Becoming Diva

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. I’m not sure I have a problem. But I have a … something. A realization? Let’s go with that — a realization. Here goes: I might be a diva.

Some clarification might be helpful here. When we think of divas — or at least when I think of divas — it’s the singularly named singers (Cher, Madonna, BeyoncĂ©) who live in a different strata where bathing is only in solid-gold tubs and walking around in meat-dresses is de rigueur. Sure, deep down they are people just like us. They fart. They get colds. But their lives also come with a staff and loads of money. A staff of people and lots of money can make anyone’s life a hell of a lot easier and certainly frees up time to devote to creative pursuits and working it. I have no such luxuries. When the trash stinks, I have to take it out. Hell, I’m not even known — even in my private life — by a defining stage name. Even my big blog, The Sin City Siren, has yielded a title of “The Siren.” (That’s two words.) And nobody actually calls me that. (I would probably laugh if they did.) But maybe that’s not all there is to diva life. Idiomatic names and money and entourages — those are just the perks.

Contrary to the song, maybe no one is born a full-fledged diva. Maybe you have to grow into it. Maybe celebrity diva’s lives used to be full of all the crap we all have to contend with — bills, deadlines, cranky children or partners, dick bosses, traffic, insomnia, those broken things you keep meaning to fix. And maybe somewhere in the muck of all that regular life stuff, they were also quietly growing into the diva they would become.

The pastor at my church is a delightful man named Greg, who used to be (in his own words) a “Vegas showboy.” He performed for years on The Strip and at various venues around the country. And in case you missed that “showboy” reference, Greg is as gay as they come. I am very fond of him. And as we worked together to do the hate crimes event at our church this past spring, I think he became fond of me, too, because around that time he started calling me a diva. Um, what?

At first, I got really upset about it. I asked him why he kept calling me a diva all the time. “I’m not demanding or a showboater,” I remember telling him. In fact, one of my strengths is being a good team player and what might actually be a detrimental tendency to give other people credit for things I do. I enjoy being the person behind the scenes. I enjoy when I can create an outlet for other people to shine. One of my favorite things is to encourage talent in others and inspire them to achieve things they thought were not for them. I’m the back-up band, not the headliner, and that suits me just fine.

But Greg just smiled at me and shook his head. “You are a diva!” he said laughing.

And at that moment I thought I might actually have a diva-sized fit. Greg looked at me and told he uses “diva” as a term for people who go above and beyond, who are so giving of themselves that they have bigger-than-life impacts on people and their communities. That seemed both better and more impossible than being like Mariah. (Sorry, I just had a moment considering all the ways I am entirely different than Mariah. LOL.)

I don’t consider what I do, whether in my private life or for my work, to be out-sized. I consider what I do to be average good-person type stuff and maybe-better-than-average professional person stuff. In fact, I tend to focus on how much I couldn’t do in any given situation. You know, that still small voice that nags you, If you had worked just a bit harder, you could have done that much better, more. What I internalize from any work I do is the ways I fail and could have done better. The misspelled word. The stain on the hem. The slight stutter when I’m nervous or excited. On top of that, I struggle to be gracious about compliments. I have gotten better over the years. I can say, “Thank you,” to compliments but only because I remind myself that is the gracious thing to do. Sometimes, the best I can do is to say nothing. I would rather say nothing than say something negative that refutes the compliment. You know, like, “It would have been better if …” Or like when you get a compliment on an outfit and the first thing you say back is, “Too bad my ass is huge.” (Actually, I would never say I have a huge ass, but you get the point.)

In my head, I’m always replaying how I could have said something better, funnier, smarter. I’m always considering how I’ve been out-of-the-loop in pop culture and fashion since having a child. I don’t really know what is in style or who the latest hot celebrity is. I go shopping and think all the clothes are ugly. I leaf through a magazine and skip the celeb profile, because who cares? (And a little bit because it makes me think of work.) I have a truly terrible time remembering people’s names. Like even people in my own family who I have known for maybe my entire life, yes, I will forget their name. I think that synaptic function in my brain is not hooked up right. I can remember every detail of a story that someone tells me, but if you ask me their name … blank. Just dead air. Nothing.

