It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

I’m reading a great book right now! I’ll rephrase that. Of the six or seven great books I’m reading simultaneously, one relates to the following story I have to share.

I’m reading “I Can See Clearly Now” by Dr. Wayne Dyer, one of my favorite authors. I’m reading it on my Kindle, on my phone via the Kindle app, and I’m listening to it on Audible in my car as I drive north, south, east and west for my various adventures and social engagements.

In a recent chapter, Dr. Dyer tells the story of a final exam he took in a graduate course where he’d studied, as I did in college, Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs and “self-actualization”; the highest need. The professor gave the class a question and asked them to write an essay, giving them thirty minutes to complete the assignment. The question went something like this, “A self-actualized man attended a party. When he arrived everyone was in slacks, jackets, and ties. The self-actualized man was in jeans, a t-shirt, and athletic shoes. What did the self-actualized man do?” The entire class wrote their essays, all taking nearly the entire thirty minutes, filling page after page with carefully constructed details. When the professor returned, he asked each student to read their essay aloud. Each essay was roughly the same, stating that the man acted on confidence and didn’t feel self-conscious about his non-conforming attire. The professor told the class that everyone, in jest, had failed the exam.  The question could be answered in exactly three words; he didn’t notice.

Self-actualizers, among many other characteristics, have a comfortable acceptance of self and others. They are also reliant on their own experiences and judgment, they are independent and don’t rely on culture and environment to form opinions or views. A self-actualized man would not make notice of his attire in comparison to the other party attendees. There would be no comparison of self to others; the self-actualizer is completely fulfilled, comparisons of self to others are unnecessary.

I went to a party this weekend, a masquerade ball, to be exact, at a popular winery in Sonoma. I was invited to the function as a member of a MeetUp group I am active with, a women’s networking group. I saw in the excerpt describing the party that it was a costume party and quickly scanned the list of attendees. A great group of gals were planning to attend, so without reading any further, I clicked “Yes!”,  added the event to my calendar, and purchased the $65 ticket online, as one of the very few details I did read said the event was likely to sell out fast. I was committed.

A couple of weeks before the event, the same group of ladies had an impromptu happy hour gathering at a restaurant nearby. I attended and we all chatted about many things over snacks and sparkling wine. With the masquerade ball fast approaching, the topic of costumes came up. I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a procrastinator and I had only a few very vague costume ideas in mind. I had not even begun the process of deciding, making, acquiring, or purchasing. When asked, I mentioned that I had a great black dress that I have worn as a costume, playing the role of Morticia Addams from the Addams Family. I also had in mind a zombie school girl outfit I could assemble from wardrobe items on hand. The group organizer informed me that the masquerade ball was actually an eighteenth century masquerade ball and that our costumes should be reflective of that period. She then mentioned that her costume was going to be a twist on that theme, and would be “steam punk”. I am aware of “steam punk”, and had a quick visual image of how she might incorporate that with an eighteenth century ball gown.

I wasn’t too worried. I happen to have an entire storage unit full of beautiful sequined ball gowns, all hoop skirts and corsets and boning and the whole deal. Okay, only the top layer of my storage unit is beautiful sequined ball gowns, all hoop skirts and corsets and boning and the whole deal. I really need to go through that storage unit and get rid of stuff, but, thank you “universe”, for making me a procrastinator; I haven’t purged the ball gowns. You just never know when you’ll need a formal ball gown, right? They were my daughters, from a youth group she was active in during high school. Fortunately for me, I’ve shrunk, deliberately and with considerable effort and discipline, over the past several years and there is a good chance theses ball gowns will fit me. If not, there is, somewhere in that storage unit, an old Jessica McClintock dress in a very forgiving size that I’m sure I can make work. While I totally embrace minimalism, there are still remnants of the former quasi-hoarder lifestyle I escaped from a half a decade ago. Like ball gowns and dresses from the 1970’s. The universe works in very mysterious ways, or, perhaps, it’s just a freaky coincidence. Anyway, I’m not worried, in the least, about having a costume for the ball. 

The day of the party arrives. I’ve selected the best fitting dress of the lot, and, of them all, my all-time favorite. I’ve made my own mask, which I’m quite proud of, it matches the unique orange sherbet color of my dress precisely. I am feeling so beautiful and confident and perfectly outfitted for the event, I can hardly wait to arrive. In fact, I am so eager, I arrive a full forty minutes early. I select a very strategic parking space in the gravel lot so I won’t have to walk too far in my lovely sherbet orange, ornately sequined, taffeta and tulle gown.

Scarlette Begonia

I sit in my car and wait for my girlfriends to arrive. And, as I sit and wait, I observe other early arrivers as they emerge from their cars. There is a man in a powder wig. Excellent. There is another man in a top hat, he looks like Abraham Lincoln almost! Perfect. A woman exits a car in black slacks and a purple and red striped tunic top. With a mask. What? More people begin to arrive and woman after woman after woman, I observe in slacks, maxi dresses, and LBD’s (little black dresses), some, quite slutty. Cute, but slutty, and, most definitely not eighteenth century ball room, masquerade ball, style dresses. I am comparing my brilliant orange, sparkly affair with the outfits of all the other women I see. I am near frantic. I glance at the clock. I live on the very western edge of Napa, if I push the speed limit, I could make it home, change my clothes and be back before the festivities begin. I seriously consider it. But, then, I remember, my girlfriends are all going to be dressed appropriately for an eighteenth century masquerade ball. We’ve discussed this. I’m cool. I hang. I continue to watch. I continue to watch and to compare myself to every other female who arrives. After about one hundred LBD’s, carefully paired with stiletto heels and a cute mask, I see one woman, about ten years my elder, arrive in a period-appropriate dress. Ok.

