Bugsola

The longer we live our lives the more people we will lose. It takes a deep maturing of life to accept losing people who have touched us in some way. Once we have grown in our skin, loss is something we come to accept, if not understand, however complex death is to us.

And while it doesn’t make the process any less heartbreaking, we manage to find our way to honoring a life’s passing. When we find it in ourselves to release the life of a loved-one, the pain of that loss is less intrusive. Losing people we love is aligned with the natural order. It’s quietly complex, and one of the most unavoidable experiences we will live through. This is an example of why Buddha urged against attachment.

This Father’s Day, I am reminded of male losses in my life. It started when I was in my first year of high school. My grandfather, Doc (as he was a doctor), passed away. Then, short of three decades later my father, Kenneth, although he was commonly referred to as Jeep by friends and siblings. A more poignant blow happened just a few months ago. My older brother, Kenneth, which was the most unforeseen.

Yet another loss. Yet another acceptance. Yet another honoring.

My older brother and I were not close. We grew up on opposite ends of the country and under different life situations. Our deepest bond was that we shared the same father. We spent summers together in the park, at the lake. Those memorable summers included eating juicy watermelon and sweet home-made ice cream. And in August we’d drive some 60 miles to Shelbyville for the annual Thompson reunion. We’d ride horses, and receive hugs from family we didn’t know, hearing without fail, You look just like Jeep!

I can say this in light of how different children are raised now: We were grateful children. Innocent. Naïve. We weren’t bored with being. Doing something as simple as trying to catch lightning bugs in our backyard made us giggle, and happy.

During those humid and hot summers in Nashville, life seemed so slow and measured. I was the youngest child at the time, and I followed my older brother and sister like a lost puppy. Sometimes they teased me or would pretend to play hide-and-seek only to run off somewhere and leave me all alone. Still and yet, there was method to their madness: when they returned sometime later they’d bring me my favorite soda in a bottle and bag of chips from a small country store walking distance of my father’s house.

Despite our only seeing each other during summer, we played and talked and laughed as though we were around each other all the time. As if time or distance not once bridged us. Because we were children, we so easily picked up where we’d left off the summer before.

Of course we probably didn’t know it at the time, but our summer vacations at my father’s house would come to an end. Our last summer together was the same summer my youngest sister was born. We were having so much fun, which is probably why the summer felt so fleeting.

This was the time when my father decided enough was enough with me sucking my fingers. He taped two fingers together to keep me from sucking them, and it only took a day for me to stop. That same Nashville summer I shared with both of my siblings for the final time was the same summer my father and brother started calling me Bugsola.

For the life of me, I don’t know exactly why. The sequence of events that led to me being called Bugsola is vague, at best. Yet I recall that it happened on the golf course. This is where my father and brother spent some of their muggy summer days.

I remember this much: begging my father to let me catty. And while he knew I wasn’t ready for such responsibility, my father appeased me nonetheless. The Bugsola thing seems random now, and primarily because I’m not sure why, or even where “Bugsola” came from. Soon enough, my big brother and sister were calling me Bugsola, too.

On rare occasions when I called my brother, I would say, “Hi, Kenneth, it’s me, Bugsola. Kenneth would say, in his known-for-it drawl, “Buuugsooola, how you doin’?”

Throughout most of my adult life, I looked upon Kenneth as my big brother, and my father’s firstborn. The brother I would lose touch with, except rare occasions in which a reaching out seemed overdue. It wasn’t until his passing earlier this year that I came to appreciate his life in a broader context–he was a father, and deeply loved by his children.

 

 

What a beautiful thing

Most mornings I will indulge in a fast-paced walking meditation through the neighborhood before stepping into my car. I drive a lot in L.A., and on average each trip leads me through sprawling landscape and perpetual traffic. When I lived in Seattle and New York, I walked–and all the time. But it’s a mindful thing for me in L.A. because walking doesn’t feel as natural here.

Near where I am staying, there’s an elementary school, and I often walk through or alongside the children heading to school. I take pleasure in the small time in this easy space that quietly shapes my day. Sometimes I strike up a conversation with a student, seemingly awkward, lagging behind the other students. The crossing guard waves at me and speaks. An elderly man, he always has a smile on his face whenever I see him.

