The Single Story

21 01 2010

Yikes!  My husband was NOT happy with me for writing yesterday that Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin love America as much as we do.  He explained that people like them were in it more for the money and power.  Of course, I explained that he had just described 75% of Washington DC’s residents and 98% of the media, but….still.  Maybe it wasn’t the best way to make an important point.

A point that I, increasingly, believe is the #1 challenge we face in this country.  So, I’ll try again and, as often happens in life, I’ll turn to someone else who makes the point far better than I did!  Her name is Chimamanda Adichie and her point is “the danger of the single story”.

A Nigerian author, she draws from her own experience to observe that, too often, we all have but a single story of each other.  And that “single story” approach always will lead to misperceptions…and missed opportunities.  She talks about, how when she attended college in the States her roommate “already felt sorry for me before she even met me.”  In their first conversation, the roommate–an American–asked Chimamanda, who had just arrived from Nigeria, if she could hear some of her “tribal music”.  The roommate was shocked when Chimamanda pulled out a Mariah Carey CD!

Here’s a link of Chimamanda talking about “The Danger of the Single Story”  (it’s from a great website, btw, called

It’s worth the watch…and, then, try to see where you paint people into Single Stories.  Where you have a single story for all Democrats…or all Republicans.  All feminists..or all gay marriage opponents.  For a parent who you’re still punishing for wrongs done a lifetime ago…or a coworker who you dismiss because their skills are oil to your water.  Then, try to see beyond the Single Story (note use of the word “beyond”…vs, say, “ignore”).  Don’t hurt yourself (or your ego!), maybe just start be seeing Two Stories…and, then, as Chimamanda explains, see how your vision of others..and yourself…changes!


Why I missed World Suicide Awareness Day

6 10 2009

World Suicide Awareness Day was on September 10.  I missed it.  Because I was thinking about committing suicide.

Yep.  While most folks spent their summer vacations  at the beach (or dreaming of it), I spent it in a dark, dark free-fall that brought me perilously close to ending my life at least 3 times.

Now, since you’re reading this, you know how this story ends:  I never pulled a trigger..or slit my neck or wrists or crashed a car.  But I did make plans…and took fairly deliberate action…to accomplish all of the above (except the gun part, this IS Massachusetts after all!).

The whole thing started with the death of my father.  For years, I’d wondered how the death of a man I barely knew would affect me.  Starting at 11:13 CST on June 29, I got the answer.  As my father was dying, I saw past all the illusions I’d carried about our distant, but complex, relationship.  I saw the truth of an imperfect man who, in the words of my sister, did the best he could.  And I thought that was that.

It wasn’t.  It seems that unravelling the illusions of my father launched an avalanche of unravelling the illusions that surrounded my entire family and my entire life.   For two and a half months, I was like Alice, falling through the rabbit’s hole into a place where absolutely nothing was as it seemed. And the more I tried to grasp onto those threads of  illusion, the more they fell away.  And me with it.

As all this unravelling was getting under way, I remember standing outside a hotel room in Texas with a bottle of wine in my hand.  The corkscrew had broken and I was so desperate for something–anything–to calm me down, to center me–that I cracked the bottle against a pole.  That action took away my desire for a drink…but it also made me look long and hard at the jagged glass. “Perhaps, I can sit this bit of karma out,” I thought.

I decided against it because I thought it was a bit white trash to end it with the jagged glass of a bottle of cheap wine outside of a Texas no-tell, motel.  I also decided then and there that the only way I was going to make it through this was to, “A”, go through it alone and, “B”, relinquish all control.   This wasn’t Oprah or Kripalu.  This was my life.  My darkness.  And I wasn’t going to find my way out by following someone else’s path.  And I sure as hell wasn’t going to make it by trying to drive this roller coaster.  After all, I had no idea where it was going.  So, that night, I put the cheap wine down and relinquished all control.

