Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Afraid of Small Talk

Last summer as I prepared for my hike on the Camino in Spain, I had a training plan. My hiking partners Daisy and T-Dog and I were going to walk about 15 miles per day for five days, and I was going to need to do some serious training to be ready for that. I downloaded a plan from the internet and scheduled training sessions in my calendar. I was going to be fit and toned before I left Tennessee. It was gonna be awesome. 

None of that happened. I got busy. I was working a busy job in corporate America. Grant was graduating from high school and preparing for college. Audrey was transferring from the University of Tennessee to Emory. I was getting my house ready to rent out while I was away on my self-funded year-long sabbatical, which was set to begin just after I returned from the Camino. 

In short, it was just life being life. I did get one good 12-mile hike in the week before I left for Spain and by the end of the day I had a giant bruise on my big toenail. My friend Dee, who knows a lot about hiking, said we should use a needle to drill a hole in my toenail, otherwise it might fall off. That saved my toenail but the whole experience with the bruise and the drilling process left me with the impression that I was wholly unprepared for the Camino.

A week later, I was on the plane on the way to Spain, wondering how the hell I was going to hike 15 miles a day for five days straight. I was reading a book by James Brierly called A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago, and I came across a sentence which really hit home. It went something like this - 

"We bring our tired and stressed bodies and dump them at the head of the Camino and hope that all will be well."

Hope is not a strategy, James Brierly. I learned that in Corporate America. I needed a plan. So there in my seat in Row 34, I devised what I came to call the 60/30 plan. It was my plan for walking 15 miles a day even though I was in lousy shape. 

It went like this - I would walk for 60 minutes. I knew I could do that, I did it all the time. An hour of walking, easy. 

Then I would rest for 30 minutes. No matter how tired I got, surely after a half hour of rest, I would be able to walk for an hour again. 

15 miles a day, at a rate of 2 miles per hour... It might take me 11-12 hours to cover the day's terrain but I would get there. I had nothing to do all day but walk. This was doable. Surely. I felt better having a plan. I had a reason to think this would work, and if it didn't, it wouldn't be for lack of a plan. 

I had a plan. So if I failed, it wouldn't be my fault. That was comforting to me. Failure wouldn't be my fault.

Failure. Me being at fault. Those things make me very uncomfortable. But I have failed in my lifetime, many times. And I have been at fault. A lot. Plans and strategies are a buffer that protects me from facing my role in any of that. 

Those things were hard for me to talk about before the Camino and before my sabbatical. It's not easy now but I can do it.

(Photo credit: Melissa Freeman)

On our first day on the Camino, Daisy and T-Dog and I set off before dawn. I quickly realized that my first challenge would be to let them walk ahead of me. Their pace was different and I found I was walking their Camino, not mine. I was making the first transition - I was calling it my Camino. This path that I was going to walk for the next week was mine and I needed to claim it. And that meant walking it alone. 

They hesitated to leave me on my own but I reminded them that we had cell phones and the address of the pension where we would sleep that night. I would meet them there. T-Dog finally nodded and agreed to leave me on my own but he left me with important words of wisdom. "Watch the trail markers. It's easy to get off the trail so watch closely. If you do that, you'll be fine." 

I watched them disappear off into the distance as I settled into my pace. Which I had to discover. I had never done anything like this before, I had never been to this place before. I had never walked a path like this before. It took me a long time to find my pace. 

After an hour it was time for my break and I looked for a place to stop, but then I realized - I actually feel okay. I don't think I need a break. I feel ... great. 

So I shrugged and kept walking. I thought I'd get ahead of plan. I'd exceed my goal for this stage of the 60/30 plan. 

About 2 hours later I approached a small village, and I realized a break and some breakfast would be good. So I stopped at the next roadside cafe and got a piece of Santiago cake and a coffee. I sat down under a blue umbrella at a table outside the cafe and took off my backpack. 

The big plastic buckle that secured my backpack around my hips clicked as I unsnapped it. That "click" was a sound I had heard before but it meant something special this time. I had heard that click for the first time when my brother-in-law Cody gave the pack to me and showed me how it worked. I had heard it many times as I packed it, back in Nashville. I had heard it that morning at the hotel in Sarria when I put the pack on. But now on my first break of my first day on the Camino, that click meant something special - it meant the release of a heavy load from my sweaty back after many many steps on the trail. It was the first time I had really earned that click. 

My feet exhaled as I unlaced my hiking boots. I watched other pilgrims pass by as I ate my breakfast and breathed in the pastures around me. I propped my feet up and set an alarm on my phone for 30 minutes. 

When the alarm rang I started to lace my boots again but something inside my body said, "I'm not ready yet." It felt like I had a boulder on my sitz bones and it wasn't letting me move. It surprised me because I hadn't really asked my body, but it was speaking anyway. "I'm not ready yet." 

My shoelaces still in my hands, I turned my head and looked off into a field to my right, at a haze of mist floating over dewy grass in a field. A cow mooed in the distance. I wasn't sure what to do. It was time to walk again, according to the 60/30 plan. But here was my body saying, "I'm not ready yet." 

