For Those Who Don't Know Strunk and White

In my twenties, and the poet I was, I used the most flowery language to capture the deepest feelings ever.

That all changed when I went to grad school. Grad school broke my spirit. I could no longer use language to talk myself in circles without ever reaching my point. That's the fun of complex language, right? Dance around a point without ever addressing it? No, said my English professors, both current and ancient.

People don't like vagueness. They just want you to hit your point right away, wrap it up quickly, and don't bother them with the rest.

Substitute English professors with Internet skimmers. They see so much content every day, it comes down to specifics to keep their attention. The more specific and useful your language is, the better.

The more anticipatory (in a way that strikes a pathos), specific, and useful your content is, the more audience engagement you'll have.

The more vague, abstract, and emotional your content is, without ever touching their rational side, the more quickly your audience scrolls away from that message.

Be specific, narrative, and poetic. That's my one takeaway from grad school and the only way for me to hold onto my writing spirit. It's also my best language advice to writers who use social media, a web presence, and want creativity mixed in with business as usual.

Kansas City Central Library   

Kansas City Central Library


Immigration and Legacy

A beautiful thing about humanity is that we are a species of migration. Globally, we share a birthright as descendants of migrants, but for those of us who are first-generation Americans, with at least one parent an immigrant, we may feel that heritage of migration more acutely.

My dad's Greek identity altered my American heritage. One time, when I asked mom what her ethnic background was, he interrupted me: "You're Greek. That cancels everything else out."

Rhodes, Greece: 1980

In kindergarten, when another Maria and I introduced ourselves to each other, I couldn't understand why she kept correcting me, "No, it's Maria. Ma-ri-a." Befuddled at the time, now I realize I must have been saying our name with a hard R. That was around the time my little brother, Dino, was first learning to speak, and I noticed he indiscriminately mixed Greek and English. I guess I did, too.

Dino picked up Greek the fastest when my brothers and I spent our first entire summer in Greece, unchaperoned by our parents. Our aunts would send Dino on errands where he needed to issue Greek commands, and he always returned successful. That was the summer I turned 14 and my older cousins took me out with them to the bars and dance clubs. No one batted an eyelash when a White Russian cocktail became palatable to me, a Campari and orange juice being my palette-breaker. Dino, jealous he couldn't join his older siblings and cousins on their nightly escapades, drank ouzo out of our uncle's fridge. He then hung from the balcony like a monkey. A tipsy 11 year old watched us go out for the night while he stayed behind. Dino continued hanging out with the elder family members at night and built on his Greek vocabulary. Meanwhile, Packy, my older brother, and I continued to run shenanigans in an environment our birth country's laws deemed inappropriate for another several years, helping our cousins and their friends improve upon their English.

Right before I could legally enter a bar in my birth country, it seemed boring to me. With the door to learning a second language more elusive, I left for Greece again.

A few months into immersion, I realized my learning style contrasted with my little brother's. It turns out he learned aurally, and I learned visually. A book made more sense to me than a conversation. I started to read a lesson a week out of an instructional book, and learned to spell Greek words. Once I could see the words - literally see the spelling of words I heard in my head - I could tell where one word ended and another began. Prior to that, every sound in my ears was simply linguistic confusion. After attuning my ears, music complemented books. I could learn Greek words in songs. It took me about a year to become conversational.

Witnessing genes manifest in unique ways amongst the family is amazing. The way I expressed our shared genes may have been more evident in the way I conveyed cultural preference. I suspect that influenced my longing to live in Greece when I had the choice to go to Costa Rica instead. After studying Spanish for 8 years, it was the desire to learn Greek which won out, even though I had to start with just a handful of words in Greek. In Spanish I was already writing essays. And maybe wherein language prompted my move, it was migration that altered my brain and prompted other genes out of the dust.

