A Love Story

Between birthday candles, tight-fisted coin tosses and hushed prayers spoken on freethrow lines, it’s safe to say I’ve made more wishes than I can count—much less remember—in my life.

The ones that have been spoken for me, however, and made by those who likely knew what I needed most—those are the wishes that have stayed with me… particularly this one: “I hope you have a great love story.”

Although the topic was one I could rarely dodge while working as a reporter on an island of retirees in need of playing matchmaker, this particular conversation had been a welcome one with a dear friend and her parents. I had wanted to know how her father and mother met, so they graciously regaled me with the story and spared no details of the highs and lows in spite of this being our first meeting.

Before leaving the dinner, the mother thanked me through watery eyes for asking questions that prompted answers she hadn’t thought about in a long time and the father threw me the unforgettable penny: “I hope you have a great love story.”

Me too, I remember thinking with an ache in my chest.  Me too. I’m tired of holding this pen and paper.

At the time—perhaps because of my age, perhaps because of my occupation—I think I took the words as a wish for things to come that would have a distinct beginning, middle and end, instead of acknowledging that it was a story already taking place.

Now, as a teacher to teenagers who talk of nothing but love and an aunt to a nephew who is beginning to ask “Where’s your friend, Momo?” I’ve started to think much more about what actually makes for a great love story and how to answer the inevitable question that pops up during Romeo and Juliet lessons or on any Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday: Teacher, do you believe there’s such a thing as “the one”?

To be clear, I don’t intend for this to be some single girl’s manifesto for you to choke on along with those chalk-flavored candy hearts today. I don’t think anyone should ever pretend to know more or less than what he or she has experienced. But when those little hopeful romantics ask me about my love story and if I believe there’s someone for them in the midst of all this chaos, I have decided that this is my answer:

Yes, I do believe in “the one.”

In life, there will be the one who breaks your heart and the one whose heart you break.

The one who you’re not ready for and the one who is not ready for you.

The one to whom you never work up the nerve to speak one word and the one to whom you end up saying too much.

The one who pulls you on the dance floor and the one who never considers it a bad idea to order more than one dessert.

The one who teaches you that it matters to laugh together and the one who makes you cry.

The one who makes you want to be more and the one who tells you that you are enough.

Then ultimately—hopefully—there will be the one you choose to spend a lifetime loving in spite of, because of, and through all of the above.

If you’re lucky, only a few people will play more than one of these roles in your life. But if you’re smart, you’ll recognize that none of it matters outside of loving yourself first. The most important and defining relationship is the one you have with yourself, because that’s the one that affects how you treat others.

It is not a story to be written. It is one that is in progress. And I hope it’s one that you love.

Scream of Consciousness

Sometimes, teaching English to international students feels like playing an endless game of Taboo or Catch Phrase… only I don’t have the advantage of liquid courage to get me through the lesson and none of us get to snack on that delicious cheese dip with the meat in it that you often find at parties. The GOOD parties.

In spite of these minor drawbacks, it’s been fascinating to find what teaching a language has brought to light for me about words I thought I knew so well… until I had to explain them.

As the Occupy movement continues to gain momentum and media coverage, so does the curiosity of my students about what it all means. Interestingly enough, a word they have seen and heard much of in stories and wanted to know more about this week was “radical.”

When I set out to explain what it meant, visions of the word danced through my head. I thought of a friend who spoke of her days as one of the Radicatz, a group of activists in New York that used high kicks, home grown moves and clever chants to express anti-capitalistic and anti-war sentiments, as well as address labor, gender and environmental issues at protests. I thought of the NOH8 campaign. I thought of the DREAM Act. In short, I thought of all the current movements that fit the first meaning listed for “radical” in the online dictionary: “extreme; very new and different from what is traditional and ordinary.”

Then I read this second definition, which is used less but I believe represents the core of the radical speeches, marches, sit-ins, songs and acts of civil disobedience that make the minority in power so nervous: “very basic and important.”

How ironic and infuriating that those in charge and those blockading change use tear-gas to safeguard what they have deemed traditional and stamp out a call for something radical. Not something crazy, but radical—a better society built on social and global consciousness. Hell, consciousness. Something very basic. Something important.

Lost in translation

This is not a story about how I shared an awkward kiss with Bill Murray on a crowded street in Tokyo. And no, I am not Scarlett Johansson. People say I’ve reminded them of everything from anime to Tina Fey, but that is not what brought you here. You’re bored. I can’t sleep. Welcome to 99.9% of blogdom.

I recently started a job that had me help 40 Chinese students fresh off the plane navigate a Georgia Walmart for sheets and toilet bowl cleaner. As my superpower is magnetism for the truly random, it was not the experience itself that made me do a double take on my own nametag but the realization that I am now professionally advising others to take risks with a foreign language. The irony of this cannot fully be appreciated without taking you back to my first class as an undergraduate in college.

