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.
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.
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 was a tomboy, still am, kind of. Climbing trees, building forts, turning boxes into foil wrapped spaceships, pine cone fights with the neighborhood kids, (yes, it always ended in tears) these were all the activities of an average Saturday. But the best days were the treasure hunts. Oh how I dreamed of unearthing that iron bound wooden chest and prying open the lid to dig my hands into gold coins and brilliantly colored gems the size of my fist.
Perhaps that why, out of all the wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, my favorite one goes like this.
Hobbs finds Calvin digging in the yard and asks, “What are you doing?”
Calvin answers, “Digging for treasure!”
“Did you find anything?”
“A few grubs, some dirty rocks, and a weird root.”
Impressed, Hobbs asks, “On your first try?”
Looking up at Hobbs, his face alight with excitement, Calvin exclaims, “There’s treasure everywhere!!”
I love this philosophy and I lived it as a kid. Because when you are young you know it’s out there. All of the cynicism of grownups cannot and will not stop you from your belief in the existence of magic, of mystery, and hidden treasure. Those muddy rocks by the stream can be stacked to form the foundation of a castle, the fall leaves placed just so make a flying carpet, the rope swing off the hillside is a launch into the sky if only you tilt your head back and punp high enough to feel that thrilling momentary loss of gravity between rising and falling, that magnificent second of weightlessness in a perfect blue sky.
As I grew older, my idea of treasure changed, shaped and/or warped by the expectations and values of parents and peers. I went from craving a pirate ship’s booty to coveting adulation. Winning was my pot of gold, being the ‘best’, earning the envy of others, succeeding, being known, recognized, and lauded were the treasured prizes.
And we all know how well that works out. We all have some experience with banking on the fleeting nature of approval and popularity. There’s never someone right behind you who is faster, prettier, younger, smarter, or better connected, of course not. Not that being the silver medalist in the local skating competition or Atlanta’s top model aren’t amazing lifetime achievements, laurels you can rest your sorry ass on, confident that humanity is eternally improved by your accomplishments, or maybe, just possibly, a tiny sliver of doubt creeps in, a thought that asks, ‘Is this treasure tarnished? Am I mistaking tin for silver? Can I trust it? Does it feed my imagination or my soul? Does it make me a better person or help anyone else?’
So you turn your goals to developing talent and being active in community, true treasures both, and both full time occupations. That shift from result to process is a gift that colors every day of your life, shifting the filter from that wash of envious green to a rosy glow of inclusiveness.
I like that kind of treasure.
But I’m still a kid at heart. I still believe in magic, I still want the heavy, battered chest, the magic, the shiny prize. Even if only for the fun of it.
And that’s why I love thrifting. I know, I’m using a noun as a verb and that’s annoying, but ever since my girls were little and we moved to a neighborhood with the most amazing second-hand store I’d ever seen, we’ve been hooked.
This place rocks. Clothes, knick-knacks, dishware, furniture, art, jewelry, sports gear, it has it all, clean, organized and cheap! None of that Goodwill pricing crap where every T-shirt is priced at a uniform 5.95 whether it’s worth it or not. If it was a worn tank top, it was 99 cents. If it was a button down Dolce Gabbana with the tags still on it, it might be 13.99. (yes, I did find that!) And there were different color tags, every week two of those colors would be half off and a third would be 75% off.
The thrill of the search and the results kept us going back several times a week to that run down shopping center in our neighborhood’s back yard, not the usual place one would search for fabulous objects.
That shop, Sun Thrift in Sunland, is one of the things I miss the most about Los Angeles. That and the amazing mix of ethnicities, food, and art that a multicultural city affords. Now I have San Francisco nearby, which rivals the cultural aspect, but alas, no Sun Thrift.
Here in Santa Cruz there is a distinct absence of diversity, and that pains me daily, not just because of the lack of good Asian food or polish delis either, but because I prefer a community where the people are as colorful as the scenery. People of diverse backgrounds, belief systems, physical appearances and languages are one of the greatest treats—dare I say treasures?—in life. My life is infinitely richer from the opportunity to have befriended so many different humans from so many cultures, they have expanded my mind and my existence. A golden heart is a precious pearl in any shape, color, or size, no matter where you find it.
Maybe that’s why I still love digging for treasure.
