I cried at my Nana's funeral. I cried for reasons I expected: because I miss her, because I wish I could've spent more time with her, because even when it's long, life is short. I cried because sometimes I just want to be a kid again at my grandparents' house watching cartoons on channel nine and eating cream filled donuts without a care in the world. Yes, those are the tears I expected. But what I didn't expect to cry over was the little spark of joy that kindled in my heart over how funerals can bring people together. I cried in gratitude for the reminder during this deeply divisive time in our country and our world of how much more we all have in common than social media and the advent of memes would have us believe.
Facebook and Twitter alongside specialized news channels and blogs have made labeling people easier and more prevalent than ever, and labeling people makes them easier to despise, dismiss, and demonize. Reducing whole populations of human beings to a hashtag or sound bite often identifies them by their worst traits, dehumanizes them, and builds up the false belief that "we" have nothing in common with "them." And if we have nothing in common, than I have no responsibility to try to understand any views other than those of the people who happen to be lumped into my particular bin -- as if humans can be sorted as easily as trash.
But as I looked around that flower-filled, over-heated funeral home room filled with all types of people -- conservatives and liberals, old and young, gay and straight, skeptics, seekers, atheists, and believers mourning for a woman we all loved -- my wounded heart began to heal a little. I watched people laugh over old stories and cry over cherished memories, I saw family members with wildly different world views catch up on each others lives, talking about work and vacations, children and parents, accomplishments and things they still hoped to accomplish. I listened to everyone giggle at the sound of my two year old saying "Amen!" each time the priest ended a prayer. And it was beautiful. Because the things that truly matter and the things that connect us are bigger and more important than what may divide us. If we let them be...
My Nana was a die hard Cubs fan (and everyone singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at the funeral will forever be embllazoned in my heart as one of my favorite memories) my Papa was a dedicated White Sox fan, and yet, they had one of the most beautiful and lasting marriages I have ever been priviledged to witness -- becasue they had love. They treated each other with respect, and it filtered down to the whole family, allowing us all to treat one another with respect at the funeral despite our differences.
How wonderful it would be if we could realize that we are all family in a way, because we all live in this same home -- the earth. What if we lived each day as if it were a funeral? Giving one another an extra amount of grace and understanding, realizing we are all in mourning over some things in our lives. What if we helped one another focus on the light while loving each other through the dark? What if we offered a hug before we bothered to read the label? Even better -- what if we could just do away with labels all together? Maybe we would see the truth that the Hollywood Elite Liberal Woman holding hands in the front pew with the Conservative Evangelical Man were just a daughter and a father comforting one another with the understanding that time is fleeting, life is precious, and love can overcome anything, if we would only give it the chance.
Monday, April 25, 2016
Comparisons are odious. Cervantes, Christopher Marlowe and John Donne have all used the insightful phrase. Shakespeare modified the saying with his own witty spin when he wrote: comparisons are odorous. And now, centuries later, I would like to update the much-used sentiment by saying: comparisons are ostupidus. You might not find that word in the dictionary, so I will provide my own definition here:
ostupidus [oh-stoopid-uhs] (1.) of or pertaining to a complete and total waste of time (2.) seriously, a total time suck (3.) a sad distraction from what is good and lovely and unique about oneself (4.) a dumb lie perpetrated by the idiot inner critic
See also: just plain dumb
I was sure I would win my first Oscar by 23. Never mind that I moved to Hollywood after my 23rd birthday…I figured nine months was plenty of time to be discovered. After all, Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar for her first starring role in the movie for ROMAN HOLIDAY at the age of 23. Of course that arbitrary dream blew away as I blew the candles on my 24th birthday cake. It crushed me until I realized that my heart was much more drawn to writing than acting – so I amended my ambitions. I would win my first Oscar by 27 like Matt and Ben. And so began the maddening game of placing my worth on the progress of other people’s paths instead of my own, feeling like I’d somehow failed as the arbitrary deadline passed every time. I didn’t get my Oscar by 27 or a Pulitzer by 30 or a baby by 32, which was the age my mother was when she had her last child. But it wasn’t just the progress of my career or my ovaries I compared with others – I can remember being 7 years old and getting my first perm (remember those?) because I wanted to be like “bad” Sandy in the end of the movie GREASE. When I was signed by a modeling agency at 13 because they believed my big feet were an indication of how tall I’d be, I held on to the hope that if I could just grown to be 5’6 like Kate Moss, the shortest supermodel, I would make it. Unfortunately I stalled at 5’3 and the agency sent me (and my lying big feet) packing by 17. And once again, instead of embracing my own unique path and destiny, I went around feeling “less than” all of those people I was comparing myself to. I can tell you it took me a long time before I would leave the house without my 4-inch high heels.
