If you are a regular member of my super exclusive club, (uh, social media friend) you might have noticed that over the last year or so I’ve done a series of photos of me wearing fancy dresses in unlikely locations. Or maybe, like the shot above, I’m just being silly in a pretty place.
It started out because I was bored and frustrated during covid and I just wanted to make people laugh and feel better, and I needed something to do. I love taking shots of nature almost as much as just being out in it, but sometimes you need a body for perspective and reference. So, like the grinch when he needed reindeer, I looked around. But since models are scarce, there were none to be found. (I didn’t find any willing reindeer either. Elk, yes. Reindeer, no.) Since I saw only me, I got nominated. After being offered the job and waffling a bit, I reluctantly agreed to pose for myself. Congratulations me!!
Okay fine. There were a grand total of zero other applicants. Sure, I would love to have my gorgeous ex-model friends here to jump in and play, but they don’t live on this side of the country and I’m not sure slogging around mudflats in rubber boots wearing Versace, or running through the snow in a backless evening gown is something they care to do anymore, but they did it once!
Because modeling is uncomfortable, to say the least. I have stood in water up to my thighs for a bikini ad in January when they had to break the ice off the top of the pool to get the shot. I have stood in the middle of an Astro-turf covered stadium wearing a heavy fur in 107 degree heat and 100 percent humidity for a winter coat ad in mid-July. I’ve been dangled from balconies, buried in fruit, and had ten-foot boa constrictors draped around my mostly naked body. I’ve had perfume squirted directly in my eyes, been posed on a metal train car that could have sauteed a lovely omlette du fromage, poked, stuck with pins, been bruised by clamps used to tighten an ill-fitting suit, and asked to lie down in Fifth Avenue traffic.
And my gorgeous daughters won’t model for me either, even when they are here, because, a. all of the above, and b. my shots are too ‘dramatic.’
So I’m it. And while plunging through icy streams or balancing precariously to get a silly shot might be its own kind of fun, it isn’t about me looking fabulous anymore. It’s about a fun shot.
I can’t be bothered with any but the most minimal makeup, if any, and I haven’t ‘done my hair’ for years for a variety of reason. First, I’m fine looking how I do now, and second, it’s just too much trouble. Stop laughing! Fair enough. I’m lazy.
The great thing is, I get to shoot what I want to. I’ve worked with literally hundreds of photographers and directors and directors of photography over the years and I can honestly say that only about 2% of them have any idea what they are doing. While I was known for being an asset on a set because I was a ‘thinking’ model or actress, there was only so much I could do without taking over and directors and editors tend to be sensitive about that, I don’t know why. So now, with an I phone, a cheap tripod, and a remote shutter, I can give it a go. What I would love to do is find a bunch of women, all over fifty, and take them out and do a series of these ‘plein air’ shots. They will have to be good sports, but it would be a tribute to what we really want. Not to look like Christy Brinkley at the height of her career, but like the gorgeously-aging goddesses that we are, captured in the wild, nesting in our native habitat. Or maybe we’ll just be an unrecognizable speck of color on a stormy gray beach in the misty distance, anonymous and elusive, but at least we’ll have had a day at the beach!
But since I live in a fairly remote place, though one of great beauty, my victims, uh…subjects, are somewhat limited. I fantasize about taking a road trip and doing this with so many remarkable women I know, both personally and on line. Little snapshots of their glorious personalities draped in the finest thrift store fashion available. Or the latest fashion, or wrapped in lace, but like the photographer who once proclaimed he did not shoot Sears, I will raise my snobby nose at yoga pants!
For now though, I’ll just keep trapsing out into the underbrush, or mountain ledge, or rocky shore, with my satin skirt hiked up above my knees to avoid the blackberry thorns and shoot blind. Kind of the opposite of going into a blind to shoot, ha!
I find myself stuck in a kind of limbo, and I know I’m not alone. I want to write, to be creative, to offer love and support to others in greater need than myself during these tough times, but it seems there is little I can do to escape the sodden feeling of helplessness, the ‘what’s the use?” worm in my brain, the anxiety of watching my country torn apart, the constant worry for friends and family in danger.
Like a compulsive shopper, I’ve been inundated with deliveries, yet only a few of them were signed for by me. Some of them were dumped on my doorstep as surely as a stained couch on the side of the road, but some of them I must admit I sort of rooted around in a dumpster to find, I didn’t ask for the garbage to be there, but let’s be honest, I’ve pulled some crap out of there that I do not need.
So I see no alternative. I’m returning these items I didn’t order. Check any box you like on ‘reason for return’; delivered to wrong address, doesn’t fit, item not as advertised, quality not as expected, pick any one you like, they all work.
Because while we can’t fix any of these major things on our own, namely-worldwide health problems, or global warming, or a crooked con-man getting elected and abusing our government in a sad quest for power at any human cost, we can work hard to lighten the load a bit for ourselves and others. I didn’t order any of those evil things, and while it can be argued that many people did, I don’t have to keep the negativity they heaped on the rest of us because of their ignorance and fear.
Still, it’s depressing. So I’m sending it back. Call UPS, drop it off at the post office, send those FB idiots on their way, it’s a struggle, no lie, but I’m about at the stage where if I don’t deliberately dig out of this hole of depression and helplessness, I’ll be buried alive.
That’s why I go out and take these silly pictures of myself. Wish I had a whole bunch of models, but I only have me, so I bought a cheap tripod that I can carry around hiking, a remote shutter, and threw some thrift store prom dresses in a back pack and headed out into nature with my cell phone. I have to do something, anything, to keep my spirits up, and if it makes other people happy to see me being ridiculous, (and having fun), that’s just bonus points!!
I’m returning the moping at home days, don’t need ‘em. I’m shelving the excuses for drinking too much every evening and replacing it with finding something positive to focus on. I’m rewrapping the lonely despair in its original packaging and stamping, ‘RETURN TO SENDER’ in big red letters on the outside. I’m sending the laconic lack of writing inspiration on a one way return and demanding the manufacturer replace it with what I ordered, some old-fashioned sit-your-ass-down hard work.
Because of course, except for the uncontrollable, I am the manufacturer. I created all these responses, maybe I didn’t order the cause of them, I didn’t ask to be stuck away from my family and incapable of so much as donating blood to help others, but instead of being frustrated that I can’t do more, I can try harder to do less for as many people as possible. It might be a letter, a silly note of hope and a free book. It might be a phone call to tell a joke in person, or a pie dropped off on a front porch, truth is, I don’t know all the things I can do yet because I haven’t used my brain to work on that. And that’s my fault. I was blessed with energy and some intelligence, and who’s wasting that? Me. I am.
I’ve been waiting, I guess. Now it’s time to wake up and start refusing those daily missives from myself that say, “Mope, hang out, there’s nothing you can do, this is a horrible day, month, year.” I had a stern talk with myself then offered some loving advice. I’m including here so you can use the same pep talk for yourself, and it went something like this: “Buck up shithead!! Get over yourself and be of use to someone else!!”
So I won’t talk about the death and the illness and the hungry and the financially fucked. I will step in and do what I can to make each of those things a little lighter, a little less long, and hopefully a little less scary. I know that I’ve been afraid, I think maybe we all have.
But life, such as it is right now, goes on, and I’ve decided it’s time to get back to it. Not by rushing around spreading germs and anger, but by doing what I can from where I am. And surprisingly, it’s been quite a lot.
And that makes me feel better. It leaves me with a flicker of hope that this shade won’t last forever, that most humans care more than they don’t. That the ones who promote cruelty can be drowned out by those of us raising our voices in song and encouragement, that we, in the amazing words of Amanda Gorman, can be the light.
Cast your own shadow by shining in the darkness. It ain’t easy, but it’s our choice.
Pack up all that misdirected bullshit and send it away.
