Monday, May 29, 2017

How being the butt of the joke can change the world

Brad and his York Story Slam trophy.
Oh, and a fancy craft beer.
Back in April, just days before our family made its trek to Disney World, Brad headed north to York to share a lecture on the art of storytelling as part of York: Crafted, an event that "gives York's doers and makers a platform to share their experience of what it means to craft, and to be a craftsman."

He'd been invited by the organizer of York Story Slam after he won the title of York's Best Storyteller for sharing an anecdote about the horrors of high school track shorts circa 1992 and the shame of realizing his snake was out of the cage in front of a grandstand of spectators during the 100-meter dash. 

Interested in hearing more about that? Oh, don't worry, it's on the internet. You can watch it right here. Make sure to let Brad know you've seen it ... I mean, if you can still look him in the eye and everything.


Despite having delivered not one but four crowd-pleasing tales at previous story slams, Brad was nervous about participating in Crafted. For one, the format was a bit more structured. Speakers were instructed to use something called the PechaKucha presentation format, which involves showing 20 slides that advance every 20 seconds to help keep the presentation concise and engaging. 

He also felt like the types of stories he shared (you know, ones about passing out on the toilet naked or being mistaken for a guy named Brian or eating spaghetti with his bare hands) were slightly less sophisticated than those of the other presenters, who shared on topics like Crafting Resilient Human Souls, The Crisis of Addiction and The Art of Overcoming Epilepsy.

But he did it anyway. Because after you've told the story about MacGyvering a tie for your manhood out of some spare shoelaces, you pretty much have humility to spare. 

Brad's presentation was overshadowed by Mickey Mouse and Liz Gilbert, which is a shame, because it's pretty awesome.

You should watch it... I'll wait. 


See what I mean? 
I'm so proud of Brad for going outside his comfort zone (What? You ask. Does Brad even have a comfort zone? Didn't he pretty much blow up his comfort zone by telling us that he got mugged in the Barbie aisle?) And his message about what it takes to craft a great story is important– even for those among you who aren't aspiring writers, artists or comedians. Why? Because it's at the heart of how we connect to each other– as family. Friends. Neighbors. A Nation.

While we all want to be a hero– the person who wins every race, gets every promotion, has all the most influential friends, has traveled to the most countries and has the most exciting stories– the reality is, those stories are exhausting. They're the stories of the Joneses whose lives are perpetually Facebook perfect. They breed envy and resentment. And that envy and resentment makes us feel smaller and less worthy. And none of that is the stuff of love. 

The stories we love to share– the stuff of legend– aren't the ones of the person born into privilege who never had to struggle, who never had moments of regret or shame, who achieved all their goals their first time with no resistance, who never had to overcome. 
The stories that speak to our souls are the opposite of all of that. They're the "Cool Runnings" stories. Where nobody remembers your name. Where no one thinks you have a chance. When things don't go as planned. Where you are the butt of the joke. 

They're the ones Brad shares for laughs– those moments of defeat transformed into lessons. They are those moments of vulnerability– someone opening up about addiction or the time they had bed bugs or how they sometimes want to run away into the woods forever instead of facing one more day with a house full of demanding children. Those very incidents that feel like they are going to break us, but end up shaping us into better people. Those are the most human of stories. Those are the stories that we bond over. That we share around camp fires for years to come.

Right now, as a nation we're being told that the only story worth sharing about us as a people is one of might. One of dominance and force. Where our ability to project power is the alpha and omega. Where moments of vulnerability are considered a fallacy, not an opportunity for growth.

I think that message is one borne out of fear, actually, not out of strength. 

And I don't think that is us. 

No, the roots of our stories bear the bones of Brad's stories. The ones where people left countries where they were oppressed religiously, racially and economically in search  of a new beginning. A chance to use the lessons they learned to build a better life. A story full of obstacles, frustrations, mistakes and (I assume) unfortunate bathroom situations. 

And just like the narrative of our human existence, our story as Americans has been fraught with plenty of shameful moments– our oppression of native people, enslavement of black people, suspicion and ostracization of foreigners– even though most of our ancestors were foreigners, too. This is the story we need to acknowledge and grow from. 

We don't need to be the Joneses of the world. We need to own who we are, warts and all, and the world will listen and understand, I think. Because it's their story, too. 