I never see any of my girlfriends arrive, but, it is getting darker and I am trying to observe most of this action in the rear view mirror of my car. I check the MeetUp app to see if anyone has posted their arrival in the comments section. Nothing. I see several more LBD’s arrive and no other period-appropriate dresses. Again, I glance at the clock on my dashboard; if I left right now, went home, changed and drove back, I’d be 23 minutes late for the official beginning of the party, which is known as fashionably late. I’d be fashionably late and I’d more fashionably fit in.

Why do we have such an innate desire to “fit in”? I am consumed by this need and why it isn’t at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, I don’t know. I think “fitting in” fits in to “love/belonging” and “esteem” rungs in Maslow’s hierarchy. But it isn’t at the top. Apparently, I’m not a self-actualizer. Yet. That’s a crowd I’d like to fit in to. Sigh.

More LBD’s, more black maxi-dresses, all with masks, though. Hoo-fucking-ray for the masks! None of them are orange, though, like mine, they’re all black. I seriously consider forfeiting the cost of the ticket and just going home, having a glass of wine, and continuing my study of self-actualization. I check the MeetUp app again to see if anyone has commented. That moment when you realize you’re the only one in bright orange taffeta and tulle.

The party begins in a few minutes and the organizer has commented, “Here!” Much like my RSVP to this event, I send of a rapid fire response, “OMG! Everyone is in LBD’s and I look like the frickin’ queen!” No reply. At least I have ridiculously dressed friends at the event, they’ve somehow eluded my watchful eye in their corsets and bustles, their taffeta and tulle, their colors and sequins. I am emboldened. A little. I extricate myself from my Civic, which is no easy feat. The tram has arrived and I step aboard. There are four rows of seats in the tram, each wide enough for three humans, unless, of course, they are in a period-appropriate dress. I take up an entire row and am trailing orange sherbet colored tulle behind me as we speed up the paved drive towards the winery.

Everyone on the tram is in black and modern attire, except one woman, probably twenty years my senior; she is in a period-appropriate dress. It’s black, though. But, at least we can both fret with our hoops and corsets and bustles, exiting the tram, in tandem.

The tram pulls up to the winery where a crowd has assembled, awaiting the lowering of the chain across the entrance. The party has not, apparently, officially begun. I gracefully slide off the tram seat and alight on the ground. My taffeta and tulle catch up with me several seconds later, in their brilliant sequined orange. There is a hush over the crowd and every head turns. “Hello.”

I hold my head up high, I smile, I make eye contact, and I frantically look for a recognizable face. Where are my ridiculously dressed friends? Where is the wine?

Scarlette Begonia

I find the wine, thank the lord. Our group organizer finds me, in her “steam punk” dress, which is actually an LBD with some anitique-ish looking accessories that could be argued as period-appropriate. She looks so gosh-darned cute, and sexy, and pretty, and I look like the Great Pumpkin from the Charlie Brown Halloween special. The organizer brought her friend with her. I’ve met her before, she’s super fun and funny and cute, with a delightful accent. I suck at accents, but it’s from somewhere cool, I’m certain. She is in an even L’erBD, with lace and leather and barely covered body bits, and a mask, of course. More wine, please.

I am having a very difficult time navigating the crowd with my very fluffy skirt. My daughter is a full four inches shorter than I, so I am struggling with why the skirt is dragging on the floor for me and it didn’t for her. I’m not good at physics, or trigonometry, oh, wait, that’s triangles, geometry, then, I guess, but I think it has something to do with the circumference of the hoop. Pi, or the square root of pi, or some derivative of, I don’t know. I do know that people keeping stepping on my tulle train which immediately halts any forward motion I am attempting. My daughter’s lovely pumpkin dress cost $500. I know, I bought it, and I really, really, really don’t want to ruin it, though it is highly unlikely anyone will ever wear it again, anywhere. My mom, ever  ready for the worst case scenario, which, in my estimation, just paves the way for the worst to manifest, left, on the kitchen counter, for me, a ten-year old bottle of chemical wonder called “red wine stain remover”. So far, they have only poured bubbly, here. Per the event program, red wine is on the third floor. I love red wine, but I may seek to avoid, at the event, and just imbibe in the bottle of Zinfandel I have on my desk, when I get home. I may just stick to the first floor, all bubbly, and I won’t have to navigate the stairs or commandeer the tiny elevator, me, my skirt, and I.

My gal pals and I head for the Bubble Room, on the first floor, where they remove jackets and other outer garments to further reveal the beauty of their eighteenth century as interpreted by the twenty-first century costumes. And masks, of course. They both sit, easily, in the chairs. I move to sit in a neighboring chair, my ass hits the seat a full several seconds before my abundance of tulle settles around me. I’m sure everyone is watching the spectacle that is me. I smile confidently and adjust my chin a bit higher. Though, whether sincerely, or out of sympathy, several people have remarked on my dress, in a complimentary manner. The employees behind the wine bar, the hired dancers and musicians, and other paid individuals, are all wearing full skirts and flounces, they appear corseted and bustled, but aren’t, actually, as am I. I wonder if the other guests assume I’m hired entertainment. I decide, if that is the assumption, perhaps I shall oblige and act as though I am hired entertainment. I shift, nervously, smile more confidently, and raise my chin even higher. I am probably grimacing, by this point, and that I notice the raw beams of the ceiling suggests my chin may be held a bit too high, at the moment. I readjust.

