Dancing at the End of Our Plans

January 15, 2019

(This is a post I started months ago and found in my drafts folder.)

I have a friend — an acquaintance who is the spouse of a friend — who has a particularly virulent form of cancer. Last night he wrote on Facebook about the impossibility, in his current situation, of planning for the future, and about trying to live in the reality of the moment and have fun.

I woke up this morning with the kernel of anxiety that is my almost constant companion and I thought about his post, and about that state of no longer planning for the future.

This one night when I was at Cancer Camp, we had a dance. We jumped around to pop music while wearing funny hats and vests and feathery boas from a trunk in the corner and it was a true celebration. It was also surreal, because as I danced, I looked around the room and knew that some of us might be dead soon and that part of “some of us” might be me.  But because we were all in the same boat, it seemed strangely okay. 

I think often about how much our (or my) ability to enjoy life is social. So much is context. Discontent — or maybe just anxiety – comes from having your expectations exist side by side with other people’s expectations. It’s easy to eat a vegetable plate if vegetables are all that’s at the table and everybody is happy with vegetables. It’s harder if you’re surrounded by people eating pizza – especially if they want you to partake, and your veggie plate is making them feel bad. When I lived in the Outback, I happily wore the same rotation of clothes for months, but when we visited the city and everybody had shiny shoes, suddenly everything I had felt faded and dusty.  Death seems like it should be bigger and more important than all of that stuff, but what I found was that it was pretty similar. It was easy to talk about dying with other people who were ill, and harder to talk about it around healthy people. Healthy people like to have conversations about their plans and their futures and things they hope to achieve. Today I am one of those healthy people. I talk about plans. I have career decisions to make, and many worries about the future. 

But that memory of the time that I stopped planning lives inside me. It was a very specific feeling. All my concerns about success or failure dropped away. One week I was furiously working toward a deadline for a grant for a little documentary, the next week it felt completely unimportant. It was sad at first, but it was freeing. These days, when projects hit obstacles, as they seem to constantly, I remember how easily it can all feel unimportant, and it’s oddly comforting.

I also think how lucky I was to have experienced that feeling of freedom with like-minded comrades who could appreciate it with me — to have felt the kinship of dancing into the night with others who were equally uncertain of what the next day might bring.

2018 Year End Letter

The day before New Year’s Eve I suffered a case of food-poisoning, with all the fun that entails. Appropriately, I ended 2018 feeling a little beaten up and drained! But the first day of 2019 is the sigh after the storm. The sun came out this morning, and — for today at least — nothing could taste more delicious than sparkling water and saltines! I think if there were a theme for 2018, it would be “perspective.”

(The theme for 2019, I have decided in advance, will be “pictures” since I am looking through my photos from this year and realizing I don’t have a single one with both Paul and me in the frame. We’ll use this as a stand-in:)

couple holding hands

Paul and I still live in the top half of a Spanish duplex in Los Angeles. In the spring, we were sad (though happy for her) when our awesome housemate, Julie, moved to Brooklyn with her boyfriend.  We lucked out when another friend, Sue, was in the market for a place. She’s a photographer, a former stand-up comic and has similar standards for cleanliness to ours so we’re getting along great!

In 2017, Paul  helped out his friend from film school, Iman, with her first feature, a comedy about three young Muslim women balancing love, career ambitions and culture in the Big Apple. In 2018 he became an official producer, logging many hours on the phone and in the editing room (i.e. the editor’s bedroom … it’s an independent film!)

For me, 2018 was a “leap-of-faith” year.

leaping from cliff

I purposefully took no steady teaching or admin-ing in order to push forward my screenwriting career ambition. I developed several projects and a couple came close to the finish line of being sold — but despite hopes and promises,  and many people claiming to be “excited,” it was not meant to be… in 2018 at least!

On the bright side, because I can write while traveling, I was able to take a longer-than-usual trip back to Indiana and New York where it was lovely to see family and old friends. On the flight to New York I also read a novel by friend and talented writer, Eric Sasson, called Admissions, and couldn’t put it down. I asked Eric if I could option the rights and he said yes! This was my first time optioning another writer’s work – it felt good to find and validate, even in a small way, another writer’s talents and efforts!

I took a video editing class and used my new, rudimentary skills to complete a three-minute film!  (It stars my niece and nephew and had a very exclusive “cast and crew” screening at my sister’s home on Christmas Day.)

