Living The Life of Right. Or Maybe I Just Need a Bigger Stick.

“Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat.”

— Anais Nin

 

I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who hasn’t suffered in some way or who hasn’t been forced to face those extreme hardships that come hand-in-hand with the territory. And I definitely can’t imagine someone not having a story to tell, because there’s one in all of us.

Perhaps some are more glamorous, more intriguing, more heartbreaking than others, but it’s there, nevertheless. Right below the surface of our everyday moments. Filled with such sweeping colors, magnificent light, gusting winds, music, beauty, and misery across those Grand Canyon plateaus that somehow mark us with their presence then propel us forward, despite our feet begging not to go one step further.

But we must. So we do.

I’ve always imagined a shorter life than the one I’ve been given. Maybe the man upstairs decided my sorry ass had a greater purpose. And so in the interim, I stand on my own little piece of terra firma as a witness to everyone else’s story, doing what I do, soaking in all that surrounds me like a precious gift. Because I think that’s what life is, a gift. It’s easy for us to not always view it that way; especially when we’re drowning in despair or dodging all those curveballs suddenly in our faces. But it is. It’s another joyous moment where we get to breathe and if we’re lucky enough, we just might also do something miraculous.

This past April, I saw the movie, Woman in Gold. It was impactful then, and now months later seeing it again, I found it to be no less so. Based upon a remarkable true story of one woman’s quest to seek justice for what had happened to her and her family during WWII, Maria Altmann’s (Helen Mirren) story unfolds sixty years after she fled Vienna as she hires a young and inexperienced lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her retrieve several family-owned paintings that had been seized by the Nazis. However, the movie focuses on one in particular. It was of her aunt and titled: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. The artist was the masterfully talented Gustav Klimt. Not only had this particular painting become famous (the Mona Lisa of Austria), but it had been on display in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, for decades.

As a little side note that some of you might already know (especially if you’ve seen the movie, The Monuments Men with George Clooney), during the war, Nazi Germany had implemented a systematic and widespread looting campaign of valuable artwork belonging not only to the Jews, but all occupied countries. Over the years, they amassed so many pieces that it took more than 1000 repositories across Austria and Germany to secretly house them all. And when the war ended, the artwork was discovered and international laws dealing with art restitution were soon passed. The project itself was and still is a colossal undertaking. And while numerous pieces have been identified and handed over to the respective countries from which they were confiscated in the hope of eventually finding their way back to their rightful owner, unfortunately as of today, it has been estimated that well over 100,000 works of great art still have not been returned.

Perhaps some might view the retrieval of stolen property as insignificant in comparison to the bigger picture; being that Maria Altmann was luckier than most—she lived. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, they would be right. However, as I sat in the movie theatre becoming more and more entrenched in the layers of her story peeling away, something else became glaringly clear.

What had been taken from her wasn’t the tangible at all. But the link to her history. And without it, Maria knew she would remain lost in the shadows of a life where blissful memories and terrifying experiences would lay buried, if she didn’t do something to make it right.

Okay. Sure. This is a message we’ve heard countless times before. Told through stories by Holocaust survivors, movies, books. Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields,” Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Native Americans. The genocides, the mass atrocities. Stories we’re not likely to forget, and yet like most things, they somehow still manage to get muted into the background, like yesterday’s news. And it’s exactly because of this inevitability that I believe every now and again it’s vital that we bring them back to the surface to remind ourselves, and more importantly to educate the next generation, our children and our children’s children; before lovingly passing it into their arms for safekeeping.

No, my dear friends, we can never forget. I don’t ever want to forget. Because if I do, then, well, I deny its existence and, therefore, I deny myself. It’s as simple as that. The past might be in the past, but it is who we are.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie where Randy Schoenberg is in Vienna standing before the Restitution Mediation panel, with the eyes and ears of all Austria watching on as he delivers his final plea before a ruling is made on who is the rightful heir to the painting: Maria Altmann or Austria. It’s one of those compelling David versus Goliath moments we all love. Whether it comes to us in life or in a movie, doesn’t seem to matter. The effect is the same. Rousing some unseen force from within, and shakes us silly. And in this case, in this eloquent “sins of our father” speech, the new world thinking of the present was reminding the old world values of the past that a war had been waged, that millions had undeniably been exterminated, that the citizens of Austria blindly participated, and what they now needed to do in order to bring about a healing closure, not only for Maria Altmann or the Jewish people, but for themselves as a culture, once and for all. Acknowledge their wrong.

Many years ago, as a young woman living in Mexico, I remember being in a restaurant with some people I knew, some I’d just met. Upon introduction, I realized that the young man sitting to my right was from Germany. All throughout dinner, I couldn’t look at him, let alone say two words. It wasn’t as if I’d led a sheltered life or that I’d lost people in the war. Because that wasn’t the case at all. And yet, for some inexplicable, some irrational reason, at that moment, his face and Hiltler’s were one and the same. All night I fought against this misplaced anger. And he obviously sensed my inner turmoil, because at some point afterwards, when I was standing alone near the bar, he came over to me, and just like that, he apologized.

