I am a miracle

Many years ago, while driving from Southern California to Northern California, I had just passed the Grapevine when I felt myself getting sleepy. While driving through the Grapevine, roughly 40 miles of dense California highway, I doggedly fought tiredness. I had to get back to the Bay Area, where I was then living, because I needed to be at work the following morning. My friend and I had gone to a Lakers game, and afterward grabbed something to eat. Before heading to the freeway, I had dropped her off at her car. It was probably 10:00 at night by then. The drive from SoCal to Northern California is over 300 miles. Back in the day I was quite daring. I am struck by that daredevil life today, seeing with 20/20 vision how reckless I once lived.

After passing through the Grapevine, I began to speed. Back then, at least, California Highway Patrol was notorious for giving out speeding tickets along the Grapevine. Generally, whenever I drove down to L.A., I’d make up the time I’d lost going the speed limit through the Grapevine by speeding once I was on the open road of the 5. There was a better chance of slowing down on the northern end of the Grapevine because CHP was often parked in plain sight.

I’ve thought about this moment in my life a number of times over the years. There have been occasions when my mind was idle and this specific incident flashed through my psyche. I only wish I knew in which ways did it change the way I walk in the world. There have been moments when I felt as if Life had finally won over on me because the very depth of my experiences, at the time, seemed so unfair. At those times I can always bring to mind a random miracle. When I was much younger, I never once thought of that night on the 5 as haunting. But as I got older and stuff started accumulating in my life, I came to realize that particular night, along a solemn, quiet freeway, was quite indelible.

Perhaps five or so miles past the Grapevine, I fell asleep at the wheel. Literally. At some point my eyes closed and didn’t pop back open. I recall waking up, somewhat disoriented, and wondered how long had my eyes been closed. The thought messed with me for several miles. When I came to an exit in which there were gas stations and 24-hour fast food restaurants, I got off. When I went inside the gas station I asked for the key to the bathroom. Probably aghast, I stood in the gas station bathroom that reminded me of high-school–drawings of hearts with initials of naive lovers inside them, and various mean messages calling people the B-word. For a few minutes I simply took in what I’d experienced on the 5. I wasn’t able to shake the possibility of having fallen asleep for longer than a few seconds. I don’t recall back then what I was honestly feeling, but I was definitely feeling something–I forgot to pee! When I mentioned the experience quite casually to the gas station attendant, he said something about God being on my side. I received those words lightly, laughing it off.

A few months later, on another drive to Southern California, I decided I would work this thing out in my head. What had stayed with me for several months was not knowing exactly how long I’d dozed off. So leaving L.A. and returning back to Northern California a few days later, I was exceptionally mindful of each exit after the Grapevine. It was still daylight so I could see much better than if it were nightfall. I wanted–I think I needed–to know how far I’d driven while my eyes were closed.

By my calculation, I was in a light sleep for just shy of two freeway exists!

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Namaste

Last week, while waiting for a parking space in a Starbucks parking lot, I noticed a bumper sticker with the word “Namaste” on a sexy silver Mercedes. If unfamiliar, the word Namaste is a Hindu greeting, which has several interpretations in America. However, I will use the translation my former yoga instruction used following each class. Her palms pressed together at her chest, she would say, “I bow to the spirit in you.” It is not easy to ascertain the authenticity, or sincerity, when Americans adopt an Eastern philosophy, because we are naturally market-driven. Therefore, when someone takes on the Namaste concept, to what extent is it heartfelt, and how much of it is simply a commercialization of the Hindi tradition?

Looking closer, I noticed that the sexy silver Mercedes was taking up additional space in the parking lot. All of the parking spaces at this Starbucks location are “compact,” although I am clueless as to why. This particular neighborhood Starbucks is in an affluent neighborhood where high-end sedans and SUVs monopolize public parking lots. That said, the sexy silver Mercedes was partially in another parking space in which only a motorcycle might be able to park in it. Because it was street cleaning day on one side of the street, street parking was not an option.