Which is not for the feint of heart.  Funny thing about the Universe.  When you set your intent, it tends to deliver.  And, boy, did it deliver.

From late June til late Sept, I stood in front of the mirror of my life, taking an unflinching, unvarnished look at my reflection.

Just as I thought I was looking, at long last, at me, another layer of illusion fell away.

At first, seeing the thickness of the layers of illusion made me angry.  I remember being in a hotel room in Rochester, MN, literally banging my head against a bathroom mirror, in order to break it and escape from the anger.  I’ll forever be grateful to whatever forces prevailed that night for dying in Rochester isn’t much better than dying outside a no-tell motel!

Then, as illusions of my family gave way to illusions of my life, I became terrified.  Turns out, I hadn’t left Texas to escape dysfunction and come out of the closet.  I left simply to build a new closet with a new career and new set of friends who simply mirrored what I had always known.   The dysfunction had followed me from Texas.  Stalked me, relentlessly and quite successfully.  And that realization led me to put my clothes and car keys aside one night as I went to bed. My plan was to wake up, get in the car, and drive it into a pole at high speed.

That was the one night in a very long time that I slept soundly all night.  I woke up at about 5 a.m.  The first thing I saw, in the betwixt and between light of the dawn was my husband.  Even as he laid there sound asleep, his love embraced me.

It was a transformative moment that told me I wasn’t going to get in the car and escape this journey.  I was going to follow those threads of unravelling illusion all the way to the end.

Which is what I did.  In the most unexpected of ways, at the most unanticipated time (funny how life works when you stop planning, huh!?).

About two weeks after I DIDN’T get in the car, I was doing some work for a client.  All of a sudden, I felt myself falling.

It was that awful feeling I’d had so many times since June.

Except this time, I landed.

On my twin bed in my elementary school bedroom in the first house I ever lived in.

And there, staring me in the face, was 12-year old Will.

He had a message for me, the one I’d been searching for.

All those illusions?  They weren’t put there by my family or by my friends or clients or anyone.  They were created, decorated, placed and guarded…by me.

He reminded me of exactly where we were.  It was the exact day, the exact moment, 32 years ago when I was sitting down to study for a spelling test in Mrs. Fugate’s class.  As I lay on that bed, I was thinking that the life of a smart, studious kid with thick glasses wasn’t really getting me far.  While my world was filled with books and music and thoughts that seemed like nohing I heard from anyone else, it wasn’t filled with friends.  So, I decided to change things. To bomb the test.  To do–and take and drink and say…and BE—whatever it took to fit in other people’s world.

And I did.  And I was good at it (it’s no surprise that my career has been based on spinning the story clients’ customers WANT to hear).

And it was all an illusion.  Each perfectly crafted, fiercely clung to, illusion simply added another layer that took me further and further away from my self.

Further and further away the power…the source…that each of us needs to fuel our own flame of individuality.

And, now, after months of darkness–no, after 42 years of darkness–the 12-year old Will was there to give me my power back.

My Dad’s final gifts

10 07 2009

My Dad died last week.  And, in dying he has succeeded in getting me to do the one thing he always wanted me to do:  Slow down.

Slow down to experience his death fully…not as a project to be managed, but as a precious gift that, at last, opened the box of our relationship as father and son.

Talk about the universe throwing you an unexpected right hook (Dad was a former Golden Glove boxing champion…I couldn’t resist!).

You see, Dad and I weren’t close.

There wasn’t any animosity or anything.  And it wasn’t personal.  He wasn’t really close to anyone.  Eventually, we settled into a nice little routine where I had lunch with him at least once each time I went to Dallas.  We had the same conversation each time (weather, sports, family—always that order).  It may not have looked like a lot to the outside observer, but for us…it was enough.

Dad and I even were blessed with a great farewell lunch (though neither of us knew it at the time, at least I didn’t).  It was this past Thanksgiving.  Never being able to say he was proud of me, Dad DID say he was happy for my decision to become a writer.  He even said that “maybe someday, I’ll meet your friend” (that would be my husband).  I told him that I loved him.  As him.

