An Axe to Grind

I’m the proud owner of an electric guitar. A Squier Bullet Stratocaster, in fact. (It’s blue. And shiny.) It sits in the corner of my dining room, waiting for me to play it – which I have, every night since I brought it home, which happened to be a Friday the 13th. Three days before a full moon, and two days before a blood moon lunar eclipse. I don’t know if the stars aligned on the timing of my purchase, but it seems the moon certainly did.

I could give all kinds of reasons for walking into a guitar store in the suburbs of Pittsburgh that night and walking out with an electric guitar. Was it fate? Boredom? Impulse?

Doubtless all played some role. But the truth is simply this – I wanted to make some noise. And I was tired of waiting for it to come into my life through other means. I was tired of “someday” and “maybe” and “later.” I wanted music, I wanted sound, and I wanted them to come from me.

My Squier.

This was not my first musical adventure: I had been subjected to piano lessons in childhood. It wasn’t even my first brush with guitar (see Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine). But it was the first time when the choice of instrument was entirely mine, the first time I could make a decision driven not only by looks and purpose, but also feel.

The cerebral sank back; the visceral rose to the surface.

In fact, walking into the guitar store that night it was the culmination of a long, slow, silent rebellion that began in the summer of 1985. Then I was five years old, learning to play piano by ear. (I was taught by Suzuki method, which meant I spent hours in my room listening to cassette tapes, learning songs by listening instead of reading music.) I heard songs, played them, and forgot them. Because I had no hunger for nice pieces by classical composers. There was nothing in that music that left me wanting more.

I took a breath and walked over to the wall of guitars that hung from floor to ceiling. It was dazzling, really: colors, shapes, sizes, with the least expensive ones near the bottom and the fancier ones dangling well out of reach. But I had come prepared. Both with the image of how I imagined my rocker self – black jeans, black t-shirt, chunky metal earrings, a sweep of shining copper eyeliner – and a list of what I was interested in. After a few cautious moments of exploration, I found it.  

Feeling both sheepish and exhilarated, I cornered a teenage salesclerk to ring me up.

“You already have cables? And a practice amp?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. (I lied.)

“Ok, cool.”

Then this: Me, breaking into spontaneous laughter the entire drive home. Me, carrying the box upstairs like a holy relic and laying it down on the bed. Cutting carefully with the scissors as I slice through the packing tape. Peeling back the wrapping. Me, picking the guitar up for the first time and smiling.

I have to learn everything. Where to connect the strap. How to hold a pick, how to place my fingers. Which ends of the cable go where when I finally get around to plugging into the amp. I spend an hour in the kitchen that night with the guitar and a tuning app, fighting an uphill battle to get low E to be less godd*mn flat. And I laugh and keep trying. When starting from zero, every gain in knowledge feels exponential.

I learn the names of the strings. I figure out how to turn on one pickup, or two, or three. (First I have to learn what pickups are.) I play my first riff. It is halting and awkward and perhaps I am the only one who could recognize what I am doing. Then I play it again, and again, and again. I play it louder.

For it is a rare instance in my life when the outcome doesn’t matter. I don’t have to be good.  I don’t have to play at all. But I will. Because play is a gift. Music is a gift. Holding that guitar unlocks something in me. And I laugh and rock on.

To be continued…

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Sprung

There comes a point in every woman’s life when she has simply had enough. When a yoga session or a shot of whiskey (or kombucha) or ugly crying while listening to Adele simply won’t cut it. When griping to friends, or a therapist, can no longer suffice. When the situation requires stronger, more drastic, more radical measures. Measures that some might say are selfish. Measures that might not be life-changing, but certainly bend it, make it less rigid.

I reached that point earlier this month.

But before I proceed to describe my mid-life Spring Break, I acknowledge that I am damn lucky, and privileged, to have even had the option. It was with excitement and guilt and second-guessing that I bought my ticket, booked my hotel, stepped onto an airplane.

Yet I knew, in my bones, that it was time. It had been, after all, two plus years of living alone, working from home, cooking and eating hundreds of meals in solitude. At times I reveled in the silence; at other moments, I felt profoundly isolated.

There was being laid off, and then working two jobs, and then worrying if I needed to start panic buying toilet paper and canned goods.