In a recent episode of "On Being" Krista Tippet quoted political theorist Hannah Arendt who wrote "The Origins of Totalitarianism."  
“ 'What prepares men for a totalitarian domination' — and here, again, is what happens in the human heart and psyche and society that makes these things possible — 'is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience, usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.' And if I think about the Brexit experience in the U.K., and I think about this last presidential election in the U.S., so much of the dynamic were human beings who had felt unseen and feel disconnected. It’s that language, she says, 'atomized, isolated individuals.' " 
One way to combat loneliness is with conversation, and conversation starts with finding commonalities or exploring differences. It starts with a story. It starts by being vulnerable.

I know that's a long way to go from Brad's tales of flashing and pants crapping (wait ... was that his or mine? I can't keep up with the familial shit storm). 

As always I start at Point A (share Brad's awesome storytelling abilities) and end up somewhere around Point R (extrapolate a larger message about interpersonal and international relations.) It's just the imperfect-yet-ongoing dialogue in my head - sorting through this life.

And it's Memorial Day and I feel reflective. 

I feel reflective and defensive. Because I know to some I'll sound naive. And I own this. I'm going to own my idealism. I just can't help but think the way we've gone about things is the wrong way – no matter how well intended we are. 

As evidenced by the rows and rows of alabaster headstones in Arlington, and the rows and rows of names reflected on the gleaming walls of the Vietnam Memorial, and the rows and rows of gold stars on the World War II memorial, and the suffering our veterans still face long after the end of combat – we cannot and should not choose the story of force and might as our first and only story – the stakes are just too high.

So, I don't know, let's start writing a different story.

Each of us. Do what Brad does. Write the story of those uncomfortable moments. Then share it with one person. Or a couple people. Or if you're feeling extra brave, a roomful of strangers. That humanity you experience in sharing is real. That's the stuff we are made of. That's the stuff that will save us.

For inspiration (and/or an uncomfortable chuckle), here's a few more of Brad's stories:

 York Story Slam January 2016 "New Beginnings" (i.e. that time no one knew his name)


Brad York Story Slam February 2016 "Sick" (i.e. that time he passed out pooping)

Brad York Story Slam October 2016 "Unmasked" (i.e. that time he went by Brian)


Monday, May 22, 2017

Let's talk about death, maybe

My mother is one of the most adorable people you will ever have the pleasure of meeting. She's like homemade bread straight out of the oven– warm, comforting and often covered in flour. She loves babies, coffee and flannel. Probably in that order. Her laughter is infectious and her shoe collection enviable. 

So it might come as a surprise that periodically, my sisters and I get texts from her like the following:

A few days ago we got this email:
"Hi everyone,In light of our friend/neighbor dying in Mexico this week a thought I have been wanting to share with you and Dad feels the same way is the following. If either of us dies in Colorado– our wish is to be cremated in Colorado. Neither of our dead bodies will be flying in the sky to Va. I am not planning of dying anytime soon but I wanted to make you aware of our wishes.Love mom"
My favorite came a month or two ago:

My sister Laura responded to Mom's text with a "LOL". Sarah, who's an amazing henna artist, offered mom advice on what type of henna to buy and where to get it. I suggested she consider getting an actual tattoo– you know to save her the trouble of reapplying the henna every couple weeks. 

Mom is 70. She's active, eats well and is in good health. Like she writes, she's not planning on dying anytime soon. But she's pragmatic about death– Dad "We're all gonna end up dead one day" Haller is, too. 

When I tell friends about these regular exchanges my family has about death and dying– they look at me as if my face has suddenly sprouted a foot. And I get it. Death is such a taboo subject in our society. I know the fact that my siblings, parents and I have this ongoing dialogue about what we do and don't want in our final moments and what we'd like to happen to our bodies is unusual (most of them want to be cremated and sprinkled some place peaceful and beautiful– the mountains or the ocean. Steve wants a Viking Funeral. I'm kind of digging the idea of this Mushroom Burial Suit). Maybe we're weird. Unsettling. Too dark. All those things.

But I don't think it should be.

I'll put the mushroom death suit and cremation aside for the moment (being flip is just a reflex– attempting to find humor in the inkiest corners). I understand death is maybe too morose for a rainy Monday. I'm a regular person, too, who (like everyone) is apprehensive and fearful of death– the loss of my family and friends– my own end.

But can't we all talk about death without it being morbid? Can't we stop pretending that we're immortal for a minute and acknowledge the reaper in the room?

We'll start with the obvious and inevitable. We are born. We spend some time here. And we die. 

It's the universal narrative of our existence. So short it makes all the middle part seem insignificant (it's not).