After my sister called with the Hospice news, I sat down with that final memory and told myself that I’d take a day or two to sort through the other weaves of our 43-year journey together.   I quickly realized that there wasn’t much sorting to do.  To borrow a line from my old friend, Gerry, when it came to Dad and me, “there just wasn’t much ‘there’, there”.

At least that had always been the official version.

That night, I started crying… unexpectedly AND uncontrollably.

I went upstairs to the study and lit a candle for Dad.  And I cried. And cried.  More than I have ever cried in my entire life.

Eventually, I saw Dad.  He was covered in vines.

They were the vines life foists upon us.  Broken dreams.  False hopes.  Unfulfilled promises…that we had made to others, and they had made to us.

The vines were more alive than Dad…and they were weighing him down.  His face was at once both resigned and terrified.

“It’s ok Dad,” I said.  “Put down the vines,” I told him.  “They’re not clinging to you.  You’re clinging to them.”

I’ll never know if he did or didn’t.  But I do know what happened next.

Suddenly, I was in the house I grew up in.  On Lake Haven Street.  It was the holidays.  I was sitting next to the Christmas tree (artificial, of course, these were the 70’s!).  And I was waiting for Dad to come home and do the only thing Mom ever asked him to do with the tree:  hang the lights.  Now, when we were kids, my sister and I told ourselves we wanted him home because once the lights were up we could hang even MORE ornaments from their wires.  That night, as I sat crying in my house in Boston—so many years and lifetimes away from Lake Haven—I realized that, at least for me, we wanted him home so we could be a family.

And, then, I knew that was never meant to be.  At least not for me.  At least not for my family.

It was an illusion.  A vine that I had carried with me my whole life…just in case it ever came true.

And then, I saw the figure covered in vines again.  Only, this time, it wasn’t Dad.  It was me.

Turns out, when you reached below life’s surface to its true “hidden harmony”, as Heraclitus calls it, Dad and I were quite close, one and the same in many ways.  Unhappy with what we saw as our hand in life, we created illusions to fill perceived gaps.

Illusions around family, around friends, around work.  Around us.

And, the gift of Dad’s death was to show me that he wasn’t the only one who could drop those vines.  I could, too.

And so I did.

Now, if you haven’t done it, let me tell you:  the sound of shattering illusions is deafening, unsettling, terrifying….and freeing.

I slept full of gratitude that night…gratitude for my father.  It was the first time I had ever paired those words together.

As I drummed the following morning, I again saw Dad (this time sans-vines).  We were moving towards each other.  Neither of us had much shape at all.  At one point, our finger’s barely touched and, then, we kept moving…now past each other. Dad one way.  Me another.

4 hours later as I was making lunch, I felt a pain.  A release.   A feeling at once empty and full.

My sister texted me 5 minutes later to confirm what I knew.  Dad was dead.

That afternoon, the first wave of a completely new sensation washed over me.

Turns out that Dad’s gift of shattered illusions had been simply a stocking stuffer.

His real gift was what happens AFTER you shatter those illusions.   And that is the gift of peace.

Not the Hallmark version of peace where it’s always morning in America.  Nor the Southern or Yankee brand of peace where you just lock all those unpleasant feelings, things and people in life’s basement and “buck up”.

Nope.  The kind of peace that comes only AFTER you’ve dropped all illusions.  The peace that is synonymous with truth.  With life.  Not as it could have been or should be, but as it is.  Now.  This moment.

Wherever Dad is, I hope he’s riding wave after wave of infinitely beautiful, just plain fun, peace.

I know I am.   And, for that, this son is forever grateful to his father.

Of fathers, sons, Michael Jackson and Farrah

29 06 2009

Last Sunday, in honor of Father’s Day, I posted a blog about father figures…specifically, the two men who had been father figures in my life.  And who i honored earlier this year by shedding the names of my birth father and putting on their names instead.  Five days later, I got a call that my birth father, whose name I no longer wear, had been placed on Hospice.  Most likely, he will be dead in a matter of weeks, if not days or hours.

