Across the Table; Across the Tracks; Across the Aisle

After my parents divorced when I was three, I had the benefit (not burden) of having two very distinct family experiences. Each one powerfully influencing who I am today. Each of my maternal and paternal ancestors a couple of generations removed had unique surnames: The Bibles, and the Angels. And that’s how I look at it today. But it’s probably not what you think.

On the Bible side of the family, I as a little girl was nurtured and encouraged by the side of the family who believed in God first, then family, then country. I loved the Bibles. I felt with each visit and summer and school break extended stay, that I was good, smart, full of potential, and could some day go to college and make a difference in the world. I could learn to work hard and contribute at any age. The grandparents, and extended aunts, uncles, and cousins were families of the land. Farmers, ranchers, hands-on laborers. Up before dawn, making an honest living off the land, supplementing their families with second jobs or careers, applying their education, and giving back to their communities. They were leaders, teaching their children principles, grounding them with a religious foundation, leaders in the Methodist Church. Every day was a lesson. Every lesson was applicable now and in a solid future. I learned to be frugal, conserving, and careful. To cook homemade meals with modest means for hired hands, deliver meals to the field to support the menfolk, sustain a household with chores, sewing our own clothes, cleaning, repairing, doing a “man’s job,” and preparing for a hard winter, or drought. I learned to respect Mother Nature.

If not in the fields during “supper”, and with the luxury of all being in the house in the evening, it was not negotiable that we would all pull up chairs to the plastic tablecloth-covered oblong dinner table so that my uncle could lead the daily devotion. His large tan and aged, weathered hands would slowly open his years worn and thin-paged large bible laid out before his plate, and he would read a passage. Just a few scriptures read slowly from his deep and powerful voice, but ending with kind and loving, but stern, words providing (or reminding) a lesson of the day for us all. The children were to sit still, listen, learn, then bow heads for a prayer to be thankful for the food and the day’s many blessings.

Across that table, I matured each year, getting taller in the chair, where I learned discipline, a healthy fear of God, respect, determination, gratefulness, and purpose.

Across that table, I developed my armor. My shield to protect me from what could have been.

Angels. I now know they come in many different forms. The Angel side of the family…. was anything but, it appeared. Probably the first miracle I ever witnessed was that these two sides of the family were ever married, if only for a couple of years. While staying behind with the Angels wasn’t a choice at such a young age, it provided one hard lesson on diversity in American culture. They were from the hills of Eastern Oklahoma, where hard times and generational poverty didn’t promote or prioritize education or hard work, but the choice of survival and ultimately the abuses that can kill you.

I couldn’t tell you what the Angel side of the family was known for. I never knew of their jobs. Or education. I couldn’t tell you if my own mother ever graduated high school. But she was a survivor. She escaped that cycle of letting a small, mostly impoverished and uneducated population hold you down. She took her three teenage girls, clothes, one pot, one pan, one plate, fork, spoon, and knife, and got in the car and sped away. After I was born, we visited and drove down the hill where she and the girls raced the car away from the trailer house and the man firing a shotgun at them. They survived. I met the man who did it, and still remember the smell of him today.

Escaping to the big city provided my mother the opportunity she was seeking. A good job, which led to a simple but stable career in banking. And two future husbands who would better care for her than the last two. It allowed her to not ignore her parents and siblings, but to help provide for them. From the two of us visiting them weekly in low income housing to provide used clothes, more food, transportation, a bath, and unconditional love, to finally having the means to pay for each of their premature funerals. We never talked about the filth, the roaches, the gut wrenching smells, the drinking, the drugs, the fighting, depression, or the suicides. The system provided the basics, and we provided what was to them, luxury. We weren’t there to encourage them, or change things, other than their day’s contentment during that visit. We didn’t represent hope, or change, I don’t think. Just a snapshot of how things could be with making different choices and working hard.

Across those tracks, were the Angels. My Angels.

