Tuesday, March 10, 2020

ROAR!!! Then wait. Repeat as necessary.



I’ve always loved March’s “in like a lion, out like a lamb” dichotomy. On the one side, there’s a fierce restlessness and on the other, a kind of peaceful hopefulness.

It’s not much of a stretch to say I’ve repeated this pattern in my life almost as if, being born in this month, I was given a script by which to operate.

I can be very Lion-ish about certain things. I once identified it as my leadership style. The entrepreneur in me, the would-be punk with mismatched clothes and wild hair, she’s a Lion. Nonconformist, freedom-loving, and willing to debate and argue politics. She’s been woke these last few years after #MeToo, #Resist, and #ShePersisted. She’s been willing to admit her privilege and tried to be empathetic to the journey others are on.

A lion is a pack animal, protective and focused on doing what needs to be done. We’re talking the Nala kind of lion, not Simba the slacker.

Photo Courtesy ScreenPrism.com
My lion side wants to force things, take the lead, share a vision that others embrace and respond to. She’s writing the entrepreneurism “textbook” (more of a digital course supplement than traditional textbook). She sees gaps in the marketplace.

My lion side gets discouraged and frustrated when she can’t rally people to the cause. Why don’t we have more listeners on our radio show? Why can’t we get people to participate in our local authors book club? Why is it so hard to build a tribe?

If you build it, they will come isn’t exactly a business strategy. My lion side knows this. She wants to work, to hustle, to build.

Then there’s the lamb. She sacrifices herself. She accepts a certain kind of dismissal, overlooking, and low expectations. She doesn’t bite back when people say, “If you can do it, so can I.” (Cuz really, fuck that. No, you can’t.)

She smiles with grace and dignity when she’s denied funding for an idea. When she loses a sale. When she’s ignored by decision makers, king makers, in this town. She defers: recommends and promotes others into roles she ought to be Lion-ish about. She gives.

And then she lays down and waits.

And this frustrates my lion side. I want to advocate but am I standing on an empty shore and spitting into the wind?

It’s my birthday month. A traditional month of introspection for me. The year I turned 40 I started a little journal of the “well-lived life” things I was going to do: read more female authors (check), spend more time with family (check), donate more clothing (umm), build Hollie’s scrapbook (umm), submit to more journals (yes, but with sad results).

It’s three years later and I’m no worse off now than I was then. I’ve published a book, earned a full-time faculty position, and established the only school for consultants in South Carolina. I’ve also gotten into some of the habits I wanted to establish like attending live events and blogging more regularly.

This month I’ll be taking stock again. The lamb in me wants to understand where I’ve been and how to course correct. The lion in me wants action.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Rest in peace, sir: The Lion, the Owl, and the St Bernard


This week I worked with my classes on goal setting. To get them in the right mindset of thinking beyond “Get an A” as their goal for the term, I encouraged them to consider the various areas of their lives where they’d like to see some improvement.

We named categories like friends and family, finances, health and wellness, and art and culture. Would they set a goal to spend more time with relatives? To save more money? To work out daily? Or to attend at least one “culture” event per month?

In those goal setting classes, I talk a lot about having a balanced life, one that is rich in relationships, purpose, and joy. A life they would want others to say was well-lived.

Too often over the past few years I’ve had the occasion to think of the end-of-life and the things we say about others after they’ve passed. In each circumstance, I wondered if the work I’m doing daily is building, as the poet says, out of the lumber of my life a temple or a tavern.

This week I learned the man who taught me the very goal setting practice I use in the classroom is nearing the end of his life. He’s comfortable, his daughter says, and at peace. And when I got word through Facebook, I felt pride in the work I’m doing and in the way his lessons have stayed with me.

The Lion

I was a sophomore in high school when Captain Blakeman took the highest officers of our Naval Junior Officers Training Corps (NJROTC) battalion on a retreat weekend for strategic planning for the following year. It was the 4H camp in Front Royal, Virginia, and it was an incredible experience. 