A few minutes had come and gone. There were several cars waiting for available parking spaces, anticipating a Starbucks customer to soon come out and give up a space. Roughly 6-7 minutes into my wait, a woman approached the sexy silver Merc. Dressed really sharp, she was holding a venti Starbucks while she read from her handheld. She stopped at the front driver’s door, oblivious as to me, as well as two other cars, waiting for a parking space. A minute or two came and went before someone yelled out, “Hey!” to the woman standing at the Merc. It was less a confrontational Hey! and more like a move-it-along Hey! The woman stopped reading from here device and looked up, glanced over her shoulder nonchalantly, trying to make out the voice of the person yelling Hey! Judging from her facial expression and body language, she was not sure where the Hey! came from. No sooner, her eyes caught my eyes. The woman was impervious as to the fact that people were waiting for a parking space. She rolled her eyes at me. My first instinct was simply to chuckle.

Eventually she stepped in her sexy silver Merc. She left her venti Starbucks holiday cup on the hood of the car. I assumed she would realize that she left it there. But she was much too distracted, too engaged in what was going on on her cell that she completely forgot about her beverage. Someone behind me started blowing their horn like they were annoyed. There was nowhere for me to go, except to leave the parking lot. The car behind me was practically on my bumper. The persistence of the horn-blowing struck me as unusually aggressive for L.A.

I stepped out of my car and walked up to the window of the sexy silver Merc. Not to tell the woman that she was holding up a parking space while she tweeted or liked or connected on her cell phone. I tapped her window. She looked up at me through designer sunglasses. Reluctantly, I think, she rolled down her window and her expression was—imagine how a nose-in-the-air Yes? might look. I said, “You left your Starbucks on your hood.” Suddenly she broke out in a wide smile. She laughed lightheartedly and thanked me. Stepping out of the Merc, I sensed she was chagrined. She offered me yet another “thank you.” I told her it was nothing. When I got back into my car, I saw that the two cars behind me managed to get parking spaces. The sexy silver Merc with the Namaste bumper sticker took its sweet time backing out of the parking space.

I make every effort—although I am not always good at it—to give a person the benefit of the doubt, despite their behavior; especially for those trying too hard to convince the world that they are spiritual or religious or progressive. For all I know, the woman with the venti Starbucks borrowed the sexy silver Merc. She could well have been driving someone else’s car and they embraced, if not demonstrated, Namaste!

In a world that is turning too damn fast, and so many of us are just trying to hold on to what we have … Our truest nature is deeply embedded in unconscious fear. We lose sight of being present, because the only way to be genuinely kind and “pay it forward” is to be present. There might be a few exceptions to this rule, but they are unique. Beneath the superficial facades we present publicly as individuals, the collective consciousness cares deeply. This has been demonstrated time and time again when we go straight to our social networks to shine a light on racism, discrimination, bullying–this raw reaction is often quite visceral. Or we pour out our hearts, our very souls when something stunningly wonderful or amazingly breathtakingly somber becomes a part of history. We pray for wretched souls; we light candles! And this is a beautiful, benevolent thing. Still, Namaste is in every moment; it is not a matter of convenience. Namaste is a way of life.

On this day, when we acknowledge reasons to be thankful (or grateful), feel fleetingly blessed, we should be reminded when we press our palms together, say grace, that bowing in spirit is not something we do only when it fits adequately into our daily agenda.

May loving-kindness always find you. Namaste!

Out-story

A few months ago I was having a conversation with someone by phone, and with a person I didn’t know all that well. Our conversation turned to politics, and as it progressed it became passionate (which happens when people talk about politics and religion, or race, even if they agree with each other). In the course of our conversation, I began to butt-in. Admittedly, I’m guilty of doing this, and for a good chunk of my adult life! But in recent years I find myself not retaining information in the same way; thus I do it now more so out of not wanting to forget what I want to say.