They weren’t a passage from a book; they were humans, who invited practical application on every lesson I learned from the Bibles. Empathy, compassion, unconditional love, no judgment, acceptance, helping others, and prayer. I don’t think my mother ever knew the word philanthropist, but she was its rawest form. However, it wasn’t always pure. While she escaped most of the abuses, she did believe in a Robin Hood approach when needed, or even tempted. She, too, was no angel. So while I learned the lessons I needed from her, I was also regularly slapped with a reality of what I want to grow up and represent. How was I to have such diverse exposures, and what would become of my future? What would be my reality?

The irony is, as a single working mom, how she chose to care differently for her last and much younger fourth daughter. While the others were out and off to make their own choices and mistakes, she chose to shelter me. In church. She never attended, but she dropped me off three times a week. She said she would never set foot in our neighborhood’s Southern Baptist Church because it was full of hypocrites. But she obviously knew it was safe and reliable childcare. The extremism from the two families, and now my third family in the church was head-spinning. Face to face exposure to right and wrong, good and bad, pure and evil, was my life weekly. The Bibles and Angels both tugging at me, influencing me, exposing me, and developing me. Often times, I just wanted to hide. In the middle.

When meeting or learning someone new, what do we really know? It takes time to get to know what makes up a person. We are blessed if our lives are long. But as such, we have more years and experiences to influence the person we are, or are meeting today.

As an adult, and a former broadcast journalist and political and philanthropy director, I am a generalist. I know a little about a lot of things. I love a human-interest story. I love to surround myself with diversity. If you gathered all of my life-long and growing circles of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, and all of the folks who have been part of a chapter of my life, you would see a lot of extremes. I pride myself of each of these different types of people continuing to be an influence on me.

Politically, during this groundbreaking year, I don’t fit in a box. I don’t sit on one side or the other. I don’t throw torpedoes, and I don’t dodge them. I don’t campaign for a specific agenda. I’m asked regularly what I’m watching, and who I’m following. I guess my answer is that I’m watching it all. I’m listening. I’m learning as much as I can. I’m hungry for facts, not spin. And I know spin. I listen, lead, converse, and discuss with respect, understanding, compassion, empathy, hope, and optimism.

Across the aisle is where I reach. And where I learn most. I respect to a degree each one on the stage, even if I personally disagree with them. Our society is evolving. Each world, country, state, and community event shapes us. Develops us. In to what I hope is the best version. Of ourselves, and of people.



She Closed Her Eyes

She closed her eyes, and it opened ours.

Friends instantly reconnecting, calling, texting, emailing, messaging. Some actually dialing a number, and speaking voice to voice. How is that unusual?  It was friends that had let some distance come between them.

The news was shocking, startling, and stopped you in your tracks.

So many prayers had come to an end. It wasn’t our place any longer. The Devine had taken over. It was as though there was a universal long, slow sigh.

On Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, she asks the question of her guests at the end of the show, “What is the soul?” Each one of us should have our own answer to that.  I think most of us are connected to our soul, but don’t always openly share our beliefs, thoughts, feelings, purpose. Living out loud.

We all witnessed our friend Andrea live out loud. I am not referring to any of the last year’s politics, media, campaign, or public movement. I am recalling the first time I met her. She was a fun, thoughtful, and energetic new gal pal, and we enjoyed being around her.  I gave her a ride to get her car from the airport.  I was surprised to learn she was a lawyer.  And then she never stopped surprising me. Even at the end, in surprisingly learning of her passing.

At our age, in losing a friend, we should check in with our soul. Are we living the life we want and should be living? Are we in touch with ourselves? And others?

Take time. Step away from the office. Step away from the responsibilities. Live a little.  I wondered if her dying on New Year’s Day was her way of saying to everyone, “Last year my have been all about me, but this new year is all about you.”  I can hear her saying something like that.  She’s gone.  And we are still here.  To live.  Out loud, perhaps.  I didn’t have time to clean the kitchen, or stock the bar, or prepare appetizers.  Instead, we took the time to reconnect and host a little impromptu Friday happy hour like we used to.

