Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lessons Learned At A Funeral

I’ve been to more funerals in my life than I care to count. And I have sat bedside with critically ill friends at the ends of their lives. Although it has been painful, I consider this a privilege, for they have taught me valuable life lessons.

My dear friend of 25 years, Phyllis, was like a second mother to me. I loved her with all my heart, but she was a difficult woman. She was tall, strong, a force to be reckoned with, but she spent a lot of her life being offended by people. She was prickly and cantankerous. I’d had a few run-ins with her over the years, and she’d made me cry more than once, but always we came back to a place of love. The last time I saw Phyllis on her deathbed, all her hard edges had softened as she began to wither away. She looked so vulnerable, like a tiny baby bird in a nest of hospital blankets. She was peaceful, finally. Soon she would join her husband and son in the afterlife. The last thing this tough woman said to me before she died- “Love is all that matters.”

A year later, I would watch my friend John die from a brain tumor. At the end, I sat holding his hand while Troy played John’s beloved baby grand piano. The tumor had robbed him of his ability to speak in sentences, but there was no need for words. What mattered was clearly present in that room. John looked into my eyes, took my hand and squeezed it tight. With his other hand patting his heart, he said “So much…so much…”

This Sunday I attended yet another funeral- a sad, tragic funeral of a woman who died much too young. Andrea was Dani’s little sister. I can still see her sitting cross-legged on her bed at thirteen years old, talking about her boyfriend, as Dani and I were putting on make-up, getting ready to go out to some party or High School football game. Andrea, just a little girl in my memory, with her long wavy hair, and a whole life ahead of her.

Now she is ashes.

There had been hurt and misunderstanding between Dani and her sister over the years, and some of Andrea’s life decisions caused her to distance herself from those who loved her. Yet, on the last day of her life as she lied comatose in her hospital bed, Andrea opened her eyes and smiled at Dani. Nothing needed to be said. What was left at the end, above all the broken hearts and hurt feelings, was love.

At the funeral on Sunday, Andrea’s two teenage daughters, now orphaned, stood up and spoke about their love for their mother. Her oldest, Megan, lamented about all the time they spent fighting over petty things. That time could never be regained, time which could have been spent loving each other. I heard that message loud and clear.

Since Sunday, I have witnessed a lot of anger amongst my friends and family, some of it at each other, some at me, over small things, which will one day be long forgotten.  But Sunday put things in perspective for me. I don’t intend to waste a second of my precious life, which I am so lucky to have, quibbling over small things. I want to spend the hours of my life loving my family and friends, and helping others to do the same. I won’t be swayed from this.

People often comment on my relationship with Troy, how much in love we are after so many years. The reason our love has lasted is not because we don’t fight. We do. It doesn’t happen much anymore but in the early years, we almost didn’t make it. What saved us, time and again, is that we always come back to a place of love. Always. The love we have for each other is larger than either of our needs to be right or to be vindicated. The love outweighs our egos. 

My friendship with Erin is that way. We are a couple of strong-willed broads and we’ve collided spectacularly at times, but again, what I love so much about Erin is her great heart, which prevails over everything else, as does mine. As does Dani’s.

Life is rattling my cage pretty hard right now, testing me, challenging me to walk my talk. I ask myself, if I were lying on my deathbed, would these issues matter?

My life’s mission is to live a life of integrity, love and honesty, and to help others do the same. No matter what is thrown at me, I will stand strong in that mission, unshakable. For I know what will matter on my own deathbed is the love and kindness I shared with people.

Phyllis said it, John said it, and an eighteen year-old girl who’s had to grow up way too fast said it best. Love is all that matters.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Stories I Don't Tell

It’s funny that I’m co-editing a book on shame, because if you’d asked me a few years ago, I’d have said I was a shameless woman. What I mean by that is I don’t have a lot of regret. I made some mistakes when I was young, but that’s what youth is for. I feel good about my life in general. And yet…

There were some things I just never talked about. That’s what interests me now: the things we don’t talk about. Shame is the part of your story that you don’t tell. You may not dwell on it, but it dwells in you.

For instance, all my life, I tried to push away from the truth of who I was and what I came from. In the Shame Prom, I write about the fact that I was an unwanted pregnancy, born to two juvenile delinquents. My father was in jail when I was born, and would end up spending my entire childhood in prison. My mother, a 16-year old rebel, became a single mom who worked nights in bars. We used food stamps to buy our groceries.

But I wanted to be a Brady Bunch kid. I was a cheerleader. I wore the right clothes. I got good grades. Not until the last several years, after I wrote my memoir, did I start talking about my history. In denying that part of my reality, I became a fractured woman plagued by anxiety attacks and fear. Once I finally claimed that part of my story, it no longer held power over me. It freed me in ways I couldn’t have imagined, and opened new doors in my life.