We take so much care with the first part. In preparation for new life we read books, download apps, take classes, scour message boards. Track each stage from poppy seed to watermelon with joy and terror. We have endless conversations with our partners and friends and family about what that new life might look like. Who it might act like. What its future holds. There are parties, balloons, cake. Weird games involving melted candy bars in diapers. And it's all understandable and appropriate (well, except for maybe the diaper game). My heart bursts at the site of a new mother and her new baby. Because I know. I know how precious and life-altering it all is.

There's not the same fanfare surrounding death. And I'm not suggesting there should be. It's a different sort of creature. But there should be something, you know. Something ahead of  the wake and funeral. Something after. 

When Elizabeth Gilbert took the stage at the retreat that first night last week, telling us about how ill her partner was. How it seemed the end was near, she pointed out something that stuck with me. 

Rayya is dying. I mean really, we're all dying the minute we start living. But for Rayya, it is closing in. What Liz lamented was how near it was for her dear friend and we didn't have the right verb for it. That moment infants travel from the womb to the world they're being born. But what about at the other end of the timeline? What would that be? Being died? 

We don't have a vocabulary for the last weeks, days or hours of a person's life (those whose death is the result of a long-term illness, anyway, as so many do). We can't locate the words to sort through the enormity of this moment. And so I think we run from it. We duck in an alley. We change the subject. 

But shouldn't we approach death with the same care and planning we do for life? With the same candor? The same intention?

When we avoid the topic, we're throwing caution to the wind. Allowing our death and the death of those we love to be up to other forces. 

I'm not talking about the cause of death– I understand we're not in charge of that. We don't really get a say in when or what kills us. But the "how" of death? The "Where" of it? We can have more of a say in that, I think.

The alternative isn't pretty.

A couple years ago, Mom handed me a copy of Atul Gawande's excellent "Being Mortal" (please, everyone, go read it.)

In it, the surgeon writes: “It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life. As Felix put it to me, 'Old age is a continuous series of losses.' Philip Roth put it more bitterly in his novel 'Everyman,' 'Old age is not a battle. Old age is a massacre.' "

A massacre. 

(Strangely enough, I might have used the word "massacre" to describe the condition of my lady bits after giving birth – but I mean, it was the best kind of massacre. (See: resulting babies))
"The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver's chance of benefit," Gawande says.

He points out that our lives are getting longer– but our ends are often drawn out and painful: punctuated by invasive medical treatment and intervention after intervention. Fifty percent of elderly Americans die in acute care. Passing away in hospitals hooked up to machines– with no agency over their bodies– their loved ones witnessing the final pained moments in the sterility of a hospital room rather than the comfort of their homes surrounded by the familiar smells, their favorite chair, their beloved pets. 

I pray for a death as beautiful as the birth of baby Liam, at home, surrounded by all those who loved him. It's the reverse side of the same coin, you see.

Last weekend Liz Gilbert* recalled one of her last conversations with her friend Richard From Texas (the guy who nicknamed her "Groceries" in "Eat Pray Love"). Richard had told Liz that he'd had a couple of heart attacks.

"I'm just getting used to letting it stop," he said.

So he was ready when his time came. When it did stop for good, Richard was at home. Liz wrote on her Facebook page a two years ago:
"He died peacefully in his sleep, at home, on a quiet Texas evening, after having taken a lovely stroll with a dear friend. He was found sitting in his easy chair, with his big strong hands folded gently on his lap. I have never heard of a more gentle passing. I don't think Richard was afraid to die, either. (I once asked him what he thought about death, and he just laughed and said, 'All I know about death, Groceries, is that it always seems to take everyone by surprise — which is weird, because it is LITERALLY the only thing the universe guarantees to everyone. Death is literally the ONLY explicitly clear item on the contract — but still, it always seems to take folks by surprise.' "
Can we stop being so surprised about it every time? I think it's traumatic for our brains and our bodies to be surprised by death. It literally happens every day. 

(Another aside: The other day we were driving past the cemetery that sits across from Jovie's preschool when I turned to Brad and said, "It's such a lively cemetery!" And as Brad does often in my presence, he gave me the old one eyebrow. What I meant was that there seemed to be a lot of funerals there– and beyond that, a lot of people visiting. Which I thought was really nice. Because, you know, death isn't the end of a person. It's just the end of their physical being on this Earth. They are all still with us. Nanny, Poppy and Bart the cat. Cort who passed away in high school. Gabe a couple years ago.Their spirits survive in time and space and in our hearts and memories.)   

I'm not suggesting that we don't grieve. That we just get over it. Not in the least. But let's talk about it. Let's look it in the eyes and show it the same love and compassion we show a newborn. Death does not mean to scare us. It's just the natural way of things.