This morning, I was driving down the street where the school is located. I reached the stop sign, and just as I began to drive off into the intersection, I heard the whistle which alerts vehicles that children would be crossing the street. Since I was already in the intersection I decided to keep going. But I felt ill at ease about it because it involved children; and I was aware that it was irresponsible.

After parking my car, I walked back to the crosswalk, and upon reaching it approached the crossing guard. I began to apologize for not stopping in time when he blew his whistle. Straightaway, he laughed as he reached for my hand. Holding it, he said with his usual generous grin, “Oh, don’t you worry. You coming to apologize . . . what a beautiful thing. Thank you so so much! What a beautiful thing . . .”

It’s only fair that I say that I screw up so many times every single day. And in truth, there are times where I couldn’t care less about apologizing, even if I am fully cognizant that I should. And more so, am totally mindful of needing to right a wrong–still and yet, choosing to do otherwise. It’s a human flaw we all share. But when selecting to do the right thing, there’s a feeling that washes over your spirit and it truly makes life–and our drama–seem less urgent.

And this is why so often I wonder why we don’t choose to do “a beautiful thing” more often than we do. Why is it we think, somehow, doing the right–“a beautiful”–thing will inconvenience us? Or is it that we just don’t make the time because we’re much too distracted by whatever is on our mind at the time? Being present in the 21st century is perhaps one of the most challenging things to do, even if you have a dedicated practice of being here now.

I can attest: when I haven’t had time, or my head was in the past or the future but I put in the effort to be present, it changed not only how I approached the remainder of the day, but something in me shifted. I felt lighter; not so weighed down with a past I can never ever change or a future not promised. Whatever I (or anyone for that matter) am in such a rush for will not materialize any faster as a result of not choosing to do a beautiful thing.

When we invest in humanity, when we show up, and especially when it’s most inconvenient, not only is that an action from the heart, it redirects the pendulum in your favor and revises the contour of each thing that occurs thereafter. Having acquired the knowledge along the way, I know this: when we pause to do a beautiful thing, or acknowledge someone who looks troubled or sad or their spirit is broken, offering a simple acknowledgement–despite our own life situation in that moment–the Universe will work in our favor. It really, really will. The universe does have your back even when it feels quite the opposite. It’s the quality of our discernment that recognizes the meaning behind any experience. If nothing else, there’s Divine meaning behind whatever happens to us.

Baristas, the grocery sacker, our neighbors, distant family, even friends we replace with new ones because the new ones know less of our backstory–those we keep saying we need to reach out to, could sometimes need our attention just like a total stranger. The crossing guard has traveled a long, and hopefully amazing, journey. He’s certainly lived long enough to know that taking the time and putting in the effort to show up when no one is watching is a genuine act of benevolence–a beautiful thing!

Angela

Last December, I spent the holiday with family in Washington, D.C. It was a blessing to have been able to squeeze in a day at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. The experience was amazing, and will remain sketched on my heart until the day it stops beating.

Roaming through the various rooms, we were awed by the stirring, epic history of souls unbroken by relentless degradation and suffering during slavery. At some point we made our way to more recent accounts of the lives of African-Americans—the 1960s and 1970s. When I was very young, in the early ’70s, I wore a Free Angela Davis button on whatever I was wearing. I also sported a serious Afro. During this time, the complexity of race was so acute. Angela Davis, referred to as “militant” back then, was a part of that intense narrative.

While absorbing the richness of the photographs that depicted an elaborate human stain on America, I shared with my cousin, Kim, “When I was a kid, people said I looked like Angela Davis.” Taking in the eloquent photographs which depicted the life-altering moments of the 1960s and 1970s, and a once highly visible photograph of Angela Davis among them, my cousin said, “I can see the resemblance.”

A few days ago, while rummaging through belongings so as to donate unused stuff to charity, I came across old photographs from a time following my “serious Afro” phase. And earlier today, over coffee I shared some of the photographs with a friend. I told her that my cousin said that I “resembled” Angela Davis. My friend said, “Yeah, you do favor Angela.”

