Collateral Damage

My heart was broken again last week. I opened myself up to a new friendship and I’ve learned that this new friend has been criticizing me behind my back. I’m on a quest for more honest connections with other people so this is particularly painful for me. I immediately went to a place where I want to swear off people forever. I want to take back my heart, and hide it from anyone and everyone to keep it safe.

I kept thinking,

Why me?

Then I realized it’s a lot like a cancer diagnosis. Instead of “Why me?” The question really is

Why not me?

What makes me so special that nobody would be tempted to talk about me behind my back? I am the first to admit that I am not perfect.

Which brings up the real tragedy. The fact is that I do EXACTLY the same thing. I admit I openly criticize others behind their backs as well. Gossip is so engrained in our culture that I think a lot of us do it without thinking about it. I usually tell myself that it’s OK because most of what I say behind anyone’s back I have said to them personally. I think that I’m being honorable because the person in question must know how I feel. But really, it’s never OK. I learned from my parents early on that you should never say anything about anyone that you wouldn’t say to their face.

I am reminded of the importance of that discipline right now. If I am to expect my friends to honor some kind of friendship code then I need to step up and follow the same code.

I spent a lot of time this weekend in cardio-therapy. I’ve been able to pick my heart back up off of the floor and realize that first and foremost I need to become the kind of friend that I expect others to be.

Maya Angelou has spoken often of the power of words. She said the following to Oprah:

I’m convinced that the negative has power- and if you allow it to perch in your house, in your mind, in your life, it can take you over. Those negative words climb into the woodwork, into the furniture, and the next thing you know they’re on your skin. A negative statement is poison.

I AM ready to be the kind of friend I expect others to be to me. I AM willing to be more careful with the words I use, both in front of people and when I speak of them when they’re not present.

The change I wish to see begins with me.

Authentic Relationships

A few months ago I took a course called Authentic Relationships. It was a Level 2 course in the Kundalini Yoga training program. At the time I was still in Level 1 training for Kundalini Yoga but I couldn’t resist a course that focused on what I believe to be my Achilles heel, real honest relationships.

We shared sensitive personal stories in small groups in this course and we did a lot of “flash writing” where they’d ask us questions and we had to quickly write stream-of-consciousness whatever came to mind.

In one of these stream-of-consciousness writing sessions I wrote about a close friend of mine from college. I’ve been flabbergasted my entire life as to why people adore her so much. She has the ability to not only hold a conversation with absolutely anyone but to seemingly connect with them in ways that I hadn’t been able to understand. We became friends because we were forced into close contact. She lived across the hall from me in the dorms and would often seduce me into her room with the promise of popcorn and Little House on the Prairie. (No judgments please- we went to school in North Dakota in the eighties.)

Slowly I fell in love with her because I was forced to interact with her. This has been a theme for most of my life. When I actually have to interact with other people I usually end up liking them no matter how much I try to tell myself that I despise them before I actually know them. (Obviously this is something that I am working to overcome. Pre-judging people doesn’t meld well with my new-found spiritual nature.)

I’d watch other people fall all over themselves to spend time with her and I’d wonder what it was about her that was so compellingly attractive. I have friends in LA who’ve met her a couple of times and they all talk about her with stars in their eyes.

I used to notice the undeniably human things she’d do in public. She’d fart and burp in front of other people and just excuse herself. She made blatant horrible mistakes. She’d apologize and expect to be forgiven. She was a singer and she often forgot the words to songs she had written on stage. She wasn’t perfect.

But she was whole. She was authentic. She was honest. She never tried to be a cartoon caricature of what she thought somebody else expected her to be. She was always unapologetically her true self. That’s what it takes to make real connections with other people. Honesty is required. Vulnerability is required. Connecting through your heart rather than your head is required.

I can understand now why almost everyone this friend came into contact with was enamored of her. She still is an island of truth in a false world. I haven’t spoken to her in a couple of years but I know that when we do connect again it will be like no time has passed at all. I intend to make sure she knows that she’s one of my heroes. I want her to know that I want to be just like her when I grow up- honest, vulnerable, beautifully imperfect and whole.

Emergency Contact Info and the Single Woman

I had to go the hospital-to-the-stars last week for some tests. The great thing about being a cancer survivor is that insurance will pay for almost any test the doctors want to run. The terrible thing about being a cancer survivor is that doctors love to run all kinds of tests and each test is fraught with potential danger.

In addition to once again being reduced to a series of numbers-

What’s your birthday?

