Fortune before the Fortune Cookie

5 12 2009

Financially speaking, 2009 has been a pretty brutal year at our house.

Last year, I cut my business to devote more time to writing.  This year, those clients I kept slashed fees…and, repeatedly, skipped or delayed payments.  For the second year in a row, family “stuff” required multiple trips back to Texas…and multiple withdrawals from checking and savings accounts.

For the most part, we’ve stared down the creeping fear that comes from being on a financial cliff (or is it off?!) by reminding ourselves that dreams don’t become reality without sacrifice. That and acknowledging that you can only have so many $200 dinners before they start to taste like, well, dinner!

But fear did get the best of me the other night.  I had just ordered Chinese food  ($20 is the new $200!) when a family member called.  We hadn’t chatted in awhile and , for some reason, I soon found myself laying out  the harsh realities of our financial situation.

“I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I’m soooooo sorry.” (As if I didn’t get it the first time!)

“It’s fine, really.”  I responded the first time, as I felt the first stirrings of Fear awakening deep in the pit of my stomach.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeated.  Fear, meet Failure.

“Everything will work out fine,” I said.  Fear and Failure were building an army by now.

“Well, I hope so.  It must be so upsetting to see everything you worked for disappear.”

“I’m actually quite calm,” I lied because, by this time, the allied forces were barreling down my soul with one target in mind:  Courage.

I hung up the phone and covered myself in a warm blanket of Doubt while I waited for a very stiff martini to numb what was sure to be a crushing blow.

And then the doorbell rang.

It was the Chinese food, delivered by a central casting delivery man.  Not a college kid trying to earn a few extra bucks, but an adult trying to feed his family.

As I went to pay him, I tried to pay forward some of that Fear I had.  “How are your holidays going?” I asked.  “It’s a tough year.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But, hey man, at least we’re living!”

It was the first time I received my fortune before I had even eaten my Chinese food!

“F*%k you,” I promptly told Fear and Failure and the army they rode in on.

Maybe our household was failing by the standards  money or labels or status.  Or security.

But, what the hell?

Not to get too “Lifetime moment” here, but you can’t take any of those things with you.

Did my husband and I want to cloak ourselves in those things society tells us equal success…or did we want to venture out, beyond where the safety net reaches, and create our own definition?

To paraphrase a Zen buddhist I love, did we want to pretend that the plane of life was just a bus?  Ignoring its wings and just taxiing from destination to destination?

Hell no.

Baby, this bird’s got wings.  And we’re taking off.

We may or may not make it…but, hey man, at least we’re living!


Why I missed World Suicide Awareness Day

6 10 2009

World Suicide Awareness Day was on September 10.  I missed it.  Because I was thinking about committing suicide.

Yep.  While most folks spent their summer vacations  at the beach (or dreaming of it), I spent it in a dark, dark free-fall that brought me perilously close to ending my life at least 3 times.

Now, since you’re reading this, you know how this story ends:  I never pulled a trigger..or slit my neck or wrists or crashed a car.  But I did make plans…and took fairly deliberate action…to accomplish all of the above (except the gun part, this IS Massachusetts after all!).

The whole thing started with the death of my father.  For years, I’d wondered how the death of a man I barely knew would affect me.  Starting at 11:13 CST on June 29, I got the answer.  As my father was dying, I saw past all the illusions I’d carried about our distant, but complex, relationship.  I saw the truth of an imperfect man who, in the words of my sister, did the best he could.  And I thought that was that.

It wasn’t.  It seems that unravelling the illusions of my father launched an avalanche of unravelling the illusions that surrounded my entire family and my entire life.   For two and a half months, I was like Alice, falling through the rabbit’s hole into a place where absolutely nothing was as it seemed. And the more I tried to grasp onto those threads of  illusion, the more they fell away.  And me with it.

As all this unravelling was getting under way, I remember standing outside a hotel room in Texas with a bottle of wine in my hand.  The corkscrew had broken and I was so desperate for something–anything–to calm me down, to center me–that I cracked the bottle against a pole.  That action took away my desire for a drink…but it also made me look long and hard at the jagged glass. “Perhaps, I can sit this bit of karma out,” I thought.

I decided against it because I thought it was a bit white trash to end it with the jagged glass of a bottle of cheap wine outside of a Texas no-tell, motel.  I also decided then and there that the only way I was going to make it through this was to, “A”, go through it alone and, “B”, relinquish all control.   This wasn’t Oprah or Kripalu.  This was my life.  My darkness.  And I wasn’t going to find my way out by following someone else’s path.  And I sure as hell wasn’t going to make it by trying to drive this roller coaster.  After all, I had no idea where it was going.  So, that night, I put the cheap wine down and relinquished all control.

