Flow State

“I’m sitting there in the bank just crying, just reading through all of the things. Oh, look, she paid for the dogs to go to the vet. Oh, look, she bought this. So many times when we would go out to dinner — and I would pay for dinner — she would pay with what I thought was my card, coming out of my account. No. She was paying for it. And she never said it.”

It had been months since Debra died, and the bank contacted Dr. Heather Richardson, MD, on the very same day her friend Debra’s death certificate arrived.

“We were each other’s living will person, and so I went to the bank.”

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Dr. Richardson is a respected and beloved breast health surgeon at Bedford Breast Center in Beverly Hills, California. One reviewer on Yelp writes that she’s a ‘highly skilled and professional surgeon, who also just happens to be a super cool bad@ss.” Breast cancer patients write about how she saved their lives. Office staff smile about the way Dr. Richardson hums and sings so freely and skillfully.

With a passion for the fine arts and science, Dr. Richardson loves her work.

“I have to think three-dimensionally. I have to think about balance, symmetry, aesthetics. I get to talk to people about their fears and anxieties. And usually I get to make them feel better. And they’re so grateful. To connect with people, to use an analytical mind to solve problems, and then to physically have to do something… the artist in me just loves performing surgery. It’s just really elegant. They talk about the ‘flow state’ when you’re doing something and you kind of get lost. I absolutely get in the flow state when I’m performing surgery.”

About five years prior to that day at the bank, Dr. Richardson had been communicating with her friend Debra who was going through a hard time. Dr. Richardson invited Debra to come to Los Angeles to stay in her spare bedroom.

“She never wanted to be a burden, but there was this heaviness to our conversations. I don’t remember the exact day, I told her point-blank: ‘There’s never going to be a right time. Things are never going to be organized and orderly or tidy enough. At some point, you just have to get on a f*king plane.’ We used that moment, that statement, many times after that to punctuate those action thoughts that need to propel us into the next stage of our lives, as paralyzing as it may be to take action.”

They decided Debra would stay for a month or two, rent-free. She could get her feet on the ground, then go. She wouldn’t have to work or pay for anything. Just take care of home life and enjoy. Two months grew into nearly five years, and a sisterhood.

“She was a very bright girl. She didn’t have an opportunity to really get educated. She is just one of the most giving, caring, conscientious people ever.

“I have to have an education because I had to have an education. I can’t do what I’m doing without having gone through the schooling that I’ve gone through. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that people that are formally educated are better or smarter than other people. I know a lot of people who have learned what they know just from experiences in life lessons, and they’re so much more capable and smart than a lot of people who are more classically educated.

“One of Debra’s favorite mantras was ‘unexpressed expectations are premeditated resentments.’

“So, if you don’t tell someone what you’re thinking and you don’t communicate anything, then you don’t give anybody an opportunity to try to make it better or fix it.”

They did communicate, effortlessly. And they didn’t have unexpressed expectations.

“We just had this team living approach where I paid for everything and she took care of stuff. So she cooked and cleaned and took care of animals. She had two cats, and I had two dogs. We had like a little menagerie. We were like cousins or sisters.  I would do my thing and work, and she would do her thing and take care of the dogs and the house and listen to podcasts and research everything.

“We didn’t ask for anything from each other, but anything that we needed, we would have given to each other.”

That synchronicity changed both of their lives forever. “She was my best friend. I was her biggest cheerleader, and she was my biggest cheerleader.” Neither could have foreseen what would happen one day in the autumn of 2019.

“She came into my room at four-thirty in the morning and said, ‘something’s really wrong. I have a horrible headache.’ And after talking with her, I figured pretty immediately that something was not right. So we went to the hospital.”

Soon after arriving at the emergency room, Debra seized. “That was her last conscious moment.” Debra died of a brain aneurysm.

Even in death, Debra was as Dr. Richardson described her: giving, caring, conscientious. She donated her organs. Months later, a memorial service was held. The date was February 11, 2020. Debra’s birthday. She would have been 48 years old.

Los Angeles for Healing

Debra came to Los Angeles to heal. And so did Dr. Richardson.

Back in 1999, Dr. Richardson had finished medical school and was in her surgery residency at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. She died in the year 2000. The young physician didn’t yet know what type of surgeon she wanted to be, but soon after, that decision was made. She joined a practice with Atlanta breast surgeon and mentor Dr. Bill Barber.

