Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Defending The Help


photo: Dale Robinette


The Help was one of those books I literally couldn’t put down (and it’s been a long time since I felt that way about a book).  Then I saw the movie, and was so moved by it. So I am saddened to see such heated controversy surrounding it.

In the book, Stockett tells her story through three characters, one white woman, and two black women. Many are angry that Stockett, a white woman, had the nerve to write from a black woman’s perspective. But, as a writer, I have to defend her. You must step into your characters shoes and tell their stories. You have to find their voices somewhere inside of you. Men write in women’s voices, women in men’s. If you didn’t step into other voices, a writer could write nothing but memoir. It made me wonder, does anyone question Spike Lee over the white characters he writes?

Some complain that The Help is yet another story of a white person saving a poor black person, like The Blind Side. It makes me wonder if they actually read the book or saw the movie. My view was that these strong black women inspired courage and changed the lives, perceptions, and culture of an entire town. Ultimately all of the characters, both black and white, helped each other in different ways. In the book (which goes into more detail) Minny and Celia saved each other’s lives, and Aibilene and Skeeter propelled one another to new heights in both their lives and careers.

But I think the controversy is deeper than that. Watching the film, I went through a myriad of emotions. I felt shame for being part of a race that had first enslaved and then suppressed blacks (although I want to state for the record here that my ancestors fought on the right side of the civil war, thank God.) I felt empathy and worry for the African American man that sat in front of us in the theatre, alone, watching in silence. I felt deep pain, tears rolling down my cheeks, as I watched these beautiful, strong capable black women so terribly mistreated. Finally I was moved to happy tears, and wanted to jump for joy at the end as the main character Aibileen stood up to claim her life and dignity. I left the theatre stirred, inspired, hoping I could be as strong a woman as these characters Minny and Aibilene, also known as “The Help”.

Although it was at times painful to watch, I was grateful to have the truth put in our faces, as this is a time in our history that needs to be remembered (and is still alive and well in some places). Segregation happened in my lifetime, and although I would later learn about it, it was foreign to me.

You see, I also grew up in the sixties, but in Los Angeles, far far away from oppressive, racially segregated Mississippi. I was raised in the flower-power era – “Make Love Not War”. Mine was the racially integrated world of musicians and artists. My step dad Gene was the only white guy in Little Richard’s band- “Uncle Richard” to me. Ironically, Gene was raised in rural Mississippi, and began his career playing the blues with black artists. In our world, Uncle Richard was the king, the one we all deferred to. When I started kindergarten, I knew no one, so naturally I gravitated toward the one person who looked familiar: the only little black boy in school (Dennis Barnett, who is still one of my closest friends to this day).

I did not grow up witnessing racism or segregation, so the film really brought home for me what the history books did not – the humanity, the reality. But, as with everything, we all view the world through our own unique lens. Our perceptions are filtered through a lifetime of experiences. And that is perhaps why there is so much controversy and pain around this film.

If I were African American, and my ancestors carried this history, I can imagine The Help is exposing a wound that is too fresh, and it’s just too damn painful to be reminded. But on the other hand, this film is opening eyes of many, people of other races who didn’t know what it was like in the segregated South, and isn’t that a good thing?  And if we can step beyond the color lines for a moment, this was really a story about friendship, courage in the face of adversity, and redemption. Ultimately the film shows us that, despite our differences, and how society or the world may try to divide us, we are all part of the same human race, and we need each other. The characters in this story provided a beautiful example of love, courage, and compassion. In a very tense pressure cooker situation, they reached out tentatively, learning to trust, and to “help” one another.

The Help offers some very painful reminders of America’s shameful history, and maybe that’s where the anger is really coming from. Anger is a mask for hurt. It HURTS to witness the terrible mistreatment of others. I know my Jewish friends feel deep pain watching holocaust movies. But so do I, because I am human. But this story is about humanity, and the way we humans treat each other. It’s about how some will bury their own feelings of inferiority by oppressing and abusing others. It’s about how generations of African Americans who have been enslaved, oppressed, had their hearts broken again and again, watched their heroes fall at the hands of hatred, have still held their heads high with dignity and courage, and what’s more, they overcame.