Which is not for the feint of heart.  Funny thing about the Universe.  When you set your intent, it tends to deliver.  And, boy, did it deliver.

From late June til late Sept, I stood in front of the mirror of my life, taking an unflinching, unvarnished look at my reflection.

Just as I thought I was looking, at long last, at me, another layer of illusion fell away.

At first, seeing the thickness of the layers of illusion made me angry.  I remember being in a hotel room in Rochester, MN, literally banging my head against a bathroom mirror, in order to break it and escape from the anger.  I’ll forever be grateful to whatever forces prevailed that night for dying in Rochester isn’t much better than dying outside a no-tell motel!

Then, as illusions of my family gave way to illusions of my life, I became terrified.  Turns out, I hadn’t left Texas to escape dysfunction and come out of the closet.  I left simply to build a new closet with a new career and new set of friends who simply mirrored what I had always known.   The dysfunction had followed me from Texas.  Stalked me, relentlessly and quite successfully.  And that realization led me to put my clothes and car keys aside one night as I went to bed. My plan was to wake up, get in the car, and drive it into a pole at high speed.

That was the one night in a very long time that I slept soundly all night.  I woke up at about 5 a.m.  The first thing I saw, in the betwixt and between light of the dawn was my husband.  Even as he laid there sound asleep, his love embraced me.

It was a transformative moment that told me I wasn’t going to get in the car and escape this journey.  I was going to follow those threads of unravelling illusion all the way to the end.

Which is what I did.  In the most unexpected of ways, at the most unanticipated time (funny how life works when you stop planning, huh!?).

About two weeks after I DIDN’T get in the car, I was doing some work for a client.  All of a sudden, I felt myself falling.

It was that awful feeling I’d had so many times since June.

Except this time, I landed.

On my twin bed in my elementary school bedroom in the first house I ever lived in.

And there, staring me in the face, was 12-year old Will.

He had a message for me, the one I’d been searching for.

All those illusions?  They weren’t put there by my family or by my friends or clients or anyone.  They were created, decorated, placed and guarded…by me.

He reminded me of exactly where we were.  It was the exact day, the exact moment, 32 years ago when I was sitting down to study for a spelling test in Mrs. Fugate’s class.  As I lay on that bed, I was thinking that the life of a smart, studious kid with thick glasses wasn’t really getting me far.  While my world was filled with books and music and thoughts that seemed like nohing I heard from anyone else, it wasn’t filled with friends.  So, I decided to change things. To bomb the test.  To do–and take and drink and say…and BE—whatever it took to fit in other people’s world.

And I did.  And I was good at it (it’s no surprise that my career has been based on spinning the story clients’ customers WANT to hear).

And it was all an illusion.  Each perfectly crafted, fiercely clung to, illusion simply added another layer that took me further and further away from my self.

Further and further away the power…the source…that each of us needs to fuel our own flame of individuality.

And, now, after months of darkness–no, after 42 years of darkness–the 12-year old Will was there to give me my power back.

Are you a rain grump or a rain buddha?

3 10 2009

As I slog around Boston this stormy Saturday, I am reminded that you can tell a lot about people by how they react to the rain.

There was the woman I saw on Washington Street, in the South End, darting feverishly from overhang to overhang and contorting herself as she dodged puddles.  Her tensed body was absolutely panicked it would be get.  Nervous that even a single raindrop would burst the fragile bubble of perfection and control her well-manicured nails clutch around her.  A burst that would toss her from her comfortable cocoon of illusion into the messy reality of, well, reality.  That woman needs a drink, I thought…or a good lay.  Or both.  And I wouldn’t want to be the one to give her either.

Closer to home, I saw a college-aged kid stomping in puddles as his girlfriend laughed uproariously.  Neither had an umbrella.  Their H&M outfits were so drenched that they may as well have been nude.  And they could have cared less.   They seemed to be the kind of people who have mastered the dance of life at a young age (or maybe it was that age hasn’t yet robbed them of the mastery we’re all born with).  My bet is that they greet a downpour with the same sh*t-eating grin they welcome a sunrise.

As for me….well, I used to be a rain grump.  I’m not yet a rain buddha, but I’m making progress.

14 years ago, I stopped being annoyed at rain…and started tolerating it.  I have the first Boston-to-New York AIDS ride to thank for the change.  For 1 1/2 days of the 2 1/2 day ride it rained.  Nonstop. I wore glasses at the time, which meant that I went through the entire state of Connecticut without sight…or brakes.  I distinctly remember going down a steep hill, literally unable to see what the flashing lights at the bottom meant, praying that it didn’t mean I needed to stop (because that would be impossible), and then…suddenly…knowing that a day of rain was nothing compared to a life with AIDS.  “Get over it,” I told my drenched self.  And I did.