I have two questions; where are the other gals from our group, one, and, what are they wearing, two?

We three polish off our bubbly and decide to explore the rest of the venue. We make our way out to the foyer and there are two or three other guests milling around. Where is everyone else? There were dozens of folks milling around outside before we were allowed to enter. We finally locate both the stairs and the elevator at the back of the room. We collectively opt for the elevator. When the car arrives, I gather up my yards of orange tulle and squeeze into the back of the elevator. My two friends manage to negotiate their way in, and, surprisingly, the doors close without hinderance. We exit at the second floor where the program states there is a fortune teller. There are two or three guests milling about, looking puzzled and a little bewildered at the lack of festivities, as are we. The fortune teller occupies a table and has a person seated across from her. I favor telling my own fortune, I sure as heck don’t want some acne riddled, twenty-something, making up a story that may seal my destiny. The power of suggestion is far too mysterious and too close to reality and manifestation for me to flirt with. We circle the limited space of the second floor, find no food and no wine and quickly retreat to the elevator once more.

We make our way to the third floor and as the elevator doors part we see where everyone has accumulated, not that there is a great crowd yet, but the dozens assembled out front prior to the party seem to have gathered here, on the third floor. There is food on a long table on one side of the room and every color of wine being poured a bar at the edge of the room, oh, and a juggler. I am hungry. I ran twelve miles earlier in the day and have metabolized all I’ve digested thus far, and then some. I approach the table. The mask I made, the beautiful glittery, sparkly, sequined mask I made, I decided should be of the sort that is on a stick and could be raised and lowered in a coy fashion. I did not want some mask strapped to my face for the duration of the party, smearing my eye shadow, messing up my eyeliner, or mashing my mascara enhanced lashes. I didn’t want my face to sweat. So, I am trying to manage the now empty wine glass I was told to “hang on to”, a mask on a stick, and a napkin, as there seems to be no small plates to amass finger foods upon. My very full skirt doesn’t quite facilitate approaching the buffet completely. I am a yard or so away, kind of leaning in to snatch bits of food perfectly positioned near the edges. My “dinner” for the night consists solely of some overly bright red meat like substance, some kind of salami, and thinly sliced deli variety turkey, which I despise. But I’m famished, and drinking, and must later drive home un-inebriated. I make a reach, snatch a few morsels of cured meat, retreat in an orange taffeta and tulle flourish, and scarf it down, approach the table again, and repeat. After a few repetitions, I feel adequately nourished, though not totally satisfied. What I’ve ingested thus far in food and beverage hardly accounts for my $65 admission. An occupational hazard, I try to not cost things the rest of the evening and focus on just having some fun.

There is music. A DJ. A rotund, middle-aged, DJ. He is playing music from “my era”, music popular in the 1980’s. I glance around at all the beautiful people dressed in small bits of black fabric, with masks. They all look and act older than me, but are probably “from the eighties”. There is a smattering of very beautiful, very young people, but they are loving the “old school”. There is dancing happening. This makes me happy.

I’m feeling a little the third wheel, at this point. The MeetUp event organizer and her “+ one”, aka guest, have known each other for nearly twenty years. They are very close and share two decades of shared experiences, stories, and inside jokes. I smile confidently, adjust my yards of tulle, and raise my chin a little bit. We do the girl-dance-thing, you know, when a bunch of girls really want to dance and there are no men who want to be caught dead dancing. In other words, every dance and every date and every party I’ve ever attended. We dance in the customary circular formation, each of us acting as cool as possible and yet keenly aware of just how good a dancer the other ladies in the circle are. There is unspoken competition here, but, I am disadvantaged. When in a very short, very form-fitting LBD, it is quite apparent how the hips and torso are being moved to the beat of the music. When your hips are adrift in twenty seven yards of orange taffeta and tulle and your torso bound in very rigid boning, movement is not perceptible to the casual observer. I must overachieve. I must overcompensate.

The next song is the “Nay Nay” song. I don’t know the name, or the artist, but, thank god, it is more contemporary than the litany of eighties songs. I love eighties music, but I’m craving something from the current century, I want to break out of the mold of old. The DJ demonstrates the Nay Nay dance and all the LBD’s follow suit. I do my rendition of the Nay Nay dance and only my arms appear to move. I take it up a notch, or two. I’ll admit, I am now having fun and our awkward little dance triangle has dissolved and I am on my own, free to express myself in the art of dance. I win the contest. The DJ awards me a CD of some sort I have yet to listen to. I am presently, actively, looking for the appropriate electronic equipment on which to listen to whatever has been recorded to such antiquated a medium. I mean, I have a turntable, but I don’t have a CD player. Get real. But, it, the CD, is recognition, it is my prize, and it is shiny, like my sequins, so I am happy. I’ve concluded that I won the Nay Nay dance contest, not because I was the best dancer, though I was, but because in the sea of LBD’s, I was the only recognizable dancer.

