Saturday, March 26, 2016

Yards Full of Stories


 "Mom, you're so WEIRD!  What is it with you and cemeteries?  Your whole family is this way!"

She's right.  I am weird.  I do have a thing with cemeteries.  And my whole family is this way.

It was a freezing Sunday morning in late November.  The kids and I were having a family getaway at Montgomery Bell State Park and on our way to the trail head we passed a beautiful old cemetery.  I pulled the car over.  

That's when my kids began wailing and gnashing their teeth.  "Mom, can't we just go to the trail head?  Why do we have to stop here?"

I could hardly hear them.  I was halfway to the tombstones.

I'm not sure why the Parsons love graveyards so much.  I think it's because we have a deep love for stories, and we know that a graveyard is not just a yard full of graves.  It's also a yard full of stories.  Only with these stories, you don't get the full tale.  All you know is when it began, and when it ended, and maybe you get a few words that came in between. 

Despite their protests, my kids soon left the car and joined me among the headstones.  Soon they were as engrossed as I was.  Grant was calculating the length of each person's life.  Audrey noticed that as you went further back into the cemetery the graves got older and harder to read.  In a far corner of the cemetery she tried to decipher characters on a blackened, moss-covered headstone.

"This one is so hard to read... I can just barely make out the words..." she said.

"Wow, this one over here must be even older.  You can hardly tell there are words on it at all," I said.

By this point Grant had joined us as we crouched close to the oldest, blackest stone in the cemetery.  "That's not a tombstone," he said.  "It's just a black rock, isn't it?"

"Nope, I'm pretty sure that's a tombstone," I said.  "See, you can kind of feel the indentations."

"You're right," Audrey said.  "I wonder what it says.  What do you think it says?" she asked.

"I wonder," I said.  "You know if we had brought the right supplies, like chalk and paper, we could do a chalk rubbing.  You hold the paper over the stone and rub the chalk over it and it lets you see what's carved in the stone."

"Do you think a pen and paper would work?" Audrey asked.

"I doubt it," I said.  "We don't have chalk or crayons in the car, do we?"

"We might," Grant answered.

We all know that "might" is an understatement.  It's likely.  Because my car always has a layer of ... something ... in the floorboards.  Apple cores, empty water bottles, shin guards, make up brushes, books, permission slips, training manuals, flip flops, half-eaten granola bars, spoons, allergy tablets...

My epitaph will say, "She had something rolling around in her floorboard." 

"I'll go see what I can find," I said.  "Meanwhile you guys see if you can make anything out here."

I searched the car, hoping to find chalk or crayons and white paper.  The closest thing I could find was a composition notebook and two pencils.  I was pretty sure this wouldn't work but I wanted to give it a try.

Back at the gravestone, I tore out a piece of paper from the composition book and held it across the front of the stone while Audrey ran the pencil over it, back and forth.  At first it just looked like gray and white bumps and I was afraid we were going to have to admit failure.

But Audrey continued to swipe the pencil over and over, across the paper.  Hypnotized, Grant and I hardly breathed as we watched Audrey's hand swing back and forth.  We were like teenagers at a sleepover huddled around a ouija board, testing to see if a message would emerge from the mystical game, listening for the slightest indication that something was there, skeptical and yet at the same time naively hopeful.

And after about a minute, one very clear line appeared on the paper.

"Wait a second, what is that?  Is that a line?  It is!  Is that part of a letter?  Keep doing that!  There's another line!  Is it an H?  Is that an H?  Or an N?  It's an M!  It's an M!  Grant, do you see that?  It's an M!"

Never have three people been so excited to see an M.

A raspy voice from the dead that had not spoken in centuries was choking out sound once again.

M.  M.  I am M. 

I continued to hold the paper fast and Grant and Audrey took turns swiping the pencil across it, exploring to the left and to the right of our M to find the rest of the name.

LIAM M.J.

His name was Liam M.J.

He was born in 1825.  He died in 1913.

We could feel a series of smaller indentations further down on the stone.  We thought this must be Liam M.J.'s epitaph.  We moved our paper over it and began to swipe the pencil.  These letters were harder to read since they were smaller.  Then, like an ancient telegraph coming over a rusty wire, the letters rose slowly from the rock.

"God.  God ... made?  God ... gives?  Oh!  God gave.  God gave.  It says God gave!"

"He ... He ... He took."

"God gave.  He took.  Aw!"

"He ... will ... He will what?  ...  He will ... what? ...  He will restore!"

"It says, "God gave.  He took.  He will restore.'"

"Wow!  Is there one more line?  There is!  What does it say?"

"He ... He what? ... He dwells?  ...  He ... doth?  ...  He doeth!  That's old English.  He doeth ... all ... He doeth all ... He doeth all things ... He doeth all things ...  He doeth all things well!"



The three of us stepped back for a moment.  We stood in the golden sunlight, in the middle of an ancient cemetery and recited Liam M.J.'s epitaph together.

"God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  He doeth all things well."

And then there was just wind.  And leaves blowing across the graveyard.  We were paralyzed in a trance of reverent amazement.





As we drove to the trail head each child was looking out the window, perhaps thinking about Liam M.J. and wondering what his life had been like.

I was feeling a profound happiness.

I was happy to know that the Parsons' love of cemeteries was a dominant trait, and that mine had been solidly transferred to the next generation.

And I was happy about our encounter with Liam M.J.  He had had a message for us that morning, and we had listened closely and heard him.

Actually I guess Liam M.J. had two messages for us that day.

The first one was obvious.   

God gave.  He took.  He will restore.  

He doeth all things well.

I believe that.  He does do all things well.  He does.  He does.  And I am grateful.

The second message was more subtle, and it was for my children. 

Yes, your mother is weird.  

She has a thing for cemeteries.

Her whole family is that way.

And aren't you glad?














Friday, March 11, 2016

Crazy Sh*t that Happened at The White House

1. I was invited.

Let’s just start off with this.  The fact that I was invited to the White House for the September 25 State Dinner for Chinese President Xi and his wife Madame Peng is just incredible.  




