the Harper Lee dream


Yesterday afternoon, I went to the cinema with a group of friends and watched some broadcasted TED talks. The topics ranged from eliminating poverty to understanding the impact of stress on aging of DNA to plans to build a civilization on Mars in my lifetime. I left there feeling flummoxed in all the right ways: uplifted, amazed, inspired, even a little overwhelmed but the good kind. The program closed with the wonderful Anne Lamott reading an inspirational piece about things she’d learned, and I’d felt inspired and triggered in wonderful ways.

I felt renewed, restored. I’ve been on a media purge lately, habitually checking the president’s Twitter account to see what new thing I should be outraged by next. To leave a program feeling inspired and whole again, well that was simply wonderful.

I’m finding more of these experiences lately. Last week, I went to a salon at the home of a local well known feminist where an incredible local black woman, a lawyer writer author and professor, shared data on the evidence of black women being involved in slave revolts. She shared many inspiring points, but one stuck with me more than anything, the observation that when an interracial couple has a mixed race child, that child is always considered black, thus a white woman can give birth to a white child but a black woman can never give birth to a white child.

Before I fell asleep last night, I watched Hassan Minaj deliver a biting political comedy address at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, closing with poignant observations that he, the son of Indian immigrants and a brown skinned Muslim man, has the freedom of speech to criticize and cajole the white elected leader of the country, and that is what makes the country great. It was funny, sad, critical, and inspiring.

I fell asleep reading the works of Nelson Mandela, a man thrown in jail for his political involvement in a movement that demanded equality for black and white. I’ve read how he survived in prison for nearly three decades. He sat in a cell while his wife was imprisoned and harassed, while his mother died, while his oldest son was killed, while his daughter grew to adulthood and married and had children of her own. And despite the harshness of his conditions, he writes in such a way that, again, I feel inspired and empowered. His words brim with hope and positivity and the belief in change.

This morning, as I made my coffee, I plopped a DVD in the player to listen to while I worked. I have a habit of just grabbing documentaries randomly off the library shelf, something to help me expand my learning into new areas and categories I might not have been exposed to otherwise. This particular documentary discussed how To Kill a Mockingbird was created, and how it has become a timeless and enduring classic that has spanned continents and generations.

It opened with the story of Harper Lee, a small-town author who found herself too busy to write until a few friends saved up enough money and surprised her with a gift: they gave her enough money to cover all her bills and expenses for one year with the idea that she would use that year to write a book. That book became To Kill a Mockingbird.

I can’t get this thought out of my head, these kind people taking a risk on a friend, believing in her enough to give her an incredible opportunity. My mind moves to history, to the things I surround myself with, to the causes I believe in, to the things I choose to watch and read and write about, to the conversations I pursue. I look at a world of lessons from history, of the strength of human character, of scientific breakthroughs.

And then I flip back to the news feed on my phone for just a moment. People injured on planes, people shot and killed before the killer was shot and killed, the death of a 15 year old boy in a police shooting, White House drama over health care and a potential war with North Korea, and I feel my stomach sink. This is the news that the world pays attention to, the painful and heart-breaking, the torturous and deadly, the heavy and disheartened.

Last night, for a time, I sat with my boyfriend Mike and another friend in a hot tub and we talked about the ways we want to change the world, what we want to do with our lives. Mike talked about his love of music, the friend talked of helping those in need and healing. I briefly talked of my love of doing therapy and helping people find themselves and their potentials after their difficult and painful pasts.

“But that’s not what I want to do forever,” I said. “I want to tell stories. I want to change people. I want to inspire them with words and shared experiences. I want to look into the past and present and get people talking about things that both hurt and inspire. I want to see where we have come from and where we are and where we might be going and I want to share that with others. I want to write, and I want to share my voice both in word and aloud.”

As I sit and type this, I think again of Harper Lee and the chance was taken on her. I think of the documentary I’m making, of the dozens of things I want to write about if I could just find the time, the ability, the discipline, the audience. I thought of Harper’s timeless words that change everyone who read them.

“‘Atticus, he was real nice.’

‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.'”

Homemade Pizza

Pizza“Homemade pizza!” My 8 year old son, J, grimaced as he said it, like he had just received bad news from the doctor.

Mike, my boyfriend, nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, homemade pizza! You’ll love it!”

J merely nodded, slowly backing out of the room, a hasty retreat for a panicking child with a delicate palette. Soon, in the next room, I heard J exasperated. “He’s making homemade pizza! Oh no!”