Who do I listen to? My plan, or this faint voice coming from inside my body? 

I decided that I could afford to rest a few more minutes. I had, after all, gotten ahead of plan earlier in the morning. So it was okay to spend a few more minutes here at the roadside cafe. 

I took my boots back off, settled back into my chair and folded my arms across my chest. 

How would I know when to get up and walk again? What would stop me from sitting here all day? What if I was still sitting at this cafe at the end of the day while Daisy and T-Dog ate dinner at our pension, 11 miles ahead of me on the trail? If I wasn't managing by a clock, how would I know when to start walking again? 

And then the most obvious thing hit me - I can listen to my body. 

Embarrassment and self-doubt and fear nudged me from all sides because ... I wasn't sure how to do that. 

How would I know when my body was rested? What would that feel like? Or ... what would that sound like? 

I hadn't been listening to my body for so long that I wasn't even sure what language it spoke anymore. I had been working in Corporate America for almost 30 years and I had become accustomed to governing my life by clocks and alarms and schedules and calendars. It was easy to know when to do things. You start working Monday morning at 8am and you stop Friday evening at 5pm. If you get to Tuesday afternoon and you're completely spent - IT DOESN'T MATTER. You have to keep going. 

If you get to Friday afternoon and think, "You know, I feel okay. I could keep going for a while," you better not. Because your next chance to rest won't be for another week. 

In the face of all of that, I had stopped paying attention to my body and the cues it was trying to give me. Because it simply didn't matter. I had to go when it was time to go, and I had to stop when it was time to stop. It was as simple as that.

But as I sat under that umbrella that morning on the Camino, I tried to make amends with my body. I hoped that it wasn't too late - that I could still hear my body if I listened closely. So I sat there with my arms folded across my chest, wondering and listening, hoping and doubting. 

Deep down I was horrified that I was at this point. Who doesn't know how to tell if they're tired or not? How did I get here? How had I ignored my physical cues for so long? It's no wonder my body stopped trying to communicate with me. Why would you keep trying to talk to someone who wasn't listening to you? 

This was anger coming up. I know this now, looking back. I had a lot of anger stored up inside my body and while I was trying to hear my body tell me if it was rested, it was also telling me other things. Like, "You have a lot of anger inside of you." It's easier for me to feel anger if I direct it at myself, so I did that for a while.

The shadow of the umbrella moved slowly across the ground in front of me. I tried to stand up a few times, but each time, the boulder on my sitz bones was still there. 

The cows mooed. The pilgrims passed. The mist lifted. The dew on the blades of grass became less silvery and more watery. 

And then, I felt it. It was a weird lurch. Almost as if my spirit was trying to leave my body. 

"Oh my god, is that what it feels like to be ready to walk again?" I asked myself. "Maybe. Maybe that's it."

So I laced up my hiking boots and stood up. It felt good. My legs felt strong. My feet weren't swollen anymore. I picked up my backpack, slid my arms through the straps and clicked the belt around my hips. It felt tight and secure and safe, like my pack was holding me. I took my dishes back to the cafe and asked the cashier if he could refill my water bottle. 

"Si, si, pelligrino," he smiled. He was calling me a pilgrim. I was a pilgrim and this was my Camino. And I was beginning to hear my body speak to me for the first time in a long time. Messages that I wanted to hear, like, 

"You are strong" or 

"You are ready to walk now." 

And some messages I didn't want to hear, like, 

"You can't ignore me," or 

"You need to rest" or 

"You are angry." 

But I agreed to hear it all, whether I liked the messages or not.

And this is how I made my way across the next five days. I listened to my body. I walked when I had energy and I rested when I was tired. It was that simple. If the boulder was there on my sitz bones I sat. If my spirit was lurching out of my being, I got up and walked. 

This matters to me in a whole new way now. I have been on sabbatical in my tiny house on the mountain for a year now. I have been sleeping and writing and eating and hiking and building fires in my firepit. I watched the leaves turn golden, then I watched them fall off the trees. I heard the geese honk as they flew south. The frogs stopped croaking and the bare branches of the grey trees swayed back and forth in the wind. Straight winds came through and blew some of the trees down. Thunder and lightning shook my tiny house.  The snow fell. The boulders on the Fiery Gizzard trail were round and slick. It rained and rained and rained. The icicles drip-dropped. The owls hooted. The squirrels jumped. The air softened and warmed. The bees and mosquitoes and gnats flew back in. The ducks came back and swam on the lake again. The branches plushed up with so many fresh leaves I couldn't see my neighbor's house anymore - all I could see was green all around me.

The last time I posted here on the Downtown Diner was December 8, and at that point, I wasn't sure I would ever be ready to come down off the mountain. I wasn't sure I'd be able to rejoin you all in civilized society. I wasn't sure I could ever again embrace things like deodorant and small talk and knowing what day of the week it was. The thought of the calendars and schedules and clocks and alarms - the tools that once brought me comfort and reassurance - felt restrictive and bossy and unforgiving. 