There are examples for how we could reshape our dialogue about death. I love the "Day of the Dead" tradition in Mexico– where families clean and decorate the graves of deceased– leaving bottles of tequila, candy and marigolds. They keep alters in their homes as well, shrines to their loved ones. They share stories. I love how beautiful the sugar skulls are– transforming something grotesque into art. Transforming death into poetry. I love the tradition of jazz funerals in New Orleans– the dancing the music. A Dixieland Jazz Band played at my grandfather's favorite bar after his funeral. Even in death, Poppy always knew how to start a party.

And I'm coming to believe that the quiet, steadfast souls who guide the dying from this phase to the next should be honored. The doctors,nurses and hospice workers who acknowledge that all the measures have been taken and it's time to let go. They care for the dying, not by trying to prevent death, but by comforting the dying and their families. 

Did you know there are people called Vigil Volunteers? They are individuals who sit with the dying and their families– sometimes they might sing or read. Often they just sit and listen. Their role is to be present. To witness a soul passing from here to there so no one has to die alone. They are living saints, I think. Their soothing presence a gift.

And people like Liz, too, and my friend, Kristi who told her dear Jim it was OK to go. Those who support their loved ones when they decide to forego the endless treatment, who honor the DNRs other advanced directives. Those who offer steadfast companionship and support rather than insisting that all possible measures be taken. Those are acts of courage and grace. 

Once again, I find myself rambling. I feel like I should've had a better nutgraph (or thesis for those non-journalist types among you). The journalist types would no doubt have cut this post in half and rid it of all those unnecessary commas. 

I'll let my Mom tie things up here. When I told her I wanted to blog about death she was delighted and she shared an email she recently sent to a friend who was lamenting the loss of a friend and neighbor, saddened for the neighbor's now widowed wife:

"Life is so fleeting- I try to reminds myself of the fact every moment is precious because that is all we have. I then asked her if she remembered the song 'Dust in the Wind'. I suggested this song puts life in perspective- one moment there is life and then it is gone.  Makes one appreciate the loves of their life and enjoy them while we have life."

For your listening and viewing pleasure (the hair in this video is astounding– pretty sure my Mom shared it with the stylist when taking me to get haircuts in first grade).

* Eventually I'll stop referencing my weekend retreat probably. But there is still plenty of stuff to mine through, so I apologize in advance for that.

P.S. I created a page on Facebook for My Inside Voices– in case we're not FB friends but you'd like updates from the site. Feel free to give it a "Like".

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From Shomit to Shamanism: My Weekend with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rayya Elias

Coolest tree ever. More on that later.

If you're like me, then when you find yourself kneeling on the bathroom floor of an old friend's house, vomiting the delicious Cajun-inspired dinner she served earlier plus the curdled remains of a hot fudge sundae while simultaneously shitting your pants, you're fairly certain you won't be experiencing any life-changing moments anytime soon.

Which is kind of ironic, because certainly having "it" coming out "both ends" (i.e. Shomit, according to Urban Dictionary) is kind of a life-changing experience. 

I mean– if it's never happened to you before. Which it hadn't to me. 

That is, until 3 a.m. Friday when I was far from home, visiting a friend I hadn't seen in a couple years, preparing to attend a much-anticipated weekend retreat where best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert and her partner, musician Rayya Elias, were teaching a creativity workshop. 

My friend Kate had mentioned the workshop to me months ago during an email exchange in which we were both bemoaning our littles starting kindergarten this fall and still not having any idea what we were going to do when we grew up. I threw out the idea of going on a retreat together (which was kind of odd because I'd never been on a retreat and never really considered going on one until that moment) and then she wrote back and said she'd heard about this one and thought it sounded amazing and I agreed and then all the sudden we were booking a room and I was bemoaning my lack of appropriate "retreat wear" whatever that was– I assumed it would involve a lot of flowy sweaters, yoga pants in whimsical patterns and beaded jewelry (I wasn't wrong) and she was freaking out about what she would say to Elizabeth Gilbert (I guess we can call her "Liz" now) if she got to meet her.

I'd driven up to Kate's house outside New York City Thursday and we were planning to head up to Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, where the workshop was being held, mid-morning Friday. It's in the Berkshires. That's where fancy people go. And no, unlike Iggy Azalea, I'm not so fancy. I was just planning to keep my head down and sneak in the back door (or back road, rather). 

Speaking of my back door, it didn't seem too likely that I would be sneaking in or out of any doors– unless of course it was the door to Kate's bathroom. Which I crept in and out of frequently for the rest of the night. 

