America, art, beauty, children, Life in General

The Brilliance of Light on Snow.

Snow falls and swirls in puffs or icy shards, it smooths the surface of the world in a way that would seem to dim shapes and steal color. It makes everything look the same, dull and uniform.

But look again, each flake has the opalescent quality made of icicles, of water, of brilliant reflective facets that catch whatever light it meets. So when the sun, or the moon, or the streetlights strike the surface the glow of innumerable diamonds explodes in tiny bursts that combine and dance together, creating infinite patterns and motion. Blink and you will miss a unique fraction of a second.

That’s why Monet painted so many versions of Haystacks, effect of snow and sun. It’s probably my favorite painting in the Getty’s magnificent collection, and my daughters have always made fun of me for crying when I see it. But for me, it’s not just a haunting painting, it’s a miracle of light that this uniquely talented soul captured.

Ironically my girls get it now. They can spend more time studying art in a museum than I do. That didn’t happen accidentally, appreciation of all of forms of art, of true beauty, isn’t genetic, it doesn’t strike you out of the blue, you have to develop it.

That’s not to say you can tell someone what to love, once they are tuned into looking for what will fill their soul, it’s up to them to discover what that something is.

Joseph and I made it habit to routinely take the girls to visit museums, go to opera, plays, whatever opened them up. Owning and operating a Theatre, they obviously had to sit through a lot of Shakespeare, which they might not have loved as kids, but man did it help when they got to the part where they were studying or performing it at school. Just like taking them to visit Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam made the Holocoust real to them. Experience moves and educates. The more you know about history, the more fascinating it is. The same is true for art.

They always enjoyed a day out at the museum in LA, and LA is blessed with several top notch examples. We did not have so much luck on long trips where we dragged them to church after museum after historic location. One trip we took to Washington DC when they were about 7 and 12 ended with them wrapping their sweatshirts around their eyes and sitting in a corner, refusing to look at one more painting or object.

I didn’t blame them, really. They’d been great sports about the rest of it. Trips to Italy, Holland, France, and other art havens were better received. My older daughter actually carried her little sister on her back around the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam to get her to pay attention.

These days either one of them might spend far longer than I do perusing a favorite or a new museum. They found their own loves and interests, but would they if we hadn’t encouraged and supported it so much? Probably not, and the joy they would have missed frightens me.

I was chaperoning my younger daughter’s school trip to the Getty and having a hell of time getting the kids interested in much—and these are art-trained Waldorff kids! Finally I spotted something I thought they would find interesting. When I had been in Venice, I had seen a painting of the lagoon that I knew had been done in segments, as a door decoration I think. I remembered it specifically because of a flower stem that disappeared at the top of the frame. Years later, I saw a flower in the bottom of a frame of a painting of Venice’s lagoon at the Getty. So I asked.

Sure enough, this was the top panel of that same group of paintings, and they had a handout that showed them put together. So I grabbed the loudest boy, (if you can get them interested, you can usually wrangle the rest) and I pointed it out to him. My daughter was instantly able to say excitedly that she had seen the other painting in Venice. Next thing you know, they are calling their friends over and pointing it out. After that, they paid more attention to the little stories I told them about paintings and artists that added to the experience of just looking at pigment on canvas.

Mission accomplished.

The same, I think, is true in life’s behaviors. I have worked with or crossed paths with so many people that changed my life, perhaps not because of anything profound or earth-shattering, but simply because when I knew more about them, they opened my mind to beauty that I would never have seen.

We have been working with a 20 year old young man since we moved to Washington. He has come to help Joseph with building work, we pay him well, and feed him mightily. (Joseph and I call him ‘our big boy’ because I have to cook so much food for lunch and I always send him home with dinner.) He is always cheerful, grateful, and eager to learn all that Joseph teaches him. So far, he has developed a number of new skills and been able to get a better job as he’s working toward college.

Let’s get to know him better. He has two younger siblings, he lives in a trailer with no kitchen and two deserted kittens he found. When he was eight years old, his father went to prison. When he was 13 his mother went to prison. This remarkable thirteen year-old boy raised his siblings on his own with help from a few neighbors who would come over with meals when they could. His grandmother was technically their guardian, but she was seldom there.

Yet, this constantly smiling young man did well in school, had coaches in wrestling that got him to state competitions, and now he really wants to go to college and possibly join the reserves. And he still looks after his sibs. He recently thanked us for the days’ work because it would allow him to pick his 17 year old sister up from school and take her to do something for her birthday.

What do you think of him now? The colors are brighter, aren’t they?