There was the death of my grandmother from COVID-19.

There is near-endless uncertainty.

And there is my dog, my sweet, lovable, wonderful dog, who has chronic medical issues that require both regular visits to a veterinary dermatologist and an array of treatments that makes my head spin.

I needed out. Just for a little while. But I most certainly needed out.

My destination: Miami. Hot, sunny, Spanish-speaking Miami. Miami, of sandy beaches and spring breakers. (One of my Uber drivers, God bless him, actually asked if I was on spring break. Yes, I look younger than I am, but not that young…so either my mask hides a lot, or he really needed a good tip.)

My plan: Do as little as possible. I’d never visited Miami Beach before and had few preconceived notions of what to expect, beyond palm trees and heat. (I was not disappointed in either).

My outbound flights took me through New York, via JFK. It was a cold but gloriously sunny day, and as the plane began its descent, all of New York Harbor, with its ships and patches of ice floating in the waves, was visible from the plane window. I almost started to weep. The sense of openness, of possibility, of freedom was overwhelming. I was moving again. And a part of my soul that I’d been missing came winging back.

Touching down in Miami several hours later, night had fallen. I stared out of the cab’s window like a country bumpkin as I was driven from the airport.  Air conditioning in March was a novelty to me, as was the city lights, the water, the boats, the neon illumination. I drank it all in.

And I accomplished what I’d set out to do.

I spent hours in the sun, either poolside or at the beach. The ocean, which I had not seen in years, looked sublimely beautiful. Its colors, the light, the breeze all forms of magic. I felt the salt water on my skin, let the waves lift and carry me as I faced the sky and felt wonderfully, madly, happy.

I wasn’t entirely still, of course. I walked. A lot. From the Lincoln Road Mall to the Miami Botanical Gardens to the bougie juice bar where I paid $10 for some cold-pressed concoction of superfoods. One morning I biked the entire length of Ocean Drive. I visited Little Havana, bought cigars, drank rich and wonderful Cuban coffee and ate a guava pastry and spent the rest of the day practically high from the mix of caffeine and sugar.

And the heat. I’d left gray skies and freezing temperatures behind me. Light and warmth was what I wanted. And so I let my toes and legs and shoulders go bare, only to find that my skin could tolerate frustratingly small doses of the sunshine. Too much overwhelmed even my SPF-loaded lotions and I had to retreat indoors or under shade.

Yet there was, as is always hoped for with vacations, a blessed release from obligations. I took this a step further and seized upon what felt like a revolutionary level of autonomy. I answered to no one. There was no other party with whom to coordinate plans, discuss dinner options, or agree upon an itinerary. I ate when I wanted, slept when I wanted, woke when I wanted. It was the best thing I could have done for myself.

I was not alone in this. I saw other solo women: sunbathing at the beach, having appetizers and wine on the terrace, going about their days. I shared smiles with some of them. Because this is our world, too. And we had decided, singly and boldly, to put our feet down.

Postscript:

I remained fully aware of global events transpiring during, and after, my travels. I’ve proudly given support to the Ukrainian Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Come Back Alive, and other humanitarian organizations.

The Kyiv Independent provides English-language coverage of events in Ukraine.

You can also view amazing art from Ukrainian artists and illustrators showing their perspectives on events in their country.

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More Than a Feeling

The future is a hard thing to imagine, especially when just managing day-to-day life in the present feels so unpredictable. And yet I’m letting myself go there. To explore possibility. To wonder what might yet be found.

My previous post, Feme Sole, was written from a retrospective mindset. Not gonna lie: 2021 was the hardest year of my life. Hands down. That may have been the case for a lot of people. And yet – and yet – this too shall pass. Perhaps even now we see light.

Which raises the question – what next?

Banff, Canada.

The pandemic, and even my life before the pandemic, taught me how capable I am. Responsible, reliable, conscientious. And those are great qualities to have. But when they are one-sided, its exhausting. I’ve found that in many relationships, for most of my life (this includes family, friendships, workplace, romantic interests), I’ve taken pains to be the most likeable, most competent, least demanding version of myself. When there is imbalance, it tends to work out swimmingly for the other party, and not so well for me.