Our first exercise was to self-identify our leadership style. I remember claiming to be a Lion: fierce, bold, and willing to take risks. That may be where the entrepreneur in me lives. The writer, the Libertarian, the nonconformist that wears flannels and t-shirts with my business skirts and heels.

Later, during a strategy session, Captain Blakeman explained how each goal could be broken into three strategic objectives and each objective into tasks we could easily do daily, weekly, or monthly. It was my first experience with itemizing work: what will it take to get us where we want to go? Captain Blakeman’s system explained how to create a plan not only for myself but for any team, any organization, and any effort I was meant to lead.

The Owl

My entire career has been built on itemized work organized in the pattern he taught me all those years ago. Even my personal life follows this intentional exercise. Every January I organize the next year’s vision into a series of objectives to achieve and tasks to perform. I’ve become less ferocious and demanding, and more measured and analytical. I’m Owl-like in middle age.

It’s unlikely I’ll have the chance to say goodbye to Captain Blakeman. I’m not alone in these fond memories of what he taught in his decades-long career as a Naval officer and Naval Science Instructor. It’s unlikely he’d remember me, just one of hundreds of teenagers in whose life he made an impact.

The St. Bernard

In all the reflections I’ve been able to do over those we’ve lost, I’m reminded of the third leadership style, that of the St. Bernard. Caring, kindness, compassion and a willingness to go where others won’t to provide relief and comfort.

On the retreat when he had us self-identify our leadership style according to those iconic animals, Captain Blakeman didn’t tell us that the very best leaders know when to be what. Somehow, I think he knew we would come to that conclusion in our own time.

Thanks, Captain Blakeman. May your journey be peaceful and your rest eternal.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Meeting Your Characters IRL

This post originally appeared on the Columbia II Writers Workshop blog. It's revived here because I think this audience would appreciate it, too. Enjoy!

Years ago, I went home to Northern Virginia over a school break and met my mom for lunch at Uno Pizzeria. It was on the corner of the most upscale shopping center in our area and it was one of my favorite places to eat.

I’d been away at college for a while and had been writing the novel that would become After December. I knew the story was about Brian Listo, a version of myself I felt confident sharing with others. He was arrogant, privileged, and good at everything he did. He also smoked and drank like it was his job and was kind of a slut.

I loved him. And he loved me back. Through the troubled years surrounding my parents’ divorce and the break-up of our family, when I moved away from Northern Virginia and only rarely went back, Brian was with me.

Josh, actor portraying Brian in the Fanatik Productions trailer
Imagine how it felt to see him walk into Uno Pizzeria. 

As my mom continued talking to me, I watched Brian move through the bar area. Watched him greet his friends who did not resemble the other characters of the book. Watched him light a cigarette and take a deep drink from a tall beer. The afternoon sunlight played on the shades of dirty blonde and light brown in his hair. His grey gaze seared me from across the room.

Day drinking, flannel-wearing, ridiculously hot Brian stood just yards away.

Of course, it wasn’t him. Searing gaze aside, he was just some handsome college-aged guy that looked like he could have been Brian. To the one-raised eyebrow, he could have been him. But of course he wasn’t.

Neither was Josh, the actor who stood in my kitchen listening to me explain how Brian’s kind of an asshole. And how he’s trying not to be. You know, character arc and all that. Then Josh went upstairs, got in bed with Meli, and filmed the opening scene of the book for the trailer.

Being with an actor who is trying to learn more about Brian so he can accurately portray him was both terrifying and thrilling. Josh looks like Brian. Not as much as that guy in Uno 20 years ago, but a lot like him. And he’s handsome and he has a great smile. But as soon as he started talking, he sounded young. Like Millennial young, and I remembered the literary agent that asked me if After December had to be set in the 90s.

Yes, yes it does. 

Josh is a good actor, he really is. Watching the filming of the trailer was awesome. Thanks to Fanatik Productions for putting it together. 

Being in the same room with your characters is the ultimate thrill.

A few weeks back, I visited those Northern Virginia locations where the book is set. Many, like Uno, are no longer in business. But I went anyway. Waxed nostalgic for the 90s and crossed my fingers I'd run into Brian Listo again. Of course, he’d probably have his teenaged son with him.