Here’s what we think of him. He is deserving, he is cheerful and positive in the face of challenges most of us have never known. We will help him because we can. We are looking into paying for community college for him for a couple of years until he can hopefully transfer to the university he has always wanted to attend. Shhhh, it’s a secret, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know much about blogging, since he doesn’t have a computer.

Snow is heavy, and cold, and wet, and it blankets all the sharp edges beneath, sometimes making them even more dangerous. It hides mud and blood alike, it’s harder to move through and easier to resent.

But look again. Look at the light off that snow when the clouds break and you see it more clearly, even if only for a glimpse. Isn’t it beautiful?

Take a moment and learn something about someone else.

Their story is not yours, so don’t judge it as such.

Everyone knows something you don’t know.

Each person sees a different picture.

From a different angle.

What do you see?

 

Shari, February 10th, 2020

children, divorce, family, Life in General

I’ll Take the Rain

When’s the last time you took off for the airport after paying full price for a last minute plane ticket to nurse someone who fell and broke three ribs and then got accused of being a fraud for doing it? Anyone? Anyone? This just after spending two days at a hospital in Seattle to support a friend having cancer surgery.

I’m sure it’s not just me. Helping out when I can is just what I do, what I’ve always done. If someone in my family or close circle needs help, I will do what I can. What was unusual was being back in LA, (yuck!) and having to deal with stressed and judgemental siblings. Just me still? Read on, I’m willing to bet there’s not one person out there with a family who says they’ve never had at the least a quick run in with siblings if not decades long resentments.

If it’s only me, then I’m just lucky I guess. I don’t mean this to be family bashing, all of my family, like everyone’s, has their good and bad moments, but as we age we become who we really are. In the case of siblings, this means challenging the roles we were assigned by our parents and others early in life.

My brother was the artistic, sensitive, self-contained one. My next sister was the reliable, underachiever, my youngest sister was the pampered one, and I was the fuck up. I’m the crazy the one, the drug addict, the wild child, the two time divorcee, so when my sister screamed at me that I never take responsibility for my actions I had to ask her to be a little more specific.

“You mean my drug abuse? My divorces? My flying off with an Arab prince on his 747 while he went to dinner with President Bush and I bought cocaine from the secret service agent posing as our driver while Princey was at the white house?  Your gonna’ need to narrow that shit down.”

Crazy adventures and my zig-zag quest for happiness aside, my point is that other people’s behavior and anger really isn’t about me. If you are bringing up stuff that is 3 decades old to condemn me forever while claiming that the only reason I ever do anything is to be a martyr, you’d better be ready to back that shit up, or better yet, face up to why you’re hanging on to yesterday’s emotional garbage. It’s easier if I’m responsible for your discontent than if you have to deal with your own anger and rage. I know, because I’ve been there. But news flash, it does not exonerate you, only buries it deeper.

The problem was that I had to be in my sister’s house to care for my mom. This sister has major issues with my mom, (not as major as mine but it’s not a competition!) She  didn’t want my mom with her in the first place, and only consented to have her there when first my daughter offered to drive down from Santa Cruz, pick Teddie up at the hospital and then nurse her 24 hours a day until I could get there from WA. So when she started screaming that ol’ chestnut at me, “You come in MY house and…” I quietly said, “I’m leaving your house,” but did not say it was not a pleasure to be there and I had done everything I could to take care of my mom somewhere else. By then, two weeks after the fall, Teddi was able to stand and move well by herself, so it was safe for me to go.

There’s a lot more to this, but the point of this blog to is talk about what we sometimes don’t say. The quieter route of letting the explosion go off and merely ducking from the shrapnel, maybe taking a few minor hits, and then retreating while the drop zone area burns itself off. First you face the hits, feel the pain, work on healing, then you watch while the bullets aimed at you fester elsewhere.

Reminds me of when my ex sued to stop paying child support for the last year after he quit his job. This while I’m the only one of use paying for college. I still have one daughter with two years left at University and he still hasn’t contributed a dime. His wife followed me into the bathroom at the courthouse to mock me in baby talk, what was there to do but laugh? The way some people behave is so crazy, no one would believe it if I put it in a movie. She followed that kindergarten act up with shouting out things from the gallery during the hearing until the bailiff had to order her to be quiet. I kept my tongue then too, but it was hard not to laugh. I mean, it was hysterical!!

(Side note: only lawyers win in custody/support battles, and if you have aging parents, get that shit together now!)

