Crying With Jerry Lewis

Heidi, waiting for Jerry Lewis and the MDA telethon   Toby, waiting for TV time

I cried today. It was in the name of research and remembering but still, there were tears shed. For a good reason. Several good reasons.

I’m working on an essay. A very personal one. Okay, an essay by definition is personal but this one is more-so. It’s about me. But not.

I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a long time. I finally thought I felt brave enough to dive in.

So I did. And for a few hundred words the excitement of telling the story wiped out the basic fact that this was real and true. I wasn’t writing a novel. I was writing about things that really happened. And as happens when I am doing the freewriting, letting the words fly out willy-nilly and land wherever they want (because I know revision will clean things up in the end), I had a memory pop into my head.

It was from my childhood. That surprised me but it connected my childhood to the essay which was still about me. But not. And that connection was important to tying the essay together.

So I sat with that memory and jotted down all flashbacks that ricocheted around my brain and then, well then I decided to do a little time travel courtesy of YouTube and see what else I might remember.

It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for. The star, Jerry Lewis. And the show, his Labor Day telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. It was a tradition, every year, me and Jerry Lewis would spend the long weekend together while my husband was off for a guys-only weekend of hunting for deer.

A few clicks and soon I was listening to Jerry’s trademark laugh before he asked for new number on the tote board. He would cheer and the audience would cheer and then, with tears streaming down his face, Jerry would sing a song intended to move people to tears of their own and hopefully convince them to part with a few more dollars in support of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Today Jerry Lewis held my hand and took me back in time, and helped me remember so many things about that time in my life.

The house we lived in sat across the street from my then best friend. Most times our husbands were off doing things together Patty and I would be together too. Except for Labor Day weekend. That was just me and Jerry on our own.

I clicked on another video and closed my eyes while Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Junior did a duet that I could remember seeing for the first time so many years ago. Memory fragments surrounded me. The nubby brown and orange couch I sat on while I watched the alternately entertaining and heartbreaking telethon. How I would always try to stay up around the clock but never managed to do so. The too-dark fake wood paneling that was all the rage in the 70s. The old-fashioned TV in the big wood console. There were birds and hamsters (I still can’t remember how I finally managed to get rid of all those hamsters) in the spare bedroom and dogs, at one time  five of them, (then four after the turkey incident), wandering around the house. It was home. My first marriage. The early years.

There wasn’t a baby, not yet, but there was talk of one. Soon. But that’s a story for a different time. An essay of its own, perhaps.

Sometimes memories are a comfort. Sometimes they rip off scabs you thought had healed long ago. Sometimes they simply light the path you have to walk one more time before you let things go.

I cried today. I expect I will cry some more before this piece is done.

Because you can’t carry guilt about things you wish you could change forever.

And because the guilt you try to carry isn’t even real. It’s fiction, a story you tell yourself because if you’re making it all up you can make the story end a different way. The way you want it too. A happy ending.

But essays are a chance to tell the truth and let go of guilt and find the light, even if it is just a tiny light, that you can share with someone else.





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Tuesday, September 16, 2014|Categories: Essays||3 Comments

By the Light of a Hummingbird

I am reading Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. I do not know why I haven’t read it before unless it was because I knew that it would hurt me in the way that some beautiful writing does. Beautiful writing coupled with a powerful story that just happens to be true can bring me to my knees. Each reading excursion with this book leaves me feeling less than everything I want to be while, at the same time, fuels my belief that writers are the most powerful people in the universe. I dole out the pages, a few at a time, just before bed, hoping that filling my brain with Patchett’s beautiful words will fill my subconscious with the ability to the same.

It has been seven days since I took a photograph. I’ve picked up the camera, again and again, but each time I do I feel like I am holding something I’ve never seen before. It feels awkward in my hands and I struggle not to drop it. It has been seven days since the two eggs being warmed by the mama hummingbird I named Lily were stolen, then found broken and empty on the ground beneath her nest. It has been seven days of me questioning myself, could I have somehow prevented nature from taken this path to destroy something I hardly knew yet something I knew I loved?

I hear a bird and for a split-second, before that high-pitched chirp turns into something else, I forget. I grab the camera and race to the window only to be disappointed, again, at the chestnut-backed chickadee playing on the water rock. Still, of their own accord, my fingers fumble for which button to push turn the camera on. I flip a few dials, zoom in, but I’m out of step, too late. I can’t focus. I miss the shot and I just don’t care.