“I lost my own mom, and I’m sad without her. I wish she was still here. I think the gift in that experience of going through that with her is that I saw what people are going through mentally on their own side of it, the fear that they have, the anxiety they have, how they process information. Learning those lessons through someone who actually went through it, it really kind of gives me a scope of what my patients might be going through. And as much as I would rather be a slightly crappier doctor and still have my mom around, it’s definitely something that I’m making the most of, and I know that she would be proud of me.”

Dr. Richardson’s layers of resilience are as deep and diverse as the intricate paintings she creates.  Her perspective is ever listing toward the light.

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Moving West

“In any scenario, you have an opportunity to make something better for a person… and sometimes that person is yourself.”

By 2014 and after another loss in her personal life, Dr. Richardson needed a change. A place to heal.  It was her own time to get on a plane.

“I was in a very complicated marriage for years and years and years. And my husband took his own life. It was a really horrible situation, and I wish he had made different decisions. But I can’t unmake his decisions. And they weren’t my decisions to make. So I have to just sort of let them go and appreciate that I wish things had turned out differently. I can’t do anything else about it. And all I can do is take what I have from all of that experience and move forward. That’s why I left my practice in Atlanta and why I came to Los Angeles.

“Just start over, just give myself a new place to come. I wanted to go somewhere really different and wide open where there were tons of opportunities for me personally and socially and career-wise. And I just wanted something bigger.”

What did she do during that transition time? Did she have anchors or routines to help her feel grounded? Did she exercise? Hike? Meditate?

“I’m the worse exerciser. I am the worst dancer. I don’t do anything athletic. I’m just a giant klutz. I don’t like moving!

“The most athletic thing I do is downhill skiing and that’s because the mountain does the work. All you have to do really is stand still and go into a controlled fall. At the other end of that is a giant bowl of melted cheese and several glasses of wine!”

Humor is something her mom and dad instilled in her and her brother, Jamey.

“Our family is really funny. Whatever the situation is, it is what it is. And it doesn’t have to be good or bad. You don’t have to put a sign, a dramatic absolute, to anything. Any situation you have, you can take something good away from it or any situation you can make it better. If it’s already pretty good, you can just enjoy it and be grateful for it.

“I just threw myself into my work, and I love what I do. I came here to start with one practice, and that ended up not working out.

“To have a really busy, thriving practice and start over from scratch twice was really sort of a blow. That is really where all of my attention and all my effort went. And it bore fruit. So that was the reward. The reward was in that work: Planting those seeds and then watching everything grow and develop and blossom. I didn’t really think, well, what if I fail?”

She asked herself a different question: What am I going to do with my success?

“Any ingredients that you’re given, you can always make something from it. Any horrible situation that life presents you, presents you with a lesson of your own strength, your own resilience.”

Through her example, Dr. Richardson shares that strength and resilience with every patient she encounters and with all who come to know her caring heart.

“Every stumbling block that I encountered was a rock or a current that sent me onto this beautiful new shore.”

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Trickle, Trickle, Trickle

Back at the bank that day, Dr. Richardson was told that whatever was in Debra’s account was now hers.

Dr. Richardson knew that Debra’s father had left her about $100,000 a few years prior.

“I figured after three years, she probably had like $80,000 left. After sitting for two hours at the bank, they handed me a check.” There were $13,000 left in Debra’s account.  “I was really shocked that all of her money was gone. My first thought was, ‘way to go!’ You haven’t been sitting on a big pile of money that you’ve been waiting to spend. You did everything you wanted to do. I’m really, really impressed!’ Then I thought, maybe she’s put money somewhere, and I need to find out where it is. As I’m going through every month of her bank statement, it’s just trickle, trickle, trickle. The entire time she was living with me, she was putting money into my account.

“I had two bank accounts, and I would move money back and forth between the accounts. And when I would do that, it would just say the name of the bank. And her account was at the same bank. So when she transferred money in, it just said the name of the bank. So I never, ever, ever knew. She did it completely anonymously. The only reason I ever found out was because she died.”

Not unlike donating her organs after death, Dr. Richardson knew how befitting this gesture was of Debra’s character.

“In any relationship, I think people overestimate what they’ve put into it. Whether it’s business or personal, you overestimate what you’ve put into it. They’re overestimating what they’re putting into it. And the reality is somewhere in between. When you give freely and you’re grateful for whatever you get, then it’s complete harmony.”