Meanwhile, back in Northridge, it was hot and hazy and dusty, all artificially watered to look like it’s not actually the desert it is. It was exactly the kind of winter weather I ran from when I was finally able to move north. The moisture feeds me, it rains between glorious bouts of sunshine here and I can not stop smiling. In LA I felt withered and stretched beyond my elasticity, here, in my home on Puget Sound, I am nurtured, drenched, plumped and vitalized by every drop from the sky.

I suppose my point here, aside from a bit of healthy venting, is simply this—I have been through so much shit in my life, I have faced so much resentment, meanness, judgement, condemnation, and downright vicious envy that I have leaned to let it slough away. It will always be something, bring it. What can I do but stand tall, do the best I can for everyone involved, and go right on being happy?

Because I will not stop trying to help. I won’t live a life without standing up to people and brazening through bullshit. The option is to avoid confrontation, run from emotion, and live a fizzled out life in mid-nothingness. A little less pain would be great, but I wouldn’t give up the experiences I’ve had and the person I’ve become just to keep my head down and feel less. Not this crazy bitch.

Except for brief visits with friends, I hated being in LA. I hated the ruthless sunshine that bakes the life out of everything. I couldn’t wait to get back to moisture and seasons and quiet, to a place where I’m loved beyond all others.

My husband met me at baggage claim on my return with roses, he lifted me into a hug and held me tightly for a long moment, the feel and scent of him filled me with all the reassurance a good relationship can give. I came home to clean house, champagne, my laundry done and put away, and cats to warm my lap and purr my tension away.

It comes down to this. I will stand up to bullies, I will try to take some of others’ burdens onto myself, I will take the rain, both as pain and weather, and revel in it. It will make me richer, fuller, slipperier, and far more fertile, both in imagination and experience. Life isn’t only happy holidays and everyone droning the correct platitudes.

Life is messy, ironic, shocking, exhilarating, and painful.

You can try to live only in sunshine, but you can’t stop the rain.

So close your umbrella and get soaking wet.

Embrace the pain a little.

Live a lot.

 

Shari, February 7th, 2020

 

 

acting, Acting & Experiences, art, authors, beauty, creative inspiration, depression, Entertainment, Life in General, movies, Nature: Hiking, Wildlife & More, writers, writing

River of Gold

I know some people don’t like rain, but after living 35 years in Los Angeles, every time it rains at our new home in Washington State I cannot stop smiling.

The energetic atmosphere, the wind, the moisture, and most of all the sky itself thrill and amaze me. Every moment presents a different quality of light on the water, every evening introduces new colors to my visual vocabulary.

The days are shorter here, which works just fine for me. It’s twilight by 4ish, and night by 4:30. Since I prefer to do most of my work in the earlier hours, that just means I get to get up earlier and knock off earlier, leaving long luxurious evenings in front of the fire.

Recently our daughters and their boyfriends visited. I had warned them that they would have to make the most of the daylight, so on the first morning, the surfer among them came bounding down the hall at 7 a.m. in his pj bottoms, arms in the air, calling excitedly, “We have to get everybody up. It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”

It was funny, because it’s true. We repeated the line often during their visit and it became the vacation mantra, one or the other of us would attempt to rally the others to get going to lunch or a hike or a trip to the beach to gather oysters because…“It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”

It wasn’t until after they left and Christmas flew by that I realized what an apt motto it was. I mean, it’s true in so many ways. The twinkling holiday lights will shine for few weeks only to be packed away, summer’s brilliance dims, youthful relationships that kindled warmth fall away as lives get complicated, and eventually we all wander into death’s shade.

It’s gonna’ be dark sooner or later. Well, soon enough. And while that can be sad, depressing even, it doesn’t have to be. It can actually be comforting in its offer of perspective. We know the sun will set, winter will come, we know intellectually that everything, even the planet, even the universe, will eventually come to an end. All the better to remind ourselves to run down hallways, along beaches, up hillsides, through meadows, shouting, “It’s gonna’ be dark soon!” to celebrate the light that we have now.

One of my dearest friends and mentors was a lifelong sufferer of Crone’s disease. I remember, back when he was in his forties, going for a test that would tell him if the disease had flared to an uncontrollable point, one that would mean his untimely demise. He had to wait 24 hours to get the results.

“You would think—hell, I thought,” he told me, “that would be one of the worst days of my life, that pressure, that unknowing.” He smiled and shook his head. “Turns out, it was one of the best because nothing, and I mean nothing, bothered me. Nothing was important. Someone cut me off in traffic? Not worth getting angry about. My soup was served cold? No big deal. My family is fighting? It pales in significance compared to the pronouncement of a death sentence.”

