Hollye Dexter

Mom. Author. Singer. Activist.

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Deleted Fire Season chapters and my Blog Series "How To Survive EVERYTHING" will be featured here.

To read the rest of my blogs, see www.hollyedexter.blogspot.com

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Writing About Family

Posted by Hollye Dexter on May 13, 2017 at 4:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Storytelling has existed since the beginning of humankind. Our stories are the connective tissue that holds humanity and possibly even the universe together. Poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote, “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms." Every person on this planet has a unique life path and an interesting tale to share, and yet so many of us struggle with whether or not we have the right to tell our stories. We are silenced by the fear upsetting others, mainly our family, in writing our truth.

 

Who Owns The Truth?

I begin my book Fire Season with this note -

“In my extended family, arguing over versions of our history is practically a blood sport. My relatives will wrestle each other to the mat about the way it all went down. In reality, there is no such thing as absolute truth, only our personal interpretations of it. Each of us sees life through our own unique lens. The best way I’ve ever heard it described was by a woman I met in a writing group. She said as her mother lay dying, she and her sister sat on either side of the hospital bed, holding their mother’s hands. At the moment of her passing, the sisters spoke simultaneously. One said, “She’s gone cold!” The other said, “She’s still warm.” And both statements were true to the women who made them.

I do my best, as a flawed and complex person myself, to write with compassion and understanding. There are no heroes or villains in my books, only imperfect humans doing the best they can. Mine is not the elusive absolute truth, but it is my truth.”

 

The bottom line is that you own the rights to your life story. No one else can shape it, or write it like you can. Your story is the only thing of true value that you own-- the one thing that can’t be taken from you. Cherish that.

 

Write Honest Characters

In memoir writing, it’s important to write with objectivity. If I portray myself as the hero and someone who wronged me as a one-dimensional Hitler, the reader is not going to believe it, and the story won’t work. Even Hitler had a dog he loved. That’s the interesting part. Every character is rich with contradictions. Our job is to find those contradictions and flesh them out -- to portray each character as a whole human being. Fiction writers climb inside each character, listen to their voices. Every character comes to a scene with his or her own agenda. Even in memoir, we need to get behind the agenda of each character. Let’s say you’re writing about your mother (and honestly, who isn’t?). The message of the book can’t be “My agenda was to be happy but my mother’s agenda was to make me miserable.” From your perspective, that may be true, but certainly that was not your mother’s sole agenda in life. A powerful writing exercise is to try writing the scene from your mother’s point of view, in her voice, then rewrite the scene, from your perspective but with deeper honesty and a fuller understanding of each character.

 

Fear of Abandonment

Writing the truth is both terrifying and liberating – for you, and for the reader. The fact is that no matter how careful you are, you’re going to hit a nerve and upset some people, because, as Pema Chodron says, fear is a reaction to moving closer to the truth. Being a writer means telling the truth, facing the fear of abandonment, and writing through it. Initially, when first putting pen to page, write like an orphan. Forget your family. Dump it all out of your head, every single word, thought, and feeling. And then take some time away from the manuscript. When you return to reread and edit, keep only what is absolutely necessary to the arc of the story. Delete everything else. Find compassion for every character. Soften the edges of your anger. When you finally hit send on the manuscript, keep in mind that it’s called a book “release.” Release it. Your work now belongs to the world and the readers to judge, to love or to hate. For my own moments of panic, I have these words from author Steve Almond above my desk.



AGAPE, Deleted 1st chapter from Fire Season.

Posted by Hollye Dexter on May 21, 2016 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)


AGAPE

 

Agape, Spring 2007

a·ga·pe (ä-gäp, äg-p)

n.