But as Liz told us that first evening, "You wake up every day to the world you're given."

The sun came up Friday morning. Conditions in my gut stabilized. My white pajama bottoms came out of the wash stain free. I promised to take it easy and Kate agreed to drive. It seemed there were forces beyond my stomach bug (and possibly my logic) pulling me to Kripalu.

And it was absolutely the right choice. 

See, that was the first lesson my inside voices wanted to teach me: Trust Me.

Trust Me when there is something inside me is tugging me in a direction that seems strange or illogical or outside my comfort zone. Trust Me that I know what I'm doing. Trust Me that you need to experience what you're about to experience.

And what Kate and I and the 300 or so other (mostly) women who attended the workshop experienced was life changing. And I feel the need to asterisks this by reassuring you this is not a term I throw around lightly (OK, scratch that, I did use it to describe the Peanut Butter Pandemonium ice cream I ate on the ride home Sunday. But in my defense, it was really good ice cream. And I was on a post-life-changing-retreat high.). 

It was life changing. And I knew it would be as soon as Liz took the stage alone Friday night, her face weary, voice thick from a day spent crying. 

Rayya Elias, her person, partner and co-presenter, had been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer more than a year ago and after a round of chemo had decided to forego treatment. She said she preferred the clean transaction cancer offered– "It promises you death and then it kills you" to the false hope she felt the chemo offered. 

Last week Rayya had taken a turn for the worse. It was clear on stage that Liz felt the end was imminent. That she was preparing to lose the love of her life. But they came anyway. They came– Liz and Rayya. See, they knew it was important– for Liz, for Rayya and for us.

And in that moment I knew my stomach bug might as well have been a paper cut. I was exactly where I needed to be and so were the rest of us. You could feel it in the room. It was a palpable thing.

Which is why, when Liz asked things like, "What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending to want?" answering honestly from the center of my heart felt even more urgent. You know? Now is the time to live that life we keep pretending to want. Right now. Because there's not a better time for it. There never will be.

Over the next two days Liz was our spiritual sherpa– guiding us up the Everests of our souls by forcing us to confront, question and honor various parts of ourselves. The goal: "To bring together all the voices in our heads and get them to learn how to live together nicely."

I mean HOLY SHIT. Is this not what I have been attempting to do for the past five years on this very blog? You're telling me all I needed to do was go on some little retreat up in fancy country to figure it all out?

Liz and Rayya (who took the stage Saturday– this badass force of nature obviously ignoring her physical discomfort to share her story and her songs) walked us through a series of writing exercises. 

We wrote letters to our fear and our enchantment ("Dear Susan, I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you" ... and "Dear Susan, I am your enchantment and this is what I want to tell you.") We wrote ourselves the ultimate permission slip from our inner Principal ("Dear Susan, I am the principal and this is your ultimate permission slip. Here is what you have permission to do:"). We wrote a letter of defense from our persistence (the nagging voice that tells you to keep going and going). We wrote a letter to our own souls telling them why they could trust us to steward them through this life. We wrote to our stumbling blocks and our monsters. We wrote a letter to our fear from our soul. We wrote and wrote and wrote. 

And many times we were asked to read what we'd written to the stranger sitting next to us. 

Which, you know, wasn't awkward at all. Especially when, while reading about my deepest, darkest metaphysical fears, I started, like, ugly crying all over my journal with nary a tissue to be found. (Liz instructed us to smack the ass of said stranger before sharing with them as some sort of, what? sorority sister hazing situation? I don't even know, but it seemed to work.)

We were all in it together, though. There was no judgment. No eye rolling. No shaming. No alienation. I can picture, vividly, the faces of each of the women I shared with. I could feel their anguish and fear, their resilience and compassion. Their strength. It was all right there in that room. 

At the end of the program, we speed read through everything we wrote– all the letters and notes we took– and underlined the parts that spoke most loudly to us. We picked our five favorite lines and turned them into a poem. These poems, Liz told us, were our instructions for living the life we actually want, not the one we're pretending to want.

Here's mine:

I am afraid not to listen to what my heart is telling me.But my persistence tells me: I am the one who got you here today And who will get you to tomorrow.Today is not going to be how it is forever.I give you permission to take up more space.Just trust me.

It's not a masterpiece by any means (though, Liz liked it on Facebook ... NBD), but it's the simple truths I needed to drill down to. 

