self-defense for your soul (and write your own life).

I have two favorite movies that have shaped, influenced, and impacted my life in gigantic ways, and the writerly connection is that they are both based on great works of literature: The Wizard of Oz and Living Out Loud. 

When I first saw The Wizard of Oz, I was maybe six or seven. I wanted to meet Dorothy--no, better yet, I wanted to BE Dorothy. She was country girl cute yet pretty wily, she could sing, and she had a very limber boyfriend named Scarecrow. She was 1940's hip (because I'm an old soul). This was back in the 70's/early 80's, before the age of the VCR, so I had to wait once every year to watch it when it came on network television in March or April (because this was also before the age of satellite and cable). It was The Event of the Year for me, second only to Christmas, and sort of like I imagine the Emmys and Oscars are if you have a job in Hollywood. Which I do not. Though I think I should. Except my skin is too thin and I'd be eaten alive.

Side story: when I was seven, we moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma. Living in Oklahoma is where I realized: wow, that thing that takes Dorothy to Oz is a tornado. And here in Oklahoma, what are there a lot of? Tornadoes! That's right! Woo boy! We're goin' to OZ, baby! COOL!  So, every day in Oklahoma goes like this: Could there be a tornado today? Why, yes. Yes, there could be, because this is Okla-tornado-homa. Kids in Oklahoma grow up knowing: today could be your very last day on earth. Because Tornado Watch (a constant in that state) means Maybe, and Tornado Warning (always looming on the horizon) equals Kiss Everyone You Know Good-bye. It's just how people live down there 350 days out of the year. Ask anyone from Oklahoma. They'll tell you. Congress really ought to do something about it (but we all know they won't because some of them still believe Jesus had a pet dinosaur).

So every day, there'd be a tornado watch which would often switch to a tornado warning suddenly and without provocation. My mom would start running around like a chicken with the head cut off, gathering up pillows, small brother, wayward dog, photos, jewelry, birth certificates, fresh underpants, etc...and she'd shove us all into our Safe Room (aka the guest bathroom tub because it was the lowest room in the center of the house), and I'd be running back and forth from window to window screaming, "Is it here yet? Is it HERE yet?? Is it HERE???" absolutely, psychotically convinced we were all about to be taken up in the air in a tornado where we'd see magnificent things like flying cows, rednecks in boats, and an evil spinster schoolmarm who'd turn into an evil spinster cackling witch right before our very eyes. And then we'd kill her with our house, skip down the Yellow Brick Road, and sing and eat over-sized lollipops with the munchkins. Happily Ever After, The End. Seven year olds are very concrete thinkers.

So one day, after a particularly harrowing near-miss by a friendly, locally-grown tornado, my mom grabbed me and sat me down on the sofa. She asked, "Amy, why are you so excited about tornadoes? It sounds like you want a tornado to hit our house while we're in it. Do you want a tornado to hit our house?" So I outlined my big Trip to Oz travel itinerary, and as my mother listened, she grew very very somber. When I finished, she shook her head sadly. After a big sigh, she carefully stood and walked to our living room bookcase. She took down a gigantic tome called NATURAL DISASTERS OF AMERICA. She placed this tome on my skinny, innocent seven year old knees as if it were an ancient copy of the Bible and she said in a dark, ominous tone, "No, Amy. No. The Wizard of Oz is just a make believe story. Tornadoes are real. Tornadoes kill people, Amy. If a tornado hit our house, it wouldn't take us anywhere. It would smash us to smithereens and we'd all be dead. Do you understand what I'm telling you? Tornadoes are horrible, evil things. Oz doesn't exist but death by tornado does."

And then she opened up NATURAL DISASTERS OF AMERICA to page 1,965, a page splashed with pictures of house (and people) all smashed to smithereens.  I spent the next 6 hours of my young life perusing this book of NATURAL DISASTERS OF AMERICA, learning all about the different ways Mother Nature can, and will, kill you.

Epilogue to this sad childhood memory/side story: Talk therapy for childhood traumas can only take you so far, and so if the world is to be destroyed by a global wind-like disaster I would be the very last person you'd want on your Apocalypse Team. I will be cowering, in fetal position, under something like I do right now in my pantry beneath the corn cans. I'd be the kind of drowning person who'd hold onto the lifeguards trying to save her and end up drowning all of us; I'm sure lifeguards are warned never to attempt to save people like me. If there is ever a natural disaster, just leave me! Just leave me. Save yourselves.

But here's why I continue to love The Wizard of Oz in spite of my mother's maternal destruction of her innocent daughter's magical dreams: The Wizard of Oz has ingredients for an important life recipe. Every child should be exposed to it. Yes, every child! Even though, okay right, there are freakish flying monkeys and, of course. You're absolutely correct, cackling witches are NO laughing matter. Listen, whatever. Just do like I've done with 4 year old Miss M and tell your scaredy cat kid to just suck it up. When they grow up, they can get a good therapist and they'll be fine. Mostly. (But do save the natural disaster tomes for when they're emotionally mature enough to handle the disappointing realities of Mother Nature's dark side.)