Around the middle of April though, I felt something inside of me lurch. My spirit seemed to want to return to the energy of the city. I thought about easy access to groceries, and church bells, and Starbucks, and paved roads, and utilities that come straight into your house through pipes and wires that you never have to even think about. I wanted all of those things. 

I was rested. I was ready. 

I put my tiny house on the market. I gave my tenants notice that they needed to move out of my house in the city. I began to work again, part-time, virtually, from my tiny house. I told my friends and my family that I was coming back. 

I was rested. I was ready. 

It's time to come back to the city. 

But these last few weeks, I don't feel ready anymore. I feel sad. I'm mad that I have to earn money, and that the best way to do this is to be back in the city. My skin itches at the thought of deodorant and shaving cream. My eyelids feel heavy at the thought of stiff mascara, an errant black lash falling into my eye and poking my eyeball. I can feel myself tugging on my lower eyelid, asking, "Do you see anything in there?" They never do. But I can feel it and it hurts.

I thought my body was telling me it's time. I thought my spirit was lurching up and out of me, back towards the city. And now I don't know what to do with this feeling. It's like the boulder on my sitz bones has me pinned to my chair on the mountain. Meanwhile, my soul is lurching on ahead of me, back to civilized life.

This, I have not experienced before. All the wisdom I thought I gained on the Camino isn't serving me now. 

This morning my daughter and I face timed while we made our breakfast. She was making watermelon with tajin in Atlanta, I was making avocado toast with Trader Joe's chili lime salt in Tracy City. We each made the case for why our chili salt was better. 

I told her how I'm feeling. That I thought I was ready to leave the tiny house and now I wish I could stay here forever. I looked out the window at the trees and the sky and the lake.

"That doesn't surprise me," she said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I know you," she said. 

I'm mad that I don't understand. I'm mad that this doesn't make sense. I'm looking everywhere for the trail markers and they are not there. Coming back down off the mountain after a year-long sabbatical made sense and I thought my body was playing along. I might have been wrong. 

Please bear with me as I adjust to life back in the city, assuming I do make it back there. I might not smell great, my clothes might not match. I talk about trees a lot. Appointments make me anxious because I'm afraid of missing them. I will probably pull on my eyelid and ask you if there's anything in there. 

I'm afraid that part of me will be pinned down by this boulder on the mountain while another part will have lurched 11 miles ahead.... 

You see what I mean about being afraid of small talk...

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Maybe I'll just take visitors here for the rest of my life

Yesterday afternoon I wrote a chapter in my memoir at the Sewanee library. The library card I bought for $10 gives me access to the building, the stacks and all the digital downloads for ten years. Until I am 62 I will have access to polished hardwood and special collections and erudite peers. 

I feel inspired and fortunate. 

I sat on the quiet floor, the third floor, with the theological and seminary students. In a soft, worn brown leather chair between the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Rabbinical prayer book, I began to write about my life. 

I think I was too loud for the third floor because a student in leggings and Blundstone boots moved two tables away from me. She moved her laptop first and then came back for her books. I put the top on my Mate tea, folded my laptop and went downstairs to the first floor, which is as loud as an elementary school cafeteria, and put in my earphones and listened to bluegrass acoustic music to drown out the flirty, rowdy non-theology students. 

I wrote about what it was like to wash my children's hair when they were babies. Rinsing the shampoo from their shiny heads, trying hard not to get soap in their eyes. Trying to hold their heads at just the right angle, adjusting the water pressure and temperature just so, aiming the water at the perfect angle so it rinsed the soap from their scalp and then ran backwards towards their neck. Not forwards towards their eyes. I wished I had been a better student in Geometry. I remember what my palm felt like against the back of their sturdy little necks. I needed to keep their heads clean and I didn't want them to cry. In those early days of motherhood, it seemed so hard to do both. My babies were so squirmy and slippery. And my hands, so shaky. 

Some nights I was more successful than others. But today they are young adults out there in the world with clean hair and fully functioning eyes. 

                Dear Melanie of the Early Aughts, 

                It's going to be okay. 

                Turns out there is no perfect angle. 

I wonder what I would have written about if I had stayed on the third floor. 

I paid $10 for a drop-in hot yoga class at a gym next to my tiny house. At the end of the class my teacher placed a cool wet lemongrass-scented washcloth on each yogi's forehead and while we relaxed in savasana on our mats, she sat in a beam of moonlight at the front of the room and prayed for us. The cool wetness on my forehead balanced out the warm lightness of my body and kept me from floating off into the stars.

My teacher didn't tell us about the prayer part. 

I drove home, the gravel on the road and in my driveway popping like popcorn under my city car tires. 

I cooked my dinner while listening to Roxane Gay's audiobook "Bad Feminist." I put oatmeal and flax seed in a pot, frozen cherries and blueberries and strawberries in another. At first I thought Roxane was critical of everyone and everything and I wanted to dismiss her as cranky, but I still listened to her and then I said out loud, "she's just ... she's right". Then I said it again. And she's cranky. She's cranky and she's right. 

