If you were to ask me what the best sound in the word is, I would answer without hesitation, “My children laughing together.”
Some of the best moments of being a mom were simply this. I’m in bed, reading. and I hear the sound of matched giggles or outright belly laughs from the darkness of one or the other of the girls’ rooms. Instead of telling whichever one snuck out into her sister’s room to go back to bed, I just listen, reveling in the strength of their connection.
Of course, the laughter of children has a power all its own, think of the videos of a baby laughing on social media. That gurgling, unfettered sound of pure delight that produces fine bubbles in your stomach that rise up through your chest, tickling as they swirl, hooking the corners of your lips and lifting your mouth into a smile before they pop with a sparkle that shines in your eyes.
And that’s just some random toddler. I believe the happiness of our children gives us such a deep sense of joy for several reasons.
One, it means we have done our job and the kids are happy, safe, and most likely healthy.
Two, it reminds us of our own more innocent times. I hear that amusement and am catapulted back, maybe I’m lying on a trampoline with my sister staring at an infinity of stars and giggling at nothing and everything until exhaustion sets in. Maybe I’m listening to my dad’s stomach growl while he lies on the floor watching TV while my sibs and I press our ears to his tummy. Funniest thing ever. No worries, no tomorrow, no sorrow. Just that hysterical moment of swooping, free-falling ecstasy.
Three, laughter releases chemicals that make us feel good. Especially our own. I’ve actually been able to combat depression by just plain faking laughter until I actually started laughing at the whole ridiculous process. Try it, it works.
But whatever the reason, much like the Grinch, my heart grows two sizes whenever I even think of those moments, which I do quite often.
Last weeks, the girls came to visit for Thanksgiving. We hiked, and set off fireworks on the beach, and ate truffles with everything from eggs to soufflés. The boyfriends came with, so Joseph and I were more like a backdrop than the main attraction. That’s what happens when they grow up, they branch out from family, on whom their very survival used to depend, to the peers who will keep them surviving and thriving in life beyond their parents. My girls are loving and attentive and grateful, but the parent-child dynamic changes, as it should, when they head off into the great blue horizon that is their life without me.
I suppose I’m a bit different from many moms, certainly different from my sisters, who feel that their kids are an extension of themselves that they can shape into a certain type of person like human Playdough. I don’t mean to be derogatory, they are both amazing mothers, it’s just a different perspective. I knew from the first moment I looked into my older daughter’s eyes when they handed her to me on the delivery table that she was her own person with her own journey ahead. I knew she was already thinking and feeling things vastly different from my own soaring emotions. I’ve always been honored to be a part of it. I’m here to help row, blow wind in their sails, or even bail out the high water when it’s needed, but ultimately the journey and the experiences belong to them.
It makes me happy just to think it. What remarkable humans they are, compassionate, open, intelligent, funny, caring, everything I could have wanted. Sure they make fun of me, you should see them both doing an impression of my face when I got really mad, it’s hysterical. My views on life are questioned and often argued, which is all for the good. I never wanted carbon copies of me, I wanted originals, and that is what they are. That’s what all children are really, it’s just that some parents don’t get that for a long time, sadly some never do. Perhaps it’s painful for a parent to realize that these individuals to whom you gave everything go on without you, but I bet it’s a lot harder to have to hide who you really are from your own parents.
So when my girls sigh when I make a statement they don’t agree with, or demand that I stop talking about something because it makes them uncomfortable, I acknowledge that truth and shift. Joseph and I spend more time watching them interact with the world than we do interacting with them. We wrap an arm around each other and smile at these young adults, so sure of their knowledge and their place, and we feel good. We’ve done well to teach them to be themselves and to be confident in that. We exchange knowing glances when they question themselves and the world around them, nodding encouragement. Never stop questioning, my darlings, always ask for more.
The holiday was wonderful, we shared so much, including time just spent together without any motive or purpose, only comfortable co-habitation.
And when they sat on the deck after sunset overlooking the moon on Puget Sound we stayed inside, listening to the animated conversation, and when the laughter broke out in rolls and waves, we looked into each other’s eyes and smiled.
There’s nothing better than hearing the laughter of your children in the dark.
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.