At some point the subject of Angela Davis being a fugitive from justice, and on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, was discussed. Although it didn’t look that way at the time, America was finding its way to hope and promise, despite the fact that this was a generation marred by hatred and violence. But King was slain in Memphis; and no sooner than the country could catch its breath, presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was likewise assassinated in L.A. months later. Hope and promise looked bleak. By the time I was wearing my Free Angela Davis button, the Black Panthers were high-profile, and race relations couldn’t be more divisive. Such times dominated the 6:00 o’clock news.

Later that same evening, after talking about Angela and the country during that timeframe, I attempted to put into perspective that time in my life–when I proudly wore a Free Angela Davis button, and an Afro throughout high-school. What statement was I making? What did I genuinely feel? Was I merely going with the flow of that time, because it was cool to come across radical? On what level did I understand? Because at that age we are naturally naïve. It’s not something we admit to at the time, but when we are challenged to write a letter to our younger self, offering advice in hindsight, can we see how we’ve changed; that we’ve evolved.

Older, wiser, I search for understanding now. I’ve attempted to clarify in my own mind when I began to choose not to follow the mainstream of any kind of ephemeral I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-taking-it-anymore ranting like Peter Finch in Network, a film from the 1970s. Where was I when that discerning moment occurred and I owned my voice and honored that call? When did we get so obnoxiously loud? It gets noisier, and that makes me tone-deaf and I am unable to make rhyme or reason of the contradicting messages.

There’s a conspicuous difference between the Civil Rights Movement and whatever movement we’re creating today. There was a noble calling; a human struggle at work during the age of Civil Rights. Even if I didn’t “get it” in its full context, or I didn’t have a keen sense of the urgent stance, I knew what was happening in my youth mattered. Admittedly, I was too young to believe in the causes of the 1960s; at least not in an empirical way. The ancestral oppression and inequality which has permeated throughout American culture is what provoked someone like Angela.

I hear a lot of anger out there, and my intention is not to snub the passion. My distrust comes from the collective conscience that fuels the indignation. It’s not that it sounds superficial. It simply lacks the at-any-cost feeling. It’s more 21st-century, in which we take on a cause for the moment so we can tweet about it, or whatever. We wear various floral-colored bracelets and ribbons on our lapel, because it displays our “behind it” conviction. This isn’t to suggest that by wearing paraphernalia that supports a cause in any way trivializes that cause.

Following the downturn, the Occupy Wall Streeters camped out in front of Federal buildings–defiant, determined. The protests started out with countless supporters across the States. And they stuck it out. Many went to jail. Some are still hanging in there. While there was passion in the early stages of the Occupy Wall Street cause, it didn’t rise to the level of Angela.

Those putting their face on more recent causes have an attention-grabbing feel to them; not that they would risk life and limb for. That drive comes across more so as wanting to display a mad-as-hell-and-not-taking-it-anymore attitude because it sounds good when we send it out into the social networking Universe (and there’s enough out there to be mad as hell about, so I get it).

The causes of the 21st century are more causes du jour, and the supporters of those causes will follow that cause for as long as it’s trending. In between the Real Causes are transient ones–to make a point, not to initiate change. This is the major plot behind causes: Change. There are far too many designer causes in recent times, and they have been framed inside of a fleeting historical moment.

We need more Angelas!

Cold brew

There’s an invasive, pathological pattern to modern culture. More than ever before, so many of us are feeling a deep need to belong; yet that urge eludes us because we’re unaware of our desire to be validated by outside sources. A contagious, indiscernible thing has taken over daily life. And while most of us hunger for individuality, increasingly, social media is one of the ways in which we attempt to acquire it.

Life will not get less complicated, so there’s no better time than this moment to discover our life-calling internal go-to. Hopefully we don’t put it off for so long that it turns into a too late. Yet the way in which the world is turning, we’re in need of some kind of armor to protect the mind from false evidence appearing real, and falsity in general. It’s time now to work on things that will elevate our mind-set; stuff we can put in our Real Self kit. It takes hard bloody work to learn what self-acceptance feels like.

There are times when I sense someone I’m talking to is making genuine effort to commit to their soul’s conviction. However, in my day-to-day interactions, it’s becoming clear to me the “real us” is too insecure to own a less popular worldview. More and more the majority are seeking verification from the outside; because, like in high school, there was this feeling of acceptance when we went along with the Popular and/or Cool People.

