Beth Ann

Beth Ann (not her real name, for privacy) is the homeless lady who lives in our neighborhood. She used to perch on a brick planter near the entrance to the parking lot until the CVS asked her not to sit there as customers didn’t like. Then she moved across the street. And then, when the doctor gave her some “water pills” that make her pee a lot, she crossed another street to a bus stop bench in front of the McDonalds. The bench is probably more comfortable than the planter, but there’s no shade of any kind, so she is in full sun for the entire day.

When I come to see her she says, “Oh hey, darlin,'” and we sit and chat for a few minutes. She tells me a little about her health and doctors’ visits now that she’s approved for Medi-Cal, what the mysterious construction site on the corner is going to be (she knows from making friend with one of the workers) and how she was born in the same hospital as Mayor Garcetti and about the time that Mayor Garcetti got our of his limo to talk to her, telling her she might want to go to a shelter for the night because there was going to be a hard rain. She told him she appreciated the advice but I don’t know where she slept that night.

When I go to visit I take a few bottles of frozen water, and whatever I have on hand for food. Today I had cut melon, a slice of pizza and some thai noodles and a Snicker’s bar. Usually I try to do something more nutritious like eggs or cheese sticks or a salad, so I added three dollars rolled up in a rubber band, and resisted the urge to apologize or make excuses when I handed her the bag.

Before I knew Beth Ann by name, I would sometimes see her reading a book next to her pile of belongings, and I’d think, if I were a homeless person, that would be me. A white woman, off by herself, reading a book. I spoke to her once or twice, maybe offered a dollar, but didn’t engage too much. The reasons seem both obvious, but also are not that easy to articulate. Maybe the responsibility seemed too much — maybe I was worried I would find out things she really needed (like a room in my house!) and I wouldn’t be ready. to go that far and I’d feel guilty. Maybe she was a reminder of the overwhelming problem we have of homeless everywhere you go or look in Los Angeles now, and I didn’t want to think about it.

But then, in the era of the NextDoor app, a woman I’ve never met in our neighborhood posted that she was starting a “Lotsa Helping Hands” calendar for Beth Ann, and that if we got 14 people, everyone could stop by only once every two weeks and we would still cover every day. And that drew me in, even though we only got as high as nine and not every day is covered. I’m really grateful to that neighbor for the rather brave thing she did, courting the ire of the NIMBY’s to make the request. When I see a Beth Ann on the bench, I see “Beth Ann” and not just a problem. Even though I still feel sad for the situation, I feel hope too, that things can get better for her.

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

This is What Love Looks Like

I will not say that my father was a hoarder, but he was an academic, an artist and a collector of books and items related to his academic, artistic and other interests. His attitude might be summarized as — why throw things away when we have an attic… a basement… a garage? When he died he left behind enough stuff to populate three yard sales a year for the first few years, and some since then.

A truly lovely and thoughtful thing that my mother is doing for her children is making an ongoing attempt to cull through our house’s half-century of accumulated items so that it does not fall so heavily on our shoulders when the time comes.  To that end, she tries to help us help ourselves by asking us — each time we visit — to do some culling of our own.

“Just go through your box,” she says.

“What box?”

“I made you each a box.”

Here is “my box” compiled by Mom.  Newspaper clippings — dean’s list and classroom citizenship awards,  reading achievement certificates, poems, drawings and stories…

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Beyond the fact that my peak publishing success was in elementary school,  I am a struck by my mother’s diligence in tucking these items away in a semi-organized fashion so consistently,  for so many years.

But, more than anything, I see the kind of life and opportunities that allowed for this collection of paperwork — and the people who made it possible–in particular, my mother. My mother used coupons at grocery store and never had a manicure — but managed our money so there were music lessons,  orthodontia, and the dance classes that she drove me to and sat through week after week. There were stories  at bedtime, tennis at the park. Rides to the pool and swimming lessons, nightly practice spelling tests. Day after day, in a million ways, my parents provided.

“Think about what you’ll want to pay to ship or store,” my mom says. Which is practical and good advice.  I manage to prune away a few dozen math worksheets and duplicate theater programs, but I don’t get far with emptying the box.

Looking at individual items I don’t think there is anything specific I would miss if it were gone. But when I look at this collection, I see how much I’ve been loved–

–and I don’t know how to throw that away yet.

 

Nothing Seems Fair, Part 2

In my last post I mentioned my friend who is having issues with his health and posted on Facebook the status, “nothing seems fair anymore.”  His post got an overwhelming response, because he has so many friends who love him, and also, i think because they are words that hit a cord with all of us.  Because we all suffer, and we all cannot help but notice that some of us seem to suffer more than others.  And what is that all about?  How can we reconcile that we want things, but we don’t get the things that we want–other people get them.  And the things we have, other people want:  Jobs, respect, human rights, health, economic security, freedom from fear and pain. What can we do to avoid being overwhelmed by the UNFAIRNESS of it all?

Last night I attended this mindfullness group I sometimes go to on campus after work.  We had a guest speaker who talked about neuroplasticity, and how we can form new neural pathways and change our temperments and the way we think and feel about events and circumstances. Apparently, through evolution, humans have developed a negative bias when we look at the world, because back in the day it wasn’t as important to remember all the nights that you ducked into a cave and it was empty so you had a good sleep or campfire with roasted elk-meat as it was  to remember the one time you ducked into a cave and found a BEAR inside. The UNPLEASANT experience of running from the bear and shivering in the cold hiding behind a rock was the one you needed to remember in order to avoid the bear caves in the future!