Last year, I went from tolerating rain to revering it.  I was in South America at this magical place where the rain forest comes right up to the ocean’s edge.  I was there to spend two weeks doing deep dives with Ayahuasca.  It was the rainy season, which meant that it pretty much rained all day…and all night.  And I couldn’t have been more grateful.  There, immersed in a ritual shrouded in mystery, rain became a life savor.  Its wetness was as warm…and essential…as a mother’s embrace, welcoming me back from Ayahuasca’s vine.  The sound of the raindrops became the thread I would use to trace my way from the darkest crevices of the universal grid back to shore…or at least my chair.

I returned home from that trip forever grateful to rain.  Now, each rain shower offers  a chance to wash away the hurdles we too often let others put in our way (or put there ourselves).  A chance to wipe the slate clean.  To water the soul.

A chance to stomp in life’s puddles, celebrating the gift of being alive…wet or dry.  Shall we dance?

My Dad’s final gifts

10 07 2009

My Dad died last week.  And, in dying he has succeeded in getting me to do the one thing he always wanted me to do:  Slow down.

Slow down to experience his death fully…not as a project to be managed, but as a precious gift that, at last, opened the box of our relationship as father and son.

Talk about the universe throwing you an unexpected right hook (Dad was a former Golden Glove boxing champion…I couldn’t resist!).

You see, Dad and I weren’t close.

There wasn’t any animosity or anything.  And it wasn’t personal.  He wasn’t really close to anyone.  Eventually, we settled into a nice little routine where I had lunch with him at least once each time I went to Dallas.  We had the same conversation each time (weather, sports, family—always that order).  It may not have looked like a lot to the outside observer, but for us…it was enough.

Dad and I even were blessed with a great farewell lunch (though neither of us knew it at the time, at least I didn’t).  It was this past Thanksgiving.  Never being able to say he was proud of me, Dad DID say he was happy for my decision to become a writer.  He even said that “maybe someday, I’ll meet your friend” (that would be my husband).  I told him that I loved him.  As him.

After my sister called with the Hospice news, I sat down with that final memory and told myself that I’d take a day or two to sort through the other weaves of our 43-year journey together.   I quickly realized that there wasn’t much sorting to do.  To borrow a line from my old friend, Gerry, when it came to Dad and me, “there just wasn’t much ‘there’, there”.

At least that had always been the official version.

That night, I started crying… unexpectedly AND uncontrollably.

I went upstairs to the study and lit a candle for Dad.  And I cried. And cried.  More than I have ever cried in my entire life.

Eventually, I saw Dad.  He was covered in vines.

They were the vines life foists upon us.  Broken dreams.  False hopes.  Unfulfilled promises…that we had made to others, and they had made to us.

The vines were more alive than Dad…and they were weighing him down.  His face was at once both resigned and terrified.

“It’s ok Dad,” I said.  “Put down the vines,” I told him.  “They’re not clinging to you.  You’re clinging to them.”

I’ll never know if he did or didn’t.  But I do know what happened next.

Suddenly, I was in the house I grew up in.  On Lake Haven Street.  It was the holidays.  I was sitting next to the Christmas tree (artificial, of course, these were the 70’s!).  And I was waiting for Dad to come home and do the only thing Mom ever asked him to do with the tree:  hang the lights.  Now, when we were kids, my sister and I told ourselves we wanted him home because once the lights were up we could hang even MORE ornaments from their wires.  That night, as I sat crying in my house in Boston—so many years and lifetimes away from Lake Haven—I realized that, at least for me, we wanted him home so we could be a family.

And, then, I knew that was never meant to be.  At least not for me.  At least not for my family.

It was an illusion.  A vine that I had carried with me my whole life…just in case it ever came true.

And then, I saw the figure covered in vines again.  Only, this time, it wasn’t Dad.  It was me.

Turns out, when you reached below life’s surface to its true “hidden harmony”, as Heraclitus calls it, Dad and I were quite close, one and the same in many ways.  Unhappy with what we saw as our hand in life, we created illusions to fill perceived gaps.

Illusions around family, around friends, around work.  Around us.

And, the gift of Dad’s death was to show me that he wasn’t the only one who could drop those vines.  I could, too.

And so I did.

Now, if you haven’t done it, let me tell you:  the sound of shattering illusions is deafening, unsettling, terrifying….and freeing.