At some point in our conversation, this person hung up on me (because I was “interrupting, and that is rude.”). It is rude–butting-in on someone while they are talking. But hanging up on someone is equally rude. Nevertheless, since that encounter I try to listen before speaking. Even if I can sense that I will lose my train of thought before the person I am speaking to finishes what they have to say. I am not always 100% in that effort, but I am mindful, and much better than I used to be.

Several days ago I was sitting with someone in a public place, and this person was pontificating about her life (the man she was involved with; her job, which is stressful and she hates; and not getting ahead like she’d planned). I made every effort not to interject; I sincerely wanted to hear what she was saying. It was clear that she was going through a transition, which she was not emotionally ready to deal with. Transition is subtle; we don’t always recognize the turning-points that occur every so many years in life. But when we hit a brick wall, it’s time to soul-search. And yet more often than not we fail to accept that the brick wall is a part of evolving; it might even be a test. Since I believe caring is more a demonstrative thing than a feeling thing, I attempted to be engaged, attentive, despite this person being combative (in a public place). I was extremely conscious of myself–I didn’t want to butt-in. I consider myself a reasonably decent listener, so I placed even more effort into listening to her words. Not once did I interrupt (or butt-in). I leaned into her diatribe, and incessant complaining. And this was excruciating for me because there were points in her emotional discourse in which I really wanted to interject (so that she could hear a different side of her story).

Suddenly she says to me, “Are you hearing me?” I replied with, “Of course!” But since I wasn’t interrupting her, she assumed my mind was elsewhere. So I began to share some of my thoughts about what she had shared with me. I sensed she was annoyed by my not agreeing with her. She abruptly changed the subject. To be polite, she asked me how my book was doing, but because she was distracted I knew she asked merely to be thoughtful. No sooner than I started sharing details, she interrupted me. She said a few things related to the “book conversation” but swiftly came back to her life (and the drama encompassing it). “There’s this woman I work with . . .” she said. What she did at that moment–shifting the attention back on herself–is what I call “out-storying.” This is when one person believes their story is pressing and meaningful, and your story is less noteworthy, urgent. Each time you have a story you feel needs to be heard, the so-called listener starts to “out-story” you by going into details about their own life. Not that they are self-centered necessarily, but whatever they are experiencing at that moment is far more compelling in their mind. I sincerely trust that it’s not intentional, and the “out-story” teller thinks the details of your life matter, but their story is much more pressing; it’s dynamic and complicated. I.e., Drama!

I know this because I’ve done it more times than I care to recall. I haven’t had a thought-provoking conversation with anyone who hasn’t out-storied. I don’t think anyone out-story’s on purpose. There are times when we feel an urgent need for someone to listen and embrace our joy, our pain, our frustration. To understand the depth and nuances of our story. Someone hearing our story adds a sense of relevance to our purpose in the world. Our story means we are alive; at the very least, we still have a heartbeat. We feel compelled to share it (whether life is going good or throwing daggers at us left and right), and for someone to hear it. I think that’s why this person asked, “Are you hearing me?” She didn’t need someone to listen. Listening is a matter of paying attention to selective words and drawing a conclusion. She wanted someone to hear what she had to say. And in hearing it, there was a level of validation to how she felt.

Although I would like to think I am aware of when I am out-storying, it generally takes reflection for me to realize that I had. This person–someone I volunteer with; we aren’t what I call friends–hugged and thanked me before we went our separate ways. “I’m sorry,” she added. “I know I’m bitching and everything . . . I just wanted to talk to someone who can relate.”

It was a few hours later when it clicked for me: We want someone to authenticate our narrative; more than likely that is why we out-story. And only if we relate to the story can we genuinely authenticate it.

In memory of . . .

