I didn’t know about her for years. Never heard of her. Then, one day, in the period I would soon dub ‘the dark night of my ex-husband’s soul’ she came. A light dawned.
I’d always been a creative girl, a passionate teen, then while wedded I morphed into an unsure and eagerly accommodating woman. When I finally acknowledged the “past due notice” and filed for “the divorce,” I realized I couldn’t speak. No, listen, I could string words together, I could even sound coherent on occasion, but the kernel of “me” at the heart of it all was missing. When did I grow so soft?
There I was, plowing through the molasses searching for my focus when, at a Screen Actors Guild Directors’ meeting, I met Nat Benchley. ‘Benchley, Benchley, let me think,’ I thought as I smiled that smile and shook his hand.
Nat immediately had me smitten, as most brilliantly eloquent men do … I do love a great mind. And his was incredible, I thought, until … well, his nickname for me was a little off putting. “Reverend Gorgeous.” I can barely type it even now. It makes me blush, and warms my heart. But that’s not the point here. The point is, Nat was sharing with me stories about his grandfather Robert, and how this woman, Dorothy Parker, was his sidekick and best friend.
Well, I’d never heard of the woman, and you already know exactly what I did. I looked Dorothy up, bought her books, checked her out … and thought, ‘HEY! I recognize that voice … that irreverent, brilliant, hysterically ironic voice. It . Sounds . Like . Me .’
So that was the first step, learning about Dot. The next meeting Nat and I attended was in New York, and he decided we should go some place called the Algonquin Hotel. Over martinis with three fat olives he educated me on the infamous “Vicious Circle” and — as we sat at that very same round table, regaled me with tales of how his Grandfather and Dot would hold court there everyday at lunch. And so, we and our colleagues sat. We laughed. We drank. Because, you know. Dot and Robert.
Hirschfeld drawings of Benchley, Parker, and company lined the walls. The more I learned, the more I was convinced: Nat and I should do a two-person show, Robert and Dot. I mentioned it to him. He loved it. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and we never happened.
That was years ago, and I only remembered these things when reading a piece this morning by Dorothy Parker. I’m much older now, and am not sure I still have the swagger necessary to deliver a good “Dot” onstage. But I love my warm memories of Nat Benchley. I continue to relish Parker’s writing, her voice, and the very clear knowledge that it was she who, thanks to Nat, helped me find my own.
In high school I was told to choose. And each of the tellers told me to chose the thing that was theirs:
Sister Mary Judith said to choose writing
Sister Mary Thomas said to choose music
Sister Mary Dominica said to choose fine art
Sister Josephine said to choose fashion design
You MUST choose this one, each said. This is your gift, each said.
I said no. Was it the best answer? I guess I’ll never know, but I knew in my gut it’s the only answer I could give.
I saw each as one of my children. How do I choose one, and leave the others, orphaned?
How do I nurture one, and leave the others fallow? It was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. But I was just a kid, what did I know? These were brides of Christ telling me to do this. But I couldn’t.
First of all, as I now know, what the creative well is filled with is beyond my control. It is a central space whose energy flows through me. I cannot dictate to the well how it is to express itself. I can only say “yes” to whatever shows up.
I am not the boss of it. I am the steward; the guardian. It is up to me to facilitate, not to dictate.
In my adult life, there are creative threads that have expanded; writing grew to — not only prose or poetry, but a career in songwriting. Design grew to — not just fashion design — but a career in interior design. Music grew to a career as a vocalist. I guess you could say my ‘children’ had ‘children’ of their own.
I sometimes wonder if this is just me, not wanting to “settle down” with something that could organize my life in a way that some would call “adult.” But when that thought comes to mind, the counter argument is always there to ask me, which of your creative ‘children’ would you have abandoned in favor of others?
The answer is, I cannot choose. I have not chosen. They choose me. Even now, in my dotage, I do not regret saying “YES” to all of them.
Things in my life are the way they are, based on every choice I’ve made. They laid a road, end to end, that brought be here to this table today. Good or bad, for better or worse, here I sit; my greasy hair under a ball cap, my thoughts scattered and the censor in my brain telling me that what I’m writing now is not worth a damn.
I get sick of hearing my own voice tell my own stories. Are other people as sick of it as I am? I don’t want to write cute, or clever. As Hemingway says, write real, about what hurts. I’ve kerfed around the edges of the pain for years, never hitting it dead center. I guess that’s real if you’re digging a trench, but I’m sort of stuck down here, looking for truth. And trying to dig my way out.