I remember when Rob Lowe’s big sex tape scandal broke in the 90’s. Soon after, he was on Saturday Night Live, poking fun at himself over it. He never made excuses or tried to hide it. Suddenly, no one cared anymore. He claimed his shame, and it no longer had power over him. Look at him now- successful career, happy marriage and family. When you claim your truth, you take away the blackmailer’s power. YOU hold the power.

So that’s what this Shame Prom movement is all about. So far our Shame Prom writers have turned in gorgeous essays about the stories they never told:

Elizabeth Geitz, an Episcopal Priest and leader of her community, reveals her shame over her mother’s suicide
Kristine Van Raden comes to terms with the mother-guilt of her daughter’s eating disorder, and her daughter, Kate, writes a companion piece
Laurenne Sala struggles with her teenage shame over her gay dad
Julie Silver recounts the day she was banished from her loving community, and how she found redemption
Robyn Hatcher tells a fascinating story about carrying the shame of her race
Rachel Kramer Bussell, an erotica writer who would appear to be shameless, tells her  secret – she is a hoarder

If you think you don’t carry any shame, ask yourself…are their parts of my story I leave out? Parts of my history I’d rather not talk about?

There are for me.

Everyone knows I’m married to a wonderful man for 22 years, but few people know I had a previous failed marriage.

And no one, I mean NO ONE knows what I am about to reveal to you now, for it is perhaps my greatest shame ever.

In 1982, I voted for Reagan. If you defriend me on facebook right now, I’ll understand. I just couldn’t hold it in any longer.

So friends, this is what our mission is about, and Amy and I want you join us. Let’s get it all out, free ourselves, connect with each other, support each other, celebrate all we have survived and the strong women and men we are.

Let’s move from Shame-full to Shame-less.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Messages Are Always There

 One of 100 white origami cranes we folded for the blessing of Taylor and Aya's marriage
photo by Christina Donnelly

This morning, as I was on my morning run with my hubby, we stopped at the top of the mountain, and sat on the ledge overlooking a lake. We decided to take a few moments to say a prayer, as we had many worries on our minds.

One of our dearest friends has lost both her mother and younger sister in the past two weeks.
Our sweet friend Anita still lies in a hospital bed (four months now), after a heart transplant.
My stepfather, and yet another friend, both await biopsy results.

So much to pray about today, and my heart was heavy.

As I sat in prayer, envisioning white light around my loved ones, Troy nudged me and told me to open my eyes. A beautiful white crane was soaring over the lake. In Japanese culture, as my daughter-in-law Aya has taught me, white cranes are a symbol of hope and good health. Aya and I have folded white origami cranes as a form of prayer.

I saw that majestic white crane, and knew that I could let go of fear and worry. Someone bigger than me, and much more intelligent than me, has got this thing called creation all figured out. Every once in a while, when I’m paying attention, the message is there.

Today it was written across the sky: All Will Be Well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11

One World Trade Center
Taken early morning, Spring 2014

Los Angeles

Our radio clock alarm was set for 6:30 am, just like every morning. We had to get our kids up and ready for school. Cristen was 16, Taylor 11.

When the alarm went off, Troy was already in the bathroom brushing his teeth. Instead of the jokes and banter of the Mark And Brian radio show that I usually awoke to, I heard fear and panic in a newscaster’s voice. I sat upright in bed. Her voice cracked as though she was on the verge of crying when she said something about a second plane hitting the twin towers.

I jumped up and ran to the living room, turning on the TV just as the second plane hit. “Oh my God, Oh my God!” I cried. Troy came into the living room completely unaware. He stopped when he saw the horror on my face. We both stood in front of the TV, hands over our mouths. I was crying. Troy was silent.

In that moment our world had changed. There was a certain feeling of immunity I think we all had as Americans. In the U.S., we don’t die of malaria, or starvation, or even AIDS, and we certainly don’t get attacked by other countries on our soil. (At least not in the continental U.S.) I had lived with a foolish naivete that I was safe. Maybe we all did. But in one split second, we had to grow up and face a new reality. Hate and fear, the most dangerous weapons in the world, had breached American security.

The phones began to ring, family and friends checking in. There was worry about friends on the east coast. I kept my kids home from school. At this time of uncertainty, I couldn’t be away from them.  My best friend Erin came over. We all clung to each other, glued to the television, desperate for any answers, any hope. My children, emotionally overwhelmed, slept on and off throughout the day as the television blared in the background.

Not knowing what to do with my anxiety, I cooked. First tremendous stacks of pancakes and bacon. Lots of coffee. A few hours later, heaping bowls of Spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate chip cookies. It’s funny how we all treat stress differently. Maybe eating, and being able to feed the people I loved, made me feel alive.

