Taking the Long Way

A celebration of late bloomers.

All creatures great and small

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This afternoon we gathered in Bill Peterson’s back yard in Parkside within view of the fireworks of Grayson Stadium to give Bill our love and support as he said a farewell to his beloved Blake.

Those of you who read my profile of Bill and his yellow lab in “St. Francis of Savannah” (published in Document this past winter) know well the story of their spiritual bond, strengthened over 16 and a half years of friendship. Blake died last week, quietly and peacefully in Bill’s arms.

Blake was on death row at the Atlanta Humane Society when Bill found him in the back of a kennel. Blake was nine months old, couldn’t stand upright, and was sick with an every orifice complex. Nobody wanted him…until Bill walked through the doors.

Bill nursed Blake back to health, and that gesture of love and caring blossomed into something unbreakable.

Bill was the first person we met when Brian and I first moved to Savannah. He managed the antique shop where Brian first set up shop. I casually mentioned I’d like to adopt a pet, and Bill began scouring websites for me and sending me pictures of dogs looking for a home.

When we picked up Harper and Barkley from the Savannah Humane Society, we stopped at Bill’s so that he could be the first person to meet our babies. They were shaking and rattled, but he had a way of just calming them. He helped us so much those first few weeks when we were as unsure as any new parents would be.

Today, Bill’s friends piled into his back yard. We brought food. We brought gifts and cards. One by one we stood beside the fresh dirt, sang hymns, prayed then told each other our stories about the pets we had loved and lost. We laid flowers for each one upon Blake’s grave.

I brought four sunflowers with me. One each for our little family. I told Bill that Brian and I would not have had the courage to bring home two puppies without his encouragement, and that they were so much a part of our lives now that I couldn’t imagine a day without them…that sometimes I ached with love for the way Harper lays her head on my leg while I read, and how Barkley wishes me good morning before I begin to write.

And I thanked him for allowing me to tell his and Blake’s story, so that Blake could live on in our hearts and our imaginations.

We all cried and hugged, brought together by our singular love for sloppy, wet kisses and cold noses, soft fur and sleepy sighs, unconditional loyalty, and the utter joy of loving and being loved by such wonderful creatures.

All farewells should be this tender.

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Written by The Long Way

May 15, 2011 at 11:46 pm

Will write for food

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When I graduated from college in 1990, an article in Time magazine ran with the headline – if I recall correctly – “Graduating to unemployment.”

Fast forward two decades later and the story reads pretty much about the same, but instead of the savings and loan crisis, substitute Goldman Sachs and Wall Street. Instead of a record number of newbies unleashed on the work force, especially women, substitute millions of people out of work for more than one year, who are overqualified for most of the work being offered by employers. Instead of benefits packages, substitute employee-shared costs.

I was full of youthful hubris at the dawn of a new decade back then. I’m trying to play blissfully ignorant now as I write my cover letters and polish the resume, trying to play up what I have to offer without a neon-encrusted arrow pointing toward the fact that I am someone with “experience” (e.g., a few years of wear and tear).

Employers grow concerned when they do the math and realize you are not in your 20s. They think you might want a higher starting salary, more authority and a greater number of perks. This wrong-headed thinking prevents your even getting an interview.

And now there’s the whole pressure of being beautiful and thin – the beauty advantage – because those are the people who get hired over the potentially more capable and more personable, who also might be carrying a little extra weight from all the stress eating.

So, now I not only need to show what I can do, I need to flaunt my smile with the help of some White Strips, get a few facials and some expensive wrinkle cream (even though I still get blemishes), and hire a personal trainer to get me in stellar shape for my round of interviews (should they come a’ calling). All of this, of course, on top of all the money I just spent getting an MFA.

In Cambodia, there’s a saying: “Same, same, but different.”

I finally understand.

Written by The Long Way

May 15, 2011 at 11:50 am

Here’s your sign

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So today I was following a big, black gas-guzzling SUV on President Street. Not because I was stalking him. We just happened to be going in the same direction.

Made in the USA.

He had pressed a preponderance of bumper stickers across his tinted rear window, and I wondered how he could even see out the back.

Although his line of sight may not have been clear, he was clearly showing the world who he is.

One read: Jet noise – the sound of freedom. (I simply thought jet noise meant you lived in the fly way of the airport. I thought the sound of freedom was casting a vote.)

You can get it in a tee shirt, too.

Another pictured an M16 machine gun surrounded by the words: Peace, the American Way. (I could just hear the strains of Toby Keith singing about a boot in the ass.) 

Another sign, covered in camo announced that he had served in the Gulf War. (The first one, under the other Bush.)

