Happy New Year! So whoo hoo, it’s a click of the clock, a difference of dates on an arbitrary calendar, a ‘new’ beginning. Such anticipation, so much celebration, so many champagne corks popped, advertising sold, intentions stated, and pressure applied to have fun. When? Well, not yet, not yet, okay, go, go, go! Right now! Oh bummer, you fell asleep and missed it!! We work ourselves up into a frothy lather, and deservedly so, after all the most amazing thing is going to happen. That’s right—It was one assigned number and now…wait for it…it’s another! Miracle of miracles! Light the fireworks and wake up with a hangover!
Ah, that one specific switch of digital numbers clicking over is unprecedented, amazing, and miraculous, it’s a unique opportunity to alter everything about ourselves, to plan for the future, to take it all back, to erase our errors or promise perfection, to set ourselves up for spectacular failure, it’s the one time of year, (or the change over between them anyway) that we can truly affect real changes in our lives, make a fresh start, really start living—or, no, uh…wait…
Maybe, just maybe—stay with me now—it’s just another random moment in the unrelenting passage of time in our dimension? Maybe celebrating ‘new year’ is another case of humans buying into a fake concept to amuse themselves, to invent some cause for community, to stick a marker in our chaotic and brief existence?
Not that that’s bad.
I mean, it occurs to me that just because somebody assigned random numbers to define our days and moments, which, fair enough, many of us agreed to, doesn’t make one ‘official time’ any more powerful or transformative than every other second, minute, day, year, decade or millennium. I mean, unless you aren’t Christian-European descended (What? There is more than one calendar in use on the planet? Yes, over forty in fact. Doesn’t that just rock our Christian-centric world!) you’ve collectively agreed to mark the change on a midnight in mid-winter, (ironically a pagan holiday which actually made sense for a celebration of the earth’s position in the solar system) but we could just as easily have chosen a late afternoon in mid-summer, or twilight in early fall, or dawn on any given Tuesday.
And by the way, where and when is the official, actual, really, really, honestly true new year? Shouldn’t we all agree on a single moment? It is the whole world we are talking about. Is the ‘true’ new year in Bangkok, or Paris, or Bimidji, Minnesota? How can there be an actual ‘change over’ when the moment comes at different ‘times’ in different places? We can’t even narrow it down to one in our own country, much less the whole world. Technically, there should be 24 different time zones, and therefore two dozen non-simultaneous new years, but thanks to the International date line, and the fact that some time zones change in 30 or 40 minutes rather than an hour, there are actually 38 time zones. (And that’s for our calendar, there are over forty different calendars worldwide, see above.)
38 time zones. 38 chances to celebrate a completely made up marker.
There is some method to the madness, some reason and explanation, some phenomenon to mark, of course, and that is the earth’s rotation around the sun, the fact that another solar year has been completed, another circumnavigation round the big ol’ ball of fire we call ‘the’ sun on our tiny, insignificant planet.
Insignificant, that is, in the scope of the universe. So if you are looking at the big picture, planet earth in a infinite, ever-changing universe is temporary at best. From down here, seeing how it’s the only planet we’ve got, it’s a pretty big deal—and the reason we measure time. Unfortunately, we stopped acknowledging nature and science as the supreme wonder when all us pesky humans invented religions. Marking mid-winter, an important date to be sure, was hijacked and renamed Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Mawlid, and many others, None-the-less, the world keeps turning, the sun keeps getting lapped, and time goes ever on even as civilizations, continents, religions, humans and yes, even planets, come and go.
Yet it’s a big moment, this passing of another year. A truly remarkable thing. This ‘holiday’ celebrates the almost unfathomably complex journey of a big hunk of rock, (or tiny speck of debris, depending on your perspective, see above) hurling through open space subjected to both centrifugal force (being pulled outward by spin and motion) and gravity (being pulled toward a far more dense mass, the sun) finding a balance on a scale that dwarfs any comparison to like-phenomenon taking place on the planet itself.
Which is pretty awesome.
But you have to admit that you could say that about every single second of every day. I mean, maybe we finished a lap back to this starting point, but what about the one just before, or after, that one? If you lined up 365, okay, 365 and ¼ days, (okay, 365.2422, but who’s counting?) and made any given second in any day a starting point, you would reach every single one of those ‘starting points’ again once a year.
It’s a circle dummies.
So here’s my point, as insignificant and cynical as you may find it. You get to decide when to start over. You say when to celebrate. You can change your life, make a resolution, forgive, love, start over, go back, end it all, or just plain quit worrying about it all any time you choose. In any second, of any day, in any season, you can start a diet, join a gym, raise your fist and swear at the moon, give up alcohol, find joy, thrill at life, drink champagne, kiss a loved one, or go walk about without permission or prompting from anybody.
Many years ago my father divorced my mom after thirty years of marriage effectively shattering our family’s holiday traditions. Hey, it happens, and instead of trying to force a pale imitation of Christmas pasts, my mom read somewhere that it would help to make some new traditions.
And we, her innocent offspring, were unwillingly recruited to add enthusiasm. This was wishful thinking elevated to new heights. First of all, we liked the old traditions where we did nothing but got great stuff, and second, we were teenagers who couldn’t be bothered.
Her first idea was to go and cut a tree at a tree farm instead of buying one from a convenient lot where expert helpers would cut the trunk evenly so the tree would stand straight, trim the branches, and lift the inevitably soaking wet tree (Atlanta in winter, trust me, it was raining) on to the roof of your car and tie it on the way privileged people like ourselves were supposed to do. For some reason, forsaking this ease and comfort did not appeal to my siblings and I, and we bitched and moaned the entire drive out of our cozy suburb to the tree farm, located somewhere out in nowhere Georgia, a state which, believe me, has a whole lot of nowhere and we were right in the middle of it.