And look, I know how kooky this might all sound. How I spent a weekend in Fancy Land and have officially relocated to LaLa Land, but damnit, it's the truth (Ugh. This sounds dangerously close to "my truth" territory which is just around the block from the universe telling me shit ... but oh well. Here we are. Pass the kombucha! We're leaving Zen Town on a one-way ticket. Destination: enlightenment.) 

For those of you who are still reading– I'll just say this. Well, actually, I'll borrow what Liz said, which is that we're the only ones responsible for caring for our own souls. Nobody else. It's on us. And if you feel as if your soul (or spirit or inner light or psyche or whatever you want to call it) is in some way hurting, then it's your duty to help it find the peace it's searching for. And it's your duty not only to yourself, but to the rest of this world which is hurting so much right now. We fix ourselves, we fix the rest. It's that simple. 

I'm not going to pretend that I'm going to fly through life on the back of a glittering pink pegasus forever (though that would be pretty bomb) but I do know I now have the right tools to continue the work. That I'm on the road I need to be on. And that I always have been.

Even if that road included a night where I shomitted. 

I'll close with the letter I wrote to my Enchantment– that part of all of us that loves music, dance, wonder, miniature ponies, goat yoga, etc.– it makes me smile to read it. 

Dear Susan,
I am your enchantment, and this is what I want to tell you.
Thank you for sitting under that tree yesterday, even though you sort of felt weird about it. You heard me when I told you that that tree had something to share about humility and beauty being one and the same.
You need to go swimming more. Stop being afraid of the first frigid dive into the water. That's how you wake your body up. That's how you wake me up and let me know you're ready to explore what it feels like to be weightless and be reminded that this place is where you came from.
Thank you for dancing. Every time you dance, you shake away the chains that fear tries to place on me. I don't really care how you dance or how you look dancing and you shouldn't either.
Remember how you thought you would be too chilly sitting on that hillside yesterday doing nothing? But then you did anyway and the sun warmed you in the right sports? Trust that. Trust that you will be cared for and that the music you heard in the wind really was music- the great breath of all of us– the trees, birds, bears, whales, humanity, flowers all of it carried in you and released out of you.
Just trust me.
Love, Your Enchantment
To Liz and Rayya, wherever you may be in space and time at this moment– thank you for the tremendous gift you shared with us: building the temple that brought so many full hearts together. Thank you too to all the women (and few brave men) who showed up to share in and witness the magic. 

Thank you Kripalu for all the wonderful food, your breakfast chai and something called Yoga Dance, which found me rubbing up against a complete stranger like a cat and dancing like some suburban hippy in the middle of a drum circle. That actually happened, and yes, it was awesome.

Thank you Brad for urging me to go, holding down Fort Jennings and making sure I didn't have to come home to laundry, grocery shopping or dinner making. You've outdone yourself in the Mother's Day department.

And thank you Kate, whose soul is among the purest I know.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Visit to the Magic Kingdom

When I told my friend Scott recently that my in-laws were taking my family on a trip to Disney World a few weeks back, he looked surprised.

"Who are you?" he asked with a bemused smile.

Scott asked this because the Susan (err Sue) he worked with years ago would not have been excited about a road trip to Disney World. At least not outwardly so. 

I liked to play the cynic. A kind of ranting, self-righteous skeptic of idealism and fairy tales. Because someone who likes the stuff of Disney was not someone who could be taken seriously– especially not in a newsroom– proving grounds for rumpled misanthropes who want to make the world a better place, but don't want anybody to know about it.

And I desperately wanted to be taken seriously. I desperately wanted to be respected.

So then, it seemed best not to mention about my love of Disney movies and unfulfilled wishes of going to Disney World.

How I can remember the first time I saw "The Little Mermaid" (my Dad brought it home on VHS - I watched it from the hardwood floor in the room he built in the house I grew up in) and the first time I saw "Beauty and the Beast" (while babysitting Melissa and Eric– the kids down the street) and the first time I saw "Aladdin" (summer break at the movie theater in Fairfax City near the Jo-Ann fabrics -- one of the rare occasions Mom took us to the movies) and the first time I saw "The Lion King" (the movie theater by Fair Oaks Mall with a group of friends that included one of my first crushes. We sat next to each other and held hands ... until I started bawling because Mufasa died.)

My sister and I always looked forward to the Magical World of Disney on Sunday nights– we'd watch "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "Swiss Family Robinson," "The Parent Trap" and "Escape From Witch Mountain."

How even in high school my best friend and I had standing dates to see whatever the latest animated release was.

