My Regular Self

I wrote this as part of an assignment in a writing class. I’ll not bore you with the details of the assignment, except to say that this is not a polished piece of writing. It is “stream of consciousness” as it were, with run-on sentences and all. Sometimes the essence of something is lost when you try to clean it up too much. And the essence of this, it seems to me, might be worth tripping over a few clods of dirt.


Yesterday at mass, the priest was telling a story about Jesus. Well, that’s a big surprise, huh? Anyway… I was busy trying to get my kid to settle down and stop talking and stop drawing on the pew cushion, telling her to wait to talk to the priest until mass is over (she always wants to talk to the priest in the middle of the homily, raising her hand, calling his name, like some teacher’s pet in Freshman English.) I was trying hard not to swear, as I tend to do under my breath when frustrated with my kid, but you know, front row at the family mass… not a good place to be saying things like “Goddamn it Esther, please be quiet I’m trying to hear the homily” or “Jesus Christ Esther, can’t you see we’re praying?” Wafting in and out of my ears I hear a few of the words of Father Kurt (our resident Hippy Priest complete with Birkenstock’s and ponytail) about how Jesus wants us to be totally ourselves, full of life, joyful etc., and that Jesus cares so much about this he’ll pursue us into the depths of hell (if that’s where we are) and even hang a while to convince us to step away from the dark side (Ya. Darth Vader references and all) although he won’t hang forever because you have to actually want to leave hell yourself. You can’t be taken without permission. You have to want to get out to actually get out. Anyway. He kind of lingers on that notion for a minute and I’m thinking about donuts, wondering when I can go outside and get one and, most importantly, find my husband to take Esther for a minute so I can eat my donut in peace.


Then my daughter tugs at me, waking me from my donut dreams, and says “Ya, Mama. I don’t want to be there.”
“Where?” I said.
“Where the priest said. In that place.”
“In hell?” I whispered, incredulous that she was actually cognizant of the subject matter.
“Ya” she says. “I don’t want to go there. I just want to be my regular self.”


I just want to be my regular self. I just want to be my regular self. Jesus. This gem of wisdom from my five-year-old. I squeezed her so tight she whacked me. Right on the cheekbone.


That’s all I want too. I just want to be my regular self. I have been wanting to be my regular self now for about 45 years… and that, my friends, is long enough to forget who your regular self is.


I think I’m in that place my daughter doesn’t want to go. Have I really been here that long? Oh my god. I have no idea how to be my regular self.


My daughter ingested sleeping pills. It was a sunny June morning in 2005, she was 2 1/2 years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I had flown by myself to Seattle some months earlier, meeting up with my brother and sister to take our mother on a cruise to Alaska. In days past, whenever I would travel long distances I’d take Ambien and Xanax with me. Anxious to fly? Xanax. Can’t sleep? Ambien. But these drugs played new roles for me after I had my daughter. Mother’s little helpers, my girlfriends and I would call them, and we all know the golden rule for mommies: NEVER keep drugs in your purse – at least not in containers that aren’t childproof. But I was traveling without my daughter on this little cruise, so it didn’t matter. A few months later I found out the hard way that it did matter. I’d left those pills tucked away in my purse in an easy access container – a bright and tiny green one, most attractive to a curious toddler.


I had just signed with a new voiceover agency and took my daughter with me that day to an in-house audition. It was a little nerve wracking. I was a newbie at the agency and didn’t know anyone, and the climate in the lobby was something to behold. There was always an air of competition about it – sometimes silent and sometimes loud with a lot of joke-telling one-up-man-ship, everyone trying to outdo one another. I generally stayed out of the lobby altogether and recorded from home because I cannot abide that shit, but on this day I needed to put in a little “face time” with my agents and I had my sweet, unpredictable Esther with me. She could very well be dreamy and content, but if the wait was long she could easily become impatient, cranky and loud. Since I didn’t know anyone in the lobby I couldn’t leave her there when it came time for me to audition. So, I took her in with me, but left her just outside the recording booth and in the company of the engineer tending to my audition. She seemed fairly content with her plastic cup of water and snack bag of goldfish, but on a whim, just as I started to walk in the booth, I decided to give her the treasure she was constantly seeking: my handbag. I’d only be in the booth for two minutes. What kind of trouble could she possibly get into?


