hey there, hi there, ho there

Four mouse ears bob up and down in the row of seats in front of me. Squealing laughter. Excitement only marginally hushed by their scolding parents. The early morning hour means nothing to them—they’re on their way to meet Mickey Mouse and nothing can ruin this day.

I look up from my computer in time to see a towheaded girl failing to adjust her crooked Mickey ears and staring at me.



“I’m going to see Mickey Mouse.”

“Really?!” I exclaim like I had no idea this mouse-eared kid on a plane to Orlando may be destined for the Happiest Place on Earth.  “Who are you most excited to meet?”

“Elsa,” she says and immediately breaks into a rendition of a worn out recent Disney favorite.

I smile at her and glance back down at the report I have to finish before this plane lands. My boss is dozing next to me, buying me a few stress-free moments.

When I look back up, the girl has invited her brother into the conversation and now two sets of crooked ears are telling me about their favorite Disney characters, many of whom I’m no longer young enough (or parental enough) to recognize.

“Are you going to meet Mickey too?” Brother asks.

“Not on this trip,” I tell him with regret.

“Oh,” he says, turning my words over in his head a few times before he looks back up at me, a frown marring his face. “Then why are you here?”

Why indeed.

Four of us are packed in an expensive cab on our way to the hotel where the conference begins bright and early in the morning. It’s late and the highway is dark and in the car, conversation is impact reports and budgets and retention and recruitment and grant applications and I’m trying to remember the last time my parents took me to Disney World.

It was MGM in ’93 and I’m not sure if I remember it or if I’ve just looked at the photos and heard the stories so many times that I think that I remember it.

Up ahead, like a beacon in a heavy storm, a sign illuminated by a million and a half impossibly bright light bulbs stretches across the road welcoming us to Walt Disney World and I have to hold on to the car’s arm rest to keep my body from pressing itself against the window looking for Cinderella’s castle. I have no idea where this desperate childhood moment has come from.

Maybe its the impact reports. Maybe its business cards and appointments and meetings where my under-30 status isn’t appreciated or accredited. Maybe it’s just something in the air here.

At the end of Conference Day One, after I’ve glad-handed and smiled my way through four ballrooms and six general sessions, I’m camped out on the balcony of my expensive hotel room with my overpriced minibar selection looking at the park’s rides all lit up and dotted along the dark horizon. At nine o’ one, the fireworks start and Cinderella’s castle is burning blue then red then purple then gold.

And it is perfect. It is just enough.


of things unknown but longed for still (Maya Angelou, 1928–2014)

For Brian, who will forever miss his shopping companion at the Winston-Salem Trader Joe’s. May you always look at frozen black beans in a new light.

“And there she was—this iconic legend posted up in the frozen vegetable aisle studying the back of the black beans bag like it held the answers to oppression and racial equality instead of just nutritional content. I always dreamed that if I met one of my idols I’d have some profound question to present them and they, in turn, would bestow upon me one of these riveting quotes that I could repeat over and over in my head until I got to a computer and was able to slap it on a picture of them and post it on the internet. I’d live by that wisdom, you know. But instead, I just passed right by her in her wheel chair and said, ‘I recommend the pinto, ma’am. They’re much more flavorful.'”—my brother, Brian, on shopping at the same Trader Joe’s as Maya Angelou.

“Still I Rise”

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my hautiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

—Maya Angelou, 1928–2014


i believe every lie that i ever told paid for every heart that i ever stole

My grandmother called me a feminist while we sat at the dinner table at her country club when I was 21 years old. It wasn’t a compliment. She said it in the same tone she used when she told me her neighbor, Mr. Hughes, was a Democrat. She said it after I showed up five minutes late with my hair in a ponytail and asked the waiter to bring me a beer instead of the wine list or a scotch, neat. This was feminism, apparently.

I loved my grandmother with an unfathomable passion—from the three strands of pearls around her neck to the tassels on her driving loafers. This was the woman who made me take piano lessons and attend etiquette school every Monday night. Who turned her nose up at being called Nana or Granny or any variation and insisted we think of a unique title that wouldn’t annoy her—Annie. Who made me promise when I was eight years old that I’d name my first yacht after her. I’d honor that promise to this day—if I could find someone to buy me a yacht. She was also the woman who helped elect every Democratic governor in the state of Kentucky, cursed like a sailor when she watched a Kentucky basketball game, and who never admitted to a single person that she couldn’t stand the taste of sweet tea. A walking contradiction.

