwing myself to the floor and clinging to her legs, begging Don’t leave me! But that would be undignified. And creepy. I imagined myself screaming as the cops dragged me away…But you guys don’t understand! Oprah is my best friend!

Oprah truly does feel like a friend to me, and to so many of us. She has been a companion to my days for the last twenty-five years. When I’ve been hopeless, I’ve looked to her for direction. On so many occasions her show inspired me, pulling me out of a life rut.  I’ve taken her advice on many issues. Like her, I too start my days asking that God use my life for something greater than I know. She taught me that.

In fact, Oprah taught me more than I ever learned growing up in my family. She taught me that you can be born a poor black child in the segregated deep South, and become the most beloved woman in the world.

When she shared that she was molested as a child, she taught me you can be damaged and still be happy.

When I learned about her hidden pregnancy at 14, and the baby’s death, it taught me terrible mistakes are not the end of your life.

When she exposed her secrets to the world, she taught me that it is okay to tell the truth, about everything.

She brought incest and child abuse and homosexuality and shame out of the closet.

She taught me that being happy for other’s successes lifts all of humanity.

She taught me that money and power is not necessarily the root of all evil. Some people use theirs for good.

When she sat down with guests who she’d had previous conflicts with, she taught me it’s okay to be wrong and say you’re sorry.

Through her struggles with weight, she taught that most of us will have lifelong battles that we may overcome, or we may not, but we are still worthy and lovable just as we are. 

She’s taught women everywhere that you can rise to the top, be a powerful woman, have kids or not have kids, be married or don’t. Be yourself.

Growing up, I had never known a person like that. But since learning they exist, I have sought them out. My life is now filled with phenomenal, brave, honest people like Oprah. If it weren’t for Oprah and her influence on my life, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to start my own nonprofit for foster kids, to write my memoir, or to write The Shame Prom with Amy Ferris.

And for all you eye-rollers out there who have your doubts about her, I hear you. She is human. I’ve been mad at her here and there. She has her moods, she gets caught up in her ego sometimes, and is flawed like everyone else. And yes, I know she’s not God (though the jury is still out on that one…I mean, you never know…)

On the other hand, Oprah has had a positive influence on our culture, more than any other living person I can think of. Seriously, the Dalai Lama doesn’t have as much reach and influence (no offense, Dalai!). People in the poorest countries in Africa watch her. Women in Saudi Arabia gather in their burqas to watch her. I even believe that her personal endorsement was a big reason Barack Obama won the Presidency.

She has emboldened a generation, opened our minds to new possibilities, exposed us to other cultures and ways of thinking. She cast a strong bright light on the hidden shame we all carried. She brought positive television to the masses.

She gave us hope and laughter and truth when we needed it, and for that Ms. Oprah Winfrey, I am eternally grateful.

So long, dear friend. I will miss you terribly …
P.S. Will you miss me, too?

(For anyone who missed this previously, here is a recording of me talking on the radio with my best friend Oprah. My brush with greatness!)

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Crucifixion of James Frey

Painting by Ed Ruscha, for James Frey

Anyone who reads my blog knows that my life is all about telling the truth, that is – my personal truth. But who are we to define what another’s truth is? And what is truth in art?

I read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces shortly after it came out, and loved it. As a person with an addict father and brother, it opened my eyes and helped me to see things in a new way. I immediately sent the book to my father, and he too, was rocked to his foundation by it.

And then the big scandal hit. It seems Frey “embellished” details of his memoir.
Did this change the experience I had reading the book? No. Did it change the fact that the book had enabled me to see addiction in a different way, and to have a better understanding of my father? No. I didn’t care whether Frey had spent three months or 3 minutes in prison. I didn’t care whether he had anesthesia at the dentist or not. The book was ground breaking and fresh and artistic. His voice was compelling and authentic. It moved me. It made me think. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do?

I, too, wrote a memoir. I spent 37 years trying to forget my past, and another eight in therapy and in writing groups, trying to remember it. And even though the book is written, I struggle with whether or not to publish it, because truth is a powerful blade, and you have to be careful how you wield it. And, as I know all too well, many people will challenge your truth. But memoir is not journalism. Memoir is your own personal story, as experienced through your own filters, as told by YOU. No one else can tell us what our truth is, or should be.

One friend, after reading my manuscript, had a hard time believing I could remember so much detail about my young life. As I told her, in memoir writing, you start from the deepest most searing memories, and you work from there. The moment that changed your life could have been one simple statement, or a memory that is a 20-second video clip in your head. But that does not a story make, and so we must paint in the rest of the picture. None of us have lived our lives carrying around a tape recorder, so you do your best to fill in the missing details. I kept journals all my life, which helped a lot. I also did genealogy research and interviewing family and google fact-checking on my own stories.