For so many years my big sister and I faced a great deal together. A few days ago I jokingly referred to her as my Sherpa. But truly, Brenda was my angel standing by when I was teased and taunted growing up. The rude awakening which I have had to live with for exactly two years to this day is that I had not been her angel standing by when she needed me most in her life. I wasn’t there for her in the way that I know that she would have been there for me. The years leading up to this moment have blurred, thus I fail to recall every single time my big sister stuck up for me. Brenda wasn’t selfish. In my youth, I wished intensely to be just like her. She cried easily and openly; sometimes as a result of melancholy, but just as equally out of fury. If she needed something she asked for it, and in seeking help she didn’t feel weak or needy. She laughed with happy tears one minute, and would cry and be profoundly disappointed the next. Her raw emotions, and her strength, were illimitable. Perhaps what controlled her, really, was her wounded, troubled soul—ultimately, and albeit deceitfully, it would come to define her.

It might have been the late afternoon we were walking home from having sold Girl Scout cookies when I learned, although unconsciously, that Brenda would always have my back. True to form, she’d sold most of her cookies. Bragging and proud of having sold most of the boxes, we assumed Mama would let her walk the neighborhood despite the fact that it was turning dark, so she could sell the remaining boxes. Near home, we were walking through a grocery store parking lot when out of nowhere a boy snatched Brenda’s unsold cookies and the money from the cookies she’d sold. The likeness of the teenager’s silhouette was close enough for me to touch. He wore a sweatshirt, and the hood of the sweatshirt shielded his image. He grabbed and fled with such speed I had no clue what had gone down.

Brenda screamed, “Give me my cookies back!” with a stomp of her foot in defiance. She began to chase after him, but I cried out, “Don’t, Brenda, don’t!” It was an impulsive act, but Brenda was prepared to confront the thief. My desperate plea distracted her. She looked back at me, taking in the tears that swam in my eyes. By the time she looked over her shoulder to seek out the boy, his track star figure had vanished into the quiet early night. The tearstains outlining my cheeks were more out of fear of being left in the parking lot all alone if she chased the boy, and Brenda picked up on my obvious trepidation. In my insecure, childish mind I thought I was partly responsible for what had happened.

Over the years I have been eye-witness to Brenda’s astonishing courage. She was good at going toe-to-toe. I am often reminded of how the circumstances in her life painstakingly trapped her and it now seems so terribly unfair–she was like a rat in a maze. In hindsight I get it: she needed someone to believe in her. I failed there. At some point it appeared to me, the magnitude and span of her life’s challenges began to weaken her once natural resolve. Yet Brenda had a stubborn will. Despite the traps life had set for her, she managed to stand up to each one. Not always with grace; still, she had the uncanny ability to persevere.

Facing cancer was perhaps her most overwhelming challenge and she managed the disease and her treatments the way Brenda had handled much of her life: she didn’t back down. It makes sense now, because I always thought of my big sister as being so much stronger than me. It was one of the qualities I genuinely admired about Brenda growing up: I witnessed in her a brave, bold soul. In recent years I fully understood something that would have made no sense to me as a child—Brenda was not only loyal, but she was a person of undeniable pride. When she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, that dignity I often observed in her even when were kids, got her through an unbelievably painful passage. It should come as no surprise that she survived cancer.

The most poignant lesson I learned through Brenda’s illness was at some point I stopped showing up for her. That has been the hardest thing I’ve had to work through, and I remain clueless on how to move beyond the mind-set. Although when she relocated to Los Angeles from Denver, a friend and I would stop whatever we were doing to come to her rescue on occasion—from losing her car keys in some obscure part of town to being threatened by a neighbor who had a knife at her throat. Still, whatever I did back in those days paled in comparison to the times in which she had been there for me. There is absolutely no contrast if love itself ever kept score. There’s an awkward irony to a death like my sister’s, and I continue to struggle with it. She was in a number of car accidents in which a few should have killed her, and at the time of her death she was cancer-free. You trust that the gods know how things should—must—play out and yet you fail to genuinely trust it because it defies basic logic. Too often in recent weeks I’ve gone back to the days when we were kids, when we played kill-ball, hula-hooped and jumped rope. When we were silly and innocent and very tight, and I thought my big sister was the best thing ever.

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.

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.