I put warm compote and Greek yogurt on my oatmeal and my boyfriend called.

I took a shower and put my sweaty yoga clothes in my Barbie-sized washer. I don't know how such a tiny washer can require maintenance on such a frequent basis. Appliance repair companies don't want to send techs to addresses like mine. The last time a guy called to tell me he was fifteen minutes away he was in Texas. 

I live in Tennessee. 

I opened the window in my bedroom and let the cold mountain air pour into the room. I turned on the electric blanket under my down comforter, and sprayed lavender in the air. I closed the door to my room, a pocket of cold and fresh oxygen building inside. 

I poured a cup of Jim Beam,

sat by my fireplace,

and read an article in the New Yorker that my mother gave me at Thanksgiving. A blue post-it with my name on it marks the page. My name is in her handwriting. I held it to my lips as I read the article. 

Which for all of its many words, was not as moving as the blue post-it note that has my name on it, in my mother's handwriting. 

I blew out the candles. I turned off the fireplace. I plugged my laptop into the outlet. I set up the coffee maker for tomorrow morning. 

I turned out the lights. 

I don't know how I will ever come down off this mountain. 

I will try, when the time comes, but 

I think I have forgotten how to live what the rest of the world calls life. 

I don't know how I did it for as long as I did. 

Friday, November 5, 2021

Bruise or Dirt?

Dear readers, this is a vintage post from the fall of 2011. I just found it in my unpublished blog archives and it brought back lots of memories. I wanted to share it with you, just in case the fall fills you with nostalgia the way it does me. 

This story features my son Grant as a 7-year old. He's now a freshman in college at the University of Tennessee. 

What strikes me about this post is how much life has changed in ten years. When I wrote it in 2011 I was living in Beijing, struggling to manage life and fit in as an immigrant. I had small children and I was married.

Now in 2021 I live in Tennessee, I'm divorced and my children are young adults away at college. I'm back in my home country so I don't have the same immigrant struggles I did in Beijing.

But am I at home? I'm not sure. The older I get, the harder it feels to go home. 

The things that I remember from "home" aren't the way I remembered them, like Girl Scout Thin Mints and the catwalk in front of my elementary school. 

Then sometimes I'm in a completely new environment and I encounter things like fire cider or a public drinking fountain in Spain that feel so ...  known ... 

The older I get, the more "home" feels like something that I carry deep inside of me. 

It's a rainy day on the mountain today. The raindrops started pattering on the tin roof of my tiny house during the night and they've continued to trickle down all morning. On the wet trees outside my window, yellow and red and brown leaves wave to me. As if they're beckoning. 

I guess this is just a day that wants to pull me back into the past for a few moments.... 

In that spirit, please join me in a brief trip to the past. The year is 2011 and we are in Beijing.  

It's that time of the semester again - Parent-Parent-Parent-Teacher Meeting. Thanks to China's One Child Policy most parents only have to sit through this torturous meeting once, but since I gave birth to two kids, I have twice as many meetings to attend as anyone else. Once for Audrey in 5th grade and once for Grant in 2nd grade. 

For 40 minutes we heard from the principal, who gave us a report on the activities of the 小学部, which as far as I can tell is the Elementary School Department. 

They appear to be doing great, thank you for asking. 

Then for 20 minutes a man from the Vision Protection Program gave us a presentation about, you guessed it, how to protect our kids' vision. 

Then we went to our kids' classroom, where the teacher talked to us about our students' progress. She gave us our children's mid-term exam scores and a rough idea of their class ranking. 

As I was leaving the classroom this one mom came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm {something fast in Chinese}'s mom.    You know?     Last time...?     The accident...?" 

I shook my head sadly. I'm afraid this wasn't enough information for me. I did a quick mental inventory of all the playground accidents of recent months.
  1. Grant "accidentally" pushed a kid down on the playground and he scraped up his ear.
  2. A kid poked Grant with a pencil and left a sliver of graphite under the skin.
  3. Grant kind of "shot" a kid with a slingshot in the eye area.
And who knows what other "accidents" might have taken place in the last few months that I never even knew about. 

Seriously, we play this game at our house called "Bruise or Dirt?" 

It goes like this: you pick a spot of discoloration on Grant's legs and we make bets on whether it's a bruise or dirt. 

The funny thing is when I say "we" - I'm including Grant there. Even he doesn't know if the marks on his knees are injury or dirt.

Then you spit on your finger and try to rub the spot off. If it comes off, it was dirt. If not, it was an injury. 

Or stubborn dirt. 

This picture will show you that I'm not exaggerating. It's a darling picture of Grant and a friend's dog but it also happens to capture the bruise-or-dirt phenomenon quite well.

  Back to that mom - we were speaking Chinese and since mine is not that advanced, I had to be blunt with her. 

"Did my kid hurt your kid or did your kid hurt mine?" 

