The Magical Land of Twenty : Tales From the Renaissance (& the Ledge)

Our Twenties

 

“When I was in my twenties, it felt like I was riding wild horses,
and hoping I didn’t go over a cliff.”

― Chaka Khan

 

Our twenties are supposed to be for wayward, rude, selfish, irresistible sex.  A bit precarious to do when your twenties take place in the decade of the 1980’s, with said decade bearing the contrails of the brand new AIDS crisis and understandable hysteria. My roommate and I lived in spitting distance of West Hollywood and its thriving bar scene, yet even though AIDS seemed to be all around us, we weren’t stopped one bit from trying hard to be reckless and wanton and fulfilled, because it was a solid directive of our generation. We just had to be cleverer about how to navigate the waters, and the bars.

I’ve often heard, from a sociological context, how awful and awkward and messy our twenties are supposed to be. And sure, the growing pains. I was constantly broke, and breaking someone’s heart nearly as often as someone was breaking mine, yet I was voracious in my various appetites; the sexual, the creative, the partying, the being-out-of-my-mother’s-house euphoria, the enticement of being considered an adult for the first time in my life, and the scary responsibility that entailed. I was unstoppable. And clumsy.  And, frankly, I find myself often yearning for that deeply flawed but fearless energy again.

I had left my mother’s home for the first and only time. I had left my very first relationship. My first love. He and I had been so Raging Bull with each other. So full of youthful Sturm and Drung.  We wore each other out equally, to be honest; I was just the first to act on it, needing desperately to have lightness back in my life. And off I went to my new adventures as a grown-up. I was instantly wild, as if I’d been cooped up and bound my entire life prior to that moment.

On more than one occasion, I dated two guys at once who were friends with each other. And it really was only ever just a matter of time before they’d talk, end up discovering the mutually shared component in the landscape of their conversation, and decide (rightfully so) that I was a pretty nervy bitch, and be done with me. I always knew it meant that I’d been found out whenever they would both stop taking my calls at the same time. My rationale was always, “Awwww, too bad, I was having so much fun. But hey, I’m single. I’m playing the field. We never made a commitment to each other. What exactly have I done wrong?”  In hindsight, and in the slightly calmer edge of my older self, I can see how remarkably self-absorbed that is.

Self-absorption may just go with the territory of being in one’s twenties. Is that insulting to twenty-somethings? Because I don’t actually mean it as an insult. I think it’s necessary for the decade of finding oneself to be a little self-absorbed. It requires all of one’s focus just to get the proper sea legs as a newbie adult. Lots of falling down. Plenty of injuries. Copious discoveries. Getting our way. Not getting our way. Brutal tears. And infectious laughter. We are babies.  At the same time, while our twenties are meant for discovering the world and ourselves, and is, as a decade, inherently, even acceptably, self-serving, should we be let off the hook for it?  Because while selfish may be sort of OK in our twenties, it still usually involves others’ hearts.

Take what happened with my next door neighbor.  I made the mistake of dating him.  Mistake only in that we literally shared a wall. Again, I’m thinking casual dating. And so, on an evening’s social excursion that did not include him, I found myself with the interesting prospect of a one-night-stand.  And as I giddily shared the details of that exploit with my roommate the next morning, guess who heard my boisterous story through the thin walls?  I found out later, as he was confessing his eavesdropping to me (although, confession isn’t really the right word when you’re the one backed into a guilt-targeted corner) that he’d actually placed a water glass to the wall like you’d see in movies.

“That trick really works?”

He was not in the mood for chatter.

From that moment on, living next door to him while trying to continue conducting my wild twenties was proving to be pretty excruciating. Let’s just say there were lots of slammed doors meant for my ears. Years later, when he and I ran into each other, both older, hopefully more mature, calmer, wiser, he actually apologized for being “a little crazy” back in the old days. And while I gratefully accepted his apology, somehow I felt like my incredibly selfish nature had been given an undeserved reprieve.

I’ve been rather lucky that no one ever murdered me out of some kind of crime of passion because of my impetuous immaturity. Like what nearly happened with yet another neighbor (same apartment complex on Detroit Street in the Fairfax District―many wild nights and crazy memories there). Let’s call this neighbor Ron. I honestly don’t remember his name. For all I can recall, it might’ve actually been Ron, making my efforts to protect his privacy moot. But oh well, Ron it is. My roommate and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating crispy, drippy melon on a hot summer evening, when a brusque knock came at our door. Those kinds of knocks always shoot my stomach right up into my throat. There stood Ron, a meek individual both in stature and voice, who very calmly offered that he’d been stabbed and could we please call 911 for him. What?!  No one who’s been stabbed is standing there talking to you calmly. Haven’t you ever seen Starsky and Hutch? But he proceeded to turn around and show us his bloody back. Freaking out as only two twenty-year-old girls can, we yanked him into our apartment, and rushed to call an ambulance. He told us we might want to close the door as his boyfriend was still storming around outside and brandishing the knife. Holy shit!  Now we were officially harboring a crime victim from his perp (I’ve always been a sucker for 1970’s cop show lingo).  As we locked the door and closed all the curtains, we could finally hear Agamemnon (not his real name either. Hey, no John Doe’s in this story) outside in a drunken rage, and we were scared shitless. We called for a paramedic and the police.  I then called my stepfather, who was a retired paramedic, to ask him to advise us on what to do until an ambulance arrived, as Ron Doe might’ve been slowly bleeding to death, for all we knew. What could we do to stop the bleeding? My dad advised, imploring us to “be careful!”  The authorities showed up, an ambulance carried Ron Doe away (he survived), while the police carried Agamemnon away to County, and we two pretty naive, sheltered, middle-class girls shivered in our boots once everyone left, and promptly graduated from melon slices to tequila shots, as we stared at our blood-stained sofa, and squealed in delighted horror that this kind of heart-thumping thing would never have happened living under our mothers’ roofs.

And while that one is always a you-won’t-believe-this! story to tell, with no other needed context, I relay it now to say that at least the callous heartbreaking I tended to do in my twenties never resulted in someone trying to kill me. I don’t think I had a clue just how lucky I was back then; not even after Ron showed up at our door with his domestic violence in the palms of his hand (or the fold of his back).  As far as I was concerned, I was indestructible.

My twenties were not just filled with me being the one breaking hearts. I was on the receiving end of that one plenty. Which is only fair. Take Frederic. Also not his real name, though I am awfully tempted to out this magnificent prick. Frederic was from Argentina, and we both worked as waiters at a pizza joint. He was very cute, and the accent was thick and alluring. We slept together the first day we met. It was cold and impersonal from the start, but I barely noticed, so fulfilled was I by someone’s attention and approval. It was always about that, if I’m being brutally honest. Things were going fairly normally until a young pretty thing started working at the pizza joint, and Frederic’s eye turned completely toward her. Well, not completely; he was still sleeping with me, which is where normal gradually moved into dysfunctional.

It blows me away to think that I looked at this little beauty as a “young thing” as compared with my old ass, which was twenty-five!  I would trade a lung for twenty-five again. The point is, it doesn’t matter where we are in life; someone will always come along to make us feel not as young, not as pretty, not as smart, not as desired, not as something.

But on to the pretty young thing ― or PYT, in Michael Jackson parlance. Frederic, magnificent prick that he was, would be in my bed and be talking about her. And I allowed it!  If he was a prick, I was a stooge, and I’m not honestly sure which is worse.  Yes, he and I were just casual.  I was still happily in playing-the-field mode myself, but for god’s sake at least I’d had the decency not to share whatever other exploits or interests I had with the guy I was presently with (thin neighboring walls notwithstanding).

The reason Frederic was still sleeping with me is because PYT was still a virgin, and was not about to have anything to do with Frederic. I was his convenience, until he could get what he really wanted.  He had no qualms about telling me so, and I would say things like “fuck you, asshole” in response to those kinds of comments, in my desperate attempts to counter stoogedom, I think.  Of course, not sleeping with him would’ve done the trick, but that’s way too self-respecting.

Here’s the thing: Frederic really got into the name-calling. The first time I realized it, I was taken aback, as I’d been looking for an actual argument. I could really get with a good screaming match. But he liked it. And then he thought I might like it.  And eventually I realized without ever consciously deciding on this, that we were actually mutually agreeing to have an abusive relationship.  Never physically, other than the sex (which didn’t even get particularly wild); just verbally and emotionally, which is damaging enough.

Eventually our interests both turned away from each other. Probably because, truth be told, that kind of relationship is boring, in addition to the more obvious spirit-decimating. But when I think back on it today, wasn’t it really only a matter of time before verbal would become corporal? And couldn’t I have ended up being the one to knock on a neighbor’s door with a knife wound in my back?  I am amazed I got out of my twenties alive. 

