"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finding My Voice

From grammar school through high school, I was incredibly fortunate to have excellent teachers. Amazing teachers. People who were in the profession for all the right reasons, and gifted as mentors and educators. There were a few duds in the bunch, but overall, I look back and know that I was very lucky.

For me, teachers were the people who really saw me. They drew things out of me I either didn’t know I was capable of, or secretly wanted to share and had never had the courage. They became my personal cheerleaders, my advisors, and the guardians of my self esteem.

My first instinct has always been to doubt myself, and I have only very recently started to break that pattern. It will be a lifelong struggle, and was no doubt a daunting task to those who taught me when I was younger. But as I look back, I know that these men and women each helped me improve the way I saw myself, each laying a brick, building more and more of a foundation for me to trust and believe in myself.

People who know me now are astonished and unbelieving that I was ever shy or introverted. Although in quiet moments on my own I still have doubts, I can easily speak in front of a crowd any size, and hold my own in any social situation. This definitely wasn’t the case, even nearly, until my freshman year of high school.

From the age of five I had taken dance classes, and by the time I was in junior high, I was in a dance studio four nights a week. Then, a knee injury sidelined things for me, and I was a bit lost. A teacher recommended I sign up for the speech and debate team at school, and when I balked at the idea, I was signed up, whether I liked it or not. I wasn’t a debater, and instead competed in the division of Dramatic Interpretation.

Mr.Kirkman was my teacher and coach, and brought out excellence from what I remember as a pretty rag tag group. So many different personalities in the room-- most inexperienced-- but he somehow found a way to reach each of us. Remarkably, he taught a girl scared of the sound of her own voice to act, to compete, and to win.

While I had found moments of confidence in my life at that point, nothing compared to what was building within me. I only realize now why it all was so important.

I never quite knew what or who I was coming home to growing up. My parent’s troubled marriage consumed them, and the mood at home could be warm and somewhat normal, tense and quiet, or explosive and angry. At times, I know that there wasn’t a great deal of thought behind things that were said, but the lasting impression of several phrases has never left me.

My father is an incredibly engaging and charming man. Everyone who meets him loves him. He is a master story teller, and never meets a stranger. But for various reasons, he has never been able to connect with me in a healthy way, and his words have at times been incredibly damaging, whether this was his intention or not.

As I began competing with the speech and debate team, I started listening to the soundtracks for broadway musicals almost nonstop at home and everywhere else I got a chance. I longed to take my dramatic talent further, and wished more than anything to have the voice of a soprano, and a lead role in any musical.

I expressed this at home, ad nauseam, I am sure. And maybe other things were said that I don’t remember. But amidst the fighting and unhappiness between my parents, the doubts about my musical ability were clearly expressed to me. My father, always the jokester, made funny comments about my singing voice that stung.

I accepted his opinion as truth. And honestly, with that opinion behind me, I did sing terribly. At one point, I even took voice lessons from a local coach. But, I had no confidence in my abilities, and the coach I worked with wasn’t incredibly encouraging. I dropped the classes after four sessions.

Over the years, as I found success in Dramatic Interpretation competitions, and learned and grew, I got involved in some theater productions, but believed that I wasn’t leading role material. Not in the way I wanted to be.

When I moved on to college, I studied acting, but didn’t seem to be finding my way to any major productions on campus.

By coincidence, Mr. Kirkman was living and teaching in the same city where I attended college. During those years, he was as much a therapist as a friend, and was part of a small group of people I knew I could depend upon in the world. He was frequently on stage himself with a local community theater group, and had encouraged me to audition for some upcoming musicals. My immediate response was that I couldn’t sing.

He pushed me. How did I know I couldn’t sing, really? It was all about confidence, he told me. I remember him saying that I couldn’t use that excuse until I really gave it my all, with conviction. I had to believe in myself enough to try 100%. Then if I did all that and sounded horrible, he promised to be honest with me.

Over the next few weeks, he chose a song for me, helped me find the sheet music and a piano player to play and tape the song for me to practice with. We talked on the phone, and I know that my insecurities and endless “I cant’s” must have driven him crazy. But he remained a slow steady voice of support and faith in me. He never wavered.

After weeks of practice, we agreed to meet so he could gauge how things were going.
I don’t remember all of the details. I don’t know what time we met exactly, and I can’t remember the name of the school where he taught at that time. But, I remember the important things.