Today, Barack Obama is the President of the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of our great American heroes, and Oprah Winfrey is the most influential woman in the world. And all because of courageous everyday men and women, like these characters Minny and Aibilene, like Rosa Parks, like the Freedom Riders…every day people who rose above, and in doing so, changed the world. I applaud Stockett for showing us how, much like Nelson Mandela, the suffragettes, Ghandi, the human spirit can withstand the most horrific treatment and still maintain dignity.

I thank her for bringing these brave characters Minny and Aibilene to life, for in doing so, she showed me who I want to be.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What is Shame?

image courtesy of  shamelessmag.com/
One of my favorite quotes by Julia Cameron is this: “Anger is meant to be acted upon, not acted out.” So simple, and so true.  This statement alone has helped me navigate so many difficult situations in my life. When I begin to feel angry about something, I think…wow, there is something I need to act upon here. My boundaries are being crossed, I’m hurt, I need to speak up and establish my boundaries clearly. If I don’t, I will carry that anger, and it will be projected onto people who don’t deserve it.

And so it is with shame. Shame, like every emotion we have, is there to send us a message. It is an emotion that initially that tells us “this isn’t right for me”. At times, it can be good for us- it acts as our conscience. We stole from the corner market, we feel ashamed (this isn’t right for me) and we don’t do it again. We’ve hurt someone unnecessarily, we bullied someone…we feel shame, act upon it ( apologize, discontinue the behavior) let it go, and move forward. When we act upon it, we are enlightened and changed by the experience. When we don’t, we either turn inward against ourselves, or project our shame onto others.

When we carry negative emotions like shame, fear, anger, regret, jealousy, the weight of it wears us down. It steals our joy, sabotages relationships, even weakens our immune system. When held inside, each of these emotions picks up a partner. Fear’s partner is paralysis. Anger’s partners are suppression and rage. Regret’s partner is worthlessness. Jealousy’s partner is criticism (of self and others). And Shame’s partner is silence. It is miraculous how your life can shift by letting go of that “partner”.

Letting go of Shame’s partner is as simple as breaking the silence


It is the carrying of Shame that Amy Ferris and I would like to eradicate from this planet, through sharing stories in our anthology The Shame Prom, and in our workshops.



Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Adventures in Parenting Evan

Our Evan
Photo by Alex Sears
All three of my children have impacted who I am, the way I think, and view the world. But this kooky little character who came along most unexpectedly in my forties, well, he is the daily twist in my life plot. Let me illustrate for you. Here’s a glimpse into just one day with my five-year old, Evan.

Morning:
This kid doesn’t just wake up. He bolts upright and out of bed like he’s been shot from a cannon. I hear his thunderous footsteps throughout the house. He is not just awake, but instantly on fire for life.

Late morning:
He’s alone in his room, lining up his stuffed animals as contestants on Wheel of Fortune. He is Pat Sajak.

Lunch:
At a restaurant, he orders a hamburger. My child has shunned all meat since he was born, never tried it, even as an infant.
“A hamburger?” I ask, “But you’ve never eaten a hamburger before. Are you sure?”
“Mommy, you told me it’s good to try new things, so today I want to try a hamburger. I LOVE hamburgers!”
So we order him one. When it comes, he takes the top bun off and says, “What’s that brown thing?”
“That’s a hamburger, honey.”
“No, I mean this round brown thing in the middle- what is it?”
“It’s hamburger meat.”
“I don’t want the brown thing, just the hamburger.”
So he takes the brown thing off and proceeds to eat his “hamburger” – two white bread buns with nothing on them.

Afterward we go to the library to drop off an overdue book, and make a quick bathroom trip. On the way out, the librarian, who knows us, asks if she can find Evan anything special today. She knows he’s a big geography buff, and usually asks for atlases, or foreign language books.
“No, thanks” he said as we walked out. But then he says he wants to go back and tell her something really important. He ran back like he had the biggest news in the world.
“Excuse me, Ma’am?” (He knows good manners always get full attention)
“Yes, Sweetie?”
He says, LOUDLY, “I just wanted to tell you we only came to the library today because my Mom had to pee.”

