Sunday, January 1, 2017

What Carrie Fisher Taught me About Kindness and Authenticity

I have been fortunate in my life to have had experiences and opportunities that are rare and unique. To have landed in some enviable situations, not because I had a plan to be there or even the imagination to consider it a possibility but more because I had an open call out to the universe. A call to show me things I was certain I missed having grown up in rural Minnesota. To be certain, one of the finest examples of these moments of dumb luck, is meeting Carrie Fisher.
I had just moved to Los Angeles and contacted a local nanny agency looking for a position for the summer, before signing up for classes in the fall. I had experience teaching preschool and had been babysitting everyone in the neighborhood since I was about 12 years old. I had heard that nannies from the midwest were highly sought after so it seemed like the most logical job to try and land. The first interview I was sent on was in Beverly Hills and I was hired on the spot. I was plopped in the midst of A list celebrities and Hollywood producers literally overnight and meeting new ones on almost a daily basis. While this was initially exciting, it quickly became clear that this was not a world I was familiar with or could easily conform to. The starlet I worked for had a habit of instructing me to “get the baby ready” and get in the car without notice or any indication of where we were going. Sometimes it was to buy shoes for “the baby” on Rodeo drive 10 pairs at a time in different sizes, sometimes we traveled to Malibu for a barbecue where television icons from my childhood were gathered about discussing their latest film or television project. There were moments that seemed surreal and I tried to blend in or disappear as best I could but I usually felt very uncomfortable. Never particularly starstruck, just awkward. Then one day we went to Carrie Fisher’s house.
I remember the first time we drove up Cold Water Canyon and turned to climb up the twisty hill that lead to her estate. Colorful Holiday lawn ornaments with phrases from “Twas the Night Before Christmas” lined the drive on that summer morning. I couldn’t imagine who lived there as everything about the place was so different from the impeccably manicured, gated nirvana where I then resided and searched daily for glimpses of something familiar or conventional. We parked the car and walked up to the door where we were greeted by a demure woman who invited us in. I began inconspicuously scanning the room for clues such as framed family photos, movie posters, awards with name plates or gigantic self portraits but I wasn’t seeing any of the typical items I came to depend on to orient me or prepare me for what to expect. A portrait of Teddy Roosevelt hung over the mantle. There were stuffed animals, the real kind and everything was bright, interesting and begging to be explored. There were stacks of books by the door, not assorted books but multiple copies of the same book wearing a brightly colored jacket. Suddenly, she appeared, fresh out of the shower wearing a robe, her hair still wet. She extended her hand as we were introduced and apologized for making us wait. She asked if we were hungry and offered pancakes as she escorted us to a back patio that ran the length of the house. I was first struck by how tiny she was (I am 5'9") and the fact that she would host any gathering of Hollywood moms in that non-coiffed state, immediately put me at ease. This was behavior I understood, the glimpse of bare humanity that I had been looking for to ease the gnawing feeling, I had slipped down the rabbit hole. 
We made the trip weekly to Carrie Fisher’s house that summer for playgroups that she hosted. It was a respite in a routine that was fraught with a constant barrage of chefs being fired, measuring bath water temperature to the precise degree and impromptu requests to dress up “the baby” and parade her in front of dinner party guests at any hour of the day or night. In stark contrast, Carrie Fisher sat on the floor next to me, her chin perched on her knees and asked my opinion on things like music lessons and optimal toddler nutrition. She asked about how my mom did things and if I went to church as a child. She talked openly about normal things like her mother judging her choice in cribs or her father’s most recent visit and while, yes, there was a life size Princess Leia cut out in her court yard, she never treated anyone like they were invisible or any less important than she was. I can’t express how rare that was there or any place. There was an ease in the way she interacted with her daughter that was consistent to what I knew growing up but that I hadn’t witnessed in awhile. The world didn’t end if there was a scrape or scuffle and she beamed as she watched Billie play, oblivious to the frivolous gossip being strewn about by the other Hollywood moms. Of all the people I met in Hollywood, she had the pedigree to be the most pretentious and dismissive but she was exactly the opposite. She seemed curious about how things were done outside of what she knew directly and didn’t assume a life of privilege meant she had all the answers. She was real, flawed and didn’t seem to have the slightest interest in wasting energy on a facade of anything to the contrary. I looked forward to this weekly escape as it was a kind of life line to something normal and good that I saw as sorely lacking in most everything else I encountered. I imagine that’s what many others loved about her too, the realness and vulnerability. 
The stacks of books, I would learn, were copies of “Surrender the Pink.” She signed one for me and I have it to this day. She will live on as an icon, celebrated author, crusader and much more to those who were closest to her. To me, she was consistently kind when I was trying to feel okay in what seemed like a foreign land. This may seem a small accomplishment in comparison to all she is rightfully celebrated for but it meant the world to me at the time. She was a class act and she will be missed.

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