For years, during my career break, we hosted weekly Friday socials.  Nothing formal, but always fun. Random friends and new acquaintances gathering to listen to music, and stories, and laugh loud and hard with tales of fun and frolic.  It was never about the food or the drink.  It was replenishing the soul.  Face to face, human interaction with folks we love and love to be around.

So with the New Year, and the pledges to recommit to healthy goals and resolutions, be sure to add the balance of what feeds your soul.  Open your eyes.  And live the life you’re blessed to have and hold in your control to some degree.

And from the Heavens, I think I hear, “Amen, sister!”Pop Up Sloan Memorial

The Summer of Driving Around

I am blessed to be married to a man I wildly love and am in love with. (He’s even worth ending a sentence with a preposition.)

Having been married once before, there are so many lessons learned in going through a divorce. You truly learn what love is, and what it isn’t.  You learn what you had the first time and what you hope for the second time, if that’s what you choose and are blessed to find.

I was blessed.  And since we’ve all heard the cliché “marry for love or marry for money,” I can tell you I truly understand the difference.

Twice now, I married for love.  Twice now, I was blessed to meet a really nice guy from a really nice family.  The first time, I never had to convince anyone I was marrying for love.  I was young, a tad naive, and silly happy about the whole thing. All assumed it was for love, and it was.

The second time, I felt so very blessed to find “the perfect man for me” as I told friends (and anyone that would listen) time and time again.  This time, however, I unfortunately had to convince or reassure a select few that our upcoming nuptials had nothing to do with money.

How do I know?   From the “summer of driving around.”

My grandmother always used to tell the same story about having a small shoebox ready for when grandpa would ask, “Do you and the kids want to ride to town with me?” For a wife and three small children isolated on a farm five miles from the nearest town, she said it was always an invitation for adventure, sitting close in the truck, and getting to see others in town for a quick visit. Her shoebox had a clean rag to wash kids’ faces, a comb and pomade to smooth their curls, and a small lipstick and mirror to help make herself presentable. Her story is one of my favorites, combined with another wise woman’s advice to “always try to go when your husband asks, because someday he might stop asking.”

Less than a year ago, I bravely launched my own business for the very first time.  It was not a risk-free consulting gig or contract opportunity.  I did not have an official employer with benefits, a salary, or security.  It was a risk.  And it was all mine.  It was an idea presented to me that proved opportunity.  I over-researched, over-designed, over-thought the entire thing.  And I’m proud to have done it that way.  It gives me leverage, more security, and no questioning “what if” to keep me awake at night.

It also resurrected every skill I learned from living with a single, farming, struggling, poor, and newly divorced dad that I chose to live with in high school.  Survival.  Hunkering down.  Focus on what you can do to make things better.  To get through.  To get by.

I’m guessing that most who know me, even well, would never guess I lived on credit during high school.  When I say credit, you think card. When I say credit, I mean the handwritten paper running receipt on a pad with our name on it at the only grocery store in a town of 250 in northwest Oklahoma.  Not always , but at times, I would reluctantly walk into the little Al’s Grocery to get a loaf of bread, carton of milk, or eggs – on – credit.  And when our credit limit got too high, Al would ask for us to pay it down before getting any more groceries.

It was humbling. So incredibly humbling. It taught me to work harder, protect my assets, money, earnings, and savings more carefully.  It made me frugal. That changed every experience moving forward.  Today, this many years later, I can say (and have said repeatedly on blogs) that I am grateful for all of that.

I started a business.  From scratch.  Trying to do it the right way, from the beginning.  With a formal business plan, the proformas, and the initial capital investment – a small inheritance I was not expecting from the loss of my mother.  It was a huge risk.  The first real personal financial risk I’ve ever taken in my life.  I convinced myself it would honor her legacy and perhaps begin mine.  It wasn’t money I was expecting, so I would dedicate the entire amount to this business idea.

My sweet hubby took me on a vacation just prior to launching the biz.  He’s researched, designed, and launched entrepreneurial ventures for decades.  He’s won, lost, and broke even.  He knew the commitment I was facing when he said, “You won’t vacation again for quite some time.  Enjoy.”