She lived through the Depression, more than a few wars,  hard times, better times, women’s rights, civil rights, a new millennium, a black president, and on and on. She used to talk to me about what the world would one day expect from me.

“Be smart, be kind, be calm and accepting,” she would say. “There will be times when you’re tempted to take, but you shouldn’t. You should always give. Give advice, give knowledge, give second chances, give opportunities and forgiveness.  And for heaven’s sake, give compliments but don’t ever, ever ask for one. Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Annie taught me self respect, discipline, and manners. She taught me to hold expectations for myself and for others.

In many ways, my father’s mother is Annie’s complete opposite. Granny cooked omelets in cast iron skillets with cheese she bought at the commissary, taught me how to make sun tea on summer afternoons, pushed me out the door every sunny morning and wouldn’t let me back in the house until the crickets came out. She measured things in bales and shitloads, called every boy “Junior” and every girl “Honey Boo.” And that was before the famous one. Where Granny and Pa lived, there were a million Honey Boo Boos. I played with many Honey Boo Boos in the summers I spent on my grandparents’ tobacco farm, except instead of spouting adorable sayings, they mostly just ate push pops until their whole faces were orange and threw rocks at animals.

Granny was one of nine children. In her day, people produced off spring for the sole purpose of gaining an extra hand on the farm. She began picking cotton not long after she learned to walk. The hulls of the cotton plant were hard, sharp, and rough. Much like she turned out to be. Granny taught me to work hard, to stand up to people, to have thick skin. She taught me to hold expectations for myself and for others.

As different as my grandmothers were from one another (one preferred Billie Holiday, the other Johnny Cash hymns), their foundations were the same. At Annie’s and at Granny’s house, respect for elders was the most important thing ever. Talking back to an adult or not calling someone “sir” or “ma’am” was a one-way ticket to being punished into another generation. If you couldn’t respect a grown up, you must have no home training, my grandmothers believed, and life was going to be a struggle for you. To this day, even as an adult, I struggle to call other adults by their first names. I’ll likely default to Mr. and Ms. until I’m dead out of force of habit. And honestly, I’m probably a better person for it.

My birthday is rapidly approaching and with it, another year of experience? maturity? life experience? knowledge? or just age. One thing is for certain, I’m definitely another year of expectations older.

Of my four grandparents, only my cotton-picking grandmother is still alive. I’ll never really know if I’m that feminist Annie accused me of being (or what feminism truly is, other than differentiating yourself from a doormat or a prostitute). I won’t know if she considers me disciplined, respectful and polite, determined or successful like she wanted me to be. After all, I still don’t have that yacht. In her old age, Granny rarely talks to me about hard work anymore, but I often wonder if she things I’m lazy compared to the life she had already lived at my age.

I suppose I’m officially a full-blown adult these days, though I don’t like to think about that too much. It’s been a long time since Annie tsked me for pulling at the collars of my dresses or Granny hollered at me for throwing rocks out of the gravel driveway, but their lessons live on.

From birth, parents and grandparents worry about what the world may do to their children. But few stop and think about what they might do to them. Or for them. Hopefully for them.




i’d always thought the world was a wish-granting factory

My mom once told me that God rewarded those people who were good. I don’t remember the context—it could’ve been a warning to behave in church, or a reason to get me to stop fighting with my brother. In fact, I haven’t thought about those words of hovering warning in many years, but today, sitting in a new doctor’s office with my ever-resilient mother flipping noncommittally through a magazine next to me, those words were the first to come to me. “God rewards those who are good.”

Hours later, we’re sitting in Mom’s living room, the soft glow of a single lamp lights her tired features as she recounts the doctor’s diagnosis to her childhood friend. I bite the inside of my cheek and watch my mother for signs of distress. Outwardly, there are non. But subtle things—the tightness around her eyes, the purse of her lips, the worrying of her fingers on the frayed edge of the quilt draped across her lap—give away her unease. Perhaps, her agitation. Mom excuses herself a few minutes later and her old friend turns her attention to me.