Here's the link to the trailer they filmed. It's fantastic.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Grown Up Version of My Tween Dream is Published

In the scene I remember best, Tony lay bleeding on the floor of the cave where they’d built a ramp to skate. All the ramps they skated had these cool names: one in the sewers was called Ratwall and the one in an ocean-front cave (a la The Lost Boys) was called Angel’s Lair. 

I’m not sure how my 7th grade novelist thought they lit that cave. Torches maybe? Candles? Or some sunlight falling through openings in the ceiling?

Anyway there was a giant half pipe and Brian and his Crew used to skate there. Tony had gone down inside and confronted Kevin, a friend with a bad drug habit who had betrayed the Crew. Kevin stabbed him.

Brian found Tony, bleeding, tried to patch him up, realized he couldn’t get him out, and finally held him, weeping, while he died.

I wrote that scene a dozen times. Best friends in their final moments together. Betrayal. Violence. Devastation. Loss.

What did my seventh-grade novelist self know about such things? Only what she’d read, seen in movies, and imagined.

Imagined.

For the duration of the year we lived in Aptos, California, I imagined what it would be like to have a group of really cool skateboarder friends. Brian would lead them of course, with Tony as his best mate, Jason and Joel as identical twins, and Kevin, the Judas among them.

All those days in the window seat of the house in Aptos, scribbling in pencil into spiral notebooks imagining the day I’d be a novelist. My name on the cover of a book. My characters walking around in people’s heads. Thirteen-year-old me building the foundation of my ambition. A dream.

And this year, it’s been realized.

I have a book. It’s not Tony bleeding in a skate ramp cave, but it is Tony bleeding, dying, and Brian’s loss. His regret. His shame.

It’s a hard book to read, I’m told, because it’s so sad. And yet I don’t feel sad by it. I’m glad to have released it. Freed it. Freed them all to breathe among the readers like feathery seeds of dandelions adrift on the breeze.

In freeing them, I also feel free. And nervous (will they like it?). And proud (look what I made!). And relieved. This thing I’ve been working at, this thing I thought one day I’d do, I did it.

Here’s the link to the book’s site. And where you can buy it on Amazon. And the Launch Day event on Facebook. There will be giveaways and behind-the-scenes and merriment and Q&As and suchness. Find me on Instagram for videos. Check out the trailer here.

More than anything, though, even if you never buy my book, find that dream you had that time and figure out how to make it happen. Because there’s a fulfillment beyond comparison in doing so.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Angel Kisses and Overwhelming Gratitude

What I usually tell people about Carol Staubach is that she failed statistics in college and she was the smartest woman I’ve ever known. When she retired, Carol was in the topmost ranks of the CIA. She was clever, decisive, and ambitious. So, if she failed statistics, it is perfectly okay that I did, too. She was my best friend Jessica’s mom and at her celebration of life event this weekend it was clear that the people who knew her will miss her now that she’s gone. 

My favorite pic of JoJo and me. We were 15. 
Listening to them talk, I felt surges of gratitude. First, to be able to be there. Then to be part, even peripherally, of a love so fierce and sure. Then to witness the gratitude each of them had for knowing her. And to witness the way they’re loving each other through the loss of someone so precious.

Last fall we buried both my Uncle Howard and my Papa. I remember at the time feeling the devotion and respect we all had for them. It was our blessing to have known them that held us upright through the services and the grief.

And it’s still coming. The grief, that is. Being in a funeral home triggers it. Certain music, certain phrases, and I’m remembering the cadence of Papa saying the blessing and Uncle Howard’s throaty laugh. This fall when we go back to Clemson for football, I’m sure it’ll be there, too.

Jessica called those moments of remembrance angel kisses. Small reminders that the person you’ve lost is with you. A song they loved coming on the radio just as you’re thinking of them, a story about them coming to mind because of a seemingly-random coincidence. 