I could write about birds. But then my brain goes to the parakeet we had at 1135 South Quaker. My mother named it Perry Como. He was blue, with black wing tips, and a spot of lime green between his eyes. Thinking of him now I can smell his birdseed and that cage with the newspapers in the bottom.
When they let Perry out of that cage, he flew up and sat on the curtain rods. Every time he flew his wings made a loud flapping sound that scared my little brother.
Sometimes my mother would open Perry’s cage door, and wait. When my brother came walking through the livingroom, suddenly Perry would swoop down. My brother would scream and dive under the table, clutching the legs and sobbing. My mother raised her eyebrows, took a drag off her cigarette, and laughed. That taught me some pretty twisted things about how people treat those they claim to love. So yeah … count that little nugget as a lob to the center of the pain from the trenches.
Or maybe I could write about being a teenager. And dating.
Maybe I could write about the night a boy came to pick me up, and he had a long fringe of bangs. My little sisters peaked around the door giggling, “It’s a Beatle!” My Dad growled, “Is that your hair, boy, or is that a wig?”
Or I could write about another time my date arrived to take me to the school dance. He drove his car, parked, and my Dad drove us to school in our ’51 two door Pontiac. The two door thing is relevant because my date and my Dad sat in the front, I climbed into the back. In my formal. The thing I’ll never forget is the hood ornament. It was a glowing orange Indian Chief. I locked my eyes on that thing all the way to school, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
Maybe I could write about the faith, and the sense of humor, that have carried me on angel wings through the darkest of days, the brokenest of hearts. How, even in those moments … my date with the Beatles hair, me sitting in the back seat of that car … even then, in the recesses of my mind, I knew: “this is the rich stuff of which stories are made. I will write about this one day.”
Maybe today, sitting here at this table, wearing my ballcap, is that time.
A recent checklist:
Have you locked in on who you were put here to be?
Are you accomplishing all that you were put here to accomplish?
How much longer is your life’s to-do list?
How’s that memoir coming?
Will your work projects pay off?
What will be written on your grave marker?
Will you have a grave marker?
Will your grands know how much you loved them?
Will you have made a difference in any positive way?
What is the one thing, if you had to choose, that you’d want to be remembered for?
How will your children carry on once you’re gone?
What will happen to your writing?
What will happen to your artwork?
What will happen to your design work?
Once you’re gone, will you even care about any of this?
Questions that, once posed, tend to send me into one of two places: a deep and thoughtful period, or a moment of ironic flippancy where I say, “Who cares about that? I can only handle ‘now’.”
And really, those questions generally pop up only when I’m down. And I’m down so seldom that I had to conjure to bring them up at all.
I keep my eyes on the horizon, and my heart in Gilead. My path is my testimony, marked by my feet, which I put one in front of the other each day.
It is a varied, and a beautiful life. Trouble? Yes, we see trouble all around us. But we are not the trouble itself. No one is. We are the very love we seek; we are the center and the stillpoint of this amazing planet. And what we focus on increases. Think about that.
So, as I look back on this list of questions I raise, I can quietly and with blessed assurance say,
“It is too soon to tell. But I’ve read the Book. I know how this ends.
“And it is beautiful.”
The other evening, I was on the internet at my desk. To be specific, I was on YouTube. To be even more specific, I had been there for about an hour, watching video after video of singers auditioning before Simon Cowell and friends.
It’s easy to get pulled in by these clips. They’re inspiring; sometimes the performers have overcome incredible odds to be standing in front of that panel of judges. So I watched, and cried, and cheered, pumped my fist in the air. But the last woman woman who sang that night has stuck with me. I can’t stop thinking about her. When she told her story, it was as if I was listening to myself.
She was in her thirties, and Simon asked why she’d waited till now to give it a try. She said, “I was born loving music. I have sung my whole life, but all along, people told me I couldn’t. That I shouldn’t. And then,” she paused. “I was in an abusive marriage. He was cruel, and destroyed my belief in myself. So, for many years, I didn’t have music at all. But,” she smiled … “I am single; I am free now. I’m free to sing whenever I want to.” And then she did. She blew the roof off. I cried.
I shut down the computer and tucked in for the night. And that night, I had a dream. I dreamt that I approached a male friend who had a band, and told him I wanted to be their female singer. Even when I was dreaming, the “lucid” me shrunk back from that idea. Was not sure that I could. If I should.
