I was working to meet a writing deadline when my phone started blowing up with news alerts on the afternoon of Monday, August 8th. While I have learned to temper my reaction when looking at what are usually politics-related headlines, I verbally exclaimed, “No!” when I read that singer, actor, and philanthropist Olivia Newton-John had passed away.
It was about this moment that I began receiving what ended up being dozens of texts and emails from friends checking on me—all of whom were aware of the special place in my heart Ms. Newton-John occupied. While I was never close with her, I did have the good fortune of meeting her on multiple occasions and one time even got to buy her a drink at an Australia celebration event. Yet I know being a self-professed superfan is a moniker I share with millions.
When people think of timeless films from the last century, they don’t immediately mention Grease as one of them. And yet it’s a movie that so many of us have in common—a collective cinematic experience that has now spanned decades and touched countless lives (many of whom, like me, wished life was more like a musical). While the soundtrack and irresistible charm of the film speak for themselves, Ms. Newton-John’s portrayal of an outsider who’s finding her way through the halls of Rydell High was something many of us could relate to. At some point, we all were or are trying to find our way in life. And if we could put a fun transformation and a catchy song on the face of that angst, why not?
For me, Ms. Newton-John represented more than an icon that lay the audio-meets-visual foreground for artists like Madonna and even Beyoncé. As an extremely overweight, closeted child growing up on military bases overseas, her image and music proved to be somewhat of a touchstone—something to look to that I could both idolize and aspire to. Oh, how I longed to fit in. And Ms. Newton-John’s lust for life (and even actual lust in her hit song and video Physical) proved to be inspirational to me.
More than that, I was also a child of extreme parental abuse from both my mother and father. I look back on that time in my life and wonder how my sister and I survived those years of acute neglect and horrific mistreatment. Somehow, our nearly worn-out videocassette copies of Grease and Xanadu proved to be respites during many storms.
There were countless times my sister and I weren’t sure how we were going to process or even survive the parent-induced torture we were experiencing. But we would often find some calm by immersing ourselves in the neon-infused fortress of Xanadu. During that movie’s running time, we were safe. We were at peace. We were free to be children.
I wonder if these memories are why I was hit so hard by Ms. Newton-John’s passing. Or perhaps it was because she was a well-known philanthropist who was singing about environmental causes as far back as the 1980s, a tireless advocate for animals, and during her 30-year bout with cancer, became a beacon of light for others dealing with the disease (including my own mother-in-law, who passed as a result of her own cancer journey several years ago).
I admit I initially questioned my being in a state of mourning this past week. After all, despite a lifetime of fandom and having curated many playlists that Ms. Newton-John’s music is still a part of, I wasn’t close with her. My thoughts turn to her husband and daughter, both of whom I’ve also met and been able to spend time with. While I can’t imagine the level of grief they’re feeling, I suppose it’s fair to partake in their emotions in a reverent way. After all, they were generous enough to share their wife and mother with the rest of us—even during her final months.
As I mourned, I made it my mission to find something positive to take from it all. Seeing actor Jane Seymour talk about her friendship with Ms. Newton-John on the Today show helped with that. Ms. Seymour spoke of Ms. Newton-John’s capacity to step outside herself, never complain, and always inquire about others—no matter what she happened to be going through. So even after she’s left this world, there’s great inspiration waiting to be found in the celebrity who, in many ways, helped me survive my youth. A clear reason why, along with everyone else’s reasons for being hopelessly devoted to her, Ms. Newton-John, although gone, will never be forgotten.
I have a childhood memory of sitting in a circle with other kids my age, each taking turns stating what we wanted to be when we grew up. When it was finally my turn, I blurted out, “Movie star,” which was greeted with guffaws, snarky remarks, and even the supervising teacher suggesting I, “Rethink that.”
Let me save you the trouble of Googling my name. I am not a movie star. Although I do work behind-the-scenes in show business as a writer and producer. But my path to a career I love didn’t come from rethinking wanting to be a performer. At the time I enthusiastically shared my goal, that’s what I really wanted to be. And I was even working toward it by appearing in school and community theatre productions. For an introverted, extremely overweight child living on a military base, this was a fairly major achievement. And yet, anytime I shared my goals as they related to Hollywood, I was quickly dismissed. Even by my parents.