1. Unconditional love.

 

 

I straighten my spine and take a deep breath as the lights dim in the Agape sanctuary, replaying my therapist’s words; feel your feet on the floor - know that you are grounded, feel yourself in the seat- know that you are supported. I focus on my breath, keeping it slow and even.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

The slideshow begins, bringing up the opening credits: Agape International’s Spirit Award Winner: Art and Soul Programs. It would be too easy to deflect this moment, to numb out to it. Instead, I use all my energy to keep my heart open to receiving the thunderous sound of the Agape congregation, clapping and cheering. Thousands of people.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

Over the slide show, a woman in voiceover describes my program with at-risk teens. “There are over 50,000 children living in foster care in Los Angeles. They are shuffled from place to place, assigned one social worker after the next, with no real outlet for their emotions. Art and Soul gives these children a place to shine, to express their creativity and to have a voice.”

Photos of our students flash on the screen; Earnest Adrian, who called the police on his father for repeatedly beating him; Heart-of-gold Jose, with the deep scars on his wrists; Uber-talented and bubbly Carmen, her mother in prison for murder, her father a pimp; Sweet and gentle-natured Alejandra, whose family abandoned her because she “sold them out” when she told a teacher her uncle was raping her. All of them -my kids now; smiling, laughing in the photos as they paint and sing and write. No small miracle. The voice continues, “Each of the teen students is paired up with a senior mentor, who becomes an adopted grandparent as well as a creative partner.”

I smile, a warmth washing over me, watching photos of the kids working with their mentors; Straight-laced Irv who learned how to rap; Kay- the resident senior hippie who loved drum circles; Bob in his motorized scooter grinning widely, his 80-year old girlfriend Flo at his side; Ian- open-hearted, smart and practical, solid as a rock for the kids even as his hands shook from Parkinsons. As their images appear one after the next, writing songs, painting canvases, performing, I feel a flutter in my solar plexus. I have assembled a family.

Some days I can still hardly believe this far-fetched dream of mine became a reality. I had always been so immersed in running things, I hadn’t had time to contemplate what it looked like from the outside. Now here I sit, the observer, watching my dream on film. Years before, it was no more than a crazy idea. I had no right to make it happen, really. I wasn’t a teacher or a social worker. I had no college degree. I took a risk when I wrote up a proposal, then pitched it to a nonprofit who ran group homes for teenagers. I figured if creativity had pulled me in from a ledge, then surely it could help these kids, and though I wasn’t credited with degrees, I was an expert in surviving the dark night of the soul. It was that journey that led me here.

I once heard that the Bahai faith calls creativity a form of prayer. They say that in creating, you are summoning your Creator. Maybe all those years ago when I had lost my faith, I was still praying through art and song and words strung together, and those prayers were answered in unexpected ways.

This was how it happened for me: Summer of 2003, I stood before a room full of resentful, hardened teenaged boys who were dragged to my studio against their will. They plopped down begrudgingly in my donated chairs. I decorated my newly donated space with art and music posters. The shelves were stacked with books, stiff new paintbrushes, stacks of unopened paints. All unused, untested. Like me. The apathetic group-home staffers gave me a nod, then left me alone with my new charges. This was my first class. The boys slumped in their chairs, arms crossed. I was a small, blonde Valley girl trying to look brave. They were angry boys whose parents had discarded them. Some were on probation, some in gangs, all staring me down. I started by suggesting we go around in a circle, introducing ourselves.

The alpha of the group broke the silence,“Who are you, lady? Just one more person in the system tryin’ to break us…” I took a deep breath and began the only way I knew how - by telling the truth. I shared my own story; my father in prison, my childhood, my life in flames. My fears, my failings, and why art had become so important to me. Through art, I found my way back to faith, but I wait to tell them this part. Their faces began to soften, becoming the faces of young boys again. One by one, they shared stories of their own lives with me. We unite first through truth. Story is where our journey begins.

Eventually, those boys, and hundreds more boys and girls, learned to trust me, and to rely on me for comfort and advice. They, like me, learned how to speak up, to trust their own voices. About six months later, my friend Joy showed up and said she’d help me, and she continued to show up for years. Together, we made this program what it is. Together, we would receive this award.