These were the stories of my childhood (well, some of the stories of my childhood anyway). While I'd been to Disney Land when I was 3 or 4 and again in high school, I'd never been to Disney World (not that I didn't persistently beg my parents to take us there for years and years and years). 

Instead, our family vacations usually involved long, long road trips to New England or out West. Camping was often involved. Hiking was almost always part of the itinerary. Stopping at scenic vistas for photos of state and national parks was also part of the day's activities. The most amusement park-esque diversions on these trips was a visit to the hotel pool or eating ice cream before dinner.

At the point in adolescence that I recognized my parents as actual sentient humans with entire lives separate from serving the whims of their six children, it dawned on me that I couldn't even really picture either of them in Disney World. Walking around, waving at people dressed up as giant mice and bears and chipmunks. Fawning over princesses. Spinning around in tea cups. 

I gave up the dream.

And despite how beloved Disney was for decades, by the time I reached college, it no longer seemed cool or smart to mention them. 

Of course, when you have children life comes full circle. I've introduced Lily and Jovie to many of the movies from my childhood and am happy to have an excuse to watch the next generation of Disney. The expression on Lily's face when I told her years ago that the castle on the back of the "Lion King" DVD box was a real place was one of pure wonder and glee.

"Maybe someday we'll go there," I told her. Not actually believing it would ever actually happen. People don't just go to Disney World, just like people don't just go to Mars. 

But then a couple years ago Brad's parents mentioned the possibility of a family vacation to Disney World while the girls were still in Disney Princess Mode. 

It still seemed like an intangible thing back then. An idea of something fun to do at an unspecified point in the future.

But then we were picking dates. Picking a hotel. Picking the colors for our Magic Bands (what the hell are Magic Bands? I wondered) Checking out rides we'd want Fast Passes for (Kind of elitist, I thought). Announcing the trip to the girls via elaborate video productions (They're going to lose their shit, I thought). Giving the girls virtual tours of their "Finding Nemo"-themed hotel room (Lily spent days coming up with her plan of action for exploring the room). Packing various Disney-themed clothing, bathing suits and sunglasses (Is it weird to wear Disney outfits to Disney? Like wearing the T-shirt for the band you're seeing in concert? Turns out, Disney gear is practically a state uniform for Orlando). Driving and driving and driving and then, in a bizarro world fever dream (at least for me) entering Disney World.

It happened.

"I can't believe this is actually happening," I told Brad as we drove to the resort. "It's really weird."

More like I was really weird. Because people go to Disney World all the time. It's a thing. My neighbors just went a couple months ago. My niece plans to honeymoon there. A former boss visited almost every year. Our financial adviser had advice on where to stay. Seemingly everyone has opinions on where to eat, what to ride, what footwear to have on hand and how to schedule your days.

Over the decades of not going to Disney World, I'd kind of decided that I'd just never go. And that I didn't actually want to go. Because it would all be too much. Too big. Too expensive. Too far away. 

Too ridiculous.

I mean, grown people, wearing matching mouse T-shirts getting excited about hidden Mickeys and spotting other grown people dressed up as Tinkerbell. 

We humans can be pretty judgmental of the mentally ill and others who don't seem to have a strong grasp on reality, but after watching hordes of seemingly sane adults at Disney World, I'd say we're just jealous.

To be clear, it is ridiculous. 

All of it.

For instance:

  • There's glitter everywhere. Like, I'm pretty sure they intentionally infuse all sidewalks and surfaces with glitter. Everything sparkled.
  • All girls are referred to as "princess." Everywhere. It's all "Good morning, princess" or "Enjoy the ride, princess" or to Jovie, "Happy Birthday, princess!" When the girls dressed up as Princess Anna and Princess Elena, grown men dressed in their own costumes actually bowed to my children. Bowed to them. See. Ridiculous.
  • There are no bugs. Disney World is located, I think, in the middle of a Floridian swamp and I saw maybe one fly. One bee. The entire week.
  • There are no bad smells. Even in Animal Kingdom, which is full of potentially odiferous animals, my nose was rarely offended. In my experience, amusement parks can have notoriously stinky bathrooms. But Disney's were immaculate and stink-free. I swear the resort pumped in smell-scapes in the lobby, which frequently smelled like peaches.
  • The employees (excuse me, cast mates) are all so friendly and courteous. From the security guards checking your bags to the people serving your food to the people cleaning the bathrooms. So many smiles. So much genuine warmth. Disney should provide hospitality training to the rest of the world. 
  • From the second you walk into any of the parks you feel as if you're being transported to another world. The walk down Main Street is like entering the "Truman Show"- this  elaborate stage production designed to make you feel like Utopia could be an actual thing. Animal Kingdom was this lush, shaded jungle with blooming orchids growing in the trees, snowy white cranes resting on man-made shorelines and geckos scampering across oversized leaves. In Epcot, there are actually Norwegians manning the shops in Norway, actual Mexicans serving food in the faux Mesoamerican pyramid. I swear Disney paid this pair of young, attractive people to pose romantically on a rustic staircase in Italy. The queues for lines– whether it was to meet a character or go on a ride– were so richly decorated, you felt like you wanted to spend time studying the "artifacts" like you would at a museum. Nothing felt cheap or chintzy or cheesy. It felt intentional and real. And paradoxically, Magical. 