Scarlette Begonia

At last, we locate the other three gals from our group, also wearing LBD’s, with masks, of course. They’ve made their way to the third floor and the party can now, officially begin. They all compliment my dress. I smile confidently and raise my chin a little higher. And we dance. We dance, we dance, we dance. I am on the dance floor and every song that comes on is my jam! Sometimes there is one other lady dancing with me, sometimes two, sometimes three. The only constant, is me. I dance and dance and dance. I dance the night away and I have an absolute ball. At the ball. With my mask, of course. In fact, I dance for such a very long time that I danced to Abba’s Dancing Queen, not once, but twice! It’s my jam. The only song more my jam is the Cupid Shuffle; I love this dance, I rock this dance, I did not need to remember to smile confidently and raise my chin higher, I was high and all smiles doing the Cupid Shuffle; me and my skirt. I have, by this time, figured out exactly how to move so as to make al twenty seven yards of orange taffeta and tulle do amazing, swirly, things. I am the belle of the ball! I am the bright spot in a sea of LBD’s, the poor dears, all blendy-blendy in black, all in high heels, limping around, doing that “wincing walk” thing. You can tell when a girl’s feet hurt in her outrageously high stilettos, you can see how their stride becomes shorter, eventually a mincing little shuffle, and with each foot fall, a stifled moan and a wince. I have the most comfortable pair of flats I own on, never perceptible beneath my bountiful skirt. “Orange” you having fun?

Scarlette Begonia

The crowd of “older people” (people my age) is beginning to thin. The younger crowd has been rendered motionless by their aching feet. It is nearing the bewitching hour, ten o’clock. The wine has stopped flowing and the party trays are no longer being replenished. There are four of us “old girls” left, still dancing, still partying, still having fun, one has over-indulged. No worries, though, the three other gals have Ubered their way to the party and are sharing the cost to Uber, once again, from Sonoma, back to Napa. I opted to drive myself, and my twenty seven yards of taffeta and tulle, in my Honda Civic, to and from the party. I have been prudent and am in fine shape to drive the twenty minutes home. I make certain the most inebriated girl, being the one responsible for summoning the Uber ride, has successfully done so. There was a period of time in which she was lost. I finally found her in a bathroom stall changing into Birkenstocks. Well, if not Birkenstocks, something equally as ugly and at least as comfortable. You see, I could have worn Birkenstocks all night and not a soul would have known. I am feeling so right and so proper and so winning in my big, bright, orange dress. I am feeling like the Great Pumpkin, in fact. Once I got the three reunited and was certain Uber was en route, I headed for my car. I decided not to wait for the tram, but was feeling so exceedingly well, that I ran to my car. I ran, me and my skirt, all twenty seven yards of orange taffeta and tulle, and as I approached one couple from behind, the female of the pair, limping pathetically along, they turned to see what the fast footsteps behind them were all about. There I was, skirt gathered in hand, running, comfortable but cute shoes still on, down the festively lighted path, towards the parking lot. They called out, “Cinderella, did you lose your slipper?” To which I replied, “Yes, have you seen it? It’s glass, you know!” And I continued on. The woman complimented, “Such a pretty dress!” I responded, “It’s my daughter’s! And I must hurry, because if I don’t have it back by midnight, it’ll turn into the great pumpkin! Oh, wait …” And I scampered on, me, and twenty seven yards of pumpkin colored taffeta and tulle.

I had so much fun, and so many compliments, I overcame my insecurities of being different, of being “the Great Pumpkin”, and, in fact, found that the being different, if comparisons need be made, actually enhanced my experience exponentially. I may not yet be self-actualized, but I am so grateful I didn’t slink home and seek to conform. I had a ball, at the ball. With a mask, of course, in twenty-seven yards of orange taffeta and tulle; the great pumpkin!

Death, Airplanes, Internet and a Proper Hug; What’s the Connection?

I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was haunted in the night by the spirit of a young woman I observed, dead, earlier in the day.

I’d spent my day running with my running club. We are weeks away from our first full marathon of the season and the mileage is mounting. We ran eighteen miles. The parched state of California received some much needed rain the night before, and whether it was the mileage, the prospect of running in the rain, or the combination, turnout for our long, autumn run was very light. In my pace group, where there are often a dozen or more people, only five of us assembled. Of the five, two stated they’d only be running four of the eighteen miles before turning back. The three of us that persevered consisted of a coach, myself, and one other young female team member. It was perfect running weather; cool and a little damp, the dust of summer washed away with the rain from the previous night. Leaves were plastered to the asphalt pedestrian trail as though decoupaged there and clouds littered the otherwise sunny, blue, sky, allowing the sun to warm the morning just enough to take off the chill and to penetrate the damp.

We were just over halfway through our eighteen miles; the plan was to run upstream seven miles, back and past our origination point two miles further downstream, then return to the park. We were running, keeping a steady and comfortable pace, and commiserating about the amount of will it would take to run past where our cars were parked after fourteen full miles for the last four. I could hear sirens in the distance, which is certainly not uncommon. The parkway we run along nearly every Saturday morning parallels the American River, for dozens of miles, winding through the greater Sacramento metropolitan area, which now boasts a population of well over a million people. Sirens are common in such high concentrations of suburbia. The sirens did seem very close, though, at the moment, this didn’t really register. A man approached us, opposing us, a runner, on the other side of the trail, per proper trail etiquette. He spoke to us, half shouting something about the sirens and directing the police in the direction from whence he came. I thought he was joking, at first, making light of the sirens, as though he were running to flee some feigned crime, but then he mentioned a runner, ahead, in cardiac arrest. My heart nearly stopped, cold, at the thought. Cardiac arrest. That’s what that means; the sudden cessation of heartbeat, of blood flow, of circulation, of oxygen to the brain. Of life.

