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"Home" for the Holidays

Three states in one year...that's got to be something of a record, even for a Richards.  Here I am, back in Washington state (but in a new town, Federal Way) and living with my parents again.  But this time I have the whole downstairs to myself.  Also, we are staying in this nice house for several months until next summer, by which hopefully I will be on my way to Ireland--Lord willing, if I raise all my support.  It's fun to have my stuff back after being separated from it for most of 2010.  Guess what I had the most of?  Around thirty boxes....of....BOOKS!

Anyway, so I'm in a new place, settling in and unpacking.  We had two Thanksgivings last week, one with neighbors across the street (whose relatives own the house we are living in at the moment) and then another with family on Saturday.  A couple of my cousins out here have kids--little kids, under three.  It was so much fun chasing them around the house; they are ADORABLE. 

I had this whole other post written about going "home" and how that's such a loaded term for me.  Can you call a place home if you've never lived there before and are only going to be there a few months?  Can you call a place you lived home if you were only there less than a year?  What is home, anyway?  They say it's "where the heart is," but what if your heart is in many places?

I mean, I still miss Pittsburgh.  I still root for the Steelers, as silly as that sounds; it's a little bit of continuity for me.  I didn't get to know Austin the town very well, but I did meet some very cool folks there whom I will miss (but hopefully keep in touch with).  I still miss Ireland.  I have been so many places and met so many people, worked with so many kids, sometimes it can be a little overwhelming to look back on my life and try to figure out how it all fits together.

But then again, I'm here now, and maybe that';s what matters most.  The present, not the past, or the future.  Maybe I need to focus on the here and now for a bit and enjoy this time with family.  Because as temporary as it might be, for today, this is home.


Swallow Darkness Whole

If you want to know the truth, it's been a rough year for me.  And my family.  Not because of huge, disastrous events and misfortunes.  It's nothing huge or traumatic, but without going into detail--for me, it's been a year of feeling mostly displaced and under strain.  No, it hasn't been all darkness and gloom; there have been bright spots.  Like the camp I worked at over the summer & the kids I befriended there.  My parents moved to the Seattle area which was sad for me, but great for them.  (And they are still inviting me to come and join them, so don't be shocked if I up & move to Washington...)  I guess it's been a mixed bag of a year, but right now I just feel sort of weighed down and frustrated with my life.

I don't say all this to complain, but to explain.  When I share the things that have brought a little bit of light and hope to my life, I want you to understand that they are like islands of relief in what sometimes feels like an onslaught of disappointment.  I am blessed to have such a great family & far-away friends, and I know it.  I also go to a fantastic church & women's group here.  These things help ease my melodramatic sense of stress.  But one other thing that brings relief and even release is music.

In particular, I've recently gotten into a band called Sleeping At Last.  I first heard their song "Umbrellas" on the Relevant podcast and was blown away.  It took me a while to explore their other music, but for a while they had their album up for free on noisetrade.com, and I downloaded it & fell in love with them.  The more I've heard, the more quickly they've become a new favorite band of mine.  Though they have a different sound from Switchfoot (my very fave, for those that didn't know!) they have the same poetic, honest quality to their lyrics.

Recently, Sleeping At Last launched a new project, called Yearbook.  Instead of doing another traditional 10-12 song album, working on the songs for a year, and then recording it & releasing it all at once, they have committed to writing and releasing three new songs a month for a whole year.  They've already successfully completed the first two months, October and November, and I highly recommend them.  Not only is Yearbook and innovative project, the guys in the band are also very vocal about their process and often tweet and update facebook on the status of the songs for each month.  For people like me, who splurged and signed up for the whole year (actually, it was a good deal, considering you get about three CD's worth of songs by the end!), it feels like I'm involved.

The reason I wanted to share about this project is not just because I find it creative, and a perfect example of what post-modern music making can look like.  I wanted to share because I have found SAL's songs to be very encouraging and healing over the last few months.  They have a folksy, acoustic sound, with lots of piano, strings, and yearning, soulful vocals.  But it's not only their sound--their lyrics acknowledge the brokenness and fragility of life, but speak to a an understanding of hope in something bigger, truer, greater, and deeper.  Though I'm a writer, I don't know if words can fully express how much I have needed these songs this year.  Because music has a power that goes beyond scientific explanation and quantification, the best I can do is say that their songs have poured into me, sifted through the chinks in my armor, and filled me with light and hope.  They are not songs to rock out to; they are often more like lullabies that soothe the soul the way a mother helps a fussy child finally fall asleep and rest.