As we fought traffic on I-4 in Orlando, I told Brad we'd officially left the Disney Bubble. I said this both cynically and wistfully.

Disney has masterminded the world's largest, most elaborate stage production. Of course, you can't help but falling in love with it. While there, you are immersed in the most romanticized version of reality. An endless rom-com. A fairytale. 

Grownups are allowed (in fact encouraged) to be the silliest most spontaneous versions of themselves:

  • Animal Kingdom is hosting a street party in Africa? Sure, I'll go dance in public with strangers. 
  • The line to meet Joy and Sadness from "Inside Out" is only 20 minutes long? Heck yes I'm going to get a selfie with them knowing full well they're not actually the voices in my head, but humans just like me hamming it up for the camera just for my benefit.
  • Spot a "Mary Poppins"-era suffragette on Main Street? It only makes sense to shout "Votes for Women!" and fist pump as she yells back, "Any day now, girl!"
  • Lily wants to ride "It's a Small World" again? Sure I'll suffer through that again, just to see that smile on her face, that sparkle in her eyes. 
  • There's a strange kid sitting next to me on the shuttle to the park or in line for Big Thunder Mountain? You know I'm going to chat with him or her while we wait. That overtired baby? Guess who I'm playing peek-a-boo with. 
  • Drink a couple mojitos and hop on Expedition Everest (twice) while toting a box of chicken fried rice? Why not?

Disney World knocks down our walls. Dissolves our personal boundaries. Forces us into these weird temporary communities of overtired, over-sugared, ridiculously happy people. 

And the girls? Well, as expected, the girls soaked it all up. They offered shy smiles to the various princesses they were collecting autographs from. They were awestruck by Cinderella's castle, of course, but equally as smitten by the ducklings swimming in front of the castle and the wild lizards they spotted throughout Animal Kingdom. It was just as fun watching the girls try on a giant sombrero and Jovie dance around with maracas as it was seeing Lily hug Minnie Mouse and Jovie throw her hands up on the roller coasters. 

It was magic. A dream.

But like all dreams, it couldn't last forever.

And that was fine with me. For as fun as it all was, I found myself missing the real world. Everything there felt so scripted and neat. There was no shrub unpruned. No spilled ice cream. No moment left to chance, really.  

And I had guilt, too. Disney World is a place of enormous privilege. The cost of entry is prohibitive for so many people– people who would probably benefit from the chance to escape. It's set these expectations for my girls, too. The day we left they wanted to talk about the day we'd come back next. As if transforming into a princess will be a regular part of their future along with enormous swimming pools and resorts featuring statuary from their favorite movies. 

And I imagine we'll go back again one day. But I also want them to find magic in all the places we go. Whether it's a walk in the woods or visit to the shore. We are all so lucky to live in this big beautiful world– whether it's a theme park or a national park.

Grandma and Grandpa sent us home with a copy of "Moana."

We watched it with them at home after returning from Florida. And just as the Disney movies of my childhood, I found myself getting swept up in beautiful artwork, the music and the story– a story Disney and others have probably told a thousand times in a thousand different ways. The one where the protagonist feels called to a life beyond the one they're living, where they follow the call to uncover their destiny facing obstacles along the way. The standard heroes journey

It speaks to the desire each of us have within us to find our purpose in this life and leave our mark on this world in some meaningful way, large or small.

Moana's destiny, it turned out was to be a voyager. She knew that in her heart since she was a toddler. 

My long-awaited, full-on Disney immersion reaffirmed the destiny I'd known since I was a child. I'm a storyteller. 

I guess now that I've outed myself as more of a romantic idealist than a calloused cynic, maybe I won't be taken as seriously. Maybe there's less to respect. 

I don't know. 

Whether you quote Shakespeare ("To think own self be true") or the Genie:

It's all the same to me. I am who I am.