Remembering What Counts

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Last Sunday a friend was in town for a week of business meetings, and we’d arranged months earlier to get together on what ended up being the nicest summer day Chicago had all season. We met in the Fall of 2001 at a job where we worked together for about six years. Jill was a part-timer, finishing a PhD in west Texas, although she’ll be the first to tell you she’s from New Jersey, which instantly makes me smile. So often her conversations begin with, “I’m from Jersey,” and if you’ve spent more than five minutes with anyone from The Garden State, you’d know she was raised there even if she hadn’t started the discussion with, “I’m from Jersey.”

I began the job about two or three weeks before her, and she was born a couple of months before me in the same year. That initiated the first Stone-1, Mullholland-1 rivalry. I may have begun the job earlier, she is forever younger than me, exemplifying a competitive predisposition foIMG_0643r which the Jersey girl hasn’t lost her passion. She’ll cleverly walk me into a Mullholland-1, Stone-0 faceoff on Facebook with a glee belying our presumed maturity.

We hit if off immediately, and by the end of October, 2001 we weren’t only colleagues, we were close friends. There are obvious commonalities like we’re only two months apart in age, both Type-A overachievers with plenty of pride and no fewer opinions, driven by perhaps a tad too much perfectionism. She’s finally a full-time employee but we never worked together in the association’s Merchandise Mart offices in Chicago when the association and I were located there.

From the moment we met we did and said silly stuff, laughed out loud a disproportionate number of times, although we are also good kvetchers. Still, we were very conscientious about our jobs, often disagreeing about certain aspects, but it never got in the way of our friendship. In the best of those times, I’d tell her she was full of it; she’d tell me I was overflowing in it. Then she’d do things like hang the phone up, call Jeannie the office manager and have her hide all my pens or create a crisis for Jeannie to deliver to me with an Academy Award-worthy performance, to which I’d respond by telling her to tell Jill she doesn’t need to earn a PhD, she needs to see one. In more serious times, our clashes might last a day or two, but we couldn’t sustain an argument too long. We’d disagree, sometimes loudly, get over it and stay over it. We’d always find some compromise and whatever the issue, it was never brought up again. Nothing was as important as our friendship. Six years flew by, we worked as hard as we played, and we’re still very proud of that.

There’d also been plenty of opportunity for colleagues, committee and Board members to pit us against each other when we worked together and even after I left. We saw many attempts, but they could never succeed although we’d never discussed such an “agreement,” for lack of a better term. We cared too much about each other, we had too much fun together. In hindsight, our closeness seems remarkable because we were two of only six permanent employees then, her being one of two part-timers and the only virtual one, living in an area as rural and distant as Chicago is urban and eclectic.

Then I left the association, abruptly. We spoke occasionally but not about work. She knew something went wrong. I know she heard all kinds of absurd stories just as surely as I know she gave them no weight because they weren’t words coming from me. We’d heard plenty of dirt on each other over the years but never once chose to acknowledge it. Although unsaid, we weren’t willing to ruin what we had by letting negative get between us.

It’s hard to stay connected when miles apart and gripped in details of separate lives. Except for an occasional Facebook post, text message or brief call where we still managed to laugh and disagree as if we’d never missed a day, we remained out of touch for over five years. And until we sat on the beach last Sunday, she didn’t know any “why’s.” In between laughing out loud about old pranks and goofy colleagues, I told her some of them. I’d been hit in a head-on car collision; our family had to sell our home because like others the Great Recession struck us hard, and some other unpleasantries. I explained they weren’t things I could talk about over the phone or through email, but I didn’t even need to say that. She’d never been mad that we weren’t talking, she just didn’t know why.

During the short time we spent discussing it, I saw something that until that moment I thought one could only feel: empathy. The way she listened, the tilt of her head, her few but well-chosen questions, the different tone in which she spoke―it struck me harder than the summer sun and gin and tonic. Those tough times paled compared to the care radiating from her as spontaneously as the waves lapping onto the beach and the sun beating down on the lakefront. Let me be clear: it wasn’t sappy. She doesn’t do sappy and doesn’t accept it from others. She was hearing information she’d long wondered about and would only acknowledge from her friend, and despite her Jersey cool, her concern was palpable. We didn’t dwell on any of it; we picked right back up where we left off, teasing each other, acting nowhere near our age (which I tried to reduce and for some reason she stopped me before I could even finish the logic, though I’d been certain she’d appreciate it).