It also wasn’t just about a sexual revolution either. There was a creative explosion happening, as well. One I honestly wish I could recapture. Because while I love the artist I have become today, so much more than the one I began with in my twenties, a present level of unadulterated lust, gumption and nerve has just never quite matched that of my beginnings.

I was in the midst of writing my first novel. I’d started it the day I graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I’d loved acting, and thought I could’ve actually been gifted at it, but it never tugged at me the way writing did. Nor has music, to be frank, which might surprise those are are aware of my nearly 40 years in the business. I love being a musician, but it was always the writing. I was still living under my parents’ roof at that point. My stepdad had made our basement his office, and down there, in the cold cellar walls atmosphere, on his old (now vintage) Underwood typewriter, circa … around … 300 BC? … I started writing my first novel. The story takes place in London between the world wars. I didn’t have a single identification or connection with England or its culture, and I was the last thing from a history buff to even have much of a clue what was going on politically or socially there and then. I was a girl from Compton circa the 1960’s and 70’s. My sole inspiration for choosing 1936 England as the backdrop for a story I didn’t even have in my head yet was that it would be the absolute last thing anyone would ever expect of me. I was always the girl who hungered for a life no one could peg.  I hated cliches. I hated people who were cliches. I hated being able to read upon the lips of anyone talking to me, within seconds of meeting them, just exactly who they were down to their taste in fetishes. Mainly what I feared was the reflection back to me of myself. I did not want to be one. So, whenever I encountered someone who blew my mind for surprising me with an angle in their lives I could never have guessed, I would always say, “That’s what I want to be.  Unpeggable.”

That became the engine that has driven practically every decision, every life choice, every path I’ve ever traversed. It’s also exactly how I would describe all of my artistic idols: Coltrane, Tom Waits, Nina Simone, Joni, Jimi, Basquiat, Bukowsky, Van Gogh, Bartok . . .

So I took this story on, one that took eight years, practically my entire twenties, to write merely its first draft. I took it on and was determined to learn what I didn’t know, which was everything, about this time and this place I had randomly chosen. Long before the internet existed, I spent hours daily for years in the public library reading books and locating archived newsreels, to help create this world I was attempting to create. The directive many in the writing world consider to be the absolute sacred cow of credos is, “write what you know.”  It’s practically biblical. And I broke that rule straight out of the gate. I had nerve, if not common sense.

My main character was a kind of contemporary (for 1936) philosopher known for radical ideas about politics and religion, so I spent the bulk of my twenties with my head buried in Plato, Mao, Nietzche, Kierkegaard, Sartre, and on and on, as well as any books on the rising Fascist movement of that era. That is, when I wasn’t raving in the gay bars with my best friend and hooking up with boys who hadn’t found themselves yet. My sister, the intellectual, was quite instrumental in pointing me in the direction of whom I should read.

By the time I had finished my first draft, I truly believed I’d written a masterpiece. And typing “the end” to a 400-page novel held a power I cannot describe. It was the very first of such moments. I was twenty-eight years old, and I had written a book. And not a romance novel, or “young adult fiction” or stories of boyfriends and partying. No. A hefty-themed story of politics, war, and identity. I thought I was a badass. I still think I was a badass.

I also began singing in the gay bars. The cabaret scene was thriving. I entered a contest put on by the now defunct but forever legendary (and deeply fond to my heart) Rose Tattoo in West Hollywood, called Stardom Pursuit. I won. The winning was a good chunk of money and a residency there. I started learning a bizarre mix of songs, when most of the other singers around me were amassing their Broadway repertoires.  I remember pulling Pirate Jenny, by Brecht and Weill, out of some warped hat (I’d done The Threepenny Opera while at the Academy, and found I had a taste for the salty and the nasty). And so, while everyone around me was slaying Sondheim and Bernstein and Webber, and these were some of the best singing voices I’ve still ever come across, I was trying to take everyone to Hell with this enigmatic song of hurt and revenge and nastiness. It was my very first, ever, standing ovation. Message received … the dark crevices approach was working. Or at least the different was working. I decided right there and then that I wasn’t interested in the same repertoire everyone else around me was choosing. Even though, like I said, these singers I grew up with in the bar scene (most of whom are tragically no longer with us) could break my heart on a cold day.

First off, full confession, I didn’t have the kind of voice most of those singers did. Frankly, I couldn’t handle Sondheim. I had a different instrument altogether, with its limitations, and if I knew better I’d employ what I learned in acting school to make a song come alive. The high notes and virtuosic stuff were always going to be elusive to this slightly raspy, small-ranged alto. But my gift, it turns out, was in my ability to use that texture to interpret a lyric with genuine intimacy, and connect to a song the way an actor connects to a character she is hired to play. So, mom and dad’s money for school wasn’t a complete waste.

The very first of my songwriting also came out of this era. And also came from a most cracked and introspective place. I wasn’t creating infectious hooks and house beats. I was calling on other realms, the ancestors, archetypal hauntings, to fuel the stories inside my songs. For better or for worse, it remains the way I compose. I personally think it’s for better, because I’ve established a unique voice, even though not following trend has largely cost me opportunity over the course of my life.

If only I’d had the stubborn standards no one could shake from me with regards to my personal life. As a budding artist, I was fairly peerless and fearless. But as a budding woman, I was so full of insecurities as to wear the bloat of it on my very desperate soul.

It’s been a long time since I was a twenty-something, but one thing I know for sure is that it’s a very different world today for people in their twenties than it was in my day. I believe it’s much harder today. Most of my peers were out of the house as soon as they were legal. Today, kids largely stay under their parents’ roofs as long as they can, because a living wage seems to be so much more elusive to come by today. The economy is tougher. When we left home, I was a waitress, and my roommate was a file clerk. We managed to keep a pretty nice 2-bedroom apartment with hardwood floors and crown moulding, in the Fairfax District, with no significant struggles, and also no financial help from our parents. We were pursuing our careers (me in the arts and performance, her in psychology), even though our present jobs weren’t yet reflecting them.  And it was do-able!  And, at least from my vantage point as a performer, we didn’t live in a culture where if you weren’t “made” by twenty (or younger!), you were already over-the-hill and close to extinction.

The twenty-year-olds I know today are beating their asses to a pulp to hustle their careers and meet benchmarks, and are working round the clock, and maybe even juggling several jobs at once (while still trying to be in school), and are exhausted in the way we think of our elders as being exhausted, because the window from being a child to being a superstar is smaller and smaller, and panic seems the overriding emotion. Today what’s most important, what’s most revered, are ambition and relentless drive. There are even television shows right now that pit twelve-year-olds against each other in competition in order to inspire the shark in them. I am incredibly bothered by that. Unless you come from money, the world at your feet to explore and discover at your own pace seems to be a lost gem.

I spent my twenties doing some of the stupidest things imaginable. I’m not advocating for stupid. But I deeply appreciate the leisure I had of growing up by way of the mistakes I was allowed to make, and the lessons learned from them, which builds a certain muscle, and which doesn’t seem to be a luxury afforded the twenty-somethings of today. For one, we’re a more protective culture with our children than we were in my youth, living with more fear of predators, especially as social media has become THE major character in the play. It seems that rather than being allowed the gradual process of growing up, and finding themselves, and floundering, and grabbing hold, and tossing away, twenty-somethings are pressured to grow up instantly, and to produce! produce! produce! And the ones who are celebrated are the ones who’ve “made their millions by twenty-five,” or “gone viral by sixteen.” Today, the people that kids are programmed to view as their heroes are the ones who write code not books.

It seemed an easier time to be twenty when I was twenty. Of course every generation says that.  Is every generation right?  Is it literally becoming a harder and harder world to live in?

Like I said, I did some stupendously idiotic things in my twenties. Things I would shudder to think of my own twenty-year-old daughter doing, were I a parent. But not only did I survive it, I was shaped by it. I learned some lessons there, and had an unforgettable decade. I became an artist there, in the Magical Land of Twenty. You’ve heard of The Unsinkable Molly Brown?  I had firmly and irrevocably established myself as The Unpeggable Angie Brown. My twenties were equal parts cringe-worthy and rhapsodic. And I can honestly say that no other decade for me has been nearly as extreme, or as fertile, on both ends.

I truly hope the twenty-somethings of today aren’t being so protected within the bosom of their frightened parents that they aren’t allowed to breathe a little, and find themselves. Yeah, spoken like a true childless woman. I get that. I don’t know what it feels like to let go of a child who is growing up. But I’m still rooting and cheering for some freedom and wiggle-room and memorable odysseys for those who are coming along.

There are some pretty extraordinary twenty-somethings in my life right now, and whether I’m right or wrong about it being harder today to be in your twenties, what I see in these young folk is backbone likely formed because of the tougher times the present seems to hold. And they are taking the world by storm, on their terms, and tearing it up. Are they enjoying their lives? I pray so. I don’t want them burning out by thirty because we’re a more ambition-centric society than ever before.

