America, authors, beauty, children, depression, divorce, family, Life in General

Breathing Underwater-or surviving giving a shit.

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So I’m having a bad day, like you do. It’s not so much that bad things are happening to me as it is that anything that does happen is being processed through my filters as emotional torture. You know the kind of thing, someone is rude at the grocery store and you can’t let it go, someone else has four dogs off the leash on a walk in a state park where it is clearly marked ‘no dogs’ and when you mention this, you get a condescending, “Thank you,” before the bitch returns to her loud cell phone call while her dogs harass the wildlife and poop on the trail and as much as I’d like to I can’t bring myself to drop kick one of the canines into the stream, (the rules don’t apply to them after all) my daughters are criticizing me for ______ (fill in whatever works for you cause I am not alone in this), there’s a dead fawn on the road where everyone speeds like idiots because it’s their god given entitlement to kill everything in their path because they want to go fast. Pretty soon I’m stuck on the ‘people suck’ loop and I’m crying for no apparent reason and contemplating returning to drug addiction or wondering if anyone will notice if I just move to a remote village in the Abruzzi.

But no, people need me here. That’s what we tell ourselves anyway. I get overwhelmed by the sheer annoyance of not being able to end it all because eventually someone will need help moving, a recipe, a ride to the hospital, or a babysitter. And I, sigh, will raise my hand and volunteer.

Being needed is a blessing…and a curse. I suppose that’s because the required minimum—making small talk with people who watch reality TV, showing up at family events to be mocked by your siblings, listening to your father make racist jokes that he thinks are funny and innocent without taking his head off, and not letting the general public’s general bad behavior ruin every outing—take so much energy.

Okay, it saps my life strength. Over the years I’ve come to dislike people, not all of them of course, but the more I paid attention and shifted what is important in my life from surface success to actual kindness and decency on every level, the more disappointed I became.

So recently my 82-year old father and his wife were moving out of their home of 30-something years in Atlanta and the entire nasty pack up and move fell onto my only sibling left on the east coast, I decided I’d better go help. My oldest daughter, knowing that if I had to sit a house with Fox news blaring all day without emotional back up I might actually commit patricide, courageously offered to come and help.

Now there’s nobody who collects shit and hangs onto it more efficiently and pointlessly than wealthy white folks. I kid you not there were a dozen full sets of china, countless boxes of unused and unopened stemware, expensive suits and dresses with the tags still on them that were out of style in the late nineties, and three punch bowl sets, one of them with 52 cups. When my step mom said she wanted to keep it, I asked her how often she was going to have a garden party with 52 guests. She shrugged and said, “Who knows?”

I do. I know. Never. I used to entertain like that, but no more. Fact is, it got to the point that I realized I was throwing parties, spending thousands of dollars and weeks of effort, to entertain people who didn’t appreciate it at all. I think I swore it off after the time I used the Limoge china at a garden party only to find two broken plates shoved under chairs the next morning and cigarette butts ground out on my patio. Enough. And after years of taking in every orphan who had no where to go on holidays, including them in my family celebrations, putting them up, buying them gifts, and cooking for twelve, pretty much every one of those people completely blew me off when I divorced the last husband. My response to that when I climbed, still  bleeding, out of the back of the closet where I’d been licking my wounds was ultimately, “Good riddance,” but it took a while to heal from that poison arrow puncture.

It’s come to the point that I’m in danger of becoming a recluse, which is fine, because my husband is the same way, but eventually and inevitably….somebody is going to need a hand cleaning their apartment so that they get their deposit back and I have all the pine-sol.

So after I get back from doing my good daughter deeds in conservative hell and I’m having this bad day, I’m driving around looking for a place I can pull over and just curl up in the leaf litter alone for a good hour or so of self-pity, otherwise I’ll go swimming with rocks in my pockets, when I get a text from older daughter. ‘Have you talked to my sister? She’s at the clinic at school.’

