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Divine Laughter: Robin Williams’ Reverence

As published on The Huffington Post Aug. 25, 2014

It’s been a sad, gray time here in Marin County — and the world, as the news of Robin Williams’ death sinks in. Everyone seems surprised by it. How could the man who made us laugh so hard end his own life?

Doesn’t make sense, we keep saying, but in the most twisted way, it does.

Depression is the most determined of demons, and somehow, I bet Robin Williams would have found a way to make that funny. Not ha-ha funny, but he’d let us see the cruel conundrum that many of us secretly experience or witness firsthand — and as a result, help us release our quiet shame, guilt and anguish through a burst of laughter.

No one’s laughing about Robin’s suicide, that’s for sure. We’re shocked, struck by the loss not just of his life, but also at the loss of so many lives to severe depression.

Those who have condemned his suicide as a cowardly act don’t quite understand the complexity of the illness that depression is. I’ve lost two classmates to suicide, one a talented novelist. Exactly one year ago, a dear friend’s daughter, at the age of 17, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. She had just started high school. She was loved by many for her sweet disposition and bright spirit. She wanted to be a doctor.

Turns out, a lot of people suffer from severe depression, more than most of us are willing to admit. A former childhood neighbor of Robin Williams, the beloved writer Anne Lammot, shared a bit about her own battle with depression in a recent blog.

“Here is what is true: A third of the people you adore and admire in the world and in your families have severe mental illness and/or addiction. I sure do. I have both. And you still love me. You help hold me up. I try to help hold you up. Half of the people I love most have both; and so do most of the artists who have changed and redeemed me, given me life. Most of us are still here, healing slowly and imperfectly. Some days are way too long. And I hate that, I want to say.”

How many other exceptionally creative people like Anne Lammot wage a war dance with depression from time to time? It takes a very porous disposition to absorb the world and reflect it with honesty, the way writers, actors, artists, musicians and anyone else who helps us understand the human condition and make sense of life.

It also makes sense then, when depression takes over the artist’s mind. Seems like a very natural part of the job worth mentioning. Unfortunately, we rarely do.

The fulcrum from which the most successful comedians draw their best material is often from the pain they have endured or witnessed in the world. Comedians are the purveyors of shadow and light, and they make it safe to recognize the darker, more embarrassing and downright humiliating aspects of ourselves. Robin Williams’ greatest talent was that he made it safe for the rest of us to be real — and flawed.

That’s why we love great comedians. No one wants to fight a person who can get them to laugh. Laughter is not entertainment at first. It’s a survival skill — for love.

I once took a weekend comedy writing workshop at UCLA. I was excited. I’m not funny at all but I wanted to learn how to tell a joke and infuse my writing with a bit more humor. Drama, they say, is the easiest to write. The greatest learning? Comedy is not about jokes at all. It’s about lying, scheming, reversals, surprises. I had no idea.

If the comedian is focused on shadows and has the courage to look at aspects of ourselves that most people are too afraid or embarrassed to do, doesn’t it make sense that in the worst situations, suicide appears to be a release from the pain?

Is it also possible the circuitry somehow gets overblown in artists as brilliant and electric as Robin Williams? Anyone who had the privilege of hearing him perform live, knows the energy in the room. It’s as close to sticking your finger in a socket.

Occasionally, Robin did surprise appearances at the Throckmorton, a local theater here in Mill Valley, where comedian Mark Pitta puts on a show every Tuesday night. After six comedians, Mark walked out and introduced Robin Williams one Tuesday in December 2009. I was floored to see him live and burst into applause with the rest of the audience. Robin’s holiday gift to the locals — way better than seeing Santa.

That night, he gifted us 90 minutes of laughter while he practiced some material about the disastrous Cosco Busan, a 901-foot-long cargo ship, that hit the Bay Bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the bay a few weeks prior. Not that destroying 69 miles of shoreline or killing thousands of birds was funny. Robin went another direction. He poked fun of the captain of the ship. We died laughing.

Then he went on to other things, like an acrobat on stage, his mind blazing, his blue eyes gleaming with that gentle smile that put everyone who knew him at ease. He was a generous man with a big heart. He was a neighbor, a normal guy we saw at the store, a fellow cyclist and parent. He was happy. Sad. Excited. Depressed. Just like all of us. Yet unlike anyone else, he was a masterful magician of shadows — playing with his own and ours like puppets and making us laugh at our foibles and flaws.