My dog Cassie mopes around the house and I’d like to think she is grieving too though I know she’s probably just having one of those days when her many medicines upset her stomach. When she rings the bells to go outside, I follow, half-heartedly and empty-handed. I wander down the path and sit on the glider at the far end of the garden. I have to walk by Lily’s nest to get there and I try, oh how I try, not to look because I can’t bear the emptiness I know I will find, the emptiness that will only echo how I feel.

Cassie does her usual garden patrol, down dogwood alley and back again. Shoves her head into the verbena, chasing bees, pauses to squat and pee in the carex meadow, sneaks a drink of water, even though she knows better, from the bubbling rock.

I don’t catalog what’s blooming for my garden log. I don’t pull the chickweed tangled in the coyote mint. I don’t worry about the wasps building yet another nest up under the eaves. I don’t check the growth of the madrone or pinch tip the ceanothus or even check to see if the lacewings are still laying eggs on the pipevines and monkeyflowers.

This garden I’ve built to be a sanctuary for me as much as for wild life isn’t working its magic on me. Not today and I wonder, in the way that an emotional writer wonders to extremes, if it ever will again. I kick my feet and glide back and forth until I can’t stand to be outside anymore.

In the kitchen I wash my hands out of habit, not because I’ve done anything outside to get them dirty. I look out the window above the sink and wonder, absently, how long it will take for the manzanitas to grow up above the courtyard fence and give us the privacy we want from people peeking into the kitchen as they walk by. There’s a bubbling rock on the other side of the fence. It’s hidden from me inside the house but sometimes I see birds, crows and finches most often, as they come and go for a drink or a bath. Today a hummingbird hovers window high, stares in at me the same way people passing on the sidewalk do before diving down, I assume, to the water rock. A minute later she is there again, dancing in place, staring right at me. I am the one who turns away first.

Of course I do not know, for sure, if it was Lily. My writer’s imagination can conjure up any number of stories around the experience but the truth is, I will never really know for sure. Anything I want to believe, I will have to take on faith, a faith of my own creation.

In Truth and Beauty, Patchett tells a difficult story made more painful because it is the true story of her decades-long friendship with Lucy Grealy. It is a story about loving someone you know you can never save, not from the rest of the world. Not even from themselves. As I knew it would, reading this book makes me fold my soul into a tiny piece of nothingness until it nearly fades away. I feel two things at the same time: incapable of ever writing again and a hunger to tell a story so true that it slices the reader into little heart-sized pieces.

I damn Patchett for making me feel so much at once. I feel like I haven’t really lived the life I have been given. I feel like I haven’t experienced anything big enough, strong enough, raw enough to be able to craft a story that will split you wide open and leave you and your emotions scattered, shattered, all around you.

These are not sentences I write to elicit emails and phone calls from people who want to soothe and assure me of my own unique abilities. I write these down for anyone, including myself, who has ever felt they were not enough of anything to do whatever it was they wanted to accomplish.

Because whatever it is, you are enough. You are enough right now to be a writer, a poet, an artist, a sister, a mother, a friend or whatever it is that you want to be. You don’t need to travel the world. You don’t need a special education. You don’t need fancy equipment or approval from some committee. You don’t need to experience and overcome a catastrophe. Anything and everything you need, you already have, inside of you and because of the life you have already lived in the way that only you can live it.

If this were a novel I would tell you how, after watching that hummingbird dive down and dance back up again, several times, to watch me watching it, I would tell you how I picked up the camera, filled again with confidence, went outside and took shot after shot of beautiful photographs of the bird I felt sure was Lily.

But this is not a novel. This is real life. And the truth is that when I saw that hummingbird outside my window I felt nothing. No desire. No connection. Yet later that night, when I crawled into bed and picked up Truth and Beauty I started to cry. And instead of reading, I finally reached for my notebook and a pen and I started to write.

