This weekend I went to a release party held at the Hoffman Center for the Arts for the North Coast Squid, a literary magazine. I was honored that Sacred, one of my short stories, had been accepted for publication, and I was excited to read it to an audience. I was a little nervous too, if I’m honest. I don’t have much fear about speaking in public, but reading from my own work is different. It’s more intimate.
It’s like I told my writing class: sharing your writing with another human being is like getting naked in public. Not that I’m in the habit of actually exposing myself—trust me, nobody wants to see that—but when you write, you bare your soul. When you show your work to another person, you leave yourself vulnerable—not just to criticism, but to being seen. You can hide behind a nom de plume, but you are still the force behind the words, giving them life.
Even if your work isn’t autobiographical, there is some part of you that goes into it. We write what we know, how we think, how we see the world. It takes courage to put yourself out there, to share something that intimate. “It takes guts,” I told my class.
“Guts with a Z,” one of my students replied.
“Guts with a Z,” I agreed. It takes gutz, and I applaud anyone who shares their creative work, even if it’s only with one other person. Not just the writers, but the artists, singers, musicians, dancers, designers. Anyone who creates, taking what’s in their heads and sharing it with others, making the world a better place.
It takes courage to give and receive feedback too, and that’s what we’re doing in class. Helping each other strengthen our work, so when we send it out into the world, it’s practically bulletproof. We’re helping each other become better writers by encouraging each other and learning from each other.
My reading of my short story went well. People laughed in the right places, my voice held out, and I didn’t trip over my feet when I left the stage. I got lots of compliments on my work afterwards. The best one was from a man who said he appreciated how my characters changed from the start of the story to the end. “Thanks,” I said, pleased that he understood the point I’d been trying to convey about the conflict in the story. “I wanted to show that even though people can be unpleasant, there’s always a reason, something in their history that has led up to that point.”
It made me feel good that there was so much warmth and support at this event for fellow writers and artists. I loved listening to the other pieces, fiction and non-fiction, as well as poetry. It’s good to get out of my writing space and hear what other people are doing, to see their courage as they share their work. It takes gutz to do what we do, and that inspires me.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I need to preface this post by saying the universe has a twisted sense of humor.
First, my dog got a bladder infection. I took Gryphon to the vet, and we came home with a pricey bag full of goodies to patch her up, including a vial of antibiotics. You know how people and their dogs start to resemble each other after a while? Well, the next week I had a bladder infection too. We must be twins. We were even on the same meds, though mine were cheaper than the ones I got for the dog. Thanks, universe?
Anyway, three days after Gryphon was done with her pills, the vet wanted me to obtain a urine sample from the dog and bring it in so she could test the sample and make sure the infection was gone. I’m not in the habit of collecting urine, so I had no idea how I was supposed to do this. I have a friend who recently had to do this for her dog though, and she advised me to use a pie pan or some other container with low sides so it would easily slide under the dog while she was doing her business.
Here was the plan. First thing in the morning, I’d put on rubber gloves, grab a disposable container with a lid, and follow the dog out into the yard to get the sample. Simple enough.
I got up, still in my pj shorts, top, and socks, and slipped my feet into flip-flops before following the dog outside. (Yes, socks and flip-flops. What?) Meanwhile, back in the house, my husband turned to my son and said, “This is not going to go well for your mother.”
The first part of the plan went okay. I had the gloves on and the container in hand. Things went awry when the dog spotted the plastic dish and thought I had food for her. She got excited and started jumping around. Then she landed on one of my flip-flops while I was trying to dodge her. The thong pulled loose from the shoe, rendering it useless.
That, of course, was the moment Gryphon decided she needed to pee. Urgently. She trotted off to a corner of the yard, which meant I had to limp after her wearing only one flip-flop. My shoeless foot grew damp on grass wet with what I hoped was only dew.
I caught up to Gryphon and shoved the container under her butt. She looked up at me, aghast. Could the dog speak, she would have said, “What the heck, lady? Personal space.” Then she scurried off to the opposite corner of the yard, pee still dripping from the spout.
I lurched after her, muttering things that shouldn’t be spoken in polite company. Again, I tried to obtain a sample. I caught a few drops in the container before the dog gave me another dirty look and scampered off. Strike two.
I tried a third time, and got about a teaspoon of pee. Despite the gloves, I also managed to get pee on my hands. I believe there was more urine on my hands than in the dish.
I gave up and called the vet. “So, um, how much urine do you need in the sample to do the test?” I crossed my fingers, hoping the answer was a drop or two. It wasn’t. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
In hindsight, I see my error. I should have put a leash on the dog so I wouldn’t have to chase her around the yard. Common sense, I know—now. I probably should have worn sensible shoes as well.
I wised up for day two.
First, I put the dog on the leash. Then, I took myself out of the equation entirely, and made my husband do the deed. Voilà! It worked like magic. An acceptable sample and zero pee on my hands.
The husband doubled bagged the urine sample and passed it on to me for delivery.
When I dropped off the sample, the vet’s assistant gave me a smile and said, “Thank you.”
“That’s the first time anyone’s thanked me for handing them a container full of pee,” I told her. “But you’re welcome.”
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Rejection sucks. We all face it at one point or another, and if you’re a writer, you might encounter it more than other people because you’re constantly making yourself vulnerable, whether you’re submitting your work to agents, publishers, or book reviewers. You can’t make people fall in love with you; you can only submit your best work and hope that someone will like it enough to give you a chance.
Even though I’ve had some of my work published, I’m still pitching projects, and even though I get more positive feedback than I used to, I still get rejections. I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with rejection. These days when I get a rejection letter, I don’t even flinch. I can’t afford to waste energy feeling bad about another failed attempt. I’d rather spend that energy creating. I tell myself, “Okay, now move on.” I have a spreadsheet I use to keep track of queries sent to agents and publishers, so I make a note under the appropriate entry, recording the outcome of the query. Then I move on to focus on something productive.
That’s how it works most days, at least. Other days, I feel like the universe’s punching bag.
You’ve probably heard that quaint little phrase people use at such times: when one door closes another door opens. It was Alexander Graham Bell who said that, and he was a man who knew a thing or two about failure and rejection. Here’s the full quote:
“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
A worthwhile notion, but some days, I feel like I’m trapped in a room full of doors that have all slammed shut. I’d love to try another door, but there are none to be found. I’ve exhausted my options, and I’m stuck.
Some days I feel like I’m sailing a tiny boat through a storm, helpless to watch as it is thrashed against rocks by angry waves. My sails have wilted, my mast is cracked, and it’s all I can do to hold on and bail water. Overly dramatic? Probably. But don’t we all feel like that sometimes? Star-crossed heroes fighting against the odds, even if it’s only in our own story? Surely I’m not the only one who has days like this.
There’s another saying: when it rains, it pours. I don’t know who said that, but it’s a good way of conveying the idea of a number of difficult things happening at the same time. On those days, it feels like the universe is cruel, taking pleasure in raining misfortune on your head.