When I found this store I had just divorced husband number two, it was a dark time for me. My family pretty much chose him over me. My mother, who I had brought out from Atlanta to live with us, decided to shun me and live with him and my siblings decided that his big fancy house would be the best place to spend holidays with their kids, especially since our mother lived there, friends I had cared for and hosted for years disappeared like a drop of ink in the ocean, a lawyer on a motorcycle hit my car and decided to sue me for two million dollars, (if I’d known he was that kind of a lawyer at the time I would have backed up and run over him for the good of society). Suffice to say it was a furiously tense time. I could easily have shattered. Instead I took that Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, blew those three panels up to poster size, framed them, and hung them over the dining room table in my rental house. In spite of it all, it was how I chose to feel about life. Even in that horrible time, there was treasure, there was goodness, there was beauty. It might be the two friends who stood by me out of dozens, it might be the shadows the oak tree made on my newly bought curtains, (he got the house and pretty much everything in it we’d built together, but that’s another blog), it might be the greeting I received from my theater friends when I showed up for rehearsal, it might be having a place I could call my own that wasn’t entirely controlled by someone else who should have been my partner, it might have been my girls laughing in the pool out back, something they’d always wanted but been denied by their father’s miserly outlook toward anyone but himself. Whatever it was, no matter how small or huge, there was treasure. Not the least of which was my independence. After sixteen years of giving eighty percent of my love, time and energy to someone else, I was finally going to claim it back for myself. When I wasn’t weeping, exhausted from the ugliness of it all, I was dancing with joy and possibility. Yes, even wallowing in all that mud, slogging through the dirty custody fights, the disgusting lies told about me to my own children, the loneliness and betrayal of losing all but the most loyal of friends, yes even among all the grubs and the mud there was joy and possibility.
I made it through. Now I have all the treasure. My girls are happy and thriving, I write for a living, I travel when I like, I hike in redwoods or by the ocean everyday, and I have a husband who considers me the treasure, and tells me so everyday, a husband who works hard, cares about community and puts me and girls first every time.
I do still like to go treasure hunting, also known as thrifting. So yesterday after a doctor’s appointment, I went to the Goodwill near her office. The seasons are changing, which I adore and most of my real clothes are still in storage back in LA so I just buy stuff as I go, mostly from thrift stores. Currently I’m on a quest for comfortable corduroys, I love men’s pants because they are better made and have an excess of pockets. So I picked out a few things to try on. In the dressing room, I slipped my hand in a pocket and came out with a wrapped piece of paper, at first I thought, “Yuck, someone left their gum in here,” but there was something about the way it was folded, so I opened it and found a huge nugget of sticky weed. Bonus score! (Since I was buying the pants, I figured the weed was a perk, like a key chain with a purse.) Then I went back out into the store.
I had noticed one of the employees was one of those effervescent people who smiles and is helpful to everyone he meets, I always watch people like that because it gives my day a lift. This guy saw me looking through the appliance section and asked if he could help me. I told him I was keeping an eye out for a juicer for my daughter. He went out of his way to help me search, even going into the back where he produced a brand new one, (probably an unwanted wedding gift) that he had the pricer mark at seven dollars for me. That job done, he proceeded to procure a lamp finial I’ve been looking for for over a month. Actually he took it off an ugly lamp, got it priced separately, (89 cents) and handed it over with a wink. His cheerfulness was contagious so we shared a few laughs and then I thanked him and went to check out.
They were Saturday-slammed and had chosen this unfortunate time to train new people at the register, so this guy, being on the ball, hustles up and takes over a register, connecting with each person he helped and just generally brightening the entire ambiance of this second hand, second chance storefront in Capitola, California.
At the last second in line before my turn I spotted some new extension cords and remembered that I needed one. But when I checked the price they were no less expensive than the hardware store so I said I’d pass. There was one, however that was out of the packaging and just bound with clear tape. This guy grabbed it and said he’d ask how much it would be. I told him not to bother as I didn’t want it if it wasn’t around five bucks and the others, exactly the same but still in the packaging, were almost twenty.
He bolted for the back and returned with a sticker, $4.98. Score!
As I paid up, he asked if I wanted to round my change up forty cents to benefit their job-training program, from which he had graduated. I said, as I always do, that of course I did and we both commented on the brilliance and simplicity of helping people to live better lives by empowering them with knowledge and skills. We smiled at each other as he handed me my receipt and thanked me for coming in.
As I gathered my trophies, I extended a hand and said, “I’m Shari by the way.” He beamed, shook my hand firmly and warmly and said, “I’m Tosh.”
And out I went, blessed by another brush with good luck, pleased with my purchases, and reflecting that you never know what you’ll find if you only look with new eyes.