In midlife, I am flipping the script. I have the audacity to hold expectations. And the presumption to voice them.

So much for the theory. What about the practice? What about real-life application? What about… dating?

Here’s the deal: If we go out, I will show up. I’ll be polite and punctual and most likely send a text while I’m parking. I’ll have makeup on, and possibly be wearing hiking boots, or maybe the cute shoes I bought in Paris, depending on the activity.

I’ll laugh at your jokes. I’ll maintain eye contact. I will stay off my phone and hope – please – you do the same.

Midway through I’ll excuse myself, grab my purse, and take off to the ladies’ room where I will either text my sister or a friend to let them know how things are going. And to assure them I’m not dead. I’ll do the same once I get home.

When the bill comes and if I have a chance to jump in, I’ll offer to split it and mean it. (I don’t need your money.) In reality, a lot of external markers mean very little to me. I don’t make decisions about someone based solely on the occupation they hold, the salary they earn, the height they are. (Although, it would be nice if you’re taller so that I can wear heels and not feel weird on the 3 occasions a year when I’m in the mood to do so.)

I have a career and a title and a salary. I don’t need to borrow your prestige. I don’t need to borrow any toughness, either. I have that on my own, too. (With the ink and the scars to prove it. Also the facts that I was laid off, got divorced, found a new job, wrote a novel, and bought a house on my own during the pandemic. Say what you will, I get sh*t done.)

What I want is this: to not be asked to make myself smaller. Not to have the price of our connection be contingent on my being less than what I am. In time, to come to trust you enough so that I don’t have to be so self-reliant. To sit on the couch, or on a mountainside, or at the beach and genuinely relax, not because I’ve decided to stop being “so uptight” but because you have created a space where, for a time, you’ve taken care of everything and I don’t have to.  

To not be behind or in front of me, but beside. And to say – truthfully – “We’ve got this.”

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Feme Sole

“Carefree” is s hardly a word to describe anyone’s state of mind these days. “Liberated” is another unlikely adjective; same goes for “hopeful.”

And yet – and yet – I find myself feeling all of these things. Not every day, and not often all at once. They are certainly not the only emotions I experience. But all of these feelings are nonetheless present. And I’m leaning in.

My sense of freedom, I suspect, derives in large part from being currently unattached. No husband, no partner, no child. There are days when this creates a degree of loneliness. Sometimes the loneliness is so deep as to be tangible. Sometimes cynicism bites unexpectedly, and I have to stop myself from rolling my eyes at an adorable young couple, or stifle the hitch in my breath from a sudden rush of poignancy at seeing a parent and child. 

Yet as the months have passed and the year closes, I think less about what potential losses come hand-in-glove with singledom, and more on the possibilities that my independence creates.

I’ve learned how to do a lot of things. How to add weatherstripping around a doorframe. How to connect a PS4 and then an antenna to skirt around exorbitant cable fees. I bought a cordless drill (along with a set of titanium bits and a toolbox), and have used it to install a ceiling light, put in a shelf that I made myself, and attach curtain rods. Small things, perhaps, but these little flashes of capability still feel damn good.

I’ve learned introspection and how to make honest, uncomfortable reckonings with myself. I learned that it’s OK to eat cake and take time to ride my fake Peloton. I’ve learned that love comes in many guises, and that compassion is a gift for which demand far exceeds supply. I’ve learned that no matter how much duress the world inflects, we all still have a duty to abide by right and wrong. I know what makes me happy. And I know a little more of how I might find it.

And so I go on. On into the pleasures of everyday things that are nonetheless glorious: a mug of coffee on a cold morning, shared laughter (even if it’s over Skype), the warm shape of a cat curled beside me. I go on into the life that I built. Into the life that I am building.

And I think – perhaps with a little pride, perhaps with a little wistfulness – of the words attributed to another independent woman:

“I will have here but one mistress and no master.”  
~ Elizabeth I

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Tabula Rasa

Fact: I have too much stuff. I’ve known this since well before Marie Kondo and tidying up became a cultural phenomenon. Since before “edit” became an activity no longer reserved simply for manuscripts or films, but now has haute connotations applied to everything from cosmetics to jewelry to home furnishings.

