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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.

#Peace

—–

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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Losing control …

 

close up of padlocks on railing against sky

Am I in too deep?  Have I lost my mind?  I don’t care, you’re here tonight …

Hero – Enrique Iglesias

Losing control, fueled by a passion for life or love, grabs our hearts when we least expect it.  We weren’t looking for it, but it was looking for us.

And when it finds us, we are totally screwed.

It’s a passion so strong that no amount of reasoning will tame it.  Like a lion focused on its prey, the heart attacks the mind and shreds it to pieces so small that what was once our sanity is now completely unrecognizable.

Passion is the drug that writers and film directors use to lure us into the stories they weave.

We live vicariously through the characters they create and imagine the possibilities that await us if we relinquish our fears and let our hearts have their way with us.

But while the lure and temptation of the heart’s calling is a blessing beyond the material trappings life has to offer, the passion it awakens is not always good for us, or for those caught up in the madness with us.

Unrequited or not, we must learn the steps to the difficult dance of passion if we want it to last forever.

Letting go completely has its place.  But unbridled passion must be tempered with moments of clarity and knowing that letting our passions have their way with us can hurt us more than they can further our growth.

To trash an otherwise perfect life for the sake of the unknown is the stuff that movies are made of.  But life can’t be placed into a neat, 90-minute package with a happy ending. It’s what happens beyond the closing credits that matters most.  While we imagine the story will continue happily ever after, there are no guarantees.

Life simply doesn’t work that way.

But lest you think I’m advocating a life of playing it safe, consider this …

Losing control in a controlled way is something that we should welcome when life extends that gift to us. It’s the juice that helps us thrive on days when the status quo threatens to suck the life out of us.

It’s also nice knowing that parts of us that we thought were dormant forever can be gently awoken, never to be put to sleep again.

Passion will take our breath away, but to live passionately, we must keep breathing.

… Let me stand by you forever … you can take my breath away.

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60 is the new 40 …

June 10, 2018 Sunset At Barbs

June 10, 2018 Sunset At Barbs

Really?

Yes, really.

OK, maybe it’s because I’m way hotter now at 60 than I was at 40… or 30 … or even 20.

But it’s not why you think.

There’s nothing hotter … or more seductive than being comfortable in your own skin.

All you women who are decades younger than me … pay attention.  (Note: I first wrote please pay attention, but I’m not going to beg you to pay attention. Because there’s nothing sexy about, well … look it up: Matthew 7:6)

In less than 24 hours I will be entering my seventh decade.  Translation: For those of you who suck at math like I do, I will be 60 years old.

Here, in no particular order, are a just few lessons I’ve learned way past the halfway point.

Be strong.

Don’t anyone ever take away your power. Because power is hot.  It’s the ultimate aphrodisiac. The ultimate gauge of hotness.

It’s not about how many pounds you can benchpress.  I can benchpress more now than I could at 20. It’s about how strong you can go mentally and spiritually against those who would intimidate you.

In the gym of life, mind and soul will always defeat body.

Pay attention to lyrics that move you.

“After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same.” Ah, yes, the lost verse from Simon and Garfunkel’s,”The Boxer.”  Forty years after I learned how to play this song on the guitar, its words continue to teach their lesson.  We all take comfort where we can when we hurt the most.  And I will gladly hand the stone to anyone who thinks they are so far above this that it gives them permission to judge those of us who are mere humans.

I’ll say it again … Pay attention to lyrics that move you.

“Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way” – Judy Collins Both Sides Now

This is one of my top five favorite songs ever.  I used to have to wait for it to play on my favorite radio station. Now I can play it over and over and over and over again thanks to my Spotify subscription.

Love is love.

You are never too old to fall in love.  It will grab you by the heart when you least expect it, have its way with you, and leave you at the side of the road exhausted, out of breath and bleeding, but giving thanks for a bittersweetness for which you would sell your soul over and over again.

Bitches peak early.  

Be patient, nerds, you will one day redefine what it means to be cool.

Old friends

There’s nothing sweeter than reconnecting with old friends who shaped your life 40 years earlier.  Thank you, Facebook.

Relationships

The secret to a long relationship is to never break up.  Yes, it’s that simple … and that difficult.

That is all … for now.

 

 

 

 

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I’ve Made A Lot Of Mistakes …

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I wanted to title this post I’ve F***ed up a lot, but at the final moment, I censored myself.

It’s something I rarely do.  Especially now that I’m about to enter my seventh decade.  (Thanks for that Karen Kammer.) But tonight, my kinder, gentler Gemini twin beat my spoiled brat Gemini twin into submission, grabbed my hands, and took over my keyboard.

I have no idea what she’s about to write.  But whatever it is will be perfect.

I’ve thought a lot about loss this past week.  And I came to the conclusion that wallowing in sorrow every once in a while is not necessarily a bad thing.

We spend so much time hiding our true feelings, pretending everything is OK, putting on a happy face so no one sees our pain, that we not only exhaust ourselves, but we deny ourselves and others the spiritual connections for which we all long … the connections that fill our souls and make us conduits to eternity.

Imagine if instead of pretending everything was OK, we were honest with one another — with ourselves — and admitted that everything is not OK. Imagine if we allowed others to witness our pain and our tears, instead of hiding them behind the curtain of who we think we should be.

Bittersweet.

It’s my favorite word.

As I write this, my soon-to-be 91-year-old mom sits a few feet away from me doing crossword puzzles.  The sweetness of the moment is so powerful, it makes me want to weep.  There’s a bitterness to the moment because I don’t know how much longer I’ll have her with me.

Which brings me back to the title of this post.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life.  A big mistake is what brought me to spend this week with my mom. The details don’t matter. But oh, what a gift that mistake has brought!

I’m struggling to live in the moment and appreciate the now.  I pray for the strength to give thanks for what is and not rush to move past these feelings of wallowing in sorrow before I’ve accepted the blessings they came here to give me.

And if making mistakes will continue to bring these blessings, then I pray I continue to f*** up.

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Even Superheroes Cry …

rear view of a boy sitting on grassland

Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

It’s the shortest phrase in the Bible, and it’s the one I love the most.

It’s easy to think that being tough, being a rock, showing no emotion, wearing our hearts nowhere near our sleeves, shows that we can be depended upon when times get tough.

Jesus was a rock.

Jesus is someone who, regardless of who you consider Him to be, was the strongest superhero of them all.  Historical figure. Prophet. God’s son.  Someone we can call on — or whose memory we can call on — when we hurt the most because Jesus is a rock upon which anyone can lean.

It’s easy to think that.

But Jesus wept.

Why? Because He thought from the heart.

When we hurt, thinking with our brains is the worst thing we can do.  Advice from well-meaning friends whose advice comes filtered from their own experience is the last thing we need.

What we need most when we are in spiritual and emotional crisis, is for those around us to hold us … to weep with us.

What we need most is someone who knows our only way out of a crisis is through it.

What we need most is for someone to remind us that all is well and God, the Universe, the One Who Put Us Here loves us unconditionally and … He/She has got this. All we need to do is let go.

Jesus wept.

Not only because He felt the pain of those He loved, but because He took their pain into His own soul.

Because even though He was a spiritual superhero, He knew the only way He could ease the pain of those who sought His help, was to let them feel the pain of loss and turn to faith.

It was only then that their pain would not only subside but serve its purpose.

Jesus wept.

So, put on your superhero cape and weep.

Because the superheroes who embrace humanity are the ones who touch eternity.

 

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