Time to be mom and shut down all concern for self. I turn the car around and drive to campus, find the clinic, and then find X-ray where she’s having her head examined, literally. Parking is a bit a challenge, but once I work that out I start trying to find a way to get into a building that was clearly designed to confuse and confound the non-student-or-faculty-visitor. Still fragile and feeling like my nerves are stretched thinner than five hundred feet of frayed, tangled dental floss, I see two young women sitting on a bench outside the building. They are hugging, one’s head tight into the other’s shoulder. I do not know if they are friends, lovers, or strangers thrown together in some difficult moment, but it does not matter. What I see is love, compassion, real connection. Tears start streaming down my face and as they both look up at me, I say in a choked voice, “That makes me happy. I’m having a really bad day and that really makes me happy.” I am aware that I look and sound like an emotionally unstable wreck and while I learned long ago that experiencing my emotions honestly is a strength not a weakness and that I cannot control what others think, I am just hoping that I don’t freak them out.

And then the miracle happens. They both make eye contact and smile with authentic warmth, the one with her head down says, “Oh, I’m so glad!” with such enthusiasm that the fog in my head and heart dissipate in an instant, clearing so that the light on the dogwoods around us and the shadows of the ferns on wall shine with fresh beauty. They were just as beautiful a moment before of course but as I said, my filters, like sunglasses smeared with pond scum, would not allow me to experience it.

I continue past them, tears coming harder, but joyous now. Yes, my pain and my fullness are my strength, I know this, and sometimes, just every once in a while, some one else sees that too.

My daughter turned out to have a sinus infection instead of leaking brain fluid, so…that’s good, and most important. But almost equally elating was the look on her face when I came into the exam room. The shy, almost child-like smile that let me know she was glad I could be there even as she told me I didn’t need to come. She doesn’t need me, this one, she was born independent, but she was still glad for my presence.

And that’s why I will continue to volunteer to be dragged over the searing coals of the emotional exposure BBQ. Few people in our lives will appreciate the percentage of effort or the sacrifice of our personal happiness that giving up our own peace of mind just to care—for them and their world—costs us. That’s okay.

I’m glad I went to help my Dad, even if my blood boiled at his willful ignorance and apathy. (We don’t recycle, it’s too much trouble. Global warming is bullshit.) I’m really glad I took a small portion of the responsibility off of my sister, the one of the four of us who always does what’s right. I’m glad I get angry when people treat others or their environment with disdain and arrogance. I will endure the exhaustion that comes from fighting for others who can’t fight for themselves and for a future I will not live to see. I’m glad that I can speak through tears when I needed to stand up to someone for treating me or others badly. So many people see those things as weakness, as unnecessary, as overwrought, or they just plain resent you because caring or calling them out makes them uncomfortable.

Too fucking bad.

It’s just who I am.

Weepy, overly-emotional.

Sensitive.

Human.

Alive.

Bring it.

Shari, May 15th, 2018

Continue reading “Breathing Underwater-or surviving giving a shit.”

Life in General

Ch…ch…ch…ch…changes.

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Turn and face the world. David Bowie’s brilliant talent aside, this is something we choose to do or not to do every day. Every moment, in fact. I’ve had so many big changes in my life, living in different cities, married to different men, raising two very different daughters, careers, becoming an aunt who loves and participates in her nieces and nephews lives. All of these things have shaped me, like those ripples that change the surface, but never leave the stream, I’m still me.

Of course, I’m a bit more faceted than I once was. I often recognize the old ego and focus on appearances, which was so prevalent in my younger self, in others. When they are young people, it always makes me smile. I have no patience, however, for grown ups who continue to live their lives that way. That false presentation of self is despicable to me. Yes, your life is about you, but as you mature, if you don’t realize that life is also about your sharing it with others, then you have missed out. You are as one dimensional as a glossy photo, and worth no more. What we want, what fills us truly and makes us rich, are each of those cuts on the raw diamond, that harsh raking and splitting of a substance that seemed too hard and solid to ever alter, followed by the buffing, until the shine and sparkle come through. Those changes, those trials, are the very thing that makes me prismatic, that take ordinary light and turns it to rainbows when viewed through my eyes and heart.  My life, without my family, my daughters, my charity, and my acknowledgment of the worth of others, would be dull and opaque. Even with all the drama. (And with three brilliant siblings and eight remarkable cousins, believe me, I know drama!)