Eventually, though, we arrive in smack-dab, park, and slog through ankle deep Georgia red clay mud to the shack that serves as office and cashier stand. The farmer, with a cheek full of chaw held loosely in place by his two remaining tobacco stained teeth, gives us a small, rusty hacksaw with a loose blade, and we go trudging off into the uncharted acreage. Conscious of energy conservation, namely his own, every four feet my brother would stop, sigh torturously, and say, ‘That’s a good one, how about that one?” but my mom was on a mission to make this an experience, which meant nothing less than committing a substantial amount of time to it, and for this purpose none of the absolutely perfect trees convenient to the unpaved parking area would do. So on we trudged, getting damper and more cynical with every step. My brother and I, the oldest ones, were especially good at delivering pithy, scathing ridicule to express our displeasure, and we were in rare form that day. After circumnavigating the hundred acre wood, Mom finally picked out a tree that looked almost exactly identical to the other six thousand trees we had rejected, with one outstanding feature—an especially thick and gnarled trunk.
For some reason, my sister Steffi, the third born, has always been the one who was relegated the shitty jobs. Okay, the reason is that she bitched the least, was not as lazy and arrogant, and is frankly physically superior to the rest of us. My brother Dwayne, who is now a top television producer, was, and obviously still is, a genius at designating tough manual labor to other people. He was a real Tom Sawyer-painting-the-fence kind of kid, and he’s grown up into a real Tom Sawyer-producing-hit-TV-shows kind of adult. I’ll never forget when he wanted to dig a pond in our backyard, so he told the other kids that no one could do it but him. By lunchtime he was drinking lemonade and supervising a chain gang of underage workers as they dug for their lives while he enjoyed uninterrupted leisure and an egg salad sandwich. Our youngest sister, and fourth in line to the throne, Shawna, was exactly that—the youngest, meaning she was far too pampered to be expected to exert herself, and anyway her arms were the thickness of twizzle sticks. I was probably wearing something covered in sequins, (it was the seventies) so I wasn’t going to do it. Out of habit, we all looked at Steffi. She cursed once, grabbed the shitty saw, dropped, and belly crawled up under that tree across slugs and wet pine straw to start felling.
Dwayne and I provided a constant barrage of criticism that no one but ourselves found humorous, so we fulfilled every expectation, Shawna complained that she was hungry and this was stupid, which was helpful, and Mom told us all to be quiet and enjoy it, we’d thank her later. After about thirty minutes of Steffi’s concentrated attack with a blunt, bending tool that barely qualified as a cutting utensil, the tree toppled and she rolled onto her back panting before coming to her feet, brushing mud off her jacket, sweaty and victorious. She’d shown that tree, and all of us, who was boss.
Now all she had to do was drag it a mile back to the car.
Which, under threat of severe famine from our mother, we begrudgingly helped her do, bitching a moaning all the way. While my mom kept reminding us that we were making memories and forging new traditions, I kept reminding her that pine sap was ruining my satin jacket.
Can’t you just feel the adolescent gratitude?
The tree was beautiful, smelled better than a lot tree, dripped more sap on the floor, and listed dangerously to one side, but it was our tree, there by the fruits of our first hand labor. Well, second hand in my case, but my sister cut it down, so I felt justified in taking full credit, proudly proclaiming, “We cut that tree ourselves,” to visitors. And a tradition was born. Steffi still cuts the tree.
A couple years later, after my own first divorce, (just warming up) my youngest sister and I went with my mom to spend Christmas in Washington D.C. with one of my aunts, her husband, and their daughter Amanda. Amanda is an only child and her parents are two of the brightest people on the planet, so to say she was a precocious five-year old is perhaps a sliver of an understatement. Because she had no siblings, she was excited to the point of hysteria at the idea of a visit with her cousins who she considered her contemporaries, never mind that she was not yet six and Shawna and I were 13 and 22, bit of a gap there socially, but who doesn’t adore being worshipped? And she was a fun, sharp as a whip little kid, so we did have a blast with her. My foremost memory of that trip was playing Trivial Pursuit with Aunt Toni, a PHD in library sciences, and Uncle David the man in charge of the computer archives of the Smithsonian institution. Talk about a rigged contest. My advice if you ever find yourself asked to participate in a game of knowledge with people who essentially have doctorates in information—Don’t do it!! The only category in which they displayed the smallest margin of error was arts and entertainment, and that only because they didn’t waste a lot of precious brain cells on ‘facts’ like ‘What was the Brady Family’s dog’s name?” All other, less important topics, literature, history, geography, you know the boring ones, were locked and loaded for these supreme intellectuals. It was like playing Jeopardy against Wikipedia.
But overall the trip was magical, visiting the museums on the mall, taking my sister to the natural history museum for the first time, cocoa by the fire, discussing books and arts, behind the scenes tours at the Smithsonian, it was all remarkable. And then came Xmas morning. Early Christmas morning.
Now, I know all kids get ramped up by the societal induced hysteria of Santa’s impending arrival, but I don’t think I’d ever seen such enthusiasm as that little blonde fanatic. She’d been promised Barbi’s dream house and she was jonesing for Christmas morning like a junkie waiting for his pusher outside the 7/11 when the methadone clinics are closed.
I remember it snowed on Christmas Eve, we stayed up late sipping wine, laughing, and watching the fat white flakes coat the sidewalks with crystalline beauty. When we finally retired to hunker down under cozy wool blankets, I thought how lovely it would be to sleep in.
But cousin Amanda had other plans.
Shawna and I were sleeping together in a bedroom off the stairwell that wound up the four floors of the brownstone townhouse and the open space channeled voices from the lower floors upwards as efficiently as a P.A system.
It was about four-thirty a.m. when the first transmission came through. “Mommy! Daddy! Get up, it’s Christmas!!””
This was answered with sleepy grumbles, and then, “Amanda, go back to bed or Santa won’t come.”
She must have heeded that dire warning because we were able to drop back off to sleep, but about twenty minutes later we heard, clear as a Christmas bell ringing directly over our heads in a bell tower in which we were sleeping, “Mommy! Daddy! Get up!! It’s Chrissssssmasssss!!!”
Shawna groaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her ears.
But there was no stopping the frenzy now. After only a few additional minutes of blissful unconsciousness I was snatched awake once more, this time by the shrill victory cry of, “It’s the BARBI DREAMHOUSE!!” that echoed through the townhouse, which was not made of pink plastic but stone that reverberated every sound from downstairs upwards, effectively funneling the delight directly to our sleepy heads.
