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​The Wisdom of ‘Ignorance’

Nativity 3

My very first friend in the world was ‘colored.’ Politically correct wasn’t yet in vogue and those whose job it is to create labels that rip humanity apart had not yet mandated that “black” or African-American were the preferred labels with which to define people whose skin color was darker than mine.

To me, it didn’t matter. The only label I used to describe her was “friend.”

Michelle Goines (sixth from the left, second row from the bottom in the photo above) and I met on the first day of kindergarten at Our Lady of Loretto School in Brooklyn, New York. The following year, we were reunited at Nativity School, even though we didn’t live in the same neighborhood, and there was no perfectly good reason why we would end up in the same school. We just did.

The Universe was having her way with our destinies, and perfectly good reasons could not stand in Her way. The never do. “Coincidences” were one of the gizmos inside the Mary Poppins-esque bag of tricks She carried around to whisk us to amusement parks open only to children whose hearts have not yet been denied entrance by the cynical adult minds.

Those schools are long gone, but the memories they left behind are eternal, their legacy entrusted to the grownups we would become.

Nearly 50 years later, through the magic of Facebook, Michelle and I would find each other again, a bit older, but no less enthusiastic about our lifelong friendship. We were, after all, each other’s first friend. And no matter how much “reality” dust life throws in our faces, we never forget our first.

We were children of the ’60s. A time of racial and ethnic divide that threatened to separate our nation despite a very active movement to end segregation. It was much like the political climate of today, without the luxury of Twittershere soapboxes from which to spew hate.

Bussing black kids to “white schools” was trending in the ’60s. I was a product of bussing but in reverse, a white kid bussed to a predominantly black school.

Their names spill from my memory as easily as an overfilled glass of water spills to the floor. Arnold Freeman, Marie Severe, Charles Coles, Kathy Long, Maria Barboza, Antoinette Verduci,  Rosa Howell, Herbie Fundora, Stephen Lenikan, Carl Lenore, Anthony Devito, the cute boy who had a crush on me and pursued me relentlessly in the first grade, and countless others.

I look at photos from that time and I see an ethnic diversity for which I will forever be grateful.

We were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Italian, Irish but … we didn’t notice.

Perhaps we knew on some level that prejudice and racism existed. But we were too “ignorant” to notice, or perhaps too wise to care.

“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14

I was ignorant of what was going on around me because I had more important things to do … like making sure mom and dad gave me enough change so that when the nuns pulled out the candy stash hidden in the classroom closet during mid-morning recess, I would be first in line to buy the chocolate-covered malt balls that 55 years later, make my heart water with the bittersweet tears of  childhood memories.

Little did I know that those innocent years would mold my beliefs, my philosophies and my spirituality unlike anything that would follow.

Beneath the surface of the shy, skinny, 6-year-old girl in the green plaid Catholic school uniform, lurked my own set of labels. I was a Cuban-Lebanese-American, soon-to-be registered Republican, hiding behind a closet door that would bang wide open with little fanfare three decades later. I was a bit of an anomaly.

I still am. The only difference is that I’ve shed one of those labels. I miss the days when orange was the new black. These days, the house on Pennsylvania Avenue is home to an orange-haired resident who is certainly no friend of black. He would not have approved of my friendship with Michelle … or my open closet door for that matter (But I digress. This message brought to you by Barb Doesn’t Talk Politics).

These days I read the posts on the Facebook page dedicated to our beloved Nativity School like a lion devouring its prey, hungrily hoping to recapture the precious moments time briefly placed before us.

We knew how to live in the moment, but that moment wasn’t long enough.

Even though our individual experiences may have differed while we attended Nativity School, there is one common thread that unites us, a thread that can never be broken, an innocence burned through the fire of life’s experiences to rise from the ashes as empowered adults.

It’s comforting to know that after stripping away the walls that time has built around our hearts, those innocent kids are always ready to come out to play.

Those memories, however, come with responsibility.  And it is our mission, and the mission of anyone with similar memories, to share the wisdom of our innocent pasts with the present and future generations  … wisdom the world labels as ignorance.

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Pearls, meet swine

“Carbs make you fat!” said the woman who had been proudly sharing her carb-free diet with another woman at the Publix checkout line. She was going on and on about the meal she planned to prepare that night, a meal which included NO CARBS AT ALL!

I glanced at the slab of ribs the size of a newborn piglet in her grocery cart. My pearls threatened to launch an assault on her swine theory. But the wisdom of Matthew 7:6 held me back.