My 2nd favorite pic of JoJo and me. We were 20.
There have been quite a few deaths in our Life on Clemson Road over the last two years. Many were peripheral to Charlie and Hollie and myself (like this one and this one), but some were rather near like Aunt Carolyn, Uncle Howard, and Papa. 

I’m at that age now where those whom we are meant to outlive will begin leaving us. Each time we gather to pay our respects, I feel such gratitude for having known the people we mourn. Always the love of their families blossoms around me. The softness and warmth of care and devotion blankets us. The strength and passion of perseverance and dedication holds us up even as we crumble into hugs and tears. 

Carol’s granddaughter Aubrey has a bracelet with charms from each of the cities they visited together. It’s a heavy silver chain that jingles and catches the glint of Arizona sunlight when she extends her arm to show it. Those moments, I told her, that time together, you’ll never regret it. I never have

It was with devotion and love I crossed the country to be with Jessica while she zombied through the second-hardest day of her life. But with gratitude and peace that I journeyed home, knowing she, too, is loved. 

I know for certain the angel kisses will keep coming. They’ll catch us off guard and remind us how very lucky we are to have forged those bonds. 

I’m so sorry, JoJo, for your loss. My heart breaks for you. And when you need me, know I’m here and can be there after a *short* overlay in the worst town to stain a map. ::wink::

Friday, January 4, 2019

2019 Has GOT to be Better

I’m an optimist. As such, I expect each year to be better than the last. Lately, though, time and life have been finding new and creative ways to kick me in the teeth.

It started in 2016 when the election friction tore a rift in our nation and in my family. People I considered to be logical, intelligent people became FOX News zombies spewing vitriol. So I began 2017 by attending the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. I carried a sign that said, “Because Love” and stood in solidarity with others who confessed the dark mood of the nation was what brought them out.

That Spring I turned 40. I didn’t think there was much to it but as my friend Heather said, “40 is a motherfucker.”

All the things I thought I was building began crumbling around me. The business lost its biggest clients. My income went to zero. Despite applying for a thousand jobs, no one would hire me. Multiple professional setbacks including an interview for a job I just knew was mine only to see they reposted the position.

Not that they found a better candidate. They’d rather not hire anyone at all than hire me.

Ouch.

At New Year’s I declared that 2017 could just fuck right off. Then the Tigers lost in the playoffs and I felt like everyone I knew felt the same way as me.

2018 had to be better.

Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels.com
This past year I worked harder than I ever have. Some 60- and 70-hour weeks. The results were incredible. Not everything I hoped and wished for, that would be too much to ask, but some real traction in a lot of areas.

We opened the Women’s Business Center of South Carolina complete with $100k from Google and a Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting. I secured an adjunct faculty contract at the Darla Moore School and we finally had minimum viable income in the household. I was invited to speak at the Pat Conroy Literary Center and asked to serve on the board of directors for the South Carolina Writers Association. I led workshops and panels and networking events and launched two radio shows on the local talk radio station.

Then, on the biggest day of the WBC of SC’s early life, I sat in a church pew some 90 miles from the Women’s Business Summit. All the work and focus and energy put into that 1-day event and I wasn’t there to see any of it.

I had to make a choice about the kind of person I want to be.

The Monday before the event, my Uncle Howard succumbed to an infection he contracted after surgery and died. He left behind two children, three grandchildren, the love of his life to whom he’d been married for 40 years, and my mom, his twin sister.

During the service, the minister of the church he’d attended faithfully for decades called him a blessed man. Humble and kind, caring and compassionate, willing to give of himself to any who were in need. He was not a famous man, he never held public office or published works of literature. He quietly served on small committees, organizing events and raising money for good causes.

What I had done in 2018 was put myself in service. By doing so, by helping others succeed, by building solutions to fill gaps, I thought to elevate my own position. Service was a marketing plan.

But on November 16th, when we buried my Uncle Howard with his Clemson Tigers ball cap, surrounded by two hundred people who loved and admired him, I realized his service was more gratifying than mine. He’d served because he was called to do so.

As we all are.

He’d said, “Yes, God,” when asked to give of himself in love and compassion, in kindness and trust. He’d said, “Yes.”

