Being too casual

It has only been in recent years that I have come to understand how much of my life I took for granted. I was carried, and had a soft place to fall so I didn’t grow in the ways that I should have. However, it takes substantial growth and taking moral inventory to genuinely come to understand—and own—how much of your life you treated so casually. Taking our lives for granted doesn’t necessarily mean we’re selfish or self-centered, or that we aren’t even paying closer attention to the day-to-day-ness of our lives. It begins with one simple idea: underestimating the value of something or someone. And it’s easy to lose sight of that—life has become so, so demanding.

It’s impossible to go about life on a daily basis being exceptionally grateful—so many of us aren’t living in the present. And frankly, even if we devoted more time being purposefully appreciative, it doesn’t have anything to do with losing things, people—whatever matters deeply. Losing people and coming up against challenges will occur whether we take life for granted or not. What I have learned over 59 years is how life gives and takes in amazing ways; yet on a humanistic level we focus so much more on how it takes and takes. And that’s natural.

For myself, as my life reaches its sixth decade, I am less attached to things. Even people. But especially things. It’s been because I’ve lost so much that I’ve had to learn not to be too terribly attached to—in particular—stuff. Now I can see so clearly how incredibly attached I was to consuming, and taking for granted that everything would remain within my comfort zone—family, friends, money. The things that for so long were like borders around my life and made me feel safe. But when we no longer have financial security; and when life feels fragile and extremely unpredictable, you can see that you unconsciously took more than you should have for granted. That knowledge hasn’t been an easy pill to swallow.

But the gift of learning not to take stuff—more so life—for granted is that you begin to peel away the outdated aspects of your life, material things have less of a hold on you, and your mind leans in a direction that has depth. Having a brevé-latte first thing this morning, and bought with a Starbucks card my nephew gave me as a birthday gift would have seemed so mundane five short years ago. But it now means so much to me. It’s my 60th, and I have never, never felt as blessed as I do on this day and at this moment. Both my mother and my oldest sister passed away in their 50s, and with little warning. I had no time to prepare psychologically for their life’s transition. There have been times—especially over the past few years—when I wasn’t sure I would get to this day. The meaning and purpose of why life keeps holding me steady is elusive to me. But I am committing myself to spend the rest of this journey not assuming things, and go a bit deeper with gratitude.

Be the change

Earlier today, I made a concerted effort to recall a time in my life when I felt alone, and it seemed I knew no one to call, and someone—a stranger—extended me an unexpected compliment as we passed each other. Or someone held the elevator when they saw me rushing to make it before it closed. Or the commuter who understands what it’s like to try to cross a busy street to make it to the other side, so they make a way. I tried to remember if there was a time when I wished so deeply that someone—anyone—would see how afraid I was.

Perhaps it’s unnatural to get too caught up or involved with strangers one-on-one. It takes Orlando of which 49 people the world lost that day; 9/11, which shattered our idea of feeling safe and shocked us out of our complacency. Nine-11 and Orlando are widely exposed heart-pounding moments, similar to the butterfly effect: a flapping of its wings in one part of the world and miraculously that tiny, tender flutter reaches another part of the world and creates this undefinable thing; and this is solely because a butterfly flapped its wings. Princess Diana, John Kennedy, Jr.–the entire world stops for these blind-sided moments in our culture, and there’s this collective holding the breath, and we all share this down-deep melancholy.

I recall, while living in New York, having this conversation about how, when you live in New York, it just becomes a part of your identity to be rude! This person responded back to me with, ‘If I said excuse me every single time I bumped into someone or knocked against someone, I’d be doing it all damn day!’ While living in New York, I thought I was quite mindful not to fall into that same way of being. Oddly, though, within days of relocating back to L.A., I didn’t take the time to really hear this woman as she said to me, a stranger to her, “What a beautiful day.” First–and it doesn’t excuse–I was in a hurry; and two, I shrugged in the way people who don’t give a damn do, and kept on walking.