That’s pretty much the way I spent that day, and the days after. Cooking, nurturing, feeding. And Crying. A lot of crying. The grief of those people on the streets searching for their loved ones. Seeing people jump from the ledges in desperation. I carried their pain.

Grief gave way to deep sorrow as I worried about the bloodshed I knew was now inevitable. Many more people would die for this, both Americans and Arabs. And 90% of them would be not our enemies, but every day people, shopkeepers, mothers, children, young boys who signed up for the military to get a college education. Thousands of innocents, who had nothing to do with this war, would die.

10 days after 9/11, I woke again at 6:30am with a song running through my mind. I got up and recorded it into a handheld recorder. This is the song that was somehow “given” to me as I slept that night.

(Produced, and all guitars and gorgeous string arrangements by my husband Troy Dexter)

“Are They Not Mine”

Oceans divide
Soldiers will unite
As we fulfill this prophecy
Eye for an eye
‘til all the world is blind
How many will fall
Before we see?

His blood is red
It spills like wine
The tears they shed
Are they not mine?
As cities fall
And mothers cry
For children lost
Are they not mine?

We cry out in anguish to Gods of different names
but were we not cut from the same cloth?
We wage our battles until the price is paid
But what is the price for innocence lost?

His blood is red
It spills like wine
The tears they shed
Are they not mine?
As cities fall
And mothers cry
For children lost
Are they not mine?

And is that not my brother
that you buried?
he lies beneath the cross now
that all of us must carry

It’s said that we are
A brotherhood of man
When did my brother’s blood run cold
To justify murder over holy land
To see his country bought and sold

In honor of all those lost on 9/11/01, and the thousands more in the ten long years since.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Feminism in the Gaga Generation?

My girlfriend Maxee and her little girl, marching for the ERA in the 70s
Words have power. I believe this wholeheartedly, and that’s why I am disappointed in myself today.

This weekend I had to prep for a big gig in Beverly Hills. The client requested all the current dance tunes: Lady Gaga, Kesha, Katy Perry, Black Eyed Peas…some which I knew but some that I had to learn. So I’m studying the lyrics, trying to commit them to memory, and I just get this sick feeling in my stomach as I realize that every one of these songs is women telling other young girls to go out and get wasted and have random sex.

There has been a lot of outrage over the T-shirts J.C. Penney was selling with slogans like “I’m too pretty to do homework” but where is the outrage over what little kids are singing along to on the radio?

Let me illustrate:
Lady Gaga “Just Dance”
Where are my keys? I lost my phone.
What’s going on on the (dance) floor
I love this record but I can’t see straight anymore
We’re all getting hosed tonight.
Keep it cool. What’s the name of this club? I can’t remember but it’s alright.
(and this woman is richer than Oprah, by the way…)

Kesha "Tik Tok":
Brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack cause when I leave for the night I ain’t comin back
Everybody gonna get crunk (wasted) Boys tryin to touch my junk
ain’t got a care in the world but got plenty of beer
aint got no money in my pocket but I’m already here.

Katy Perry "California Girls":
Sippin gin and juice…lying underneath the palm trees undone.
Sex on the beach
We don’t mind sand in our stilettos
We freak (have sex) in my jeep
All that ass hangin’ out

And the video for the Black-Eyed peas song  “I Got a Feeling” ( that tonights gonna be a good night) made me cringe. It’s such a happy anthem, I usually love hearing that song. But in the video, what a “good night” consists of is girls dressing like strippers, drinking themselves to a point that they are literally falling-down drunk. The very last shot of the video is a girl in a mini dress passed out cold, lying alone, sprawled out on a New York street. That is someone’s definition of a good night? Am I the only person who is outraged about this? This is how girls get raped, or end up on missing posters. NOT COOL, people.

On Saturday I went to a carnival, where I watched a singing group made up of teenaged sisters, the youngest was eleven. There they were singing the Katy Perry and Kesha songs. Adorable girls, great harmonies, but…an eleven-year old singing about getting wasted and having sex? All of this “fun music” that kids are singing along to is being embedded in their subconscious minds. Words have power.

Great songwriters have the power to change the world. Dylan, Lennon, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne...where are those voices today? The times...they are a changin', alright.

Sunday night I had to sing these songs, and with every lyric I felt like I was betraying myself and young women everywhere. I am very careful about the words that I use in my life. But I was being paid, so I had to promote a message I didn’t believe in. When I was singing the Katy Perry song, a little girl about ten years old jumped up on the dance floor. Here I was glittering in sequins, under a spotlight, and she’s looking up at me with her big round eyes, mouthing the words about having sex on the beach wearing stilettos. I felt like a total sellout, ashamed of myself for sending this message to a child.

