Free Gift (of a Scandalous nature)!

Free gift?

I just felt your Scooby sense activate because you’re a little cynical after finding out that Mark Zuckerberg is not giving away his Facebook fortune to you.

Ruh-roh, Raggy!  

Zoinks, Scooby!

But, no.  There are no flying skeletons here.  Unlike the Zuckerberg hoax, my gift is for real.

It’s the gift of Yes.feet first into city

I hope you don’t mind, I’ve taken it for a test drive.  If I’ve learned anything from Nancy Reagan, it’s that there is no shame in regifting.  So I am passing along this slightly used gift that I hope you will enjoy using as much as I do.  I got it from Shonda Rhimes after reading her self-help memoir, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person.

If you’ve heard of Gray’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder, then you know Shonda Rhimes.  She owns Thursday night television as the creator and producer of these provocative dramas.  Whether you’re a fan of her shows or not, you will likely identify with her personal struggles to maintain balance between work, family, friendships, and a healthy lifestyle.

Frankly, I don’t watch her shows, I rarely read self-help books, and, on principle, I generally resist the urge to line the pockets of multi-millionaires with the purchase of a Chicken Soup-style memoir that serves to feed one’s ego and expand one’s brand.  I had never heard of #TGIT or Shondaland before.  However, after watching an interview with Shonda Rhimes on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, I needed to know more about her Year of Yes.

ShondalandHere’s what I learned:  She is the most powerful woman in Hollywood!  She went to Dartmouth!  She gets paid to write!  She has three beautiful, smart, and well-mannered children!  She has a household staff that she trusts and adores!  She has a dream team of staff writers and personal stylists!  She has a loyal inner-circle of friends!  She has a large, tight knit family that, according to Shonda, is blessed with genes that will ensure that she and her sisters “will always be the hottest women in the old folks’ home.”!  And did I mention that she gets paid to write?!

I know, you can smell the stench of jealousy wafting from my keyboard.  I must remind myself that just because someone else’s garden is beautiful, doesn’t mean my garden can’t be beautiful, too.

Also, just because someone has achieved many great things in life doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.  Before her Year of Yes, Shonda admits that she prefered to get in bed with a bottle of wine and a box of cookies to watch Game of Thrones after a long week of work instead of accepting an invitation to join the president and First Lady in their private box at the Kennedy Center Honors.  Just the thought of getting interviewed by Oprah made her fearful of blacking out from panic.  According to Shonda:  “This is who I am.  Silent.  Quiet.  Interior.  More comfortable with books than with new situations.  Content to live within my imagination.”

Hmmm.  Maybe we have more in common than I thought.

Her moment of clarity comes when her sister mutters, “You never say yes to anything.”  This is Shonda’s impetus to step out of her comfort zone and start saying yes to all of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that are coming her way.  Yes, she will hang out with Barack and Michelle!  Yes, she will tape a heart-to-heart conversation with Oprah!  Yes, she will give a commencement speech at Dartmouth!  Yes, she will be a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live!  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!  Her publicist and the ABC network executives are thrilled!  During this time, she also goes on a diet and dumps her fiance.

Don’t get me wrong, I am very happy for Shonda that she shed 127 pounds and let go of some toxic relationships.   She quit her habit of making up an elaborate excuse to bail on one social engagement or another just “because it’s scary.”  After she lost weight she was also able to travel more freely to these awesome social engagements on a plane without a seatbelt extension, which was a big boost to her self confidence because, as Shonda reminds us, the other passengers in first class can be very judgy.

Uh oh, I’m doing it again.  I’m being facetious.

When I began reading Year of Yes, I guess I was looking for a big moment of great consequence, the type of bombshell that one would expect from a Shondaland show.  Maybe a real life plot twist that put Shonda at odds with her life choices.  Perhaps a period of reckoning similar to my own.

Mine came in my sophomore year of college after a night of partying.  I climbed through an open window of an off-campus rental house and sat on a dangerous slant of the rooftop to watch the sunrise with a guy known as Southside Tommy.  He was angsty like me.  It was early spring and we could see our breath as we talked about heady things such as one’s obligation to family.  I looked upon the bleak landscape of central Illinois as Tommy told me that he would not be returning to school after Spring Break.  He was needed to help run the family business, an Irish pub on the southside of Chicago, where he would be tending bar and busting up fights while his father recovered from back surgery.

Whether Tommy would ever get a chance to finish college and follow his dream to go to law school, I’ll never know.  But right then, an Irish pub on the southside of Chicago seemed as good a place as any to me.  I wasn’t quite sure why I was here myself.  I had changed majors three times and my student loans were accumulating as I wallowed in uncertainty.  By the time the sun peaked over the horizon, I had decided that I would leave college at the end of the semester to rethink my goals.girl with luggage

A year before, bacterial meningitis almost killed me.  Physically, I only had a heart murmur and a few scars on my arms to show for it; but mentally, I was a mess.  Being given a second chance to live presents a set of philosophical challenges.  Does one pick up right where one left off?  Or, does one reinvent oneself?  Does one insulate oneself from risk, knowing all too well the fragility of the human form?  Or, does one live with reckless abandon in the fashion of a fearless warrior shouting, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!?

These questions loomed large after I had awoken from a coma and had been taken off a respirator.  I had been in The Tunnel–the place where you pass through to get to the “other side.”  It is a place devoid of memory, sound, and even darkness.  A place where Time and Being do not exist.  Absolute Nothingness.  Like a television without power.