One thing I do not miss about raising my daughters is the homework. Relearning math in a whole new, convoluted way, dealing with tears and bad internet, early mornings at the Coco’s so they could submit their work, the constant nagging to get it done. Though they have very different learning styles, both of them worked hard, got the job done, and were accepted into the college of their choice.
I still keep a few of their assignments. Because they attended Waldorf schools, there is a myriad of gorgeous art, hand written and illustrated histories of the world or cultures. One day I grabbed for a piece of paper to write a note on, and realized it was my younger daughter’s portrait of her sister for a report on her family. I was horrified that I almost defaced it. So I wrote on a box of cereal instead. Their efforts are precious to me, but they belong to them. It’s their work, their life, their efforts. Sure, I take pride in my girls, but they are both strong individuals, who were allowed to decide who they wanted to become, it wasn’t my job to make them be anything, it was my job to make sure they had a vast array of choices and information.
So I chose schools with diversity, art, and no religious affiliation. When one turned out to favor the rich and famous, (the kids were deciding on friends based on the square footage of their homes) I moved them. Though I’m an atheist, I made sure they had experiences in mosques, churches, nature, and temples, not difficult since both of them had best friends from varied religious backgrounds. They chose nature, enjoyed the Jewish celebrations, were fascinated by mosque, and the only comment they ever made on a christian church was after attending a particularly exteme one with two of their best friend/neighbors. We were driving in the car and I asked them what they thought of it. There was a quiet until the older one said, “Mama, it’s brainwashing!” Frankly, I was impressed she got it in one.
Nothing against honest grace, and I personally know many religious people who have dedicated their lives to helping other, all others, they do not exclude based on differences of race, sexuality, or faith, that is true grace. I salute everyone who lives with love and kindness in their hearts, but I do not believe for one second that attaching oneself exclusively to a particular ‘religion’ makes you one iota more worthy. That speaks to me of exclusivity, separation, presumed superiority. After all, if your belief is the ‘true’ one, then you are calling all other faiths a lie. Not a very nice way to build bridges.
The religion I taught my daughters is kindness and courage. Always err on the side of compassion, stand up against injustice, see through the trimmings and look down at the heart of the message. Do you need a church to participate in charity? No. Do you need a man to tell you what ‘god’ meant? No, that’s absurd. If you try to be patient and helpful, if you don’t tell lies and don’t do what you hate, the world will be an increasingly better place.
It’s brutal not to be with my magnificent daughters for the holidays. We had planned to spend it together in Venice, but that was cancelled, of course. Then we had plans to gather at my bestie’s house in LA, but I cannot be ‘that person’ who thinks this virus won’t happen to them and might hurt others, so hubby and I will spend the season at home with our cats, who are super excited about it I’m sure. So off I went to the post office with packages to try to alleviate my sadness at cancelling our trip to be with them, just to laugh and make cookies and watch the sea hurl itself at the shore with unfaltering persistence and cheer, when I spotted a tall, handsome person standing over some folded sheets of paper on the wet asphalt of the parking space next to the one I was taking. My first thought was wounded animal they might be trying to pick up or help?
But you don’t want to assume or intrude so I merely asked, “What’s the fascination?” as I got out of the car.
After an enigmatic glance at me, their regal, calm face turned its lofty focus back to the papers at their feet, “I’m just burning some racist shit someone put on the bulletin board.”
My reply leapt out of my mouth so fast I might have come off as overly eager. “Can I help?” I blurted.
They said, “Sure, if you’ve got a lighter.”
I did, so I dug it out of the glove box and the two of us went to work trying to get the moist paper to light. Like all racism and phobias, it smoked and resisted, hunkered down trying to deny change, even the most fundamental kind.
I didn’t try to read what was on it, though I caught a few of the expected words, Trump, conspiracy, (the latter spelled semi-phonetically) what surprised me was not that hatred and fear would rear their ugly heads at my local post office like Medusa at a tent meeting of snake handlers, after all our country has been fed a steady diet of lies delivered with con man, holy roller perfection for the last four years, that I sadly understand. What surprised me was what the note was written on. The ignorance was scrawled–misspelled, the letters retraced over and over again with a blue pen to make them bolder, which somehow only served to drive home the frantic confusion of the author, and make them that much more pathetic–across the back of child’s homework.
A few years ago printing a racist rant on the back of a second grader’s honest school efforts would have been a strange thing for me to reconcile, but it’s become so obvious that a large part of the darkness in which we find ourselves immersed is being systematically brainwashed into a new generation, and I wonder how these new humans will survive it. How do you make a better world when you insist on repeating the same hateful rhetoric? Repeated and retraced like those wobbly letters. But the fact remains that no matter how many times you try to make your words bolder, or your ravings seem reasonable, they are still feeble, misspelled, and written on very shaky ground.
And I wonder about the kid who had to answer to the teacher for not having the assignment. “The dog ate it,” pales as excuses go compared to, “My white daddy felt threatened.” It conjured up an image of a parent using their child’s school play costume to clean a shotgun, or the corn from their cafeteria lunch to make moonshine. “Sorry baby, Daddy’s gotta’ meetin’ tonight, now fetch me them sheets and git me another beer before you leave for kindergarten.”
Perhaps ironically, the homework used as a base for the rantings of a true ‘merican, appeared to be an elementary civics lesson, with questions like, “What makes a civilization?” Civilization is word that instantly conjures images of humans of all races building a better life through cooperation. So maybe it wasn’t ironic. Maybe the whole idea of humans getting along and possessing even vague similarities sent their caveman daddy off the deep end. Maybe it was the answers the child had written in an uneven juvenile hand, only slightly less proficient than the scrawl on the back, an answer like, “When they use cows and stuff.”
No! I imagine him thinking, what makes a civilization is white people, guns, and Jesus! Or that may be giving them too much credit, after all, the idea of civilization is a fairly advanced one, and this person is unlikely to believe that there was any such thing before nice white Europeans got here and wiped out the indigenous peoples. Of course to someone like this, even Europeans are alien. The concept that there were advanced civilizations ten thousand years before anyone even was ‘white’ would explode their tiny heads. And the reality that Jesus was not a white American has never even knocked at the door of their church. Through that door lies a fantasy land in which a blond, green-eyed ‘savior’ is depicted welcoming the tow-headed children, with nary a dark skinned human in sight. Because everyone who listened to the man on the mount would be heartily welcomed today at a South Georgia country club. Yeah. Right. I can just envision it, that khaki and plaid swathed crowd, quietly slurping bloody marys and eying each others’ camels to make sure their neighbor didn’t have the newer model as some guy told them it was easier for that camel to go through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to get into heaven.
I know what I’m talking about because that was my church, that’s the mentality I grew up with in the sixties. Oh sure, in a hail mary act of charity, the church sponsored some boat people, remember them? And every Sunday, there the two Laotian families were at service, giving all the nice white people something to point at and say, “That’s my purse, I gave them that, aren’t we wonderful? Look how magnanimous we are! How generous and kind!” Do you think any member of that congregation ever made friends with those people? Were they invited into their suburban homes? Were playdates scheduled with the children? Fuck no. Charity, for far too many church-goers and community do-gooders, that I’ve come across anyway, is naught but a claim to bragging rights. “We paid for the big house on the hill, four show horses, seven cars and that family of immigrants.”
That self-aggrandizing I’m familiar with. I suppose what still surprises me that people are so eager to display their profound sense of disconnection and stupidity so publicly. Writing a hate and conspiracy-filled rant and actually posting it on a community bulletin board for the world to see, I mean really. It’s like standing on a rooftop, or swinging from the big F on facebook, shouting at the top of your lungs, “I will not evolve!! I love my ignorance and I will clutch it to my chest with my pearls. If you try to make my life better, I will hit you with this stick.” Of course they don’t know that they don’t know what they don’t know, if you know what I mean.
