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The Sidewalks of Chicago

chicago yellow balloons There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets I can tell you about. I've only been there once.

There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets I can tell you about. I won't tell you the name, because it's not important. But it's there, believe me. High above the hustle and bustle of a street named after a state, some of the most world's most talented musicians have met their destiny.

It is more treasure chest than shop. A landing pad where string instruments arrive like long-awaited foreign dignitaries with names like Francois and Annalinda. Some of them are named after artists or constellations, others named after lovers lost between the pages of the world's greatest unwritten love stories. Each one has a history. Many of them, if not most, are centuries old. One sat in the corner, listening to gossip at Marie Antoinette's ball. Another recalls the first breath of fresh air after years passed hiding in Amsterdam. The youngest is rumored to have a distant cousin that continued playing that night as the ship went down.

When you meet the dignitaries your instinct is to hush. You want to believe they will whisper their stories if you listen closely enough.

There is a sadness to the dignitaries. They have lost-and survived-everyone they ever loved and every hand that ever loved them in return. They have lived a series of lives, a constant reincarnation marked by the passing of time and the ticking of t he clock. Dutifully, they have sung again and again under aging hands, having lost as soon as they are found. They serve faithfully. They endure knowing others cannot. The dignitaries mourn; you can hear it if you listen, like holding a seashell to your ear. Every last breath, ever final farewell and ever swan song remains in the and of their scrolls and the spaces in between.

The people who buy the dignitaries spend a small fortune; at times, the price of a modest home. It seems unfathomable, but once you've heard them sing, you understand they're not just buying an instrument, they're liberating legends and wrapping their fingers around a legacy.
There are families that bring small children to meet the dignitaries. And though the children do not yet know it, their families have also brought them to meet their destinies. The children politely bow and greet the dignitaries. One by one, down the line, they raise their tiny fingers and tiny hands until they stand before The One that sings out in their native tongue. In a split second a path is cleared and a golden light shines just a little bit brighter through 48,000 crystals dangling above the sacred hall on 7th Avenue.There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets, I can tell you about. You would never find it were you not looking. It's behind a door with a brass handle and across a marble floor to an ancient elevator, the kind you only see in old movies. A black man with kind eyes will help you now. He'll pull aside a brass gate with strong hands before asking you which floor you're headed to. Tell him the 6th floor or maybe the 8th. It could have even been the 9th, I can't quite recall. Pass down the short hallway, then a right down the long corridor. If you hit the water fountain you've gone too far.To your right you will see a series of leaded glass windows. Some will be propped open. Step toward them, take a deep breath and see-really see. In the middle of this building in the middle of all this concrete, nine stories below there is a garden thriving in a city. Almost nobody knows. But now you do.Take a seat on the old wooden bench worn from years of visitors coming and going. Close your eyes. Somewhere in the distance the click of a woman's high heeled shoes comes nearer, then further away from you.It's quiet now and you are aware of the sound of your breathing and heartbeating high above a city that does not know of courtyard gardens or dignitaries or of your existence.

At the end of the hall there is an arched doorway. You can see it from where you sit. A single, short step leads up to an old wooden door. Light escapes through a crack between the floor and the base of the door. Beyond the door you hear voices, muffled but jovial. Then the click of a door beyond the door.

And then the singing begins.

You are hearing a familiar song for the first time. Every memory rushes back to you. Discovering toes. The comfort of being tucked into bed as a child. The infinite weightlessness of soaring through the air on a tire swing. The touch of your grandfather's hand patting your back. The smell of July at 10:30 p.m. The feel of a paintbrush in your hand. The taste of vanilla ice cream and South Carolina peaches. The exquisite sensation of slipping beneath the surface of the water in a swimming pool. The exact moment a ride on a bike with no training wheels finally makes sense. The electricity of the first kiss. The rush and rebellion of your first beer. The people you know and knew are laughing and smiling and waving as they go sailing by on a brilliantly colored carousel. Every dream, every hope, every wish is coming back to you now, like lady bugs

Open your eyes.

Stand up.

Turn away from the arched doorway. Walk down the long corridor. Take your time. Turn left down the short hallway. You'll find the elevator and your friend waiting to return you to the lobby from the 6th or the 8th or the 9th floor. He's quieter this time.

When the elevator stops and the doors open, step out and cross the marble floor. Pull open the door and step outside. Let the sunlight envelope you as you squint upward seeing only white light.

To your left a yellow taxi pauses at a stoplight as a child passes through the crosswalk leading a yellow balloon.

High above a bow is lifted from strings as a familiar life begins again on the sidewalks of Chicago.