Our names echo over the sound system, summoning us to the stage. I feel myself rise as if by helium, floating above my body.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

I reach for Joy’s hand, squeezing it tight, breaking into nervous laughter as we walk toward the stage together. As singers, Joy and I had taken the stage many times before, wearing sequined gowns, singing at corporate parties. This is a very different stage. Lisa Nichols, the author and motivational speaker I had watched no less than a dozen times in the movie The Secret and on Oprah, is smiling at me- at me! - with her arms open. She steps forward to embrace me, “Congratulations, girl,” she whispers, wrapping her arms around me, “you earned this. Receive it.” She hugs extra tight for emphasis. Her hug feels unreal and yet very real. She’s a beacon of hope, a light in the world, the kind of person anyone would want to hug. She hands me a gold plaque, our names engraved in it. I hold it in my hands, the weight of it, the smooth surface. This feels real. Lisa steps up to the microphone and says, “Agape Spiritual Center and A Season For Nonviolence L.A. gratefully acknowledge Hollye Dexter and Joy Bonner today for the healing work they are doing with foster children in our community.”

The crowd rises to their feet giving us a standing ovation. My body reverberates with the thunderous sound of thousands of voices cheering - and at the same time I feel the reflex to push it away.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

The congregation of Agape sways and sings together. Lisa bellows, “Agape! Send these women your blessings, that they might continue to do this important work!” In unison, the congregation raises their hands in the air, thousands of palms facing toward us. I will forever hold that image in my head; light filling the room, the gospel choir humming and swaying in their colorful robes, a sea of hands, reaching out to me. Answer to the prayer I’d held silent in my heart for years, when I felt so alone, when I thought even God had abandoned me. The crisp, electric energy in the room moves through me. My husband Troy stands in the front row, smiling, my best friends Erin and Beth beside him. He mouths the words “So proud of you.”

Lisa reads the plaque, “For your generosity of heart and soul, brightness of mind and brilliance of spirit. For being a place of peace and for standing for the principles of nonviolence in our community, we thank you.” The crowd cheers again, overwhelming us with love and appreciation and then they break into song with the gospel choir. I laugh and cry simultaneously, my emotions too large to be contained.

Following the service, Joy and I stand outside at a booth Agape has set up for us. Congregation members wait in line to greet us. We answer questions, shake hands, accept hugs, receive their gratitude. A dozen people offer to volunteer for us, and little do we know they will show up faithfully, week after week, for a year to follow. Agape people take their charity work seriously.

As the morning winds down, a beautiful young woman in a wheelchair speeds toward us, stopping short at our table. Lithe and fair skinned, with shoulder length blonde hair, she is beautiful enough to be a model. Her eyes are misty, mascara smudged beneath them. It looks like she’s been crying. Her expression is urgent as she slams one hand down on the table, “I want to work with you,” she says with finality. And just like that, a contract between souls begins. Lyena, whose life-affirming one-woman show chronicles her journey from dancer to tragic accident to paraplegic, will soon become our writing instructor, forever changing the lives of the teen girls she works with. She will weave in and out of my life for years, inspiring me, changing me. Little do I know, Lyena holds a missing piece to my puzzle. Through her, an answer will come that will help me to sort out the shards of my shattered life, turning them into a beautiful and ordered mosaic.

The blessings received on this day are too many to count, and will carry me. Years before, when I was lost and beaten down, when I was homeless and bankrupt, when my faith was weak and my heart so far away from any concept of hope, I never could have imagined this moment. How far my life had come.

 

 

UNDER THE DESERT SKY (Deleted chapter from Fire Season)

Posted by Hollye Dexter on July 23, 2015 at 2:00 PM Comments comments (0)


One Summer afternoon, Troy’s Mom calls to ask if we might like a puppy. Troy’s sister Valerie lives on a remote desert ranch where she can avoid city people, instead surrounding herself with horses and dogs. A litter of pups had just been born on the Ranch, and Valerie needs to find them homes. Troy and I talk about it. Still grieving Lady and Whitney, it almost feels disrespectful to think of a new dog, although we know we’d not be replacing them. They could never be replaced. Still, with all the sadness and heartache we’re carrying these days, why not entertain the thought of new life in the house? Surely Lady and Whitney are wagging their tails in heaven at the thought of the children’s happiness.