"My kid hurt your kid," she said. 

"Oh, the pencil thing? It's fine, really. Don't worry. You can hardly even see it anymore. And thank you for covering the medical fees, that really wasn't necessary." 

I didn't tell her that Grant wanted her family to compensate him for psychological damage. We told him he doesn't have a case.

Seriously, he can't even tell dirt from bruises on his own legs.  

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Thank you Summer 2021

I got restless this spring.

I was hungry but couldn't think of anything I wanted to eat. 

I wanted to get out of the house but didn't know where to go. 

Something wasn't right but I couldn't even say what it was. 

And then, Summer 2021...

Buddy had to quarantine for like a thousand hours to be there for Grant's graduation. #familyisforever

I quit my job! #isshecrazy #maybe

Asheville, North Carolina is weird like me.

My Nashville house is rented out to a great family. I'm quite proud of these shiny floors.

It's not a vacation until someone ends up in the ER with a fish hook in their hand. #Chautauqua

Me and Daisy crying in front of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela after walking 75 miles through the Spanish countryside. 
Photo credit: T-Dog. #BuenCamino

My tiny house on the lake in Monteagle, Tennessee. This is where I'm living this fall while I write a book.

Oh, and this happened too.

I will write more about all of the above once I get over the fact that it actually happened. Meanwhile I'm soaking it in with immense gratitude.

Thank you, Summer 2021.

Monday, May 24, 2021

About Time

"I need your watch for a few days," I said.

"Why?" he asked.

"Just give it to me. I'll give it back in a few days," I replied.

"This has to do with my graduation present, doesn't it?" he asked.

"Just give it to me. I'll give it back in a few days," I replied. 

"You're going to get it engraved, aren't you?" he asked.

"Just give it to me. I'll give it back in a few days," I replied.

"You're not gonna put something boring on it, are you? Not something like, 'Congratulations on your graduation'?"

"Oh of course not. It's going to be so much more better than that." 

But 'Congratulations on your graduation' was in fact, word-for-word, what I was planning to put on the back of his watch. Ver batim. 

It's factual. It's straight-forward. A watch engraving is supposed to be commemorative and self-explanatory. It should answer all the important questions:
  1. What was the event?
  2. When did it take place?
  3. Who does the watch belong to?  

But apparently I needed something more clever for my son's watch on the event of his high school graduation...  

 I googled "what to engrave on a watch" and found a lot of quotes about time. I found poems about life milestones and anniversaries and celebrations. 

None of them seemed quite right for him. Grant's relationship with time is special. He is an unhurried soul. He knows how to relax. Time seems to bend towards his will. If he has to turn in an assignment at midnight and it's 11:55pm, sometimes those last 5 minutes pass in slow motion, allowing him to finalize the assignment and spell check it and submit it all before the clock strikes twelve. 

The internet has no quotes for that. 

I found a couple that come close.

Time is the most valuable thing that a man can spend. (Diogenes Laertius)

Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted. (John Lennon)

Neither of them seemed to quite fit the bill, and time was running out. I needed to get the watch and the quote to the engraver before they closed at 6:00 so finally I just made up a quote. I think it's actually pretty perfect for my restful and soulful son.

Time is precious. Be sure to waste a little every day.

Happy Graduation, Grant. 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Creeping along


It was a snowy scene so beautiful you could have painted it on a tree ornament. You would have needed just three colors: white, silver, and diamond blue. 


But this scene was so precarious, no one would want it on a Christmas tree ornament. It was Christmas Eve and a snowstorm had moved in to the Great Smoky Mountains faster than expected. Big white flakes were swirling all around our car.  

Audrey, Grant and I were in my Buick on the mountain between Pigeon Forge and Townsend and we were stuck at a hairpin turn.  Four cars had spun out ahead of us and they were blocking our lane. They were  an indication that if we tried to negotiate this curve, we would not make it either.

Even if we were going to drive through this tricky curve, we would have to move into the lane for oncoming traffic since that was the only lane available. And if we got stuck there, then both lanes would be blocked.


We weren't in mortal danger. In the very worst case scenario we could give up and spend the night in our car on the side of the road. We had water and blankets and even a portable gas stove, which was Grant's Christmas present, wrapped with a bow in the trunk of the car. 


Still, I really wanted to make it through this hairpin turn and get back to our cabin in Townsend for Christmas Eve.  



Audrey and Grant and I took a moment to consider our options. None of them seemed very good. Should Grant get out and push the cars out of the snow and get them unstuck? Should we try to drive around them in the lane for oncoming traffic? Should we call for help? Should we give up and spend the night on the side of the road in our car? 


Calling for help seemed futile. There were dozens of cars stuck on the side of the road on this mountain pass. And if these tiny Tennessee towns were equipped with emergency vehicles, they would have been there by now. 


Inside the car it was quiet for a while. The windshield wipers scratched back and forth across a layer of ice on the windshield. The dashboard GPS screen glowed in the darkness, a spinning wheel that was picking up no signal. Even outside the car, the newly-fallen snow had created a layer of hush all around us.