“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”Matthew 7:6

A few months ago, I would have engaged in a conversation with that woman, telling her that all diets come down to one thing: simple math. Calories in, calories out. As my friend Scott Wilson so eloquently put it …

“Eating more than you burn makes you fat. Simple math. All else is noise.”

One thousand calories of steak will take as much time and effort to burn as 1,000 calories of spinach.

I would have told her that eating for health is a lifelong process, not one that will help you shed a few pounds, deprive you of your favorite foods, slow down your metabolism and send you back to pasta faster than if you had allowed yourself the gift of moderation.

But that was months ago. That morning encounter at Publix reminded me that sometimes it’s best to keep my mouth shut and let my computer keys do the talking.

Even the Facebook post in which I shared the details of my grocery line encounter with the pig in the basket prompted a few castigating comments from friends who have had success with the latest diet du jour, the Keto diet, which (in my humble opinion), is nothing more than a repackaged Atkins Diet.

But this article is about so much more than the battle between carbs and protein. It’s about the bigger picture of trying to educate someone based on the lessons your life experiences have taught you.

The bottom line is … you can’t.

You can’t tell someone that shedding pounds while their body struggles to adjust to the radical changes it is being forced to process is good for them.

You can’t tell them that if they are drinking a glass of wine every night for health reasons, they would be consuming perhaps a third of what they pour into their glass, and stop at that amount.

You can’t tell them that 15 minutes of meditation each day will give them the extra time they wish they had to do all the things they want to do.

You can’t tell them that exercise will do more for their mind, body and soul than any pill or powder ever will.

You can’t tell them that living in the moment is all there is.

You can’t tell them that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.

You can’t tell them that their to-do list will outlive them.

You can’t tell them that surrendering the outcome to God, the Higher Power, the Universe, or the Source from which they came is always the best action plan.

You can’t tell anyone who drinks the presidential shade of orange Kool-Aid that perhaps it’s turning a bit too red.

You can’t do any of those things because the conclusions you’ve reached based on the lessons that life has taught you are precisely that … YOUR lessons … Lessons that have touched the deepest parts of your soul and stirred passions so strong you can’t help but want to share them.

But when the passions stirred by a life lesson are involved, you shouldn’t, well, throw your pearls in front of swine.

You can’t learn anyone’s lessons for them. You can only teach by example.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But no one will imitate you if you preach to them.

However, my friends, I can’t live without pasta. And neither should you.

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‘Friends’ with benefits …

Casa Pueblo Punta del Este Uruguay

Casa Pueblo, Punta del Este, Uruguay

Social media friends: People with whom you associate on social media platforms, but rarely interact with in real life.

We’ll get back to that definition a little later, but first …

I know all about the privacy issues. I know all about the studies that say social media is an addiction. I know all about the people who are coming over to rob my house because I ‘checked in’ to the Eiffel Tower or shared photos of myself having the time of my life at the La Carreta restaurant that’s walking distance from my house.

But despite all the negative studies and research results, there’s a lot to love about connecting with other people, even if it’s only in a virtual cafe.

Here are a just few of the reasons why — for me at least — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all things social media are not as evil as we are led to believe.

For starters, reconnecting with the past. The past is something many of us would rather leave behind. But it’s something that, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, continues to influence us as adults. Social media is a bridge from the past to the present that helps us heal the scabs our elementary school-skinned hearts left behind.

Let’s face it, there’s something wickedly satisfying about getting a Facebook friend request from the most gorgeous person you knew back when you were a nerdy, pimply, frizzy-haired pre-teen and seeing that she grew up to be, well … a not so gorgeous grownup.  (Any resemblance to an actual person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)

It’s truly humbling to learn that the people who bullied you in elementary school have had more than their share of sadness and misfortune.  I’m not celebrating those misfortunes, just observing their lessons from the perspective of hindsight.

Karma isn’t so much a bitch as she is an equalizer.

I was a shy kid. I grew up to be a shy adult. My idea of working a room is to stay home, listen to the Muse and write down the truths she inspires. Social media gives me the freedom to speak those truths unapologetically.

Social media is self-publisher’s best friend. As a writer, it lets me try out material with a select few before I release it to a larger audience — much like a comedian trying out a few jokes in a small group of intimate friends before using them in a show in front of hundreds of people.

And once written, social media is great source to release those words into the world. Does it stroke my ego when people respond to what I write?  I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But as I always remind those who praise my writing … The words are not mine. I am simply the messenger.

Feedback from my social media audience is an acknowldegment that I’ve fulfilled my responsiblity as the messenger of its true Author.

Social media is also a great platform on which to share our triumphs and sorrows and for others to share them with us. Social media solidarity is just as comforting … and much more accessible … than that which we find in the “real world.”