Confirm your address.

Confirm your phone number.

I was asked to confirm my emergency contacts. I’m a 50-year-old woman and my first emergency contact is my 75-year-old father who lives thousands of miles away.

Then they rattled off the contact information for the last boyfriend. I had to tell them to delete his information; he is sadly no longer in a position to be my emergency contact. She deleted him then asked-

Do you have anyone else you would like to add as an emergency contact?

I cringed at her question. I realize that I really don’t have anyone to add as an emergency contact. I remember when the last boyfriend made the move to LA so we could be together, and the pleasure I had in telling whichever admissions officer was first in line that I did, indeed, finally have an emergency contact within driving distance.

Now I am back to having one and only one emergency contact. I realize that the admissions officers in these hospitals can’t possibly know how painful this emergency contact question can be for patients. For me it makes me realize how isolated I really am. Yes, I have friends in LA, but would I reach out and ask any of them if they would be willing to take on this tremendous responsibility?

This is, of course, partially my fault. If I lived closer to any of my sisters I know that each of them would be happy to be my emergency contact, and I would do the same for them. I have chosen, however, to live in a huge city without the benefit of close family members to support me in this way.

I also realize that I’m not anybody else’s emergency contact. Which is worse- the fact that I don’t have anyone local to call on as an emergency contact or the fact that nobody in my life has asked me to be their emergency contact? Does this mean that I don’t have the honest real connections with other people that I am searching for? Or does this mean that I’ve spent most of my life pretending that I am totally independent and that I don’t need anybody else to help me do anything?

I know in my heart that it’s the latter. It’s hard for me to admit I need help with anything. I find that when I’m in a relationship that I get to be smug when I’m in the chair answering questions about my emergency contact but as soon as that security is taken away from me I feel lost. I can name numerous times when men I’ve been involved with have disappointed me in near-emergency contact situations. I can also recall situations where total strangers have stepped up and gloriously handled near-emergency contact situations.

I’m grateful that I still have my father to fill this emergency contact role for me, but I’m on the hunt for a new emergency contact. I’m also open and willing to take on this responsibility for someone else. In our modern society where families are scattered all over the country we need to look to our own communities and step up for each other.

Hello World

A few days ago the song “Hello World” by Lady Antebellum came on in the car while I was driving and it brought back memories from my last trip to Africa.

I’ve been to Ethiopia twice with friends; I’m involved in a small nonprofit there. The last time we went our guide took us to a hospital that he and his wife help support.

Our guide’s wife was born with a clubfoot. Several years ago she had an operation through an organization in Ethiopia that coordinates Italian surgeons to provide operations for children and adults who otherwise could not afford treatment. The hospital we visited is the place where they go for weeks or months after the surgery to be cared for by nurses and start their physical therapy. There were children there scheduled for surgery in the next few days and children who were waiting for second surgeries.

We toured the grounds and met some of the children. Most of them seemed shy, but cautiously happy to meet us. Inside one of the buildings there was a classroom where a few children were watching a small television. The “Hello World” video by Lady Antebellum was playing.

I love Lady Antebellum. A friend of mine took me to their concert a few months before we went to Africa where we had second row seats. We were so close I could read the lead singer’s tattoo. I’ve never been that close to any band and I thought the whole experience was magical.

The first time I heard the song “Hello World” it really struck a chord in me. I was in my car stuck in LA traffic on the freeway. I usually talk to myself or daydream on the freeway, but when this song came on I instantly focused on it. It filled me with a sense of hope and optimism. The default title for the first post of any WordPress blog template is “Hello World”. To me it signifies the start of something, a chance for a new beginning. I’ve always turned up the radio when it comes on, it seems like my own special song.

There I was 12,000 miles away from home in an obscure little classroom that I entered exactly when this particular song was playing on the television. I had a moment where I wasn’t at all sure where I was. Down was up. Left was right. How could this happen, this melding of two very different worlds through the language of one song? I looked at the children in that room and understood that they really aren’t any different than the children in my neighborhood. They too have hopes and dreams and are grateful for any kindness the world chooses to bestow upon them.

As we drove away we passed the bus of Italian doctors coming up the hill to perform surgeries on these children the next day. Each of them had flown thousands of miles to donate their time and skills to improve the lives of total strangers.

Hello World.