Humanifesto 2.0 Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I really love a manifesto. Few things humanize a brand more than laying it all out there, opening the kimono and letting the world in on what you stand for and stand behind.

I recently stumbled across a page of quotes from author Stan Slap. (How’s that for an awesome name?) As I perused them, they started to read more like a brilliant manifesto than a bunch of individual quotes. I mashed them together. Take a peek…

Lead your own life first. The only thing in this world that will dependably happen from the top down is the digging of your grave. Work/life balance is not about escaping work. It’s about living exactly the way you want to when you’re at work.

I want to be in healthy relationships. I want a real connection with people I spend so much time with. Who creates trust and higher purpose amongst their people and gets unparalleled levels of support for common goals. Hard-core results come from igniting the massive power of emotional commitment. I want to know the work I do means something to somebody and helps make the world, if not a better place, not a worse one.

The high quality of a company’s customer experience rarely has anything to do with the high price of their product. The company may have captured their minds, their bodies and their pockets, but that doesn’t mean it’s captured their hearts. You don’t have to fear your own company being perceived as human. You want it. People don’t trust companies; they trust people.

An Old Letter: The Island

Screen Shot 2012-09-12 at 12.29.09 AM A note from the author: Old love letters are a bit like scars. You wish you didn't have them, but they are useful. They serve as a reminder that you made it through the wound. I survived with scars and old letters. Someone once told me you should burn old love letters, but I prefer to throw them out to sea. If you happen to find this in a moment of need, please remember: one day this will all be nothing more than a scar...and a faded memory. 

Sometimes I like to take drives to nowhere. Windows down, radio up, mind clear. I challenge myself to  get lost and then see if I can find my way back again. I assign bonus points if I stumble upon one of those little rural Main Street USA towns; the kind comprised primarily of a church and handful of century-old brick farmhouses with ample front porches. (The kinds of porches that undoubtedly display a jack-o-lanterns for every child in the house when halloween rolls around.) The kinds of towns and cities you'd miss if you glanced downward to adjust the radio while hitting the gas pedal. Those towns are some of my favorite country drive discoveries. They make me feel like I've been let in on a secret, a little roadside whisper that doesn't want the rest of the world to overhear.

Today I took a country drive. I made decisions about which turns to take based on things like which street name I liked better. If I saw a tree to the east with a prematurely orangey autumn leaf...I turned to the east. If a saw a jogger with an iPod or someone talking on a cell phone, I headed the opposite direction. I paid no attention to the course, I just went where my heart told me it wanted to go.

When I finally came back down to earth, I found myself on a road called Big Walnut. I was at a lake I didn't know existed, looking at the tiniest island I had ever seen.

I got out of the car to take a closer look. The only other person around was an old black man fishing. He had a white bucket, but I didn't look inside. He looked like something from a movie set in Mississippi; the kind of character that would have been listed as "Wise, Old Fisherman" in the credits (though I have no way of telling if he was really wise). Wise, Old Fisherman was curious about me, I could tell. Probably annoyed someone had found his secret shoreside hideaway, but I was quiet and he let me be. He just tipped his hat and cast his line. I wanted to ask if his name was Charlton.

Off in the distance sailboats were playing with one another. Back and forth, back and this little island shyly watched on.

Call it serendipity or happenstance or simply unconventional afternoon road trip unmapping, but here is what I know: following my heart lead me to a secret island today.

And every road I take leads me back to you.

Message Matters: Just Ask the Lightning Bug

lightning bug time lapse Last week I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations.” One of the restaurant owners featured in this particular episode made a comment that struck a chord with me:

There’s a difference between saying “good evening” and “welcome.”

MESSAGE MATTERS. The words you choose to use mean something to the people you communicate with.

There’s a Mark Twain quote that I really love. As a writer, it has become something of a touch stone I carry with me for those restless, frustrating moments when a work is *so close,* but not quite there.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Find your lightning bug, writers. The just-right word is worth the wait.

Life, Death and a Dinner Table: A Family Tale of the Healing Power of Eating Together

I have a fairly large extended family. For the most part, our current clan originated in Wichita, Kansas, but through the power invested in marriages, divorces, job transfers and time, we have been strewn out across the country over the years. You'll now find pushpins in our family map everywhere from the Florida Keys to Honolulu, Austin to Wisconsin.

As a result of our geographic divergence, it makes it very difficult for all (or even many) of us to ever come together in the same place at the same time. Years go by and we don't see each other. The younger cousins eternally frozen in my mind as munchkins at the "little kids table" are now high school seniors and sophomores in college. The home I cast as the scene for all family memories hasn't been in our family for nearly a decade. This is just to say - things change, people get busy, time flies.

