Stained-Glass Windows

Stained-Glass

My friends Anna and Alan owned a stained-glass window, which hung suspended on the inside of their large front room picture window, which window conveniently faced the street. If my timing was right I could walk past their place just as the late afternoon rays of sun brushed those colored panes and pause for a moment to take in all that charming.

One afternoon I happened to be inside their front room when the afternoon sunshine stretched its long golden fingers all the way through the glass to where I was standing, suddenly surrounded by thousands of dancing prisms. The entire living room was bathed in miniature rainbows and I’m pretty sure I heard tiny bells tinkling their joy (that tinkling sound was probably just in my head).

Driving down the street one evening I casually glanced to my left as my car slipped past Anna and Alan’s place and unprepared for what I saw, my heart caught in my throat! My right foot slowly pressed the brake and checking to be sure no one was behind me, I carefully backed up, put the car in park and turned off my headlights to absorb every rich detail of that stained-glass window, now lit from a lamp within. I savored the moment in silent reflection before quietly resuming my drive down the road.

The first time I read the following quote by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross it resonated within me so deeply as truth and I was immediately transported back to Anna and Alan’s window on 7th South.

Read slowly:

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.

This describes you. This describes me.

Our world is full of remarkable people, each of us beautiful and unique, sparkling and shining and sharing our individual light with those around us.

When someone is drawn to you it is your inner light they see and seek, not your outward appearance.

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Beauty is the byproduct of creating your life in such a way that allows thought to flow through you, emotions to have credence only when it truly matters, remembering that no feeling is final, and that you are wired for happiness. Your light will only increase in brightness and will cause others who see it to catch their breath, pause and back up so they can be in your presence because you are that beautiful from the inside out.

Just Keep Going

Rainer Maria Rilke Quote

There was a period of time in my life when I felt broken emotionally and couldn’t see through the density of my situation to a better tomorrow. I knew only to take one step at a time, placing one foot in front of the other. So that’s what I did. One foot and one step at a time. Step by step I filled an entire day and then a second day and eventually a week and all of my steps added up to my forward movement.

One night in a moment of uncertainty, confusion and deep anguish, my dear friend Bea called to check on me and she taught me something I’ve always remembered and carried with me as truth:

You never have to go back to yesterday; it’s over. Where you are is here. Now. And nothing that happened in a string of your yesterdays can hurt you today. Or tomorrow. Or ever.

I understand now what I was incapable of seeing then: the past and its cacophony of emotions born of experiences (some of which we choose and others chosen for us) have power over us today only if we choose to give those emotions a place in our heads and in our thoughts.

What matters is what we think because our thoughts, which flow through us and can sometimes be really loud in our heads, determine our state of being.

Your feelings are real to you. Your adventures in life will generate a wide range of thoughts, which will create emotional responses that will inform your journey. And you get to make the choice every single day about how you interact with those emotions.

When it seems as if the voice in your head is too loud and your thoughts are negative and the accompanying emotions feel too heavy to carry, please remember

You never have to go back to yesterday; it’s over. Where you are is here. Now. And nothing that happened in a string of your yesterdays can hurt you today. Or tomorrow. Or ever.

Take a deep breath. Let the chatter and emotions come to a resting place inside your head. And then choose to embrace a different emotion.

I am grateful for the knowledge that I’m wired for happiness, as are you.

I’m also grateful to have lived through enough of life to reiterate Rainer Maria Rilke‘s profound wisdom:

No feeling is final.

No amount of hurt, joy, heartache, euphoria, stress, pleasure, pain, delight, grief, happiness, trauma, enjoyment, agony, amusement, sadness, entertainment, anguish or diversion will last forever. I promise.

That’s not to say we won’t be faced with all of these emotions, to varying degrees, at some time or another throughout our existence. I believe we should experience this broad range of emotions. How else can we possibly learn and understand and grow into better humans if not through these very personal moments that add up to a lifetime?

Just keep going and when you think you can’t, just take one more step and then another.

I’m cheering for you.

Choose you. Choose happy.

What’s In a Name?

Rose

I’ve always been a goal-setter, a planner keeper (not to be confused with a Trapper Keeper because I don’t think I’ve ever been that cool), and am currently attached at the hip to Google calendar.