“For what?” I asked, confused. “For what my people did to yours.”

Woman in Gold isn’t just a story about the Holocaust or the importance of family heirlooms. It’s about reclamation of heritage. It’s about justice, plain and simple. Standing up for what’s right. That’s what Maria Altmann did in such a Herculean way against so many forces, despite the undeniable odds. And that’s what makes this story so powerful, so inspiring for me. I wanted to pick up my stick and do battle, right there and then.

Many times in our everyday lives we’re forced to face the unthinkable. But does that standing up to those things make us better human beings or simply hammer in how far we still need to go? It’s not enough just to do the good deeds, to live the right life. Giving a helping hand to a friend, working at shelters, caring for those human and non-human beings who can’t help themselves, yes . . . are commendable acts—even necessary. But I somehow don’t imagine these things alone are enough. We must do more. We must stretch our moral fiber beyond those comfortable borders, when the moment arises.

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”

— Haruki Murakami

 

All of us share this same type of desire: to stand up against what’s wrong in the world. I think it’s part of our DNA. And yet many cannot, many do not—for whatever reason.

Look, I don’t feel that my pain is greater than anyone else’s. We’ve all had a look at the dark side. It’s not pretty. And the moment I rest on that lollapalooza, I’m finished. Okay? Standing in judgment is simply not the way to go. Not for me anyway. How each one of us chooses to lead the best possible life is a decision only we can make and, ultimately, something we all have to live with. Whether it’s standing on the sidelines or in the thick of those messy things, wielding a sword, I will love you all the same.

Me? I prefer messy. But, hey . . . what do I know? I’m the girl walking around with the fuzzy Dumbo hat on her head, sipping fruity martinis.

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The Slippery and Sometimes Thankless Slope of Motherhood: Its Joys and Perils

“If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.”

— Jackie Kennedy Onassis

 

In this department, there are no do-overs. You get one shot at getting this right. . . and that’s it!

I was lucky. No, blessed to have given birth to two healthy children. The strange thing was I never expected to be a mother. I didn’t even envision myself in that role growing up. And yet, as I reached my mid-twenties, those pangs of maternal instinct came banging on my door anyway, saying: whatever plans you’ve got in mind for yourself lady, forget ‘em!

And I did, with the happy obliviousness of a person slipping on a pair of shoes, two sizes too big.

But hey, what did I know? I was still young and stupid and about to learn very quickly my needs would come last. That and my perspective on everything would change.

I always believed babies were beautiful creatures. Messy, but beautiful and never moreso then when they’re ours. Right? I mean, I don’t think it’s possible for a mother to look at her child and say, “ewww, what a creepy looking nose.” We’re simply not programmed that way. For us it’s imperative that we look past any and all imperfections and hold our precious little offspring up to a level reserved only for future kings and queens. Because if we don’t, we’ll never survive the path called rebellion stretched out before us.

It’s a harrowing road, yes siree Bob, and for some strange and crazy reason we don’t even think about. No matter how many children we have. It works along the same glutton-for-punishment vein as birth. You simply forget those labor pains and go back for more. I think it has something to do with the female hotwiring, similar to robots. Press the button, spread the legs and off you go. Oh yeah. Thanks God, I owe ya one!

Anyway, like I said, you innately look past those things. You do because the being you gave life to, is suddenly this whole person. This tiny mass of giggling arms and legs taking their first step across the room; boarding the school bus for the very first time on their way to kindergarten, leaving you there crying as you wave goodbye; packing the car and heading off to college, person.

Yes, those prized moments of “firsts” seeing their faces lit with all the excitement and newness life has to bear, are the dividends. The rewards we get as mothers to be present in their lives as they take shape and hopefully embody those hopes and dreams we’ve laid at their feet.

I’m not sure our children ever truly realize all that we do for them. What great sacrifices were made on our part so that they could have a better education, live in a safer environment, experience life from all angles before going off on their own. As mothers (and fathers), we don’t do these things with any sort of expectation in mind. We just do them—and that’s that. We ignore and we accept that their worlds have imposed on ours and hopefully somewhere along the way that heartfelt realization will eventually come to them.

And if it doesn’t . . . oh well, we’re still good. There’s always tomorrow. Maybe.

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Gardening, Drowning and Writing

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

—-George R. R. Martin

 

How we see ourselves creatively has always been a fascinating topic for me.  So when I found this excerpt from on interview Martin did, I knew right away which camp I belonged.  I saw the black and white of it.  The explicitness vs. the ambiguity of thought. And while these two approaches are as vastly different and as deep as the sea, and even though today’s writers would more than likely protest over this simplification to bring attention to the current ego-deflating digital landscape they’re forced to face after that last word is written (Kick-Ass Twitter Ninjas, SEO Wizards)—when it comes to creating, the starting point is the same for all. At the beginning.