Did I mention that sound really carried in this house? Okay, just so you didn’t miss it.
Mind you, it’s pitch black outside and nowhere close to dawn, so Shawna and I wait out the initial sonic blast of joy then cautiously resume our fitful slumber.
Then the cats began to fall.
Forbidden by her thoughtful parents from waking us, our young kin decided she would let her cats do it, so she would take one, and then the other, sneak into the dark bedroom, and toss one on the bed. We’d wake with an ‘oooff’ as one landed on our stomachs then scrabbled for traction on the soft skin of our tummies with their claws, hell bent on streaking to temporary safety until the hopped up six-year old could locate them and resume tossing. Confused and befuddled as the cats, we raised our heads to peer into the gloom after each onslaught, in the doorway we could make out a small silhouette, watching hopefully to see the fruits of her efforts, if we might, possibly, be just about up or if she needed to muster the felines for another push toward the front. The clever little darling. I told you that family was smart.
After the fourth such assault, I was treated to what I will always remember as the defining moment of that Christmas visit.
My little sister, all of thirteen and not prone to composing literature of any kind, especially in her sleep, was suddenly motivated to memorialize the situation in verse.
It was still a couple of hours until dawn, and the streetlights outside sent only the slightest glimmer seeping through the curtain covered windows. Still mostly asleep, I became aware that my sister was climbing out from under the covers, she moved to the foot of the bed, and as I watched this vague gray blur in the dark room, outlined against the pale glow of the window behind her, she assumed a presentational stance and proceeded to recite the following words in a strong monotone:
“A poem, By Shawna Shattuck.
Get up, get up, before it is light.
Open all your presents in the middle of the night.”
Then, without another word or explanation, she climbed back in bed and passed out.
I was laughing too hard to go back to sleep.
It’s my favorite Holiday poem of all time.
And it, and my extended family, made that one of the best Christmases ever.
You never know what will become a new tradition. It might be a recipe, a song, a game, a poem in the darkness, or even an annoying trip with a bunch of ungrateful adolescent cynics to a tree farm in the Georgia countryside, but when you find one, treasure it, repeat it, or hell, let it go and make a new one.
Can’t wait to see what the holiday will bring this year.
Even if, like myself, you don’t celebrate any religion except the magic of mid-winter, you might find yourself enjoying or even laughing at some ridiculous aspect of the shared, vast, human experience, exaggerated by the ridiculously high holiday expectations we unrealistically demand of ourselves. Those laborious feasts and decorations will most likely end in indigestion and a rush to Big Lots for more plastic bins to store this useless crap in. But if we’re lucky, holidays and family time can offer us more than their original intention, they can make us laugh together.
Is there anything more worthy of celebration?
And now that Amanda is grown with kids of her own, I can finally pass along a little secret for getting mom up early on Christmas morning to her kids.
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.
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.
Ah travel, the thrill of new places and faces, the strange twang of English words twisted with accents that render them unrecognizable to the American ear, the savory surprises of foreign food, the heart-lifting vistas new to these old eyes, and, of course, the stress of constant twenty-four hour, unrelenting contact with your beloved companion.
That much togetherness puts a strain on even the most tolerant and loving of relationships. No matter where you go, there you are, and oh look, honey, we brought all our emotional baggage along. All our pesky husband and wife trigger buttons were dragged across the ocean and landmass so we wouldn’t feel lost in an alien land. Yet, with so much that is unfamiliar, it’s good to know that no matter where you go, some things stay the same, it’s having them amplified that’s difficult. Even if hubby and I were mild-mannered personalities, our emotional triggers can be consistently relied upon (and after twenty five years doing dramatic theatre, we do not qualify as drama free). We may be in Ireland among a green landscape so rich and lush that it brings tears to our eyes, but it still takes only a fraction of a second for him to piss me off royally.
And the feeling is mutual, apparently. (How dare he think me less than perfect!) Let me give you a for instance. My husband loves to announce to total strangers that I am a nervous traveler. This while I’m reading calmly at the airport gate while he rails and sweats over some half-imagined slight from the car rental company. Why he thinks that these exhausted fellow travelers, who no doubt lead full and diverting lives of their own, would find this information pertinent or even interesting is a mystery to me. He goes on to enlighten them that this is because I’m a control freak. Then I go back to my Rex Stout novel and he taps madly at his phone where he is mapping landmarks such as large rocks or random graffiti that will help our cab driver locate our apartment in a Dublin neighborhood that has been familiar to locals for over six centuries.
But never mind, we both love a new adventure, the two of us have traveled extensively, both alone in our pre-each-other lives and with each other during our sixteen years of together-bliss. It seems to escape him that I have lived in exotic locals for months on end while shooting some movie or show, or just off to experience the big ol’ world without any one to tell me what to do or where to go. Say what you will about having a partner in life—which, don’t get me wrong, I prefer because it is him—it can be truly fabulous to answer to no one and do exactly what you want to do all damn day long.
Of course, come evening, nothing compares to having someone to share your discoveries with, especially if you don’t have internet, which we don’t here. Social media is the modern equivalent of telling stories and passing packs of pictures fresh from the Fotomat around the dinner table. Ah, the smell of chemical developer wafting from the paper envelopes when you unfold the flap, the way the prints stuck together, the fun of trying to remember, two weeks after the flight home, where in hell that pile of ancient rocks was exactly. Good times.
Togetherness is a beautiful thing. Until it’s time to drive on the left. We always make sure both of us are covered to drive the rental car, and after my husband manspains the difficulties and I remind him that I grew up with a house on St. Croix, where we drove on the left, and a month in Scotland where I had the most fun parallel parking on a steep hillside that I’ve ever had, (they brought their pints out of the pub to watch me, that’s how entertaining I was) we set out, with him driving and me navigating. This being our first sojourn out of Dublin, I had to allow that even on the generously wide motorway, switching from having the steering wheel on the left to having it on the right, combined with unfamiliar traffic signs while driving a strange rental car, takes a good bit of getting used to. But after a while I had to keep pointing out that hubby was pretty much keeping the left wheels of the car on the yellow lane line, though you would have thought that the rhythmic thump thump thump of the warning bumps would have offered some clue. About the forth time, his nerves snapped and he called me a control freak. So I tried to sit on my hands and shut the f up. It kind of worked…for a few minutes at a time. I do hate to be controlled.