My recent changes? I have one magnificent daughter who turned twenty-one. When I went up to visit her, she took me to dinner at the nicest restaurant in her college town and paid the check. It was weird. But I was so proud. Just as proud that one of my ‘other’ daughters, (my name for friends of my daughters who I love and care for with cutting depth) was the chef. I was amazed, and so proud that the lovely table blurred before my eyes as tears of happiness for her overwhelmed me.

And at the same time, my youngest daughter got a car. Wow. Suddenly, I find myself getting up to make her lunch, and then sending her off to school. All of a sudden, I’m not as necessary. All at once, I have time that I didn’t have before. And…while that’s great, I miss it. It’s a loss. It’s a change, and it’s all worth it.

Because if it weren’t for loving someone more than myself, if it weren’t for learning to sometimes put others first, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I feel really sorry for the women I meet who are jealous of the attention their husband might give to their step-children, sorry for fathers or mothers who spent all their time promoting themselves, sorry for people that never visit their aging parents and just sit and talk, even if they’re bored, I’m sorry that they missed the point. To love someone that much is not a sacrifice, it is a gift.

Realizing the truth of that is the only way I’ve survived working with a charity where the kids sometimes don’t make it. It’s worth having known these amazing kids, these short-lived butterflies, these wildflowers, who shine out all too briefly, but brilliantly in our world. The gift of perspective they give us is beyond my power of words. It is the gift of choice—will I enter this drama? will I stress about money? will I feel victimized if someone says untrue things about me? No. It isn’t important. The other greatest gift I have received from these relationships is the elation of a cancer in remission, or the nameless void of death. I can and will cry for each of them, feeling that grief or that joy deeply is part of my base, my foundation, it keeps me honest and true to myself. It reminds me why I am here.

I’ve been asked to write a memorial service for City of Hope, which they have every year, for all the children we’ve lost. About two hundred families attend. There is a tree and every family puts their child’s name on the tree, then there is a small presentation, and that’s my part, then a non-denominational ‘service.’ The doctor in charge has asked me to make a twenty minute ‘show’ out of “The Little Prince.” This will include a staged show with a few actors, a narrator, and, of course, I will include the laughing stars. He asked if I would narrate it, and the truth is…I can’t.

I am wired to feel things very strongly. I cannot see damage or cruelty and look away. No trip to the mall will make me forget the unkind words of an abusive parent. There is no way I can narrate the story of “The Little Prince” to that group and still be able to speak. And they deserve someone who can get through it, they will have sorrow enough of their own. These people, every one, are special, their lives have been touched by a unique person who has left them. I honor them all, and while I share their grief, it does not belong to me.

A gathering of angels. That’s what it is. And I will be lucky enough to stand beneath those stars, to share in that stream of humanity connected by empathy. That is why my writing, and my life, have changed for the better, because I have turned to face those changes. And the fact that my daughters have stood here with me, so many times, has made them the exceptional diamonds that they are.

Yes, the stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels are laughing at me.

And I am content.

Shari, March 22nd, 2015.

Life in General

Mom, Daughter, Aunt, Sister, Friend, Caregiver.

 

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A moment I treasure more than all the riches in the world.

These are the words that best define me, and I feel honored to use all of them not only as nouns, but as adjectives. But those labels come with a responsibility, a joyful one, as far as I am concerned. 

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done a good bit of caregiving. It happens. My mom in the hospital, my sister and her family staying with me while their new house was being readied, watching over my nephew who was sick, it took up quite a bit of my energy and time. I know we don’t always, but right now, I’m doing well and have extra strength to give.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel like I’ve been given a gift. Time with my loved ones. 

I know of a woman from school, we’ll call her an acquaintance because I have utterly no respect for her and therefore do not consider her worthy of friendship, who married a man with two kids. She constantly feels robbed if any attention or money goes to his children. She doesn’t consciously understand this of course, but it is obvious to anyone who loves and cares for children, their own, or someone else’s. I remember having a conversation with her before her wedding where she was complaining about having to drive the kids to school, or anywhere. 