That jolt has left me sifting through the weaves of our relationship–physical, emotional and karmic.  It’s also sharpened my awareness of the labels we carry with us.  Labels that we put on or, in many cases, allow others to put on. Masks that, by the weight of their illusion, either suppress or, worse yet, extinguish our true self.

What do the labels of “father” and “son” mean?  Does the father you are born to always win out over the fathers who raised you?  And what does the label of “son” require in the final days, moments of a father who was never there?

Looking outside my own life, I see friends and family members who refuse to wear labels…society be damned.  As they’ve aged, the frenetic rebellion of youth has settled into a beautiful groove of peaceful power.

And then there are the friends and family members who have spent lifetimes feverishly collecting all the labels society demands we wear. Yet, over time, the youthful exuberance of raw ambition weathers into a hardened resignation that, once you hit a certain point, you simply accept life for what is familiar vs what is true.  Convinced that it’s too late to change, they put themselves on a psychic Hospice if you will.  Seeking whatever will ease the pain of missed opportunities and numb their soul while they wait for their body to die.

Just look at Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson seems to be someone who always was trying to come back to past glory rather than participate–warts and all–in the here and now. His eccentricities seemed to be more a reaction to society’s demands than a response to his true self.  Even in death, people refused to let him go. Pumping his dead body for hours to bring him back…to bring them back…to what once was.

And then there’s Farrah Fawcett.  Someone who accepted that others wanted to see her as an “angel”, but who never let that illusion cloud who she really was.  She used that illusion to lure folks in to see real truths–be it about rape, domestic violence or cancer.  Where Michael Jackson saw the ability of masks or labels to conceal, Farrah Fawcett saw their potential to reveal.

If that is, you took the time to look beyond the mask, beyond the illusion, to see the truth…to live in the moment of what is vs what was or, perhaps, what never was.

A moment for fathers

21 06 2009

Father’s Day is a bit of an odd day for me.

My birth father is proof-positive that love and blood alone aren’t enough to make you a father.  They must be equaled by intent.  One of the constants in my life is that Dad always has offered the first two qualities and, rarely, the third.

But the universe has more than made up for that karmic deficiency by providing me with two father figures throughout my life.  Men who show that, if you have to choose the balance among the three qualities mentioned above, love and intent will always win out over blood.

They’re the men I honored earlier this year by changing my name, by dropping “James” (my father’s father’s name) and “Woodruff” in favor of “Brett” and “Taylor.”

“Brett” honors my step-grandfather who was my father for the first ten years of my life. His last name was “Brettman”, but all of his friends called him “Brett”.  “Taylor” honors my stepfather, who picked up the fatherhood mantle after my grandfather died and carried it until he died this past year.

But, there is a back of symbol to these two words.  Behind the men they honor are the rich lessons they imparted onto me..lessons that continue to unfold moment to moment.

A career military man, my grandfather taught me to be a gentleman; to fuel outward respect with inward pride; and to live life without a net.

On that last point…I was  sick for much of the first ten years of my life.  As a result, a lot of folks treated me like a fragile, frail object.  Not Grandaddy.  He picked me up every Saturday morning for an adventure.  He always kept me out later than my mom or grandmother wanted; let me eat whatever I wanted; talk about whatever I wanted to talk about.

He figured that, if I was going to die in childhood as a lot of docs thought, I might as well enjoy the time I had.  It’s an attitude that caused him to move back to Southern California after doctors told him that a series of heart attacks and skin cancers made him too weak for such a move.  It’s the attitude that sent him to the golf course on January 20, 1976–seven months after the move–where he dropped dead walking to the links.  One that walks with me every day.

