About Erin

Deputy Editor, Southern Living Magazine. Digital and social media girl who learned everything with a pen and a reporter's notebook. Mom. Florida native celebrating all things kitsch, accidental Birminghamian. Is probably getting back from somewhere or heading somewhere. Knows: Elvis, journalism, pop culture, Southern artisans and emerging neighborhoods, vintage clothes, pugs, Yacht Rock. 

 

Thursday
Mar272014

I Still Need Therapy But The Horses Help 

"We can spend so much of our lives worrying we can't actually enjoy living," he said.

 A few moments earlier I had wondered if he was going to bust me for taking out my phone during the trail ride. 

"I'm really not trying to Facebook this. I'm really not checking my work emails. I'm really not..."

I imagined all the things that I would say when he, the guide, busted me for taking out the phone while I was here, sitting atop the horse, with the great Smoky Mountains around us. A minute of self-loathing sunk in. 

But he didn't say anything about the phone. 

It was 30 degrees and the sun was breaking through the trees. 

"Some people are so excited to ride, then they get out here and are so nervous they miss out on all the fun," he said, in between spitting out his chew and checking on the riders behind us, one of whom was my seven-year-old, who had never been on a horse before.

"Um, I know I'm probably over-worrying, but he seems a little close to the edge," I'd said to the guide, as I watched my child, perched on this horse, get a little too close to a ledge that seemed like it had 50 feet from it and certain doom. 

"Just tell him to pull in the reigns," he replied. "A horse knows better than to go over the edge. If a horse goes over the edge he breaks his leg. He knows better."

***

"Hold the reigns, Nate. Sit up straight to keep your balance. Remember the rules," I said, nervously watching him, a small boy on a large animal, fiddling with his glasses, which almost fell from his face. 

I tried to reassure myself. What was going to happen here, half a mile from the main road, with its go cart tracks and mini-golf courses, its air brushed shirts and laser tag emporiums? I looked at the steep hill to our right and stared writing the lede of the story. Old reporter habits die hard. 

"Lean in, Mom," Nate said. "The instructor said to lean in when you are going up a steep hill. Those are the rules!"

Then my horse took off and cut in front of my son's.

"Your Mom doesn't follow the rules," the guide said. Well, there's that.

***

When I turned around to take out my photo, realizing the guide didn't care, a Twitter message flashed across my screen. 

"Here that? Those are wild turkeys."

I shoved the phone back in my Patagonia, the one that I got for a photo shoot on a mountain many years ago. The jacket had only come out a few times since then, though what happened on that mountain was one of my favorite stories. What happened was, I, carrying a Starbucks latte and a phone, I, who can't walk without stumbling on flat ground, fell and twisted my ankle, and told the photographer and stylist to go ahead. I sat there,  cursing the cold as my phone died. They told me that as they shot it was "the most beautiful light ever." We still tell that story.

"Some of the best stories I've told are when I'm in the emergency room," the guide said, leading us up and over the pass. "It might hurt, but damn, it was worth it."

"I totally get that," I replied.

"You know, your life was written on this earth before you arrived," he said.

"That's freeing, isn't it," I replied. "But we still have to make choices."

"Yep," he said. "I figure." 

***

I eventually stopped turning around. "You OK, Nate?" I would ask every few minutes. "Yeah Mom," he replied. He had a horse named Daffy. It was spring break. The temperature had gone from 30 to 50 during our ride.

I let my hands fall from the saddle, from the pockets that contained a phone, lip balm, tissues, a driver's license.

The guide told me of his daughter, who had been a barrel racer starting at age eight, and then in the rodeo. She was just like him, an adrenaline junkie. One she convinced him to drive his Jeep on an off-road expedition into a river. The water rose up to the window. They got out but the Jeep was destroyed.

"It sure was fun," he said.  

And, "You have to stop thinking so much. Or at least that's been my policy for 49 years." 

At the end of the ride out came the staff photographer, who took the overpriced pictures we'd buy at the end. We dismounted the horses on platforms made of wood, sanded as smooth as they'd be at Disney World. Easy on, easy off.

"If it's been a good ride, don't forget to tip your guide." Nate read the sound aloud. We looked through our wallets and handed him a bill. 

