Post notes: Just A Conversation Over Chicken And Dumplings

I changed my email signature last night. For months it had read;

JUST A CONVERSATION OVER CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS

By Michelle Dobbs

Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall

April 5-7, 2019

I had been waiting for this signature for all of my adult life. This story, one my grandmother told me about Us had waited 25 years to be told. My hands shook when I first created it. Could it be?

And so, I invited my relatives. They’d all read pieces and early drafts of the novel, had looked at the photos and letters of the story in our childhood, and they showed up. They came to find about 100 people to watch with, and I couldn’t have been happier. Book clubs, writer’s cirlces, Mommy friends, quilters and other artists all gathered to hear. My favorite people in my favorite place; the same building where Gregory and I got married, where I’d danced as a little girl with the symphony, where I first listened to Tchaikovsky with my Grandma Lil, where I drop off my daughter for her Nutcracker performances with the rest of her choir. Bliss.

Easily among the happiest moments of my life – it was that good getting picked up in the morning that time we sunk a boat on a deserted island happiness.

But before that, I’d spent hours per night in rehearsals, serving as dramaturge, a sort of backstory builder, by showing pictures of the people the characters had been based on in period clothes, and sharing details about the story. I met the cast and they were delightful; batch of lovely performers who worked hard and had fun.

I felt, sometimes, like I’d fallen into an afterschool special where A 50 year old lady finally gets to tell her story, but only if she works like a whirling dervish because all the cousins are coming. Viola Davis would play me. She would brave all the plot twists with good humor and wisdom and pluck. Because you know all those potholes that always befall tiny theater companies with big hearts in those stories? This show suffered them all; 2 cases of the flu, spare to none budget, bumped from rehearsal spaces, 1 case of strep throat, and a brief but sincere struggle with short term amnesia.

And then came the previews. I had one moment when I walked out to a seat in the balcony, just to see the set. One of the sound guys who came with the venue said, “This is based on real people?” I told him yes, and he said, nodding his head “This is a good show. I like it. Good show.” That moment might have been the best –  I received an affirmation from someone who watches dozens of shows per year from companies around the area, relates to the premise and doesn’t know me from Adam. I sort of smiled, and he turned to the other sound guys, telling them what a good show this was, while they nodded too. When I walked off, I beamed.

And so, we opened. It was time to let go. She was an awkward thing, my new play hoping to take flight -beautiful, but lumpy. The next night, more of the same. The critics came, and asked some questions, we went, some relatives and I, to the cast party at the director’s house. We brought desserts. I sat and ate and laughed with my family, and the actors who played my ancestors. It was wild- and a scene I will never forget. Everyone was there: Papa Jim, Lois and Aunt Maggie were eating Lorelei’s pumpkin cake, patting their feet and humming for that recipe. And those of us on this side really cherished one another on that day. We passed babies and food and loved on each other the way we know the ancestors want us to.

And then, on the last night, the stars aligned. I was physically and emotionally exhausted, having partied and chitchatted myself into a complete and stunned silence.  I sat at the back of the theater with a glass of wine, prepared to watch my baby struggle. My real-life sunny side up baby sat next to me – ready to focus on the good when the play stumbled.

The first spotlight went up, and it clicked. The songs were well received, and applauded. People laughed at the funny parts and cried at the sad parts and did both for every twist. Maybe it was the letting go, maybe it was the wine. But I felt every sigh the actors created, and when they finished the audience stood to their feet. At first, I thought that maybe they were as overwhelmed as I, and were ready to go. I handed Ole Sunnyside my purse and stood up too, headed downstream to the edge of the stage for a super brief talk back, considering they seemed to want to get out of the theater. And then the director turned to me and said to me with a smirky smile, “An ovation.” My heart stood still.

Cue the Little Rascals double take.

Slap my ass and call me Fanny, they were standing and applauding.

Just when I was sick and tired of wearing makeup, having a hairdo, talking to strangers, and pressing myself way too far for the sake of a piece of art, that happened. And then, I understood why people do this. I let that ovation serve as some kind of message from the viewers that they had allowed my American story to play out in their imaginations, and they got it. The story was told.