My stuff, on the whole, is neither fashionable nor glamourous. Much of it I’ve been boxing up and carrying around with me for years. Decades, even. Handwritten letters from overseas penpals and junior high classmates. Theater tickets, bookmarks, notebooks from college courses long since completed. 

All of it marking an intersection of memory and material object that – somehow – I can’t yet bear to part with.

Urban art. South Side Flats, Pittsburgh PA. July 2021.

Even if these things no longer serve a practical purpose in my day-to-day, they are proof of who I was. All the selves I’ve been, every milestone or throwaway moment of my life marked. The bright orange t-shirt from a 5K race on a crisp October morning. Yes, a relatively short distance, but for me, momentous. It was the first race I completed after tearing my MCL and spending the better part of a year with orthopedists and physical therapists, fearing I’d never be able to run again.

The postcards from France showing colorful vintage illustrations of the Cote d’Azur. Invoices from dental treatments to reconstruct bone and tissue in my jaw. Family albums. The eulogy I wrote for my marriage, and then burned (but not before snapping a photo of the text).

If these things go, what evidence do I have – save memory, which is surely fallible – that I ever was that girl, that woman?

But I can’t take it with me, as the line from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play goes. At the end of the month, I am leaving this house forever. What better time for tidying up and cutting loose? What more apt juncture to consciously release what is no longer needed? When better to intentionally choose what comes with me?

These past weeks, I’ve been setting myself to brush off the dust and survey the goods. There are the documents and papers and clutter that will go. Ill-fitting shoes that I never liked. Superfluous kitchenware. And my beloved motorcycle. Perhaps not for forever. But I’ve taken what I needed from the Harley and I carry a scar and story to prove it. For now, I’m at peace with parting. There’s the hope of meeting again. 

Earlier this spring, I was determined to erase everything. Job, lifestyle, relationships. Then shred the remains and throw them into a dustbin. I looked at houses in the rural environs of Western Pennsylvania where I spent my childhood. I dreamed of acreage and horses. I wanted nothing more than to be away, away from the city and the feints and deflections inherent in many of my daily interactions. I wanted, I think, to disappear into some chrysalis of my own making. And to re-emerge in some other place, as some other self.

But following through on creating my blank slate includes letting go of even the belief that such extreme measures were necessary for preservation, for authenticity.

I am moving, but the distance isn’t far. I don’t need it to be; what I want next is closer than I thought. As for what I’m letting go of, there may be empty spaces, but not a void. And in those spaces, the promise of things hoped for, but not yet seen.

P.S. I played Essie Carmichael in my high school’s production of You Can’t Take it With You. I’m sure I have a few playbills inside a drawer somewhere around here.

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The Year of Maybe

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang, but a whimper

T.S. Eliot

These lines from “The Hollow Men” (first published 1925) are as fitting a sentiment to mark the end of the year 2020 as any other . Since 2020 often required more effort from me than I wanted to give and included many days where my primary emotion was exhaustion, I indulged in a small act of rebellion at its passing. That is to say, I ignored it. I refused to stay up until midnight, but went to bed early, and slept soundly.

It seemed to me that what was most needed was not forced gaiety, more stuff, or more obligations. I wanted my holidays to be a period of rest. I kept them small and quiet. My introvert self enjoyed the solitude; I wish more of the world could understand that being alone is not always lonely.

For many of us, 2020 was a year of great loss.

It is the reckoning of who and what I parted with, and what remains within my universe at the outset of 2021, that prompts me to write now. 

Downton Pittsburgh. Summer 2020.

I suppose that in hindsight, the signs that 2020 would be a dumpster fire were there from the start. I began the year with health issues that placed me on temporary medical leave  from work. In February, my long-cherished hopes of building a family through adoption were dashed when I received a phone call with devastating news: the child’s relatives had inexplicably withdrawn their consent. The information came just hours after a video call in which I’d seen and spoken to the dark-haired little girl who I dreamed would someday be my daughter. (We later learned that a social worker had given the family false information, but by that point, it was too late to resurrect the international adoption process.)

March 2020 brought alarming harbingers of global pandemic. The vast majority of my colleagues within my department at a Fortune 500 retailer were furloughed; I did the job of three people on a reduced salary. My husband and I agreed to divorce.

