Sunday, March 22, 2015

May God Hold You in the Palm of His Hand

Erin, our art teacher Phyllis, me and Anita, Getty museum 2000
It’s Saint Patrick’s day, and though I push away the painful truth that she is gone, I can’t get through a single moment of this day without thinking of Anita. Her beautiful Irish brogue, her gentle voice, her kind and thoughtful manner. These are the qualities that come to mind when I picture her. And the love that exuded from her.

We met in painting class 25, maybe 30 years ago. Every Monday night we’d sit together and paint for hours, and while we pushed paint around the canvas, our stories poured out of us. We talked about everything. Our pasts, our fears, our families, motherhood, our hopes, our worries. She told me so many stories about her children Ellen and David when they were little, the beautiful ways they had changed her and blessed her life, her hopes and dreams for them. And before you knew it, you looked up and the scene had come together on the canvas in front of us, just as it eventually would in our lives. She was a brilliant painter, her brush strokes exacting and fine. Her paintings were delicate and soft, and beautiful, just like her. Anita was also a ballroom dancer. She wrote poetry. She went back to college in her forties and studied psychology, to try to better understand herself, her complicated Irish family and the life around her.
Anita and Bill met as ballroom dancers and were married for 51 years.
Anita told me all about growing up in Ireland, the strict Catholic schools she attended where the nuns tormented her, and her phobia of nuns after that. Though Anita was a sweet-natured, gentle soul with a soft voice that registered just above a whisper, after surviving her second heart transplant (yes, she had two) her edge had sharpened a bit, and I thought she was even a tiny bit sassy. My friend Erin and I decided the new Anita needed a warrior princess name, so we dubbed her “Danitra.” Oh, how that made her laugh. She would always marvel at how uninhibited Erin and I were. “You two are so outspoken,” she would say, astonished. It was incredible to her that people could just come out and say whatever they thought, and yet that’s something “Danitra” was starting to do, more and more. 
Anita and Troy at Erin and Beth's wedding, where Anita read the Irish blessing.
I loved her musical, soft Irish brogue, and also loved to tease her about it. She’d ask, “What do you mean? What do I sound like?” I’d respond with an over-the-top, “Always after me lucky charms!” and she would laugh and laugh. Every once in a while, though, her edgier accent would pop up, especially when she’d call George Bush an “eejit.” Of course I loved that and would holler, “Tell it, Danitra!”

She loved Hummingbirds and had feeders lining all the windows around the back of her house, outside the kitchen and living room. I have never seen more hummingbirds in all my life than I saw in Anita’s backyard. They came in dozens to visit her. And who could blame them. She was the female equivalent of St. Francis, her kind and gentle ways drawing animals and children to her, easily.

Anita and I on our birthday, 2003.
Anita and I shared a birthday. We called ourselves birthday sisters, and would always celebrate together. At painting class, our teacher Phyllis would bring out a cake for us, and her husband Bernie would play Happy Birthday for us on his saxophone. We lost Phyllis and Bernie some years ago, but we still always made it a point to celebrate our birthdays and Christmas together, no matter what else was going on. One year, we spent our birthday at her hospital bed in ICU. Erin, Beth and I visited and as she lay there with a million tubes hooked up to her, unable to eat any birthday cake this time. We put a tiara on her head and sang anyway.

She lived through two hellish heart transplants and a year in ICU. She survived more procedures and surgeries than anyone I’ve ever known. No matter how gentle she appeared on the outside, she had a resolute strength that came from the fierce love she had for her family. She was going to survive because she wasn’t done loving them, and dammit, she was going to live to see those grandkids. And she did. Just two weeks before she passed, we had a wonderful dinner together, and she couldn’t wait to show me pictures she had printed of those grandbabies, and tell me all about every sweet thing they had said or done.
Bill never left Anita's side a single day that she was in ICU.
I am finding it really hard to end this piece, because I don’t want my precious friendship with Anita to end, and truth be told, I’ve been trying to pretend she is not gone. From the time between her death and her memorial service, I have kept myself busy, attempting not to feel the loss of someone so monumental in my life. I felt, and really knew, that Anita loved me. That is the hardest thing to let go of. And yet I know I don’t have to. Anita’s love, the way she lived her life, her quiet beauty and strength will always be part of me. 

