Growing up in the public eye back then was certainly not what it is now -- with long-lensed paparazzi stalking celebrity's every move.
Recently, I was parking my car in the Los Angeles Design District, when a photographer stepped in front of me and almost got hit by oncoming traffic in order to take a picture of. . .wait for it. . .Jamie Lee Curtis walking along the sidewalk. I grew up with Jamie Lee Curtis. She was one of many celebrity kids in our circle with whom we all went to school, or cotillion, or camp. Certainly she has grown into a very successful, attractive and talented woman. But she is hardly on the cutting edge of the news. Nor was she doing anything at all photoworthy -- like making out with an 18-year-old pop icon or even wearing something outrageously hideous. She was just minding her own business walking down the street. But I saw her glance at the photographer out of the corner of her eye, and continue on as if she hadn't seen him at all. Because, of course, she has been dealing with this her whole life. As the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, she grew up in the public eye.
Back then it was more subtle -- which was both good and bad. The studios had much more control and the lenses were not quite so long. People, I like to think, had more decorum -- but perhaps that is just my nostalgia for a more polite time. In any case, my dad and I could play catch in the driveway without being photographed. Elvis Presley could toss football around in peace with his friends in the park down the street. And our neighbors Marilyn Monroe and Rock Hudson could come and go from their houses with a minimum of fuss. (Although, when Marilyn Monroe lived across the street from us, my mother told me that all the men living in the house -- my father, my brother, my Uncle Hank, and our houseman Harry -- suddenly all wanted to "check the mailbox" numerous times a day!) Certainly Ms. Monroe lived. . .and died. . .in the public eye.
But just because we weren't stalked by photographers didn't mean my friends and I weren't in the public eye. We were seen, looked at, captured in memory, and photographed all the time. My dad -- at 6'4" and with one of the most recognizable voices in the world -- hardly blended in. From an early age, I developed an almost preternatural ability to feel the eyes on us and hear people's sotto voce commentaries -- like a wary insect with celebrity antennae. I knew when I was being watched, which was often. I just learned to pretend that it wasn't happening.
The net effect has been a curious one in my life. I grew up both needing to be seen in order to feel like I had succeeded, as well as wanting to cocoon and hide from anything that made me feel unworthy. Over the course of the past week, I have been thinking about this a lot. . .
My New Years Day began with very sad news -- the death of the older sister of my two oldest friends. I found out about it on Facebook, where we get so much of our celebrity news. The outpouring of grief was immense for 65-year-old Natalie Cole. I immediately emailed my dear friends, Casey and Timolin, Natalie's twin sisters, to send prayers, love, and support. But an hour later, as the outpouring of grief continued on Facebook, I found myself wondering if I should post something. My mother's voice in my head said no -- this is a family matter. But the reality is that Natalie was a public person -- and she was being publicly mourned. Eventually I did, and the sympathy and loving thoughts that extended out to Casey and Timolin were beautiful.
I began to notice a pattern among the posts. Many of my friends had grown up in the same neighborhood as Casey and Timolin -- Hancock Park, which, at the time, was a very non-racially-integrated neighborhood. Which is to say pretty much all white. So their neighbors were of course aware that one of the most famous African-American men on the planet, Nat King Cole, and his family lived there. Nat King Cole was the Jackie Robinson of music. He broke so many color barriers and paved the way for so many of the talented African-American musicians who have followed in his path. Like Jackie Robinson, he faced terrible racism with dignity and grace. But the toll it took was great -- and he died a young man. To me it is no surprise that it was lung cancer that took him: So many people tried to silence his gorgeous voice.
My friends who had grown up in Hancock Park all posted about having "seen" the Cole kids in their neighborhood, and how Natalie's death had triggered both their memories and their sympathy for the family. One was particularly sweet. My friend Carol Rosenthal posted: "When I was a little girl my grandparents lived in Hancock Park. One profound memory that has stuck with me all these years was seeing a young girl on her front lawn across the street, twirling around and around in a beautiful pink dress. I always assumed that girl was a princess because her father had the word "King" in his name. Her father was Nat King Cole, and that young girl was Natalie. Lucky to have this memory."
