Acting & Experiences, creating character, family, Life in General, writing

I’m Write and You’re Wrong.

Image
Backstage at “Much Ado About Nothing” with three women who are terrific friends.

As the publication date of “Invisible Ellen” looms ever nearer, and the premier screening of “Scream at the Devil” is less than two weeks away, I find my focus turning to two things, reworking the book’s sequel, “Emerging Ellen,” and making time for my neglected friends.

I’ve been in a work frenzy for the last year, and I have a rather large family, who must, by needs, often come before friends. But now I find myself longing for that simple shared laughter and warm support that only a long time friend can offer. And friends, I realize, could sometimes benefit from some attention from me!

As for the new book, I am doing something I’ve never done before, (though that, in itself, seems to be a theme in my life!) I am removing one complete story line and replacing it with another. Not because I don’t like it, not because it doesn’t have it’s value, heart and excitement, but because I think I’ve gone one plot point too far, and I want to spend the wordage on the building of character.

Sound familiar? They are both the same thing, aren’t they? I could continue to focus on work—which is to say, plot, story, complexities, etc—or I can balance it with time spent with friends—character, laughter, tears, and the arc of developing relationships. As always, I choose both, but my focus, and therefor my time, will be split more evenly.

There’s no right or wrong way to live your life, there’s no ‘supposed to’ or ‘rules,’ there is only what you can do with the strength and passion you have. There are only the choices you make. Do you spend your time seeking ‘success’? Money? Fame? Or do you give to family until there’s nothing left for you? Do you know that there’s a place in between? For us all, there are times, times of great sadness or stress, when we have nothing left to give, and that is when, hopefully, we can turn to others, for a little while, to cast the net that keeps us from falling. And sometimes, we are the ones who need to ‘spot’ our friends, to catch them when they fall.

One good friend just had a baby. She was not trying to get pregnant, did not particularly want children, but it happened and she embraced it, but now finds herself overwhelmed. She said to me, “I don’t really know who I am right now.” Everything in her life is being redefined. I will do what I can to be there for her, to take the baby for a few hours so that she can breathe and remember who she is. I will take her for walks in pretty places so that she not only remembers who she is, but also discovers the magnificent new person she is becoming. And I will devote some of my attention to lauding her for the strength it takes.

I have another friend whose husband passed away a month ago. He drank himself to death, and in the process of his destructive behavior, he left her in a legal and emotional battlefield which she must now face alone, deserted by him. I cannot bury my face in my computer and ignore her pain and need. I might not be able to fix all that, but I can remind her of her grace and class, buoy her up to face the legion of lawyers and the nightmare of uncovering the depth of her husband’s betrayal. I will talk to her as often as I can, I will take a day off to visit a museum with her and remind her that life is bigger, that there is more, that the future holds beauty.

These things take time and energy to do well. That time and energy will come from other areas of my life that will have to slip from fevered pitch to low idling hum. But I feel lucky all the same.

What more can we do? I cannot live others lives for them, they must do that, I am only a character in their story. Writing a book, I can change the story, I can effect the change that brings about the ending as I want it to be, and I truly believe that it is the same in life. We create our friendships and relationships in a different way, and to a different degree, but we can rewrite our story, we can be a strong supporting cast in the dramas that belong to others. And this, we must do, not because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do, but because it makes us complete.

I decided long ago, or perhaps ‘realized’ is more the mot juste, that I need balance to make a real life and be happy. Success to me, equals happiness, not fame or money, or the envy of others. I needed something besides the pursuit of stardom and big houses, that is to say, the things that other people tend to envy. What I needed was to contribute sometimes, and sit back and revel other times, in sunlight on leaves, on the victories of others. What use is a life lived only for how it appears to others? The greatest danger there, in this world of social media and constant exposure, is that people invent themselves to look good to others… and then they begin to believe it. And then they can’t live without that approval and admiration, because they have nothing else.

It reminds me of Michael Caine, when we were working on “On Deadly Ground.” We were sitting in the makeup trailer and I was laughing about a story I had read about myself in an Italian rag magazine that stated that I had been institutionalized for mental illness, overwrought with jealousy. I said, “It’s crazy, the Italians just make stuff up and print it!”

And Michael leaned around his makeup artist and said in that charming cockney accent, “The Italians have got nothing on the British. In England, they make it up…and then they prove it!” We laughed about it.

So, make up your own story, but live it honestly, and make the story about you, not about someone else. Do it for you, not for what you think others see. Give because it makes you better, spend time supporting and cheering for your friends, and even strangers, because it fills your heart and reminds you that we are connected and that without that connection, we are unfulfilled and no trip to the mall, no McMansion will ever fill that frightening void of separation. Remember only this, other’s lives belong to them, yours to you. Own it, fill it, live it, share it, and do it for love and joy.

Write your own story, so that when you read it back, you smile.

 

Shari April 23, 2014

Life in General

The Most Beautiful People.