We continued to run, the three of us, at first with a few forgotten words of acknowledgement, then in silence, in shock, then in dreaded speculation. Our running club, though with a low turnout today, has over five hundred members. Our membership, especially after the impressive lightning, thunder and rain the night before, accounted for most of the athletic activity on the trail this early, Saturday morning. What were the chances the fallen was one of our friends, our teammates, maybe even one of our coaches?

We rounded a corner to find a crowd of team members around the form of a fairly young, female figure, prone, on the dirt, next to the paved trail. Our coaches are all trained in CPR, and, so, CPR was being administered by people familiar to us. I’ve been certified numerous times in CPR, in first aid, in wilderness first aid. I’ve had to employ some of my wilderness first aid skills, but, never, gratefully, have I had to actually employ CPR. In fact, I’ve never actually witnessed CPR being administered on anything but those peculiar, somewhat other worldly, vaguely androgynous, mannequins, used in practice. To see CPR in real life is shocking. The young woman’s head was, correctly, tilted back, enabling the opening of the air passage in the throat. It is an extremely artificial posture, though, and just added to the horror of the scene. Another team member was rhythmically pushing down on the victim’s chest with the force and violence required to artificially pump the blood, from a still heart, to the brain, but the force and violence required, you knew, especially with this woman’s very tiny frame, left every rib and the sternum fractured. Her face was visible, distorted by the grasp of the hands of the rescuer tilting her head back, her pallor was an alarming and very unnatural shade of blue-gray. Everyone standing nearby, the entire pace group ahead of us and a sprinkling of others, wore grim expressions and looked on from an encircling crowd, like a crowd that gathers around a particularly gifted street performer, everyone positioned themselves to better see. I didn’t want to see. I’d seen enough. Cardiac arrest. She was, medically speaking, dead. Her life force, the flow of blood and oxygen, was mechanical, artificial, and temporary, at this point.

Other than the well made up, embalmed figure of my deceased grandmother at her “viewing”, prior to her funeral, expertly made up like a Broadway star, closed eyes, lips, and rosy cheeks accentuated colorfully, I’ve only ever purposefully looked at one dead person; my father. And, really, I wish I could unsee that, it was horrid, it was dreadful, and as hard as I try, I will never forget that final glimpse. I’d said goodbye to him several days before he finally passed. I recognized the moment his true spirit left his body, some other quasi-dad-spirit inhabited him for the last couple of days; angry, confused, disoriented, surreal. I’d arrived at the hospital as quickly as I could when told “it was time”, driving nearly eighty miles, but I arrived too late. A dear and helpful cousin was there with my, somehow, disbelieving mom. I was encouraged to “take a last look”. The form behind the curtain with the twisted face and the grotesque, gaping mouth was not my father. Someone had shoved his dentures in, post mortem, giving him the look of a low budget horror film skeleton. I have no regrets in life, but for that one. That is not how I wanted to remember him, I find it horrifyingly unforgettable.

The scene along the running trail was as horrifyingly unforgettable. I wasn’t sure if I recognized her, the fallen runner, or not. I remember the absurdity of noticing how cute her argyle running skirt and hot pink compression socks were. The mind is a freaky thing. The ambulance arrived as we did, and the paramedics leapt into action, wheeling the gurney across the running trail in front of me, at precisely the moment I attempted to pass. In some almost comically awkward and inappropriate moment, I blocked the gurney and the gurney blocked me. With reflexes like frozen molasses, I realized the situation and stepped quickly around the paramedics and the gurney, allowing them access to the victim and me to access to the open trail ahead. Our coach remained behind to assist, if needed. The remaining team member and I ran on. A few minutes later, the ambulance passed us up, quickly, silently, with lights flashing. I never know how to interpret these things.

We ran on. And on and on. We chatted a little, about the incident, what else? We managed to keep a reasonable pace, coaching ourselves, timing ourselves, for nearly eight miles. We found the fortitude to pass the parking lot and run downstream the additional two miles, as planned, to turn at precisely the appropriate point and begin the final, excruciating two miles back to our originating and finishing point. A mile and a half from our destination, we met our coach, going the opposite direction, finishing out her mileage. We cheered her on, she cheered us on. Runners are awesome like that. She mentioned that the downed runner was not a part of our club. What did I say? I said, “Good.” Then quickly added an appropriate disclaimer, that it was still, all, terrible, whoever she was, but I was glad it wasn’t someone we knew. Still, it didn’t sound right, seemed vulgar and crude, but I didn’t have the faculties to articulate anything more appropriate. A hundred yards further on and my running partner gave up; she was too tired to go on at a run. I was stiff and sore from activities earlier in the week, my knee was ablaze with pain and walking was far worse than running. I couldn’t continue at a walk. I just wanted to run, she just wanted to walk. We parted ways; I ran in alone, she walked in alone. I wouldn’t have left her, alone, especially in light of the day’s events, but I knew another pace team from our club was shortly behind us and would catch up to her in moments. I kept running. I ran faster. I ran a lot faster, the last mile and a half, my speed increasing the closer I got to the end. I couldn’t make all of this end fast enough. And though, now, the run is over, and the day is over, and the fitful night of restlessness is over, I don’t think the memory will ever escape me. I have been touched by this person’s experience with death, fleeting or final. I still don’t know whether she was resuscitated, or whether she passed, nor do I have a way to find out. I don’t know if she had a known, pre-existing condition, or if she was smote down by some unknown, congenital flaw. Or was it as a result of some risky behavior? Things I’ll never know and will always wonder, if only for selfish reasons, to prevent such a fate in my own future. My brush with death. My brush with mortality. My brush with someone else’s mortality.

