I am praying for you

In walking distance of where I stay, there’s a small, charming church. Most days I pass it when I walk through the neighborhood instead of driving to the park. My walks in the park are quite pleasurable. When I do walk in the park, it’s a promise that my day will go well. But the neighborhood stroll is sometimes easier and convenient. Besides, it’s delightful to witness the neighborhood’s ebb and flow coming to life.

While it has appeal, the church isn’t stunning, like a cathedral. It has several chalkboards on one side of the entrance, and at the top of the chalkboards it states I AM PRAYING FOR . . . and the pray-er fills in a name. Over the past few years I’ve written my own name in a space. But a time or two have written the name of someone I’m aware is tackling complex life issues.

This morning, I stopped to check out the names. All three chalkboards were filled with names from the popular to the classical to the distinguished. Casually, I began perusing the names and my heartbeat elevated at the name Kent. It was a gentle reminded of a dear friend I’d acquired while living in the San Francisco Bay Area. We worked together in pre-World Wide Web Silicon Valley.

Kent was handsome, a charmer, intelligent, creative, self-effacing, and one of the dearest and best friend’s I’ve ever had. Among other things, he was the one person I could ask to read an 800-page manuscript and he’d read it inside a week and offer genuine criticism, albeit circumspect. We were very close friends. He’d talk of “women” but I knew that Kent was gay.

Eventually he moved to D.C. We stayed in touch through cards, letters, and occasional long-winded long distance phone calls which were costly back then. I went through a breakup that was intense. Kent called me every night with, I’m praying for you, because he, of all of my friends at the time, understood how much that particular relationship made me doubt my judgment on every level.

Out of the blue, Kent called to tell me he was moving “back home.” Although I wasn’t one-dimensional, I lacked the skills I have developed and are second nature to me now. I didn’t have the slightest “deep knowing” I now possess. And I also wasn’t “superficial,” but didn’t pick up on things I would sense miles away today. Kent loved living in D.C.; he was happy and content there; and he had a great job.  I should have known something wasn’t right.

Soon after Kent returned to the Bay Area, an opportunity presented itself and I move back to SoCal. Therefore, I wasn’t around him to see his degeneration. On phone calls, he clearly sounded different, and when I inquired with “What’s going on with you?” he’d poo-poo my mild concern with excuses like, “What do you mean?” and “Just tired.”

It was the late ’80s, and cell phones were so not the norm. Everyone I knew still relied on landlines and answering machines. I’d call my machine to check messages remotely. Kent had left a message and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I was unable to shake the sound of his voice and his bizarre message. It stayed with me all day. When I called him later that evening, I received no answer.

The following day he called me around midnight. We talked briefly. He always ended his calls with “Good-bye, I love you.” Yet this particular evening Kent ended his call with Pray for me. In those days I didn’t pray. Kent left me in the dark. Pray for what? In hindsight, I am ashamed of not having made even a clumsy attempt to pray for him.

Two days later his cousin called to tell me Kent had passed away. I screamed, “What?!

Kent had died of AIDS.

I stood in front of the church gazing at the name Kent, and although it was twenty plus years later, I bowed my head and said a prayer.

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Breaking the ice

Recently, I stopped to grab a coffee at this quaint coffee place in Pasadena. While waiting to be served, I noticed that a particular barista was working the cash register. Something about her . . . Her body language, her smirk-like expression, and the fact that whenever she waits on me she’s seemingly unapproachable.

I’ve observed her exchanges with other customers, which is generally friendly and open. This particular morning it became clear to me that I was personalizing her frosty reception toward me. It’s not a matter of being uncomfortable, but I do loathe experiencing bad energy with someone I have to deal with from time to time.

When I was next to be served, and as I stepped up to order, I automatically anticipated the wonted cold shoulder. I was going to have to grin and bear this barista’s oh, it’s you thing.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I greeted her.

She came back with a not-quite-convincing, “Good.”