But in recreating the rest of it, you have to ask yourself, what is emotionally true to me in this scene? How did I feel? What colors did I see, what did the room smell like? When writing dialogue, you have to bring each character back to life in your head. How did Uncle Joe stand, speak, walk? What were sayings he always used? Would it be honest to say he would have used one of his famous “Uncle Joe-isms” in the scene?

All of my writing teachers over the years have told me to “write what is true”. But in memoir, some of the strokes are loose. One of my favorite essayists, Tony Earley, wrote a story about watching the moon landing in 1969. After it was published, a fact-checker rebuked him for saying it had been a full moon that night, because in fact, it had been a quarter moon. Does that mean Tony Earley is a liar, and everyone who read that piece should get their money back? No. It means that as a small child, the moon seemed so huge and unreachable as he looked up through his neighbor’s telescope, that his mind remembered it as big and round. Our memories do that - fill in the blanks. Each of us will tell the same story a different way. What is true for you may not be true for me, and there is no such thing as absolute truth anyway. So who are we to say what was emotionally true for Frey?

One of the things I found so exhilarating about A Million Little Pieces was Frey’s irreverent disregard for rules: He used no punctuation, capitalization or writing rules. He had no MFA. A copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was certainly nowhere to be found in his writing lair. So why is it a shock to anyone that he paid no attention to “memoir writing rules” – and what are those, anyway? His book was his own piece of art- a world that Frey has often said he is more influenced by than the literary world. And so, he wrote his story in his own way. As Frey said on Oprah yesterday, Picasso’s “self-portrait” has him looking like a strange, blue, cockeyed monster, so does that mean he’s a liar and a fake? A Million Little Pieces is Frey’s self portrait, and maybe he is portraying himself as a strange, blue, cockeyed monster.

I find it ridiculous that the world went so crazy with judgment on Frey, including Oprah. I have to admit, I was disgusted watching her persecute him on national television in 2006. He didn’t deserve that. As a writer, I personally would never stretch the truth the way Frey did, but I’m not him. I write the way I write, and he writes the way he writes. He plays fast and loose with the rules, I don’t. So what. Either you like the book and it opens your eyes, or it doesn’t. Get over it and let Frey get back to using his voice his way.

I will agree that he and his publishers shouldn’t have called his book  “memoir”, because it casts doubt on the rest of us who are trying to write in that genre and be taken seriously. Maybe he could have done what Tony Earley did in his book Somehow Form A Family – which was to classify his book as “Stories That Are Mostly True”. Or, like a TV movie of the week, he could have said it was a story based on his own life experiences. That would have solved the problem. He initially shopped the book as a novel, and it didn’t sell. They asked him to publish it as memoir, and it was an off-the-charts success, inspiring people all over the world. So that was his deal with the Devil- letting the book be mis-categorized for the sake of getting it sold. But for this man to have been nailed to the cross and humiliated in front of the world, to the point where he had to move his family to another country to escape the finger pointing and threats, we have to ask ourselves not what is wrong with James Frey, but what is wrong with us?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Buried Treasure

Life. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, the plot changes. And always, in the thick of it, there are messages (if you’re paying attention), and lessons to be learned.

I had deluded myself into thinking I’d already paid my dues. In the early years of our marriage we had lost our home and everything we owned in a fire, we had been bankrupted, betrayed, estranged from my family. You’d think that would be enough. At least I did. I’d done my hard work in therapy. I finally had a grip on life, an understanding of the ways of the world. Smooth sailing from here on out, I thought. But in 2010, life threw us one curve ball after the next and there we were knocked on our asses again, a sickeningly familiar feeling.

One of the twists in the plot was Stitch. I’ve adopted rescues and strays all my life, but I had a feeling of trepidation when we adopted this little dog. I remember I kept asking my husband “Are you sure? Are you up to adopting this little guy?”  He said he was. Still I had this unsure feeling. Somewhere deep inside I sensed I was signing up for an unimaginable journey.

To anyone who thinks animals don’t have souls…I can only imagine you’ve never lived with a furry family member. I suggest you read my friend Monica Holloway’s book “Cowboy and Wills”, about how a golden retriever came into the life of her autistic son and changed him forever.  Similarly, our Stitch has been a messenger. He brought huge drama to our lives (no fault of his own) and through it has taught us how to stand up to bullies, how to keep ourselves centered in the middle of insanity, how to navigate the justice system (which can sometimes feel like an injustice system). But the most important lesson has been humility. We fought on our own as long as we could, and then, when we were losing the battle, we had to reach out for help – which was really, really hard. But then we learned more lessons, about true kindness and compassion, and how much of it there is in the world. We learned that there are a few bad apples out there, but the good and generous people far outweigh them. We learned that there are hundreds of people all over the country, both friends and strangers, who care deeply about the plight of one little dog.