Day-to-day, the freedom /obligation to wake up and write into the afternoon was really satisfying. So was making it to the gym more often. I always wondered, if my schedule were more flexible, I would really make more time for the gym? I was happy to find the answer is yes! exericise-stick-figure.jpg

I saw some great plays, and Paul and I both saw many movies. For a few golden months our MoviePass subscriptions provided a non-stop film festival at the nearby Landmark theatre.

Almost-free movies, classes at the gym, extra hours at my laptop – as well as sunny days, rainy days, and days when you just wake up feeling good – more and more, I am aware of how these are gifts. Maybe because 2018 has been so full of perspective-giving moments. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a year when so many friends posted about losing their beloved pets. I’m regularly brought to tears by friends grieving the loss of a parent or dealing with  grave illnesses of spouses and children with a bravery, perseverance and poetry that stuns me.

In December, my mom and I traveled through San Francisco to Eureka, California, seeing old friends, family and Redwood trees along the way. The trip was over my birthday weekend, near the year’s end, and we had several hours to drive while looking at fields and listening to the Dirty John podcast. Basically the perfect conditions for woolgathering and taking stock– and, if one isn’t careful, lapsing into wondering why the universe hasn’t rewarded ones efforts in a way that’s “fair.”

This sense of why unfairness? might have been lingering in the back of my mind the morning we left Eureka. Mom and I were eating our free continental breakfast in the motel lobby when a mother came in with her four children under the age of ten. We tried not to laugh too obviously as one of the kids over-filled his cereal with milk and then carefully shuffled to the table trying (unsuccessfully) to transport the bowl without it spilling.

My mom, making conversation, asked the kids if they were “on vacation,” the six-year old girl replied, in the softest little voice, “No, we’re here because our house burnt down in Paradise.”

BAM.

Perspective.

The mother told us that she and the kids had been at the motel for weeks while their father was on the road, looking for work and a place to rebuild their lives.

(Whoa, I didn’t mean to write myself into such a serious corner here at the end. I’ll try to wrap it up. Thank goodness this wasn’t a Christmas letter!)

Any year can be a year where our life plans—our life assumptions—get thrown off track, in big ways and small. If there’s a value in it, it’s probably that it makes us grateful for whatever remains—for me, there was a lot to be grateful for this year: health, the well-being of those close to me, people who remain resolutely kind and thoughtful in the face of the growing pressures in the world to be otherwise, friends, laughter, generosity, Skype, clean air, saltine crackers and sparkling water. And if you are reading this, you!

stock-vector-cartoon-stick-man-drawing-conceptual-illustration-of-businessman-climbing-mountain-concept-of-784718656Here’s to whatever you are grateful for, and whatever mountains you have to climb in 2019!

Love,

Barrington and Paul

These Cats Have Character

November 11, 2018

 

My Dad was a fan of items — ornaments, decorations and tchotchkes– that he described as having “character”.  If I brought home art from school, the highest compliment would be when he looked at something and determined it had character. Out in the world,  he would have a certain amused and admiring tone as he picked up whatever thing had caught his eye, said, “now this X has character.” I am sure he bought these honeycomb cats for their character.

My dad had a respect and care for objects that– with all love to my husband– I can say I don’t see much in my current life where even expensive electronic items are flung about and the disposable nature of anything inexpensive is emphasized in how it is treated.

I have this very distinct memory of my father sitting at our dining room table, carefully sliding the decorations out of their envelopes, and assembling them  with a precise  gentleness. Which is probably why, so many years later, they are in remarkably good repair.

 

How many years, exactly?

label

Something else my father did was put dates on things, as if he knew that one day someone would become nostalgic and wonder. It’s hard to say — does this look like 1980…or 1960? Do the colors look like funky 60s colors, or neon 80s colors? The 1980s  would coincide with my childhood. But doesn’t it look like 1960? In which case he would have bought them during his first marriage, and a decade later packed and carried them into his new life, and eventually his second marriage. That’s a lot of years and travel for these little black cats.

 

View from Our Window as the World Burns

November 10, 2018

This is the view from our kitchen window at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. If you are searching for the sun,  direct your eye to that speck of muted brightness behind the palm tree.  It’s easy to look right at it because the smoky air acts as a filter.