Hours of walking a day, swimming, eating seasonally, not taking shortcuts to accomplish mundane tasks, and suddenly, I lost the baby fat a lot of people carry into their 20s. As if my body was built for the land and the sea, my musculature sculpted easily. Most of the women on my Greek side inherited insane calf muscles. I assume it was due to fetching the day's water for the family, even though that legacy ended with my grandmother. Although, my wide shoulders are good for swimming, it is Packy who swims deftly as a fish. His muscular memory is reborn after diving into water no matter how many years he has spent sedentary building code for clients' websites. It's his genetic talent to bullet through the water, and even if I spent years practicing, I couldn't swim as fast as he could. The same genes seem to be in repose for some members of the family, but immediate or on the surface for other members. The way my swimming genes manifest is simply a love to swim.  One summer I was the only one rewarded for hard work on our neighborhood swim team. But, effortless work - the kind that won Packy 1st place over and over - is prompted by genetic makeup. On another note, I often joke that if Packy's talents and my talents rolled into one person, that person would be the perfect contemporary worker. But, design is certainly not my forte and writing is certainly not his.

Genetic patterns emerge and disappear for a time, like ethereal deities. Blue eyes skipped my generation, but reemerged in our children's. My dad permanently changed his residency, and although he gave us lots of travel time, his offspring settled in their birth country. Maybe our children will cross continents again. But, in the meantime, his immigration prompted me to rely on (at least) two different cultures for grounding.

Now that my future is enmeshed with my child's, it takes more muscle to envision the future, maybe, than to envision the past. I see that birthing a child, like migrating, is an act of bravery. I have played both of those wild cards.


Cesarean Awareness Month

I didn't plan to write about my emergency c-section anymore than I planned on having one. But, April is Cesarean Awareness Month and birth plans can change suddenly. So, here's my story.


The first day of labor was a piece of cake. My parents arrived around 11. They took us to brunch. I ordered fresh orange juice and a scone. We languished for a bit at the table. Michael schooled us on something political or societal. It was all very ordinary. Contractions were manageable. I shuffled around eating calamari, visiting an exotic aquarium store, and nursing a gelato.

Nothing so far prepared me for the night I was about to experience. With each contraction, my body tightened. As each breath became more erratic, my shoulders arose; my face grimaced. I couldn't repress the anguished sounds in my voice. To appease myself, I sang Moby's "Natural Blues" in a low drone and lingered in the shower for an hour, two hours; I don't know how long. Each contraction rendered me reluctant to be alone. Michael slept. Sleep seemed impossible to me.

The next day at the birth center, we tried several different, natural ways to encourage labor to progress. I took each suggestion the midwife made - Benadryl, a Foley catheter, showering, riding around in a car with the driver instructed to look for bumps, walking, lunging, squatting, relaxing in the buoyancy of a tub, and then eventually breaking my water - with some degree of hesitation, but obeyed her like I would a drill sergeant. The final labor-inducing aid was castor oil. That one terrified me. Taking a laxative to intensify my contractions seemed crazy. Every time a contraction began, I would throw off my robe and run to the bathroom. It was night again, and everyone had faded, to me and to rest. I finally felt okay to be alone. That bathroom in my castor oiled haze became a vision tent. By the third pace around the room, I realized my baby wasn't coming this way. The next time a nurse came in to check on me, I had her fetch the napping midwife. I said, "I'm at my wit's end. I need hospital intervention."

Michael and I, with my intensified contractions, left with our Prius and my parents followed, for what seemed like forever and really fast driving. When I checked into the hospital around 1 AM, the passivity of being wheeled into a room calmed me. I was so over feeling contractions. An epidural seemed like the best idea. A flurry of nurses came in and out, attaching machines to me and the baby. Things seemed to progress soundly. I learned my baby had a full head of hair. The only signal of a contraction was a beeping machine. I relaxed, and stayed alert, waiting until stage 2 of labor - pushing. After an hour or two, the nurse administered pitocin to induce labor. But, as soon as the baby's heart rate began decelerating, the doctor ordered an emergency c-section.

I understood the whoosh of the baby being lifted out. She uttered out a cry, nothing distressed or anything, and then another cry at the two people handling her. A male voice exclaimed, "She's a chunker!" The nurses cleaned her. Michael snapped a few photos, and then brought her swaddled over to me, putting us face to face. I caressed her face and said something to her. When she heard my voice, I could see it in her eyes that she recognized me. I stopped shaking when she was close to me. But as soon as they took her again, so my incision could be sutured, the uncontrollable shaking returned. There was nothing I wanted more than to hold my baby. But, I waited. Patiently. The morphine was pacifying. The doctor assured me after her successful suturing work, there would be no reason I couldn't have a VBAC, vaginal birth after cesarean. Someone mentioned at some point that my pelvis may have been too small for the passage of my 8 lb, 6 oz baby. But one thing the doctor said reverberated with me. The umbilical cord wasn't attached directly to the placenta, but rather to a membrane. The fact that my cervix never dilated past halfway at a 5 - the left side dilated completely but the right side not at all - was a blessing in disguise. The baby might not have survived what would have been a difficult passage through the birth canal. Oxygen and other sustenance would've been cut off from her, and with her right temple resting on my cervix instead of the ideal crown of her head, pushing would be troublesome.