“I’m so glad we finally got some rain. L.A.–girl!” I made a concerted effort to be casual and accessible.

The barista said, “I know, right!” and she laughed.

I placed my order.

“What did you do for your holiday?” I asked her.

She said, “I hung out with some friends in Big Bear. It was nice. You?”

“Went home for Christmas. It was wonderful seeing family.”

“So, where’s home?” she inquired.

“Nashville!” I told her.

The customer behind me, waiting in the queue, let out an audible sigh.

I paid for my coffee and added a tip in the jar.

“Thank you!” the barista said, and there was a slight emphasis on you!

“Thank you!” I said, adding, “Have a good one!”

Her voice was alive and customer service-friendly. “You, too!”

Sometimes we catch ourselves, or perhaps we’ve evolved enough to consider how we experience certain situations and manage to ascertain when we are blaming it all on something else or someone else. We become aware of our rolling of the eyes, our judging–it’s just a barista or just some stranger.

It was my exchange with the barista in which I realized something about me might well have been off-putting to her. Our attitudes toward each other was instinctual, even mutual.

Even if I had always attempted to be present, or extended myself with some degree of warmth, it may still not have been reciprocated. But my life experiences and life lessons have taught me that reciprocity is a two-way street. It’s only conspicuous when we are present, and egos and personal childhood issues don’t creep up. And in order for reciprocity to work it requires an “owning.” Yet some of us are unreachable; nothing will crack certain armor.

When someone comes across standoffish, or the receiver senses even the slightest cold shoulder, it’s natural to assume it’s the other person’s issue, they are the problem, not us. Yet, if we stop ourselves and simply lean in a bit more, it’s possible we will realize that we’ve each drawn conclusions with the absence-of-evidence. It’s not simplistic to discern our one-dimensional attitude, or when we’re being small and petty.

Breaking the ice with someone we always seem to feel uncomfortable around, or don’t particularly like for reasons that are narrow-minded and immature, feels good. Just like when friends argue but say I’m sorry. Or in an intimate relationship we get caught up in blaming and overreacting because of unhealed wounds. And yet we have the wherewithal to realize that we’re too sensitive to hear criticism or not being open-minded enough to honor another side of the story.

When extending lighthearted compassion to those we dislike, or evaluate without knowing next to nothing about that person, can help us to discover something about ourselves. For starters, our indifference, our being reserved with those we have preconceived notions about, or even our intense judging nature.

As a result of the friendly-ish exchange with the barista, I was reminded that we’re always a work in progress. And it probably isn’t a bad idea to occasionally do some much-needed personal inventory.

The challenge

Staring 365 days of a new year through the lens of open-mindedness has not worked very well for me over the past few years. By March I am bemoaning obstruction after obstruction, and any other petty thing that makes me feel desperate. Yet, over the last and final day of the previous year, I was reminded that my life is getting shorter. Not to mention in the past few years I’ve encountered deaths of loved-ones, and the frequency startles me.

Thus, it’s time now, to stop whining about not gaining this or acquiring that; or adding to a list that reflects far more “to achieve” than “already accomplished.” The last year has suggested that appreciation should be my absolute go-to each and every single day. Life weighs more, that’s for sure. And we’re all insanely stressed. But this is the year in which I am genuinely committed to walk the talk.

I’m mindfully working on rethinking the past three years. A blunt reminder from a friend made me see plainly how much I focus on pettiness, and it brought me to full awareness as to how blessed I truly am. More often in recent times I’ve permitted what I consider the “unjustified-ness” of my life circumstances to eclipse the stunning nature of my entire journey–its breadth and substance.

I’ve lived in amazing cities and traveled to phenomenal destinations. But over time I’ve concentrated less on the superlative blessings this life has produced. Instead, I’ve given hard, cold stares at what I haven’t achieved or what I’ve wanted but what I’ve wanted has eluded me. I don’t think it has ever occurred to me–what I’ve managed not to lose, or past obstacles I did overcome. And family and friends? They’ve sustained me.

