Claim Your Space

After my divorce, and before my second marriage, I was dating. For years, I was dating. I was in my thirties and in Chapel Hill, and I was dating. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I was going out with men, falling—sometimes more, sometimes less—and enduring breakups, and some of these were easier to bear than others.

I forged one of these relationships long-distance. I met him contra dancing. Because he lived four hours from me, I banked on this fact to assure myself that whatever breakup we might one day face would be made easier because of the great chunk of North Carolina interstate between us. I fell hard for him—his deep laugh, his tenderness, his smooth, olive skin—so much so that after the last time he left my house—just after a beach trip, at the start of which I knew the end was looming but I didn’t want to let him go—I cried for weeks. Weeks that felt like months. And even though we had broken up because he had hoped to change me and I wasn’t changing (or perhaps we had hoped to change each other), none of that meant we didn’t still care deeply for each other, or at least that I didn’t still care deeply for him.

Six months passed, and I was still smarting from the breakup. In the contra dance community where I lived, there was a sweep of dance weekends that many dancers went to, and whether or not you went to those weekends, you knew exactly when they were: Gypsy Meltdown (March), Spring Dance Romance (April), Lake Eden Arts Festival (May), and Summer Soirée (June). And if you were a rabid dancer, as I was, then you marked the dates faithfully on your calendar and you did not miss a single one. But that year, for me, was different. 

The former boyfriend lived in one of these dance weekend locations. In fact, we had gone to this weekend together the last time it had been held. My foot had been injured then—I could walk but not dance—so he had given up dancing, too, and had spent the weekend strolling with me to all the artist booths and listening to music, and at some point during that Saturday evening we had lain on the grassy ground in the middle of the hustle and bustle and thrown a blanket over our entire bodies, including over our heads, and pretended we were invisible to the world. We had giggled as if we were both five years old. 

That blanket, that evening, those giggles were what were going through my head when Dean Snipes asked if I was going to attend that particular dance weekend again, which was coming right up.

I knew Dean because we were both regular dancers at the Vintage, a weekly Tuesday night dance in Winston-Salem, suited for rabid dancers like me and Dean: I drove an hour and a half from Chapel Hill just to dance there for two hours, and Dean drove an hour and a half from Charlotte. In fact it was during a break at the Vintage that Dean had asked whether I was attending the upcoming dance weekend. The expectation was that I would.

Dean was not just a fabulous dancer but a great caller, too. He had a wonderful Southern drawl and a voice that could boom across the heads of dancers and make you look up. It’s the exact kind of voice needed to correct a wayward dancer going in the wrong direction.

To his question about whether I was attending the dance weekend, I must have said, “I can’t,” and then explained that my former boyfriend lived there and would probably attend.

Dean didn’t bat an eye. He looked right at me. And with his booming voice, he said, “Claim your space!” 

I did then what beginning dancers do: I fumbled. I tried to keep moving in the direction I was aiming for, and I mostly did until I figured out how to make the correction, how to execute the right move. In other words, I showed up at that dance weekend. Not for the entire thing, just for all of Saturday, and I made a friend go along with me and stick by my side the whole time. What I did not know then, but what I understood later, was that I was only beginning to learn how to claim my space, and that it would become harder but necessary if I wanted to forge ahead. And I wanted to. I was determined to.

A year or two later, when a different contra dancing man and I broke up just before that exact same dance weekend, I packed up my car solo, and I drove the four hours to it alone. I set up my tent. I slept curled in my sleeping bag in the cold. I danced. I won’t say that it wasn’t at least part-misery—the ex attended, too, and he started dating someone else that weekend. I saw them everywhere I went. I didn’t want him back; I just wanted my weekend world without him in it. But since I could not have that, I chose what I could. 

On the last morning of that weekend, there was going to be an hour or two of waltzing to live music in the biggest dance hall. I got there early, while the band was warming up, and I put on my dance shoes. My ex showed up early, too. But so did one of the best waltzers—tall, handsome, muscular. He took me by the hand and twirled me, and we had the huge wooden floor to ourselves. We danced for several songs while the band practiced some of my favorite, crescendoing tunes. While we could, he and I claimed every single inch of space, and the music, the light, the wideness of the hall made me forget, in those moments, the sadness, the disappointment, the very difficulty of it all.

You can read more about my lessons in love and dancing in my newly released memoir, The Going and Goodbye. 

Writing Notes to Friends and Strangers

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About a month ago, while back in my hometown, I met with Vick Mickunas, who was going to interview me on his program, the Book Nook. We were sitting across from each other at a table, and at some point in the conversation, after we had talked about my book for a few minutes (he had already read it), he slid his copy of my book to me and said he wanted me to sign it.

Sign it? Now? Right now? This very minute? I had never signed a book before. I became so flustered I told him I needed to take the book overnight and get it back to him. He agreed, not questioning why in the world I needed to do so.

