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An expat in my own hometown.

April 22nd, 2013 · No Comments

This was not my plan.

I had a great product I was developing in London. I was going to stay there, build the business, become wealthy and eventually a dual citizen.

Somewhere around the time my U.K. Visa expired the plan started to de-rail. I came back to the States (at the suggestion of her Majesty’s Border Patrol) thinking that I would come back to the States, finish my business plan and then come back, resume business building, get the angel funding that was within grasp, and live happily ever after.

Like dominoes in slow motion, one by one, the plans and relationships fell apart. On Saturday before I returned to London, I admitted that it was the trip to pack up my stuff and asked if my brother knew of anyone who had someplace that I could rent in Atlanta with the dog.

He suggested that I move to my Mom’s empty house in Rolling Oak*, Alabama. My response was “I’ll be damned if I move there…”

Well.

This is damnation. Total separation from the life I loved and all my hopes and dreams.

I did give myself a few months off. Mostly, I am getting to the point that I am OK with living here. I am almost a hermit, doing my freelance work for my wonderful client in ATL, who hired me back after my meltdown the week of their flagship event. The house is a work in progress. Scraping off the damage that my mother’s workers did to the house and planning what to do that walks the balance between necessary comfort and renovating it beyond all possible hope of any return on investment.

The rose bush that my mom had me plant in an inappropriate place has now moved across the yard in a happy place.

“Culture shock much?” Yes.

But. I have a house. Sparkie is happy. I have blooms on the Clematis, I have tomatoes and blueberries planted and my new Passionflower plants are shooting toward the sky. In a few years, I’ll have the house covered just like my little cottage in London.

*Rolling Oak is not the real name.

→ No CommentsTags: History · Moving on · personal

Identity update

May 22nd, 2012 · No Comments

After the purge of words on my previous identity art, I posted a question on Facebook for my friends to contribute positive verbiage in order for me to reconstruct a view of myself that was healthy. I took these words and quotes and painted over the sad, painful imprints of my past.

Painting by Michelle French. Expressions of verbiage both negative and positive that has shaped my personality. ©2012

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Stranded on a Sandbar, or I need a Holiday

February 25th, 2012 · No Comments

Sunrise, Casa Carabeña, Tulum Mexico

I haven’t been writing much. In Mexico on my first real grown-up holiday EVER, I realized that I’ve been hanging onto my sandbar. In the ocean, but not in the swim. Calculating and pondering my next route, but I hadn’t quite taken the plunge.

Now I am back in London (and it is sunny!) and I’m plunging full in the swim. It is going to be great.

→ No CommentsTags: Moving on · personal

Identity reprint

August 1st, 2011 · No Comments

After my MA, I realized that the constant thread through much of my fine art and through the projects for my MA was a concept of identity and community. My tethers to different communities have faded and others become strong bonds. My definition of family has shifted and grown to include a multitude of people who joined my nucleus by choice.

Last year when my Mother died, I knew that I was not dealing with her exit at all. I joked about “winning” the Mexican standoff with her (she wasn’t going to die before I got married, and I was not about to get married again until she died). I knew that with the other factors in my life, I was just not addressing any feelings about the matter.

My friend Bonnie had said firmly “It’s OK, we’ll deal with it when it comes up.”

Little did I know that it would be Bonnie’s sudden and tragic death that brought all those feelings up to the surface and spewing out. The volcano of repressed pain, grief, anger, loss, loneliness, and disappointment all exploded out of me in a huge, painful rush.

Believe me, that was a lot of molten refuse to expend. Even in this sadness, I was quite aware that I was given the gift of being healed.

As I look at one of my last paintings, begun before her accident, I was trying to record some of the feelings and heal the scars left by my childhood. Often I can paint my “monsters” and they don’t bother me any more, but that one painting just held pain. Now, it is nothing. All of that stuff, while still a part of who I am, is no longer the definition of my identity.

I am a very fortunate individual. I am loved by the most amazing circle of friends anyone could have. I have a great idea for a business that one of these friends believes in well enough that she is going to join me. I have even let a man get near enough to me to sort of like me.

