I was introduced to Hollye Dexter through her work on Dancing at the Shame Prom (my review: http://blogcritics.org/book-review-dancing-at-the-shame1/). I gathered the courage to start sharing my writings, and pursuing my own kind of healing, from that collection, and as a fellow editor I could appreciate how much Hollye and her co-editor, Amy Ferris, put into bringing us Dancing at the Shame Prom.
When I met with her (via email), I was not surprised to discover that she has a huge heart, and a passion for empowering others and standing up for those who can’t always stand up for themselves. Some people have a way of expressing experiences so that others feel they are not alone, and they can get a new perspective, a chance to catch their breath, on something that previously felt suffocating and inescapable. It is an honor to converse with her, and to introduce her to others who may not yet know about her and her work.
Interviewer: Joanna Celeste
Q: In your upcoming memoir, Like Wind to Wildfire, you share with us your journey through the darkness of self-doubt, anger, grief and loss at acute levels, to discovering the gift within your tragedy. What would you consider was/is most surprising aspect of your journey?
A: The fire was only the beginning of loss for us. For several years following, in an unbelievable series of disasters, our lives continued to be stripped from us layer by layer. I think what surprised me most was that I could find moments of true happiness while my life was falling apart. That I could play with my kids, laugh, sing, take long walks and even have a wonderful Christmas when we were financially destitute and alone.
Q: That’s a lovely example of the true strength of the human spirit. You mentioned in an interview with Huffington Post Live (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/30/value-of-suffering_n_4018582.html?mental-health) that you felt you had been trapped in your own grief—how were you able to gain the distance you needed to see the cycle and break free of it?
A: For a long time I couldn’t get over the injustice of what had happened to us. The constant thoughts in my head were: I was a good person, I didn’t deserve this, why is God punishing me? This is unfair. It turned around when I accepted the fact that, yes, it was unfair, and yes, it did happen. So now what? I broke free of it by getting to that place of acceptance, then physically forcing myself to do positive things, even when I didn’t want to, even when I didn’t believe it would help. I went to the library and checked out yoga videos and books on healing the spirit. I wrote a lot, which helps me to process. I literally pushed through it.
Q: Wow, and we’re glad that you did so you could share your story with us now. I loved how you talked about the art of discovering how to be happy when you had nothing. How has this philosophy shaped the way your life?
A: Being in such a broken down place while having two young kids forced me to be resourceful. The utilities are cut off? Let’s camp in the yard and roast marshmallows. No food in the refrigerator? I made pancakes and said, “Hey kids, it’s ‘crazy-mixed-up-backwards-day.’” My kids loved that. I did those things because I had to – for them. But now I know that it’s possible, and it is the way I live. Even when we are in the thick of hellish problems, we will get outside and take a hike, go to the beach, sit outside and look at the stars. We watch comedies a lot when we’re stressed. Worry and fear are our worst enemies, and do nothing to alleviate a problem. It’s our choice to be happy, regardless of our circumstances. And now that we’ve already survived fire, bankruptcy and homelessness, we don’t sweat the smaller stuff. We know we’ll get through it.
Q: That’s a particularly fitting perspective to adopt during these tumultuous times. What is your process for writing memoir, particularly when you have to face things that are sometimes hard to re-experience or reveal?
A: My first memoir, Only Good Things, is the memoir of my childhood. It took me over eight years to write. It’s pretty explosive in terms of family skeletons and I will most likely never publish it, but publishing was never my objective with that one. Claiming my life, and embracing all of my truth, was the point. It was just something I needed to do. I was in a weekly writing group for several years while writing that book. Every week I’d read a chapter, and receive feedback from my peers It was invaluable. I learned so much from the other writers in the group as well. I am a big fan of writing groups.
With both memoirs, I sort of likened the writing process to vomiting. You just get it all out, and it’s ugly, and it doesn’t feel great, but after, you feel lighter and freer. While writing Wind to Wildfire, my son was only in school for a few hours a day, so I sat my butt in the chair and wrote like my life depended on it. I did not answer the phone or the door. I didn’t wash a dish. If the cat puked I left it there until my writing time was up. I cried a lot. I had many, many revelations about myself and my patterns. And then my hours were up and I pulled myself back together as best I could and put on my mommy hat. It was intense, I’ll say that much. And I loved every minute of it.