Check out the guest list here and you will see of course President Obama and Michelle Obama, President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan.  You will also see:
Mark Zuckerberg
Tim Cook
Misty Copeland
Sonia Sotomayor
Larry Ellison
Joe Biden
Lee Daniels
Marc Benioff
Madeleine Albright
John Kerry


And buried deep in that list you see this:


 Ms. Christi Parsons, Correspondent, Los Angeles Times


    Ms. Melanie Gao


My sister is not only a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, she was also President of the White House Correspondents’ Association last year.  She’s sort of a big deal in Washington.  When she got invited to the State Dinner she forwarded me the invite.  “Are you interested?  See below!” she said. 


Yeah.  I was interested. 


I knew that I was one of the least significant invitees that evening and I could not have cared less.  I was excited just to be in the same room with all those powerful and beautiful people.  I fully expected to be seated in the back of the dining room, right next to the kitchen, and I was fine with that.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I had been seated in some sort of overflow room and I would have even been fine with that too. 


That’s why #5 on this list was especially surprising. 


2. We took an uber to the White House.


I wasn’t sure how we would get to the White House that evening but for some reason I imagined the President sends a limo for you.  Or perhaps a black Suburban with bullet-proof glass.  


It turns out he does not.  

You have to figure out transportation on your own and my sister and I called an uber to take us there. 

It was a Prius. 


3. I got sniffed down by a German Shepherd even though I was wearing an evening gown.


It takes four stops to get into the White House for a State Dinner.


At the first stop they checked our IDs.


At the second stop they checked our invitations and made sure our names were on the guest list.  I guess they wanted to avoid a replay of this.


At the third stop we got sniffed down by a German Shepherd but the way they did it was fascinating.  They asked me to stand on a metal platform.  On my right was a giant fan.  On my left was a metal grate and behind the grate was a secret service officer with a dog.  The fan was blowing my scent over to the dog, who was able to sniff me down without ever actually touching me or my designer dress.  Amazing. 


Finally, they ran our purses through an X-ray and we walked through a metal detector. 


At last, we were cleared to enter the White House itself.


As Christi and I approached the White House doors, an older man was approaching in a wheelchair.  We slowed down to allow him space to get in the door in front of us.  He stood up from the chair and walked into the White House as if he had been there a thousand times before. 


Which, apparently, he had.


“Oh my god.  That’s Henry Kissinger,” Christi whispered to me. 


We walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger. 


The Parsons sisters. 


    From Alabama. 


        From the farm house on Hargrove Road. 


                    Those girls, the Parsons sisters. 


    Walked into the White House behind Henry Kissinger. 


Crazy sh*t.  I am telling you. 


4.  Going through a receiving line with the Obamas is like going through a car wash.
 

2015 was an amazing and blessed year for me - I got to meet the Obamas not just once but twice.  So I feel like I’ve got a body of experience to work from here.  Christi advised me not to try to start a conversation with them, just let them do all the talking.  She told me not to initiate a hug or a kiss or anything like that, I should let them initiate all the greetings. 

This was my first attempt at a receiving line with the Obamas, in April 2015 at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:




And this was the State Dinner in September 2015:




I think there’s a marked improvement, don’t you? 


It’s because I figured out how to approach the receiving line.  Just put it in neutral and take your foot off the brake.  Just like in the car wash.  The Obamas will start a sweet and charming conversation with you, and when it’s time for you to move along, an extremely polite uniformed military officer behind you will press on your elbow until you move along.  It’s actually the easiest thing in the world.


The Obamas were always charming and stately and funny and real, all at the same time.  President Obama had met all the sisters back at the WHCA dinner in April, so when just Christi and I showed up at the State Dinner in September, he asked about the other sisters.  That floored me.  He remembered that we have two other sisters.


5. They seated me next to the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.


When we entered the dining room Christi and I weaved our way among the tables to find our place cards, which had been hand written by White House Chief Calligrapher Pat Blair.  My name has never looked as beautiful to me as it did that night, written so delicately on a beautiful ivory card, embossed with a gold White House seal, propped on a solid gold place card holder.   










I introduced myself to the gentleman on my left and asked him to help me pronounce his name.  “Li Zhan Shu”, he said slowly.  “栗战书。  我很高兴认识您。我叫高美玲,” I said.  “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Li.  I’m Gao Meiling.”  I wasn’t planning to use my Chinese name when I introduced myself but it just slipped out.  Even though I hadn’t used that name in years.  He remarked that I spoke Chinese and I told him I had lived in Beijing for six years.  Then we both went on to meet our other table mates.  There were eight of us at the round table. 


A few minutes later President Obama and President Xi made some openings remarks and then the first course was served.  As we were eating, Christi leaned over to me and said softly, “That Chinese man next to you is the Number Two in the Chinese delegation.”   


“What does that mean?” I asked. 


“They rank everyone in the delegation and the guy next to you is the second highest ranking person, just after President Xi himself.  He’s the head of the Communist Party in China.”


I whispered to her softly, “What the hell???  Why did they put me next to him?  I should be next to the kitchen!  Why did they put me next to the second most important person in the freaking delegation???”


“I don’t know but these things are always intentional.  Just stay calm and act normal.  But don’t start a conversation with him.  Wait and see if he starts a conversation with you.  The man on his left is the Director for China Affairs on the National Security Council.  The two of them are supposed to be having a serious conversation.  If Mr. Li gets tired of that conversation, he might turn to you to talk and if he does, you can talk with him.  But don’t keep him from talking with the National Security Council guy.” 


I stirred my mushroom soup and wondered who in the world thought it was a good idea to seat me next to the Number Two in the delegation.  And I wondered why no one had given me a heads up.  In my world, we would give people a heads up about that sort of thing. 


But we were most definitely not in my world here.  








For most of the dinner Mr. Li did talk with the National Security Council advisor on his left.  But around dessert, their conversation died down and Mr. Li sat quietly for a moment and ate his dessert - lemon curd with buttermilk custard sauce. 


Don’t start a conversation with him.  Don’t start a conversation with him.”  Christi’s words echoed in my head. 


“您吃的好吗?“ I asked him.  “Are you enjoying your dinner?”


Dammit.  Why do I always do that?  The only guidance I had for the whole entire evening was to not start a conversation with the guy to my left.  And I started a conversation with him.


But he was gracious and sweet about it.  He said he was enjoying his dinner and then we chatted about Beijing.  It turns out his house is not too far from where we lived in Beijing, and we knew a lot of the same places.  I asked if it was okay to ask about his family and he said it was, so he told me about his children and I told him about mine.  And then dinner was over and it was time to move into another hall for a musical performance.