No longer living on the East Coast close to eight years now, I’ve softened. And today, as I made my way down a street in West Los Angeles, I slowed my pace to see whether an elderly woman, wheelchair bound, would be sitting on a patio adjacent to a small bookstore. And she was. I have never stopped to talk with this woman. I don’t know her name. But I see her several times a week. She sits in a wheelchair with personal belongings in chick tote bags that are at her immediate reach. She even has an iPhone! I couldn’t guess her age, and I couldn’t know her story without sitting down and listening to what she might have wanted to share with me. But I do sense that she’s outlived friends, and family might be sparse. Consistently in this blog I have demonstrated my beliefs, and I trust in my core that we have an idea—provided we’re even remotely paying attention—when someone could use a smile, a polite hello.

Simple gestures don’t make us lose even a second in our day. We can recognize when it might be a good time to show empathy in a moment when we detect a stranger’s life has met some stuff no one ever thinks it’s necessary to plan for. The woman who learned she has Stage IV breast cancer is likely to be too devastated about the path her life has just taken to acknowledge sincere praise on her unique style. Or the man who’s spent the better part of his life working for a company that is now in the midst of downsizing and he finds he’s unemployed but cannot afford to retire might not be present enough for any kindness you might throw his way. Sill–and trust me on this–something small has its own quiet influence, even if it doesn’t kick in right away. And the receiver of someone’s kindness, later on, will have no clue how or why his mood has softened.

So I always smile at this elderly woman wheelchair bound. I never know what her day has been like. I simply extend a broad smile that is purposefully sincere, and I say, Hello, how are you today? This woman always smiles back at me as if she’d looked forward to the moment all day. Her hellos always accompany a kind of girlish laughter. She is always open to my modest connection. In a way that I am not quite sure of, she adds something to what’s left of my day. I like speaking to her. The idea that I have done something so simple that made a difference in someone’s day means a lot to me. Especially to someone whose connection to others might be limited. I sense this elderly woman spends a good amount of time alone.

If you asked, say 20 random people, if they could do anything to contribute to the world being a better place, more than half would say, What do I need to do? Gandhi said, “We but mirror the world.” With only four months left in this year, it could be our challenge: to consider working a benevolent muscle. We can be a part of the effect, not the cause. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t bemoan how our society is at the very brink of losing its moral compass. So we should collectively make an effort to be that change we claim we genuinely want to see happen in our amazing universe!

The art of storytelling

In a conversation with my cousin last week, we discussed, among other things, the ending of my first published novel by Simon & Schuster/Strebor (2015), The New Middle. This conversation led to discussing Vulnerable, my second novel published by Simon & Schuster/Strebor (2016), which she had recently finished while on holiday. I’d asked my cousin to share with me what she didn’t like about the newest book. “Now that you ask . . .” she said with just a hint of enthusiasm; and then she proceeds to explain to me what she didn’t particularly like about Vulnerable. This is what I gleaned from my cousin’s critique: The subplot of Vulnerable got in the way of the novel’s central storyline–the dynamics which played out between four complex characters.

Moreover, I learned that my aunt (my cousin’s mother) struggled with–let’s say the “elusive” and disputable finale of the first novel, The New Middle. Without giving away nuances of the narrative to any potential future readers, let me just say, the incessant reaction to this novel at first felt rather strange. Now, though, I find myself anticipating curious dismay, and the same set of furrowed brow questions and remarks.

Generally I write stories that lead the reader to question the lives of the characters–beyond what is written on the page. I enjoy it when I set out to let the audience decide the fate of not just the characters, but where the story leads after “the end.” For some that might require effort, and I get that. The reader wants to kick back and enjoy a good read. But the idea that anything I’ve written gives the reader pause is why I chose to write in the first place.