I don’t know. Perhaps it could be because once upon a time culturally we honored some kind of tradition, but that has long been lost. Lines have been blurred for some time now. What does traditional even mean? And if there’s a new traditional, what exactly is that traditional?

It was earlier today, when these thoughts started bouncing around my psyche. I stood on line–a long line, in fact–waiting to get a cup of coffee. Not an espresso drink mostly made up of more than a day’s maximum intake of sugar. I was on line to order an old-fashioned cup of hot java. While waiting, and growing impatient with the barista chatting too long with a customer, my eyes rolled to the bottles of “cold brew” stacked in the cooler.

SBUX, the widely recognized brand, has gotten a lot of money out of me over the course of 20-plus years. Back in the day, I loved going to the ubiquitous Seattle coffee bar to sit and write in my journal, or catch up on reading materials in the then-artsy, but cozy chairs. The baristas, trained in those days for a different time and clientele, made the best brevé lattes. I loved the music they played.

But when the iconic brand went global and began to offer free Wi-Fi, the coffee company that made caffeinated drinks trendy and introduced Frappuccino to the world, lost that once can’t-define-it quality. When they began selling “cold brew,” every coffee franchise, every supermarket, and every anything else that sells coffee, followed behind the “cold brew” idea. “Cold brew” is everywhere! I looked up one day and there was cold brew. I’m not sure why, but somewhere along the way–the millennial era, perhaps?–it was decided SBUX is the standard-setter.

What happened to originality, the unpredictable? The amazement, and the awe? The aha, the extraordinary? We’ve become clones, imposters, followers. On an individual level, it’s difficult not to isolate from what I define as our normal-on-crack! We cannot imagine the idea of being insignificant, and we trust that in order to be noteworthy we have to be like everyone else.

We Facebook, Instagram, tweet–there’s something about being connected to hundreds and thousands of people we don’t know. Even if that connection is superficial, it makes us feel a part of somethingthus we engage. We admire people we aren’t even sure what they do to earn a living, and the average person recognizes their Name.

We spend less time being curious about anything unique, the truly brilliant, the under-relevant (unless or until it goes viral). Lowbrow talent is admired and put on a pedestal. We’re so busy following the clones, the herd, the noise. What happened to us? The direction we’ve taken has progressively become silly and senseless. There was once depth and substance; perhaps because our attention span was vast and long-lasting.

No joy

A few years ago, I came across a TV series which I’d never seen while it was on the air. The series, Flashpoint, wasn’t a violent, intense police drama like most that have been produced in recent years; especially on cable and through streaming programming. Despite the lack of gratuitous violence, Flashpoint worked.

The program’s elite squad known as SRU would refer to having “no joy” when they weren’t in a position to shoot a violent offender causing carnage throughout the city of Toronto; or, based upon where they were standing, there was no clear view in which to proceed (e.g., to make a move that would lead to a favorable outcome).

I like that phrase, No Joy. And there are times in life when there simply is no joy. We make futile attempts to go around an experience. Worse, we try to outwit the Universe by making life choices with the belief, if not hope, of making something happen that no matter what we do or how we try to finagle our path, there is no joy.

It took a long time–I mean a very long time–for me to figure it out: there is no way around a Divine experience. More importantly, if we claim to have faith, we should make every effort to honor that belief. Even for those of us placing faith in Divine guidance and/or Divine timing, we’re still too impatient to wait it out.

This blog is about being accountant for your life, and to live it purposefully. Anyone who supports the idea that there is Divine meaning in what happens to us, at some point, begins to recognize when the time comes to back away and let the Universe do the heavy-lifting. There’s an innate something that kicks in and we get it–our timing is off.

There are certainly no joy moments in which a door becomes ajar solely as a result of unrelenting will. It doesn’t necessarily mean that door was ours to walk through at that time. And if the timing was wrong, eventually a series of seemingly out-of-the-blue setbacks will be the Universe prompting us to respect who, ultimately, is in charge.

Oftentimes, when stuff that makes no damn sense begins to manage our lives, there’s a high probability of being blocked as a result of forcing something to happen. Then again, it could be that a radical change is required in order to achieve our intended goal. Discernment is amazingly tricky. It’s sometimes difficult to establish in the mind when the ego is getting in the way of Divine moments.