I had one of those days recently—four rejections in a single day. Two of those were hard to shake off. One was for a job I would have been thrilled to have because it seemed like a great opportunity to use my writing skills. That one stung, because I felt like I’d done well in the interview and thought I might receive an offer. The other hurt worse. It was from a publisher I’d wanted to work with, who had been talking with me about the possibility of writing a sequel to the book I was pitching. Hearing no, after a series of conversations that felt like they could be a yes, wasn’t easy.
It’s hard to stay focused on those days, to see the big picture. It’s easy to question why I keep making myself vulnerable to rejection, why I’m even trying. Wouldn’t it be easier to just stop, to be content with all the good things I have in my life? It would, but then I’d always long for more. I didn’t have the heart to write anything that day. I wanted to take a vacation from my own thoughts for a while, to escape those feelings of failure and disappointment.
I told one of my sons I was having a rough day, and he gave me a hug, which is one of the best things in the world. I prayed—for wisdom, for strength, for direction.* Then I went and volunteered at my other son’s swim meet. Focusing on other people was a good antidote for a bruised ego. After that, we went out for pizza and bowling. Spending time with my favorite people was good medicine too.
The next day I woke up, took inventory of what I could do better, and got back to work. I’m battered, but not beaten. I still have hope.
*P.S. During my talk with God asking for direction, I asked for a sign that I’m on the right path, something positive to show me I should keep writing. Five days later, I got a message saying one of my short stories had been accepted in a literary journal. I take that as a sign and a victory. This week, I feel like doors could open, walls could get knocked down. I’m grateful.
P.P.S. Maybe you believe in that kind of thing, maybe you don’t. My point is this—don’t give up just yet. We all face rejection as we work toward our goals, but you never know what’s coming next. Maybe it’s better than you imagine.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I didn’t want to go in, to be honest with you. Every cell in my body knew it would be bad. And it was—the lake water was just as frigid as I thought it would be, in spite of the day being warm and sunny. When the weather on the Oregon coast is that gorgeous, it’s kind of a sin not to go outside and enjoy it. But still, I could enjoy beautiful Coffenbury Lake without actually swimming, right?
Wrong. My thirteen-year-old son had already leapt from the dock five times, and was treading water, begging me to jump in. He’s not going to be thirteen forever, and it probably won’t be long before he prefers someone else’s company over mine. So, I stood on the edge of the dock, braced myself for the shock of cold, and jumped. As I plunged down eight feet, I held in a squeal when my foot brushed the slimy weeds at the bottom of the lake, and then launched myself toward the surface. At the top, my son was laughing, enjoying the look of misery on my face. That made me laugh too.
My other son wanted to snorkel, so we got out, grabbed our snorkels and fins, and jumped back in to join him. Visibility was limited to about five feet—deeper than that, everything was masked in dark green. We decided to leave the dock for shallow water where the visibility was better and the water was slightly warmer. There, we saw tiny fish and shells.
My waterbug son, the one who likes to jump off the dock, practiced diving below the surface to retrieve rocks and sticks. He has a mischievous sense of humor, and kept trying to grab my ankles from below to startle me. It didn’t work, but we played a fun game of underwater tag.
He’s a great swimmer. He’s been on a swim team for almost a year now, and has become much more skilled. He has always loved the water, however. When he was little, we had to watch him carefully around pools, because he had no fear about jumping in. He loves the ocean too. As frigid as it is (even colder than the lake), he never seems to feel the cold as he boogie boards or body surfs. He never seems to tire either, fighting the waves.
I love the water too, and I’d much rather swim in a cold lake with my son than sit on shore watching him have fun without me. Even if doing that means executing an undignified cannonball from the dock. Who cares if I don’t act my age? Dignity is overrated, and there was a bowl of soup waiting for me at home to help me warm up.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Last night we placed a blanket on our lawn and watched the Perseid meteor shower. We had a good view on the Oregon coast—clear skies and no light pollution. Even though my boys are thirteen and already too cool for some of the things they used to enjoy, we all felt a sense of awe watching meteors leave brilliant trails of light on a black velvet sky.
I love these moments. I know we’re too plugged in most of the time, each of us in our respective corners of the house. We’ve been better about unplugging this summer. One of my sons goes to swim practice four afternoons a week, so my other son and I committed to taking the dog for walks on the beach during that time. It’s been a good investment, if only for the chance to have deeper conversations with each other. We’ve enjoyed small discoveries—interesting rocks and shells, sculptural pieces of driftwood, washed-up jellyfish and isopods, and sculpin swimming in the estuary. One afternoon we didn’t walk at all, but stood mesmerized as we watched a whale breach over and over. It’s been good for the dog too, getting regular exercise. She’s a better dog for it, and we’re better people.
Even though my other son hasn’t been a part of our walks on the beach, we’ve included him in unplugging experiences too. We tried new restaurants and went roller skating a couple of times. He loves to read, so we’ve made weekly trips to the library. It’s been a great summer.
A complaint I’ve often heard about my boys’ generation is they can’t function without electronics—they always have to have a device in their hands, and they never go outside to play. They’re not social. They have no imagination. This is not true.
While my kids don’t play outside as much as I did, and they do love their phones and computers, that doesn’t mean they don’t like the outdoors. They do. Sometimes they just need a reminder to unplug, as do I.
They do have imaginations, and use them to create all kinds of art. Sometimes that art is made using pencils and paint, other times it involves a virtual canvas. They problem-solve constantly, whether it’s building worlds in Minecraft or solving puzzles in online games. They learn all the time. If they can’t figure something out, they research it using online resources. They watch videos about science experiments as well as silly stunts. They learn social skills, working with friends to win games. Yes, they are chatting over a distance, but they are still communicating. They talk to their friends in person too.
I think the biggest difference between their generation and others has to do with stuff. It’s not that my children don’t enjoy material belongings, but what they value is often virtual. They are not into physical toys. They still receive them as gifts sometimes, and they do play with them, but the enthusiasm is not the same as for online games.
When they were little, they enjoyed toys more. They had stuffed animals, legos, cars, dinosaurs, even toys they could ride. We had a lot of fun playing together, but every year we’d sort through the toys, passing along older toys to make room for new ones. Somehow we ended up with entire collections of Happy Meal toys—the other day I found one under the seat of my car. We got rid of boxes of toys and clothes before we moved 1,500 miles from Arizona to Oregon, but still, we had boxes and boxes that made the journey. In third grade, the boys’ teacher mentioned a project to give toys to other children. To my surprise, my kids were eager to participate. We went through their closet and collected five boxes of toys to give away. I was proud of my boys’ generosity, and amazed by their ability to let go of material belongings. It inspired me to go through my closet too. Letting go of my own belongings was a relief—it made me feel less weighed down. I wish I’d done more purging before we moved all those heavy boxes across the country.
Virtual toys are certainly lighter than physical ones, and they take up less room. I love that my boys don’t go crazy when we visit stores, wanting to buy more stuff. They see things they like, but they weigh the costs of purchasing them. They have learned to save their chore money for things they really want. This year one of my sons has made three major purchases with the money he’s earned: a video game, a fish tank, and a ukulele. The other, who hardly ever spends money, has only bought two items: a video game and an ocarina, which is a small, ceramic wind instrument.