I’ve been in Santa Cruz for several months now (you can tell by the shoes) and I can’t help noticing that people are nicer here. They make eye contact and smile, they chat with ‘strangers’ in groups, they offer quiet compliments in passing, they have amazing style, but each to their own, there’s none of that insecure fashion sheep bs, when a traffic light changes, no one even honks!
It baffled me. Where’s all the anger? Why aren’t people being shitty to each other? How can it be that the people with money don’t seem to think they are more important than everyone else? Why, I thought, do people seem to get along so much better here? For a while it all seemed utterly mysterious until it clicked.
People here are happier. They are accepting of others, their lives are richer, fuller, more magnificent because of the others passing through life with them. I’m as likely to see a in a generic business suit having coffee with a friend sporting multiple piercings and dreadlocks as a cop sharing a laugh with college kids celebrating 420 with a joint so huge seven people had to claim shared ownership as only one ounce is allowed to a person in public at a time. It was a defence the men and women in blue were happy to accept. With a shrug and a smile of relief that they didn’t have to crucify anyone for having fun, they high-fived the group and moved on.
I have days when I can’t stop smiling.
And every time I see multi racial children with their ultra-white granddad or some ‘scary’ black dude offering help with such gentleness to a Korean exchange student who can’t figure out the bus system, I’m awed. This is how it’s supposed to be. There’s very little fear of others because they don’t look like you.
It’s not that I didn’t see these things in other places, I did, but not to the same degree, or any where near as frequently as I do here.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a horrible homeless problem, there is crime, there are racists, though I haven’t personally witnessed any blatant discrimination here yet— not something I can say about Los Angeles or Atlanta or even New York. But I’m not that naïve, It’s here. There are dangerous drugs and mental illness, there is domestic abuse, of course there is. Santa Cruz isn’t some Shangri La, just a pocket of humanity brave enough to dream we could live in a place that is at least Shangri La adjacent. You know, not Eden, but one of it’s suburbs.
Living in a community where you actively seek to interact with many others, each quite different, on a daily basis as opposed to avoiding human contact unless they are the exact same as you, is enriching. Differences are embraced, celebrated, and above all respected. It’s like living in a museum that displays multiple artists and art forms, holds concerts for all types of music and dance performances from every culture, instead of just one bland canvas done in weak pastels that everyone allowed to enter can agree is ‘very nice.’
One reason people seem so happy here is that this city is a blending of business, art, university, nature and community. One reason is the ocean, so close and so calming. One reason is the forests, filled with ancient trees and budding life. One reason is that it’s hard to start an argument with people who are generous, sharing, and accepting of the fact that maybe that mean guy just had a really hard day.
I’ve watched many people, including my daughter, share their food with the homeless, seen construction workers offer a tarp to a couple without shelter, witnessed an entire group of young people at a farmer’s market care about a stranger who had just been ditched by her boyfriend. Nothing obvious, they just sat down near her and spoke softly and kindly until the tears subsided, then they invited her to join them for lunch. Many of you who are reading this would have rejected this group out of hand, they were tattooed, some barefoot, they wore beads and symbols of coexistence, they probably did yoga in the park for god’s sake, but their empathy made them worth more than any movie star or millionaire in that moment. Would you have made an effort to comfort a complete stranger in a fragile state?
And every day I go out three times to walk my dog. Sometimes I don’t feel like it, I’m tired, or working, or just lazy, and every time, I’m glad I went out.
Every time I meet someone great, like Elissa, my downstairs neighbor who happens to have a degenerative muscle disease, a love of writing, and a wicked sense of humor, or Stuart who sits on the corner during the frequent bike or foot races along the ocean route and applauds every single one of the participants. Every. Single. One. It takes hours, and the grateful reactions he gets makes me think that he has chosen his occupation well.
It’s been hard lately to stay positive about my race—and I’m referring to the human race. With the many dicks in the white house and the constant barrage of empowered hatred, ignorance, and dark-ages religious dogma causing so much pain in the world, so senselessly, it’s enough to make me want to give up and live in a cave.
Or not at all. If we can’t live together with dignity, what’s the point?