And so I bid you godspeed on your journey home, Anita. You gave us all the very best of you, and you did it well. You lived your life so beautifully. You loved your family so well. Heaven is lucky to have you.
I was lucky to have you.
As you said to me at the end of every phone call, “I love ya, Missus.”

The Irish Blessing
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields
and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Look Me In The Eye

This week I’ve been reading my friend Nina Gaby’s book “Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women.” I was not surprised to read that many of these breakups of friendships had taken place through emails and texts. Over the years, I’ve had a couple friends “dump” me this way, and am pretty sure that had we talked face to face, the friendship would have survived. But that was their choice, not mine.

Recently, someone lashed out at me on facebook over a certain politicized issue, criticizing my lifestyle and career choices. This was over an extreme misinterpretation of something I had posted. The greatest shock was that it was from a sweet, mild-mannered person I’ve known for years who has never before posted anything on my facebook page. I can say with 99% certainty that this person would have never looked me in the eye and said these things to me.

This is what bothers me about our new technological way of connecting with others. It isn’t real. It isn’t human. Texting, social media and email are all great ways to transmit information about work, events, politics, etc…but they are terrible ways to handle emotion.

When we are texting, emailing, posting comment, we “transmit” what we want to say without “receiving” - seeing or hearing the other person’s reaction. It’s a convenient way of unloading on someone else without having to see the hurt in their eyes, the shock on their face. This is why cyber-bullying has become rampant, and it’s not just teens who are doing it.

A few years ago someone ended a friendship with me through email with a 3500-word manifesto. I can guarantee she would never have stood in front of me and uttered those 3500 words (the majority of which had absolutely nothing to do with me) and if she had, she would have looked pretty crazy. After the shock wore off, I eventually realized this was about the toxic anger that had been building in her heart, and email made it easy for her to use me as target practice. True friendship requires the courage to sit down face to face and talk things through with respect and patience. Friends don’t fire off hurtful missives at one another and walk away.

In the years following the fire, when Troy and I were suffering with depression, we fought a lot. Our therapist taught us something invaluable that really turned everything around. “Look each other in the eyes,” he said, “because then you see who you’re really talking to, not the monster you’ve created in your head.” Another tool was to touch hands, to feel the energy of the person, to remember that you love that person. It is very powerful.

So this is my rule with technology: if I can’t look someone square in the eye and say what’s running through my mind, I’m not texting it, emailing it, commenting on it, tweeting it. Period.

As for the facebook friend, there was an apology, and an admitted misinterpretation of what I’d posted. But still, the words were said, the proverbial bullet can’t be put back in the gun. Trust has been broken and I’ll always have those words in the back of my mind.

How different would our world be if we all had the courage to look each other in the eyes?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Random Acts of Kindness Week

Last week, my friend Sue sent me a message filled with kind and loving words completely out of the blue. She said she had been thinking and feeling these things, and her mother had always told her, "If you're thinking something nice about someone, tell them!"

It just so happens this has been on my mind a lot lately the last year. I often will be thinking something in my head about another person, something really lovely, but then the moment passes and I'm on to other thoughts. But I'm learning that it's really worth it to stop and express those thoughts when they come.

About a month ago, Troy and I were eating lunch in a very busy restaurant in the Seattle airport. Our waitress was clearly harried, rushing about. I was staring at her because she looked so pretty to me. She was Asian, pale skin and bright red lipstick, and her black hair was pinned up with a cluster of bright red roses. As she rushed past me, I said, "Excuse me..."
"Yes?" She looked stressed.
"I just wanted to tell you that you look so lovely with your flowers in your hair."
She looked surprised and embarrassed, and mumbled, "Oh...thank you." She managed a little smile and went on with her work.
About ten minutes later, she came back to our table and said, "You know, I was really having a bad morning, but when you said that, my whole day turned around."
And then I felt great, so the idea of expressing your positive thoughts? Sue's mom was on to something. HUGE win/win.

