Monday, October 12, 2015

Connecticut bound!

This past Saturday, Dara came over to my house, and we rehearsed in my living room for the last time. Tomorrow at 2 pm ET, we will give a 90-minute presentation at the Annual Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference in Hartford, CT. It's the only conference focused exclusively on women and girls in the criminal justice system.

This year's conference, with the theme "New Paths to Resiliency," will draw professionals from federal, state and local correctional systems, as well as treatment providers and researchers from the United States, Canada and other countries. Dara and I are going to talk about the tools and programs that Truth Be Told offers women during and after their incarceration. Our presentation is unique because the audience will hear about these things through the eyes of a program graduate (Dara) and a volunteer program facilitator (me).

Before we started our final rehearsal, I asked if Dara would join me in some dump writing, which is an expressive writing tool I use in my prison work, as well as in my workshops out here in the free world. Essentially, you set the timer and then keep your pen moving for the allotted amount of time -- no censoring or filtering -- just a free-flowing of thoughts and feelings onto the page, getting rid of any and every thought that is cluttering your mind, so you can be present and grounded for the task ahead. I asked that Dara and I write specifically on how we wanted to feel as we were presenting up there in Connecticut and how we wanted to feel afterwards. I put on some soft music, and our pens got to moving. The words seemed to come easily for both of us. We wrote for the length of two songs before I suggested that we find a natural ending to our thoughts.

Below is what Dara wrote and she gave me permission to share it with you.

As I write this, I am two hours away from heading to the airport to catch my flight. Dara is already there. She texted me 30 minutes ago, an image of the plane's wing sweeping over red, orange and green treetops as the jet was coming in for a landing.

I ask for all your thoughts, prayers and gratuitous good vibes as we step up there tomorrow. Dara is sharing her life story and how things have changed so dramatically in the past five years because she has chosen to stop running from her story and to own it — and therefore, own her life. I cannot wait to see her shine and to see the inspiration she evokes in the people who have come to listen. I am honored to be supporting her in this way.

A synopsis of our workshop:

The Road to Recovery Using the 4 Cs

From a shattered childhood and multiple incarcerations to receiving the Presidential Student Achievement Award at Austin Community College, Dara Musick is the very definition of resiliency. Her transformation didn’t come easily, nor did it come overnight. It took tremendous personal fortitude, numerous false starts, and a community of people who believed in the change that Dara ultimately wanted to see in her life.

After spending more than 25 years living in her addiction and drifting in and out of the Texas criminal justice system from age 15 to 37, Dara set herself on the road to recovery by learning to tell her life story and earnestly practicing the 4 Cs — Community Building, Communication, Creativity and Caring for Self — skills she learned through Truth Be Told, a nonprofit that provides personal growth programs to incarcerated women.
Dara will share her inspiring story and be joined by volunteer Truth Be Told facilitator Katie Ford, who teaches and engages in the same curriculum Dara experienced while incarcerated. Together, Dara and Katie will illustrate how their experiences in prison — learning to tell their life stories and practicing the 4 Cs — have forever changed their lives in ways they could not have imagined. Under the auspices of Truth Be Told, volunteer facilitators and incarcerated women are embarking on the journey of personal transformation together. It’s a holistic approach to prison programming that allows the participants to recognize each other first and foremost as fellow human beings — each of us with a truth worth sharing and a life worth living.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Finding inspiration in unexpected places

Artwork by Karen, Truth Be Told graduate
Where do I find inspiration to create, to look past my fears and make things happen? The quick and simple answer: In prison.

This past Thursday, I emceed the fall orientation for Truth Be Told​'s Talk to Me Series at a women’s prison in Lockhart, Texas. As usual, the women who walked into the slightly-less-than-sweltering gymnasium to hear about our programs represented all ages, all races. Some seemed introverted; others extroverted. But all the women made it clear by their presence that they were curious about what we had to offer.

Moments that replay in my mind as I think upon the afternoon:
·      En route to the gym, I run into a student from last semester. Soft brown eyes. Easy smile. High five. Not enough time to connect. Small talk. Much left unsaid.
·      One of our volunteer facilitators follows her impulse to pass out notebook paper to all the women in the gym so they can fan themselves.
·      The sea of faces looking back at me as I speak of our organization and the classes we offer. I see nods of encouragement. Eagerness. Furrowed brows. Pleasant smiles. There’s a very young woman who cannot keep her eyes open. She is struggling to focus and losing the battle. I want to know the rest of her story, but I have a program to lead.

What really makes an impression on me, however, are the three women from last semester who show up to retake one of our classes. They each share their reasons for repeating, but the common denominator is their determination to befriend fears and doubts, believe in their self-worth and honor their full potential as human beings.