In spite of a deep love for French that was instilled in me at an early age by Madame Murphy through Julia Child impersonations and cooking demonstrations, as well as games of Twister en français, my first language class as a college freshman was traumatizing. The room was small and my claustrophobia was only heightened by the fact that it was filled with conversation among six seniors and a professor who I was certain I would have caught talking about this hopeless(ly) American deer in highlights if I could have understood a single word they were saying.

Seconds after the class ended and I prayed for a contact high from the philosophy students I passed on my way to the Office of Academic Assistance, I traded in one semester of advanced French for two mandatory years of Latin. A dead language, I presumed, would not be able to fight me.

Sh’yeah.

Within the week, my classics professor started calling me her “Little Latin Trap” because I would always give the wrong answer to her trickier questions and she liked to use my mistakes as examples for the rest of the class. Eventually, I just chose silence but the nickname stuck. It’s even printed on an unofficial certificate my peers awarded me at the end of my time in foreign language purgatory. Et tu, Jackasses? 😉

I was reminded of this personally challenging time because I caught myself encouraging my students to speak up this week in spite of the fear I knew they felt about messing up. I wish I had given myself that same grace… and not just as a freshman or in foreign language classes.

Ironically, I ended up reading this passage before bed about how we’ve all set our own little Latin trap through a shoddy translation and interpretation of the word “perfection.”

Kathleen Norris writes, “The good news about the word ‘perfect’ is that it is not a scary word, so much as a scary translation. The word that has been translated as ‘perfect’ does not mean to set forth an impossible goal, or the perfectionism that would have me strive for it at any cost. It is taken from a Latin word meaning complete, entire, full-grown. To those who originally heard it, the word would convey ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect.’ To be perfect is to make room for growth, for the changes that bring us to maturity, to ripeness. To mature is to lose adolescent self-consciousness so as to be able to make a gift of oneself, as a parent, as teacher, friend, spouse.”

Now we’re talking.

I Am Woman

A girl should never have to choose, so I never did.

I have a friend whose grandmother once reasoned that people can’t hear a woman unless she has her lips on. The southern, self-proclaimed sage was referring to the power of lipstick, and I remember feeling like the statement relegated my paintless adolescent face to that of a Ms. Potato Head whose mouthpiece must have gotten knocked off in a football game that my brother and the neighborhood Rat Pack begrudgingly let me play in.

Fortunately, I have a mom who told me that she didn’t like putting bows in my hair growing up because she didn’t want me to look like a present. Instead, she never hesitated to remind me that I was a gift as I was and so is the life that we’re given.

One of the few, most prized possessions of my nomadic existence is a bright orange, wooden stool that I sat on in my parents’ bathroom nearly every morning of elementary and middle school, waiting for my mom to curl my hair, watching her get ready, staring at our reflections to see how close I was to becoming a woman, and having conversations about what that even meant.

Right now, both ironically and unceremoniously, the stool is serving as a coaster to a stack of academic research about the relationship between language, gender and identity. The central debate is whether English limits and mislabels those who speak it or if we hold ourselves back by how we use and abuse it. What is a woman when not defined in relation to a man but by what she alone brings to the table? Who is anyone when not set up in comparison?

I recently went to see a moving exhibit about women, violence and art titled “Off The Beaten Path” that is currently on display at CDC’s Global Health Odyssey Museum. Although a heartbreaking topic, I was inspired by the way these women not only made themselves and their subjects be heard (regardless of their shade or lack of lipstick), but how they’re changing the dialogue as well.

Of the exhibit, curator Randy Jayne Rosenberg writes, “Avoiding tabloid and sensational imagery, we ask the artists to help us create a new vocabulary—new representations—through their artworks and, in doing so, heal us, transform us and help us feel and understand the essence of the problem of violence against women.”

The image below and its accompanying caption have stayed with me since touring the museum:

“In some communities, where direct intervention is culturally impossible, women respond to severe domestic violence by assembling outside of the household in question and bang out an alarm on pots and pans. This informs the man that the spirit he attempts to break belongs to many, not one.”

I hear these women and I’m sounding off, as best I can, in solidarity.

"Untitled" by Yoko Inoue, Japan

In some communities, where direct intervention is culturally impossible, women respond to severe domestic violence by assembling outside of the household in question and bang out an alarm on pots and pans. This informs the man that the spirit he attempts to break belongs to many, not one.

Click here to see virtual exhibit.

Here I am

I came out to my parents at a Cracker Barrel.

Before meeting them halfway between the town in which I’d been born and the place where I’d most recently experienced growth, I lost it at the opening of a butterfly garden I was covering for the local newspaper.

It was my first week back to work after a trip to the West coast with my then girlfriend. The purpose of the journey had been to explore the city we might call home together. When I got back, I knew it was time to tell my family where I’d really been for the past year when avoiding phone calls, offering up generic answers to their questions, and losing my temper over the tiniest things because I didn’t want to face what was really making me angry.