The only problem with the boys not being into physical toys is gift-giving. While my husband and I know what games they’re into at the moment, it’s hard to translate this for relatives who are shopping for birthday or Christmas presents. To me, it feels selfish to ask for a gift card or cash even though the boys’ interests are so specific I know it will be nearly impossible for someone to find the exact gift they’ve been wanting. Asking for that feels like a demand, even though I prefer gift cards because they don’t take up space and they save on shipping costs for the giver. I also feel we shouldn’t make demands about the amount spent—it’s about being thought of by the giver.
I actually wish people wouldn’t give me gifts at all—just send me a note with kind words or give the money that would have been spent on a gift to a charity. I have everything I need, and the few things I want, I tend to buy for myself. I have more than enough. I know it’s not fair of me to force that idea on other people, however—on my kids or the people who give them gifts.
I don’t have an answer about how to handle the gift issue except to make gentle suggestions to givers and to teach my boys to be grateful receivers. And to periodically go through our stuff and pass along what we no longer need.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This week my thirteen-year-old son remarked that the U.S. presidential election is a lot like Pokémon Go. “How’s that?” I asked.
My son explained that two of the Pokémon teams, Valor and Mystic, are at war. “I’m biased,” he said, “because I’m in Mystic. Not to be ‘team-ist’, but Valor acts more like the Republican Party and Team Mystic acts more like the Democrats.” He went on to tell me a story he heard, where a restaurant owned by members of Team Valor gave Valor members a discount while charging members of Mystic more. “But to be fair,” he said, “there are examples of Team Mystic doing that same thing.”
“So what do you think about that?” I asked him. “Is it fair for one team to charge members of another team more? What if the restaurant were owned by white people and they gave discounts to white people, but charged black people more?”
“That wouldn’t be fair,” he decided. “That would be racist.”
This is not the first time we’ve talked about racism (or other social justice issues). This election year has not been pretty. No, it’s been pretty horrifying at times, but I have not shielded my kids from the ugliness. Instead, we talk about the things we hear candidates say and how those things could affect our country.
My sons are growing up in a different world than the one I grew up in. When I was in middle school twenty-something years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to hear racial slurs from my older relatives. I lived in a small town in Arizona, not far from the Mexican border. I’d estimate a third of my classmates were Latino. Some were new immigrants to our country, some came from families who had been U.S. citizens for several generations. I don’t remember thinking about race much—my classmates were simply my friends—until it was brought to my attention. One message I heard from a family member was I shouldn’t date boys from other races because if we ever had kids they’d be “mixed-race children” and wouldn’t fit in with society. Now I have a nephew who is bi-racial, and while I’m not naïve enough to think he’ll never experience racism, I truly hope he’ll live in a better world than the one I knew.
I had friends in high school who I later learned were part of the LGBTQIA community. Even though I knew gay people existed in the world, I didn’t know much about them or the issues they faced. At the time, I had no idea there was diversity within the LGBTQIA community, that people identify in different ways. Looking back, I understand why my friends had to keep that part of their identity secret. Coming out in a small town like mine was dangerous. At best, you would have been ridiculed and shunned. At worst, you might have been beaten or killed.
I recognize that my children and I are privileged. We’re white, heterosexual Christians. No one questions our race, sexuality, or religion. We’ve never had our citizenship questioned. None of us have disabilities, so we have not been ridiculed or patronized for that. No matter how much we discuss social justice in our home, my boys still have more privilege than other people in society, and while they can be allies, there is no walking in other people’s shoes. Not really. My children can have empathy and be educated on issues, but there is no educational experience that will make them understand how much privilege they truly have.
Still, I’m hopeful about their generation. My kids were in pre-school when our first black president was elected. They have no memory of a president before Obama. They have had friends of all different races, and even some from different countries. They’ve had teachers and role models who identify as LGBTQIA, and they are aware that some of my friends are members of that community. They accept all of these people as family and friends—as equals. It’s that simple for them.
My boys see the ugliness of the election for what it is—bullying—and they know bullying is wrong. They speak up when they see bullying happen at school, and they and their friends stand up for classmates.
So, as worried as I feel about the outcome of this election and the thought that electing Trump could negatively affect the lives of friends who aren’t white, or heterosexual, or Christian, (among many other concerns I have about his policies), I’m not worried about one thing. I believe my sons’ generation will hold to their values of accepting and respecting others. They will be resilient, no matter who becomes the next president.
By the way, I asked my son what he thought about having a president who was a woman. He shrugged. The idea wasn’t novel. Why would it be? He’s known teachers, principals, dentists, and doctors who were women. Both of his parents have doctoral degrees. His grandmother served as mayor in our hometown. In his mind, a woman can be whatever she wants to be. When I was growing up in the late twentieth century, the idea of a woman as president was frowned upon. Know what? I like the twenty-first century better.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Sometimes I get questions from readers, and I enjoy answering them. I know a lot of you out there are into writing, so I think you’ll find this interesting. Here’s the question and my answer.
“I have a question for you since you are a published writer. Was it hard to get your work published? How did you decide on genre? I would like to start writing and just didn’t know how to get started.”
Well, when I began this journey, I wasn’t sure how to get started either. I was an avid reader, but I knew nothing about the publishing industry—how the process works, how to query an agent, how presses choose what they will publish—none of that. I’ve been doing this for a number of years now, and I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. I still don’t have all the answers, but maybe what I’ve learned will make your path easier.
I started writing because I had a story in my head and I wanted to see how it would play out. I can’t say I set out with genre in mind. I was simply writing the kind of story I wanted to read. I wrote a fantasy story with a teen protagonist, so my books are classified as young adult fantasy. At some point, the story took shape and became a novel, and I thought I’d attempt to get it published. Thus began years (YEARS!) of querying agents. Scary, right? Okay, stay with me—don’t get frightened away just yet.
One thing I did correctly is I finished the novel before sending out queries. This is important, because if an agent likes your fiction, they will want to read the whole story. If you don’t have a completed manuscript, game over. (For non-fiction, it’s different. You query with a proposal which may include an outline and sample chapters, depending on the agent’s submission guidelines, and the book does not have to be finished.) So, step one, finish your story.
How do you get started? Begin with short stories or with characters in a scenario, and write every day if you can. Try for an average of 1,000 or more words a day. If you do that every day for three months, you’ll have a novel of 90,000 words. (A note on length: 80-90 thousand words is a good range for a book, depending on genre.) It may take you more than three months, because, let’s face it, other obligations get in the way. But keep going. Don’t worry if it sucks. That’s what revision is for. Finish that first draft.
While you’re working on your book, read as much as you can. Read books similar to yours. Read books that are different too. Think critically about what you read, noting the choices an author makes. Think about what works and what doesn’t. Read books on the craft, and challenge yourself to do better. My favorite writing book is On Writing by Stephen King. It’s a practical and entertaining read, and the guy knows what he’s talking about.