Spontaneity and Arminda haven’t traditionally been synonymous. My college boyfriend laughingly assured me any children I brought into this world would likely arrive sporting matching Franklin planners.

I’ve even taught classes on goal-setting, its significance and how to achieve more than your neighbor through better techniques and the adept use of colored pencils on a grid (I haven’t actually taught that part about the colored pencils; I’ve mostly kept that trick to myself).

But yesterday I read something that rocked my calendar a little bit. Okay. A lot.

Supercoach Michael Neill thinks there’s an inherent problem with goals:

  1. they’re future-based (always ahead of us like the carrot on the stick)
  2. they’re results-focused
  3. they’re successful only upon completion (meaning failure is your only option unless, or until, you reach it)

I haven’t stopped thinking about this. I can’t stop thinking about this. And after my obsessive thinking spree, I believe he’s right.

This is a game changer for me. Remember when I wrote about the definition or meaning we attach to words? This is one of those moments for me. One of those words.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet; (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 1-2)

Or would it?

If what Michael Neill says about goals is true, and I believe it is, then my focus on setting and achieving goals is misplaced effort and energy. In fact, based on the above list of problems, it’s a wonder any of us goal setters ever accomplish anything. This could be the very reason February is consistently guaranteed time for me to have the entire gym to myself. Every single year.

I don’t want to suggest I never accomplish anything or that I fail before I even get out of bed in the morning. On the contrary, I think up until now I’ve successfully checked many many things off my ever-lengthening list of goals.

But the point isn’t about what’s in my past. It’s really about what future I’m creating.

Because when you really want something, the question isn’t “How will you get it?”; it’s “What could possibly stop you?” (Supercoach, Neill, 74)

With this question in mind, and a determination to shift my thinking in order to create a new definition I realized I only need substitute a different word with its own meaning intact: project.

Again, Michael Neill provides the structure for this mind-shift toward project-based behavior:

  1. they’re in the present (happening and being worked on now)
  2. they’re action-based
  3. they’re always successful until you fail

Here’s what happens in my world, and probably for many of you, too: I set goals, I create timelines, I tell someone else about my goal so I feel accountable, and I write it down. And then something happens. Or comes up. Or I get tired. Or I slip up for a day. Or I don’t feel like it. Or company comes for a visit. Or my daughter needs something. Or I need to walk the dog. Or whatever.

These are called excuses. And they consistently pop up into the space between us and our goals. We’ve all used them. They’re always in abundant supply when we need to justify our failure to achieve our goals (remember #3 in the first list?).

Projects feel different to me. A project is in motion from the moment I say “Go,” and if I’m an effective project manager I will look ahead at what barriers might stand in my way of completion and figure out how to minimize, work around or even eliminate them before they arrive so that the project stays on course.

Juliet’s rose would still smell as sweet given another name, and perhaps goals are just another word for projects, but I’m abandoning goals and the false belief that I will only be successful if I achieve them in favor of projects through which I can create my future from the future, rather than from the graveyard of abandoned attempts and faulty restarts in my past.

If you really want what you want, there’s always a way for you to create it (Supercoach, Neill, 77).

Choose you. Choose happy.

Miss Bossy Pants

Leadership

A few days ago I was in the midst of some lighthearted texting banter with a friend when he casually threw a handful of descriptors my direction, charging me of being the following:

  1. high maintenance
  2. pushy
  3. bossy
  4. high fashion sense
  5. fabulous

I immediately countered with a reference to Sheryl Sandberg and her #banbossy campaign:

Sheryl Sandberg is advocating for the removal of “bossy” from our vernacular as it sends the wrong message to our female population about their true leadership capabilities.

I then sent a text message with a rewrite, suggesting I’m certain he meant to say the following about me instead:

  1. I maintain high expectations of myself and those around me.
  2. I’m assertive and know what I want.
  3. My leadership skills shine in every circumstance.
  4. I pay attention to details, particularly with myself and when I dress it is a reflection of my personal standards of excellence.
  5. I am fabulous. Thanks for noticing.

This is not a post advocating for banning the word bossy, although I am an advocate for every single person reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In.

This is also not a post to denigrate my friend for his comments, which I have taken out of context to share here with you. (He fully endorses and supports my rewrite.)

This IS a post about knowing yourself.

Sometimes we hear something said about ourselves and we choose to internalize that message as truth. Perhaps that something was said years ago or perhaps it was just last week.