What is relevant is not talking for at least five years and then picking up where we
left off. Dissecting “why” and “what happened” also were never part of any “agreement.” We’re friends. We respect each other even when we disagree. Even when years fly by. Even when others try to interfere. Last Sunday I not only felt but I saw the blessings of friendship, the love that comes from two people who genuinely care and respect each other. I will always love her, and I know that’s mutual. But not in a sappy way, Jill’s from Jersey.

There are countless hugely frightening and equally irrelevant issues dividing out country, political parties and families every day. But not knowing when we’ll see each other again or even talk, aside from a few silly give and takes on Facebook, can’t disconnect my friend Jill and me. Those issues simply aren’t part of our definition of friendship, love, empathy.

What an enlightening observation for me. People who really care about one another without agenda or condition are a rare and wonderful gift. That tenderness is unrelated to one’s religious belief, culture, age, politics, even blood lines, much to my surprise. Real friendship and love mean laughing at the beach, remembering each other’s best moments, and feeling only sadness about the bad ones. Tallying them to use against each other never once a consideration.

Thanks, Jill, for reminding me about what really counts. Yeah, I know―Mullholand-1, Stone-0. I’m grateful I’ve got a lifetime to keep up that rivalry, a lesson I needed to understand at that moment more than I can say. But that’s what makes these kinds of relationships special, right? Ok, maybe too sappy, but it’s the truth, and I’m prepared for the fallout because I know whatever her reaction, it’ll never, ever be one that would make me feel bad or sad. Is there a greater gift?

My Caitlin and the new Caitlyn

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Well, she really isn’t mine, she’s my 7-year-old granddaughter and next to her mom and aunt, my favorite person in the world. Thus, for some reason I was particularly psyched the transgendered Bruce Jenner came out to the world yesterday as Caitlyn, because despite different spelling, the name is analogous with someone very special.

My Cait slept over the night of the famous Sawyer/Jenner interview and she only joined me watching it near the end. I hadn’t asked her mom if it was okay for her to watch it, but my heterosexual married daughter who works, has two sons and Cait, actively participates in the city’s LGBT rowing team, in fact, she’s on the board. A few months ago she told me a long-term goal is to establish a suburban LGBT community center where kids can take part in sports, get tutoring, make friends, talk to therapists—all in a safe environment that they wouldn’t even recognize as “different” just because the kids feel different.

Talk about special. I couldn’t be prouder although I take no credit. When Cait’s mom was born, I felt like she already knew all the rules. She slept through the night right away, even crawled to her crib if we didn’t get her into bed early enough. She’d wake about 8:30 am and nap between All My Children and General Hospital—three hours where I could satisfy one of my biggest vices: soap operas. Cait’s mom is my oldest, the one I was least experienced to parent. I’m sure I spoke way too early about boys, birth control, drugs, drinking, all the scary topics I addressed as easily as talking about Lindsay Lohan in “The Parent Trap,” mostly as she sat in the backseat and we headed somewhere. Now I estimate in an earlier life she probably lived  until around 17 or so because when she reached that age she started acting like a normal vs. an all-knowing teen. Since I wasn’t an experienced mom, I didn’t pick up on that nuance until in her early 20s she told me she was pregnant and keeping the baby.

They didn’t marry, but moved in together. They didn’t last as a family unit, but tried. He moved away and sadly died unexpectedly a little over a year ago. Caitlin was devastated; daughter’s love dads just because. Fortunately, Cait’s mom met a man who loved her and Cait equally, married and have had two sons. Cait loves being an older sibling. She misses her dad, yet has nothing but love and respect for her stepdad, sometimes even calling him “dad” now, but only when their family is alone together.

Regardless of the circumstances, I can’t imagine a world without Cait. It’s so much brighter because of her. Right now she’s about three feet of pure love. She doesn’t resent her new brothers six and seven years younger and all the attention they get; she’s never jealous about what others have. Like her mom, she seems like this isn’t her first go at the world.

She had lots of questions the last 20 minutes or so of the Sawyer/Jenner interview, and I talked to her just like I once did her mom. “He wants to be a girl, grandma?” she asked. “Why?” I said, “Listen to what they’re saying Cait. The blonde woman is trying to find out why, too.” After a few more whys I asked, “You know Caitlin that it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside, it’s how we feel on the inside, right? He looks like a man but has always felt like a girl. So why shouldn’t he be happy and be a girl?” I told her there were lots of boys and girls of all ages going through the same feelings, but we’re learning from him what it’s like.