This week is Random Acts of Kindness Week. (Why just one week? Why not Random Acts of Kindness LIFE?) I decided to be a kindness ninja. I am secretly posting these on people's car windshields. It took me 5 minutes to make them, and will take me 5 seconds to put them on a windshield as I'm out and about each day. I'm going to get my son Evan involved, too. I think it will be great fun and a good lesson for him. And I'm going to make extras to carry in my purse all year long.

I remember once, years ago, I was returning a shopping cart to the front of a store, and a woman who was standing there said, "Thank you for doing that. You are a good person." It was such a small, silly thing but my eyes welled up. It was just really nice to hear someone say "You are a good person"- even though she was a complete stranger. It meant a lot to me and I never forgot it.

It is so easy to participate in Random Acts of Kindness week (or life). It can be as simple as saying a kind word, holding a door open for someone, making a phone call, sending a card. As the great Maya Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." 

I'm posting my RAK each day on twitter ( Follow me and post your own acts of kindness with the hashtag #RAKweek2015. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Power of Intent

After I was fired last June from Moms Demand Action, I began to pray and envision every day that I would one day work in gun violence prevention for a great organization, and that I would actually be appreciated for the work I do. And that is exactly what happened. Look what is written every month on my paycheck:

Do I believe that prayer has power? You bet I do. You can call it intent, or affirmation …but whatever you call it, it works.

Here’s another example. Back in 2003, I wrote on a post-it note, “I am now open to the possibility of all my wildest dreams coming true.” You might think, well, yeah…who wouldn’t be? But I think that subconsciously, most of us aren’t. We are afraid of change, or maybe we feel we don’t deserve it. For me, I was so familiar with struggle, subconsciously I didn’t really believe it was my destiny to be happy. So when I wrote this post-it, I remember feeling giddy – because I really meant it – and I knew I was throwing a door wide open. I put the note up on my bathroom mirror where I could see it every morning. That year, I found my biological father. I had thought he was dead. I also found out I had three brothers. This was beyond my wildest dreams…beyond my wildest imaginings.

It was the author Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club) that got me back on my knees. While I was reading her memoir Lit, her story about getting sober and finding her faith again, I was going through a really hard time in my own life. I was broke, struggling, fighting a terrible court battle and my family was in shambles. Karr wrote about how prayer turned her whole life around. I figured I had nothing to lose. I started praying daily, and sure enough, all the jagged pieces began to sift back into place. Unlike Karr, who is Catholic, I don’t pray to a patriarchal version of God. I don’t believe God is separate from me - out there somewhere judging my every move. My prayer begins by acknowledging the Creative loving spirit that made me and that I am part of. I attempt to feel my connectedness to everyone and everything, and I set my intent for that day. I ask for help, while believing that help is already provided, also believing that everything that happens in my life is for the betterment of my soul.

I can’t define what I believe about God. My father is a Baptist preacher, my daughter is half-Jewish, and I think I believe most in the tenets of Buddhism…but what I do feel sure of is that putting my faith in love and goodness has never steered me wrong. So I will continue to pray in the name of love, goodness and a great creative spirit, and I will put a new post-it on my mirror today:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Things Just Got Real...

Troy asked me, "How do you feel?"
Hmmm...How do I feel?
And maybe just a little bit like puking.

Years of soul searching, hard work, ass-in-chair 24/7 writing days...and now it's finally about to be real. 

How do I feel?
Like I've grown up a lot. Realized the patterns of my own making, learned how to break free of some of them. I grew so much through writing my essay in Dancing at the Shame Prom, and in co-editing it, and in the process of collaboration with Amy Ferris. Giving birth to that book full of amazing stories from such powerful women was huge and life changing.

Now, I feel like I am about to embark on a scary new adventure. A rollercoaster ride. And I am not a fan of roller coasters. 