I said, “Well, get ready, because as their step mother you will be taking on that responsibility.” And she literally shouted at me, “It’s not my responsibility to drive them, it’s his!!” Since then, I’ve heard from those kids that when she does have to take them somewhere, she always tells them, “You owe me.” 

Wow. 

This is the same woman who constantly touts herself as a stellar stepmother on twitter or FB, which defines what she values. Not the kids, but being admired for all her ‘efforts.’ (she also makes a big deal about ‘cooking them nutritious meals’ which the kids define as ‘the same 3 tasteless dinners’) There’s a lot else I don’t care for in this woman, or people like her, but that sums it up for me. I have to wonder not only why she would marry a man with children if she’s going to resent even the most basic of family responsibilities.

The answer of course, is that he’s rich and famous and the kids are an unfortunate inconvenience.  But that’s another blog. 

I have another friend whose stepmother documents every penny spent on him. Keeps a ledger. I have to wonder what possible purpose this could serve. Does she expect him to pay her back for every fast food meal? What does the woman gain from this practice other than feeding her own resentment? 

The answer is, of course, ‘proof.’ Which means, she would rather be right than happy and loving. 

 

I also know plenty of wonderful step-parents. One in particular who powered through the hate and resentment toward her because, as usual, the girls saw their father’s remarrying as an assault on their mom. (Though they had broken up years earlier.)  This stepmom drove them everywhere, signed them up for classes, picked out their clothes, planned fabulous vacations and waited for them to eventually respond to her. And they did, because she didn’t do any of it to look good, she did it because she loved them, cared about them, and took them on as family when she married their father. I have nothing but respect for this beautiful, brilliant, woman. She, and other’s like her, are there, heart and soul, for their new family, and it can sometimes be a thankless job. Just like parenting of any kind.  For me, family and love are paramount. My husband would give his life for my children, they know it, he knows it, and if I wasn’t sure of it, I would never have chosen him to be my mate. Not even an option. In fact, in our wedding, he not only made a vow of commitment to my girls, giving them acorn necklaces to echo our acorn and oak leaf rings, but he also made a vow to my mom, giving her a necklace with an oak tree, promising to always take care of her. I did the same for his mother, and if he had had children, they would be my own now. I know this with absolute clarity. He could never have married a woman who wouldn’t.

I’m betting the two resentful women listed above made no mention of their step children in their vows, it wouldn’t have occurred to them. 

I know I shouldn’t judge because most people believe they are doing the right thing, though the truth is, they are doing what they are capable of, and for far too many individuals in this world of surfaces and appearances, their capacity for love is sadly overwhelmed by their need to feed their own egos or justify their shortcomings. It costs them, in love, in connection, and in respect, though I don’t suppose those are things they’ve learned to value. I understand that there are people who have different values in the world and people’s behavior usually comes down to how they define themselves. Is it their material things? Is it accomplishments, money, or talent? Is it through the shallow validation of being admired or lauded?

For me, my favorite people are the ones who think of none of those things, they define themselves by the moments of loving and caring and living that create a real connection, and consequently, these people are generally extremely successful in all areas of their lives. Like the ‘good’ stepmom I mentioned above. On top of being an accomplished pianist,  speaking several languages, and helping out with several charities, she’s a brilliant, and successful economist. Brilliant. 

Happy people are successful. That is the only true measure of success. 

So here I sit, with a bad cold that I picked up, no doubt, from my darling 3 year old nephew, and days behind on my new manuscript, but I couldn’t be more delighted, I couldn’t feel richer or more satisfied. Every time I think of playing with trains with my nephew, or the funny things he said, as 3 year olds will do, I smile. My face is sore from smiling. It made me happy to get up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to make tea for my own daughter and see her off to her first real job as a production assistant on a film, and then get up again at 6:30 a.m. to make breakfast and pack a lunch for my 8 year old niece. I was fine with skipping my hike to stay home with my nephew so that my sister could drive her daughter to school and then rush to her old home to finish packing. Then, when my mom went to hospital with chest pains, I packed up the computer, a couple of good books and a scrabble board and headed out again. 