She saw him pick out his favorite little black dress, talk to his sister and heard his mom. “Is it going to hurt anyone, Grandma?” she asked. “He’s going to have some operations so he looks more like a girl, and he might be sore for a bit, but it doesn’t seem to me that he’s hurting anyone. I don’t think we can make anyone else happy unless we’re happy, do you?” I asked her.

She thought about it for a minute or so, then concluded, “You’re right Grandma. I’m sad if you’re not happy.”

These are the moments that make me feel like the luckiest person in the world. People may grow tired hearing me talk about my rock star daughters and now rock star grandchildren. But as long as they’re spreading all this greatness, I’m going to keep talking. The world needs more of it, and I’m surrounded by an abundance. Let the new and 7-year old Cait’s be reminders that there’s so much beauty, love and compassion in the truth. Simply revel in the things that do us no harm.

Truth: the great equalizer in creative nonfiction & life

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In this spring’s Writer’s Studio creative nonfiction class, author and teacher-extraordinaire Lauren Cowen talked on the first night about the irony of this genre—it being described by what it isn’t. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for professional wordsmiths, but from the start we know it’s not fiction. Yet, it still doesn’t tell those who don’t understand the genre anything about it. Some will come to a conclusion like, “Oh, so you just write essays like in high school,” then become a little less impressed with us and prouder of themselves. “Yeah, just essays because they’re so easy. Lord knows capturing the truth, making it compelling and universal, couldn’t be more effortless,” is my kindest retort, occurring only on days bordering on me being comatose.

I have pages of notes on the many eloquent ways Lauren explained creative nonfiction. Nuggets of wisdom include, “it’s a pact between the writer and the reader, a process of discovery” and “credibility is key, it has to have happened, it has to be emotionally true and factually true.” She spoke of its difficulties: “It alludes paraphrase, it yields and it complicates,” and she talked about its governing intent, “dwelling in the world you do know to find out what you don’t know.” She spoke of wrestling with a story’s “aboutness,” drafting and redrafting, always rooting for the story you want to tell, bearing witness to the details and the subtext, weaving in research and authority from emotion and events to write clearly and honestly. And all this from the first night.

Our winter semester’s teacher, reporter and author Kevin Davis had us read the latest book from the “Godfather” of creative nonfiction, Lee Gutkind. Writer James Wolcott of Vanity Fair magazine had ridiculed the genre and Gutkind, who publishes the magazine Creative Nonfiction, by calling him the Godfather. But it eventually backfired on Wolcott, as the genre is often referenced as the literature of reality. And while Gutkind is famous for insisting he’s not the creative nonfiction police, his insistence for truth and fact-finding, credibility and correctness offer strict boundaries.

Kevin, too, had a wealth of insights to help define the genre. He spoke of how small moments reveal universal truths, and, therefore, the importance of remembering details and expressing them carefully are paramount. His discussions on structuring creative nonfiction is invaluable. Character descriptions that give readers a hunger for what’s at stake in the story, scenes and dialogue that move it forward, research grounding us further in the facts, private and intimate knowledge—these are the pieces that connect experiences and make the truth more compelling, transforming and revealing than any other kind of storytelling.

Still, we learn in all our classes and in personal experiences that some who claim to be creative nonfiction writers will play loose with the truth. It can be as seemingly innocent as thinking that changing a minor detail will make a sentence sound more lyrical. James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, revealing how he rehabilitated himself from alcohol, drugs and crime rocketed him to success when Oprah Winfrey featured him on her show. After some easy fact-checking revealed Frey’s fabrications, his public humiliation focused a powerful light on the most essential requirement of the genre. Creative nonfiction must be true, not truthy, not composites of real events. The authentic retelling of small or large moments is mandatory.

Creative nonfiction may be the most potent genre because truth is power. The genre is certainly among the most challenging to write because many truths are tough to relive regardless of one’s wealth, color, gender or culture. As a result, the courage to use truth to retell stories has, in worst cases, the power to reveal atrocities and stop us from repeating them. In best case scenarios, the truth gives faces to vulnerabilities, connecting people and ideas, thereby making it more difficult for inequity and intolerance to spread.

Changing a detail because it adds a little more interest to a story or opens up possible misinterpretations of the bigger story is wrong. And it’s unnecessary. Fix a creative nonfiction piece by writing the truth or simply call your story fiction. Because there is no creative nonfiction police, it’s up to the writing community to police itself. Gutkind says, “More than in any other literary genre, the creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others and display a higher mortality and a healthy respect for fairness and justice… Write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake.”