Because in this country, teachers and politicians and ‘faith’ leaders have lied and misled based on their own fears or need for control since our inception. I was a grown up before I learned that Africa had the richest kings in history, no one taught me anything about Africa, my teachers knew nothing about it. So when I traveled there I took some trouble to learn some history, and it was thrilling! Like discovering a new world that was right next door all the time. Ditto for the the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and anywhere else that wasn’t Christian and white.
I was that strange child who didn’t believe adults. The veiled racist jokes from even my parents, felt cruel, just…wrong. When, at eight years old, I noticed that all the quarterbacks in my dad’s beloved football games were all white and asked why, I was told it was because, while black athletes were all very well, they just weren’t smart enough to be quarterbacks and coaches.
Wow. Smart, honest children do not believe these lies, they just learn not to trust their parents. If kids simply get a chance to get to know people who look differently from them, there is no other conclusion at which to arrive except that we are all different, all the same, all flawed, fucked up, damaged, capable of different things, talented in different ways, and filled with the propensity to love, hate, hurt and heal.
But some people are freer to do those things than others. Some have to fight for even those simple human rights.
Don’t panic, don’t hate me, I’m not saying that straight white people don’t have to overcome shit, work hard, get up after being knocked down, they do. I’m just pointing out that they don’t have to overcome racism and or homophobia inparticular. They won’t face that obstacle. What’s weird is that they won’t even admit there is an obstacle. They can’t, because they equate it to having their accomplishments, or the lie of their natural superiority, challenged. If you think you are innately worth more, or better than, someone else, being told you had an advantage to get that way will rock your high-walled, well constructed dream world. You will feel, in effect, cancelled, dismissed, your very life and so-called accomplishments will lose value. In other words, it will make you face feeling exactly the way you treat others. Separate, lonely, and discounted. The truth is, you don’t mind dishing it out even unconsciously, but it incenses you to be called on it because it shatters the fiction you created about yourself.
It’s as though life on our planet is a massive music festival, and some people have chosen to stay, not just in one tent, listening to one artist, but in one tiny few square inches and a brief second of time, their feet nailed to the ground, listening to a single note or drum beat over and over and over again. Of course that would drive anyone insane, it’s no wonder really that these people are so pissed off and unstable. What a bland, restrictive life, if you didn’t pretend with all your might that you remain in that single place and narrow thought pattern because it is ‘the right one’ you would have to shout at the top of your lungs just to drown out the screaming in your head. Only to find, when you collapsed, hoarse and exhausted, that the horror was always with you, it was you. In your ravaged state you might notice that the festival is going on without you in the distance. Too far away for you to join in. The music is still playing, people are still dancing, it is only you who are left out. The laughter and happiness of those who embraced change and diversity taunts you where you lie, plotting and seething in the darkness beyond the edge of the light. Probably, you’ll eventually be eaten by racoons.
Naturally you’re angry, what did you really expect trying to force the world to your microscopic view? But here’s the deal. It was your choice. The smorgasbord is there for us all, you decided to select your entrée from the cat box.
So this magnificent person and I made a different choice, not just to block out that hateful noise, but to obliterate it. In gesture at least. And gestures can mean so much, but only if they are followed by action.
Today we found a use for that dichotomy of homework assignments, one side written by a child learning and one side written by a mental child refusing to learn. We lit it on fire and warmed our hands.
Then we smeared the ashes into a gray muddy mush, mixing it with the rotting leaves and the elk poop droppings, (Yes, the elk wander through the post office parking lot every month or so, eating the apples off the neighbors trees.) It wasn’t even worthy of sticking to the soles of our shoes, but the rain would wash even the remnants away before we got back to our cars.
I exchanged cards with the noble-faced note-burner, an artist! So excited to find a kindred spirit in this rural but sometimes small-minded beauty, and we said goodbye, got in our cars, and went back to the festivals of our varied and embracing lives. Leaving that missive of lonely hatred irreparably altered behind us.
Since we’ve been in what I like to call, Consideration-for-others-because-I’m-not-an-asshole Lockdown, few of us have bothered much to get out of pajamas, much less dress up. That’s fine by me! I’m a writer so comfy jeans and a sweater are my go-to grabs in the morning. Even when we go out in this casual part of the world, slacks and a little bit nicer sweater are all that’s required. Couture? I might as well dress up and put on a fashion show for the local cows.
It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere like Venice, Italy, where I generally make an effort to dress well out of respect for the locals there who always look fabulous. I also have a horror of being one of those Americans in their Disneyland T-shirts, runners, and yoga pants or shorts that really set off their cellulite. Nothing against having a little mottled fat, we all do, but do we really need to parade that stuff around 16th century palazzos and cathedrals? It’s just a bit…uh…tacky, but mostly it’s disrespectful. If you threw a elegant cocktail party and people showed up in flip-flops and tank tops would you be happy? With any luck, I’ll be back in Italy in December, but luck is wavering like a heat haze in the distance right now and what looks like my jewelled city waiting for me could be a sloppy mud hut of a mirage.
It’s also been a while since I’ve had to dress up all the time, for a living. Personally, I’ll be happy if I never have to wear makeup or get my hair done again. Honestly. Once you’ve spent two to four hours everyday in a makeup chair listening to not always so benign gossip you get realllllly tired of it. Especially when special effects are involved. I don’t even want to go into spending hours waiting for a plaster mold to dry on your face with straws stuck in your nostrils so you can breathe.
Then there are the clothes. The ones you have to get into every day in your dressing room after hours of fittings. Sometimes, like in “On Deadly Ground” I wore the same suit for at least two months. On the soap it was a constant fashion show. Once they left a price tag on a white turtle neck for me to put on under a sweater, and it was Armani, $900. Then of course, there are appearances, openings, galas, award shows and charity benefits where you cannot wear the same thing twice. I spent so many of those events just wanting to get home, throw on my cozies, and wash my face.
When I moved from my home in LA, I left almost all the glam there. I sold tons of jewelry, most of my designer formal wear went to resale shops, and tons of it went to local thrift stores. I was moving into a simpler life as a writer in rural beauty.
Everything I’d ever wanted.
But then Covid-19 happened and we were stuck at home without the option. I, as well as 83.9 percent of the world, got depressed. I was sad and lacking in energy, which, for someone nicknamed Action, is not acceptable.
I needed to buck up and to make other people smile. The grumpy ol’ man inside my head shook his gnarled fist at me and said, “Get off your ass and quit your damn moping, loser. And keep your bad attitude off my lawn!!”
Long ago my voice coach told me that when you feel lost and defeated you just have to do something, anything, just get started. So I decided to dress up and go take pics doing normal stuff. The photos were silly and fun, and harder than it looked. But it worked. I got a great reaction, and the responses were filled with smiles.So I did it a few more times and I will again.
My coach was right. Every time I get off my butt and do something; hike, cook, write, take pictures of nature, whatever, it revs me up, and I can do more.
So do something creative.
Then share it.
And just maybe,
It’ll get a smile.
Whoo hoo! New book coming out, rejoice, it’s written, edited, copy-edited, formatted, ready to release April fourth. My work is done!
Oh…wait. Incoming insecurity and realization of my utter and complete lack of promotional savvy buffet the flimsy walls of my self-confident veneer. No problem, I lie to myself. Thousands of authors do this stuff, everyday. I can figure this out. Wait, what’s that coming up fast on the horizon? It’s…it’s…reality!! Take cover!
So I dive under a throw blanket, curl into a ball, and spend days on the sofa watching you-tube how-to videos and perusing fiverr for someone else to dump this mess on. I do figure a few things out, only to find out that that step you’re telling me to take at this point requires several steps I missed out on somewhere between typing class in high school (yes on a typewriter, smart ass) and the current world of metadata and key words hidden in the hail-pocked, stormy weather of the ‘cloud’. It’s like having a spare tire, but no jack.