"You know, I just remembered something," Audrey broke the silence. "All my friends say that if they could have one person with them in a crisis, they would want it to be me."


I nodded. She is good in a crisis.


"How about this?" she continued. "How about if I get out and walk up to the other side of this curve, and ask the cars from that direction to stop for a few minutes while you drive around the curve in their lane?"


I nodded slowly. It seemed like our best chance. We looked at the curve ahead of us. Maybe we could make it. But then I shook my head. I was afraid we would spin out like the four cars that were blocking our lane. 


But this was happening. Audrey got out of the car to tell the two cars in front of us about our plan and see if they wanted in on the action. We sort of knew them. They had gotten stuck on the ice on the last two curves and Grant had gotten out to help push them across. 


"They didn't say thank you," he said, rubbing his hands together as he got back into our car after getting them unstuck the first time. He seemed more surprised than annoyed. And then when they got stuck a second time, he got out to help them again. 


Audrey finished conferring with the cars in front of us. The first car, the white Lexus, had called for emergency services and was going to wait for help. The second car, the gunmetal grey Hyundai, wanted us to go first and he was going to follow in our tracks. This made me nervous because the gunmetal grey driver seemed to know more about snow driving than any of us. And he wanted me to go first.


Audrey went to go hold up the oncoming traffic.  I rolled down the window and called out to her. 


"Hey ... be careful!"


"Yeah," she said over her shoulder, as if she were walking into the gas station to get a cup of coffee.  


I watched her walk away and with each step, I saw a little less of her and a little more of the snow falling between us. Then she rounded the curve and disappeared altogether. I heard the click of a shutter, the sound of my anxiety taking a mental picture, in case this was the last time I ever saw her.  

"Hush," I said to my anxiety. It's going to be fine.


I gave her a few minutes to stop the oncoming cars, and then I held my breath as I began the slippery drive. My wheels were already spinning as I passed the gunmetal grey Hyundai. The driver leaned out of his passenger side window and yelled to me, "Don't give it so much gas! Just creep along."


I crept. I crept and I crept and I crept.


As we passed the first spun-out car we started fish-tailing. I took my foot off the brake and somehow a combination of gravity and inertia kept us on the road. 

I crept. 


I tried to find tire tracks from a car that had navigated this curve ahead of us. The snow was falling so fast though, all tracks were covered up. 


I prayed that the tread on my tires was good enough.  

I crept. We approached the second spun-out car. The curve of the hill was so steep that we started to slide towards it. "Lean to your left!" I yelled to Grant. I have no idea if that helped. Probably not. But we did manage to miss the spun-out car by an inch and we re-gained traction. 


We crept.  

The only sound was the crunch of the tires over ice and snow, and then, slowly we came around the bend at the top of the hill and I could see Audrey standing in the falling snow, holding her hand up in an authoritative traffic stop and just behind her, several cars waited. We had made it around the curve without spinning out, and for the first time in several minutes, I exhaled. Audrey hopped back into our car.


"And that" - she snapped her seat belt into the buckle - "is why people want me around in a crisis!" she exclaimed. We high-fived. We clapped. We yelled. 


And then we continued to creep because we still had a few miles to go before we got home.

That hairpin curve was the last dangerous curve on the mountain pass. For the remainder of our trip home the road remained thankfully flat and straight. 


We still had one final challenge though - it was the hill at the entrance to our campground. And ironically, after everything we had gone through on the mountain, we just couldn't ascend it.  So we abandoned our car on the side of the road just a few hundred yard away from our cabin and trudged the rest of the way through the snow. 

When we finally got back into our cabin we took off our wet clothes, made hot chocolate and reflected back on our trip across the mountain. A drive that should have taken 30 minutes had taken almost three hours.



It would be dramatic to say it was a miracle. But it really would have been bad to be stuck in the ice on that mountain on Christmas Eve, as the temperatures dropped to single digits and the snow continued to fall. It was so much better to get ourselves and our car across the mountain in one piece. 


I felt a special sense of gratitude.

For Audrey. She really is someone I want with me in a crisis. She is brave and bold and calm, and a wizard problem-solver.


And for Grant. I want him with me in a crisis too. He has a giant and strong body and an even bigger and stronger heart, and he will get out of the car as many times as he has to to push someone across the ice, even if they never say thank you. 

And this, I think, is a scene you would want on a Christmas ornament. A mom and her two young adult children, sitting around the fireplace in a mountain cabin, with snow falling softly outside and their car parked in a snowy embankment at the foot of the hill. 



This scene says that creeping along is enough. This scene says that even your very worst case scenario isn't that bad. It says that your best-case scenario is more likely than you think. It says you've already come through a lot and although you don't know exactly how much more lies ahead, this hairpin turn might be the last difficult one. It says that hot chocolate and a fire are closer than you realize, and your tread probably is good enough.

