January was a wee bit hectic, so Kara and I pushed off our book chat until this week, and since it’s valentines season, we’re tackling books with romantic plotlines (category romance or no).
You’ll hear in this video that I make reference to my Reading Year in Review lists. (If you want to see those, here they are for 2019 and 2020.) I always invite my readers to request reviews of any titles on those lists — it’s never to late to ask, if you want to know about them — and this year a few people wanted to know more about Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, so I’ve done that review in this month’s book chat video. (More reviews are coming, so if you requested one, please don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, even if it’s been a minute.)
In the mid-1990s, in my twenties, I decided to begin a series of formal dance lessons that would help me connect more deeply with my Lebanese heritage. Raqs sharqi — bellydance — was not a difficult thing to find in Houston, and I easily found a school — Sirrom — where I could take lessons.
My mother seemed…skeptical. Perhaps because I’d dropped out of ballet and tap at the age of seven so I could start playing the piano? Perhaps because I had neither balance nor grace? Perhaps because the prevailing opinion was that I was probably afraid of my own shadow? “I don’t recommend it,” my mother said.
“I’m pretty sure this is something I want to do,” I said.
A couple of days later, she added, “You know, if you bellydance, you’ll actually make your stomach bigger from all that exercising of your abdominal muscles.”
That didn’t really track with me. “I’m doing it,” I said. “I’ve already found a school. The classes won’t be expensive, and I can do it around my teaching schedule.”
Mom wasn’t thrilled, but she got over it in time for my first recital, a performance which was…okay. Enthusiastic, though, definitely that. (I got better over time.)
One of my first bellydance teachers, or “dance mamas” as we often called them, was a woman named Debbie Scheel. In the dance community, she also went by Shakira Massood-Ali. Shakira was her dance name, Massood was her mother’s last name, and Ali was the name of Debbie’s own dance teacher. Debbie was Syrian and Lebanese and American, and she had the biggest personality I had ever encountered up to that point in my life. It’s a cliché to say a person is always smiling, but in her case, it was true. She was a veritable repository of good humor and a good sense of humor. She wasn’t afraid to crack herself up, and we all learned how to embrace being funny with her.
Debbie was one of the most brilliant choreographers I have ever known, and that’s saying something. She could nimbly execute even the most difficult combinations that my body, even after my eventual years of experience in the dance, would just stare at in wonder and despair. Debbie was also the first person I knew who really demonstrated body positivity before I even knew what the phrase meant. She made it clear that bellydance was empowering rather than objectifying. Debbie wasn’t the teacher who said to me: “When a woman can control her body, she can control her space, and when she can control her space, she can control her life.” But she damn well demonstrated it in real time better than almost anyone I knew. And she taught dozens, if not actual hundreds, of women the same.
In Debbie’s eyes, you did not have to be a super model to look glamorous in a bellydance costume. You didn’t have to be a Bellydance Superstar to be excellent in the dance. You did not have to be young and nubile and whatever else the dominant culture would have you believe is the right thing for a woman to be, to be worthy of notice. Every woman, every girl, every person of any age and size and ability was all of those wonderful things as far as she was concerned, or so she made us believe.
I have rarely seen anyone who displayed a more intense and genuine joy to be dancing. She cut an intimidating figure, and her elaborate costumes and up-to-eleven exuberance did nothing to tamp this down. Nor would we have wanted that. She was her own force of nature, and she taught us that we were good enough, we were beautiful, we were elegant and fun and smart and worth every minute of anyone’s attention. She instructed us not only in how to be really good dancers, but also that we were goddesses, each in our own amazing ways. Some of us even believed it sometimes, especially after a really vigorous performance.
I had trouble making it to class and performances consistently after my children were born. I remember ending my enrollment at the studio, tearfully, telling Debbie that I just couldn’t manage the time right then, between teaching full-time, caring for two babies, and writing a novel. She took my face in her hands and said, “Habibti, you can have it all. Just not all at the same time. We will always be here for you when you come back.” And she was.
I retired from bellydance (performance) over a decade ago, but I often miss the dance. I’m still close friends with some of the women I danced with the most, some of whom were my classmates and troupemates and some of whom were my own dance students. I’ve always meant to get back into it, even just doing it at home as part of my regular exercise routine.