As I sit with these women, I recall their stories. Two of them have lived experiences that would threaten my sanity. But here they are, sitting in plastic chairs in a gymnasium with no A/C, their bodies leaning into the conversation, their eyes wide open, their voices humble and earnest. They are ready to dive deeper. To explore. To face it all.

To make it happen.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

On the other side of grief

Remembering with more clarity (and feeling?) than I have in a long time about what happened on this day 25 years ago. I’ve got a tightness in my chest, like the events are unfolding right now in some parallel universe. On this day, 25 years ago, Mom was taking her final breaths in an ICU bed at George Washington Memorial Hospital in D.C. She was 44.

Dad was by her side. My sister and I had gone back to Mom’s house in Old Town, Alexandria, to shower and try to nap. We had been pretty much living in the ICU waiting room for the past two weeks. I’m suddenly recalling a nice woman from Bethesda, Maryland. Dark hair and a kind smile. She would look after us when Dad had to step away for a bit. We were 16 and 19, my sister and me.

The phone rang while we were at Mom’s. Dad’s voice was on the line. We needed to get back to the hospital quickly. Her blood pressure had dropped in half. It wouldn’t be long now.

When we got to the hospital, I remember passing through the ICU doors and entering the hallway where Mom’s room was. Dad was sitting on a stool outside the door. I thought, Why aren’t you inside with her? but then I saw the look on his face.

Cold shock runs through me. My life becomes a movie.

See the young girl walking toward her dad. See the doctor, with soft, sympathetic eyes, asking the young girl, “Do you want to see her? You can go inside if you want.” See the young girl nod and walk toward the door, because … shouldn’t she want to see her mother? But the young girl is terrified to see her mother dead.

See the door swing open as the young girl, with her sister following behind, enters the room. Hear the hiss of the detached breathing apparatus as it blows mist into the air. See the girls’ mother lying below the cloud of mist, eyes closed, lips parted. Hear the young girl blurt out almost tersely, “OK, that’s enough” as she turns around, taking her sister by the arm (does she cover her sister’s eyes too?) and hustles them both out of the room.

No tears. No tears as the young girl sits at a table in a laboratory (or was it a meeting room?) down the hall with her father. A doctor inquires civilly whether the family wants to order an autopsy (“the acute progression of her disease was very rare”). Official forms, signatures, next steps. The girl has power of attorney over her mom because her parents divorced years ago. The hospital’s legal department isn’t interested in what the ex-husband has to say. She participates in the conversation, answers their questions, looks to her father for guidance. She is acutely aware that she is not crying and this amazes her. Not a tear. Shouldn’t she be crying? But the truth is, she is afraid if she starts, she will never stop.

She is unaware, in this moment, of the rewiring taking place in her heart, and how it will affect the way she lives and loves for the rest of her life. It will take years for her to understand that this grief will always be inside her, that it will change over time, disappear indefinitely and then show up unexpectedly in conversations, in personal relationships, in quieter moments, in a stranger’s face.

But this grief will provide fertile soil for her growth as a woman, as a human being. It will fuel her desire to explore, to take chances, to seek beyond what’s in front of her, to push forward when she’s afraid, to follow her heart’s work, to appreciate the sanctity of life.

She couldn't possibly imagine it yet, but one day, when she is 44 years old and spending time in the Colorado mountains (a place her mother loved so dearly), she will realize with bittersweet certainty that her mother’s death is what taught her to really live. 

Bonnie Lu Ford, June 29, 1945 – June 28, 1990

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A memento from my time in prison

From Stephanie, Spring 2014 graduate 
Stephanie handed me this letter the day she graduated from Talk to Me Circle in the spring of 2014. There were 17 women in my class that semester. TTM Circle is a class for incarcerated women, and I have led it as a volunteer facilitator since 2010. This class and others like it are made possible through an Austin nonprofit called Truth Be Told.

In TTM Circle, the women are challenged to write and share the story of what led them to prison — not the details of the crime itself, but a broader introspection that asks the women to look deep into their pasts to identify formative experiences and personal decisions that they feel ultimately led to where they sit today: behind bars.

Equally important to writing their stories, the women are required to read their stories aloud in class, which is a powerful exercise in learning how to trust, speak the truth, listen deeply, respect confidentiality, have compassion for self and others, and participate in a safe community.

The thing I remember most about Stephanie is that she offered to read a classmate's story to the class when this particular classmate expressed severe anxiety about reading in front of her peers. This student, Jessica, was an English language learner and very self-conscious about speaking English in front of people, plus her story included things she had never admitted to anyone — details of childhood sexual abuse. Jessica knew enough English to write about her life, but she couldn't bring herself to read it.