Many people since then have contacted me and talked of their own family saga, which has included all kinds of things; Adopting kids within families, Mission Schools and Native American genocide, locomotives and the internet, riding hobo for work and homelessness. There were some little girls teaching the song from the first scene to their friends when I went to pick up my daughter from school on Monday.

You’d think that would be enough for me: I set a goal, I toughed it out, at the expense of everything and everyone I hold dear, and I met that goal.  Nope.

Next show is in October.

Thanks, Amen.

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Mine For Good

“Here she comes… you’d better get your stuff!” I overheard that being said about me, in my house, and the worst part is, they were probably right to say it. If someone’s cup was half full, I filled it or removed it. I cleared tables, fluffed pillows, emptied the trash faster that my loved ones can stand up from where they’d been sitting. I couldn’t even go to sleep at night without picking up my house first. I’ve been working on not being that person, the ever-present butler.

It’s not that I meant to rush folks- I think I wanted to sit down, but couldn’t until everything was picked up. Everything.  Until I started to let that part of me go, I called myself Neat. I would even allow Neat Freak.

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Then, I watched Marie Kondo, started emptying my closets out, and understood the problem with Neat

I found, when I looked at my clothes, that I have a ton of things I love to wear, with the tags still attached. All my favorite labels in my favorite colors and fit await me in the guest room closet. I rarely get dressed from that closet. These are things I’m saving For Good: an event, wedding, shower, a performance of some kind, date night.

The closet I get dressed from has clothes- random, paint stained, hand-me-down clothes. One favored pair of jeans just showed up here a couple of summers ago. I asked all the cousins who’d been around ‘hey, did you leave these jeans?’ for about a month, and then I just started wearing them. They fit me fine, but they are not mine.

I had about forty t-shirts. Most of them were grey, white, or black. If they had color, there was just one; a green t-shirt, a pink t-shirt, several red t-shirts, my butler uniform, probably. While sorting all of these things I uncovered the messages I’d been sending myself (beating myself up about) via my stuff and the storage of it all:

Rules For Being Neat

  • Keep it cotton, so you don’t have to worry about spills.

If you’re mad because you stained it, you had no business wearing it

  • Wear practical shoes

Stay ready to run

  • You’ll need pockets for your keys, cash, a lipstick, ID

Keep your hands free, don’t take up space, be helpful

  • You may have other things; soft things, pretty things, delicate things but they are only for a moment.

As soon as you have worn this for a couple of hours, take it off, clean it and put it away. Save That For Good.

Play clothes and school clothes. And I seemed to be for Play. I also seemed to be a nervous wreck, on top of it- do other women feel that they have to always be ready to defend themselves? I just wasn’t living a very trusting life.

I’d heard that people were selling their clothes, with the tags still on, in consignment shops but I couldn’t do it.  When it comes to my joy being sparked, the school clothes won hands down. Cashmere and angora and trousers and shirts with buttons and hats galore. That was where my joy was found, in the things I’d kept For Good. And so, I ditched everything else. My bags for charity, twelve of them to be exact, were shipped off. I was left with two pairs of new jeans, about a dozen t-shirts and maybe six sweaters in the closet in my room.

But the school clothes! I moved them down the hall and delight in them. I haven’t been this light since I went to that outlet mall and bought myself a maternity wardrobe – and now I know why I missed my maternity clothes after my baby was born, all those years ago. I got them thinking only of taking good care of my body, which was home to my girl. I picked them, I paid for them, I took care of them. Those things were mine.

And the unleashed school clothes are mine in that same way. They’re a random and quirky collection of stuff that makes me feel good, and I wear it no matter who will be around on that particular day. Mine.

And I am finished bursting at the seams with stuff I didn’t want, but felt obligated to keep, which leaves no room or time for the stuff I want to cherish.  This butler is permanently retired.

 

Thanks, amen.

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The Good Life.

I have been redecorating my house.

All of it.