What the fuck? All this talk of banners and animated logos and virtual advertising leaves me feeling like I’m lost in thick fog where no one can hear me scream.
Visibility is zero and I’m speeding straight into a brick wall named Amazon.
This reminds me of making spaghetti.
I know you were thinking the same thing, but in case your brain didn’t made the jump, let me try to connect pasta and self-publishing for you.
When I was little and my parents wanted to see if the pasta was ready, they would pull a long strand carefully from the boiling pot, blow on it gingerly, and then fling it against the wall, or up onto the ceiling.
If it sticks, it’s ready.
Get it now?
Even with a major publisher behind me, releasing a book in a world where millions of people every day can publish a book, means there’s a lot of pasta in that pot, and ready or not, most of it won’t stick.
That analogy makes me sad, but it also makes me smile, because it reminds me of one particular incident when I decided to try screwing the pasta to the sticking point, to Shakespeare out on you. My mom had made brownies that afternoon and the nine-by-thirteen pan of glorious fudge scent sat on the counter across from the stovetop. My seven-year-old sister kept trying to snatch a bit, which we’d been warned not to touch until after dinner. Since I was the boss of her, I was watching her out of one eye and being you know, bossy, telling her to keep her snotty fingers out of it. Then, even though she was violating the trade agreement, (salad, main course, then desert) I’m the one who got in trouble for being ‘mean.’ Mom sentenced me to taking over my sister’s chore of setting the table. My sister snickered ‘ha ha’ and stuck out her tongue as she wiped away her fake tears behind our mother’s back, leaving me bitter and vowing never to play with either of them again.
Distracted, I grabbed, not a strand of spaghetti, but a good-sized handful, and as it burned my little fingies, I instinctively flung it away from me. It hurtled toward the ceiling and stuck. I dumped the boiling pasta into the strainer and rinsed it.
Then I said something affectionate to my little sister, like, “Look out, stupid,” because she was still bratting it up the kitchen. A few minutes later, while I was resentfully setting the table, muttering the sad story to myself about how I was the most persecuted child in history and they’d be sorry one day, when suddenly the sound of screams rattled the glassware in the kitchen cabinets. I raced back in to see my sister squirming and writhing, emitting a high-pitched, sustained, eardrum-puncturing wail as her hands flailed wildly behind her head. My mother barked at her to use her words and tell her what was wrong. “Worms!” she shrieked in horror. “The worms are falling on me!” She collapsed to the ground in quivering heap, leaving my mom to question my father, who, having four very active kids, had not bothered to stop reading the paper.
I did the honest thing and quickly left the room before I could be interrogated, arranging my face into a mask of confused concern for when my mother asked me how an entire serving of pasta had managed to land in the tray of brownies on the counter, oh, and on my sister.
I know, my little sister was in hysterics and the brownies were ruined, but my face was innocence itself and the dog ate well that night. Lucky loved brownies.
My dad thought the whole incident was funny, so I got away with it that time.
He did not think it was funny when I made my own parachute, a four foot square of lightweight cotton with ‘ropes’ of regular thread. When he asked me what I was making and I told him I was going to jump off the roof, he said gently, “I don’t think that’s gonna’ hold you.” Sure, he might have saved my life, or at least my femurs, but he crushed my aeronautic dreams. Parents can be so thoughtless.
Just like when he stopped my brother and I from using the ‘submarine’ we had made in the garage out of a plastic 500 gallon plastic container in our local lake, or dismantled the bike jump we had set up in the street out of rotten boards and cardboard boxes, but only after one of the neighborhood kids had lost all the skin off his knees Or maybe it was consciousness, who can remember?
But those are other stories for other days.
Maybe figuring out how to self-promote a book and elevate it above the eight-hundred thousand other new releases that hour is like having parents remind you that you are mortal. You might figure out how to make it into adulthood, or you might fall down the laundry shoot while trying to climb up in it. Then, knowing you’ve been forbidden to do that, you try to stay silent in what olympic gymnasts call the iron cross position, your strength gives out, and you fall two floors, snap the fake landing at the bottom, scraping your thigh of skin in such a big area that your mother sends you to seventh grade with a Kotex taped to your leg and your teachers laugh at you.
Yep, did that too.
The lesson here is that…is there one? I suppose it’s that you don’t know if your book will stick unless you throw it out there. You have to take that chance or your project, or your film, or even your pasta, will just go to mush in the pot. All you can do is write the best story you can, ask some friends to help spread the news, and live to write another day.
If you were to ask me what the best sound in the word is, I would answer without hesitation, “My children laughing together.”
Some of the best moments of being a mom were simply this. I’m in bed, reading. and I hear the sound of matched giggles or outright belly laughs from the darkness of one or the other of the girls’ rooms. Instead of telling whichever one snuck out into her sister’s room to go back to bed, I just listen, reveling in the strength of their connection.
Of course, the laughter of children has a power all its own, think of the videos of a baby laughing on social media. That gurgling, unfettered sound of pure delight that produces fine bubbles in your stomach that rise up through your chest, tickling as they swirl, hooking the corners of your lips and lifting your mouth into a smile before they pop with a sparkle that shines in your eyes.
And that’s just some random toddler. I believe the happiness of our children gives us such a deep sense of joy for several reasons.
One, it means we have done our job and the kids are happy, safe, and most likely healthy.
Two, it reminds us of our own more innocent times. I hear that amusement and am catapulted back, maybe I’m lying on a trampoline with my sister staring at an infinity of stars and giggling at nothing and everything until exhaustion sets in. Maybe I’m listening to my dad’s stomach growl while he lies on the floor watching TV while my sibs and I press our ears to his tummy. Funniest thing ever. No worries, no tomorrow, no sorrow. Just that hysterical moment of swooping, free-falling ecstasy.
Three, laughter releases chemicals that make us feel good. Especially our own. I’ve actually been able to combat depression by just plain faking laughter until I actually started laughing at the whole ridiculous process. Try it, it works.
But whatever the reason, much like the Grinch, my heart grows two sizes whenever I even think of those moments, which I do quite often.
Last weeks, the girls came to visit for Thanksgiving. We hiked, and set off fireworks on the beach, and ate truffles with everything from eggs to soufflés. The boyfriends came with, so Joseph and I were more like a backdrop than the main attraction. That’s what happens when they grow up, they branch out from family, on whom their very survival used to depend, to the peers who will keep them surviving and thriving in life beyond their parents. My girls are loving and attentive and grateful, but the parent-child dynamic changes, as it should, when they head off into the great blue horizon that is their life without me.
I suppose I’m a bit different from many moms, certainly different from my sisters, who feel that their kids are an extension of themselves that they can shape into a certain type of person like human Playdough. I don’t mean to be derogatory, they are both amazing mothers, it’s just a different perspective. I knew from the first moment I looked into my older daughter’s eyes when they handed her to me on the delivery table that she was her own person with her own journey ahead. I knew she was already thinking and feeling things vastly different from my own soaring emotions. I’ve always been honored to be a part of it. I’m here to help row, blow wind in their sails, or even bail out the high water when it’s needed, but ultimately the journey and the experiences belong to them.
It makes me happy just to think it. What remarkable humans they are, compassionate, open, intelligent, funny, caring, everything I could have wanted. Sure they make fun of me, you should see them both doing an impression of my face when I got really mad, it’s hysterical. My views on life are questioned and often argued, which is all for the good. I never wanted carbon copies of me, I wanted originals, and that is what they are. That’s what all children are really, it’s just that some parents don’t get that for a long time, sadly some never do. Perhaps it’s painful for a parent to realize that these individuals to whom you gave everything go on without you, but I bet it’s a lot harder to have to hide who you really are from your own parents.