We died laughing in his presence. He helped old energies — the dark junk, to die in us every time he made us laugh. He cleared us out for some new delight. More than a comedian and talented actor, Robin Williams was almost mystical in his understanding of the energy of laughter. He understood its divinity — its power to connect, to release, to renew. The tragedy here is ironic in a way that Robin Williams probably (and privately) acknowledged, even without any other perceived options to end his own pain. He was our healer who could not find a way to heal himself.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Spiritual Divorce: Taking a Page from Rumi and Shams

Published on Huffington Post, Aug. 5, 2014

The debate about “conscious uncoupling” — divorce without guilt, shame or finger-pointing intrigues me. Surprisingly, it’s not a modern trend, but an approach that even the great Sufi poet Mevlana Rumi had adopted to deal with the separation from his beloved muse, Shams of Tabriz.

My folks have been married for 51 years, and there’s not a single divorce on either side of their lineage. So when I recently broke that perfect family record, you better believe I felt guilty, ashamed and utterly depressed. It was like I took a chainsaw to the family tree and lopped off the top of the ancient sequoia. I never thought I would be a divorced mother, and I felt like a complete failure, even though I had indeed “consciously uncoupled.” What would Rumi say?

I married well into adulthood at 36, putting me nine years past the national average of 27 for women (and 29 for men) in the United States, according to the 2013 Knot Yet report. My partner was almost 49. From the outset, we were aware that no marriage was a fairytale. We weren’t kids. We’d both held out for “the one” and believed we’d found it in each other. I’d gone to countless retreats and workshops, and devoured books on the subject of marriage and relationships. I knew from my own childhood that marriage had its ups and downs, but that you stuck it out; you evolved.

Though my partner had come from a family complicated by divorce many times over, he too understood what marriage involved. Like me, he wanted a partnership that would last until the end of our lives. We were what Rumi and Shams might call “a very conscious couple.”

In the spring of 2008, we said our heart-crafted vows to each other in front of 150 of our closest friends and family. It was one of the most powerful and beautiful moments of my life. I’m a writer; and I value keeping my word with others. That day we promised to honor the truth in the other and support it, including the foreseeable changes of following our path.

We both knew that marriage required work and commitment as much as compassion, kindness and humility; however, we weren’t exactly abiding by that. A close friend who was aware of our troubles told me, “Love is like a river, but sometimes it goes underground for a while and resurfaces.” If felt like our love had been sucked into a tornado. The dynamic between us wasn’t working — in fact, it was killing our spirits. My friend assured me, like so many of my married and remarried friends, that all marriages had issues. I heard a lot of secrets. I knew we weren’t alone.

We’d address our problems like any sane and sober couple. Neither one of us wanted a divorce. Who does?

When our marriage started to unravel further, we tried everything we could to salvage it, including years of therapy, couples workshops and a six-month separation to unplug from a toxic dynamic and start fresh. I was so hopeful that we’d reunite that I made reservations for our fifth anniversary at a quaint farm house inn in Olema where we spent our first Christmas. I imagined us triumphant, looking back at our separation as the smartest action we’d ever taken to save “us.”

But four weeks into our separation, my partner confirmed that salvaging the marriage was not an option. I had to face the harsh reality that we were actually headed for a divorce. In heated arguments, I had thrown down the D-word more than once, and now it had come back to haunt me. I was deeply ashamed that it had come to this painful truth: Our daughter, who was just shy of her third birthday, would grow up in two separate homes.

I fell apart. I was brought to my knees, and even thought about ending my life in some dark moments. The mind does a wild dance when its terrified. I had lost my marriage, and any hope that my young daughter would have the idyllic childhood that we both had envisioned for her.

Was all of this some dark cosmic joke? In 1273, Shams told Rumi, “I am not in the position to order you to go on a journey, so it is I who will be obliged to go away for the sake of your development, for separation makes a person wise.” I wanted to believe that was true, that there was some redemption in all of this. Would the darkness offer some kind of forced growth?

My daughter was well aware of my strife. A child of few but insightful words, she asked, “Mama, why are you crying?” And later, out of the blue, “It’s hard having two homes and one life.”

Recently, driving back from a friend’s house, she said, “Can papa move back into the garden house so that you can make us pancakes for breakfast?” I burst into tears and pulled over because I couldn’t see to drive on a six lane freeway. The pain comes and goes but always hits like a tsunami — and yet, day by day, I know that this is my truth as much as her father’s.

Did our divorce blow up the perfect picture of my life? Absolutely. Have I been able to navigate this consciously with my ex-husband? Surprisingly, yes. Here’s how we “consciously uncoupled.” Our number one priority was our daughter, not money or material or custody. We could give a rat’s tail who got the Le Crusset Dutch oven. We already agreed about dividing things equally. We went Dutch on the first date — some things just predict the future.