Over the course of the next week, as I reached out to Casey and Timolin, I watched them handle the media's questions about their sister's death with the immense grace and dignity with which they have always handled the difficult situations in their life.
Casey, Timolin and I have been friends since we were three. I adored them, and thought they were the coolest girls in our whole class. They were certainly cooler than me -- funnier, hipper, more on the cutting edge of everything. When they pointed out a song on the radio, I paid attention; when they said a boy was cute, I looked. They understood fashion, they hung out with the cool older kids, they were smart and popular.
Casey was my best friend, and I was hers. We got into trouble for talking and passing notes more times than I can count, had to have special after-school tutoring for the long division that baffled us for years, and essentially laughed our way through elementary school.
Our families were very close, particularly our mothers. Certainly that was one of our bonds. We had the strictest mothers at the school. Proper, tough disciplinarians who brooked no lip, no talkback, no shit. Maria Cole and my mother admired and genuinely liked one another, and they stayed friends until my mother died. They recognized themselves in one another, and believed that whatever it took to instill their values in their daughters was worth it.
After sixth grade, the Coles moved to Massachusetts and my mother and I moved to the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley after my parents' divorce. But I still saw Case and Timmy every summer, especially after Maria rented one of my mom's houses as their California pied a terre, which was, happily for me, right next door. When that time ended, I spent a summer in Massachusetts, and then we all attended colleges back East -- Casey at Brown, Timolin at Amherst, while I attended Amherst's great rival, Williams. So we even saw one another at football games. Timolin and I both ended up in grad school in Texas, and Casey and I eventually wound up living in Los Angeles.
Their mother and I had our own close relationship. When my own mother was too scared to be in the car with me while I was learning to drive, it was Mrs. Cole who let me practice in her car, with her as my exacting teacher. Mrs. Cole and I also shared a particular bond -- our love of baseball. Nat King Cole loved baseball so much that he was given his choice of any box seat during the construction of Dodger Stadium. Mrs. Cole kept those front-row seats, and was an avid fan herself -- as was my mother. Because none of her own kids shared the passion, I was often invited to be her guest at Dodger games. What fun we had!
Together Casey, Timolin and I have mourned many deaths -- our parents, Casey's first husband, and three of their siblings -- Kelly, the twins' older brother, with whom I was particularly close both as kids and as adults; Carol (Cookie), and now Natalie (Sweetie). What began as an elementary school friendship has gone on for our whole loves. It continues to be an immeasurable gift.
Natalie, whom the family called Sweetie, was twelve years older than we were, and was away at boarding school back East when we were in grade school. She knew me as her younger sisters' friend, but she was always lovely to me. . .even when we were acting like annoying kids. My favorite memory of Sweetie is of watching the Winter Olympics with her in her Las Vegas dressing room after one of her concerts. It was the late 1980s, and the world was transfixed by the finals of the women's figuring skating championships which pitted East Germany's Katarina Witt vs the US champion Debi Thomas. We were rooting for Debi -- hunched around a tiny TV counting triple toe loops and double axels. After an exhausting concert, Sweetie must have wanted to go unwind in her room, but we just couldn't tear ourselves away from them competition.
As I have watched Casey and Timmy speak about Sweetie's struggles, her illness, her life, her music, I have been thinking a lot about the values with which we were raised and the ways in which we were "trained" from a very young age to carry on our parents' legacies. Casey and Timolin have done that in the most beautiful of ways, running a non-profit called Nat King Cole Generation Hope, whose mission is to bring music education to children with the greatest need and the fewest resources. What an incredible way to continue their family legacy!!
Our mothers raised their daughters to be strong, intelligent, creative women. Since Casey, Timolin and I are 5'11", no one imagined that we would be shrinking violets. But we were also raised to be humble and to give back, and always always to be represent our families well. As children of famous parents, we were raised in the public eye -- and that has been both a blessing and a curse. From an early age, I think the three of us saw the pitfalls of a celebrity life, and we knew that it would be the task of our lifetimes to negotiate our ways through that peculiar minefield.
