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.


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 



Anonymous said...

Sister, you are the greatest. I love you. Love, Caro

Melanie Gao said...

I love you too Bug!!

Geri said...

Melanie, this is beautifully written. So much so that I cried at the part about you and Christi in the hand-me-down dresses in the sandbox in Alabama...and ending up in a ballroom. I want to hear about the 2nd dinner :-)

Anonymous said...

I watched the entire event I actually DVR so I could show my children. My heart still swells with pride when I remember that event and how special it was for Christi and her family. I smiled, laughed and cried reading this blog. You are an awesome writer! I felt like we were on the plane together. So proud of all of you! Hugs!! Christina Moran

Anonymous said...

another great post, I love to read them. Keep sharing your "voice" with us, and I'm anxiously awaiting your next one!

Melanie Gao said...

It's so nice to see you all here!

Geri I love that that image was as touching to you as it is to me. :) I will write about the second dinner soon.

Christina you're a special part of our family. Thank you for celebrating it all with us.

KN we look forward to seeing you here in Nashville soon!

I18n G.A.L. said...

soda water, watermelon, and rhubarb (stage actors and peas and carrots)

Melanie Gao said...

That is awesome, Andrea. I love hearing all the ways people have come up with to look like we're saying something when we're actually not saying anything. :)

Autumn said...

I grew up in DC. My dad worked on the Hill. Politics are in my blood, and I love watching WHCA dinner whenever I can. Thank you so much for posting your backstage story. I know I'm a little late to the party and I wish I had seen it sooner, but I'm glad I finally found your blog!

Melanie Gao said...

Thanks for stopping by, Autumn! I loved reading your blog as well! I love your humor.