Another sticker urged all of us followers to STOP SOCIALISM, with a line drawing of President Barack Obama. (Define socialism, please. Oh, and fascism, capitalism, nationalism…and can I have my privacy back? Y’know the one that got gutted under, what was that called? Oh, yeah. The Patriot Act.)

You get the picture. (I was basically carrying on a one-sided conversation with this guy’s back end.)

It got me thinking, though, how I’ve never seen Vietnam, Korean or World War II veterans with such war-whoop stickers.

But, I have heard them speak through Tom Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation,” and Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, “The War,” and through “Letters Home from Vietnam,” and from “M*A*S*H.”

The older veterans spoke of hoping to create a world where a war like that would never have to be fought again and with a weariness from which they could not recover.

The Boomer vets from Vietnam still seemed to be seeking peace – of mind, of soul and spirit. Some sort of absolution that reconciled the horror with the sacrifice.

It seems as if the positive affirmations of the Reagan era, the tough talk of the Bushes, and the hawkish winds of the last few Pentagons has turned us into a bunch of trash-talkers. Might makes right. The best defense is a strong offense and all that jazz.

Maybe it’s easy to talk loudly and carry big sticks because we’ve sanitized ourselves about the real casualty of war…our soul.

Written by The Long Way

May 15, 2011 at 1:13 am

Extraordinary mom

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I just finished watching a special on OWN whereby Julia Roberts interviewed Christiane Amanpour, Hillary Clinton and other extraordinary women, who also happen to be mothers.

I loved hearing their stories, especially how Christiane confronted her fears about motherhood while still trying to tell the stories of people in war-torn regions of the world. And of Hillary planning Chelsea’s wedding  while trying to broker peace in the Middle East. So very human, while accomplishing some extraordinary things.

I would like you to meet my own extraordinary mom. Here she is.

Her name is Barbara Lee. My grandmother called her Babs, and I call her that when I’m being cheeky. I love this picture of us, taken in 1986 on Easter Sunday. I can see so much of her in me.

I take that legacy seriously. Although I inherited my father’s brashness and hubris, she bequeathed me her humanity.

There are three lessons she offered that shaped who I am today:

1. When she and my stepfather divorced when I was 10 years old, she had no job, suffered from agoraphobia, and we had no place to live.

We moved to a small town outside of Fort Worth to be near her parents, and she signed on to a temporary position with Tarrant County. She found us a small apartment, where all three of us – mom, brother and me – shared a bathroom.

We desperately needed new school clothes, growing as we were. She went to Dillard’s Department Store, and at that time no one would give single women credit of their own. She spoke to the clerk, then the manager, then the regional representative, telling each of them she wasn’t leaving until she received credit. Just before the doors closed that night, she got her own credit card with $200 on it. She paid it all back in two months.

2. We were driving through the Northside neighborhood in Fort Worth – a tough area filled with gangs. In the doorway of a flop house, we saw a man asleep on the stairs with a liter wrapped in a brown paper bag. She stopped the car and told my brother and I that something had broken that man’s spirit. She then told us that we had been given a lot in life, even though it didn’t always feel like that.

“To whom much is given, much is expected,” she said. “Do you understand what I mean?”

Sort of, we said.

“Get an education. You’re smart kids,” she answered. “Then figure out how to lift people like that up.”

3. A woman around my mother’s age lived behind the DIY car wash near her neighborhood. My mother often stopped at the KFC near the car wash, and always wondered what happened in her life. Mom would buy two meals, and took the other woman food on a few occasions. When I asked her about it, Mom said, “That could have just as easily been me.”

Here she is with my nephew and one of my nieces, holding a starfish I brought her from Miami as a Christmas gift. This is my mom’s favorite role – grandmother.

On April 7, she turned 67 years old. She will retire from Tarrant County this year after more than 30 years. She kept a roof over our heads, food on our table and managed to instill a love of lifelong learning in her kids.

We have been planning her move to Savannah, so that we can finally have some fun together. One of her greatest joys is walking on the beach.

But, those plans are on hold right now.

Last week, she told me that she was diagnosed the week before with uterine cancer. This week, she meets with an oncologist to learn what’s next. Surely surgery, maybe chemotherapy. Probably lots more tests before we really know what to expect.

So, instead of planning her retirement party, we’re taking it day-to-day. This Mother’s Day has a bit of a different timbre, a sense of uncertainty and a bittersweet taste.

But I’m quite hopeful that in this space next year, I’ll have a new story to tell about us finding a sand dollar or a beautiful scallop in the sands along Tybee’s north shore. The taste of salt in the air, a bit of wind at our backs.

Written by The Long Way

May 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Love, loss and what I wore

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A friend showed me a photo of a dress she bought the other day. It looked almost exactly like one I bought in college in the ’80s: shoulder pads, big sleeves, black background with acid yellow, green and orange stripes.

