Women’s History Month — Anne Lamott

The thing I love about Anne Lamott is her brutal honesty. She admits her vulnerabilities, foibles, mistakes. She’s not shy to say who she is and she writes about all of the things I love — writing, family, nature!

She has written many books that I can relate to. Her latest book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is staring at me in the faculty library at school today. For some inspiration this morning, I leaf to a random page:

“Empathy begins when we realize how much alike we are. My focus on hate made me notice I’m too much like certain politicians…I, too, can be a blowhard, a hoarder, needing constant approval and acknowledgement, needing to feel powerful.”

– Lamott, Almost Everything

Then she talks about the Motley Old Us. How we, this ragtag collective, share “outdoor concerts, community hikes, birthday parties, worship services, street fairs.” The best things in life! Yes, I am one of her motley crew — in community. Yet I am also a solitary someone who needs approval and, at times, feels separate from the ‘in’ crowd and, even, the motley crew.

I remind myself to be ‘a friend among friends, a worker among workers.’ I think I’m paraphrasing from the AA Big Book. On a daily basis, this is all I can do — seek to connect and be a part of the communities in which I find myself. I want to bring healing and hope and radical unconditional positive regard for others — even people I hate, even people who do not yet know how much damage they have done .

This morning I’ve already connected on the crosstown bus with my neighbor and at the diner with the Greek manager. Both of these gentle people shared a meaningful loss with me and I felt a greater connection to them.

This push towards community and this respect for personal writing — these are reasons I like, admire, and, yes, am super jealous of Anne Lamott. She has written more than ten non-fiction books and seven non-fiction books and oh, yes, she has a Guggenheim Fellowship. I console myself — I have a lot too.

So welcome March — Women’s History Month — today we celebrate Anne Lamott. Incidentally, I’m going to celebrate this month by profiling many women I love — I am choosing living women — some women I know and some I wish I knew.

This is my living history month. I’m writing these quick moments in 10 to 20 minutes.

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Families with Parkinson’s Disease

people coverThere they are again. Staring at me as my nails dry at Susie’s Salon on 72nd Street. Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan on the cover of People magazine. I wish I didn’t resent their affection for one another and their airbrushed pictures of life with Parkinson’s.

Despite being married to an actor with Parkinson’s, I never felt our Coudal-Jones family and the Pollan-Fox family had all that much in common. They seem to have an ease with the disease. Maybe I am just jealous.

Maybe it’s the money. While Chris and I have done well financially, given that we are artists living in New York, we never had an endless stream of cash for the support of caregivers or chefs or whatever the heck very rich people spend their money on.

I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. For self pity is a hole I could fall into and never climb out of it. (Or to paraphrase Cheryl Strayed, ‘self pity is a street that you don’t want to park on.’) Let’s face it, Jones and Fox, like all people with Parkinson’s, have had different trajectories with the disease.

I feel compelled to emphasize the positive after reading this article (or any time really). Chris is going strong after his diagnosis 15 or 16 years ago. However, he is definitely slowing down. This makes me sad. There are times when he gets stuck and cannot move. Times when he shakes and cannot stop. There are times that he drools or hums incessantly. And God help me, I find some of these major physical shifts so disheartening. I am more impatient than Tracy Pollan. I try to stay positive.

The other thing I resent and again, God I wish I did not resent this, is the way that Tracy Pollan gave up her career. According to the recent article, Pollan was the bright one, the steady and hard working actor while Fox was the goofball. Why did she give up her work? Oh, to raise the children. Right. Right.

Well, I raised the children and I worked too. Sometimes, several jobs. And don’t get me wrong, I have always loved my work. My work has given me a purpose and a value, not to mention tuition money for the kids. Is it my feminism or my work ethic or simply my jealousy that wishes that Pollan would’ve been a film producer or continued to do her acting thing, too? She seems to have been a professional caregiver. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Her work was unpaid, but likely, she continued to work hard. It’s hard work to make caregiving look this easy.

But back to my story. It does not have to synch and jibe with any other wife who has a husband with Parkinson’s. I do not have to be on the cover of People. I just have to be me. And Chris can be Chris. And our kids can be who they are. Likewise, the Pollan-Fox fam can be themselves. We all deal with it in our ways. And the one-day-at-a-time way of dealing with life never fails. Letting go of comparing ourselves with others also seems failproof. So I will let it go and find a way to gratitude.