Mediocre Spinning Classes

I’ve been spinning (going nowhere on a stationary bike in a roomful of exercise fanatics with dance club music and a disco ball) for almost twenty years. I used to drive over an hour to take spin classes after work in West Hollywood at the hip cool gym but lately I’ve been spinning in my neighborhood at the local mediocre spin studio. A few nights ago in this mediocre spin studio in the most mediocre of spin classes I started thinking about mediocrity in general. (Sadly I had plenty of time to think in this class.)

In my twenties I worked in a series of restaurants. I came up with the brilliant idea of writing a book entitled “Mediocre Mexican”. I wanted to share stories with the world of what it’s really like to serve mediocre food in mediocre surroundings. I planned to regale readers with stories about the one dollar tips, the customers insisting that we give them free chips and salsa because the Mexican restaurant in their small hometown gave them free chips and salsa, and the convoluted inflated food allergies. Time got the best of me and I forgot all about my big plans to write a book about the service industry. Mediocrity, however, did not abandon me.

A few months ago I went to one of my favorite Master Kundlaini Yoga teacher’s classes, Guru Singh. He repeated the following phrase half a dozen times-

How much capital do you spend on disappointment?

This really resonated with me. Clearly this is not just about financial capital. How much time, energy, and passion are each of us spending on disappointment? Mediocrity in any instance is one of the most disappointing outcomes I can imagine. Why do we spend these resources over and over again to face the same results? Is it that we are all incredibly optimistic? Do we really think that if we just try one more time that the outcome will be different even if every other component is the same? How much do we really settle for mediocrity and disappointment in our lives? I also love a quote I heard years ago by Dr. Michael Beckwith from Agape-

Mediocrity always attacks excellence.

I know I have settled for almost good enough for most of my life. Mediocrity can be safer than excellence. You don’t have to worry about people attacking you because you are the best if you wallow in mediocrity. You can hide out in the shadows; people will leave you alone if you’re not horrible enough to be a huge failure but not great enough to be an object of envy.

I don’t want to spend any more of my resources on mediocrity. I’m currently seeking excellence. Excellence in my thinking, excellence in my actions, and especially excellence in what I give back to the world.

I’m breaking up with mediocrity. I AM finished devoting the lion’s share of my resources to mediocrity. Mediocrity, I now see, is not my friend. It is not safe. It is a pattern I fell into in the past.

Today, and in my future, I can and I will devote myself to excellence. This is the difference in a life just lived and a life worth living.

The Gift of Salisbury Steak

I spent time last week with an old friend whose perspective on the homeless I have always admired. He tries to help anyone who asks him for help. Years ago when I questioned him about this he said,

If that was my father asking for help I hope someone would reach out and help him. That person asking for help could be someone’s father, and they are most certainly someone’s son.

He told me a story about a homeless man he helped a few months ago.

My friend ran across a homeless man on the street asking for money. He asked him if he was hungry. The man said he was. My friend asked him what he was craving, he told him he could have anything he wanted. The man said he would really love a Salisbury steak.

This really struck me, this request for Salisbury steak. I wonder what kind of memories Salisbury steak conjured up for that man. Did his father make him Salisbury steak as a child?

My only memories of Salisbury steak are of the infrequent packaged TV dinners my sisters and I were entrusted to put in the oven when my parents went out to dinner. Salisbury steak in it’s own little compartment, overcooked green beans or cauliflower in another, and finally, some kind of dried out syrupy fruit cobbler. I wonder if he had the same types of memories that I did, if his request for Salisbury steak was a request to go back into the past to a happier time?

My friend was in a rush, but he took the homeless man to a diner; the owner wouldn’t let him sit in a booth but allowed him to sit at the counter. My friend gave the owner $25.00 and told him to give the homeless man the Salisbury steak as well as whatever else he wanted and to keep any change as a tip for the employees. Before he left the homeless man rushed to my friend thanking him profusely for the gift of a proper meal.

Many of the homeless people on the street have mental problems so my friend wasn’t too surprised when the next day he ran across the very same homeless man and was not recognized. Even though he gave him the gift of Salisbury steak the man didn’t remember my friend or the encounter.

I would have thought that my friend would have been disappointed that the man didn’t remember him or what he had done. He told me that it was a real lesson for him to realize that helping people truly needs to be done without any expectation of recognition. Being of service to others isn’t about feeding your own ego, it’s about freely sharing the gifts you have been given in this world to those who need your help the most.

Sometimes that gift can be as simple as Salisbury steak.

Spirituality vs. The Ocean

The Atlantic Ocean in Maine is bitterly cold, even in August. The tourists still flock to the beach, with backpack beach chairs and umbrellas to protect themselves against the 85 degree sun. I’ve been lucky enough to be one of those tourists this week.