So when my girls sigh when I make a statement they don’t agree with, or demand that I stop talking about something because it makes them uncomfortable, I acknowledge that truth and shift. Joseph and I spend more time watching them interact with the world than we do interacting with them. We wrap an arm around each other and smile at these young adults, so sure of their knowledge and their place, and we feel good. We’ve done well to teach them to be themselves and to be confident in that. We exchange knowing glances when they question themselves and the world around them, nodding encouragement. Never stop questioning, my darlings, always ask for more.
The holiday was wonderful, we shared so much, including time just spent together without any motive or purpose, only comfortable co-habitation.
And when they sat on the deck after sunset overlooking the moon on Puget Sound we stayed inside, listening to the animated conversation, and when the laughter broke out in rolls and waves, we looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.
There’s nothing better than hearing the laughter of your children in the dark.
I haven’t been active in acting or public life for over ten years now, so suffice to say that I was very surprised to get an offer for a ‘celebrity’ appearance for a charity even in Abu Dabi.
The offer came through the correct channels, the charity name checked out, the founder is clearly a zillionaire doing lots of good in the world, and I’m a sucker for women’s and children’s charities, so I had my attorney, who brought me the offer, respond and put out some feelers.
The offer got better and better and until it was a little too good to be true.
Turns out, it was. I don’t have any concrete proof, but the possible risk of someone using a charity to scam people made me decide to back out. If it’s real, all the luck to them, but more likely someone was using real people and their philanthropic efforts to scam someone, though I can’t figure out what they would get out of it.
But here’s the thing—the minute the offer came in, I got tense. The thought of being paraded around as ‘somebody’ and having to pay attention to what I’m wearing, how my hair looks, how successful I am next to the next guest, etc sent shivers of distaste through my body until I found I was physically tied into knots and having to remind myself to take deep breaths.
I realized that as an actress I have to put on a mask to be even nominally accepted. As a writer, frankly, nobody cares. Damn I love it. I could show up at an author gathering wearing a shower cap and my pajamas and it would just be more fun for everybody. Sleep over party at Barnes and Noble, go!!!
When you act, promotion is a huge part of the game and I never cared for it. It looks glamorous from the outside, the red carpet, the attention, your face on or in magazines, but the reality of being constantly judged and criticised is quite exhausting. I always loved the work itself, the acting, creating a character and filling in all the emotional space until the words and actions come alive, which is why I continued to do theater even when I stopped pursuing film and television roles.
I used to get a sense of loss when people would recognise me and behave differently than they would have if they hadn’t. Press junkets and interviews left me feeling distanced from others, because inevitably you are promoting a false narrative. “Everyone got along great on the set! This movie is fantastic, the director was a dream, I always wanted to shoot in a castle, in Spain, in Italy, in Davidson, NC, in a deserted, rat-infested prison.” Best you can do is find whatever works with a particular crowd or journalist or talk show host, and keep repeating it. The actual life of shooting a movie or a show is vastly different from the snippets that come out of it months later when the project is finished and presented.
Of all the insane promotional events I attended, the one that stands out as attitude-changing was a huge television soiree-slash-bash-slash-festival in Monte Carlo hosted by Prince Albert. International celebrities, including my ex and I are were guests of the prince, now the king, and Monaco is always fun, though I prefer a run up into the French countryside. Now, my ex and I went through some insane experiences when the surprise popularity of his show made him a huge heartthrob, the attention was for him on these junkets, but I was dragged into it by default. We had been through experiences that seemed surreal, a promotional tour where it took 20 body guards to get us through masses of screaming people, having women scream and pass out cold when they saw him, not being able to leave the hotel room, fun stuff like that. At one appearance in Athens, Greece, sixty thousand people showed up for a supposed autograph session at a department store and they had to call the army to get us out. No. I am not exaggerating, 60,000. Tom Brokaw had it on the evening news, a comedy segment basically about that many people showing up for an actor who in the states was one of a thousand relatively unnoticed soap stars.
But the event in Monte Carlo that I’m describing here came a few years later when his popularity had dropped considerably, as it always does. We arrived at the airport in Monte Carlo and were met by Paparazzi, as usual, but only a three or four. Hunter Tylo and her husband were traveling with us, and we each had a car with a driver, my ex and I had climbed into our car but Hunter was still standing outside of hers. This was when she was a tabloid star for a minute over suing Aaron Spelling and the press was favoring her. My ex saw this, and I watched the unpleasant realisation of his demotion register on his face. They weren’t interested in him, she was the hot commodity of the moment. He didn’t like it. He fussed for a minute, then made an excuse to get out of the car and go get in her pictures.
That was the first time I saw him pander to the press, and as I watched what was obviously a desperate plea for more attention, my heart fell. This was not the man I had married, the man who understood that fame is false and fleeting. That kind of attention can be very addicting, it can become part of the story you tell yourself about yourself, and that’s not a healthy thing.
He handled most of it very well, I will say, but he fed off it, I did not. I suppose the fact that I often stood to one side and watched the effect of fame gave me a different perspective. There was no crash from the heights for me, only enough of a taste of celebrity to develop the knowledge that people are either worth knowing, or they are not, and no amount of fame or money changes that.
There are plenty of good people who handle fame very well, and I admire them for it, but I truly believe that if you get overly attached to it, it owns you more than you own it.
Overall, that festival in Monte Carlo was a fairly uneventful weekend. My favorite moment was when we entered the castle for a cocktail party with the prince and he was in the stairway taking pictures with each guest. There were at least fifty photographers and the constant flashes were blinding. As he slipped his arm around me and we turned to smile at the wall of lenses I said without moving my mouth, (a lesson I learned early on) “Do your pupils ever dilate?” and he burst out in genuine laughter. So that was fun. I met some other wonderful people, which is all you really ever get out of those things if you’re open to it, and marked it down as a life experience, but mostly I learned a valuable lesson.
“Look at me!” is not a healthy mantra.
I don’t miss that shit at all.
I love connecting with people on a real level, and that will always be my choice.
I have always loved the rain more than the praise of strangers.
I treasure anonymity.
I don’t care if you are famous, rich, handsome, or charismatic.
I can’t resist engaging with kids. They seem to be the people I most want to meet. My girls call me the baby whisperer, okay, sometimes they use the term ‘baby stalker’ based on some of the looks I get from wary care givers when I address a four year old in the check out line at Dollar Tree. I won’t be deterred though, because if a kid makes eyes contact with me, I want to turn it into a smile. I usually get one too. I’ll play the fool in a long line to pass the time, I’ll put myself out there to entertain, I’ll step in to distract a child on the verge of a tantrum, or make a silly face to get a laugh, or start a conversation with the older child who is standing, bored and neglected, as a younger sib’s whining skims off all the attention fat. Sure I’m risking embarrassment, rejection, and citizen’s arrest, but aren’t I always? At least an honest kid-interaction holds some reward for me that’s worth having, unlike say, acting or writing or fashion choices. Not that I don’t love acting and writing, but they seldom offer the immediate elation of connecting with an unblemished soul free from pre-fab social roles. So I guess you could say that I’m impulse inspired. Or just crazy. Either way.
Increasingly, other parents think I’m nuts. When I was younger and prettier—which sadly makes a difference in our appearances-first world—people didn’t seem to mind so much. In fact, if they recognized me from film or TV, they encouraged it. I once had a family thrust their baby in my lap while I was eating at a restaurant and start filming me. The baby was cute, but I was eating spinach at the time. Spinach. But now that I’m older, out of the public eye, wear no makeup, dress like I’m always on a hike or just back from falling down a muddy hill, and don’t give two flipping fucks what grown ups think of me, I’m viewed with increasing suspicion.
But that won’t stop me from trying to get that smile.
I just have an affinity for kids and the open, unclouded psyche of their as yet unspoiled minds. They just got off the boat onto this strange, magnificent shore of life, especially the little ones. Kids are still closer to the other side, to what’s important, and they showed up in this world ready to run screaming with delight along the shore, leaping with both feet into puddle of sea water just for the delicious squishy sound of the sloshing and the spray of wet mud. They care nothing yet for the sand that gets tracked into the house. Screw it, they’re alive and ready to shout it at the sky.