Why do we sometimes disparage childhood dreams? Do we think we’re doing children a favor by cautioning them to be more realistic? Why not greet whatever aspiration they have with, “Tell me more about that,” which can inspire them to explore the idea logically?
Encouraging children to imagine their futures without boundaries doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to have their aspirations crushed. Sure, there are going to be challenges, distractions, and detours along the way. But this will be as true for someone who wants to be a mechanic as it will be for someone who wants to see their name in lights. Just as it will be true for any life goal—whether it has to do with career, relationships, or something else entirely. To limit a child’s capacity to dream can potentially stunt their ability to imagine or even to think cognitively (i.e. “How do I get to there from here?”).
Because I still shudder at the memory of kids making fun of my career goal and the teacher allowing it, I decided that along with the TV shows, movies, and occasional books I write, I would add a children’s book to the mix. Biron The Bee Who Couldn’t specifically speaks to a child’s ability to dream big with a message that aspirations should never be discouraged (not even by our own selves).
Setting limits in life is never very productive. Dreaming is being. And sure, there will always be surprises along the way—twists and turns we didn’t see coming.
One such adulthood “dream” of mine turned out differently when writing my movie A Heavenly Christmas. While working on the script, I imagined the role of Pearl, a sassy guardian angel, being portrayed by actor Megan Mullally, who played the role of Karen on Will & Grace. Many would consider that to be a far reach since I was writing the movie for Hallmark Channel, which didn’t usually feature stars of that caliber in their movies. Imagine my surprise when my casting idea took a turn and Shirley MacLaine ended up playing the part. She even told interviewers that she felt like the role of Pearl was written for her. As you now know, it wasn’t. But the result of my dream casting, although not specifically realized, ended up being even better than what I imagined. Who’s to say the realization of someone very talented appearing in the movie didn’t start with what many would have considered unrealistic aspirations?
And lest anyone reading this think I’m writing about magical thinking or manifestation. I’m simply referring to holding onto hope that exciting life events lie ahead for each of us. So, while we can be more cognizant of encouraging the children in our lives to always dream big and never set limits on themselves or their life goals, perhaps we might do the same for ourselves. The New York Times recently published an article touting the virtues of embracing more anticipation in life (chronicling how looking forward to something can be almost as good as experiencing it).
As a helpful teacher (who happens to be a hummingbird) reminds the lead character (a sprightly bee who doesn’t want to make honey) in my children’s book, “There will always be others flitting about, who dismiss dreams or sow seeds of bee-doubt. But having bee-dreams is bee-fabulous because, thinking outside the hive creates the most buzz.”
As a young child growing up on overseas military bases, I never had the same Christmas experience as my homeland counterparts. There was no department store Santa to sit on the lap of. No shopping mall to peruse. No American toy store with a big window display to inspire visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.
We did, however, have the Sears and JCPenney catalogs, which my sister and I would thumb through in exhaustive fashion to make a list for Santa’s elves. We were even kind enough to include page and item numbers on our lists, assuming that the North Pole subscribed to the same catalogs we did.
The joy of those makeshift Christmas lists infuses my psyche to this day. And friends who know me well are surprised I love the holiday season as much as I do. That’s because there was a dark side to my specific military base life that included severe physical and mental abuse from my sister’s and my unwell parents. But the love of giving and sharing glad tidings has become a part of who I am and has even resulted in my writing one of Hallmark Channel’s highest-rated movies to date.
These days, I do my best to impart the magic of the holidays beyond December. I’ve found this to be very necessary during recent years as our society has been plagued not only by political divisions but also by the seemingly endless ways that the Coronavirus is affecting life as we know it. Suddenly we aren’t able to extend generosity to our fellow man (or woman) as easily as we used to.
Thus, about a year and a half ago, I decided I was going to be a Secret Santa all year long. And this edict was quite simple to carry out. Anytime I would go to our local farmers market, I would pick up a bouquet of fresh flowers and lay them on one of my immediate neighbors’ porches (without a note, an explanation, or any specific occasion).
I would try and be as sly about this as possible (not so easy in an age of Ring cameras and video recording doorbells). But often, I would be able to sneak by, drop off the flowers, and then peek out my own window until the flowers were eventually discovered by whomever I’d left them for.
I must admit it wasn’t long before I started receiving pictures via text messages from these neighbors—showing off their newly acquired flowers in a vase or somehow on display in their homes. I’d been found out. But being discovered hasn’t stopped me from performing this random act of kindness often.
