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 a 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 how it was such a great idea that I decided, right then and there, 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 is fairly profound in this city. It was a good moment for me.

Okay, one prayer instantly answered. The other already s l o w l y beginning to unfold.

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. 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 had been 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. Well, 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 nosiness plain and simple.  

I decided I should probably go on in and buy my ticket now, even though there was still 45 minutes till the movie. 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 a half an hour late.

Trader Joe’s was never meant to be open. I just 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 JUST make me okay with being unable to grocery shop, but also giving me the gift that the misunderstanding actually benefited 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.” So, I drove 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 town, 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, and resolved to just go home and make whatever was in my fridge for my Thanksgiving dinner, even if it was to be 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 filled 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, some 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 to bear witness to a 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.”

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 heard you can’t always see it; that depending on the level of cloud cover, as monstrously sized as it is, it may 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. 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.

Embracing My Inner Outsider

Awkward&Alone copy

 

I’ve spent the last 30 years as part of an industry that I have never loved.  And, frankly, it has never loved me, though I take pause even with that assertion.  Does it really love anyone?  Or is it merely more tolerable and pliant and giving (and forgiving) to the ones who have the gift for manipulating it?  I don’t.  Have the gift, that is.  I never did.

Now, let me preface everything that follows with the pronouncement that I have had a fortunate career (writer and musician are my vocations).  It’s never been large.  Never global.   But the shelves are always stocked.  There’s always content.  And I am blessed.

Here, however, is the crux of my quagmire.  I have always resisted working the system.  And I’ve had people in my life literally shake my shoulders with, “what’s wrong with you!”   Especially when they know me well, and know that as equal as is my great skill of ignoring the system, is also, paradoxically, my great desire to thrive within it.

There’s the time I had a foreign record deal.  I was in a state of ridiculous elation over having scored this.  And when I was overseas promoting it, I was asked in an interview what I thought of my hit song. (Yes, I had a hit song in this particular country many moons ago.)  The truth was, I hated it.  I thought it was poorly composed, and I was angry at the phenomenon that merely based on this particular writer/producer’s reputation and popularity in the community that his song (ostensibly my song) was an instant hit. Did anyone out there ever actually stop to consider if the song was good? …. had been my perplexed self-questions.

I reflect now back to the day we recorded the song, at the legendary Capitol Records, which gave me a total thrill independent of the dreck I was about to record, and the knot in my gut over said dreck.  And I remember having a hard time connecting with the song, and therefore failing to deliver any semblance of an authentic take.  I sounded terrible to myself.  So I asked the man producing the track, the songwriter, to please tell me what the song meant.  I didn’t understand the seemingly disconnected lyrics, but felt it was only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume first that I just didn’t get something, that it was over my head, rather than to assume it was simply lazy writing.  When he, very frustratingly, said to me, and clearly done with me wasting his time, “What do you mean, what does it mean? Just sing the damn song!” I knew in that instant that we’d all sold our souls to the devil.

Now back (or  forward, as it were) to being interviewed about it.  Why would anyone even ask me IF I liked the song?   I’d recorded it.  I’d been complicit in the crime.  I was here promoting it.  Why wouldn’t they just assume I liked it?  Instead, as if I were wearing my guilt and shame on my forehead, they would ask me, in their barely conjugated English, if I liked my big, giant hit.   And I suddenly felt like that old commercial about E.F. Hutton, where everyone turns their head in my direction, and shuts up.  If there was any part of my soul that hadn’t yet become the Devil’s bitch, I owed it to said part.

And so I said, so sheepishly that if I’d had testicles they’d’ve been sucked right up inside of me:  “No.”

The room went bedlam.  Seriously.  And bedlam in a foreign language is just white noise, but the gist was pretty clear.

I was properly schooled and ripped a new one, later on that day by a label rep, on the obligation that is mine to play the game, and oh, I don’t know, maybe think about being a little bit gracious for this opportunity you’ve been given in the first place, Miss Brown.   There wasn’t a single thing that was said to me in this rant that wasn’t absolutely correct, and what I deserved.  I’d signed on for this ride.  It had been responsible for a lot of money in my pocket (fleeting though that was), my first jaunt abroad, and the potential for who-knew-how-many doors to be opened for me.  And now it was time to help sell this thing, to help make its investors their money back, to help us all get somewhere in this business.  I was obedient for the rest of the trip.

Needless to say, they were not interested in renewing my contract for a second album.  It was “good riddance to that arrogant chick.”  I cannot blame them.  I’d been their liability with that one little powerful word.  And yet once I got back to the States, and resumed my life, I was beyond frustrated with my failed efforts to parlay that experience into something more, bigger, better, a roll, a continuing relationship with that record company.  And I genuinely did not understand how that closed door might’ve had anything to do with my unwillingness to be a company man.

Okay, here’s just one more example of my industry and me being at odds, and then I’ll leave it alone, because truth be told I’ve got examples by the droves, but I’m sure you have my dynamic by now.