Which was more crazy sh*t.


6. The musical performance was not what you would expect.


Okay, let’s talk about what you would expect.  It’s a post-dinner musical performance.  It’s a delegation from China. 


A private cello concert from Yo-Yo Ma, right? 


Or maybe a performance from Misty Copeland, the first African-American dancer to be promoted to principal at the American Ballet Theatre. 


Nope.  It was Ne-Yo.  Yes, that Ne-Yo.  Hip-hop star Ne-Yo.  Agent Deveroux in the film “Sharknado 3” Ne-Yo.


He sang three songs - the last one was the one we all know.


I knew my rent was gonna be late about a week ago
I worked my a$$ off but I still can’t pay it though.
But I’ve got just enough to get up in this club,
and have me a good time,
before my time is up.

I kid you not.  This is how we entertained the Chinese delegation.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Ne-Yo as much as the next person.  But to entertain a delegation from China…?  It made about as much sense as seating me next to Li Zhan Shu. 


I do want to insert here that I have a problem with the lyrics of that song, and I’ve lectured my kids a few times about what to do if you can’t pay your rent.


You make a partial payment with whatever money you do have, make a commitment to pay the rest by a certain date, and then stay in and watch Netflix that night.


Which granted, is not a song anyone would buy. 


7. Only the stars had their phones out.


Apparently it is not diplomatically correct to tweet pictures of yourself at a State Dinner.  None of the political or business figures ever had their phones out.  Not even Apple CEO Tim Cook.


But the celebrities were constantly taking pictures and posting them. 


I sat next to Lee Daniels’ mom at the performance and she was lovely.  She introduced her son as “Lee” and at first I thought he was vision-impaired because he was wearing sunglasses indoors.  At night. 



Then I realized he was just famous. 


Incidentally, he’s the director of a movie I loved very much -  “The Butler.”  It takes place in the White House in the 1960s.  And I sat next to Lee, the director of that movie.  In the White House. 


Crazy sh*t.  I am telling you. 


8. They took away the place card holders before dessert.


Do you remember I mentioned the solid gold place holders for our name cards?  Just before dessert was served the waitress came around and took them all up. 


Christi told me that if they don’t do that, some people will steal them. 


America, please.


9. As the clock struck 11:00, it was over.


The musical performance wrapped up promptly at 11:00 and our enchanted evening at the White House was over.  Our exit from the presidential residence was unceremonious.  One minute we were in the regal glow of that historic mansion and 30 seconds later we were standing on a street corner in DC, waiting for the pedestrian light to turn white so we could cross with all the other normal and regular citizens.


How can everything be so magical one minute, and the next minute you’re standing on a cement curb, waiting for a street light to change? 


It was like we dreamed the whole thing. 


But I know I wasn’t dreaming because the next morning I woke up and found this picture on my iPhone:
 




Yeah, that's Ne-Yo.  

He's winking at me.  

We had a good time before our time was up, didn't we Ne-Yo?



Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Here, Now, and Everything In Between (Our 2015 Family Portrait)


 This was the first picture Alec took of us.



This picture was take about five minutes later.



Just a few minutes transpired between those two pictures.  But a lot happened.

In the first picture we're just starting our family portrait session, this year under the light of the full moon, as suggested by my genius friend Alec Miller.  Alec asked Grant to put his arm around me and hold on to Audrey's arm behind me.

You might think that simple act of holding on to his sister's arm behind me would not cause a fight.  

But shortly after Grant began "holding" Audrey's arm behind me, Audrey began crying, "Mom he's tugging on my arm!  It really hurts!  Tell him to stop it!"

This went on and on on and on until finally I asked Alec for a time out.

He pretended to check the settings on his equipment while I tried to moderate the latest Gao family melee.  It was a hard one to referee because I had so little information.

I don't know what had been happening behind my back, whether Grant was holding Audrey's arm or tugging on it.

I don't know how much tugging it takes before you experience actual physical pain.

I don't know if that's a good reason to scream.

I don't know what good mothers do in situations like this.


All I can do is tell you what I did.

"Guys, come on.  Alec is here and the moon is out and this is our chance to take some nice family pictures.  But they're not going to look good if you keep up all this fussing.  Please just, stop it."

"But he was tugging on my arm!"

"I was not tugging on her arm!  She's lying!"

"Mom, he always does this to you!  He thinks if he can yell louder than me then you'll believe him!"

At this point I seriously considered calling the photo shoot off.  I hate it when they bicker like this, and I hate how completely unequipped I am to deal with it.

"I don't even care what happened.  Just please, stop it.  Just stop it, both of you.  Just stop it.  Please.  Let's take some pictures.  Please.  Just stop it."

An angry silence seemed to drift down out of the sky itself.  It covered us like the moonlight and although it didn't give us peace, it did give us quiet.  I told Alec we were ready to resume.  That's when he took the second picture.  In it, you can tell there is a lot on our minds.

I'm looking off to the side, not smiling.  I'm thinking about the squabble that had just happened.  I was thinking about how often my children argue, and how often I get dragged down into it.  And how much I hate all of that.

I was also frustrated with myself for not being able to settle their arguments better.  That argument ended badly.  We didn't agree on anything, we just decided to keep moving forward.  We had not signed a peace treaty, instead we had merely negotiated a temporary ceasefire.  We had drawn the 38th parallel down the middle of us, and went back to our photo session.

In that second picture you'll see that even my soul sister the moon is allowing herself a celestial scowl.

I asked Audrey what she was thinking in that picture.  She told me, and then quickly added, "Don't put that in your blog."

She knows me well, my firstborn.  She knows me well. 

Grant says he can't remember what he was thinking, but he thinks it had something to do with extraterrestrial life.  As Alec was setting up his equipment, he and Grant had been talking about SETI and the possibility that we are not alone in this universe.  It was perhaps the first time Grant had considered that there is other life out there among the stars, and he was intensely curious.

"Oh no, now I don't know what to do with my life," he lamented as we took that second picture.  He was talking to me although, as you can tell from the picture, his back was to me.  "I've always thought I wanted to be an archaeologist but now I think I want to look for life in outer space." 