They remind me of me.
When my older daughter was in college, she had a job working for a family as child care, cook, and general dogsbody, she had three highly intelligent, personable, independent little charges. They were these amazing kids, and I wanted to get to know them. Even though I was just another adult, I was also ‘Creason’s mom’ which lent me some prestige and mystique. Oh, they’d heard stories! When I first met them, on the beach in front of their house, they were polite but somewhat reserved, until I offered to flip them upside down.
My daughter remembers me doing this to her with her father, or one of my sisters, or my best friend, we did it a lot. So she looked down at their questioning faces, which eloquently and intelligently asked, ‘do we trust this crazy lady?’ and nodded with a smile. “You’re gonna’ love it,” she told them.
Here’s what you do. There are three rules for this ‘trick.’ One. It must be performed over sand or grass, something softish. Two. Both adults must be physically able with a good grip. Three. Sobriety is a must. Do not attempt this with a beer in one hand or your system, and definitely no psychedelic drugs that might make you think the kid could actually fly. I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but some folks are highly impressionable, lawyers are real, and…well, it’s funny.
To begin, stand facing the other grown up with the kid seated on their bottom in between you. Each of you take the kid’s wrist nearest you, linking tightly to get a solid hold like trapeze artists do. Use the same hand as the kid’s as though you are shaking hands, child’s right hand to adult’s right hand adult, child’s left to adult’s left on that corresponding side. Adults cross their free hand over their already occupied wrist and take a hold of the child’s same side ankle firmly, thumb toward the knee on the inside of the calf with palm facing down. It’s a bit of a twist. If your palm is facing up, you will wrench your shoulder out when the fun begins.
Lift on the count of three and gently rock the kid back and forth, gaining momentum and height, much like the kid is the swing on a swing set or you’re working up to launch them onto the top bunk from across the bedroom. See? We’re already having fun.
But remember that kid-wish to pump the swing so high that it would just wrap right around the supporting pole like Olga Korbut back flipping off the high bar in the ’72 Olympics? Come on, it can’t just be me. Anyway, that’s the goal. When you get to shoulder level, aim the butt end of the kid into the air above you, go ahead and sling them all the way up and over, this will uncross your arms. Keep the wrist hold at all times. At the apex, release the ankle hold, switching that hand to support the kid under the arm on the way down so the kid lands on their feet.
The kids rocks like a pendulum, the sky and clouds above invite them on over as they lurch back and forth, ever upward, and then with one great hurl, centrifugal force meets gravity and they are propelled into the blue, for a split second they float, free and unfettered by physics’ forces, before the thrilling fall.
Wheee! And…she sticks the landing!!
So…after that stunt, I’m in the cool-grownup club. Throwing six and eight years olds butt-over-bangs didn’t exactly cement a lifelong relationship, but it sure did make me a more welcome visitor the next time. And when that next time came, and the one after that, we searched for sea glass, roasted hot dogs over a beach bonfire, played tag until my ageing joints required epsom salts soaks and various CBD salves, and baked bread in the shape of snake until one glorious far away day, (about a week later) they told my daughter they missed me and asked if I could come and play. I went to meet them when she was picking them up after Karate. I arrived to see that my daughter was a couple minutes late, and the kids were the last ones waiting for their ride, watching out the big plate glass window like puppies at the pound. I pulled up and got out of the car and gestured subtly, like a rodeo clown trying to distract a bronco. The second they spotted me, they bolted outside and wrapped their arms around my waist and climbed me like the jungle gym I was born to be.
Make no mistake, I’ve got rules and boundaries, safety and learning how to navigate an uncertain world count, but kids see things more simply, their world is still filled with wonder and magic, and I see that too. When I hike, I notice sunlight on drops of dew like fragments of rainbow that broke off and ran away to have adventures, bright yellow banana slugs feasting on red mushrooms refresh my faith in faeries, and the calls of birds and the skittle of unseen, small, warm things all around me reminds me that I am only one in a fantastically diverse family of fabulous creatures who share the big world, or just my own backyard. Same same.
In other words, I often see things just like a kid. I don’t know why, but I always want to take the time to get down on my belly, or crouch on my haunches to stick my fingers in mud so fine and smooth it runs over your nerve endings like a kitten’s fur. This isn’t dirt to a kid, this isn’t mud or yuck, it’s liquid velvet. A crescent moon in the thick blueberry syrup of an afternoon sky, a green-black crow feather, a shiny rock smoothed by it’s time in a stream, these are treasures to be thrilled over, collected, admired and shared.
But it was easier for me when I had my own kids and they had friends. Now, if I share with other people’s kids who don’t know me, say on a hike, or at a national park, I try to do it in a non-chalant, ‘hey, did you kids see the giant frogs in the pond?’ kind of way, aware that their guardians are eyeing me with suspicion and positioning themselves protectively. It’s funny, the kids want to see the frogs, (who wouldn’t? these things were huge and loud, I mean they were awesome!) but their parents are often more focused on filming them for next year’s ‘Christmas from the Crookshanks’ video newsletter that, let’s be honest, nobody outside the immediate family really watches. Unlike their children, these grownups no longer hear the rustle of pixie wings in the flowers under the oaks, or see the glint of ivory scales on the friendly dragon that lives in the trees. Parents are all too often stretched dental-floss thin by the constant barrage of incoming reality and overwhelmed by the pressure of filling needs and expectations to let go of being the parent and join them in that place just on the other side of that sunbeam dancing with dandelion parachutes.
I get it. That was all too often me. I was guilty too. These days, hell probably always, parents are busy, frazzled, on constant lookout for danger. They don’t know this crazy, frizzy-haired lady who obviously lacks conventional social filters. I mean, why is she speaking to their child? Is a toadstool really worth getting excited about? I get it. Often, if the parents are reserved or untrusting, the kids take their cue from them and don’t respond to me. Those times, I smile, wish them all a good day, and go on my way, trying not to feel overly disappointed, but I still point out the path to the pond, just in case.
Yet more often than not kids do seem to instinctively know that I’m not only harmless, I might be fun. They recognize the impulse in me to do a cartwheel or climb a tree, or lay down and look through two blades of grass at a beetle and pretend I’m watching a performance on a stage with green curtains just because it’s awesome to visit another world. I am a kindred spirit to a five year old if you will. Or possibly just easily amused. Same same.
In fact, the older I get, the more I seek out imagination. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone to a grown up party and instead of drinking and chatting about shopping and interest rates, I’ve spent the whole time devising games for the bored kids in the back yard. (and had a blast doing it) I recently went to a birthday for a friend who was turning 70. His grandchild has Asperger’s and was reluctant to relate in any way with any one, but he was fascinated with some leaves that had fallen on the deck and I found that much more worthy a subject than what interested the grown ups. So I sat down near him and started dropping the leaves through the cracks in the deck, then I would put my eye right to the space and try to spot where they landed. After a few, the kid was down on the deck with me. So I found some colored paper, tore it up and dropped that through. Within a few minutes the child was pointing with excitement when he spotted one of the bright scraps nestled into the brown leaf litter far below.
If I think about how that must have looked, like say, if I cared, I would probably cringe and I would definitely not have done it. This 58 year old woman, who no one at the party other than the hosts had ever met, on her knees with her butt up in the air and her face pressed to the redwood decking, proclaiming, “There it is! I see it!” But I didn’t give it a thought, and so by the end of the party, me and this terrific boy were building a ‘bridge’ over a foot wide waterway and playing at sword fighting with sticks, though he never spoke a word. I don’t know about the kid, but I had a wonderful afternoon. Still don’t know who else was at the party. I’m sure they were great, but compared to defending a bridge by fighting off highway bandits, discussing job benefits is a snore.