Seeing her classmate in distress, Stephanie raised her hand and then addressed Jessica directly: "Would you feel better if someone read it for you? Because I will if you want me to."

Through tears, Jessica nodded her head and held out her loose-leaf pages for Stephanie. Stephanie crossed the room and accepted the paper so carefully, as if it were truly Jessica's life she held in her hands. She stood beside Jessica, who remained seated, and cleared her throat.

"My name is Stephanie. And this is Jessica's story. ..."

What struck me as Stephanie read was how she seemed to feel Jessica's life as if it had happened to her. Her eyes grew misty as she read about Jessica as a toddler, pretending to bake in the kitchen with her grandmother. She laughed as she spoke of Jessica and her cousins, playing outside until well after dark and the mischief they would cause. And she spoke through heavy sobs as she recounted details of a childhood abuser and the very dark years that followed, as Jessica spiraled out in a whirlwind of self-destruction. Jessica mostly kept her face buried in her hands as Stephanie read, but when it was over, she looked up at Stephanie with such appreciation and love, and I could see on Stephanie's face that she knew she had just done something really good. Really, really good.

All of us in the room could feel it. We felt proud of Stephanie, compassion for Jessica and honored to have witnessed it all. We were a circle of women who had, inside a prison, successfully built a community of trust, of love, of compassion, of authenticity, of truth, of integrity, of hope, of healing, of new beginnings.

Word by word and story by story, we were speaking life back into each other and empowering ourselves to write new chapters, better chapters, in our life stories.

Truth Be Told has been around for 15 years and has served more than 1,000 female inmates with its programs, but only in recent years have our classes really been discovered. We now have facilities asking for our curriculum and waiting lists at the facilities where we currently have classes. We need money to strengthen our tiny infrastructure and to expand our programming so we can reach more women.

March 5-6 is Amplify Austin Day, a 24-hour online giving campaign that raises money for nonprofits serving Central Texas. Will you consider scheduling a donation to Truth Be Told on Amplify Austin Day or donating any day by clicking the DONATE button on Truth Be Told's website?

Every dollar counts. I'm grateful for whatever you can give. Please help us reach more Stephanies and Jessicas. Will you?

Ms. Katie,

I just wanted to thank you for taking your time to volunteer here at Lockhart and for reaching out to us. Also for sharing your story with us. The true story, not the edited one. For confiding and trusting in us as we have you. Thank you for the words of encouragement, motivation, strength and life. As you speak, I feel that you speak life back into us.

As the truth is told and we are emptied of the weight it has burdened us with for so long; reinforcement and life are what we have began to be filled with again and that's because of you and the opportunity this class has brought forth.

I can personally tell you I have felt a weight lifted from my shoulders and that my heart is finding its way back together again. I'm sleeping better and I feel like there's hope and a future for me. I can live again and live life to its fullest. I can do this because my truth has been told and I no longer have those burdens. Thank you Truth Be Told and thank you Katie. You have been a blessing in my life.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A conversation at the counter

The couple's generosity was the first thing I noticed. I mean, we had just met and they were insisting that I take a biscuit from their plate.

“They’re supposed to be the best in town,” Lydia told me. “You need to try one.”

We were sitting at the counter at Sawyer & Co., a diner along an industrial block in far East Austin. I had arrived there first. A plate of eggs sardou had just been placed in front of me when they took the seats on my right.

“That smells so good and looks delicious,” Lydia said, eyeing my plate.

“It is,” I said, and we all exchanged excited smiles like family about to sit down for Thanksgiving dinner.

I continued to read my book as they figured out what to order. The waitress came and went a few times, filling coffee cups and taking orders. At some point, I looked up from my book and, before I knew what was coming out of my mouth, I turned to Lydia and asked her if she ordered the eggs sardou.

“No, although it does look amazing,” she replied. “I just got a side order of biscuits. They’re supposed to be really good here.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.”

“Is this your first time here?” she asked.

“Yes. Yours?”


Her husband, who had been leaning in and listening, piped up for the first time.

“Are you from Austin?”

“No. But I’ve been here since 1996.”

“Oh, well then, you’re from Austin,” Lydia confirmed. 

“I went to college here in the ‘70s,” Craig said. “MoPac didn’t even exist then.”

The waitress came and placed two steaming biscuits in front of Lydia, and a plate of eggs and biscuits in front of Craig.

“Here, you have to try one.” Lydia took a biscuit from her plate and prompted me to bring my plate closer.

“Oh, no! I couldn’t. I mean, maybe a bite. But not the whole thing! I won't eat the whole thing.”

“They’re supposed to be the best in town,” Lydia told me. “You need to try one.”