In short, he said, it was amazing. Everyone shone brighter, and he appreciated every small thing. After the news came that he would likely live a few more years, the elation faded, and things went back to being annoying and frustrating, but he could still laugh things off better than anyone else I’ve ever known. Once, when I was bitching about graffiti in my neighborhood, he asked, “Can’t you just see it as urban art?” I couldn’t, so I stressed and fumed ineffectually. But he could. Where I saw a problem, he chose to see beauty.

That was the amazing David Beaird. He was a man from whom I learned so much. One of the best writers I’ve ever met, though he wrote plays and movies instead of books like I do. My favorite of his movies, ‘Scorchers,’ opens with a very brave three-minute monologue given by one of the finest actors I know. The monologue talks about growing up and swimming in a river lit golden by sunlight, yet when he tried to tell grownups in a position of authority that he found this legendary place, they told him there is no such thing as golden river. He was crushed and hurt, but, he goes on to say, they could never make me believe it didn’t exist because, “I swum in it.”

It’s a glorious piece of writing, and one of my favorite acting performances. You should look it up.

This last year, my friend David passed away, the lifetime of pain and disease finally caught up in spite of his amazing spirit. His widow, who is a remarkable human in her own right, came up to visit me a few months afterward. She told me about the long wait in the hospital once he’d lost consciousness, and the vigil of family of friends. The best of those friends was the actor who performed that golden river monologue a thousand times on stage and once for the movie, Leland Crooke.

We talked about the fact that Leland had always been David’s muse as well as his best friend. Then she showed me something wonderful. While she and Leland had sat bedside, unsure if David was aware of anything around him, Leland began to speak those beautiful words in the golden river monologue to the man who wrote them, for only him. My friend very quietly recorded the moment.

The image is something I will not forget. Two men, lifelong friends, one on life support, the other sitting in a chair beside the bed, delivering a private performance. He recited from his heart those words about believing in things that you know to be true no matter what anyone in a position of ‘authority’ tells you. No one can deny the existence of that golden river because, once you’ve swum in it, it belongs to you. It is beautiful, it is magical, and it is real.

I have been honored to love so much, to live so fully, and to have experiences of my own like that golden river. Places and moments have happened for me that I alone remember, that only I know to be true.

So, I think, it’s important to see that night will inevitably fall, bringing an unknown eternity or the sweet relief of nothingness. Life is fleeting, slippery, and finite.

And if you remember that, then you will wonder at all the beauty around you. You can go and search for your golden river every day. Maybe for you it will be a silver mist that swirls around  in a forest, or a glint of rainbow prisms through a dew drop. Your moments may be huge, or they may flash past, but if you absorb them into your heart, they will live with you, and no one can ever take that away.

So today, I shall run in the rain, and splash in puddles, and slip into the forest to sit still and listen to the drip of moisture onto moss and leaf, the subtle, soft thump-thump of life.

And tomorrow I will get out bed and my spirit will shout to get up and play, because, “It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”

Because of that perspective, the river will shine a more brilliant gold.

The birdsong will pierce my heart with beauty.

I will notice the magic everywhere.

Thank you, David.

I love you.

Shari, January 3rd, 2020

children, family, humor., kids, Life in General, parenting

Laughter in the Dark

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life in General

Three Nipples and Me.

I’m a big fan of ‘Good Omens.’ Some of my favorite funny moments come when the Witchfinder Major constantly demands of his new recruit, “How many nipples?” if the young man tells him he came across anyone new, as more than two would be proof positive of evil sorcery. The confused recruit, keeps stuttering confusedly, “Wha-what?” Making his superior bark even more loudly, “How many nipples, man?!”

It’s funny, but it didn’t used to be. Women could be burned at the stake for less than an extra nipple, just having any knowledge of herbs or midwifing could get you beaten, drowned, tortured, hung up with hooks, burned alive, and other delightful, religious interventions, and all in the name of god. It’s hard to say how many women died for this noble cause, because women were considered lesser beings back then to the ‘righteous,’—frankly, and sadly, we still are—so no records were kept on how many were killed, but the estimate comes in at about four million. I say, ‘still are’ because there are still religious zealots out there trying to control women because, let’s face it, they are idiots who are both mentally inferior and terrified of losing control. Think I’m wrong? Okay then. What intelligent, secure man would need to control a person who could be his greatest asset? That’s like hobbling your own horse because you’re jealous it can carry more than you can. It’s like killing your older brother at 16 because he’s taller than you are at 13. It’s like pouring vinegar on a pie you are eating because it’s delicious and you didn’t bake it. I said they were idiots.