Step two, edit your story. Polish it as much as you can, then give it to a beta reader for critical feedback. After reading your book a number of times, you’ll no longer be able to see the typos. Find somebody smart to give you an honest critique, who you trust to have your best interests in mind. Somebody who can be brutal, but who you’ll still talk to afterward. I have friends who do this for me, people who I respect deeply, who are intelligent and can tell me the truth, whether I’ve got a plot hole or my fly is down. You might also consider hiring a professional editor. The cost is worth it. I truly believe that without my editor, my work wouldn’t be as strong, and I wouldn’t have found a publisher. Another option is to join a writing group. Your fellow writers can give you feedback on your writing and may have insight into the publishing industry.
Your book needs to be as strong as it can be before you send it to agents or publishers, because if your sample pages have too many errors, they will get annoyed and stop reading. Agents get thousands and thousands of queries. Publishing is a competitive industry. If you want to get through the slush pile, your query letter and sample work need to be free of errors and compelling enough to keep them reading. Great writing doesn’t guarantee a contract, however, so don’t take rejections personally. Even if you write beautifully, the agent has to be able to sell your work. Sometimes they love your concept, but there’s no market for it.
That doesn’t mean you should give up. If you really want to do this writing thing, keep going. Research the industry—what type of books agents represent and how to write an effective query letter. Two good resources for this are WritersDigest.com and BookDaily.com. I also recommend reading How Can I Find A Literary Agent?: And 101 Other Questions Asked By Writers by agents Chip MacGregor and Holly Lorincz. It’s full of practical advice to help you as you query. In the meantime, you can keep writing, working on your second book, right?
Do you need an agent to get published? No, but most large publishing houses won’t review your work without one. You can also publish your work independently, not going with a publisher at all. The advantage to that is you make all the choices about how your book will look, and you keep the profits. The disadvantage is the market is flooded with independently published books, and without exposure and a distributor, your book won’t be on shelves in stores unless you do the work to get it there. (I’m oversimplifying for the sake of brevity here—the process for getting books in stores is complicated.)
So how did I get published? I went a different route. I attended a local writing conference called Summer in Words, which I highly recommend if you’re in the Pacific Northwest. There, I met a publicist who also serves as a book shepherd. A book shepherd functions like an agent, except instead of working with an author long-term and on commission, the shepherd sends out proposals on your behalf for a fee. Our proposal package consisted of a description of my book, my bio, a list of comparable titles, sample pages, and a marketing plan. We sent it to ten small publishers who did not require representation by an agent. One of them offered me a publishing contract for my young adult trilogy.
I’m grateful to all the people who helped me get published—beta readers, my editor, my book shepherd, my publisher, other authors who mentored me…I’ve learned much through the process. I’ve learned about the industry in marketing my books and in working as an editor for another press. It’s interesting to be on the other side, to be the person critiquing submissions. You gain insight into what works with queries and what doesn’t.
It’s tough to get published. Believe me, I know. I’m in the trenches with you right now. I’m still looking for representation by an agent, but I get more requests for full manuscripts than I used to, so I’m getting closer. I’ll keep you posted if I get an offer. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m hopeful I’ll find the right publishing home for my new books. I’ll keep going, and if you want to get published, you keep going too. Don’t give up.
I hope that answers the question. If you have more questions, send them my way. I’ll help if I can. Best of luck.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
When I was a kid, my grandmother never outright accused me of lying. Instead she’d cock her head, look at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, and ask, “Are you tellin’ stories?” My mother’s mother had a number of endearing habits. She said the word wash like warsh and fish like feesh. Her white hair was an adorable dandelion fluff, and she wore an old-fashioned apron when she cooked, sneaking me treats. She was pretty cute when she cursed too. I’m one of those people who think it’s hilarious when elderly people say naughty words, but it wasn’t just that I found her colorful language amusing. It was because I could see her when she did it—not her as an old person, but her as a person. I remember catching glimpses of her when she was moved to a nursing home after suffering a stroke and losing most of who she had been. It was close to Valentine’s Day and she and the other residents made construction paper hearts during craft time. I asked her if she was going to give her valentine to my grandpa. “Depends on how he acts,” she said. What a character.
I suppose writing, or “tellin’ stories” is a socially acceptable form of lying. Some would argue it’s also a form of mental illness, considering all the characters who live in a writer’s head. If that’s true, I don’t want to be sane, because I’ve come to believe that the characters are always right. That is, when I let the characters take charge and drive the story, it turns out much better than my original vision. I don’t always know the ending, and sometimes my characters surprise me, but that’s when things get interesting. Sounds crazy, but it’s true.
I don’t remember when I first started telling stories, but I do know I started by telling them to myself. Like a lot of little girls, I had dolls when I was growing up. My favorite dolls were mermaids and fairies, not Barbie. I remember going on a long road trip with my family and telling myself stories in my head, acting them out with dolls as I watched the landscape change from dry desert to green fields. I don’t remember the stories, or even where we were going, but I remember what it felt like to tell the stories, the excitement of watching a scene play out in my imagination. I had a set of Disney paper dolls—Cinderella and Prince Charming, Peter Pan and Wendy, and many more. They too played a part of my inner world, though never in their prescribed roles. I gave them different names, different relationships, different stories.
In school I was easily bored, and after finishing my assignments, I’d draw. Most of those stories featured me and my friends on wild adventures with mythical creatures, sometimes inspired by books I’d read, sometimes inspired by dreams. I’m not embarrassed to admit I drew stories even in high school. I wasn’t the best artist, but the habit kept me entertained, and kept me out of trouble. Without those stories to sustain me, I don’t think I’d be who I am.
These days I tell stories with words rather than drawings, but the experience is much the same—losing myself in another world, seeing things through my characters’ eyes. I don’t always know where the stories come from, but I suspect they stem from a desire to escape reality. Reality is so often dreary and boring, isn’t it? Where’s the adventure in normality? Doing what everybody else is doing requires no daring.
I like to ask “what if” questions. What if stray cats were really goblins in disguise? What if sea monsters did exist? What if that seemingly benign fixer-upper really was haunted? Once I have an idea and can see the world as my characters do, the story gets rolling and the fun begins.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I struggled with what to blog about this week. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, the past two weeks in this country have been full of darkness. Between the Stanford rape case and the shooting in Orlando, there’s a lot I could write about: anger about a minimal sentence for a horrific sexual assault, frustration that rape victims are so often second-guessed and blamed, sadness at the loss of 49 lives in yet another mass shooting, fury at those who use religion as an excuse to harm LGBTQ people (and I’m not thinking about Islam here as much as I’m thinking about some of the comments I’ve seen from fellow Christians). I’ve cried for people I don’t even know. I’ve felt hope seeing people come together to show love and compassion to those who are hurting and to demand change so these terrible things don’t happen again.
I started to write about these things in depth, in an attempt to make sense of the evil in our world, to somehow express the emotional turmoil I’ve felt. Then I took a walk.
Today was the last day of school, and to celebrate, my twelve-year-old twin boys invited over three friends. The six of us walked to a local lake–the five of them, chatting happily about all the things kids that age talk about, and me, tagging behind just a little bit, watching them, marveling at how untouched by darkness they still are. How they joke and laugh and scream with delight when they jump into a cold lake. How they splash each other and play catch and see how high they can swing when they finally get out of the water to warm up in the sun. How they get excited over seeing a fish swimming next to them.