But inertia is a bitch. It’s just been easy not to, especially during the pandemic. I know that I’ve never been physically healthier than when I was dancing regularly. My chiropractor and physical therapist reminds me frequently that quitting dance was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done for my body. He’s right, of course. I’ve always put it off, though, because of course I’ll get to it later, when I’m not so busy.
Last week, amidst all the other absolute craziness, Debbie suffered a massive heart attack and couldn’t recover from it. Her sudden death, a shock that quaked through the bellydance community, had all of us calling and texting each other the next morning, regardless of whatever classes or meetings or anything else we were supposed to be doing. We couldn’t believe it. How could this have happened? How was there not more time? We can’t even all get together for a funeral. Now what?
If there is anything I learned from Debbie, it’s that verve and enthusiasm and doing what’s right for you should be on every woman’s to-do list. Maybe that means I’m going to start dancing again after all. It definitely means that tonight I’m going to be editing one of my novels. I’m so grateful to her for teaching me to prioritize myself, even when I’ve failed to do so.
Tim O’Brien wrote, it’s easy to get sentimental about the dead. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to posture that Debbie was more or less than she was, to me or to anyone or all on her own. But somehow just knowing she’s not out there cracking jokes and ululating and intimidating — maybe (for the more timid) frightening — the hell out of every man in the room with her incredible presence makes the world a little less musical place.
If you’d like to see Debbie’s obituary, click here. You can watch the memorial video on the site and see a lot of wonderful pictures of her that will give you a taste of her vibrant spirit. Enjoy.
I have some close friends, Scott and Paula, who live in the northeast now but who are from Texas. Scott’s dad and stepmom have a marvelous goat ranch and bed and breakfast out near Wimberley, Texas, in the Hill Country. When my husband and I and Scott and Paula and a lot of our close friends were all in our twenties we used to go out to the ranch every year to help clear some of the land of unnecessary cedar that was starving the narrow waterways, the streams and creeks and waterfalls. We all had desk or computer jobs, and a weekend of physical landscape labor every January was just what we thought we needed to reset ourselves.
In actuality, what we needed was time in the Hill Country, time spent on a cold, sunny landscape bright with a winter sun in a turquoise sky. We needed a bumpy ride over caliche roads, a truck’s jaunt across a bridge over a narrow tributary of the Blanco, a bonfire in the large fire pit at night while we rocked on the enormous porch and peeked at Milky Way in the freezing black sky. We needed to wander the tall grasses, a weather eye out for coyotes and mountain lions, with the shepherding dogs and each other. We needed to come back near the house to feed and pet the goats and hold their kids, to pick burrs out of our socks, to sit up all night talking books and art and Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang. We needed breakfast casseroles with three types of corn in them and Paula teaching me to make a tartine at night. We needed time to sit, time to nap. I needed time to wander off to a corner with my journal and write while Paula painted my portrait for practice.
Almost twenty years later, when we go back to visit our friends at the ranch, we still wander the land and look at the cedar bough graveyards we built, now brittle bleached by age and the elements, and take a small sliver of pride at the rushing waterfalls and streams and creeks we helped resuscitate. When we aren’t having a drought year, anyway. The Great Pyrenees, those huge shepherding dogs, are used to us now. The goats are still sweet and loud and make us squeal with delight, especially now when we take our our kids to see theirs. And never fear, the cedar just goes on and on.
We need spaces like this, even in our urban lives, our urban inner landscape, just to have a moment to sit in a rocking chair with nothing pressing upon us. It’s the only way, sometimes, we can figure out how to relax.
I love this poem tonight, from the gracious and excellent Sandi Stromberg; it reminds me of faraway friends and a place and people I hope to get back to soon.
Country music two-steps around a worn
leather couch. Flickers of yellow and orange
rise from smoldering logs. And my pen glides
across the lined page, gathering thoughts.
Outside, drizzle fogs the air. Ice crystals
drop from leaf tips onto the redwood deck,
tinkling as clear and harmonious
as a triangle. . All is so right
with my world, I would stop time in the middle
of this moment, snuggle into an endless
Hill Country winter. But when the flames fall
into their embers, and the ice crystals melt,
my blood rushes on. . I anticipate—
the way the sycamore dreams of spring buds
or the stag, drinking at Cypress Creek, aspires
to more points on his antlers. The way
a mother holds her breath, watching
her child’s life unfold, step by step.
