During 2016 and well into 2017 we’ve watched many artists and musicians leave the world. Epic storytellers, trendsetters, and style makers who taught us all how to be a little cooler and a lot more open-minded: Prince, David Bowie, Chris Cornell, Chuck Berry, Sam Shephard, Harry Dean Stanton, and Adam West, top the much-too-long list of losses. Each time, I’ve watched my news feed light up with tributes. I’ve listened to friends reminisce about defining moments that made this musician or artist one of their favorites. I’ve had empathy. But I’ve never related to the sensation that I somehow lost something personal to me. I’ve never felt like I’d lost a friend…except for this one time.
This time, it was Tom Petty who died.
Tom Petty died 21 days ago.
I can’t get my thoughts clear about it.
I haven’t cried.
I’ve listened to a Tom Petty song every day since I can remember listening to songs. I can’t tell you when he showed up in my life because he’s always been there. His career spanned my entire life. When I say that he’s always been there for me, I mean it.
I won’t regale you with tales of specific moments that one of his songs, or concerts, helped me out. It’s a cliché. It’s hard to explain how a person you’ve never actually met could be considered a friend or confidante. I can see how ridiculous that sounds as I write it. But the person that the world knew as the rock star Tom Petty…well, that guy, I think, was a solid foundation for many people. Because of his capacity for creating universal and life-affirming lyrics, and his expert delivery of good old rock and roll songs, he aided in the positive transformation of so many. This is the magic of music and Mr. Tom was a profound channel.
It’s hard to explain how I feel now.
Except for this one time, I can usually verbalize my internal storms.
Two days ago a friend shared a video with me of one of my favorite bands covering “Wreck Me.” It was a perfect tribute. I felt the elation that someone thought to tape the moment, the pure love I have for both the band playing it and the original song and the recognition that this is as close as I’ll ever be again to Tom Petty’s original spark. That even though we’ll always have the 40+ years of music he left us, it doesn’t sound the same now. Because without him here, our continuum has changed. And even though he always told me otherwise, nothing is actually alright anymore.
“Good night, baby
sleep tight my love
may God watch over you from above
Tomorrow I’m working
what will I do
I’d be lost and lonely if not for you
So close your eyes
We’re alright for now”
When I began to create my life, when I was younger, I set out into the world with the understanding that there is a “happy life” formula. The rules go something like this: get through school, preferably by making as few waves as possible. Go to more school, especially if you have big dreams. Find your soulmate and marry them. You’ll need to have some kids, and buy a house, and have a cute car. For extra credit, love Jesus. I mean really take him into your heart. Your life will be amazing. Cue dreams!
The rules are presented as a successful formula, but the formula is ultimately flawed. They forgot to teach us that we have to learn how to create our little reality in a conscious way. The idea of creation implies, maybe demands, consciousness. I assert that part of the reason we humans experience such profound suffering is that we are largely uneducated about how to actually CREATE. The majority of us follow the norm, unconscious. I will go as far as to argue that our external societal chatter is so strong, it’s like the death metal played at unsafe decibels for hours straight to a sleep-deprived, starving, suspected terrorist during an investigation. It will break you. I know I sound harsh here, but I am passionate about the subject.
Creation demands consciousness. You have to pay attention. Constant vigilance. Often we are shaken up from our societal stupors by a life-altering event. Think about it. How many inspirational stories are told about how a divorce, bankruptcy or a medical diagnosis push a person to realize they’ve been living an unsatisfactory life? Some of us have this realization after smaller events or milestone birthdays, but the effect is the same. The shake-up causes the change. Then, those lucky enough to see that they have another chance will attempt to create a life that’s closer to their personal truth. Consciously. They feel, as the kids say nowadays, “woke.” Gone are the days of blind conformity.
So, how do we skip the pain and trauma part and just start creating what we want the first time? Husband and I are in a lengthy process of re-creating our life together. A few years ago we had the stark realization that we had created our life according to the “happy life” formula. We didn’t regret everything we had done, but we weren’t happy. We felt trapped, wildly unfulfilled, and the pressure of changing our situation was less stressful than staying where we were. So, we are re-creating everything. It’s hard. It’s no joke. Every choice we are presented with requires that we ask questions. Is this congruent with what we’re trying to create? What will it take for _______ to happen? Then, we have to be assassins of our own negative self-talk. Fear is actually not only not an option, but it isn’t a luxury we can afford. We can’t go back to the way it was before.