I’m still in the first year from the launch of the biz.  Outsiders looking in must assume that my husband is financing a portion of this, or that he’s got my back, or that he’s taking care of everything else.

But let me tell you about marriage.  You should never, I mean never, assume you know or understand what’s going on behind closed doors.  When I say, “I’m doing this biz on my own,” I truly mean it.

Therefore, it has made for the summer of driving around.  You dear, sweet, and cherished friends have not seen me at concerts, for dinner, for happy hours, for live music, for summer rituals, for fun and whimsy and even for Sunday Funday, or pool days.  You haven’t met me for lunch, or couples dinners.  You haven’t even received my usually thoughtful birthday gifts, or cards even, or a little “sussie” like I love to give. You haven’t even tasted one of my mom’s famous rum cakes in quite some time.  In fact, you’ve probably barely received a reciprocal phone call, text, or email.

I’m dedicated to success and survival.  And it’s hard.  I know some day, I will look back, and be so proud of my efforts (and hopefully achievement).  In the meantime, I don’t have time for anything other than my husband, my faith, and my company.

So now you ask, “What the heck does this have to do with summer and driving?”

Well, folks, when you’re on a business budget, all in, hands down, for investing in the success of an entrepreneurial idea, you don’t have disposable income for frivolous expenses and extracurricular activities.  You may literally say to your spouse multiple times on a weekly basis, “Honey, after dinner, instead of going to that, attending this, or signing up for those, why don’t we just take the dog, put the top down, and drive around town for a little bit?”

Life has many chapters. This is the one I’m living.  It’s worth it.  I’m learning from it.  And it keeps life interesting.  I’ll be back, friends, I promise.  This chapter is testing my strength, mental and emotional, my faith, my relationship, my love, and my core.  I’ve had high highs, and low lows.  So I encourage you today to take a minute and assess your current and next chapter.

I will survive.  And I married a man that’s right in there with me.  Life’s never boring with the two of us.  So much more than I can say for countless elderly couples I have seen across a restaurant or diner, who showed up in their sedan, and obviously missed the value of a handholding opportunity in the drive to reach their destination.  They overlook or have forgotten the value of an evening of simply “driving around.”  I won’t.  Ever.

Image (Photo: Al’s Grocery)

The Value of Le$$ons

A true entrepreneur never calls in sick, I realize. As my first venture in a start-up, entrepreneurism, capitalism, and business ownership, I refuse to fail.  I can’t afford it.  It’s not only my investment, it’s so much more than that.  For right now, it’s everything to me (in addition to my fabulous husband, of course).

In fact, it’s reminding me a bit of college. Why?  Because I paid for it.  Every dime of that most valuable college education.  My parents never paid a single dollar of it.  And when it’s your money, your name, your reputation, your investment, you take even greater pride in its success.

When you own your own business, if you’re awake, it’s on your mind.  Just as in those collegiate days, every day is costing me money.  I had no desire to extend those student loans, so I took every semester and every class seriously.  If I chose to skip a class, it was my money down the drain.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I had the same spring fever as other college students.  I wasn’t perfect, and I certainly wasn’t a four point.  It’s just that every choice I made was a conscience one.  I could never skip my part-time job which was helping me pay bills, so if I had to go to work, I might as well go to class.  They were each making me money.  One immediately, and one in the future.

If I could give dear friends advice about raising children (not that they ask, so this is completely unsolicited, of course), I would have them consider tips from a poor Oklahoma farmer.

  • Have your child pay for something.  Anything.  And often.   At any age.  – They need to value the cost of things. They need to understand the limit of a dollar, or even its potential.
  • Require them to earn.
  • Teach them to budget.
  • Teach them to save.
  • Have them experience risk, and loss.
  • And let them experience success of their own doing.