Writers–deep down–want to inspire; they want to engage the world with words that turn chaos into meaning. They use their imagination to create ideas on the page with the hope that the reader can make sense of the world they are writing about; or at the very least, keep them turning the page because something—perhaps unnameable–has their attention. When I decide to pen a story, my ultimate goal is that the reader has a different mind-set once they read the last line in which my name claims the credit. Likewise, though, they are touched or even pissed at the characters I invented–whether it’s because they didn’t like the characters or simply couldn’t relate. This is how and why I developed as a character-driven storyteller over time. The idea–my way of writing–is to bring a concept to life in which the reader can get involved in what is happening on the page. They are judge and jury; they decide the story’s fate.

Several friends have inquired about the sequel to The New Middle, and recently a reader, who follows me on Twitter, remarked, “Umm, how you gonna do us like that?”, and wondered if The New Middle part 2 was in the works. These visceral or not so visceral reactions—the WTHs—have been kind of yin and yang, but leave me satisfied with the fact that I have elicited reactions from the reader. Even if, as the reader closes the book totally annoyed and feeling they’d wasted their time; still, my prose, the storyline–something–effected them, even if it was unconscious.

Fictionalized storytelling hinges on provoking—if not evoking—the reader. More and more published novels are less sophisticated, some poorly written, because even as little as 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Self-publishing has changed that. But even those books, and the authors of those narratives, have the ability to capture the reader with their own unique vision. And if the reader is stirred to any degree whatsoever, the storyteller, ultimately, has done what writers and storytellers should be able to do. And that’s in spite of the reader having closed the book and felt utterly disappointed or absolutely dumbfounded.

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The butterfly effect

As a result of the events that took place over the past weeks, I’ve pondered on the cause and effect of snap judgment. In terms of the black men killed by men in blue, the immediate–and understandable–reaction was that these unjustifiable killings were done out of hate. At the very least they happened as a result of an unapologetic ideology that a black man with a certain look about him is up to no good. Too often, the visceral reaction is that a black man in certain circumstances will have in his possession something that gives the police reason to suspect he’s directly or indirectly involved in a crime. What often makes these types of killings impetuous, rests in the fact that questions that should be asked at the time of escalated fury are posed in hindsight.

A perfect example of rushing-to-judgment–and the judgment was swift–was after the towers began to tumble on 9/11. It was assumed straight away, anyone looking remotely as if they originated from the Middle East was a terrorist. No one gets a pass on this: we all unconsciously prejudge to myriad degrees each day. We see many daily occurrences through a superficial lens because we are too drama-tized to witness it with a deeper sense of rationale. Anything outside our periphery of relatability, we have a way of largely dismissing it, or we examine it with vague mediocrity. And if we don’t respond consciously, the subconscious has done it for us.

Most of my life, I’ve lived in communities where the makeup of residents was multicultural. I consider myself exposed. I have traveled extensively, and have read enough to have some understanding of various faiths and belief systems. I’ve not viewed myself as one to fall under the heading, “prejudice.” Yet in the past few days I have recognized, and in a practical way, that all of us, on some level, have preconceived notions. And while we might have the amazing ability to reason, nevertheless, we all fall short on being 100% open-minded. Too many factors prevent us from seeing a variety of things without some form of preconception. Up until just a day ago, I didn’t see myself as being unreasonably judgmental.

Yesterday, my radar was really, really off. I was talking on the phone with a woman from India. I had called an 800 number regarding a product I’d purchased (at an iconic store here in the U.S.), and the product malfunctioned within a few days of my purchasing it. Prior to the Indian woman answering my call, I was thinking, please let me get someone whose first language is English. When the woman from India came on the line I let out a sharp sigh. I began to explain the nature of my call. When it became clear that the woman, for one, could not understand me that well; and then secondarily, she kept repeating herself like a robot, I asked to speak with her supervisor. Because I don’t know this woman, I don’t want to call her stupid; she just played stupid by repeating the same things to me over and over again, which I would assume she was trained to do. When I made it clear that I no longer wanted to speak with her, and that I wanted to speak with her supervisor, she continued to repeat herself.

She placed me on hold for roughly five minutes.