It takes a selfless heart to recognize and appreciate the depth inside the soul of another person. That’s what they both did for each other. And that is why their sisterhood was complete harmony.

Dr. Richardson says Debra always gave more than she got.

I bet a lifetime of family, friends and patients would say the same thing about Dr. Heather Richardson.

Find Bedford Breast Center on Instagram and Twitter @bedfordbreastcenter and online at www.bedfordbreastcenter.com. Photos courtesy of Dr. Heather Richardson. Shown: Portraits, as well as an image of a painting done by Dr. Richardson, and an image of Dr. Richardson and her friend Debra.

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Just Turn Around

Pippi Longstocking! If she had to pick one favorite book from her childhood, L. Marelle Camel would choose Pippi Longstocking. The adventures… The lack of supervision…

“I just was so taken by this little girl who was raising herself.” Marelle’s smile and tone revealing a bit of envy for the child who was free to get into mischief unchecked. “But also, I was kind of afraid for her because she didn’t have guidance.”

Since those early years, books have moved Marelle. And she wants them to impact today’s elementary aged kids too by presenting reading not as a chore, but rather as a world of exploration, learning and wonder.  Marelle cares about this so much that in early 2019, she founded a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Camel Kids Foundation.

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“It’s important for kids to really see themselves reflected in books,” she said. “We provide students with free books to introduce them to authors and illustrators and lead characters of color.”

Marelle says it is imperative for children to see books that have someone who looks like them on the cover.  “Especially in children’s books, picture books… that’s important for the little kids to see.

“I want to triumph all of our people of color who are authors because they don’t get a lot of credit. I want to introduce their books to kids.” That also includes illustrators of color. “I think that the children who are not of color can also benefit from reading a story by someone who is of color. Nine times out of 10, they have friends, schoolmates or playmates or people in dance class that are of color. And it’s important for them to know how to relate.”

Marelle knows stories can be formative, and they have staying power. Decades later, the thought of Pippi Longstocking still brings a smile to Marelle’s eyes. (The story was first published in 1945 by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, and it has been translated into 75 languages.)

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Now a 32 year-old actor living in Los Angeles, Marelle embraces all aspects of storytelling, and she has made a commitment to reaching young minds through books.

The mission of Camel Kids Foundation — which Marelle says is currently operating in Los Angeles and New York, and next in Atlanta — has two parts. One part: Visit schools to read and gift carefully selected books to elementary age children. The other part: The Snack Box Project: To provide classroom supplies for teachers and snacks for their rooms.

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An estimated 94% of all teachers buy classroom supplies out of their own pocket, and up to 13 million children nationwide go to school hungry regularly.

The struggle felt by teachers to provide for their students is a reality Marelle knows well. Her mother, Pearl, has been an educator for nearly 25 years. While teaching pre-K and kindergarten, Pearl raised three daughters alone: Marelle, Marelle’s twin sister Lynne Michelle (younger than Marelle by just three minutes) and their older sister Katherine (who is also an educator and teaches K2 at a daycare).

Homework and the Human Spirit

Growing up in Atlanta, Marelle learned the importance of education from her mother.

“She is an educator to the T. So if we didn’t have homework, we had homework. She would give us homework. And even if we did have homework, she would give us homework. Our summers were spent at the library.

“If one of my sisters or I even asked a question, like, ‘I wonder if there’s butterflies that have the same pattern…’ that would be a book report that we would have to do. If you asked a question, you would learn it. You know? And it would be all of us that would have to do that book report. So being the daughter of an educator is hard, but it’s good at the same time because you learn so much.”

Marelle and her sisters learned academic lessons from Pearl. But one of the biggest life lessons Marelle learned was this:

“My mother says, ‘Turn around, child. Just turn around.’

“A lot of people wait until they’ve got Oprah money or Obama money in order to be philanthropists. (My mother) says, ‘Turn around. There’s somebody behind you that could use your help where you are now. You are capable. You don’t have to wait until you have… money to be, like, now I’m going to donate. Or now I’m going to build a school in Africa. Or I’m going to build a school in Europe. You know, there’s something that you could be doing, someone who could benefit from you, if you would just turn around.’”

Marelle thinks about how an organization like the one she has founded today could have helped back then. “We struggled as a family,” she says. “And so now that I’m capable…. (You) can hear the echo. I’ve definitely got to turn around, you know? And help somebody else.”

