14 years ago today . . .

Back in 2001, I still had this color TV that I’d purchased back in ’92 at a department store, May Co., in Los Angeles. By the end of the 1990s everyone I knew owned a flat screen television, but my old faithful Motorola was still in good shape. One reason I found myself having a hard time giving it up for a newer, high-def model was because of a particular feature: I used it as an alarm. I could program it to turn on at any particular time and channel. Voices always wake me up; alarm clocks on the other hand are not always reliable.

The morning of 11 September 2001, I was awaken by my TV. I became aroused by repetitive information about “airplanes” and “twin towers” and “fire” and “chaos.” Finally, I turned to look at the screen to see what “breaking news story” was unfolding. Still half-asleep, I adjusted my eyes to the Motorola TV screen. Smoke was smoldering from a tall building. The anchor’s commentary didn’t match what I began to witness unfolding. She kept referring to an airplane in Philadelphia and at the Pentagon, but that didn’t line up with the Twin Towers and the smoke that circulated over Lower Manhattan. Trying to make sense of it, I tuned the volume louder, as if that would add the one missing piece to the puzzle. My mouth agape, I watched stunned when they replayed the plane hitting the Tower, but suddenly the cable station honed in on a Twin Tower rapidly beginning to descend to the ground.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t take a shower, get dressed, and go to work. I was rooted to the spot. I reached for the phone and began calling people I knew who lived in New York. One friend worked for the New York Police Department and only blocks away from the Towers. (She had taken the day off and could see from her Brooklyn apartment window, the smoke spreading like a fluffed-out blanket all over the lower part of the city.) Before long, everything came together: a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers; another plane had crashed into the Pentagon; and yet another plane had crashed in Pennsylvania. At this point I was standing in front of my Motorola TV and wanting every “not yet confirmed” fact, and every inconsistent detail to be made clear. My heart was racing; I was so confused because I was living on the West Coast and everything that was happening on that critical, painfully melancholy day was taking place on the East Coast.

While residing in Seattle I lived on First Hill, just above downtown. Every morning I loved walking to work. It was a form of meditation for me. When I made my way down the hill, the streets were oddly empty; and when I met up with people, they were huddled together and looking confused. Every Starbucks–for which there are plenty in downtown Seattle–was closed. Ironically, at the time I was working in a government building, and temping for a councilperson for King County Council. When I arrived, I had to be checked with a handheld medal detector wand, and my backpack rummaged through. All government buildings require visitors to go through the medal detector thing, but being body-checked with a handheld, and having my personal effects scrutinized was an obvious decision made the very moment the Twin Towers had been hit and it was apparent the bad-ass United States of America was being attacked!

Every year, I remember 11 September as it unfolded for me. I recall vividly 14 years ago waking up to it; the day’s amazing, emotional unfolding. Details of that day remain clear. I’m not altogether sure why exactly, but every single year I don’t let the day go by without recalling how so many lives were lost, and the crack in America’s armor. I watch documentaries on the History Channel, spend some time watching anniversary coverage on various cable networks. I read various posts online. I am not a religious person, but I say a prayer for the families whose lives were marred that day. One year following the attacks on America, I was living in Connecticut. It seems a day didn’t go by without my hearing “Ground Zero” on the news. The East Coast, unlike the West, was far more vigilant. The subways, a lot of places in New York, had signs that warned people: If you see something say something. Every building I worked in in Manhattan, I had to produce a government-issued I.D. before I could get past the guard or lobby. In time I became more guarded, more alert. I discerned in a new way living back East. But when I returned to the West Coast, I didn’t see that same awareness, that same level of being changed by something very devastating. But even prior to leaving the East Coast, I noticed as the years came to pass and 9/11 was not so up close and personal, people began to ease into their new normal. They let their guard down.