Some years back I let go of the idea of New Year Resolutions. I know no one who actually manages to fulfill their list of commitments based on resolutions. Yet I trust in ideals and I know that I am capable of changing my tune. Moreover, my attitude. The way I see life. Especially the way I view my career as a writer, which has been a kind of nemesis; my single most life-long hurdle. I dare not suggest that I’ve made peace with the direction my writing path has taken. Still, I am optimistic that this is something I can work through.

For starters, I can say I’m gaining ground on being proud of what I have created on the page. Likewise, honoring the blessing, which has been my three-plus decade ambition: to share my gift with the world. Someone recently said to me, and with awe: “One of the biggest publishers in the world put your books out there!

So this year, what will you let go of? Perhaps this is the way we should begin the New Year–looking at what we need to let go of instead of writing down what we wish to acquire. I have chosen to accept that faith truly is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.

This means that despite how it looks, letting it go and putting whatever it is into the hands of your god (the Universe), and taking your hands off the outcome, is what Faith is built on. It’s a complex, even emotional, discipline. And even for me it will be a new way of not questioning the process.

I invite you to Trust your journey. Believe in your story. And in doing, perhaps we both will, in a not so distant future, be absolutely astounded!

Chocolate covered cherries

This time of year always reminds me of my childhood. And because my older sister, now deceased, relished the season, I cannot help but reminisce over the silly things we used to do growing up. Especially when we lived in Denver. From looking high and low to find the Christmas gifts my mother did a good job of hiding from us; to snow falling, and icicles dangling from the edges of rooftops.

I miss snow. Sun-drenched Los Angeles has its own sui generis appeal, but if Angelinos could experience an occasional snow day it would be the best city on the planet!

A few weeks ago, I worked with two women on a writing project. Jessica was the one to broach the subject of chestnuts and snowmen that was often the routine of her childhood Christmases in Upstate New York. Our childhood holiday memories led us to laughing-until-we-cried. We were struck by the fact that we’d each grown up in different states but had similar holidays. This  led me to reveal my obsession with the exceptionally sweet chocolate covered cherry.

This ridiculously sugary delight is undoubtedly one of the richest candy treats. During the season, and when I was a child, my mother would give me a box which contained at least 20 pieces. I would devour each one of them in one day! Because my sister didn’t care for the chocolate covered cherry, I never had to share.

This is typically a festive, lighthearted time of year for me. But the times in which we are living places so much strain on my spirit. It can be both heavy and tiresome. The news suggests a decaying society, and much of what is reported is abstruse. Everything we read about, or are continuously exposed to, feels dark and despairing.

Yet I understand that this is only one side of the story. Inarguably, there is splendor in the world. Many people have love in their heart for mankind; they do selfless “good works” to create an even better world. Good is omnipresent. Typically, I detect miracles shielding me from harm every single day. There was a time when I believed without a shadow of doubt that darkness could never, never outmaneuver Light. And I still trust this; yet the intensity of that belief has been unduly tested the past few years.

The world is much larger and more complex than the universe in which I came of age. Something as simple as an intense anticipation of a yearly box of chocolate covered cherries was enough. Occasionally, I have doubted that girl and her idealism; still, her audacity continues to intrigue me. I trust her judgment, and remain committed to her dreams no matter what her Real Life looks like.

Here’s the magic, a subtle synchronicity behind this blog. Several days after I’d shared my childhood Christmas memories, I received a text from one of the women. She was inviting me to her annual holiday open house in Silver Lake. “Drop by, please,” her text said. So I was able to push back a commitment to see a film with a friend, and she agreed to meet me for a later showing.

Arriving at the address, the house balanced on a slope. Making my way up a wooded staircase, I could hear Mariah Carey singing her rendition of “O Holy Night.” Once I rang the doorbell, a face I had never seen in my life answered, offering me a hug. “Happy Holidays!” she sang.