What an adventure life is.

I try to remember to tell my friends I love them. I was fortunate that I had thanked Bonnie and my few other closest friends in the UK, at a dinner party, for all that they had done in getting me through last year.

So, hug your friends, kiss them and tell you that you love them.

→ No CommentsTags: History · Moving on · personal

I put on pantyhose for this?

April 26th, 2011 · No Comments

Thursday afternoon’s presentation seemed to be going well enough, though I should have picked up the signals.

After years in business, I have a minimum threshold of money on the table before I can be bothered to put myself through the torture of contorting myself into my expensive, but fairly effective, legs of Lycra. The project budget met the minimum.

My competition to pitch were a PR firm, which said that they had in-house creative (doubtful) and a small agency with a portfolio of mediocre consumer oriented design. I was the obvious choice.

The company to whom I was presenting is not terribly large. For their budget, I could deliver three times what the other could, not to mention better quality. The partners decided that since they wanted to “look bigger” than they are, that they should hire the agency.

At least I didn’t wear heels.

→ No CommentsTags: History · Work

The Camellia Commitment

April 7th, 2011 · No Comments

Ruby Wedding, red cammelia

This is my Ruby Wedding Camellia

It isn’t that I am a commitmentphobe, it is just that when I do commit to something, I take it seriously. I don’t know when to quit even when the situation is no longer healthy or in my best interest.

So it was a surprise to me that even though I love London and have wanted to stay here, it was the possibility of a job in the States that made me realize that I had to be “all in” to stay here.

During my Skype interview with the potential employer, my stomach turned backflips and I could almost taste bile in the back of my throat.

My motto has been “I ain’t goin’ back to Atlanna” since I’ve been here. Somehow, I had not fully committed. I have fantastic friends in the States, but the thread to my nephews as been my only hesitancy to making a full-on promise to myself to stay.

When I first told my closest friends that I was considering grad school and this move to another country, the unanimous response was “you won’t come back.”

I didn’t give it much thought until I finally told my Mother.

“You won’t come back,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Over the years I have planted gardens wherever I have been. Perennial gardens at homes that I rented. I collected a wide range of irises, lilies and hydrangeas among other things, that I took a piece of from one place to another. When I had the big house, I planted multiple gardens so that I had something blooming at almost every point in the year. I had herbs and veggies, roses, cutting flowers and a “secret” garden with a little brick patio surrounded by rhododendrons and azaleas with a huge variety of daffodils and narcissus selections scattered in the “natural areas.” I always had fresh flowers. The one month I did not have covered whould have been filled by camellias. For some reason, I never got around to planting any.

A couple of weeks ago at Sunshine Garden Center, I bought two camellias—lifetime commitments. My landlady is beginning to suspect that I am rooted here, but I did plant them in pots, just in case I ever burst the seems of this cottage and move.

This has been another seismic shift in my perception of the future.

London, I am all in.

→ No CommentsTags: personal

I Pour Tea

March 11th, 2011 · 2 Comments

So why don’t ya hire me?

I just completed another 9 pages of essays, CV, and information for a job application. That doesn’t count the form I filled out as well.

I have a CV that is completely stripped of all my accomplishments and half my work that I used to submit for design jobs. For education jobs I have to add back in all the stuff I deleted. I cannot even remember all the stuff I have done until I start talking.

Finally, I have come out of the dark and am pursuing what I truly want to do, which is teach. In the UK, people with Masters degrees are a dime a dozen because until now, it was so cheap to further your education. However, I am in a field that people do not usually go back to get an MA, especially not with the absolute glut of experience, most especially with my business experience.

Where do I put on the “person description” the actual experiences that will allow me to rock at the job?

I am Southern. I network without even knowing I’m doing it. Like most Southerners, I would flirt with the doorknob if I thought there was a chance it would open itself. And have no conscious knowledge that I had done just that.

Mamma wanted me to be an anachronism: a Southern Belle. I wanted to be a famous designer. In Southern culture, women were most often the ones who actually ran the businesses and farms, while the men stood out front and look good. (Maybe that was just the experience of the women in my ancestry.) And yet, they planned parties, sang in the choir, taught Sunday School, cooked dinner for twenty at the drop of a hat, and went to D.A.R. meetings.