Something about turning fifty, and living in an increasingly harsh world and all has me wanting something like that. Something like remodeling my entire life so that the outside matches my insides, I mean. I want our home to be a haven for us and other weary sojourners. I want respite care from daily life – every day. I want plants and lights and whole homemade food and baskets of warm, fluffy towels with cookies. I want to be able to be a light and a resting place, and I am willing to hold that space for as long as it takes. I want no time unspent loving on me and my people.  I made an announcement that sounded like this sometime around Christmas of last year. While the naysayers nayed, I brushed my shoulders off and got to work converting our house into an art gallery and studio. That we live in.

This ambitious goal is complicated by the fact that my parents built this house and raised their children in it. Meaning I run into artifacts from my childhood on the regular; a toboggan, a clock from my mother’s office, a skateboard some cousin left behind. I found this in a basement file cabinet a couple of weeks ago, stacked just this way. It’s a picture of my youngest on the day she finished preschool on top of one of my father’s notebooks. The two of them have never met yet there she is, with my daddy’s smile in the middle of her face.

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And underneath their smile are his notebooks. This one is 95th in a series that would climb into the hundreds. Hundreds of times, that guy sat and planned what would happen in the next season of his life. Deliberate, choose, coordinate, implement, evaluate. As an urban planner and community developer with an undergraduate degree in physical education, he spent his whole career making families and the city stronger using physical fitness and sports. Every season of every year the goal was to have fun, learn things and be a good neighbor. This book, and others like it, served as a map of every coach and play guard in our city, meant to be studied and referred to frequently. Come to think of it; my whole life, his whole notion of parenthood and community growing up was a series of projects- each having their own book.

There was no TV in our house, most times, and when we got one, children were not allowed to watch it on weeknights. And so we turned to our imaginations and made books. That project of the moment engulfed all our free time; we’d talk about it over supper, ask for trips to the library or AAA to research hotels and atlases.  Part scrapbook, part budget, with a good bit of travel guide thrown in, our family books were the road map to the future. See something cool you might need on your adventure in the Sears Catalog? Rip it out, and put it in your book. Coupons for road trip snacks? In the book. A list of people you’re going to need to call for help? The book.

Every one was better than the last:

  • Coaching and winning with the first integrated track club in Wisconsin (this one, dad made alone, but it was the model for all the other books to come)
  • Olympic games in Canada
  • Camping trips for 90 children and our families
  • 101 ways to play with snow closely followed by
  • Could our backyard be a putt putt course/ volleyball court/urban farm?
  • Drive to see the Pacific Ocean for ourselves
  • Family reunions, Backyard festivals and celebrations
  • An outdoor skating rink in our neighborhood park
  • Host family in a global youth exchange program
  • Customized college tours ( 3)
  • Renewed vows 25th anniversary
  • daughter’s wedding, son’s wedding

Books and books and books. And we had so much fun.  Like, we had regularly-splitting-our-sides-enjoying-ourselves kind of lives. And I would dare say it was because of the energy we spent crafting those lives. We were not spared hard times by these projects, but they made the good times so very good. I remember emptying the contents of one binder in a recycling bin, ripping off the cover, and beginning to fill it with the next story without any regrets. In fact, I was excited to trash a book, because I was making space for the next story to begin. The books are not the important part of making a book, it’s the life you get while you’re making the book that matters.

And this moment, this swirl of half finished projects and drying paint had me longing for a book.

I needed a special book and went to dig out one Gregory made me a few years ago.  I’ve never written in it- I found it too beautiful, too rare. He treated the leather and stamped little bees around the edges before tying it closed around the hand sewn pages. The pages are blank as they must be, the paper fairly thick. It will have to hold drawings and paint and glued on pieces of magazines and fabric. I’ll have a place for all the receipts and paint samples that drift around the kitchen, wishing they had a place to be. I can take down the sign I’ve taped to the side of a cabinet in our dining room.

The sign says:

  • Spider plants
  • Epoxy (with four hash tags, I need six)
  • Foyer Rug!