Then we hit the country roads where the roads are as narrow as the leg room in economy class, the hedges rise like the walls of a prison yard on both sides of the lanes, the speed limits are only safe for the delusional, and the possibility of rounding a blind curve only to be confronted with some form of gigantic farm machinery moving at a whopping 15 kilometers are 100 percent. It’s tight here, I mean, inches on either side of the car for both lanes, and that’s when there are two lanes. For some reason, even when we were the only vehicle on the road, hubby felt the need to keep the left rear view window (inches off my left shoulder where I sat in the passenger seat) in the hedges and I constantly flinched as blackberry vines and holly bushes smacked against my window. Once or twice I actually cried out when the tire almost went off the asphalt into a narrow drainage ditch, and while I did not blame him at all for getting nervous when a car, or far worse a lorry, would appear in the oncoming lane, I thought that slamming on the breaks was a bit of an overreaction. Tempted as I was to ask if he thought stopping the car would actually make it narrower, I resisted, but I couldn’t help the involuntary ‘ooof’ noise that escaped me as the seatbelt caught and forced the air from my body. At this point I was accused of ‘freaking out’ and he snapped out “Do you want to drive?”
Now, those of you who have remained married more than a year will know that to answer ‘yes’ at this point would have been the equivalent of contacting a divorce lawyer. Insulting your husband’s driving or letting him know you feel endangered is an absolute no-no. So I said, no, but maybe you are a bit close on the left, and possibly, being mostly human, it was impossible to not react at all when I feel that bodily danger is imminent, to which he answered with a rising hysteria that he was kind of busy trying not to get into a head on collision, which was hard to argue. But he followed that with the accusation that I was over-reacting, which I could have argued all damn day as soon as the seat belt unlocked and I could inhale enough to form words.
We arrived at our destination and were delighted charmed and enthralled. This, the first of three rental houses on this trip of six weeks is placed in a nature reserve with sweeping views of sheep covered hills, deep, verdant forests and skies that Gainsborough might have painted. Inside there is a plethora of beautiful art, first edition books, enamel stoves in every room, and outside are gardens designed to delight and discover. We were so pleased that all the stress fell away and the joy of our destination threw a blanket of forgetfulness over the stress of the journey. Husband took me in his arms and we uttered little spontaneous exclamations of awe at every new discovery.
And it was all worth it. I love my husband, our relationship, our life, our adventures, and the promise of more joy together. Sure, there will always be those rough spots, some friction, and the thoughtless word or twelve, but overall, I’m glad to be where I am.
With both girls off to college, my husband and I decided it was time to live a simpler life with less to worry about and take care of. It came to this. We had too much stuff and it was weighing us down, anchoring us to one place and we wanted to lift off, fly, to travel and soar. So we started the process. We sold or gave away everything we thought we could part with, including our home of 14 years. Even with the cleansing, we had quite a bit left, so we piled almost all of that stuff into two storage pods the size of semis, and bought a 38 ft trailer. For the trailer adventure, we took very little stuff, a half-dozen of our favorite small works of art, a handful of rare books, some kitchen basics, a silver champagne bucket and candelabra, (just the bare necessities) a scrabble set, and roughly enough winter clothes to fill a medium-sized suitcase. Then we hooked the camper onto the back of his truck, and headed north. The only thing I was afraid I would really miss living in a camper were our fireplaces, so hubby installed a tiny wood stove.
After the months of stress involved with selling a house, packing up a life, and getting a house, guest house, pool and ten acres perfect for the new owner, on January 8, 2017, we finally pulled away from Angeles National Forest, drove up above Ojai, pulled into our first campsite and hunkered down. I woke up the next morning to the sound of a babbling stream and rain on the roof and knew we had made the right choice. We spent a couple of weeks there then moved on to another stunning location. We let the wind take us and wherever we landed, every night we would make a fire in our tiny wood stove, and listen to the rain or the ocean, or the wind in the trees. Everyday we would explore, delighting in beauty and learning a little more about our new way of life—including the fact that very few RV parks take 38 ft campers. At every campsite the kids would gather around our fluffy dog Thor, and the women would knock tentatively on our door after spotting the smoke rising from the stovepipe chimney, asking if they could see the wood stove, they would exclaim in delight at the one foot-square, glass-fronted stove with it’s tiny blaze, and then return to their own trailers and sulk, glaring at their husbands who hadn’t gotten them a tiny fireplace of their own. So…that was fun.
After a few months, we made it to Santa Cruz, parked under towering redwoods overlooking a river, survived a flood, and started looking for houses. We found one that was listed as a tear down, bought it for an unbelievable low price, (thanks hubby!) and he went to work. In the meantime summer was almost here and campsites get crowded and surprisingly expensive in this gorgeous part of the world, so we rented an apartment on the ocean and even though it was only a small one bedroom I had to buy some furniture basics and expand my wardrobe from four sweaters and jeans to include more seasonally appropriate clothes. We acquired almost all of our new belongings from re-use places or thrift stores. It’s more fun to find treasures, or rentals, as I thought of it, because all of these new things are temporary. Remember now, we have two semi’s packed with our real stuff somewhere in the nether-regions of the greater Los Angeles area. We don’t actually know exactly where of course, but they (the people who cash our monthly checks) assure us that it’s somewhere out there. I have this mental image of a place not unlike the last scene in “Raiders of the Lost Arc” filled with people’s stuff that they will pay more to store than it’s worth by the time they retrieve it.