I slept full of gratitude that night…gratitude for my father.  It was the first time I had ever paired those words together.

As I drummed the following morning, I again saw Dad (this time sans-vines).  We were moving towards each other.  Neither of us had much shape at all.  At one point, our finger’s barely touched and, then, we kept moving…now past each other. Dad one way.  Me another.

4 hours later as I was making lunch, I felt a pain.  A release.   A feeling at once empty and full.

My sister texted me 5 minutes later to confirm what I knew.  Dad was dead.

That afternoon, the first wave of a completely new sensation washed over me.

Turns out that Dad’s gift of shattered illusions had been simply a stocking stuffer.

His real gift was what happens AFTER you shatter those illusions.   And that is the gift of peace.

Not the Hallmark version of peace where it’s always morning in America.  Nor the Southern or Yankee brand of peace where you just lock all those unpleasant feelings, things and people in life’s basement and “buck up”.

Nope.  The kind of peace that comes only AFTER you’ve dropped all illusions.  The peace that is synonymous with truth.  With life.  Not as it could have been or should be, but as it is.  Now.  This moment.

Wherever Dad is, I hope he’s riding wave after wave of infinitely beautiful, just plain fun, peace.

I know I am.   And, for that, this son is forever grateful to his father.

Faith-filled advice from an irascible Democratic activist

22 06 2009

Way back when I was in politics, I asked a friend of mine why he always stopped to give money to homeless people.  “Because you never know when you could be looking into the eyes of Christ,” he answered.  It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

And before either give a “Praise Jesus” or roll your agnostic eyes, let me assure you the words did not come from some religious zealot.

They came from a guy named  Dick Bigos.  Anyone active in Massachusetts Democratic politics or social service advocacy in the 80’s or 90’s knew Dick Bigos. As irascible an SOB as ever lived, Dick was one of the world’s best social service advocates and THE force behind the Democratic Party on Cape Cod (to him, the world was divided into two parts: “on Cape” and “off Cape”).   Dick was old-school politics.  He swore like a sailor, smoked like a chimney and drank (caffeine) like a fish.  If he wasn’t at work or on the beach, he was at the dog tracks.  He was as UN-PC as they come.  A fierce supporter of my boss, Gerry Studds (the first openly gay Member of Congress), Dick used to call me and complain that the Studds bumper sticker on his car prevented him from  pulling over at any rest stops to take a leak.  “It’s a f*&%kin’ magnet for you homos,” he’d bitch.

Dick wore each of his vices like a badge of honor for all the world to see.  And he used each one to prick the hot-aired arrogance out of the type of folks you tend to encounter in politics (including yours truly on more than one occasion).

But he never let them camouflage his particular faith, which when you removed all the dogma and tradition and rules, came down to this:  every single living thing is filled with “spirit”…whether it’s a homeless person, an ocean wave, the kid who pours your coffee every morning, even Dick Cheney (or Hillary Clinton, depending on your political views).

And while Dick loved taking risks at the dog track, his advice to me that day was to always hedge your bets when it came to faith.  To never be arrogant enough to presume that you knew who (or what) did (or didn’t) have something to teach you, to inspire you, to make you a better person.

But, rather, to go through life with eyes, ears and heart wide-open so that faith could flow in, out and through you at every moment.

Now, regardless of how you define “faith”, that’s not bad advice to remember on a Monday morning!

Of words and keys

18 06 2009

The word on writers is that we write because we love words.  That may be true for some, but not for me.  I write because I love what words can lead us to.  I see words as keys.  Keys that unlock the doors leading to life’s mysteries.  Mysteries that aren’t meant to be solved, but experienced.  To me,  words are but the means to an infinite end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words this past week as President Obama, Democratic politicians and gay leaders have been knocked back on their heels by a community that is starting to grow tired of a words-only movement.  Weary of finding that words that promise action only unlock doors revealing brick walls.

But, I’m an artist, not an activist.  So, this blog isn’t about politics.

Rather, it’s an invitation to look at the key chain of words you carry with you.

If you’re married, when’s the last time you unlocked the door of your marriage?  To go behind the door of the word and into the room of your marriage? What’s there?  Two chairs facing a table of responsibilities? Or, a wall-less room where, as Joe Campbell says, the two selves who enter into marriage have re united into the whole self?

What does the key of your faith lead to?  Does it open the door to a “chosen” room that is bigger, better, brighter than anyone else’s?  Or have you realized that while the doors may be marked “Christian”, “Jew”, “Buddha” , “Shaman” et al, they all open to the exact same room?

And on and on the keys go.  They key for your career, your hobby, your politics, and on and on.

What do you DO with all those keys?