“Have you been praying, Blair?” she wants to know. “Have you been asking for help and guidance and daily forgiveness?” Immediately I hear my mom’s words from so many years ago—God rewards those who are good.

I’ve never known anyone as inherently good as my mother. Kind and giving, unable to wish bad upon others, no matter how much they deserve it. My brother and I give her a hard time about it often. Shouldn’t you swear a little more, drink a little more, hold a grudge a little longer? Not Mom. She is far too good for that. So where is her reward?

“Well young lady?” her friend presses. “Have you been asking God to get you all through this?”

I don’t know how to answer her so I simply sit in silence, watching rain drops pelt the window. One question slithers its way in and out of my consciousness, taunting me and daring me to acknowledge what has been lingering in the back of my mind for months: Is all of this my fault?

If I had prayed more, questioned faith less, if I could take back every fib that ever left my mouth, every insult I let slip, if I actually made it to church more Sunday mornings than Easter, if I didn’t decide to live with my fiance before I married him, if I didn’t always drink one glass of wine too many, if I was good … Could I have kept this from happening?

Mom’s old friend won’t settle for my silence—she’s known me too long to buy it or tolerate it—so I finally turn to her and offer the only truth I can come up with. “I don’t know what I’m asking for or who I’m asking it of.”

It isn’t the answer she wants and its written all over her face. A little while later when she’s wishing us goodnight and giving my mother he love, she pulls me tight to her chest and says, “Everything happens for a reason, Blair. There is something to be learned from every experience. You just have to discover what it is.”

Mom and I watch the Olympics alone on the couch tonight. She tries to push me out the door, telling me to go home to my husband, but I won’t budge. Maybe it is a sense of obligation, maybe it is guilt. Maybe I just need my mom tonight.

“You don’t love me less because you live more, you know,” she says. And my chest aches with the certainty and conviction in her voice.

She laughs as I throw peanuts at the television and critique the ice dancers. She smiles when our 12-year-old, arthritic Collie makes an effort to get up from her bed just to chase down the stray peanuts laying around the floor. She giggles when I catch her flipping channels to The Bachelor when I duck out of the room for less than a breath. Love and joy are not just things reserved for the well.

Maybe there isn’t anything to learn from this experience. Maybe I’m only meant to love my mother more, to hold our time together more dear. Sick people don’t exist so that healthy people can learn lessons. And I can’t stand to believe that any god would punish a mother for the sins of a child. Especially not my mother. Because God rewards those who are good.

It must be true—my mother told me so.


wake somebody else up so that they can feel this way too

A friend recently texted me from a local beauty salon where she waited in the lobby for her turn in the chair. She was there for a haircut and color, but found herself browsing the shelves of products stacked artfully among pictures of beautiful women hanging on the walls.

“I feel like this is one of the most oppressive places in the world,” she told me.

Seriously?, I thought. In the whole wide world?

So now I’m standing here in the middle of the beauty aisle at my local corner pharmacy chain, and I think I agree with her.

Words have power. In fact, people often forget just how powerful words can be. The words on display in this aisle have a particularly deep power.

Brilliant strength


Age defying


Flawless finish

A little girl sits on the floor a few concealer displays down from her mother who is browsing the 42 varieties of mascara. At maybe 6 years old, she is fascinated by the vibrant wall of nail polishes and with more care than I’d expect from a child, is reverently stroking the tiny glass bottles of color. I don’t have a daughter. But I do have a handful of friends with very fragile self-esteems and while I see them as strong, bold women, forces to be reckoned with, souls on fire with the same life and gifts and passions as any man, I’m starting to realize that most people don’t see them—or me—that way. We’re objectified . We’re seen as pretty faces and bodies to enjoy. And we’re told that we have to look a certain way to have any worth or influence. Just take this beauty aisle as an example.

My heart aches for my friend who felt so small standing in that salon, who felt so intimidated by images and products of physical attractiveness plastered all over the walls that she couldn’t see through the institutionalized shame to find the deep, unbreakable sense of her own worthiness and beauty.

But words are powerful, I remind myself. So let me redefine those beauty aisle words for the women in my life, with the small hope that if they change how they see themselves, so will the world.

Brilliant strength. Not strength in your fingernails, but strength in your heart. May you discover and love who you are, and then fearfully but tenaciously live it out in the world.