Still soaked in the milky moonlight silence, I wasn't able to articulate a response at the moment.  But this is what went through my head. 

Do both, my son.  Do both.  Dig into the earth to discover our past, and reach into the universe to find our future.  I know that you have the power to achieve both of those things in one lifetime.  I held you in my body while God forged you out of steel and holy thunder, and I know that you have the power to do both.

It has been said that all of us have a solar personality and a lunar one.  Our solar personality is the one we present to the world.   It is the one we want people to see.  The way we want to be known.

The epitaph,

the stage name,

the filter we apply before posting. 


Our lunar personality is who we truly are.  It is what we do when we think no one is looking.

The Freudian slip,

the facial tick,

the fearful walk through the dark parking lot when only a lonely security camera was there to observe us.


And if that's true, I guess these moon portraits are who my kids and I really are.

We are war and we are peace, and we are a frosty stalemate.

We are a smile in the sunlight, and we are a scowl in the twilight.

A loving shoulder to lean on, and the iron-vise grip on your arm that makes you scream.

We are the past, buried deep within the earth underneath centuries of ash and dust.  And we are the future, floating somewhere far beyond our reach, in a place we haven't even thought to look yet.

I guess in the end, we are here.  

And we are now.  


And we are everything in between.   




I love us this way. 





Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lodi, Jerusalem and the Land of Cotton


I don't know what my dad's last words were.  And that bothers me.

My dad was alone when he fell down the stairs on Thursday, December 17.  It took four to six hours before a neighbor came by and knocked on the door.  The neighbor called my mom, who was with me in Nashville, and asked if she had any idea why my dad wouldn't be answering the door.  She asked him to get the spare key and let himself in to check on Dad.  That's when he found my dad on the landing, underneath a University of Alabama football flag. 

Because I don't know what my dad's last words were, I keep trying to make them up in my head. 

We think my dad's last conversation was with the neighbor, Gary.  Gary had promised to bake a pizza that afternoon and bring a piece to Dad.  Dad had asked him to make it "juicy and spicy," which means a lot of sauce.  It was hard for my dad to eat pizza unless it had a lot of sauce and was soft.  He did have dentures but he didn't like wearing them, so instead he relegated himself to foods that were easy to chew.  Like juicy and spicy pizza. 

Not long ago we were having dinner together and I noticed my dad didn't have his dentures in.  "Dad, why aren't you wearing your dentures?" I asked him.  "Oh, I only need them when I'm eating!" he answered cheerfully. 

The beauty in that conversation is all that is unsaid.  But my dad I both knew exactly what was left out of that conversation.  Here's what was left out.

"But Dad, you are eating."

"I know Druse, but the truth is, I don't like wearing my dentures." 

And that thing about him not liking to wear his dentures?  That is probably the essence of my dad.  My dad did what he wanted.  All throughout his life, and especially in his later years, he did what he wanted.  He didn't care what society or good manners would dictate.  In fact, he frequently cautioned us girls not to allow ourselves to become "civilized into a stupor." 


"Civilized into a stupor" meant doing what society told you to do even if it made no sense or brought no real benefit.  Things like coming to a full stop at stop signs, and flossing, and taking your Christmas lights down in January.
                                 
My dad had a strong urge to resist societal pressure.  In fact, the more that was applied, the more he would resist.  I don't fully understand this aspect of my dad, even though it seems I inherited it.



My mom is the opposite of my dad in this regard.  My mom does what she should most of the time.



Do you know what happens when two people like that raise children together?  The children turn out pretty balanced, I think.  My sisters and I do what we should most of the time, and we do what we want some of the time.  And for the most part, we do okay. 



When Gary said he would be back in the afternoon with a juicy and spicy pizza, he says my dad said, "Hoo wee!"  I can hear my dad saying that.  It was an expression of anticipation and joy.  My dad's later years were filled with joy and little things. 



He got a lot of joy out of doing the word jumble in the newspaper every morning.  When we got to the house the morning after my dad died, his body had already been taken away to the funeral home.  If you didn't look at the stairs, it looked like my dad had stepped out for a minute.  The newspaper was on the dining room table, opened up to the word jumble page.  He had scribbled words and letters in the margins of the paper as he tried to solve the jumbles that final morning.  He hadn't finished solving what was to be his final jumble.  His reading glasses were just at the edge of the paper.  Like he had just stepped away.

I would love it if my dad's last words were, "Hoo wee!"  What a way to go out. 


It's also possible though that my dad's last words were words he sang out loud, to no one in particular.  That was a habit of his.  My dad would often sing a line from a song that happened to be running through his head.  It was just one line, a few words perhaps, but it was a very short insight into what was going through his mind in that moment.  One of his favorites was "Oh Lord, I'm stuck in Lodi again!"  Another was, "Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton!"  Then he would pause and say to himself, "Wait a minute!  We are in the land of cotton!" 




So maybe his last words were a line from a song that was running through his head at the moment.  One that he sang a lot in his later years was, "I want to be ready, I want to be ready Lord, I want to be ready Lord, walking in Jerusalem just like John."  I'd love it if those were his last words.  



Incidentally we sang that song at his funeral and I was annoyed that the words in the hymnal were different than the way Dad sang them.  The hymnal says, "I want to be ready to walk in Jerusalem just like John."  My dad had been singing the song wrong all these years. 


Well wait, he wasn't wrong. 


He was singing it the way he wanted to sing it. 



He was not civilized into a stupor. 



Pat Tillman had some of the best last words ever.  Pat was an NFL star who left his professional career and enlisted in the army after 9/11.  




He died in the mountains of Afghanistan at the age of 27 - which was exactly 1/3 of my dad's lifespan.  Exactly. 


It's been reported that Pat was shot by U.S. troops.  On accident, of course.  They call that "friendly" fire but I cannot call it that, just like I cannot say that a homeowner came home and "surprised" a burglar. 

Anyway, Pat's last words were, "I'm Pat f*#ckingTillman!"  Apparently he knew he was being shot at by his own team.


I love everything about those last words.  There's self-worth.  There's courage.  There's dignity.  There's righteous anger. 



I would love it if those had been my dad's last words.  "I'm Joe f*#cking Parsons!"  That would make me so proud if my dad had gone out that way.



But honestly, I know he didn't.  That just is not my dad.  That kind of righteous anger would have been, frankly, too much work for him.



