I find myself stuck in a kind of limbo, and I know I’m not alone. I want to write, to be creative, to offer love and support to others in greater need than myself during these tough times, but it seems there is little I can do to escape the sodden feeling of helplessness, the ‘what’s the use?” worm in my brain, the anxiety of watching my country torn apart, the constant worry for friends and family in danger.
Like a compulsive shopper, I’ve been inundated with deliveries, yet only a few of them were signed for by me. Some of them were dumped on my doorstep as surely as a stained couch on the side of the road, but some of them I must admit I sort of rooted around in a dumpster to find, I didn’t ask for the garbage to be there, but let’s be honest, I’ve pulled some crap out of there that I do not need.
So I see no alternative. I’m returning these items I didn’t order. Check any box you like on ‘reason for return’; delivered to wrong address, doesn’t fit, item not as advertised, quality not as expected, pick any one you like, they all work.
Because while we can’t fix any of these major things on our own, namely-worldwide health problems, or global warming, or a crooked con-man getting elected and abusing our government in a sad quest for power at any human cost, we can work hard to lighten the load a bit for ourselves and others. I didn’t order any of those evil things, and while it can be argued that many people did, I don’t have to keep the negativity they heaped on the rest of us because of their ignorance and fear.
Still, it’s depressing. So I’m sending it back. Call UPS, drop it off at the post office, send those FB idiots on their way, it’s a struggle, no lie, but I’m about at the stage where if I don’t deliberately dig out of this hole of depression and helplessness, I’ll be buried alive.
That’s why I go out and take these silly pictures of myself. Wish I had a whole bunch of models, but I only have me, so I bought a cheap tripod that I can carry around hiking, a remote shutter, and threw some thrift store prom dresses in a back pack and headed out into nature with my cell phone. I have to do something, anything, to keep my spirits up, and if it makes other people happy to see me being ridiculous, (and having fun), that’s just bonus points!!
I’m returning the moping at home days, don’t need ‘em. I’m shelving the excuses for drinking too much every evening and replacing it with finding something positive to focus on. I’m rewrapping the lonely despair in its original packaging and stamping, ‘RETURN TO SENDER’ in big red letters on the outside. I’m sending the laconic lack of writing inspiration on a one way return and demanding the manufacturer replace it with what I ordered, some old-fashioned sit-your-ass-down hard work.
Because of course, except for the uncontrollable, I am the manufacturer. I created all these responses, maybe I didn’t order the cause of them, I didn’t ask to be stuck away from my family and incapable of so much as donating blood to help others, but instead of being frustrated that I can’t do more, I can try harder to do less for as many people as possible. It might be a letter, a silly note of hope and a free book. It might be a phone call to tell a joke in person, or a pie dropped off on a front porch, truth is, I don’t know all the things I can do yet because I haven’t used my brain to work on that. And that’s my fault. I was blessed with energy and some intelligence, and who’s wasting that? Me. I am.
I’ve been waiting, I guess. Now it’s time to wake up and start refusing those daily missives from myself that say, “Mope, hang out, there’s nothing you can do, this is a horrible day, month, year.” I had a stern talk with myself then offered some loving advice. I’m including here so you can use the same pep talk for yourself, and it went something like this: “Buck up shithead!! Get over yourself and be of use to someone else!!”
So I won’t talk about the death and the illness and the hungry and the financially fucked. I will step in and do what I can to make each of those things a little lighter, a little less long, and hopefully a little less scary. I know that I’ve been afraid, I think maybe we all have.
But life, such as it is right now, goes on, and I’ve decided it’s time to get back to it. Not by rushing around spreading germs and anger, but by doing what I can from where I am. And surprisingly, it’s been quite a lot.
And that makes me feel better. It leaves me with a flicker of hope that this shade won’t last forever, that most humans care more than they don’t. That the ones who promote cruelty can be drowned out by those of us raising our voices in song and encouragement, that we, in the amazing words of Amanda Gorman, can be the light.
Cast your own shadow by shining in the darkness. It ain’t easy, but it’s our choice.
Pack up all that misdirected bullshit and send it away.
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.
You are absolutely alone. No one will ever understand you completely. Muhahahahaha. (that’s my evil laugh.)
And that’s just fine.