Yesterday, sitting with several women a decade or two younger than me, I recall those years of wanting everything right in that moment. I didn’t care whether it was not perfect or right timing. These were educated women, and of the three, not one was fulfilled in their careers. Why I was even with these women was because we had one thing in common: writing. We sat together at a screening, and afterward decided to have drinks at a bar a few doors down from the theatre.

By the nature of their conversations, I knew my telling them that the stalemate feeling they each seemed to be experiencing wasn’t necessarily about “going back to school” or “L.A. is so this or that.” Those, however, could be the underlying factors–needing additional education, and/or environmental change. I had been where each of these women are right now, so many times. And the first thought was to “go back to school” (again), and to leave L.A. (again)!

In the most subtle way I could muster, I said something about letting the Universe decide. Despite it being recycled material written by numerous authors over the years, I found myself recommending a book I’d recently read by Gabrielle Bernstein, The Universe Has Your Back. Following that–and the comment was rather random–someone said to me, “Well, you have it together.” This isn’t something I’m faking or hoping that I’m pulling off–“having it together”; I’m far from it. One day I ceased forcing to achieve the unachievable, and I got tired of feeling no joy despite immense effort to attain a particular goal.

One morning, one afternoon, one late night when I felt it can’t get darker than this, I began to stop trying to force stuff to manifest. I discovered that forcing a specific outcome doesn’t align with Divine timing. I found myself in the position of having to do some hard a** work. I began to manage the amount of time I placed on a tangible, then I released it. If, in some window of time that seemed rational and I didn’t sense something happening despite my efforts, I trusted that it wasn’t for me. Or plausibly, the timing wasn’t right.

My life is by no means in equitable balance. I struggle each and every single day to hold on to what I do have. I use mega effort and sufficient time to manifest things that matter to me now. But at long last, I have learned to respect when there’s no joy.

No joy doesn’t mean no. It means not now.

 

Insecure

For decades I’ve been absolutely confident about my writing life. And this is irrespective of thousands of rejections over the course of those many years. Not to mention the lack of love when I asked for constructive criticism and/or feedback from those I’d known who enjoyed reading, and read a lot.

But now, having had two novels published under one of the largest trade publishers, I’ve never felt so insecure; especially as a writer. Every striving writer undoubtedly has various skills that they struggle with over the course of their writing life. I am fully aware of two: influencing and inspiring the reader. Since I penned my first novel, I had this deep-seated hope, once someone read the blood, sweat and tears I poured on to the page they’d respond with, OMG! I’ve accepted–or is it having come to terms with?–I will not elicit OMG! from a reader.

When someone shared with me that they had read a book and was moved by something the writer wrote, and in particular, how they wrote, I felt a kind of visceral awe and envy of that writer’s talent. A certain incident comes to mind. Last year, someone shared with me that they were stirred by a book they’d just finished, and this person read some of the writer’s prose to me so as to highlight their point. The paragraph that was read showed off both the integrity and intimacy this particular writer had with the written word.

This person, who highly complimented the writer, has read a lot of what I’ve written over the years; still, not once has this person said anything remotely about my writing being engaging; certainly nothing about being stirred. Writings that this person read of mine were critiqued with limited words such as, “good” or I “enjoyed it.” Yet, not once did this person go into detail as to why it was “good,” or to offer why they “enjoyed it.”

And so, it has finally struck me exactly why I’ve pondered tenaciously over the past decade whether the stories I write are relatable. It’s not a question of whether I can write; I know that I am a skilled writer. But this is what I have come to understand: not every writer is meant to be a fiction storyteller. And despite it resonating in my soul that storytelling is something my life has persuaded me to pursue, I still doubt.

I trust that every journey has purpose; therefore, I consciously make an effort to honor the writing path I have taken. And equally so, recognize some of the growth from having taken such a rich and bold journey. Over the past few years, I’ve put a lot of effort into working on this annoying obsession and insecurity: the idea of not influencing–or at least inspiring–the reader.

Interestingly enough, something quite striking occurred a few days ago.

Scrolling through e-mail rather fleetingly, something in a re line caught my eye. After opening it, I perused it casually. I discovered that the e-mail was from a reader of one of my novels. This is what the e-mail revealed to me: the inspiration to read Vulnerable was based upon the central story line having taken place in Seattle. One of the members of the book club of eight women from the Atlanta area had heard about my novel and suggested the book club read it. Each year they choose a vacation spot based upon a locale that was in a book they read the previous year. I like this concept, by the way.