The reality is, I need to accept that I will never know what my dad's last words were. 

I will never know exactly what time he fell down the stairs.



I will never know what caused him to stumble. 



I need to let all of those questions go.

I need to open my hand and take those questions one by one and toss them down the staircase, and let them rest with my dad, somewhere out there. 

Somewhere where there are no traffic stops and no cavities.  Where it is Christmas every day.  A place where my dad and John go for daily walks on the streets of Jerusalem and engage in a lively debate about what the words to the song really are.


Maybe he'll meet Pat Tillman there.  Pat will be swaggering his handsome self down the street and when he sees my dad and John, he'll straighten up his already tall frame and he will howl at my dad, "I'm Pat F*#cking Tillman!" 


And my dad will give him a joyful high five and shout back, "Hoo wee!"  


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Cinderella at my Dad's Graveside



2015 was going so well.  So many wonderful, monumental things happened.

And then the phone rang at 5:30pm on December 17. 



 And my dad was gone.  Just like that.  

I always thought there would be decisions to be made.  About skilled nursing or nursing homes.  
Or medication or treatments.  
Or plugs 
or switches.

But there was no decision to be made.  

I want to say thank you to all of you who sent cards, brought food, sent flowers, called, 
prayed for us, came to the funeral, kept us in your thoughts, messaged us, 
shared memories of my dad.  

I keep a pile of your cards next to my bed.  And before I go to sleep I hold them in my hands and think about how blessed I am.  

Blessed to count you all as my friends.

Blessed to have my sisters and my mother around me as we grieve my dad.

Blessed to have been Joe Parsons' daughter.  

Blessed that I didn't have to make choices on my dad's behalf.  
Because those choices?  
There's never a great one.  
You're just trying to find the least bad among a series of 
truly
awful
options.

Normally at a funeral the family accompanies the casket to the grave and the pastor says a few words and friends come by to give their condolences.  And then the funeral director gives a gentle nod and everyone gets in their cars and leaves, and the cemetery workers then lower the casket into the ground and cover it with dirt.  
The family isn't expected to be there for that part.  
It's painful.

But what I love about my sisters and my mom is that we all wanted to stay and watch as my dad's casket was lowered into his grave and buried.  

So after all the guests had left, we stayed by Dad's grave and waited for the cemetery workers to come and do their part.  

While we waited, my niece Bliss was playing with a sheet of Disney princess stickers.  
I asked Bliss if she would want to put some stickers on Popo's casket and she said yes.  
So we peeled stickers off the sheet and stuck them on the side of the casket.  
Bliss put a sticker of Belle and Cinderella on the casket.  
And several balloon stickers.  
I chose an Ariel sticker, and I spelled out his name "Popo" in silver and white sparkly letters.  
I put those at the end of his coffin where his head was.  

And I guess when I think about it, that was a choice.  
I chose Ariel for my dad.  
And I chose silver and white sparkly letters that spelled out his name.   

I chose what my dad would have chosen.  
Given the choice to have fun or not, my dad would always have fun.
My dad would have loved the idea of us putting stickers on his casket.
He would love that we found an opportunity, amidst all the sadness, to be playful.

But then, 
just when I'm feeling good about stickers on my dad's casket, 
my grief takes over again.  
It reminds me that when you're choosing stickers to put on your dad's casket, it doesn't matter 
if you pick Ariel or Belle or a million balloons.
  
It's still your dad's casket. 




Monday, November 16, 2015

How to get a job in four miracles or less

My name is Melanie.  I'm a corporate trainer and I travel for work.  Mostly to Silicon Valley. 

When I walk in a training room, that room is mine.  I'm responsible for what happens there and my job is to make sure everyone feels safe and heard and respected.  I do a lot of things to make sure all of that happens.  Some of it is conscious and I'm sure there is also subconscious stuff going on too.

But if I talk about it too much here on my blog, I'm afraid the magic that happens in my training room will disappear.  Like those tiny luminescent bubbles that foam up in the sink when you’re doing dishes, and then you touch them with your tip of your rubber glove and they disappear. 

Not only are they gone, it’s like they were never there in the first place.

So I won't tell you much about my job.  Except that I love it very much.  I love everything about my job.

Except the travel.

Well, actually I even love the travel.  What I hate is being away from my kids in Nashville.

And sadly, all of my professional connections are in Silicon Valley and Beijing, where I used to live.

When I tried to start a career as a free-lance trainer in Nashville, the only work I could get was in those cities where I had a professional reputation.  So I flew to San Francisco for work.  I flew to Asia for work.  I was grateful to have work and I accepted the fact that I had to travel for it.

My kids accepted it too.  I explained to them that my job was to go into those conference rooms and do the best job I possibly could.  Their job was to behave for the babysitter and do their homework and chores while I was away.  And I promised that I would always get back to them as quickly as I could, even if that meant getting on a red-eye flight just to get back to them a few hours sooner.

And they were troopers.  They did behave for the babysitter and their did their homework and their chores.

And I took the redeye flights.  And developed a close relationship with my chiropractor.

But a funny thing happened as my career gained traction.  I started to get more and more work, and more and more income.  And I had to travel more and more and more often.

I guess I really should have seen this coming.  Success was going to mean more work and more travel.  I didn't really have a plan or strategy for what I would do when all of that became too overwhelming.

About two years into this, the kids and I hit a breaking point.  There was one cold winter night when I was in San Francisco and they were in Nashville and they had a really important crucial conversation with me. 

It ended with me making a promise.  "I promise I will find a job that won't require me to travel."

As soon as I said those words, a dark wave of fear washed over me.  I had just promised something but I had no clue how I was going to deliver on it.  The next day I went into overdrive and put about 100 trains into motion, hoping that one of them was going to lead me to a job that didn’t require travel.  

As it turns out, all I was going to need was a series of four very specific miracles.

Miracle #1: Make a professional connection in Nashville.

This miracle had actually already taken place.

When we moved to Nashville in the summer of 2011 I didn't know anyone other than my sister.  She introduced me to her friends who were all lovely, and they quickly came to know me as Melanie, Amanda's sister.  Or Melanie, Grant and Audrey's mother.  But no one could vouch for me as Melanie, competent professional. 