Mike looked nervous, and I gave him a reassuring hug. He’s been getting used to dating a guy with children, and to even having a children around, and he’s been adapting quite well. It had been a few weeks previously when he had mentioned casually that my sons don’t eat quite as healthy as they could, and I had laughed almost hysterically. Eight years worth of feeding children came rushing back to me in a series of horrible and hilarious memories: spaghetti sauce washed out of hair and belly buttons, two year old mouths clamped shut refusing even one bite of turkey, ordered plates at restaurants met with tears and horror, being told my pancakes taste like garbage, and favorite meals rejected out of bad moods. I thought of all the ways I had tried making diets more nutritious, from pureeing beets and spinach into smoothies to mixing protein powder into waffle batter. I relived every time I had ever reached the decision to just feed them what they would actually eat rather than fighting them over choosing carrot sticks over Cheetos.

But to Mike I just smiled, and said I’m sure the kids would love his cooking.

I mean, Mike is a phenomenal cook. It’s one of his many talents. He can pick up fresh ingredients and cook phenomenal dishes from scratch. He’s been challenged, working with my vegetarian pallet, and has creatively used tofu and every kind of vegetable in making delicious casseroles, frittatas, pastas, cream soups, and salads. I have loved every dish. My kids, though… they wouldn’t have tried a single bite of any of them even if they’d been offered one.

While the kids played in the next room, Mike lovingly crafted pizza dough on two separate pans. He made a sauce of tomatoes for the kids, adding sugar to sweeten it, and a pesto sauce for the adult’s pizza. He spread cheese and pepperoni over theirs, then goat cheese, sesame seeds, fennel, spinach, and arugula over ours. It took a few hours while I played board games and toys with the kids, then he placed them in the oven.

Several minutes later, I heard an “oh no!” from the kitchen and rushed in to find Mike pulling the pizzas out of the oven frantically. Somehow, he had doubled the dough recipe, meaning the pizza crusts had risen to twice their standard size. He muttered quietly, trying to squish them down to size and spreading new toppings over them.

Thirty minutes later, we sat down at the table for dinner. J panicked, the pizza placed in front of him in an even slice.

“I, um, do I have to eat this?”

Mike looked nervous across the table, wanting to win the kids over with his cooking even though they were already very fond of him. I gave J a dad look and he looked away.

“Listen, buddy, you like pizza. You’ve had pizza before and you liked it. You can at least try this.”

“But we’ve made homemade pizza at mom’s house before and I didn’t like it very much! I know about homemade pizza already!”

“Buddy, just try it.”

His brother, A, took a small bite of the corner of the cheesy crush. “It’s not bad!” he muttered, enthusiastic, trying to reassure his brother. A often has problems with food, but he tends to only act up when his brother isn’t.

“Try some, J.” I said, in a sterner voice.

J reluctantly reached up his thumb and forefinger and picked up a crumb off the corner of the crust, placing it on his tongue. “There, see, I don’t like it.”

I could see his anxiety rising as he worked himself up. “J! Take a bite!”

He grimaced and closed his eyes, leaning his mouth down to the plate and taking a brief lick against the crust, getting a touch of sauce. He recoiled. “I think I’m allergic!”

I breathed out as Mike patted my arm. “It’s okay, he doesn’t have to try it.”

“I want him to at least try it. Come on, J.”

He looked panicked, over at my slice of pizza, covered in salad and seeds. “Um, maybe I would like yours better.” He was searching for any way out that he could.

I silently held my slice up and he took a bite, chewing on it slowly. “Um, this is okay! I like yours better!” he said. Then I watched him chew three times, open his eyes wide, and then promptly vomit his partially chewed food and the rest of the contents of his stomach all over his plate.

It was a few hours later, as the kids were tucked in soundly and sleeping. The rest of the night had gone well. J had cleaned himself up, had a good cry, and had eaten peanut butter and jelly. He gave an apology. “I just really really don’t like homemade pizza. I only like Little Ceaser’s. Or Domino’s. Or Pizza Hut or something. Just not homemade!”

Mike and I stoked a small fire in the fireplace and cuddled a bit, laughing about the day. After the vomit, he’d looked like a wounded animal and had vowed he would never cook for the kids again. I had merely laughed at that, knowing the feeling.

“Parenting is the fun stuff, like wrestling and tickles and Pokemon battles. But it’s also wiping up urine off the floor, working through crazy crying fits, and, yeah, even cleaning throw up off the double-stuffed crust homemade pizza you spent three hours making.”

He grimaced and snuggled harder into me.

“The big thing is that you tried.”

And then I noticed an inexplicable dislodged piece of pepperoni across the floor on the carpet across the room, and the laughter started all over again.