All The Things We Leave Behind

Tragedy never strikes when it’s convenient.

That was the hard truth I learned Sunday afternoon while en route to see – of all things – “Amy,” the documentary about Amy Winehouse.

As I stood in my own little world on the platform at Church Avenue, desperately looking at my phone to avoid any interpersonal connection that would distract me from my mission, readying myself to board the incoming Q train…I see a Facebook post that changed (or, dare I say, punctuated) the course of the day.

A woman I’d known through one of my best friends, an esteemed writer and jewel of a person I regret not spending more time with when she lived here, posted a status expressing her heartbreak at the passing of another mutual friend…one who had crossed my mind only moments before during my walk to the train station.

My initial reaction was disbelief. I’d known he was in the process of finishing his novel and he was wrapping up other projects and had a flair for dramatic expression. I thought it was a joke. I texted another friend who’d introduced us, and inquired about his whereabouts and headed into BAM to watch the movie.

I checked Facebook once more, and this time was informed he’d had a heart attack, to which I immediately asked “How could a heart so big just give out?” Then I exhaled, exhaled again, turned off my phone and watched the movie. Numb.

At the time, I didn’t know if watching the story of a troubled and tremendous talent like Winehouse would be better or worse in terms of helping me deal with the reality I would face when the lights came back up. We all know how the story ended there. It just seemed as if I were adding fuel to the fire. Piling on more stories of lives cut too short.

As it turned out, it was the best thing.

Like Amy, my friend Brook was an immensely gifted writer who made a name for himself through his prose and simply being his authentic self. While he didn’t belt out a song the way she did, or possess an obscene amount of demons that would ultimately lead to self-destruction, he did leave his mark on the world indelibly.

Unlike Amy, Brook was the product of a close-knit and nurturing family, one that lauded education and ancestral history, and taught him to embrace and appreciate all things different and new. He developed a sense of adventure, a love for life and good food, and believed in – and cultivated – a world with no boundaries and full of boundless potential.

It was no surprise that those of us drawn into his circle were all of the same mind and spirit. It is also no surprise that when we all learned of his passing, we found it incomprehensible that he was no longer here.

Creatives by nature can be notoriously moody, self-absorbed, reclusive and in the case of the really good ones…absolute assholes. He was neither of these things.

That’s not to say he didn’t have “quirks.” We all do.

But at his core, you would never find another person more generous with his time, and more ready to take on the world. Even when he stumbled.

He was also very passionate about changing the world, and did his part as a writer, a teacher, a mentor, a cultural vessel, a friend, and a man who simply had a knack for always being in the right place at the right time, and knowing exactly how to start – or guide – the conversation.

Although he didn’t have the level of fame Amy had, Brook Stephenson’s name is legend amongst those in the know; a staggering creative collective comprised of artists, writers, music makers, tastemakers and all-around genuine spirits who’ve created the glorious multicultural fabrics that make New York, Detroit, Atlanta and beyond, hotbeds of realized (and soon-to-be-realized) potential.

Reflecting on these lives and the legacies they’ve created in such a short time on this earth forced me to acknowledge not only that I have yet to realize my own potential, but to truly consider exactly what legacy I’m poised to leave behind if, and when, I finally do.

It’s common for death to inspire self-reflection and a more keen sense of our own mortality, but how often do we truly take an account of the footprints we leave on this planet? How have we lived? Have we really lived? How have we treated others? How have we served others? What have we contributed to this life and the lives of others? Have we done so because we were motivated by accolades, acceptance, padded profiles and increased value on the theoretical food chain, or did we do it simply because it was good to do? Have we used our gifts to the best of our ability to be the best with our ability?

Am I waxing poetic because I feel an incredible surge of guilt for not seeing my friend in the last year? Perhaps. Am I being haunted by his constant motivational chant of “If not you, then who?” Abso-fucking-lutely. Am I doing exactly what he told me to do right at this moment…something I haven’t done in the last five months…despite having lots of material to write about? Yep, it sure does look that way.

Fans. Friends. Family. Foes. Foundations. We all ultimately leave something behind when this life comes to an end.

What do you want your legacy to be?

Now that you’ve answered that…make it happen.

Right now.

Pins and Needles

Today is the last day of 2013.

Normally, the thing to do is to reflect on the year that was — but I’ve pretty much done that already.

In the event you need a refresher, it goes like this: attended a few awesome concerts, quit my job and got a better one, clocked in some mileage with two trips each to Savannah and Florida, three trips to Toronto, and one to Panama, had a couple of brief but fun romances, spent more time with family and true friends, found my spiritual center with Buddhism and meditation, and stepped up my active side with a bit of running and yoga. And overall had a great damn time living my best life. 