In an effort to find a semi-professional connection, I decided to visit a few Toastmasters groups in Nashville.  One was at a company I’ll call Acme, which is a major healthcare provider and one of Nashville's largest and best employers.  At that Toastmaster's meeting I met a guy named Dave and we clicked right away.  He was friendly and kind and went out of his way to make me feel welcome at the meeting. 

Afterwards I sent him an invitation on LinkedIn and he accepted.

One miracle down, three to go.

Miracle #2: Develop training connections in Nashville.

This one was hard.  Sometimes I feel like the training world is sort of like those discos back in the '70s where people would line up along a red velvet rope outside, waiting to get in.  But the bouncer would only let people in as others were leaving, and if it was a hot club (sparkly disco balls, beautiful people in platform shoes) people weren't leaving very often.  And even when they did the bouncer picked who got to go in and it wasn't always obvious how he was choosing.

Granted, I say all of this without ever having stood in a line outside a disco, in the '70s or in any other decade. 

So anyway, connecting with trainers in Nashville felt daunting.  I didn't want to be the desperate starlet trying to attract the bouncer's attention by flipping my platinum wig in his face.  I didn't want to be the fading star who cursed and flicked her cigarette in the bouncer's face when he didn't let her in. 

I just wanted someone to give me a chance. 

Again I turned to LinkedIn and I entered the search terms "corporate trainers" and "Nashville". 

I got zero returns within my network. 

But I did have one second-degree connection.  Her name was Susan and we had a mutual connection - Dave. 

So I sent Dave a message, explaining that I was trying to develop my training network in Nashville and asking him if he would introduce me to Susan.

The next day he did exactly that. 

Two miracles down, two to go.

Miracle #3: Meet a corporate trainer in Nashville and make a good impression.

I quickly sent a message to Susan, and asked if she would be willing to have a networking meeting with me over coffee or lunch, my treat. 

And miraculously, she accepted.  We got together the next week and had a wonderful conversation, first about training in Nashville and in Silicon Valley, but then about her daughter and their upcoming trip to Europe, and how Susan intended to survive the Transatlantic flight. 

As we were wrapping up she said, "You really should meet Janice.  She hires trainers and certifies them on Crucial Conversations."  That's the class I was already certified on.  The one I was delivering 3-4 times a month on the West Coast. 

Susan was going to see Janice the next day and she promised to mention me and give her my resume.

Three miracles down, one to go.

Miracle #4: Get someone in Nashville to hire me as a corporate trainer. 

I sent Janice a LinkedIn invitation and explained that I had heard about her from Susan, and asked if we could do a networking meeting over coffee or lunch, my treat. 

I was hoping to come across as eager, and not like a stalker. 

She accepted my invite and asked if we could get together for coffee.  We had a great talk the following week at Panera and from that point things moved very quickly.

Janice sent me the req number for a training job she had just posted. 

I applied.

A recruiter emailed me to schedule an interview. 

When I walked into the conference room for the interview I immediately felt comfortable when I realized that my four interviewers and I were all wearing the same colors.  Maybe I’m being generous when I call black and white colors.  But somehow it gave me a sense of belonging in the room and in this team. 

Their questions were hard-hitting and serious, and yet we laughed so much throughout the process.  They were tough on me but also good-humored.  I have never enjoyed an interview as much as I enjoyed that one. 

I enjoyed an interview.  Did I really just write that?  It’s true.  I did enjoy it. 

When we were done I thanked them for their time and left Acme, hungry and happy.  I had been so busy preparing for the interview I hadn't had time for lunch and I was starving.  And I was deeply satisfied with the way the interview had gone.  Regardless of whether I got the job or not, I was happy to know Janice and her team.

As I was driving my phone rang.  It was the recruiter, Peter.  I told him right away how much I had enjoyed the interview and he said, "Well, it seems that was mutual.  Melanie.  We want you.  I've got an offer for you right now." 

The offer was beyond my expectations.  My hiring manager was sharp and awesome.  My colleagues were smart and funny.  The company was stable and ethical.  Its mission aligned with my values.  Everything felt right so I signed on the dotted line. 

Four miracles. 

Each one of them necessary for me to deliver on the promise I made to my kids back in January. 

Each one of them divinely provided. 

Each one of them deeply appreciated. 

My name is Melanie.  I'm a corporate trainer and I am blessed to have a job for a wonderful company right here in the town where I live.  Nashville, Tennessee.




Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sometimes peas and carrots are enough

Let me apologize in advance for what might be the worst blog post I have ever written.

I'm sort of in a bind here, though. 

My sister Christi was president of the White House Correspondents’ Association last year and when it was time for her to preside over the annual WHCA dinner in April, she invited all of us in her family to be there.

Among the A-list of invitees, we were the extras.  Our goal for the evening was to blend in.  Did you know that when extras are in the background of a coffee shop or a restaurant or a crowd scene, they look like they're talking but they're actually not saying anything?  They're usually mouthing the words "peas and carrots" over and over again.  It looks like real conversation, but doesn't draw attention away from the main focus of the scene.   

It was an incredible night and ever since then I’ve been trying to find words to describe it for you.  And every time I try to sit down and write about it I don’t even know where to begin. 

But now I’m on a plane and I’m heading back to D.C. for another formal dinner with my sister.  So before I attend this second gala, I am forcing myself to write about the first one.

We should start at the beginning - the night before the WHCA dinner itself.  That's when the excitement really started. 

That's when Christi told me that she had seated me next to Peter Greste.  Peter is an Al Jazeera journalist who, along with his two colleagues, had been imprisoned in Cairo for 400 days on false charges.  He had just been released in February, and now it was April. 

My heart was in my throat when I asked, “What should I talk to him about?”  Christi, in her ever-wise way, said, “Don’t worry.  I’ve met him.  He’s wonderful.  I’m sure you’ll have lots to talk about.” 

I wasn’t at all sure of that.  I had never talked to a political prisoner and I didn’t even know where to begin. 

The place I would want to start would be “Tell me about prison,” which would obviously be wrong for so many reasons.

The place I would probably start would be “How’s the steak?” - also wrong for so many reasons.

Anyway, let's flash forward to the next night, the night of the dinner.


At the pre-dinner reception we were elbow-to-elbow with influential celebrities and high-powered DC political figures.

Donald Trump was there too.