Creep along. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Of Carwashes and Courage

"Bliss, I need a car wash but will that scare you? Last time we were here, do you remember? It kind of scared you. How do you feel about the car wash now? Do you think we could go through?"


My niece looked out the window to her left, gazing at the sidewalk but clearly contemplating something much bigger. A ray of sunlight was shining through the window and it turned her hair into ribbons of orange crystals.  

She did not love car washes.


But my car was really dirty and I had the opportunity now to get it washed. For a soccer mom like me, when a need and the time to fulfill it come together, that is pure gold. The only question was whether Bliss was going to be okay. 


"Is this the one where the soap is rainbow-colored and smells like fruit?" She needed more data. This was a good sign.


"I'm pretty sure they still do that, yes." 


I find it disturbing that the soap at my neighborhood carwash is so heavily perfumed that the smell comes straight into the car, even though your windows are obviously rolled up. And why fruit, for God's sake? That is not natural.

Bliss looked back at me with one last question. It seemed she had made up her mind but needed to negotiate one final term of the contract. She drew in her breath and asked, 


"Will you hold my hand while we're in there?"


Suddenly everything around me and everything inside of me felt innocent and pure and clear. 

"Yes, sweetheart, I will hold your hand in there."  


That was all she needed. How amazing that this tiny little being knew what her fear was, and she knew what reassurance she needed to face it. 


"Okay, let's go," she said. 

 Her fear was not in charge. She was. 

My TEDx Nashville talk airs tonight. 


My coach Jeremy and I worked on my talk for months. I invested in this talk like a part-time job. I wanted this. I believed this was part of God's plan for me. I talked about it almost incessantly for a year. People probably got sick of hearing about it. But I didn't stop. I rehearsed it 88 times. My social media feeds blew up more than once. I was quite possibly obsessed.


And on September 17, I recorded my talk in an almost-empty auditorium, thanks to COVID. 


And tonight, my talk will air. And a lot will change.



Until now, I could decide who I shared my story with. I could select the people I trusted. I gradually widened that circle, wave by tentative wave. 

After tonight, my story will chart its own course.


The wheels for tonight are in motion. The TEDx Nashville crew has a detailed run of show. Zoom links are set up. Ring lights are plugged in. Tickets have been delivered. Calendars are blocked. 


This is happening.


It's like that moment at the car wash when the track engages with your wheels and you're being pulled into the car wash. And I have a moment of anxiety when I wonder if all my windows are rolled up, and whether unbeknownst to me there is a non-factory-standard accessory on my Buick Encore. 


On days of high anxiety, I wonder if this will be the day when the car wash goes haywire and breaks through my windshield. 


Rationally, I know this is going to be okay. But the car wash is so loud and so powerful. 


The people in my life are surrounding me with gracious love and support. From all directions, expected and unexpected. I am not alone in this experience. I am so loved and so blessed. 


My hand is being held very tightly by so many. 

My fear is not in charge. I am.


Okay, let's go. 



Sunday, November 29, 2020

Coming Out of the Trauma Closet


Remember back in 2019 when I said something had shifted


Shortly after that God gave me a message. Not an ominous, you-have-to-live-in-a-cave-now kind of message. More like a message that you think you dreamed every night, and every morning when you wake up, it feels a little more true.


God said that God was going to start opening doors for me. My job was to walk through each door boldly and bravely, with no regard for what was on the other side. 


And indeed, some doors started swinging open.


First, a woman named Lauren contacted me and said, "Your name keeps coming up in conversation and people tell me I should meet you. Can we get together for a networking coffee?" 


As Lauren and I sat over dinner at Nicky's Coal Fired, somehow the topic of life goals came up and I told her that mine was to give a TED talk.


"What would your topic be?" she asked. 


And although I had only known her for a few minutes, I began to share THE story with her. The only one I had that was so bold and so vulnerable that it might be worthy of the TED stage. It was hard to tell a stranger this story, but if I couldn't share it with Lauren here at Nicky's Coal Fired, how would I ever hope to share it with thousands of strangers from the stage? 


When I finished my story, Lauren's eyes were filled with compassion and tears. "That's your TED talk," she said. 


There is something special about Lauren and when she said that, I had a feeling it might be true. I heard the sound of a door beginning to creak open. 


Two weeks later, Lauren met Jeremy Snow, Speaker Chair for TEDx Nashville. "You need to meet Melanie Gao," she said. 


Two weeks later, I was on the phone with Jeremy. He asked me to share my story with him, and I shared A story. But not THE story. 


Because I didn't know him. I wasn't sure I could trust him. I wasn't sure I was really ready to take this plunge. 


In short, I chickened out. So I shared a smaller story.


Nonetheless, he was intrigued and asked me to write my story so he could share it with his committee. 


That Saturday one by one, all our family activities got canceled due to rain. So I sat down in my white chair to write my story for Jeremy. I started to write the one I had shared on the phone. The one that was interesting and somewhat vulnerable but not THE story. 


"I said boldly and bravely," I heard God's voice say. 


It was still my choice, and I chose obedience. Which is not like me. 