Words are just words. Your thoughts apply meaning to them, and once you’ve attached meaning, you start generating emotions around those thoughts and before you realize it, you’ve created a belief. A false one.

Remember the childhood rhyme?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words (or names) will never hurt me!

Maybe we should repeat this more often as adults than we did as children. Attaching meaning to names and words is a habit and habits are meant to be broken, at least the bad ones!

Who are you?

Know the answer to this question unequivocally. Without hesitation.

State your list out loud to yourself so you can hear it. Attach your meaning to those words and the emotions you generate will be positive because hearing those words will resonate an inner truth deep within you and you will smile from the inside out, and a new belief will have been created.

Now if anyone (yourself included) throws you a label or a name or a title that doesn’t fit your personal description, you’ll be prepared to deliver an accurate definition back.

Choose you. Choose happy.

Create Tomorrow Today

Alice_through_the_looking_glass

Creation has been a lot on my mind lately. The creation of our lives. Our futures. Our realities. Our now. And how our beliefs create the world around us.

We have within each of us the power to create whatever present and future world we wish to inhabit. We are the creators of our today and of our tomorrow.

How do we create something that we don’t believe exists?

Start believing it does.

Shawn Achor (my happiness crush) says:

Studies show that simply believing we can bring about positive change in our lives increases motivation and job performance; that success, in essence, becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy (The Happiness Advantage, 75).

Coach Michael Neill says you can make believe anything:

. . . we can change our experience of the world (and ultimately the world itself) by changing the way we choose to see it. . . . instead of always trying to align your beliefs with “reality,” it’s possible to align your beliefs with what you most want to create in your life. And when you consistently make believe in what you want, you can begin to create some pretty unbelievable results (Supercoach, 15,16)!

The greatest athletes and performers in the world will tell you they weren’t born talented; they created their talent by believing they could and in his bestselling book Wealth Warrior, Steve Chandler corroborates that sentiment with his reminder that “practice creates talent (115).”

Creating a new belief can be intimidating, or even scary, for some of us. You’re not alone.

Even Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s classic Through the Looking Glass, challenged the very notion of believing what Alice deemed an impossibility when the Queen chided her:

I daresay you haven’t had much practice. . . . When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Impossible only exists if you believe it does. You define impossible.

Me? I’d rather eliminate that word from my personal dictionary altogether.

Let yourself give in to this new belief. This creation notion. It’s very liberating.

Perhaps practicing believing the impossible before breakfast as the Queen suggests is a great idea, and before long you’ll recognize you’re no longer chasing after your dreams; you’re manufacturing them.

Choose you. Choose happy.

First World Problems

Ice Storm 2014 -- Greensboro, NC

Sometimes it’s hard to remember to be grateful, especially when we feel like we are being inconvenienced. One glance in the last 24 hours at any number of social media platforms confirms I’m not the only one forgetting this simple and critical component to our sustained happiness. It’s March 7, two days away from our annual spring forward for Daylight Savings Time and what feels long past when we normally feel the welcome effects of springtime on its way here in the south.

Instead of daffodils, we got ravaged by an ice storm that pummeled us without reprieve for approximately nineteen hours, give or take. There are homes and businesses scattered across the region without power, trees down everywhere, horrible road conditions, schools are cancelled (again) and I’m out of flour so couldn’t make pancakes this morning (sigh).

Before I ever left the comfort of my warm covers early this morning, I reached for the current book of historical fiction I’m anxious to complete: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. (Fellow bookclubbers: I am hurrying to catch up to this month’s selection so I can participate in the conversation; I promise.)

As I opened to my bookmark, it was only a moment for me to remember I was in Tarragona, Spain, in 1492, and the Spanish Inquisition, having started in 1478, was well underway. Captivated and horrified I read through the unconscionable tortures inflicted on a young man, the brutal beating to death of his father, the frightening and lonely labor and delivery of his wife, the courageous escape of his sister with his newborn son and the systematic expulsion of all Jews from Tarragona. All in the name of God.

Earlier chapters took me to Venice in 1609, where my heart ached as hundreds of precious books were summarily burned for their supposed provocative and heretical text, and to Sarajevo in 1940 just prior to a 1941 German occupation, when Anti-Semitism caught everyone off-guard in a city that prided itself in one city block hosting home to the synagogue, the mosque and the Orthodox church.