Outside the library, Evan stops at the wishing well. He drops his penny in with a wide-eyed look and a big smile.
“What did you wish for, Ev?”
“I wished I was made out of honey so I could lick myself!”

Afternoon:
We stop at Toy’s R Us, as I promised to buy him a toy he’d earned by getting gold stars on his “no nail biting” chart. He decided on a Power Rangers “Samuraizer”.  He was giddy to open the package in the car. As I freed the “Samuraizer” from it’s packaging he twiddles his fingers and says, “Come to Papa, Samuraizer!

Bedtime:
I read him his story, tuck him in, and turn out the light. Just as he’s dozing off, he calls me.
“Mommy?”
“Yes?”
Eyes still closed…”You should get pajama jeans,” he said groggily.
(muffling giggle) “Really, why’s that?”
“Because they’re so…(zzz)… comfortable, you’ll want to wear them..(yawn)  all the time.”

“Okay honey. I’ll give that some thought. Good night.”

Zzzzzzzz….

(He was even a funny baby- see pics below)

Evan started walking at 9 months, when he was barely bigger than a wine bottle. I'm not going to explain why he's walking around with a wine bottle. 
We call this pic "Sticker shock"...Only 2 bucks?? No way!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Announcing The Shame Prom Workshops

Get out the champagne- this is a LAUNCH!

I am so thrilled to be stepping into this new journey of my life, launching Dancing at The Shame Prom, which is not only an anthology (Seal Press, 2012) but is sure to be a movement. Amy Ferris and I have helped each other to write honestly, we've joined hands exposing our secrets and fears to the world. We found that it's much easier to do when someone is holding your hand.  The world has since rewarded us in more ways than we ever could have imagined. Now we are determined to help others free themselves of the baggage of carrying shame silently. We want to hold your hand now, and help you let go of what's holding you back from living FREE and uninhibited. 


We have a new facebook page which we'd love you to "like".  Every day on this page we will inspire, inform, and celebrate.
Shame Prom facebook page


Tracy Thomas, the brilliant co-founder of iPinion Syndicate ( and the builder of that savvy website) is now building us an interactive website where women and men from all over the world can meet, become friends, and share their stories. We'll also feature videos and essays from our Shame Prom authors, plus from some other writers who we think are pretty darn fantastic. Set to launch mid September. 


And now, Amy and I will be travelling, leading Shame Prom workshops all over the world. First stop, Los Angeles on October 16th. November,  we'll be at Pages and Places Book Festival, and then February 16-19, San Miguel Writer's Conference in Mexico. 


Here's the scoop-


OCTOBER 16, Los Angeles
You're invited to join us at a private artist's residence in Los Angeles for this intimate workshop. We will wear our Shame tiara's and share our stories. Led by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter, this will be a PROM like you've never experienced, filled with creativity, writing, sharing, good food, tears and laughter, and chocolate.  Whose afraid of shame? We're going to let it RIP, and then, let it R.I.P. Are you ready to shed the old Prom Dress of Shame and celebrate with us?
$200 for the day includes lunch, 5 hour workshop, and a goodie bag. 
$175 if you register before October 5th.
Dancing at the Shame Prom Website


FEBRUARY 16-19, 2012
San Miguel Writer's Conference
Amy and Hollye will be leading several workshops, including an intensive five hour Writing/Righting Your Shame workshop.
Also featured at this conference: Laura Davis, Margaret Atwood, Joy Harjo, Naomi Wolf and many more.
San Miguel Writer's Conference