This belongs in my book! Then, it will make sense that I’m spending all my free time on interior design in a perfectly good house. And all my pocket money on paint and hardware store items.

That settles it. I am making a book. This one is called The Good Life.

Thanks, Amen.

 

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Ernest

In 1976 our school, and maybe all of America, went Bicentennial Crazy.  Bicentennial celebrations covered the calendar for the entire year. And, that was the year that my grandma Green volunteered to make me a Betsy Ross costume for the Colonial Halloween parade.  We’d already studied the original US colonies more than you can even imagine, but we took a field trip out to a “colonial village” set up to experience colonial life.  It was interesting, at first, because who doesn’t love a field trip? I asked the tour guide where all the Black folks were, and she told me that there were no Black people, they came much later as slaves.

Ok. Nobody was Black in colonial America.

So, we get back to school and it’s time to pick who we’re going to be in the parade. I chose Betsy Ross. The women in my family liked to sew, and I figured that’s how we would’ve contributed to the independence of our nation if we’d been in the area at the time. My costume was elaborate, and made almost exactly like the pictures my grandma and I looked up in the encyclopedia.

My colonial obsession did not end with the parade, though.  I spent most of my free time quizzing my elders about their ancestors, particularly those who’d been enslaved. The conversations went mostly like this:

Me: Did you ever meet the people in our family who were slaves?

Grandma Green: I don’t know… I imagine that the first people who lived in the big house down south used to own the rest of us at some point. If I picked out the oldest person living down that lane where I grew up, they might’ve been a slave.

Me: Did your dad own Mama Hester? He was the white one.

Grandma Green: No, he didn’t own her. They were married! He was colored.

Me: Looks white to me. *conversation stops cold.

Or this

Me: did you ever meet the people in our family who were slaves?

Grandma Dobbs: I may have… I must have….

Me: Were they okay? (thinking about how torn apart I’d be if I were a slave.)

Grandma Dobbs: Yes. But they didn’t like to talk about slavery, and it was rude to ask. (raises her eyebrows at me.) * Another conversation bites the dust.

 

I have only one story about our first American. Out of all the people who were enslaved, only one story remains. My grandfather used to tell all or parts of this story regularly, and even now, the generations beneath me can tell it. I don’t know if it is true, even, but this is the way it goes.

My first American was a little boy who was happy and free and swam in the waters of the Cape of Good Hope every day. One day, he was stolen away from his family and sold into slavery. He was taken far from home and told to forget all about it. He tried, but he couldn’t forget what Free feels like.

Seeing as how he was a little guy, he was purchased by the captain of a slave ship to serve as a cabin boy. He made several trips running slaves from the Caribbean to New Orleans, and he saw terrible things; the inner workings of people being beaten, starved and tortured for profit, and he learned to hate his captain. But he emptied slop jars and spittoons, and made his captain comfortable despite the hatred- he’d seen too many people get hurt and killed for the slightest disobedience. Instead, he made a plan.

The captain liked my ancestor and thought he was a smart kid, which he was. He taught him to speak, write and read English on the open water, as sort of a party trick for the amusement of his shipmates. Not only did my ancestor learn to write the name the captain gave him, he also practiced writing all kinds of things. And one night, after the captain was asleep, my ancestor wrote himself a note. It gave him permission to be absent from the ship to gather supplies, and was signed with an exact replica of the captain’s signature.

The next time they docked in New Orleans, my ancestor waited while the crew to unloaded enslaved Africans and cleaned the ship. When it was dark, and the crew was out carousing before the ship left port, he put his letter in the pocket of a suit of clothes he’d stolen from the captain.  He wrapped them in a bundle that he held up out of the water as he swam for shore. He thought he saw the captain watching from above deck.

The boy, now a young teenager, hid in the mail station in New Orleans for days, using his bundle from the captain as a pillow, bedclothes, shelter from the rain… he stayed put until the slave ship had left port without him.  When people asked him who he was, he showed his note confirming his name was Ernest Dabbs, as the captain stated in the note and signed with great authority. The name was one he’d stolen and practiced from a crate he hid near in the mail station.

