I did an interview in the late ’80s with a mother who had watched her son die. She crawled into bed with him as he was dying. And his last words were, “Oh, it was all so simple.” And then he smiled. When she said that, I got chills.
We’re going to take our last breath and say, “Why were we struggling all that time? Why were we swimming upstream? Where all we had to do was just look at each other and accept each other for who each of us represents on the planet.” I thought back to that quote. Ah, it was so simple. I didn’t have to fight that hard. It didn’t have to be that hard.
That show, along with many others, had a powerful and calming impact on me in terms of the way I led my own life.
“For what it’s worth… it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to star all over again.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In almost every yoga class I go to, it’s a challenge. Truthfully, sometimes the challenge is just in even showing up. But I do.
And once on my mat, I take direction from my teacher who will tell me to stretch, lift, bend, hold, push. I often see others do this all with ease and yet in some poses I struggle. The triangle in particular where your legs are straight and your body bends over to the side, your one arm to the sky and your other arm straight out to the wall. It’s all legs and core – neither of which are my strong suit.
It’s often in this pose, or one like it, that I harden up. Jaw tightens, I’m holding all my muscles together for dear life and I’m sure I have the 11’s above my eyes forming like nobodies business. It’s hard.
In a class last week, I found this pose particularly hard. Frankly, I had found the whole day, actually week, hard. I was being hit with struggles left and right and had formed all these walls around myself in order to keep moving. I was rigid with sadness and fear and it totally showed up in my yoga class.
So when I was in triangle pose, my teacher came over to me to gentle helped guide my body into the pose and said, “this pose requires every part of your being to work. Every muscle has to pay attention. But in this pose, find one thing you can soften. One thing.”
My first reaction was, soften what? My legs were shaking, my core was burning, my arms were doing everything they could to hold this pose together that I feared if I softened one thing, I’d fall over and all the others in the class – who looked like they were all holding it together with ease – would see.
So I stayed in my struggle and she stayed behind me until she said, “find one thing. you can find one thing. Your jaw? Your eyes? It doesn’t have to be big, just soften.”
I let my jaw go and instantly the struggle seemed less. My everything still shook but the struggle seemed less. And the impossible of finding something to soften, happened.
In my early twenties, I worked in different tourism outlets around the world. In 1996 I found myself working for Tourism British Columbia where, for eight hours a day, I’d answer the calls of people needing answers about the provence. And if they needed reservations – from hotels to tours – I could do that too.
There was one particular call that I answered that stays with me almost twenty years later and continues to influence me throughought my days.
A woman called in one morning, furious because she wanted to cancel a reservation on a hotel and was cancelling within 24hrs of her expected arrival. This meant that she would not be getting her deposit on her room back. And she wanted it.
I explained to her the policies, I explained why she wasn’t going to get it back but the more I tried to be ‘helpful’, the more she yelled and the more angry she became.
“I want to speak to your manager,” she said. I knew my managers. They were neither availble nor would they be helpful. And they wouldn’t tell her anything different. When I tried to explain that they weren’t avaible, she yelled even more. So I told her, “one moment, please.”
I put her on hold for about two minutes. In that time I took a deep breath. I stood up and shook myself out. I sat down, I smiled, picked up the phone and said, “Hullo, how can I help you?”
The woman on the phone began to rely to me (again) her predicament. I calmly listened, I empathized, I did everything I had done before – including giving her the same answer.
She paused and then said, “I understand. Thank you for your time and your help”, then we hung up.
Anyone that has spoken with me would hear that I have a pretty distinct accent and that I am absolutely terrible and impersonating others. So the call as myself and as ‘my manager’ were done in the exact voice, the same language, the same mannerisms. I never gave another name, I never said I was a manager. All that had changed was her expectation and perception of the situation.
And that was enough.
“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different. Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself. A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.”
Standing in line to place my order, I noticed the young cashier behind the juice counter. Specifically, I noticed her hair. It was such a lovely colour that I tried to think of stealth ways I could take a phone photo of her so I could run to my hair stylist and say, ‘this, this is the colour I want to be instead of my messy, dark, old hair.’
Her hair also seemed naturally curly but curled in a way that didn’t seem to frizz and had that youthful shine that my hair no longer seemed to have. This girl behind the counter with her youth and shiny hair seemed full of possibilities. And I somehow wanted to capture that if only through getting the same shampoo.
When I got to her to place my order, the first thing she said was, “I love you hair.”
This took me a moment to process but then I replied, “How funny, I love yours! I want your colour!”
She laughed and told me she wanted my curls. And then then her co-worker who had been standing next to us the entire time said, “you both realize you have the exact same hair.”
The girl and I just kind of looked at each other as if to say, “no we don’t.” And somehow, perhaps because we both needed to prove it, we both put up a strand of hair against the others.
Our hair was the exact same.
Same colour, same texture, same curl.
She took my order, I took my juice, and neither of us said a thing. Because at that moment I think we both realized that what we both envied and wanted was something we didn’t think we had.
And we did.
The other evening there was a unexpected knock on the door and when I opened it there stood three boys from about ages 7-10 trying to sell things to raise money for school. The eldest boy was clearly the leader; he spoke first, he stood tall, and he seemed very boyish. The middle one stood quietly beside the eldest, holding props as the first one spoke. The youngest boy was different; as the other two spoke he kept popping in and out from behind, trying to look into my house.
After I told them I didn’t want to purchase anything and shut the door, I heard the youngest say, “It’s like magic in there!” The earnest excitement of it made me open the door back up and say, “do you want to see some more?”
All he could do was nod with a big grin.
