Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Goodness of Life

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a favorite author whose every published word found its way into my hands and my heart. After reading one of her books for a college English class, I remember leaving my dorm and running, literally running, to the bookstore in my tiny college town to buy more of her books. An African-American female writer whose books are commonly assigned in high school and college classes, she became a mentor to me, a guide on the path towards understanding myself as a woman of color in the United States. She writes about black women's bodies and hair. She writes about our relationships with our own daughters as well as the men in our lives. She writes about travel and music and cooking and love and loss and flowers - and does so with a passion and expressiveness that enthrall me still.

I have never met her in person, but I dialogued with her books for years. I still do.
In those early years, when I closed the covers of her books, I sighed. Deep sighs of longing.
Longing to meet her. To sit under her teaching. To look into her eyes. To watch her cook.
To learn from her interactions with her friends, her neighbors, and her daughter.

Although I never met her, in the early 1990s, I met her daughter. Back in the days before computers. email, text messages, and Facebook were all the rage, her daughter and I became pen-pals after I wrote her a letter in response to a magazine article she had written. Letters and postcards flew between us. I drove to the college she attended and met her in person. Not long after that, I flew out to California to visit my then-boyfriend (now husband) who was working out west. My favorite author and her daughter lived in northern California at the time. The daughter invited me to drive up to the house and hang out for a day.

What? Me? Your house? Your mother's house?
I went. With great excitement and trepidation.
The house was beautiful, peaceful, joyful.
It smelled of incense and essential oil and spicy food.
She and I talked and laughed and ate our way through the day.
With great sadness, I said good-bye to her and drove the three hours back to San Francisco.

A few months later, much to my shock, amazement, and surprise, I received an engraved invitation from her and her mother. They were hosting an annual gathering of friends and other loved ones to celebrate "The Goodness of Life." And I was invited! I received the invitation two or three years in a row.

Looking back in shock, amazement, and surprise through my memories, I confess that I never went to the parties. Was I too cheap to buy the plane ticket and find a nearby hotel? Did I really forfeit the chance to meet her mother, one of my favorite authors, at her own house, surrounded by their friends, as one of her invited guests - all because I didn't want to spend a few hundred dollars? Yes and yes.

My friend, the prize-winning author's daughter, has since become quite famous in her own right. She is a widely read author, an internationally renowned speaker, a mother, a teacher, an actor, and more than all that, she is a woman of strength, courage, intelligence, and breath-taking beauty both inside and out. We have fallen out of contact. But I still google her and read her writing. I follow her on Instagram and marvel at just how fabulous a woman she is.

Even though I never attended their parties, the name stuck: "The Goodness of Life."

For years, that was the theme and subtitle of all my journals; even on the pages soaked in my tears, I kept a record of the goodness of life. Life isn't always good or easy or pleasant. But there is always goodness to be found if I look. There is always something worthy of gratitude and celebration - at least there has been for me. And anybody who has read this blog for more than five minutes knows that I have run into a few obstacles in my life - but through each challenge, through tears, through chemotherapy, through battles with mental illness in my family, through it all, I have been repeatedly reminded of the goodness of God and the goodness of people and the goodness of life. There is so much beauty. There are so many gifts.

I was reminded of the goodness of people and life early this morning. I went to Trader Joe's to pick up some goodies for a dear friend of mine whose final round of chemotherapy was this morning. I chose some of my favorite snacks and breakfast food and fruit and even some special soap. Cuz who doesn't like a goodie bag? I remember back in my kanswer days, perfect strangers sent me care packages after my story landed on the blog of another famous writer. I loved every single bar of soap, piece of licorice, card, note, sticker, pen, stick of incense, and tea bag they sent. It was magical, the effect of all that love and encouragement.

Anyway, this morning I told the woman at the cash register at Trader Joe's about my friend's last chemo treatment. She was appropriately happy for my friend and spoke kindly of my desire to drop off a gift bag. As I waited for the machine to read the chip on my debit card, she stepped away from the cash register. She returned with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and said, "Please give these flowers to your friend and say they are from the folks here at Trader Joe's. This is a big day and we want to honor that." I am glad I was wearing my sunglasses at the time - because the goodness of life that she showered on me and my friend welled up in my eyes.

Kanswer sucks.
Chemotherapy sucks.
Surgery sucks.
Each one of us has five or ten or a thousand things we can add to the list of things that suck.
Flooding in the south.
The earthquake in Italy.
The fact that one of my fabulous neighbors moved out of their house today.
The divisive presidential campaign.
The fear mongering that has gripped and divided our country.
I could go on.
So could you.

But there is goodness and beauty that emerges even during chemotherapy. There are kind, funny, and infinitely patient nurses in the oncology office. There are generous and thoughtful employees at local grocery stores who send flowers to people they don't even know as a random act of kindness.

I am determined to remember the joy of sitting with my friend back in the early 1990s and looking out onto the trees and flowers and zen garden and fields of flowers in her yard in Mendocino, CA.

I am determined to remember the wonder of standing at the base of the Cristo Redentor statue, the same one that I saw on television dozens of times during the recent Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, and gazing down onto the beaches and buildings below.

I am determined to remember the immediate and inexplicable feeling of peace, the sense of "finally being at home, my true home" on the day I arrived in Madrid the first time - back in August of 1986, thirty years ago. I barely spoke Spanish. I was hot and sweaty. I had been groped by the train conductor on the night train between Paris and Madrid. But when I arrived in Madrid that late summer day, backpack on my back, bus map in my hands, I looked around me I knew: I was finally at home. I still feel that way every single time I arrive at Madrid Barajas Airport - "I made it back home."

I remember the blessing of food in the fridge, the freezer, the pantry, and my not-so-secret stash of snacks. (My family knows exactly where it is, but they also know that they cannot ever, ever, ever dig into it or take anything out of it!)

I remember the gift of arriving home safely every night after all of our driving and walking and working and volunteering and spending time with friends. There are many people who leave home each morning, but do not return home at night. Safe passage is a miracle, every single day.

I could go on. Couldn't you?

I am determined to remember the goodness of life.

PS. I am enormously grateful to Alice Walker and her daughter, Rebecca Walker, for bringing so much goodness into my life through their words, their convictions, their womanism, their powerful wisdom, and simply for being who they are in a world that has often criticized them fiercely and attempted to silence their provocative voices. I don't always agree with everything they say and write, but everything they say and write makes me think deeply about what I say and write and how I live my life.

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