When the foreign customer service person came back on the line, repetitiously, she gave me the same information she had given me prior to her putting me on hold for five minutes. I asked if she understood what I meant by “supervisor,” and she maintained that robotic nature: saying the same thing as if she read from a script. Annoyed, fed up, I said words to this effect: I don’t mean to offend you . . . I understand that you’re only doing your job . . . you’re in India–and by the way, taking jobs away from hundreds of thousands of Americans . . . You have no clue what I’m complaining about. You’re just a customer service person, and if this was happening to you you’d be upset, too.

I recall saying something like this: You just answer calls; you don’t make important decisions. You work for an American company–shame on you! Look, I’m done. Really. I am going to go over your head because you haven’t a clue how to help me.

The moment–the very instant–I disconnected the call, I felt the urge to redial the 800 number to locate the woman through a chain of other Indian-accented customer service reps solely to apologize. I was so worked up, so disappointed with the time invested, plus the service. More importantly, I had to speak with a customer service person who worked for an American company but was thousands of miles away from L.A.; in another country! She, nor her colleagues, was in a position to assist me beyond their scripted verbiage.

Some of us know when we’ve crossed a line. We think about it, and we replay it over in our head for some time, discerning that we have set aside our better nature to appease our need to be right. Too often we get caught up in our self-centeredness, and wants. We take our frustration, annoyance, personal problems out on the first person that reminds us of someone else we loathe. We do this more often than we care to sit back and consider. In fact, on some level we do it every single day. We judge people more often than not for small-minded reasons. The discrimination is often extremely out of context with what is taking place in the moment. So I can see how things escalate and get out of control, and before we know it something dreadful has happened we are unable to retrieve.

There’s no rewind button we can use. We have taken our complicated life out on someone else. Twenty-first century life is so demanding. The way we’re living now–we are so intense. We have become reactionary, so it’s easy to lose sight of when something is false evidence appearing real.

It’s natural–overreacting. And some of us can look back in hindsight and see how small we were in a moment of dramatizing.Yet, in that instant, nothing could pull us back from a situation in which we probably could have chosen differently. Each one of us, every single day, makes a choice that we are not fully aware of–or we don’t care–how it affects the lives of other human beings. The science community has reasoned that small causes–small causes which appear to have no effect whatsoever–potentially have a much greater effect over time.

When does living end and existence begin

Last week I stepped on a bus in Westwood. Immediately I looked around for a seat, but none were available. As luck would have it, someone jumped up and rushed to the door before it closed. I took the seat before someone else claimed it. Once I was settled in my seat, I reached for a book. It’s the beauty of taking public transportation instead of driving my car: I get to catch up on reading, which I haven’t done much of over the past year. My eyes drifted to two men seated across from me. They were surely in their 70s. They looked healthy for men I would assume were homeless or semi-homeless. While they didn’t reek of the odor one might commonly smell from those seen much too often around L.A.–with their loads of possessions packed tightly in various shopping bags–the two elderly men wore soiled clothing. One man had holes in both knees of his jeans exposing healed as well as recent scars. Both men looked tired. You notice the tired when you’re no longer young. The tired have a look. At some point one’s life story begins to manifest in myriad ways–from how one walks, talks, or just the demands life puts on the spirit begins to reflect in aging eyes.

How many miles had both of these men walked? What misfortune turned their lives around and had them travelling through Los Angeles with bags containing their worldly possessions, wearing clothing archetypical of those living on large urban city streets? What happened between the life that I feel confident they once had when they most certainly didn’t look tired, to now carrying three or four bags that endorsed the 99 cents store and Trader Joe’s. I would trust there was a time in which these men were able to walk into a Trader Joe’s and purchase food. No one would have noticed them. No one would have judged. Unquestionably, their presence would go noticed should they walked the aisles of Trader Joe’s today, even if they had money to purchase the food on the trendy market’s shelves.