Knocking on the birth center's door so early in labor may have been a rookie mistake, but labor never progressed. In hindsight, I'm glad I labored actively for two and a half days. But, the labor - birth especially - was nothing like I imagined it.

Our version of the Sacred Hour, in the recovery room. She was born with her hand in her mouth like that.

Our version of the Sacred Hour, in the recovery room. She was born with her hand in her mouth like that.

Here are the things I would have done differently:

Hired a doula. I originally thought choosing the person who would birth the baby to be the most important. But, I ended up with a birth team I'd never even met. A doula would have been the constant presence no one else could be. Well, she and my partner could have taken turns attending to the laboring woman. But, she could have coached me to breathe correctly. She would have known the right massage techniques. She's trained to endure the exhaustion like attending partners and moms can't. And I had no choice but to endure my own exhaustion and stay alert to whatever each moment physically demanded. An experienced labor expert on hand would've been heavenly.

Held my baby post birth. The doctor insisted I would not be fit to hold her due to the shock my nervous system incurred within a matter of moments: a saline drip that caused swelling not even pregnancy had bestowed me, the sudden loss of hormones the moment the placenta was removed, and a round of antibiotics for the surgery. An uncontrollable shaking seized whatever part of my body wasn't numb. I couldn't will myself to stop, but the baby close to me magically made the shaking stop. Our parasympathetic nervous systems desperately needed to be activated. Anyone who has felt wondrous after yoga or meditation knows the feeling. At the time of birth, however, mother and child need the affection only the other can give.

I had been looking forward to the sacred hour, when mom and baby snuggle until the baby latches onto the breast. Lactation hormones would surge through my body and the breastfeeding relationship could begin in its ideal circumstance. Instead, breastfeeding was delayed to five or six hours past birth. I'm not sure, but that may have been why my milk supply never fully came in. I had to stop breastfeeding after two months, latching issues aside. Everyone said the latch looked great, except for a La Leche League leader. She knew when she saw my face when the baby first latched on. It wasn't right. No doubt: it's been seven months since the last nursing and my breasts still look like a bulls-eye. As a side note, everyone sees your breasts when you're breastfeeding. There's nothing but total surrender to that.

Ignored "natural vs unnatural" birthing myths. Early in my pregnancy I read the popular book Birthing from Within. It suggested visualization to imagine a birth worth happening and active-imagination exercises such as doodling your fears. There's supposed to be an internal surrender to a positive power. I felt guilty when the birth I'd imagined - a midwife-caught baby, the Sacred Hour, and an aromatherapy post-birth bath - resulted instead in a surgically-removed baby. In my hormonal stupor, I felt I'd neglected to properly address my birth fears and that somehow the emergency c-section was my fault. And the drugs! The morphine, the NSAIDS, and narcotic pain killers absolved all that nary a drug taking during pregnancy when I quit coffee, ignored every urge for a Tylenol, and bulldozed through a tremendous cold in month 8 drug-free. But, there was no way labor would have progressed safely for either me or my child in the birth I imagined. Grant it, some doctors may abuse the c-section rate. On the contrary, a complicated labor benefits from a doctor confident in the timing of a truly necessary Cesarean. An uncomplicated labor absolutely should progress naturally. A lot of ob-gyns are privy to that, thanks to natural birth activists. Nonetheless, as often argued by natural birth advocates, there ended up being little compromise to my ability to bond with my baby, despite the c-section. Apart from our mutual exhaustion, we stayed alert to the other. Now that I think of it, the "internal surrender to a positive power" may have been my intuition to get thee to a hospital.