Easy for me to say, I’m sure most are thinking.  Especially since I don’t even have children.  But when I was being raised by a dad who made me eligible for “free and reduced” meals in high school, I had no idea how valuable the lessons would be.  I remember it as though it was yesterday, when the cafeteria lady, who was also the mother of a classmate, quietly said to me in line, “Tammy, you qualify for free lunches. You just need to complete the paperwork.”  I was at first mortified, but then thankful that it would free up some of our limited cash for other priorities in our household of two.

For years, I think I was irritated at my dad for not making more money, not being more successful.  But today, and for years now, I realize it provided the greatest lessons taught to me at the most important age.

Those lessons resulted in my paying off all of those college loans, buying my own cars, leasing my own apartments and a house, and eventually purchasing one all on my own.  It even resulted in my keeping my old car, so I could help out a friend in need.  And now I’ve kept my own house, as a personal investment.

Those lessons helped me to live on a reporter’s wage, then manage a senator’s public office budget, then start my own department with no budget, then save a nonprofit from completely going broke, and now start my own business.

The good times are really good.  Who doesn’t love those times?  But do you have what it takes when times aren’t as good?  Can you make it?  Will you take the necessary steps to survive?  The hard times can be tough.  But I was raised to be tough.  For that, I am thankful.

One of my long-time mentees started his own business this last year.  He calls for advice on occasion.  I am so very proud of him.  He’s got it.  What it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.  And why?  Because his raising was a little rough.  He’s endured hardship, sacrifice, and has worked hard for what he wanted.  He overcame slim chances.  And I’m hoping he’ll now raise his son (and daughter on the way) with some of the same lessons.  So that maybe someday, they can perhaps carry on the family business, and let their dear ol’ dad call in sick and take a day off.

Links of Love

Bro and SisI miss my dad today.  I miss my mom.  I often forget that I can’t dial the autosaved number, which used to display on the screen of my cell phone.

Something occurs.  Something comes to mind.  And the first thing I think is, “Dial mom or dad and tell them about it.  To them, this is news.  This is interesting.  They would love hearing this.  It will give them a little boost.  A reason to brag.  This may even make them chuckle.”  But alas.  They aren’t at the end of that number.  They are in the clouds, so to speak.  They may hear, when I say it to myself.  Or even say it out loud when I swing on the porch swing and say it in the wind.

Today, I sit on the swing, rocking back and forth in the mild Austin breeze.  And no one hears my conversation.  My prose.  No one responds to my news of the day.  My husband will, at day’s end I’m sure, but until then?

God hears.  He knows my thoughts, feelings, and words.  Does He pass it on to our lost loved ones?  Do the lines of celestial communication truly exist?

My news isn’t earth-shattering.  It’s simply a tidbit of information.  It would be nothing to most, but to me perhaps a big deal at the moment.

We are all full of ourselves.  Our drama, our moments, our thoughts.  They are significant to us, for now, for whatever reason.  Our life and our thoughts matter.  Sometimes we want to celebrate, to rejoice, to invite others to commiserate.  And sometimes we simply want to be heard.  Or acknowledged.

I am here.  I have something to say.  I matter.

My dear friend contacted her long-lost stepmother recently.  A direct connection to her long-deceased father.  The woman who held him and loved him last.  Her father’s last wife was facing a life-threatening surgery.  It could have been the end.  The end to her significant life.  The friend’s fine thread of connection to her is one of the only lasting links to her late father.  A fine thread that has been distant and so thin as though it doesn’t exist at all.  Yet, that day, it was a strong bond.

As our lives continue to expand our web of connections, we usually don’t think about when that connection will end, or even if it will.  With every person I meet through life’s journey, I hope I take away something.  And I hope I offer something back.

My little half-brother and I are directly connected in that we shared the same dad, but different moms.  It’s no secret that his late mother and I never really got along toward the end of her marriage to my father.  This week, my brother shared a memory about a particular movie that he loved and even obsessed about as a child.  In that moment, I realized I’m the one link that vividly remembers that memory with him.  His mom can no longer tell the humorous tale, and our late dad can’t share the vivid details.  So, in an instant, without even realizing, I put aside any negative memories I may have had about his mother, and shared details about his childhood memory she may have lovingly shared had she still been here.  For that moment, I was his link.