To have a different reality you don’t burn down or rally against what you’ve already created. You try to view it objectively, like an uninvolved observer and see how it can be transformed. You have to create a new way, not choose between either-or. This is the part of the formula they forgot. It’s isn’t a pass-fail system. There are, in reality, an infinite array of possibilities and you, me, we – can transform anything. I’m not going to present this as though this is easy. It actually really sucks to go against an established paradigm. Uprooting your old beliefs and choosing different things opens you up to judgment, jealousy, and potential isolation. People don’t really want to change, and they don’t want to be confronted with the need to truly transform. But, there is such incredible power in being able to choose. To choose consciously…I think that’s a closer definition of creation. The willingness to bravely acknowledge the lies we tell ourselves, the lies we buy into, and the lies we perpetuate. And when we recognize something as an illusion, to have the courage to ask: what else is possible?
I challenge you to try it. See where it leads you. I’ll be here, waiting to gleefully receive your tales of new adventure.
My father came to visit one
afternoon and triumphantly presented
a small blue box an appraisal
my grandmothers wedding ring
he said this is yours now
I don’t have a lot of experience with diamonds I don’t wear bling
my wedding ring is a modest silver band
I don’t have a lot of experience with diamonds
the diamonds on my grandmothers ring
are not the pristine princess cuts of my prime
but more an organized cluster
that looks quickly encased
in a time ragged and primitive
I imagine what my grandmothers ring
would feel like in my mouth
crystalline points cold against my tongue
little rocks scratching the thin layer of my inside cheeks
I hear the stones click against my teeth
Maybe if I swallow the gems
Feel them travel down my trachea to land
cushioned in my gut
I will understand the allure
My ruffled tangled outside transformed
transparent free from flaws
now a precious stone
“I said that’s enough!”
“You’re not listening to me!!”
“I told you I needed a minute. You’re pushing me!” my husband yelled before he ran up the stairs and slammed the door.
I sat on the bottom step and cried. I looked for a way to escape the profound discomfort I was experiencing, but there was nowhere to run. Leaving in the car would only make the situation worse.
It was the early days of my marriage and I had taken a small disagreement and expanded it to door slamming and tears. Back then, I was exceptionally good at this.
My husband and I have changed a lot since that day. Knock-down-drag-out fights rarely happen now. When they do, we are both embarrassed and after we have calmed down, will sheepishly wonder how we even got to that point. How had the argument even started?
For a long time, I thought that these passionate quarrels were a sign that we had passion between us. That we were fiery soulmates destined for greatness. Now, I see it differently. And because I am a person who wants to keep the peace, to create peace, and who always (at least) tries to see many sides of a situation, my ability to take a volatile event and make it worse has always bothered me. Why can’t I just stop? Why must I always poke the bear?
A need to be right.
Fear of abandonment.
A lack of healthy boundaries.
Like I said, we have both changed a lot since those early days. I have learned to let go, to be ok with being wrong, and I have worked hard to transform my rage into allowance and patience with myself. I’m better at not needing “closure.” I’ve learned that I don’t need to understand, or even know, every second of my husband’s inner life.
We have also changed because we chose to have children, which inherently changes everything. My kids are the two best teachers I’ve ever had. Children are a wild paradox. They are experts at letting go. They are also experts at poking the bear.
It must, therefore, be a human impulse, illustrated through a common and overused joke: “Don’t press that big, red button! Whatever you do, don’t press that button!”
So what do we do? We press the button and act surprised when disaster unfolds.
How and when did we learn to poke the bear? To disregard blatant consequences and give it one final shot, just to “be sure?” I did it as a kid and younger adult, and now I watch my kids do it. Just the other day my daughter spilled some paint during a craft project and I asked her not to touch it for fear that the paint mess would only spread. So what did she do? She ran her fingers through it and got paint all over her new t-shirt, and became so upset about her new t-shirt getting stained that she actually spilled more paint. I didn’t say “I told you so.” I just cleaned her up and told her we’d get the stain out, and to be more careful next time. And I thought about myself at her age because I see that we are remarkably similar.