In these later years I’ve had to make peace with the fact that my hopes/wishes/dreams regarding music have not materialized like I thought they would. I’ve also had to give myself a break in the ‘lack of determination’ department. And part of that is embracing the truth that God’s plan is at work in me, regardless of the path I’m on.
As far as my past, it’s one thing to be a cute little baby who sings before she talks; whose first words were “Ickle ickle ickle.” That’s something that new parents think is cute, and smart.
It’s something, in fourth grade, to be singled out to sing a solo in the school music program, with no clue that how you sang was unusual. It was just you. Singing.
Then again, it’s something else entirely to sing while washing dishes as a teenager, and have your dad walk into the kitchen and hiss in your ear that if you’re going to make that racket, go to the back of the lot to do it. Singing — me singing — was suddenly not cute. Not okay. Stop.
My folks were very strict, which I guess may have helped drive my love of music. It was my salvation; my only escape. I could go into my room, tune my little Philco radio to KAKC, make the volume barely audible, and sleep with my ear against it.
During the divorce from my husband of twenty five years, one of his complaints was that I was always singing. We were both in the music business, but he was determined to keep me as far out on the fringes as possible. He was fairly successful at that. But not as successful as I thought at the time. Many years later I’ve had conversations with music industry people who make it clear they were aware of the gifts I brought. Of what my contributions were, and can still be.
At first, that was hard to wrap my brain around. I’m still learning to be okay with people who acknowledge my talents, what I’ve done, and what I do. I’m getting better at that.
Like the woman standing in front of Simon, I am single; I am free now. I’m free to sing whenever I want to.
It’s a grey Monday, and I’m ‘working at writing’ in a session with Amy Lyles Wilson, my editor. I say ‘my editor,’ because that sounds very official, doesn’t it? And she is my editor; she’s also a dear, trusted, and longstanding friend. The fact is, I’m not sure how a writer/editor relationship could work otherwise.
It’s a courageous thing, writing. As Hemingway says, ‘There’s nothing to writing; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ That’s the long and the short if it, right there.
The first draft of my book is finished. Yes, I deliberately “buried the lead” here. Because I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’ll tell you this: it was with a weary, a relieved, and an ultimately dispassionate resolve that I finally finished that draft. And I’m a bit nervous about all the soul bearing stuff I wrote down in those 177 pages. I’d like to change my mind about some of it. But that would require a rewriting of my little piece of history. Truth lives on those pages, for better or for worse. Now, all I can do is breathe.
Writing is an excavation of the heart. When it’s about your own life, about how you got to here from there, it is a staunch enterprise. There are days — many — when you’re riddled with the thought that nobody could possibly be interested. Why would they care? Why am I doing this? But you continue on determined to, at the very least, finish what you started.
And so, you do. It might take twenty three years. You might, in 1995, get an official invite-to-submit from a major New York agent and knock yourself out writing enough to send her a sample. You might even get a letter back, saying she loves your work, that it feels “introductory,” and to please send more when your book is further along.
It’s March, 2018. That letter is in my file drawer. Wonder if she’s still interested.
The fact is, we all have stories. Amy’s slugline on her website is, “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.” And nothing could be more true. The funny stories, the heartbreaking stories, the stories that, when the readers read them, make their eyes well up or their hair catch fire … the hard stories.
The stories that don’t want to be written; the ones hiding in the shadows. THOSE are the stories we must write. And that’s what I’ve done.
There are more stories from different periods in my life that may need telling, if only for my children. Stories of my own childhood. Stories of my dreams, what they were, when some of them were abandoned, and why. For whom. And the resulting life that came after. The fact that, in this one lifetime, I’ve lived what could be classified as three distinct incarnations.
I’m in the third incarnation now, and closer to the end than I’ve ever been. With each passing day I pray, and wonder, and hope, and love. Even at this age, I feel the same creative passion and zest for life that I felt in my twenties. Those of you reading this who aren’t yet where I am, you’ll be here one day; you’ll think of this passage and realize the truth in what I’m saying to you now.
So yes, it’s a grey day of writing, and we’re here at this table, doing just that. I wouldn’t be here at all if I had no story to tell. The thing is, we all have stories inside us, wanting to be told. Let’s write them down. It may, indeed, be what saves us after all.