Our focus was our daughter. We never wanted her to have to choose between us. We wanted her to know that she was the best outcome of our marriage, and that we cherished our bond (and still do) because it permitted us to bring her into the world. Our daughter sees each of us almost every other day. We’re making it work. There’s no formula for love.

We spend birthdays and holidays together. We speak highly of each other in her presence and yet we all know there is no turning back. We are not going to remarry each other. We want her to know that we will always love each other, and despite our fractured frame, we are still a family — and a loving one capable of joy.

Should my ex-husband and I, and the many other parents who choose to consciously end their marriages, feel like they’ve failed? It’s too early to know. We have young children. I wager this is a much different and more difficult situation with older kids. The question is can we still raise mature, loving, responsible adults despite divorce? Will our children feel deeply loved? In the end, isn’t this the test that matters most and from which we’ll know we succeeded?

Laugh loudly, ladies! Let them hear your joy in Turkey

Author Holly Lynn Payne smiling and laughing loudly this summer with her Turkish sisters around the world.

Author Holly Lynn Payne smiling and laughing loudly this summer with her Turkish sisters around the world.

After hearing the uproar this week about Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister condemning women from laughing loudly in public, my response was shared by thousands of women across the world. I laughed out loud and then I cringed. I could hardly believe the report from the BBC on National Public Radio.

Just one hour before, I was working with a female colleague from Istanbul on a Skype call. “Did you hear about what’s happening today?” She was on deadlines for her clients in the States and had not yet been informed. “Just make sure you go out and laugh in the streets.” When I told her why and she, too, burst into laughter. “That’s absurd,” she said.

Yes. Completely. Twitter went nuts with responses and soon thousands of Turkish women, and other women showing solidarity, posted selfies of themselves laughing. According to Reuters news agency, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, urged women not to laugh in public to “protect moral values.”

So what moral values is Mr. Arinc protecting by condemning women for laughing (loudly or otherwise) in public? Even the Turks most beloved Rumi would cringe, especially during this month of Ramadan. Apparently, Arinc meant to address both men and women and encourage them to adopt ‘ethical behaviors.’

It only got worse when Arinc, a co-founder of the very conservative AK party, responded to the outrage. “The woman should have chastity. … She should not laugh in front of everyone and not be inviting in her behavior. She should protect her honor,” he said, inadvertently infusing the context with more absurdity.

My confusion only deepens here. What does Arinc mean by ethical behaviors or inviting in behavior? I would love to hear ESPN’s Michelle Beadle’s response to this, especially the notion of ‘inviting in behavior.’ Is Arinc still one of those men who actually think a woman’s power is evil? That her choice to wear a short skirt in public, or express herself in whatever way she wants, is a reason to silence her?

One comment from a man like Arinc makes me feel like we’ve slipped back a few millennia, and have forgotten that no one has the right to threaten anyone’s birth rights. I’m always curious if the God that the Turkish deputy prime minister celebrates during Ramadan has an account on Facebook and Twitter. At the end of a women’s life, will this ‘God’ show her how many time she’s laughed in public, let alone flashed her pearly whites? I’m hoping when my daughter is old enough to understand what happened July 30, 2014, she will take a selfie in solidarity and remind herself that laughter is not only her right, but one of her powers.

It’s a bit sad and banal. Men like Arinc are clearly still living in an age of fear, terrified of women who express themselves freely and completely. I may not be a Muslim or celebrate Ramadan, but from what I know and have studied, it is a time of reflection, of cleansing one’s heart of impurities—malice, for one (take note Mr. Arinc) and all the ways that we deny ourselves and others love. It’s about finding ways to be charitable to those less fortunate, and on the 29th and last day, a way to express gratitude for all the ways God has provided for us, including the infinite ways of self-expression we are given at birth.

I’m not worried about the women in Turkey. I am grateful to see your strength and your gorgeous smiles. Keep Tweeting the selfies. The vibration within those self-portraits speaks volumes for how you refuse to be subjugated or diminished because of your God-given rights. Show them your teeth, my sisters, and keep laughing. Laugh so hard that it will bring tears of joy to your adversaries—the sad, small and fearful men, who still don’t get it.

When women show their smiles and laugh, the world lights up—and maybe that’s all Mr. Arinc needs?

I leave the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister with a thought to ponder while he sips his coffee and stews over the outpouring of criticism. After all, your most beloved poet, Rumi, would be turning over in his grave in Konya. Rumi was well aware of the power of laughter: “That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full blown beauty, He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful.” It’s not too late, Mr. Arinc. You still have a chance to laugh, too, and bring the world more joy. I dare you to try.