This is not a treatise on religious atrocities over the centuries; it is a gratitude reminder.

My Gratitudes Today

  1. I am a single mother thriving on my own without forced dependency on a man for my living or my home.
  2. I believe what I believe and do not live in fear that anyone is going to seek me out, forcefully enter my home, harm my daughter, threaten the lives of my loved ones, or in any way disrupt my life because of my religious affiliations.
  3. I own and have access to more books than I will ever read in this lifetime (sigh) and I am privileged to know how to read, have always been encouraged to think and to challenge what I learn so that I can gain truths and knowledge for myself.
  4. I have a pantry full of food and am less than 24 hours from purchasing more flour, but am confident that in a bind I can always walk next door and my cup will be filled.
  5. I wasn’t required to go or to be anywhere today and could work from the comfort of my own home knowing my daughter was safe and cozy and all of our basic needs are being met today. And every single day.
  6. I laugh, love and live the way I choose.

I am looking forward to spring with its colorful display, but until it arrives I will remember the daffodils from springtimes’ past and the gratitudes today.

Choose you. Choose happy.

Daffodils by William Wordsworth, read by Jeremy Irons

 

Factory Default: Wellness

Cheeeze

Recently I facilitated a group discussion on the topic of life’s challenges and how we choose the way in which we encounter said obstacles. I made it clear then, and I wish to state loudly in this platform, that life comes complete with some doozies, curve-balls and turns in our paths that we can never anticipate. Not ever. And these are hard things we go through. Each and every one of us. No one is exempt from these experiences. To think otherwise would be naive. Yet even in the midst of the tough times I sometimes find myself questioning the fairness of it all, the rightness versus the wrongness of my situation, as if such variances existed. (They don’t.)

Gratefully, I don’t stay down long, and I would venture to suggest that neither must you.

Last week I happened upon Dr. Amy Johnson, a social psychologist, master certified coach, author and public speaker, and I am extremely grateful to have found such a trove of information and insights.

Dr. Johnson has a philosophy that I am now officially adopting into my vernacular because it explains my own cyclical relationship to difficulty over my lifetime. I’ve always wondered how and/or why it is that I “bounce back” so quickly when something knocks me down and I tended to write it off as “the way I’m wired.”

Here’s what I love: I was right! I AM wired to bounce back AND SO ARE YOU!

Dr. Johnson suggests that our factory default setting is wellness. You didn’t know you had a default setting, did you? Yup. Just like your mobile phone can be reset if something goes awry, so can you with a little bit of effort on your part.

We (the proverbial we) have a tendency to overthink our circumstances or weigh ourselves down with negative thinking or burden ourselves with frenetic self-talk that serves only one purpose: more stress and more negative thinking, which lead to heavier and heavier hearts, which heaviness repels joy.

I am one of the happiest people I know.

I am not always happy.

When I am unhappy or feeling burdened with what might seem the impossible, I do a factory reset and remember to express gratitude for the highs as well as for the lows, and that gratitude provides an undercurrent of peace that runs throughout my life.

Dr. Johnson puts it this way:

  • You are well. Your default nature is peace of mind and clarity. Always. Even when you don’t feel it.
  • When you don’t feel peace of mind and clarity, it’s only because your own personal thinking (inner dialogue, habitual mental chit chat) is in the way.
  • When your thinking settles down, as it always does, you’ll be bounced back to your peace and clarity.

Understanding that we possess this default setting doesn’t preclude us from life’s adversities, but embracing this outlook allows us to get back to our place of emotional wellness that much faster.

Beware your thoughts getting in your own way; they’ll work really hard to be heard, but remember our thinking creates our feelings. Take control of your thoughts and what you believe and you will bounce back to wellness and a state of peace faster than the rug can get pulled out from under you!

Choose you. Choose happy.

Opposable Thumbs

photo

Happiness is such a lovely gift we choose to give ourselves each day.

This morning I was dragging my feet just a bit as I suited up to walk Eli. It was really cold outside and I don’t very much like cold anything. But Eli has that amazing canine sixth sense about him and he knew it was time to go out. His wagging tail creates its own current and I wonder sometimes if the movement is sustainable. And if so, for how long? This is a really happy dog so that tail wags a whole lot of the time.