 

Image
One of my friends with a kitten.

 

Yesterday I watched a short clip of Dustin Hoffman speaking at AFI about the making of Tootsie. He told the story of asking the movie studio to do makeup tests before they got into production, he said that if he couldn’t look acceptably like a woman, there was no point in making the movie. So they did, and he saw the result, and it was acceptable. Then he went back and said, “Okay, now make me a beautiful woman,” because he thought that was important. If he was going to be a woman, he needed to be physically attractive, right?  The answer was, “That’s as beautiful as you get.” 

And he began to cry, because, as he explained, he realized that he had discounted unattractive women for years, because of some social stereotype that being good-looking makes women valuable, and he knew that he had missed out on a huge portion of love, knowledge, and human connection. 

While this is a wonderful story—and yet another crystal clear example of how we should always put ourselves in another’s shoes before we judge them—it doesn’t just apply to women. 

It applies to anyone that you discount for physical, racial, or sociological reasons. They are not the ones who are lacking. 

Here’s something I learned long ago. Everyone knows something you don’t know. If you will only get past your pre-concieved idea of someone, you will find out that there is more to them than you expected. 

When I was a teenager, one of my best friends had a father who had gone down in a fighter plane in WW2, he was so badly burned that his comrades left him for dead and he laid there for 3 days before a rescue team got to him. The result was that when I knew him, many years later, he had no face. Or rather, his face was scar tissue, with slits for nostrils and the rutted, pore-less skin of a reptile. 

And he was one of the most wonderful people I ever met. Larry Clayton. He was gentle, smart, funny and entertaining. He had lived through so much, given his very identity to defend not only his country, but people who were suffering that he would never meet. He would do anything to help someone out. I’m glad and proud that I knew him and called him a friend. 

How could anyone judge him badly? Yet in our youth and beauty society, it was only his remarkable spirit that kept him from being shunned and ignored. Would you stop to have a conversation with someone who was initially hard to look at? Would you fear your own reaction? 

There are so many children I’ve met through the work with my charity, The Desi Geestman Foundation, who go through terrible physical trials, not the least of which is often the loss of their ‘cuteness’ or attractiveness. This is hardest on the teens, of course. I’ve met charming kids with bald heads riddled with tumors, three year olds whose faces are swollen and covered with fine black hair from the steroids, and quite a few who have lost limbs or even facial features. And I have seen the amazing beauty in them all and been blessed to know every one of them.

I talk a lot about perspective, because I think it colors and changes everything. My friend Paul, who I knew from age 9, when he was diagnosed with bone cancer and lost his left arm, until he died just after his 18th birthday, was the best hugger I ever knew. The last thing the charity did for Paul was to send him with some friends up to Big Bear, because he had never seen the snow, and we knew he didn’t have much longer on this earth. That was our final gift to him and his family. 

Paul had the voice of an angel and we were honored to have him sing at a few of our black tie fundraiser events. To see this cancer- plagued, bald 12 year old with one arm belting out “You are the wind beneath my wings” is a treasured memory that leaves me in tears even as I write this. I will never forget him, or the faces of his pallbearers, all of them were 18 or younger. I know that the lives of his friends who knew and loved Paul through it all are forever changed, they will never be young men and women who judge others by their physical appearance the way most teenagers would. 

That was Paul’s final gift to them. 

It’s a horrible way to learn a crucial lesson, and some small part of me believes that those kids came into our lives to show us what is important. That we don’t control everything, that life and death are neither to be feared. 

It’s those special and courageous people who inspired me to write “Invisible Ellen.” That’s why I think the story of a lost human, ignored and unobserved by society, is important. More than important. Their eviction from society is a loss of spirit and life, of talent and goodness, of potential for friendship, learning and connection that is wasted, not by those who are classified as “different’ or ‘unattractive’ but by those of us who limit our relationships to what is comfortable. We learn so little by embracing only what we know. 

I’ve had quite a few difficult life lessons, and I’m grateful for them all. Of course, I would much rather that Larry hadn’t been so horribly disfigured, or that Paul and the other children never had cancer, but they did, and they do, and I shall not judge the outward effects of their fates, I choose to see the spirit within. 

So, I know this isn’t the happiest blog, but I guess what I’m saying is this—the next time you see someone who is not a person you would go camping with, let’s say, challenge yourself to look them in the eye, to see the person beneath who is just surviving and living like the rest of us, and smile and say hello. Maybe ask how their day is going. And I promise you this. Soon, you will not have to challenge yourself anymore, you will realize that we are all different, we all have struggles, pain and faults, we all have so much to give, we just come in different forms. 

You might learn something you didn’t know, you might even let go of some irrational fear. Freedom is wonderful thing. 

You might even make a friend. 

With love and respect, 

Shari, July 10th, 2013

cooking, Life in General, parenting

A Pickled Path.

Image
The Vinegar Tasters.
Image
My personal supply of sour, sweet and bitter. All delicious!