I also enjoy social media because there’s always someone awake and ready to engage in a conversation when I am.  I didn’t realize how many insomniacs there are out there until I opened a Facebook account.

I do, however, recognize that social media carries its dark side.

Some classify it as an addiction. If you’re checking your social platforms while having dinner at a 5-star restaurant with people you can physically reach out and touch, perhaps there’s a problem. All addictions begin as benign habits.  Balance is the key to keeping them that way.

I’m also careful not to befriend someone I don’t know, or accept a random friend request from someone with whom I have no obvious connection.  That handsome widowed soldier hugging a Labrador retriever with soft honey eyes, and whose “About” page lists loving his daughter as his main trait, is very likely a child molester with nothing better to do than to troll social media for victims to stalk.

I also never give out personal information, such as my exact location. I do ‘check in’ every once in a while. But by the time you see my check-in from Punta del Este, Uruguay, I’m snuggled safely in my bed 4521.718 miles away in Miramar, Florida.

So, please don’t judge me or preach to me about the horrors of social media.   Don’t remind me that my 1000+ Facebook “friends” are not really my friends.

News flash: I can tell you exactly who each of my social media “friends” are, even if I’ve never met them personally.

Which brings me back to the definition of social media at the top of this column.  We may not interact with our social media friends in “real life,” but having the ability to interact with people with whom we otherwise would not have the ability to interact sounds pretty real to me.

Perhaps its the definition of “real life” that should change.

Social media opens up a world of possibilities. Using it responsibly lets us enjoy our ‘friends’ with benefits while keeping us safe from its pitfalls.


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Taking my life …

Starry Night Van Gogh

And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do.”

-Don McLean/Vincent

Disclaimer: I am NOT a doctor, mental health professional, or someone who diagnoses or treats any type of mental illness. I am sinmply an observer of life, moved by the Muse to write about things about which I have experienced either personally or in passing.  If you are having thoughts of suicide, stop reading this and seek professional help.  

I had never lost anyone I personally knew to suicide … until a couple of weeks ago. A former colleague who seemed happy, was everyone’s support system and by all appearances had it all together, took his life.

The profile was the same as those public figures whose ‘shocking’ suicides take over the headlines — Robin Williams, Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain to name a few of the most recent who come to mind.

“He had it all. Why did he kill himself? Why do people who have it all kill themselves?” my movie-viewing companion asked after we finished watching the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga reincarnation of “A Star Is Born.”

Well, because apparently they didn’t … have it all, that is.

If judged solely by outside appearances, they had it all except the one thing they wanted. What was it? Well, we will never find out because even in cases where suicide notes are left behind, the details cut to the chase without exploring the nuances surrounding the extreme act. We may have an inkling of what led them to take their lives, but the complexity of hindsight blinds us to the truth.

I have been at the depths of despair, but I have never even so much as considered suicide. So I can only imagine the despair felt by those who do take their own lives.

It’s beyond sad. And while we find it hard to fathom why they did it, grieve their loss, and vow to seek help if we ever find ourselves at the lowest of lows, we turn a blind eye to the reality that we don’t have to die physically to commit suicide. Read that again.

We don’t have to die physically to commit suicide.

In fact, some people, most people — you, me, everyone we know — are killing themselves every day.

You commit suicide every time you postpone a dream, every time you say yes to something to which you wanted to say no, every time you go to a job that rapes the essence of who you were meant to be, every time you stay in a relationship that robs you of the freedom that relationships are supposed to offer, every time you let life get in the way of LIFE.

Because every time you do these things a part of you dies.

And while the majority of us don’t kill ourselves physically, we kill ourselves slowly, softly, with addictions, with distractions, with postponements that Photoshop the disillusionment, sadness, emptiness and anger that are part of the human experience.

The absinthe-fueled suicide of Vincent Van Gogh is the extreme, not the norm.

Unlike physical suicide, we can be resurrected from emotional and spiritual suicide. But it takes work. A lot of hard work, spiritual work, soul searching, a lot of admitting shit you’re not ready to admit, a lot of giving up the habits and addictions that distract you from the silent scream of the passions hidden inside your core.

But until you’re ready to face those demons, your daily suicide will continue. You will continue to take your life, by giving it to someone or something else.

Preventing it requires facing the pains most of us are not ready to face. But it’s only by facing and conquering those pains that we will ever truly live.

So instead of giving away my life, I have decided to take it … back.


One final note: If someone you know is showing signs that might indicate he or she is in a place where their pain may lead them to suicide, please reach out to them. Regret is the one thing we can never take back.