So I’d like to take this moment to discuss something that will likely become my new favorite ritual at the closing of every year… 

Acupuncture.

Yes, that centuries-old practice of Chinese medicine in which needles are placed into your skin at specific pressure points in your body to relieve ailments and release tension.

For the uninitiated, the question “How can sticking needles in your flesh make you feel better?” is probably running through your mind the same way it did mine. I’ve never been a fan of needles of any kind. Usually, I need to be distracted by a speck on the wall or something of interest when I’m getting medical tests done or donating blood, so the prospect of being stuck rather leisurely and frequently never registered on my list of things to do — even when one of my best girlfriends sang the praises of it years ago.

But one company health fair, a charismatic and slightly aggressive woman named Helen, and a fully covered insurance plan all conspired to spark my curiosity. It might have also been her explanation of another ritual called “cupping” which was said to remove toxins and — here’s the kicker, inches — from your body.

Hey, anything that gives Gwyneth Paltrow embarrassing circular marks that look like she was probed by aliens must be worth a try, right? 

Nearly two months after my first session, and I’m hooked. Considering I resemble some variation of a human cactus for about forty minutes a day three times a week, it is surprisingly relaxing, and very often knocks me the hell out. I’m also convinced the cupping has indeed slimmed my torso a bit, and possibly removed all traces of any drink-infused holiday revelry. Double score.

I suppose the main takeaway from this experience — besides Diana is always right — would be to face your fears  — especially the ones that truly scare you — and embrace things that cause you pain.

As it turned out, those momentary pricks don’t hurt when you don’t think about them, and the trade-off is long-term relief of a greater ailment.  

Which brings me to a conversation I had last night with a friend. We were talking about our past relationships, and after speaking about how unhealthy they had become, it was then that I realized the impact of this year in particular, and what really made it so wonderful: This was the first in which anyone whose actions or otherwise were either harmful or didn’t fit my best interests were, for the most part, left to their own devices. 

Men with stories about needing breaks or more attention, being “wild”, or being lost, were left alone and encouraged do what makes them happy. Women who relied on me to do their jobs while they sat on beaches, and repaid me in poor treatment (forgetting their days of unemployment when they were treated to dinners), and those who had mocking fun at my expense (on occasions with the aforementioned), were no longer worthy of the time I’ve grown to value exponentially. Generally, anyone who had the benefit of receiving a job referral or a housewarming, wedding, child’s birthday or christening gift in the last four years (three of which were otherwise known as my underemployed years) got “time outs” if complaints were made regarding my attention span.

In short: This year I lived for me, and pursued peace of mind over being a “piece” in someone else’s game.

That unconscious purging turned out to be the best medicine I could ever hope for; when one’s life is filled with so many positive, generous, funny, creative, intelligent and just downright amazing people, it’s counterintuitive to hold on to a few who make you feel anyway other than appreciated.

My issue will never be how other’s choose to live their lives… it will be how they think I should live mine in a way that pleases them.

It is at this very moment while writing this, that I considered on my next acupuncture session to give each needle the name of someone who’s “gotten under my skin” metaphorically. I’m sure it would be some great symbolic moment to name the pins protruding from my neck after folks I consider to be pains in the neck.

But I can’t… cause that’s just stupid.

Also, for starters, all I can think about is the fact that I’m half-naked on a massage table looking like a mash-up of a voodoo doll, the bride of Frankenstein, and Pinhead from the “Hellraiser” movies. My next area of focus tends to veer toward my lack of Chinese language skills, which would serve me well for the intention of eavesdropping on the conversation of the ladies in the office.

And then… everything goes dark… as tranquility and slumber take over, and any stress or discomfort is all but forgotten. Once I’m done, I walk out into the world feeling shiny and new with an extra pep in my step (and a need to hydrate).

Now if that isn’t the perfect way to start the New Year, I don’t know what is. I’ll take that over a resolution any day!

The Year of Living

It’s November…

It’s that time of the year when you realize it’s coming to an end soon.

For me, it’s the time my month-long introspection leading up to my birthday begins.

In all seriousness, 2013 has been fucking awesome.  

No. I didn’t strike it rich. Nah, I’m still simply infamous within my own circle of friends, former cohorts and occasional acquaintances.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way… although I wouldn’t take issue with having more money.

What made this year so amazing is that it was, in essence, “the year of living”. Not exactly dangerously (although I did almost jump out of a plane yesterday — had those pesky clouds not spoiled it), but truly living and fully appreciating my life and taking big chances.

