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January 28, 2017

Carnival of Love 2017, We Love You, Skid Row

In one of the crazier things I’ve ever done, chalk this: I flew from Tennessee to Los Angeles to participate in the 2017 We Love You Skid Row Carnival of Love.

The day was full of smiles and tears and children’s laughter as they got to play games, draw, eat ice cream and get toys. It was full of music and dancing and hugging.

There were a number of guests who seemed overwhelmed. Quite a few were obviously mentally ill, withdrawn and abrupt. But that’s ok. I was there to serve.

I came with my son. He was a guide, who brought guests through the myriad of services—clothes, shoes, hygiene products, blankets, a full barbecue dinner, ice cream, legal services, therapy services, DMV services to get IDs, barbering, hairdressing, medical screenings, pet grooming, animal services, glasses, hearing checks, massage, foot washing and hot showers. Every bit of this was donated or sponsored. Many of those giving out services were students from nursing programs or hairdressing programs, but there were fully fledged professionals giving up their Saturday to help people in need.

A touching fact—the foot washing volunteer positions were the first to fill up. That’s the kind of people this event attracted.

I was a listener and a hugger. I would listen to people who had to talk. Not many wanted to, and most just asked questions, but I gave out a lot of hugs.

Many thanked me for giving them a wonderful day. I didn’t. They gave me a wonderful day. One young man said, “Thank you so much. You know, you guys thought of everything. I’m a vegetarian, and you have vegetarian meals. Just because I’m homeless, I don’t want to eat meat.” He wanted a big hug. He got one. I told him he’s not forgotten in his ear, and I got a good squeeze. And we can’t forget him.

Two guy guides were flummoxed by a crying baby while her mamma was getting medical checks, so I stepped in and got to hold a beautiful 23 month old little girl. I guessed she was Latina, so I used Spanish. She didn’t answer, but she calmed down and let me show her the dancers and street performers. We bopped to the music and watched the TV reporters with their camera folks. Her mamma told me yes, she understands Spanish and her name is Melissa. She’s too thin and homeless right now. But she was beautiful and I snuck in some kisses on her temple. She’s a baby like any other.

The reason for the cameras was Justin Baldoni, who’s project of love this really is. He’s one of the great ensemble cast of the CW’s Jane the Virgin, a Peabody award winning, tongue-in-cheek telenovela dramedy with true heart. I am not a television watcher except for BBC stuff and now a full roster of CW shows of which Jane the Virgin is my absolute favorite. I started following most of the cast on twitter because they are some of the most positive, loving and role-modely folks I follow (I needed to make that a parallel sentence. Deal with it). I saw almost all of the ensemble at today’s event, not being “TV stars” but in there working like the rest of the volunteers. Watching the show, I sense the love and respect they have for one another, and seeing that love in action was wonderful.

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Justin thanking us for making the day possible. But he did the heavy lifting. Thank you, Little Brother.

 

I’m not one to hold actors in awe, seeing as my brother has acted, my son is an actor and I spend a lot of time with them what with occasionally directing and being on the board of a NYC theater. I know better than most that actors are people with a cool (and very hard) job, but there are the ones who are a little too invested in ego. Today I saw technically beautiful people, yes, but their goodness made them more beautiful. There were some other CW stars there, as well, supporting and just being people.

They were gracious and did pose for selfies because they realize that it’s their names that draw people, but they were also working hard. I didn’t ask for any selfies. While I love these people, for their hearts and talents, today was not for that for me. I think my age helps. If I were 20 and still had those youthful good looks, it might be a different story.

Justin’s wife, Emily, also an actor, is his true partner and was there working hard, but smiling and gracious even as she flew about the place. She’s Swedish, so my son and I chatted with her a few minutes in Swedish early in the day before the guests arrived. I make judgements about people quickly based on many things. She’s genuine in her love and her love of service. She thanked us and gave us real hugs. She’s good people.

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It was hard to get a good picture of Emily during the speeches. This isn’t very good, but she’s a typical Swedish beauty.

The Baldonis are Baha’i and they live their faith openly by showing faith in action. That is what I try very hard to do in my life, and while not a Baha’i, I also believe that all are my brothers and sisters. Little Brother and Little Sister are a joy to watch. But this was not a religious event. A Christian mission lent its parking lot for the “restaurant,” a church overlooked us physically, some volunteers wore overtly Christian shirts to identify why they were there, I saw a number of Muslim women judging by the hijabs, so I assume Muslim men, as well, and some folks there are just good people without a faith motivation.

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While I no longer identify as Christian (I’m a Believer), I found this symbolic.

CBS Cares and CW Cares sent a number of folks, and Justin’s own production company, Wayfarer, formed a foundation to support charitable events. This was huge and as someone who has “done” events, this represented hours and hours of hard grunt work.