We’re going to need them to be our hope for a future that presently has rights being retracted and constricted and snatched from our grip. And with the heavy burden that will eventually be theirs, I pray they are loving their time in this decade now. Loving it with a ridiculous ecstasy, because there truly will be no other decade like it. I adore being a witness to their personal renaissance. Because what I know is that when they reach my age, they’ll have a tale or two of their own to ramble on about their Magical Land of Twenty, how it built them into who they are today. And there’ll be a twinkle in their eye as they tell it.

 

Your Package Has Been Delivered

The Rockies were even more majestic than I had imagined. The Kansas Prairie, as stark as I’d expected but I hadn’t made room in my brain for the smell of cow patties for miles. The storms of Utah scared me so profoundly I knew I’d never make this trip back by car, ever again.

Of course, the first stop was Vegas, where I’d been a thousand times, and the 118 degree temps that did something weird to my car engine didn’t surprise me in the least. Thankfully, it was temporary, as I continued east and gradually north, making this move I never remotely had in my plans for my life.

I’d managed to amass 60 years on this planet without ever living anywhere other than Los Angeles, and now I was moving to Kansas City, Missouri, the heartland, the prairie, the home of tornadoes and Charlie Parker, a red state but a blue town, artful and socially progressive, even though it was here that I was called the N word for the first time ever … at least that I’ve known about. Seriously, I may just be the most sheltered Black person on the planet.

I am trying to find my identity in this new place that doesn’t require me to let go of what LA built in me, while wanting to flow with this KC charm and warmth. Trying to be both, trying to have both. In LA, I was regarded in my town’s music scene. Here, I’m barely a smudge on a wall, largely unnoticed, but not in a rude way, just the experience of a new birth and my own penchant for cocooning. I don’t even go out for auditions for the many plays that are being cast at the very theater where I work. My instinct, as I’ve said, is just to stay a little bit cocooned, and I’m not even certain why. The fight-or-flight pace of LA kind of did me in a little, so I guess I just want to breathe slower, talk slower, decide things slower, get involved slower, emerge slower. I guess. Just looking for simple.

Two years here now, and no I have not done the drive back west again (though I’ve flown home a few times now). I meant it when I said I had sworn off those torrential rains. I feel very settled here, and happy. Still not completely out of my performance shell yet, but that’s okay. I’ve done some singing. I chased fame and travel and record deals and pizzazz for so long in LA, and it beat me to a pulp, frankly. Just looking for simple. And yet even with the agenda to simplify, I still manage to over-commit myself. Total co-dependency thing. I definitely need more than just my once-a-week Al-Anon meeting. Winters blow here. I know, weird segue. I will never embrace the snow. It just isn’t in the bones of this Cali Girl. I know, I know, be open-minded.

I love the friends I’ve made in my new town. Few, which means fewer choices of who to call for a hang, or whose invitation to accept for a hang. I miss my LA friends like nobody’s business (thank God for Zoom!). That circle was and is VAST, and I am so much luckier and more blessed than I ever truly appreciated when I was actually there. But here, I sort of like it that my circle is small. Fewer decisions to make. Have I said yet that I’m looking for simple?

Here, I can embrace being 62. There, it’s the thing you’re supposed to hide. Artistic pursuits are blowing up for me here. In LA, I did the gig beat for nearly 40 years, and it was every experience from dazzling to grueling. No regrets at all. It was an extraordinary time in my life, but there wasn’t really any other avenue of my pursuits that ever went anywhere for me. Here, I’ve had firsts. Of course, everything I did in LA began as firsts, it being where I began life. But the firsts that have happened since I’ve been here are kind of dizzying. Amazing, humble, grand, small, precious firsts. My first-ever poetry reading where I was invited to be the featured poet (and I’ve had a few now) in a town known for its vibrant and weighty poetry community. First time having a hand in getting a jazz series started (at the theater where I work). First time I’ve gotten to be a participant in a wall mural (up at the iconic Unity Village). First time making a little documentary short about a Kansas City community event (the citywide Black Lives Matter street murals), and having it be my first ever Official Selection in a film festival. My first time ever having art of mine juried into a gallery exhibit, which is opening in a few days. My alcohol inks ‘bout to make their li’l splash! Pun intended! (If you know the medium, you’ll know it’s a lot of splashes of ink…never mind…)

I know that my children’s videobook winning multiple film festival awards (whaaaat???) has nothing to do with Kansas City, nor an alcohol ink of mine making the cover of a literary journal, nor having an entire concert of music (by the LA Metropolitan Master Chorale) created and performed around several of my short stories (all firsts), but I’m giving KC the credit anyway, because all these things happened while living here, and somehow here, more than in LA, I’ve managed to cultivate better focus in order to carve the space for these blessings to be made possible. Too much the blitzkrieg of Los Angeles, I guess, and all that that allegorically means, and which kept me just running, bouncing, collapsing, recovering, then running and bouncing again. Ad nauseam.

I’m exhausted. Still, two years later. Walking along the Missouri River humming “Shenandoah,” and the hiking trail that gives me genuine serenity, and strolling the halls of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art weekly — are all great balms that are slowly recovering me.

Did I mention I moved here 2 months into global lock down? Talk about throwing my own roadblocks in my way. I trip and fall a lot. Like…physically. I’m a klutz. But I’m starting to think that has whole other metaphorical layers of meaning for me and my life. And yet I persevere like a cockroach.

I like Kansas City. I might actually love it. No, yes, I definitely love it. I love Kansas City. I am mesmerized by how much art and theatre and music is embraced here. And then there are the city fountains (more than in Rome!), and the recent citywide installation of giant heart sculptures, 154 of them, all painted by different local artists, and which demanded my obsessed attention for 3 months, finding and photographing as many as I could. And the West Bottoms, and the River Market. And the 18th & Vine Jazz District, and the First Fridays Art Walks. And the stupefying amount of live theatre I’ve loved seeing, and not just at the one where I work. And my favorite building on the entire planet, the downtown KC Public Library, whose design is that of a GIANT bookshelf of classics. Crazy cool!

And even if none of that was going on, this move also means I now will not die having never left home. That’s huge for me. A dream I’ve had forever, though in my imaginings it was more along the lines of somewhere in Europe. But that’s okay, since KC is actually known as the “Paris of the Plains.” 🙂 No kidding.

I wouldn’t have chosen it on my own, but Kansas City came my way, and I happily said yes. Leapt. In a way I am not prone to do. I’m still saying yes. No looking back. Well, maybe some looking back. After all, I would take California earthquakes any day over the “Severe Thunder Storm” alerts that routinely pop up on my phone, and do indeed freaking deliver!

Unless

My mother was magical.

She and I shared a most unique experience once. When I think of all her magic, which I find I do a lot since she died 20 years ago this month, it is an experience that could only have occurred for me because of being attached to Martha. I was nine years old, and she was informed by my pediatrician, Dr. Payne—(yeah…that’s not a joke…my entire childhood I envisioned it spelled Dr. Pain)—she was informed by Dr. Payne that I needed my tonsils removed. This was the era when this surgical procedure was done as routinely as tooth extraction. My mother was already scheduled to have lymph node surgery, herself, because of some unexplained lumps in her armpits, which, thank God, would turn out to be benign.

“She can’t be scheduled next week,” my mother said. “I’m going in the hospital next week.” 

And then came that magical word. A word, which, whenever it came out of my mother’s mouth, meant that the impossible was just about to be made possible.

“Unless….” she would offer with a singsong drag of the last syllable, about to tell whomever of her bright idea. And it would usually be an idea that probably shouldn’t be done, and yet her powers of persuasion were quite remarkable. 

In this case, the next thing I knew Dr. Payne had gone from explaining to my mother why hospital regulations would never allow it, because I was a child, etc. to making the arrangements for her and me to not only be hospitalized at the same time, but to be roomed together!

I’d been in a hospital only once before, at five years old, for a hernia operation.  I’d bunked in a ward with twenty other crying children. I didn’t know anyone, and I cried a lot too. And while drinking my alphabet soup one night there, and pulling the bowl up to my mouth, I dribbled half of it down my front. My hospital gown was changed, but the rest remained undiscovered until the bandages were removed weeks later, and pieces of moldy peas and carrots and random letters were prominently found pasted to my groin. I got a laugh from the nurse, which kind of tickled me, but otherwise I’d hated that frightening experience, because frankly I wasn’t comfortable being around other children. So, by this present idea, I was excited. 

Mom and I had our surgeries roughly around the same time, on the same day. I hazily remembered them bringing her into the recovery room, where I already was, as my surgery had concluded first, and I was already coming out of the anesthesia. I saw her crying hysterically. It’s one of the common symptoms of anesthesia wearing off.  But I didn’t know that at the time, and I panicked but my mouth wouldn’t move; I was still under the spell of my own drugs.  I think I remember her trying to punch one of the orderlies, from being so delirious. 