I was taught to “be nice” and even though you may be tough as nails, always have your hair, lipstick and nails done before you go out.

I clean up good.

So I learned my manners, and when it is acceptable to choose to ignore them. I helped make “dainties” for teas. And I played football whenever the boys would let me. My Barbie dolls ran businesses and owned ranches. I built houses and designed furniture and still managed to get into my frilly dress, patent leather shoes and white gloves as the occasion required.

My first Art Director job was in a small city in my home state. I refer to that time as my “Junior Socialite Training.” I was on the Board of one charity and committees for several others. It was a blast.

Nearly starved, but it was fun and great experience. A few of my friends from back in my community theater days and I threw parties when we were the most broke. We made a list and assigned our friends to bring about twice as much food as we needed for the party. We would eat for a week afterward. They had a house that couldn’t be destroyed, a great location, and neighbors who didn’t complain about anyone deciding he was Ethal Merman at 4am.

During those years when I lived in the big, beautiful, but miserable house, the only happy times were planning and throwing parties for a hundred of our closest friends. Even now, when I am depressed and fiscally impaired, I throw a bash. And in my little shoebox cottage we dance. That never happened in the big house with a basketball court sized patio.

I always saw myself as a designer-businessperson first, but these other aspects add so much to what I bring to the table.

I can pour tea, mix a French Martini, make hors d’oeuvres from the contents of my pantry, and plan parties for hundreds. I can make small talk about pop-tarts, discuss complex business issues, and make you laugh about politics-n-religion. I have been known to chew someone out without them realizing it. But there is no such place for “Southern Belle” or “Cheerleader” or “Former Socailte” or Ex “Wife-of” on an application.

→ 2 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

It’s a blue, blue, blue, blue world

January 26th, 2011 · 3 Comments

Don't let Mamma pick out paint until after the cataract surgery!

Years ago, during the period in my life that became known as “my tragic exile” I briefly returned to my hometown to live.

My Mother’s response to any crisis in my life was always to tell me “Just come home and live in one of my rental houses.”

One day my response changed from “I would rather slit my wrists…” to “OK.” She promptly called my sister and said “Michelle is going to kill herself.” (I have mentioned her tendency to be a Drama Queen.) I lived in first one and then the other of her houses, clearing, cleaning, planting gardens and painting as I went.

One day I was pondering the near-neon, robin’s egg blue that my grandmother had painted the bedrooms in her house. I called Mother and asked “Did Nanny have cataracts when she chose the paint color.”

She had indeed. I, of course, had no such excuse as I painted rooms with rich vibrant colors.

Several years later, Mother’s house was in dire need of a new coat of paint. She went to the hardware store, chose the color and paid someone to paint the house. She thought she was painting it the same muted, Williamsburg blue.

However, her own cataracts had dimmed her color perception. What looked like a pale, dusty blue, was indeed Bahama Beach Shack blue.

Yeah, the neighbors were horrified. A Victorian bungalow on an otherwise conservative street, it looked like a neon barn. To further insult the house, she replaced the roof with an enameled tin roof—a clashing shade of slate blue. After she had her cataract surgery, she was horrified herself, but that much paint is really expensive for a retired person.

Now, my sister is tasked with clearing out the house, one blue room after another (with the exception of the Pepto-Bismol Pink bedroom) in order to sell it. Know anyone who wants a Bahama beach house in the middle of Alabama?

→ 3 CommentsTags: Uncategorized

Just another American cheerleader

November 17th, 2010 · 4 Comments


Yeah, I had the pep and I had the steam!

I was watching yet another video about job searching, this one on the elevator pitch. The woman with the bad bleach job was explaining how it is done.

“You don’t want to sound like some American cheerleader.” She said derisively.

Great. I thought my time on the field was well spent. I even did a segment in an AIGA 20/20 show on how being a cheerleader helped my design career.