We met in the theater at his school. I had my tape of the music, and I stood on the stage alone, the rest of the room darkened, and Mr. Kirkman stood in the aisle. I couldn’t get my courage to even start. He encouraged me, coaxed me, and finally bellowed from the aisle for me to go already.

The music started and my heart was pounding so loud, I was positive he could hear it across the room. The first words came out soft, but clear, and if not perfect, better than I had ever sung before.

I will never forget his expression with just those first notes. It was happiness, some surprise, and pride. With every word my voice got stronger, louder, and clearer. He was jumping around in the aisle, so excited for me. In that moment I realized that I might be capable of so many things that I had thought impossible, if I could just believe in myself. It was an incredibly powerful moment in my life.

When I hit the last note, Mr. Kirkman asked me, with great exuberance, What are you going to do if they offer you the lead? I giggled and found myself dancing around in place. I answered him, I guess I’ll take it!

I did in fact get offered the lead in one musical that summer, and one of four lead roles in another.

The reason that moment-- when I found my voice-- was so important was not only because I learned I could sing and realized a dream. It was significant because this thing that I had grown to believe as a FACT for my whole life- that I could NOT sing- was reversed in a matter of weeks by someone believing in me, and making me believe in myself. I had this talent all along, and the ONLY thing holding me back was negative words I was taking to heart and turning into my own beliefs. My whole world got turned upside down that day. I suddenly realized that a million other things I thought were impossible for me might be within my grasp.

Mr. Kirkman and I remain in touch and friends to this day. And though I sense he knows some of the impact he has made on my life—I have thanked him for many things—I doubt he knows the full picture. With every note I sang on stage that summer, I found another piece of me. I would stand in the wings each night before a scene and have to pinch myself, that I- me!- was doing this amazing thing I never thought in a million years I could ever do.

And from then on and to this day, when I start to hear doubt creeping in my mind about something I want to try or do, I close my eyes and take myself back to that day in that high school theater, just as the music started, and I find my voice all over again.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

If you don't already know about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, you are in for such a treat. Get ready for some amazing singing, a hilarious script, and loads of sarcasm. I have enjoyed watching this so much this morning, it just made my Sunday.
Hats off to the director Joss Whedon for creating such a fun, enjoyable piece, and also for just recently snagging an Emmy for his work. Read more about Joss here, and to get to the main site for Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, click here.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back in Time

Both of my parents grew up very poor. This is one of the few things I know about their childhoods with certainty. Most of my family comes from an area of Kentucky where to me, a great deal of the area seems frozen in time. Even though I grew up in North Carolina in a very small town, the town where both sets of my grandparents lived, and my parents grew up, was so different and foreign to me.

We visited my grandparents often, especially when I was much younger. During grade school, I can vividly remember long car trips, annoyed with my sister who was sharing the back seat with me, and feeling as though the car got smaller and smaller with each passing hour of the drive. We spent many holidays in Kentucky, usually staying with my cousins in their beautiful house that, to me, seemed out of place from the rest of the area. And honestly, it was.

Most of the towns in that area are indiscernible, rocky, rural, and for lack of a better word…distant. Even through young eyes, I was shocked and troubled by the level of poverty I saw—ramshackle houses, some barely standing, with light peeking through the cracks of the old wooden boards holding it all together. We would drive by places and people that seemed a million miles away from the life of our family, but all the while I knew that my family came from just such a place, just such people.

I would watch out the car window as we passed stores the size of my school classroom back home that served as the grocery store for a whole town. Gas stations looked like they were decades old, with pumps that seemed like something out of an old movie to me. My small town in North Carolina suddenly seemed modern and progressive in comparison.

I would breathe a sigh of relief as we drove across the tiny bridge then down the long driveway to my cousin’s house. Once inside, I felt insulated from the sights and sounds that reminded me of the struggles my parents faced growing up, and I suppose, my own history.

We would always go to visit my grandparents several times during our visits, trekking out for the day, driving around on tiny twisting roads, listening to my father tell funny stories about the people he grew up with, and the characters that lived in his town. Usually, we would first go to see his mother, and she would shower me and my sister with compliments, and always gave us some money before we left. I felt more comfortable with her than my other grandparents, and sometimes tried to draw out the length of the stay. It is only in hindsight that I can remember my father never being quite comfortable during these visits, at least when we were alone with his mom. It is hard for me to even conjure up an image of him sitting in the room, instead standing, shifting his weight, and moving from one room to another, talking or answering questions from a distance. I never met or knew my father’s dad, or his stepdad, knowing of their existence only through a few rare photos, or accidental mentions in the telling of a story.