There’s a lot at stake.

Not Just Another Mother’s Day

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Last Thursday night I was sleeping when my daughter Jackie woke me to give me a mother’s day present. She was leaving for her alma mater at six on Friday morning to watch friends graduate and assured me she’d be home near two on Sunday so we could all have dinner. I told her none of this was necessary, but 22-year-olds are determined. Wrapped in a teal gift bag—our favorite color—was an I-Phone cover with pictures of her sister and her, Patrick and Cait, Xavier, my cousin Dean and Marcia, my niece Nikki and her family and a quote: “Family, we may not have it all together, but together we have it all.” Truer words….

Saturday my oldest daughter sent me a text asking if her family could come over Sunday to deliver Mother’s Day breakfast. Only weeks ago she gave birth to Colin, Patrick is 15 months old, and Caitlin is quick to remind us she’ll be eight in four months. How Jill wakes up (if she’s slept), dresses, feeds and cares for her brood, always with the infectious laugh and smile she lights the world with every day, is mind-boggling. Offering to add me to the list on Sunday is over the top even for someone who repeatedly proves there’s nothing she can’t achieve.

Mother’s Day has long been bittersweet for me. In my mind it’s a holiday to honor my mom, and even though the years she’s been gone now reach into the double digits, I haven’t come near mastering the maternal talents she selflessly shared every moment we were together. A day never passed where she didn’t talk to me about love, her capacity for it remains beyond description. But this Mother’s Day is a reminder she left me with a wealth of it. While she’s never further than my heart, neither are these other loves of my life. My family may be small enough to fit on the back of a phone cover but the love most certainly is not. I’m overcome with the generosity of both of my girls and today more certain than ever that just as my mom’s love remains with me, it lingers too in the hearts of her grandchildren—a priceless gift on any day.

May all of you have as heartfelt a Mother’s Day.

A Complicated Calling

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If I had to have a calling, why couldn’t it be teaching or fighting fires or some other noble pursuit that makes a difference and is more…tangible? Something that would not have me fantasizing about tossing this laptop off the 21st floor balcony and watching it shatter into pieces.

I had a second essay workshopped in the last class of this semester’s Writer’s Studio, and it ends up I have to revise this one, too, and get it to my professor in order to get approved to move on to the next semester. I wrote and then revised my first essay while at Ragdale, and I think I nailed it. I was so excited. Now I have to blow up the draft of this second essay; I mean what else can “relook at the structure” mean?

I didn’t even think we had another semester this Spring, which is probably half the reason I’m so bummed. Enough about how brilliant I am not. The bigger question: to write or not to write? Writing is a difficult passion to pursue day after day. When I just can’t do it, I read for inspiration. Aside from being profoundly moved, the activity makes me all too aware there are already countless great writers in the world. Who needs another one? One who feels mediocre in this pursuit at best?

Boy, would my mom come in handy ri8362d-00130006ght now. Perhaps writing about her loss is what’s bringing all this indecision front and center. She’d say, “knock it off, Dollface, and just do it!” All my life she told me I had a book in me. I wish she told me where to find it. And I’m glad she’s not around to read that sentence. It’d go over as well as a B-. She never understood the + and – concept in grading, and to my horror would march down to my grammar school to explain her problems with it everytime a teacher would add that element to my grade.

Shirley Stone’s life wasn’t a quiet one. She reveled in her passions, and she shared them with everyone. Of course there were those she didn’t see eye to eye with, and I imagine they thought she marched too loudly through life. But that wouldn’t bother her. She lived comfortably in her skin, confident in her decisions, satisfied with the outcomes. She always found it futile to look back.

My mom made the most of every day, and she did her best every day. She loved and laughed as she nurtured anyone lucky enough to cross her path. She was wise and her genuine interest in others was as much a part of her DNA as was her eye color, shoe size and the cancer that took her too soon.

She’d remind me nothing worth having or wanting so much comes easy and to knock it off, sit my butt down and do what I need to do to move to the next step. And then a few minutes later I’d get a Shirley hug, strong, heartfelt, pats on the back, and an “I love you Dollface,” whispered into my ear.

My mom, my muse, my best friend. I think of her every day, and that’s reason enough to keep on pursuing this passion. I couldn’t let her down when she was alive. To give up because she’s physically not here would be inexcusable. Thanks for that, mom, wherever you are. I’ve no reason to doubt her expectations of me aren’t any different today than they were decades ago. Giving one’s all when the going gets tough was part of her fiber. So there it is: why I can’t give up. Even the thought of letting her down when she’s no longer with us isn’t in my fiber either.