But back to my cold weather gear. I layered. And then layered some more. I grabbed my monster mittens and added them as my final salute to the cold and walked out the front door.

Before too many minutes had passed I was feeling extremely energized as I breathed in the crisp morning air filled with scents of the last leaves falling and cold asphalt contracting like me from the cold.

And then I looked down at my hand holding the leash and I smiled outright and then laughed.

I love mittens! I love MY mittens! I love that they’re purple and fleece and warm! I love that when I look at my bemittened hands I am actually a Muppet! (Anyone else as jazzed as me about the new Muppet movie?! Tina Fey, people. Tina Fey.) And as soon as I’m transformed into a Muppet I wiggle my thumbs and remember one of my favorite lines from the stage production of Steel Magnolias, delivered by Clairee to Ousier with just the right amount of Southern charm: “Whitey Black is a moron. I’m not even sure he has opposable thumbs.” And the next thing I know I’m laughing and saying out loud to no one in particular, “You know, the funny thing about shaking hands is. . . you need hands!”

I crack myself up.

Okay. Okay. I’ll end today’s happiness flow chart before I quote the entire script from The Emporer’s New Groove. But just one more from Yzma before I go:

Ah, how shall I do it? Oh, I know. I’ll turn him into a flea, a harmless, little flea, and then I’ll put that flea in a box, and then I’ll put that box inside of another box, and then I’ll mail that box to myself, and when it arrives. . . I’ll smash it with a hammer! It’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, I tell you! Genius, I say! Or, to save on postage, I’ll just poison him with this.

Choose YOU – Choose HAPPY

Last week when I published the Happiness Crusade something fantastic happened. Fantastic for me.

Shawn Achor visited my website. SHAWN ACHOR!!!!

He came. He read. He linked. He read some more. He left a comment!!!! (that’s how I know he was here)

Sometimes when I need to laugh I watch Shawn’s TED Talk all over again for the grins and giggles effect.

Like today – I watched it five minutes ago. And here’s what hit me:

90% of our long-term happiness is predicted by the way our brains process the world and if happiness is always on the opposite side of success, our brains will never get there.

This is a REALLY important concept to grasp:

If you want to be happy, choose happiness.

Simple? Not for everyone, apparently.

You must consciously change the current formula you are subconsciously using to view the world around you.

1. Identify 3 New Gratitudes daily to scan the world for positive, and not negative.
2. Journal daily about one positive experience you’ve had in the past 24 hours.
3. Regular exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters.
4. Meditation allows us to get over the “cultural ADHD” we’ve been creating by trying to do multiple tasks at once, and by focusing on the task at hand.
5. Deliberately perform Random or Conscious Acts of Kindness once a day.

Glass half-full? or Half-empty? Do you have a glass?

Do you choose YOU? Because in so doing, you are choosing to flood your brain with dopamine, which triggers happiness AND ignites the learning centers of the brain altering the way we adapt to and view the world. And through this new world view, you will be able to predict your own long-term happiness because your current state of being will be set.

It’s not done overnight – using this new formula. You’ve got to make it a habit.

You CAN do this: Form the habit over the next 21 days and keep track of your progress. Set your intention and before long, the rose-colored glasses you may have mocked others for wearing will be your new lenses!

And please be careful not to mistake others’ ability to choose happiness with naivety or ignorance.

As a happiness promoter I can assure you this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Now, about Shawn Achor, do you think it’s too soon for me to propose?

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Happiness Crusade

IMG_0716

On February 13, 2012, I started a 21-day “dopamine challenge” here on this blog titled Creating Positive. Many of you joined me in that initiative (and it’s not too late to get started) because happiness is year-round and a lifetime journey. While there have been many changes in my life since I first penned that post, one thing is for sure: my heart is still full of gratitude. It’s so full that I keep writing out more and more. My list is growing and I’m filling up notebooks. Pages and pages of things for which I’m grateful and/or that make me smile and bring me happiness. My list is very personal and unique to my life, as is your list. This is the reason I can pick up one of my notebooks and open to any page and start reading through my list and immediately begin to smile as I am instantly transported to another day, place, and moment in time that ignited a spark of joy in my heart.

gratitude |ˈgratəˌt(y)o͞od|
noun
the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness

happiness |ˈhapēnis|
noun
the state of being happy

Shawn Achor (whose TED Talk inspired me to start my own challenge) writes in his book The Happiness Advantage that

“. . . our attitudes and behaviors don’t only infect the people we interact with directly — like our colleagues, friends, and families — but that each indivdual’s influence actually appears to extend to people within three degrees. So when you. . . make positive changes in your own life, you are unconsciously shaping the behavior of an incredible number of people. . . . [T]here are nearly 1,000 people within three degrees of most of us. This is a true ripple effect — by trying to make ourselves happier and more successful, we actually have the ability to improve the lives of 1,000 people around us” (p201).