I need this sometimes, this silliness and joy. To witness all the life in these kids—pure and full and beautiful. I need this so I remember how much light there is, even when there’s so much darkness.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Remember the Greek myth about Icarus? He and his father were imprisoned in a labyrinth, and escaped by making wings out of wax and feathers. Then, elated by the success of the plan, Icarus got carried away and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and he fell to his death. I guess the lesson here is to keep one’s hubris in check. Pride comes before the fall.
I can relate. I try not to be an arrogant person, but I do take pride in my accomplishments. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing because I’m goal-driven, and I try to see the silver lining when faced with obstacles. I consider myself an optimist, continuing to strive in spite of challenges. I’m also a realist—experience has taught me that even though I hope for the best, I should prepare for the worst. Something is bound to go wrong.
Seems like every time I think I’ve got it together, the universe is quick to school me in humility. Case in point, my career as a high school cheerleader. I’m not the most athletic person, so some of the jumps we did were a challenge for me. The pike? Never going to happen. I could do a high kick though, so I came up with this signature move combining a hurdle jump with a high kick. I was pretty proud of myself until one football game, when I performed said jump kick and fell on my butt in front of the entire town. I scrambled to my feet, brushed myself off, and pasted a smile on my face, trying to convince myself that only half the high school saw me wipe out.
I’ve come to believe I’m cursed. It doesn’t matter how many degrees I earn or how many awards I win, if I start to soar too high, I’m sure to crash. I guess the universe doesn’t want me to get cocky. Being an author is a continuous lesson in humility by the way—there’s plenty of rejection to be faced even after you get published, between trying to get reviews for your book and trying to find gigs. To say one needs a thick skin is an understatement. You need a suit of armor.
I once approached a venue about a speaking gig, and got turned down. Three books later, I finally earned enough credibility for the venue to invite me to come and speak. I was excited. I came early, armed with an excerpt to read and books to sign. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas. My name was misspelled twice—my last name on a sign outside, and my first name on a poster inside. I think I’m justified in feeling annoyed about that, since my name was right there on the cover of the book, prominently featured. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the gig, and chose not to say anything.
There weren’t a lot of attendees, so when a woman walked in right before the event was set to begin, I was thrilled. She took one look at me and said, “You’re not Melissa (insert somebody else’s last name here).” Her tone was slightly accusatory, as if she had been duped and it was my fault for not being the expected Melissa. “No, I’m not,” I said, giving her what I hoped was a winning smile. I proceeded to explain who I was and what my talk was about. I then invited her to join us. She let me finish my little speech, and then, without a word, turned around and left. Her abrupt exit was so unexpected and rude, I couldn’t help but laugh. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Then there was the time I interviewed for a position as a professor. I flew out to San Diego and put on my best interview clothes, a navy jacket and skirt with a cream top, and a pair of expensive leather heels I’d splurged on. The stilettos were killer. They elevated the outfit and boosted my confidence. They were also my undoing.
I sailed through the interview, and was feeling pretty good about things when one of the other professors took me to lunch. After that, I was due to come back to campus to make a presentation, so the interviewers could gauge my teaching abilities. We drove to the restaurant in her car, and she parked next to an island dividing the lot. When I got out of the car, I found the woman had parked close to the curb, so I had to step onto the island, which was covered in small plants. I tried to tread carefully so I wouldn’t trample the ground cover, and successfully made my way around the side of the car to where the professor was waiting. We started walking toward the entrance of the restaurant and suddenly, I noticed my foot was caught on something. Someone had tossed a slice of pizza into the low plants, where it was hidden from view, and my stiletto had speared it. As I walked away from the parking island, I dragged the pizza slice along with me. Are you kidding me? I asked the universe, as I frantically tried to keep up my end of the conversation while discretely using the toe of my other shoe to pin down the pizza slice, so I could free my heel. I’m pretty sure the woman noticed. I didn’t get the job.
I don’t know why these things happen. I know bad things happen to everyone, so maybe I’m not truly cursed. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, no? (And of course, things could be worse. Things have been worse, and I keep getting up each time I get knocked on my rear end.) Maybe spearing the pizza slice was God’s way of letting me know that wasn’t the right job for me, that I wouldn’t have been happy on the tenure track. Maybe the challenges I face serve to guide me, to push me in a new direction I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. I just wish I could learn these lessons without damaging my pride.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Go Bag Contents:
1 Frying Pan
6 Rolls Toilet Paper (super important for pretense of civilization)
1 Pack Wet Wipes
1 Can Opener
1 First Aid Kit
2 Camp Forks (not just for roasting marshmallows)
4 Sets Plates, Cups, Utensils
3 Fire Starters*
4 Rain Ponchos
2 Swiss Army Knives*
3 Packs Dog Food
4 Mylar Rescue Blankets
1 LifeStraw Water Filter
12 Bottles Water
Dry Goods for 3 Days (note to self: don’t forget pop tarts and top ramen)
4 Missing Persons Posters (plus 1 for dog)
*Not for twelve-year-old boys to use unsupervised. Trust me on this.
Plan for 15 Minute Warning: Grab Go Bag, walk (quickly) to higher ground. Leave dog if necessary.
Plan for 30 Minute or More Warning: Load Go Bag and camping gear (tent, tarp, sleeping bags, flashlights, emergency radio, grill, shovels, etc.) into car, drive to higher ground. Take dog.
In the six years I’ve lived on the Oregon coast, I haven’t felt so much as a tremor. Reality isn’t based solely on my experiences though, and I’d be foolish to assume it does. Our area has a history of earthquakes, so it’s important to be prepared, especially living near a tsunami zone. Emergency management experts for the region say we’re overdue for the big one, an earthquake strong enough to shake the ground for five minutes, causing landslides and a 50-foot high tidal wave. The thought of that is enough to send me into fetal position. Even if the big one doesn’t happen in my lifetime, we’re still at risk for tidal waves originating from across the ocean. That happened in 2011, when there was 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan. Fortunately, the waves that reached our shores were small and did minimal damage, but debris from that natural disaster still washes up on our beaches, several years later.
My children regularly practice earthquake and tsunami drills at school, taking refuge under desks for the shaking and then filing out of the building in an orderly fashion to walk up a hill. They know they’ve got about 15 minutes, maybe less, to get to safety, assuming our bridges haven’t crumbled. We know where they’ll be if a quake happens during the school day, and we know where we’ll meet if a different scenario happens, say, they’re at home and I’m at work.
We put together a Go Bag, which is exactly what it sounds like—a bag filled with the essentials we’ll need in an emergency where we can’t stay in our house (earthquake, tsunami, zombie apocalypse, you get the idea). The thing weighs 50 pounds, and it would be tough to carry it alone, but we’ve tried it out and we can all tote it without falling over and kicking the air helplessly like a turtle on its back. If we have a longer warning, we’ve got a plan B, which involves packing more survival gear. We have to assume there will be power outages, and communication will be disrupted if cell towers go down. This is not too scary of an idea though, because every winter we face storms with gale force winds, and we’re used to living days without power.