Talk about powerful love and confidence, bridging death to have my back. Even if this writing gig doesn’t pan out, I most certainly pulled the long straw. I will always be Shirley Stone’s daughter.

Step by Step

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I even found new pictures to take.

Day 7 of 18 at Ragdale, the artist retreat in Lake Forest, IL, and I’m into some intense editing—so much so that I’ve already done two loads of laundry. Those who know me will realize I’ve gone through the entirety of distractions I’m capable of unearthing so edit I must, right after I’m done with this blog.

The writing process is hard. Draft after draft you work on structure, point-of-view, character and scene-building until your story feels organic. It has a beginning, middle and an end that takes the reader on an interesting journey. Then you workshop it or have other writers read it for their advice. Often that means creating a new draft, other times it brings you to the revision process.

We were talking about that process last week in class. (Yes, I actually left Ragdale for half a day, stopped home to see the extent of destruction that occurs in 48 hours when I’m not there, then headed to the second to last class of my second semester at The Writer’s Studio. “I got the printer to work,” I was told on the way home. I was thrilled. Imagine my surprise to find it does in fact work, on the counter between the dining and living room….. More on the value of the room we call the office later, but see how good I’ve become at distraction?)

In class I compared completing an essay to giving birth, only harder. My teacher, Kevin, has a child, and he was the closest to relating. I know the younger women in class who picture children in their future will agree. It’s painful beyond belief but unequivocally worth it in the end. I’m at the point where I have to look at every word in every sentence to make sure it’s not only the right one in the right place but that it moves the story forward. I like this step. It means I’ve created something that works and now I need to fine-tune it. Nothing’s ever perfect so it’s a difficult step to complete. There comes a point where you just have to let go.

In one of my earlier stages of distraction yesterday, I emailed a former neighbor and writer and likened this step to walking your daughter down the aisle at her wedding. There she is: your greatest project, the prettiest moment of her life to-date, bubbling over with happiness while you’re still processing how she learned to ride a bike, read a book, get to school on her own. Already you have to “give her away,” and she’d prefer you do it with a smile on your face as you hold back cardiac arrest, billions of memories and tears as well as a newfound utter disrespect for the passage of time—what the hell is the hurry?

Letting go is a stage in nearly every part of life, and it’s a tough one to face in any situation. Not much is ours to keep and nothing worth having lasts forever. Letting go means you’ve held on to something you value otherwise whatever you thought you possessed would be easy to give away. Letting go is packed with insecurities and fears, doubts and disbelief, what ifs and if onlys. It’s as much an act of faith as any religion. People say “trust me, it’s part of life,” and “you’ll survive, I promise,” but those first steps without something you’ve learned to appreciate quake with anxiety.

I need to get back to a story I hope is worth sharing, one I believe some will identify with and may even help them feel more confident despite the fundamental imperfections uniting us. Letting go of some stuff is easier than others. Much isn’t nearly as important as others. Still, letting go step by step is relative. Whatever we’ve worked so hard for or in service of is hard to release because whatever “it” is always takes with it a piece of our soul.

Lighting Fires at Ragdale

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We moved recently and the one thing we don’t have in our new condo that we really miss is a fireplace. So how fortuitous to spend 18 cold winter days at Ragdale where of course they have one!IMG_0246 I haven’t lost my touch either, it’s burning pretty darn good and that’s without the help of last year’s expert fireplace lighter and poet extraordinaire, Katie Riegel.

They’ve rearranged some of the furniture and artwork recently. I don’t remember this beautiful piece of sculpture here where all kinds of plants including geraniums IMG_0251anxiously await Spring, literally sprawled against the windows to soak up enough sun to bloom. I appreciate their impatience.

I’m in the same room I was in last year, the Hay Loft, and this year my neighbor is my friend and mentor, Rita Dragonette. Last year that room was occupied by Jill Wine-Banks, who I met through Rita. We both miss her lots but know she’s on to something special with the book she came here to work on last year.

As was the case before, there’s a fascinating group here again–visual, composers, poets, non-fiction, fiction and multi-genre artists, all who raise the bar so high it’s both exhilarating and intimidating. In other words, I really need to quit circling this wagon and jump on. Enough procrastinating this morning. I’ve got stories to tell.