The first time I remember hearing the phrase “poking the bear” was when I was about 8 years old. I grew up in the 80s and early 90s – a simpler time when parents left their kids alone in the car while they ran into the dry cleaners. A simpler time when cars had built-in cigarette lighters. I knew those things were hot. I had seen my grandparents fuse countless cigarettes against the gray coils inhaling until the lighter burned hot-orange and tobacco smoke wafted into the air.
This time, at 8-ish years old, I just had to be sure. My mom was inside the dry cleaners and my sister and I were in the back seat. I leaned forward, yanked the lighter out of the dash, and poked the gray coils with my right pointer finger. I burned myself so bad that I screamed, dropped the lighter, and cried. Then my sister started crying because I was crying. And needless to say, when my mom returned to the car, she was exasperated and worried.
“What happened? Why is everyone crying?!”
I showed her my finger. I didn’t have to explain what happened because the built-in car lighter had branded the coil shapes into my finger pad, and in the painful moment of contact I had flung the lighter onto her seat.
“Well, why did you do that??? You know it’s a hot lighter!”
“I just wanted to see if it was hot when it was gray,” I whimpered.
“Well, it is, Christi! Why do you always have to poke the bear?”
Upon reflection, I giggle at the story. I defend my younger self and push it off to curiosity and the childlike ability to be so in the present moment that consequences are not considered. My mom was right though. I think about all of the times I wasn’t, or haven’t been willing or able to let go, and find I’m more contemplative.
I think it’s something we can all choose to change, but maybe we are addicted to physical confirmation. We don’t trust. We have to “be sure.” We can’t help but poke the damn bear.
The first week that I was an Uber driver, I learned that my problems are small.
And being an Uber driver is a nightly adventure in surprising ways. For example, you could potentially get your first ride of the night while sitting in your driveway. An hour later, you could be on the complete opposite end of the metroplex in a neighborhood you didn’t know existed. Each customer is a dice roll, people and groups, and the places we go, an endless variety. I am a happy Uber driver overall. I enjoy the people.
The first week I was an Uber driver, probably my first Saturday night shift, I found myself in North Frisco in a neighborhood I didn’t know existed. It was getting later, close to midnight, and I was annoyed when I pulled into the apartment complex to pick up my rider. There was no apartment number. There was a gate code and no one answered the phone on the account who had hailed my car. After a few minutes, a man pulled up in a car and told me he was my rider. I was nervous and visibly agitated because the name on the account was a woman’s name. Also, he had driven up in a car. He explained that it was his wife’s account. That he had to leave the car here for someone to pick up. I called the account holder again from the Uber app, and she answered, and confirmed everything he had said. He was getting on my nerves, but my gut told me he was harmless, so we got our trip started.
He knew I was annoyed. He was apologetic. He wanted me to trust him. He began explaining that he didn’t have a phone that could carry a lot of apps, so they had to use his wife’s phone for Uber. He didn’t need to use Uber a lot, so they didn’t think it was a big deal. He was switching cars with so-and-so, over at so-and-so’s place, which is where we were going, and his complicated explanation forced me to reconsider my initial judgment that he was a nuisance, or worse, dishonest.
“Where are you from?” I asked. He had a heavy Spanish accent. He spoke in broken English. A sign of bravery.
“Venezuela.” He answered. “We have been here for almost a year. We had to leave our country because there was no food.”
He continued. His wife and children, and his parents fled Venezuela and came to a Dallas suburb to live with a distant cousin. In Venezuela, he was an Engineer. Here in Frisco, he is a cook at a mom-and-pop hamburger shop. His wife is cleaning houses.
He carried with him a substantial load of groceries and based on the aroma, hamburger and fries for everyone he was going home to. He talked about his hopes and dreams, not his problems, and he had a determination I seem to have lost.
When I dropped him off, three family members came outside to help him unload his items. They said nothing, just nodded and took a portion of the bags dutifully. He wanted me to know his story. That he was no lazy mooch. That they had no choice but to start over.
I felt admiration for him. I felt humbled by our conversation. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience planted a seed in my thoughts. I watched him go back into their home, and I thought about my attitude an hour earlier: annoyed, inconvenienced, and a little judge-y. I knew, in that moment, that I have it so much easier. I am privileged. I know that by societal standards, I’m not The Other.
In the United States of America, to be an Immigrant is to be seen as a Nemesis. A large portion of our native population believes that hardworking people who want the best life possible will somehow be the downfall of our country. That they are an external threat for which we must keep vigilance. That they will take something from us, and we will be less because of it. When focused on a collective of disenfranchised, the arguments against Immigration are generally based on the fear of loss.