In the picture “The Vinegar Tasters”, Confucius, Buddha and Lau Tzu stand around a pot and taste vinegar. Confucius tastes sourness as he perceives the world is out of order, therefore the world is sour. The Buddha tastes bitterness, as he sees only people with too much desire,  so they drive themselves to a bitter life. Lau Tzu says, “The vinegar is perfect as it is. This is how it tastes, heaven is on earth, too many rules spoil it, you can’t change the taste of vinegar with a rule, this is its nature, we should not force the way, nature has her way and she follows Tao, if you understand the flow, you understand the world.” Accepting the infinite variety in life is a lovely philosophy, I think.

And so, as you probably guessed, I make pickles. Lots of them, different kinds, all family recipes. It works for me as a food, and as a metaphor, here’s how I make that work.

My day started with me consciously letting go of some useless anger at an ex. He is as he is, and trying to make him understand our daughter’s real needs would be like asking a plant to edit my books. What’s the point? So, like so many parents who put their kids first, I take a deep breath and continue the repairs. On the way home from my school run, a friend called me in a hysterical depression about her daughter’s traumatic boyfriend breakup. This friend was micromanaging her teen’s life without realizing that her reaction had nothing to do with the daughter, the pain and fear she was experiencing were completely from and about herself, so I ‘talked her down off the ledge.’ Then I went for a walk in the rain, and stopped frequently to feel the moisture and the breeze brush like feathers across my face.

So there you go, Bitter, Sour, Sweet!!

And it’s all good. Really. Some things just are, and the best I can hope for is to step in and repair the damage done. Some things I can fix, so I do. And some things I can make wonderful, just for me. Ah, motherhood, friendship, and self.

So, in celebration of this magnificent conundrum that we call daily life, I’m offering the logical solution. Recipes for pickles. I know, I know, it’s obvious, but still. Try one. Then taste it, close your eyes and roll the flavor around in your mouth. Is it sweet? Sour? Bitter? All of them at once?

The moral of the story is, the conclusion and your reaction are not inherent, they are what you choose to make it.

So enjoy it all, if you can. Know that when the bitter comes, it too will pass. When something good in your life sours, step back and look at why—is it really the situation, someone else’s ‘fault,’ or is it your own pre-determined opinion that is making you feel badly? And if your day is sweet and you find beauty in simple things, even painful things, then most likely you have accepted events as they are and are not fighting against the world as it is. Congratulations, you are human and using your free will.

So here are two recipes, one sour, one sweet. If you like bitter, and many people do, add a teaspoon or two of citric acid for the tang that thrills.

Ella’s Dills

3 1/2 lbs small pickling cucumbers.

4 cups water

4 cups white vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup Kosher salt, (important, regular salt will make slimy pickles!)

1/2 cup pickling spice.

fresh dill, garlic cloves, and small dried red peppers.

Rinse the cucumbers, cut off ends and slice as desired. I like to quarter them lengthwise.

In a large nonreactive pot combine water, vinegar, sugar and salt. Bring to a boil.

In clean sterile jars (I collect jars all year, remove the labels, and then run them through the dishwasher on hot.) pack the cucumber slices, garlic (halved), small bunch of dill, and one or two peppers, leaving about a 1/2 inch of space at the top.

Fill the jars with the boiling vinegar mixture, wipe the top and seal. Put the jars into a large, lidded pot with water about halfway up. Bring the water to a boil and then time for 10 minutes. The jars should be slightly raised on the top when you take them out. (Carefully!) Make sure the lid is on as tight as possible, then place on a kitchen towel to cool. As they do, you will hear an occasional ‘schlup’ sound. That means you did it right! The jar is sealing. When they are cool, label them and place in a cool spot to cure. Refrigeration is not necessary. Wait at least one week, but they will last for months, and get better!!

Leora’s Pickles. Sweet and tart.

Take an 8 qt. basket of small cucumbers. Scrub them well and put them in a crock whole. Sprinkle 2/3 cup pickling salt over then cover with boiling water and let stand overnight.

To make the syrup, Boil 3 parts vinegar to 1 part water, (probably about four or five cups of vinegar, but it depends on your jars and your pickle packing ability!) 1 tablespoon of ginger, 1 tablespoon of alum, (this is available at most grocery stores and is what makes pickles crisp) 1/2 cup pickling spice and 3 pounds of sugar. Yes, 3 pounds of sugar. Bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile, drain your your brined cucumbers, cut into the size slices you want and pack in clean jars. Pour the boiling syrup over, and follow the procedure above. Wait at least three weeks for these, and then, yummy!!

So that’s my Taoist take on life, when you feel bitter, know that it’s one of the flavors in life, everybody gets some. When things are sour, try to enjoy the process of understanding why. When a moment is sweet, be truly grateful.

And no matter what, if you make some pickles, you will find yourself with lots of eager friends to share them with you.

What could be sweeter?

Shari, January 25, 2013.