I mingled for a few before eventually spotting the only person I knew there–Lucinda, who’d invited me. I liked the layout of her home. It was  quaint, and with a modest view of the city’s landscape from her sundeck. A photographer by trade–although she’s been working on a novel over the past decade–her photographs, primarily in black and white and copper, hung artistically on every wall of her humble, yet chic-like, abode.

I didn’t want to be late meeting my friend, so after I felt I’d been there long enough to be polite, I approached Lucinda to say good-bye. She and another guest were discussing President Trump. Lucinda attempted to cajole me into joining in on their debate, but I knew once I got started I’d be late meeting my friend. Extending a final good-bye, Lucinda butted in: “Oh, Bonita, I got you something. Wait, don’t leave!”

Upon her return, Lucinda was holding a small seasonal gift bag. She said, “I couldn’t resist.” Tucked inside red and green tissue paper was a box of Godiva dark chocolate covered cherries!

Losing people

As we age, people we’ve known, people we’ve laughed out loud with, people we loved with all our hearts, and people we failed to say I’m sorry to–they will leave us. Life gets crowded with its typical stuff, and there are times when we get lazy, and times when climbing various social and career ladders begin to stipulate how we advocate our time. Thus, drifting apart is often quiet and goes unnoticed.

So we lose touch sometimes. Not necessarily because we’ve lost common ground but because time is limited and life is complicated. With that, even the deepest of relationships can get sidelined and we lose people, and long before their deaths. We drift in directions that make maintaining a genuine connection too demanding. Truly, not much can be done when life’s flow directs our path before we have time to see that it has led us into a deep labyrinth.

This holiday season I experienced a few “this is a first,” in the midst of discovering that an uncle passed over Thanksgiving. Yet again, I am reminded of this time in my life when I will, more often than not, begin to experience losing people. And the melancholy thing about this is that in most cases I will not have had the chance to say good-bye.

I’d not seen my uncle in several years. He and my mom’s sister were no longer together, but I couldn’t imagine him not being one of my uncles. We were more visible in each other’s lives from an early age until perhaps my early thirties. Through holidays and various milestone celebrations we’d sit and chat. Although I vaguely recall the experience, my sister and I were flower girls at the wedding of my aunt and late uncle.

An intelligent man, my uncle had a mind that was as sharp as a brand new razor blade. His depth of reasoning was something to awe. Our debates began as early as my 10th grade year of high school. We’d never give in to each other’s side of an oftentimes engaging disagreement. Frankly, he was much deeper than me.

I really liked my uncle. It would be disingenuous to say that I’ll miss him since we rarely saw each other in recent times. Still, knowing that he will no longer be a part of our family dynamic is something my senses will, from time to time, react to.

Because I have lost others this year, I know this to be true: from time to time, some odd memory will pop into my head about something absurd my uncle said or did. Or I will reflect on words of wisdom he’d offered years ago, and come to see, with hindsight, that the nuances of his conversations pierced into my psyche in ways each of us, with our superficial ways, rarely pays attention to. My uncle played some part in how I process my thoughts. I can now see that I’d been mentally elevated by some blunt comment he’d made decades ago.

When people we’ve known are lost to us–however quiet or intense that loss is–we take a piece of their spirit with us. Because we’ve not honored it doesn’t mean we don’t retain a fragment of their essence. Each human being that dwells in our space and shares an interlude with us will leave something behind. Yet on a human level, we aren’t aware of how precisely something about us has changed.

 

What is the quality of your gratitude

This time of year, particularly in America, is our seasonal reminder that we should be grateful (or thankful). It shouldn’t take one day of the year, which has been commercialized anyway, in which we “give thanks” and get together with loved-ones to overindulge in food. Less than 24 hours later we go buckwild using credit cards for material consumption.