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My Vietnamese Manicurist … a July 4th Lesson

light sea dawn landscape

Throughout my childhood and most of my teens, Vietnam and its people were the enemy.

I never really understood why.  Perhaps because I was too busy being a kid in Brooklyn, playing everything from stickball to Skelly with the Black kids, the Jewish kids, the Hispanic kids, the Japanese kids, and every kid who made up the mosaic that was my Crown Heights neighborhood to realize that there were people in the world who despised my friends and their families because they were different.

Thankfully, “all news all the time” was still a few years into the future, sheltering my friends and me from the horrors of the war in Vietnam, images that would have poisoned our young minds and denied us the right to be children.

Fast forward to today.

Today’s generation has no idea the Vietnamese were once the enemy.

You can’t drive more than a block along the neighborhoods of South Florida without being enticed to try Pho.  In Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the towns where my partner is from, the Vietnamese residents fish in the Gulf of Mexico and sell their wares along Highway 90.  But I don’t have to go very far to find what perhaps is the largest niche of Vietnamese people in our society today.  If you’ve had a “mani-pedi” lately, you know what I mean. It’s a trend that has been going on for a while.

While the nail technicians (that’s a fancy name for the person who does my nails) is busy working on me, he or she is speaking in Vietnamese to the technicians around them, keeping their culture alive, much like immigrants have done in this country since its birth.

Most of the people who work in my neighborhood nail salon know limited, if any, English.  Their vocabulary consists of words like “Choose your color,” “You want gel today?” and the famous upsell, “You want eyebrows waxed?”

Manicures are usually a silent ritual because the people who do my nails don’t speak English and I don’t speak Vietnamese.

Then this happened.

Last Wednesday, I went in for a manicure.  And to my surprise, the young woman who did my nails spoke fluent English.

At the side of the small table across from which we sat was her iPhone, tuned to a video of a little girl laughing, playing, and occasionally looking directly into the camera and holding up a toy, waving it happily for whoever was watching to see.

It didn’t take me long to realize I was watching a live Facetime video.

The young woman doing my nails glanced at me and said, “That’s my daughter.  She’s in my country getting ready for bed.”

The journalist in me immediately took over and started asking questions fast and furiously.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“She’s 4 years old,” the young woman replied.

“Do you see her often?” I asked.

“I haven’t seen her in two years,” she said.

“How often do you Facetime?”

“At least two times a day,” she said. “If I’m busy and can’t Facetime, she sometimes tells my husband, ‘Mommy forgot about me.'”

(OK, seriously?  Why don’t you just rip my heart out while you’re cutting my cuticles?)

Words cannot describe the emotions I experienced and the bond that young woman and I formed during the rest of our conversation.

She reminded me so much of my parents and the story that brought our family to the U.S. My dad sent my mom and me here from Cuba in the early 1960s on a wing and a prayer, not knowing how the story would play out, but believing that it would ultimately be better than what we were leaving behind.

I’ll fast forward through the details of the rest of my manicure that day and let you draw your own conclusions.

Two years ago, this young woman left Vietnam with her parents, leaving her husband and daughter behind, risking everything and seizing the opportunity of a better life in the U.S., hoping that one day they would all be reunited.

That dream will soon become a reality.

I didn’t quite get all the details, but in about a year, after all the paperwork is processed, her daughter and husband will move to the U.S.

In the meantime, she relies on technology to keep them united.  And through that technology, she’s preparing her daughter for her new life in a new country, so as to ease the transition once she gets here.

I asked her how she had mastered the English language and she told me how she had a friend in Vietnam who was an English teacher.  Knowing she would one day move to the U.S., she began sitting in on her friend’s classes so she could learn the language.

And now, she’s teaching English to her daughter via their daily Facetime conversations.  In fact, it wasn’t long into my manicure that I began having a conversation in English with that little girl a half a world away.

I am not a political person.  However, suffice it to say that parents have always sacrificed for their children, even if it means long separations, heartache, and uncertainty. What’s happening today in our country is nothing new.

But unless we learn the lessons from the past, we are destined to relive them over and over again until we get it right.

On this Fourth of July, let us celebrate our diversity, our heritage, our people.  We are a nation of immigrants brought together in this wonderful nation to embrace our differences and share them with one another.  And for that, my friends, we should give thanks every day.

That is all.


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Spiritual Awakenings …

St Gabriels.jpg

I had my first spiritual awakening at St. Gabriel’s Retreat House on Shelter Island, an area of about 12 square miles of land nestled between the North and South forks of eastern Long Island, New York.

I was 15 years old.