But I digress …

My point is, I don’t really give myself credit where it is due. I shy away from awards. I downplay my role in success. And whatever dumb thing I just said or did — I’ll be replaying it my head for like a month. At this point in my life, I also tend to feel like this is it. This is what I am going to be when I’m all grown up. I’m good at writing, being a wife, a mom (I hope), and a friend. I’m okay at being organized and dressed presentably (brushing my hair and teeth counts, right?). I suck at cooking, being anywhere on time, and having a poker face. And I will always struggle to be careful about revealing how much my heart beats or breaks, depending on how lovely or terrible something is; how much I fall in love with people, places, art, food, songs, films, or even a beautiful handbag. All the time. I’m always falling in love with things, people, places (basically, nouns — grammar joke!). Not the romantic kind of love, just … just feelings that are full and robust. I have to keep from throwing myself entirely into things. And so I cultivate calm. I am good at being calm. I am not good at being unaffected.

So maybe the stuff we think a diva is about — the clothes and money — maybe those are just the artifice of diva-dom. Maybe being a diva is how much we feel and let that guide us toward doing good in the world, as my pastor told me. Long story short, maybe it’s about the heart.

As this year comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the things I did this year for the first time. I went on TV, which was terrifying. Then I did it again. I lobbied my Legislature (and cried on the record — coulda lived without that part). I broke stories because they deserved to be told, not because I cared about hit-counts or growing my brand. I willingly sang even though I knew other people could hear me (and it was being recorded) and I was in a music video on purpose. (It was my idea!) I took public speaking gigs, even though I didn’t really know what to say. Not bad for the girl who likes to stay behind the curtain.

All these things … I would never do those things in the past. I pushed myself in 2013 to “say yes” to things that scared me. And I did! And you know what? It made me better at my job and maybe a little bit better in my life. It brought new and different people into my life. It teased out friendships and supporters who were always there but maybe just hanging out silently in the back row. All those things I did, I could only do when I said no to fear and embraced my big-fat heart. I stopped telling my big heart to be quiet because in our society calling women “emotional” is often code for bitch or bother. I stopped trying to hide the things about myself that don’t fit in — which is actually a lot like how I used to be such a long time ago that it’s immortalized in a yearbook. I found my old self. I found my new self. I can’t believe I’m 37 and I’m still finding myself.

Meanwhile, somewhere inside me, change is being internalized. A year ago I got LASIK eye surgery and people who hadn’t seen me in a long time would do a head-fake when they saw me. I just attributed it to the difference between glasses and no glasses. People aren’t as observant as they think they are. Nobody notices the color of your eyes when you wear glasses. Now, when I run into long-lost friends or colleagues, they invariably comment on my big blue eyes. Thanks, I’ve had them for 37 years. And I sort of got annoyed about it for a while. But then I was looking through some old photos and I started to see what I think people were noticing. It’s not the eyes. It’s me. I’ve changed.

Just look at this as an example:

Copyright: The Sin City Siren

Same people. Same pose! But I don’t think I look the same and not just because of glasses or weight or the clothes I’m wearing. I’m different. (Although, seriously, can you believe I’m naturally a blonde? Granted, my hair is lightened in the photo on the left, but still. Meh, blonde. I don’t care if I was born with it. That’s not me.)

When people tell me I look different now, I tend to minimize it. But after thinking about it — and looking through old photos — I decided that it’s true. Maybe when we choose to bet on ourselves and open up our hearts to possibility, we start to look different. That’s the main thing that is different about my life now compared to 2007. And people notice.

Maybe this is how a diva grows. Maybe it’s incremental, sneaking up on you. And in the absence of teams of stylists, trainers, publicists, and the like, maybe the real-world divas aren’t the ones who are demanding only purple foods or won’t be caught dead in something off-the-rack. Maybe real-world divas are people who dare to speak authentically in a world that values sarcasm over substance. Maybe there’s a diva inside all of us.

So go ahead, be a diva. If I can do it, anyone can.