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The city smells like a campfire. Not a campfire that you can escape by walking a few yards toward fresher air, but a campfire that is everywhere when you step outside, that seeps through your drafty windows and under the cracks in your doors, finally settling into your head as a dull ache and in your eyes as a gentle sting. We are surrounded by the areas we are luckier than — Thousand Oaks in one direction, Malibu in the other.  I heard on the radio that school where I sometimes teach a screenwriting course is being used as an evacuation site. As devastating as both of these fires are for the people in these local areas, apparently neither as destructive as the fire that continues up north, near a town called Paradise. I’m planning a trip to Northern California for early December, but as I research routes, I see the roads we hope to travel have all been closed.

I’ve felt adjacent to the line of fire in another sense as well this week. The fire in Thousand Oaks has overshadowed the event the happened just a day before the fire began — a dozen people were shot and killed at a bar in the same neighborhood. Friends have been posting memories of eating at the location over the years. The roommate of a friend’s daughter who attended Pepperdine was killed.

The Thousand Oaks shooting redirected my gaze from the shooting that took place exactly a week before, at a yoga studio in my once-home of Tallahassee, Florida, where one of the victims was a student in the same FSU English Department that I belonged to.

Not me. But close to me. I want to put my arms around the world and say, sorry.  Sorry for your loss.

We Live, and Then We Die

I was lucky this summer to get to go home for almost two whole weeks. I’ve always been grateful to be able to go back home in a way that few of my friends can.  My mother still lives in my childhood home, and when I arrive, I carry my suitcase up the stairs and put it in my childhood bedroom, where the same bedroom furniture set remains.

When I have just a few days, it can be hard to mentally pull myself away from my big city life. But when I have a little longer, home is the place that grounds me, that provides distance from my day-to-day battles, and a vantage point from which to view my life.

This summer’s trip was more emotionally packed than usual. For one thing, I attended a high school reunion — which was predictably disorienting.  Some acquaintances looked so different from high school that I only recognized them because of their name tags. Others seemed to look exactly like they did in high school. We spent a lot of time exclaiming to each other how we looked just the same, but then someone played a slideshow of pictures and it became abundantly clear that no one looks like they did in high school, because we looked like children.

There was a table in the back dedicated to the pictures of fellow classmates who will never look as old as we do. Military service, suicide, cancer.

I also met people at the reunion for the first time. These weren’t spouses or partners, they were people who’d gone to my school for the same three years I did, and I had never met. What was I so involved with that I never once noticed this person? I wondered.

At the beginning of the first night, I felt distant and awkward. Conversations with my old classmates felt painfully  like conversations I have all the time with strangers.  By the end of the second night however, I was feeling nostalgic and close to my old friends and acquaintances. This person is so cool! I thought, as we had drunken conversations in the finished basement of a couple who married after high school and have a kid looking at colleges.  If I just led a different life, lived in a different city –we would still be friends who hang out all the time! 

But the reunion was just a start to my jaunt down memory lane. Because on the first night of the reunion, as I wandered around outside the American Legion hall  trying to move past the awkward phase, I checked my phone and found a message from an old boyfriend who I hadn’t heard from in years. He was writing because a mutual friend — someone we’d worked with — even shared a house with for a short while — had suffered a stroke. A day later the friend died. My old boyfriend sent me a photo of the three of us at some bar that neither of us could identify. In the photo we looked so fresh-faced and innocent, I wanted to reach out and pet us. But I couldn’t remember the evening at all, or even guess what we might have talked about that night.

A few days later,  a writing partner called to that a fellow writer — who had been a mentor and helper on our project– had also died of a sudden stroke.

On Sunday, I looked in the local paper and saw that there was memorial service for the former artistic director of the local theatre company where I’d interned the summers after my last year of high school and first year of college, so I went. I entered another room full of round tables and chairs occupied by people with faces and names I hadn’t seen for years. As with my first meeting of my high school friends, I felt happy to see them, and at the same time separated by glass.

To hammer home any themes that might be emerging, for the two weeks I was home, I stayed up late each night and binged episodes of Six Feet Under (which I recommend if, like me, you missed it when it aired). It’s about a family who runs a funeral home. Each episode begins with somebody dying, but for the most part, the people who die are not main characters so the show is not as depressing as it sounds. Although also, it is, because it is about people yearning for connection and never quite finding it. And then, before they have finished looking — they die.