That’s empowering. To me, at least. And I love that by embracing the life I live I have the potential within me to positively impact the lives of thousands of other people. Thousands.

I can’t wait for happiness to find me like some elusive carrot forever dangling at the end of its proverbial stick. You will never reach it if that’s your aim. Your “I’ll be happy when _________ ” will forever evade you.

“Waiting to be happy limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive, which drives performance upward” (Achor 4).

Motivation? Efficiency? Resilience? Creativity? Productivity? Yes, please!

Happiness is now. Happiness is your choice. Happiness is within you.

Come on my happiness crusade and create positive in your life today, tomorrow and always! Will you join me?

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Mormon Missionaries

Sister J & Arminda

Sister J & Arminda, September 2013

I’m sure you’ve seen the Mormon missionaries around your town. They all look pretty much the same: young.

The boys wear suits and ties and often ride bikes and the girls are always in skirts and everyone travels in packs of two and they wear black name tags to identify themselves as missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the Mormons.

That was me. I’m a Mormon.

Sister J & Arminda, Rostov, Russia, 1994

Sister J & Arminda, Rostov, Russia, 1994

 
Age: 21
Mission Location: Rostov, Russia
Language: Russian
Distance from Home: really far
 
Greensboro, North Carolina to Rostov, Russia = Really Far

Greensboro, North Carolina to Rostov, Russia = Really Far

That decision to serve a mission – made when I was eight years old – continues to positively impact and to inform my life today.

Recently, I flew to Dallas, Texas, to visit Margie Johnson, who was one of my companions. We were a bit atypical as far as companions go, to be sure, but the two of us were together for ten of my eighteen month mission. Margie, whom I refer to lovingly as “Sister J,” was serving a humanitarian mission and spent her days in a local orphanage. Meanwhile, I always had another proselytizing companion with whom I spent my days out street-contacting and knocking on doors. The “usual” missionary stuff.

I have enough in my heart about what I learned from Sister J to fill up multiple blog posts, but won’t go long on today’s! Simply, she is one of the greatest women I know.

Whenever I returned to our apartment she was there, anxious to hear everything about our day. She loved listening to me describe in detail every single thing we’d seen, heard, tasted, encountered and learned: every funny incident, every touching moment, every misunderstood word, and every insight gained. Sister J knew just as much about what we were doing as did we, even though her daily routine rarely intersected with ours. She knew everyone we knew and connected with them without the aid of the Russian language, which she never learned but relied on me to act as translator.

I have yet to meet a heart as generous as hers and the example she gave to me through her simple acts of kindness are still a constant reminder to me all these years later: give of yourself because you are the greatest gift you have to share.

One of my favorite recollections of Sister J was the way she would typically greet me whenever we’d been apart for a few hours. Her cheery voice smiling at me through all my layered attempts to stay warm, reaching out to me, extending a grin that magnetically pulled the corners of my own mouth upward into my own rendition of the Cheshire Cat. Every single time she said, “You’re so cute!”

And because I want to always have her smile at the ready, I recorded Sister J telling me once again:

Review: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

the-butler-poster

Disclaimer: I’m white and I wasn’t alive during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina in 1987 that I even knew there was a difference between black and white. As a transplanted fifteen-year-old I was immediately on the perimeter of my new environment, an observer at best, but never assimilated.

  1. Why was there a high school populated by only black students? And why didn’t anyone else find this strange? And when the marching band from said “black school” performed, they didn’t actually play any music or march; they all set down their instruments on the field and then danced to the cadence of a well-populated drum line. When I asked why they weren’t following the same guidelines as the other marching bands in our district I was dismissed with, “Oh. That’s just they way they do it.”
  2. What were the reasons my younger siblings were being bussed across town to attend school when an elementary school was located one mile from our home? Didn’t we desegregate schools a long time ago?
  3. Why did all the kids separate themselves during homeroom, in between classes and at lunch like a Whitman’s Sampler box? Preps. Jocks. Nerds. Drama kids. Blacks.