Phenomenal Women: An ode to those who inspire us

When my Fem 2.0 editor sent out a request for us to ponder which woman inspire us, I posted the question on Facebook. I was curious if there would be a consensus (there wasn’t). And I was curious to know what kind of woman it was that invoked such an awesome emotion. After all, to inspire someone is pretty magical.

There were quite a few nominations for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as Vandana Shiva. Others nominated were Frances Fox Piven, Mother Theresa, Kathleen Hanna (love that!), Aung San Suu Kyi, Kathleen Zellner and many more. Indeed, I was impressed by how many women there are to be inspired by! A few people mentioned that they were inspired by people who are not politicians or at all famous, including family members.

As much as I am inspired sometimes by famous women, the truth is when I think about which woman, or women, inspires me most I always go back to my grandmothers.

My grandmothers could not have been more different, even though they were born and raised in the same Midwest state, less than 50 miles from each other. I had what you might call a Country Grandma and a City Grandma, but for all their differences, both of them taught me so much about life and being a smart, fierce, strong woman in this world.

My Country Grandma was born, raised, and died on the same farm. Widowed and left to raise three young girls on her own, she stared bravely into the face of an American culture of the 1960s that did not take kindly to single mothers. Having survived a sexual assault as a girl, she taught all her girls how to shoot guns and drive a car before they were 15. Life was hard on the farm and they were miles away from anywhere. But she put herself through night school and became a nurse in the maternity ward of the very same hospital where I was born. (She gave me my first bath!) As she continued to have a productive cattle farm (her livestock was sold for meat), she had to make men respect her, even as they looked down on her barely 5-foot frame. And when my mother became another unplanned teenage pregnancy statistic of 1976, my grandmother took us in and became my rock. No matter how strange things got with my often inept young parents, my Country Grandmother was there, full of spit and fire and a sureness about life that was at once comforting and, indeed, inspiring. What I learned from her more than anything else is that you have to respect yourself before anyone else will respect you. And that sometimes you have to make a lot of noise and make people really uncomfortable before they will give you a seat at the table. But you won’t get anywhere if you give up.

On the other side of the coin was my City Grandmother. Where my Country Grandmother would dole out folk-wisdom and fill a room with a hearty bellow of a laugh, my City Grandmother was all class. She was a lady in an era of ladies. She wore an apron and her garden always had beautiful flowers smiling up at you. But this is not to say that my City Grandmother was conventional. As a young woman, she got a music scholarship from playing the violin, which meant she left home and went to college in an age when that was quite rare. After college, she worked as a teacher even after she married my Grandfather. (Working after marriage! Such a rebel!) And she continued to juggle her many talents — from teaching, to secretarial work, to work as a seamstress and tailor — throughout my father’s childhood. When I was girl, my City Grandmother, then working as a librarian, taught me how to write a well-crafted, hand-written letter (my first foray into story-telling), and she encouraged me to use my imagination to turn the mundane — like metal tins full of old buttons — into a thrilling afternoon, dancing around her living room with home-made maracas. If my Country Grandmother taught me to walk with a big stick, my City Grandmother was the one who helped me understand how to speak softly while using it. And perhaps because the world around her couldn’t understand her desire to work outside the home and to use her artistic side to create beautiful things — she once made me a life-size baby doll, making every stitch of the doll, its clothes and hair — my City Grandmother always reminded me that having a big imagination and marching to your own beat is a blessing, not a curse.

Together my two grandmothers showed me the strength and power of being a woman. They taught me the thrill of making mud pies and the thrill of making something beautiful. Each of them encouraged me to be my authentic self and never let the outside world force me to compromise my spirit for the sake of fitting in or being popular. They also were living examples of the fact that there is no such thing as “women’s work.” There is just work. And it needs to get done.

Sadly, both of my grandmothers have now passed away. I think of them all the time, especially now that I am raising my daughter. But the lessons I received will be passed down and I can only hope that I can match my Country Grandmother’s fire and my City Grandmother’s imagination in my daughter’s eyes.

Here’s hoping that whomever you see as inspirational, that you use that to propel you forward in 2013!

This post originally appeared on Fem 2.0.