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


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

My Neck Hurts and I Have a Headache



George Floyd was 46 years old.
 
He was 6 feet 6 inches tall. A large, beautiful man.


When he was pinned to the ground,



he said please


and he called 



for his mama.




I am so sorry.









Monday, April 20, 2020

Just Enough Space to Get Out

The funny thing about a peak is that you don’t know you’re on it until it’s already over.

But I believe our collective national fever is hitting a peak.

I hope I’m talking about confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Surely we will not have another week with tens of thousands of new cases reported every single day.

Let’s hope new unemployment claims peaked this week too.


But I’m also talking about stress and anxiety and tension. Those were at a peak this week too.

At least, they were for me.

Were they for you too?


This week I decided that if I took part in a cult, I’d want it to be one of those cults that people talk about for years to come.  Like Heaven’s Gate.  Or Jonestown.  Or the Branch Davidian.

This is where I am.

Not that I want to join a cult. But if I did, I'd want it to be one that knew what they were doing.  One with colorful silks and expensive sneakers.

This is where I am.


This week I thought about the continuums in life.

The news continuum.  At one end of it are people who can’t get enough of it and check it every 15 minutes. 

At the other end are people who have stopped checking the news altogether. 

And then there are people all in between.


Then there’s the emotional continuum.  Some people can’t stop talking about how they feel, and they can’t stop asking others how they feel. 

At the other end are people who don’t feel anything and don’t want to talk about it. 

And then, there are people all in between. 


I am trying hard not to judge people for being where they are on these spectrums.  I try hard to say, “Oh, that’s where you are.  Interesting.” 

Because then it’s easier to look down at my own two trembling feet and observe, “Wow, here’s where I am.  Interesting.” 

I am trying hard not to imagine a marker in the middle of the spectrum that indicates where “normal” is. 

I am trying hard not to measure how far I might be from that marker. 


Yesterday a fly was in my room. I opened the window just enough for it to fly out.

Would the fly leave?

Would a bee fly in?


What does it mean to have just enough space to get out?




Saturday, May 25, 2019

Wednesday Nights in May

There's something rare and perfect about a Wednesday night in May.  While Grant practices with his team on the field, I am walking in Heartland Park.  It's late in the evening but it's still light outside.  Because it's summer.

Finally.

Summer.

Again.




Most people would say it's hot but to my body, which has been chilling in an American icebox office for many hours, the ambient air temperature is perfect. 

The breeze slips against my skin like silk.  Soft and smooth and light. 


I pass a family - a mom, dad and three children.  The dad is running next to one child on a tricycle.  One child is on a scooter.  And one child is sitting in a wagon, pulled by the mom.

Five people.

Five modes of transport.

I smile at the first child as she passes me.  She stares back at me menacingly and shouts something to her father over her shoulder.  I think she is shouting about me but I can't hear her because I have my ear buds in.

Also, I don't want to hear what she says.   



A man is pressure washing the cement steps of a fire escape.  Between us is a high fence with razor wire. 

For many months we thought it was a prison.  But it is a public water works building.

The razor wire is not there to keep people in.  It is to keep people out.



The air is cooling and practice will be over soon.  Grant and I will drive back home.  He will put his muddy cleats on my dashboard and I will get mad. 



None of this would have come to pass on a Tuesday night in June.  Or a Friday night in November.  It has to be a Wednesday night in May.


Wednesday nights in May are special.  

They are rare.  

They are perfect.  

It has to be a Wednesday night in May.











Saturday, April 27, 2019

Monday at the Moth

On Monday I texted the kids and told them to meet me for dinner at Miss Saigon at 5:30.  "Why are we eating so early?" Grant asked as I joined them in the booth.

The color of the vinyl on the seat of the booth was just slightly different than the back.  The seat is a greenish mustard, while the back is a mustardish green.  It's a nuance I wouldn't have noticed except that the owner pointed it out last time we were there.  It bothered him that he hadn't gotten a perfect match.  The factory that supplied the initial vinyl had discontinued it and he had to settle for the closest color match.  It was just slightly different.

If he hadn't said anything I would have thought it was just the lighting.   But when you look closely you see that something is - very slightly - different.

"I think I'm going to the Moth tonight and I might tell a story."

Audrey nodded.  "I think you should do that."   

After dinner I drove across town to the Basement East by myself and signed up to tell a story.  And about two hours later the host Eddie pulled my name out of the hat and called me up to the stage.  I was the very last story-teller to go up.

It is a weird trek to the stage at The Basement East.  I almost got lost, no joke.  And then, I was standing in front of 200 people and I was about to tell my story.  The spotlights on me were so bright  I couldn't see out into the crowd, except for two guys who were sitting at a high-top table at the right hand edge of the stage.  The microphone was so huge, or so unfortunately positioned, that it hid my face.

Maybe the positioning was fortunate.

It helped, a little, to hide behind it.  

All of the stories that came before me were lighthearted and funny but mine was not going to be.  I breathed in deep and said into the bright light, "My story is kind of heavy.  Are you guys down with that?"

"Bring it!" someone shouted.


I started talking about the night of my own personal Great Inhale.  The one that nearly killed me.  The one that, in some ways, did.



I almost cried.  In front of 200 strangers.  I guess I did cry, but not alone.  Because the Moth, as I have learned, is a special place where no one cries or laughs alone.


Days later when I told my friends about my experience, they asked if I could re-tell the story for them and I think maybe under the right circumstances I could.  In a dark room that smells like beer, with a concrete floor that shakes like plywood when you walk on it.  Under a bright spotlight blinding me from the gentle souls in front of me who welcome a heavy story.

But then again, I'm not sure I could.  I think when I told that story that night at the Moth, it got up on its legs and walked slowly away from me.  Out the back door of the Basement East and off into the open sky.

Maybe stories at the Moth have one brilliant chance at life and when their life has ended they cannot come back.

I think that's how it is.

I feel different after all of this.  Something about me is just slightly different.  I don't think anyone else would notice.  But I do.

If I didn't mention it you probably wouldn't notice. 

But something has most definitely shifted.