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I would be an excellent liar. Not of the small, occasional-lie type, but of the grand, that-story-is-so-amazing-she-couldn’t-possibly-have-made-it-up type. After all, intricate plots and multi-faceted characters are my strength as a writer, and if you wanted to turn a small country’s propaganda machine over to me, I know I could do you proud.
That is why I almost never lie. Falsehoods scare me. And, in the way of those who abhor people who flaunt the very faults they work so hard to control, I hate liars. I am particularity outraged by grandiose, habitual liars who create a make-believe world and foist it on others as truth. How dare they?
You probably already know what I think of our president, so I won’t go there.
Yet, there are two areas where lies and reality do blur for me. One is one right here in my blogs. The other is in my books.
I write my blogs under my own name and in first person, as though I am presenting you with hard facts. And I often am. But I view my posts as a creative endeavor, too, and I allow myself a little poetic license to make a point. Particulars can be omitted, events can be exaggerated, and timing can be altered to provide a narrative that is more succinct and entertaining. I want you start the post, I want you to finish it, and I want you to understand what I am trying to say. So reality gets a little air brushing. I figure that you are fine with it.
I write my books as fiction, and they mostly are. Like many writers, though, I have used my own experiences to craft parts of my stories. The Zeitman family looks a lot like my own, at least on the surface, and some odd details, like the family’s favorite meal of eggplant parmesan, were lifted directly out of my own life. I mean, why bother making up another entree?
I’m now finishing my first rewrite of book six (and last) in the Zeitman family stories, and am having to revisit some of the events I borrowed from my own life and then bent and shaped to meet the needs of my novels. I’m discovering something interesting. My own real memories have become shaded by the altered version that I’ve told so many times in my books. Yikes.
So here is the truth.
June 15, 1984 at 4:17 a.m. I gave birth to my first child.
About a month earlier (not the night before), I had a strange experience while falling asleep. I felt and kind of heard what appeared to be my baby’s thoughts. It lasted a few seconds. It was very odd. I have never experienced anything like it again. I have no way of knowing whether it was real or imagined.
I did make my first presentation to the president of my company the day I went into labor, and he did make an uncomfortable joke about how having sex sets off childbirth. He was right, sexual arousal releases oxytocin, a hormone that does a lot of things, including induce labor. I knew what he was talking about at the time he said it, but was willing to bet that most of the men in the room did not, even though of course they laughed like they did.
There was no gathering in the break room after the presentation, and no horrible joke told about how a busload of children of color going off a bridge “was a start”. That joke was told by a geologist at another function some months later. I was every bit as stunned and horrified as my character, and made the same attempt at an objection that she did. I got the same reaction. Everyone acted like I’d farted loudly and looked away and said nothing. This was 1984.
Thirty-three years ago I experienced one of the most significant days in my life. Yet the events of it now blend into the day Lola Zeitman gave birth to Zane. I feel like I have lost something of my own, and telling you the truth is my way of trying to regain it.
I also have a better understanding of why lies scare me and why I work so hard to avoid them. Our memories are tied to the truth. The liar, and those who hear the lie, find their recollections begin to blur, and after awhile, there is no true memory. What a horrible thing to lose.
Unless, of course, there are tapes. I used to think that the idea of having videotapes of anything and everything was the very definition of an Orwellian nightmare. Now, I wonder if a recording of an event isn’t the only way to preserve it, unshaded by forgetfulness and wishful thinking and pride.
Maybe the universe is keeping a video of my whole life; the good and bad and the embarrassing and the exhilarating. Wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe I could get to watch those tapes some day, and relive each moment the way it really happened.
I like the idea. Lordy, I hope there are tapes.
Some of the events in my novels were inspired by real life occurrences, some came from dreams or daydreams and others are a melange of stories told to me by others. I suspect this is the case for most writers. A few of my tales, however, happened almost the way I tell them. One such narrative is Lola’s realizing how running the face painting booth at her children’s grade school changed her life.
This is autobiographical. I was raised in a small town filled with only northern Europeans, loved by adults who were at best distrustful of others. Education taught me that tolerance was the way to go. But the mind can conclude what it will; it is harder for the heart, for anyone’s heart, to feel comfortable reaching beyond how one was raised.
It was the south. It was barely two decades after the civil rights movement and it was a world in which most adults of all ethnic groups felt distrust. When confronted with any human who didn’t share my ancestry, I was awkward and nervous. I wanted to do the right thing, but had no clue how to relate to anyone who didn’t look like they could have grown up with me. Then I had children of my own, and off they went to school in a very different world than mine had been.
It brings me pride that my own kids were far more oblivious to variety in human appearance than I ever was. Watching them helped me. But in the end it was their classmates who helped me the most. The other children at their school — the children whose ancestors hailed from South Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia — they managed to teach me to recognize our common humanity as they spoke to me through their love of flowers and ninja turtles. It sounds silly, but sometimes the truth is. As I painted scary snakes and colorful rainbows on their skin, I earned their respect and their smiles and I became a different person. A better one.
Decades have passed and I am in the process of cleaning out the home I have lived in for years. It’s been a little painful, forcing myself to part with keepsakes as I make my way through attics and closets. Last week I found these — signs for my booth from over the years.
I need to keep these, I thought. This is an important part of me. “You’ve got to be kidding,” my husband said, looking at my pile of big, dilapidated poster boards. He was right. These did not need to be hauled across the country with us.
“Take a picture of them,” my daughter suggested. Brilliant. Today, a picture is never lost, particularly if you post it to your blog and tell the world.
Hey. Look at this. It might seem silly but these aren’t as trivial as they look. They taught me a lesson that has made my life so much richer. And then I chose to retell my own story of this awakening of the heart through my character Lola. And Lola, well, Lola is going to take what I learned and she’s going to write an article about how face painting could help us find our way to a more peaceful society and with that kernel Lola is going to go out there and try to change the world. No, she is going to change to world.
Luckily for our over-stuffed, rented storage area, I don’t need the real posters anymore. I carry their message in my heart, where it belonged all along.
For more thoughts on letting go, check out with a breath of kindness blow the rest away on my y1 blog. Also check out Kurt Brindley’s blog Relating to Humans. You’ll find a more personal account of this story on his page on Race Issues.