The things that break us are often not what we would expect. And the things that open our eyes to who we really are often small, sometimes no bigger than a hummingbird.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012|Categories: Essays|Tags: , , , , |12 Comments

Not Enough Paper in the World

This past week I’ve been on shut-down from the day job which meant an unplanned vacation on my part. The last couple of times I’ve taken PTO this year have been to settle into our new home after we moved. Though the house is far from “done” (isn’t every home a constant work-in-progress?) I had plans for this one. Plans that including my computer. Alas it was not plans to dive deeply into my next novel (though some plotting did take place) but instead I decided it was the perfect time to clean up my computer and organize my files. They were in even more of a mess than usual due to a recent computer crash (not hard drive, thank goodness) and poor backup habits on my part. My husband recently installed a humongous Raid server setup for autobacks and triple fail protection so it was my turn to do clean-up, I should have been dismayed at the mess I found (11 copies of the video of my grandson taking his first steps – and he’s 3 years-old now!) but in reality I knew what I would be getting into. I’m a packrat both virtually and in real life.

The fun part though was finding old pieces, snippets that probably won’t go anywhere but certainly needed to be saved. I also found it interesting to look at the various stages in my life based on the files I’ve moved from computer to computer over the last 10 years. I decided to post one of my favorites as a way of getting back to blogging. The was written during a really crazy time in my life. I was working the day job, teaching for ICL and then I got a grant from the Arts Council of Silicon Valley to teach writing to a group of at-risk kids in rough part of town. Ac ouple of days a week I would go to work, take a long lunch and head over to the school and teach for an hour then come back to work and finish my day. I’m still not sure how I managed it all. And in truth, some days I’m not so sure I managed except in my own imagination.

Here’s a piece I wrote in the middle of it all. (note – all the names have been changed.)


As a children’s author I am always looking for opportunities to spend time in the classroom working with children and help them get excited about writing. When I got the chance to spend an entire school year as the Artist in Residence for a local school I was both eager and apprehensive. I had done a short term residency for the school the previous year so I knew what kind of kids I could expect – kids that for one reason or another had been kicked out of traditional school. Some had emotional troubles. Others were there as a last chance before being sent to a detention facility. They were the kids that often fell between the cracks of bureaucracy for any variety of reasons. They had been in and of gangs, jail, and foster homes. They had learning problems, languages problems, and a giant dose of attitude.

I wanted to show them a way out. I wanted to show them that if they could read, they could go anywhere, and if they could write, they would always have a way to communicate their feelings to the world.

In the beginning the kids were hesitant and distrustful. Most of them hated reading and writing because they had experienced so little success with these skills.  I was a middleclass white woman walking into a land where wearing the wrong color sweatshirt could get me shot. They did their best to try to scare me away but every Tuesday and Thursday I kept coming back, always hoping to convince them to pour their thoughts and feelings out on paper. I told them they could write whatever they wanted as long as they told the truth on paper. I felt sure that if they could learn to write honestly about themselves they could perhaps find a way out of the hopelessness they often felt about their lives.

After a few months, my enthusiasm alone wasn’t enough to carry me through my visits. I just couldn’t see that I was making a difference with any of the kids. Every week it seemed that one more was expelled; two new ones showed up, and I had to start the process of building their trust in me all over again. Those that had been there since the beginning of the year didn’t seem to care if I came to class or not. The strain of giving them my emotional all was taking its toll on the rest of my life. I didn’t feel like much of a teacher or a writer and I was sure there had to be a better way to earn a living than trying to force words out of kids who had nothing to say.

One of the most difficult students was Eduardo. He had been in a youth detention facility, escaped, and on the run on his own for almost two years. At sixteen he was back in the classroom and wearing an electronic surveillance ankle bracelet. He didn’t want to be in school but he didn’t want to be in jail. He wrote about gangs and about hurting people. He was the only student who ever made me feel afraid and I never really felt like I connected with him, until the day we began our self-portraits.

“Today we’ll write about ourselves,” I told them.

We warmed up with some writing exercises. I read a sentence and they answered it. They were used to this so after the typical grumbling they got down to work. Then I asked, “If you could go back and change something in your life, what would change and why?”

Pencils stopped moving.

Alice chewed on her hair and drew pictures instead.

Sam pulled his legs up on his chair and hugged his knees. “Dammit,” he said. Which was his response to anything that forced him outside his safety net. “Dammit. I ain’t doing it, dammit.”

Daniel played with the earring in his tongue and then bent over his paper and started writing furiously.