So last night, after yet another day of being horrified by images of substandard human behavior, I went out at the smoky coal end of dusk. My eyes were cast down and I felt as though enthusiasm and hope had been vacuumed from my body leaving me spent and disgusted. People suck, I thought. Even people I once respected have fallen so far from grace in my eyes and my heart that I can’t even look at them. As I walked the half block toward the shining silver sea, a car slowed for the intersection on the street over looking the ocean. It was too dark and far away for me to see who was in it, but as the car came to a stop, I heard the voice of young girl, maybe six, shouting out the window, “Hello! Hello!” she called to the world outside, to everyone. Not to me in particular, there were many people out walking much closer to her than I was. She was angling for an answer, trolling for a connection, fishing for a friend, and I understood that.
Because I’m me, and I don’t give a crap how stupid I look, or care if anyone knows what I’m doing or why, I answered. That innocent voice in the twilight deserved a response.
“Hello!” I shouted, waving madly from thirty yards away. I had no idea if the kid could even see me. I just wanted her to know she’d been heard, that we were out here, that her joy and her friendliness would be reciprocated by other, like-minded souls. The car began to pull away from the stop sign and just before it was out of earshot, the little voice called out four more words.
“I like your jacket!” it rang out, filling the coming night with presence.
I threw my head back and laughed then shouted back, “Thank you!”
I don’t know if she heard me, but that’s okay, because the ‘thank you’ wasn’t just for her, it was for her spirit, the effect she had had on the air, the universe, the love of sharing a moment.
Four words, and my faith in humanity was not just restored but recharged. I felt as though I had received a benediction. A blessedly religion-free benediction of possibility.
What will you shout today? Will it be in anger or joy?
Wow, it’s been a tough couple of months. This election is insanity itself, and as someone who is fascinated by human behaviour both individually and societal I’m having a hard time staying positive.
It’s not the politics, it’s not even the supposed policies, it’s the anger, the loathing, the fear, and the virulence spewing from seemingly sane people that has me down. We live in a world where people believe different things, have different visions, and—call me crazy— I think that should be okay.
In the last day or so, I had to come to terms with the fact that I am actually, clinically depressed. My anxiety has been through the roof. It’s major life changes for me as well, selling a home we have built and loved, moving to a new life, the last kid leaving for college, etc, but I’m someone who usually embraces change, in fact, I’m enthused and energised by it!
So why am I so tired? Why do I feel like crying for no apparent reason? Why do I find myself wilting on a step or a rock and holding my head in my hands without knowing how I got there or if I can get up again?
Because I started to lose faith in people. I see people who should be trying to make the world better doing nothing but spreading hate and fear. I see supposed ‘grown-ups’ posting things that are cruel and juvenile with no intention of creating discussion or change, only to insult, hurt, and lash out.
What the hell is wrong with us? And how can we keep hoping and trying when there is so much narrow-minded selfishness and narcissism being shoved down our throats?
My immediate response to this kind of negative personal reaction is to do some good, to empower myself and the world around me with kindness or generosity or charity even. Something, anything, but even that effort has been difficult to muster. We feel so helpless when we continually see people behaving as though their goal in life is to make the worst possible choices for the overall good. When did we become this race that cared for nothing but ourselves?
The answer, of course, is that most of us haven’t. Yes, there is a huge portion of the population, especially I think in our country, who respond from ignorance and fear, I understand that, but what hurls my heart into darkness is watching people make those choices knowingly, gloatingly, gleefully.
The sheer mass of meanness has been overwhelming to say the least. So much so that in the last few days, I’ve actually been feeling tired of life. I’ve been scrabbling and scratching my way up for a breath of decency and hope. Just forcing myself to stand and step forward, to go a little further, to lift my chin a little higher, has felt like pulling a locomotive uphill with a fraying tow rope.
Usually, I’m the one offering a smile or a joke or a compliment. I spend a great deal of my energy trying to make others feel good, and that, much like compounded interest, gives me even more energy and happiness. I’m selfish that way.
So it was interesting to have a day where on my usual errands to the bank, the grocery, the post office and other neighbourhood places, to discover how many people not only noticed I was sad, but went out of their way to make me smile. I now understand the expression, ‘many happy returns of the day,’ because my bonus came in. At the coffee shop, one of the servers made a special effort to call me by name, to sincerely ask how I was doing. The checker at the grocery store who I always chat with came around the counter to give me a hug when I shared that I was suffering what I call, ‘the reds’ (extreme anxiety). The bank manager, who loves my books, actually got teared up when I explained that we were moving away.