The drive to my mother’s parent’s house was quite a journey, as their little house was fairly high on a mountain, situated on what seemed like mostly rock, with some patches of grass here and there. The house itself never ceased to shock me in its primitiveness. It was only a few rooms, and looked to me as if it could fall apart at any moment. My grandparents had raised five children in this house, and I remember constantly, for all the years I went there, trying to imagine where everyone slept.

The furniture was sparse, and the floors seemed bare in my memory. An old pump in front of the house was used for gathering water, and at the time I thought it was fun to be sent with a bucket to try and find the strength to fill it. This was in the late 70’s, and my grandparents had an outhouse for their bathroom. The outhouse remained there until after my grandfather’s death in the mid 80’s.

My grandfather was a coal miner, and although I am sure he was only sick for the last few years, the picture of him I have in my mind is of a man dying of lung cancer, brought on by a job he had held all of his life. He was a kind man, very affectionate with me and my sister, and I never heard him talk above his distinct monotone. My grandmother , however, was always a complete mystery to me.

She never seemed to change, from the time I can first remember her, until she died. She always, without fail, wore her incredibly long, white hair in a bun, and wore same wire-rimmed glasses. Her face seemed to be made of wrinkles, and she always appeared very old to me, not growing older. She, like the landscape, seemed frozen in time to me, never changing, never evolving.
As I look back, I can also remember my mother not completely comfortable in the setting of her childhood home. Although I never doubted the deep love she had for her parents, especially her mother, I couldn’t define the uncomfortable feeling I had in that house with my extended family. It wasn’t just the sparse surroundings, it was something about the people themselves that seemed distant and awkward to me. The Hallmark images I saw on television of children bounding into their grandmother’s home full of anticipation and happiness never matched up to my experiences in any way.

My grandmother, as a true mountain woman, was tough and could be abrupt. Although my mother might share with me that she had observed my grandmother being sad, or having her feelings hurt, I can’t at any time remember witnessing these emotions. She seemed so different from my mother and me, who were very-- even overly-- emotional. I couldn’t find common ground with her-- my mother’s mother-- and that troubled me. I saw and heard my mother speak so passionately about her deep, intense love for her mother, and I felt at fault that I didn’t feel the same way. I had so much respect for her, raising five children in the conditions that she did, managing to feed and clothe them somehow, struggling to survive, but I couldn’t find an emotional link to her.

My mother’s stories of her childhood, the few she tells, are of a fairytale type of love within her family. Although she has been fairly honest about their financial struggles, this seemed to pale in comparison to the amount of love she received. Knowing this, and hearing that, made me even more concerned about the fact that I couldn’t and didn’t feel a strong connection to her parents.
As I grew older, we made fewer trips to Kentucky, and my sister, nine years my senior, had moved out on her own, and didn’t join us as often. With the backseat to myself, I felt more trapped somehow, as if I had even more of a burden to find a bond with my grandparents, without my sister to carry half of the load. And as a teenager, I also felt deeply ashamed of the world my grandparents lived in. I was terrified someone would see all this, find out where I came from, and ridicule me. And even worse, I was worried constantly that my parents would find out I felt this way.

My grandmother passed away about nine years ago, while I was living in California. I remember the call from my parents, my father angry, accusing me of ignoring their many calls, which I had missed because I had turned the ringer off the night before. When they finally reached me, my heart broke for my mother, who was beyond devastated, but I could not bring myself to the level of sadness I thought was appropriate when one loses a grandparent. I hadn’t known my grandmother, I hadn’t ever really gotten to know her, except through my mother’s eyes.

And today, I regret that I didn’t ask more questions, observe more, listen more. So much of that regret is because the picture my mother paints of her is without flaws, and is in deep contrast of my impressions, and I am sure the truth lies somewhere in between. And more than anything, I wonder if my grandmother could have, in any way, helped answer some of the many questions I have about my parents, the secrets they keep, and the pain in their past that I have inherited.
I wonder if I could have found common ground with her if I had tried harder, made more of an effort, done something different. But in truth, I think that keeping secrets is a family trait, and my lack of knowledge and connection lies more in this fact than in any lack of effort on my part.