Because…you are also a part of everything, every molecule in the universe, every other living and non-living thing is made of the same stuff. The next time you feel superior for being human, bear in mind that you and dog poop are, in their basic makeup, the same thing. You have the same ingredients as a magnificent sunset, a nova, a star, a virus, and a slug. All of it is energy, moving spinning atoms, that constantly flow and change. Every time you take a breath, you inhale air that has been produced by trees and circulated through the lungs of the rest of humanity. I once read that the average glass of water has already passed through a human body seven times. Unappetising as that may be, it should remind you that we are all giving and taking every second of our lives, and even in our deaths. Nothing comes from nothing, and no energy ever dies, it’s just redistributed. Sorry royalty, elitists and republicans, life and energy are socialists, it’s our natural state.
Usually I write about how we are all connected, but today I want to talk about being different, unique, and separate, because well, I’m funny that way.
Just as no one person in the world is an entity unto themselves, no two people on earth agree on everything. In fact, we don’t even perceive concepts and ideas in the same way.
Perception of a concept as you absorb it into your brain is like light through a kaleidoscope, color and thought bouncing off of thousands of angles, each of those prisms created by every experience we’ve ever had. Every single person interprets a movie, book, issue, even people, differently. Every time two people read the same book, they write their own, unique version of it. Reading a book is as creative an endeavour as writing it. And no! I am not sharing my royalties! Love you.
Basically, we’re drawing our own cartoon and some are wackier than others. Mine has lots of little blue birds and singing flowers, faeries too, but it hasn’t always been that way. I used to also hear scary music and see danger in the wooly woods. Then I decided I didn’t want to watch that cartoon any more. I wanted to live my life to the happy flute music.
The science behind making that change is miraculous.
Think of it like this. Look at a tree, now close your eyes. Can you see the tree? The answer is yes, but the fact is no. What’s happening is a series of electro-chemical reactions in your brain that aren’t visual at all, but they are recalling that image. The best example I can think of for this is when you and a partner both vehemently remember the same conversation, would swear on your life that you said one thing and he or she said another, and they are equally prepared to die for the cause. It’s a duel to the death, ten paces, turn and fire! Oops, now you’re both dead. That was fun! Maybe we should have decided to go for a coffee and a laugh instead. Just a thought.
Because the irony is that both perceptions are right. Because each person understood the situation, heard the words, and experienced the emotions about it from different point of views.
Now, when an author describes a tree in a book you are reading. Guess what? You see that tree as best you can, based on your personal, individual, and completely unique idea of what any given tree might look like. A kid who lives in a concrete bound urban area might think trees look like something from Dr. Seuss, a logger might immediately think of a pine or a redwood, an islander would immediately picture a palm tree. Is it becoming clear? That’s okay, it never really is.
So why do we get so upset when someone else doesn’t understand us, or sees any issue differently than we do?
A rancorous political campaign truly brings this uniquely human trait to the forefront. Your ‘opinion’ on any candidate or topic is based your filters created by through your specific mindset. Here are a few of those filters.
1, Every piece of information and explanation that’s been rammed into your head since birth. Parents, teachers, books, movies, etc. Some influences will be subtle, say, Mom making a face when someone uses food stamps. And some will be as harsh as a jackhammer breaking concrete, i.e. everyone you know believing in a church and the men who run it telling you there is only one God and one truth and if you don’t embrace that truth you will burn in hell, and funny—these men always know exactly what the truth is! What an amazing coincidence that their ‘truth’ is what someone hammered into their head when they were young. No wonder Jesus called people his ‘flock.’ When it comes to opinions and judging right and wrong, we are sheep, following that lead ram with the bell straight home to the barn, or to the slaughter house.
2, Every criticism or disapproval you have received for voicing any given opinion in any impressionable point of your life, (i.e. all of it) Peer pressure and the people you find yourself surrounded by in school, work, and relationships, basically, anyone whose approval you need or rely on for your self-image. Try telling your fifth grade teacher that it’s rude to do the limp wrist gesture when showing your class a picture of a famous male dancer. The kids threw crabapples at me all day. And, by the way, I met that dancer later, he was anything but gay, with a bevy of legendary, beautiful women lined up in his romantic past. Take that you beehive-headed bitch!
3, Whatever news outlet or information you take in, every conversation you hear. What sources of information do you pursue? Comic books or Time magazine? Fake news shows or the internet? These things shape you, they imprint in your brain and affect you physically as well as emotionally. You probably notice now that if you listen to someone giving an opinion different from yours, your heart speeds up, and you get hot, you don’t want to listen to them! Idiots! Fools! Stupid! It is very difficult to say, ‘Oh, that’s a different way of looking at it,” and not take it in emotionally.
