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.


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.