With wobbly legs, I said to the guide, "Hey, thanks for the advice. Saves me a lot of therapy."

"Oh, I still need therapy," he replied. "But the horses help." 

 

 

 

Thursday
Mar202014

Forget Self Doubt. Start Writing. 

The past few weeks. I've been getting up during the early morning hours to put the finishing touches on this Creative Non-Fiction Bootcamp.

It might have been crazy to tackle this at this particular point in my life. I work long days. I jump on and off planes. To quote Beyonce (as I often do at any given moment), I've got big things and I've got little things.

But I like a challenge.

The five week online class (all self-paced so writers can follow along and work at an individual pace) starts March 31. 

Each week has a theme: generating ideas, establishing a  practice, dealing with writer's block, stretching limits, revision. Writing the lectures forced me to confront each one of these pieces in my own life. I spent hours hunched over the computer, watching the sun rise, sometimes in Birmingham, sometimes in other cities. I reached out to my mentors and teachers, and read through the cannon of creative non-fiction that has filled my brain and propelled me through everything.

Along the way, I got snowed in, twice. I turned to the brutal honesty of Cheryl Strayed (above). 

This week I turned it in, a road map for five weeks of writing. Here's the heart of it (exceprt from a lecutre, though I'd rather call them "conversations.")

Would love to have some friends join me as we tackle it all. Who's in? 

"Self-doubt: We all have it. Especially creatives. And it can kill your writing process before you’ve ever gotten started. We put a lot of expectations on ourselves, even before we sit down to start writing. First, give yourself a break. Remind yourself: You are writing for you. Not for a boss, not for an editor, not for your third grade teacher who told you not to begin a sentence with “But” or “And” (forget that rule, by the way). Not for a spouse or a child, though someday you might capture part of your history or theirs, or of the world's, and share it with them, and the world.

Forget the world for now. Write for you." 

Who are you writing for? Did you stop writing? Let's start, again. 

Thursday
Jan302014

It Started With A Kazoo 

Tuesday started with a kazoo. 

My parents, who are on a cruise, had left a brown paper bag filled with goodies for my son Nate, one for each day they are gone. That day's bag said "Must open Tuesday!!!" When he opened it there was a note from Dad that it was National Kazoo Day. There were three kazoos, one for each of us and this note:  

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We sang Beatles songs driving into school -- well I sang them. "Here Comes The Sun" had been on heavy Spotify rotation this unusually cold Birmingham winter. Nate had the sniffles, and I told him to tell his teacher if he didn't feel well -- I would come and get him. On the way I listened to more Beatles.

"Once there was a way/to get back homeward

Once there was a way/to get back home."

I drove to the office my neck hurting thinking I'd like to spend some time back at home in Florida, where it was warmer, and of of the long list of to-dos that day. 

***

I was interviewing someone when the snow started, flakes falling down on our wooded campus. "It looks like a snowglobe," one of my colleagues said, and we took photos for the magazine's Instagram feed. I took one on my way out the door after I got a call that the schools were closing:  

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I checked Google maps -- bumper to bumper traffic. Normal for this kind of situation -- the rare snow fall that closes schools and businesses all at once. It would be a long drive, but what was a an hour or two in the car. Ha.

How smug I was, deciding to bypass Interstate 65 to go down South Shadescrest Road, a road that runs parallel. Google maps showed there was no traffic there! I would get so much work done -- clear the queue of my inbox filled with stories to be edited. I could probably get laundry done too

And then the cars came to a halt. 

***

Many people have written about the factors that caused this storm to be a disaster for Birmingham (and Atlanta too). In a nutshell, no one forecasted the severity of the temperatures and the ice that would form into a dangerous sheet on the roads; our cities are not equipped to clear the roads; the weather was literally a perfect storm of danger. 

I didn't know this yet when my car got stuck at the top of that hill. I just knew that I had picked the wrong shoes that day: gold Tory Burch ballet flats that let the cold water and ice seep onto my feet when I got out of the car to talk to the other stranded drivers. In front of me, a man in a Ford Focus looking for someone to drive his car while he and two fellow motorists pushed from behind. "No one wants to drive it," he said. I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing but got behind the wheel of his car. I was scared as they pushed the car into the intersection. It moved.