Still, the whole thing remains such an iconic Martha story, because how many people can say they’ve done that?  We had our own private room, Mom and me.  The only part I didn’t find especially enjoyable was that she got chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes for dinner, while I got boring Jello.

My mother was magical.  

When she visited Paris for her first time during my teenage years (a tradition I would inherit, as Paris ended up becoming my favorite city on the planet, which I’ve now visited several times), my mother brought back for me a print of the Post-Impressionist painter Jean-François Millet from the Musée d’Orsay. My hairs stood on end when she presented me with the print, entitled “Shepherdess and her Flock” . . . as it was ME in the painting. This 120-year-old painting!  The portrait was of a field as atmospheric as Millet could occasion, with the young shepherdess and her flock in the foreground. Downward gaze of fleshy cheek and sullen eyes. In fact, no eyes at all, just eyelids. Mine. This was why Martha had bought the print for me. And, of course, the first time I eventually made it to Paris, myself, I promptly went to see this painting in the flesh (or paint & canvas), and was tickled all over again that “I” lived in this museum in the great City of Lights, an ocean away from the life I knew.

But on this day when Martha brought the print home to me, I remember being so stunned that my face was the face in this painting that I asked how this could be possible! And yet another “unless” escaped like a fairy dust spurt from her mouth, as my whimsical mother could never resist a merry penchant for spinning magical fables—her loveliest trait, frankly. And she began by using, as a component in her case, the fact that our family name on her side is Shepard, then proceeded to declare that I WAS that shepherdess another lifetime ago, and had been Jean-François’ muse and perhaps even his lover. And as my face grew completely scarlet from the embarrassment that my mom would say these things to me, she just laughed with great jollity, and with—as always, gratefully, gratefully always—the undeniable sparkle of possibility. 

Blessings and flight among the angels, my sweet, magical girl.

Happy New Year 2022

May this New Year bring you peace, surrender, serenity, and a few breathtaking insights.  May you want for nothing, because you already have everything.  May the intentions you set this day be felt against the sides of mountains, ring into the ether with an ear-warming reverberation, and settle in the bones of those not as fortunate as you.  And may those intentions keep us all connected like a mighty woven net of love that always catches us when we fall. Happy New Year, one and all! 

As a working musician, the very last thing I do in the very last moments of every year is sing.

“… as it has been since forever ago and auld lang syne.  I am a New Year baby; it is in my DNA to usher out an old, usher in a new. To ritualize the idea of rebirth, renewal, and restoration; to chant, to pray, to dance, to give auspiciousness to new beginnings and rites of passage, to participate in burning bowl rituals and labyrinth walks, to summon the rains and the gods, to howl at the moon, to burn sage, to close my eyes, shut off the valve and listen. Listen to the wind in the trees tell me what I need to know next, what I need to do next, how I need to sing next. And then I sing.” ——— (Excerpt from my poem “Lost & Found” from the collection BONES)

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

In the Pursuit of Growing Sharper : A Meditation on My Solitude Thanksgiving 2021

I couldn’t quite believe the action of my prayers two days ago. I am a pray-er. I never really was, until I began a program of recovery a few years ago, where prayer and meditation is essential to working the program.  They even say that whether you’re atheist, agnostic, or a believer, pray anyway; just go through the motions and witness how it shifts your life. I can personally attest that once you’re immersed in working the 12 steps, your whole life begins to focus on fine-tuning your character and how you walk in the world.  

Being a person who “stages” moments in her life, and isn’t especially skillful at how she responds to plans not going the way they were planned, I got in my car early in the day for a Thanksgiving that would be spent alone, and I knew I’d have to fend off those defects today. I’m fairly new in my city, with all my family elsewhere. And though I’ve made friends, I just barely hang out with a few of them, so being without plans for Thanksgiving isn’t unusual. Instead, I made my own plans: to go to the movies (my first time since Covid, which is a ritual I have missed sorely, as I love the movies, and especially on holidays that I spend alone….yes, even living in L.A. I sometimes did holidays alone), then follow the movies with finding a cool restaurant to eat a meal in, while I’d sit and dine with a good book——one of my favorite solitude rituals. As I drove, I took note how gorgeous the weather was, and immediately got a jolt of adrenaline that told me the next words out of my mouth were going to be “this day rocks!” So, I immediately went into prayer about expectations. I spoke out loud something like, “please allow me to accept the unfolding of this day in whatever way it will, and to respond with pliancy and flow and understanding if anything I’m planning falls apart. Please help me to take a breath first and to be okay with whatever happens instead of stomping my feet like a brat…which I can do. Let this day unfold without disappointment because I have received the day with open-heartedness, whatever happens.”  Something along those lines.

My plan was to go to a particular movie theater, which was in a part of town not terribly close to home, because it’s right next door to the only Trader Joe’s in town.  I figured I could kill two birds with one stone. The movie showing was at 1:30, so I planned to arrive nearly an hour before that to do some much needed grocery shopping first. I knew stores would close early for Thanksgiving. They might even be crowded because of last minute turkey dinner shopping, and I would be perfectly all right with that.

With the prayer for patience and non-attachment out of the way, I continued driving, and at a red light, I idled at an intersection where a homeless man stood on the corner right next to me, with his sign in his hands. I had no cash on me to offer him, but I instantly went into prayer mode again to ask that he be able to find warmth today, and some food on this beautiful but nippy Thanksgiving. And I swear, a second after my amen, a man in the car behind me at this red light hastened quickly out of his car with a gift bag of food and handed it to the homeless gentleman. It was so ready-made that I realized he had a carload of gift baskets that were prepared to be passed out as he encountered the homeless community today. The timing of that witness against my prayer was so insane, like something out of a movie, as I watched this all unfold, that I started to cry as the light turned green.

This kindhearted man had made his plan to feed some homeless folk long before my prayer, so it could hardly take credit for the magic we usually associate with prayer (believers and skeptics alike). But the timing was such a level of perfection that what it really served was the attuning of my own consciousness. Because as I kept on driving, so moved by this witness that I was in tears, I thought about how little I have been of service to others in my life, and what a marvelous and kind idea to do on a holiday like Thanksgiving, and I was suddenly deciding, right then and there, that I would do this next year. I also did something quite out of my usual character, which ordinarily would be to self-berate for not thinking of this myself. Instead, I got excited by the prospect of being given a great idea for next Thanksgiving, or any other day of the year, as the homelessness in this city is fairly profound. It was a good moment for me.

Okay, one prayer instantly, remarkably answered. The other, already s-l-o-w-l-y beginning to unfold, and I didn’t even know it yet.

As I finally entered the parking lot that houses the Trader Joe’s and the AMC complex, I could see that Trader Joe’s was closed. My impulse was to get angry, as I’d driven a good ways for this plan, but I remembered my prayer and took a breath. Several. I saw cars in the adjacent parking lot, and my curiosity took me around the bend to see what they might be connected to, since it obviously wasn’t for Trader Joe’s.

So now, a few things proceeded to unfold that made me realize my prayer was being answered in even more nuanced ways than I was intending. I had arrived a little after 12:30 and the movie would start at 1:30. That was going to give me roughly 45-50 minutes to do my grocery shopping. I have been to this Trader Joe’s many times, but had never been to this AMC, and I had a picture in my head of where its entrance might’ve been. In this instant of looking to find out why cars were in the parking lot of a closed Trader Joe’s, I learned that the entrance to the AMC was directly behind the Trader Joe’s, and not at all what I had pictured by the way the buildings congregate against each other. I knew at that discovery that I’d just been saved several frustrated minutes circling this rather large shopping center, which has lots of other stores too, trying to find the damned entrance. Only because Trader Joe’s was closed, and cars were curiously parked there, did I find the entrance immediately, out of my nosiness plain and simple.  

I decided I should probably go on in and buy my ticket now, even though the showing was still 45 minutes away. And when I walked up to the window, I saw that the online information had been wrong and the movie was actually starting in 15 minutes, at 1:00. Had I not been attempting to do some grocery shopping first and instead simply driven out here just to see the movie, I’d’ve been half an hour late.

Trader Joe’s was never meant to be open. I had made assumptions because most grocery stores are open on Thanksgiving, even if they close earlier than usual. But I was meant to think it was, so that I could get to this movie on time. The way my prayer was answered was not to simply make me okay with being unable to grocery shop, but also by giving me the gift of my misunderstanding, so that it could benefit another part of my plan.