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59

In my 20s I received no less than 40 birthday cards. At the time I knew people from different walks of life and in various parts of the world. However, these were not people I necessarily spoke to often. Perhaps we wrote letters to each other, but I rarely talked to half the people who, for whatever reason, remembered me on my birthday. In my 30s, a handful of people were crossed out of my little black book, and I probably received about 30 or so cards. By my 40th birthday the cards were down to about 20, and half of those I’d received after my birthday. Some of the cards were from family, some from close friends, and others miscellaneous people I’d stay in touch with primarily through e-mails. On my 55th birthday I received 8 cards. I was taken aback at how few cards I’d received that year, and it became a stunning realization that people were slipping out of my life, and the aging process had turned a corner. This year, as I am blessed to celebrate 59 years, I have received 2 cards on my birthday; an e-mail from my tax preparer and optometrist, which I receive every year; an e-card from a friend back East; a greeting from my bank when I went to the ATM; and one text from a friend in Washington State (who stated that my card “is in the mail.”).

When I spoke with a friend a few weeks ago, she asked me what were my plans for my birthday. I told her I had no plans. She gasped, and followed by “Seriously!?” It was a theme of mine for many years: never to celebrate my birthday in the same city in which I resided. And I had to take that day off, no matter what! Three years ago that changed. On my 56th birthday I went to Vancouver, BC. I love Vancouver. At the time I was living in Seattle, and a little over two hours by car separates these two stunning Pacific Northwest cities, not including the waiting time at Customs. I opted not to drive and decided to take BoltBus. I knew someone who lived there but was unable to get in touch with her because both her e-mail and her cell phone were outdated contacts. When I called her, the number now belonged to someone else, and when I e-mailed her my plans the message bounced back. I knew where she lived and decided to do my usual: play it by ear. I hadn’t seen her in years! When last I saw her in Vancouver, she invited me up to a concert she was having at her townhouse. A concert harpist, she had friends from different parts of the world to come to a private concert in which she would play. It was awesome! It was a snowflake experience.

My plans went so awry. I was stuck in Customs because I failed to realize that California does not have the EDL (enhanced driver license), which is acceptable documentation to enter Canada from the U.S. They must have inspected my driver license with every scanner device in the building trying to find that embedded chip! Even if I had it with me, I couldn’t use my passport because it was expired. So for 45 minutes I held up BoltBus and the people on the bus gave me dirty looks when finally I was allowed through Customs and took my seat on the bus. You know the saying: If looks could kill . . . By the time the bus pulled into downtown Vancouver, I was in a different mind-set.

I managed to get to my friend’s neighborhood without much fuss, and it looked smaller to me than when last I saw it. The trees lining the wide street were still voluminous and vivid green, but the building she lived in looked less glamorous than I remember; although the neighborhood still claimed its gold star status–it’s not a cheap part of Vancouver, and her view of the Vancouver skyline is breathtaking. I learned that my friend was on tour and would not be back in North America for six weeks. I left the doorman my contact information and I did hear from my friend two months later.

That was the last time I chose to spend my birthday outside the city in which I lived. I learned that day–although it took a few years for it to take root in my mind–that it was no longer something I enjoyed, or even wanted to do. As I look back over the past 365 days, my life has been a bittersweet blessing. My big sister passed away in 2013 at the age of 58, and she was two months shy of turning 59. When we reached our 50s, we’d exhale for having made it to yet another birthday because our mother died young–in her early 50s. We genuinely believed that we were cursed. So while my life is extremely out of balance and seriously helter skelter right now, I embrace this 59th birthday and choose to celebrate life itself and not the date of my birth. The number of birthday cards I receive seems frivolous within the deeper framework of my life. Even while it’s a lovely feeling to know that there are people out there who take the time and effort to send me a card, and it feels good to know I am in their thoughts, turning 59 today is an auspicious reminder of the elusive and fleeting nature of fate.

Tightrope

A few days ago I spoke with someone for the first time since relocating back to L.A. last summer. We spoke a few weeks prior to my leaving Seattle in 2014. In our conversation at the time she’d asked me why I was leaving Seattle. Like a number of people, she knew the reasons why I’d left L.A. in 2010 and relocated back to Washington State. I had no desire to live in Washington, and while I struggled with the region’s bleak and wet winters, the temperamental weather patterns had nothing to do with my decision. I’d returned to Washington State solely because, when I left New York in 2008 and relocated back to L.A., California’s economy was one of the worst in the U.S., not to mention I’d lived off my savings for two years. Therefore, I could no longer maintain my apartment without fulltime employment. Washington State wasn’t suffering the same economic woes the State of California was undergoing at the time.

