Thursday, August 16, 2012

Evil Doll Phobia!!!

Who knows better how to torture you than your sister?  She knows what you like, what you dislike, what you fear most.  As a small child, I had an overactive imagination and a curious fascination for all things frightful, like monster movies, scary stories and “The Twilight Zone.”  But the one thing I feared most was my older sister Angella’s prized possession, her beautiful “Simone” doll.  I was sure Simone was pure evil, with her long silvery hair and perfect features, and that cold, hard stare that followed me around the bedroom my sister and I shared. And Gella, as we called her, loved to take advantage of my doll phobia at any chance she got. Whenever I would annoy my older sister, or get in her way, or behave like little sisters often do, Gella would simply smile a knowing smile and remind me that Simone was watching me, so I’d better behave!
            Evil Simone reminded me of that doll in that “Twilight Zone” episode, the one named “Talking Tina” that was determined to kill Telly Savalas. And no matter how hard Telly tried, he couldn’t get rid of that doll. He even tried to burn it, crush it, chop it up, but the doll lived on, and in the end, it was Telly who suffered the consequences. So whenever Gella really wanted to put me in my place, she would sneer and repeat the line from that Twilight Zone episode, “My name is Talking Tina, and I’m going to kill you!”  This so terrified me that I often resorted to turning Simone’s head around to face the wall so the doll couldn’t watch me as I slept at night! 
Gella loved to watch me squirm in fear as she recounted all the ways Simone would punish me if I didn’t submit to my older sister’s wishes and whims.  Often, I would be so terrified, I would secretly lock Simone in the clothes closet. The next morning, Gella would chide me about how angry Simone was for being locked up all night, and how the doll planned to get revenge.  I would be so afraid of Simone’s wrath, I would get down on my knees and beg the doll for forgiveness and lavish it with praise. All the while, Gella smiled in the background, knowing she had me, her goofy little sister, under her thumb. She loved to make me scared, it gave her a feeling of such power!
But the great day of equalization came when my sister and I both received a special gift from our grandparents: two paintings of scruffy children with big, round eyes… the kind that followed you everywhere and seemed to plead for attention. Both of us girls hated those awful, intrusive pictures, which our mom had promptly hung on our bedroom wall. Now, Gella also knew what it felt like to live in fear of ever-watchful eyes, and together, we plotted to destroy the paintings, turning them towards the wall and locking them in the closet when we thought our mom wouldn’t notice. 
Eventually, we both outgrew our silly little girl fears, although the last time we saw those paintings in the attic of our grandparents’ home (somehow the paintings had made their way back to their original owners!), neither one of us could hide our displeasure. To this day, I am still fascinated with all things scary, even if they do give me nightmares.  But there is one thing I refuse to have in my home. Dolls. Thank God my only child turned out to be a boy!
And as for my older sister, Gella, she still loves to remind me that Simone is still out there somewhere waiting, watching, plotting my demise, and that I’d better behave… or else! 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Where Death and Life Meet