I read my copy in record time. I walked out of the booth and looked down at my daughter in her stroller. She had my handbag open, had dumped my green pill container and was fidgeting with it. I grabbed it from her hand. It was empty and there were pills scattered on the floor and in the seat of her stroller. “Did you eat any of these little things?” I asked her. She looked up at me and said “Delicious.” Oh. My. God. I fumbled around with my purse and the stroller and tried to get out of the booth as quickly and as calmly as I could. I had no desire to let the engineer know that I was a derelict mother who may have just poisoned her child. I pushed Esther in her stroller quietly out the lobby door, grateful that I knew no one with whom I had to stop and chat. I stopped in the long hallway and began picking up stray Xanax and Ambien tablets from Esther’s seat. I kept looking at her, looking for signs of drowsiness. “Did you put any of these in your mouth honey, did you? Mommy really needs to know” – like a two year old could possibly grasp the gravity of the situation. I didn’t know how many were in my purse since I hadn’t used any for months and had forgotten they were there. Did she take one or six or ten? Esther looked a bit droopy-eyed to me, but maybe I was just paranoid. I gathered myself together and once again began pushing her stroller out to the car. She couldn’t have taken any, I kept thinking. They’re so bitter. She would’ve spit them out. But maybe the bitterness was masked by the taste of goldfish. Oh God, this is ridiculous. She couldn’t possibly have taken any. Calm down.


By the time we got to the car I was shaking and Esther was looking very sleepy. “Okay Esther, Mommy needs to get you out of your stroller and into the car” I said. “So you just stand right here while I fold up your stroller.” As soon as I stood her on her own two feet she staggered left like a sloppy drunk. Shit. Shit. Shit. She took them. She swallowed sleeping pills. My baby girl. My Esther. Just as I reached down to prevent her from falling over, one of the actors that was in the agency lobby walked by. A familiar face. He’s got a lot of commercials running right now. He’s probably nice, probably helpful. “Do you know where the nearest emergency room is?” I asked.


“Oh… Ummm… Hmmm… Well… Huh… Let me think…” He said… S-lo-w-l-y. God. I asked an obtuse person to help save my baby’s life. He was wearing a baggy, wrinkled Hawaiian shirt with beige shorts, and white socks with stupid dark brown winter shoes. Who wears those shoes in summer? Say something, I thought. Anything. Even ‘I don’t know’ would suffice. I could feel Esther growing heavier in my arms and wondered how long the obtuse actor would keep saying ‘ummm.’ The grass on the median was wet and muddy under my feet and my shoes were starting to sink. A stray goldfish was lying by my left foot. It must have fallen out of Esther’s stroller when I took her out of it. I was sweating and agitated and the sun was glaring in my eyes. The street was busy with cars and people. I could’ve asked anyone on this side street of Santa Monica Boulevard, but I ask obtuse actor guy.


“Never mind. I’ll figure it out” I said and whipped around to get Esther into the car. I climbed in the driver’s seat and called Tim praying he’d pick up his cell phone. “Esther just swallowed some Ambien or Xanax or maybe both. I’m at Santa Monica Blvd and Westholme. Get on Mapquest and guide me to the nearest emergency room.” He directed me toward UCLA. I kept telling Esther to stay with me, to look at me in the rear view mirror and try not to sleep. I ran a red light, jumped a green and made 2 illegal u-turns. Where is a cop when you need one? I could’ve used an escort, but no such luck. Just a lot of other cars with drivers flipping me off and pedestrians yelling at me like I was a crazed lunatic, which of course I was. I pulled into the emergency room, unbuckled Esther and ran her in. I thought they’d jump to my assistance and that there’d be lots of panic and screaming like on ER. Instead the nurse calmly guided us to a room in the back. Another nurse checked Esther out, hooked her up to some electrode looking things and asked me a bunch of questions. I thought for sure they’d call child services on me. When I told the nurse I thought it might be Ambien she said “Oh, that’s a great drug.” I looked at her and wondered if I was in hell.