After bringing her up-to-date on my L.A. Drama, this person told me candidly that I was no better off than I was when I left L.A. in 2010 and moved to Washington. “In fact,” she pointed out quite boldly, “you’re worse off.” She added that I was “too old” to continue to take the kind of risks I’d been taking since she’d known me. “Why would you go back to L.A. without a place to live?” she’d asked. “And no job?” She was telling me things I’m confident other people have thought of saying to me but weren’t comfortable in doing so. She reminded me that 1. Times have changed; 2. Employers will not hire someone [“your age”] over someone 20 years younger even if you’re more qualified; and 3. You’re dangerously close to retirement.

Most people—and this includes the person discussed above—consider how I’ve lived my life up to this point as irresponsible, not risky. I don’t disagree. But my journey started out decades ago with a visceral desire to achieve a particular goal. I no longer trust the process (that I assumed would one day lead me to that goal), although I bobbed and weaved between doubt and confidence through much of my journey anyway. And I confess I’m less secure in my ability to achieve that goal which I set out to manifest so many years ago. While I might have options, those alternatives are both undesirable and limited now, and there’s no way to go back in time. It’s too late to back down. So each day, following my morning meditation and Morning Prayer, I face a very frenzied unknown. I face the real possibility that I will be less off a year from now than I am today. I face the obstacles that continue to mount. I face the fear.

Pick a lane

The gift I have given to a few college graduates over the years is the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Subsequently, I learned that the receiver of the gift was somewhat confused as to why I gave them a children’s book. Despite my writing in their graduation card–to “pull this book out when life starts to interfere with your plans”–it fails to compute. A few days ago I came across Dr. Seuss’s book in a bookstore. It’s a best seller this time of year. While skimming through it I was reminded of my young cousin who recently left L.A. The reasons, as life has taught me, are varied. The 21st century mind-set races through endless, repetitive data, so even with a reasonably leveled head it’s still no simple task to decipher exactly why we choose to do anything. Naturally we trust the motives behind what the whys convey in the conscious mind.

When my cousin first began sharing his reasons for “going back,” he had several legitimate concerns about remaining in L.A. But it will take years—and I do mean years—for him to reach the full understanding behind his decision/s to “go back home.” And while he doesn’t know it right now, his choosing to leave L.A. was not in any way about failure. I cannot know this for sure, but I presume that on a deeply unconscious level he feels a sense of having failed.

The word failure is one of those nouns—like love, friends, and success, which are often overused or used out of context if for no other reason than the fickleness of human nature. For a few years I myself have said repeatedly that I have failed. Pick a decision at random; the outcome was failure. I beg to differ with believers of the theory that what you think you attract. My life has demonstrated that is not necessarily the case. That said, and back to my original argument: My initial thought was that my cousin was being impetuous about leaving L.A. Yet over the few weeks since he left I came to realize how I have done exactly what he has done. I didn’t do it in my early 20s, but I did it nonetheless. And thus, his decision seems all the more pragmatic. Life makes room for us to use the 20s to screw up. We get a pass in our 20s. It’s some kind of universal law or something. But me? I screwed up well into my 30s and 40s. How about those 50s? Time and time again I did exactly what my cousin chose to do: leave. And here I was giving him a hard time. Repetitiously, I reminded him of why he came out to L.A. in the first place (although I have always thought his reason for coming to the West Coast was based almost entirely on the idea of L.A.). But what was most important: time is a factor because building a life in a place where you have no history requires patience; that a young life unfolds in myriad ways and extraordinary stories tend to be elusive until they become amazingly vivid stories; and even most importantly, classics–great stories–are rarely sexy first drafts.