A couple days later, we pile the kids in the car, and make the drive out to the desert. I lie on the floor, a little buzzed on Chardonnay, and a lot buzzed on puppies. I let them climb all over me, nip at my fingertips, nuzzle my ears. A puppy would bring healing and happiness for the kids. For us. Maybe now is the right time to bring a new family member home.


We choose the most calm and gentle pup, a little black lab mix with sparkling dark eyes. We name her Sky, like the huge inky desert sky under which she was born. We like the open possibility of that name. The first night we bring her home, she nestles in bed with me and sleeps against my body for warmth - her little puppy body twitching with puppy dreams. This is the first time in a year that I sleep through the night, peaceful and calm. This is the very last time I will experience her as calm.


Within days, Sky turns into the Tasmanian devil, her energy so intense you can’t even pet her. She’s all over us, attacking, scratching, biting. She can’t sit still for a millisecond. She has boundless nervous energy that we are unprepared to handle. We have to hold her on a leash inside the house if the kids want to pet her. We try to exhaust her by taking her on walks but it’s like trying to leash a tornado. Before long, Sky will completely destroy our beautiful English garden. To be fair, she has some help. At the same time we get Sky, an industrious gopher moves into our backyard. There are times Troy and I will be sitting in the Jacuzzi, and one of our lilies will start to tremble, then shake, and then whoosh- sucked underground in an instant. Sky tears after it. Her specialty as a black lab is digging. Troy wages a Caddyshack-like war on the gopher. He tries everything: putting a high-pressure hose in the gopher holes, exhaust from the car tailpipe. My gentle, peace-loving husband even goes after him with a shovel.


One morning I was sitting outside writing, and the little guy poked his head up. He and I stared at each other for the longest time. His beady black eyes glittered, his long lethal front teeth reminding me of the damage he had already done and was yet to do. But he was so darn cute, just peacefully staring at me.

I pleaded with him, “ I don’t want to hurt you. Please just go away. Please.”

He blinked, his little pink nose trembling. Alas, he did not honor my request.

Eventually the war between he and Sky runs it’s course, and the entire yard and lawn is nothing but patches of dead grass and dirt. Losing our beautiful place of rest and calm breaks my heart, but if anything, I’ve learned not to stress over things like that. We’re old pros at losing material things. A lawn and landscape? Eh. Peace in our home, however, is something I can’t lose.


Contrary to our best-laid plans, Sky does not bring peace and healing to our home. Instead she brings stress and chaos. I don’t know if it’s possible for a dog to have ADHD, but if it is, we’ve gotten her. There are many times I contemplate whether I have the strength to endure her. She chews the corners of our custom cabinets, the legs on our donated antique furniture. The time I nearly give up- I find her eating the few baby pictures I had left of Cristen and Taylor. I skirt the edge of a nervous breakdown that day.


I don’t have what it takes to raise a special-needs dog, especially at this time in my life. Whitney and Lady were so calm, so easy. I guess I expected the same from Sky. What was I thinking? I will forever more say to friends that I’d have three more children via natural childbirth before I’d ever bring a puppy into my home again. But we stick by her. She’s ours. We’re a wobbly, struggling family, and we’ll do the best we can.


When finally we train Sky to sit so we can pet her, her whole body trembles. It takes all her willpower to simply sit. She bares her teeth to imitate our smiles, her tail nervously thumping the ground. She is such a good dog at heart. I know she can’t help it that she was born with so much voltage- it’s just her nature. So we take her camping and teach her to fetch, and swim, and catch a Frisbee mid-air. We do everything we can to fully exhaust her before bringing her in for the night.


If everything happens for a reason, maybe Sky is here to pull us out of ourselves. She doesn’t make us happy, exactly, but she also doesn’t allow us much time to be introspective and wallow in our misery, and for that, I suppose, I am grateful – maybe not in the moment – but one day I will be. In every life, you have that one pet who will impact you, imprint on you forever. The irony is that Sky, the Tasmanian Devil-Dog, will turn out to be that one.