In Los Angeles, where I live, along sidewalk after sidewalk are homeless tints. The space reeks of marijuana, being poor, deprived, and broken. You cannot live in parts of L.A. and not see this on a daily basis. Yet there are enough of us who have become so immune to it we hardly notice it as we pass by. It’s now so common that it blends in with the symbolic palm tree, or the perpetual sunshine!

If I alone could pull a compassionate act on behalf of God, I’d turn the tide, and as Tracy Chapman sings so passionately in her hit, “Talkin’ ´Bout a Revolution”–(poor) people would rise up (and take their share)! However, in some cockamamie way, we need reminding that there is something very wrong with this country. And blatant depravity is an inescapable mnemonic that we are no longer in Kansas.

The homelessness in L.A. is a part of a larger political and social issue, and a shameful, bitter truth: this country’s immense social divide. Many of us look away; we don’t want to face that the world has become chaotic, and so-so many are struggling in some way or other. Perhaps by their own careless design, or because life happens to us in ways we cannot stop by sheer will alone.

Each day, when I pass any number of streets with clusters of homeless people–and it’s getting despairing, to watch one’s hope decay–I pause. I take a breath. I say a pray. I’m aware that could be me. And I know this as deeply as I can sense it running through every inch of my body, I’m profoundly blessed.

And yet I fail to honor the awareness of being blessed.

All of my adult life I’ve had options. Doors were available for me to walk through. College, a career. But I feel that less so these days–having options. Life is demanding. We work both longer and laboriously, and receive less. Even with an education, there’s no surety of a career that offers livable wages.

When I read The New York Times or any other informative media outlet whereby a trustworthy journalist breaks it down in minute detail–the pros and cons of 21st century life–I’m still unable to make sense of why the world has become so fucked up. So one-dimensional. I’d love to put most of the blame on technology. Yet that seems scapegoatish; even absurd.

It’s us. Society. Humanity. It begins with a small thought from one individual. Over time, it augments. Each of us has the choice to decide differently from the herd. I see no other way for the pendulum to shift. Too many of us lack the resources to elevate the collective conscience. We don’t have the right type of Friends on Facebook. Let’s get real–it’s so much easier to be superficial.

Thanksgiving is only one of the days in which I attempt to be grateful. I put aside time to seek some level of meaning or purpose in whatever trials or tribulations I encounter each day. These days, though, attempting to make amends for not being brave enough or kind enough or patient enough seems unavailing. This blog was birthed on the concept of each day finding a reason why you are here, and in doing so you will live your life with some level of purpose. I struggle with that ideology now.

In fairness, I’m no different from the many. I, too, wish not to face the weight of the world and let it rest on my shoulders when I walk out the door. Of course it would be nice to travel to amazing places more often, and have a plethora of choices. Living large is not who I am, but to live in a McMansion and not have to worry about the details could put me in bliss mode (for a minute anyway!).

I would stop drinking coffee cold turkey if it meant I would never have a single doubt ever again. I’d prefer to trust–have blind faith–that those in government will do the right thing and for the greatest good of all the people. And I’d prefer to trust that every sentient being is inherently good.

It’s insanely antithetical for businesses to profit from a single holiday in which its basic theme is accessible 365 days of the year. Capitalism is dying. And why should we put aside a day to express gratitude? We are so removed from the original honoring: Pilgrims’ celebration of the good harvest. Ultimately, if our gratitude resonates from the heart, there’s no cause for a day off to celebrate something that is–or should be–our basic human nature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pay it foward

Back in 2000, I read a hugely successful novel, Pay It Forward, by Catherine Ryan Hyde. There’s a reason why such books of this nature excite readers–deep within us there’s a level of hope that the world will surprise us.

Enough times in this blog I’ve suggested that it takes a movement, a catastrophe, something that the country or the world responds to, in which our decency decides to shine. But a collective, fleeting response is merely cursory. Our humanity shouldn’t depend on trending, or because famous people answered to an acceptable crisis.