At least I’m safe for the moment,  but if the Christian base in this country goes much farther back, who knows? (Before you go off, I am an atheist but I support and will fight for your right to believe and worship any superstition mixed with mythology you want, until and unless you force your belief system on others, then I turn my sword to fight for their right to disagree.) Apparently some of these giants of tele-evangelism long for the good old days of hair shirts, consequence-free adultery for the males, and thumb screws. I keep hearing fanatics talking about ‘returning’ to morality, and I wonder how much of the Spanish Inquisition do they want enacted into modern law? I  know it sounds extreme, but a lot has happened in the last three years that I never thought would, so I’m not discounting even the most bizarre possibilities.

Not that I’m worried, even if the witch-burners do come back, “How many nipples, man?” because according to them, I am a witch. I have three nipples. It’s far more common than people know, if you’ve seen me in a bikini or naked, (i.e., if you’ve seen just about any film or TV show I’ve done) you wouldn’t know it. It just looks like a pale, flat light brown mark maybe a quarter inch. The only reason I knew about it is because I had a very good doctor when I was young and he told my mom. He said that some kids have four, mostly boys apparently, which is funny because I never heard of any men being burned for having extra nipples.

It’s just a mark, not a breast. There’s no tissue to speak of, so when puberty hit, I just grew two nice, little, normal breasts and thought no more about it.

Until I had a baby and my milk came in. Okay, first let me digress, this is a really painful process that nobody warns you about it, so get ready. The little brown mark below my left breast felt tender to the touch, not on fire and about to burst like my temporarily swollen to Valkyrie-singing-the-big-opera-finish size, but a bit tender. After dealing with my impacted double udders, (can you say ‘moooooo?”) I checked it out. By pinching gently on both sides, I could get a small drop of milk from that third wheel.

Weird, right? Yeah, not as weird as birthing a nine-pound human and then the food leaks from your chest when you even hear a baby gurgle weird, but weird.

So, I go to my doctor for my checkup and we finish up and he’s washing his hands, when I say, “I have this third nipple.” He glances at me, bored, and says, “That’s very common.”

I mean, the nerve! Common? Moi? This same man once said on completing an exam that everything felt normal, and I shot back, “Well, I prefer exceptional, but I’ll take normal from a doctor.” He turned very red.

So this time, as he’s starting for the door after reducing my magical nipple to ‘common’, I say, “Yeah, but mine is lactating.”

He stopped short as though he’d reached the bottom of the bungee cord, spun on his heel, shot back to the table, and prodded at this fascinating anomaly. I was validated. My mysterious nipple cast a spell and produced a potion. I grabbed my broom and headed to the roof.

So all I have to say is…don’t mess with me, because I will hex you into last week and you will never catch back up. All your bills will be late and you’ll miss your own birthday party.

Serves you right for counting nipples.

Shari, October 19th, 2019

Life in General

But What I Really Want To Do Is Write.

helping with taxes.

Today is a lovely rainy day, the perfect time to hunker down with a cup of coffee next to me and couple of cats draped randomly about and work on my current novel. It takes a bit to get myself all set, nudging my felines into a keyboard-adjacent nap position instead of a paw on the ‘m’ key, adjusting the throw blanket and my footstool just so. I have to ignore all the other stuff around me that needs to get done but it doesn’t matter, I’m entering the imagination zone. My happy place.

But wait, I have a book going to out to editors soon and that means my social media has to be updated or there’s no point in even submitting it. Writing the great American novel is important, of course, but any working author knows that when editors decide what to publish, the actual book itself counts for about 15 percent of that decision. Your past sales performance counts the most, at least 60 percent, because if your other books sold well it’s much easier for them champion the book through the editorial board. The remaining 25 percent depends on the author’s social media platforms. How many people follow you on twitter apparently says as much about your book as the actual words/story/characters contained within it.

What that means is I have to spend more time trying to connect with people who may never read a book than writing a book worth reading. Pain. In. My. Ass.

I’ve never liked promoting myself, I hated it when I was acting, it always felt so false, so distant from real human connection. It has all the subtlety of screaming, ‘Mom! Mom! Look at me! Tell me how great I am!’ Or, in the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m a pretty big deal.” My feeling about that is pretty much the same as Veronica Corningstone’s response, “I’m very happy for you.” Accent on ‘you’. It’s all take and no give, which is not in my nature. I made a bad celebrity.

The whole concept of self promotion makes me feel so plastic I’m afraid my skin will squeak if I use a washcloth on it.