The most disturbing thing about preparing our emergency kit was creating our own missing persons posters. It was a little like writing your own obituary—a morbid exercise. You have to list your height, weight, hair and eye color, and any identifying characteristics (like birthmarks or scars). That’s so you can be found alive and reunited with your loved ones, best case scenario, but also so your body can be identified if you don’t make it. Like I said, morbid.
Still, we have to assume that one of us could get separated, if somebody is in a different location when the quake hits. We even created a poster for the dog. In an ideal situation, if there can be an ideal in a terrible event like this, we’d have time to get our dog into her harness, or at least attach a leash to her collar, and calmly take her for a walk to our designated meeting point. Odds are, that won’t happen. As neurotic as Gryphon is, she’ll hide under one of our beds the second the shaking starts, and we’ll never be able to coax her out. In that case, we’re just going to have to leave her behind, as heartless as that sounds. We love her, but we can get a new dog. We can’t replace each other. Our piranha, by the way, is toast. The only way Gladiator gets to come along is if he’s dinner.
We’re not really okay with sacrificing the dog and the piranha, but we have to be. We also have to be okay with sacrificing everything else we’re forced to leave behind. I’d love to save family photos, but I just can’t. Maybe, if there’s time, I could grab one or two favorites, but they’ll take up precious room if we’re able to take our car, and there’s no room at all in the Go Bag. Forget about clothing, furniture, or my beloved books—all that is gone in a situation like this. I will grab my lap top if I can, since there are photos on that as well as my works in progress and other information that would be helpful in rebuilding our lives. It’s a sobering thought to look around me and realize all the material goods I depend on—let’s be honest, cling to for comfort—could be gone. But isn’t that going to be the case regardless? I’m not going to live forever, and I can’t take any of those things with me when I die. They’re only material things. What matters—the people I love—those are the things I can’t bear to leave behind.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
It’s easy to find excuses to avoid things. Case in point: exercise. I can find a hundred things to do instead of exercising. Start a load of laundry. Wash the dishes. Write a novel. I love to swim, but I’ve found excuses not to do it—the time it takes to drive to the recreation center, the increase in monthly fees.
Forget about running. I don’t run. Unless I’m being chased by a homicidal maniac wielding an ax, I don’t see the point. I’ll walk though, and I’ve found that pairing a treadmill with Netflix works to get me moving. It’s easier on my knees than running, so that’s a plus. I try to get in a couple of miles any day I have time, but sometimes I make excuses to avoid that too.
Before buying the treadmill, I could use rain as an excuse not to exercise. Now I can’t, but I sometimes use rain as an excuse for staying inside. I live on the beautiful Oregon coast, and we’ve got a number of trails meandering through forests or leading to beaches. I love hiking, so it’s a shame I haven’t gotten out every weekend to explore them all. I’m an Oregonian—rain is no excuse. If it were, we’d never get anything done.
Still, I have a bad habit of letting weekends slip away, sleeping in and doing mundane things I won’t care about in the long run. It’s easy to use the time doing things I can justify, like paying bills or finishing household chores. It’s just as easy to get lost surfing the internet. The rest of my family does the same thing, the four of us in our silos, on various devices, spending time in the same room without spending time with each other. All of us—me, my husband, and two sons—are introverted, so we’re comfortable having time to ourselves. We need that sometimes, to recharge from our busy weeks at work and school.
Last weekend we broke free from our bad habits. It was one of those glorious weekends when the sun was shining on the coast. I do love rain—without it the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t be green—but I love our sunny days. Summers on the Oregon coast are a dream. That’s why we have so many tourists, bumper to bumper on the highway. (And we appreciate them all, along with the money they invest in our economy.)
Since the weekend was so gorgeous, we decided to head to the beach. We unearthed our boogie boards from the garage, sorted through the sunscreen, trying to find a bottle that wasn’t expired, and pulled out our swimsuits and towels. We threw in a couple of shovels and buckets too, and then headed to Sunset Beach, one of our favorite places to play.
The boys wanted to build a driftwood fort, so that was first on our agenda. We scavenged the beach for logs big enough to use, yet small enough to carry (or drag), and got to work. A huge log had washed up near the dunes, so we built around that, excavating a bunker, and laying out logs and twigs to fashion a roof. We did a great job, creating a cozy spot to lounge and watch the waves.
After that, we grabbed our boards and caught some waves. We’re not cool enough to be surfers, but we love the ocean. (I keep saying we should at least take a surfing class. Maybe this will be the summer we do that.) The water was freezing. It was actually painful to wade in up to my waist, but I was willing to make the sacrifice for my boys. They won’t be twelve forever, and it won’t be long before they won’t want to spend time with me. They’ll be too busy hanging with friends, checking out girls. The clock is ticking, and I want to make the most of the time we have left.
After a whole lot of yelping and squealing, we finally got used to the cold. Translation: we were numb from the neck down, and having too much fun to care. Playing in the waves is not without risk. Besides the cold, there are riptides that could sweep us out to sea. There are hungry great whites that might nibble on us (unlikely) and sea nettles that could sting us (more likely, though maybe the cold will dull the pain). But there’s risk to everything, isn’t there? There’s risk crossing the street. Heck, there’s risk to eating dessert. If you use risk as an excuse to avoid doing things you love, you’ll never have any fun.
We have a lot of fun in the waves. It’s thrilling to see the perfect wave rolling in, and then to catch it in just the right spot so it carries you to shore. I love feeling the pull of the tide going out, right before a really big wave forms. I love the rush of speeding along, harnessing the power of the water. What I love most is hearing my sons shout with joy when they catch a good wave, laughing until their boards bottom out on the sand, and then scrambling to their feet, hurrying back to catch the next wave. These are the days they’ll always remember. These are the days made for living, and I don’t want to waste a single one.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
There’s a story in the Bible about gratitude that has always stuck with me. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem, walking along the border of Samaria and Galilee. He came to a village and encountered ten men with leprosy. Leprosy is caused by bacteria, and if untreated, can cause deformity, crippling, and blindness. It still exists today. What you have to understand about the disease at that time is people with leprosy were considered unclean and cast out from society. This was because the disease was thought to be highly contagious, and people tended to think that if you were sick, you must have done something to deserve it. You sinned, therefore God punished you by giving you leprosy. You had to stay away from your family and friends. You couldn’t get a job. And without a job, you had to beg if you wanted to eat. But, you were an outcast, so who’s going to give food or money to an unclean beggar? Hardly anyone. Basically, it was a lonely, miserable illness.
The men with leprosy called out to Jesus, asking him to heal them. He did, and told them to go show themselves to the priests, so it would be known they had been cleansed and could rejoin society.
It’s a compelling story, but here’s where it gets interesting to me. Only one of the men came back to say thank you.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.* Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Do you get the writer’s sarcasm here? “There were these ten guys, and not one of them came back to say thanks except this guy, and look at him, he’s not even one of us. He’s just this dude, from across the border.”
Here’s the question I ask myself: who am I in this story? Am I the person who skips off happily when somebody does something nice for me? Or do I take time to express my appreciation? I try to remember to be like the grateful guy rather than the others, though I don’t always succeed.
Still, whenever possible, I say thank you for the kind things people do, because no one’s required to be nice to me. Even our parents don’t have to be kind. In a world as dark as ours, sometimes parents don’t even like their kids, much less love them. (I’m blessed to have parents who love me and do nice things for me. Hi Mom and Dad.)