Another nurse tried to give Esther this rather disgusting black stuff that had the consistency of tar – liquid charcoal – which would absorb any of the drugs still in her stomach before they went into her blood stream, but Esther wasn’t going for it. The nurse handed the stuff to me and I fed it to her from a giant syringe. Boy was that a mess – black tar all over both of us. The nurse said they’d need to observe her for about four hours, which is about how long it takes those drugs to move through your system.


After about an hour, the doctor came in to talk to me. He finally uttered the words I’d been waiting to hear: “Your daughter is fine. She’s just fine. A 2-½ year old has a very different metabolism than you and I, and sleeping pills don’t have the same effect. But here’s the deal” he said. “Next time, carry your prescriptions in childproof containers.” I thanked him, smiled sheepishly, and thought, ya – no kidding.

Susan George Is Gone.

Susan George is gone. I don’t know if she’s dead or if she was taken somewhere, but she’s gone. Susan was my neighbor. I met her in November of last year when we first moved in. She watched from her back porch as we loaded in furniture and boxes and placed Esther’s bicycle and outdoor toys by the towering tree in our common yard.


Sometime in the afternoon of our move-in day, she stopped by and introduced herself. She told me her name was Susan. She looked at the bike and toys and asked if we had a boy or a girl. I told her about Esther and she smiled saying she hoped I’d bring her by one day so she could meet her. Before heading back to her apartment she told me to please let her know if there was anything she could do for us. She was neighborly like that.


It made me so happy to meet her. I didn’t know then just how old she was, but was told later in the week by the neighbor who lives in between us that she was 102. I couldn’t fathom it. She was more lucid than my 78 year old mother, and more agile that most 60 year olds. Wow. 102. I told my husband over dinner and we were incredulous together.


The next time I saw her was in December. She had just returned from taking out her garbage and was beginning her morning ritual of watering the plants on her back porch. She was a spry thing; up early taking care of things. I was trying to organize some stuff on our back porch and she wandered over. She told me the small wispy stalks in our own undeveloped little patch of dirt were actually seedlings from the giant Pepper tree that towered over us and that we’d better get them removed or they’d grow into full fledged trees before too long. She then said she remembered when the big Pepper tree was that size. I asked her how long she’d lived here at Park La Brea and she told me 47 years. Wow. That’s how old I am. She had lived in this little one bedroom apartment on Burnside Ave. as long as I’d been alive. I asked if she had any family and she shook her head no. She’d never married, never had kids, and everyone else in her family – siblings and parents – had passed on a long time ago. I wondered just how long she’d been alone in this world, but I didn’t ask. I never saw friends over at her house and well, any of her close friends had to have passed long ago too. I got an empty, sad sort of feeling in the pit of my stomach and thought to myself, I have got to have this woman over for tea and pie or something. I figured anyone who had lived that long has got some interesting stories and would probably like to tell some of them again. For a reason I couldn’t quite articulate, I just wanted to sit with her at my kitchen table. I suppose somewhere in there I was projecting my own loneliness onto her, but who cares the reason. She was my neighbor and I ought to get to know her.


Christmas and the New Year came and went, as did a spot of cold, rainy weather. Everyone got sick at our house, so we’d pretty much been laid out for the whole holiday season. I got really busy with work after the 1st of the year and the couple of times I saw Susan I was rushing to my car. I would wave and think to myself I have got to have her over, or go take her some mulch for her plants. She had told me back in November she needed some and I couldn’t imagine how she might get to a gardening store.