Over the summer, America seemingly ruptured into its worst self. Violent, hateful, deadly. The COVID-19 pandemic did not meaningfully abate, and those sworn to protect the public were filmed choking the life from an unarmed man while bystanders pleaded with them to stop.

Then came autumn, and with it a surreal presidential election – and aftermath –  where American democracy felt more fragile and vulnerable than at any point in my lifetime.

I could say more. I could write about the loss of my grandmother, who passed only days ago after succumbing to COVID. Had she lived until April, she would have celebrated her 100th birthday.

But you read the headlines. You’ve heard the news reports. You know that the pandemic is not contained, despite vaccines at last making their way to the public. You recognize that our country is far from healed.

And yet. And yet, I cannot tally 2020 as a total loss. In many ways, it was a successful and even joyful year for me. I spent hours rambling through the beautiful hills and paddling the waters of rural Pennsylvania. I earned a certificate in game design; I mucked around with PlayStation and started to learn guitar. I stayed out until midnight on a hilltop looking at stars. I published articles in my professional realm which drew pleasing and humbling bits of attention. There were Zoom calls with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Giselle Fetterman, and women in my district running for state office. I attended a virtual cocktail party hosted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle (known to millions around the world as the setting of Downton Abbey).

I even baked homemade bread.

All told, it wasn’t all bad. Therein lies the rub.

2020 was a tremendously complicated year for me. I could start the day with my favorite coffee, read headlines that made me wish I hadn’t picked up the news, have Zoom meetings and conference calls and appointments with varying degrees of value, take my dog to the vet for the umpteenth time, wipe the kitchen countertops with disinfectant (again), and somehow end with a glass of wine and a chapter or two from a novel. Small wonder that the challenge of holding multiple and often conflicting feelings tested my endurance. It was a life of many realities converging together. 

I had intended to experiment by making 2020 the Year of No. It often seemed the universe was saying no to me instead, and I had little choice in the matter.

But I did say no. No to an unsalvageable marriage. No to a job with a company whose values did not reflect my own. No to dating guys who were good-looking and intriguingly tattoed, but flaky. No to excusing others’ bad behavior.

I don’t know yet if 2021 will be the year of yes. I hesitate to say anything so absolute. But it may be the year of maybe.

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Beyond Binary: The Aftermath

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

2020, the year of disruption. It took a global pandemic, the most bitter social and political fragmentation I’ve ever witnessed in American culture, and a painful end to my marriage, but I’m at last shaking free of the pursuit of something that just maybe, I should not have been chasing in the first place. I’ve given up looking for normal.

“Normal” is a loaded word these days. Some of us want to “get back to normal” or “adjust to the new normal.” Others believe that the establishment, in any form, is not to be trusted and that we’d be a lot better off crying foul on the status quo. In the days and weeks following the 2020 presidential election, I’ve been thinking a lot about normal. Is it what is comfortable? Familiar? Routine?

And if, but its very definition, normal is so unexceptional, why do we yearn for it so badly?

I’m beginning to think that in 2020, it wasn’t normality that was shattered. Instead, our habits and our complacency and our worldview were threatened at an existential level. There is no longer a common set of undisputed facts on which to base a shared understanding of reality. The world is tilted and off-center.  We’re in a space that we can’t predict, and with a set of unknowns we can’t control. 

And as a species, when the necessity to adapt forces itself upon us, we tend to resent it. Any behavioral economist will tell you that human beings are creatures of emotion, not logic. Just because we know better doesn’t mean we do better.

But we should. Maybe it’s not logical to expect “normal,” if normal means a return to what was before. How could it be? These are strange and often frightening times. 

Much of life as we remember it is past. Perhaps, ultimately, we may find parts of it are not worth going back for. Yet things remain that are worth holding on to, and those have little to do with whether or not our local gym is open, or if we’re required to wear a mask, or if a curfew has gone into effect.

Human behavior is often highly contextual. But there is almost always a choice. And I will not give up on the big picture. I will not give up on decency, civility, or kindness. I will not give up on the expectation that my elected leaders will follow established precedents for conduct befitting their office. And I won’t give up on America, or on my fellow Americans, although I’ve felt more grief and anger and disappointment in these past 12 months than I believed possible. 