And then, with all the perfect timing of the universe, my daughter sent me an essay she wrote for college about me. Here’s an excerpt.
“My mom is a truly adventurous person. She will try any food or challenge that comes her way, excluding of course anything that would involve cruelty or is not within reason. Some of my most vivid memories of my mother and her adventures include my sister and I taking the role of the worried parent as my mother attempts some dangerous feat. “Get away from that bear” we would say, or “mom the ice bridge isn’t safe, please don’t… oh god no there she goes.” For all the times she has made us incredibly nervous for her well being, she has also pushed us to always be brave and never shy away from adventure.”
What’s funny is that in the end the only thing that really makes me feel in danger is putting myself out there emotionally. Caring. I am not a person who can look away from bullying, cruelty or suffering, and that makes me vulnerable. It takes all of my courage sometimes to stay open, to care, and to not look away from those things.
And it’s true, I am seldom afraid, I always look for the beauty and positivity around me, but lately I have felt utterly drained and sad. Not sad for myself, but for humanity as a whole.
But I realise now, again, that it is time for me to be brave. Time to lean into the fear, the hate, the ignorance, and smile. To cross the ice bridge.
I look at it like this. I’ve said it before…We are all one. Now, if that’s true, then we can look at ‘us’ as ‘me’ and each of the billions of people on this planet are different aspects, emotions, thoughts and traits that make up the whole. If you look at it that way, it seems to me that things are becoming, just maybe, a little bit better. More of humanity is waking up to the fact that we are not alone, that we are not any better, nor more important than any one else. Needing to feel superior is one sure sign that you are not.
So, most importantly, I must be brave in order to be kind, not only to others, but to myself. I must remember that so many of ‘us’ are working hard every day to make the world a more loving place, in so many different ways. Even, or especially when I feel so tired and disappointed, I must make every effort to look up.
Or…I can remember what I saw at the zoo this morning when I was chaperoning my daughter’s class on a field trip.
Two lovely young women, both moms, were there each with one child. A small boy, maybe 18 months old, and a girl a few months less. Both babies were teetering about in that toddler, diaper-between-my-stubby-legs walk, and as I smiled down at them, the boy leaned forward, put a gentle hand on the girls head, and then kissed her on the mouth. Both the moms and I gasped in delight as the little girl clapped her hands and then laid her head against his arm.
That is who we are. That is where we start. Where we go from there, that loving, happy self, is up to us.
Choose well my friends, you are me, and I am you.
None of us are getting out of this world alive, or alone.
This is about fear and loathing. Not that I have any, of course. Who would ever admit that? That would make me wrong, and don’t we all loathe it when that happens!
Except…I’ve been working on some meditations lately to help get down to the ‘heart of the matter,’ and it all comes to this, my deepest, darkest fear is that I will not be grateful enough, that fear of being unloved will smother my loving spirit, and that because of those fears, I will not succeed in being and giving all I can. I will fail at the only thing that is truly important—Being human.
Weird, right? The funny thing is that I know it’s okay to be afraid. You can’t ever be brave if you’re never afraid. The biggest challenge is to forgive yourself for being afraid and all the bad stuff that creates. It’s perfectly natural to be an emotional beast, it’s just become the norm to not understand what that means. We aren’t our ego, our ego is terrified, all the time, because it relies on everything outside of who we are for validation. That’s like tying strings to every organ and limb in your body and giving total strangers the strings.
Ah, dragons, spitting fire and smelling of sulphur. They don’t live out in the open, they live in caves, inside of us, of course. Do you feel angry? Peel back a layer and you’ll most likely find fear. Do you feel fear? Peel back another layer and you’ll find you are afraid of not being loved, (alone) or death, (non-existence.)
What silliness. I truly believe that we are made of love and energy, that’s our natural state, and it’s the disconnecting from what we really are that brings on all the physical contractions and stress that make us ache emotionally. Then, since we don’t want to feel that, we try to shove that back down into the dark, back to the caves, and then… it seethes until we can feel the dragon’s breath licking at our very core. What do we do when that happens?