I looked at Craig.

“I have two here. I’m fine. It’ll just sit on her plate or yours.”

I took the biscuit and thanked them both.

“So, what’s that book about?” Craig nodded at the book next to my plate. 

I winced at the morbid title. 

“It's called 'A Year to Live.' It's by Stephen Levine. I realize it sounds dark, but the message is really life-affirming. It’s a meditative book, I guess. It’s about living each year as if it were your last. The author counsels people who are terminally ill, but the message is really for anyone.”

“Oh, I don’t think it sounds dark,” Lydia assured me. 

“The title intrigued me. I thought maybe it was a book about grieving," Craig said. "We lost our daughter."

He was leaning on his elbow and fully facing me. For the first time, I really looked at him and saw him. Lydia too. 

Both of them had olive skin, and faces and bodies that had softened with age. They spoke to me with a relaxed familiarity, no different than the tone they used with each other. His balding hair was mostly gray. Her wavy black hair was pulled together loosely at the nape of her neck. She wore glasses. He did not. They dressed almost identically in layers of dark hues.  

“Was it recently that you lost her?”

“Six years ago,” Craig offered.

“Then recently,” I said.

They both nodded in agreement. I felt a pop in my chest and a tenderness filled the cavity.

“I’m reading this book because my mom died the day before her 45th birthday." I felt a hotness in my eyes, a thickness in my throat. “I turn 44 next month. So, you know, I’m about to be older than she ever was, and that's… .”

My voice wavered, so I swallowed hard and smiled apologetically. Their kind, knowing faces told me the tears welling up in my eyes were OK.

I took a deep breath. "I feel like I need to mark this year somehow. I guess I'm looking for guidance on how to do that.” 

"Just start doing all the things you've always wanted to do," Craig said.  

“But I’m a responsible person. I don’t want to go crazy and blow through my savings.”

“Well, I'm not saying you have to do that. Just start doing things you've always wanted to do, and be responsible about it. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive."

I took a few bites of my breakfast and marveled at the conversation unfolding in front of me. These two people who had sat down next to me.

“What was her name?” I asked.

“Lauren,” Lydia replied without hesitation. “She was 17.”

“It was a car accident,” Craig added. “She was on her way to a birthday party.”

I thought about a young teenager, still inexperienced behind the wheel, free from her parents and out on the road.

“She was with a friend, and the friend’s mother was driving,” he told me. “It was all very innocent. It happened on Hwy 71.”

I nodded, letting him know I had an accurate picture of the circumstances of his daughter's death.

I looked at Lydia. “Was she your only child?”

“No, we have another daughter, Natalie.”

“Is she here in Austin?”

“No, she’s in Aspen. She just moved there two weeks ago.”

As she spoke, I noticed tears in the corner of her eye. I thought twice about it and then put my hand on her back and gave her a few soft pats. I kept my eyes on Craig as she wiped her cheek with a napkin.

“She’s doing what your book says,” Craig told me with unmistakable pride. “She had a really good job in fashion in Dallas, but she was tired of Dallas. She’s always wanted to live in the mountains, so she looked for a job in Aspen, found one and went. Just like that.”

“It’s true,” Lydia said, a new playfulness in her voice. “She landed a job in less than a week and found an apartment the very next day!”

“I believe when you’re moving in the right direction, The Universe will work with you in that way -- like a cosmic confirmation that you're on the right track,” I said.

“That’s exactly what she said,” Lydia smiled. “She said the stars aligned for her.”

The three of us sat alone with our thoughts for a while and ate our breakfast. Craig eventually flagged down the waitress and handed her his credit card. The couple began to gather their things.

I looked at the two bites' worth of biscuit left on my plate.

“I lied to you both,” I said somberly. They both paused and looked over at me. “Turns out I am going to eat this whole damn biscuit.” And I stuffed the rest of the buttery goodness into my mouth.

Craig’s face broke into a wide grin and Lydia let out a laugh. 

“Good for you. I’m Lydia, by the way.” She offered me her hand and I shook it.


Lydia's husband then extended his hand.


The waitress returned with their bill, and Craig pulled out a pair of readers to sign it.

Lydia leaned in toward me, as if confiding something. "I think I might read that book.”

“A Year to Live,” I reminded her.

“Oh, I won’t forget the title.”

Craig stood up to put on his coat and Lydia followed suit. 

“I hope this coming year is everything you hope it to be,” Lydia said. She put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a squeeze.

"Thanks, Lydia."

Craig pointed at my book. "Don't wait. I wish all good things for you, Katie."

"Thank you. I wish you both the same. Happy new year."

And then I was alone again at the counter.

