12: Be Love

Lawyer. Talk Show Host. Broadcast Journalist. Elementary School Teacher. Author. Professional Football Coach. Filmmaker. Famous Person. Summer Camp Counselor. Senator. President. Supreme ruler of the new empire.

My first conversations about my future career took place before Kindergarten. At the dinner table. In preschool. On play dates with my friends. The story of my life could be retold as a series of vignettes during which I am pursuing my latest new profession. My earliest memory is that I wanted to be a lawyer. In fifth grade I wrote a letter to myself at age 30. In it, I’m the San Francisco District Attorney. I am wildly accomplished, especially for my age. I went to law school straight out of college and quickly became a northern California lawyering sensation, the youngest woman ever to be a D.A.

As a sixth grader, presiding over student government meetings as our school’s President, I envisioned my life on capitol hill. I am a young, sassy senator with an edgy image and a sophisticated wardrobe. I wear Chanel suits accented with glittery lapel pens and chair the governmental affairs committee. I travel across the country speaking to young girls, at elementary schools, about empowering themselves. Be brave, be heard, be seen, be successful.

In junior high, I have a brief desire to be the next Katie Couric, or Diane Sawyer. I feel comfortable and natural sitting in a big, leather chair in a dimly lit room, firing the tough questions at a recently fallen, pop-culture hero. It’s hard-hitting journalism and I’m the best in the business. It’s analytical, and literary, and likely to make me famous some day. I check off my list of important job attributes and decide this is the one.

High school comes and goes and I care more about keeping my 4.0 and getting a date to homecoming than considering what I want to be when I grow up.

During college it’s clear I was put on the planet to do something revolutionary. I have a passion for serving “underserved” populations and now that I’ve discovered it, the possibilities are endless. I wonder if I should be their lawyer, or their teacher or make a documentary film about them.

Maybe I bring them on my talk show and give them money for college.

My whole life I’ve wanted to be a professional football coach. I’d be like Bill Walsh, but smaller and feistier. I’d stand in the middle of the huddle before games and lead the part where the players jump up and down and yell at each other. I’d hold my clipboard over my face when I’m calling the plays, and mouth the f-word when the refs misses a call. The network camera people will show my mom pacing in a luxury box, appearing completely stressed out, even when we’re winning by ten points.

For all the things I wanted to be, I never considered how I was already being. How I treated people and what it felt like to be around me. Because I didn’t have a value for being kind and compassionate, sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn’t. Being nice to strangers, and even harder, people I knew, wasn’t going to add to my prestige or power or further my climb of the fame ladder toward permanent infamy, so it didn’t matter much, to me.

It’s weird because my mom is the nicest, most compassionate, most loving person on earth.

Three years ago, I was being a yoga teacher and being a law student and being the smart, successful person I always knew I would be. For each new endeavor, I imagined my achievement of its pinnacle as the wonder-drug that would suddenly make me happy.

If everything I already am isn’t enough, there has to be more I can be.

I decided to be different. Everywhere in my life. I dedicated energy and intention to cultivating kindness like it was going to land me my dream job. I decided to be nice first and judge later and treat everyone like they were my best friend, already. I gave more hugs and said more “I love yous” and tried to be more like my mom. It mattered to me how I left a first impression, and how people felt, when they were around me.

The mantras I’d always known: be smart, be rich, be powerful, be perfect- gave way to the only one I needed.

Be love.

Be open. Show compassion. Share your lunch. Give a hug and look into people’s eyes and say hello when you see a stranger. Hold the door open and pick up something someone else dropped. On their birthday, write a long note to the people you love and tell them what they mean to you. When you feel angry and frustrated, breathe in gratitude for the experience of being alive. Remember that everyone has a story, and a reason, they act the way they do. Don’t force people to earn your affection, give freely without expectation.

Being love, for me, requires my full attention. I’m better than I used to be, but still a work in progress. I am sometimes nasty and judgmental and reactive all at once. I take people for granted and I don’t practice gratitude and I’m mean to the people around me. I talk over people, and about people, behind their back.

But I can always return to who and what and how I want to be. And remind myself why it’s important.

Today would have been my friend Heather’s 55th birthday. She was pure love, every day of her life. She wrapped everyone else in it, and helped us spread it around. She was open and honest and because she was completely human, the first to admit when she was being less than loving. When I knew I was losing her, I felt like the world needed me to fill the void of good vibes and love between strangers and pure joy, she’d be leaving. I wanted to preserve her legacy. I knew we would all be worse off without her, and I wanted to ease the suffering, somehow. Heather left her mark on this life by impacting the people in it. With her laugh and smile and energy and wholeness. With the way she made us feel when we were around her.

In every day, in every moment she loved. With kindness and generosity.