And I feel like I want so much for every one of you to write your stories, even if it scares you. Especially if it scares you.  

I want to hear your stories. 
I want to share with you my story. 
Because I believe we can all help each other to heal on this journey home. 

***Fire Season will be released on April 14th, but you can pre-order at Barnes and Noble, Indiebound or any major bookseller, and here on Amazon:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A New Year, A New Beginning

For the past few years on New Year's Eve, I couldn't wait for the year to be over. They were years of struggle and challenge, lawsuits and deaths and restraining orders and floods and exploding plumbing disasters. But in these years, there have also been miracles. Every tragedy gave me the opportunity to grow my compassion. Every challenge allowed me to work my courage muscles. And for all the times I was stuck, I had to work hard to strengthen my wings- and that's a good thing. Maya Angelou used to say, when you are in trouble, say thank you, because there is already a rainbow behind the clouds. Just because you can't see it yet, doesn't mean it isn't there.

I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish. I don't love getting older, but I'm grateful that I'm wiser, and especially grateful that I'm healthy. I didn't love being betrayed and getting fired from my job this June, but I am so grateful now to have a much better job. I hate that my sister-cousin Tammey died, but I am grateful that I got to share so much of my life with her, and that I still get to love her and remember her and share my memories of her with everyone.

In writing FIRE SEASON, I could see clearly on the pages that when I looked at my life with gratitude rather than regret, everything changed.

I am grateful for everything this year. Grateful for learning, growing, new experiences, my husband and children, my amazing friends, this beautiful world that I got to explore. 

 What were you most grateful for this year?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dreams are a Powerful Thing


Last night at the King Family Christmas party, our friend Wendy got up and told the story of her childhood Christmases in Australia. Her father ran a general store that was open 365 days a year, even half a day on Christmas. On Christmas, she and her brothers would watch Christmas shows on TV, and wait for their father to get home from the store. Their father believed in each person getting only one gift, so they'd wait all day to open their one gift, and that was Christmas. She asked her father, "Why can't we have a Christmas like they have on TV and the movies?" and her father said, "That stuff is only on TV. It isn’t real." But Wendy never stopped dreaming about those sparkly Christmases she saw every year on TV.

When she grew up, Wendy came to California on vacation, where she met and fell in love with a lovely man - and because of him, she would never leave California. They were married twenty years ago, and had a family. Little did she know when she met him that this man was part of the King Family- the family known for their annual Christmas specials. Troy and I have been part of the King Family’s annual holiday party and Christmas Show for 15 years, and let me tell you- nobody does Christmas like the King Family. Wendy’s Christmases now are far beyond the ones she saw in the movies. Every year, Christmas is sparkling and full of song and family and joy. I love Wendy’s story because it is such a strong testament to the power of dreams. 
Sing-a-long at the King Family Christmas party.

Christmas has always been a special time of year for me. After all, I’m born in December and named after a Christmas plant. But beyond that, it is a time of hope. It’s a time when my family always pulled it together to be our best selves, no matter what else was happening in our lives.

My childhood was not so bright and merry. Domestic violence, a dad in prison, and being shuffled around to relatives made me long for a normal, stable life. I would count the days every week until the Partridge Family show came on TV. I was riveted to the screen. Like Wendy watching her Christmas shows, I watched the Partridge Family and not only wanted to be like them, I wanted to BE them. And my favorite Christmas album? ---------->

Many years later, I married a musician, raised some musical kids, and now we record Christmas songs together every year. This is my Christmas/Partridge family dream-come-true. Our Christmas Family album is our gift to you, (download for free and share with friends, if you like) in the hopes that it inspires you to never think a dream is too big, or that you can’t have it, or that it doesn’t exist. Remember Wendy’s story, and be inspired.

Our wish for you this holiday season in that you hold on to your dreams.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays from our family to yours…
(Listen to our Family Affair Holiday Album while you peruse the internet by clicking below, or feel free to download the whole album for free.)