Was this the magic of prayer? I’m more inclined to believe it’s simply what CAN happen when we let go and stop holding on so tight to a conclusion. The truth is, every bit of it could’ve shit the bed for me that day, and I was actually asking in my prayer to be prepared for all of that. To not curse loudly in my car because I couldn’t get my groceries or see a movie. Perhaps, because I bothered to ask, to have my consciousness attuned to a certain behavior and reaction to life, I was given hidden gifts; little grace notes. Maybe. I’m not necessarily convinced, because I have a hard enough time believing in magic. But I AM inclined to believe we are rewarded, however subtly or small, when we at least attempt to be better than we usually are.

Likewise, when the movie was over, and it was now so late in the afternoon that I knew I wouldn’t find any grocery stores open, I thought to myself, “well now, I HAVE to find a restaurant open somewhere, because I’ve got very little food at home.” I proceeded to drive back into town and passed several restaurants I’m fond of, to see if any could accommodate an easy party of one, as families often choose to take their Thanksgivings outside of the home. And yet this city, I came to learn, is a virtual ghost town on Thanksgiving, and there was absolutely nothing open anywhere. So now I had no groceries AND I had no restaurant to give me my Thanksgiving dinner experience (thank God, I’d at least gotten some popcorn at the movies).

See, I actually really love the ritual of going to a favorite restaurant alone, and enjoying a meal while having my head buried in a great book, and being waited on. I don’t feel remotely lonely on such holidays if I happen to be spending them alone. But I’ll be honest; I was beginning to feel a little let down. A little lonely. A little abandoned by society because it dared to shut down so that its laborers could enjoy Thanksgiving too. Let down is okay. Disappointed is okay. It’s the full-on, pissed off, yelling-at-no-one as I drive my car around town looking futilely for something to be open, and the punching of my steering wheel, like a petulant child, that I was asking to be delivered from.

And I truly was. I breathed deeply, stayed in a calm mood, even feeling cheery as I listened to a Christmas carol playlist, and resolved to just go home and make whatever was in my fridge for my Thanksgiving dinner, even if it was only a bowl of cereal. I certainly knew it wouldn’t be special. But it turned out all right. More than all right actually. I found a frozen piece of salmon in the freezer, and some broccoli that I roasted, and I did a hot pot of brown rice. Perfectly respectable and enjoyable, if not especially fancy and fun and benefiting a Thanksgiving.

Even more importantly, I was surprisingly swept with gratitude. This day pointed out to me, in some none-too-subtle ways, that I was a person who had a roof over my head, food in my fridge, warmth on my arms, and a program of recovery that, on this Thanksgiving Day, truly helped to deliver me to an appropriate, mature response and sense of serenity to the fact that my day only just barely resembled the one I had planned. I was able——privileged, in fact——to bear witness to a tiny spurt of emotional and spiritual growth; a gift that gave me so much more than my perfectly planned day, had it been perfectly realized.

I’m not terribly inclined to give much credence to magic, which is how I sometimes see prayer. But Thanksgiving 2021 was a grand show for me of the power that can be experienced. Then again, the poet Eden Phillpotts may have been onto something when he wrote: “The universe is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference

Grace Note from the Santa Fe Mexican Grill

Facebook just reminded me of this date from 3 years ago today. We had just finished our extravaganza tree lighting show at a high-end destination mall in Seattle, where I MC’d the show as Mrs. Santa. Ask anyone who knows me; I’m a sucker for a costume gig. My boss, event creator Karla Ross, with whom I was sharing an AirBnB house, had gotten on a plane for home early the next morning, but I was scheduled for much later in the day.  I’d never been to Seattle before, and had very much looked forward to meeting the city that had, for years, been romanticized for me by my favorite TV show at the time, Grey’s Anatomy. The truth is, I knew nothing about Seattle. And, honestly, it looked nothing like I’d seen on TV.

I had flown into Sea-Tac the morning after Karla, and had taken a city bus from the airport to the job site, where I’d met up with her to go over preliminary details for the show the following day (I was not only a performer in the show; I was also her assistant). And on the bus to the job site, something turned my head to the right and landed my gaze on that magnificent behemoth of God’s creation, Mount Rainier, in the very far distance but towering over the entire city like a grown man looming over his miniature train-set town. I’d heard you can’t always see it, that depending on the level of cloud cover, even as monstrously sized as it is, it can be invisible to the eye. So, this moment was a moment. It stole my glance for so many seconds (minutes?) that my eyes actually began to sting, until I blinked rapidly to get the juices flowing again. THE most special bus ride ever.

Fun show, great success, fast forward to the morning after our big show, with Mrs. Claus’ wig packed away for the season, and I was alone in the AirBnB room, with a day ahead of me that had nothing to do with the job we’d come there for. I was being picked up by Kerry, who had moved up there from L.A. in her new state-of-the-art RV and had never looked back. I hadn’t seen her since she’d taken off for these climes a few years before. I told her to meet me at this Mexican Restaurant a block down the hill and around the corner from the AirBnB. I had to check out a good hour before she could come get me, so I figured I’d get some breakfast while waiting. I was in a fairly unattractive part of town that dashed all my fantasies about Seattle. It was the suburb of Renton, literally walking distance of the mall where the show had happened. I’d heard Renton was beautiful, but this part of town looked like one giant truck stop; the restaurant shared its parking lot with a gas station, a mini-mart, and a coffee kiosk.  It was also first thing in the morning, so as I hiked down the hill, bundled in the fleece coat I’d bought just for the trip and my duffel bag over my shoulder, with a light quilt of morning dew on my shaven head, I wondered if the restaurant would even be open.

I hadn’t experienced an ounce of rain in the two days I’d been in the city known for its rain, and I felt lucky, as rain depresses me. Yes, I know rain is good for the earth, blah, blah, blah. I recognize and appreciate any we can get, and still I say a quiet thank you whenever the sun is out and my head is dry, because the depression is real, and I’ve felt a little lost lately, and the rain never helps. I hiked down the hill and walked into the restaurant—yes, open!—a small place barely peopled at this hour, and was instantly lifted by the Christmas playlist on the speakers. Not ranchero or mariachi music bouncing the room with its infectious buoyancy, the staple of all American-soil Mexican restaurants, but Perry Como, and Nat King Cole, and lush string sections, and jingle bells peppering every song. 

I could not resist spinning the rainless-yet-serenely-overcast morning and the Bing Crosby into the crystal prism of serendipity I always believe is my little grace note from God. In the same way that rain takes me down, Christmas music, the schmaltzier the better, floods my brain with serotonin.

It was a quiet morning. Also a plus. Multi-colored string lights draped every window and threshold, the music was medicine, and I had huevos rancheros and a Mexican coffee, and I sat with a good book (essential to the grace note), while I waited for Kerry. We would shortly be on our way, just a few miles down the road, to visit the grave of Jimi Hendrix. I have a thing for cemeteries, and for visiting the burial sites of folks in history. I’ve hit a few in my life: MLK in Atlanta. Arlington Cemetery and the eternal flame of JFK. Richard and Pat Nixon at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California. The tragic victims of the Challenger explosion in Houston. Many, many movie stars at both Hollywood Forever Cemetery and Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. And the mother lode of famous cemeteries, Père Lachaise in Paris, where I’ve placed my hand on the graves of Chopin, Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright, Modigliani, Jim Morrison, Gertrude Stein, Isadora Duncan, Maria Callas, Rossini, Moliere. And finally, I would get to see the grave of one of my musical, cultural, and spiritual idols. We would end up not only standing where Jimi lay, and ogling all the lipsticked kisses covering his black marble headstone, we would traverse the entire grounds, get grounded, enjoy each other’s company, and be reflective about mortality. But until then, in this instant, at a truck stop in Renton, I was in a state of peace I didn’t want to let go of any time soon.

The following year we did the same job, stayed in the same AirBnB house, and I tried my damnedest to recreate that moment. I wouldn’t be seeing Kerry on that trip. My only window of opportunity for Santa Fe Mexican Grill was my first night there, the night before the big show. Karla was the one who had made plans with a friend this time, so I strolled down the hill again, and ordered an enchilada plate and a margarita. Though it was the same time of year, there were no Christmas lights up, and even sadder, no Christmas music playing overhead. I ended up feeling horrible after my meal and nearly crawled back to my room and into bed, where I ended up being actually quite flu-y for the remainder of the trip. Only a couple of months later would we all be shockingly introduced to the novel coronavirus and rumblings that Seattle had gotten hit before a lot of other cities, and so I would wonder looking back.

I was doing the thing I always do; having had such a perfect moment the year before, I had to orchestrate everything I possibly could to recreate it. To cling to it. To hold on tight, as if there will never be such a moment again, therefore I need to pin it like a wrestler and force it to re-conjure. It never fails to disappoint, of COURSE, and honestly I believe that’s its brilliant design. The signal to stay present, to cherish a moment IN the moment. And then… to be able to let it go (Buddhist teachings I’ve had in my arsenal for years, yet I seem to still, stubbornly, require the lesson), to allow that moment from last year, last week, five minutes ago, to plant itself in me and bloom beautifully. Then let the petals fall, allowing the space to make way for new. Because there is always new. THAT we can count on.