The moral to the story/life recipe of The Wizard of Oz is that the access to all your dreams coming true is already inside of you. Whatever riches of treasures you think you'd like, they're in you already--you don't have to look very far at all. And I like that, even though my mother's actions one afternoon sent me reeling into years of panic attacks during windstorms (yes yes yes! Any kind of wind), I like that she did a really wonderful motherly thing that day even as she destroyed my childhood magic: she never pointed out to me that the story of Oz is actually about believing in and depending on yourself; she let me discover it in the movie myself. You had it in you all the time, silly little goose! And get away from that window--it's the most dangerous place you could possibly be in a tornado!

The other movie that has impacted my life in unimaginable ways is Living Out Loud. It's an obscure movie made way back in 1998/1999, starring Holly Hunter and Queen Latifah, and it was based on two short stories by Anton Chekov. Every time I find myself and/or my life in flux, I watch this movie, sometimes 400 times in one weekend. It's about living life on your terms, learning to say no to other people's bullshit, and a whole slew of other things I constantly forget even after having gone through a a whole butt load of bad life and romance experiences over the last 41 years which you'd think I'd learn finally, but no because that's simply not how I do things. So thank god for DVDs, and Richard Lagravenese, who made this movie. It is not lost on me at all that Richard Lagravenese is a man who made a really sensitive, thoughtful movie about a woman who learns to live out loud after living so silently for so long, which makes Richard Lagravenese a rare find. (For that matter, so was Anton Chekhov.)

At any rate, every young girl starting at age 16 should be exposed to this movie; I am certain my life would have taken a totally different course had I been exposed to this movie by age 16. (You can drag out the tome about natural disasters by age 16, too. By age 16 a person is big enough. Just don't show them page 1,112 which has a man stuck in an earthquake fault crack as if he's about to be swallowed alive by the planet. That's...just stay off of that page, okay? Be gentle with your fragile mind. Mother Nature is a nasty b-word.)

Mostly, I think I'm thinking about learning how to know yourself down to the very center of the very core of your very deepest abyss because I'm thinking about how the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we'd like to become and what we're truly capable of become our past, present, and future realities. We can constantly rearrange our passages and rewrite our endings, as well as a lot of our middles. But you know what I've realized over the years? This is a dirty endeavor, writing a story about yourself, for yourself--mostly because of the many, many people who want to either help you write long passages of it, or just flat out insist on writing it for you (helicopter writers).

So learning how to (a) find your story and then (b) write it is not for the weak of spirit. I mean, a lot of these helicopter writers who like to tell other people what their stories are don't even know the difference between there, their, and they're. Don't even get me started on the misuse of your and you're. It's a real struggle to find your dreams and live out loud when you're trying to write while following the rules of people who are completely inept at proper grammar mechanics.

Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my writing heroes, says she thinks all women, but especially young girls, should travel to foreign (and not so foreign) places and learn to feel through the loneliness of traveling alone. Isn't that a great metaphor for life? Learn how to travel, solo. Learn how to take your walks around a strange place in the world during the day, eat dinner, and then be okay with being by yourself from 7:30 until dawn the next day. Because when you can do that, you can find yourself. Which means hopefully you'll know yourself so well, you won't ever end up sharing any part of your soul or your life with a helicopter writer who wants to write your story, because, thanks but no thanks, you've got this. And when you find yourself, you don't even want other people who are really prolific writers who know how to spell and use contractions correctly to write your life, because you've learned that everything you really desire is already inside of you--it's been in you all along. Just like Dorothy does in The Wizard of Oz and Judith does in Living Out Loud. And Elizabeth Gilbert did, period.

I wish I could teach a class for young girls ages 14-18 about this (gentle, sensitive boys welcome as well). I would like to teach a class on self-defense for the soul: we would watch gentle, thoughtful movies like  The Wizard of Oz and Living Out Loud and write down our thoughtful thoughts about their gentle recipes. We would read books like Help Thanks Wow by Anne Lamott, and Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. We would take individual field trips to different European countries of our choice, walk around their cities alone, eat dinner alone, go to sleep alone, and then meet back at the classroom in two weeks to write our essays. As an extending, culminating activity, we'd go all Walt Whitman and spend two weeks in nature in silence and thought (which, by the way, I did this in high school, but surrounded by other high schoolers...who are notoriously BAD at taking people like Walt Whitman serious). At the end we'd write our final essays and share.

If this country and its Congress had its priorities on straight, there'd be a class like this in every high school. (Actually, if this country and its Congress had its priorities on straight, I'd be Secretary of Education and Arne Duncan would sharpen my pencils and Michelle Rhee would be my coffee girl. But I digress.)

Just thinking today. Out loud. Happy there are no tornado watches on the horizon.