Then, since she finished college, our daughter and her four roommates moved out of the house they had rented, and since she didn’t have a new place and was traveling for the summer, she needed a place to keep her stuff, which was mostly stuff she had taken from our house. So now we had her stuff, most of which went into the trailer to be stored, which was now in its own storage. (another monthly check, but at least I know where it is.) Joseph is amazingly gifted with both vision and endurance when it comes to building pretty much anything, so within a few months we were able to leave the one bedroom apartment and move into the two bedroom, two bath house on the San Lorenzo river that he had taken from crumbling to dust to jewel box, (thanks honey!) so of course I had to buy more stuff. At first I only gathered what we needed to make ourselves and our girls comfortable, but when we decided to sell some coherent style was required. So my intrepid friend Michelle—she of impeccable taste—showed up to help us ‘stage’ the house.
Boom. Those guys in the cute brown shorts started delivering more stuff. Matching armchairs, rugs, lamps, side-tables, throw pillows, coffee table books, vases, candle holders, dining room table, chairs, all chosen and purchased late at night after a bottle of wine or on furious shopping sprees. Michelle and I whipped through Ross’s, Marshall’s, Home Depot, and every antique shop in Santa Cruz county. In three days, she had that place thrown together and I had a house full of new stuff.
The house sold, we did very well, (thanks honey!) quadrupling our money, (quadruple is a verb, right?)and we decided to rent for a while so as not to be rushed into buying something we didn’t love. I chose a three bedroom home with a huge living area, two fireplaces, two big decks on a creek, and a large yard.
Initially the plan was to have those storage pods we’d left in Los Angeles limbo delivered and unloaded so we could use our old stuff, but very quickly we realized that this leased home didn’t have room for that much stuff on top of the stuff we just bought for the river house, so we’d have to get more stuff to have enough stuff for this house. Trouper that I am, I headed out and bought home more stuff. Now I have a house full of stuff here, and two gigantic storage pods holding another entire house full of stuff, and a trailer in storage stuffed with more stuff.
For someone who was eager to live a much less material life, I sure do have a lot of stuff. Now, I have a year to stay put. I’m so excited to have the time and peace to write again, I hope I remember how. Before that year is up, we’ll be looking for other houses, one to flip over and one to flop into. After having done it four times within a year and a half, I can tell you with great confidence that moving is a crapload of work, especially if you have a lot of stuff.
Which I did.
Then I didn’t.
And now I do.
More than ever.
I’m not sure where we’ll land but I’ll tell you this,
We were in Hawaii when my sister’s first husband proposed to her. She didn’t know it was coming, but I did, so I took my four year daughter and followed them out to the beach where we could watch from a discrete distance. Creason was so amped up with keeping a secret that once he dropped to one knee she took off running toward them before I could stop her. After a quick glance at her aunt’s hand she turned and came running back. As soon as she was within shouting distance, she yelled, “He gave her a ring with three sparkles!!”
Sparkles. Call it like it is kid, three sparkles.
My first two husbands didn’t bother to get me a ring. The first marriage was over in a year or so, and I was glad to be clear of it. An expensive ring wasn’t that important to me as a ‘thing’ to own, but as time went on with husband number two and I gave up career opportunities to grow, deliver, and raise two beautiful girls, I realized that it would have been nice for their father to have taken the trouble to maybe make me feel like he noticed the imbalance of that equation with an effort at making me feel appreciated. It didn’t have to be anything expensive, even though he could easily have afforded it, just having him put the thought into trying to make me happy would have been nice.
So for twenty something years I bought my own diamonds while I was working and attending events where I could justify wearing such a thing, even if that justification is as weak, lopsided and pathetic as a two-legged table. Come on, nobody needs a diamond, the money would be far better spent feeding hungry children or a college education. (He didn’t pay for the college either it turned out, if only there had been some clue!)
Yet most women—well, privileged American women—expect a diamond as an engagement present. Out of three marriages, only my third, current, and final husband bothered to observe the tradition, and he, in classic Joseph style, did it right. Popped that little black velvet box open in front of my eyes while we were making love, thank you very much. My ring is a very special piece, and it only matters that I know that. I do not wear it to impress anyone else. He could not have found anything to make me feel more like his treasure.
See, there are big-but-flawed diamonds, there are the ‘we got money very recently so I have this impressive looking but lower quality yellow’ diamonds, mostly favored by women who bling their cell phones and carry tiny trembling canines, and then there are the only thing I wanted. A pre-blood-diamond, brilliant color, flawless quality, uniquely framed by a magnificent filigree nineteen-twenties Cartier setting. It brings me joy every time I look down at my hand, because of what it represents, love, romance, commitment, and most importantly, that I am a precious to a gem among men.
So, when I recently left a rope of diamonds necklace in a hotel in San Francisco and realized it wasn’t coming back, it was a twinge, but not worth hysterics. It’s just a sparkly thing after all. Okay, about fifty sparkly things, but nobody’s ill or dying, I won’t go homeless or not eat, and the looser my neck skin becomes the more I wonder about the wisdom of accenting it anyway.
Then, in the same week, I went to pick up a prescription and was told that my health insurance had been cancelled. Surprise! The promise of medical care is a much scarier thing to lose than diamonds, trust me, just ask the millions of Americans who will be joining that group soon. Phone calls to find out what had gone wrong and why I hadn’t been notified were fruitless, or went unanswered after holds exceeding an hour, so I set out to find the physical office and people whom I hoped could explain.
Three locations, two building complexes and several waiting rooms later, I was told that my insurance should actually be valid, the only problem was that no one had finished the paperwork transferring it from southern California to Central California, though it had been ordered over a month before and was ‘on someone’s desk.’ So, I was currently uninsured due to a clerical error. If I had come down with a staff infection, been shot by some NRA sponsored mental patient, or been hit by a drunk driver, I would have been shit out of luck and financially ruined. Ah, America is number one, I do NOT think. ‘Oh well,’ seemed to be the general attitude of those allowed to screw us for profit. I was informed that I could call tomorrow and try to get someone to fix the situation, (remember I was already on hold for over an hour more than once with that very same number before finally giving up) or I could wait among the several dozen people in the waiting room for someone who could finalize it today.