"Thank you. I will drive it to my office and come get you," he said. His name was Josh.

Josh did come and get me, walking the mile from his office to push my car as I drove, then inviting me in to the IRS Customer Service office. We listened to the radio with reports that things were getting bad. Cars sliding, roads blocked. "If you are in a warm place, stay inside." But Josh found a route he thought that we could take safely. What was the other choice? Sleep in the IRS office? If I only we knew what was ahead of us.

***

My neck muscles seized up as I clutched the wheel on the backroads. Cars slid within inches of my car. Drivers climbed out of ditches. The gas guage dropped close to the red zone. Shane and Nate had made it home, abandoning our SUV a mile away from the house on a steep hill, walking the rest of the way. That calmed me down -- many of Nate's friends were still at school, and the news reports said teachers were making preparations for the children to sleep there. 

I prayed: "God, guide this car. God, protect the kids at school. Protect that person in front of me." The sinking feeling in my heart was that people would die. 

"If I can just get to the entrance of the neighborhood," became "If I can just get to the YMCA," became "If I can just get indoor befoe I run out of gas." The sun would soon set and I would be alone, in a stranded car. I'd already heard the reports -- the police couldn't get to stranded motorists, even the injured ones. Dear God.

At one accident, I passed a group of people surrounding a man sprawled on the ground. People gathered around him, cell phones in hand. There was no ambulance in sight.

In front of and behind me, cars that were out of control. Around me, snow, hills and ice. Just four miles from home, there was no way to get out. Shane called. 

"There's a church up ahead. Parkwood Church of God. They are opening their doors. Try to get there."

***

The moment I saw the light on at the church, I gasped. I would get there.  

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***

The crazy thing is that this is where the story actually begins.

In the fellowship hall my fellow refugees sat around circular tables, bent over cell phones, trying to get word from their families. The threads of the stories were the same: mothers worried about their children sleeping at schools, people with dark circles under their eyes tracking the progress of a wife or friend walking miles in the snow. Updates from loved ones about falling on the ice, and broken bones, and totalled cars, and medicine that was halfway across town with no way to get there.

This was bad.

Kendra, the minister's wife, made an announcement: "We have Pop-tarts and Goldfish." With her husband stranded across town, she stepped up, joined by a group of neighbors. Greg, who just moved back from Birmingham from New Orleans and who lived down the road, wore a wide brimmed hat with a Zulu pin, and welcomed folks in from the cold. And joining them in the kitchen, two elderly women washing pots to prepare for a supper with ingredients from the neigbors nearby.

The reports I was reading on Twitter were getting worse. A man had had a heart attack in his car and died in his wife's arms. Pregnant women were going into labor on the interstate, with paramedics unable to reach them.

It felt like helplessness was setting in around the city, though stories of goodness started to be shared. And I saw it in front of me, Greg mixing up a pot of gumbo, talking about happier times on Dauphine Street. "You ever do a story about burgers in New Orleans? I have a great little dive for you." And in the center of the hall, Lionel, who guided my car into the church lot, singing "Amazing Grace." Kendra, tending to the woman with three children under the age of five, one of whom had thrown up on the floor. "My husband is trying to get to us," the woman said. In the meantime, she had a new family.

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***

I left covering breaking news a long time ago. It made my body hurt, staying up through the night going to crime scenes. I never tired of hearing people's stories though. So I plugged my latop in, took out a notebook and listened to anyone who wanted to tell them.

There was the woman whose husband had recently had a stroke, and was across town alone. There was the man who had walked five miles to get to the church and was worried about being able to pay his bills because of the work he was missing. There was the woman who had already been up for 24 hours, working the overnight shift at a call center and in class all day on her quest to become a nurse. There was a banker, a Waffle House manager, and a therapist. There was the man who carried in his bagpipes from the car because they would shatter if left in the cold. First, stranded with an IRS agent, and then a bagpiper? This time was not dull.

Some people didn't want to talk -- not to me or to anyone. The young man who pulled his hoodie over his head. The older man with a hat that said he was a Vietnam Vet. And so it was. 

At dinner time Kendra and the volunteers laid out bowls of hot food. "Made with the finest artisinal goat cheese," Greg said. I laughed. Kendra prayed the blessing, and we all ate together. 