            Amidst the constant noisy hub of activity that is Burbank, California, also known as the Media Capital of the World, is a place of pure peace. A place where one can go to reflect and meditate and feel the joy of being alive. It’s not a church, or a quiet corner café, or even a Zen center or metaphysical bookstore.  It’s a cemetery. A vast, landscaped memorial park nestled in the rolling Hollywood Hills.
            I first discovered Forest Lawn Memorial Park as most people do, as a tourist anxious to see the burial spots of the rich and famous. My husband at the time and I lived close by and could even see the beautiful park-like grounds from our upper-story apartment window, but we were reluctant to go there at first. After all, how many people spend their free time at a graveyard! And yet, when we did first venture to visit, we were surprised to see hundreds of others just like us, cameras in tow, wearing their morbid curiosity on their shirt sleeves as they walked the peaceful lanes and strolled over the grassy hills dotted with the heavy gray stones of the known and the unknown, looking for names of stars and celebrities.
            More than just a high-priced burial place for the financially well-off, there are many touristy things to see at a place like Forest Lawn, such as old restored churches, Southwestern museum exhibits and plenty of gorgeous statues and historical monuments. But the real attraction is the graves – each marker telling a brief but loving story of a life lived out. Once you get the celebrity grave hunting out of your system, you settle into a slow pace of perusing the less flashy markers, and you begin to notice something. That even the smallest lived life, even the most obscure existence, even the least celebrated amongst us, touches the lives of others like a silken web that connects us all.
As anyone who has ever visited Forest Lawn, or any beautiful cemetery grounds, will tell you, something strange begins to happen once you’ve been there a while. Something transforming and wondrous. Something that changes your whole perspective on death – and life. For as you walk the Courts of Remembrance, as you stroll along Morning Glory Lane, bending over to read the inscriptions of love, hope, dreams and memories, you begin to feel an incredible sense of peace. Suddenly, the vast landscape of death and mourning becomes quite different in the quiet stillness of your own contemplation. Slow and sweet, like a soft rain the realization comes. That there is no death here, only bones and ash and the remains of a physical body that started from and returned to rich, dark earth. That life is in the spirit, the love, and the memories. That although all these people had died, their lives and legacies live on in the hearts and minds of those who come to visit. Family, friends, loved ones.  Even strangers like me who just wanted to see Liberace’s lavish crypt or the place where Bette Davis lay forever a silent star, and yet found myself more changed, more transformed by those names that few would recognize.
This awareness, this “opened up” feeling of connectedness, is what makes places like Forest Lawn so special. I imagine any beautifully landscaped cemetery, surrounded by nature, would produce just such a rapturous experience. For when we are made to look, really look, at our fears and anxieties about death and what lies beyond, we sometimes find a most surprising thing. That there are no endings, only new beginnings on an infinite journey. These are the lessons that can only be learned in the quiet stillness of a sacred place. These are the lessons that can only be absorbed when surrounded by tranquility, immersed in inner peace.
            I visited Forest Lawn many times after that, often alone, and I had several experiences one could describe as “ecstatic” as I walked the lanes that circled the hills and sat in meditation before a beautiful statue of Christ in the Courts of Remembrance. And each time my spirit soared, even amidst all the reminders of death, at the certainty I felt that life is eternal. That the spirit cannot die. That love lives on.
These people, not one of whom I ever knew personally, were all a part of me. Some invisible strand connected us, some intangible, but altogether real common thread that wove us together like a massive and beautiful quilt, throbbing with love and fear and change and joy and pain and everything it means to be alive.  I felt sure of that, and I feel sure of that today, as I sit in my new home in the natural and inspiring beauty of northern San Diego county, far from the rolling hills of Forest Lawn Memorial Park and the people whose names I read in silence and sent a silent prayer to. Far from the warm breeze as it whispers through the grave markers and mausoleums. Far from the flashy crypts of celebrated stars, and the simple head stones of stars equally bright, equally loved, just not as well known. So far, and yet somehow still so connected…
              …like a silken web.

“I shall endeavor to build Forest Lawn as different, as unlike other cemeteries as sunshine is unlike darkness, as eternal life is unlike death.”  Dr. Hubert Eaton, Founder