Here are a few:

Proof it again! One poster I had done the year I was a cheerleader was used the entire school year when one coach called me over and said “Michelle, you did that poster?” I hopped over and nodded. “How do you spell Tigers?” he asked.

It said “We’re cheering for you Tigrs!” The worst part was that the cheerleaders used it again the next year, typo and all.

S-U-C-C-E-S-S: I could at least spell the word.

Most of all: I learned that if you can jump up and down on a sprained ankle for an entire game; smiling through tears streaming down your face, with your ass hanging out in front of the whole county, there isn’t much that scares you away from trying.

Though I am naturally outgoing, I learned to be tenacious, to work hard, to take insults with grace, to never give up. (Though right now, I am so tempted.) I am not a natural athlete. I had to work harder. I didn’t get cheerleader my senior year which was devastating. Everything I did then was completely on my own. My parents didn’t even come to my games because, as we know, the girls don’t matter.

So, here I am in a country where people actually shout at me because of my citizenship.

The only thing sustaining me are the great family of friends, a thread of hope that is sometimes as thin as the plastic in my pom-poms and the pathological optimism that maybe tomorrow this job application will find someone who can use an over-qualified, over-educated, overly enthusiastic, woman designer.

→ 4 CommentsTags: History · personal · Uncategorized

A red exclamation point!

July 28th, 2010 · No Comments

©2010 Michelle French

There it was.

A big red exclamation point. An email from my sister on a Sunday morning. I had gotten up, checked email, made coffee and then went back to the comfort of my bed to watch BBC News. I had hoped it would lull me back to sleep.

When I finally gave up trying to doze, and finding myself bored to tears with the Sunday politics show, I got more coffee and sat down to find an email from my sister with the subject:

CALL ME ON MY CELL!!!  I’ve lost your number

There was no other message.

I knew what it meant immediately, though I could not believe it. When I finally reached her she said “I don’t believe it, but she’s gone.”

My Mother had died. Even though she had several rather critical illnesses‑all the result of diabetes and inactivity—we didn’t think she would ever actually die. Well, not this quietly. Not without drama.

Shock overtook me immediately. As a recent grad student, unemployed, with one mostly-maxed-out credit card, I couldn’t compute how I was going to get back to the States. Finally after an afternoon of frenzied attempts to transfer money, Joycie (my hero again after a million years) stepped in to save the day and bought my plane ticket. (Delta’s customer service was actually really good that day.)

12 hours later I was on a plane bound for Atlanta. With no sleep. I had left my house at 4 a.m., took 2 night busses to Kings Cross/St. Pancras and the Thameslink to Gatwick.

My sister’s two boys and their dad picked me up in blazing heat in Atlanta for the start of 2 frenzied weeks of visiting and feeble attempts to assist my sister in the chores.

At the funeral home we received the good wishes from friends and relatives. I took photos of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends—suddenly aware that I may never see some of them again.

The flowers were astoundingly beautiful. One in particular, a basket of white roses with a dynamic swash of netting was the result of Mother’s dear neighbor Betty’s direction: “Myra and I are both Drama Queens, so it has to be dramatic!” The Red Hat ladies had sent another arrangement with one of Mother’s Red Hats featured.

The service was sweet. My cousin Rick, who had been one of my Mom’s piano students gave a touching eulogy and performed Chopin accompanying a slide show my sister’s friend Danita had prepared with photos of Mother throughout the years. My sister’s eldest son was so grown-up and composed as a pall bearer. The Red Hat Society Ladies, acting as honorary pall bearers, lined the walkway on either side of us as we left the church.

After the service family and friends went on to their lives and my sister began sifting through the clutter.

Mother was a “bad diabetic” as they say in the South. People use the phrase to express that one has a bad case of the disease. In reality, Mother was just not good at taking care of her diabetes. It had caused heart problems, kidney dysfunction, and a bit of dementia.

As my sister dug through the nest of debris surrounding Mother’s old-lady chair, she said “Do you think she killed herself?”

There, hidden out of view, was a large box of mini-honey-buns and a large tub of salted-peanuts.

And she could never understand why she couldn’t control her blood-sugar or her hypertension.

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