Because really, I was just digging in my backyard, among stuff someone else thought was junk, stuff they’d in effect thrown away, and I found so many gems.
A pair of perfect fit corduroys complete with bonus prize, a fall colored pashmina scarf, a brand new juicer and an eagle finial, all for under twenty bucks.
But most rewarding of all was an exchange with a man who exuded kindness and lifted my heart.
Who works a minimum wage job in a second hand store selling stuff somebody didn’t want any more.
A previously discarded human with a purpose, a job, and a helpful spirit.
A guy named Tosh who restored my faith in the worth of good people.
Whenever someone finds out I’m a writer, (because I tell them) their first question is always, “What do you write?” by which they mean, ‘what genre?’
How do I sum up my work in a word? I wish someone would tell me. If you’ve read “Invisible Ellen” you’ll know why. It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s fable, it’s reality, it’s socially conscious, it has story and it’s character driven, and while it’s primarily about two women, it’s not ‘women’s fiction’ perish the narrow-minded dismissal! I understand why people ask, they may prefer cozy mysteries or violent thrillers and are jonesing for their next hit, but I can’ t help them there.
Well, I could. it might be much easier for me to stick to a genre, write the same kind of book again and again. For publishers, it’s easier for them to button hole a writer into a small, easily promotable group. But the entire idea that anyone’s entire body of work can be filed under one word is lamentable. Not to say that writers like Rex Stout aren’t masters of their genre, practically creators of their own library sections, but that is because their work is so complex and compelling to start with, they are anything but simple.
Full disclosure, I have written books based on a label by contractual agreement. In fact after my first book “Loaded” was purchased, the publisher ordered two more books described thus: “Mystery thriller with a romantic entanglement.” So…at least that was two labels in one. I always bucked the identity of ‘romance writer’ not because I don’t love a good romance as much as the next red-blooded, sex-crazed female with a penchant for tactile mental imagery and the well-described monkey noises that accompany them, but because I know so many writers who write romance so much more deliberately and, frankly, so much better than I do. Romance is just not my passion, if you’ll forgive the awkward juxtaposition of nouns.
Which sends me spinning off on one of my tangents; I do this a lot. I’m just cruising along on a big merry-go-round of topical reasoning when something suddenly snags my mind’s eye, I lose my grip on the painted pony of focus, and the centrifugal force slings my thought process into free flight, tumbling my head over my ass off into another part of the zoo. I might return to my original point but I might also spend the rest of the essay admiring the zebras, sorry.
Anywho…speaking of herd animals, isn’t it a relief to sometimes be one? I mean, to just say, “Yeah, I’m not even going to try to lead the pack in this field, So-and-so is so brilliant at it that I might as well not bother.” Giving up on the aspiration to do something or be something you respect and admire is sort of life’s version of screaming “Uncle!” while simultaneously enjoying the experience of having your arm folded up your back like a dislocated chicken wing. There are so many amazing vocations that I would love to conquer, like painting, or astrophysics, but—even making the wild assumption that I had the talent and propensity—without at least one more lifetime of devotion to the cause, I’m not likely to give Monet or Neil deGrasse Tyson a run for their money. Therefore, I content myself with gazing covetously at the transformation of pigment into emotional impact, and listen with rapt reverence to the simplified explanations of a superior intellect.
Not everything. Never give up on everything. Keep something, I say. Find a couple of things you love and even if you stink, you will find fulfillment in the doing if not the adulation that may never come. There’s a lesson in that, is it the proficiency or the laurels you crave? Do you want to act or do you want to be famous? Those are two very different goals, and it is the latter inclination that makes an artist. But then, you never know, maybe your first novel will be ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.’ I mean, hey, you never know until you try.
Meanwhile, let me climb back onto the carousel of my original thought process here. Why do we feel the need to pigeon-hole everyone and every thing? Okay, maybe it works for some things, like B movies and restaurant types, if I feel like pasta I won’t go to a BBQ pit, but people and creativity? That’s just nuts.
Because I don’t want to be chained to any one thing. If I do something for a while and it works for me but I weary of it, I’ll move on. I’ll write books on topics and characters that interest me, I just don’t have the time and energy for a project that isn’t worth six months to a year of my life.
And here’s something I’ve found out not from writing, but from reading. The books I love the most, the ‘break-out’ books, are almost always true originals, impossible to stuff into a cubby-hole with a computer-printed genre-label gorilla glued on the cover.