Saturday, August 11, 2012

You Can Go Home Again…Sort Of

                My house is gone. Not by fire, flood, or act of God. The house I grew up in as a child, where I lived and laughed and learned, the house where magic danced down every hall and angels breathed through every window... is gone. In its place, a bigger, roomier, more modern version - a two-story lumbering giant that all the neighbors say just doesn’t fit in. With the help of Google Street View, I can see that new house, and it just feels wrong, it feels off. That was where MY house once stood. That was MY yard...
                  Did the new owners realize that in the process of tearing down the house of my childhood, they were also tearing down my heart? Their only thought was to provide more room for their own growing family, and they had every right to do so, you see, for I have not lived in that house for over 30 years. Not by choice, but by necessity was I forced to leave that place in the summer of 1974. My father, a geophysicist, had been offered a lucrative job on the West Coast. My mother, whose own family had vacated the right coast for the left years before, seconded the upheaval, and Mayflower loaded what was left of my growing years into a truck and we hauled the tow west.
                  I fought the move tooth and nail, not wanting to leave those years full of luscious summers, thunderstorms and fireflies, flashlight tag and sledding down the neighbor’s hilly backyard, fireworks and carnivals and 7:00pm siren commemorative of a more dangerous time.   Men walked on the moon, women marched in the streets, Woodstock rocked only a few miles to the North, and the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan -all in that house.
                   Tromping through the woods behind that house I tracked animal markings, and, with my Field Guide to Birds in one hand and a pair of cheap binoculars in the other, I identified thrushes and larks and robins and wrens. The results of these and many other scientific explorations led me to such rich rewards: feathers and shells of every size and shape, a jarful of fossils I dug up, with the help of the neighborhood kids, found beneath our swingset after my scientist father casually remarked “We were all underwater once.”
                  When I wasn’t outside in nature, I was inside reading and writing and learning, devouring books on every subject as I sat on my bed near the window, listening to crickets hum in the woods. I became a spy in that house, sneaking from room to room with my binoculars, peeking out windows at unsuspecting neighbors. I saw the lady next door in her bra, the man up the street in his bloomers, and the fat lady across the way fall off her kitchen table while unceremoniously swatting at a fly with a broom handle.
 My favorite target was the older boy next door, who would foolishly study at his desk by his window, which just happened to overlook my own. I fancied myself so slick, a femme Bond, if you will, and if any of the neighbors ever caught on, they never showed. Besides, I was just a kid, and kids do all kinds of crazy, wonderful things. It’s only when they grow up they stop having so much fun.
                  I heard my first rock and roll in that house, read my first Nancy Drew novel, and watched as my body changed from thin and boyish to just a bit more round. My mother enchanted us with fanciful stories in that house, told as we all sat upon the “magic carpet” by the kitchen doorway. My father traveled the world on research trips, returning each time with tales of intrigue and wonderful coins from the Four Corners that I kept safe in a ceramic crocodile bank.
                  I made friends, real and imaginary, in that house. The imaginary ones included an alligator in a top hat named Peenafurt Franklin, and a cadre of triangle shaped “heater men” that chased me when the furnace kicked in. I dreamed of being an astronaut, jockey, lady cop, president, super spy, scientist, Olympic runner and Broadway actress in that house. All the time I was writing, and it was in that house my big dream took hold. I became a writer.
             Since I moved away, back in 1974, coming first to L.A., then San Diego, I’ve been back to that old neighborhood a few times, always feeling that resurgence of awe and magic. Even without the huge maple in the front yard, even without the hedgerow and the bushes and flower garden, even without all the outer trappings I had known and loved, it was still the same house and just seeing it gave me chills of sweet joy.
                  But when my mom called to tell me the terrible news awhile back, that an old neighbor had called her earlier and filled her in on the deconstruction of my house and the rising of a new one in its place, it was as though I had just been told a family member had died. It was gone. Really gone. Not just changed, not just different.
                  My last trip back I had gotten strep throat and couldn’t even hold my head up long enough to see my house as we took our ride down memory lane. I had vowed to go back again soon, maybe even get up the courage to ask the new owners if I could peek inside for “one last look.” But that trip never happened. I got caught up, in work, life, paying the bills.
Perhaps it wasn’t just that house I was missing, but the dreams and hopes and possibilities left behind. I guess when we loaded up that Mayflower truck, we forgot to pack one thing - my childhood spirit, so bold and free and unafraid to live.
                  And now it’s too late. Too late to ever go back and knock on that door and walk through those rooms again. Rooms where I felt so warm, so alive, so at home. Rooms where I came to know who I was.
                  I cried when my mom told me. For three straight hours. Then I did the only thing I know how to do when faced with life - I wrote. And in my grief and mourning, for far more than just a lost house, serendipity whispered. They say you can’t go home again, but I beg to differ.  You never really leave. It’s always there, that voice, deep inside, calling you to come back home, however quiet and stifled it might be from years of running to safety and away from the risk of our dreams.
                  The land can cast a spell... houses do that, too. It may be too late for me to ever walk those hallowed halls, but it’s not too late to fulfill the dreams I came to believe were my own, in that house. Because in my grieving of childhood’s end, I realized this. That the magical house of my youth isn’t really gone at all...
                 It lies within.