I called my stepfather “Thoso”.  He taught me three things:  to love nature; to ground in faith; and to always, always, always enjoy food…especially dessert, specifically Blue Bell and Spring Creek B-B-Q.  I got that last lesson first and struggled for years with the second.  The first lesson, the love of nature, was his last gift to me.

Like many gifts, it’s best shared through a story.

After a lengthy struggle with Parkinson’s, Thoso died last March.  He had a rapid-fire series of strokes beforehand that brought me home to Texas 8 times between December, 2007 and March, 2008.

As I took that final flight home, 33-years of memories flashed through my mind.  Then, just as we were beginning our descent into DFW, a final image flashed:  Thoso and I were sitting on a ridge, looking out at the deceptively simple Texas landscape.  We had our arms around each other’s shoulders, gazing out.  Just sitting in silent awe at the wonders and gifts of nature.

When I got to my parents’ house, my mother told me that Thoso had slipped into a coma.  I went back to his room, knelt down and took his hand.  As I did, he opened his eyes, squinted at me as only a Texas cowboy can and said,  “We had some good times, didn’t we?”

They were the last words he ever spoke.

They weren’t just words of good-bye to my mother–his soul mate–and me.  They were words of appreciation for the gift of A life that was about to be extinguished so a new one could be born.

Never forgetting that life is a gift from nature best lived with adventure…and dignity…and pride…and faith.  What a gift to re-member on this Father’s Day…from the fathers who now walk to the left and right of my name every day.

Mirror, mirror on the wall: Who’s the “projecting”-ist of all?

6 06 2009

Maybe the reason so many couch potatoes watch so much tv is because they find a kindred spirit in, a kinship to, something that projects illusion in the guise of reality.*

I thought about this the other day while in a meeting where one person dared to express her dream vision and another shot it down with a “thou doest protest too much” fervor.  It increasingly became obvious that these two people actually harbored similar dreams.  Yet, one was just taking the first tentative, baby steps towards hers while the other had long ago decided the journey was futile (i.e. he didn’t have the balls to do it!).

As he hurled onto his colleague every reason why he hadn’t pursued his dream (all under the guise, of course, of “the time isn’t right”, “it’s too risky”, “it’s been tried before”, etc, etc) you could see the sharp edges of his anger camoflouging his fear shielding his shame.  And you could see those sharp edges prick and then burst the woman’s dream.

Mission accomplished!

Once she was beat into the submissive state of one who dreams for others, not for self, the guy shrugged his shoulders and said “I mean, that’s just how I see it”.  I wanted to add “Yes, how you see it….as a spectator, not a participant.”

That poor woman.  My colleague had projected onto her an entire Lifetime mini-series of angst and drama!

And neither of them had a clue what the other had done.

What is it about humans that make us so prone to projection?

When we meet someone’s new boyfriend, we say “he’s not right for him”…because we haven’t found the right person for us. A friend of mine is picking up and moving away and a lot of our mutual friends think he’s plum crazy…because they cannot imagine living a life alive with mystery, preferring one that is dead with predictability.

Much of our discourse in this country is based on what was, not what is.  Democrats and Republicans would rather play from old, batter-worn playbooks, than the truth.  And look at race in this country.  We’re still having that conversation via a 1960’s/1970’s time warp.   And on and on it goes.

Now not all projection is unpleasant.   Some of it’s downright fun. But none of it’s real.  It’s as much an illusion as the images that come out of our tv’s. And when we forget that, we pump air into the illusion and douse the flames of reality.

*  A  tip of the hat (pen? keyboard?)  to Richard Bach who wrote beautifully about movies, projectors and life in Ilusions.

Two women, two paths.

11 05 2009

Two moments have been flickering in my heart all morning. One happened last night with my mother; the other about ten years ago with my grandmother. They tell a lot not only about them but about the paths women choose today.