When I later complained to my daughter Cristen that these songs are taking feminism back to the dark ages, it prompted an immediate eye-rolling from her. “I love those songs,” she said.  She ribs me for being too serious. "It's just a fun song, Mom. Don't make it into such a big deal." I get what she's saying. I listened to radical music growing up. We had Alice Cooper and KISS and Joan Jett. But you know, “Schools out for Summer” or "I love Rock N Roll" doesn’t quite compare to women singing about loving “rough sex” (both Rhianna and Lady Gaga) and getting wasted out of their minds. Is this the kind of freedom we fought for, ladies? Is this where equal rights has brought us? I’ve encouraged my daughter to watch “Iron Jawed angels” about the suffragettes fight for the vote. Not interested. And you know, it made me realize, when you haven’t had to fight for something yourself, it just doesn’t mean much. How many of our young girls know anything about the ERA, and yet they are in the know with Gaga lyrics, Jersey Shore and the Kardashians, because this is what they are spoon fed by the media. Where is the voice of today's generation? And what is the message?

I’m sure some will say I’m the next Tipper Gore, but I’m not talking about censorship. People should have the freedom to listen to what they want. I’m just concerned about the words we use. The words that become engrained in our subconscious minds. The words that shape our children’s perspectives.

So where does this leave me? I’ve been hard hit by this recession and I need to work. Can I continue to work in this industry, singing these songs, and still call myself a feminist? As a young girl I played guitar and sang the battle cries of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, and now? 

Is feminism dying in the Gaga generation?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Modern Day Miracle

Miracles do occur in this world, but because the media gets better ratings from fear-mongering, we rarely hear about them. That's why it's up to us, people like you and me, to spread the word.

The best gift I could give anyone this weekend is to share this phenomenal story with you. In 2006, Anita Moorjani was dying of cancer. Literally dying. All her organs had shut down, her emaciated body had swelled up with toxic fluids and she was in a coma. Her family was gathered around her, everyone experiencing terrible grief, but through it all, Anita was happy, for she was experiencing something that defies explanation- at least to our understanding here on Earth.

Anita left her body and went to a place of unconditional love, where she felt her connection to all of humanity, and while there, she learned that FEAR was what had dominated her life up until that point, and that FEAR in fact, was the cancer that was killing her.

Eventually she was told to go back to her body, and that with this new understanding and release of  fear, her cancer would be gone.

This is what happened. A dying woman, riddled with tumors the size of lemons up and down her spine, whose organs had all shut down, returned to perfect health within days. This has been investigated by numerous doctors. None of them can explain what they've witnessed.

One of the lessons Anita learned on the other side was this - Our only mission in life is to be our true selves. Not our "career" selves, or our "projected" selves, but who we really are deep in our hearts. If we do this, our life purpose will be clear. We don't have to pursue anything else in life but being our true selves. When we are authentic, everything we need will come to us.

Imagine that.

I urge you to watch this interview with Anita Moorjani. It's about the length of a TV show, so maybe ditch the reality shows today and watch this instead. Because maybe, just maybe, this is the true "reality".

Anita Moorjani Interview- Near Death Experience

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Lesson In Courage

The other day, Troy, Evan and I were in the mountains walking our dog Stitch when Evan developed a sudden fear of red ants on the ground. These are the same ants we walk over on our hikes every single day, but now he wanted me to carry him and protect him from the ants. I saw this as a perfect opportunity for a life lesson.

“Evan, do you know what courage is?”
“No, what is it?”
“It’s when you feel afraid of something, but you do it anyway. That’s how you build courage. Building courage is the only way to become brave.”
He thought about it for a moment.
I continued, “Do you want me to carry you or would you like to try using your courage?”
 “I want to be brave!” He said, and then marched right over those ants with a smile on his face.

Each day since, he storms through the fields over those ants, and calls out “Look Mommy! I’m brave!” He feels great about himself. He feels empowered, and that’s what I want for him.
Evan loves bugs- this is a caterpillar he found.

Courage is a muscle that becomes weak and atrophies without use. As far as I’m concerned, it’s never too early for Evan to start flexing this muscle. Lord knows he’ll need it later in life. I've relied on this muscle more than any other for the past two years. 

If I try to shield my son from the difficulties of life, how will he have the confidence or skills to face challenges on his own? How will he respond to new situations, or to a bully on the playground?

I want him to get a jump on this, so life doesn’t kick his ass later. The truth is, we’re all going to be faced with situations in life that scare us, and when that happens, how are we going to rise to meet it? Are we going to run away and hide? Expect someone else to deal with it for us? Stuff our fear away through addictions? Denial?  I want my kid to walk into his life with courage.

I have learned the hard way, the only way to get through life is to face challenges head on. And it’s never too early, or too late, to start.