Infallible. May you be constantly, infallibly aware that infallibility doesn’t exist. In anything or anyone. If you must seek perfection, may it be in an infallible grace—for yourself and for everyone around you.

Age defying. Your skin will wrinkle and your youth will fade, but your soul is ageless. It will always know how to play and how to enjoy and how to revel in this one-chance life. May you always defiantly resist the aging of your spirit.

Naked. The world wants you to take your clothes off. Please keep them on. But take your gloves off. Pull no punches. Say what you want. Be vulnerable. Embrace risk. Love a world that barely knows what it means to love itself. Do so nakedly. Openly. With abandon.

Flawless finish. Your finish has nothing to do with how your face looks today and everything to do with how your life looks on your last day. May your years be preparation for that day.

I used to watch my mother getting ready for an evening with my father or with her friends. I loved seeing her pick out a dress and jewelry to match. I sat on the counter facing her as she brushed blush onto her cheeks, sculpted curls in her long blonde hair, and spread lipstick effortlessly across her mouth. I thought she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

After she was all dolled up and spritzing her sweet perfume on her wrists, I’d ask her if I was ever going to be as beautiful as she was.

“You’ll be even more beautiful,” she’d say. “But you’ll always remember where you are the most beautiful, won’t you?”

And I’d obediently nod and repeat the three words that she made me repeat each day. The three words that help shaped the self image of a grown woman. The three words so bright no concealer could cover them.

“On the inside.”




i’ll be looking at the moon but i’ll be seeing you

I remember sitting on the plush bench at my grandmother’s dressing table delicately touching all of the glass bottles filled with fragrant light amber-colored liquids and soft brushes that emitted light powder when I fluffed them on the apples of my cheeks. Billie Holiday sang on an old record player in the corner of the room, a long slim cigarette was perched between my grandmother’s arched fingers as she slipped on a pair of low heels and straightened her hose. My feet curled up under me, my face propped in my 10-year-old hand, I watched her in the mirror as she softly sang along.

It was a quiet song about love but it seemed sad somehow, and I told my grandmother so.

“There is nothing as quiet as the sound of a breaking heart,” she said. I didn’t now what she meant. At the time, I didn’t know that she was talking about my mother or that I’d think of her saying those words many, many times over the years in the future.

My friend Stefanie sits across from me on the back porch of her father’s house at the edge of the county line. She weeps quietly. We haven’t said a word in more than an hour—silently huddled together on the porch swing swaddled in old quilts and knitted hats, passing a bottle of bourbon back and forth between us in an attempt to fight off the freezing temperatures and the sadness. It doesn’t work on either. And it doesn’t matter how angry she is or how loud she yelled at him, six years just slipped away silently in the night only leaving behind a shared couch and washer and dryer and joint custody of two dogs. My nose is so cold, but I don’t dare make a sound. When she wordlessly hands me the bottle, I swirl it around in my hand and obediently bring it to my lips. Tonight, I don’t make the rules.

Icy rain falls through the towering oak trees in the backyard and it sounds like tiny porcelain beads falling on a glass table top. I’m reminded of my grandmother’s dressing table and I absentmindedly begin to hum an old Billie Holiday song. My off-key voice breaks her silence.

“Will you go with me to pick up the dogs tomorrow?” she asks.

“Of course.”

“I’ll probably need a truck to move the couch next week.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Will it always hurt like this?”

“Not always.”

“So much for a happy ending, huh?”

“There are no happy endings,” I tell her and pass back the half-depleted bottle with a smirk. “Endings are the saddest part.”

“Because it’s just over,” she agrees.

“Yep,” I say. “And if it’s been happy, you’re sad to see it over, and if it’s been sad, it’s still sad because there’s no hope of it getting better. And we always miss the sad parts too.”

Stef is quiet again and I rock my body slightly causing the swing to pick up a slow and steady rhythm.

“I don’t think you’ve been here since college. High school maybe,” she says.