I kept the front door open and had the boys come in. Because it was just before supper time, I had the candles lit, the windows open for a breeze, tea set brewing on the table and glossy mags on the couch. They peered around the living room, at my books, at my art, my dress form, my early 1900’s camera and so on. And whilst inside the older two were relatively quiet (except for when they saw the camera or some other gadget) but the youngest kept saying, “wow, so pretty!”
After about 5 minutes the boys left but just before I shut the door I whispered to the youngest, “If you want to be a decorator or designer when you grow up, know that that’s totally OK. And in fact, you’ll have more fun and make more money than selling supplies.”
He looked at me with a big grin and shook his head yes like he understood. I so hope he did.
Years ago I lived in Seattle and one day happened to be in one of the tall office towers downtown. The kind that had restaurants, shops and thousands of people. I went into one of the restrooms during lunch and there was a line of women waiting to use the stalls. But there was also one woman, laying on the ground in the corner, crying. She wasn’t homeless, she wasn’t crazy, she wasn’t dishevelled or seemingly dangerous but something was obviously wrong. However everyone in that washroom pretended otherwise.
I went over to her asked her her name and what was wrong. Between muffled sobs she told me and that she needed her friends who were eating nearby in a restaurant. I told her I’d go and find them and then looked around at the other women in the restroom and asked if anyone could stay with her while I went and looked for her friends. Half the women ignored me and the other half just looked at me dazed, like they wanted to help but they didn’t want to get involved. I yelled at them, “what if this was you? Wouldn’t you want someone to help you? To comfort you?”
I couldn’t find a volunteer. Not one.
At the restaurant I began looking for two women lunching and calling out the names I had until I found the two. As they followed me to the washroom they talked to each other. “Oh my god,” I heard one say, “she’s been gone for 20minutes. All this time something’s been wrong!”
Twenty minutes how many people came in and out, saw her, and walked away. Twenty minutes that woman was hurting – alone, scared, embarassed, shamed. Twenty minutes was less than it took me to talk to her, find her friends and help her.
I often wonder if I hadn’t been there at that time, what would have happened to her? What did happen to her? Thinking about that and thinking about that situation, well, simple stated it makes me sad.
There are so many stories from people I’ve heard who have been in similar situations; recently a friend confided that she was choking in a violent, scary way yet the people around her – people she had known for years – passively sat by. When she finally regained herself, not one person asked if she was ok. Not one. How is she supposed to feel anything but sadness, loneliness, mistrust and disconnect from people with whom she should feel otherwise?
I’ve seen a woman in a bad neighbourhood in Philadelphia getting beaten up by a guy twice my size. And I got out of my car across the street and started yelling “IM CALLING THE POLICE. LEAVE HER ALONE IM CALLING THE POLICE” until he realised I really was, left her and ran off. Then I went and helped her until the police came. When people heard what I’d done, they asked how I could have gotten involved, wasn’t I scared? To which I always reply, “How could I not? I’d be more scared to read that she’d died because I chose to walk away.” I knew I couldn’t stop the fight but I had a phone and a voice. I used both. I did what I could do. We always should.
We talk all the time of how connected we now all are. Connected to what, I ask? Connected to Facebook updates but not the people beside us? To Twitter status updates of celebrities, ‘influencers’, hustlers but not updating our neighbour next door? Of texting money donations to causes around the world but leaving our friends and community members who are in need, alone and without?
Recently I was at SXSW Interactive; a yearly conference that is aimed at bringing people together to share ideas, to network and to support each other in panels, in hallways, at parties. In 2002 when I first went, I remember interacting people in really meaningful ways; long conversations in the hallways, uninterrupted listening during panels, exchanging great ideas over impromptu drinks. Those people I met then became life-changing friends that I still have, still inspire, and still connect with. This year, however, was different.
Most people who attended literally interacted with their friends on social sites via their phones. Everyone was texting; sharing with strangers on Twitter what was going on but unable to ask someone sitting next to them their name. I saw those ‘social gurus’ who all the time talk about online communities, social networking, and connecting to people. Yet I saw those same social gurus stand in a room of 100 people, unable to connect with one person and more often than not, stand in a corner, checking their phone for their online community updates. I saw people pass each other by without even looking up from their devices, or entering parties to scan for cool kids instead of thinking the person that would really make the difference was right in front.And honestly, it was really hard to deal with.
Because here’s the thing: I am quite shy when I’m alone. I’m not naturally gregarious and a people seeker. I don’t go out feeling brave and fearless all the time, especially in crowds or in new places. But if I see someone needing help – whether it’s a friend needing to move furniture, a person who fell on the street or someone just needing to brainstorm an idea – I help.
I understand the fear and hesitation people can have with strangers but I don’t understand that with friends, coworkers, family. How can we not help one another? Whether it’s calling 911 or providing a shoulder to cry on, or simply saying, “I’m here to listen, what do you need.” This disconnect we’re all facing is something we’re doing to ourselves and each other. We have more intamacy with a keyboard and feel more useful by sending money to charities via a computer than helping a friend right beside us.
What is the solution? I’m sure I don’t know although I know it’s not in everyone becoming Mother Theresa or giving up Facebook. I think a little part of the answer is to just to simply remember and practice compassion and humanness. To pay attention to each other – strangers, friends, family. To do the right thing when we can. To help someone is to involve yourself in their problem and sometimes that’s as simply as lending an ear – even for just 5 minutes. Sometimes people just need to be heard, to feel safe and to feel like they’re not alone. Because oddly enough, that’s a lot of people’s concerns: loneliness and being disconnected.
But the simple act of reaching out a hand to someone else turns you both into something connected. And perhaps that’s the waterdrop that the waterfall needed to begin with.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Jack Kerouac