My brush with someone else’s mortality kept me awake. All night, every time I closed my eyes, I kept seeing her form on the ground, a crowd around her, her alarmingly blue face, smashed and distorted between the caring hands of one of her rescuers, her thin, tanned, fit legs sticking out from the adorable, argyle, running skirt and peeking, again, behind the fabric of her hot pink compression socks. Her shoes, small, bright, colorful, still laced perfectly. The ambulance, large, red, obnoxious and obscene, on the pedestrian only trail. Running almost into the gurney as it was wheeled across the paved path. The shocked look on the paramedics face, mirroring, I’m sure, the shocked and horrified expression of realization on mine as I scuttled out of the way like an unwelcomed rodent on a crowded city sidewalk. The thought that kept me awake more than any other was the connection I felt to this complete stranger, the intimacy of seeing someone’s face in the first moments of their death. I’ve only ever glimpsed my own father in such a compromised state, and that, unwillingly, hauntingly, regrettably.

It was the thought of connection that occupied my mind for much of my sleepless night, the connections we have with those in our lives we consider large, important, crucial, vital; our parents, our lover, our children, our friends, our relatives, and then the tiny connections we have with others, fleeting, momentary, mostly unrecognized or unnoticed; people we pass on crowded sidewalks, or a running path, even those miniscule connections where we make brief eye contact with another soul, or someone we smile at for some imperceptible reason, or greet, never to be seen again, strangers in passing cars whom we acknowledge in a brief moment of passing, people on a crowded subway, pushing like hungry lions towards the kill, into the car, then out again, only to disappear into the crowd, forever, on the platform at some station.

I once wrote a piece, though I’ll be damned if I can find it, about connection. I wrote it from an airplane, in the dead of night, from 38,000 feet above what I assumed was the Midwest, below. I flew in the dark of night, often, for work, and I would usually pass the time by looking at the tiny pinpoint sized dots of light below. Each dot perhaps the light of a car, maybe a window in a home, a light illuminating some moment of life for some other person. I often wondered if, perhaps, one of those people associated with some dot of light below, might just be gazing up, at me, within a tiny pinpoint of light, blinking across the darkened sky. Did we unknowingly connect in some very abstract manner? And, like some sort of synapse, would this tiny, unknown connection foster some cosmic reconnection at some point in our shared futures?

As sleep eluded me last night and my mind was filled with thoughts of a young, dead woman in a short argyle skirt and a smashed, blue face, my man slept more soundly, in my presence, than he has in a very long time. So as not to disturb his well-deserved slumber, I quietly sat and stared out the window. I stared at the dark shape that is Mt. Tamalpais, a sight that entrances me any time of the day or night. I have a strong connection to that mountain I can’t quite justify. I stared at the stars, though few, in the inky sky. There, too were clouds, or a fog, creeping along the edges of the sky. And, every few minutes or so, on ascent out of San Francisco International Airport, northward at first, to a point, then the course altered according to carefully calculated plans, to some other destination on this globe, an airplane, a small, blinking, pinpoint of light. Is it possible, that within one of those aircrafts, sat, by the window, a sleepless creature, peering down at a random dot of light on the earth’s crust, speculating some remote and tenuous connection with a soul associated with that dot of illumination? With, perhaps, even, me? Did we connect on some infinitesimal level, a future synapse set to fire?

We all have millions more connections with others than we can ever begin to count, or realize, or even begin to imagine. But what of the connections we have to those we have occasion to care about, those that “matter”. The big, orbs of bright light within our cosmic view, the swinging, swirling, searchlights that seek to draw our attention to them, constantly, incessantly. Are we nurturing those connections? Caring for them? Fostering them? Cultivating them? Or are they just a bright and annoying nuisance we wish we could block or shield from view? This is what really deprived me of sleep; am I connecting with those I’m connected to? No. That’s the true thief in the night for me; thinking that, perhaps, I am not connecting, at a level I’d like to, with just about everyone in my life. Are you? I suddenly felt very, very alone, not too unlike the downed runner in the argyle skirt, my connections suddenly and unexpectedly felt fragile, tenuous, distant, and sometimes, even, forced. Like dial-up internet.

Are we paying the appropriate amount of due to those we cherish in our life? Parents, children, lover, friends, relatives? Likely not, we are overcommitted, distracted, and overwhelmed. Though I’m certain some of our connections get more bandwidth than others, connectivity to those we love parallels the basic ISP we pay for; well-intentioned but somewhat sporadic and not nearly adequate to serve all connected. So, if we were to suddenly become “premium cable”, what would that be, how would that differ?

While money may buy you a better level of quality of internet connectivity, with our relationships, time is more important than money. With that being said, we need to make more time for those we love and, if as a result, accept making less money. Every now and then, we see something on social media that reminds us that our loved ones will be much more likely to remember the time we spent with them than the money we spent on them. Physical human needs are basic, and, really, the simpler these are met, the better, that we realize this early enough in life to make a difference is a blessing. One of the most critical human needs, next to air to breathe, water and food, is love, and, my friends, love, in its purest and most true sense, is free. It costs us nothing to hug, to touch, to kiss, to hold hands, to listen, to share stories and engage in conversation, or just, simply, to be present, and these actions are, by far, the most valuable. And like all things of great value, there are varying degrees of quality, and, quality matters.