WHAT IS A SHAME PROM WORKSHOP?
It started as a dialogue between two great girl friends, and then it turned into a collaborative blog. Hollye Dexter & Amy Ferris shared their SHAME stories - the one's they've kept hidden in the dark - for the whole world (well, their world anyway) to read & see. Amy & Hollye coined it THE SHAME PROM and invited everyone to the dance. The response was unbelievable, huge. MASSIVE. Turns out, EVERYONE has a shame story; funny, sad, poignant, miraculous, life changing, jaw-dropping and holy moly universe moving stories. Hmm, they thought... let's see if we can get some of the best writers in the world (well, their literary world) to contribute to this PROM ... and lo and behold, 25 extraordinary WOMEN (writers, musicians, directors, activists, journalists, authors, artists) said YES to SHAME! An anthology was born, and SEAL PRESS bought it. And now we bring you: THE SHAME PROM WORKSHOP, where EVERYONE gets to share their story, write their life, release their limited beliefs and yes, dance the night away.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Navigating Disaster

photo by Laura Hennessee

Everyone in the country is in a panic. The stock market is tanking, the pundits are screaming and yelling, people are losing their jobs and homes. Everyone is throwing the blame, but no one knows what to do. And so we, the public, are living in a state of fear – the worst state to ever be in. Decisions made from a place of fear are always the wrong ones. So let’s pull ourselves together, shall we?

First, let me assure you of this fact: All will be well.

How do I know? Well, I consider myself sort of a connoisseur of disaster. I’ve been trapped in a burning house, almost killed, bankrupted, abandoned by my family, betrayed by friends, lost everything, destitute, mugged, sued, threatened with violence, homeless. (And don’t even get me started on my childhood!) But guess what?  I’m still here.

I’ve had a lot of therapy over the years to get me through the panic attacks that used to plague me, and these are the tools I’ve learned for navigating disaster.

ACCEPT WHAT IS:
This world has existed for billions of years. All kinds of catastrophes have occurred and yet – the world still turns. The only thing we can be sure of in life is change. Everything is impermanent - the bad phases, and even the good. The more we try to clutch onto something to keep it the way it was, the more pain we cause ourselves.

Think of it this way: Life is a river, ever flowing, ever changing, a force all its own. You never step into the same river twice, and so it is with life. We can’t control the river, but we can learn how to navigate it. We can be dragged through it kicking and screaming, or accept it for what it is and follow the flow. Whatever is happening to cause you stress, remember: the tide will rise and fall, the sun will continue to rise every day, new life will spring up from devastation- that is the way of the world. Find your flow, and when it changes, find it again. Accept change. Accept it all for what it is.

STAY IN THE PRESENT:
I’ve seen Wayne Dyer speak several times. I remember being especially struck by this point. He said that if we stay in the present, 99% of the time, there is no problem. I mean, unless you are in this moment hanging from a cliff by your fingernails, which is unlikely. Most of our problems are in our heads, where we either lament about the past, or worry about what may possibly happen in the future. The majority of the time the things we worry about never come to pass. If we could stay in the right here, right now, we’d realize we are okay. Ask yourself this, right now at this very moment, are you in danger? If not, feel free to relax, and enjoy your day.

FOCUS ON WHAT IS GOOD:
Today, in this moment, we have food, a roof over our heads, and we definitely have internet access other wise you wouldn’t be reading this. There are people in your life who care about you, even if you don’t always feel it. The world is a place full of beauty and art and music and nature and heart-stopping wonder, and it’s all available to you. So how bad could it be?  Step out of the fear, and think about all that is right in your life. If you can’t see it, spend a day volunteering on Skid Row, serving the homeless. It’ll put things in perspective real quick. Sometimes I play this game with myself:  If I were alone on a desert island, what are all the things I would miss, all the things I would dream about?  I write it down. Try it. When you play that game, you realize just how much you have to be thankful for. Turn off the TV. Stop listening to the noise, and stay in the good place in your life.

DO WHAT BRINGS YOU JOY:
No matter what is happening in the stock market, in politics, at your job, don’t let it rob you of JOY. Find what brings you happiness, even the little things, and do that. Make no excuses. You need this. If you can afford a spa day, go for it, but joy doesn’t cost money. Take a bubble bath with candles, take a long walk in a beautiful place, sit under a tree and read an inspiring book, buy yourself a 64-pack of brand new Crayolas- lay on the floor and color, play your all-time favorite album, go to the beach. Even little things can bring great joy.