A few years ago, it hit me that all of that possibility is gone. All of my grandparents have passed away, and my other family members are less likely to know anything that could feed my curious mind. But, as I look at the picture of my grandmother sitting on her front porch, I finally realize that what I hoped to find all along was my own fairytale of happiness, something to make me feel and believe that my family history is different than what I know it to be. Perhaps she could have told me something--a story, a recollection, that would make everything all better.

All along I thought I was searching for the truth, when in reality I was searching for anything but. And there is a freedom in finally knowing that. What I have ached for and regretted not knowing wasn’t possible, wasn’t going to happen. I have found comfort in the present knowing that the key to my happiness doesn’t lie in my past.

I still have questions, and perhaps I always will. But more and more, I am beginning to realize that who I am is more about who I have become than how I came to be. And now, as my grandmother looks at me from her front porch, captured in that one moment in time, I don’t see her as so much of a mystery, just as my grandmother…a resilient mountain woman, who loved her little cabin on the side of a mountain, who is part of my history—and just one piece of how I became me.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years

David Filipov looks for a picture of his father, Al Filipov, at the Tribute WTC Visitor Center in New York City. The center is run by the September 11th Families Association as a museum and memorial to the victims and history of the World Trade Center and the 9/11/2001 attacks. Filipov's father was on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane flown into the towers. (Scott Lewis)

I have struggled to find words to write here today. So, I have decided to let one of my favorite photo sites, The Big Picture, do the talking for me.

It is hard to believe it has been eight years.

Please check out their moving tribute here.


Thursday, September 3, 2009


On Monday, some simple, ordinary things happened. I dragged myself out of bed for an early work meeting. The skies were gray and the rain drizzled. I called a friend from my car while waiting in traffic. And sometime during the morning, a delivery service put thousands copies of a magazine in stands, offices, and on shelves throughout my city and other cities. Another delivery person brought several hundred copies of this magazine to the office where I work.

Then, something extraordinary happened. I took an issue from the stack brought to our office and flipped hurriedly through the pages to find…my essay. In print. In an actual magazine—one that I love and have loved for years. A magazine founded and edited by someone whose writing I love and admire. My essay, The Suitcase, was published.

For the last ten years, I have followed a ritual: on December 31st, before midnight, I always make a list of my New Year’s resolutions. In the first years, the list was long and more than a little daunting. I crammed all my hopes and dreams on a slip of lined paper, each aspiration numbered according to priority. As I look back, there was no way I could accomplish all those things in five years, much less one.

So, as I got a little older and wiser, I pared the list down to 3 or maybe 5 things, more realistic, maybe less daring things. I probably saw the reality a little clearer, and sadly even began to want less—to wish for less.

But every year, without fail, the number one resolution has been: Get published. Somewhere, anywhere.

And then last year, on the eve of putting a painful year behind me, I changed the channels on my television in time to see part of a segment on a local news station about New Year’s resolutions. The advice was this: only have one resolution each year. Otherwise you get lost in the list, and give up on too many goals swimming in your vision, and you accomplish few, if any.

So, the idea was to choose one-the one. The most important thing. And it was the same number one choice from all the other years. Get published. Somewhere, anywhere.

And it has happened.

I don’t completely buy into the fact that narrowing my list down made this happen. But what choosing that one thing did was make me realize of all things, all my hopes and dreams, this was the most important one.

It has been the most important one from a day in third grade when I handed my teacher a story I had written as part of an assignment. She stood next to my desk reading it as she had read all the others. I had watched her walking from desk to desk, breezing through story after story, making corrections or a final red check mark on all the other papers. She grabbed mine with the same movement and then, I saw her face change. I saw her slow down, her eyes following the words. She looked at me over the top of the page, made a check mark with her red pen, and as she handed the paper back to me, told me to come see her when we were done.

She told me my story was good--very good. I had a talent, she said. And from that moment on, she and the other two teachers that worked in my room encouraged me at every turn. They gave me special assignments just to keep me writing.

That moment was when I realized that even at such a young age, this thing I loved to do was more than just the way I passed time or finished a classroom assignment. This was something special, and it made me feel… found…when I felt lost most of the time.

For any writer, getting published for the first time is always a landmark, a celebration. Seeing my essay, my words, my name in print, was definitely reason to celebrate. But it was also a moment of rekindling hope for a dream that I have held close to my heart since that day in third grade. And after years of successes and wrong turns, happiness and sorrow, and ultimately getting lost along the way…a little ink and newsprint has made me feel found all over again.



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