Connection as a value vs. connection as a duty; connection is a two-way relationship. It takes two for there to be a connection; very simply, you cannot connect two dots with a straight line if there are not two dots. If one party bases their connections on value, and the other out of duty or obligation, the connection will be an effort, there will be a strain, a sense of obligation on one side and a sense of lack on the other. This is where feelings of resentment and corresponding feelings of being taken for granted arise from.

When both parties connect based on values, the connection is fulfilling and nurturing for both parties, it grows and is strengthened, it is solid and more lasting. If both parties connect out of duty or obligation, it is little more than a transaction; temporary, momentarily necessary, empty, minimally gratifying, purposeful, but only briefly, and, if not distasteful, then certainly not memorable.

After a long, haunted, sleepless night, I remembered what I’ve always known; life would be more joyful if we didn’t take for granted the deep connections we have with our lover, our parents, our children, and our friends. If we approached these vital connections from a sense of value rather than a sense of obligation or duty, they would be far more fulfilling to all involved. Why would we ever consider anything less than that? If we nurture our connections with those who matter to us most, meaningfully, on every level possible, we’d find more peace, joy and fulfillment, and so, too, would they. We simply need to touch, to hug for longer than a second, to kiss deeply, to press cheeks together, to feel one another’s skin, to hold hands, to caress. We only need to connect more holistically, to listen wholly, make eye contact, smile, ask, do, surprise. Cherish. Adore. We need to prioritize that which is most important, in the moment, and minimize that which is not; put the cell phone aside, be so engrossed in conversation that no one dares interrupt, embrace, put the past behind and future away, live only in the moment. Find joy. Life is uncertain, but certainly short, we need to connect our dots with the straightest of lines.

I watched a movie the other night, a French film featuring eighteen, five minute short stories about love, in Paris. One of the stories was about a man who was married to a woman for a long period of time. In that time, everything she did that he once found endearing, became irksome. He took a lover. He planned to meet his wife to tell her of his love, of his affair, and of his intent to leave her. His wife, instead, told him of her leukemia and that she would die. In this moment, he knew, out of duty and responsibility, he must rise to the occasion. He ended his affair and focused his energy and focus on his ailing wife. He rose to the occasion by connecting with her as he once had, he acted as though he didn’t just love her out of duty, but that he loved her as he once had, that he was “in love” with her. He found himself, shortly, as in love with her as he been when they’d first fallen in love. But, alas, she died, and he was sad and tortured and saw the things that reminded him of her, those things he once found endearing, then irksome, everywhere he looked. He became haunted by them. Yes, a tragic story, but what I took away from it is that love, relationship, connection, can migrate from endearing to irksome if we do not nurture it, always, as we do when it first sprouts. Like a plant, we water it and care for it and sing to it when it is a seedling, but after a season or two, it will no longer flower or thrive unless we continue to care for it. Such are our connections.

As an example, when you kiss your lover, on an “ordinary day”, assuming you kiss every day, is it  a  quick tapping together of the lips, with closed lips and eyes, like second graders in a school play, made to kiss by some cruel story plot, like the conciliatory kiss of a numb and bored couple after thirty years of bland matrimony, or the type of kiss you’d concede to applying on the lips of your great aunt, with her bad fitting, slippery, yellowed, dentures, or to someone a bit too well acquainted, recently, with onions, or not well acquainted, recently (or ever), with dental floss. I was the recipient of the best kind of kiss, just today, after my haunted, sleepless and very thoughtful night. It was warm, sweet, lingering, and loving, and what every kiss between lovers deserves to be.

What is an embrace? A hug? It is not the quick draping of limp arms about ones shoulders with an even quicker retraction, like the lifeless arms of a marionette on strings, thrust up, then dropped, with zero feeling. Do we embrace others as we would a fitful toddler, not our own, covered in snot and the remnants of chewed up graham crackers, or like a congratulatory embrace of an athlete having just finished a very sweaty feat, or of that thrifty uncle who saves money on both water and soap by only imbibing in their application weekly, or so?  A meaningful embrace, a quality hug, is not too loose, not too tight, one that says “you’re welcomed within these arms, but you aren’t being controlled or forced to stay.” An embrace that is long enough in duration for nearly every sense to be engaged and nourished (though I don’t always lick people while they hug me, so the sense of taste may be optional in a “good” hug). A nourishing hug is a hug that is long enough in duration to compliment the level of intimacy of the relationship; a few comforting moments for the snotty, food encrusted, non-related toddler, and the stinky uncle, but perhaps the better portion of half a minute, at least, for your lover. While I don’t whip out a slide rule or my calculator app on my smart phone, some term of time in between is apropos for other special people in our lives.

I had the best embrace, ever, today. A Sunday morning where no one was rushed to be anywhere, me after a poor night’s sleep, and him having an unusually restful night. In the bright morning light, a mutual embrace of uncertain extent, minutes maybe, perhaps an hour, or more. Sweet, loving, wholesome, nurturing, tender, comforting and fortifying. I fell asleep in this perfect hug, four arms enwrapped, and I slept like a child after a long, nightmarish, night and woke feeling completely loved, more rested, and restored. Nearly restored.