And I have to say, I’m so lucky to be able to do these things. They are an honor. The love and trust of anyone else means more than anything else to me. 

I suppose I’m writing about this now because of my new book. “Invisible Ellen” is done and in production. It’s the story of a woman, unattractive, orphaned, forgotten and unseen by society or others who makes a couple of friends and takes her first tentative steps into participation in life. That novel is done. But the sequel, which I’m working on now, goes a step further, and in “Emerging Ellen” she must learn to be needed. Perhaps, even to overcome her own horrible upbringing, and make a better life for another unwanted child. 

It’s the most frightening thing she can imagine. But I have a sneaky suspicion that she’ll find a way to overcome that fear and her life will open up to embrace it. 

Because I believe that’s why we’re here. To connect and care. 

What else is there? 

So don’t be afraid, take care of someone else, and take care of yourself.

Shari, August 20th, 2013. 

Life in General

Could You Be More Selfish? Please?

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I have a busy day today, but the thing I look forward to the most is our monthly meeting of the board of directors for the Desi Geestman Foundation. 13 years ago a determined group of people started this foundation in honor of a little girl who fought the brave fight for two years. During her long and often painful treatments, she and her family saw the very real needs of other families suffering through the cancer journey at City of Hope and it was her fervent wish to help those children and their families. 

And so, we do. Desi’s loving spirit lives on through the many volunteers and devoted supporters of the charity that bears her name. We focus on the needs of the family, whatever they may be. Our greatest asset is Desi’s mom, Ileana, who gives emotional support tirelessly to all the people we touch. We have had families traveling four hours on a bus to get their child to chemotherapy so we found cars to donate to them. So many families have single parents who cannot quit their jobs to be with the child going through treatments, because they have other children to support. So we help with child care, gas and grocery cards, rent or utilities payments, even last minute birthday parties for kids too sick to leave the hospital. And sadly, still too often, we help with the massive, always shocking, costs of funerals. 

And sometimes, we help a young person realize a dream they’ve had, giving them time with their friends and family. This beautiful young lady is one of those. And I am so proud and happy to share this photo of her realized goal of visiting Stonehenge with all of you. 

I’m a busy mom, and my days are pretty much filled up with writing, working, carpools, housework, yard work, and production meetings, but somehow, when I find time for this cause, I feel so much less pressured. I feel that my day was well spent. 

A recent University of Pennsylvania study showed that “people who spend precious minutes on a charitable cause feel they have had more time to themselves at the end of the day than those who performed a non-altruistic task.” The theory goes that squeezing in a good deed makes people feel good and creates a sense of usefulness, which puts other time demands in perspective. 

So be self-serving! Do it for yourself. I can’t think of a more rewarding way to end my day than helping at the helm of an amazingly positive force. All my other concerns sort of melt into a white noise of unimportance. The other members of the board are people who inspire me so much. The Director is a past CEO of City of Hope, Dr. Miser. He has spent a lifetime helping others and giving selflessly. He and his wife have adopted 11 children with severe special needs.Talk about perspective. He live in England now, but flies in to head up our meetings and help out at the hospital. Dr. Anderson, one of the other members, is a doctor at City of Hope who works everyday striving to heal these children. 

Me? I’m just an actress, writer, mom, who sees the needs around her and does what she can in a small way to tackle a huge problem. When I see the gratitude on the faces of the parents, I know that every day, hour and minute I spend with this cause is time well spent.

I’ll be honest, I do it for me. And my life is so much richer for it. My children too, have always helped out and are so much more aware of life and it’s trials. They are more grateful for what they have and more compassionate people. 

So get out there and do something for yourself! Improve your day, make your minutes count!! You can go to volunteermatch.org to find a way to help out in your own community, or you might want to check us out at www.desigeestmanfoundation.org/. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is…Be More Selfish!!

Shari, November 7, 2012