I don’t know why but I found myself paying particular attention to Susan’s back door one day last week. I was standing on my porch smoking an illicit cigarette in the late morning, and my eyes wandered over. There was a note on Susan’s door. I walked over to her back porch landing and peered closely through the screen door to read it: Estate Sale. May 8,9. Everything must go. Artwork, clothes, furniture. Free stuff. 393 Burnside Avenue. That was her address. Oh my god. I had a terrible hope that she might startle me by pulling back the mini blinds on the door with her arthritic hands and flashing her grey, horsey teeth at me. But it didn’t happen. The plants on her porch were brown and withered, except for the fake calla lilies she kept in a big green pot in the corner close to the window. She had loved this one other plant, which she earlier confessed with great pride, was a weed. It had grown right out of a crack in the concrete and she nurtured it to life. I remembered telling her a weed is anything you don’t want in your garden, so if she liked this plant she didn’t have to call it a weed anymore. She must be gone, because even her precious weed was dry and lifeless. I felt a cold breeze float across my arms and travel up my spine, and the dried leaves of Susan’s plants sounded like the quiet crackling of Rice Crispies in milk. The smoke from my cigarette gave the air an old dusty smell, and I thought about putting it out, but didn’t. Ash flew off the tip and dusted the sleeve of my black t-shirt. There was nothing on her porch but berries and leaves from the tree branches that hung above, and Susan’s plants; no patio furniture, no place to sit down. Maybe Susan never sat down. Maybe that’s what kept her alive for so long. She was always busy, taking care of things… Maybe that’s what happened last week. Maybe she sat down for a rest. I wonder if she knew it would be eternal. My cigarette burned down to the butt and I tossed it away from Susan’s porch.


I don’t know why I never had her over for tea and pie, but I know I should have. I know better at my age. At 47 I know time passes too quickly, and when you’re 102 there is no more time. No more time to put off ‘til tomorrow what might please you or make someone else happy now. I should’ve stopped for 30 minutes and just invited her in. I sometimes think that doing so might’ve alleviated some of her loneliness. But if I’m really honest, I think it would’ve alleviated some of mine.


I’m writing this for you Susan. I imagine you finally reunited with all those who loved you over your long life, and it makes me smile a little bit. I will remember you Susan George, and I hope one day we’ll meet again. I promise I’ll invite you in. We’ll have a nice long chat over a cup of Earl Grey and a slice of cherry pie.

Prayer and Pulling Weeds

In July of 2008 an old and dear friend of mine was diagnosed with his third round of cancer, his “7 year bitch” he calls it, as it has shown up in his life every 7 years or so since he was 30. The first two times the cancer was localized and relatively easy to tackle – as cancer goes. Surgery was all that was ever required and prognosis for recovery was always excellent. This time, the bitch is back with a vengeance. With symptoms of congestive heart failure, my friend went to see his doctor where an ultrasound of his heart showed a tumor the size of a baseball. Subsequent body scans showed tumors virtually everywhere – in his lungs, his abdomen, and bone.


My friend is a stubborn and determined sort of fellow and not one to roll over easily. He is also methodical and meticulous, especially when it comes to designing the war of all wars against this most unwelcome intruder.  So, after a lot of research on traditional and alternative approaches to battling cancer he opted for a multi-faceted treatment plan than includes everything from acupuncture, traditional chinese herbs and essential oils, to prayer, meditation, and working in his own vineyard; from sleeping in a tent on the ground outside and playing music, to chemotherapy and a radically altered diet.


Somewhere fairly early on in his journey he posted a progress report on his blog titled “Report From The Battlefront”, and gave himself a “C” in the prayer and meditation department. Now, I know virtually nothing about cancer treatment, which is quite frustrating when all you want is to be of some help to a friend in need. But I do know a little about prayer – as a lifelong student of it  and a continuous though haphazard pursuer of its benefits. As such I was compelled one night to post on his blog a reply  to what I felt was his unnecessarily critical grade of his  own efforts. Following is what I wrote:


When I first glanced at your post today, I saw the title as “Report From The Butterfly.” Then I saw it said “Battlefront”. Ah. Of course. But I like “Butterfly” better. It’s way more poetic, way more Zen…

I’ve been thinking about your prayer/meditation grade of C. Hmmmm… I feel a sermon coming on…

In my 25 years of practicing Christianity as an adult (more or less, give or take) I’ve been on many meditation and prayer retreats (some of them silent) from monasteries to mountain tops and everything in between. There were very few times that I ever felt like I got it “right” until, sometime later in my life, a couple of things came together for me. I guess the first and most obvious thing that got through is that there is no”getting it right” or really, there is no “getting it wrong. “


Hence my first prayer/meditation realization: It’s helpful to set your judgment aside.