I love real human connection, as anyone who has met me or read my blog will be able to see. It was always awkward for me when people wanted to meet me because I had been on TV or in films. It puts an imaginary wall between two perfectly equal human beings and my immediate reaction was to knock that sucker down. It’s just weird. It made me uncomfortable.

Bad celebrity.

Don’t get me wrong, I never minded someone telling me they enjoyed my work. Everyone likes to hear that they are doing a good job, no matter what they do, but asking for that attention? Ewww.

Unfortunately, promotion through social media is the reality of book selling these days. Did you think a publishing house is going to run an ad in the New York Times starring YOU, or any other non-J. K. Rowling author? Ask them, and listen to the laughter echoing through the half-empty office hallways. So I sign in to sharishattuck.com and sure enough the website needs updating, big time. My site is the neglected middle child of my writing career, and I desperately need a sitter.

I know I should learn how to navigate the whole thing myself, teach myself to write code and become proficient in a language made up entirely of 1s and 0s, but I really don’t need another career. For heaven’s sake, coming up with something to tweet on a bi-daily basis feels forced to me. Pics of my cat? (Okay some of them are amusing.) Of me? Can’t be bothered with plastic surgery or makeup so buckle up ex-soap fans, this is no vanity production. Of beautiful places? Worthy, but only if I’m there, and I can’t always be sipping wine in Paris. Quotes from famous authors? Done to death. Malware? Gossip? I just don’t know what people want to see, or frankly, why they would care. I always try to make my social media about something. A book coming out, a beautiful scene from nature, an uplifting thought or moment. But let’s face it, nobody travels to Outer Mongolia or has spiritual revelations every day and I resent faking it.

But what I resent the most is the time it takes from crafting a story, the actual hours and hours of writing when I get so lost that I lose track of time. It’s an elevated state of mind, and even when I’m writing something tragic, it’s oddly fun. I can go through a box of Kleenex and walk away feeling lighter, and not just because I’ve blown a pound and a half of bodily fluids out my nose over the course of an afternoon.

So I ask around and find someone here to help me out with the stuff I don’t understand myself, and set them to the task. Small problem though, this is Santa Cruz and the guy I hire is a surfer, so when the waves are up, my site is down. I have a great deal of respect for making the choice to live in beauty when the moment is upon you, so I can’t really fault him. Meanwhile, back at the shari-dot-com ranch, no one can leave a comment, click on a link, or God forbid, preview a book and maybe, just maybe, buy one.

Posting on Facebook holds none of the creative writing joy for me, twitter even less. A blog post can be fun to write, but it’s still a distraction from the main event—finishing that novel.

I know I should bitch less and post more, or maybe, here’s a thought, I should post all my bitching! Lots of people do and it certainly seems to work for them. Problem is…that doesn’t solve my issue. Like an actor who is making a million bucks an episode, then goes to the studio execs and says, “Yeah, it’s okay working a few hours a days and having people succumb to my every insane whim, but what I really want to do is produce!”

Seriously? The execs should do is tell them to shut up and get back on the set. What they do instead is give them a Producer vanity credit. The reality of film and TV production is so much work, a mind-crushing, sleep depriving job that very few actors have the inclination or the stamina to do. They don’t even know what it is! Producing is fighting with unions over contracts, figuring out how many feet of extension cord you’ll need on location, dealing with city ordinances, outwitting lawyers, hiring moonlighting police officers to control traffic, arranging port-a-potties, clearing permits with city ordinances lost in wads of red tape, getting clearances from fire and health departments, paying off gardeners with lawn mowers and leaf blowers to shut the eff up, and painting a big ol’ target on your back for law suits. If that actor spent a week really ‘producing’ they would run back to their fancy trailers and bury their professionally made up faces in their fruit baskets crying and muttering, “Somebody get me a cappuccino and a gluten-free, vegan gourmet lunch.” And the real producers would make it so.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a team of unpaid production assistants. I’m an author now. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done besides actual writing.

Which brings me back to me, sitting at my computer, cats to one side, coffee ice cold, whining about the producing work of a writing career.

But I’ve produced films so I can do this, right? Fine, I’ll hire a new web designer, spend hours thinking of new ‘pages’ that almost no one will care about, and days creating content for tweets that will spin away and vanish into the I-cloud ether moments after I push ‘publish.’

I’ll come up with blog posts, take pictures on hikes, download old acting photos, and reply to comments about work I did so long ago that I forgot all about it. I’ll spend time doing the stuff I have to do, what I’m expected to do, I’ll take the compliments and the criticism, and I’ll waste precious creative time perusing what works for other people, what interests them, chasing that elusive, anonymous, prize, traffic and clicks.