Because of Stitch and our fight, I’ve connected with people all over the country. I’ve strengthened bonds with friends. We’ve been able to share a part of ourselves, our music, our art. We’ve been able to connect with others through our stories. And one Sunday evening in April, under beautiful Spring skies, we were able to gather with friends for a perfect evening, drinking good wine, sharing music, stories and laughter to raise money for the Stitch trial. Who ever could have imagined.

The week of the trial was truly awful. Troy and I were stressed out all day, buried in testimony, being cross examined on the stand, contacting witnesses and preparing briefs, passing each other in the halls as we struggled to handle our daily responsibilities. One night that week we both woke up at about 3 am.
“Hi” I said. “You up?”
“Yeah. Can’t sleep.”
“Well, how are you? I mean, we haven’t really talked in a while.”
“I know.” He said, “I miss talking to you.”
With that, I got a bottle of red wine and some dark chocolate, and we sat there in the dim glow of the nightlight, talking, laughing, drinking wine, and just enjoying that peaceful, precious moment while it lasted. We knew the morning would bring another grueling day in court, so we clutched that little bit of happiness while we could. I will never forget it.

Through this ugly battle, many beautiful things have come, and we have been forever changed. I have learned that no matter what dark times may come in the future, there is always a jewel to be unearthed. We had no control over the crazy things that have transpired over the last year and a half, but we did have a choice as to how we would react, and how we would receive the lesson. We chose to focus on the positive gifts.

No matter what the judge’s final decision will be, Troy and I feel great knowing that we did the right thing, we stood up for what we believed, and made it through this drama with our integrity intact. What better gift could there be?

Today I’ll sign off by sharing a beautiful poem by Rumi that has given me courage through the rough times in my life:

The Guest House 

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Rumi ~

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Stitch Trial Update

All this fuss over lil ole me?

If you've been following this blog for a while, you know I don’t do anything small. So of course when I have a civil dispute over a dog, which no one believes could ever go to court, it turns into a three-day grueling “YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!” kind of theatrical trial, complete with fire alarms going off, plaintiffs break dancing and walking around on their hands…and then, this:
We have a video, and it’s incriminating, undeniable proof that the other side is lying, and this video which played fine the night before for some odd reason will not play in the court. The judge gets annoyed and says we have 2 minutes to figure it out. It was like one of those movies where the hero has 15 seconds to diffuse the bomb and you can see the clock ticking and your stomach is all twisted. In the last ten seconds the video finally pops up, we all breathe a sigh of relief, our attorney puts it in the witnesses face, we’re all on the edge of our seats then BAM- the computer crashes. 
Yeah. So that happened. 

It all came down to his word against ours. Oh and the fact that we had all the legal paperwork proving ownership of the dog, which you would think would be a slam dunk, right? Apparently not.

As we came to a close today, the judge pulled both attorneys into chambers. It seems there has never been a case like this on file, so our case will be the precedent-setting case. Yes, we will be the “Roe v. Wade” of dog ownership cases for years to come. Like I said…I don’t do anything small.

Having heard both sides, the judge now wants both attorneys to submit to him 10 page briefs stating their side’s adherence to known laws regarding animal ownership, which are wishy-washy at best.  These will be submitted by May 28th, he’ll take several days to review it, and will mail the decision to both attorneys. It looks like it will be June before we know anything.

I can’t say much more about the trial at this point except that it was more stressful than I ever could have imagined, and that we all fought so hard, and did everything humanly possible (including many of you) to save Stitchy.

The positives so far: Our attorney Jill Ryther kicked ass, and has become a wonderful new friend. We had premier animal attorney and activist Shannon Keith supporting us at the trial. Our witnesses did fantastic, and both Troy and I felt strong, even under cross-examination, which is like undergoing a route canal without anesthesia. Many friends showed up to support us, and that was an incredible gift that enabled me to buck up when the going got rough. Our attorney Jill was extremely happy with the way our case was presented, and so were we. And, the judge was a nice guy, and seems to be an animal lover, which really falls in our favor.

That’s all I can say for now. Maybe one day it will be a movie of the week. Or a book.
“The Stitch Conundrum”. What do you think?

So now we wait, and pray, and wait.

Thank you to everyone who has stood by us through this, who has contributed and supported, lent an ear, lent a hand, said a prayer. We felt you with us this week. With all of us invested in this together, the only possibility is a huge win, right?