 

How to Survive BETRAYAL

Posted by Hollye Dexter on December 8, 2014 at 9:45 PM Comments comments (0)


When I got fired from my job in June, it pretty much knocked me flat. Not only had this been a job, it had been a calling. Add to that the betrayal by people I'd thought were my friends.

My true friends rushed in to lift me, like emotional EMTs.

Amy said, “You haven’t lost anything. I know you will find the medicine in this poison.”

Dani said, "You’ll get through this, and I will help you.”

Erin said, “Fuck them. I’ll be right over with wine and take-out,” which at the time were my favorite words.

My facebook inbox lit up like a Christmas tree as my friends across the country got wind of the news. They said, “We love you. We’ve got your back. Nothing can erase all the good work you did.”

A few days later I talked with my friend Julie, and she said, “They haven’t knocked you down. They have elevated you.”

“Elevated me? How?”

“Because I know you. You will find the good in it. You’ll write about it, and you’ll share your story with others. In the end you will be stronger because of it. You will rise above this, and that’s how they have elevated you.”

Of course, I hadn’t thought of it like that.

Author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson says that when someone deflects a miracle from you, when they block goodness that is meant for you, the Universe will hold the miracle in trust, and will find another way to make sure you receive it. It may come from another person or a different job, or another door will open that you never knew existed.

In other words, when someone tries to knock you down, you should really thank them for teaching you courage and strength, and also for teaching you who you don’t want to be, because in the meantime, all the good things that are your due are still on their way.

No one can really ever take anything from you. It’s up to each of us to lay down in defeat, or to elevate.

I choose to elevate.


How to Survive BEING FIRED

Posted by Hollye Dexter on December 8, 2014 at 9:40 PM Comments comments (0)

 


Author Wayne Dyer recently told a story about doing an interview at a radio station where a huge layoff had just taken place. As he walked down the halls, he saw employees packing up their offices. “Congratulations!” he called out. One of the employees responded, “You don’t understand. We just lost our jobs.” But Wayne said that he did understand, and from his view, the Universe was pushing each of them into a new direction that they might not have had the courage to pursue. Face it, he said, you’ve all known for a long time you wanted to leave this job. The Universe just gave you a shove.

I was mortified when I was fired this summer. I am the proverbial overachiever. Employee of the year, yada yada yada. Never in a million years did I imagine myself being fired. But I was - and from an organization I had completely devoted my life to. I was knocked flat for weeks. But here I am months later saying hallelujah, because it was truly the best thing that ever happened to me. I am now in a job where I am appreciated, trusted, and given the space to flourish and do what I do best.

If you have been fired, as counterintuitive as it may seem, try saying THANK YOU. More than likely, you’ve been stuck in the equivalent of an abusive relationship. You stayed because of financial security. You stayed because you thought you could somehow make it better. You stayed because you were determined to win them over. (Ever see the movie The Devil Wears Prada?) You stayed for a myriad of reasons, but not one of those reasons was that this was your dream job.

Yes, you may be in a really tough predicament right now. It might even look hopeless. Yes, it’s going to be messy and uncomfortable for a while, but you’re going to make it. You know why? Because you always have. You find a way to survive and thrive. You have before and you will again.

And I promise you, if you keep yourself in a positive frame of mind, you will eventually end up in a better position.

Just to lift your spirits, here is an article about very successful people who got fired. You’ll be surprised…and inspired.

 


How to Survive ANXIETY

Posted by Hollye Dexter on December 8, 2014 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)


Aside from the general challenges and fears we all live with in our personal lives, it seems the world is in a state of chaos. People are protesting and rioting in the streets. The political pundits are screaming and yelling. Everyone is throwing the blame, but no one knows what to do. Forget red states and blue states, a state of fear is the worst state to live in. Decisions made from a place of fear are always the wrong ones. So let’s pull ourselves together, shall we?


First, let me assure you of this fact: All will be well.