I ate the rest of my breakfast in silence, not wanting to distract myself with the book or my phone or other people. Like a tape recorder, my mind continued to rewind and fast-forward, replaying various parts of the conversation, which covered more terrain than I bothered to write here.

It wasn't long before new people filled the seats next to me and my plate was empty. I signaled the waitress for my check.

Instead of going to the register, the waitress smiled and nodded in the direction of the parking lot, where Craig and Lydia had gone.

“Not necessary. They took care of it.”

And, for a second time that morning, I found myself tearing up in a diner.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Storytelling and plot twists

Illustration by Amirocks73
In May, I was honored to be the featured speaker at Creative Mornings, a monthly breakfast lecture series for the creative community. My intention going into the experience was to raise awareness for Truth Be Told, but what I gained in the end was a whole new level of self-awareness. I'll let the video of my talk tell the rest of the story.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pecha Kucha Austin #19

Poster design by Pentagram Design Inc.
For those who weren't able to attend, the video is out! And conveniently for you, I'm the first presenter of the evening. 

In March, I had the opportunity to speak about my volunteer prison work at Pecha Kucha Night #19. The 20x20 presentation format -- 20 slides, 20 seconds of narrative per slide -- was quite challenging. I rehearsed what felt like a gazillion times to get the words down and the pacing right. In fact, the night before, upon settling into bed, I found myself compulsively reciting the entire thing like a nervous tick. When I uttered the first line, my dog -- somewhere in the darkness at the foot of my bed -- let out a dramatic sigh and promptly left the room. True story.

"Srriously, Katie?" I imagined Martha Dog saying. "I'd really like to get some sleep."

I guess I put so much care into the preparation because I knew I was representing Truth Be Told, and I wanted to do well for this nonprofit that has come to mean so much to me. I felt like I was standing up for the more than 1,000 incarcerated women who have graduated from Truth Be Told's programs and the thousands more who will take our classes and graduate in the future.

In my volunteer roles at Lockhart prison, I routinely get up in front of people and talk. I've also spoken at Truth Be Told fundraising events. So, to a certain degree, I'm comfortable with public speaking.

However, Pecha Kucha proved a different ball game, and it wasn't just because of the 20x20 format. As I stood there, facing the biggest crowd I'd ever addressed, I had this strange sensation, like half of me was there, in downtown Austin among the hustle and bustle of SXSW. Yet, the other half of me was behind bars in Lockhart with the incarcerated women. I mean, right beside me on a giant screen were images of us in the prison classroom -- laughing, crying and sharing our stories. I know these women. They have names, histories, families, hopes, fears, dreams. I see them fully as fellow human beings.

But I wondered: What was the audience seeing?

On their faces I saw looks of fascination, concern, curiosity, thoughtfulness, indifference. Of course, these are the emotions I assigned to their expressions. Who knows what they were really feeling in that moment.

I know what I was feeling in that moment: passion. Passion and conviction. It occurred to me as I stood there that this might be the first time some of these people have stopped to think about the incarcerated population.

I wanted these people to SEE the women as fully as I do. 

Addict, thief, con artist, perpetrator, aggressor, drunk driver, prostitute, drug dealer, gangbanger. Yes, yes and yes. You will find all of these people and more in prison. It's depressing, ugly, frustrating, disheartening and scary.

But here's what you'll also find in prison: mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters, wives, college graduates, war veterans, degreed professionals, business owners, former foster children, survivors of childhood abuse, survivors of domestic violence. 

These women who are locked away and invisible to most of us are also our neighbors. They are members of our communities. And one day, when their sentences max out or when they make parole, they will be back among us.

Will they be safe, contributing members of our society, or will they continue in their old ways?

That's a good question. I think a lot of that depends on what they learn while they're incarcerated.

I have a 26-year-old woman in my class this semester. It's her first time in prison. She got locked up at age 22.

The other week in class she proclaimed that prison has taught her how to be "sneakier," how to be a "better hustler," a "better addict."

That is, until this class.

She said she loves this class. Why? Because Truth Be Told is teaching her how to be truthful to herself and to others, how to express her feelings in healthy ways, how to ask for help when she needs it. It's also showing her how to seek supportive community and how to be supportive to others, which can make a world of difference in this crazy ride called life.  

I feel hope for this young woman. I think she's onto something good. Something better. Something different than what she's been shown and taught in the past. I can't guarantee that anything will blossom from it, but I am certain that a seed has been planted.

I want to thank PK organizer Lana McGilvray for suggesting that I present at Pecha Kucha, and I want to thank the board for voting me in. It was an honor and a real pleasure.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Casa de Corona | Oct. 14, 2009 - March 24, 2014

Casa de Corona was “born” on October 14, 2009, when I decided to join Facebook under a nom de plume inspired by my street address.