Sandi Stromberg is the mother of two sons, whose steps she still anticipates, one a director of motor-yacht development in France, the other a musician/composer in Singapore. She has been an award-winning magazine feature writer, editor, poet, and translator over the past 40 years. Her poem “The English Student” was recently published in the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. Her poetry has been published in many small journals and anthologies, most recently in the Ekphrastic Review. For 10 years, she served on the board of Mutabilis Press, during which time she edited Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston.
Last year my friend J.F. requested this song for this series, but it didn’t make the cut.
This summer he unexpectedly passed away.
Now this song keeps going through my head, and I’m guessing it’s because J.F. is wishing me a Merry Christmas from wherever his spirit is enjoying his afterlife. (J.F. was a holy man and a Christian, so I’m guessing he’s with God.)
Okay, I just sent my daughter off to camp on a school trip. It’s her first time away from home for an extended period without any family members. She’s excited! So am I.
When she first got on the bus, it looked like she didn’t have anyone to sit with, and she started to get sad, and suddenly every ounce of my childhood came back to me in one long sigh of pain. And then one of her friends started waving frantically at her from toward the back. She had cleared the seat next to her so my daughter could sit there!
My girl ran up and hugged me fast and then ran back and sat down and didn’t give me another look, all smiles and relief. So I went back to my classroom, wondering whether I should have stayed to watch the buses leave.
But no, it’s time for her to go on this trip and have her own fun time, and it’s time for me to have my normal work day. As I was walking to breakfast a little while later, she called me to say the buses had left, and she loved me, and would see me in four days.
This has been a wonderful month of poems. I’ve enjoyed all the work people have shared with me, and sharing it with you. As I’ve said before, I received so many wonderful pieces that I just couldn’t fit in for lack of days. If you had fun reading this series, I hope you’ll check out the rest of the works by these poets. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet of all the good stuff out there by these talented writers.
I’m going to end this year’s National Poetry Month series with one by Charlie Scott, my colleague and friend — and one of my poetry mentors from college. Speaking of college, news broke this week that the dorm complex where I lived when I attended there is going to be torn down. This news rallied literally hundreds of people who lived in those dorms within roughly the same decade and change to join together on Facebook and — reconnect.
Yes, many of us were already friends on Facebook. But prompted to share this news in a viral fashion, we found more than just each other. We found those we hadn’t kept in touch with. Friends of friends who were once friends of ours, like ripples in a pond, stretched in widening concentric circles until, within forty-eight hours, we had our own new Facebook group with (so far) 615 members (and counting — in fact, two more joined just since I started writing this blog post). People have been posting memories, anecdotes, photos.
I admit the volume of FB notifications has been overwhelming.
We’re planning a reunion before they raze the buildings. But honestly we’re having the reunion already, and it’s wonderful, and I cannot wait to be at that party and see so many people after the decades we’ve been apart. We’ll have to plan it far enough in advance for everyone to come back from the four corners of the country, from the outer bands of the planet. People are talking about doing this, and I hope they’re serious.
Bittersweet in all of this, of course, is that not all of us are still around. People have died. Our classmates, our friends. They died young and tragically and left so many behind. Some of them still have active Facebook accounts, and on the anniversaries of their births, Facebook reminds is to wish them a happy birthday and offers us a chance to send them a gift.
And we remember them, with love and fondness and occasionally the temptation to get, as Tim O’Brien cautioned against, sentimental about the dead. But we do not forget; we cling. And the fact that we can? That in itself is a gift.
ELEGY: TO BOB
Funny thing. When I sign up
for an on-line account
of some kind and am asked
to answer one of those
“security questions,” that question
has on occasion been, “What
was the last name of your first
childhood friend?” More
often than not (and I guess here
I’m handing all you hackers
out there a freebee), my answer
to this query has been
“Jordan.” The good thing is that
that answer will be always
the correct and, shall we say, perfect
one. Those memories do not
vanish. They persist. But people do
vanish and they don’t
persist, and when they do and do
not, my goodness, that’s bad.
Charlie Scott has published one full-length collection of poetry, So Much for Borders, and two chapbooks, The River Is Laughter and Methodoglia1. His poetry has appeared in several journals, including The New Republic, The Antioch Review, Western Humanities Review, and Zocalo Public Square.