I know I’m not the only one suffering from comparisonitis. In fact, I’d say it is almost an epidemic, especially between women. It seems every time I look over photographs with my friends of some lovely time we had together, all we do is complain, “I wish my arms were more like yours” or sigh and say, “why can’t I get my hair to do that?” And more often than not, the very trait we covet in someone else is usually the thing they wish they could change about themselves. It’s the curling iron/flat iron phenomenon – people with curly hair wish it were straight while those of us saddled with straight hair spend hours trying to make it curl (only to have it fall three minutes later). The crazy thing is, the more beautiful a person may be, the more she seems to only see her flaws. I once had a meeting set with a famous actress who was undeniably gorgeous and talented. The day before the meeting, my agent called to make sure I knew not to wear any make-up or high heels to my meeting explaining this beautiful star needed to be the prettiest person in the room because her manager made it clear she would not be able to work with someone who made her feel “threatened”. At another meeting, a different stunning actress carried 5 pairs of sunglasses in her purse at all times so she would never be caught by the paparazzi wearing the same shades as someone else at an event, lest they win the dreaded “who wore it better” nonsense in some trashy magazine. Even worse, when I first came to Los Angeles, I worked as an actress on a show where the lovely 15-year-old star pulled me aside during my wardrobe fitting and asked quite sincerely, “Why haven’t you had breast implants – isn’t it hard making it in this business with such small boobs?” She felt immense pressure to look a certain way and wished she had my “courage” (ha!) to be flat, but a year later she had gone under the knife, convinced it would launch her to superstardom. Sadly, she hasn’t worked since 2005.
Here’s why comparison are so odious, odorous and ostupidus – they are the birthplace of insecurity, and they make perfectly wonderful people feel, well, less than wonderful. Somewhere along the line, that young girl had seen an actress with bigger boobs getting more jobs and reasoned that her small chest was the reason for her non-celebrity status, when it probably had nothing to do with anything. There are stars of all boob size and shape (if you don’t believe me, just ask Seth McFarlane). The truth is, the people who make it, the ones don’t merely survive but thrive, are the ones who take advantage of their strengths, not the ones who obsess over their perceived shortcomings. The rest end up in rehab, or as answers to obscure questions during trivia bingo at gay bars.
Of course it’s not just a Hollywood problem, it is a universal problem – teens compare themselves to models in magazines, men compare themselves to classmates who have gone on to greater success, people buy bigger cars, more expensive purses, higher heels in the hopes of being more like the person that they perceive as having it all. But the secret no one seems to realize is that more often than not, that person that we spend money and time trying to be more like, is actively wishing they could be someone else. Oh stupid us. We never seem to notice that no one is paying attention to our shortcomings because they are solely focused on their own issues. Which is completely counter productive, because as much as we may wish and hope and pray to be like someone else, the scary, but ultimately freeing truth is: we will never be anyone but ourselves.
I have had writers who are just starting out ask me urgently, “How did you get an agent? How did you get your script read? How can I get to where you are in your career?” To which I give them a little practical advice followed by the admonition, “But no two paths are ever the same.” I recognize that there is a difference between aspiration and comparison. We can be inspired by others, and I have many people that I look up to, but those people make me want to be the best version of me I can be, not some knock off version of them. So I believe that instead of wasting our time and energy feeding our insecurities with comparisons, we should strive to make the most of what we already have, and who we already are. Because the wonderful truth is, there is only one you in the world, and you have already made a difference just by being here – the rest is frosting. So go ahead and treat yourself to a bite... Chris Martin is already taken, so there’s really no point in killing yourself to get Gwyneth’s abs. As for me, I’m going to subscribe to the Jessica Tandy Oscar timeline…and if I never get one, well my goal is to look back on my life and know that I sure had fun trying.