I remember one time the three of us were driving from Massachusetts to Vermont, and the radio in their car was broken. It was a long drive, so they started to sing. I sat in the back seat totally awed by their voices. As the children of two extraordinary singers, of course they could sing, but as twins, their harmony was stunningly beautiful. I asked them if they had thought about going into "the business". As one person, they both turned around and looked at me with an expression that said it all. More or less, Are you kidding? You would have be nuts to go into the world.
But Natalie made a different choice. And some might say that she paid the price. For years my brother kept a file folder filled with the newspaper obituaries of all the children of famous people who had died young. It was an alarmingly high number. He saw it as a cautionary tale -- a reminder to live a life by his own values and not the values of fame, in which he had grown up. But Natalie had the courage and grace to face her demons openly and honestly, and then to help others face theirs by sharing her difficult life journey. It was that candor and her spiritual growth, as much as her beautiful music, that people will always remember. For she, of course, understood that, when you live in the public eye you can use your fame to help others. She did that as well as anyone I know.
So, you might be thinking, what does this have to do with joy?
Many years ago I read a definition of alienation that stopped me in my tracks. The author wrote, Alienation occurs when a person is no longer able to distinguish between their internal psyche and their public persona. Those words seared themselves off the page and into my soul. Because that is what I had witnessed so often growing up. Even my own father sometimes didn't know where Vincent Price the public figure ended and he began. Reading that sentence made me think: If our society's role models are people who are alienated from their true selves, then we are evolving into an totally alienated society -- one in which our personae feel more real than the selves we only reveal to our inner circle. And with the advent of social media, boy has that ever come true!
Social media is celebrity mutated into a mass phenomenon. Our selfies and posts and commentaries create the means for us all to feel seen -- and for many people, that becomes more important and more real than their daily lives. Now everyone, more or less, is growing up in the public eye.
After Natalie's passing, Casey did a wonderful interview on NPR's Morning Edition about Natalie. Asked about what she hoped people would remember about her sister, Casey said, "To dwell on the joyous moments. The joy she brought to her fans. I think she would want us all to lean on our faith, and to be reminded of her resolve and her stamina. . . A lot of us are extremely blessed and lucky, because we knew we had a glimpse into one of God's unforgettable souls."
It is virtually the same thing I say whenever anyone asks me about my dad. His legacy to me and to the world was his ability to find joy in any situation or circumstance, to share it with others, and to encourage people to find and live theirs. To do that is not just blind luck. It takes a commitment to love yourself, love other people, and love this planet enough to keep showing up in that love and joy in living, and then scattering its seeds in every garden .
Natalie's death and Casey and Timolin's beautiful reflections on their sister's and father's legacies somehow brought it all home for me this past week. Joy is not something that exists in isolation. Nor is it temporal. Whether someone is famous or not, joy is one of the greatest legacies we can leave behind for others, and that we can be left by those we have loved. The joy they brought us, the joy we share together.
We all know that "you can't take it with you" -- all the money, material possessions, the stuff we all seem to find so necessary. But joy. That's a different story. Joy transcends it all. It is the great connector -- not just in the here and now, but for eternity.
As I was writing this blog, someone posted the last words of Steve Jobs on Facebook. They blew me away:
I have come to the pinnacle of success in business.
In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success. However, apart from work, I have little joy. Finally, my wealth is simply a fact to which I am accustomed.
At this time, lying on the hospital bed and remembering all my life, I realize that all the accolades and riches of which I was once so proud, have become insignificant with my imminent death.
In the dark, when I look at green lights, of the equipment for artificial respiration and feel the buzz of their mechanical sounds, I can feel the breath of my approaching death looming over me.
Only now do I understand that once you accumulate enough money for the rest of your life, you have to pursue objectives that are not related to wealth.