My eyes became glossy as I read the humorous details from their trip: a visit to the Space Needle, and riding on the Ferris wheel. Taking ferries to various islands with the hope of identifying the fictional “Crescent Island”–a geographical setting in the novel. To having lunch at the Library Bistro; people-watching over coffee at the notable Elliott Bay Books on Capitol Hill; and attending a wine tasting at Chateau Ste. Michelle.

By the end of the e-mail, I was LOLing and blotting my eyes. I found myself feeling a much-needed sense of validation, and the timing was apropos. While the love in my heart was fleeting; still, I was transformed by their Seattle holiday, and especially since Vulnerable inspired a kind of scavenger hunt for the ladies, as well as a tour guide. But most importantly, these women took the time to share their experience with me.

Unbearable

While waiting online at an ATM, a customer behind me said, and more to the air than to anyone standing nearby, “Oh, these machines! One’s always out of service.” I turned my head slightly, although I understood she was not talking to me specifically. It was apparent that she was verbalizing her frustration at having to wait in a long line with only one working ATM.  “Sorry,” she said when our eyes met.

“Oh, I get it!” I said back to her, because who doesn’t get it?

“I have to go to a funeral. I hate this!” She crossed her arms stiffly.

Eventually, after we’d both completed our banking, I discovered that the woman at the ATM lost a very close friend to suicide a week before. She was visibly raw from the friend’s traumatic decision. I became curious, so I inquired with, “Did she leave a note? I mean, does anyone know why she did this?”

Folding her banking into a zipper-style wallet, she was making every effort to contain herself, yet her hands gave her away–they shook visibly. I didn’t want to walk away from her; she was clearly in despair. Life threw her a curveball and now she was lost inside a sea of uncertainty while trying to pave a clear path to the new and confusing world she now stood in.

Still, I was concerned with whether I would get a $76 parking ticket. I was on the lookout for one of the ubiquitous L.A. meter enforcers. I’d caught sight of one turning on to the street where I was parked. Yet I stayed with the woman who probably felt utterly alone in her cocoon of sorrow and grief.

Roughly in her mid-30s, the ATM woman removed a pair of sunglasses from her eyes and placed them on top of her head of thick, auburn-colored hair fixed into a disheveled bun. She sniffed her runny nose and said, “She couldn’t bear it . . . take it anymore. The direction her life was going.” Dabbing tears resting on her cheeks, the ATM woman resumed. “She couldn’t find a way to wait out the storm. It”–and she said the word “it” with emphasis, as though it held some kind of significance to the friend’s ultimate decision–“became unbearable.”

The mess of life has its moments. Every single one of us has felt the weight of life beat down on us. Cloaked within that experience it was unfathomable why God didn’t just show some bloody mercy already! But for many of us, life is larger than the uncomfortable-ness of those off-guarded moments that confront us. Although any turbulence we come up against is quite real, we manage. And even if we’re angry or scared, some of us see a fork in the road. But there are some who can only see a dead-end.

The woman at the ATM might well have been the best friend one could ever hope for. She could have been there for her friend even when it compromised other areas of her life–a relationship with someone she was involved with, a marriage, or perchance her job. But what the ATM friend hadn’t come to discern just yet–her friend lost faith in herself, and in life.

This was not random. In her own personal darkness, the friend saw nothing in the realm of her existence that felt worth holding on for. She probably contemplated over such a drastic decision for some time. But one day it became clear. That faithful day was her unbearable. And someone who isn’t facing unbearable doesn’t know exactly what unbearable feels like to the person who is going through their own personal unbearable.

Some of my last words to her were: “Honor your friend.” She came back with: “I do . . . I did honor her.”

“No,” I said. “Honor her decision.”

I will never know if I made an ounce of difference on the day the ATM woman had to witness her dearest friend descend into the earth. I trust, deep in my core, it will follow her everywhere she goes, even if it’s wedged in her subconscious. Just as strangers have guided me over my lifetime, and when I was so unaware. Supposed chance encounters are not something I consider superficial. Each one, I know, has come with a precious life lesson. And yes, in moments when something I was going through felt unbearable.