“Did you find it in a vintage shop?” I asked.

“Nope. It’s brand new,” she squealed.

Oh no. Like, gag me.

My formative years – middle school, high school and college – all fell within the “Greed is good” decade when designer jeans defined whether or not you were part of the “in” crowd.

Because there seems to be a resurgence of those years in the fashion world, I thought I’d share with you a few of the remainders that still hang in my closet, because I don’t care if ripped sweat shirts come back, I’m not wearing them.

1985 Winter Snow-Ball

Imagine me rocking the quintessential ’80s color palette – hot pink and blue – in the ultimate preppy plaid with a demure velvet cut into a sweetheart neck and waistline. But I subverted it a bit with an acid-washed Calvin Klein jean jacket (long ago stolen), that was covered in vintage costume jewelry brooches.

Danced with Kelly Abshire – the superintendent’s naughty son, who asked me to junior prom. We drank Seagram’s golden wine coolers out in the parking lot, because Bruce Willis looked hot singing about them in his Levi’s 501s.

1985 Junior Prom Dress

Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of Kelly Abshire and me in one of those awkward living room poses when he picked me up for prom that night in April 1985. If I told you that he wore a rented tuxedo with a tie and cumberbund that matched my dress, would that give you a clear picture? Oh, and I sported a Dorothy Hammill-style wedge at the time.

This pic was captured a couple of years later, when I repurposed the dress by having it cut from full-length to ballerina length for a sorority formal. Yes, I was in a sorority. Phi Mu. (Stop laughing!)

Look at those mall bangs?!

Look at those sleeves?

That magenta raw-silk is still stunning and shining today.

1986 Senior Prom

Kay Keyer’s daddy snapped this photo in his living room, where Kay, Rachel, Rhonda and I had gathered to tart up Mariz Hedary, our friend from Lebanon whose father forbid her to go to prom or wear makeup. He dropped her off at Kay’s place, where we put her in a beautiful dress, piled her lustrous hair on top of her head and painted her face so she could experience the night with us. Her brother – in on the gig – picked her up at the Worthington Hotel several hours later in the sweats she arrived in and no traces of Cover Girl on her cheeks.

I went stag that night. I also was up for Prom Queen, which I imagined as a cruel joke a la Carrie. Monti McKenzie won.

The blinding polished cotton of this teal dress hurts my eyes these days.

Member of Talking Heads or '80s Fashionista?

I don’t have a photo or even this ensemble any more, but it was my go-to get up for a night out on the town during college.

The night I looked my absolute best in this outfit was the same night I walked in on David Sanchez, my date for a night of dancing at Graham’s Central Station in Arlington, getting jiggy with Marianne Morrison.

Phil Dunkin saved me, though. He gave me a swig of tequila and kept me on the dance floor all night. Marianne dumped David a week later.

1990 Last Phi Mu Formal of the college years.

Say good-bye to the ’80s. Cheers to the ’90s!

Written by The Long Way

May 8, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Excalibur

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So last week I learned that I was in the running for the Excelsus Laureate award – basically the valedictorian for the SCAD graduate class. I learned on Friday that I ranked in the top three. (Very surreal.)

For the final interview with President Paula Wallace (who proved truly delightful and fun to talk with) and the university’s vice presidents, I prepared a portfolio, answered an extensive questionnaire, and wrote a personal statement that would serve as the basis for my speech should I be selected.

Jenny D. dubbed it the Excalibur award – that great sheath of mythological lore.

Alas, the sword would not be mine to pull from the stone.

I learned on Friday afternoon that I was named first runner up (the salutatorian, of sorts) and would receive the Presidential Medal instead.

Excalibur

As Jenny D. put it – you can’t make a margarita with a sword, but you sure can with El Presidente tequila.

I’m not disappointed. That award comes with some sweet perks, too, but that’s not really the point.

It sounds completely cheesy, but…it really was an honor to be nominated. I didn’t even know this award existed, so to receive any sort of recognition for working hard over the past two years and taking some serious risks is just icing on the cupcake.

When I met the other two nominees-in-waiting, I felt complete awe with what they’ve accomplished as students and professionals. Nice company to keep, and I was genuinely hopeful for them as well as for myself.

We each had compelling stories to tell.

Because you won’t get to hear mine at graduation, I thought I would share my personal statement with you here in this blog:

During the winter of 2008, I took two weeks off from my job as a park planner with a national nonprofit land conservation organization. I did not travel on vacation. I did not set up lunch dates with friends. I sent my husband off to his office while I sat cross-legged on a folded blanket in the living room of our Miami condo and tried to meditate. Most of the time I wrestled with my wandering and anxious mind in an effort to concentrate on not concentrating on anything at all.