4,How strongly you attach yourself to the emotional need to be ‘right.’ This is ego, and ego is not who you are, it’s what your brain tells you is important and is always external. It is entirely based on how you think others will view you, and as we’re discussing here, you will never know exactly how or what others think. So why do we waste our precious love and time trying to make others see it through our very narrow binoculars?
Ego is the one problem I’ve found we pretty much all need to work on these days. I grew up in the south with republican parents, went to all white schools, and lived in a rarefied world of steadily increasing wealth and privilege, so it was not to surprising that, even though it felt fundamentally wrong to me, I was trained to be anti-immigrent, conditioned to feel deeply wronged that the government took taxes out of my hard earned money and handed it over to those lazy bastards.
Then I moved to LA. There’s a lot in between there, but let’s jump forward. I came to LA with no preconceived prejudices against hispanics for the simple reason that when I was growing up, there wasn’t any hispanic community of note in my suburban Atlanta world. Very quickly, the establishment and general news sources in Southern California had me believing that Mexicans were all violent gang members or welfare users who had dozens of children and fed off ‘the system.’ As a result, I watched youths in white t-shirts with suspicion, resented children going to ‘our’ schools, (how insane is that?) and judged people I knew nothing about.
I didn’t know any Mexican-Americans.
And then I met some and began to see that I was missing as much as a blind person wearing mittens and ear plugs. I remember one day specifically that I found myself standing in the deep end of my own ignorance and sad limitations and realising that I would drown in the bullshit that had been heaped on me. I knew in an instant that I had been paralysed, robbed of my ability to think for myself, to listen to my heart. I was shooting a commercial in a rented house. Verizon, I think it was. And the owners were a lovely young hispanic couple with two beautiful children 5 and 7. I was talking with them, not even thinking about my prejudices, (because when we are prejudice, we don’t know it and certainly won’t admit it) and I asked if they had other kids. The dad said, “Well, you know us Mexicans!” then he laughed, and said, “No, two is all we are having, we’re done.”
My face went hot and red. I was so ashamed to realise that I had this preconceived notion of an entire race of people based on propaganda from my political party and, let’s be honest, rich white people who had made up most of my world.
So I made a concerted effort to make friends with people who were ‘different’ than me. People who were different colors, nationalities, religions, and especially those with different incomes. I believe that money divides us more than anything. I invited hispanics and asians, and minimum wage workers, and every kind of American to my house, my kids played with their kids. This caused my ex a good deal of stress, as he prefered to invest his time in people who had fame or money, or could do something for him, which was one of many red flags. Eventually I left him, because as I eagerly moved to embrace people of quality, he pursued people who had things. Hanging with only the ‘haves’ is just too small a world for me. And so, I left his influence behind as well.
Becoming friends with people who were ‘different’ changed my life. The next leap was working with a charity that helped people who had lost limbs and vision, or might be emaciated by devastating treatments and illnesses. That brought me to another light speed jump in basic comprehension. I stopped feeling sorry for people, because nobody wants your pity!! Every single person is getting through life the best they can, we all have pain, we all have suffering, it just comes in different forms. I used to feel pangs of pain for someone with a limp or a speech impediment, now I admire the hell out of them. I love that their walk is unique, that their voice is the sound of a new instrument. It makes me proud that we humans are so varied.
And last, (last so far, there’s always more,) I gave up organised religion. I believe in an awesome, unifying creative energy, I believe that we are all connected, I believe that if I do bad to someone or something, I do it to myself, because we are all one. How hard is that? What, in God’s name, (snort, get it?) makes me think that I know the truth and everyone else is wrong. Why do I even need to feel that way? The answer, of course, is that we’ve lost our way and we need our group of bullies around us to confirm our anger and our fear and make us feel artificially safe in numbers. It’s great to get with other people for the sake of community and helping improve our world, but it sucks when it’s all about separating us into us and them. That is a lie.
Stop being one of the numbers. You are unique, alone, and part of everything.
I mean, I’m probably wrong about most of this, I look forward to changing my mind…again. Cause baby, I’ve done it many times, and I get happier with every step forward.
Get out there and love. Happiness is who you really are.