Even though he was free, he knew he had to get out of town; his ship would be back eventually, or the real Ernest could show up wondering why he and a cabin boy running errands for a slave ship might have the same name. So, he rolled up the sleeves and pantlegs of his new clothes and made his way West, travelling with a group of Native Americans who’d come to town to trade furs.

Ernest went all the way home with these guys and settled in.  He finished growing up, and got himself some land. He took a wife and they made some children – who had children, who had children until one of them made me.  Red and White and Black. African Americans.

That’s it. The Story of Our First American. It is no Hero’s Journey.  It’s a story about a child abduction and how the victim survived. How he fought his way back from incredible trauma to be a member of a community again. There is no rebellion, no return to the wharfs of New Orleans to liberate his people. Ernest was just a kid who did the best he knew how using what he had.

Thanks Ernest, for not giving up. Wouldn’t be here without you.

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On Being Fifty

People keep asking today, “How does it feel to be fifty?” So, I’ll say it here.

It feels amazing! This, from a person who hates the over use of the word amazing.  This here really amazes me.

When I was in my late 20s, after a couple of years of being sick and tired, I got a really scary health diagnosis, and was told to prepare to live another ten or so years.

Right.

So, being a stubborn, scientific type, I went to the library. I ignored the doctor, failed to put a bar in my shower, and did not make plans to get to assisted living when I needed it. I did not show up when it was time to take treatments, in fact, I declined to participate in studies.  I figured if I had to die, I was going to go out whole – after a life fully lived.

First decision- I stopped eating anything that didn’t help my physical self to balance. I kept telling myself, “My body wants to be whole. Let me help.”

Secondly- I signed up for Tai Chi. I learned to meditate. I got a therapist. I practiced yoga. I prayed. Not one after another, but simultaneously. My evenings were entirely made of wholeness. I would visit the doctor periodically, to confirm what I already knew. That helps.

And then, my body healed. But I’m not writing this to tell you what a “Brave Lady Who Decided To Trust What Is” I am.

I’m writing to say thank you.

Thanks for changing your recipes so I could still come to the party.

Thanks for slapping cookies out of my hand.

Thanks for holding meetings on the floor when I was tired, without a second thought.

Thanks for walking more slowly, instead of telling me it might be time for a wheelchair.

Thanks for giving me happy music to listen while I exercised.

Thanks for letting me nap on your couch.

For praying with and for me, both when I saw you and when I didn’t.

Thank you for allowing me to believe that I could live.

And thanks for saying, “if this doesn’t work, I’m calling your doctor. And your mom.”.

But it worked. Because we let it!  That is amazing! And thanks for being happy for me that I am middle aged. It is my proudest accomplishment.

Point is, I’m really, really alive and kicking. This afternoon, the husband I swore I never take because it’s not fair to get married only to make a widow and I are going to pick up the kid I didn’t think I’d want to conceive and wouldn’t be able to see grow up from a camping trip with her friends. And yes, I’ll be the oldest mom waiting for her camper to unload and that feels like Grace.

Grace, Grace, and more Grace.

Thanks, Amen.

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Pursuit of Happiness

Sugarfoot logoI have a life. I am reasonably free. I haven’t yet exercised my self-evident right to pursue happiness. ‘Cuz this is not the happy I thought I would get. This is happy, but it’s not mine. My happy fits like a glove. That’s how I could reach this age and not be completely fulfilled in every-single-solitary aspect of my life.  Wrong happy.

Welcome to my self-talk, as I prepare for the second act of my life.

So, I made a breakfast meeting with an extremely accomplished woman who works in my town and does it in a way I admire.  Yeah, that’s not like me, talking to strangers, but I decided to make an exception, and did.

She came into the coffee shop where we’d agreed to meet, sort of parting the sea while I was at the counter getting a chai latte. She went with the hostess, telling me, “I’ll be over there.” I was only sure it was her because she asked me my name while the sea was parting. I whispered, “okay,” and hoped that the tea wouldn’t take too long.