And for that tiny bit of grace, I am eternally thankful.

in honor of the lower-case turning points

For me, there has always been this sense of The Big Break, or some kind of definitive Arrival that I’ve been chasing forever. What I know today to be true, but I swear I keep wanting to resist it, is that life is a series of beautiful unfoldments. A seed is planted, it flowers, it dies, it goes back to seed. It repeats. We unfold, we bloom, in consciousness, we make mistakes, sometimes grave ones, perhaps we even feel they are unforgivable. We learn from them if we’re willing and whole-hearted, which begins the process of an old consciousness dying and a rebirth occurring. And if we’re not whole-hearted and willing, we suffer.  

And even that has its value, as every person, every circumstance, every mistake, every painbody operates as a teacher, and we are shifted by them, whether we’re conscious of it or not, and that’s just the way life works. Often, we can only recognize the shifts in hindsight. Whatever works. 

It’s a beautiful, wild, messy, dark, light, challenging, effortless, one-step-forward-two-steps-back, clumsy ride. And I would do well to remember that when I’m feeling most frustrated that the Giant Turning Point never seems to materialize. Because, in its place are, and have been all along, hundreds of thousands of daily, tiny, precious turning points that, one by one, shape us into who we most authentically are. On the occasions that I have been blessed to recognize them (as I’m sure I miss lots)——those sparkling gems, those shimmering serendipities——it is in those moments that I smile so wide I can’t contain myself.   

And when I don’t recognize them, because I am being tone-deaf, or distracted, or governed by my pain, I am at least learning, quite messily, to trust that the serendipities are happening anyway, running my engine for me when I’m too broken to.  

Perhaps that’s God. Higher Power. Source. A million names and a million definitions for a force that is, frankly, beyond language and beyond linear thought. Just stay open. I have to remind myself this, honor this, and practice this, every single day. When I do, I am happiest. When I’m in my struggles, I know why.

Photo by Noah Blaine Clark

And In This Corner

All these wisdoms that have shouted at me for an eternity.

There’s the parable of the genius writer whose book has sold more than any other in the history of books, has made her rich, legendary. And on her deathbed she’s still trying to work out a better ending to her masterpiece. Alive till we die.

That particular one is filled with an alluring fertility (and ripe for a hashtag), one that exhausts me even as it draws me to it. I mean, do I really have to work that hard in this life?

Then there’s the one, Eastern in origin, about needing less, and the wisdom in non-attachment, which proposes that right where we are, without all those constant yearnings and itches and creepy-crawlers in our veins, IS right where we are supposed to be, and that every situation, every person, every direction of the wind is exactly The What, The Who, The Where, and The When of our life, as it is meant to be.

The silence and calm of that particular one draws me to it like a craving I cannot quench. No room for a person obsessively refining her masterpiece in that wisdom. That one implies an eternal hunger. This one implies an eternal peace.

I would pay good money to see both wisdoms duke it out in the ring, frankly, because my arms have been pulled out of their sockets by each one vying for my club membership, as I try my damnedest to live by both creeds, try to find a snug beanbag on which to plop these bones, and want for absolutely nothing. Least of all, a quiet center. Least of all, a soul on fire.

Sing This World (a call to artists in this 2020 reflection)

“How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?” — William Shakespeare

So, here we are at the end of a year every person on the planet is likely thankful is passing into the ether, and anxious to be able to release a mammoth exhale. I was recently prompted to contribute a thought to the question: “How do creatives continue to create during times as roiling as these? And is it even important that they do?” As this year comes to its end, I am reminded that the things that happen to us may very well have much larger, perhaps unseen, spiritual designs for us. And we would do well to try and truly pay attention. 

I have been one of the lucky ones. When we first went into global lockdown in mid-March, I lost every gig I had on the books. So did every musician I know. I lost them all in one day. The Sunday at midnight that California went into quarantine, my closest sister-friend Irma and I were driving back to L.A. from Sacramento, from visiting friends, and literally the whole trip up there I fielded call, after call, after call, from all the contractors who had me booked on gigs, with the news of cancellation. Then I got the call from both churches where I directed their choirs that we were going into a temporary hiatus from weekly rehearsals (which turned out to be not so temporary). 

It’s weird; I am a panic-natured individual. Yet some kind of creepy calm hit me, as I turned to Irma, who was doing the driving, and said, “I’ve just lost all my work.” And these jobs, mind you, were going to see me through the giant move I was planning to make in just a few months from then. Under any other circumstance, I would’ve had a full-on anxiety attack, and been incapable of enjoying the 3-day visit to our dear friends David and Keith up in Sac. Instead, for reasons I’ll never understand, but for which I am eternally grateful, I had a blast with our foursome, in spite of my world hinting at falling apart. It was a great weekend. We ate at public restaurants, with no clues at that point that we were mere hours away from everything in the world shutting down. We laughed and reminisced (I even had a terrible chest cold, which, in hindsight, I’ve wondered about, yet still I had the most rewarding time), and then Irma and I found ourselves racing Interstate 5 to get ourselves back to Los Angeles by the time of quarantine, as it was unfolding before our very ears on the car radio news.  

From that moment on, I have felt oddly trusting that I would get through this. Of course, at the time, I think we all believed this quarantine — and the lines at the grocery markets, and the manic-hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and having to wear masks everywhere — would MAYBE last a couple of months tops. I don’t believe any of us had any clue we’d be approaching the end of this unbelievable year and still be not only in this pandemic but worse off than just a couple of months ago. We were improving, and then we were declining again. Death tolls became astonishing. The White House became a stupefying conduit of destruction on many levels and toward many issues. But as for my individual and personal life, I felt I would be okay. And I have been.

I made my move, from Los Angeles to Kansas City, in early June, in spite of being in the midst of this pandemic (it was a plan made long before we had any notion this was coming). It was a challenge finding my footing in my new town, with most businesses closed till further notice. I’d come here to infiltrate the live music scene that Kansas City is known for, but there’s been no live music scene to speak of since this virus arrived. And so, I got internal and was forced to slow down in a way I didn’t even realize I WASN’T doing in L.A. What I now know, looking back, is that I was constantly racing the world, and in perpetual fight or flight mode. To be honest, I believe my lesson in slowing down began even before we were in a full-scale pandemic. At the very start of 2020, I spent ten glorious days in Kona, with my dear friend Kelly, who’d given me the trip for my milestone birthday. And I have never felt such peace and serenity, nor appreciated nature more, nor breathed, and read books, and walked groves, and ate fresh food directly from trees, and bonded with a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years…with more presence. It was a shift I felt profoundly, and wanted badly to take back home to continue my life with. This idea that, just maybe, we aren’t here in this life to be in constant motion and achievement 24/7, but, just maybe, we’re here to experience a moment. Breathe slowly. And be moved.

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Kelly for such an unexpected gift. And I cannot help but assert that this gift prepared me for what was coming. I got my muscle strengthened to slow down, and to be in flow more than in resistance. And by the way, I’m far from full flow. But the shift and the consciousness about it IS happening, sometimes one-step-forward-two-steps-back. And for every bit of the messiness of it, I am eternally grateful.

I’ve still never gotten the virus. When so many have not been so lucky, I remain in daily gratitude about that, and find myself being of service in ways I never have before — as a naturally self-centered person — because my blessed fortune continues to stun me. 

The very best news on the personal front to happen during this difficult year is that my dear young friend and surrogate son, Hans, to whom I’d given a kidney twelve years ago, and who went into kidney distress again just short of our 10-year anniversary, finally got his second, life-saving kidney this past August. I’m sure he will look back on 2020 in a very different way from most of the rest of the world. 

And that is the beauty AND the ugly of this year. It isn’t simple. It isn’t single-layered. It has been rich with stunning complexity, breathtaking ire, prompts to reexamine our lives, and tectonic plate shifts of unimaginable spiritual magnitude (if we’re keen enough to be willing to listen and receive). 

If 2020 has felt a bit like the ten biblical plagues, what with Covid-19, a global pandemic, police brutality, vigilantism, economic devastation, and race wars, that’s because it kind of has been. Yet what history has taught us — when it isn’t trying to be co-opted and rewritten by a ruling class afraid of losing its knee-hold on the neck of America — is that a cleansing on the deeply spiritual, paradigmatic level is absolutely upon us. And insists upon our ears.

Let’s start with this War of the Mask-Wearers. Curiouser and curiouser every day, this pandemic and the crucial CDC guidelines has sent the privileged into full-fledged apoplexy and rebellion over their rights. It’s an interesting twist of the Karmic screw. What rights exactly are they fighting and risking your life and mine and their own for? A fair and equitable society? The vote? No, nothing quite so lofty. They’ve been fighting for their right to get a manicure and a haircut. To be exempt from cooperating with a civil society that has been attempting to work together to eradicate this virus. To walk their dog in Central Park without a leash, lest confronted, to chillingly weaponize their knowledge of Law Enforcement’s historical treatment of Black people and of their own privilege, against an innocent man.  