For me, fresh flowers are a lovely way to let people know they’re appreciated—and perhaps even a way to even turn a frown upside-down. Because these flowers are from local farmers, they aren’t expensive. And they arrive with no frills (or even baby’s breath). But they do herald a reminder that life can be beautiful no matter what any of us might be facing.
One time I placed sunflowers on a particular neighbor’s porch. They’d recently lost their precious golden retriever, Sunny, and were in deep mourning (all on top of other stresses, as one of them is an essential worker). Upon receiving the sunflowers, they created a little shrine to their wonderful companion—placing the flowers at the center of it and declaring them to be Sunny-flowers. They sent me pictures of the flowers daily. And in one subsequent shot, I noticed that a small photograph of my family and I had been added to the shrine.
Out of despair came hope. Out of hope came reverence. Out of reverence came joy. And suddenly two households that were respectfully keeping their distance because of the Coronavirus, found themselves forever connected in a way they hadn’t been even when hugs were easier to distribute. All from a random act of kindness that helped hearts grow three sizes that day. (Forgive me… Christmas addict here, remember?)
Perhaps there’s a way that you can add a little joy to someone’s life who’s not expecting it. Even if you don’t have any funds to spare, you could create a homemade greeting card, write a poem, or even bake some cookies that someone nearby might not be expecting. Being surprised can awaken the childlike wonder—and hope—that’s still alive in all of us. Sometimes we just have to be reminded they’re there.
Random acts of kindness don’t have to take a lot of time. Nor do they have to take a lot of money, or be performed only in December. All that’s required is a little thought—one that just might turn into Christmas magic. Perhaps the kind that will help mend a broken heart and last well into the new year.
We hear a lot these days about “Fight or flight,” a concept credited to American physiologist Walter Cannon, and described as an internal response to the perception of a potentially harmful event. While this reaction to stress was perhaps useful during days when Neanderthals needed to quickly assess whether to flee from oncoming peril, its overuse in modern society can sometimes result in self-harm when we’re misperceiving a happening as a threat that could endanger our lives. For those of us who are adult survivors of child abuse, which includes me, this can be even more true.
There was a time in my life when I relied on my internal fight or flight response to survive. I didn’t describe it like this at the time. I was very young and acting purely on instinct. But there were many occasions that my and my younger sister’s lives were in literal danger, and I had to react quickly and succinctly to stave off what could have been very grave results.
But that was then. This is now. And I have come to learn that my internal panic button (or fight or flight response) gets “hit” all too often—even sometimes when reacting to seemingly mundane situations. This has led to what’s been perceived as overreactions on my part that have resulted in the loss of a friendship or a professional setback. Yes, stuff happens that we don’t like. But we’re not always in severe jeopardy. This thought-out assessment isn’t always available to those of us who, as young children, were put into dangerous situations that could have resulted in real harm if we couldn’t somehow navigate our way out of them.
Recently, a friend of mine who also happens to be an adult survivor of child abuse was notified that a meeting had been scheduled between her and the head of her department at the end of the day, on the last day of the month. My friend was sure this equated to her being fired. She couldn’t imagine why. But she just knew that meeting with her department head with this kind of timing spelled “Clean out your desk and don’t show up for work tomorrow.”
Despite being a savvy individual, my friend panicked—even as I and others tried to help her to be present and breathe through the situation. In other words, we were encouraging her to not overreact. Well, she didn’t want our encouragement. Aside from logging onto LinkedIn and sending out a few resumes, she also began to belittle her company and her department head. My friend became ugly in her discourse and suddenly everything was about getting revenge on this organization that was taking her for granted and unceremoniously dumping her.
Cut to the meeting, when my friend was told by the department head that her direct supervisors knew how hard she (my friend) was working and wanted to know if she needed any additional staff. They were so impressed and happy with her output, they wanted to do anything they could to make her position with the company more satisfying.
No dumping. No contempt. No taking my friend for granted. Yet her internal panic button (or fight or flight response) had indicated otherwise. In this case, she hadn’t verbalized her anger to her supervisors before the meeting. And she hadn’t enacted any of her revenge tactics on the company—but she had certainly planned them out. And while there was no harm done to her or her career in the long run, the mental state she was in for the days leading up to the meeting was very detrimental to her, both mentally and physically, in regard to stress on her body.