For as Winston Churchill is alleged, but not proven, to have remarked, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

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Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine

Confession: I’m not really in quarantine. I used the term because it was shorter and easier to write than “statewide stay-at-home order,” which is technically what I’m living under. Second confession: “quarantine” sounds way more provocative and interesting than “stay-at-home-order.” So I took a writer’s liberty to be interesting rather than strictly accurate.

Johnny Cash.

But it’s true that I am playing Johnny Cash songs. I laboriously pick them out, chord-by-chord, on an out-of-tune guitar that I found in the basement. Because one thing I have, in a life where many things have been taken away and disrupted by COVID-19, is the gift of time. Freed from commuting, or post-work social obligations, or visiting the gym, I suddenly have more hours in each day. Hours which I can choose to use in unprecedented ways.

I bought my first – and only –  set of guitar picks in Austin, TX. Learning how to play guitar had been one of those things, like running another 10K race or understanding how to drive a vehicle with manual transmission, that I always meant to get around to doing. But after I came back from Texas, guitar-less, the picks literally sat in my desk drawer for almost a decade. Not forgotten, exactly. I prefer to think they were waiting. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2020. Much of the world suddenly found itself at home. On a whim, I rifled through my desk drawer. And I found my guitar picks, the shiny plastic packaging unopened, just as I had placed them there on a long-ago summer afternoon. 

Take your pick.

The six picks all have a stained glass motif, reminiscent of church windows, in each of their designs. Since it is Holy Week, I chose the pick showing Christ crucified. I don’t know if that decision was religious or irreverent, but I went with it.  

I start with the basics. The last time I’d attempted to learn an instrument was under duress. I was five or six years old and my mother dragged me to a neighbor’s house so I could take piano lessons. I dutifully stuck at it and squeaked through a couple recitals over the years, but it never became a passion. Now, however, things were different. The quest for musical proficiency was a voluntary undertaking. And with the help of YouTube, I intended to teach myself.

I sat down to attempt my first lesson. By way of internet browsing I discovered a tutorial on a three-chord foundation that will lend itself to a wide variety of songs . I propped my laptop up on the coffee table, watched the videos, and tried to strum along. Feeling the need for a visual reference, I printed out a diagram with the foundational chords: G major. C major. D major. I glanced back and forth from the diagram to my hand placement. My fingers strained to reach across the fretboard. The guitar strings cut into the soft flesh at my fingertips; my skin had not yet grown calloused and inured to the pressure. 

If my hands seemed too short, my fingernails were too long. I’d never been one for manicures or even particularly long nails, but nevertheless, the length prevented me from fully pressing down each string. Even to my untrained ear, my chords sounded wonky. I ran upstairs to the bathroom and trimmed the nails on my left hand nearly to the quick. Then, for symmetry, I cut the nails on my right hand. Thus I made my first sacrifice: vanity. 

I futzed with playing the chords a little more. The sounds I produced edged closer to resembling something musical. But I hadn’t made a song, yet. I hadn’t even made notes. For inspiration, I decided to take a break and watch footage of Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. You know, the one where he sets his red Stratocaster on fire and then smashes it onstage. The Strat which he had painted himself. And the performance during which one of the most legendary images in rock n’roll history is captured, when Jimi kneels in offering, his beautiful guitar in flames. (Side note: that picture was taken by a 17-year-old who cut school to go to the festival. True story.)

Anyway, watching that footage on the first night I picked up a guitar was a mistake. I could practice for 100 years and never come close to touching Hendrix’s talent. Thus my second sacrifice: pride. 

I had no choice but to begin at the beginning. Reflecting that plucking at chords at random may not be the best way to make progress, I decided to try a song. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” can be played with three basic chords. It’s a song I’m familiar with, lyrics and all. And thanks to the deliberate, steady chord progression that Cash is known for, I know I won’t have to play particularly quickly. 

I get out the first chord. G major. It’s a fairly forgiving finger position, and the sound comes out warm and mellow. Then there’s C major, a bit brighter, sharper, that requires more stretching of my fingers as I struggle to get them into place. And finally D major, my favorite of the three, which produces a sound that seems at once familiar and little funky. 