As a result of this stunning turn of hubris, while other countries were beginning to re-open and heal, America’s numbers only continued skyrocketing. We are now the pariah of the world, banned from European countries in a move so breathtaking in its Karmic comeuppance that Mexico would be laughing its ass off if it weren’t in such a state of collective heartbreak.

While the rest of the world was slowly beginning to rebuild, this virus — un-reined, unhinged — continued annihilating an American population. So, you know, just to give the pandemic a good run for its money, in a race for the title of King Destroyer, let’s excavate all the dusty old bones of racial discord and inequity, individual and systemic, and start exterminating BIPOC and queer & non-binary people, while we’re at it.

Was lockdown, unprecedented in my lifetime, the final straw that exploded an already simmering pot of entitlement? Or did staying home with nothing to do except face one’s own self reveal a few too many unsettling tendencies, and perhaps the revelation that this virus knows no race, no color, no economic status, no class, no gender, no party lines, and how dare it!? Did the need for foot-stomping, and pouting, and trying to scream at the rest of us, just in case we forgot, that someone still deserves preferential treatment, mean it was time for a slaughter?

This attempted Black genocide has been going on for a long time. This is not new. The only difference between then and now is visibility and witness. Anyone with a cellphone can now change the course of history and bring about a global awareness of what people of color have known, from the front row, for a very long time. And so, perhaps pandemics and quarantines and lockdowns and job loss have made us angrier too. And by “us,” I mean any who are invested in an evolved humanity.

Perhaps it’s no flaw in the cosmic design that two of our greatest Civil Rights leaders and Americans, Rep. John R. Lewis and C.T. Vivian, took their leave of this world on the same day, in the midst of this mess. Both men spent time in the 1960’s, along with other Freedom Riders, in the gruesome Parchman Farm State Prison, where the agreement between the federal government and the governors of Alabama and Mississippi was that these governors would agree to protect the protestors from violence in exchange for allowing them to be arrested and put in jail. You can imagine the treatment they got behind bars with handed-down edicts such as, “break their spirits, not their bones.” Lewis, in particular, was the target of violence a stunning number of times, once being left for dead at a Greyhound station, after being attacked with lead pipes, chains, and baseball bats. At times the attacks were perpetrated by members of the Klan; at other times it was law enforcement. Yet these men never lost their dignity. They lost neither their humanity nor the Prize. They got themselves in “good trouble,” as John Lewis was known for saying. And perhaps their leaving this world during these present roiling times was a way of saying to us: Yours is not the first of such trials, but never lose hope. Change does come.  

So, the match has been lit. Lit for protest and action, which we have now seen all over this globe in 2020 in a way we’ve never seen before. AND lit for illumination, which also, like this virus, knows no race, color, economic status, class, or gender. There is a quantum field, and we are encouraged to join a shift in consciousness. The play didn’t stop just because an entire world went on pause. It has been running all throughout this pandemic, a design prompted by the monumental crack in our earth that this human population has wrought. The crack of hatred and solipsism, of the evisceration of clean air and water regulations, of holding people (children!) in cages, of utter disregard for our Star and its starlings. We are a planet in trauma. People are dying without their loved ones at their side. If nothing else, this novel coronavirus has forced us all to wake up to the truth that there is no separation. There is only one spiritual body operating as community, operating as the guiding force we’ve been given the charge for on this planet.

So, what do we do with that?

Health care professionals and frontline workers are saving lives even as they are risking their own. Scientists have worked furiously for antidote and answer. Spiritual leaders, philosophers, and thinkers have pointed the way toward the shift with a cogent map. Activists and grassroots organizations literally jolted a society out of its coma and made known the critical mass of systemic racism and bigotry still embedded in our institutions, and they spurred the population on to join the protests, sign petitions, call congresspersons, and VOTE!   

And artists?  

Again, the question that got prompted: How do artists create and contribute through the pain of this global implosion? Because here we are, finally leaving this most challenging of years, and these problems and conditions, while slowly beginning to shift with some hope, are most definitely going into this New Year with us. Midnight tonight marks no magical snapping of the finger and it’s suddenly all vanished. There is a collective trauma the entire world has been enduring for nearly a year. For some, it has been very large and very strutting. For others, it’s been subtler. But still a part of us.

I, myself, as a writer, artist, and musician, have found it challenging in this age of pandemic not to sink into paralysis from picking up pen, brush, or instrument. There are some days when I feel my vocation in this life has been about frivolity and recreation and not much else. What does anyone need with a clever rhyming couplet or an abstract plop on canvas when the world is on fire? Aren’t these just trifles? It may even feel appropriate to be eaten up inside from the saturation of Black murders on round-the-clock news, and Covid curves that keep soaring, and an administration hell-bent on leaving the earth destroyed as it tantrums out of here this January. Yet withering inside from despair is really NOT the nobility we should carry to be able to claim compassion and involvement.

Let me, however, never intimate that there is simply a call you MUST answer, no matter the state of your own trauma. Sometimes we simply can’t. That is perfectly okay. Someone once said to me that creating art is one of the most loving things you can do. That one stopped me in my tracks. Because what I have believed, ever since taking that one in, is that if you can’t create art in these tough times, in any particularly tough time, just take a deep breath instead, and ask yourself, “what is the most loving thing I CAN do today?” And start right where you are. Maybe it’s walking your dog, bringing food to a neighbor, picking up the phone to say hello to someone who needs a hello. These simple but meaningful offerings are where we can begin when we are feeling the paralysis of trauma. And slowly but surely, we do begin to open. Our hearts, our minds, our veins… in order to pour out the art that is within us.  

And yes, to counter my own moments of self-doubt expressed above, there absolutely IS a place for frivolity.  The place where decompression is allowed to happen and laughter is the medicine. No expression is to be discounted, in times of trauma, from doing the work to heal.

Hear me now, artists of every stripe! YOU are culture’s crucial conduit to making sense of the roiling abstract. In times of trauma, when man can get down to his dankest base very quickly, you are the great balancers. You are tasked with entertainment and decompression, but you are also tasked with enlightenment and illumination. You reflect the culture in front of you — its devastations and its victories. You solder together the disconnects between Us and Them, Black and White, Red and Blue, Privileged and Disenfranchised. You are the open door to conversation. The key to the passage.  

Collapse has been happening left and right: People dying from this virus. People dying from police brutality and White supremacy. Resources taxed. Job loss decimating the economy. Systemic racism being denied and rejected, even as we’re seeing it in action with the disproportionate number of people of color perishing from the virus. Yet, as artists, you are always being turned inward toward the expansive, limitless sanctum of your imaginations, to what is possible. The process of creating an expression, AND the process of experiencing an artistic expression, both, bring new understandings about yourselves and the world around you. You, artists, are the re-aligners. The Great Connectors. 

Shakespeare asks the question in his 65th Sonnet of how in the midst of all this mess can beauty possibly hold a plea. His poetry then goes on to illumine that time decays everything BUT beauty. And here’s why. Beauty is not prettiness. Beauty is beyond any physicality of a thing. Beauty is anathema to trauma. It is truth. And trauma is the body’s response to any aberration of truth. And so, for artists it’s really a very simple cause-and-effect — we bring truth, we bring healing. 

And who qualifies as an artist? She who calls herself so. And then steps forward.

So, let us sing this world into peace. Let us write this world into peace. Let us dance this world into peace. Paint this world into peace. Sculpt this world into peace. Photograph this world into peace. Film this world into peace. Rap this world into peace. Act this world into peace. Conduct this world into peace. Compose and orchestrate this world into peace. Strum and drum this world into peace. Harmonize this world into peace. Narrate this world into peace. Orate this world into peace. Make this world laugh into peace. Jazz this world into peace. Blues this world into peace. Chant this world into peace. IMAGINE this world into peace.

Artists imagine what can be. OR what should never be again. And then make manifest the imagining. We are the howlers and sentinels of a culture. The watchmen. The gatekeepers. We are a whole ‘nother kind of essential worker.   

Agitators and integrators, we.  So, sing.  And KEEP ON singing this world into peace.

And watch shift happen.

The Richest Girl in the World

Happy Holidays, Season’s Greetings, and Merry Everything! Here we are on Christmas Morning 2020, and I just finished pressing the button on the Christmas launch of my newest creative offering, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD! I know that so many of us are more than ready to leave this strangest of years behind us, and have hope for a better, cleansed, redeemed, renewed world. I know I do. For myself, and my part, I decided to usher in the new year with a children’s book I wrote, because I believe it holds within it lessons that ring in this time of upheaval.