Just one last wish: that for once, someone famous who is struggling with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s, would say is, “It ain’t always easy.” That’s it. I don’t need their family money or their love for one another (okay, well, maybe a little). And I must pause for a minute to admit here that I do appreciate their quest for a cure. They work hard on that. And they have leveraged their celebrity for a good — no, a great — cause.

Every so often, though, I long to hear, “We have struggled with this.” Okay, then give it a beat and continue, “But we’re still here. We’re still trying to make our best lives. We’re still going to work. We’re still trying to love one another and be loved.” Because, no one is perfect — not enough the smiling couple on the cover of the magazine — but we are all trying. And every family has its struggles and its stories. And every story could go deeper and everyone edits their lives for the sake of word count, print space or how they appear on social media.

Let me forgive Michael and Tracy a little and acknowledge, on behalf of all families with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s, “It ain’t always easy.” But thank you for continuing to show up.

Be real. Be loving. Be patient.

Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

— Cheryl Strayed

International Women’s Day

Why Resist?

Because I believe in protecting the rights of the marginalized, especially women, children, and the disabled.

Even though we have much to work do in our country, I tell myself to work on myself. Make a difference in the ways I can. Work on the things in my realm. This is the way I dug myself out of the 9 11 morass. I did small acts of kindness. I cleaned my kitchen. I joined forces with people who focused on children. I worked for social justice, which means a lot to me. I worked with the General Board of Global Ministries and United Methodist Women. My life has been about fostering sisterhood and brotherhood across borders and countries, which are, let’s face it, arbitrary lines on a map, subject to interpretation. I’m now teaching. And teachers can make a difference.

malala

Why International Women?

When I went to China for the women’s conference in 1995, I was amazed by the beautiful diversity of women around the globe and the work they do. Especially women activists – rural women, college women, labor advocates, environmentalists. I don’t know if international women will save the world. But I think it’s possible. I find hope in knowing that there are countries where women political leaders are not anomalies. Diverse leadership teams always succeed in ways that homogeneous teams do not.

Young international women, too, like Malala Yousafzai, are making a world of difference. Can you imagine being shot by the Taliban and then rising like a phoenix from those ashes to write and speak so brilliantly (and win a Nobel prize!)?

well behaved womenSo Why Now?

I enjoy Maria Shriver’s weekly newsletter. In last Sunday’s paper, she said:

Feminine power is available to every woman because power starts within. You don’t have to act like a guy, talk like a guy, or dress like a guy to be powerful. You have to talk, act, dress, and think like the person that you are.

It’s not a man’s world. It’s everyone’s world, and it’s ours to go out and make better.

Yes, we have the power. We have the international connections. We have the authenticity to start right where we are. To do something, anything — with compassion. We can write a postcard, support a teacher, speak highly of women leaders, join a march,  vote, organize a huddle, diversify our boardrooms, or run for office.

On International Women’s Day and every day, women are looking out for each other, for children, for people with disabilities. And we are facing fear with love. We are calling out hypocrisies. We are finding our why and sharing it.

These are some of the reasons why I’m proud to wear red today and I’m proud to be a woman every day. I celebrate international womanhood and sisterhood!

Beautiful – The Creative Process

The other night I saw Beautiful: the Carole King Story. It was an awesome rumination on the creative process. Want to be creative? You have to be dogged.

Sure, King (born Klein) was brilliant — the characters mention several times how she graduated high school at the age of 16 — but she was hard working. I love that. “Good things come to those who hustle.” And our girl Carole hustled.

I loved that the musical shows how creativity is a collaborative and a competitive process.

Mary Beth Coudal, blogger, and Anika Larsen, who plays Cynthia Wiel in Beautiful.
Mary Beth Coudal, blogger, and Anika Larsen, who plays Cynthia Wiel in Beautiful.

The cast was awesome. Everyone’s raving about how amazing Jessie Mueller is. But so is Anika Larsen as songwriter Cynthia Wiel, Carole’s gal pal, foil, and competition.

Now, from my lonely feminist perspective, I must point out that King’s songs really defined a generation of women finding joys in being a woman, “You make me feel like a natural woman!” (co-written by her partner, Gerry Goffin.) So fantastic — a real anthem and celebration of natural womanhood. I, for one, in this age of Botox and plastic surgery, would like to return to the beauty of natural womanhood.

natural womanI also wanted a little more about how Carole came to love herself and not just the ups and downs of her romantic and troubled love for her fellow songwriter and husband, Goffin. But this musical shows one slice of her life. To find out more I think I will have to read her memoir, A Natural Woman.