And I’m playing. And singing. Slowly. Painfully. But its recognizable as pieces of a song. 

These are my beginning steps. My first chords. My first music in which I both play and sing. And with the uncertainty and with the discovery there is a wobbling feeling of joy. 

I’m a long way from having the chops to jam with Jimi Hendrix. But in time, I might be able to play along with Bob Dylan on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” And Eddie Vedder doesn’t know it, but he and I are doing duets on Tuesday when I start to tackle “Release.” (I dare you to read the lyrics, close your eyes and listen to Vedder’s vocals, stick around for the psychedelic vibes of the song’s second half, and not feel something.)

Life is not always a line. Sometimes we circle back, pick up what was left behind, and find ourselves at the beginning again. And when so much of life as we’ve known it has ended, the beginning is not a bad place to be. 

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Fiction, Fast and Loose

Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching a historical anything with me will probably tell you that I’m nearly insufferable when it comes to period detail. I grouse about language, clothing, the construction of the buildings, the kinds of food that appear on the table. I nearly barfed while watching Outlaw King, and actor Chris Pine pats a child on the back while saying something that sounds suspiciously like “It’s going to be ok.”

Whaaatt? “OK” was not common parlance in medieval Scotland.  “OK” wasn’t common parlance anywhere in the English-speaking world for at least another 400 years. 

Television hasn’t proved much more satisfying. There was BBC America’s Copper, which featured a revolver-wielding detective navigating the gritty slums of New York in the years just following the American Civil War. Interesting concept. Except that the New York City Police Department didn’t have any detectives at the time. And policemen weren’t issued guns.

Reign was another show that caught my fancy. (And I watched it to the bitter end, mainly due to the captivating performances of Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici and Craig Parker as slippery nobleman Stephane Narcisse.) But among the many anachronisms that proved persistently distracting were characters drinking tea (which wouldn’t have been imported into Europe for another century). The clothing, too, was a mishmash of styles and periods that made it appear as if the series’ costume designer had raided a community theater wardrobe room and appropriated what was left from productions of PippinHair, and Our Town

Of course, there are exceptions. DeadwoodBoardwalk Empire. And even A Knight’s Tale, which makes a delicious nod to Geoffrey Chaucer while playfully winking at history; it’s a world where a medieval-sounding melody is used as a prelude to David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and characters are dressed in pants and tunics that carry more than a whiff of the Rolling Stones’ swagger. 

I realize that we watch movies and television to be entertained. But I believe that in order to tell a good story, we need to understand the world that the story is born in. 

And in the case of history, that does mean checking a few facts.

Or a lot of them. As I wrote The Admiral’s Wife, inspired by the amazing – and true – adventures of Katherine Cochrane, I wrote it very carefully. I read. I researched. I visited archives to examine centuries-old documents firsthand and took a bus to sleepy Scottish villages. Since Kate also spent a good part of her life in South America, I gave myself a crash course in the politics of early 19th-century revolutions, made a Chilean stew called charquiquan, and drank wines from the region where she lived. I listened to recordings of native songbirds and learned what flowers grew and where. I sent a letter to the 15th Earl of Dundonald to give him a heads up that I was writing a book about his formidable ancestress. (I even started a mood board for the Cochrane’s world via Pinterest.)

It was a lot to take on. But I didn’t see a way to get around it. Since I was dealing with actual historical figures who left a sizable paper trail, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be as informed about their real lives as humanly possible. Secondly, since Kate has living relatives, I also believe I have a duty to represent her fairly, with all the understanding and authenticity that is her due.

Of course, the pressure was terrible. I often felt that I was writing while walking across a tightrope in a straightjacket. Because I didn’t just want a novel that was well-researched and thorough. I wanted a story that was good.

The best thing to do, I realized, was to put it aside. And I started writing a book that was completely different. Historical, yes. Requiring a bit of research, yes. But with characters and plot entirely made up. And completely lacking in literary pretensions.

It was the most liberating thing I could have done. My characters don’t hew to any prescribed code of behavior, and in writing it, neither did I. If I wanted to put in racy bits, I put in racy bits. If a character was in a scene where it made sense for them to throw a punch, they threw a punch. They smoke and place bets and make secret ferry crossings over the Irish Sea. There are assumed identities and well-meaning liars. There’s a clever housemaid with a taste for intrigue. And a dog. And a barfight.