It’s a book that does not exist in print, but instead has taken on the medium of a videobook. Inspired, in part, by the children’s classic, Peter and the Wolf, I simply couldn’t envision this story without it being told aloud, in the beloved tradition of the bedtime stories from our own childhoods. It was first conceived and written nearly 40 years ago, and over the decades has finally become what it was meant to be. Featuring over a hundred colorful illustrations, I had a blast narrating this tale on the indwelling nature of friendship.

When a sage old man shows up in an enchanting village, he changes the life of a little girl forever, who changes his right back. Underscored with a whimsical music score by composer Chris Hardin, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD sets the stage for a timeless and quintessentially fable-istic tale. Lessons of empathy, gratitude, and seeing beauty everywhere are taught by the story’s two characters. In this new age where turning inward, self-examining, and soul-tending are no longer fringe flower-child ideas, but are in our everyday lexicon, and Namaste is a word everyone now knows, THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD is right on time to offer Kid Lit for a risen consciousness. 

And it has arrived to YouTube on Christmas Day, JUST FOR YOU, because why not usher in 2021 with messages of love and peace?

For kids ages 8 to 108!

And if you’re interested in hearing more about this 40-years’-long creative process, read on!

A 40-Year Journey (Just in Time for a Year in Need of Healing)

I wrote this children’s book nearly 40 years ago. My first, my only. It’s been tweaked and polished here and there over the years, and each time has been put back in the drawer (or on the computer, as the years went by). It’s even gone through a few titles. Then maybe 25 years ago I started, in earnest, looking for an artist to do the illustrations. An artist friend of mine, the astonishing René Norman, who would have made magic with her own hands doing this, gave me some beautiful direction, and encouraged me that I could do this myself, even though I have never been that kind of artist. But with her encouragement I spent the next few years drawing then painting each canvas. It was painstaking (and sometimes painful) and time-consuming, but I got it done. And yet, even the canvases just got stored away, never to be used, as I moved on to other creative projects that seemed more pressing.

So, more years passed, and the world of independent publishing came into vogue, and because I was always intimidated by the children’s book world and therefore never dared try to get a publishing deal for it, the idea of putting it out myself appealed to me. STILL, I now have seven books in print, and this children’s book is not one of them. Maybe it’s children themselves I’ve been intimidated by. In any case, who knows why the story felt safer at home with me, but it did.

Then just a couple of years ago, after making a handful of little mini-documentaries and some other fun, arty videos, and beginning to get a handle on video editing, I thought, instead of a book, it could make a very cool multi-media, spoken word thing. Think “Peter and the Wolf.” I sure did! It was my absolute favorite storytelling experience as a child. So I started looking at my story again and lining it up with the artwork, which had been collecting dust, and realized I actually still needed several more illustrations, which I hadn’t thought about, as I had added to the story over the years. By this time, I’d started doing digital graphic design, so I was able to add to the collection without needing any supplies except my software. So now the artwork is a hybrid of digital and organic, and I think this has made it even more interesting.

Then last year, with the help of my dear friend Craig Pilo, and his state-of-the-art recording studio, I set about the task of recording the narration. We had so much creative fun making this narration work with one narrator (me) yet several voices needed. Truly gifted, Craig is. We still needed one more session to get it polished, and then Covid hit. I mean, it might as well have been the next thing to stop this project in its tracks, since I guess I was determined to spend my entire life making this thing a reality. The good news is, in the span of 40 years, I think it’s a story that still holds up. But yes, I had to go with the narration as it was, which was already pretty cool.

I then set about creating the moviette, tweaking, and tweaking, and tweaking, like the obsessive/compulsive animal I am, over these past few months, until all the puzzle pieces were assembled into some sort of coherent narrative.

The final touch, of course, was the music. Of course I wanted this story underscored. There is nothing that is a better emotional conduit than music. Dare I try to compose said music myself? I’m certainly no Prokofiev! And I’m always wary of “one-man-band” productions, anyway, yet here I was thinking about trying to do that very thing. Enter composer, pianist, and dear friend Chris Hardin, as there are most definitely better people for this task than I. I didn’t commission him to write a score for this; I asked him if he had any existing recordings of original music that he wouldn’t mind allowing me to use. He pointed me to his album “Reflections,” which had only come out a couple of years before, and said, “have at it, girlfriend!” Well….I don’t truly know how best to impress upon you just how made-for-each-other these beautiful piano pieces and my little story were. It took several weeks to painstakingly cull through every piece (12 tracks in total) to find just the right chunk, from just the right piece, for just the right scene, to emotionally enhance a moment. But when all was said and done, you would think this music was composed specifically for my moviette. Chris Hardin, as a talent, and as a friend, is a revelation.

And that was the final piece of the puzzle. So, you may be thinking, what on earth finally made me leap to the finish line, after 40 years vacillating? Cosmically, my own tendency is to look at this problematic and enigmatic year as the year I was always intended to share this message. Who knows if it all really works that way. What I do know for sure is that if living in a pandemic, with the burden of a stunning global death toll by this horrific virus, an alarming reemergence of racial strife in this country, and a collective global trauma that the whole world is experiencing has taught me anything, it’s … don’t wait. Make it happen. Whatever IT is. Don’t second-guess if it’s good enough. Put it out there. It is valuable. I recently stumbled upon a Facebook post by someone I don’t personally know, and I wish I could remember whom to credit for this, but I only (and do I ever!) remember the sentiment: By envisioning the things we create as love letters, vow to keep creating, praying, and affirming those love letters into the world, knowing that in the energetic world, out beyond conventional ideas of time and space, fame or money, they are received and enjoyed, and they fulfill their mission.

So, that’s what I’ve done.

CREATING THE CHARACTERS

There are only two characters in this story (though there are lots of “extras” helping to create the very special paradise this takes place in). These two characters have lived with me a good 40 years now. And honestly, they’ve just gotten better with age. As with folktales and fables, I wanted to give them more of an archetypal existence, thus they are known simply as the Young Girl and the Old Man, instead of having contemporary Christian names.

The Young Girl actually began as a young boy, and was that way for years until I realized two things: I didn’t want this to be an all-male story, where a little girl couldn’t readily identify with any character. And also, I realized she was me. A child who marched to her own drummer, and didn’t fit in most social circles. These are often the struggles of childhood, with our attempts to assert a voice and an identity in our very own way. I was such a tomboy as a kid, and that seemed a natural for this character, so since she originated as a boy, there wasn’t a whole lot, visually, that needed to be changed. The more I could infuse the character with dynamics from my own often awkward, yet crazy curious, childhood, the more real she became.

Likewise, the Old Man is quintessentially fable-istic. The wise old seer, the elder, the one who has wisdom to impart, and an almost monastic centeredness that always draws others near. And like all lore, twists on that theme do happen, as the teacher also becomes the student. The Old Man was an instant and easy inspiration. He is an amalgam of my two fathers, at once artistic and creative, living with flights of fancy, as was my bio-dad, and grounded in sagacity and homey charm, which was quintessentially my stepdad. He is my grandfathers. He is the many teachers, mentors, ancestors, both male and female, whom I’ve learned from throughout my very blessed life. And his look and dress was very specifically inspired by an elderly bohemian I once met named Rozzell (introduced to me by the very artist friend, René Norman, of whom I spoke earlier). Rozzell had made an indelible imprint on me. And he seemed never to be without his red kerchief around his neck.

With these two characters, I have represented old/young, male/female (even the gender fluidity that is beautifully becoming a part of our present-day consciousness), and a world of color, both in the visual-hued sense of the word AND regarding ethnic and racial diversity. And none of this is anything that will likely dawn on a child watching this moviette, but is simply the very rich world we do live in. So, it was important to me that I create a story where inclusion was simply a given and a power.

Beyond that, these two characters have helped me to create a world where endless are the possibilities, and where the virtues of gratitude, compassion, and being present are paramount to existence. It’s an idyllic world, and at the same time there is a worldliness and a timelessness to it.

I think young children will be drawn to these two characters. They’re playful, but at the same time they’re thoughtful. They teach lessons about empathy, and seeing beauty everywhere. And here’s the rub; I think adults will be drawn in by these two as well. As, here we are, in an age—one might call it a New Age—where turning inward, self-examining, and soul-tending are no longer fringe, flower child ideas, but are in everyone’s everyday lexicon. “Namaste” is a word that now lives beyond the ashram and the yoga studio. And here stands a story, delivered by these two characters, that is all about risen consciousness, and perhaps a shifting of our ideas about what’s important in life…..told in a simple tale of friendship.

I have loved these two characters for a long time. And now they’re ready to tell this little tale for me. THE RICHEST GIRL IN THE WORLD. For kids ages 8 to 108, I like to say. Now available to watch absolutely free on YouTube. Because … let’s just spread love.