Blame everyone else of course.
But, really, whose fault is that? Well, our own, obviously. If we aren’t self-referring we are nothing but targets for every stranger on the street or social media. Someone approves of you? You feel good. Someone disagrees with you, you feel miserable and unworthy, often lashing out to try to defend the non-defendable.
And why is it indefensible? Because it isn’t who you are. It’s only someone else’s opinion, and that always says more about them than you. But what are you ‘saying’ about yourself? We’ve been so brainwashed by religion and consumerism in this country that we now base our worth on what we own, whom we feel superior to, and what other people tell us to think.
Silliness personified! So today I stand here proudly to declare, I am afraid! (sometimes) I am unlovable! (well, that’s what my mom’s disapproval taught me at a very young age, not her fault.) I am ungrateful! (I forget to be happy and count my blessings, get stressed about stupid things.)
Isn’t that wonderful? To know these things, to embrace them, is to understand that most, no all, of my reactions are based on conditioning that is as old as I am. And that’s getting up toward six decades. The only way to stop that chain reaction is to accept it, embrace it, and fundamentally rethink and re-feel that energy.
Look that dragon in the eye and shake paws with it.
It’s all about learning.
The other day someone told me on facebook not to get my feelings hurt by people who were being viciously insulting (lashing out in fear) instead of presenting any valid point in a discussion. I wasn’t insulted, because those people’s opinions are about themselves, not me. That’s almost always true, I’ve found. Someone says I’m jealous of them and guess what? Since I know nothing about them, I assume that there’s more than a little transference going on there.
So will you wait until everyone ‘likes’ you or ‘agrees’ with you before you are happy and at peace? Take a number and bring snacks, because eternity is a long time to spend in a waiting room. Seriously, it’s worse than the dentist.
Everyone sees things differently, we all see others and their actions through filters. And we all have dragons. As I see it, my only good choice is to saddle that puppy up and go for the ride of my life!
Meanwhile, the days are speeding past, people need to be loved, encouraged, supported, or sometimes just calmed down a notch. (Once again, not me of course, I’m always calm and I never go off. No I do not, stop saying that! You just don’t understand me. I hate you, you’re so mean to me, it’s all your fault. Poor me, no one loves me…) Uh…sorry, got caught in the spin cycle again and had to remind myself to breathe. And yes, a few flames did flicker out of my nostrils.
Imagine a day where we all smiled at each other and tried to be helpful in some small way.
Would you feel safer? Happier?
Would you like other people better?
Would you like yourself better?
Then get started. Meet your dragon, and bring a lasso.
We call them goals. Those things we work toward and sometimes achieve. These ‘goals’ can be benchmark moments, work successes, projects finished, even amount of money made, and they can be good to have, but they are not now. What is now is everything in between, now is life.
I’m thinking about that today because I just finished a first draft on a new book. That doesn’t mean anywhere near done, but it’s a goal reached. I need to give it another day or two before I can go back and edit more because I need some space from it, I need it to be new when I read it again. And I have a movie out, which means some promotion, but though the film is new to viewers, it’s two years old to me. (Yes fledgling filmmakers, it can take that long for post and distribution.)
If you think about it, we’re always between something. School years, relationships, holidays, vacations, meals, moves, birthdays, work projects, and even, or especially, the big one—birth and death. Now, being between doesn’t mean we’re waiting. If you think about it, there isn’t any such thing as waiting, you just are where you are doing what you are doing right now.
Me? I took a wonderful hike along a stream, made breakfast, will spend most of the day catching up on reading for fellow authors that I’ve promised notes to, snuggle with my husband, work in the yard, and right now, I’m talking to you. All of these are things for which I’m grateful, the book is waiting to be read, critiqued, edited, changed, and smoothed, but it is hovering out there, and while it floats, while it waits to be morphed into final form and read, I’m doing something else.
Mostly breathing, which is good.
Someone asked me in an interview recently what I liked specifically about acting and writing. My answer was the same for both—connection. I write to offer others a ride into a world they would never experience, and when someone grabs on and feels the wind in their hair, then I’ve done my job. When I’m on stage and the audience is leaning in, breathing with me, they are sharing the emotions and struggles of my character. It’s magical.