Sleeping At Last's Ryan & Dan paint soft impressionist watercolors with their gentle melodies and poetic lyrics.  They know how to use shading, and they know how to capture light.  The pairing of their melodies with their words have brought tears to my eyes more than once.  Right now, I'm particularly enamored of their song "Emphasis" from "November":

‎"Life is a gorgeous, broken gift/ six billion pieces waiting to be fixed/ love letters that were never signed, sent to where we live;
The sweetest thing I've ever heard/ is that I don't have to have the answers/ just a little light to call my own;
Though it pales in comparison to the overarching shadows/ a speck of light... can reignite the sun/ and swallow darkness whole."

That's just the tip of the iceberg.  They have so many beautiful songs.  On their previous album, "Storyboards," they used film as an ongoing metaphor for life.  One of my favorite songs from it is "All This to Say":

"Before we were born
God gently told us the truth,
but understanding is something that stops
as our bodies bruise...

Layer by layer, the framework was formed
on an epic of paper:
we breathe to explore.
and fast-forward motion
will gracefully show
the flickering story
that all of our sketches unfold."
There are several really great songs from that album.  Though I haven't heard all of the songs from the previous album, "Keep No Score," the aforementioned "Umbrellas" took my breath away (and helped me flesh out a scene near the climactic end of one of my novels!); "Needle and Thread" is beautiful in every way and is something I can imagine singing as a lullaby:

“'You were a million years of work,'
Said God and His angels, with needle and thread.
They kissed your head and said,
'You’re a good kid and you make us proud.
So just give your best and the rest will come,
And we’ll see you soon.'

All the blood and all the sweat

That we invested to be loved
Follows us into our end,
Where we begin to understand

That maybe Hollywood was right:

When the credits have rolled and the tears have dried,
The answers that we have been dying to find
Are all pieced together and, somehow,
Made perfectly mine.

We are made of love,

And all the beauty stemming from it.
We are made of love,
And every fracture caused by the lack of love."

On my darker days, when all I see are obstacles and enemies, it does my heart immeasurable good to hear the gentle insistence of these two musicians who beautifully but firmly remind me that there is a God, and He is Love, and that is the truest thing in all the universe.  Suck a speck of light can reignite me, and if I can be reignited, so can others.  And together, maybe we can swallow the darkness whole.


Eye of the Beholder

So, I may be something of a TV addict, but the fact is, I have to watch most of my shows through the internet.  I have a television, but I don't get any channels on it, not even basic networks.  I'm not up on the latest commercials (boohoo) or news tidbits.

So when I remembered hearing about a show featuring Melissa McCarthy, who I love from her Samantha Who? and "Gilmore Girl" roles, I decided to look it up.  "Mike and Molly," I thought it was called.  I typed in the name and presto!  I got a bunch of hits.  Imagine my surprise when I saw that several of the links that came up revolved around a critical blog of the show.

"Mike and Molly" is about two people who meet and an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, and fall for each other.  Sounds sort of sweet, right?  Not to some people, apparently.  There was a whole post written by a Marie Clare blogger about how seeing fat people try to be romantic grossed her out.  She's been bashed and punished enough for her words (I hope, so that it sinks in) so this is not about her reaction. 

In the days that followed, she received a lot of backlash for her words.  Several other people took the opportunity blog about it themselves.  I read a few of them, just to see what people were saying.  Surprisingly, a lot of people were quite angry with Marie Clare and blogger Maura Kelly for their "size-ist" attitude. She admitted that she has struggled with anorexia in the past and that it may have affected her response.

Well, we all have lenses we look through and experiences that have shaped us.  Here's mine: I've struggled with my weight and body image issues since I hit puberty.  For at least twenty years of my life I have been hearing and receiving a message that how you look determines your worth.  It's been culturally and socially acceptable to mock and deride people for being overweight for decades.  We also encourage and support each other for valuing beauty over character.  We have beauty pageants and rank contestants.  We teach young men that it's okay to only want the prettiest girl, that somehow makes him more manly if he has the hottest woman, but that only women are capable of looking past the surface and understanding that how people look is not who they are