I’ve been saying, “Yes, and” as I added my own part to the story being written. I’ve been following Amy Pohler and Tina Fey’s advice for improv comedy: accept the circumstances you’re given (“yes”) and make them better (“and”). Only the “and” I’d pursued had been me asking. It was more like, “Yes, and?”

I was where I was meant to be on November 16th, a fact that was made even more clear to me on December 28thwhen we sat in similar circumstances for my Papa. The same minister said of him that he’d been a man who lived the way Jesus wanted us to: humble and kind, in service to those around him.

In service.

As 2018 ends with the double-upper-cut of Uncle Howard’s death and Papa’s, I feel another declaration oncoming: “2018 can fuck all the way off.”

My friends, for whom this year has also been a trial with loss and uncertainty and hysterics and defeats, echo the sentiment to a one.

And yet, I am not embittered by the circumstances of the year. I’m filled instead with a profound gratitude for these two men and what they taught me. I’m encouraged to go forward into 2019 and continue to serve others in whatever capacity I am able. To meet obligations with enthusiasm and optimism. To help, promote, encourage, and sponsor as I am able the people around me who are poised to achieve.

In doing so, I will not necessarily amplify my own talents, but instead be putting them to their intended use.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Suffering, but not Struggling

I went to bed last night thinking, “Everyone in my life is struggling right now.”

Marriage issues, career setbacks, rapid and disorienting change, natural disasters and natural transitions. They’re struggling. But are they suffering?

This week I met a woman who told me, “How can you expect to achieve your wildest dreams if you aren’t willing to suffer for them?”

She said, when you eat a good meal or drink a fine wine or see a great show, you pay for it. Ticket costs, right? Entry fees. Tabs and bills and checks and cash.

Why would achievement be any different?
Photo by KW 2008

I have always been an achiever. I am willing to be first and willing to work hard. I’m willing to get up early and stay up late. The norm for the last ten weeks has been 18-hour days. My latest complaint is scheduling down to the minute, even scheduling family time and trashy romance reading time.

It’s football season, so it hasn’t been all work and no play. There’s just more work to make room for the play hours that football and family time claim.

I’m doing some things I love: meeting new people, building new programs, testing new ideas, transferring knowledge, and making connections. I truly feel like I’m IN the game. 

I’m doing some things I hate: sticking to a schedule, administrative attention to detail, skipping fitness, cutting back on wine, focusing on the and theninstead of the what if?

And while I’m suffering, I don’t feel defeated.

I woke up at 3:30 this morning thinking, 1) it’s too early to get up and start working, and 2) that’s too bad.

Yes, I’m busy. Yes, I’m running on little-to-no-sleep. Yes, I’m straining some of my most valuable relationships – I’m aware, friends, I promise!

But I’m THRIVING.

When I thought last night of how everyone around me is struggling, I realized I’m not.

Suffering and struggling are not the same thing.

By suffering I mean I’m having to make hard choices, prioritize some things over others, let some things I loved go, disappoint some people while forging new relationships with others. Change is hard. New ventures are hard. Disappointment and failure and overcoming resistance are hard. That’s what I mean by suffering. It means what I’m doing is hard.

But I’m not struggling. Struggling is being indecisive, feeling alone, feeling disoriented or without purpose or direction. Struggling is questioning motivations of others and myself. Struggling is losing trust and losing faith.

I have faith.

The things that need to happen will happen. The places I need to be, I’ll get there. The influential persons and events that will shape my life are part of my life because I invited them in. I threw open the doors. I expected their participation.

I was willing to be changed.

This morning I am invigorated. I cannot wait to suffer for my achievements. I can see the horizon and it is a glorious place of fulfillment and peace. And this place I’m in now, it’s the bedrock of that one. It’s the journey. The path. The program. The system. The story I’ll tell.

And I love being in it.

ROAR!!! Then wait. Repeat as necessary.

I’ve always loved March’s “in like a lion, out like a lamb” dichotomy. On the one side, there’s a fierce restlessness an...