What my cousin might not appreciate right now—because it will most certainly take time, to be sure—is that he achieved a great deal in a limited amount of time. He moved out to L.A. and within a few weeks had a job; bought a car; found a place to live; he quit his job; started a second job (that paid more than the first one); and he did all of this within a few months’ time. Those achievements alone are the exception not the rule. Moreover, he moved to Southern California with minimal contacts except for a few friends; and he had some family to be there for him should he have needed us. In hindsight I see that I was critical of his decisions; that wasn’t fair. I may or may not have told him that thousands upon thousands come out to Southern California every single day and in one year will not achieve what he pulled off in a few months!

The last time I saw him, the family he had in L.A. at the time got together at a café in Studio City. His aunt and I really judged him harshly about the plans he was laying out for the future. My nephew was also with us, and he was quite amused–laughing openly. He might well have been shrinking in his seat, hoping to dodge that same bullet: hearing a lecture from the “middle-aged” to “millennials” about how life works.

The other story can never be known because we chose the story we are living instead. It’s natural to look back and in so many cases feel a heavy heart at some point because of life choices. And we will wish that we had done this instead of that. We become the person we are based upon the path we chose. It is the path that shapes life stories, not vice versa. And it’s what we do with those life experiences that will decide our fate. It has taken a very long time for me to get it: that whatever lane we choose, whatever path we deem the appropriate path at any given moment—that one, that precise path, is probably the best one in a practical way since it was based solely on where we were at that moment (the information accumulated; the decision-making skills acquired over time; and there’s the awkward nature of life!). You can never know for sure exactly what path is the better path; there are no perfect choices on our journey. That’s what I failed to tell my cousin. His decision to come was no different from his decision to leave: he chose a path. I feel it: he’s going to do remarkable things on the East Coast. His uniquely designed path is waiting for him to choose it. And while I didn’t give him Dr. Seuss’s book as a graduation gift, my cousin’s brief life in L.A. has covered at least the first 6-7 pages of that compelling story about Oh, the places you’ll go.

Tweeting in church

As a young child I attended church every Sunday; often twice on Sunday. At least when I lived with my father and stepmother. I’d fidget in the maple-colored pew. I could hardly sit still. My stepmother would give me the look–it suggested that I stop being antsy. I’d control myself all of a minute, but swiftly resumed swinging my legs or moving around with this nervous energy that I still possess today.

Growing up and going to church in the South in the late Sixties was my introduction to Sunday church services. As an adult I went to church periodically; and on the occasions in which I attended, even then it always struck me as a holy place. I felt different in a house of worship. Not saved or particularly closer to God, but I felt–safe. A minister would preach, a choir would sing, plates were passed for tithing. People dressed up. There was a saying many years ago: Dressed in Sunday’s best. That’s the way people dressed in churches I attending. In time–and especially in L.A.–I’d go to various churches where people dressed casually, and the formalities of churchgoing like in my youth were less ceremonial. I cannot recall when last I saw men wearing ties; and the classy elderly women no longer wear those fancy hats they wore when I was a child. Although they may still do that sort of thing in the South.

I have never been pulled to be a member of a church. I think attending or being a member of a church is a good thing. But I never thought I needed to spend Sundays in church in order that I might demonstrate I had faith, or that it made me much closer to God. That said, I recently went with someone to their church in West Los Angeles. I was told I didn’t need to “dress up.” I could wear business casual attire, but blue jeans was “too casual”. When we arrived the parking lot was full and we ended up having to walk several blocks. The “church” was held in a small unassuming stucco building and there was not even a cross on the building to indicate church services were held there. (I would later learn that the church leases the space for Sunday services, but it’s “technically” not a church.)