A year ago my grandmother passed away after a brief battle with cancer. Weddings and funerals. For better or worse, these are the things that  finally bring a modern family together. As each branch received the call, they made plans to descend upon the teeny, tiny town of Frederick, Oklahoma - my grandmother's childhood stomping ground. She had elected to be buried in Frederick beside her parents.

Frederick. How do I explain Frederick? It is perhaps best described as a blip town. A blip I fell very much in love with. Frederick is the kind of little place you pass through on a rural highway heading somewhere else. The last census put the population at under 4,000. I'm not sure what industry supports the economy there, I can only guess farming, and I remember reading somewhere that the median income in Frederick was well under $30,000.

In many ways Frederick feels like a land untouched by time. It struck me as the kind of place that could be described (and accurately so) as the heartbeat of America. A place steeped in family, God and the American dream. Unpretentious and hardworking. A welcome smile with a little grit under the fingernails. A land where people know their neighbors - and the value of a hard day's work. Frederick isn't relic as much as it is artifact. It isn't un-evolved, rather it's a place - and a lifestyle - unperturbed. From what I have gathered from my mother's accounts of visiting the sleepy tow in the 50s and 60s, not much has changed for Frederick the past half-century...and that's okay.

My family descended on Frederick like a bit of a storm. If you're going to stay in Frederick, your lodging options are limited to two motorlodge-type hotels on the outskirts of town. If you don't like the first, no worries. The other option is right next door. But if memory serves, one of the signs boasted that they were now offering wireless internet, so you may want to take that into consideration.

Our first afternoon in town, we took a driving tour around the city - and down memory lane. 40-some years later, my mother's memory was still able to trace its way back to the modest farmhouse my great-grandmother (Mimi) and great-grandfather (Homer) had owned together. It is the place where my grandmother grew up. My mother reminisced about the small patch of land my great-grandmother had tended, a vegetable and flower garden, and beyond it, the land my great-grandfather had tilled. She regaled us with stories of Mimi, the industrious wife of a farmer, snapping the necks of dinner chickens and plucking them clean. It was a stark contrast to the gentle, quiet, if not a bit frail, great-grandmother I remembered. In my mind, she was a soul better suited for gently cradling a cup of tea than slaughtering unsuspecting chickens. The image of her strong and fearless doing what had to be done gave me new perspective.

I come from a long line of strong, courageous females, it would seem.

The funeral went as funerals go. The chapel and cemetery set in a picturesque, rural area outside of town. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm, and cows were murmuring off in the distance. I suspect our unusual quietness was a bittersweet recognition of the irony that bidding a loved one farewell was the one thing that had a way of bringing the living back together.

After the casket had been laid, we mobilized the troops. We'd need lunch before everyone traveled back to their separate corners of the world. Having had our fill of Pizza Hut (and having no inclination to try Sonic), we ended up at a little local restaurant called The Bomber Inn.

My people are not a small people. At 5'10" I am one of the shorter cousins on my mother's side of the family. As we descended on The Bomber Inn, the staff and regulars looked at us incredulously, but only for a moment before shuffling chairs and tables to make it work. We crammed into booths, shared menus, stormed the single restroom. Clearly strangers, nobody poked or pried. They just made us feel welcome.

I don't recall what I ate that day. A grilled cheese or a chicken-fried steak, who can say for sure? I remember strange things from that afternoon. One of the waitresses asking my cousin to come into the kitchen to reach something on a high shelf. An older gentleman approaching my uncle to tell him he had a "mighty handsome family." More than that, I remember a feeling. A feeling of being acutely aware of the importance of eating together that day.

The truth is we cannot control the ticking of time. We don't get a say in when or how or where things come together or fall apart. We get busy, stressed, preoccupied, but at least a few times a day, life forces us to stop and eat. And we can choose to do that together.

Author Norman Kolpas once said, “Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.” That afternoon, crammed in booths at The Bomber Inn, we weren't just eating lunch, we were celebrating a life. We weren’t just nourishing our bodies, we were nourishing our hearts and our spirits, too.

It's unlikely I will ever be in Frederick again. I doubt I'll be back at The Bomber Inn. But I often think of the kindness they showed us that day, and I hope they know that more than a meal, they gave us a rare and precious moment of togetherness in the heartbeat of America. It won't soon be forgotten.

new york.