Originally a vocal critic of Facebook, I finally acquiesced and created a profile because I got tired of not knowing things that “everyone else” seemed to know.

You didn’t know that Jim is traveling through Central America right now? But he has been posting pics on Facebook!

You didn’t know Scott and Leslie got engaged? But they updated their relationship status on Facebook! 

After enough of these conversations, I bit the bullet and joined, but I did it on my terms.

I created Casa de Corona to maintain some level of anonymity on the social network. I wanted to make sure the people who had naturally drifted out of my life would stay that way. It’s not like I had a horrible past or anything. It’s just that I already found it hard to spend quality time with the people who were in my life presently. The idea of rekindling a friendship with, say, my physics lab partner from high school held zero appeal. (Sorry, Lee. It’s not you. It’s me.)

In addition to using an alias on Facebook, I set my privacy settings high and made Casa de Corona unsearchable. I sent Friend Requests to all the Contacts in my phone and — voila! — I was now officially “in the know.”

And, man, I had no idea how “in the know” I could be.

Not only was I now up to date on everyone’s vacation plans and relationship statuses, but I also knew what they ate for lunch, that they couldn’t sleep at all last night, that they slept for 11 hours straight last night, that they were having the most amazing night out with friends right now, that they were stuck in traffic, that they were relaxing on a beach, that they just listened to this MGMT song on Spotify, that their adorable dog was being even more adorable at this very moment, that their kid was at the ER and look at his tearstained face (#nofilter #whatachamp #poorlilguy), that they looked killer in their new sunglasses, that they stumbled upon this amazing article/photo/video and will never be the same again, that they made this delicious smoothie, that they laughed so hard at this meme, that they can’t get enough of House of Cards/Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad, that they think this quote is poignant and everyone should read it too, that they got a new haircut/bike/cat/girlfriend/tattoo, that they should really live in Cape Town, and — most importantly — that they would be Blanche Devereaux if they were a Golden Girl.

Before creating Casa de Corona, I didn’t know most of these things about my friends and I got along in life just fine. However, now that I knew these kinds of things, I had to keep knowing these things!

It became an involuntary habit to reach for my phone or open Facebook on my laptop whenever I wasn’t actively engaged in something. Waiting in line? Check Facebook. Eating alone? Check Facebook. Procrastinating? Check Facebook. Can’t sleep? Check Facebook. Bored? Check Facebook. Writer’s block? Check Facebook. And yes, I admit it: At a red light? Check Facebook.

It didn’t matter that I had just scrolled through my News Feed only minutes ago. I had to check it again because, you know, I might miss something important, like a gorgeously staged photo of the cocktail my friend just ordered at WeatherUp.

Over the past five years, I have allowed the lure of Facebook to routinely and regularly interrupt my productivity and creativity. A task that should take me only an hour drags over an afternoon because I take multiple "quick" breaks to troll through the News Feed.

I created Casa de Corona to stay more connected to others, but, for me, Facebook has morphed into The Ultimate Distraction.

I find it disturbing that I seemingly have forgotten how to stay present during the natural pauses in my day. Instead of welcoming a window of unoccupied stillness, my hand automatically reaches for my phone, my eyes leave the world around me, and all my attention and energy gets poured into a glowing screen.

It’s sick. Sick, sick, sick.

However, that’s not the worst of it.

What I find most disconcerting is that, for the most part, Casa de Corona has become my primary outlet for creative writing. I’ve started to regard most everything I experience as a potential Facebook post.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where I must draw the line.

Since joining Facebook, my writing life (that is, my non-billable and creative writing life) has looked somewhat like this: If The Universe graces me with a keen observation or a bit of humor, nostalgia or enlightenment, I don’t journal about it. I don’t turn it into a short story or an essay or a magazine article. I don’t sketch out the beginnings of The Next Great American Novel.

Oh, no, no, no. Why, that would be too much work!

Instead, I immediately reconfigure the thought or scene into a pithy Facebook post, cast it into the News Feed and wait hungrily to see how many Likes and Comments it’ll catch. It’s so quick and effortless, and I have an audience available to me 24-7.

Sweetening the lure is that people often tell me, both online and in person, how much they enjoy my Facebook posts — that they actually look forward to them. And let me tell you something about writers, people: We love receiving feedback like this! I love learning that my words have resonated with another human being, that my writing has made someone laugh, think or just feel less alone in that moment.

I admit: This part of Casa de Corona’s “life” has been rewarding and very positive. I am grateful to her to this end. Casa de Corona has given me a (somewhat) public platform to voice my take on this thing called life, whether it’s a scene I observed in a coffee shop or the inventorying of a rather remarkable day.