And isn’t that important in selfless human love for one another?

Our Moment in Time

I had told my offline, professional matchmaker that I wanted my match to be brilliant smart, fit, have his sh** together, oh, and, own a tuxedo.  It was proof that he knew how to put one on, so I wasn’t raising a child. It was an indicator that he attended the type of events that required one.  And he could be ready at a moment’s notice if I chose to take him to my nonprofit gala.  I find that sexy.  Now if they found him, would we have chemistry?

I truly believed that a matchmaking service could introduce me to my partner for life.  I was ready to make the investment of time, finance, and trust.  Dating on my own wasn’t resulting in my kind of man with my kind of standards. Why not hire the professional? A personal filter, to screen and qualify.

What I didn’t truly believe?  Was that I would be riding in a small boat toward an amazing man, in his own tuxedo, standing on a deserted beach on the island of St. Lucia two and a half years after our first blind date.  As the tropical breeze blew out my curls, and the mist created a glow to reflect the early sunset, I was staring at what could have been a mirage.  He’s standing there, barefoot, on the black sand, and in that Mad Men tailored tux, with his thick silver locks slicked back like Richard Branson or Ralph Lauren.  He was the sexiest man alive, in my opinion.

The moment would have made for an award-winning short, and even silent, film.  I was assisted off the watercraft, on to the island, to stand hand in hand with him, and recite our authentic vows.  We were pronounced husband and wife, with only a crowd of two legally required stand-in witnesses, one photographer and the minister.  On a faraway land, my dream came true.  Because I believed, and opened my heart to the chance that my impossible request could become possible.

Having been married before, each of us agreed that the true romantic moment of giving your love, your heart, your loyalty, and your dedication to your equal is a private moment between two people.  There were no months of wedding planning, deposits, contracts, tastings, shopping for flowers, bridesmaid dresses, table settings, or involving aMitchellWedding_380_311208_409 slew of friends, family, and professionals.

With no children, and now no parents, this moment of ceremonial dedication is about two people, not a venue of 250.  Because of this moment, we will have each other to share life’s greatest moments, in addition to the daily mundane.   In the end, it’s just us two.  Therefore, in the beginning, we chose just us two.

While it had been a courtship full of what seemed like endless romantic moments, it was the one moment of holding hands, while wearing my dress, and he in his tux, and wading into the ocean during a St. Lucia sunset that started a lifetime of romantic moments to follow.

Chosen Siblings

You know who you are.  And they know who they aren’t. The Lord may have birthed each of us into a family of choice, but we have choices of our own.  Those who know me well, know that through two parents with multiple marriages, I have one half-brother, three half-sisters, and have had over the years four step sisters, two step brothers, and more half and step nieces and nephews than I could ever count.  But if you ask me today, “Do you have family?” I would never list a handful actually related to me by blood or law.

When it comes to true siblings, I was blessed with a brother with which I can share my memories of our dad, and share in his extended family.  God looked after me there.  But after that, I would start telling you about the greatest friends in the world that I call my family.

They have nurtured me through stupid boyfriends, a humiliating divorce, financial strain, career highs and lows, getting older, growing up, in sickness and in health.  They have been there to celebrate my successes.  They genuinely care, ask, and advise.  They can drop into my life, drop out, and pick back up after years of losing touch.

My real, chosen siblings have learned to love my mom’s rum cake, know that I drink a gin martini, put a positive spin on most everything we are facing, and am determined to live life to the fullest.  Every day, every hour, every year.

With all the changes one faces in this journey called life, God continues to plop down in front of me new chosen siblings to call my family.  We look forward to our next time together, and have strength in numbers.  Strength to fight battles, not deal with pettiness, and leave our mark in a dance hall.  Together, we have more fun than is probably legally allowed.  We want everyone to feel it; and we feel sorry for them if they don’t jump in.

So today, when a dear friend I consider family told me she was pregnant, I felt the feeling of pure and giddy joy – because I’m going to be an Aunt!  By choice.