I had just been trying to figure out how long it had been since I’d visited her dad’s house. At least more than a handful of years. It’s a strange thought because I practically lived at this house my senior year in high school. Everything is exactly how I remember it. The forks are in the same drawer, the leather couch in the basement has the same tear in the center cushion, her father’s bourbon stash is still in the same corner cabinet. Having a history with someone that spans two decades is a funny thing. It adds a layer to your friendship that newer ones are missing. Those new friends are great, but they haven’t taken a 10 hour car ride with your grandparents to Myrtle Beach, they haven’t listened to your mom and dad fight in the next room, they haven’t bleached the carpet after dropping a plateful of spaghetti on your mother’s favorite rug, they haven’t sat in the backseat while you learned to drive, or barely contained their giggles while you were given the sex talk. They weren’t always around for the end of relationships or the start of relationships. Not all of them remember who you were without that boyfriend in the picture.

“It hurts,” Stefanie whispers. “I can actually feel it in my chest, the aching.” I don’t say anything, I just fold my body over hers on the swing and pry the bottle from her fingers.

My little brother says I am famous for my “I Have a Dream” speeches. The ones where I swoop in in the final 15 minutes of the finale and deliver with excitement, heartfelt passion, and tears, to remind everyone that we are lucky and above all, that we will be fine. He says I always know the right things to say.

I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about, and right now, I’ve got nothing.

“I won’t let him see me like this,” Stefanie quietly resolves. “He won’t see me crying and broken.”

“That’s right,” I agree. “The best revenge is moving on and getting over it.”

She nods somewhat confidently. “And just think,” I say, “there are so many other beautiful reasons to be happy.”

Tonight, we’ll finish that bottle of bourbon, uncaring of the headaches we’ll have tomorrow. Tonight we will cry and curse and call love names. Tomorrow, we will be better. Our lives belong to the people who love us. My Billie-holiday-loving grandmother used to tell me that too. What she didn’t tell me was that it wasn’t ever going to be just one person who loved us, so our lives would never be in just one person’s hands.

Stefanie will call me in the morning at 11. “I haven’t cried yet today.”

“Good girl.”

I’ll be seeing you
In every lovely summer’s day
In everything that’s light and gay
I’ll always think of you that way

dreaming about the things that we could be

I’ve been inexcusably busy lately and as turkey and stuffing came and went, I didn’t get the chance to write my annual “thankful for” post. Given the year that we’ve had, forgetting to be thankful for things seems deplorable. So let me backtrack.


I am thankful for my mother.

If you haven’t heard me say it before, let me repeat myself now: Cancer is no joke. It isn’t a single bit of fun—even if you do have a blast trying on exotic wigs and trash the wig store by insisting on unfolding every one of the beautifully-patterned silk scarfs. It isn’t something I’d ever recommend—even if it does mean you get to watch old movies on the couch and you get to play hooky from work to go to the beach and you get to eat endless amounts of popsicles. It’s really, really hard.

For me, cancer is all about life lessons. Learning to appreciate every day. Learning to lean on the people who love you. Learning to ask for help. Learning that you have the greatest mother on the face of the planet and you would trade just about anything to make her happy and healthy again. Learning that not everyone is as lucky as you are—not everyone wins their battles.

That was going to be the end of my “thankful for” list until I thought about things again. Because while my year has revolved around my mother and her battle with cancer, I realize that there are about a gazillion people who I owe some things to as well. Doctors, and nurses, and med techs, and Central Baptist Hospital cafeteria workers, and little brothers who had faith it my ability to hold everything together, and wonderful friends who helped me hold everything together, and a husband who let me fall apart, and every single person who asked me if things were OK, and bosses who let me run out of the office on a minute’s notice, and family who brought casseroles and DVDs and hats and head scarfs, and the ladies at the wig shop in Grogans who have an incredible gift of making everyone feel beautiful, and Sweet Brown who helped me make my mom laugh when I gave her an animated explanation for why we shouldn’t waste time wallowing (aint nobody got time for that).

And that’s just to name a few. There really are a gazillion things to be thankful for.

And so if you’re looking for a little inspiration, let me lend a hand.

I watched a documentary earlier this year about a kid who was losing his battle with a rare form of cancer. He wrote a song that he said helped him deal with coming to terms with his death. Really, what he did was leave behind something that his family and friends could keep forever. Zach died in May. This Christmas, a choir of strangers in the Mall of America remembered him with his song.

If you have 20 minutes today (and a box of tissues handy), the documentary is worth watching.

Or you can watch the 3-minute version—his music video that gives information about his cancer and how people can donate to research.

And just for fun, here’s the video of his celebrity friends singing Zach’s song.