But here’s the rub, my friends: Writing Facebook status updates has nothing to do with real literature and everything to do with tossing my creativity into a bottomless cyberpit to immediately gratify my ego.

It is like witnessing The Slow, Unceremonious Death of a Writer.

All those status updates I referred to above? I’m guilty of posting most of them and more. I mean, how many times a day must I say: “Look at me, everyone!”? Because let’s face it: That’s basically what I’m doing every time Casa de Corona posts a status update.

Look at me! How clever. Look at me! How fun. Look at me! How pretty. Look at me! How smart. Look at me! How strong. Look at me! How crazy. Look at me! How cool.

Do I really need a collective thumbs up from the Facebook community to validate my experiences, thoughts and feelings throughout the day? Since when did I become so outwardly focused in affirming who I am on the inside?

I know better than this. I was born with an independent spirit and a desire to pursue the road less traveled, but Facebook has somehow hacked into my internal compass and made it too easy for me to stop and ask for directions, to demand a virtual pat on the back versus patting myself on the back and knowing that that is enough. 

The good news is that I’ve become acutely aware of what Facebook can (and can’t) do for me. I have traveled the full distance with Casa de Corona. And as it turns out, she is a dead-end street.

Simply put: I am killing Casa de Corona to rescue the writer in me.

The Next Chapter

Like most writers, I think I have at least one book in me. Right after my divorce, in the early 2000s, I had an idea for a novel and I pursued it by spending two months in Mexico and then traveling across Spain in a tiny Fiat with three amateur bullfighters. I wanted to write a novel about a rodeo-cowboy-turned-matador. My ex-husband was a pro bull rider, so I knew that lifestyle well. I just had to educate myself about the fiesta brava. I taped hours of interviews on cassettes and filled a few legal pads with notes and observations, but, in the end, the book never happened. For reasons not worth going into here, my fascination with the bullfighting subculture waned, and I no longer felt compelled to write the story.

For a long time I beat myself up for not writing that book, but now I look back on that time in my life and I feel in awe that I spent that kind of time and energy pursuing a creative writing project that had nothing to do with my paid writing jobs.

I want to do shit like that again.

I will do shit like that again.

The trick is — and I can feel this like a deep knowing in my bones — I need to relearn how to stay present in the natural pauses throughout my day. I need to stop filling my head with News Feed fodder and make room for stillness. That’s when Ideas are born.

Moreover, when The Universe throws me an idea, I want to write at length about it. I want to process things thoroughly. I want to sit and revisit. I want to throw away and start over. I want to write and revise — and write and revise again.

I want to spend real time on real things.

For those of you who want to continue reading my work, I encourage you to follow this blog so you’ll receive alerts whenever I write something new. Casa de Corona’s final status update will sit in the News Feed for a couple days and then her profile will be deleted forevermore. Amen.

For the time being, I’ve decided to keep my Instagram profile alive because it doesn’t feel threatening to my writing life like Facebook does. But who knows. I might kill that too eventually.

I trust that those who want to be in my life will remain in it, and I'm certain I will find ways to stay connected and accessible to those I love, admire and care about.

Isn't that how the original model for friendship has always worked?

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Mexico, Fancy Pants and Hypocrisy

Last night I dreamed that I was living in Mexico and getting ready for some kind of elaborate evening fiesta with an Old West theme. I looked in my closet and found these amazing high-waisted pants with fringe and conchos. I had no idea that I owned pants like these, but when I put them on, they fit perfectly. I remember feeling happy because I thought they looked good on me and they were very comfortable.

However, when I saw the look on my friend's face, I suddenly doubted the coolness of my fancy pants.
To which she replied:
Which I didn't really understand, because she was wearing this Davy Crocket knockoff: a suede jacket trimmed in black fringe.

And that's really all I remember about my dream last night.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Final Tally

I recently rediscovered a box I hadn't rummaged through in many years. I had taken it from Mom's closet after she died. It's filled mostly with things I made for her when I was little (drawings, poems, Mother's Day cards, silly letters I wrote her from summer camp), but there's also a pretty thorough collection of report cards, certificates of achievement, progress notes from teachers, award ribbons, samples of my schoolwork, school programs that featured my name -- even a taped envelope labeled "Katie's first haircut" and a newspaper clipping of the horoscope that was published the day I was born.

Also in this box I found a looseleaf sheet of paper titled "To Jean: My Self-Analysis."