While writing the movie SOUL SURFER, (a true story about a teenage surfer, Bethany Hamilton, whose arm was bitten off during a shark attack) I discovered that Bethany went back into the water to try surfing again less than one month after the horrific attack. When I asked her how she could have possibly gotten the courage to go back into the water, especially so soon after the terrifying event, she told me quite simply that she knew if she waited even another day longer, she may never have gone back in again. She told me how some surfers can “psych themselves out” after a gnarly accident thinking about all of the "what ifs" and replaying the terror of the moment until they become paralyzed with fear. And they never surf again.
How often we are faced with just such a thing in our own lives – the waves beckon, but we stand frozen on the shore, wanting assurances of perfect safety before we dive back in. And because safety is never guaranteed, we often never get past dipping a toe in before we turn away, too afraid to try again. When our idea gets shot down at work, we decide it’s easier to just keep our thoughts to ourselves; if a movie we love gets put in turnaround once again, we become jaded and begin to cater to the lowest common denominator so we might not have to feel the sting of failure for something we care too much about; and then there’s always the feeling of disappointment after a broken relationships that keeps us from wanting to put ourselves “out there” again, lest we be rejected. Fear threatens to keep us stuck on the sidelines of our lives.
The great paradox is that vulnerability takes courage…you have to be strong to let yourself be soft.
In a way, it wasn’t just Bethany’s body that was maimed in that accident – her heart was broken when that shark took her arm, and in so doing threatened to take away the thing she loved most in the world – surfing. She could have walled up her heart, wrapped it in bubble wrap to make sure she would never risk enduring such a loss again – but instead she decided to leave the wound open and let the saltwater heal it, taking back the waves she loved and refusing to let fear win. Today she is one of the greatest surfers in the world. A champion many times over – and an inspiration to millions.
Risk is not easy, but I think it is much harder in the long run to let loss trap you into living a bland existence, devoid of the joy of triumph, and the glory of love.
I wear glasses. I eat a lot of chips. I haven’t seen anything clearly in years.
My glasses are in various states of smudginess throughout the day. But the funny thing is, I usually don’t even notice until my husband pretends his fingers are windshield wipers and comically swishes them across my gritty spectacles. He usually says something like, “Good God, woman, how can you see anything?” At which point I just laugh and remark that after a while, I don’t even notice. It’s easy to get used to seeing the world a certain way. But when I actually clean my glasses, the world looks so much better, so much brighter, that my whole mood can change. Restored sight is a beautiful thing.
So what do my greasy glasses have to do with Hollywood? Well, for me – everything.
In her book, A Small Rain, my favorite author, Madeleine L’Engle writes about a character who says he washes windows for a living. When pressed further, he discloses that he is a pianist, and that he believes great art washes the windows of our souls, giving us a glimpse into something greater, helping us see God and one another more clearly. It is based on a scripture in the New Testament, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” In other words, it’s hard in this life to see clearly – there’s a lot of dirt and grime (prejudices, fear, pain and anger) that gunk up the windows of our spirit. And like me growing accustomed to my smudged glasses, we don’t always notice it ourselves – sometimes we need someone to point it out for us, to rub our gunky glasses on their shirt and give us a glimpse of how beautiful the world really is, and how alike we all are in what really matters.
I believe movies at their best can do just that – they can be a soft cloth to wipe away our cloudy judgments.
Not only can a great film help us see others and the world around us more clearly – the best ones can help us to get a better view of ourselves as well. There are times when that silver screen becomes a mirror, reflecting deep dreams we may have buried under years of grimy doubt, showing us the potential we forgot we have. When we see a story of redemption unfold in living color (or even black and white) before our eyes, we are reminded and that forgiveness is possible, new starts are achievable, and if we believe we can overcome any circumstance. Just look at Rudy or George Bailey, Andy Dufrain or even Ron Burgundy – we root for them because we see a piece of ourselves in them. And so we are inspired when they reflect back a clear vision of what we could be.
Who of us hasn’t been beat up by life and misunderstood by others? Who of us hasn’t failed something or someone? We’ve all messed up and hoped it wouldn’t be the thing that defines us. Each failure and disappointment is like mud flung at the windshield, or so many bug splats – after a while, our view becomes limited. Where we used to have a clear window to the road ahead, now it may seem there is no path at all. That’s where discouragement sets in. But a great movie (book, song, or painting) can wipe away that gunk, even for just a fleeting moment, and remind us there’s a whole world beyond what is directly in our view. The wipers pull back the muck revealing a glimpse of he road just beyond, and we are encouraged to keep moving forward.