Screw that. There are true examples that fit any given description, but there is no description that is true about every example. White people aren’t all racist. Politicians aren’t all crooked, (well, a few aren’t!) Blonde women aren’t all vapid. Not every athlete is a bad student. Some mysteries are magical. Some dancers are clumsy. Good people die. Bad people do kind things sometimes.
Life, like literature, is a whirlwind of variety, constructs that grow or crumble, even things we build on foundations that can be washed away in the worst of a storm. If you look at the sum of someone’s work like a house they are putting on the market, before you buy, you need to see more than the real estate agent’s brochure. And while it takes extra time and energy to walk all the way around and through a house, judging the structure by the curb appeal alone leaves you ignorant of the floor plan and no understanding at all of the possible lives and loves that would be constantly changing inside. And don’t forget that everyone has the potential, at any time, to redecorate and redefine.
So…if anyone can help me with a quick phrase to sum up ‘what I write’ please, I’m begging you, I’m down on my scrubby knees chanting for clarity. Share it! As far as summing up my life and divergent personality in a simple adjective, give it up. It can’t be done. Not by me, or you, or anyone. Not about me, and not about anyone else. There is always more, layers on layers, basements and attics and add-ons, carpeting over hardwood floors, recessed lighting with a couple of bulbs burned out, a backyard filled with weeds on one side and a garden on the other. You can choose to live in a mid-century modern, mission style, or Victorian. You can occupy living rooms, bedrooms, tiled kitchens, and even spend time completely away from that home, possibly in the occasional muddy camp-site. Hey, I’ve done a bit of wallowing, every one occasionally makes a lateral move to our lower selves, so wipe that gunk out of your eyes and follow me to the showers.
But for heaven’s sake, stop limiting your vision, there is so much more to see.
If you want to change, do it! But be ready for resistance.
I watch a man, a father I think, pushing a baby in a stroller who is maybe a year old.The father rolls his son right to the edge of the sidewalk overlooking the crashing surf below so that there is nothing but salty air between the child and the sea. He crouches next to the child and points out over the shimmering water. There are no words, nothing but the gesture, yet that simple wave of an arm is a lecture on eternity, a tutorial on infinity, of all things. It is a master class in perspective.
Later this day, I stand in line at the grocery store. There are several people ahead of me and only two checkers open in the village-sized store. The older woman ahead of me who is blocking everyone from passing because she seems unaware that anyone else exists, begins to complain loudly. This is an outrage, she complains, she has valuable things to do with her time. Her cart is filled with wine and expensive specialty items. And still she complains. When she looks to me to bitch along, I say, “I have been too many places where parents cannot feed their children for me to complain that I have to wait a few minutes for all of this.” I wave my arm in direction of the unbelievable bounty and choice available to us. “Whenever I have to wait,” I tell her, “I remind myself how fortunate I am to have so much abundance.”
Her face twists in sour indignation, but before she can wind up to vent off more entitled outrage, I shrug comically and say, “Hey, how else you gonna’ keep your sense of humor?”
What I really want to do is scream at her, “There are hungry children on the street outside! They will go to bed hungry!” But it will do no good, this woman has no experience in her ken that allows her to shrug off even this slight inconvenience because she has no gratitude for what she has, who she is, where she lives, the privilege she was born into, nothing. She has a grossly limited perspective. She knows only that the world is ‘supposed’ to be the way she wants it to be, the way it has always been for her.
It’s really such a very small way to think.
How do you change that in a ‘me first!’ society? Can you teach empathy? The issue, of course, is that it’s a matter of standards and awareness. To what do you compare any given thing? Do you see yourself as a member of a vast universe or as the center of the only story you know. The creator or the victim?
Let’s take my writing career as a sample. I have published eight books, I’ve had many people enjoy them very much, (which is the best metric for me), I’ve had glowing reviews, and I adore creating other worlds and lives. I am lucky. Compared to someone who has always wanted to write but who has never had the time, the agent, or the publisher to do so, I’m a success! Whoo hoo, go Shari!
But, if I look at the fact that I’ve never had a best-seller, I’ve never had a movie made from one of my books, and I’ve never been featured in Oprah’s book club, then I’m a resounding failure. Boo Shari.
So what do you think? I think it’s writer’s choice whether to call myself a winner or a loser.
Okay, I know some of you are choosing the latter description with a little too much enthusiasm, fair enough. That propels us into the realm of judging our worth based on what other people think about us, but that factor is so unknowable and immeasurable that the science to gauge it hasn’t been discovered yet.