As I get older, and more prone to muscular injury, I’ll have to adjust my tactics. I’ll rely increasingly on stories and invention. I will always feel awed by nature and feel compelled to encourage kids to love her, as much for the sake of the little humans as for nature herself. After all, if they have fertile imaginations they can create anything they can dream of. If they love nature, they will protect her, and they will find solace in her arms whenever they truly need it.
And we all need solace sometimes.
And a giggle.
We all need to do a cartwheel just for the joy of it.
Even if it’s only imaginary, in which case, add some applause.
But today, I’ll need to flip some kid upside down.
Happy New Year! So whoo hoo, it’s a click of the clock, a difference of dates on an arbitrary calendar, a ‘new’ beginning. Such anticipation, so much celebration, so many champagne corks popped, advertising sold, intentions stated, and pressure applied to have fun. When? Well, not yet, not yet, okay, go, go, go! Right now! Oh bummer, you fell asleep and missed it!! We work ourselves up into a frothy lather, and deservedly so, after all the most amazing thing is going to happen. That’s right—It was one assigned number and now…wait for it…it’s another! Miracle of miracles! Light the fireworks and wake up with a hangover!
Ah, that one specific switch of digital numbers clicking over is unprecedented, amazing, and miraculous, it’s a unique opportunity to alter everything about ourselves, to plan for the future, to take it all back, to erase our errors or promise perfection, to set ourselves up for spectacular failure, it’s the one time of year, (or the change over between them anyway) that we can truly affect real changes in our lives, make a fresh start, really start living—or, no, uh…wait…
Maybe, just maybe—stay with me now—it’s just another random moment in the unrelenting passage of time in our dimension? Maybe celebrating ‘new year’ is another case of humans buying into a fake concept to amuse themselves, to invent some cause for community, to stick a marker in our chaotic and brief existence?
Not that that’s bad.
I mean, it occurs to me that just because somebody assigned random numbers to define our days and moments, which, fair enough, many of us agreed to, doesn’t make one ‘official time’ any more powerful or transformative than every other second, minute, day, year, decade or millennium. I mean, unless you aren’t Christian-European descended (What? There is more than one calendar in use on the planet? Yes, over forty in fact. Doesn’t that just rock our Christian-centric world!) you’ve collectively agreed to mark the change on a midnight in mid-winter, (ironically a pagan holiday which actually made sense for a celebration of the earth’s position in the solar system) but we could just as easily have chosen a late afternoon in mid-summer, or twilight in early fall, or dawn on any given Tuesday.
And by the way, where and when is the official, actual, really, really, honestly true new year? Shouldn’t we all agree on a single moment? It is the whole world we are talking about. Is the ‘true’ new year in Bangkok, or Paris, or Bimidji, Minnesota? How can there be an actual ‘change over’ when the moment comes at different ‘times’ in different places? We can’t even narrow it down to one in our own country, much less the whole world. Technically, there should be 24 different time zones, and therefore two dozen non-simultaneous new years, but thanks to the International date line, and the fact that some time zones change in 30 or 40 minutes rather than an hour, there are actually 38 time zones. (And that’s for our calendar, there are over forty different calendars worldwide, see above.)
38 time zones. 38 chances to celebrate a completely made up marker.
There is some method to the madness, some reason and explanation, some phenomenon to mark, of course, and that is the earth’s rotation around the sun, the fact that another solar year has been completed, another circumnavigation round the big ol’ ball of fire we call ‘the’ sun on our tiny, insignificant planet.
Insignificant, that is, in the scope of the universe. So if you are looking at the big picture, planet earth in a infinite, ever-changing universe is temporary at best. From down here, seeing how it’s the only planet we’ve got, it’s a pretty big deal—and the reason we measure time. Unfortunately, we stopped acknowledging nature and science as the supreme wonder when all us pesky humans invented religions. Marking mid-winter, an important date to be sure, was hijacked and renamed Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Mawlid, and many others, None-the-less, the world keeps turning, the sun keeps getting lapped, and time goes ever on even as civilizations, continents, religions, humans and yes, even planets, come and go.
Yet it’s a big moment, this passing of another year. A truly remarkable thing. This ‘holiday’ celebrates the almost unfathomably complex journey of a big hunk of rock, (or tiny speck of debris, depending on your perspective, see above) hurling through open space subjected to both centrifugal force (being pulled outward by spin and motion) and gravity (being pulled toward a far more dense mass, the sun) finding a balance on a scale that dwarfs any comparison to like-phenomenon taking place on the planet itself.
Which is pretty awesome.
But you have to admit that you could say that about every single second of every day. I mean, maybe we finished a lap back to this starting point, but what about the one just before, or after, that one? If you lined up 365, okay, 365 and ¼ days, (okay, 365.2422, but who’s counting?) and made any given second in any day a starting point, you would reach every single one of those ‘starting points’ again once a year.
It’s a circle dummies.
So here’s my point, as insignificant and cynical as you may find it. You get to decide when to start over. You say when to celebrate. You can change your life, make a resolution, forgive, love, start over, go back, end it all, or just plain quit worrying about it all any time you choose. In any second, of any day, in any season, you can start a diet, join a gym, raise your fist and swear at the moon, give up alcohol, find joy, thrill at life, drink champagne, kiss a loved one, or go walk about without permission or prompting from anybody.
Many years ago my father divorced my mom after thirty years of marriage effectively shattering our family’s holiday traditions. Hey, it happens, and instead of trying to force a pale imitation of Christmas pasts, my mom read somewhere that it would help to make some new traditions.
And we, her innocent offspring, were unwillingly recruited to add enthusiasm. This was wishful thinking elevated to new heights. First of all, we liked the old traditions where we did nothing but got great stuff, and second, we were teenagers who couldn’t be bothered.
Her first idea was to go and cut a tree at a tree farm instead of buying one from a convenient lot where expert helpers would cut the trunk evenly so the tree would stand straight, trim the branches, and lift the inevitably soaking wet tree (Atlanta in winter, trust me, it was raining) on to the roof of your car and tie it on the way privileged people like ourselves were supposed to do. For some reason, forsaking this ease and comfort did not appeal to my siblings and I, and we bitched and moaned the entire drive out of our cozy suburb to the tree farm, located somewhere out in nowhere Georgia, a state which, believe me, has a whole lot of nowhere and we were right in the middle of it.
Eventually, though, we arrive in smack-dab, park, and slog through ankle deep Georgia red clay mud to the shack that serves as office and cashier stand. The farmer, with a cheek full of chaw held loosely in place by his two remaining tobacco stained teeth, gives us a small, rusty hacksaw with a loose blade, and we go trudging off into the uncharted acreage. Conscious of energy conservation, namely his own, every four feet my brother would stop, sigh torturously, and say, ‘That’s a good one, how about that one?” but my mom was on a mission to make this an experience, which meant nothing less than committing a substantial amount of time to it, and for this purpose none of the absolutely perfect trees convenient to the unpaved parking area would do. So on we trudged, getting damper and more cynical with every step. My brother and I, the oldest ones, were especially good at delivering pithy, scathing ridicule to express our displeasure, and we were in rare form that day. After circumnavigating the hundred acre wood, Mom finally picked out a tree that looked almost exactly identical to the other six thousand trees we had rejected, with one outstanding feature—an especially thick and gnarled trunk.