At a time in my life when I have no idea what I want to be someday, I know how I can be, until, and after, I figure it out.

Love in Southeast Asia: Meeting Heather on the Halong Bay

“I can’t stop looking at her.”

Parker reminds me that there are only 10 other people on this boat, so I should try to control myself.

We’re out for our first excursion aboard the Paradise Four. It’s nine billion degrees on the Halong Bay, but it feels like Heaven. The view is majestic in every direction.

I’m captivated by a short-haired woman in her early sixties. She’s wearing a purple tank top and her hair is dyed a deep violet-red. It’s clear she spent her pre-gray years as a vibrant red head. She’s traveling with her husband who appears quiet and loyal. She radiates with a huge smile and palpable enthusiasm.

I can’t stop looking at her.

“I know you think this is just more of my hippie-voodoo, but check it out.”

I scroll through my Iphone camera roll to a picture from a year ago. I pass the phone to Parker. Heather’s beautiful, freckled face fills me with joy and heartbreak. I watch his eyes soften into a silent apology for doubting me.

“That must be weird for you.”

I don’t feel weird about it, but if I keep this up, she might.

Just after sunset, Parker and I join the grown-ups on the top deck for cocktails. We sit in a haphazard circle of beach chairs and relax in the eighty-five-degree darkness. I inch my chair as close to her as possible, observing a boundary line for the personal space of a complete stranger. My boundary lines have always been a little fuzzy.

She speaks with a rich australian accent. Her vivaciousness and effusive language make her unique intonation even more dramatic.

I want her to tell me every detail of her life.

She and her husband raised their two boys in four different countries. A year in Sri Lanka, 3 in California. Some time in London, and of course, Australia. The boys are grown now, but they still travel as a family. She and her husband share a strong partnership, a love for exotic destinations and a taste for good wine. They love their kids deeply but live full, independent lives. I can tell just by listening, their family is something special.

I want to squeeze her so tight I can feel her bones. I want to tell her I love her. I want to reveal that we are soul sisters, and share about my loss. I want to cry in her arms and feel Heather’s spirit comfort me. I don’t want to get off the boat because I can’t say goodbye again.

At dinner I watch her and her husband invite new friends over to share their table.

“That’s so Redford.”

Later, I see her disappear into the cabin deck and emerge with a buffet of stomach medication. She thrusts them in the lap of a total stranger and tells him to take what ever he needs.  She says, “I won’t humiliate you with questions about your symptoms. I know it can get crazy down there around these parts,”

She would.

The next morning I drag myself to Sunrise Tai Chi. I meet my friend and her husband, the only two people brave enough to sweat it out at 6:30 a.m.

At 7:30, I find a seat next to her in the dining room and fill up her coffee.

We talk until Parker, and breakfast, emerge.

For over an hour, we chat and laugh and connect. We joke about the traffic in Southern California and share ski-weekend memories from Northstar at Tahoe. Her love surrounds me, just like the first time we met.

It felt like sharing moments with Heather that could have been. The conversations we would have had, the milestones in her boys’ life she might have witnessed. Her patient, sweet husband. Their beautiful life.

I wanted to cry but didn’t want to have to muster an explanation. I drank up the light in her eyes.

When we got off the boat, I whispered: I miss you my dear friend. I’ll see you again soon.

Of course, I should have known.

Heather’s soul is transcendent.

Lessons from Heather

I’ve been afraid of dying as far back as I can remember. Big time afraid. When I was little I would stay awake at night and get anxious about it. My palms would sweat and my heart would race as I’d try to understand the idea of not being. Not hugging my mom, not eating ice cream, not running up and down the soccer field. Not feeling, not laughing, not talking, not breathing. Not existing. I’d go over and over the thought of it in my mind and then shudder, feel cold in my body, and try to fall right to sleep so I didn’t have to consider the implications anymore.

A year ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As soon as I heard the news, I had that feeling again. My palms started to sweat and my heart raced. I burst into hysterical tears thinking about Heather not being. When I woke up the next morning I thought about dying, for the first time, in a new way. I thought about how Heather is the least deserving of terminal cancer of any single person I know on the planet. Then I felt anger. I thought about how Heather might not be at my wedding, help me raise my kids, or hula hoop at the next yoga festival. Then I felt sad. I thought about the beautiful and inspiring way in which Heather lives her life. Then I felt hopeful. I thought, dying is a damn good reason to: be nice to everyone, love unconditionally, forgive easily and openly and live fully in every single moment I have. Then I felt empowered.

She wrote to me soon after her diagnosis and said, “I’ve been handed my mortality. We all have one, I just know where mine is coming from. It’s time to be present.”

Holy Shit. This woman is recovering from major surgery in the face of a death sentence and she’s still my own personal buddha. Her spirit is magical.