Scheduled post birth R&R. I needed a chiropractic adjustment and a massage, stat. A birth can be a traumatic event on the body. Instead I waited 4 months post birth to sit in a jacuzzi once and then was inspired to find a chiropractor who gave me adjustments and exercises to do twice a day. Once I started those simple kneeling side planks, I reinstated the self-massage of exercise back into my life and soothed my parasympathetic nervous system with yoga. Although I desperately needed a post-birth massage, and still really do, I asked for a cleaning service instead of a massage for Mother's Day. My preference to not clean trumps an hour of tension-releasing any day. Bear in mind, I'm just now considering myself to have recovered mostly from pregnancy, 9 months postpartum. The requisite to wait 18 months between pregnancies is a superb idea.

As I sit here to reflect on the birth I received versus the birth I imagined, it bears mentioning there is nothing that will prepare for a birth except a birth. Cesarean or natural, each birth is as mysterious as the baby that follows.

Isidora's first portrait! With a blue lip from sucking on her hand.

Isidora's first portrait! With a blue lip from sucking on her hand.

One Time I Sang They Didn't Dance

The spectators could have had anyone sing in front of them, they had the money and desire to, but there I was singing in front of them at Marietta Diner, after our band had finished a job in Atlanta and they’d been out all night drinking and dancing. Not moving anymore, they just sat and watched me. They just wanted to hear me sing, but their stillness alarmed me.

When my eyes met the father's steady gaze, an immigrant from Greece who made a fortune opening diners across the eastern seaboard, the wordless eye contact seemed too deep for me. I’d seen him use a force of words to crush a waiter’s spirit and yet he stayed kind to us, wondering what we liked to eat until the entire table would fill with plates he’d guess would suit us.

I looked also at his oldest son, chauffeured even at the table, as his driver opened his mouth and put a water bottle up to his lips to restore him. After I finished singing, the son pulled me up next to him
and whispered, with some weird semblance of respect, "Think of us when you become famous. Don’t forget us."

The point of my flashback is to help set the tone of this post. The story above is an example of when the actual situation was nothing like what my performance insecurities would have had me believe about it. When, in fact, that night I probably sounded most like a true singer than I ever would, I never thought the work I did performing was adequate. Placing myself in the public eye is sometimes the last thing I want to do, so I think it's important to know some of the details that led me toward this path.

Kostas Kastanis Musical Productions Caravan

Kostas Kastanis Musical Productions Caravan

I sang in a traveling Greek band actively for six years. I got paid in cash after every gig. The band leader paid me a small cut from the contract and we divided money thrown on the floor evenly. That's the Greek way of giving tips, showering money on the dancers and band members. Money gets stomped into the floor. One time I brought a pile of dirty, beer-smelling dollar bills to the bank to deposit into my account. The puzzlement in the face and disgust which the teller handled the noticeably dirty money was palpable.

No planning put me in a Greek band as a singer. It happened after a series of crucial circumstances that seemed unrelated at first. I moved to Greece and then married a classically-trained, but adept at Greek folk musician before returning to the US. My parents supported us while we worked jobs here and there and networked for more sustaining employment. A Greek acquaintance from St Louis gave us the phone number of a Greek band owner who lived in Louisville, Kentucky with his family. I encouraged my, now ex, husband to keep calling him until he answered his phone, essentially badgering him. The band leader gave my ex-husband a gig playing keyboards, I believe at a Greek festival in Omaha, Nebraska. A few months later, we traveled to the next gig, Memphis, Tennessee, in a moving truck whose ultimate destination was Louisville. I remember that trip because the maniacal European driving, ignoring lane lines in a rental truck moving all our belongings, terrified me. I had to take over the driving. Then, I joined the band about 8 months later, debuting at a Greek festival in Greensboro, South Carolina.

The only vocal training I received was when my high school counselor had to stick me in a class senior year and the only open one was morning choir. I secretly coveted that placement. It was the best thing that happened to me in high school. I was too shy to make it happen myself. I never wanted to admit my love for singing.

Singing live is a great teacher. I learned to adjust the volume of my voice - which is perma-softspoken. I learned to sing rhythmically because people almost always danced while I sang. I always sang melody in choir, and I played the flute in elementary school, so finding the melody wasn't difficult, but singing (mostly) in pitch could be trying. Often there was feedback and sometimes the musicians competed with each other to see who could play the loudest. Ridiculous volumes sometimes surged through each musician's amplifier and my microphone was stitched to the main tower. I couldn't hear cues sometimes, let alone hear myself. Of course, the musicians competed with each other to see who could play faster, too, and sometimes I had to keep ridiculous timing.