Another rather disturbing realization was that God – all knowing, all powerful – already knows everything about me and so already knows my need, my longing, my frustration, my sadness, my failure, my fear, my hopes, my desires, and my joy. So, if this is true, why pray? I’m going to tell God something God doesn’t already know? Please. God already wants the best for me, so why go begging for it like Oliver after a second helping of porridge?


Prayer/Medidation realization number 2: Perhaps prayer is designed to change MY mind, rather than as a tool for me to try and change God’s…

Another thing is that meditation, (which IMO is listening for God, as opposed to prayer, which is talking to and asking of God) was virtually impossible for this mind of mine which is chattering incessantly and working overtime to find any gray area where I can sit uncomfortably and just be ambivalent… As such, I discovered that I could hear God’s voice when my hands were busy and my mind detached; that is, when I was engaged in some sort of physical labor or activity. This is most definitely when God talks to me and when I am most able to hear.


Prayer/Meditation realization number 3: You don’t necessarily have to sit cross-legged like a yogi to meaningfully meditate.

All of this is to say, that from my perspective, weeding the vineyard is both an act of prayer and an act of meditation on your part, as is sleeping in your tent, as is breathing in essential oils, as is seeking any and all treatment that you somehow “know” in your “gut” that you need. What you are asking God for in all of these activities is healing. Weed is to vineyard as cancer is to your body, my friend. Every weed you pull is imploring God to pull the cancer from your body. Every night you lay on the ground underneath the stars is a request to be reminded of and returned to what is real. When you breathe deeply, whether from a 3 mile hike or inhaling frankincense, you are asking, insisting really, that Spirit and Life enter your body, infuse every cell and reside there. And I can tell that all of this is happening because I can see the desire of your heart (prayer) written in your posts, as well as the wisdom gleaned (the fruit of meditation) from your daily experience and the conclusions at which you arrive. I see proof of the asking, and proof of the answers you’ve been given. 

So, what is left but the granddaddy, the pièce de résistance, the biggest realization of all: Gratitude


That’s the key. Offering up to God, the Universe, your Higher Power, or whatever you’d like to call it, your gratitude. This is what changes us. This is what opens our hearts and frees us,  and what makes healing and wholeness possible. All it takes to get started is a pen, some paper, and 30 minutes maybe to sit on a bench in your backyard (looking out on one of the most truly beautiful views in the world) to offer up everything you’re grateful for on a daily basis. Big and small stuff. All of it. The hard part will be finding within yourself the will to be thankful even for your trials and tribulations, even for this cancer. You touched on it briefly when you said how much you loved working in the vineyard and how it took cancer to get you off your ass… Isn’t that just another way of saying that you have cancer to thank for getting you out into your own vineyard? I would like to clarify that being grateful for cancer doesn’t mean you want to keep it around. You can also be thankful to see it get on the first bus out of town and never return.

In all my time and years seeking to know the will and see the face of God via prayer and meditation, I’ve only gotten glimpses, and brief ones at that. But they were fleeting moments of bliss and contentment that I wouldn’t trade for the world. They’ve kept me on the path in pursuit of more…

So, my friend, I pray peace for you. I pray love and healing for you, and I leave you, again, with a favorite scripture that provides great relief to me when I have nothing left in me with which to pray:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

The Spirit intercedes for us… With sighs too deep for words… Too deep for words… Too deep for words…



My friend has had a number of setbacks over the months, as those battling cancer often do, but he is finding a modicum of success with a trial chemotherapy drug called Trabectidin.  I hope he continues his attempts at prayer and meditation, frustrating and fruitless though they may appear. My experience is that the bounty of the practice comes randomly and unexpectedly as glimpses of light in the darkest and most despairing of moments – just when all appears lost – as proof of the promise that we are never really lost. Of course, prayer provides no assurance of a cure, and we all know this because prayerful people succumb to cancer and disease every day. But practiced faithfully it has been known to heal hearts, change dispositions, and provide hours if not days, months, and lifetimes of inner peace – and that is something most worthy of pursuit.