While I loved interacting with the guests (sort of an extension of my day job), probably the proudest moment for me was as a mom, seeing my son interact with the folks he was escorting. He didn’t know I was watching and to see him smiling, polite, and waiting on the men he was helping brought tears to my eyes. I tried to raise a good person, and I did. He was born that way, but I encouraged it. Parenting is hard, so please excuse my moment of motherly pride.

Justin explained that he wanted a carnival because it’s fun. Seeing people who live in a tent city or sleep on cardboard boxes dropping their cares for four hours, playing some games, dancing, laughing, enjoying a street fair where they are welcomed, not hurried off by security, filled my heart to bursting. I needed this day as much as they needed it, I think.

Walking toward the site around 8 that morning, my son and I passed many people sleeping on the street. Then we saw the tent city and my heart broke. How can I live in one of the richest countries in the world, be in one of the richest cities in the country, and see this level of poverty?

I actually asked, out loud, “What kind of country am I living in?”

I know much of the answer, of course. Many mental health facilities were closed in the 80s, so mentally ill folks were often left unmedicated and unhelped. Soon they were on the streets. That trend hasn’t stopped. We have a safety net in this country, but there are folks who thought they were okay, but lost so much in the financial crash of ’07 that they are forced out. Some have temporary setbacks like domestic violence or job loss. Others were thrown away by their families because of teen pregnancy, being gay, being transgendered or some other perceived trespass.

Many have addictions and aren’t ready to stop them yet. When drugs or alcohol take over your life, homelessness can often follow. We know scientifically that addiction is an illness, but many still moralize about it and think addicts “deserve” what they get. I am the last to romanticize addiction, having seen it up close and personal, hating every moment of it. Addicts can be really terrible people who do horrible things. But they are still humans who deserve our help if at all possible.

I did have sort of an ulterior motive for going. I would like to bring this idea back to my community. If all the thrift stores in town and their organizations pull together, bring in the Lions, the Rotary, the local hospital center and so on, we could so do this. Justin said he wants to see this idea spread. We need this in America, so while I post this not to show off about how “good” I am (I am so not good) or how wonderful the Baldonis are (they are), I do post it to encourage folks to help.

A carnival is a huge undertaking. Most of us don’t live in communities that have famous names to draw attention. But we can organize clothing drives, offer a hot meal once a week or once a month, be kind to folk. Smile at a homeless person instead of rushing past. I’ve seen folks drop a dollar in a cup without even acknowledging the person asking. Smile. Say hello. Yes, some are mentally ill. But most will respond, many with gratitude for being seen. We strip the homeless of their humanity in this country. We strip the poor, as well. But they truly are our brothers and sisters.

Here are some images–there aren’t many because I was busy doing not photographing, but some street performers, a little boy dancing at the Dance Par-tay, a little boy sitting on Justin’s shoulders during a live musical performance by Justin’s friend, Andy Grammer, finally, Tyrone and Justin. Tyrone is a resident who has danced up a storm for the past three years. I saw him dancing from 12 noon till it ended at 4. The man is a dance machine!

Thank you, Justin and Emily and Wayfarer for this wonderful opportunity to serve.

July 23, 2013

Babies are Signs of Love I Thought

Yesterday, a baby was born. A little boy who seems destined to take a role in the world, one he didn’t ask for, but that’s the point of destiny.  His birth became an event, and it was celebrated around the world.  He is not the savior of the world, but people need something happy to latch on to, so they latched on to his arrival.

Like all babies, he’s a sign of love and hope, but you wouldn’t always know that reading press reports.

The press has been waiting outside the hospital where he arrived for the past two weeks, just waiting for his mother to go into labor. When she arrived early Monday morning, a feeding frenzy started. I was amused. A first baby? Nothing is going to happen for a while.  The parents, knowing that this child of theirs would also belong to the world on many levels, waited four hours to announce his birth. They had four precious hours when their boy was theirs and theirs alone.

Yesterday somewhere around 370,000 other babies were also born. Each one’s life just as precious as the one born in St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.  But these little ones are not carrying the baggage of a 1000 year old monarchy on their little heads.

Too many of yesterday’s babies will die in the first years. Others will live a life of grinding poverty, be exiled from their homelands, be terrorized by war. Still others will grow up happy and comfortable, educated, pampered and secure.  Most are loved, though some are unwanted.

But each of these babies is a blessing–a sign that the world is still going to continue and should still continue.

I am happy to share in the birth of a baby–any baby, really. Parents sharing their joy with us makes the world a better place. Some of those parents are people I know, yet others are in a public position.

Unless there is a radical change to the structure of British government, that one baby boy in London will someday become king. As an American, I don’t really “get” monarchy, but as a scholar of English literature, I surely do “get” how important his ancestors have been. And he may very well take his place in a long line. His job will be ceremonial, but for many people he’s a symbol of something they love and hold dear.