Heather is one of my greatest teachers. I want to honor her tremendous life by sharing some of her lessons. Her lessons have shaped and enhanced the woman I am always trying to become. It is through her lessons that I know she will be inside of me. Forever.

love everyone like they’re your own family

I loved Heather immediately. We had an accidental run-in on adjacent yoga mats, and I was instantly taken by her. She had captivating energy. She surrounded me with love. She made deep and sincere eye contact. She hugged me like we did it every day.

Just after we met, I saw her in the Zuda Yoga lobby before class. She was glowing with her usual radiance, tempered by a gentle aura of deep relaxation. She told me she’d slithered her way to class after a massage had transformed her body into liquid. “Have you ever gotten a massage?” I hadn’t. “OH giiiirrrlll. It’s a must. I’m going to get you one.” She disappeared with her cell phone for five minutes and returned with a business card. “Call Tyler anytime, everything’s taken care of.”

Is this lady for real?

Completely real.

Her early gift to me was the first of many extraordinary moments and circumstances where Heather taught me how beautiful it is to love people. All people. Unconditionally. The way you love your own. She loves every, single, person, every, single, day, the way most of us do only on Thanksgiving or at our close relatives’ weddings. Heather taught me that it’s silly to hoard your love. That life is more abundant, more joyful and more fulfilling, the more love you give out. Heather opens her home, her heart, her wallet, her patience, her attention, to the whole world. She makes us feel safe, like we belong, like we are loved. No matter who we are or how we show up.

It is remarkable.

I have tried to emulate this in my own life and have observed to important things. 1) damn it’s hard sometimes to love everybody. 2) Hell yeah, it’s totally worth it.

On Partnership

My parents’ marriage was a disaster.  Even as a kid, years before they got divorced, it was easy for me to see how terribly wrong they were for each other. By the time I met Heather, I was pretty convinced marriage was one of the easiest ways to ruin your life.

Dave and Heather defy everything I thought I knew about partnership. The first night I spent in their home felt transformative. Mutual respect. Equity. Love. Communication. Support. All of these qualities permeated their every interaction. I couldn’t believe I was watching grown-up, married people behave this way towards each other. It blew my mind. The more time I spent with the Redfords, the more I admired the way they worked as a team: parenting, planning, cooking, laughing, decision-making.

In the summer of 2010, Heather and I sat on the porch of a Squaw Valley condo and talked about love and partnership. I told her how much I admired her relationship with Dave. I told her how much I had learned from them, just being a part of their lives. She told me that marriage is work. She told me that loving someone for your whole life and having to live that life, is nearly impossible. She told me that in a marriage, there are days, even entire time periods where you don’t even like your spouse. She also told me, that she loves Dave so deep in her soul and is so committed to him, somehow, it all works out. That conversation, and all of the moments I spent with the two of them, were important lessons about sacrifice, and forgiveness, and love, and commitment. Heather taught me that finding a partner, loving them and making it work is one of the most beautiful ways to spend a life.

Living a full life.

The first time I went to Heather’s house I was invited for “dinner.” “Come over in the early evening, bring wine if you want, otherwise just bring your awesome self.”

So, I figured: have a little food, a little conversation, I’ll probably be back home and in bed by 11.

That night, Steven made crab cakes. He’s her youngest. He was sixteen at the time. He looks exactly like Heather and I felt the same way I feel about her the moment he hugged me (as soon as I walked in). There were three different types of desserts. I must have had ten glasses of wine.

Early in the night we huddled in the family room and shared about our lives. I talked about law school and teaching yoga. Patrick (her oldest) talked about college applications and how he’d never even consider going to UCLA. We talked about Buddhism and high school and the perils of being an accountant. We talked and laughed and loved each other. I felt home.

Later we feasted on delicious food. We drank more wine. Had more conversation.

When dinner and dessert were over we hugged each other and laughed some more. In all of the euphoria we found ourselves dancing in the entry way to the house, singing our hearts out.

I probably crawled into bed that night at 3a.m.

The abundance of that night was characteristic of every experience we’ve ever had together. Heather taught me what it means to live a full life. She does everything with full attention, full energy, full heart, full love. She shines as her fullest self in every moment. She shines and shines and shines.

She took days off of work to ski with her kids in Tahoe. During his senior year of high school she took her son to see his favorite band at Red Rocks because “why the hell wouldn’t I?!!!” She meditates, practices yoga and drinks good wine. She is a divine goddess of laughter and spirit.

She is a constant reminder to me that this moment is all I have, so I better rock it the fuck out.

Heather gave me many gifts: emotional, spiritual and material. But her greatest gifts of all are her lessons on how to be in my life. I am a better woman, friend, partner and human because of her. She will live forever in my heart.