And if you’ve been there and back like I have, switched off and then switched on again, you have sat for long stretches, blinking your eyes and trying to regain your bearings.  Frankly, it’s a little disheartening on a spiritual level, to have not been met with a montage of my greatest moments and a comforting light at the end of the tunnel.  But that is a story for a different day…

A couple months after Southside Tommy and I parted ways, I left college at the age of nineteen and boarded a train to downtown Chicago.  I changed into a navy skirt and blazer combo purchased from a discount clothing store near the station and found a payphone with a phonebook that was still attached to it.  I turned to the section of the Yellow Pages for employment agencies and took down the address of the first business that was listed.  I navigated my way to A-Pro Staffing in a pair of patent leather shoes that squeaked when I walked, asking directions from the least angry-looking people along the way.  Soon after, I was sitting in the employment office across from an old guy named Gus who told me that my typing skills would not be good enough to earn me a secretarial position.

I quit college and had spent my last $29 on a crappy suit that was two sizes too big.  I would not cry.  I was too stunned to cry.  I was too stunned to get up to leave.  Gus drummed his fingers on his desk, looking out to the busy street.  Then he scribbled an address on a Post-it note and cleared his throat.  “Tell Mary that Gus A. sent you.”

woman walking in chicagoMy trip across the Loop was telepathic.  I stood in front of the shiniest highrise that I had ever seen, having found my way to 333 West Wacker Drive with some kind of sixth sense that kicked in when Gus handed me the Post-it.  A shaft of sunlight lit my path as I stepped into the atrium.  I tilted my face to it, closed my eyes, and felt the universe align with my purpose.  In less than an hour, I said yes to a receptionist position that Mary, the office manager, had offered me.

And many more yesses followed:  Yes, I will commute three hours!  Yes, I will work overtime!  Yes, I will take a promotion!  Yes, I will accept tuition reimbursement!  Yes, I will work the night shift!  Yes, I will sign up for honors classes!  Yes, I will graduate from college!  Yes, I will move out on my own!  Yes, I will go on a date with a young man at my office that will become my future husband!  Yes!  Yes!  Yes!

I had begun saying yes to everything that was scary back in 1987.  I worked hard and achieved some lofty goals.  And then, like Shonda, I got comfortable.  Somewhere along the way I stopped saying yes.

It is scary to think about my first apartment in the city and the months of living paycheck to paycheck, literally counting the change in my pocket and having to chose between bus fare or a packet of Ramen noodles a day before my wages were direct deposited into my bank account.  But I like to think that these times of white-knuckled resolve are what truly define me.

In the years that followed, I sought to provide a stable environment for my kids and an orderly household.  To maintain balance in a partnership in which my spouse’s work obligations are insane.  Simply put, I hold down the fort.

Although I have a great desire to see the world, to seek out adventure, to give back to community, to spend more one-on-one time with loved ones, and to forge deeper friendships, I often hear myself saying no to these opportunities.  I have become a homebody.  I hear the words of Shonda Rhimes echo in my head:  “This is who I am.  Silent.  Quiet.  Interior.  More comfortable with books than with new situations.  Content to live within my imagination.”

Besides, Who would hold down my fort?

Maybe it’s no coincidence that Year of Yes landed in my lap when it did.  As much as I have used Shonda’s book as fodder for this post, her personal journey of self improvement has inspired me to kick off 2016 by saying yes to Yes.

Since reading Year of Yes, I have let the beds go unmade some days.  I just heard your collective gasp.  But it’s true.  Although as someone who is a disciple of delayed gratification, I am sometimes gripped with guilt.  Well, maybe not guilt, but a nagging voice in the back of my head that tells me I have been neglecting my “duties.”

I am learning to ignore the voice.  And the more I do, the quieter the voice becomes.  I even went to a 10 p.m. movie on a weeknight with a heap of dirty dishes in the sink.  I don’t know what came over me.  I just said, YES.

I even said yes when my kids begged to go to a waterpark over winter break even though I have had my fill of the Land of Man Boobs with its floating globs of mystery hair and Band Aids.  But I said yes for one last hurrah and was rewarded with some quality downtime with my family, a romantic, wintery walk with my husband, some board games with my kids, and some NBA basketball action on Christmas day.

Without realizing it, Yes has been finding its way into my vocabulary more and more these days:  A birthday celebration in NYC, Midnight Bingo in Milwaukee, and a girls trip to Mexico with my daughter, my niece, and my sister-in-law last spring.  Then a mule ride I took up the side of a mountain with my husband last summer.  And before that, a whirlwind road trip with my aunt and cousin to Alabama to deliver a gift to a domestic violence shelter.  I look back on these experiences and realize that such things are good for my soul.  Still, the idea of taking on more scares me.

I think about Southside Tommy for the first time in nearly thirty years.  I remember the night clearly…There is frost on the rooftop where we’re sitting and I know I shouldn’t be up there.  But the sun rising over the podunk town as I make a life-changing decision will make a good story one day.  I’m a little tipsy and going down the pitched roof and back through the window proves to be more challenging than going up.  Tommy is already inside, telling me where to place my feet and advising me not to look down.  The irony that I should parrish from a senseless fall after making it out of The Tunnel does not escape me.

girl with sparklerToday, the best I can do is let good sense guide me.  And to say yes more than I say no, even when it’s a little scary.  And to be more spontaneous and eager and to make more of an effort to connect with others instead of settling into that well-worn place on my couch and quoting lines from Scooby Doo!.  In 2016, I will continue my own story while taking some great advice from Shonda Rhimes to be “a more honest person–both with myself and with everyone else in my life.  More adventurous.  More open.  Braver.  And kinder.  To others.  But also to myself.”

3 replies

  1. What a story…what a journey! Thanks for sharing your history and insights, Kelly. And if you ever learn what became of Southside Tommy, let us know… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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