For a writer it’s with a blank sheet of paper. For an artist, an empty canvas, for a sculptor, a lump of clay and for a novice literary gardener who hadn’t a clue what she was doing… it was nothing more than the dirt beneath her feet. That and vision, I thought when my ex-husband and I first bought the house of our dreams. A house which, by the way, didn’t start out in that blissful condition of completeness nor the small runway strip of garden trailing up the walkway. Both needed loving hands to resuscitate them back to life and a healthy sense of humor which I obviously must have had gazing beyond the rusted pipes, the chipped ceilings, the rotted roof, the leaking swimming pool and the forest of weeks flourishing about—because I didn’t turn and run.

In no time at all I threw myself into the world of gardening. I learned its lingo. I adopted its blueprints, its perfectionisms in order to replicate what Home and Garden and Pinterest promised me. I even suited up in the requisite attire—wide-brimmed Aunt Bee hat, Nitrile gloves and all—just to demonstrate my newfound devotion. But devotion wasn’t enough. As plants began dying left and right, I realized no matter how quickly I wanted my garden to transform, it was a process. A learning curve. And ridiculously expensive.

I was by no means dripping in money. My ex-husband and I had used all our savings as a down payment, so you can imagine the toll it took. But, back then I was stupid and undeterred. Back then my knees didn’t pop like the Tin Man’s. I wanted Monet’s garden. I wanted the best and the most beautiful garden on the block, no matter the price tag. Like I said…I was stupid.

Monet's garden

Days after work and weekends when I wasn’t shuttling the children to and from soccer practice and various playdates that opened up that extra window of time for me to work in my little private Idaho, I weeded. Up to my eyeballs in compost, I dug. I batted away flies that wanted a piece of me for lunch while watering my charges under a brutal ninety-degree Floridian sun.

Weeks turned into months and months turned into years. And as the periwinkles took flight, as the pansies danced their way up to my front door, as the bougainvilleas exploded in purpley-purples up their filigree ladder, I continued to work the garden. Almost every day. Not because I had to anymore, but because I wanted to be surrounded by the comforting silence that had blossomed into a better marriage than the one I had.

At a time when I’d hoped my life would take that much needed uphill turn—the fate Gods had different plans for me. So it was there, in the garden I allowed myself to sink into myself. To reach that sacrosanct place of wounded splendor where judgment, broken hearts, crumbling marriages, failing businesses, crying babies and monsters did not exist.

Even for a little while.

Eventually I sold the house. It was not something I wanted to do. However circumstances and obligations after a very lengthy divorce, told me I had to. And the idea that all that work and love I put in would be replaced by someone else’s vision, only made the separation that much harder to accept.

Yes, I was moving away, but not moving on. That would take a little bit longer.

The decision to write was never a conscious one nor did it come then. It came about a few years later, out of need. The kind of need that feels like drowning with arms and legs flailing against a silent blue terror. And I knew…just knew…if I didn’t at least try to give voice to this feeling, I would be lost.

Why one writes I believe is a question answered differently by everyone. To become famous, to affect change, to alter the course of humanity, to heal those bleeding wounds, to record our stories are the foundations for every work of art.

“We also write to heighten our own awareness of life,” said Anais Nin. “We write to lure and enchant and console others. We write to serenade our lovers. We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection. We write, like Proust, to render all of it eternal, and to persuade ourselves that it is eternal. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak with others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled, or constricted, or lonely.”

And if we don’t write…

“You are going to feel like hell,” Anne Lamott recently said, “if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart—your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it’s why you were born.”

They say those authors we read are those influences that tell us who we are, that help to define us as writers. Well if that’s true, (and I believe it is) I only hope a little of Anais Nin and Anne Lamott rubs off on me in one shape form or another.

In my wildest dreams I never imagined myself a gardener.  Nor a writer.  And much like gardening, a writer’s life is a lonely one.   We’re left to our own devices, endless hours at a time. Creating worlds in which we sit day after day, sometimes struggling for the words to come, sometimes not. Typing and trashing, sulking and laughing, drinking lots and lots of coffee, committed and bound—we’re a unique tribe. It’s so goddamn hard to bare all that you are to a sea of nameless faces without wanting to curl up in a ball and die. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to give up. How many times I’ve wanted to scream at the air like a motherfucker! The truth is it’s so many…I’ve stopped counting. And yet, without fail, every morning, even before the sun shows its face, I come back to that same masochistic white screen.

The one that’s flashing: okay Lauren honey….pull up a chair. And let’s get crackin’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo credit: art print by Claude Monet: Garden/Vetheuil

 

 

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