This year, I rang in the new year at the Barclays Center watching Coldplay and Jay Z sing “Auld Lang Syne” as confetti rained on my head. I resigned from a job considered great for social-climbing, but draining for my soul (and immunity system). Braving bitter cold, I joined the throngs who stood outside the Capital to watch the presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. Found a job at a company that feeds my creative passion; where my colleagues treat me with the utmost respect, shower me with praise and encouragement, and give me things like insurance, vacation days and “summer Fridays” — the first time I’ve ever had that in my entire work life.

This was just the first three months…

The following months would see me spending quality time with incredible people taking in great art, music, sporting events, movies and important teaching moments where rage and emotion ran deep. The spring and summer months saw me boarding planes to Miami, Savannah, Panama and Toronto (a few times).

Truth be told, that was fucking exhausting. Fun. Exhilarating even… but exhausting.

This year I learned to let go of things and people who weren’t healthy for me. It wasn’t as deliberate as it was natural. At some point, you realize whose around for the party, and who’s with you when there’s no music (or other methods of escape) playing the role of artificial bond. And you just let things be.

This is the year of self restoration, where my body and soul discovered the joys and benefits of yoga, meditation, and Buddhism. Nothing brings me back to a place of calm and resolve like a good “Om” and chanting “Nam Myoho Renge Kyo”. I’ve found it lifts my inhibitions the way alcohol or weed would, except I don’t get a headache, nausea or slight remorse afterwards.

This year has been unprecedented when it comes to physical activity that doesn’t involve sex (well, exclusively anyway). Aside from yoga, I’ve also completed my first 5K race, my first Breast Cancer walk in years, and my first indoor rock climbing experience. Also, a special shout-out to aerial silk class, for simultaneously making me look and feel like a graceful acrobat and temporarily cutting off the circulation in my hands and feet. Pink makes that shit look so easy — and she sings while she does it! I’m pretty sure her stage name also stands for the color of her fingers and toes as she belts out those songs.

Speaking of sex, I gladly took a break from it until I committed to dating someone who connected with me beyond physical chemistry. As I’ve come to value the role communication and friendship plays in building a worthwhile relationship, I’ve been fortunate to have experienced the pleasure of being intimate with someone who makes me laugh, makes me think, and recognizes and encourages me to value all that I have to offer. In turn, I’ve found how quickly and easily things flow when you mutually have that kind of connection as opposed to forcing one based on a desire to not be alone.

The best part of this year by far has been my father. Two years ago, there would have been expletives in correlation with that word. Today, my father provides me with some of the happiest moments in the simplest form. When he answers the phone “Hey baby!” after hearing my voice. When he continuously hugs and kisses me during my visits. When he lets me cut his ridiculously long fingernails. When he remembers a detail without me having to repeat it about six times in one conversation (a rarity). When I hear he doesn’t need as much insulin because his sugar levels are good. When I hear he’s recognized an old classmate before they got a chance to approach him at a 50-plus year reunion. When I hear he’s gone outside for a walk. And finally, when he looks me in the eye after widening his own after a long pause, and randomly reveals that while I didn’t grow up in the way he had hoped, he was proud of the way I had, and of the woman I’d become as a result.

Nothing could really top that…

While the remaining two months of this epic year have plenty of opportunities for equally memorable moments, the past ten have been nothing short of a sensational dream. Of course, there have been bumps along the way, but that’s made it all the more perfectly balanced.

It takes a year like this to restore your faith in the beauty of life when just a few years ago you momentarily considered ending it.

When I think of the lovely beaches and people of Panama… The majesty of the Falls and the lush vineyards of Niagara Lake a drive away from the clean and beautiful city of Toronto… Being so close to Chris Martin you could literally touch him as he and the band head back to the stage during an encore… Cheering, booing and crying with a million strangers on a chilly D.C. morning… Crossing a finish line as a crowd cheers you on… And even getting close enough to jumping out the plane… How could I not value every minute and every breath of air spent this year having these experiences, and not look forward to more to come?

The last year that had this kind of impact on me was 1996. That was the year I made my first trip to London, Paris and Versailles, experienced the Olympics firsthand while working in the Olympic Village during the Atlanta games, and had an internship with a magazine that ended up putting me in two of the editorial stories and spent my days playing dress up in sample closets, taking Polaroids of ugly prom dresses and making showroom appointments for a beloved market editor who now goes by the name of Rachel Zoe.

I doubt my appreciation for years will lapse as drastically going forward.

I drink far too much wine now to let that happen again.

Looking forward to picking up a bottle of a 2013 vintage. Even if the wine itself is crap (seeing as there’s a crop crisis — thanks global warming), when I say “it was a good year”, it’ll be with the utmost sincerity… and maybe a bit of nostalgia.

So… what’s your year been like so far?