I went back to my parents’ house and had a conversation with them: What did people write in books? We talked for a bit and then I formulated what I wanted to say to Vick. I wrote it out on a piece of paper first, and then opened his copy of my memoir and proceeded to carefully transcribe my words.

I was doing fine. Then I left out a word. Dangit. I closed that copy and retrieved another one from the next room and started over. I made it through, but it was not an auspicious start.

(July 1, 2017) Shuly Cawood and Denise Jacobs talk (and laugh) onstage at the Little Art Theatre about their journey to becoming writers.

(July 1, 2017) Shuly Cawood and Denise Jacobs talk (and laugh) onstage at the Little Art Theatre about their journey to becoming writers.

A couple of weeks went by, and as my first book event approached, I realized I would be signing books and I had no idea what to do. I called up Emily Fine, a voracious reader (she is one of the cougars of the Book Cougars podcast) and asked, “What do authors write?” She pulled books from her shelf and read aloud samples of what other authors had written to her. 

I also turned to my Binders Full of (Women) Memoirists Facebook group and wrote: “Advice please! I'm about to do my first ever book signing this weekend. For those of you who have done these before, what in the world do you write to strangers (or people you know!) in their books?” Two authors wrote back right away, both offering up suggestions (thank you, Natalie and Kerry). One of them suggested that for strangers I have some catch phrases prepared. Of course at first my mind could think of nothing but silly clichés: “Love is the answer!” and “Love conquers all!” Eventually I thought of a few phrases and wrote them down.

Then the event was upon me—the onstage and talk part went great. Denise Jacobs, an author with whom I went to high school, had a new book out, too, and it was our high school reunion weekend, so we put together a co-author event at the Little Art Theatre (a place where I spent many hours in junior high and high school hoping some boy I liked would hold my hand) and had an onstage conversation about our journey through the decades to becoming writers.

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Afterward, the book signing. Eek! All my prepared catch phrases jumped out of my head and flew out the window. Denise was a pro, but I sat next to her taking books from people and ever so slowly trying to think of what to say. It does not help that my handwriting is atrocious, and it does not help that I had picked a pen that I thought would be perfect but ended up being crappy and fading in and out. Lesson learned.

I mostly did okay, though, personalizing what I wrote (assuming people can actually read what I wrote), but I had a couple of missteps, and one time I wrote “Thanky” instead of “thank you” and when I tried to correct it, it just made it worse. I offered to give them a new book, but they waved that idea away (thank you, Martin and Christin!). 

In the end, I loved seeing people I knew coming up to me at my table, and I loved writing things in their books that were things I had felt but never had the chance to say. In other words, in the end, I had a ball. Not sure if my readers did. They might still be squinting at my book, trying to figure out what in the world it was that I wrote.

(Photo credits: Melissa Fast, Erika Simon, Jude Walsh Whelley)

Not Just a Friend's Older Brother Anymore

Years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I was dating a man named John, and we drove to visit my college friend Jen for the day at her parents’ house in Cincinnati. Jen had an older brother I had known over the years but not spent any significant amount of time with. This brother, Danny, was into sports, which I was not. (I remember on the day of our college graduation, Danny had arrived at the rental house where Jen and I lived, and the first thing he did when he walked into our place was stalk into the room with the lone, crappy TV and flip it on to catch some important game he absolutely could not miss.) In general, especially back then, Danny didn’t spend a lot of time—if any—on his kid sister’s friends. And who can blame him? When we visited her, at most we got a hi, how’s it goin' before he would disappear into his bedroom off the garage. 

At any rate, on this particular day that I went to visit Jen at her parents’ house with the man I was seeing, I rang Jen’s doorbell and was surprised when Danny answered the door. The fact that Danny was there was not what surprised me (he visited now and again) but that Danny had, apparently, been on some health kick and had, apparently, spent some time in the sun because he looked slender and tan and, well, not just like any other older brother anymore. 

I have a bad feeling I stood there with my mouth hanging open. 

“Hi,” I managed to muster, though words were becoming difficult. My polite, midwestern sensibilities got the better of me, however, and I realized I was being rude by not introducing Danny to the man I was dating. So I said, “Danny, this is. . . . ” 

Um…… I couldn't think. Danny’s tan was making me sweat.

I tried again. “This is, um. . . .”

The man I was seeing looked at me, not exactly lovingly, and said, “John?!”

It was not my finest relationship moment or my finest trying-to-look-composed moment.

I was reminded of this incident last night when I listened to my radio interview on the Book Nook with Vick Mickunas. There was a moment when I was talking about the structure of my book, but I couldn’t think of the word “structure” and stammered a bit to try and retrieve it from memory, and I remember Vick was standing away from his mic and had to step toward it and lean into the mic and say, “Structure??” to help me out of my loss for words. 

It was better than his having to say, “John?!” But I’m sure my face turned red just the same.

The incident is funny now—the Danny one, and the interview one. 

I’m sure it wasn’t so funny to John, however—and if he is reading this, which I am fairly certain he is not, then: I’m sorry. Does it help that I remember your name now?