Are they your keys or did you just pick up the ones society says you should have?

Do you even know which doors they open?  Or are you one of those folks who just like to carry around a big key ring because you hope it will tell a story of how very important you are?  Hoping that just the fact you carry the words “married”, “religious”, “executive” with you…that those words alone will be enough to get you through life.

And, even if you know the doors they open, when’s the last time you went in?  In other words, do words open doors for you….or close them?

Finally, when’s the last time you borrowed someone else’s keys? What would happen if President Obama, a black man who can’t hide who he is, traded keys with a closeted gay man who not only CAN hide, but DOES hide every day?  What would each find in the experience that is the other’s room?

You can tell a lot about a life, a people, a country by unlocking the doors behind the words we use.  Perhaps we should do it more often.

A day of rebels, poverty, destiny, political fundraisers…and innocence

10 06 2009

When I first was called to this spirit journey, I remember asking someone “When will the next message come?”  Chuckling, she said, “The messages are always there—every moment of every day. The question is when will you be ready to receive them?”

That moment..that wisdom…came to mind repeatedly yesterday.  It was one of those great gifts of a day filled with messages…and stories.  In other words, a typical day where you see how extraordinary the ordinary is.  There’s a months worth of stories in the day, but rather than cage the stories and put them on a shelf , today feels like a day to recount them as they were–moments that simply floated by me on life’s river.

REBEL REBEL I started my day yesterday as I start everyday:  by pulling a Tarot card form my Osho deck.  The card was “The Rebel”…a great reminder of the inextricable link between freedom and responsibility…not “responsibility” as duty, but as “responding” based on the present moment vs “reacting” based on past memories (for you Tarot card readers, the corresponding cared in more traditional decks is “The Emperor”).

POVERTY AND ILLUSIONS I had coffee with a new friend to talk about the “business” of writing.  We did that, but first we got into a conversation about poverty–and how dated the common image of poverty is.  That moment led to questions about why we perpetuate such extreme stereotypes–why do we trick ourselves into believing that “poverty” means you’re a homeless, unemployed bum.  Perhaps, we offered, it’s because stereotypes create the illusion of a wall separating “us” from “them”.   If you define poverty as being about bums begging on the street (vs, say,  the young kids/college graduates who serve you coffee every morning), then you’re safe from the bogeyman.  By the way, play with this idea by inserting third rail topics like abortion or any minority and see what happens.

WHOSE DESTINY IS IT ANYWAY? Early in the afternoon I was chatting with a graduate of a client’s leadership development program.  I asked what she got out of the experience.  ” I realized that my destiny is MY destiny,” she said, spur of the moment.  What a great lesson for anyone whose parents were emotionally AWOL or whose spouse beats them; who didn’t get a job because of the color of her skin or who was laughed at–IS laughed at–because the gods put a woman’s spirit in a man’s body.  One of life’s fundamental questions is “whose life are you going to live?”  There are two answers:  “Life as others define it” or “My life as it, simply, is.”  My destiny is my destiny.  Love it!

(BAD) POLITICAL THEATRE. My day ended with a political fund raiser.  If you’ve never gone to one, don’t.  If you have, you’ll know that Bowie was talking as much about fund raisers as adolescence when sang “same old thing, in brand new drag” in “Teenage Wildlife”!  Fundraisers truly are god-awful affairs–a Brechtian version “Groundhog Day” that always tell the same story, the story of power.  No one looks anyone in the eye.  You’re always looking slightly past the person you’re talking with to line up your next prospect.  Someone who will give you their power…or admire yours (since I have a lazy eye, I was particularly adept at this in my political days!).  So, there I was, watching the actors act out the same lines (some with the freshness of their first time on stage, others with the weariness of one for whom politics has become a job, not a cause).   I’ve seen this show before, I thought.  I left the stage awhile ago and now it’s time to leave the theatre.  And, then, I ran into two friends…which brings me to…

INNOCENCE. These guys–both architects—embody the Zen concept of “innocence”.  Both have owned their own firms for many years.  Yet, each time you see them, it is as if they’re starting their first job.   Every day really is new to them, because–even after years of doing what on the surface looks like the same thing–they have mastered the gift of know-ing that every day really is new.  They don’t sit in the audience and watch the same play over and over.  Nope, they write their own play every day—filled not with old memories, but, rather, with what Joseph Campbell called “the rapture of being alive”.  What a gift…and what a lesson.  A lesson that I could go through life and watch the play I expect to see (it’s always there, after all!).  OR, I can bypass that theatre and go see, hell go write,  new plays.  They may not draw the crowds, but you can’t beat the quality.

Not bad for a day’s life.