So let that go, for now, focus on the question of whether you think yourself a success or a failure. Should you be happy with your lot in life or distressed?
Each person’s answer depends on what test they use to arrive at an answer. And what’s your time frame for this assessment? Is it what you are experiencing in this minute that counts? The last year? The bottom line of a balance sheet of your total life? And what goes into that accounting? Money made? Happiness felt? Relationships failed? Tears wiped from another’s face by your compassion? Will there be a statue of you or your name on a bridge when you’re gone? What standards apply?
Watching that man with his son on the edge of the ocean was such an amazing reminder to me to look up, to see and imagine the possibilities beyond my limited vision, to remember that there is so much more out there.
I don’t believe in bumper stickers or tattoos, because I have changed my mind so very many times, and I hope I always will, because the option to that is to stop learning and stagnate, fester, and rot. But if I were to have any kind of constant message or symbol to remind me who I am and what is important, it would be one simple word.
This too shall pass.
Ironic, I know, the idea that once I’ve rotted, or hopefully been scattered as ashes in some magnificent redwood glade, I will be far more enlightened and connected than in life. I don’t necessarily believe in life after death, but I do believe that energy and love never die, just morph into something new that is absorbed into a universe hungry for the infusion. I for one will be grateful to return when the time comes, I hope. It does not frighten me that I will be forgotten. It makes no difference to me at all. But making the world a better place while I am a part of it— that is everything.
Try it, for one day, instead of constantly needing to tell yourself how important you are, how fabulous, how great, and especially instead of having to think yourself more important than others, think this…
You will die. All this will be forgotten. It’s just a matter of how long. Even those who are desperate to believe they will be remembered (be immortal) throughout history must face the fact that all human history will eventually end. Even this planet. Only the echoes of our energy and our love will remain, reborn and blended into something new, something even more wonderful.
So, for today, be mortal. Run to the edge of the ocean, or the top of a tall building, or stand in the rain, or listen to Mozart and weep, and know that this moment is magnificent. Say hello, offer a kind word, slip a twenty in a sleeping homeless person’s shoe, laugh like a child.
It isn’t what you absorb, but what you project that matters.
It isn’t how you are remembered, but how you are that counts.
So count yourself lucky.
Know that your breath is shared by seven billion other people.
We’ll all be gone before too long.
Leave something of worth, something more than a memory.
And when I’m gone, if you do think of me, I hope you smile.
One of my earliest memories is of standing next to my sister’s bassinette when she first came home from the hospital. It was Halloween, and in my memory, I can feel the weight of my candy bag in one hand. I was barely tall enough to see over the edge of the low crib so I had rocked forward, up on my toes. In this crystal clear flash of memory, I see the baby so clearly, my new sister, a scrunchy-faced little interruption that didn’t belong there, dressed as a witch.
My mom had dressed her in a witch’s costume and even a pointed little black hat and shoes that curled up at the toes. I recalled this image with perfect clarity in a session with my psychiatrist, who commented, “How darling that your mom took so much trouble to dress a baby in a costume.”
Later that day I called my mom to boast of my razor-sharp visual recall of my spanking new baby sister. She was duly impressed, noting “That’s amazing, you were only three.” I went on to explain how I even remembered the baby costume, hat, pointy shoes, everything, causing her to pause a minute before saying, “Uh, Shari? Steffi was born on Oct 25th, she would have been six days old. I would not have put a newborn in a costume. Especially not a witch’s hat.”
Well that’s not how I remember it. Something wicked had my way come and I’m guessing in retrospect that I didn’t care much for the experience.
Up until that moment I was the baby, I got all the attention and hugging, and then this little hag shows up out of the seventh circle of hell and blatantly steals my mommy.
I was robbed.
My feelings for my sister improved vastly over the years, but apparently I’m not the only one with memory confusion. The demonizing of my sibling, it seems, is not unique to my mental processes, as I found out a few years later when my sister was recalling a different story at the dinner table.
Here’s how I recall the event under discussion. Growing up in Atlanta with lots of trees, we always had amazing rope swings. My dad would tie a thick rope to a high branch, put several knots in the bottom for standing or sitting on, and we would find a thousand ways to create new adventures.
I always loved a show (if only there had been some clue to my future!) and when my sister was about five, making me eight, we decided to put on a circus.
Steffi was smart, strong and flexible. So I set about creating tricks for her to do while using the rope swing. We worked up to her being able to hang upside down from it, holding on with both her hands and ankles, putting her in a position not unlike a human dart, her little body streamlined into an aerodynamic bolt, arms by her sides, legs straight up, and her face, the point, straight toward the ground.