So with a film out and a book pending, I do not rest. Or rather, I gather my strength from nature, family, my husband/lover, the joy of cooking, planting, creating a life of beauty and happiness. Like everyone, I have had times when it was hard to be happy, when there was stress and pressure and people trying hard to tear me down, but they never do. At fifty-five I’ve been through enough crap enough times to know that that will pass. I know now that I will move on to something else, that all my worrying and unhealthy responses do not make the difficult times pass more quickly. All it does is make it seem to take longer, and I’m busy with right now.
When I first moved to LA, I was so broke I couldn’t afford a bed. I slept on a couple of coats piled on a hardwood floor. But everyday, I would take a walk, I would find a flower, even a pretty weed, and take it home and put it in a clear glass bottle that had once contained some fancy soda. I would watch the light through the windows move across the room. I would let the elegant notes of Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaughn dance through my apartment, and write, and revel in the time alone. That’s when I first learned to meditate, and that has enriched my life beyond measure.
I may have been between jobs, between friends and relationships even, but I was glad to be there. I remember one day in particular, I went to the grocery store with about twenty bucks for food and started singing along to the music they were playing. An older man joined in, and next thing you knew we were dancing (with our carts no less) in the aisles of Ralph’s. It still brings me joy to remember that moment.
That’s why I’m ecstatic to be here. It leaves me thinking, what adventures come next? What quiet beauty or exchange with someone will I experience today? At what do I choose to look? And more importantly, what do I see within it?
Look for the moon on the water, see the wind tremble the pines, enjoy the mischievous smile on a child’s face while they play, notice someone taking a moment to be kind, strangers conversing, laughing together, take in compassion and love and humour.
You have an infinite number of choices, but really, to be happy, what choice do you have?
There are milestones in life that we look forward to. Mostly when we’re younger, of course. When you are five it feels like Christmas or your birthday will never come. You wonder in July if it’s too early to start the list for your Santa letter, and then comes the cruelty of December when gifts start to show up under the tree but you can’t open them yet! Then at fifteen it’s “Mom, mom, mom, MOM! When can I get my driver’s license?” (a word that is interchangeable with freedom at that age.) Then it’s can’t wait for 21 so I can legally drink a beer, which seems only fair, since you’ve been legally able to die for your country since you were 18. Of course, you can get yourself a fully automatic assault rifle and a grenade launcher before you go to kindergarten—”Go ‘Merica! We’re number one!” Why? “Because my toddler can open carry! I don’t got no college fund for him, but I got him this here arsenal! Feel the freedom!!” Of course that a slight exaggeration—key word, slight. (I’m from Georgia. Seen it, lived it, was horrified by it.)
But now, I have a really big milestone coming up. I mean, this is the queen mother of entitlement. In November I will be 55 years of age and I can order off the senior menu. The anticipation is exquisite. Hell, I even heard that Red Lobster will send a bus to pick me up. Bring on the cheese biscuits!
Sweet!! I will get discounts at so many places, and as a second plus, I can be crabby and bitch about the ‘good old days’ and nobody gets to tell me to buck up and get over it. Which is ironic, because I wouldn’t go backwards for all the wrinkle-free skin in California. That’s not so much of a sacrifice, since so much of that ‘younger looking skin’ was created by botulism poison or the surgeon’s knife, and I’m am not okay with that! No because I think it’s unnatural or any crap like that, but because I earned these wrinkles, and dammit, I’m keeping them! Why would I want to erase my smiles or my tears or my most fabulous adventures walking through rainstorms alone or sailing in a rough sea with my brother when we were teens. I’ll keep my moments, and if you think for one minute I care that someone says I look older, you’re right. It makes me happy!!
What a relief growing older has been really. I get to be friends with women without them feeling they have to resent or compete with me, or vice-versa. Men believe that I’m intelligent without that pathetically ignorant look of surprise on their face when I use big words and know what they mean, (and they often don’t.)
At one of my last doctor’s visit, I told my physician, who has known me for many years socially as well as a doctor, that I thought I was having memory loss because sometimes I occasionally couldn’t think of the right word. He laughed, really loud, and then said, “No, I think that’s just you trying to find the perfect word. Big difference.” Bastard wouldn’t even give me an out.