It should be something more important: For example, stories of love, art, dreams of my childhood. No, stop pursuing wealth, it can only make a person into a twisted being, just like me.
God has made us one way, we can feel the love in the heart of each of us, and not illusions built by fame or money, like I made in my life, I cannot take them with me. I can only take with me the memories that were strengthened by love.
This is the true wealth that will follow you; will accompany you, he will give strength and light to go ahead.
Love can travel thousands of miles and so life has no limits.
Move to where you want to go. Strive to reach the goals you want to achieve. Everything is in your heart and in your hands.
What is the world's most expensive bed? The hospital bed.
You, if you have money, you can hire someone to drive your car, but you cannot hire someone to take your illness that is killing you. Material things lost can be found. But one thing you can never find when you lose: life.
Whatever stage of life where we are right now, at the end we will have to face the day when the curtain falls. Please treasure your family love, love for your spouse, love for your friends...
Treat everyone well and stay friendly with your neighbors.
WOW! That stopped me in my tracks and sat me down hard.
In creating this Daily Practice of Joy, I have been trying to apply the idea of practice -- the daily application and use of something -- to Joy, which I think of as the pure and simple delight in being alive. Perhaps it seems counterintuitive to apply something so tenable, even concrete, as practice to something that can seem as ephemeral as Joy. I think people think of joy a bit like this week's $900 million Powerball. It's a crap shoot. Who knows why it comes or when. . .or sometimes even if? Let alone whether we "deserve" it. But as the Powerball folks say to keep people coming in for tickets, You can't win if you don't play. And play here is the operative word. As Steve Jobs came to realize, if we don't remember how to play, if all we value is our work as our legacy, we will get to the end of our lives with nothing in the bank accounts of our souls.
If Natalie's death and Steve Jobs' words and my reflections on my own family legacy and creating this Daily Practice of Joy have taught me anything, it is that continuing my commitment to practice and to share my practice of joy is probably the most important thing I could be doing right now. I believe that we were created for joy and for love. That’s it. I don’t believe this because pretty much every wise person and spiritual leader has said this. I believe this because when I am in joy, when I feel and express love, I feel connected to myself. And when I feel connected to myself, I feel connected to other people, to nature, to the planet — to life! And why does that matter? Well, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that our planet is in pretty dire straits. Racial and religious intolerance, escalating global violence, ecological imbalance, hatred, conflict, despair — the media is full of fear fear fear and more fear. And there comes a point where we just can’t hear it any more. Where we hit that place of overload and we feel like we have to shut it down to save ourselves from frying our own circuits. But when we do shut it down, that’s where the real trouble starts. Like denial, apathy is a subtle killer. It kills by getting us not to care. The more we disconnect from ourselves and the people, animals, and world around us, the quicker we hasten our planet’s demise. Joy and love, I have come to believe, are the only true antidotes to apathy. When we choose joy, we begin to wake up. We begin to hope. We begin to help. And we begin to love. And from there, anything is possible. I know. I’ve been proving it every single day.
By choosing joy, and choosing it every day; by committing to unpacking and releasing any life-limiting narratives keeping me from joy; and by sharing that healing with others, I have stepped into the one brave life I have always known was inside me. Growing up in the public eye taught Natalie, Casey, Timolin and me that having a public forum can be a gift -- if we use it to share what we are learning in our journeys, to help others learn along their journeys. This is the ultimate open sourcing, if we come to life in love and joy.
For better or for worse, now that we all conduct so much of our lives in the public eye of social media, we can harness this for good or for ill. As in everything, it comes down to what we choose. When we choose love, when we practice joy, when we connect to one another from those open-hearted places, we begin to create a new legacy -- both for ourselves and our world. That is why I will continue to create this Daily Practice of Joy and sharing it with others. Let us all open source our joy -- and begin to change our joy footprint on this planet for ourselves, for our loved ones as well as for the strangers we have been taught to fear, for the animals and plants, rivers and oceans, and for the generations to come.
Let us all keep learning to choose, share and live joy and love. And This Will Be An Everlasting Love!
And so it is.