Once she had that down I decided it was time for her to swing in that position, so far we had only done it with the rope dangling. So, with her holding on, back arched, toes pointed, I took hold of the knot and started to pull the rope back so that I could release it and see her fly.
But when I pulled the rope, she didn’t come with it. Instead, it came out of her hands and away from her feet and she dropped like a rocket, like the dart she was, face first, into the ground.
It still hurts when I remember the visual. She landed, nose first, rolled to one side and lay there. My recall is a little fuzzy after that. I remember parents fussing, a trip to the doctor-neighbor, to determine if Steffi’s nose was broken. It wasn’t, but the absence of skin and proliferation of bruising made for a pretty scrappy school photo that year.
I don’t’ remember my sister blaming me at the time. Just her little body sitting patiently on our neighbors’ sofa while the doctor gently prodded at her face and announced that her nose was not broken. I suppose I was relieved, but you know, as a kid there’s always that terrible fear that you’ve hurt your sibling, that you’ve been bad and that will suck because, you know, you get punished. I lurked around waiting to get into trouble, and I do not remember now if I was blamed then or not. Most likely I’ve selectively blocked that part out.
So it was a bit of shock, when, years later, I listened to Steffi tell the story at the dinner table. Except it wasn’t the story of two girls playing circus, rather it was a swift and condemning accusation of how I had deliberately pushed her and broken her nose.
And that definitely wasn’t how I remembered it. At all. Being accused of an action that was untrue hurt my feelings, and I moped about it, feeling the ‘poor me’ of being misunderstood. Or mis-remembered, as the case may be.
The visual of her falling three feet, face first onto the dirt, with nothing to break her fall but her nose, is seared into my memory, so I think I’m right. But let’s look at it from her point of view.
And her point of view was the ground, the earth in all it’s solid mass rushing up to meet her face.
Yep. I think it’s vaguely possible that the same moment might have registered slightly differently in her memory. So why do I keep feeling betrayed that she remembers it differently from the way I do? Why does that hurt my feelings like the child of eight I was when it happened, many moons ago?
Oh woe is me, the loneliness, the alienation, the lack of sympathy and love. No one understands me.
Because I know I’m right, damn it, and I will not concede! No matter how unhappy it makes me, how unreasonable it is, or how valid it is for someone else to feel differently.
The truth is…Memory and subsequent judgment are slippery little fuckers.
Don’t trust ’em.
Alas! The only way to clear my name and soul is to acknowledge that, though I’m not wrong, (universe forbid!) she might not be either. (grumble grumble) Though that’s as far as my indignation will allow me to chill. Which is stupid; human, but really truly stupid.
These days when I listen to someone who views a current situation in a way that I cannot even process, I try to remember that dichotomy of interpretations given by two sisters, who were both actually there, and multiply by infinity. We all remember things differently, each and every human being processes events and memories based on our very unique point of view.
So, even though not one single person’s perspective, in its entirety, will ever be accurately felt and understood by any other single person…
I still catch myself clutching my resentment and pain of feeling misunderstood tight to my chest like a beloved toy, a relic of childhood I should have outgrown. I’ll go on insisting my point of view is the only valid one, that I’ve been wronged, refusing to grow out of the hurt.
Usually I try to include some helpful information in my blog, be it for acting, mothering, partnering or writing. Today I’m just going to tell a story, take from it what you will. It is, in a convoluted way, an explanation of how we function as storytellers.
I’m terrible with years, but it must have been around 1978. I was 17, my sisters were 14 and 8 when we took a family trip to Hawaii. My brother doesn’t figure into this because he always had his own room, sort of. With three younger sisters, very little is sacred, which explains the padlock on his bedroom door at home, but that’s another story.
So we’re in Maui, we’ve rented a condo facing the beach and coconut groves and my sisters and I are in one of the bedrooms, it’s one of those two queen bed affairs with the floor unit air conditioner under the window next to sliding glass doors. There’s a small patio outside the doors, and a table and chair next to the air conditioner.
Being teenagers, my sister and I quickly grow bored with the family hang out, so we find out that about a mile down the beach there is a twin-plex movie theatre. We check the movies and discover that “Junglebook 2” is playing. We decide that, as well as a little independence, this will be an evening well spent.