GET OUT OF DODGE:
If you can possibly afford it, take a break. Get out of town for a few days. Albert Einstein said, “You can not solve a problem with the same mind that created it.”   I know personally that I need to get out of my every day routine and environment to look at things differently. Even if I can’t afford it, the sanity and clarity are priceless. There are other places in life you can cut back financially. I’d rather eat potatoes for a week and get myself some much-needed perspective. If I can’t get away, even a day of walking on the beach can bring that perspective.

And finally, if you still can’t get out of your place of fear, try this…

WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?
After our house burned down, I had an anxiety disorder that could send me reeling with a panic attack at the drop of a hat. My therapist used to play this game with me:
He’d say, “Okay, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“I will lose everything, be penniless and homeless and have no credit.” (All of which did eventually happen, by the way)
“And then what?” he’d say.
“I guess I’ll…have to find a good job, and find a place to live.”
“And then what?”
“Well, I guess little by little…I’ll pay off my debt.”
“And then what?”
“I guess I’ll be okay.”
(and I was, and am.)

Play this game with a friend, with every possible worst-case scenario, and keep going until you’ve sorted it all out. The reality is never as bad as you make it out in your head.

So, America, let’s all just settle down and relax. As we know, it’s not the end of the world (that was supposed to be May 22nd, and that didn’t happen either.) Look at the people of Japan. The absolute WORST has literally happened to them. And yet they are out there in the trenches with shovels, starting at square one, rebuilding their lives. The world is resilient, and so are we. Leave fear behind. Embrace your life.


And finally, I’ll leave you with this quote:

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
-author unknown

Monday, August 8, 2011

If at First You Don’t Succeed…


I recently read an interview with Kathryn Stockett, author of the New York Times #1 bestselling novel The Help, which is now being made into a film. She said her book was initially rejected by 60 agents and publishers.

60!

4 agents rejected my first book, and I went back to the drawing board to reassess. Maybe they have a good point, I thought. Maybe it really is too hard to sell a childhood memoir right now if you have no “platform”. In other words, if you’re not a celebrity or reality TV star, no one cares what your story is.

60 rejections. Wow. There is something about that kind of persistence that boggles my mind. When I get doors slammed in my face, I take it as a sign that I must be knocking on the wrong doors, or headed down the wrong path, so I retreat. But maybe I’ve got it all wrong?

Jack London received hundreds of rejection letters. In fact, he papered his study with them.

The movie It’s a Wonderful Life was a commercial flop, quickly shelved after it’s original release.

33 publishers rejected Chicken Soup for the Soul (who’s cryin’ now?).

Dr Suess’ first children’s book was rejected 24 times.

And…I love this one. Decca records rejected The Beatles- stating that “guitar music was on the way out”, and the Beatles had no future in show business.

I just finished reading The Help, and loved every page of it. It is a beautifully told story of race relations in Mississippi in the sixties, and the change that was coming. I do believe this book, even though it is fiction, has a lot to teach us, especially in parts of the country where racism is still prevalent. I also believe the movie will help to open hearts and minds. 

It left me wondering…what if, after, say…30 rejections, or even 59, Stockett had given up on this beautiful and important story? What if It’s A Wonderful Life got shelved forever? What if the Beatles took Decca records comments to heart, and their music never touched our lives?

I am now working on a second memoir that my agent is interested in and thinks she can sell. But what about my first book? What if I keep sitting on it forever, afraid of what may happen if I release it into the world?

So I ask you , dear readers, in your own experience, when do you try, try again? And when do you try another direction?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

WE DID IT! Made over our yard for pennies (and a lot of sweat)!


BEFORE:
Our yard a year after the septic disaster of 2010.
Neglected...sad....lifeless. A depressing reminder of a crappy year (literally). 

Finally, Troy and I got sick of waiting for something to change. We didn't have the money to hire someone, we didn't know how to landscape or lay bricks or install railroad ties ....BUT WE DID IT ANYWAY. ( thank God for the internet and smart, handy friends!)  WE DID THIS!!!
Our yard today! 

What was once lifeless...

comes alive with friends by your side. Monica helps me lay down the broken concrete walkway
 we're almost there, just need the sand and....
it's now TIKI ROAD, complete with zen garden areas and outdoor shower. 

This sad, barren spot became....