As far as the revealing, author Debbie Ford said that keeping secrets is like trying to hold ten beach balls under water all your life. It’s exhausting. Letting it go was a hell of a lot easier than keeping those beach balls submerged, and freed up so much positive energy.
Q: That’s so true. On your blog, you share your passions for various activist programs, and the amazing things you have done to fight for the rights of others to be treated as they should (http://hollyedexter.blogspot.com/p/my-activism.html). What was the first moment that you knew, without a doubt, that you had to take a stand?
A: Oh lord. Well, I organized a strike against my sixth grade teacher for being unfair. Then I got kicked out of Girl Scouts for bucking the rules. So I guess I’ve got the personality for it — I never could abide a bully.
But then again, life has tapped me for activism. I didn’t seek it out. Regarding my work in gun reform; my brother was shot at seven years old, my best friend was shot eight years ago, my husband’s best friend, a police officer, was shot and killed this year. And then there was Newtown. How could I not take a stand on gun violence? Animal rights- I was sued and had to stand up in court to protect my dog. LGBT Equality- I have two gay brothers.
Q: That’s awesome, because even with so many having reasons why they should take a stand, few are in the position where they feel they can. October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. What are some of the things you are doing to raise awareness of this issue?
A: Years ago I worked with Nicole Brown Simpson’s sisters on a domestic violence campaign. My own mother was a victim, and I witnessed it, so the issue is important to me. Now in my position with Moms Demand Action, we are focusing our efforts in October in raising awareness of the extreme danger guns present in domestic violence situations. Nine women are shot and killed every week by their partners. We are working on legislators locally and federally. I recently met with Congressman Buck McKeon (a man who bought his wife a gun for Mother’s Day) asking for his vote on background checks. Background checks aren’t the end-all solution, but they will save a lot of lives.
Q: Thank you. You are also speaking at the Women’s Leadership Legacy Conference in November, as the co-editor of your powerful anthology Dancing at the Shame Prom. Why is it important to speak at that conference, about the subject of shame?
A: I think that women carry so much shame, and it makes us turn inward on ourselves, and outward against each other. Much of it is self-imposed, but so much is imposed by society; body image shame, aging shame, mommy-shame. It’s rampant, and we need to eradicate it. The first step in destroying any kind of toxin is to expose it to light. That’s why I air all my dirty laundry in my writing and in workshops. I hope to set an example, encouraging other women to embrace their imperfection, and accept themselves exactly as they are. The first step is getting rid of the shame—it’s much easier to let it out than to hold it down.
Q: Amen to that! On your website, you offer consulting and editing to fellow writers, and workshops on “Righting Your Life by Writing Your Life” and “Rediscovering Your Muse”. What do you wish to give your clients/attendees?
A: Freedom. Confidence. Joy. Self-acceptance.
Q: Thank you for sharing the songs you wrote on your website/blog, for your previous memoir Only Good Things. You have four albums out, and as the President of the Music Heals Foundation, how have you seen music heal, not only in your own life but in those you have helped to find their own expression in melody?
A: For almost a decade I taught music and art to teens in foster care and on probation. I ran a ten-week course. They came in angry, shut down and hurting, but within weeks of working on painting, songwriting, recording, I watched them blossom and become lighter. They smiled more. They built trust and friendships. They became more hopeful. It was the most rewarding work I have ever done.
Q: I hope you continue to have more of those kinds of workshops in the future. It’s lovely that you can sing with your husband and kids. Along with your family (and creativity), what are some of the things that have strengthened you and made everything else worth it?
A: Faith. Hope. Nature. Beauty. Music. And my God I never would have survived without books— they are my lifeline.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
A: I would like to thank you, Joanna, for your kindness and continued support for both this book and Dancing at the Shame Prom. And I wish you the very best and brightest future with your writing.