After too many minutes waiting for tea while she looked at the menu, I met her at the table. After the tiniest bit of mandatory chit chat, we got right to it. I knew I’d like her! I told her, “I’m looking to go back to work full time. My baby is big, the book and two plays are completed. I want a normal job that uses what I’ve got. I don’t know how to…”

“Let me stop you right there,” she jumped in. “You know. You do, you know exactly what to do.” And then she proceeded to give me all of her secret sauce of professional success. She just told me, because I asked her.  I took notes and listened. Like, listened really deeply. She told me about companies that were hiring for what I want to do. She mentioned ways to get a position outside of “Job listings”. How to get funding if I want to focus on entrepreneurship.  She cracked open her phone and took me to websites I’d never heard of, gave me social media pointers and killer networking opportunities. But she cautioned me, before doing any of these things it is essential to know exactly who I am and what that’s worth.

And then, the bombshell: “Your daughter doesn’t need you. She can do all kinds of things on her own now, and she should.  The critical thing you do for her now is show her how to persevere.  Show her how you can be the person you want to be, and not rest on the person you have been.”

WHAT?!

What did you just say to me, lady I’ve never seen before this moment? How do you know what my soul needs?

She also told me to sit down with a pen and a pad and don’t get up until I have decided who I am now, after all the experiences, and the effort and the mistakes.  And then, she said, my job is to go out in the world being that, and I will meet my new position there.  Then, she paid for breakfast, passed me a business card, shook my hand really warmly, and walked back to her office after greeting some people at the table behind us.

Who knew? Angels are real.

Thanks, Amen.

 

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Enough

I’ve decided, in honor of being six months away from 50 years old, to keep only one Resolution for this year and it is this:

Enough.

It just occurred to me this winter that I am an old woman now.  Actually, it didn’t occur to me. I was told, gently and with great care, by another woman.  No, it’s okay, she was kind.  This has been happening for a few years, and I dismissed it.  I’ve felt young because I have a young child, I was reasonably fit, my mind is sharp, my hair is not grey, I’m not too wrinkled…. But now, hearing it live from someone I care about, well, it was time to face the facts.

I am growing old. I am almost half way to the “I’m Gonna Live To Be One Hundred” promises of my twenties.  I accept this, supposing this is an acceptance that any kind of midlife crisis having person should have, but this one is personal because, well, it’s my life I’m talking about. Please note, I didn’t say irrelevant, demented, or stagnant.  Just, old.

This world told me in my first half that I’m selfish when I want what I want, even if it does no harm, even if I haven’t even made any kind of announcement. So, I gave away the first half of my life. I gave myself to causes, lovers and loved ones, neighbors and friends.  I do not regret this giving, and I believe that all parties are better for it. Only difference for this half is that I’m going to give myself to me, too.

This half is mine. I will expect credit for all my contributions, and will be responsible for my mistakes. I want to be around people that keep me happy and uplifted. I want to eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired, and laugh.  I want to dance – a lot. I plan to smile only when I mean it, which I imagine will be often and cry on the regular, because I’m not holding my tears in for this half.

More than anything, I will be grateful. I learned that in the first half, for sure. The more I’m grateful for, the more grateful I have become. This New Year’s Eve was different though. I dug through my Gratitude jar this year, pissed that I was sick and watching fireworks on TV instead of seeing them for myself, but this happened.

Gratitude Jar

Me: I don’t want to read all these little slips of paper. This year sucked. This next year will suck too if I don’t get better in a hurry.

Jar: It didn’t suck at all! Come see what happened.

I went, despite my cold, and that jar was full of miracles. I found camping trips and more tomatoes than we could eat in my garden, and thriving kids, and a completed script and production offer for a play I wrote, and a pair of jeans that had room for my waist and butt at the same time.

How many miracles can there be?

I have cousins that crack me up and hold me up. There were parties of all kinds, some with costumes! That jar held art and song and good food, and there was love. And that is Enough.

That’s my only focus this year. If it works out, I may continue this way indefinitely. At least until I make one hundred.

thanks, amen.

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