Feeling strangely untrusting, call me crazy, I opted to wait so I could vent at someone’s face. The building also housed a clinic and the large waiting room in which everyone had been given a number that came up on a screen when the powers that be deigned to see you—much like the DMV, was filled with melting down children, parents clinging to their last nerve, hacking coughs, angry and frightened citizens with issues like mine, and a sprinkling of the homeless who were there for some agency of some sort.
It was this last category that fascinated me. I watched as one man, probably in his early seventies, carrying a huge, dirty backpack, greeted several other of this forgotten tribe. Without exception hugs were given, concern was expressed, help was offered if possible, but more often it was condolence or sympathy. Things are tough out there on the street and, no matter how much people like us pretend not to see the suffering, it doesn’t make it any less brutal for them.
The elderly homeless man started a conversation with a nice family sitting near him. They looked a little uncomfortable but were very polite to this cheerful, well-spoken elder who primarily addressed the son, a young man of maybe 14. I truly wished I could remember all that was said. He talked about how lucky the boy was to have a family who loved him. I started to listen when I heard him ask the kid if he knew he was loved. When the boy said yes, the older gentleman said, “That makes me so happy. That makes me all waggily in the tail.”
The phrase caught my attention and I started to pay closer attention. Here was this man with nothing, literally, but the clothes and the pack on his back but I’ve seldom seen a more positive person. I wish I had written down all he said, but it went something like this.
“I know I’ll find love today and everyday, and when you know that, it gets easier and easier. When I get something to eat, you know what I do? I go out and find someone to share it with. It might be cold by the time I find someone but that’s what makes my day, I know I will find love.”
After a few minutes he was called in and stood up, bracing himself to shoulder that heavy pack. I stood up as well.
“Sir?” I called. He stopped and turned. I opened my wallet, pulled out a twenty and said, “Please get yourself something to eat and find someone to share it with.”
I was so moved by his grace and plight, that I had to turn away quickly to hide my tears. But he followed me and when I sat down, he bowed graciously. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, with a huge grin. He turned to the family and bowed slightly to them as well. “Wonderful to speak with you,” he told them, “You are a beautiful family.” Then he turned back to me. “Bless you,” he said, but before he could say anything else, my number was called and I escaped before openly weeping with shame that in this country of obscene wealth, so many people sleep on the concrete in the rain.
The administrator who helped me was wonderful, kind, patient and we shared some amazing stories while she completed the paperwork, I thanked her for the help and the conversation and went on my way.
As I climbed into my car I thought again about the diamonds that I lost, and felt nothing. Yes, they cost money, yes they are gone, but I would not waste life looking for them or regretting their loss.
So this week I lost some diamonds permanently, my health insurance temporarily, and I found someone who lives with the conviction that he will find love if he looks for it. I found someone who believes that love is ever-present, even in the darkest of situations.
A man who will never have diamonds or gold.
Or even a warm, safe place to call his own.
His smile and his clear-eyed kindness woke something in me.
It gave me a gift, a treasure, a memory.
Of this amazing human who spends everyday looking for love.
For many years I have been one of the directors of a charity that assists pediatric cancer patients and their families. In that time I have learned so much about myself, suffering, kindness, courage, life, and most importantly death. I cannot now look at a child and not imagine the possibility that they might not make it to adulthood, or even their teens. It infuses every experience with the radiant reminder of true importance, a glowing reminder of the moment most precious, this moment.
There are so many memories that stand out. The director of the charity had already lost her own child, and yet she had the courage to face this unthinkable journey with others, again and again. But then came the call, she needed to talk, to weep, another of our kids was dying, and she just couldn’t fathom it. She wept, and then went on to hold other mothers’ hands and help them through the journey. Again and again. I stand in awe.
I remember walking down the halls of City of Hope and hearing screaming, I remember one of the nurses, while we were there decorating the ward for the holidays, exclaim, “I hate Christmas! So many kids die.” Because, she went on to explain, the terminally ill have a tendency to hold out for a special date, maybe a birthday, maybe Christmas, but then they let go. The nurses can do nothing but try to comfort, ease pain, hug family that are enduring the unthinkable in a constant state of shock. And when it’s over, they get back to work, clearing away the evidence of a loved patient who they may have known for years, and the room their lives once occupied returns to empty, until the next child comes to fill it. They return to work and start all over again. I stand in awe.
The Pajama Party, which we hold every year, patients, current and alumni, are invited. Each patient and their siblings receive pajamas, slippers, and many other fun gifts. Hundreds of people attend. We have a dinner, a raffle, games for the kids, and then Santa! My favorite doctor greets and embraces family after family with a huge smile and genuine joy, often remembering a child who is no longer with us by sharing a moment with the parents who lost them. I stand in awe.
When it became clear that a 12 year old who loved photography that we worked with was not going to make it, the doctors and nurses organized an art show for him. His lovely photos were displayed and sold to help his family with the horrific bills that would be all they were left with after they buried their child. My favorite photo was a shot down a city street with the sunset in the distance, he called it, “A Door to Heaven.” I remember standing next to the doctor as he talked to the young artist, who had received a huge platelet donation that day so that he could get out of bed and attend this event. They joked about him enjoying his cocktails. I stand in awe.
I remember one funeral, for a boy of eighteen, who we had been assisting since he was nine. He had lost an arm in the long hard process but he was the best hugger I ever met. He also had an amazing voice and he sang Wind Beneath my Wings at one of our fundraisers when he was only 11, not a dry eye. I remember his friends carrying his casket, the stunned loss on their still too young faces. When they sealed the casket at the gravesite, his mother, whose entire life for nine years had been caring for her gravely ill son, kept on straightening the drape on the casket as gently as if it had been a blanket she was tucking around him to keep him warm. The gesture was so intimate and it was so strange to me that such a large crowd of mourners were watching, that I turned away and looked to the sky to give her a sliver of privacy, though I doubt she even knew or cared for anything in that moment. That last, horrible, powerless moment when she could do no more. I will never forget the sound that she made, it wasn’t a cry, or a sob, it was from her very soul. It was a long, drawn out sound that rose and fell and vibrated the air around her. Keening. That sound is part of who I am now, I hear it when I think of these families and what they have endured. I stand it awe.