As I coached my friend through this situation, I recognized myself in many of her actions. As children being raised under extremely abusive conditions, we learned we could rely only on ourselves (often after seeking help from others). I remember there was a time when I was younger that I called the police to report my extremely abusive parents and ask for help. Not only didn’t the authorities believe me and refuse to intercede, but when I hung up the phone, I discovered my mother lurking nearby, fuming over what she had just heard. This memory gives me chills to this day. And reminds me why my own fight or flight instinct remains so prevalent.
But that doesn’t mean I should give in to it. This instinct can confuse us, lie to us, and even cause us to perform actions that result in us harming ourselves, friendships, family, career, or even our own health. Never has the need to be present and not necessarily respond in the way our initial impulses tell us to been more necessary.
A calmer and more accepting mind can create better solutions. And sometimes solutions aren’t even warranted as in the case of my friend who thought her career was over when the exact opposite was the case.
A first step can be recognizing when we’re hitting our own internal panic buttons too frequently. Our initial reactions aren’t always the most reliable. Just being aware that this might be a pattern is a beautiful first step. And this can be done without shaming ourselves for using an internal instinct that perhaps saved our lives long ago. Compassion for ourselves is as mandatory as not reacting to perceived obstacles quite so quickly. Only then can we begin to truly assess a situation and what might be done to resolve it.
Photo Credit: Anna Tarazevich
After catching myself doing so more often than I’d care to admit, I recently committed to doing less pre-judging when encountering strangers. As someone who once weighed over 450 pounds, I felt like the world was harshly judging me—and so I returned the (perceived) favor in kind and would always look for something negative about someone as a defense mechanism.
Even though I took off the excess weight years ago, I still wrestle with this habit that doesn’t serve me (or any of us) at all. Especially now, as the larger effects of the recent pandemic wane, we remove our masks and re-enter society as a… Well, society.
As I’ve worked to embrace and be open to all aspects of everyone around me, I discovered a pesky habit I have of thinking of myself as a gifted mind reader. This, despite having a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Still, I seemed to think I could guess what someone was thinking or even what makes up their personality within about three seconds of encountering them.
This additional defense mechanism became more clear during a recent early morning run to a favorite coffee vendor. While standing in line, I noticed a woman in front of me who kept turning around and staring at me. I was sure the expression on her face was revealing some sort of disdain. After checking to see if I had any stains on my clothes (hey, you never know), I leaned into the person I was with and reported that this person was looking at me like I owed her $20 and had never made right by the debt. I chuckled to myself, thinking I was being clever. But I was still very disturbed that this person in line kept turning around and looking at me.
After paying and while waiting for my coffee order, I noticed this stranger approaching me. “This was it,” I thought to myself, “The moment she’s going to say something really mean, really prejudiced, or really uncalled for.” I mentally braced myself—and then realized she had raised her hand in front of my face.
“I saw your thumb ring and really liked it,” she said. “I’ve had my thumb ring for over 20 years.” (This was when I realized that she was showing off her thumb ring by holding her hand in front of me.)
This person told me that when she got engaged, the ring was too big for her ring finger, so she put it on her thumb and got stuck. And rather than take it off, she decided to keep it as a thumb ring—forever. She told me she liked my thumb ring and we discussed jewelry for a few minutes (even though this is a subject I know very little about). She was very kind, very complimentary (of my taste in thumb rings), and then wished me a good day and left with her order.
So once again, I’m no mind reader.
This encounter not only reminded me of this but also emphasized the fact that we never really know what someone else is thinking or going through. While our first instinct might be to protect ourselves through the use of negative thoughts about another person (i.e. assuming the worst about someone to buttress our egos), we are better served to just observe and make no judgments at all. This way, we remain open and avoid filling our psyche with toxic thoughts that can pollute the rest of our day or even our outlook in general.
Even if someone is thinking something negative about us, we don’t have to respond in kind. Nor do we have to guess what that negative thought might be. Instead, we can simply look at the person, smile, and then look away. No judgment. No defensiveness. No recoiling.
As someone who’s innately shy, I know that offering a stranger a smile can be challenging. But isn’t this a challenge worth accepting now that protective face masks are becoming less and less de rigueur? We never know who’s having a bad day or whose world might shift if a stranger smiles at them. They might even carry that smile forward to another stranger. And so on and so on.
No thumb ring or mind reading required.
Photo By Pragyan Bezbaruah