AME Anniversary: Making Charleston My Home

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(ED NOTE: The following blog first appeared in Charleston Skirt Magazine at http://bit.ly/1W1bZM5).

I moved to Charleston in 2013 without knowing a soul here other than my husband. I wondered whether the city would ever feel like home.

But people were kind and they would take the time to have coffee or even dinner with me. I didn’t mind that I was the one to do the asking every time, even if it stung my pride just a little. After all, I was the one trying to find new friends; the others already had their circles and, while they didn’t exclude me, they had no reason to think of me as they planned outings, either.

I loved Charleston, but was it home?

Visits back to the DC area where old friends and neighbors lived were always visits “home” for me.

And then June 17, 2015, not even a five-minute walk from my house, the unthinkable happened.

Peaceable people mown down by an angry, bitter young man with easy access to a gun.

Footage of faces both grieving and numb right there – right there! – where I’d stood to watch the many silly parades Charleston loves to hold. The curb where I’d stood with my leashed dogs watching decorated cars and costumed people strut past for Christmas, and St. Patricks’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day.

A New York newspaper called me right away and asked whether I could use my proximity to interview people. They would hire me, they would pay me well, to bring Charleston’s story to the world.

“I can’t,” I told them. “I’m not from here. I don’t know enough to know who to call, what to ask, that won’t increase the hurt.”

My home, but not my home.

The next days, after the police told us it was safe to go outside again, that the armed gunman wasn’t in our neighborhood and on the loose anymore, strangers on the streets spoke to me and I to them.

“You okay? You doing all right?”

Black and white, speaking with the tentative tenderness that a married couple shows after the kind of vicious fight that could have taken down the whole marriage. On Marion Square. Up and down Calhoun, in and out of King Street stores.

“You okay? You all right?”

We were the same, those people and I. They were my family. The tenderness I felt was for them, it was for the city. It was the tenderness I felt for my home.

Charleston, my home.

 

 

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Like Riding A Bike

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Everybody says that riding a bike is one of those skills you never forget.

But I have not ridden a bike since my friend, Jeannie, and I were street rats in the mean suburban boulevards of Buffalo Grove, IL. We’d leave in the morning, and ride all day to places forbidden (like the abandoned barn we swore was haunted), coming back only for lunch at her house or mine. My bike was purple, with a banana seat, pedal brakes, and a horn I never used. Except for the occasional slipped chain or that one time I went too fast over gravel, my bike was just another part of me.

“I don’t know. You never were that graceful on the bike, even at your peak…” my father says dubiously when I tell him now that I am getting a bike.

Maybe he’s right to be cautious. This is Charleston, with crowded, bumpy streets very different from the wide avenues of my youth. At any moment, some tourist could wander in front of me, or some native might open a car door into me on the narrow streets. I remember a coworker in D.C. who had a fair amount of skin scraped off after a driver turned in front of him, sending him flying over his handlebars.

And, yet. I can’t walk everywhere. There are places I want to go that are too far for walking, too close for driving. So I buy a bike.

I talk earnestly with the young man selling bikes, a tattooed guy I just know races low on his bike when he’s not selling to me. He patiently finds me the perfect bike and promises to adjust the hand brakes so I’ll be less likely to flip.

On my first day with the bike, my husband, who’s been riding his bike to work for the past six months, takes me to a parking lot for maneuvers. I’m slow, awkward. My first trip to the grocery, I insist he ride with me. I’m afraid of falling, of failing. Even of inadequately locking my bike at the market.

We shop. I load groceries into my bike basket and strap on my helmet. And start to pedal. I loosen my death clutch on the handlebars. I breathe deeply. And suddenly, I’m flying.

Like so much in life, my fear loomed larger than reality. I feel free, tough. I am a biker chick.

Biking to grocery

Biking from the market

 

STOP AND SMELL THE BURNT TOAST

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There are times when life tries to teach you a lesson.  Maybe this morning was one of those times.

 After several days of flat-on-my-back sickness, I woke up feeling almost human again. I decided to celebrate by making a full breakfast for my also-back-from-the-dead husband. Omelet, bacon, toast, coffee. Bacon perfect, eggs almost done, toast made from those little end-of-the-loaf scraps because I am trying to be frugal. Only they stuck in the toaster. And burned – just a little, honest. But you would think I had started a blazing inferno. Smoke alarms began shrieking throughout the house.

 I threw open the windows, propping them up because our house is crooked, so the windows don’t stay up. Waved a towel. Put on the kitchen fan.

 Meanwhile, the little dog, the crazy one, head-butted the screen door and bolted out to the yard, a grim look on her face that said, “Save yourselves, suckers!”

 With memories of fire trucks screaming up when something similar happened in northern Virginia (I promise I don’t burn food on a regular basis, no matter what it sounds like), I frantically called the Charleston fire department. Where I was reminded once again that this isn’t the high-paced metro area I came from.

 “Thank you for calling,” the soothing recorded voice said with maddening slowness. “Our office hours are…..if this is an emergency, call 911.”

 As I called the alarm company to cancel the fire trucks that surely would be turning the corner any minute, my husband called the emergency number – 911 – to call off the emergency.

 Surprise. The smoke alarm connected to the alarm company never went off. Apparently the screaming demons in our ceilings were not hard-wired, they were just to alert us to smoke. So, no fire crew had been dispatched.

 What had seemed an emergency – wasn’t.

 I’m pretty sure this was one of those moments intended to teach me a basic life lesson. Slow down? Stop and watch the toast? Keep perspective amid chaos? Not sure. Still trying to figure out the lesson and resist the urge to slip a little booze into that morning coffee to slow down to a Charleston pace. Now to coax the dog back inside.   