I’m a fan of handwritten thank you notes. Not for everything. I call or email to say thanks for things like birthday gifts, just because my family would think I was being ridiculously formal for sending a note. (Probably they’d think me pretentious as well.) But for some things, yes, I send a note.
This weekend I attended a book fair in Cannon Beach. Jupiter’s Books hosted 24 indie authors so we could chat with readers and boost our sales. This is no small thing for an independent bookstore to do. The owner gave us a generous cut on sales and invested who knows how many hours putting this event together, making sure it was widely advertised. I wrote him a thank you note because I truly appreciate him doing this for us. He doesn’t have to be so nice, but he is.
Sometimes I fear I say thank you too much. Is that possible? Maybe. In one note, I might say thanks three different ways. I can see how that could be annoying. I hope the recipient knows I’m being sincere. I am thankful, and I’d rather err on the side of gratitude, than let someone think I don’t appreciate a kind deed.
*Some things never change. People were pretty horrible to outsiders back then too. Samaritans were considered low-class people and it was taboo to associate with them. Really, the only person who was cool about Samaritans was Jesus. He often casts them as heroes in his stories.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This is me waiting to go through security at an airport: long before I get to the metal detector, I’ve got my jacket off, tickets and shoes in hand, pockets emptied of coins and keys, and bag positioned to pull out my laptop. I try to think ahead so things go as smoothly as possible, but of course, there are sometimes complications, especially when traveling with small children. There are two fears behind all this prep—missing my flight and holding up the line, annoying my fellow travelers.
When I stay in a hotel, I tend to keep my belongings in my bag, only unpacking what I need at the time, like toiletries or clothes for the day. I’ll hang up work clothes that might get wrinkled, but I never use the provided dresser drawers. If I do have loose items, like books or snacks, they end up stacked neatly next to my purse. Type-A behavior to be sure, but I wouldn’t say I’m a type-A person. It has more to do with anxiety that if I spread my stuff all over the place, I’ll forget something when I check out, or, if I’m rooming with someone, I’ll hog too much space and annoy them.
There’s a theme here—social anxiety about annoying people—but the other part of this is a desire to be self-reliant. To keep my crap together, so to speak. Self-reliance was a message drummed into me from the time I was young, but it’s also part of my personality. I love being independent, and I hate relying on other people. I want to be seen as competent. I think it also has to do with how kids, especially girls, are socialized. “Don’t make a fuss. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Keep your head down, and toe the line.”
I was a cheerleader in high school, and we performed stunts. I was a base, which meant I was the one with sneaker hickeys on my neck from letting another girl climb on my shoulders, holding her ankles tight so she could tower over the crowd. Sometimes we’d throw a girl into the air and join hands, forming a basket to catch her. It could be hazardous, both for the person being thrown and the people doing the catching. I had bruises to prove it. I never wanted to be the girl on top. It was partly a fear of falling, though I doubt anyone would have dropped me, not on purpose at least. Part of it was this savior complex I have—no one was going to fall on my watch. I knew, as a base, I had the strength to hold someone, and I’d let them crush me before I’d let them land on the unforgiving gym floor.
That attitude has served me well as a parent. I’m overprotective, but my kids have survived childhood thus far. The savior complex has gotten me into trouble a few times too, walking toward bad situations instead of away from them. I did stupid things when I worked in mental health. I was a naïve young woman who wanted to save the world, and that translated to volunteering in bad parts of town, providing therapy for homeless men. It’s amazing nothing awful happened to me, because I spent a lot of time alone in windowless rooms with addicts and parolees. Somebody must have been looking out for me, because none of the guys I worked with treated me badly, though I’m sure they doubted my competence. Sometimes I think about that girl and wonder what wisdom she thought she could offer people with far more life experience than she. Maybe they were kind because they knew more than I did about how vulnerable I was, in spite of my bravado.
Strength is a point of pride for me—I try not to look vulnerable. I’ve been known to brush off injuries for fear of appearing weak. When it comes to helping other people, I’ve gotten better about saying no, but at times I still take on too much instead of letting people know I’m swamped. When I get in a tight spot, I tend to keep it to myself, only sharing how bad things are with those in my inner circle.
Most of the time it’s good to be strong, to help others. I’ve never seen myself as a damsel in distress. For one, I’m not exactly dainty. Two, I favor boots over heels, and I’ll carry my own sword, thank you very much.* Usually, when I get in a sticky situation, I save myself. But what happens when I can’t?
The problem with working to look like you’ve got it together is people can’t always tell when you need rescued. If you’re like me, you don’t actually have it together all the time, but it’s hard to ask for help. I’d rather suck it up and suffer than expose my vulnerabilities. There have been times when I’ve needed saving, and I kept that fact to myself. Sometimes it was because I had a problem nobody could fix. Other times it was because I was so busy keeping up the illusion I didn’t need help, that I didn’t take time to connect with people so they’d be there to ask.
I’m trying to be better about this. I recently read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, and she makes valid points about giving, receiving, and letting people see you, scars and all. One thing she said that resonated with me was about the act of receiving—allowing people to help you is a gift you give. We need these exchanges, because none of us can get through this life on our own. She also said it’s easier to ask for help for others than it is to ask for yourself. I have found this to be true.
I’m lucky. I have loving friends. I know the closest among them would take me in if ever I showed up on their doorsteps in the middle of the night. But even among my most trusted friends I could stand to show a little more vulnerability, to be brave enough to ask for help instead of trying to save myself.
*I do own a sword. My dad made it for me. See Exhibit A.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I have this fantasy where I get rid of all my stuff and live in a tiny house. It’s a charming cottage, with cedar shingles and flowers blooming in window boxes. Most importantly, it’s free of clutter. What little I still own fits within its walls. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. I park it next to a lake, where I can go kayaking if I like, or maybe just lounge in a hammock and read. Or, if I feel like an adventure, I hook my house up to a vehicle and go. It’s a simple, serene life.
It’s not realistic right now. I have too much stuff. Books would be a problem—I own way too many books. (I have a conflicting fantasy about owning a library with a rolling ladder. I don’t think that would fit in my tiny house.) I also have a husband, two tween boys, a dog, and a piranha. It wouldn’t be easy sticking all of us and our stuff in a tiny house. Maybe this cottage fantasy is more of a retirement plan, and I can work on paring down worldly possessions bit by bit every year.
I did clean out my closet this weekend, getting rid of clothing I haven’t worn for a long time either because they don’t fit or are no longer in style. I felt an inordinate amount of joy over seeing my clothes arranged by type (dresses, jackets, pants, skirts, tops) and by color. I admit to being a little obsessive compulsive about such things. I try not to force the urge on the people I live with, though I did make my boys go through their clothes and toys and get rid of things they no longer use. The three of us stared at their neatly organized closet, amazed at how much better it looked, thrilled to be free of clutter, even though my sons would have preferred to spend their time doing other things. They are growing up differently than I did, without so much of an attachment to material goods. They still want stuff, but most of those things are virtual and don’t take up physical space. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing.