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***

"We're going to sleep in the sanctuary," said a volunteer after supper. I unplugged my latop and grabbed the thin blanket I'd taken from our car. Once we walked in, I searched for an outlet. I can survive cold. I can survive sleeping in a room full of strangers. But being unplugged ... that's another story.

With my laptop at my knees and phone charging, I felt connected to the outside world. With everything feeling so out of control, it was the one thing I could do to maintain normalcy. My toes were numb and my body hurt, but I could send out updates, trying to focus on good news, creating a hashtag (#goodsnownews) for people to share some positive stories. I didn't write the entire truth, because I didn't want to scare anyone. So many friends checked on me -- my colleage professor, my colleagues, my family. I didn't tell them how worried I was.

When I tired, I tried to lay down and sleep. Nothing. Grabbing a hymnal, I flipped open to a random page. This one. Was someone trying to tell me something? 

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I won't lie: I did feel alone. Alone with my thoughts. This was one night for me in a shelter. What about people who struggle like this every single night? My world, a world of conference calls and Excel spreadsheets, and multi-tasking, seemed so far away.

My head pounded.

Though travel has been my life for the past five years, this had been the toughest trek I'd ever taken. 

You think a lot of things when you are laying alone on the floor of a church, having lost feeling in one foot. Why did I leave my office? Why did I leave the IRS office, where I was safe? Why hadn't I been injured or my car hit? Why was I in this church, at this moment? 

I thought about my parents. Had they been in town they might be out there, too. Dad, who needed insulin. Mom, who needed blood pressure medications. Someone's parents' were out there.

I walked around some more, standing at a pew with a woman who told me about her struggle with breast cancer, how her mother had died of the same disease four years before her diagnosis, and how she didn't get sick a single day from the chemo. How she felt she had a calling for her life. A woman next to us rolled her eyes.

This is part of the story too.

I'd like to say that everything I saw and heard during this time was all about the goodness of humanity. It was almost entirely good. Those are the parts I'd like to remember. But there were other parts -- the police officer who showed up and seemed more interested in taking selfies than anything else. EMA not responding to volunteer calls to help a paraplegic man who needed transport. Maybe it wasn't high on the list of emergencies. Maybe the policeman had a reason he was doing it. Maybe. This is just my perspective. There was a man pacing who was getting nervous, and one who tried to barter with me. Emotions run high in a crisis. But I knew that our volunteer leaders -- Greg, and Kendra, an dothers -- were looking out for us. 

As the morning crawled on, I considered my options. The National Guard had delivered food and the selfie police advised against leaving. But some who had ventured out on the roads were texting, saying they made it through. 

At one point I thought I might walk, talked out of it by the woman whose ill husband was across town. 

Thank you, angel, for talking me out of that. 

***

By noon on Wednesday I was starting to get anxious again. The chatter in the fellowship hall, where we spent the morning, was getting to me. The decision about attempting to drive made me nervous, the weight of what had happened to Birmingham made me sad. I stepped back into the church onto the red plush carpet. Light flooded in. 

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The woman with the paraplegic man walked in, her lip quivering. "We need to find a way to get home." She, Greg and I looked at Google maps. I sent out a Tweet asking about road conditions where she needed to go. I felt helpless. Later I would text her to see if she got home. She didn't respond. 

***

Cars littered the roads as I drove to the gas station. With a full tank I got on the salted interstate. In 15 minutes, I was home. I have never been so happy to see a messy house, and to climb onto the couch. 

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I slept for 10 hours. My body still hurts today. I haven't regained feeling in one foot. (Note to gold shoe loving self: leave those for much warmer weather.) Along with the rest of the city, I've been in a daze. 

Everyone here has a story -- of sleeping in an office, of the fear of being separated from their children, of wondering if they would ever get home. All day long I've been shaky, scrolling through my Facebook feed to see updates like "I'm FINALLY home!" and "Looks like I'm still stuck." The stories are overwhelming -- teachers that walked miles in the snow to get an insulin pump for a student, a doctor that risked his life to perform brain surgery. We're going to be hearing them for a long time, and we should.

We're going to be telling each other stories of how we got through this because we have to. And then, we will get back to our lives, our work and our school and our errands. Emotions will subside. 