After the hour long application of makeup and hair fluffing, (because that’s important when you are going to a movie theatre to sit in the dark when there’s no one there you know) we head out, following the instructions from a local. It’s a lovely, late tropical afternoon and we are in silly, giggly high spirits, everywhere around us is beauty and we are grown up enough to go out un-chaperoned. Fourteen and seventeen, who needs pesky parents?
Just outside our condo, we walk through the coconut groves. The wind is playfully tossing the big wide leaves of the palm trees making a lovely, friendly whispering noise, like happy secrets being shared. Big silly crows caw at us from the fronds, comic and brazen, making us laugh. We reach the beach and turn left. The gentle roll of perfect waves with sunlight streaming through them comforts and serenades us as we walk down the beach. Confident, fearless and giddy with freedom, we reach the theatre and go to the ticket desk. Sadly, Jungle Book 2 is sold out and there is only one other choice.
Damian, Omen 2. Da da da dum.
Oh, what the heck, we came all this way and the option is to go back home and sit around reading or playing cards. So we buy the tickets and go into what will always remain to me, the scariest movie I have ever seen. If you know the Omen movies, then you know that there is always an animal portent of death. In the first movie it’s Dobermans, in the second it’s big black ravens. I spend most of the movie with my hands over my eyes as people die violent, creative deaths and there is no way to save them from the spawn of Satan. My sister doesn’t cover her eyes because her hands are too busy digging her fingernails into my arm. The movie thoroughly and officially freaks us out. When the lights come up, we’re shaky, but like, hey, it’s just a movie, right?
So we leave the theatre. Moving from the brightness and colors and crowds of the lobby into a dark, deserted and overcast night on the beach. No sunlight sparkles on aqua blue water, it is silver black and menacing. The clouds hang low and ominous as though supported by the thick, humid air. Clutching each other and alert for otherworldly evil, we start along the sand, each roll of waves grasping toward us like dark fingers that break and crash with malevolent intent. Breathing shallowly, hunched together, on full alert, we make it to the coconut grove.
We move through the terrifying swooshing sounds of the threatening fronds shaking and hissing threateningly above us. Suddenly, a crow cries out and we scream, breaking into a run, covering our heads before our eyes are plucked out by the heinous messengers of darkness.
Finally, the glow of light from the condo windows, our parents, safety. We rush in and tell them how afraid we were. Being the concerned, loving parents they are, they laugh at us.
Once we settle down, everyone goes to bed. We all change into nightgowns. I remember my sister had a long nightgown, white cotton and full, I had a short one. My two little sisters are in the bed closest to the sliding doors and I am in the one near the bathroom. We have left the sliding glass door open, our parents are nearby, so we don’t need to board up the windows and put out crosses, a gentle breeze filters through into the room. The screen door is locked and the white sheer curtains are drawn.
Much later I am wakened by the need to use the restroom. I check the semi-darkness carefully for demons, I’m far from sure it’s safe, but I decide to risk it.
I get up and scuttle the few feet to the bathroom, turning on the light as I close the door.
Now, what I don’t know is that when I turn on the bathroom light, it wakes my sister and the wind has stilled so the room is stuffy and over-warm. While I’m in the bathroom, she gets up out of the bed, half-sleepwalks to the chair next to the air conditioner and turns it on. She’s enjoying the cold air on her face, so she leans her head against the wall and falls asleep in the chair.
Very cautiously, I open the bathroom door and peer out. The room looks clear of hell’s minions, I do not notice my sister in the dimness, where she sleeps motionless in her white nightgown by the sheer curtains of the same color. I start back for my bed, tiptoeing to keep from waking the three headed dogs, and I’m halfway there when my movement wakes my sister.
Three things happened at once: a sudden, strong wind blows, sending the white sheer curtains streaming inward toward me which wakes my sister, who stands up and walks toward me.
From being sure the room is still and unoccupied by anything other than my sisters in the next bed, what I now see is a ghostly figure in white gliding toward me out of the billowing curtains, hands at its sides, zombie-like, bearing down, directly toward me. An electric shock of horror freezes my bones, and I leap for the bed, exclaiming “Oh my God,” except that my petrifying fear renders me incapable of pronunciation, so it comes out more like a throaty, quavering, “Oh ma ga!” I dive under the covers, heart beating and blood pounding, unable to speak, scream, or hear. I yank the thin cotton sheet over my head, because, as we all know, thin cotton will protect you from the devil.
Within seconds, the room is flooded with light and my mother is standing in the doorway, my father’s 6’4” frame behind her. “What is going on?” she cries, concerned. In the light, I sit up to see my sister standing looking groggy in the middle of the room and I know I’ve been snatched from the gates of Biblical mythology come to suck the life blood from my soul.