It was June 1, the Lowcountry was a sauna, and the PR director giving me a tour of the butterfly sanctuary ironically and obliviously crushed a monarch under her shoe at the exact moment she began lauding the green space as a haven. I wanted to laugh, but the symbolism felt too close to home, so I remember focusing hard on writing the word “larvae” instead while choking back hot, angry tears.

On the way back from the interview, I had one of those ugly cries behind the steering wheel and called my mom and dad. They agreed to drive two hours to meet me for a late lunch, even though none of us were really hungry.

When the waitress came to the table and asked us if we wanted biscuits or cornbread, I remember feeling unusually affected by the question. I wanted to scream, “Isn’t it OK to like both?!?! IS THAT SO ABNORMAL?!” Instead, I just requested that she bring back some grape jelly.

It’s funny how I don’t remember the specifics of such a heavy conversation, but I remember the feeling. Some people describe it as like a weight being lifted off their shoulders, but to me, it was more like thawing. Slowly, I could feel my fingertips again.

I explained to my parents that I didn’t feel comfortable giving my orientation a label because it seemed to discount the relationships I had leading up to this one. I told them, “I think you love who you love and who I love right now happens to be a woman. Who I love next might very well be a man.” Either way, I knew that as long as my feelings remained unspoken within me, I could not love myself or anyone else properly. Fully.

Since then, I have agonized over the right time or way in which to tell my story and always stopped short because I couldn’t answer why I needed to share it. I’ve made a career out of trying to help others see the value and volume of what their lives have to speak and am only recently beginning to accept and embrace the value of my own chapters.

Last week, I began volunteering for StoryCorps, an organization I’ve followed and obsessively shared with friends for years. Since 2003, the nonprofit has recorded conversations between friends and family members in booths across the nation. It’s one of the largest oral history projects of its kind and the stories that are broadcast on public radio each week have been like a balm to my soul. At the end of the month, StoryCorps will host an event to celebrate stories of love and community from Atlanta’s LGBTQ community, which is what finally prompted me to put this to paper.

When StoryCorps came to Savannah a few years ago, I taped a meaningful conversation with a dear couple who served as mentors to me when I first moved there, but I remember wanting so badly to share that intimate exchange with my girlfriend at the time and being too scared. I wasn’t prepared to say what I felt outloud. I wasn’t ready for the permanency of recording it.

But regret, like fear, is such an unproductive and debilitating emotion and this is my attempt to stop putting it on my toothbrush, mixing it into my cereal, and spelling it out using the cracks in the sidewalk every morning. I’m telling my story now because as generations before me, I finally understand the purpose of this tradition is to learn, to calm ourselves to sleep, to heal and to preserve.

9-0-2-1-Oh

If your life depended on my ability to correctly answer a trivia question, my apologies, rest in peace, good luck. Along with jumping jacks, map folding, and tanning, conditions would have to be hyper-specific—and by hyper-specific I mean rigged—in order for me to be successful in any or all of these activities.

I once cost my friends free beer and a rare first-place finish at Wednesday night trivia when they wagered all of our points on my ability to answer a final question about the U.S. Census Bureau. I was employed by the organization at the time and paid by the hour to read manuals about its inner-workings, but we missed the question. More specifically, I missed the question and was relegated back to my role as time check girl and giver of moral support.

I am waiting for the day when I will be able to redeem myself and actively willing the universe to supply one of the following categories at said moment: underappreciated movie candy, negative side effects of Neosporin, and/or Beverly Hills 90210. I may or may not have spent a quarter of my life alternating between the desire to date Dylan McKay and be Dylan McKay. This may or may not still be a struggle.

Were pride something I was in great supply of right now, I would not admit to the following, but I’m feeling inside-out these days so what the hell, here goes. While starting my morning with Dr. Bronner’s magic peppermint the other day, a particular episode of the show came to mind in the midst of a “What’s next for Mo?” reflective shower moment.

Somewhere in my parents’ home in South Carolina is a worn-out VHS tape labeled “THE Decision,” on which is a recording of the ultimate season finale of California’s favorite zip code. Kelly is faced with the choice to marry Brandon or travel the world with Dylan and his scarred eyebrow and the drama leading up to this moment is basically what Aaron Spelling used to drive the show. With bated, angsty breath, I remember waiting for what ended up being Jennie Garth’s “You had me at hello” Jerry Maguire moment. “I choose me,” she said, while handing back the ring and round-trip ticket to the beautiful boys. “I choose me.”

Of course, the decision was one to be applauded. It was a rare departure from television and pop culture’s tendency to romanticize relationships and paint independence in a negative light. What troubled me mid-lather when remembering this moment, however, was thinking about the times when ”I choose me” is not deemed heroic… when the world isn’t waiting to hear what your decision will be and the only option you have in front of you is self-sufficiency and a search for self worth. Not tickets to travel the world or a marriage proposal.

I’m finding it much harder to muster the strength and excitement to choose myself when it’s the only thing I can do right now, but I know it must be done.

“Finding Her Here” by Jayne Relaford Brown

Handwriting courtesy of the cutest ginger in town. Happy Momma’s Day…