It’s not a simplistic thing, to incorporate sincere compassion throughout our day. It takes a training of the mind to seize moments in which we can do a “pay it forward.” Unfortunately, not all of us has a tender heart, and we aren’t quick to reach out or be personable or solicitous to strangers for various reasons. We are caught up in, let’s just say, life. Unless it comes naturally, our minds aren’t generally sharp enough “in that moment” to reach out, to be selfless. What is sorrowful is that so many of us don’t get it: in reaching out to others, our own stuff becomes less poignant, because activating a good deed does something to the brain.

Generally two things urge us to respond to a stranger: being inherently kindhearted, or an elevated mindfulness that has been developed over time. This, again, isn’t about the collective reaction to a high-profile city being attacked by terrorism, or a broken individual shooting randomly at people in a crowded venue. This is about honoring another human being by reaching out, and without letting the world know what we did. True empathy is quiet, anonymous–it’s sincere.

The basic premise of Pay It Forward is about a young boy whose social studies teacher hands out an assignment to his young students. He instructs them to think of something to change the world and put it into action.

I, myself have gotten so caught up in the intense distraction of daily living that I scarcely notice the face of a brokenhearted person. Instead, I’ve begun to roll my eyes or let out a harsh sigh when I’m confronted with the idea, yet again, of the need to exercise compassionate. This was not me one brief year ago.

This morning I acknowledged that I am becoming increasingly impatient, and borderline indifferent. After taking a nice walk around the hood, I jumped into my car only to discover it wouldn’t start. I called for roadside assistance. No sooner than the service arrived, traffic enforcement made it around the corner. She rolled down her window, and with a cheery, “Good morning!” proceeded to say, “How long you think this’ll take? It’s street cleaning! Sweeper’s two blocks away. I’m supposed to ticket you even though you’re having car trouble.”

The roadside service guy said, “It’s a jump! About five minutes.”

She waved and said, “I’m gonna extend you ten!”

Once my battery was charged, I headed for a familiar shop in the area.  After checking the battery, I was told it was no good. Since I was there, I asked if the mechanic could check my coolant, because the day before a red light flashed indicating that my coolant was low. Once the mechanic topped it, I inquired as to how much I owed and he said, “No, no,” with a wave of his hands. “It’s okay. Take care of that battery.”

The battery issue completed, I felt the need to return to the auto shop where I’d had my battery checked. I’d failed to thank the mechanic for refilling my coolant free of charge, and for advising me to return my battery since I’d only had it less than two years. Without his advice, I’d have purchased a new one, unaware the old battery was still under warranty. The mechanic said, “It was nothing. Have a good one!”

Later in the evening, I stopped at Trader Joe’s. Upon returning to my car, a guy was walking toward me, and I made the assumption that he was going to ask for spare change. I was pulling out my wallet when he greeted me with, “Hey, by chance do you have jumper cables?”

Laughing, I shared my earlier-in-the-day dead battery story with him and said I’d do what I could to help him out. However, I warned, I didn’t own jumper cables. I added, “If you can get jumper cables, you can use my brand new battery to charge your dead one!”

Not as often as I once did, I honor the rhythm of my day. Once upon a time I was fully aware of it from start to finish. This particular day I was reminded that there are times when it all flows and I can see the goodness, the kindness, the generosity in people I don’t know. And this is the accessible version of pay it forward. Small acts of decency can spin the day your way. It’s not simply a Universal Law, but the evidence is there whenever you take a moment to create a trickle effect.

Compliment the barista; wave to the stressed-out UPS guy; show some love for the single mother who’s working a full-time job as she stands on a crowded bus; or make way for someone trying to merge into bumper-to-bumper traffic. When we yield and extend compassion, we are in effect creating a pay it forward movement. And while it might be subliminal, our brains–and even our hearts–create a space to do a good thing.