Within a few minutes of embracing people I had never met, hearing “bless yous” a few times, and being introduced to various people, we finally made our way to seats in the center of the sparsely decorated room. I took notice that there were more women than men, and more than half were seated in chairs and on cell phones. Most appeared to be engaging in social media. One or two might have had cell phones against their ear. I thought: Okay, service hasn’t started yet. But eventually, when the “speaker” (the title minister doesn’t seem the appropriate noun) reached the podium I expected everyone to put away their cell phones and iPads. No. No. No. If there were 100 people seated in chairs, at least 90 percent of them were holding various devices. I assumed they were referencing online Bibles. Eventually, though, I came to learn they were also TWEETING (and in fairness, tweeting about the speaker’s sermon, if “sermon” is what it would be called). I suppose tweeting in church is now appropriate, like the customer who talks on her cell phone while the barista takes her order (https://bonitathompson.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/talking-on-your-cell-phone-while-the-barista-takes-your-order-is-rude/).

To all the mothers in the house

One very cold morning in the West Village of New York City, I sat cross-legged, staring out of a large window with a fire escape blocking much of my view. I was mesmerized by the falling snow when something hit me for the very first time in my life: I would not have children. I was 34. Although I was never drawn deeply to the idea of having children, and not once thought that much about having them, I expected one day to have at least one child. It wasn’t so much that I lacked maternal instincts per se; I think it was some deep-seeded knowing that doesn’t necessarily present itself until one day time decides the fate of that knowledge. While I should have been struck by the abruptness of that idea swirling around inside my head, I didn’t blink. A tear didn’t shed. I was not overly amazed by the revelation resting boldly inside my mind. I just kept staring out at the beautiful snowflakes dancing to and fro against the chilled air before they landed onto the cold earth.

There were probably three men in my earlier life in which I might have entertained having children with. But now as I sit writing this I don’t recall having genuine love for those men that would lead me to marry them. Perhaps it was why on that cold morning in New York it snuck in: I will never have children. I cannot recall ever feeling differently about this: I would not raise children without a husband. Most likely because I didn’t grow up with my father always living in the same house in which I grew up, I knew innately I didn’t want that same thing to happen to my daughter or son. While my father didn’t abandon my older sister and me, when a child is raised primarily by only one parent there’s a psychological process–a feeling of being abandoned–that naturally sets in, however subtle. I didn’t want my child to experience that same fate. Unfortunately where I stand at the moment, I have far more regrets than I’d care to admit to. But not having a child has not been one of them. And nor have I felt something missing. By chance I may have felt a degree of lack, but it never went deep enough for me to recognize it as something missing in my life.

As is the case each Mother’s Day, I honor every female relative and friend who has had to raise a child. Over the course of my life, there might have been something deep down in my gut that nudged me every once in a while: you are not fit to raise a child. And I say this only because I understand fully the sacrifices that must be made in order to be a good parent. But more importantly what it takes to be a good mother. I am aware of the difficulty that comes with raising a child. I understand the worry, the compromises. And then there’s the growing up and growing away that a mother must live through, and what emotions she begins to feel when she recognizes for the first time that her child no longer needs to hold her hand. Sometimes there’s emptiness; sometimes a jubilant “Thank the Lord” feeling. But undoubtedly she is greatly transformed. I got it rather early on in the way some of my friends didn’t: having a child is a game-changer. It is the biggest, most important thing a woman will ever, ever do! No matter what career she embarks on; no matter how much suffering she undergoes in her own personal pain, struggle, sorrow, this–raising a child–is her biggest Moment in life.

Here’s to all the mothers of every age and color and religious affiliation: to the frightened mothers; the mothers who failed to forgive; the mothers who have shed quite a few tears; to the mothers that feel as if time has mysteriously slipped away while they were raising a child and/or children; the mothers who feel guilty; the mothers who tried as hard as they could but believed that they failed; the mothers who sacrificed so much and yet feel the sacrifice was in vain; to the women who endured agony and pain in order to birth a miracle, so that their daughters would have the opportunity to pay it forward. Here’s to you!

When the librarian said shhhhh!

When were kids, my sister and I would go to the library to check out books. Sometimes we walked from school to the library and waited until our mother was off work. Early on, we learned the Dewey Decimal System, but I’m not sure that we went there solely for a learning experience. Likewise, I don’t recall how often we’d go. But we went regularly enough for me to remember vividly our trips to the public library. I loved going to the library. I became a reader rather early in life, and trips to the library opened up my then limited world. I know a number of people who don’t possess a library card, and probably can’t recall when they last went to a library. They read books on their Kindles or whatever, and if they want DVDs they download or rent from Redbox. They have access to the Internet through various forms so they have no need to take advantage of the library’s free Wi-Fi or Internet. But every city I’ve ever lived in—from the San Francisco Bay Area to Paris—I’ve had a library card.