I watched the trailer for Lee Daniels’ The Butler and immediately felt drawn to the theatre to see it.

Forest Whitaker is undeniably perfect as the lead and gives a spot-on performance as the complex, conflicted and proud Cecil Gaines.

If closing the chapter on the Oprah Winfrey Show opened a new chapter in Oprah’s acting career, then please more. She’s remarkable and brings such realness (can I say that?) to her role as Gloria Gaines.

Actor David Oyelowo delivers a powerful interpretation of the “prodigal son:” Louis Gaines (although we question who’s really the prodigal before the movie ends).

There are so many cameo performances I won’t take the time to list them, but they are at least fun to see, if not a bit distracting from the plot since you keep thinking about the celebrity and not the role they’re portraying. I will say that no one steals the spotlight. On-screen time is probably a five-minute maximum, if that, for any one of those roles.

I daresay that the performances aren’t remarkable at all. There’s nothing you’re going to see depicted in this movie that will have you on the edge of your seat. You’re not going to be swept up in a euphoric moment of Hollywood magic. No flashing lights or explosions of magnitude or riveting dialogue will have you spellbound. And you certainly won’t leave the theatre feeling better about yourself (if you’re white, that is).

It’s long (132 minutes), a bit slow-paced, sometimes feels repetitive in nature and the most action you see are news reels being played as if in real time.

So why bother? Isn’t it just another movie about the Civil Rights Movement with some extra hype because of the A-listed actors playing all the parts?

My conclusion is pretty much yes.

This is a movie about the Civil Rights Movement. And yes, there are Hollywood heavyweights playing the parts.

This is a story of the parts of America we tend to brush under the rug. The part of our history we excuse away because it was another time. The parts and pieces of a past whose consequences are still being felt by so many of our own. The ugly truth that we are quick to condemn others for doing yet can’t quite look our whole past in the mirror and accept. This is OUR story – the one we prefer to depict more comfortably with black caricatures like we saw portrayed in The Help.

I reviewed and loved The Help, but it lacked a lot. It still had at its center a white heroine come to save the day of the overworked and underpaid black woman. And all this time later, I am still disturbed that Aibileen, the true heroine of that (albeit fictional) story, was given as her quotable line a grammatically incorrect phrase that became the mantra and rallying point of movie-goers, book readers and meme creators everywhere: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.”

The Butler gives us none of that.

The Butler is boring. It’s not an engaging story. I knew I was in a theatre the entire time.

What The Butler does give us is real life family love, disagreement, opinions, conflict, laughter, division, hurts, addiction, loss, devotion to country, and ultimately reconciliation and all through the viewing lens of a hardworking black American family.

(It also gives us a biased and an unfair depiction of the white man and the Hollywood pendulum of unfortunate caricatures swings to the white end of the spectrum.)

Real life isn’t Hollywood. Real life isn’t glamorous. Real life hurts. Real life is rewarding. Real life is confusing. Real life takes time.

And real life – if we’re being brutally honest – is sometimes embarrassing.

I cried throughout this movie. There were scenes during which I cried more uncontrollably than others, but mostly I just cried silently, inwardly affected by my own confrontation with America’s ugly past.

What do I continue to confront with each new book or movie or theatrical encounter I have with the Civil Rights Movement?

Skin: the thin layer of tissue forming the natural outer covering of the body of a person

Truth: We bought, sold, owned, disowned, raped, murdered, lynched, maimed, abused (verbally, physically, sexually, and emotionally), tortured and condemned other human beings based solely on the color of their skin.

That’s it. That’s the crux of the matter, and it is that matter that never sits with me. I can’t comprehend it. I can’t excuse it or dismiss it. I can’t tolerate the footage I see of it. I can’t be anything but heartbroken by it.

And that is why no matter how poorly told is the story (because all versions have their flaws, inconsistencies and biases) – this story is ours to embrace with all its ugly parts, admitting faults and write new chapters with the ongoing storyline determined not by the color of one’s “outer covering,” but by the quality of a person’s inner parts.

So despite the long list of differences we might attribute to one another I choose to remember what H. G. Wells said:

“Our true nationality is mankind.”