At least those are the kinds of movies I hope to write. When I am pondering whether to take a project or not, I like to determine the Windex factor. Does it have the potential to clean some windows? To show a view we may not have seen before? Will it help reflect the beauty of life a little more clearly? Might it wash away the dirt of isolation with the clear waters of compassion? I hope that while I may be a screenwriter by trader, I’ll always be a glass cleaner by vocation. Because I know from experience that it feels pretty great to put on a fresh pair of sparkling spectacles.
This is a poem my brother wrote for me over a decade ago, before I was even a professional writer – back when I was just dreaming that I might be so fortunate some day. It serves as a reminder to me, of how far I have come, and how far I still want to go; as well as being a reminder to keep cleaning my glasses. It has a special place in my office now and has become something of a mission statement for me.
light smudged across
a wash of diffusion-
for now we see but a poor reflection,
on the otherside, outlines:
the semblance of faeries
we remember not how to claim,
a foot suspended above the living sea
it’s you who would dip her pen
tracing these shapes for us
in dimming streaks of clarity
excavate the pictures
of what we once were,
but failed to become;
engrave for us the lines
I love writing. I do. Love the creation of something that has never existed in the world before, love the way dialogue plays in my head, love the sound the keys make as I transcribe it to the page. But today I have a confession to make: as much as I love writing, I hate rewriting. Even now, I’m about ready to chuck my computer into the washing machine and set it on spin if my husband gives me one more note to make this opening paragraph “punchier.” There. Punchy enough? I know, I know, don’t blame the messenger. And the truth is, like the famous quote points out, writing is rewriting. But the necessity of it doesn’t make it any easier. It is difficult, tedious and sometimes painful work. It hurts to whittle away words that hard work have wrought – to “kill your darlings” as Falkner once quipped. Hard to look at your own work with a critical eye (or to stop being so critical in some cases.) It is difficult to cut away lines you love, characters you have grown to adore and scenes you are proud of, simply because they aren’t moving the story forward. And the most painful part of the process for me is facing the fact that I will never be perfect the first time around. Or the second. Or even the fifteenth. In fact, perfection as a writer is completely unattainable…but a great story is not. And that is what rewriting will win you. Just like Michelangelo chipping away at the stone to discover his David, or a master jeweler cutting away parts of a diamond to find the maximum shine – brilliance is in the editing. And the interesting thing is: the same can be said for life.
The author John Irving famously said, “Half my life is an act of revision.” I would take it a step further and say that all of life is. Have you ever noticed the clarity that comes from cutting out the things in your life that are keeping your story from moving forward? That’s because things like guilt and resentment and unrealistic expectations only serve to distract from the important things in life, the central plot, if you will. Grudges, anger and fear can bog down a life and make it as ineffectual just as an extra twenty pages in the middle of a second act can ruin a good screenplay. I know it is not an easy process to evaluate the things in your script that are holding you back from greatness – and harder still to make the actual cut once you’ve narrowed in on the problem. Personally I will often try everything I can to keep a scene that I’ve written in my script, even when it isn’t working, because of the fear that I won’t be able to come up with something better. It feels safer to stick with what you know and to try to force it to work because the unknown makes us vulnerable. And the impulse that compels a writer to keep clunky scenes and expositional dialogue in her work is the same thing that makes us hold onto bad relationships and stay in unfulfilling jobs that are keeping us from reaching our full potential – mainly, we are afraid there might not be anything better out there.
Plain and simple, revision is an act of faith – it requires that you hit the delete key before you can write something new in its place. And sometimes in life you have to take a leap of faith to chip away those familiar pieces of stone, whose heavy rigidness you have mistaken for stability, in order to find the masterpiece that lies just beneath. And trust me, while you might hate the process, if you push through the tough changes and don’t throw the computer in the washing machine, you will end up with something you love and can’t wait to share with the world.
I challenge you this week to use an editor’s eye to take a look at the story you want to tell with your life. Is there something you’ve been doing or thinking that just doesn’t seem to serve that story? Is there a person or thing keeping the plot from moving forward? If so, maybe it’s time to hit the delete key and make room for something new…
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