Than sharpened his pencil down to a stub, sat back down, and put his head on his desk.

“I don’t understand,” said Mikey. Mikey never understood because he never really listened.

Diego met my eyes.

“You don’t have to share this,” I told him. “It’s just for you. Write it in Spanish if that makes it easier.”

I looked around the room and watched while some wrote, some doodled, and some pretended like they hadn’t heard a word I had said. Then I saw Eduardo. Elbows on the table, he held his head in his hands. His body shook, but not with rage. I knelt beside him and rested my hand on his back. He looked up and wiped away his tears with the back of his hand.

“I don’t have enough paper,” he said.

I started to move to my bag where I kept a ready supply of blank paper.

“No,” he said. “I mean, there’s not enough paper in the world for me to write about it all. I’d change everything.”

I didn’t ask any questions, just encouraged him to write.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I screwed up. I’m going to be locked up again. I go back to court next week but I already know what will happen.”

He shooed me away and I moved to the back of the room, giving them all the space to write or not write as they saw fit.  For the rest of the class the students were silent, an unusual occurrence, except for the occasional “dammit” from Sam. As they left, the brought their portfolios back to me, their writing all tucked safely inside, out of sight of the teacher and the other students.

Eduardo was the last to go. He took a last look at what he had written then stood up.

I waited.

His eyes met mine, and I felt it, that special connection a teacher gets when they know they have finally gotten through to a difficult student.

“Will you write to me in prison? Like you do here?”

He handed me the portfolio, making sure his was at the top of the stack.

“Writing is hard, but you make me think. And sometimes,” he said, “you even make me feel sorry.”


Monday, September 3, 2007|Categories: Essays|Tags: , |14 Comments

The Writer and the Hawk

I live in the Silicon Valley, the land of dot.coms, jam-packed freeways, and a lot of cement. Not the sort of place one expects to find a Cooper’s Hawk but this is after all, the land of big dreams, so I guess anything is possible.

I’m a writer with a day job. A creature who is, alas, not on the endangered species list. I’m up at 5am every morning and by 5:45 I’m on the road, following the ribbon of asphalt that leads me from home to work. It’s pretty much a straight shot of freeway from my house to my office, weaving through the various downtowns and businesses tucked up close against the guard rails for fear of letting a single valuable square foot of Silicon Valley real estate go to waste.

While I drive, side-by-side to the big semi trucks filled with computer parts and silicon wafers on their way to the fab shops, I’m usually thinking about my current work-in-progress. Of late, that means my new verse novel which deals with a kid who not only doesn’t believe there’s a way of out of his particular situation but doesn’t believe he deserves the right to imagine his life any differently. There is much of me in him. Not the me of now but the me of before, when life was less than good. It’s a good time to daydream. The sun is barely up and fog still hugs the foothills I see in the distance.

Most mornings the first five minutes of the drive are hell. Not that there’s much traffic on the road. There’s not. And not that I hate my job. I don’t. But I’d rather be home looking forward to a few hours of working on my novel than just beginning a long day in my cubicle surrounded by engineers who don’t really understand this odd, non-native creature “the children’s author” who seems to have nested in their midst. After the first five minutes comes acceptance that, for now, this is the way of my life. I kick the music up a notch and start to sing, still trying to twist plot points into their most effective poses.

I drive on, mentally placing my main character in jeopardy and waiting to see if he is smart enough to figure out how to solve his own problem, how to get out of his own way.  Every so often, out of the corner of my eye, an occasional patch of dirt surprises me. A forgotten plot left bare perhaps due to an architectural accident or the simple fact that the building owner just couldn’t afford those extra 200 square feet of prime real estate. Perhaps the city owns the dirt. I don’t know. For certain no one tends to it as, throughout the seasons, native grasses, weeds, and wildflowers take turns moving into temporary quarters. Each time I spy a sprawling patch of buckwheat or the brilliant blue on a ceanothus, I get a thrill, almost as exciting as my first sale. Nature and technology as roommates – just the sight of it fills me with hope.

Nowadays, most mornings, life feels good. My writing is going well and I believe that I am doing what I was meant to do. But some mornings I can’t find the balance. I feel too much pressure to go to work and make a living before I can come home and make a life. I think about giving up the writing and just living my life as a “normal” person, someone who heads to work and back home again with time for dinner and a sitcom and who never worries about contracts and book awards and royalty checks that always need chasing down.