I went to a talk by Dee Williams, author of The Big Tiny. After a medical emergency, she realized life is short and chose to live simply. She sold her large house which drained her finances and required too much upkeep for someone with health issues. She built a tiny house, and parked it behind a friend’s residence, bartering space for help with an elderly relative. At her presentation, Dee brought a tarp with her home’s 84 square foot floorplan to demonstrate how tiny her house is. She has a composting toilet but no running water. Her friend lets her bring in water and shower. Running water is a must for me, but I could certainly appreciate a utility bill of less than ten dollars a month and that it would take about five minutes to clean the house.
In contrast, I recently watched a documentary on Iris Apfel. Now in her nineties, Iris is a business woman, interior designer, and fashion icon, known for her large, round glasses and style with layering accessories. She’s a force of nature in the fashion industry, setting trends and mentoring designers. She’s a collector too—curating shows about fashion at the Met. She’s a fascinating person with refreshing views on beauty. She said, “I don’t see anything so wrong with a wrinkle. It’s kind of a badge of courage.” I agree. In the film, she relates a story about how she used to frequent Loehmann’s, a shop in Brooklyn. The founder would sit on a high stool, observing customers. One day the woman called her over. She said, “Young lady, I’ve been watching you. You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better: you have style.” While that would have crushed some people, Iris took it as a challenge to use fashion to become interesting. She succeeded, and went on to live a fabulous, jet-setting life filled with dazzling couture.
Here’s what bothered me about the film though. At one point, Iris takes the audience for a tour of her warehouse, filled with racks of clothing and remnants from her interior design business. I couldn’t help but wonder—valuable as it may be, what does a person do with all that stuff? It was just sitting there, unused and gathering dust. I think that has less to do with Iris Apfel and more to do with people who grew up during the Depression, who had to go without. My grandfather was the same way, hoarding tools he might someday use, as well as things he hoped to sell.
After he passed away, my mother was tasked with cleaning out his house and discovered countless brass keys and aluminum cigar containers. He wanted to sell the metal, but never got around to it. He was a man of few resources who had to make his own way. He was never wealthy, but he built a home and a carpenter business, and he took care of his family. He held onto things because he knew bad times could return, and he wanted to be prepared.
I can understand that. Still, after seeing what a challenge it was for my mom to unload all that stuff after he died, I decided I want to live my life differently. I don’t want to be weighed down by material possessions, and I don’t want them to be a burden to people after I’m gone. I don’t think my grandfather ever meant to burden my mother—he took pains to make funeral arrangements before he died, so it would be easier for those left behind to grieve. After my grandmother died, he bought a plot next to hers and had a headstone made that they would share. It was already carved with his name—the only thing missing was the date of his death, to be added after he passed. Even so, his house still hasn’t sold, and my mother has to pay taxes on it. I doubt that’s what he wanted, but what can you do? You can’t force interest from a buyer.
Maybe the same thing will happen when I die—my kids will have an estate sale and then try to sell my house. I hope I’ll do things differently though. To me, it doesn’t make sense to hold on to things I’m not using. As I age, I want to purge extras from my life and choose to live simply. I hope I can downsize to my tiny cottage by the lake, free of all the possessions currently tying me down.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
After I finished my master’s degree and got my first grown-up job, I decided to reward myself with a trip. I had been focused in college, trying to get through as quickly as possible to cut expenses. Perhaps overly focused—I took classes year-round, dedicating summer and winter breaks to study, as well as to working to pay for school. I’m not sure I would do it the same way if I were to go back in time—maybe I wouldn’t push so hard. Maybe I’d take advantage of a study abroad opportunity. At the time though, travel wasn’t something I could afford.
The first trip I took was to Europe. Since then, I’ve gotten to go to other places, like Australia and Puerto Rico. That first excursion was different though—I was on my own for the first time, halfway across the world. Well, not quite on my own. I signed up with a tour group, expecting to meet up with other travelers in their twenties. Instead, I landed in Amsterdam and discovered my fellow travelers were all of retirement age. After the initial awkwardness wore off, I had a wonderful time. It was like traveling with two dozen affectionate grandparents. I still stay in touch with one of the women I met. She’s now in her nineties, and sharp as ever. From her, I learned that having style is more about confidence than what you wear. She had so much charisma, it was easy to forget her age.
One of the most important lessons I learned from that trip is the world is not a theme park created for my amusement. I wasn’t in Disneyland. I was visiting real countries with real consequences. This was most evident to me in Venice. Our group was headed to dinner, and somewhere, dazed with wonder walking those beautiful labyrinthine streets, I fell behind. For one panicked moment, I was lost. I didn’t know where I was, or where we were headed. I knew no one (though some of the men in the streets seemed awfully eager to get to know me). Suddenly, the world seemed dark and dangerous. Luckily, our guide noticed I was missing and backtracked to find me. I was fortunate someone was looking out for me. From then on, I took pains to stay with the group.
Another important lesson from that trip was this: people think differently, and that’s okay. Growing up in America, I was unaware that people in other countries are not as squeamish about nudity. Eager to use the hotel’s pool in Munich, I donned my suit, grabbed a towel, and opened the door to the recreation area. An old man sat just inside the entrance, a white bathrobe draped over his shoulders. I’m not sure why he had the robe, because he sure wasn’t using it for its intended purpose. I got an eyeful. Old man full frontal. Shocked out of my naivety, but determined to try to fit in with the locals, I resisted the urge to run back upstairs to my room, and swam anyway. I wasn’t ready to shed my own suit, nor will I ever be, but I realized my way of thinking wasn’t representative of the rest of the world. I think that’s a good thing, because I learn more interacting with people who are different from me.
Then there was my trip to Australia. One night I gazed at different constellations than the ones I knew, and watched as a fruit bat sailed past the face of the moon. I met scuba divers from all over the world in the Great Barrier Reef, played underwater paparazzo with a shark, fed kangaroos, sat in on lectures at a university, and discovered that beets come standard on burgers in Australia. I’m not a fan of beets, but I loved learning that ketchup is called tomato sauce in the land down under. Even better, child safety seats are called baby capsules, which sounds much more exciting. Like tiny flying saucers for babies.
I also learned that the United States is on a world stage. At the time, one of the Bush daughters was getting married. Most Americans I knew could not have cared less, but I remember watching the news in Australia, which covered the story. Over b-roll of collectible plates featuring the young couple, the reporter claimed the nuptials of the President’s daughter were “as close to a royal wedding” as America gets. That aside, the Australians I spoke with knew more about American politics than I did.
One day a cabbie asked me about the upcoming presidential election, and whether I planned to vote for Obama or McCain. He favored Obama because he felt world relations would fare better under his leadership. I was surprised he had an opinion about it—I knew nothing about Australian politics, other than what I’d seen on the news during my stay. I realized how we vote in America doesn’t just affect the United States. There are global implications. I knew this, in theory, before that conversation, but hearing it from someone with a different worldview underscored the point.
As I’ve followed our current presidential election, I’ve been thinking about that cabbie a lot lately. I wonder what he thinks about this round of candidates. I hope, as a country, we do right by him and our other international neighbors. I hope we vote wisely for all of us.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016