I erased everything I had written and instead I wrote THE story for Jeremy. And I closed my eyes and hit "SEND."  


And I waited.


It took Jeremy two weeks and an eternity to respond. But when he did, it was clear I had written the right story. He asked if I would be interested in presenting at TEDx Nashville Women's Conference in December 2020.


The door was swinging wide open. 


And then, well, 2020 happened. And I wondered if the door was going to swing shut again. Concerts and conferences were canceled. I thought there was no hope for TEDx Nashville 2020.


But the TEDx Nashville crew is an innovative and resilient bunch and they found a way.


And so here we go. 



I am trying hard not to think about what is on the other side of this door. That is not my job. When I do think about it, for a few seconds, I get nervous. Because I am coming out of the trauma closet. And once I'm out, there is no going back in. For me or for my family.




But it is not my job to worry about things like that.


My job is to walk boldly and bravely.


With no regard for what is on the other side. 





Thursday, June 11, 2020

These are Things My Family Gathers Around

A Christmas tree.

A baptismal font.

A wide-screen TV when Alabama plays.

These are things my family gathers around.

The dinner table.

A birthday cake.

An open casket.

These are things my family gathers around.

A Zoom screen.

The stovetop.

A vinyl recliner at the cancer clinic.

These are things my family gathers around.

The altar.

A puzzle.

A rocker on the front porch.

These are things my family gathers around.

A campfire.

A picnic table.

 A four-leaf clover.

These are things my family gathers around.

It was Joe and Marie who introduced us to these sacred places. They called us there, each little girl.  Christianne, Melanie, Caroline, Amanda.

Then they called the second wave. Paul, Audrey, Grant, Mandy, Bliss.

One day they will call a third wave.

(But for God's sake not any time soon. None of y'all are even out of college.)

Today I'm feeling grateful to be a part of it all.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Quarantine Walk

The dishes are done, the leftovers are in the fridge. It is time for our walk.

We step out onto the front porch. Over the words “ X actually” in black on the sidewalk.  I chalked a colorful phrase last week and did not know that the black was going to remain long after the other colors washed away. I can’t scrub it out. 

To be honest, it doesn't look like it would come out if I tried. 

Which I haven't. 

Because it wouldn't come out.

I have unintentionally tagged my neighborhood with a dark “X”, and at first I feel slightly guilty but this is 2020 after all. 

Why pick this one thing to feel guilty about?

Past a hydrangea bush in front of Laura’s house that is getting so big it almost hides the door.  So much rain lately. Why have the landscapers not trimmed the flowers back yet? 

Underneath a gold Toyota Camry suspended six feet in the air, on a metal lift, waiting to be fixed tomorrow. It is suspended motionless in the air above the cracked and oil-stained pavement of the Budget Brakes.

Past the Turnip Truck, which opened during quarantine. It is so new that the sweet, sticky smell of fresh lumber still lingers in the air around it. Audrey stops at the glass window and looks longingly inside, gazing at the shelves of almond flour and organic chick peas and collagen supplements. 

She asks if we can go in and she knows that I will shake my head and say that I am not going to waste my one trip to the grocery store this week on a hipster market. 

Quarantine is not a time to be sentimental.

Over the cockroaches, who scurry to and fro on the sidewalk in front of the gas station. We skip and dance to keep them from running over our feet or into our shoes. We don’t understand why there are so many cockroaches right here, big and fat and shiny. 

I tell stories about dodging flying cockroaches in Alabama when I was a child. Audrey and Grant groan. "Ugh, you tell us that story all the time! You try to make your childhood sound so terrible and Gigi says it wasn't and then she gets mad." 

I do, and she does.  

In the glow of the half light of the restaurants and shops along Charlotte Pike. They are not open and have not been all day and will not be tomorrow. They miss us and they don’t understand. Their storefront eyes are wide open and confused, waiting for us to explain.  

Each day they seem a little less hopeful that we ever will.

To the lawyer’s office on the corner by the park. His name is painted in gold shiny letters on the glass door. Just like they did back in the '40s, probably. We peer through the window and play the game of Spot the Difference.

That pen wasn’t there yesterday. 

He seems to have been there every day. I don’t understand why legal services are an essential service. Maybe they aren’t.

The lamp is on today. 

A door inside the office that leads to a back hallway is ajar.

That remote control for the air conditioner has been moved.

An umbrella has appeared.

And every night I lament that he isn’t watering his plants. One of them in particular is drying out. How can he come to his office every single day and never water this plant? I would water it but the office is locked.

As we walk back home we talk about the day’s news and COVID statistics and we make guesses about the future. We talk about our friends and how they are probably doing.

When we arrive back home it is just 9:30 but I’m ready to go to sleep and dream the vivid dreams of quarantine.

Of a  black X

      An out-of-control hydrangea

                                                        Cars in the air

Cockroaches running in fretful circles 

                       Collagen supplements just out of our reach

          Confused and empty storefronts 

And a plant 

that I cannot water