"A city like New York, where everything is moving all the time at this constant driving pace, it’s like a living organism, breathing and changing, and over time your relationship to it becomes like this incredible romance. At first its intoxicating, irresistible  and then slowly it becomes comfortable and safe. You have this cellular connection to it, as if you’ve known it forever, like it's you’re oldest happiness. Sometimes you’re on the outs and sometimes you’re making up, and every now and then you catch yourself in this transcendent moment where you think to yourself, “Oh my God, I'm madly in love with you and I always will be.” Those are the moments that surprise me."


murmuration “We were a murmuration in a past life,” you said. The moment you murmured, I recalled. The feel of a wild wind whipping through my feathers, a downward view of apricots and almendras, as we raced westward toward a setting sun. You and I drew an invisible line they still call Santiago.

12 Tidbits of Wisdom for Writers (via Ernest Hemingway)

hemingway Ernest Hemingway would have been 113 on Saturday. In honor of the grand (and oftentimes irreverent) thinker, writer and life enthusiast, I spent some time digging back through the litany of wisdom he left behind.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

“My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.”

“The hard part about writing a novel is finishing it.”

“In order to write about life first you must live it.”

“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

“Write hard and clear about what hurts. ”

CHIME IN: What’s your best piece of writing advice?

Would Ernest Be Proud?

I admire Hemingway. His stories make me sad, but the shattered shards and broken pieces of wisdom he left behind from real life--the blips and quotes--those words speak to my soul. Those words leave me feeling deeply saddened that Ernest and I never had the opportunity to sit across the table from one another (and maybe Bukowski) at the dinner table, or sit quietly together reading in a room that smelled of well-worn leather chairs. In a strange and inexplicable way, Hemingway's thoughts and quotes are like reading letters that have been tucked safely in an attic trunk, documenting a great uncle's time abroad at war. And SOS from someone I never knew and will never meet, but somehow feel pulsing through my veins.

Tonight I wrote a children's book.

My father has been telling me to write a book for years. I protest every time. I tell him that's like telling every cellist in the world they should become Yo-Yo Ma. "Write a book," my father says, ignoring my excuses, "If you can write one or two good ones, that will be great."

Tonight I wrote a children's book. 

The man I love(d) has been telling me to write a book for two years. "What did you do last weekend?," he asks without fail, "Have you written a children's book yet?"

The answer was always no.

Until it wasn't.

Hemingway once said, “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start, and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it--don't cheat with it."

I chose to write a children's book instead.

A Letter to an Author: Chasing Narwhals and Saying Hello

Writers writing writers. It's a bit like bears riding bikes. It happens.

I read your book today, cover to cover.

From a writer to a writer, thank you for this.

I have always found it strange to self-identify as a “writer.” In my experience, when you tell people, "I am writer," they look at you as though you've just announced you are leaving the priesthood to track narwhals for the rest of your life.

It’s even stranger when it's the others who identify you as a writer. “I’ve been doing this since first grade,” I want to tell them. “And I won a handwriting contest in 6th grade. You won't believe what I can do on a steamy bathroom mirror and a grocery list.” (But that would be a little snotty, I realize.)

Sometimes I cannot tell whether I am the happiest girl to ever pick up a pen or if I rue the day ink was born. Nobody tells you what this world is really like. (Though I suppose I could have guessed had I paid more attention to the infinite bottle-bottom wisdom of Hemingway, Bukowski and Anais Nin.) Writers live in a suspended state of voluntary solitude, surrounded but alone. We speak to everyone and no one. The feelings, the thoughts, the experiences are ours, but we fling them out into space and onto the page, only to give them away to strangers and sometimes-acquaintences like cards at Christmas.

(Sometimes, I admit, I am tempted to run back to the mailbox to reel them in again.) “These are mine! They are special. You cannot understand.” And then there is that one stranger who sends a note in broken English reading: “You remember to people that life is wonderful” and the world makes sense again.

I read your book today, cover to cover.

You were like finding tribe. Your words transported me to the prime of my utter recklessness. When everything I said and did was a dichotomous soup of “fuck you” and “I love you,” pulling closer and pushing away, with you but somehow against you. (The royal "you," I mean.) I wrote nightly letters, odes to the secret lives of neon lights and ponderings about the first person to add chili powder to chocolate ice cream. I wrote about bouquets of wooden spoons and a master plan to make the weeping willows stop weeping. I was propelled toward paper by a treacherous muse. The kind I had no business talking to (and certainly had no business loving.)

The broken heart I could have forgiven. It’s the songs and places that bothered me the most. With enough time and thread, you can patchwork a heart back together again. I wish I could say the same for the city.

But I suspect you already know all of this. And after reading your book, I wonder if, at the end of the day, broken hearts and road trips are really all that different.

I read your book today, cover to cover.

You remembered to me that the world is wonderful.

All of this is just to say…thank you.

And hello.