 

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The Disease of Being Female

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For the price of a Starbucks a day, you too can help end this deadly disease that strikes half of our population.

What is it? Is it cancer? AIDS?

No. The disease is….menopause.

Bet you didn’t know that was a disease. I sure didn’t, but I was standing in line at Barnes and Noble waiting for a book to be signed and there, in the disease section, were all the books on menopause.

Somehow – and I could be wrong – I don’t think a woman shelved those books. They were right next to the books on infertility. So, apparently, the inability to bear children, even if, good God, you’re too old for all that and good riddance…it’s all something that has to be fixed.

I have read stories about the primitive superstitions about women and fertility and have felt comforted and slightly smug that I live in a place where we are so much more advanced.

And then I saw the books on menopause.

It really made me think about we haven’t come as far as I thought in this country. We still marginalize the “female,” we just do it in a chirpy, marketing way.

Have your period? Buy a clever, stylish container that hides away your tampons so no one knows! Nursing your child? Drape yourself with a concealing poncho – or better yet, pump in privacy somewhere and give your child a bottle!

And, menopause? It can be Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, that’s for sure. Nothing easy about it some days, so it definitely leaves one at dis-ease.

But, a disease? Come on! I think the only thing that needs a cure is the silly attitude that menopause is right up there with cancer, AIDS and diabetes.

Menopause the Disease

Yep, they really categorized menopause as a disease.

Chickening Out

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Most of my friends would call me adventurous. I have flown an airplane (once), taken a trapeze lesson (once), jumped off a 35-foot pole (harnessed, but still…).

The reality is I do about 10 brave things and then I do one completely chickenshit thing that makes me question the first 10. This is about a recent chickenshit night.

I had signed up for an (expensive) night in my new town featuring a celebrity chef, food, drinks. I love to cook, and this might just allow me to meet some fellow foodies.

The time came to leave and… I just couldn’t make myself go.

Every day since moving to my new city has been an adventure – finding a place that sells my brand of makeup, finding the kind of turkey I want for Thanksgiving, figuring out how to combine my morning walk to Starbucks with a dogwalk when Starbucks won’t let the dogs in (it involves cajoling strangers to take a slip of paper with my written order along with my gold Starbucks card inside with them…it’s a lot to do pre-caffeinated). The new adventures include walking nearly everywhere because I can and because, really, there is no parking in Charleston that doesn’t involve parallel parking our new car on a narrow street. It has been a joy, honestly.

Except on this night, when I would have killed for a friend to go with me to this event, killed for a big suburban parking garage, killed to know just what one should wear to this kind of event. Just killed for the comfort of the familiar.

And so I bailed. I watched bad television, ate breakfast for dinner, drank a bit too much. Completely hid out.

Because sometimes, the littlest things seem to take the most courage. Ever been in that position? Come on, tell me I’m not the only one who sometimes chickens out.

Haven't we all been chicken?

Haven’t we all been chicken?

The Oldest Couple at the Jail Break

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Beneath a full moon at Charleston’s oldest jail, the lead singer at the Jail Break festival has a sexy, husky voice and the band has an irresistible rhythm that lures me closer to the stage. In the cool evening, the singer wears a flannel shirt and jeans. When he turns to the rest of the band, I automatically glance at his ass. Because that’s just what I do.

And, you know what? There is no “behind” behind him. His guitar is wider than he is. His jeans sag like a sail on a windless day.  Suddenly I am very concerned about the lead singer’s nutrition, and I want to make him some pasta.

What the heck just happened? How did I go from shimmying near the stage to wanting to mother the singer?

As I look around at the gorgeous young things shaking to the music, I realize that my husband and I are the oldest couple here. There are a handful of others close to our age, but they have sensibly found seats away from the speakers and are eating barbecue. My husband and I are alone, ancient mariners in a sea of bobbing young lovelies.

We stay for a few more songs because the band really is good. And then we go out to dinner, a glass of nice red helping me bridge the gap between groupie and granny.

So, I’m curious…when did you discover your own gap and how have you bridged it?

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STILETTOS NOT REQUIRED

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I bought a black leather motorcycle jacket, so trendy that the fashion magazines have nicknamed it “moto jacket.” It makes me feel badass whenever I slip into its soft embrace.

I do not ride a motorcycle. But I have begun a new journey: semi-retirement in a new city.

What to wear on this trip? I know stilettos are not required, but neither am I ready for Birkenstocks or Crocs. No one knows me here in my new city, and I have the chance to reinvent myself.

It is a much smaller house in Charleston, SC, a funky 1840s single with a tipsy porch and an appalling lack of closet space. Back in northern Virginia, in my big, walk-in closet, I felt like Heidi Klum on Project Runway. Spike heels that drove spikes of pain into the balls of my feet? They’re out — can’t walk on cobblestones in those. Well, maybe just the metal-and-blue ones that always get me noticed. Beautifully-cut business suits in funky colors? Out, save for a couple of tweed jackets that pair well with jeans.

A few hours later, it was clear that I wasn’t just shedding clothes, I was shedding layers of my identity; some of them stung, and some of them clung. Would I really never stride into a client meeting clad in power colors? Would I even need power colors in my new life? Yes, I am retiring, but I am still young. I’m not ready for sensible shoes and a large purse.

So, although I need the closet space desperately, I bought a black leather motorcycle jacket. Because what I needed most of all was to land in my new life feeling badass.

The badass moto jacket

The badass moto jacket