There’s a saying (probably credited to Zig Ziglar): If you don’t want to keep getting the same things you’ve been getting then maybe you need to be doing something else. I think about that a lot as I drive, wondering what choices I could have made that would have taken me down a different path. There are many, probably more than I could name, but the one that always comes out on top, the voice I hear the loudest, is that I am meant to write. Yet while I can acknowledge that, I still need the day job because survival in the Silicon Valley most often requires two decent full-time incomes.

Such is life. As I drive, I begin to swap out the scenes in my head of my main character and his teacher for the meeting I have at 10am with an engineer in France who needs my help with a database. Not quite bestseller material. I’ve reached the zombie zone in my drive. I am no longer a writer cruising the highway in search of stories. I am a Dilbert robot who has exchanged Word for Excel. My work day hasn’t really even started yet and I am already at war with myself, “wants” versus “shoulds” and the “shoulds” win every time.

At about the halfway point between home and work I see it. Every morning, without fail. A Cooper’s Hawk perched high atop the light pole beside the freeway. And every morning, without fail, it surprises me. A touch of wildlife following ancient instincts deep in the heart of the concrete jungle. It watches over a small field (no more than a quarter of an acre and really not even a big enough plot to house your average Silicon Valley mansion). It watches and it waits. The field is walled-in by freeway on one side and busy frontage roads on the other three sides. It would seem to me that there’s a limited amount of buffet options for the hawk. But still, every morning, he is there, waiting for breakfast.

I realize it’s a lot like writing. Even when life seems overwhelming, you have to show up, expecting write, expecting the words to come, every morning. Even when the roads around you threaten to choke the creativity out of your soul, still, you have to show up. You have to do the work. You have to believe the words will come as long as you are there waiting for them.

Because if the words don’t come, you will die. Oh, not physically as the hawk would die from not being fed but emotionally from not following the path you were meant to walk. If you are a writer, you know what I mean. To thine own self be true because really, no one else cares. Write or don’t write – the world will still go on spinning. Except for you. Because if you are a writer, you have to write. And even when the words don’t come easily, you have to show up and expect that they will come when you need them the most.

The Cooper’s Hawk is mostly monogamous and usually mates for life.

A writer, once exposed as such, can never really separate from the words that demand to be heard.

For a few days last week my car was in the shop and my husband had to drive me to work. Each morning we left about fifteen minutes later than I usually would. By the time we reached the halfway point between home and work I could only point to where the hawk usually sat and try to explain to him how good it made me feel to see the hawk in the same place every morning. We were kindred spirits, I could sense it. We were both hunting for what we needed in order to survive. I wondered if, once I went back to my regular routine of driving myself in a bit earlier each day, I wondered if the hawk would still be there.

My husband assured me that yes, as long as the hawk continued to score a single meal from that tiny scrap of countryside beside the freeway that it would continue, day after day, to expect more, and possibly better meals than the day before.

It’s just like the writer who needs only a few lines on a personal rejection, encouragement at a conference, or that elusive first sale, to help them believe that they are doing what they are meant to do. That they should write, no matter what or who tries to constrain their creativity. That they should write, because it is the writing that will allow them to soar.

It’s easy to imagine the Silicon Valley of just thirty years ago – rolling hills of chaparral covered with poppies and sage and coyote bush, orchards of apricots and plums, and families of hawks feeding across the land that would one day be bottlenecks of freeways and computer chips.

Thirty years ago I was about to graduate high school. I loved to write but I didn’t believe my words would take me anywhere. Like my main character, I didn’t know how to get out of my own way. So I put the words aside, afraid to let anyone know how very much they sustained me. The longer I hid the words, the more constraints the world put on my dream of being a writer.

I wish back then I had been a bit more like the hawk, that I had believed anything was possible, even against the outrageous odds life throws at you. I used to give up too fast and too often, sure that the fault was always mine. But I understand things better now. I know there are times to watch and times to feed. I know that there will always be things that try to get in my way and keep me from doing what I was meant to do. I know that I must be willing to let go of the past so that I can find my place in the future.

I am a writer.

Watch me soar.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006|Categories: Essays|Tags: |23 Comments