I don’t receive that kind of judgment just for existing. I grew up in the suburbs of 5 states in America. My existence here is forged and expected. My Nemesis isn’t an outside force. It’s the part(s) of me that still fall to the limited perspective, the “mine!” mentality and the separation. Even if it’s over something as small as an Uber ride.
He adds items to our luggage after I think we are finished packing for a trip. I say we won’t need it. I say we should pack light. I always say that. I tire easily when preparing for a trip. My excitement usually peaks, then crashes into irritability and fatigue right before we start to load the car. I gripe about why we’re taking so many bags. Why it takes so much time and effort to pack the car. He is always right about the last-minute items. I am always appreciative. “I’m so glad you thought to bring that,” I’ll say. He never says “I told you so.”
He was a Boy Scout and then an Eagle Scout: a childhood career of citizenship, commitment, survival skills, and “Always Be Prepared, Always Do Your Best.” He is still an Eagle Scout. I was in the Girl Scouts for less than a year. Like many of my childhood interests, I quit after one season. I still find it hard to persevere.
He is our children’s playmate. I am the one who nurtures and organizes our flock. It isn’t that I don’t like to play. It’s more that I’ve forgotten how. Our daughter will invent a game and he will see the whole picture, enthusiastically synthesize her vision, and they will enter the new world of their creation. I struggle to unearth the child I’ve buried inside. On the rare occasions that she does come out, we are late to the party. If I am honest I should confess – I used to resent this. Now, I’ve come to accept, even love, my role as observer. If I watch long enough I will learn the secret that only they seem to know. If I watch long enough, I’ll grow out of my fears and join the fun.
But even before parenthood, he taught me about adventure. Once, in the very early days of our relationship, during one of our first out-of-town trips together, we found out that one of our favorite musicians was playing in the same town. We were visiting my parents. I still felt young enough to need my father’s permission to go, and was nervous to ask. Requests for impromptu fun were tricky with my Dad.
I waited in anticipation: Did he enjoy our visit? Does he like him? (PLEASE LIKE HIM) Is he in a good mood? Is he worried about me?
He said yes! And then – I lost my mind. We didn’t go to the concert. I cited our early morning departure and low cash flow as evidence to the idea’s absurdity. Why did he agree with me? Why didn’t we go? What were we thinking?
18 years later he surprised me on my birthday with a ticket to see the same artist. He stayed home with the kids – our son was still an infant. It wasn’t until I got to the concert that I recognized a sneaky fear that I would not assimilate to my younger self. Had motherhood, many years of marriage, and life in the suburbs altered my reality that much? Had the childhood part of me been eradicated? Snuffed out during the process of growing up?
But, at the show, I was 19 again. Safe in the familiar landscape. Anonymous in the dark, smoky venue. The music started. Goosebumps. Joy. Youth. This music gets me. The songs written just for me. He is not here – my partner, sidekick, inspiration. My co-parent, co-pilot, co-conspirator, with whom everything is brighter and more fun. Was he off on an adventure with our daughter? Castaways on a princess pirate ship crashed on a cookie island?
He easily transitions from work to play. I am almost always thinking about some type of work. But now, our adventures include 2 small people, all of them propelling me to let go. With them, with him, we seesaw between our early days together and the future we’re creating. And despite our differences, we are doing it all together. He and I.
“Look, Mommy! Dust molecules!”
I hadn’t noticed the floating dots.
I hadn’t seen them until you galloped through
You, fresh creature, illuminating the specks
You danced together
I swear I saw a flash of light not originally a part of the sun shaft
as you gamboled, cheerful and delighted
Delightful was your light, dancing in the dust
Here are some fun prompts to write about.
Use them to connect to your Inner Child, have fun, lighten up, and create some magic.
Write a letter to your grown-up self with love from your 5 year-old self. Laugh at your adult-ness.
Try a rhyming haiku.
Describe cotton candy to a blind person.
The trees here tell a story.
Old and New, white birch bark and neon leaves rub shoulders with their giant partners of prickle needles on trunks as old as the planet, all connected by their roots.
The older ones whisper the secrets to the new ones.
They rise together and claim their land, they teach the people who visit and know to ask.