And then there are the children themselves, to a one they were the bravest, most accepting souls I have ever met. It’s as though they were finished with being mortal, they didn’t ‘need’ to be here any more, it was time for them to move on to the next stage. To a one they taught everyone around them what was true and important. To a one they offered a sense of perspective. I stand in awe.
Which brings me to the reason we began the charity. Desi. This girl, who at nine was diagnosed with a cancer so severe that the doctors gave her a five percent chance of surviving a couple of months, lived two years. In those two years, she got well enough to do many things, including going horse back riding with me, something I had promised her when she was very ill. This child, this exceptional human being, never lost her faith or her courage. Multiple times when we thought it was the end, she fought her way back, and she never missed a chance for a laugh. When a child is at the end, they are attached to machinery that counts their breaths per minute, and when it goes to zero and stays there, that’s pretty much it. So there she was, with her loved ones around her, watching the monitor, praying, comforting each other, when the monitor went from 5 to 2 to 0. They all leaned in, watching to see if this was it, after so much suffering if it was time for her to go home. No one breathed, everyone was drawn toward the bed, curling physically downward to be close to her, waiting, when suddenly, Desi’s eyes flickered, and she very weakly, but distinctly, formed an o with her mouth, and said, “Boo!” Everyone straightened up, laughing and relieved, she actually pulled through that time. I stand in awe.
But it was a short reprieve, and she was back in the hospital a few weeks later. When she finally, quietly, slipped away, only her mother was in the room with her. She told me that she knew that her daughter had died, but she didn’t call the nurses, she didn’t leave or reach out, she just sat quietly beside her daughter’s body and waited, thankful for the time she had with her, she told me that the thing she felt the most, was honor. She said she was honored to have been Desi’s mother. I stand in awe.
I still am a part of this charity, though now that I am not living in Los Angeles, I cannot take part in the active service as often as I would like, though every time I return to LA, I make it a point to go to City of Hope and donate blood and platelets, and visit with some of my friends there. I hope to find another place to fill where there is need when I settle wherever I may land, but my life is irrevocably changed already, my sense of perspective has forever changed. Things I once thought important are now laughable to me. My own children, who often accompanied me to events and the hospital to visit with the kids or help decorate for holidays, are markedly better people because of their experiences there. We are endlessly grateful to those children and those families, they have given us the gift of perspective that softens life somehow, makes the little things easier to bear, to release, to set free. I am not afraid to die, what better gift could I ever receive?
And sometimes I weep, just to think of them. Sometimes I smile when I recall their courage, and always I respect and admire the people who lost and lived to love and give back, almost every one of them turn to helping others in some form. I think of the remarkable human beings who care for these children every day, again and again, and never lose their ability to grieve each devastating death. Doctors and nurses who weep for the loss of every child they have cared about, and for, sometimes for years. I stand in awe.
Mostly, I remember the things I’ve learned so completely, that they are a part of who I am now.
That beauty can be found in a ravaged face. That love never dies. That your heart can be torn from your body and you can be glad to have had the capacity to feel that much, because the choice to not would have meant that you would never have have had that someone in your life at all.
For the last couple years, every time I visited a certain area of my daughter’s campus, my car was attacked by a turkey. He was an angry, brave little dude, darting fearlessly into the street and pecking ruthlessly at the tires on a mysterious mission that we may never fully understand.
This local wild turkey had for some reason decided that he had had enough of these fools overwhelming his homeland. The many students hurrying to class or studying on the lawns of the nearby library had grown accustomed to the aggressive fowl, barely taking notice as cars seeking shelter in the nearby parking lot were forced into gridlock when confronted by the university’s very own, and very real, angry bird. He comes out charging, head down, feathers slightly ruffled so that his stunted wings looked more like spoilers on a coupe, as he fearlessly holds his own against two ton hunks of motorized metal. He was almost as persistent as the metered-parking enforcers that lurk amongst the trees wielding citation pads. Almost.
And now, after a good year or two of breeding and gene transference there are no less than eight attack turkeys. General T has taught his family well. An avian army is mustering. One has to wonder what’s in store for these rebels as they continue to reproduce, passing on the DNA of aggression to the next year’s generation. What will it be like over at the Engineering department next year, or even a decade from now? I envision students and faculty in shin guards, riding in armored campus buses, or hurrying fearfully between buildings and lecture halls while turkeys with bandana covered faces chant, “Humans will not replace us!” while brandishing pine cones and twigs in a menacing manner.
Hey, I don’t blame the birds for their random acts of violence. They live all summer, as they have for thousands of years, in this pristine forest filled with redwoods and ferns, and all of a sudden here come seventeen thousand humans in the fall, reeking of tea tree oil shampoo and melon scented deodorant, their limbs are stained with ink pictographs, they carry noise makers and are draped in brightly colored costumes that clash mightily with the environment. Come on, you can almost hear General T saying, get it together dude, unless it’s mating season your plumage is supposed to blend in! Camouflage, hello? Stealth? And what right do they have to bring these nasty, greedy, black-smoke-belching predators right though our ancient breeding ground! They don’t even eat what they kill. Forest Justice for all poultry!
It is, after all, an institute of learning known for activism. Just ask my Republican family, they’ll snort derisively and snidely imply with a condescending tone of voice that it’s a hippy school. Never mind that this University produces more top scientists, biologists, astrophysicists, and business leaders than Harvard, nevermind that it’s an academic education that far exceeds their own, it’s in Northern California, and to my republican siblings and parents that means the dirtiest of dirty words. Liberal. It’s the one word with no S’s that they can still hiss. Three syllables that make their ears bleed, not unlike what they think of my heart. The very idea of learning to evolve as a species seems to scare the hell out of them. So those turkeys would feature in their worst conservative nightmares, no doubt causing them to wake up sweating, trembling and gobbling, “Fowl!” Before they turn on their Tiffany’s bedside light and start muttering, “Why can’t those damn turkeys go to their own segregated college like God intended. Next thing you know, women will be allowed to play professional golf with men! This country is going to hell. God Damn liberalsssssss.”