I’ve dipped my toes in the water a few times but I’d rather do three Bikram Yoga classes in a row that be cold for even a few minutes. My friends both have been going out to their necks in the water all week at the beach.

I’ve been teaching them Kundalini Yoga in the morning and they’ve both been great sports abut both the chanting and some of the unconventional postures involved.

A few days ago they insisted I go out into the water with them. They don’t ask me for much so I decided I should try to go out with them. They both tried to hold my hands to help me. I resisted. I screamed and almost cried and tried to stay in the ankle deep water. I finally found the courage to get knee deep in the water, to show them I had conquered the situation, only to turn around and run to the safety of the shore.

Then one of my friends started clapping the palms of his hands with his fingers just as I had showed them the day before in a very difficult yoga posture.

The posture called for them to keep both arms straight out at their sides at the level of their ears and clap their fingers against their palms. After about 45 seconds or so everyone’s shoulders and arms start to burn. The posture calls for 3-1/2 minutes. I talked them through about a minute and a half. I told them that if they kept their arms up long enough that their brains would shut off the pain (absolutely true). I told them that keeping their arms up in a difficult posture is a lot like getting through difficult situations in life. If they could conquer one they could conquer the other.

When they finally let their arms down I told them not to celebrate. Conquering small things in life doesn’t necessarily call for a celebration. I asked them to just sit still and enjoy the relief.

So, there in the frigid water, neck deep, was my friend with his arms raised clapping his fingers against his hands. He was showing me that he had taken a chance on my yoga, and in doing so he had mastered a difficult situation. It was my turn to master a difficult situation.

I was afraid. I know how powerful the ocean can be. But I knew in that moment that I needed to choose courage over fear. I went back into the water. It took me awhile to get neck deep. I screamed as every frigidly cold wave threatened to knock me over. Step by step I slowly made it out to my finger-clapping friend. He said-

Congratulations, you made it. Now, don’t celebrate. Just be in the moment.

My student had become my teacher.

I didn’t stay long, but I made it. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. It was totally worth it.

On Being of Service

Last weekend at LAX I was checking in for my flight at a kiosk when a harried woman asked a man next to me if he could help her check in. He instantly dismissed her, waving his hand and pointing to the kiosk. She started poking at the monitor, and I saw her trying to enter a number from a scrap of paper, confused and lost.

In that moment I had a choice. I could go about my business and let this woman flail around on her own, eventually she certainly would have found someone to help her, or I could step up and be of service to another human in this world.

I asked if she needed help. She was instantly overwhelmed with gratitude. She’d never traveled by herself before; she had no idea what she was doing. The confirmation number she had scribbled on a scrap of paper didn’t work so I asked her if she had a credit card to find her reservation. She said she didn’t and that she shouldn’t have to pay for anything because her work said everything should be paid for.

Instantly I knew just how she felt. I thought of all the times my default reaction to anything was to protect myself from being taken advantage of. From (allegedly) homeless people on the freeway exit ramps to the employees at Subway who try to upgrade me to an extra large soda, I am always on alert.

I explained to her that the credit card was for identification only and that she wouldn’t be charged for anything. She pulled her debit card out of her well-worn wallet and handed it over to me, a complete stranger. I swiped her card and handed it back to her. We found her reservation together; I tried to no avail to get her a better seat, printed her boarding pass and told her to have a good flight. She turned to me and said,

Thank you so much, you have saved my life.

Now, I certainly didn’t save her life, but I see how this simple act of kindness, a total of 4 minutes of my time, did made a difference to her. Not only for the fact that I helped her navigate the complications in printing a boarding pass, but because she was reassured that there are still people in this world willing to make a personal connection with a stranger, to inconvenience themselves a little for the benefit of someone else.

One of my mentors, the fabulous rock star spinning and yoga instructor Colin Kim, time and time again impresses me with the phrase-

Thank you for allowing me to be of service to you.

Being of service to someone else isn’t just about the big glorious things like building wells in Africa, or starting your own nonprofit. There is tremendous beauty and joy in being of service to others in small ways.

If I didn’t take notes about this altercation last weekend I most certainly wouldn’t have thought about that woman or what I did for her ever again. I hope that I have hundreds of stories like this in my past that I have simply forgotten. I know that I will have hundreds if not thousands of these small opportunities in my future to be of service to others.