Nowadays, the “negative bias” doesn’t always serve us so well. Say twenty people compliment your outfit but one person makes a snide remark. In this case, focusing on the one negative comment is unnecessary for survival, and bad for your mood. All else being equal, why not think about the nice things that people said, and be happier? And maybe because you’re happier, you’ll be nicer and maybe that will lead to better relationships…etc.

However  (according to this guest speaker’s summary of several books), because we aren’t naturally wired to think about the good things, we have to consciously practice, until our brains starts to do it naturally.  Much of it sounded very similar to cultivating gratitude, of which I’m a fan.

The speaker  gave an example of an exercise where you find something pleasant but overlooked to meditate upon, like “how nice it is to breathe, to have enough air.”  When she said this, I thought, “that’s right! It is pretty awesome to breathe.” And I felt grateful!

WARNING: This is where I should end this blog post, but instead I’m going to veer off track…

…which I think maybe our guest speaker did as well, as I think what she said next was something that occurred to her in the moment and not part of her teaching plan. She said, “I have a friend who has cancer, and when we talked the other day, he told me he was having trouble breathing, that he couldn’t get enough air anymore.”

I think she simply intended to just emphasize even how the simple act of breathing is something to appreciate, kind of like a parent tossing off an aside about being thankful for your food because of starving children in Africa. She didn’t dwell on it. But I did. I am still dwelling.

While statements about other people’s misfortunes can make us feel lucky, I’m not sure they make us happy.  I wonder what kind of neural pathways are formed if one makes a practice of appreciating a thing by contemplating that thing’s absence.

My seven-year-old niece once told me: “we don’t compare, because it doesn’t make anyone feel good,”  She’s right. At work, I’ve deposited monthly paychecks for people that equal my annual pay.  That comparison doesn’t make me happy.  Nor has the specter of starving children ever enhanced my enjoyment of a meal.

Basically, I think comparisons don’t make me feel good, because they highlight what seems to be the inherent lack of fairness in the universe. Not that the universe is intentionally unfair, it’s just that the dice shake out how they do.

Through my two cancer experiences, I experienced emotional and physical pain and I came to know a fair number of people with their own pain. On the other side now (as much as anyone reaches the other side) I am frequently–habitually–grateful for the absence of pain. I’m thankful for every test result that doesn’t predict more pain.  I’m incredibly thankful for my everyday life.  But at the same time — maybe because my work with cultivating gratitude has its roots in illness — I’m acutely aware that my state of blessed health has a random quality to it.  While I healed and my pain went away, others, equally deserving, did not heal. There are people who deal with chronic pain, who are suffering even as I am not suffering. I’m also aware that my own suffering can return at any unexpected moment.

I believe I’ve gotten pretty good at appreciating things great and small which makes me a generally a grateful person. But somehow I’ve also gotten in the habit of, in almost the same moment, considering the tenuous, ephemeral and random nature of whatever thing I’m appreciating, which adds a dollop of sadness onto my gratitude.

On one had I am grateful for, you know, life, because it’s amazing! But on the other hand, my friend is absolutely right: Nothing seems fair, because nothing is. And those are two pretty big and heavy concepts to lift at the same time.

 

Scroll back up and click on that “Neuroplasticity” link. It’s a 2-minute video that’s interesting.

The book being discussed by our speaker was called Hardwiring Happiness.

The author did a TED talk.

You might be interested in this cliff’s Notes Version (actually About.com) of the Buddha’s views on suffering.

Here’s an article suggested by this widget that’s attached to my blog:

Passing

In February of 2003, a few months after my cancer diagnosis and surgery, I attended a cancer retreat in the Yarra Valley outside Melbourne, Australia.  It was an amazing ten days, that helped me transform my cancer experience into something that had value and meaning for me.  Part of what made the experience amazing were my four roommates. We were all under forty, among the youngest of the larger group.  We’d all experienced a life-threatening illness, and yet when we started talking at night, it could still seem like a slumber party! But while four of us were considered cancer-free after our surgeries and treatments,  that was not the case for Lisa.  She carried a burden greater than ours–the knowledge that cancer had already spread to her spine and her liver.  They’d already taken her uterus, and one arm was swollen with lymphedema.  She had endured many of the outcomes I most feared… and at the same time, she modeled for me how alive and vibrant a person could be even in the face of such feared outcomes.

Roomies at Gawler 2003Lisa (in the striped shirt) was not fearless, but she was fierce.  I saw her break down and cry at night, and I saw her wake in the morning newly determined to do everything in her power to live  more years–often citing her son, who was just a toddler at the time, and her daughter.  She did proud by her goals, surviving for a full decade since our time together.  Yesterday I woke to an email saying that she had died.

In my last post I talked about I’ve been struggling recently, to make decisions, to find meaning in the things that I do. Remembering Lisa is, for me, also about remembering perspective.  The worries I have currently are, in a way, a luxury. The kind of worries one has when one has health and the likelihood of a future. I am grateful for the time I have to figure things out, grateful for pain-free days, grateful for all the beautiful things and people in the world around me.  I’m grateful for the chance I have to try, again and again, to put experiences into words in a way that does them justice. In this moment, I am blessed.