But, except for those few genuine exchanges with amazing people I will never meet in the flesh, I won’t like it.

But there’s no use waiting for the best selling author patrol to come pick me up.

I have to be the producer of my own ‘show.’

I’ll take care of business.

I’ll promote myself.

Look at me!

But what I really want to do is write.

Shari. April 5th, 2019

children, family, humor., Life in General, Nature: Hiking, Wildlife & More, parenting

Fun with Other People’s Kids.

49798821_10161288802675252_3262999685425528832_n

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.

Bliss.

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.

And magic.

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.

Just for fun.

 

Shari, January 6th, 2019

America, authors, beauty, Holiday Traditions, holidays, humor., Life in General, religion

The Myth of Measuring Time.

IMG_7684
While flying past it.

 

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…

Is it?

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.

Everyday is new year’s day, darling.

Pop that cork and kiss that baby,

Life begins again, right now.

And right now too.

There are no second chances,

Only infinite ones.

 

Shari, January 1st, 2019 (so they say, wink)

children, Christmas, divorce, family, Holiday Traditions, holidays, humor., kids, Life in General, Marriage

Laughing at Christmas Past

IMG_E0162
cousins are always good for a laugh

 

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.

Thank goodness she still has cats.

 

Shari, December 6th, 2018

 

 

 

America, beauty, cancer, children, depression, family, Life in General, Marriage, parenting

Destiny Always Leads

IMG_7444
You can dance through life, but destiny always leads.

 

I hadn’t planned to go to Prescott Arizona, but when one of my husband’s few remaining relatives took a fall and relapsed from her brain surgery, I grabbed a carryon, threw in a few sweaters and headed for the airport.

I didn’t want to go to the deep red state, carpeted with sage brush and gun stores in seemingly equal proportion, where the air is so dry and the people are so conservative it makes my nose bleed, but someone needed me—so I zipped up my suitcase and my mouth and went to help. It’s what you do.

I have lots of family, and sadly, as with every family, I have lost quite a few of my very favorite relatives, I’ve sat bed-side at home hospice through the end, cleaned houses turned to hoarders’ caves by senility, and spent endless hours dealing with lawyers, hospitals, insurance companies, and hysterical loved ones who selfishly tried to make it all about them. I’ve shopped for caskets, planned memorials, and visited gravesides and hospitals enough for a lifetime. I have comforted, fought, stepped up, and wept, I have wept as I thought I would never weep again.

Until I did.

Luckily, overall my side of the family is a healthy, long-living bunch. My mom is one of seven sisters and I have a large family on my dad’s side too, so there are plenty of aunts, uncles, first, second and third cousins to keep those photo Christmas cards rolling in. I look forward to seeing how everyone has grown, where they’ve gone on vacation or to school, who’s starting college, graduated, gotten married, pregnant, addicted, arrested, the whole sordid, magnificent, ongoing, family saga.

But my husband is an only child with no offspring of his own. He has only one first cousin who also has no children, so his generation is functionally the last. He wanted children of his own very badly, but instead opted to care for my girls and raise them with me. It wasn’t always a job filled with gratitude or promotion, but ultimately they came to love and treasure him because he adores them, takes care of them, always puts them ahead of himself, but mostly because he treats me like a treasure and they like to see me happy.

But it’s not the same, I know it’s not. I know that he gave up the dream of marrying a younger woman than me (I’m four years older than he and didn’t meet him until I was 40) who could give him children and the subsequent family that flows ever outwards in the form of in-laws, grandchildren, future wives’ second families, ad infinitum.

Okay, maybe only one wife, but you get my drift. Some families seem to keep expanding like yeast when you soak it in water, and some families sort of slowly empty like a cookie jar that no one refills. Once, shiny and new, it was stuffed with multiple generations, group gatherings, weddings, and birth announcements, but now it sits, chipped and gathering dust on the countertop, and all that is left inside are the funerals and a fading family album.

But that doesn’t mean the cookies weren’t delicious.

It’s odd to say, but I think being part of a large, extended family is both an advantage and a drawback when it comes to hardships and death. I suppose the fact that I have been through much loss makes me better prepared to handle the tragedies when they come, on the other hand—they come more often.

I’ve learned things. I know who to speak to if you want to get the right care, I know not to harass nurses for doctors’ information, or challenge the insurance company without a lawyer, I know what details should not be allowed to fall through the cracks, I know people will lose it sometimes, that they will laugh inappropriately to keep from going insane, I know how much work it is to clean up after a life and dismantle a home, I know that relatives will fight over things they never cared for in life, I know that this too shall pass, and I understand that I will now have a new indelible date on my calendar—a death date.

