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?