What makes us relevant in life? Social media is a funny thing, so many people use it to try create some sense of worth about their ex-careers or their current lives, but it doesn’t really change the fact that if they aren’t— they aren’t. That’s a bit convoluted, so let me explain.
If you had any kind of celebrity, even for a minute, as an athlete, an actor, writer, musician, business owner, then there are most likely people who would listen to what you had to say or look at what you posted for that reason. That kind of interest is superficial and wears off fast, but to continue to be relevant, you have to have something else to offer.
Sure, it’s easy at eighteen to be valued for your looks and your sex appeal, lots of people make a career out of that, then as they age, (and you will too) and they lose their sense of worth. Suddenly they’ve gone from being admired and envied to criticised and shunned. I’ve watched so many people struggle in desperation to try and maintain a level of public interest when they no longer have anything legitimate to offer, and that’s because what they were offering didn’t have true value.
As you age and grow, your priorities must mature and grow. I can’t imagine having the same values I had decades ago. How sad would that be? I’m fifty-five, do I really need people to tell me how sexy I am? (I have a husband who does plenty of that, and that’s great, don’t me wrong, but I don’t need it from anyone else.)
You see, having been on the cover of a magazine, or acted on a TV show that no longer exists, made some people think I had some kind of social relevance. The truth is, those things did nothing to help anyone. They left no mark on the world. I didn’t cure any diseases by getting that attention or showing up on a set. I didn’t feed hungry people, provide shelter to the homeless, nothing. Even when I was doing those things, I wasn’t any more important than anyone else, less so in many cases, but that’s a hard concept to grasp in a country where youth, fame and money have been shoved down your throat as the best things you can ever achieve.
I love beauty. I love art in all forms. Personally, if I see a beautiful woman of any ethnicity, weight or age, I usually make a point to tell her so. Sometimes, they look surprised, but more often, the women I admire have so much more going on than looks that they get it. They have confidence, style, class, intelligence, purpose, and kindness. That is what I find beautiful.
As a writer, my purpose has changed. Thankfully, looks don’t enter into it, so I can return to what I always loved the most, creativity and communication. I strive to find a subject that can help people see themselves and others in a new light. That’s our job as authors, to shine the light on the inside. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and you can’t judge a person by the size of their breasts or the rip of their six pack. I mean, you can, but it says way more about you than it does about the person being judged.
So what makes me relevant now? The fact that I may have something to say, some words of encouragement, good ideas for how to break through a writer’s block, a helpful hint about mothering teenagers, or even a recipe or two, and that only makes me relevant to those who can use those things. I do a good bit of charity work, and if I can make some other people aware then that’s helpful. Unfortunately, for charity to be successful, people have to be in need, and I find that a sad irony. I’d much rather have no charity work to do, if you look at it that way.
Everyday, I try to make a small difference. I take the time to distract the toddler who is on the edge of a tantrum while their parent is trying to get through the shopping. I smile and crack a joke to try to make stressed people smile back, to share something. I pick up trash when I hike, I stop and say hello to the homeless guy who reads in the parking lot where I shop. I bring him some lunch and we discuss books. He has a nerve disease and it’s hard for him to get the words out, but he’s smart and literate, and I know it makes a difference to him that I see him as a person, who has so much to offer.
Because we all do. My question is in what way do you want to be relevant? I can break it down for you. It’s easy. Do you want to be envied or helpful? You can of course, be both, but your intention cannot be split. You can love the art of acting, and want to be successful at it, to elevate everyone involved, that’s helpful! I’m not discounting that but there’s more. When I compare my having acted in a sixty million dollar movie to the importance of the work the oncology doctors I know do, I blush with insignificance. When I see a great teacher getting through to kids enough to inspire a love a learning, I rejoice for that great success.
By all means, pursue your love, act on your passions, take those chances! Whatever you do, do it well. The reward should be that you tried and learned. Leave a trail of smiles and encouragement in your wake. The smartest life choices include all that will make you and those around you truly happy. The hollowest choices are those you make because you think they are what someone else wants. That is a mistake I see happening again and again. It’s a mistake I made again and again.
So why am I relevant now? I’m not, but if I can remind one of you that you really count, or that I am awed by your everyday kindness and patience, then I’m happy, because that’s what I want now. Not to be relevant, but to make you feel that way.
Because you are. There’s always someone prettier, younger, smarter, more talented, or richer, and there always will be.