Stepping back into caregiver role is familiar for me as it is for many people my age, especially women. It so often falls to us to care for the infirm or hold a hand as a spirit slips quietly over. I know what it is to have someone in room with you one second, and then they just aren’t there anymore. I truly believe that in general women have more strength for suffering of all kinds. Throughout our lives we have dealt with blood and pain on a monthly basis, seemingly irrational emotional upheaval has been a frequent visitor, and cleaning unthinkable messes is all too familiar to us. I don’t mean to discount the strength that men have, it can be profound, but it is seldom sublime.

The times in my life when I have forced myself to function while tears streamed uncontrollably from my eyes and my voice broke from the strain of debilitating emotion are too many to count. Inevitably when this happens to me whoever I am dealing with, confronting, or comforting, will tell me to calm down or try to sooth me. Mostly because an honest display of feeling makes them uncomfortable. To this I always say, “I am fine. My emotion is not a weakness, it is a strength. I can, and will, go on. I can feel all of this and remain standing”

So when people start to lose it around me, I double up on grit. I get so full of grit I might as well be made of sand, and sand, as we all know, melts into glass. I have never been through the fragility of a severe illness or a death and not come out of it feeling more beautiful and enriched than I was before. The hue of sand may be bland, but after it passes through the fire, it turns into colors that deepen and strike back at the sunlight that strives to pass through them.

But not everyone has that sense of recovery or the experience to know that they will. Some people have bad things happen and say, ‘why me?’ rather than, ‘my turn.’ So when I was talking with my Aunt-in-law, who has no children and made most of her life choices around herself all her life,  my perspective was somewhat different than hers.

In the last ten years this aunt has lost her parents, in their eighties, her brother, in his sixties, and her much older husband. This is nature, this is the circle. Family members grow old and they die, and if there are no children, the family line eventually ends. This is a fact, not a punishment. So when she looked at me with tears in her eyes and bleated, “What is happening to this family?” I was able to look back at her with a smile as sure as dawn and say, “Every family goes through these things.” Then I told her that because of my charity I have often dealt with families losing a young child and pointed out the difference between losing a three year old and a husband in his eighties. I know it’s not any easier to lose a husband than a child, but I never met a parent who wouldn’t change places with their child, if only they had been given the choice. I told her that my great-grandmother buried all five of her children before her own death at 104. That shocked her into a different, much needed, perspective.

Then I sat down and took her hand. I told her the Buddhist story of a woman who lost her child and was so distraught that she went to the monk in her village and asked him what to do, she wanted nothing but to die.

He gave her an empty jar and told her, “Take this jar around the countryside, and every time you find someone who has not lost a loved one, ask them to put one pebble in the jar. When the jar is full, return to me and I will tell you what to do.” So the woman took the jar and went from village to village, from house to house, but she never did get even one pebble, for every family had lost someone beloved. What she did find were others who had suffered as she was suffering and and they comforted her, they understood and shared her loss. What she found was that she was not alone, that death and loss were an integral part of being human. At long last, she returned to the monk, gave him the empty jar, and thanked him before going on with her life, always taking time to help others through their losses and their own unique, but familiar, unfathomable pain.

The time came for me to return home for other family responsibilities and my husband stayed on, he’s still with his aunt. At the departure gate, I received a phone call that another family member (mine this time) has just been diagnosed with cancer, and so that journey begins. Already filled with leaden sadness, my trip home was one misadventure after another, nasty airline personnel, bad directions, a bumpy flight through storm clouds, lost parking ticket, and on and on until it cumulated in me leaning against a trash can in front of terminal two at San Jose International and crying from my gut just long enough to bleed that poison out before bucking up and getting on with it. If anyone bothered to notice, they may have thought I was weak or broken, but it was exactly the opposite.

Somebody needs me, and I need to be there.

We all get a turn. We all hold a hand, feel the desperation of not being able to make it better, we all wake up at night and dread the coming dawn, we all think we will not be able to take one more step. But we are not alone. Each of us knows devastation to our souls at some point. Though we may feel that no one suffers as we do, if we search for them, the jar stays empty, at least until we fill it with compassion and memories.

And the light of a thousand departed souls.

Until we join them.

Be brave, be strong.

Cry for the loss.

Cry for the strength that it shows.

Your pain is love.

Would you have it any other way?

 

Shari, December 3rd, 2018