She’s much more serene than I ever was.

A month earlier, I had stood paralyzed with fear, unable to board a flight to Atlanta for an important meeting. I drove straight to the office of Dr. Mansfield, a therapist I had not seen in two years. Lying on her cool black leather couch, we mined our way to the core of my panic. At the end of our session she said, “You know Amy, this isn’t really about flying, don’t you?”

black leather sofa

Serenity now! Insanity later.

So there I sat on my floor, trying to hear the whispers of my soul above the white noise in my head. My thoughts kept returning to fragments of a quote spoken by E.M. Forrester or E.L. Doctorow; I could not remember which. As I breathed more deeply, I found it there encased in the strata: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

He said this about writing.

I think it is good advice for life.

Within six weeks of that brief sabbatical, I had applied to the Savannah College of Art and Design for an MFA degree in writing. Within six months, my husband and I had both quit our stable, well paying jobs and moved to Savannah so that I could go back to school and he could start his own business.

Although we have never been poorer financially, we have never been happier personally. We know that the bank balance is only a temporary condition.

The return on investment in us? That is priceless.

As a mid-career shape-shifter, I was unsure of how I would fit into the SCAD environment. I was older, and definitely not hip. But I discovered mentors, who helped to shape my writing and uncover my voice. I found a community of fellow writers in a city with a burgeoning literary scene. SCAD opened doors to magazines and other publications, so that my work could find an audience and I could make a living doing what I love – and what greater gift can we give this ailing world than labor and love combined?

Those two weeks in December 2008 marked the first time I had allowed myself to rest since I had started working at age 15, when my first job was as a birthday party clown at McDonalds.

For most of my life I had subscribed to the theory that a moving target was harder to hit. This theory, though, had worn itself as thin as the blanket on which I sat – as thin as my frayed nerves.

But hitting that wall did not stop me from moving forward. It only changed my direction. As most difficult moments do, this one imparted a valuable lesson.

  • I learned that rather than fear or avoid frustration, you should use it as one of life’s most precious tools for renewal.
  • It is the tempest that stirs before a creative breakthrough.
  • It is the brick the universe throws when you are not paying attention.
  • It is the distraction that God gives so that he can work behind the scenes to create something perfect.
  • It is the impetus to jump first and fear later.

It almost always walks hand-in-hand with faith. Its greatest gift, though, is that it leads you back to your essential self…the one you were always meant to be.

Written by The Long Way

May 7, 2011 at 1:57 pm

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Soundtrack of my life – part one

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SCAD’s District Quarterly magazine launched its music issue last night. I had planned to submit an article for consideration, but procrastinated to the point I missed the deadline. Still, it got me thinking: if I compiled a mix tape of my life, what would be on it?

This list isn’t even close to comprehensive, but it’s a start. In part one, we explore the early years from ages 3 to 13.

Let it Be by The Beatles

My earliest song memory: I’m laying in the front seat of the car with my head in my mom’s lap (this was years before seatbelt or car seat requirements), this song is playing on the radio, and the deejay is talking about how the band has broken up. I don’t understand any of it, but I do have a visceral reaction to the sound of Billy Preston playing the organ and George Harrison’s guitar. I gently weep.

Burning Love by Elvis

I am five years old, and I’m about to buy my very first album EVER! I have saved every bit of birthday and Christmas money plus the quarters I get here and there for helping around the house. I can’t even see to the top of the counter at Sanger Harris Department Store in Irving, Texas, but I carry the album and my change up to the cash register and count our five dollars for the nice lady. I take Elvis home with me. It’s almost as good as going to Graceland.

Run Around Sue by Dion and the Belmonts

My mom suffers from agoraphobia, so we don’t get out much. We do, however, dance around the house. She puts this record on and teaches my brother and I how to jitterbug and swing. I’m the only kid in first grade who knows that the slide isn’t just something on a playground.

Penny Lane by The Beatles

My older brother is in a school production, and his group is performing a marching routine to this song. I am mesmerized by Quentin Askew, one of his classmates, who mouths all the words. I am in puppy love for the first time.

Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones

Eighth grade and first school dance. Had my eye on Mike Jumes all night, but never got the courage to ask him to dance.

I was such an innocent, though. Homer Patino had to explain to me what the final lyrics of this song meant. At first I was appalled. Then I read Judy Blume’s “Forever” that summer and it became clear that this was something I would really like in the future.

Off the Wall by Michael Jackson

Karen Highfill’s slumber party. I fall asleep first. Bra is frozen solid by morning. My reputation as a complete nerd remain in tact. I’m hoping high school next year changes everything.

Written by The Long Way

April 30, 2011 at 10:37 pm