I recall, while living in Seattle, walking through the old main library downtown. (Seattle’s Central library was rebuilt and opened in 2004. It’s worth a trip if you’re ever in the city.) I’d see people signing up on a sheet (it’s now done by computer, of course) to get on the Internet. It was the late 1990s or early 2000s; I can’t quite recall for certain. I was struck—I was impressed—that the library was moving in this direction and that our world was becoming increasingly smaller—or supposedly more connected—because of the World Wide Web.

I’m a Baby Boomer who is not on Facebook and Instagram. Save for a few, Boomers I know reach for their handheld to check social media throughout the day. Nearly every person on the planet reaches for their smartphone or iPhone to check texts, or e-mail. Sometimes we don’t need an alert; it’s a reflex that we reach for our devices like we do bottled water. Our fixation urges us to peep–it’s the FOMO. Picking up our devices has become routine, like brushing teeth.

Recently I met a friend for coffee and while we were sitting at the table talking she unconsciously reached for her iPhone to check to see if something, however trivial, was happening she was not privy to. For years I’ve considered this rude. (Actually, I still do!) But I’ve now reconciled that how I feel about it won’t change it. I have to accept it in the way I accept rude strangers. Moreover, this is where so many are mindset-wise whether it’s social pressure, the cultural shift, or something that balances out the oftentimes mundane-ness of daily life. My being opposed to the way in which it’s used does nothing but isolate me from those I associate with. I don’t have to engage, but it has become clear to me that because I don’t social network I find myself not communicating with others as often as I once did.

I’m not making an argument here about whether the Internet is a good or bad thing. It’s about the library! Hence, here’s my point: I was in the library doing some research and there was a young woman seated next to me at a row of computers. She was laughing very loud at whatever amused her on the computer screen; at times she even snorted she was laughing so hard. For several minutes this was not what I’d call a distraction, but then she began to RLOL, and I mean really laugh out loud! I dare not tell someone in the library how to conduct themselves; I leave that to library personnel.

The Internet being accessible at the public library is a very good thing. Yet, what comes with online accessibility is a certain kind of behavior. We have lost our sense of knowing when we are in a public place. This doesn’t apply to the homeless and the downtrodden using the library as a means to have somewhere to go during the day. In some cases these are emotionally unstable people. But culturally we have lost our sense of knowing we’ve crossed the line. We’ve lost our sense of basic common courtesy. We have no sense of personal space. We have no sense of awareness. We are mindless. When I was a child, and prior to the Internet being available in the public library, the library was quiet, almost too solemn. This can be exactly why a lot of people I know don’t spend time in the library: They think boring, and assume dead people are buried in them (i.e., gravesite). But the Internet produced a lot more public library “patrons.” People that would not otherwise go to the library now have library cards. And it most likely has nothing to do with the library’s endless books on every subject known to mankind, or other various reading materials for that matter. It’s simply to have access to the Internet, and to check out DVDs or CDs.

More often than not, when someone is seated next to me in the library I can hear the music they’re listening to from their earphones–the music is generally tuned way up. It’s rare, but a few times I’ve witnessed a library worker tap someone’s shoulder and ask that they lower their volume. They seem clueless why they have to turn down their music. But like the young woman I sat next to who laughed with such verve, the Internet invites a new generation to experience the library in a whole new way. They get lost in whatever they are engaged in; so much so, they aren’t aware of their surroundings. Actually, today’s library has become no more than a Starbucks sans the espresso.

When we were kids, if my sister and me laughed or snickered at our table just a bit too loudly in our neighborhood library, the librarian would come to our table and tell us to “be quiet” or we got the rather harsh, “Shhhhh,” followed by a judgmental stare.

Frankly, I kind of miss Shhhhh?