For some reason, my sister Steffi, the third born, has always been the one who was relegated the shitty jobs. Okay, the reason is that she bitched the least, was not as lazy and arrogant, and is frankly physically superior to the rest of us. My brother Dwayne, who is now a top television producer, was, and obviously still is, a genius at designating tough manual labor to other people. He was a real Tom Sawyer-painting-the-fence kind of kid, and he’s grown up into a real Tom Sawyer-producing-hit-TV-shows kind of adult. I’ll never forget when he wanted to dig a pond in our backyard, so he told the other kids that no one could do it but him. By lunchtime he was drinking lemonade and supervising a chain gang of underage workers as they dug for their lives while he enjoyed uninterrupted leisure and an egg salad sandwich. Our youngest sister, and fourth in line to the throne, Shawna, was exactly that—the youngest, meaning she was far too pampered to be expected to exert herself, and anyway her arms were the thickness of twizzle sticks. I was probably wearing something covered in sequins, (it was the seventies) so I wasn’t going to do it. Out of habit, we all looked at Steffi. She cursed once, grabbed the shitty saw, dropped, and belly crawled up under that tree across slugs and wet pine straw to start felling.
Dwayne and I provided a constant barrage of criticism that no one but ourselves found humorous, so we fulfilled every expectation, Shawna complained that she was hungry and this was stupid, which was helpful, and Mom told us all to be quiet and enjoy it, we’d thank her later. After about thirty minutes of Steffi’s concentrated attack with a blunt, bending tool that barely qualified as a cutting utensil, the tree toppled and she rolled onto her back panting before coming to her feet, brushing mud off her jacket, sweaty and victorious. She’d shown that tree, and all of us, who was boss.
Now all she had to do was drag it a mile back to the car.
Which, under threat of severe famine from our mother, we begrudgingly helped her do, bitching a moaning all the way. While my mom kept reminding us that we were making memories and forging new traditions, I kept reminding her that pine sap was ruining my satin jacket.
Can’t you just feel the adolescent gratitude?
The tree was beautiful, smelled better than a lot tree, dripped more sap on the floor, and listed dangerously to one side, but it was our tree, there by the fruits of our first hand labor. Well, second hand in my case, but my sister cut it down, so I felt justified in taking full credit, proudly proclaiming, “We cut that tree ourselves,” to visitors. And a tradition was born. Steffi still cuts the tree.
A couple years later, after my own first divorce, (just warming up) my youngest sister and I went with my mom to spend Christmas in Washington D.C. with one of my aunts, her husband, and their daughter Amanda. Amanda is an only child and her parents are two of the brightest people on the planet, so to say she was a precocious five-year old is perhaps a sliver of an understatement. Because she had no siblings, she was excited to the point of hysteria at the idea of a visit with her cousins who she considered her contemporaries, never mind that she was not yet six and Shawna and I were 13 and 22, bit of a gap there socially, but who doesn’t adore being worshipped? And she was a fun, sharp as a whip little kid, so we did have a blast with her. My foremost memory of that trip was playing Trivial Pursuit with Aunt Toni, a PHD in library sciences, and Uncle David the man in charge of the computer archives of the Smithsonian institution. Talk about a rigged contest. My advice if you ever find yourself asked to participate in a game of knowledge with people who essentially have doctorates in information—Don’t do it!! The only category in which they displayed the smallest margin of error was arts and entertainment, and that only because they didn’t waste a lot of precious brain cells on ‘facts’ like ‘What was the Brady Family’s dog’s name?” All other, less important topics, literature, history, geography, you know the boring ones, were locked and loaded for these supreme intellectuals. It was like playing Jeopardy against Wikipedia.
But overall the trip was magical, visiting the museums on the mall, taking my sister to the natural history museum for the first time, cocoa by the fire, discussing books and arts, behind the scenes tours at the Smithsonian, it was all remarkable. And then came Xmas morning. Early Christmas morning.
Now, I know all kids get ramped up by the societal induced hysteria of Santa’s impending arrival, but I don’t think I’d ever seen such enthusiasm as that little blonde fanatic. She’d been promised Barbi’s dream house and she was jonesing for Christmas morning like a junkie waiting for his pusher outside the 7/11 when the methadone clinics are closed.
I remember it snowed on Christmas Eve, we stayed up late sipping wine, laughing, and watching the fat white flakes coat the sidewalks with crystalline beauty. When we finally retired to hunker down under cozy wool blankets, I thought how lovely it would be to sleep in.
But cousin Amanda had other plans.
Shawna and I were sleeping together in a bedroom off the stairwell that wound up the four floors of the brownstone townhouse and the open space channeled voices from the lower floors upwards as efficiently as a P.A system.
It was about four-thirty a.m. when the first transmission came through. “Mommy! Daddy! Get up, it’s Christmas!!””
This was answered with sleepy grumbles, and then, “Amanda, go back to bed or Santa won’t come.”
She must have heeded that dire warning because we were able to drop back off to sleep, but about twenty minutes later we heard, clear as a Christmas bell ringing directly over our heads in a bell tower in which we were sleeping, “Mommy! Daddy! Get up!! It’s Chrissssssmasssss!!!”
Shawna groaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her ears.
But there was no stopping the frenzy now. After only a few additional minutes of blissful unconsciousness I was snatched awake once more, this time by the shrill victory cry of, “It’s the BARBI DREAMHOUSE!!” that echoed through the townhouse, which was not made of pink plastic but stone that reverberated every sound from downstairs upwards, effectively funneling the delight directly to our sleepy heads.
Did I mention that sound really carried in this house? Okay, just so you didn’t miss it.
Mind you, it’s pitch black outside and nowhere close to dawn, so Shawna and I wait out the initial sonic blast of joy then cautiously resume our fitful slumber.
Then the cats began to fall.
Forbidden by her thoughtful parents from waking us, our young kin decided she would let her cats do it, so she would take one, and then the other, sneak into the dark bedroom, and toss one on the bed. We’d wake with an ‘oooff’ as one landed on our stomachs then scrabbled for traction on the soft skin of our tummies with their claws, hell bent on streaking to temporary safety until the hopped up six-year old could locate them and resume tossing. Confused and befuddled as the cats, we raised our heads to peer into the gloom after each onslaught, in the doorway we could make out a small silhouette, watching hopefully to see the fruits of her efforts, if we might, possibly, be just about up or if she needed to muster the felines for another push toward the front. The clever little darling. I told you that family was smart.
After the fourth such assault, I was treated to what I will always remember as the defining moment of that Christmas visit.
My little sister, all of thirteen and not prone to composing literature of any kind, especially in her sleep, was suddenly motivated to memorialize the situation in verse.
It was still a couple of hours until dawn, and the streetlights outside sent only the slightest glimmer seeping through the curtain covered windows. Still mostly asleep, I became aware that my sister was climbing out from under the covers, she moved to the foot of the bed, and as I watched this vague gray blur in the dark room, outlined against the pale glow of the window behind her, she assumed a presentational stance and proceeded to recite the following words in a strong monotone:
“A poem, By Shawna Shattuck.
Get up, get up, before it is light.
Open all your presents in the middle of the night.”
Then, without another word or explanation, she climbed back in bed and passed out.
I was laughing too hard to go back to sleep.
It’s my favorite Holiday poem of all time.
And it, and my extended family, made that one of the best Christmases ever.
You never know what will become a new tradition. It might be a recipe, a song, a game, a poem in the darkness, or even an annoying trip with a bunch of ungrateful adolescent cynics to a tree farm in the Georgia countryside, but when you find one, treasure it, repeat it, or hell, let it go and make a new one.
Can’t wait to see what the holiday will bring this year.
Even if, like myself, you don’t celebrate any religion except the magic of mid-winter, you might find yourself enjoying or even laughing at some ridiculous aspect of the shared, vast, human experience, exaggerated by the ridiculously high holiday expectations we unrealistically demand of ourselves. Those laborious feasts and decorations will most likely end in indigestion and a rush to Big Lots for more plastic bins to store this useless crap in. But if we’re lucky, holidays and family time can offer us more than their original intention, they can make us laugh together.
Is there anything more worthy of celebration?
And now that Amanda is grown with kids of her own, I can finally pass along a little secret for getting mom up early on Christmas morning to her kids.