My husband thinks I need a hearing aid, but I’m too smart to tell him he mumbles sometimes. (In my experience, which is vast because, as previously stated, I’m old, it’s easier not to contradict your mate unless it’s life-threatening.) Oh, and please don’t try to tell me some crucial piece of information from your desk in the library while I’m standing at the sink in the kitchen with the water and the dishwasher running simultaneously. I may have lost some hearing range, but I prefer to think of it as hearing selectively. Another benefit to aging. You can pretend the people at the table next to you did not just say something that stupid.
Because my life long impulse has been to correct people, to call them on their bs. I’m still that way when I feel people are being cruel or unfair, I’m not afraid of a fight. If there’s one thing I have learned it’s that some people never do. To me, learning is everything. It’s the point. You can’t ever know everything. But if you keep listening and reading and learning, then knowledge of life and love is the penultimate experience. (That means next to last. Last of course, is death and what comes after, we don’t get to know that until the train leaves the station.)
As always, it comes to choices. I still love the Christmas season, which I define as whatever you choose to celebrate, religion, mythology, philosophy, the seasons, nature, etc. but it’s about the giving now. My favorite part is making Advent calendars for my nieces and nephews. I wrap 24 tiny presents for each of them and number them with the days. They’ve been such a big success that even at 17 and 18, they still enjoy them. Look under (“How to be the favorite Aunt” in my archives for tips.)
I love my birthday because it’s in fall, my favorite season, and because I went into labor with my second child on that day and her birthday is the next day. In truth, I feel guilty about my birthday because people always feel like they should do something for you. I think they should do something for my mom, she’s the one who did all the work! So I send her flowers or call her to wish her happy ‘birth’ day. As a milestone, birthdays don’t count as much to me. But this one…55!
So psyched! I’ll even get 30 percent off on Tuesdays at my favorite thrift store.
I’ll just have to wait for, let’s see, seven Tuesdays. It would be six, but my birthday is on a Wednesday this year.
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.
Okay, here’s my second blog of today, and it’s because of a request someone sent me, (No names!!) to write about competition in the workplace.
First, let me be clear. I know nothing about ‘the workplace.’ Sadly, I’ve never had a ‘regular’ job. Never been a waitress or a teacher or an executive. I’ve only been an ice skater, a model, an actress and a writer.
So I do know something about competition. I was raised with it. It screwed me up, big time. Let’s start with life, I was the second of four children, I don’t remember a time in my childhood that my mom didn’t have another kid who needed her attention. And what a group, between the four of us we sang opera, danced, skated, painted, were labeled ‘gifted,’ and on and on.There was only one way to stand out in that group of siblings, and that was to excel. If I wanted mom’s attention, I had to win something.
And that takes us to ice skating. Here’s the deal. I would go train in other cities, sometimes countries, I would live with a group of other girls, they were my ‘friends.’ Until competition day, then what I wanted most was for them to fail, to fall down, to mess up, so that I could win. Tell me that’s not a twisted way to develop relationships.
Yikes. Moving on to modeling. A sliver more room for support, I mean there could be more than one winner here, after all, but I still had to get that job over my ‘friends.’ I still judged myself constantly against others, and worse, I was judged, constantly not by my sense of humor or personality, but how I looked on the outside.
Am I screwed up enough yet? Getting there. Now let’s move on to acting. I sit in a room full of women who look an awful lot like me, we weigh each other up, feel threatened if the casting director seems impressed by their reading, and hope against all hope that we, and not them, are the one who wins the part.
Now I’m cooked.
Then I began to do theatre, and the heavens opened, and the sun shone down, and I finally had allies. We had a common purpose, I could truly root for the other actors, I could understand that if they were better, I was better.
Hallelujah! About friggen’ time. It only took me into my early twenties to get it. The next step was to stop competing with myself. That’s another several years of therapy, money well spent! Did I really need to hike eight miles until I puked? Or could I turn back at four? Why was it that if, in a single day, I wrote a chapter, read to kids at school, hiked, auditioned, cleaned the house and cooked a gourmet dinner, I still went to bed feeling that I hadn’t done enough?
Now, it isn’t always a bad thing. I heard a saying recently that said you should compete with yourself because then you both win. That’s clever, but not true. What I have found is that the child inside that needs the attention, needs to be exceptional and special, that feels hurt without it inside, also needs a mom.