A few days ago, I spoke at a fundraising luncheon for the La Canada Flintridge Orthopedic Guild. About three hundred or so people attended. It was lovely. Before my little ramblings, they played a short video that introduced our guests of honor. The video told the story of two young girls, both of them albinos, who lived in Tanzania. In some places in Africa, albinos are considered to have magical properties and they are hunted for their body parts.
Though the Guild raises money for a hospital here, they have branched out to help special kids worldwide. As they explained this in the video, they showed how these innocent young girls had lost their parents, and the younger had had her leg chopped off with a machete, and then left to bleed to death. Her older sister helped her, and she survived, but not with adequate medical care or a prothesis, (artificial limb) that worked for her.
So this incredible group flew them both over and provided the care and rehabilitation that they needed. Months of planning and giving and work went into this enterprise, I was awed by the commitment of this group. They have done so much and helped so many people.
Enter me, to their upscale ladies’ charity luncheon. After the short video, which left me in weeping, they brought the girls up. They are sixteen and fifteen, but so very much more childlike than the precocious mall-shopping teenagers most of us are familiar with. Very shyly, standing straight and proud on her new prothesis, the younger girl gave her thanks for all that had been done for her, and her older sister asked to sing a song she had written about their experience.
I don’t remember all the words, but the first verse was about realizing her mother was dead, and the refrain went, “And I cry and I cry, and I shout and I shout, I’m so tired of all the killing.” It was amazing, she sang it with no accompaniment and it was heartrendingly beautiful and moving. And then it was my turn to get up and speak.
The Chairman introduced me as I was still drying my eyes and trying to clear my throat. I took the mike, walked to the front of this group of charitable people, and said, “I’m supposed to follow that?”
I mean, come on! Haven’t you ever heard the old adage for actors, ‘never work with children or dogs’ because they steal the stage? How about two children who have overcome unbelievable odds just to survive? Who were still so kind and gentle and loving that I wanted to hug them and not stop. I had planned to talk about the courage of some of the families I work with in my charity, The Desi Geestman Foundation, but the stage was stolen by compassion, by innocence, by courage, and nothing I could have said about bravery and hardship would have meant more. That’s as it should be.
So I changed it up. I talked a bit about my book, about the character of Ellen and how in “Becoming Ellen” she realizes that it’s not enough to just come out of her shell and participate, she realizes that she must contribute to the whole to be whole, something all these people understood. I talked about how my mother, who was there, had raised me to be helpful and kind, and how I had passed those values on to my daughters who still accompany me to many of my charity’s events, including helping to decorate the wards for holidays and the annual PJ party, when they get to meet the kids. From this experience, they grew up knowing that people are people, no matter how they look or how ill they may be.
Then I moved on to discuss the changing landscape of my life now that my girls are growing up. I told them how my husband and I were discussing how integral the girls’ lives and education had been in our everyday lives. Now with one at college and the other one driving, I find myself with more time on my own. I told this crowd of beautifully dressed and graciously behaved men and women that one day, Joseph had looked at me and said, “What are we going to do when they’re gone baby?”
And I’d said, “We’re gonna’ make love in the kitchen.” I mean, I’ll miss the buggers on a day to day basis, sure, but there’s something to be said for getting some freedom back. I might even be able to write several hours uninterrupted...in a row! And I’ll have more time to help others, to do more for the community, to interact one on one with so many miraculous people in the world. They really are out there, and sometimes, they come to visit when you least expect it. Of all the roles we all play in our lives, there is always one that is the most basic and true.
No matter how many parts we take on, how many different jobs we find ourselves doing in our lives, it’s important not to forget the real one, to be you. For me that means lots of laughter, work, and hours of doing nothing other than searching for beauty. Sometimes I find it in the sky, sometimes in water, and very often, in the smile of a child who has suffered beyond belief, but who is not only happy, but grateful.
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.
For years, as a semi-celebrity, I attended many charity events. Some of them, I wasn’t even sure what cause was being supported until I arrived, having been invited by whatever-sho- I-was-on’s publicist. What always hurt my heart was the way that so many of the celebs attended these events to get their picture taken for publicity, drink and party, and go home with a gift bag full of expensive gifts. I recall one event in particular, a black tie affair, where there were donation cards at each place setting. I was with my then husband and other cast members of his show. When we stood to leave, I noticed that I was the only person who had even picked up the card. The rest of them had left them discarded as they headed out to the nearest bar, while the head of the charity was still speaking, no less.