How do I know? I consider myself a connoisseur of disaster. I’ve been trapped in a burning house, bankrupted, abandoned by my family, betrayed, destitute, mugged, sued, threatened with violence, homeless. (And don’t even get me started on my childhood!) But guess what? I’m happy.



I’ve had a lot of therapy over the years to get me through the panic attacks that used to plague me, and these are the tools I’ve learned for navigating disaster.



ACCEPT WHAT IS:

This world has existed for billions of years. All kinds of catastrophes have occurred and yet – the world still turns. The talking heads called JFK a socialist and communist and said he was destroying America, and guess what? We're still here. Yes, life will change and evolve. Everything is impermanent - the bad phases, and even the good. The more we try to clutch onto something to keep it the way it was, the more pain we cause ourselves. Accepting life as it is will bring you peace.



FIND YOUR FLOW:

Think of it this way: Life is a river, ever flowing, ever changing, a force all its own. You never step into the same river twice, and so it is with life. We can’t control the river, but we can learn how to navigate it. We can be dragged through it kicking and screaming, or follow the flow. Whatever is happening to cause you stress, remember: the tide will rise and fall, the sun will continue to rise every day, new life will spring up from devastation- that is the way of the world. Find your flow, and when it changes, find it again.



STAY IN THE PRESENT:

Wayne Dyer said that if we stay in the present, 99% of the time, there is no problem. I mean, unless you are in this moment hanging from a cliff by your fingernails, which is unlikely. Most of our problems are in our heads, where we either lament about the past, or worry about what may possibly happen in the future. The majority of the time the things we worry about never come to pass. If we could stay in the right here, right now, we’d realize we are okay. Ask yourself this, right now at this very moment, are you in danger? If not, feel free to relax, and enjoy your day.



FOCUS ON THE GOOD:

The world is a place full of beauty and art and music and nature and heart-stopping wonder, and it’s all available to you. So how bad could it be? Step out of fear, and make a list of the good things in your life. If you can’t see the good, spend a day volunteering on Skid Row, serving the homeless. That’ll put things in perspective. Or try playing this game: If I were alone on a desert island, what are all the things I would miss? Write it down. You’ll realize just how much you have to be thankful for.



DO WHAT BRINGS YOU JOY:

No matter what is happening in the stock market, in politics, at your job, don’t let it rob you of JOY. Find what brings you happiness, even the little things, and do that. If you can afford a spa day, go for it, but joy doesn’t cost money. Take a bubble bath with candles, take a long walk in a beautiful place, sit under a tree and read an inspiring book, buy yourself a 64-pack of brand new Crayolas- lay on the floor and color, play your all-time favorite album, go to the beach. Even little things can bring great joy.



GET OUT OF DODGE:

If you can possibly afford it, get out of town for a few days. Albert Einstein said, “You can not solve a problem with the same mind that created it.” I know personally that I need to get out of my every day routine and environment to look at things differently. If I can’t get away, even a day of walking on the beach can bring that perspective.

And finally, if you still can’t get out of your place of fear, try this…



WHAT’S THE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN?

After our house burned down, I had anxiety attacks. My therapist used to play this game with me:

He’d say, “Okay, what’s the worst that could happen?”

“I will lose everything, be penniless and homeless and have no credit.” (All of which did eventually happen, by the way)

“And then what?” he’d say.

“I guess I’ll…have to find a good job, and find a place to live.”

“And then what?”

“Well, I guess little by little…I’ll pay off my debt.”

“And then what?”

“I guess I’ll be okay.”

( I was, and I am.)

Play this game with a friend, with every possible worst-case scenario, and keep going until you’ve sorted it all out. The reality is never as bad as you make it out in your head.

Look at the people of Japan. After the tsunami and earthquake, they were out there in the trenches with shovels, starting at square one, rebuilding their lives. The world is resilient, and so are we. Leave fear behind. Embrace your life.

And finally, I’ll leave you with this quote:

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

-author unknown

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone. As for me- I'm getting out of Dodge!



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