From context clues, I know I wrote this self-analysis at age 17. That was a tumultuous year in our family. For starters, after having lived with Mom during the school year and Dad during the summers since I was 6 years old, my mom made the difficult decision to move to Washington D.C. to take a good job. It was a dramatic move, but the times warranted it. It was the '80s, the economy in Dallas was sluggish, and she'd been through two layoffs in less than two years. As a single mother of two, she needed more stability. I think her idea was that my sister and I would move east with her, but -- being every inch of the typical teenagers we were -- we chose our friends and stayed behind to live with Dad. However, because Dad lived in a different area of Dallas, my sister and I ended up having to change school districts anyway. For me, that meant leaving the friends I'd known since preschool to start my junior year at a school where I knew no one. Moreover, Dad ran a tight ship in contrast to Mom, so there were new house rules to obey, which did not sit well with Teen Goth Katie and her "nonconformist ways." All of this required a lot of adjustment for everyone in our family.

But wait. There's more.

That same year, Dad met, fell in love with, and proposed marriage to an incredible woman named Jean. Even though they had only been on four dates when my dad proposed, Jean said yes -- and, voila! -- my sister and I suddenly gained a stepmom. Oh, and she had two daughters as well -- ages 4 and 7 --  and all three of them moved in with us, which meant my sister and I had to share a bedroom for the first time in our lives.

Picture, if you will, Teen Goth Katie sitting on her bed, penning this self-analysis in her journal and intermittently peering out the window at the rain. (Technically, it might not have been raining on this day. But figuratively, it was always raining in Teen Goth Katie's mind.)

I no longer remember what prompted this particular writing exercise -- this "self-analysis" to Jean -- or how it ended up in my mom's box of Katie treasures. But I do know that this was something my mom had taught me to do when I was feeling blue ... which was basically all the time for Teen Goth Katie. The idea was to make a list of everything good in my life and then make a list of everything bad in my life. Mom's rationale was that inevitably I would discover in making these lists that the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff, and knowing this would make me feel better. And, to her credit, both of these things proved to be true 99 percent of the time.

So, on this particular day, when I was 17 and dealing with a lot of change, I felt compelled to make my lists. And this is what I discovered:

Good things 
I graduate and turn 18 this year.
My eyes.
My lips.
My buckle shoes.
My art.
My friends.
My records and tapes.
Never been mugged or raped.
My bedroom in D.C.*
My house has never caught on fire.
My feet.
Never had a serious car wreck.
My daydreams.
Thanksgiving and Xmas vacations are soon.
My first report card this year.
My childhood.
My free airfare**
Never had stitches.
My left pinky fingernail.***
My moonstone ring.
Laughing with my sister or Heather.

Bad things
My surgery.
My skin.
My weight.
My eating habits.
My deteriorating bank account.****
My endless generosity.*****
My cavities.
My health.
My insomnia.
Accidentally wiping out 9 wks of work on my floppy disk at school.
My high tolerance for taking shit.******
The damn bells at school.
The incredible amount of time it's taking to grow out my hair.

* Mom gave me free rein to decorate my bedroom in her D.C. house, which was a beautiful old row house in historic Old Town Alexandria. So, what did I do? I painted the walls solid black and hung posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Sid Vicious -- all of whom I admired because they were beautiful and, well, dead, which made them all the more mysterious and tragic.
** Dad was a pilot for Delta Air Lines.
***I had grown it out like I was some kind of coke fiend. I thought it made me look cool and dangerous. (Teen logic at its finest.)
**** I had an intense crush on this bad-boy punk rocker in my art class named Chris. He was a senior and only a year older than me, but in my recollection of him, he looks as wizened and haggard as Keith Richards. Anyway, I had inherited a couple thousand dollars when my great grandma passed away and, without telling my parents, I withdrew a little more than half of it to bail Chris out of jail when he got busted for having weed and drug paraphernalia in his car. In my mind, our reunion would be passionate. He would kiss me and tell me I was his girl. But when Chris walked into the jail lobby, he patted me on my head and said, "Thanks, kid. I'll pay you back" and then asked me to give him a ride to his buddy's house. I did not become his girl, and I never saw the money again.
***** See above story about Chris.
******See above story about Chris.

The final tally of this self-analysis:

21 - 13 =

+8 more good than bad

Mom was right again. If I looked at the bigger picture, my life was actually pretty good.

It's a lesson that has stuck with me all these years. To this day, if I'm feeling down about something, it's relatively easy for me to widen my perspective and recognize that the good outweighs the bad. And it only gets easier as I get older and my world view expands to reveal everything that life is capable of delivering -- opportunity, disappointment, love, loss, growth, joy, isolation, challenge, hope, friendship, peace, justice, redemption, forgiveness, the unknown. Always the unknown.

I list all of these as "good things." My list of good grows and grows. And for this I am forever grateful.