Occasionally, as I read my book, I would look their way. I didn’t want to stare. I remember as a child my mother saying that staring is rude. That has stuck with me through the years. Yet and still, I would find myself looking their way each time I turned a page of my book. By the time we reached Beverly Hills, a stone’s throw from Westwood where I started this bus ride, I began to contemplate what a life like theirs means in the larger Plan? What is God up to in terms of these two men? What is the Universe using their lives for? Quite frankly, I’ve often questioned the quality of life when it’s framed inside perpetual struggle. Intellectually, I understand there’s the possibility these two elderly men don’t see their lives in the way I see their lives–from the outside.

It’s not as though my belief system is that life is solely about 24/7 joy and unending abundance. No one has that life. However, what’s the divine meaning of these two tired men? I trust that they have a Purpose that I don’t understand as a naïve spiritual being. My belief is that every life works for the greater good, and all sentient beings are spiritually linked. Yet I am not certain I know, in their case, if they are living or existing. Someone I was once involved with said to me, “You ask too many questions.” I was bothered by his perception of me at the time. But I am starting to agree with his opinion, more and more these days. It’s rare I recognize this kind of curiosity in other people; although it’s not to suggest “other people” don’t care.

Other than the bus driver, I doubt anyone noticed the two men sitting in the front of the bus. And while I believe it would have had more to do with their appearance, it likewise would have had something to do with their age. Very few regard the elderly. And I would also suggest their appearance went ignored because they appear to the average person, two old men who serve no purpose.

Who was that girl!

A few weeks ago I was invited to talk with a Meetup writers’ group. In the e-mail, the person extending the invite said, “We will not be wasting your time,” and further explained, “We are seven unpublished writers, and very SERIOUS.” I met with them at the host’s apartment in Sherman Oaks, a community in Los Angeles that is “over the hill” as we say in L.A., in the San Fernando Valley. There were six young women (the seventh was out-of-town), and if I had to guess, in their mid-, possibly late-, 20s. A lovely, and delicious, lunch was provided. And champagne. These were young professionals, and living a twenty-something Los Angeles life. I sensed that they were reasonably grounded.

Through lunch we talked about writing, and sipped not-bad champagne. I had been invited to offer some journey-to-being-a-published-author advice. And the would-be writer who extended the invite was right: These young women were SERIOUS about writing. Each read a little something from material they were working on, and I offered a soft critique. After roughly 90 minutes, we started in on the “It was fun,” and “I’ll follow you on . . .” No sooner than the topic of writing stopped, iPhones and Samsungs came out of nowhere. The young women were like children at a playground, and most of their discussion leaned toward young men and what was going on with the young men on social media. Happy laughter, and the platitudinous Oh, my God was blurted out constantly. They shared tidbits, about this guy and that guy, and on and on. Two of the young women were, demonstratively, growing excited about the band they were planning to see at a club in Tarzana later that evening.

We hugged, said we’d “stay in touch.” And prior to leaving, four of the would-be writers downloaded my new novel, Vulnerable, on their Kindles.

While travelling through Sherman Oaks, which led me through Studio City where I once resided, I reflected on my afternoon with the would-bes. It hit me–they were in a time when life was about to surprise them. I was reflecting back on my own 20s when I began to notice a song playing on the radio, “Fantastic Voyage.” The timing was remarkably striking. My theory is that life’s nuances are never random. I have a tendency to attempt to connect what appears to be a so-called coincidence to that of something that I need to pay attention to; something which has been hovering around my life at the time. When a totally random experience comes at me–a so-called “coincidence”–I try to determine if in fact it is linked to the Universe throwing me a subtle message. While making an effort to decode that message, it need not require over-thinking it, but does demand objectivity.

Just as I was leaving, several of the would-be writers in Sherman Oaks were discussing this band they were planning to see later that evening. They mentioned that they “followed” the band. It didn’t resonate with my own youth-filled life experience; not at the time. After all, that was so many moons ago. In my amazing 20s, a few friends and I followed this band. Before they became recording artists and their songs played on the radio, they were known as Ohio Lakeside Express. Yet, when they inked their first record deal they became Lakeside.