What would they think of that one damn indigenous bird fighting for his turkey rights? “Who the hell does he think he is objecting to having his world paved over? Damn turkeys should be grateful to be smushed into American pavement! It would be an honor for him to be eviscerated and stuffed full of stale bread in our country!” Friggen’ wild turkeys stealing jobs from our factory farms!”
Okay, my family isn’t quite that bad, but it’s fun to poke back at them when they laugh at me for not believing I’m as entitled as they are, and I can’t really think of a nicer way to put that. I deleted quite a few other versions of that sentence.
When you send your kids to college, you never know what added benefits will come from that higher education. This is one time that trickle down is actually a factor. I consider my new knowledge of Meleagrididae, of the genus Meagridea, (aka common wild turkey) worth the tuition. I was also horrified to discover, while doing research for this very scientific blog, that the third most asked question about this bird is sadly this, “Is the country of Turkey named after the bird?” Yep, higher education is pretty desperately needed right here, right now, in this country. “We’re number one because one is higher than two!” I can just imagine these uneducated citizens chanting. I’m guessing those same people think the Ottoman Empire is the name of a furniture factory. The Ottoman Empire, by the way, is also commonly known as the Turkish Empire and they invaded Europe around 1354. Maybe this current day college turkey has transcontinental empires on his tiny brain too. It would explain the antagonistic tendencies and the increase in his military.
A few other fun facts; Did you know a very young turkey is called a poult? I guess the birds who live on this campus earn their ‘RY’ when they complete their degree, or reach eating age. It’s a title they are granted at commencement. Theresa Poult, RY. Major in delicious with a minor in entomology. Or did you know that turkeys eat small animals? Who knew your holiday bird could be fattened up with slugs and rats? The knowledge you can acquire at a top-rated University for half a million dollars is really pretty amazing.
So moving on; since we have now learned that turkeys will eat meat, do you think those turkeys will attack a vegan on campus as decisively as a meat eater? Do they discriminate? Do they prefer the taste of cannabis-smoked freshmen to beer-poached sophemores? Does wild muscadine grape pair well with organic graduate students?
I’m being silly, I know, but evolution is a funny thing. And there is a strange parallel here. Creatures learn to adapt in order to survive, our kids learn for pretty much the same reason. I wonder if those turkey chicks pulled-all nighters memorizing the strike zone on Volvo tires. I imagine the extra credit question on their finals; “Which area is most likely to puncture through the inner tube? Draw a diagram of the layers of steel belted radials and a short essay explaining the pros and cons of attacking a whitewall.”
That first attack turkey, General T, sent his chicks off to scratch out a living and fight the man in spite of all the scary changes to his world. We send our kids off to college to learn to deal with authority, scary real life, and apparently, uh…turkeys?
You never know what you’ll have to deal with in life, but one thing I think I can promise you is that if you educate yourself about it, you’ll do much better—and be far more entertained—than if you remain ignorant. So let me close with some fun facts to know and share.
The country of Turkey was not named after the bird.
Ottoman is not the name of a low, upholstered stool.
For twelve years, my family has lived in an amazing home, ten acres with mountain views cradled by the Angeles Forest, yet only minutes away from Los Angeles proper. Our daughters grew up here, able to spend their days outside in nature and beauty instead of super-glued to a video game or a computer screen. Yet five minutes down the hill brought us to traffic, and the city.
Both of our daughters are cognizant and grateful of the home we made, there were many tears and sighs in our final days in that house. As the rooms emptied, our hearts felt the space of loss. We accept that. We waded bravely into that pain and wallowed just long enough to cleanse ourselves before turning our eyes and our hearts to the future with fresh vitality and a surge of momentum.
That home and those years will forever be a bright light in our past. I think as humans we feel the dichotomy of painful partings, the joy of having known people or places and the wrench of losing them so that when we look back at our lives we don’t see only darkness. Like a lantern, glowing farther and farther off, but always a beacon of warmth in the misty night our days gone by.
But now, finally, it’s time to move north, to trees, to rain, to creeks, to mushrooms, to other people who respect their relationship with the earth that sustains them. Along the way, we will make a few stops, it’s quite a journey towing a 37 ft camper.
Our first stop is near Ojai, California. Our trailer is nestled in trees next to a stream, the rain is coming.
Our first night here I slept like an angel in a cloud made of lullabies, the sound of droplets pattering a cleansing tattoo on the roof above me as I cozied deeper into my down comforter. In the morning I woke to the giggling stream, whispering its amusing secrets to me through my open window.
I can feel the city smut melting away from me. Hell, for the first time in months I can actually see it for what it is, a cloak of undeserving annoyance, a saturated blanket of bad choices and confusion. Here, the worries, clutter, noise, and frail human egos are first exposed, then rapidly diminished. You can see them for what they are, a waste of life, an excess of self-involvement. So eager are we to make something of ourselves, to leave our mark, to deny death, that we learn to confuse activity with true forward motion. All the busy-ness, the mental spinning, and caring what other people might think, help to hide the fear that we might mean nothing, that yes, we will someday die and ultimately be forgotten.
I think that’s what the stream finds so funny. Humans who believe they can last forever. It’s so much less stressful to remember you are mortal, and that’s okay. Sort of…takes the pressure off.
Of course, we are the same magnificent creatures in the city or in a forest, but it is easier to distinguish what serves you and what doesn’t when you look outside yourself. The everyday worries that consume us are more likely to be blown away when you watch the breeze making the leaves mimic the flow of the water through a magnificent gorge, just as it has for millennia. To these cliffs and trees we humans are a fleeting image, a second, a flash of movement, if even that.
We are parked in an almost empty campground next to the flowing creek dappled in sunlight dancing with the soft shadows of trees. Lichen and mushrooms are everywhere, moss grows on stones, moisture graces our lungs and our skin.
In some ways, our new life is smaller—well…simpler. In other ways it has expanded to epic proportions so that now where I once saw a narrow lane, I now see a huge vista opening before me with endless possibilities.