My second literary agent (I’ve been through two, with no book deal between them) seriously believed in my writing.  The way she praised me, she could not have been any better for my ego.  She’d read two of my manuscripts (one of which is now The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, which came out last year, published under my own imprint, because I’ve never managed to get that book deal), and she thought I was someone very special.  She also stated quite frankly to me, in agreeing to take me on, that her specialty was selling romance writers, but that she so believed in me that she would try this area that was not even her expertise, which is the general fiction/literary fiction genre.

When all efforts were exhausted to get me a deal, she took a meeting with me, and urged me to consider writing romance novels.  I told her that I’d never read them, but had a good impression of what we were talking here, and that it was of no interest to me.  She gave me a handful of books by some of her authors, encouraged me to learn what the genre was about, and to at least consider it.  Her spiel was that she didn’t have a clue how to sell a literary novel (not the most popular in this age’s quick-read-bathroom-reading-airport-reading-breezy-formula culture), but that romance she knew, and she knew it well, and she could make us both a lot of money.

I took the books home, read a couple of them, and my stomach churned at how much I disliked them.   And not the specific books themselves, or the writing, per se, but the formula.  Which includes:  That the conflict in the story always be external, never internal.  It needs to be about someone or some thing/institution getting in your protagonist’s way from her (almost always a her) intended pursuit (romance, of course).  It is never about internal conflicts and psychological dynamics being the barriers to a protagonist’s road.  It is never intended to be an exploration of soul or the human condition.   And the result must always be that she gets her man.  Not my kind of book.  I want my guts turned inside out by a book.  So, as a reader, I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be … what kind of writer I was.

I prayed so hard on this, because I knew that I was just a “yes” away from possibly making my name as a writer (my agent was confident that she could do right by me).   And that was damned enticing.  Yet, in the end, I chose not to go that path.   My conversation with self and God was that life was too short, and my creative voice too precious to exert any amount of energy writing something that I did not love.  Self-important?  Well, yes.  I believe there should be no shame in believing that what we are put on this earth to do is important.

So, there you go.   This is what I do.   I derail.

In all of my frustrations over the years with continuing to be what many would call “small time” with my artistic pursuits, it almost never dawns on me my own culpability in the deed, and my seeming penchant for self-sabotage.  And so I’ve remained, for better and for worse, a loiterer in this business.  Someone who doesn’t really belong here, but who has hovered around the fringes long enough to actually be somewhat of a tiny institution, a familiarity (even loved by some, which always humbles me), but almost never invited to come inside and sit at the grownup table.  That’s the “worse” part; that because of my own stubborn, self-important machinations, I may never be lauded on that scale of which I’ve always dreamed.

But then there’s the “better” part.  I have carved for myself a voice, a brand.   It is unique.  Some love it, others not so much.  That’s okay.  It has perseverance.  It has legs.  Even in spite of the many closed doors.  And it is here that my penchant for stubbornness and hardheadedness actually works FOR me.

Doing it on my terms is the surest way to sleep soundly at night.  To keep my soul clean, and my legacy one I’ll never, ever have to disclaim.  It is who I am.  It not only nourishes my spirit, but keeps me firmly grounded in integrity.

Opportunities may have passed me by.  Many never offered. But my voice, as an artist, writer, songsmith, singer, is strong and immovable. It is oak.  And I am learning to let go of regrets.  It’s a rancid lesson sometimes, full of painful dawnings.  Because what I do know about myself is that I always seem to take 4 steps when 2 would do the job.  There is just a make-it-happen! gene that I seem to be missing.  But I also can’t help believing that if I had managed to master the chops of working the system, that I simply would be a different artist.   And, frankly, I’m kinda partial to the one I’ve cultivated.

Is this about reclaiming my better self?  Fostering grace?   After more than a decade lingering in and out of minor depression?  Self-doubt?  Bitterness at my industry?  Bitterness at having to age while still holding onto that rung of my youth-worshipping business?  I think it may well be.  It also could be a mass of rationalizations.   But then again, what is that?   Just a way of accepting, really.  That the here and now is all that matters.  That our efforts and our contributions, and even our sometime inability to make things happen, will render whatever it renders.  And whatever that is….is a part of our story.   And is okay.

That’s a far more peaceful way to live.  I’m opting for that.   Non-attachment to outcome.  Just do.  Because truth be told, I have ridiculous stretches of creative productivity, and they are always accompanied by joy.  Is there a better way to live than that?

Life has unfolded for me exactly as it was meant to.  The rocks that have been thrown in my way (or that I’ve tossed in my own way) have built a certain muscle on me.  Some walk between the raindrops, and get everything easily.  I know many of that type.  I have a good life, a blessed life.  But I am not that person.  And if I were, frankly I’m fairly certain that I would be unmanageable.  So, I do believe I am a better person because of the path that has been selected for me.

And yes, that means I was destined to be the difficult one.   The one you just can’t reason with, when an opportunity is being offered.  Stubborn to a fault.

Oy.   There are worse mantles, I guess.

 

 

 

Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD.   Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog.   Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.