I understand that publicity and public awareness are important for a charity, and therefore celebrity attendance is helpful, but as the director of the Desi Geestman Foundation, my task with every event we throw is to keep the cost down and get that money to the kids and their families. Celebrities will actually ask how many photographers are coming and what’s in the gift bag. I always tell them that the gift bag is a small thing when children are suffering and parents are losing their children. That usually sobers them a bit. Of course, many celebrities do a great deal of very real charity work and giving and I honor them for it.
This morning I took my daughter to our favorite thrift store, it’s a big affair that benefits AIDs charities. It is raining here now, very hard, and this is not only unusual, but especially hard on those who survive on the streets. I was perusing the linens section when I noticed the manager helping a woman who was obviously homeless. The manager was helping her to find a few warm blankets, because the ones she and her husband had were all soaking wet. I was truly touched at the way the manager was obviously concerned that the woman get the blankets that would be the best for her, and she gave them to her free of charge.
Later, as we drove away, safe and warm in my car, I saw the homeless woman and her husband, pushing a grocery cart covered in a blue tarp through the driving rain. They stopped on the corner to hug each other reassuringly, then paused again to speak to another homeless man in a park. They handed him something that looked like a half a sandwich wrapped in plastic, shook hands and went on.
To where? I do not know. But what struck me about both of those exchanges were the fact that they were done without pomp, without glory, without reward or even notice. There was no red-carpet, no celebrity picture in the paper offering congratulations to some famous rich person who can easily afford to give far more than they do, nothing. Just giving where it means the most.
I think the sandwich struck my heart the deepest, because these people were most likely giving up their own food to help a fellow person in dire straights. It really touched me. All too often we disregard the actions of people who live on the fringe because we find them distasteful or it makes us uncomfortable to have to look at all the sorrow in the world just outside our door.
But not everyone. There are those among us who always give, even if they have very little for themselves, and they do it because it is who they are, not what they want people to see. If you have one dollar and you give someone a quarter, I think there is a special place in heaven for you. If you are worth 100 billion, (the walmart family) and don’t pay your workers a decent wage, then all your fancy charity galas mean nothing except an excuse to wear fancy clothes and pretend that you are moral.
I want to share a native american story. A grandfather was explaining the nature of the human ego to his grandchildren. “There are two wolves inside of you,” he said, “One of them is greedy and angry and bitter, the other is kind and good and generous. And they fight against each other.”
One of the children looked up at the wise grandfather and asked, “But which one wins?”
The grandfather said, “The one that you feed.”
So maybe, just maybe, today, give up your angry political views and fears, let go of thinking that your religion is the only name for God, and just feed the kindly wolf. Smile, care, give, forgive, stop judging, try not to be afraid.
And kudos to the givers who have little, for they are the richest.
The fourth book in the Callaway Wilde series, “Legacy’ will be coming out in ebook soon. This one is a slight departure from the first three books because I break the first person narrative and visit the past. The subject is one in which I am very interested, war crimes during WW11. My uncle was one of the senior officers who was actually present at the surrender of the Germans to the Allied forces in Milan during that fateful war, and he worked for years before that undercover with the Italian resistance. So, much of my information comes from real letters and stories of people who lived it.Though my uncle is gone, his son sent me copies of letters, reports, and files that have been declassified now. The stories they hold, the drama revealed even within the factual, military reporting are inspiring and humbling. My uncle made it through that war unscathed and went on to become a Senator and then an Ambassador, but too many did not. We know this, but when we pay attention to the real stories we are reminded of what our current lifestyle cost, and who paid the price.
Which is why I do not think much of people who take from the world and give nothing back. No matter how talented, wealthy, beautiful or famous. When you go through that door, as our first lady said, you do not slam it behind you. You turn around and help others through.
Writing this book really got me thinking about the people that I admire in my life. While there are certainly actors or musicians whose work I adore, it is the intentions and contributions of people that matter most to me. There are artists who also do a great deal of good in the world, this separates them from the crowd of the self-serving to whom being ‘famous’ is the life goal.
I admire them and others who have made a choice to be of service to someone else. People like Ileana and Bernie Geestman who founded the Desi Geestman Foundation. I have served on the board of this charity for 13 years and in that time we have assisted the families of children suffering through the cancer journey in so many ways. But what I do is small, it is Ileana and her family who truly perform the mission. To have lost a child, and then dedicate your life to helping others who are fighting that battle takes more strength of character and is far worthier of our admiration than any star of any TV show.