Not my mom, she’s great actually. But if there are two people in me, then one of them needs to be the mom and comfort and love the other one, the child. Tell her that it’s okay, hug and rock her.
It works. And guess what? We both win.
As for the workplace? Well, all I can say about that is do your best, kick ass, expect the same effort from your peers, but encourage them too, comfort them, ask for their help, and take it when it’s offered. We are better together than we are apart. If you get the promotion, take somebody up with you. If they do, back them up and call in your favors.
Unless you’re an ice skater. Then baby, you’re on your own. Embrace it, and get some friends who don’t skate.
This is flippant, I know, but you try summing up one of your major life shapers in less than five hundred words.
So compete away!! But celebrate too, your successes as well as others. And remember it’s what you are competing for that counts. The gold medal is great, but dying happy is the real goal here.
That’s the measure of success.
So here’s to the winners. The ones who look back on their lives and say, “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
I posted a picture on FB of me holding a snake I found on a trail and the comments were interesting. It was clear that people are afraid of the snake, not because it can hurt them or because it’s poisonous, but because it’s a snake. There’s one kind of snake that survives by imitating a rattle snake, the rat snake. That trick works in nature, other animals are fooled, but with humans, well, let’s face it, they just try to kill it anyways.
That’s nothing but ignorance and media gullibility. Snakes do not chase you down, like in Anaconda. (Except maybe black mambas, and I try to steer clear of them.) And living with these amazing creatures is a joy and a gift. I’m no snake expert, but I have bothered to learn what’s dangerous and isn’t in the area where I live and hike, and my life is richer for it. That’s just smart. If I lived in the Serengeti I wouldn’t take a stroll out into lion territory without some way to escape or a knowledge of where the lions are hunting that day.
I relate this fear of the unknown to so many people I know, and things that have happened recently. People get bitten by snakes for two reasons, they step on it, or they poke at it with a stick. If they weren’t afraid of it, they’d take a picture and move on.
Where did we get this fear of what we don’t understand? I recently had someone make a slew of accusations about me on the web, and trust me, it’s not easy to read a bunch of lies about yourself, your husband, and your children. It was someone who thinks she has reason to fear me, and was hissing to try to strike back, but in truth, I see her and her comments, as the fangless, harmless snake poop that they are and the behavior as that of a baser type of creature. Information is a good thing. I know not to fear a rat snake, or even a rattle snake if I’m aware. I know I’m a good mom who works very hard and has made choices in her life to make less money in the short run in favor of a life filled with community and art and mom-ness. I was raised with money, so it isn’t such a motivator for me as it is to someone who comes from nothing. I have a loving family, so I understand that someone who doesn’t, can’t relate to the value of that over a bigger house. Yes, those are my choices. If I wanted what someone else had, trust me, I would have it. I have exactly what I want, a loving, talented, husband, an unbreakable bond with my daughters, my writing, my many incredible friends, and a beautiful home that is a place of laughter, nature, and retreat. I want for nothing, I have an amazing life. Everyday I am thankful for it.
These choices might be impossible for someone to grasp who hasn’t got it. Jewelry and cars cannot replace true accomplishment and contentment, I know this because I have had so much of both. But how would someone know that when they are looking at life through eyes that see only the preconceived? It’s like the harmless rat snake, it can’t hurt you, but you fear it out of ignorance, because you were taught that they’re scary, or worse, because it serves you to try to scare others with the falsehood.
Can’t you just hear that human’s rattle going? The hiss, hiss, of the upset reptile, which really means, of course, “I’m afraid of you, stay away.”
So, as much as I might like to poke certain snake people with a sharp stick, I know better not to, I learned that from snakes. And, come on, it’s just common sense. I’ll keep admiring the real snakes and ignoring the human ones.
So, in conclusion, don’t fear the noise, don’t fear the scales, look at the snake, see how beautiful the pattern of its skin is? How beautifully it moves through the grass?
And the rattle goes, trrrrrrrrrr. Sounds like music to me, part of the symphony of life. Rich, stark, profound and trite, it is all magnificent.
Don’t fear snakes, fear ignorance.
Or just accept that we live with both, and be happy.