I intend to make the most of these opportunities and follow in my friend Colin Kim’s footsteps to truly master the phrase-

Thank you for allowing me to be of service to you.

Miss vs. Ma’am

I stopped for a glass of wine and a snack in the Denver airport last weekend. The server kept referring to me as “Miss” when I am very clearly, at 50, a “Ma’am”. I started thinking about when I noticed the shift from Miss to Ma’am.

I used to travel to Paris a lot for work. I was in my early thirties when I started and everyone in the shops always said,

Bonjour Mademoiselle.

Then, when they turned around to actually look at me,

Hello.

I am still confused as to how they always knew I was American before I spoke. Sure, in my forties the comfort shoes would have been a red flag, but in my thirties I still thought I looked pretty chic and stylish.

In my early forties this shifted to

Bonjour Madame

The first time it happened I was caught off guard. What did they think they were doing, calling me Madame? I wasn’t a Madame. I was still young and unmarried. Yes, I was unmarried, but in their society, no matter how hip my shoes were or how well versed I was in cutting edge technology, I was not young. As it happened more and more I gradually conceded to the fact that I must look like a Madame rather than a Mademoiselle.

In the U.S. people don’t use such formal terms. It’s rare to hear someone referred to as Miss or Ma’am.

A few months ago my hairdresser went into a tirade complaining about someone in the service industry who called her Ma’am. I asked her to look in the mirror and tell me if she had seen a woman who looked like her when she was twenty if she would call her Miss or Ma’am. She was a little crestfallen when she said she would have called herself Ma’am. “But”, she said,

I still feel like I’m twenty on the inside.

“Your mother,” I said, “still feels like she’s twenty on the inside.” In fact, I’ve never met a woman who hasn’t confessed that she feels much, much younger on the inside than her chronological age.

Most of the time when people use the term Ma’am they’re using it to relay a sign of respect. I’ve started to appreciate this fact when someone uses the phrase anymore. I’ve earned the right to be called “Ma’am”.

Just please; don’t try to false flatter me by calling me “Miss”.

On Saving Things for a Special Occasion

I spent the weekend with my family in North Dakota celebrating my 50th birthday. My father reminded me about the shopping trips we used to take to Fargo, ND when I was in Junior High School. There was a giant mall in Fargo (giant according to my Midwestern mid-Seventies perspective) with an Art Store.

While my family wandered the mall looking at all the exotic items only available in the metropolis of Fargo/Moorhead I walked up and down the 8 aisles of the largest art store I had ever seen. I would pick up pastels and oil paints and brushes and pads of paper and study each of them, turning them over and over in my hands. My father used to stand outside the store and watch me. It took me hours to come to a decision and purchase something. When I got home I would look at them over and over again, eventually putting everything away in a closet with the intention of using these precious exotic materials one day. I wonder now what I was waiting for. Was I waiting for inspiration to strike me or was I hoping that one day I would be good enough to use them?

Years later I was home for Christmas and watched my eight year old baby sister open a gift from our Uncle. He sent her a “Complete Artist’s Kit” with all kinds of different art supplies. From watercolors to oil pastels, she was blown away by his generosity and the fact that he must have thought that she was deserving of such a spectacular gift. Once all the gifts were opened and the wrapping paper had been cleaned up and thrown away she took her new Artist’s Kit to the kitchen table, unwrapped it, and began to draw with her new tools.

I was flabbergasted. How could she have just opened such an amazing gift and started using it? She hadn’t relished in the fact that she had it for long enough. She hadn’t planned over and over in her mind how sweet the moment would be when she actually used her new gift. She hadn’t dreamed of the way the 42 colored pencils would feel in her hands, or the joy that the gift would bring her.

She didn’t save it for a special occasion. She didn’t save it until she proved to herself that she was genuinely worthy. I saw in her what I wished I had found for myself at her age. The realization that the enjoyment of life isn’t meant to be put off for some mystical perfect time in the future. At 8 years old my baby sister understood that life is meant to be lived in the present moment. What a gift it was for me to see that through the innocence of her perspective.

When both of my grandmothers died my parents found gifts from us unused still in their original packaging. They felt the sweaters and the little necklaces we gave them were too special, too precious to wear every day so they put them away for a special occasion. Unfortunately, in numerous cases, that special occasion didn’t happen for either one of them.

In this regard, I don’t want to be like my grandmothers. I don’t want to die and have my family find fabulous things in my apartment that were too special to use. I want to be like my baby sister. I want to understand that life is happening right now, today, so I should use and enjoy everything I have.