Don’t impede opportunities for chance connections to occur; smile at strangers, say hello, hold a door open, shake hands, guide, help carry something for someone overburdened, wave at benevolent drivers, or offer someone the spot in front of you in traffic. Every connection, whether a pinpoint of light or a beacon, has some impact on your life, to acknowledge this, to recognize this and to make as many of these connections as purposefully positive as possible is the path to joy, for you, and for the other dot at the end of the line.

Life is short. Life is uncertain. Life is certainly short. I believe we are so connected with our world, with “the universe”, that things happen for a reason. I believe it is through some level of individual effort and consciousness, through contemplation, that we attempt to discern some of those reasons, those lessons. From this experience, from this story, I have become more aware of the fact that life is fleeting, life is tenuous, and life is what we make of it. Make joy. Through this experience, I realize that many of my connections, my relationships, aren’t receiving as much of my positive energy as they should. Lessons I’ve learned in the past have been fortified; I am grateful for each and every moment as they arrive and as they pass, I am grateful for the people I cherish in my life now, for the connections we have, the connections we will accentuate, I am grateful for the connections I will make in the future, both brief and lasting, and I will make every effort to focus on them, to acknowledge them and to keep practicing drawing the straightest line between two dots I can.

What’s Your Story?

If you have no story to tell, something, somewhere, isn’t quite right.

Not a day passes that we don’t experience something worth sharing, whether it’s something we observed, something we heard, something we participated in, something we remembered from the past, or even something we are planning for or dreaming of in the future. We all have a story to share.

If we feel we have nothing worthwhile to share is it because we are sitting idle, waiting for life to happen? Do we wait for other people for the company, or to have enough time, or enough money in order to acquire experiences we feel are worthy of sharing? Do we dare not to dream because we fear we’ll never be in a position of “doing”? If this, in any respect, is the case, our story, presently, is a tragedy.

Scarlette Begonia

One of the best storytellers of the day is Casey Neistat, filmmaker and vlogger. He recently traveled to Madrid for a speaking engagement. During his vlog shot from there, in a moment of reminiscence, he recounted the story of his first trip to Spain; he was young, still a teenager, with a young child to support, he worked as a dishwasher. Yet, he managed to set aside enough of a small sum of money that he could manage to pay for a trip to Europe with his older brother. Casey’s story was a reflection of his priorities; he still supported his child, he worked very hard, and saved diligently, and he traveled and experienced, that he’d have life experiences to grow from and stories to share. He had very little time and he had very little money, but his passion for life and experience inspired him to find a way. Because of his commitment to experience and to storytelling, he has followed his passion into a self-made career as an independent filmmaker and YouTube artist.

There is a way, but it won’t likely come find us while we sit idle and wait. We must pursue, we must go forth, if we want amazing adventures to tell tale of.

And yet, stories don’t have to be of an epic adventure to be worthy of telling. Some of the best stories are relatable because they are ordinary events, just well told and joyfully shared.

Scarlette Begonia

If we feel we have nothing worthwhile to share, is it because we don’t have the confidence to think others will find value in what we have to tell. This, too, would make our story a bit of a tragedy. Almost any story told with confidence and passion is worthwhile. There is humor, there are observations, there are plenty a worthy tale that can stem from the most mundane of events. The success of a story has only a little to do with content and much more to do with delivery and with engagement, which stems wholly from confidence.

Confidence, much like working very hard at a job and diligently saving money for a trip to Europe, takes commitment and practice and fortitude. And confidence will serve us well in every aspect of life. Confidence is a practice, like yoga or tai chi or ballet, like singing or playing the violin, once proficient, there is always another level of excellence to achieve. It is infinite. But confidence is critical, it is a life force.

Scarlette Begonia

And even with experiences to share and the confidence to tell them, there will be the few who will still not hear, will not listen, and this is never a reflection on the story or the storyteller. As much as storytelling is an art, so, too, is listening. The best storytellers are the best listeners; the best listeners are the best storytellers. As author Bryant H. McGill has been quoted, “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” Every story, every tale, every storyteller, will have a critic, too, from time to time. The quality of our story does not rely on the reaction of the listener, but the joy it brings us to tell and to those who truly hear. Do not be discouraged by those unwilling to hear, it is their loss, completely.

I often share stories of my simple, little life. In some cases, when I have an attentive audience, I feel I can tell the greates tale. Other times, when my audience isn’t connected or focused or willing, I struggle to even form intelligible sentences. I was, the other day, at the salon for my brow and bikini wax and as the hot wax was slathered on and the cool wax ripped off, I shared my tales of the weeks since my last visit. Here, I always find the perfect audience. May I suggest, if you struggle to find a willing audience with whom to share your stories, I have found the very best listeners, of all time, to be aestheticians. I have never had an aesthetician who wasn’t a great listener, who didn’t respond in all the right ways to all the stories I have to share. Your aesthetician, if you’re into bikini waxes, knows you in a way even your doctor doesn’t. There is a level of familiarity and intimacy with your aesthetician that can hardly be duplicated with anyone. I can get smooth and pretty and practice my craft of storytelling! Just thought I’d share.

Scarlette Begonia

Storytelling is a very large part of life; books, songs, movies, dance, photography, television shows, art, and poetry, are all just stories arranged into various mediums. Stories fill our every day, and, true, while many make a profession of telling a story, in one form or another, the rest of us are no less capable. We need only experiences to share and the confidence to express ourselves, and, we too, can tell a story!

So, what is your story?