But for many other people, he’s a symbol of all that’s wrong with the world. Once again, at what is a happy event, I see vitriol being poured out, aimed at a little tiny baby too young to have done much of anything yet but eat, sleep, cry and poop.  And again, I don’t really understand vitriol.

I’m amazed at how many people waste precious energy hating, hating with a passion.  Yes, we all do actually know that there are babies being born every day who will live lives of unutterable misery. Yes, we need to remember that and work to change to world every day.

Many of my fellow Americans are mad for British royalty, but most of the people I know don’t seem to care all that much. That’s fine. Ignore, but hate? I don’t get it. Anger? Why be angry at other people’s joy?  Some people just confuse me.

Personally, I’d like to welcome him to earth, him and all the little ones who joined us yesterday. They are all made of stardust, and deserve love and magic.

I wish the new little one health, happiness and love. Many blessings on the new little prince and on his parents. New parenthood is tough, and I do not envy their visibility.

And I wish the same to all of yesterday’s children. Many blessings on all the babies born.

And may we all be blessed with the wisdom to find ways to make all babies’ lives better

June 8, 2013

Grattis Madeleine och Chris

It’s a big day in Sweden today. Princess Madeleine, King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia’s youngest child, married her Anglo-American fiance Chris O’Neil.  Who doesn’t love a pretty wedding? And as a former Swedish resident, I was curious.

When I was learning Swedish I read the two national tabloids most days to work on my vocabulary. We owned a shop which sold them, so it was easy enough to do.  And the one thing that gets covered ad nauseum in the tabloids is the royal family, so I’m surprisingly familiar with them. That adds to my curiosity, of course. I’ve watched this woman in the media for over 10 years. She’s familiar.

But I was curious for another reason. Princess Madeleine has been living in New York City for the past three years, and I actually came face to face with her early one morning on a coffee run. A narrow door: she was coming out, I was going in, so we were inches apart. I recognized her face, thought she was a former student, but then realized, no, that’s the princess. Five years in Sweden, never see a royal. Here in NYC? Come face to face with one. No words were spoken, just the usual polite smiles exchanged as one person steps aside for the other. Besides, I’m far too much of a New Yorker to react to a famous face, and she was just another New Yorker during the early morning rush.

But having seen the woman in the flesh, I was curious about her wedding.  Three years ago, her sister, Crown Princess Victoria, got married. I was curious then, as well, so I checked out the Swedish websites that day and was truly happy for her.  And homesick for Sweden.

Leading up to today, I was feeling much less nostalgic for Sweden, but of course, the first thing I did this morning was to log on to the website of Sweden’s biggest tabloid, Aftonbladet, to check out the pictures.

I loved it. The Swedish princesses are very pretty women with excellent taste in clothing. The bride’s Valentino dress was stunning and the bride looked like, well, a princess from a storybook. Everything about the wedding was lovely. The flowers, the children singing in the church, the reading by the Crown Princess. And I was struck at how much seeing Stockholm in all its summer beauty made me homesick.

There are videos on the site, of course, and the one that made me go all soft and gooey was the short one of Madeleine going up the aisle on her father’s arm. The shots of Chris O’Neil showed him visibly moved, unsuccessfully holding back tears. Yesterday I didn’t know the guy from Adam. Today, I think he’s a sweetie.

For all the royal pomp and circumstance, the overwhelming feeling I got from the pictures was love and warmth. The bridal pair is obviously besotted. Watching the royal family interact one can see the strong family love and connection. Victoria’s daughter, the littlest princess, Estelle, is 15 months old, but even she was at the wedding interacting with her mother, father and grandmother.

Seeing such obvious joy on the faces of Madeleine and Chris and their families just felt good. Watching something lovely set in the magnificent royal chapel and then later on the streets of Stockholm on a glorious summer day was a welcome respite from the “real world”. It was a moment away from school shootings, illegal wiretaps, financial meltdown and all the harsh realities we usually see in the news.

I feel the same way about all the weddings I attend, but this summer I don’t have any lined up, so I have to look to Sweden. I know there are American celebrity weddings, but I don’t recognize most of the people involved. And those weddings are not semi-state occasions, put on, in part, for public consumption. If celebrities get married and want privacy, they should have it. If they don’t, well, then I’ll look at their pictures, too.

We all need joy and happiness, reasons to celebrate and a reminder that love is something real that should be celebrated.  Part of me feels silly, uncool, and somewhat old fashioned for watching a royal wedding, but after all, I am a child of my times. Back when I was a little girl, fairy tale weddings were something to dream about. So for the most part it made me feel good to watch, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling good.

Madeleine och Chris: Grattis på ditt äktenskap. Må Gud välsigna er med ett långt och lyckligt liv tillsammans.

And Chris? Good luck learning Swedish!

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