A five-minute ferry ride from Greenport deposited a group of my fellow classmates from St. Brendan H.S. in Brooklyn and me into a dimension that I knew existed, but had yet to experience on a personal level.

We were taken there on a yellow school bus, a ride that seemed like an eternity as we left Brooklyn and crossed the entire length of Long Island until we arrived at the dock where we would board the ferry that would take us to Shelter Island and St. Gabriel’s Retreat House. It was a place where Catholic H.S. kids from around NYC got their first taste of how to convert Catholic dogma into a spirituality that could not be contained by any one religion.

We were a rambunctious group of teenage girls, accompanied by very patient nuns who happily participated in our enthusiasm.  Seatbelts didn’t exist on those buses, so we sat on the backs of the seats, played guitar, sang, and made faces at the people in the cars that passed us.

It was a right of passage to which we’d looked forward since the beginning of our sophomore year.  We knew from upperclassmen who had been to St. Gabe’s that something magical would happen during our time there, we just didn’t know what it would be.

But I was about to find out.

After checking into the room that would be all mine for the next two nights, I strolled across the grounds and walked into the main building, the one where most of the talks, exercises, and sharing would take place.  It was a large, open room, surrounded by windows overlooking the beautiful waters of Shelter Island Sound.

I was struck by a thought that stopped me in my tracks.

Slow down.  Enjoy this moment because, in a flash, it will be gone.  

It was my first encounter with what I would later in life define as “Living in the now.”  It was not so much a thought as an urgent whisper that was a prelude of things to come.

The daily structured programs incorporated everything from group sessions to one-on-one meetings with a priest or a nun to discuss any questions or issues that we weren’t ready to share with the group.  Mass was a daily ritual.  This was also the first time I experienced face-to-face confession without the walls of a confessional to hide behind.

But despite the very structured program, there was also lots of free time for us to enjoy ourselves.  We were, after all, high school girls being high school girls.  We threw each other into the pool, laughed a little too loud, and tested the patience of the adults who were there to keep us safe.

But it’s the alone time we were given to reflect between the planned activities that I treasured the most.

St Gabes chapelThat’s when I would sneak off to the chapel with my guitar, hook up into the sound system, and play and sing to my heart’s content.

Carnegie Hall could not hold a candle to the acoustics in that tiny chapel.  And the combination of soft lighting inside, with the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows bathed me in a warmth that felt as if God Herself was embracing me.  Perhaps it’s because She was.

I was by myself — only my music and me — but the Presence that surrounded me let it be known that I would never be alone.

Three days later, after dozens of hours of prayer, reflection, and a peace greater than anything I’d ever felt before, I left that tiny piece of land on Long Island Sound, having been forever changed.

Like a caterpillar ready to be transformed into its final form, I had spun myself into a cocoon of spiritual silk, braced myself to emerge, spread my wings, and let everything I had experienced take flight into my everyday life so I could share it with those who shared that life with me.

And that’s when my spiritual awakening met its first challenge.

I wanted everyone I knew to feel what I had felt, to be transformed as I had been.

But no matter how hard I tried, my attempts failed miserably.  The frustration in my innocent heart was matched only by the looks of misunderstanding in the eyes of those with whom I attempted to share my awakening.

It was like explaining the color red to someone who had been blind since birth.

I had no choice but to accept the fact that spiritual awakenings are deeply personal experiences that cannot be rushed or explained.

I have had my share of spiritual awakenings since that weekend in 1974. But none come close to the one that cracked open the cocoon of my soul and let loose the butterfly inside.

Like all firsts, that weekend at St. Gabriel’s set the bar for spiritual awakenings that would follow for me.  And no matter how hard I tried, I would never recapture the feelings of that first spiritual awakening.  It took years before I stopped trying and accepted that the best way to recapture the magic is to listen to that urgent whisper I’d heard at St. Gabe’s my very first day there.

Slow down.  Enjoy this moment because, in a flash, it will be gone.  

Enjoy your journeys, my friends.  Know that you’re on them with the people with whom the Presence has chosen for you to travel them with. Don’t frustrate yourself trying to bring along those who were not meant to go with you.

Live in the now, and know that other journeys await.



Epilogue: What Happened to St. Gabe’s?

Spiritual Center served youth since 1963


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Sometimes You Just Need To Be Held

adult alone anxious black and white

You don’t need advice.

You certainly don’t need to be preached to.

You don’t need tough love.

You don’t need threats.

You don’t need to be reminded of how many times you have screwed up.

You just need to be held.

You need kind words, even when you screw up

You need to feel safe enough to cry in arms that understand … even if they don’t know the details of what you’re going through.

Open your arms wide, and let those you love feel safe enough to weep in them.




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