***

How has this story changed us? How has it changed me?

I don't know if I will know the answer to that right away, but I walked out of that church a litle different. With everything stripped away -- security, comfort, and my identity to the outside world -- I was just a girl with a notebook praying to a God for peace. I am shaken, tired, still a bit dazed.

Before I left the shelter I talked with Lionel one more time. 

"Do you know any songs with 'sun' in them?" Lionel asked. I thought, "Here Comes The Sun," the first song I heard that day. "Pick anything," I said. 

It was a day that started with a kazoo. 

 

Thursday
Jan302014

Sunday
Jan262014

How I Ran Away And Joined The Circus (Sort Of) 

I've long been obsessed with running away to join the circus. Growing up down the road from Ringling Brother's home, we were the first to see the new circus acts, and never missed a year.

A product of my environment, I grew up believing the manufactured illusion created in Central Florida was spectacular, and real. The circus, Disney, all of the over the top entertainment that springs from the former swampland seeped into my brain. 

My circus thing took backseat between the ages of 14-30, but they started coming back right around the time I became an editor. Hmm. Specifically, it was the moment I flew on a trapezefor a story, that I realized I was a circus girl at heart. Who cares if I damaged my rotator cuff when I jumped off the platform? 

Life as an editor can be remarkably similar to life under the big top --  long days, many on the road, juggling of multiple acts, and entertaining the crowds. Being careful to know where to step. Relying on a team with ropes and pulleys and walkie talkies (OK, ours are iPhones).

So perhaps I ran off to join the circus after all. 

***

When I got a call last week asking if I wanted to climb aboard the circus train, of course I said yes. I was getting sick, and up to my ears in spreadsheets, but made the early morning drive to and through the train tracks, where I climbed aboard the Pie Car. The Pie Car contains a kitchen -- not much bigger than a food truck's -- from where all of the performers' meals are made. At 23, the executive chef, Matt Loory, is the youngest in Ringling's history to have this job.

Matt lives on board the train, preparing food for entertainers from 17 different countries. From morning until night, he and his team prepare the dishes to fuel the performers and make them feel a little closer to home. Fried eggs on burgers, inspired by the motorcycle daredevil Torres family, is a favorite. More on them later.

With Pie Car Chef Matt Loory The storage space is limited, and everything needs to be strapped down for transport. DSC03889

Seats in the Pie Car are first-come, first-serve to all the performers. There's also a mobile unit that sets up by the arenas to feed them. DSC03882

***

We took Nate and a friend to the actual circus, an annual family tradition. (Thanks, Dad!) This year we had the chance to go backstage, you know, for the kids. 

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That's right, we got to sit on a motorcycle in the Globe of Steel, the metal ball in which a bunch of riders do their thing. That's Carmen Torres, one of the only female riders in the world to do this act. And my new hero.

I had been talking for days about what I would do if I actually did join the circus. On the train I asked one of their PR representatives what it takes to be a ringmaster. She said one must be able to think on one's feet and respond to changes at a moment's notice, have an excellence presence and the ability to command a room. Again, all things editors must possess as well, so I thought I might have a chance. Until I met Jonathan Lee Iverson:

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Like Carmen Torres, he's a pioneer too -- the first African-American ringmaster to lead a major circus. After briefly chatting with him, and later seeing him in action, I decided that I might want to stick to my day job. (When I told him of my ringmaster aspirations, he said I did have the appropriate footwear. Yes!)

On that note, the dancers and I matched. Well, at least in our shoes: 

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I know it's not easy to put on a show this large. The logistics of it all are fascinating. A train full of people -- a moving city, really; the support staff that travels and that coordinates things back at home; the vets and the seamstresses and the physical therapists. I'm sure circus performers hear daily (from people like me), "I want to run away with the circus," all the while they are thinking of the rehearsals, and the details, and the day-to-day concerns everyone has, regardless of what circus they belong to. 

It takes a certain person, I'm sure, to get on that train and travel for a year, to sacrifice proximity and convenience. To wake up in a different place each day, stretch one's body to the limits, and give up normalcy. I get that. Some people are made for a life far from the conventional. 

Thankful for that. 

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Related Links:

An Announcement: Running Away To Join The Circus 

There Was A Monkey On My Head