My new writing spot! (A coat of paint and a few nails tightened up this old lounger)

A yard that was once full of sewage and rusty nails is now...

a perfect children's play area!
Our jacuzzi now: A happy place where children play...makes my heart so content. 
Laying the groundwork for the brick patio. Slave labor was involved.
Me and Aya getting our workout. Who needs a gym membership?
This kid actually likes hard work...


Troy and Aya level the sand to prep for brick laying.




Evan especially loved the pattern part of laying the bricks. He corrected us when we did it wrong.

We laid that brick patio- YES WE DID! $150 worth of bricks was our biggest investment. Pea gravel is $3 for 75 pounds. Railroad ties about $10 each.  One $10 can of stain covered the whole jacuzzi and the table. 

Troy enjoying the benefits of his labor. 

Broken concrete stepping stones: FREE. 

An old washbin I had lying on the side of the house- added a $3 jasmine plant and some mulch- voila!

a "garden-warming" gift from Monica.

And finally...the piece de resistance. The TIKI BAR! Made especially for Troy's 50th birthday by our amazing best friends Erin and Beth. Wow. INCREDIBLE - and tied the whole yard together. 

The moral of the story is... ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Climbing the Mountain

News flash…none of us is getting through this alone, and by this I’m talking about the crazy journey called life. And here's what recently drove this bit of information home for me.

Last week, as I was getting ready for the Save Stitch house concert at the Sears family home, I turned on 20/20. Although I was bustling about, packing things up and preparing music, a particular segment about a phenomenal, brave man grabbed me, and I had to sit down and watch.

Chris Waddell was twenty years old when a skiing accident rendered him paraplegic. Although I’m sure initially he had many dark days coming to terms with his new reality, ultimately he did not let this disability slow his life, nor dampen his dreams.

He became a champion skier again, without the use of his legs. But that wasn’t enough for him.

He decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. He found a film company to make a documentary about his quest, then put his dream into motion. In a specially equipped handcycle, he slowly made his way up the mountain, sometimes able to turn his front wheel only one revolution an hour, thus the name of his film “One Revolution”. He was determined to prove to the world, but perhaps above all to himself, that he was strong and capable, and that this injury was not going to rob him of his independence.

But by the time he got within 100 feet of the mountaintop, the terrain became impossible for him to manuever. His wheels simply would not turn over the crags and rocks. His team laid down two by fours for him but it was impossible, the mountain was too steep and rocky. At that point, they picked him up and began carrying him.  He shouted for them to put him down, that he would do this on his own. That’s when one of the main advisors on the film took him aside to have a talk.

“Don’t you understand,” he said, “that no one climbs a mountain alone?”

And this is the part where I started to bawl. Because I was on my way to this beautiful fundraising house concert (for Stitch's legal fees) being lovingly given to me, a gift of kindness, from the Sears family. And another from the Browne family on August 14th. Just given, freely, with love and compassion.

There were moments I almost collapsed under the pressure from this trial. I was losing. I had no money, no energy or fight left. Troy and I went as far as we could, and when we fell, our friends picked us up and carried us. All of you.

We are not climbing this mountain alone.

Nor are you, my friends…

Amy Ferris didn’t face her biggest fear, confronting her brother, alone.
(See the story here, and read the 60 comments from friends around the country who rallied behind her: http://marryinggeorgeclooney.com/blog/2011/07/24/gonna-take-a-sentimental-journey/)


Amy Wise is not fighting her court battle alone. 

Erin and Beth didn’t win their right to marry alone.

Georgie is not starting a business alone. Linda didn't start her radio show alone.

Monica is not raising her son with autism alone.

Dani, a single mom, is not raising her girls alone.

None of us are climbing a mountain alone, nor should we. That’s what’s hard to grasp at times. We don’t want anyone to pick us up and carry us the last 100 feet. We want to do it all ourselves. But that’s not what being human is all about. We are here to help each other when the road becomes impossible. And we are also here to accept love and friendship when we need to be carried, for in doing so, the givers are also blessed.

This has been a huge lesson for me the last two years, and something I will never forget. I hope you will keep this statement in your hearts when your road is impossible.

No one climbs a mountain alone.