I was talking to my youngest sister Amanda when Eric Stonestreet brushed past me.  I was so starstruck that I suddenly lost all ability to talk.  I asked Amanda if it was okay if I just said “peas and carrots” for a few minutes while I tried to find my pre-frontal cortex.  Amanda, in her ever-laid-back way, laughed and began to talk about vegetables and fruits as well, and from a distance we probably looked like two normal people having a normal conversation.

Then this happened:



 
Michelle Obama said she thought my sisters and I were celebrities when she first saw us because we looked familiar, then she realized we all looked like different versions of Christi. 

Then the dinner started.


And the program listed who was sitting at the head table and it said the President was seated at Ms. Parsons’ right.  NOT that my sister was seated at the President’s left.  It said HE was sitting to HER right. 

And this happened:




And this happened:





Then Christi gave a speech.


And when I saw her up there giving a televised speech to an audience of 3,000, as the person her peers had elected to represent them and champion their cause, I started to cry.

All I could see was Christi and me in thin hand-me-down summer dresses in the sandbox behind our old farmhouse in Alabama in 1972, playing with sticks in the sand and pretending like they were a family of dinosaurs. 

I couldn’t even imagine how we got from that sandbox to this banquet hall.  When did our dresses go from scabby-knee length to ball gown length?  When did we put on shoes, and how did they become these sparkly, strappy high heels?  When did those oak trees that shaded us from the Alabama summer sun merge and fuse into this gilded banquet ceiling at the Washington Hilton?  I know it was a process that spanned the last forty years, and yet…

And yet, here we were. 

Then Peter took his seat next to me at the dinner table.  We shook hands and smiled.

And I froze.

I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know how to start a conversation.  Just when I was about to talk about peas and carrots, he said, “So what do you do, Melanie?”

I told him about Crucial Conversations and how I teach people how to have conversations even when they’re scared or angry or hurt.  The more I talked, the less nervous I felt.  Peter listened and nodded and smiled.  And then he broke the ice. 

“You know one thing I discovered in prison is that information wants to flow.”  He said that even when he was in solitary confinement, information was flowing. 

“Okay, thank you for mentioning prison,” I said, “because I wasn’t sure if it was okay to talk about that.”

“Oh, we can talk about anything,” he said.  “There’s nothing you can say or ask that will offend me.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Really,” he assured me. 

“Tell me about prison,” I said.

And he told me all sorts of things, but I think the thing that sticks with me most is his story about solitary confinement.  Peter had learned to meditate a few years before, and he said that when that door closed behind him in his single cell, he knew he had the tools he needed to get through this. 

“You mean meditation?” I asked.

Yes.  He had meditated his way through solitary confinement. 

And it makes me wonder - if I were locked in a room with nothing, what would be my sources of strength?  What would I be taking with me into that cell, even though I was taking nothing? 

One thing I know for sure.  I would be writing blog posts in my head.  I would be trying to find words to describe the indescribable.

#journalismisnotacrime

Isn’t it all sort of incredible?  That the President of the United States could be seated at my sister’s right?  That Peter could be such a warm and open person?  That my family and I could spend such a memorable evening together? 

I can’t figure out how to wrap this post up but we’re landing in a few minutes.  So I’ll leave you with this photo, which is just a selfie that Peter and I took that night, but I feel like it says a lot.

It says how far you can come, and how far you still have to go.  

It says that you can talk even when you’re angry, hurt or scared.  

It says that you can take a lot with you when you enter a period of solitary suffering,
and that you can bring
even more with you
when you come back out.  

And it says that when you don't have anything else, 
sometimes peas and carrots 
are 

enough. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Power




I ran across these two door knobs last week.  The one on my left caught my eye and my first thought was that the two knobs were different colors.  But then I realized they were the same color and same material, but one was used regularly and was touched every day by thousands of hands.  The other was locked into position, and if anyone ever did try to use it they quickly discovered that it was useless so they stopped touching it. 

I stopped for a second in front of those doorknobs to think.  Which wasn't long, because it was a Tuesday morning in Corporate America, and I was standing in the doorway to the cafeteria.

But in those few fleeting seconds I did manage to come up with this. 

There is a combined effect of millions and millions of small, seemingly meaningless actions.  No single action makes much of difference, but their combined effect is powerful.

And I thought about the people or objects in my life who I gave one chance and then decided they were useless, so I stopped touching them.

Before I walked back to my conference room I touched that shiny left doorknob and appreciated its brilliance.

And then I ran my fingers gently across the dull and stubborn right doorknob. 

Twice. 



Sunday, July 5, 2015

In those pink rays of sunrise light, you find yourself again


“I like hugging you because your meat is so squishy!” Grant says. 

“He has meat too but his is more hard,” he says, jabbing a finger into his father’s ribs. 

It’s 4:00am and we’re in the lobby of my hotel in Honolulu.  I flew in from San Francisco a few hours before and was sleeping soundly in my room until the phone calls and text messages started coming in.  After an eight-hour delay at the Beijing airport and a ten-hour flight across the Pacific, Buddy and the kids had arrived and they were coming to my hotel to say hello. 

The kids are spending their summer break with Buddy in Beijing and we are meeting in the middle of time and space for our friend Judy’s destination wedding in Honolulu. 

I take stock of this moment.  Buddy and I have been divorced for almost three years now.  We are all settling into a new normal, and we’re defining what normal is for us.  For a lot of divorced couples, that means that the friends you shared as a married couple now have to choose sides, and the kids spend their time with either their mom or their dad but never both together.

For us, normal means the four of us stand in a lobby of a hotel in Honolulu hugging at 4:00 in the morning.





And on Sunday night we will dance together at Judy’s wedding, just as we did at her sister Lisa’s wedding back in 2001.  Back when we were married and Audrey was a baby and Grant was merely a dream.

Judy's wedding, 2015

I can tell that Grant has been in China for a while because he’s referring to my body mass as “meat”, which is a direct translation from Chinese.  I hug him again and am relieved to see that his head still fits under my chin.  Of all the milestones my children have gone through - potty training, learning to ride a bike, first day of school - the one where they grow so tall that their head no longer fits under my chin has been the hardest for me.  I don’t know why.

Perhaps I worry about the day when they are no longer forced to look up to me.  And when they are tall enough to look at me eye-to-eye, I wonder if they will see enough good in me that they will continue to look up to me, even though they don’t have to. 