It takes a minute to explain and figure it out, then being the loving, protective family they are, they have a good long laugh at my expense.
They still laugh at me today, and this story of my cowardice is now one of my daughter’s favorites. Especially the “Oh mah Ga,” part, which makes them howl with laughter at my ridiculousness. I guess it’s genetic.
But let me tell you something. I learned a little something about what the power of suggestion will do to you that day.
And I still don’t like scary movies. I can make them, but I don’t like to watch them.
Whatever you feel and experience, it goes through your imagination and experience filters. Be careful what you let in, lest it fester until you make a complete fool of yourself.
So here we go, a new novel out tomorrow in stores and on line everywhere!! So I’ve spent many hours on FB and twitter, or addressing postcards or arranging speaking engagements. Of course on Saturday I’ll be at Vroman’s in Pasadena at 4 for the book signing, so, it’s been distracting from my usual routine.
I generally spend about 40 hours a week working, not in a row, of course. I break it up and try to spread it over time that I haven’t reserved for my family. Sometimes I can actually get in 6-8 straight hours, but other times it’s two hours before I go to bed, three hours before everyone else gets up, or, like now, forty-five minutes over a quickly snagged burrito while I’m out buying detergent and other important things for family, like…oh, I don’t know…food.
Meanwhile, my next book, isn’t receiving the necessary time and concentration and is therefore resisting my efforts to keep it progressing steadily.
But writers, let’s be honest. Unless you are a super freak or an automaton, you don’t sit down everyday and write forward 4 to 12 pages. You squiggle around a bit, start a character but aren’t totally sure who they are or what they’ll say yet. You have a basic story line idea, or plot layout, but in truth you’re not working from a blueprint or IKEA instructions, (which to be fair require special tools and a keen understanding of fourth dimensional math.) Writing requires time just thinking, doodling concepts and character traits on napkins, watching people behave badly at the grocery store, talking to the homeless guy reading novels on a bus bench, (to be fair, my homeless reader-friend prefers, ‘domestically challenged’) even screaming at the moon to inspire you.
The book, the idea, and your thoughts about it are incomplete. And no amount of forcing words into the computer will congeal it into one of those pretty molds with sliced fruit suspended in a cake-shaped gelatinous mass.
That’s why I love editing, especially with a great editor. The basic form is already there and all you have to do is fluff, like a designer backstage at a fashion show. The main work is done, just a tug at the hem, a twist of a scarf, and you can shove that creation out onto the stage.
As much as I love writing and the books I’ve produced, I have a major problem with promoting them, and here’s why—besides making me feel vaguely braggadocios, (Mom, mom, mom, watch me, watch me!) getting myself out there involves makeup and an attempt at coordinated clothing, even possibly, god-forbid—high heals. Three things I’m able to avoid on a daily basis for months while I’m writing.
One of the big problems with being a writer is that people assume you are available at the drop of a hat, you are not ‘working’ at a job, so you must be able to go to lunch, answer their emails within seconds, take care of their kids when they are busy, and chat for hours on the phone.
Wrong. I’m not a chatter, I turn off my wifi when I work, I love your kids and will take them to the space center when I can take an afternoon off, and if I eat, it will be on the run. My family has learned that they may interrupt me when I’m writing, but I reserve the right to say “Not now.” (One major exception was when my 8 year old daughter put on her Sailor Moon costume, complete with star-wand and stood next to me saying, “But mommy, I want you to come help me save the world.” I mean, come on, I had to go. The future of the planet was at stake.) My friends—who aren’t writers—don’t get it.
And then a book comes out and everyone says, “Oh, you’re so busy, you have so much going on!” Not really. I’m busier when I’m home trying to focus on my story plot in my torn T-shirt with unwashed hair while simultaneously trying to keep a decent house, do the gardening, prepare delicious meals, and spend time with my husband and my daughters.
So when you think of my recent ‘success’ remember this mental picture of me at home, moving cats off my keyboard, jumping up to check the laundry, the crock pot, the sprinklers. It might not seem as glamorous as speaking in front of a group of people wearing a nice skirt and blouse holding my shiny new hardcover, but it’s the bulk of my life, and frankly I prefer it.
Because, while I appreciate and am eternally grateful for the friends and readers who say lovely things on line, re-tweet my good reviews, and actually take the time to come out and support me… what I really want to do is write.