As one blogger's response put it, "Fat people are people, too."  Part of the backlash against Marie Clare was an acknowledgment that there is something wrong with the way the media portrays people.  There's this unspoken reality created that only beautiful people can have romance and adventures.  There's a subtle but dangerous implication that if you are overweight, it's some kind of character flaw, like you're less of a human because you can't get your body into an acceptable size.  Or worse still, that you're actually a bad person, because your excess weight means you are lazy/stupid/unhygienic/a loser, because smart/healthy/capable/important people take better care of themselves, and therefore, are automatically superior human beings.  This of course, does not reflect the reality that some people work really really hard at being healthy with minimal visible results, and for others it comes naturally--or they are blessed with bodies and metabolisms that can handle things that others can't.  Or, in their crazy diets, they do damage to their bodies just as much if not more than people who eat junk food, but because the outcome is visually acceptable, they're rewarded.   This flawed conception is often reflected in the media.  Overweight and less attractive people play the best friends, the comic relief, even the villains, but they're rarely portrayed as the hero or love interest.  Fortunately, with so much backlash aimed against one little post, I think it shows times are changing.

There has been a slight resurgence lately of sorts, of people saying, "Hey, I don't fit in your box."  Or in Christina Hendricks' case, "Sorry, I don't fit in your dress."  There was the short-lived (but well played!) abc family show "Huge," about teens attending a fat camp, and "Drop Dead Diva," which I have not yet seen finally begun to watch and really enjoy.  The second ep, "The F Word," is about this very misconception that plagues our society (the "F" is for "fat," btw).  On Brooke Elliott and Melissa McCarthy's IMDb pages, interestingly enough, I found that there were several comments posted about the "hotness" of these women.  These sincere and serious (if occasionally inappropriate) comments run counter-intuitive to the conventional wisdom that thinness equals love and acceptance.  These are signs that things could be beginning to change, which is welcome news to those of us who have been living daily with the lie that how you look determines your value.

And let's face it: it IS a lie.  NO ONE should be told his or her value comes mostly from how they look.  We can't all be Brads and Angelinas, but that doesn't mean we have less to offer.  As I said, I've wrestled with this message for years.  I thought it was The Reason why I am still single, that no guy could ever find me attractive if there was a skinny girl to compare me to, that guys were only attracted to the outside, and that the only way I'd ever find love was if I lost a lot of weight.  I thought I had to apologize for it, hide it as best I could, and feel duly penitent and ashamed of my weight.

The truth is, from a health standpoint, I know I need to take care of my body.  And over the last few years, I've made a LOT of changes to my diet.  I eat really good most of the time.  Do I need to exercise more?  Yes.  I am, by nature, a very sedentary person.  I like activities that involve a lot of sitting and thinking (like watching TV, reading, and writing, for example).  I know I need to be more active, and it's one of those things I keep trying to stay motivated about.  But there is this part of me that resists--that has always resisted.  I can't even fully explain that, though I know I can't let it have the final word. 

But you know what else I can't do?  I can't keep letting Hollywood and the rest of society decide that I need to look a certain way in order to be beautiful.  I feel like some of us women have to go to rehab or boot camp or something to remember what it's like to feel pretty and confident in our own skin.  We need to have the opposite message drilled into our heads--this is why I love Superchick.  In addition to writing empowering songs like "One and Lonely" and "So Beautiful," they have started this thing called "Operation Beautiful" and you should check it out. 

I don't know what it's like to be a man, or if they struggle with their looks as much as women do (though a recent ep of "Glee" touched on it briefly...no pun intended).  I would imagine that the sword is beginning to cut both ways; I remember in college there were some camp counselors I worked with who were concerned about having too much chest hair--you know, because models and actors are usually (and unrealistically) well waxed.  But I DO know what it's like to be a woman and to feel hopelessly depressed after seeing some hot young actress kick ass and then make out with the male lead.  And I gotta tell you something: I'm tired of that feeling.  I'm tired of feeling like I will never measure up.  I'm tired of feeling like I'll never be attractive enough.  I'm 31 years old, and I'm ready to be okay with who I am.  Yeah, maybe I have to shop in the plus sizes.  And yeah, I still have to take care of myself.  But I'm not going to let my numbers keep defining me.  I'm not going to keep letting that voice in my head have the final word--the one that negates every compliment with the idea that I might be pretty, but only if I lost some weight.

I'm also not going to stand by and let future generations face the same torments without offering any help.  This isn't just about me.  This is about the women in my life who are reading this and have felt the same way.  You know who you are.  And you know what?  You are beautiful.  I don't value you because of how you look, but you need to know this: You are beautiful.  And the people (like me) who really know you, they see it.  The people who see your smile and your kind heart, they see it.  The people who hear you laugh and sing and see your creativity, they see it.  Hollywood and popular culture doesn't get to have the last word on this.  You're beautifulWe are beautiful.  And we're going to change the world.