Buddy and Grant have a 6am appointment for a deep sea fishing excursion so they head off into the grey pre-dawn.  “Okay, we’re going to hunt down some food!” Buddy shouts as they leave.

I like the idea of being the nurturer who stays back to take care of the homestead (/hotel room) while the boys are out foraging for food, because that means I get to go back to bed.

But Audrey asks if she and I can go to the beach and sit on the sand and talk before all the people come out.  I hesitate and she adds, “Come on, you can get a coffee and drink it there.”  That's an offer I can't refuse, and so we venture out into the grey pre-dawn and hunt down an open convenience store. 



Sometimes the night is long and dark and even scary.  But then there is the dawn.  And in those pink rays of sunrise light, you find yourself again.

And on this summer morning in Hawaii, this is where we find ourselves.

Grant and Buddy are on a boat with the wind and salt in their hair.  And Audrey and I are sitting quietly on a beach, sipping iced Starbucks coffee and watching the sun rise. 

Here we are, three years into our new normal, and the sun is coming up.

And I wonder if maybe our new normal will be enough for our kids. 

Will my ex-husband and I be able to raise them well, even though we’re in different hemispheres? 

Is it possible that family really is forever, if we can allow our definition of family to change? 

Do you think maybe, just maybe, I, with my squishy meat, and he with his more firm meat, will be able to give them what they need…? 

This morning, as the sun edges over the horizon on Waikiki Beach, all of that feels possible.


Friday, June 19, 2015

Pine Cone Syndrome

I get Pine Cone Syndrome on Saturday mornings.

Which is to say, I'm difficult on Saturday mornings.

I don't even like me on Saturday mornings.

To understand Pine Cone Syndrome, and me, we need to go back about forty years, to a red brick ranch house in a neighborhood called Skyland Park.  And it's summertime in Alabama, so think about being in a really steamy sauna. 

Now imagine the sauna stretches for hundreds of miles and you can't get out.  You could try to run away but the steamy air would soon grab you by the lungs and knock you to the ground so it's better to conserve your energy and stay where you are. 

It was in that red brick ranch house that my mother conscripted her four daughters into a housekeeping army every Saturday morning at 7:00.  Since our cleaning duties started so early, we girls arose before dawn so that we could watch at least a few minutes of cartoons before our shift began.  The first sister to wake would go into the den and turn on the TV, keeping the volume as low as possible so as not to wake our mother any sooner than necessary.  Controlling the volume wasn't easy since the volume button had fallen off and we had to adjust the volume stub with a metal pincer from the kitchen, which was originally meant to pull the tops off of strawberries.  Once you got the volume right, you wanted to leave it alone. 

The faint sound of the cartoons was enough to rouse the rest of us and one by one we would stumble in to the den and take our place in front of the Magnavox.  I was usually the last sister to join the cartoon audience and since there were only three spots on the sofa I laid down on the honey oak parquet floor in front of the TV and propped my feet on the fireplace, giving my sister Amanda instructions to warn me if a cockroach crawled out of the fireplace and came my direction. 

It was the early 70s, before the advent of the Cartoon Network and 24/7 access to animation.  Back in our day those moving colors were only on the screen on Saturday mornings.  For a few unsupervised hours General Mills and Kellogg's mesmerized kids with images of artificially-flavored cereals while their parents slept in.

Sadly, the best cartoons were aired after 7:00.  The pre-dawn cartoons were deeply unsatisfying.  The colors were as faded as a hand-me-down bathing suit, the animation was jerky and the plot lines were stupid.  The smurfs made their network debut in the U.S. in 1981 but I never actually saw the show because it was in the prime time slot at 8:00.  When my friends at school made references to Gargamel and Papa Smurf I laughed as if I understood, and hoped they would never discover how naive I actually was.

At 7:00 we had to turn off the TV and move to the kitchen for breakfast.  At the breakfast table my mother would write a list of chores for each of us for the day.  And you might think, "Great, I'll get my chores done and then I'm free!"  Right?  No.  When you finished your list of chores you had to report to the front yard for pine cone duty.   

Our ranch house in Skyland Park had scores of  tall pine trees in the front yard.  Pinus Palustris, the Alabama State Tree.  Each of these conifers dropped dozens of pine cones into the yard every day.  This continued throughout the week and by Saturday, there was a thick scratchy brown blanket of pine cones covering the yard.  The Parsons girls criss-crossed the front yard again and again, sweating in the hot Alabama sun, picking up the pine cones and putting them in Winn-Dixie bags.

Something was born in me on those Saturday mornings in Skyland Park.  It is the compelling sense of responsibility that pushes me hard from the inside.  You might call it a sense of duty, or a work ethic.  It's the reason I showed up to lead that training class in San Francisco even though I was throwing up in the shower that morning.  It's the reason I cross-checked my spreadsheet one more time while my husband waited for me at a candlelit restaurant across town.  It's the reason I worked my shift at the Great American Cookie Co. in the mall on Christmas Eve until 6:00pm, although it was just a part-time minimum wage job. 

Looking back, I realize those might not have been great choices.  At the time they seemed like the only options. 

But something else was born on those Saturdays as I smashed one pine cone after another into those kraft brown bags.  It was an eternal sense of longing.  My sisters and I knew that we could break our backs picking up the pine cones and yet the next Saturday, that awful barky layer would be back.  And we would have to go out there and pick the cones up again, and put them in brown grocery bags, and clear space so that new ones could fall. 

But the worst part is - we expended so much energy picking up the cones and when it was all done, something still

wasn't

quite

right.

The moment of satisfaction when we looked at our work and felt pleased - that moment never came.

Contentment was something that hung far beyond our reach, on the highest branches of those tall Alabama pines.  And it never dropped down. 

Even as I write this I feel tense.  I wonder if you do too?  Is your jaw tight?  Is your breathing a little bit more shallow?

Do you feel like crushing something sharp in the palm of your hand? 

That, my friends, is a tiny bit of Pine Cone Syndrome, that you have caught from reading this post.

And here is something that, logically, I think should help alleviate the symptoms of Pinecone Syndrome.  Meditate on this thought for a moment.


Your Creator made you special, and loves you just the way you are.  


It's a beautiful sentiment, I know.  Let me know if it works for you.

It never has for me.