Life is funny. These seemingly random choices rode on the back of an innocuous statement I made in front of my dad when I was 4 years old. I don't remember telling my dad in the car while we listened to Greek tapes I wanted to become a Greek singer. But, he recounted the story to me at a dinner celebrating my mom's birthday, three years after I started singing in the band.

The highlight of that career - a night I could have happily died after - happened on a balmy August night in a Greek tavern, on the tail-end of my Nameday. Native Greeks, notorious for reserving their dancing, arose to dance after I started singing traditional island songs. My voice conjured the bounce in their smooth dance steps.

Nameday  celebration at the Taverna in Halkidiki, Greece

Nameday  celebration at the Taverna in Halkidiki, Greece

I don't think I can be as self-deprecating as I would like including this audio selfie, but sometimes I would warm up/rehearse in the hotel room before a gig and record myself with my phone. And for good measure, below is a performance-prep selfie.

A pre-gig selfie (I loved this dress!)

A pre-gig selfie (I loved this dress!)

The Creative Side of Business

My college hiatus ended on the impetus of poetry and dance. I had wanted to create a voice from my travel experience and maintain a career in the arts, which had just started to blossom.

Photo by Loyal Auterson, Missouri State University Fall Dance Concert, 2006, performing a Romani/Oriental fusion dance

Photo by Loyal Auterson, Missouri State University Fall Dance Concert, 2006, performing a Romani/Oriental fusion dance

Those that know my artistic work during college know that Greece, and its periphery of influence, is a major focal point.

While pursuing my somewhat impractical college degree, I applied the skills I was learning to a number of freelancing gigs. There's one I'm particularly fond of, an ad my older brother and I collaborated on for our parents' Greek-branded jewelry store.

When I saw the piece my mom wanted in the ad, I saw Cretan spirals. I told my brother about the Palace in Knossos.

He found the photo and inlaid the necklace. In its juxtaposition, we tied a major line of jewelry to the store's Greek brand. The copy can be cringe worthy to me, as I read it now years away from my early poetry. But beyond that, the vision behind the ad came from the same place that inspired my wanderlust.  The ad won an award and I became hooked on this type of work - the creative side of business.

Prewriting: What Came First

A few weeks before I turned 21, I bought a one-way ticket to Europe, paying a hundred bucks for an American Airlines buddy pass to Manchester, England. Never mind what I paid to take my luggage with me from England to Greece, except it crushed the thought that adventure comes cheaply. Yet, when my flight to Rhodes, Greece departed, I was on it.

The climate shifted from cool-rainy in England to hot-dry desert the whole summer. I was relieved when the first thunderstorm in September signaled a weather change, and then the coldest winter on record conjured me reluctant in the northern mainland - a non-touristy area - finally immersed in the Greek language. It helped that American movies, mostly 90's action (not my) genre, with Greek subtitles aired on the TV every night, supplementing my lesson book and adding to my limited conversations with Greeks. The Sydney 2000 broadcast of the Olympic flame-gathering ceremony aired one night, in lieu of a mediocre movie. It was over the top, dramatic, out of the ordinary. But what set the ceremony apart from an American action movie was its ritualistic tribute to beauty, nonviolence, and an obsolete deity - and with a cast of all women, priestesses to be exact.

Among other surprise inspirations from moving to Greece, I felt compelled to participate in the Olympics.

Of course, the struggle to meet daily needs takes precedence and inspiration is easily forgotten.

Back to Rhodes for the summer again, but speaking Greek with more ease, I worked in the old town for a handmade arts shop owner who couldn't afford to pay me and then for my godfather's jewelry store, who could afford to pay me but could make me cry with just his presence.

I moved back to the US in the fall. One thing led to another and I started singing with a traveling Greek band. From nursing a headache hiding behind the gigantic speakers one night, I emerged to sing my set at a Greek wedding in St Louis and inspired an Olympic-commissioned artist to fill in the profile he envisioned for his US Olympic team poster in Athens, 2004.

From being inspired, suddenly I was inspiring.

Painter: Rip Kastaris