By the time I merged onto the freeway, I was thinking how astonishingly different I am now to that girl who threw caution to the wind to see Lakeside play–speeding on freeways to obscure parts of California, to the absolutely obnoxious crush on one of the artists in the group. That girl was, as I see it now, a diehard groupie; moreover, unworldly. As I reflect on my Sherman Oaks afternoon with detachment, I realize that I have been extraordinarily hard on myself because of life choices. Here’s where I made the link: the Universe, for some time now, has tried both subtly and with a bit of a push to coax me into accepting some of my life choices; to make peace with a departed past. I’m still working on that, but often I can sense the Universe’s elbow nudging, nudging me to let it all go. That nudge almost always comes with experiences like my afternoon in Sherman Oaks.

Someday–and it will feel as though it came out of the blue–those young would-be writers will be traveling down a street, reading a book, having lunch at a sidewalk café, and something–a gentle nudge–will remind them of their groupie days and their just-having-fun-days. Should they continue on a writing path, that time in their life will be some of the most raw material to create from. Had it occurred to me at the time, I would have advised them to savor these moments. I feel confident, like me–and the moment will most certainly present itself–they will wonder, who was that girl?

Six hours

Some years ago, I took up a challenge. I was to do an all-day fast which was to last 12 hours. This wasn’t just a food fast; it included mass media, not even talking on the phone, nor reading or writing–just sitting in silence. I could do yoga, I could pray. But I couldn’t use anything to lean on; something to amuse/entertainment me or blur time. This experience is intended for one to be still, stay in the moment, to be here now.

It was excruciating. During this time in my life, I relied on a lot of externals. I watched way too much television, and it wasn’t until I did this challenge did I come to see just how much I relied on television. Anything I wanted to watch but wouldn’t be home to see, I taped. When you live alone, there’s the tendency to use television as a form of company, so I relied on–although I learned that I wasn’t addicted to–television.

A few days ago I challenged someone I volunteer with to try the 12-hour fast. I suggested it because she said, and these were her words not mine: “I need to stop engaging in social media. I mean I need to stop.” So I asked how often, on average, she went on say Facebook and Instagram. My volunteer friend said, and these were her words not mine: “I am on social media all day!” Of course I wondered, “What about when you’re at work?” And she said, “Yeah, work too. I have a job that offers me autonomy, so I can get away with doing it all the time.” I then asked, “And on your lunch . . .” She butted in with, “All day!” Out of curiosity I asked: “If social media is something you do ‘all day,’ what precisely were you doing with your time before social media?” She came back with, “Exactly!”

So I shared with her the day I did the 12-hour fast, and suggested that she try it. The 12-hour fast would reveal, but only if she was open to it, her weaknesses as well as her strengths. It would reflect her state of mind and what dominated her thinking. I admitted to her that when I did it, it became unbearable around the 7th hour. Still, I was determined to commit myself to all 12 hours. The social media junkie said, “Twelve hours? Seriously? No TV. No music? No Internet? Who lives like that? I mean, I can’t even have a glass of wine?” I confirmed with a nod. She then said, “What did you do for 12 whole hours . . . by yourself?”

When I told my amie that I meditated, did one hour of yoga, and I prayed, which back then I did casually, my volunteer buddy said, “Uh-huh, there’s no way. I can’t do that. I would be so bored. I’d lose my mind.” I suggested: The very idea of sitting solely with the self for hours being so intensely overwhelming was exactly why she needed to do the fast. “I can’t even read . . . not even the Bible? I can’t make calls? Please tell me I can at least pee. What if there’s an emergency?” I suggested she send texts or e-mails to the people closest to her, letting them know of her 12-hour fast. Particularly those that might start to freak because she wasn’t responding to their electronic communication. She looked over the rim of her sunglasses and said, “I have to turn my phone off? There’s no way I can do that for 12 hours; not consecutively. I might be able to manage three . . . maybe!”

This morning, while having a cup of coffee and reading online reports of the 50 people killed in Orlando, Florida, my phone beeped. I reached for it, and as I tapped the screen, discovered a text from my volunteer friend, which read: I S2G [swear to God], I kept my phone off for 6 hrs!