Best of all, there was no unseen judge looking over my shoulder. I wrote what I wanted. That’s not to say that I was careless about things. But I was certainly much more carefree. 

In fact, it was so much fun that I’ve started writing another one. A Western, set in Montana during the waning years of the frontier, where a grieving widow is called upon to serve as her town’s justice of the peace. Writing the meet-cute between my protagonist and the man destined to become her partner (and love interest, naturally) made my toes curl. In a good way. So did a scene where the heroine interrogates a suspect using a variation of the Reid technique and all of the good cop/bad cop shenanigans that go along with it. 

I’ve no doubt that I’ll go back to The Admiral’s Wife. It’s a tale that needs telling. And when I do, I have the feeling that both Kate, and myself, will move through it a little more freely. 

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The Year of No

Since my earliest memories, I’ve been afraid of being passive. Staying still = being powerless. I suspect this is shared by many kids whose ambition outstripped their resources. To this day, I hold a deep belief that achievement and safety are somehow correlated, that if I become successful I’ll also be safe.  

This obsession began well before I entered professional life. Immediately after high school, I left for college. Not the perfectly adequate university situated literally across the street. Instead I accepted a scholarship to attend a highly selective liberal arts college five states away. While there I landed on the dean’s list every semester, served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, played intramural sports, and made appearances at parties thrown by the brothers of Chi Phi. I also had an off-campus job at a Starbucks two miles away, which I walked to unless I was lucky enough to bum a ride from a friend.

Following my summa cum laude graduation I took out loans to attend graduate school in England. (At the time, international fees cost significantly less than schools in the U.S., thanks to the way the British government set tuition rates.) I hustled a series of part-time jobs to keep myself fed. 

Upon returning to the U.S., I knew it was time to get to work. For real. Rather than heading back to my small Pennsylvania hometown, I moved to Washington, D.C.  I spent my first months in one of the world’s most powerful cities living off an $10/hour (pre-tax) temp gig. I had no car, and I ate whatever I could buy at CVS. I lived in a cold basement apartment in a dodgy part of the city. Over a series of weeks, during my walks back and forth from the subway, I monitored the progress of a discarded condom’s slow decay as it withered on the sidewalk. I worried about getting mugged. One of my coworkers at my temp job gave me a pair of socks for Christmas. I wore them until they developed a hole near the toes; then I found some thread and a needle and darned the hole. 

A serendipitous conversation at an alumni event resulted in an office job with a tiny salary – but a salary nevertheless – and benefits. I started freelance writing at about the same time. Not only was the extra income welcome, but it led to making vital connections, one of which resulted in a position within the PR office of a world-renowned research library. 

Things were looking up. But as I discovered over the next several years, working in the non-profit realm is not very profitable. At least not in a place with a cost of living like Washington, D.C. At a downtown conference I stopped by a booth for a consulting firm located just north of the city. I struck up a conversation with a pair of recruiters. Business cards exchanged hands, I sent over my resume, and at the conclusion of the interview process I had a new job that put me in a new industry. And for the first time in my life, I was earning a salary that let me buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store.

The point is, it all underscored my sense that opportunities are not given. They are made. 

And opportunities cannot be waited for; they must be pursued. The moment I stop striving towards the next thing is the moment I fail.

Saying yes has gotten me far.

It has also become unsustainable. Which is why I’ve decided on a radical experiment: I will make 2020 the year of saying no. 

No to believing that I still need to “prove myself.”

No to taking responsibility for making everyone around me feel comfortable, regardless of what it costs. 

No to anything that requires me to be at a gym at 5:30am.

No to anxiety-provoking family expectations.

No to devoting myself to professional pursuits that require exceptional commitments of time and energy, yet yield diminishing returns.

And finally, no to green tea and butternut squash – I never liked ‘em. Never will. 

The hope, of course, is that in time no will lead to yes. Yes to new pursuits. Yes to what makes me excited. Yes to cherished relationships. Yes to solidarity, and pilates classes, and passion. 

And yes, naturally, to myself. To the woman I was, to the woman I am, and to the woman that I will become. 

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