This musical is amazing. Carole King’s talent and output inspire me. Go. See it Sing along.

“Get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart.”

Disclaimer: Thanks to Beautiful and the Serino/Coyne group for the tickets. The opinions on this blog are always my own.

 

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Saying No to a Culture of Criticism

“There are too many noises in the apartment. The dryer buzzer just buzzed. It’s supposed to buzz three times. It only buzzed once,” Coco woke me from a deep sleep to tell me this. I walked her back to her room, laying beside her in her twin bed.

I thought about my last couple of days.

I was so proud to have gotten published in Salon and so unprepared for the barrage of criticism. My mind drifted to my workplace book club where my women colleagues had so many negative things to say about the Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World by Lisa Bloom. I thought the book was awesome. I loved how Bloom attacks tabloids and reality shows. And, of course, those conflicts are manufactured for our entertainment.

In my lunch time book club, all these brilliant coworkers trashed Bloom because she was writing about the failings of mainstream media while she was a part of media herself.

At Salon.com all these people criticized me for my story when I never asked what they thought (but I guess Salon asked by opening the comments to a free-for-all.) I wrote more about this on my writing blog yesterday. http://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/

Last night, comforting my daughter, holding her hand as she drifted back to sleep, I thought, we live in a society of criticism. We constantly criticize one another. I’m not sure if it’s the vitriol of reality shows, politics or our own insecurity over jobs, relationships, parenting, whatever.

Trash talking bonds people together. “Look, isn’t Bloom an idiot!” “Yes, I agree.” But the whole thing leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Not a sweet one.

An article popped up on my Twitter feed this morning — about happiness helping productivity (Do Happier People Work Harder? by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer)  http://ow.ly/6kXqQ

Employees are far more likely to have new ideas on days when they feel happier.

Yes! True for me. When I delight in criticism of other people I internalize it, get in a habit of criticism and then criticize myself and hold back on my creativity and kindness — as if we should be stingy with our happiness. As if joy in life, in our accomplishments were a weakness not a strength.

I struggle every single freakin’ day to be happy.

While I’m criticizing our culture for being so critical, I’m also happy there are writers like Bloom, Amabile, Kramer, and even me. Who ask, What do we need if not more criticism? The Times article says we need to “support workers’ everyday progress.” Simply pay attention to one another’s well being and stop the barrage of negativity. Simplistic? Maybe.

I go back to my rules, especially my rule learned from improv. Say yes! Happiness is harder but encouragement is essential. I like to take the difficult path.

Coco was fast asleep in her twin bed by now. The dryer had stopped tumbling. I was falling asleep myself. I unwound from her blankets. As I pulled my hand away, she squeezed it. Thanks!

Vanity or Confidence?

I can’t disengage my thoughts on loving myself — including my own body — from a feminist perspective. When a woman engages in positive feelings about her own body I think we eye her suspiciously.

I admit I’ve raised an arched eyebrow at a colleague who I saw applying make up at her desk. But a man who straightens his tie and kisses the mirror? I’m likely to applaud his self esteem. For men, we call it confidence. For women? vanity.

The other day a colleague ran into my office to grab a note pad. I noticed that she noticed my curling iron on the floor.

“I am taking appointments,” I said. “Need a blow out? or an Up do? I can give you an appointment 10 am.” We giggled. (This is my way — deflect my embarrassment with humor!)

I wanted to launch into a diatribe about how I can barely get my teeth brushed in the mornig before launching my kids and myself out the door. Of course I curl my hair at my desk! But I resisted. I’m grateful I can get my teeth brushed at home and then have time first thing at work to brush my hair.

The curling iron is a symbol of how my self care (and grooming!) spills over into my work life (And when I check work emails from home on the weekend, that’s a symbol of how work life spills into my home life!)

I don’t have the answers, I’m just raising the questions.

I hope this Valentine’s Day, I do feel good about myself and my body. I hope that I can curl my hair at home before I get to work. (And since I’m not shampooing every day, I do need a lift!)

Oh, better yet, just lump it. Go into the morning meeting with straight hair, but first — kiss the mirror, straighten the tie and call it confidence.

me in the mirror

So, on this year’s Valentine’s Day, join me as I cultivate self-love (and not self loath!).

Send yourself flowers, chocolates. Or hold your own hand and take yourself out for a candlelight dinner. Whisper sweet nothings in your ear. Take a picture of yourself in the mirror. Then kiss your reflection. The mirror might feel a little cold, but dig the lipstick mark that you leave behind.