First, my grandmother. But, before the moment, some background: I always tell people my grandmother was a combination of Victoria Barkley from The Big Valley and Auntie Mame. She was a true force of nature and the most driven person I’ve ever met. The kind of person who wanted to be “somebody” and, through sheer will and against long odds, succeeded. To her, life was all about appearances. And nobody looked better than Gran…or made a better career out of looking better than everyone else. She was one of Neiman’s first buyers, had a TV show, hosted Spain’s first debutante ball, etc, etc. To this day, I think of her every time I look in a mirror and never, ever would be caught dead wearing light-colored shoes after 5 p.m. for fear of some sort of divine retribution. She married three times, though I believe the only man she loved was the one she didn’t marry (he called her “The Divine Miss M” and their love affair spanned two marriages and 40 years). Gran was a tough woman, a difficult woman, but I loved her very, very much. And I’ll always cherish the gift of being her Patrick Dennis. That’s the background.

Now, the moment: One day, when she was about 80, her mind falling and her spirit weary, Gran and I were chatting on the phone. “Willo,” she said excitedly. “I heard the most marvelous thing this morning. I heard birds singing!” Now, Gran lived in Southern California–before smog made birds gasp rather than chirp. Birds sang all the time. But Gran hadn’t heard them. She’d spent her life rushing to the destination of “making it”…never pausing to savor the moments as she lived it. It wasn’t long after our conversation that her health deteriorated rapidly. For the last 13 months of her life, she laid in a bed–facing a window. Watching the birds. I think hearing their song was the purpose of her life. Once she received it, she could let go.

Now, my mother. And, again, first some background: My mother, in many ways is not her mother’s daughter. She is the ultimate Earth mother…someone who embodies nurturing, love and kindness. Where my grandmother has the more exciting story, my mother has the more honest life. And, yet, being born to Victoria Barkley/Mame came with a price–and that price was acceptance. Acceptance based on appearances. Not just how you look, but the appearance of success—on society’s terms, not yours.

It’s a struggle my mom has waged for many years.

For 25 years, she kept it locked in the basement of her soul as she savored the gift of a marriage…and love affair..with my stepfather. After all, who needs acceptance when you’re in love? And, then, last year, Tommy died. And the shadow of acceptance burst through the door that had kept it out of sight–but not soul–for so long.

For 13 months that shadow has enveloped my mother. It has persistently whispered that her marriage to Tommy was just a passing illusion. A nice dream of self-acceptance, but a dream that ended with his death…leaving her to awaken to a nightmare of judgement from others. Others who stand ever ready to tell her that she’s too old to learn new things. That she’s unemployable–except, maybe–and they mean MAYBE–as a greeter at Best Buy. That she’s crazy to still want to care for others after the pain of caring, first for her dying mother and, then, her dying husband. Or, my personal favorite, that her best days are behind her (as if there’s an expiration date to quality in one’s life).

And that shadow just about won. Until last night. Which brings me–finally! –to the second moment. It happened on the phone, in the middle of a most ordinary conversation with my mom. The kind you have with your mother once both of you reach a certain age. In the middle of chatting about dinner, the dogs, the weather and what not, mom said “You know, I’ve come to realize that I don’t really care what other people think.” I almost spilled my martini. Not because she said it, but because she meant it.

Finally, after years and years of suppressing the shadow of judging acceptance, she had faced it. And, basically, given it the finger (in a most Southern ladylike way, of course!). And she was free. Is free. To live her life. To find, alone with herself, the same joy and love she found,together, with Tommy.

These two moments fill me with gratitude for the two most important women in my life. They also make me wonder about the wonderful women I know who choose my grandmother’s path. They drink the kool-aid society feeds us that says the feminine has no value. That worth comes only from masculine pursuits–even if you dress them up in feminine masks. The roar of their ambition blocks the music of the birds. I don’t know many women like my mother, though. Women who move through society’s version of their life…to live their own. On their own terms. Blissfully happy.

My grandmother could have learned a lot from my mother. Other women could, too. To paraphrase Frost, she’s taking the road less travelled on. I bet it will make all the difference!