People like the doctors and nurses at City of Hope, where our charity is primarily instrumental. In my years of helping out, I have seen again and again the sheer relief of families when they know that they have the full support and commitment of so many devoted professionals. There is a place on the grounds of City of Hope, the meditation garden, where the staff sometimes go when the stress and the sadness become overwhelming. And then they go back in. I am in awe of the hugeness of the human spirit in these people. Yet no one will ever write them a fan letter.
And so it was that in my research for this book, I came across stories of so many people, forever unnamed and un-lauded who acted with such bravery and selflessness. All across Italy, including in the Vatican, Catholic priests and nuns hid the hunted Jews, often at the cost of their own lives. How remarkable. This book tells some of those stories.
If I were asked what the most important traits a person could have my answer would be simple: Kindness and Courage. Those two things both compliment and balance each other.
Most of us will never have to face the horrors and heart-rending decisions that even the common citizens faced during that war or many others. We would like to think that we would act with courage and honor, but we don’t really know. I think though, that sometimes it is good to stop and ask yourself, would you help? Or would you save yourself and even, possibly, profit from the suffering of others? And if your own family was starving, could anyone blame you?
These were very real questions in that horrible time, often on a daily basis, but I believe that they are applicable even now. If only we would all reach out a hand, help in one small way, the world would be such a kinder place.
So, I like to remind myself, I always have a choice. Will I spend my life acquiring ‘things’ and glorifying myself? Or will I do what I do for the love of it, and include as many others in my success as possible?
I choose the latter. Here’s my hand, take it. Now reach back and offer yours. See? We are chain, stronger than we are alone.
Last night I spent the evening helping out with my charity, the Desi Geestman Foundation, as we hosted a party at City of Hope hospital for the pediatric patients and their families. It was a wonderful evening, I saw so many of the families we’ve worked with before, met lots of new people, and stood by in wonder at the joy I saw around me. Every patient and each of their siblings, receives pajamas, slippers, toys, books, a visit with Santa, a yummy dinner, fun and games.
Aside from the families, one of the things I enjoy most is seeing the transformation in attitudes of the people who have come to volunteer. By far the largest percentage of these is a group called, “Assisteens.” This is a very active civic group of, yep you guessed it, teenagers! In a world filled with kids who sometimes have little opportunity to care about much of anything other than material things, it is beyond wonderful to see these thoughtful, outgoing young men and women serving dinners, decorating, playing with the kids, handing out gifts, and generally participating in something bigger and more important than going to the mall, or excelling at a video game.
And as I watch all of them giving, and my own daughter fearlessly charming a sick child with her special brand of humor and fun, my cynicism melts away. Yes, I think, the world is full of hope and good.
These teens won’t all turn out to be movie stars or millionaires, but they will be something better, something stronger than that. They will be people who can look back at their lives and smile. I believe that’s because they will know the value of being a part of something larger than yourself. It’s called community, the word hidden in there is commune, definition—Sharing of thoughts and feelings with others, especially on a spiritual level. Not religious, mind you, but spiritual. My girls have no association with a church or religion, but they are among the most moral and giving people I know.
The trick here, of course, is to turn the attention away from the petty problems and tiny focus of our own lives and be of service to someone else. I can’t even explain it, but I know that it feels so right, that this is something we are meant to do, something that is missing in too much of our modern life. This world where everyone is trying to get ahead and make a million and be envied by others is a lonely one. I’m not saying I’m not guilty of those things too, mind you, hey, I’ve got a house payment, but my attitude has changed over the years. And so have I.
Bottom line, I’m happier now. I divide my time and my efforts much more fluidly than I once did, and guess what? The flow is far more gentle, I find myself moving freely through the mid-stream of life instead of snagging on the branches at the edge of the river. When I think about what I have, and how I live, I realize that it is enough. I don’t need more jewelry, or a fancier car, or a bigger house. It’s lovely to have those things, of course, if they are important to you, but ultimately, I believe that you will find they don’t make you any fuller or more important than you truly are inside.
Because everyone is already potentially magnificent. Every one of those teenagers left there last night with a new point of view, and a bigger, more shining soul.
Look at that, I already got my first Christmas gift, probably the best one I’ll receive.
Wishing you all the peace and joy of a Community Holiday Season.
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!!