Camel Kids Foundation primarily serves Title 1 schools, although not exclusively. The basic principal of Title 1 is that schools with large concentrations of low-income students will receive supplemental funds to assist in meeting student’s educational goals.

Learning to Live

After graduating from high school in Atlanta, Marelle left home for the first time in the name of study: to Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama. There, she learned that being on her own wasn’t as carefree as it seemed for fictional Pippi Longstocking.

“I had a hard time my freshman year. Wow! I never realized my attachment to my mother until it was time to leave.” Four years later, she majored in Communications and went back to Atlanta to figure out what to do next. From age 21-24, Marelle would search.

“I found that period, that three year period, very hard for me. It was about discovering my identity and who I was as a person, who I was going to be, the things that I wanted to do, the things that I could do and how could I make my goals reality.”

It’s during those times of waiting or searching that we all find our spaces of grace and refuge.

“I did dance — ballet, contemporary and hip hop. I found a love for pilates and yoga during that time…. That was my release. That did … buy me some time and really helped me deeper discover who I was as a person. I’ve always been very creative, and dance is definitely a way to express myself.”

Through her yoga practice, Marelle says she found calm. “It was the stillness about it that really got me to hone in and focus, which I think is necessary as a young adult to have.

“I think that’s what really led me to just pick up and leave after I’d found my focus.”

Unlike that first goodbye when she left Atlanta for Oakwood University, Marelle was ready when she decided to move to Los Angeles to work in production and then pursue acting.

“Leaving the nest again wasn’t something that I feared. It was something that I welcomed. I was ready for change.”

Change Maker

Even as Marelle focuses on her acting career, her mission with Camel Kids Foundation is deeply rooted in family and tradition and turning around for the next person.

I wondered if Camel Kids Foundation had made its way to Pearl’s classroom.

“I go to her class whenever I’m in Atlanta and disrupt,” she laughs. “I teach (teach, she says, with air quotes) to the best of my ability!”  But those visits have been personal visits.

If Marelle brings Camel Kids Foundation to her mother’s classroom — to sit down with students and read to them about characters just like them — it will be a sort of coming full circle,  a circle which has her mother, Pearl, at its center.

Marelle has watched her mother teach and is in awe of the way she’s able to make connections with students and sees the light bulb moments when they’ve learned something. And there is reverence there, but not only that.  “I adore her.  She’s my heart.”

And it is really heart that is motivating Marelle’s movement — to see hearts, to open hearts and to nurture hearts. Perhaps so that every child will one day find it in their own  heart … to also… turn around.

To learn more, to donate or to get involved with Camel Kids Foundation, visit www.camelkidsfoundation.org and follow them on social media at @camelkidsfndn. Email, volunteer, donate, share. Portrait 1 photo credit: Kevin Richardson/Dance As Art. Portrait 2 photo credit: Kirk McKoy. My thanks for permission to use your beautiful work.

Soul of a Cowboy

Greg Hathcock can swear like a sailor and quote the Bible like a preacher.

One moment he was a stranger in a New Mexico Starbucks, the next, he was standing near my table with a smile and earnestness in his eyes. “I needed to come over here and tell you to have a good day.” 

I heard a hint of the South. I sensed kindness. I saw a touch of cowboy.

But there is always more, isn’t there? We all have pieces. We are all a patchwork quilt. We are all a coat of many colors.

For example, there are people who know Greg the quarter horse trainer, but they don’t know Greg the Tennessee farm boy who chopped cotton and pulled corn. They know Greg the Grazing Bull restaurant owner, but they don’t know Greg the 1963 state track champion in the 100 and 220 dash. They know Greg the father of three who has been married for 31 years, but they don’t know Greg who enjoys a mocha alone at the cafe most mornings. They know Greg the jocular sweetheart who will turn 69 in July, but they don’t know Greg the bull rider. They know Greg the high school running back, but they don’t know Greg who broke a mustang. They know Greg who has a soft spot for people, but they don’t know Greg who wants to make a feature film. They know Greg the boy who didn’t like school very much, but they don’t know Greg the boy who suffered regular beatings from his parents at home.

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But there is no self-pity. Just self-reflection. There is no regret. Just determination. There is no speaking of what is not, only of what can be. When you talk with him, you get his passion for horses and for life, and what he has to share may blow you away.

The Track and the Truth

Greg’s fast feet on the track as a kid have been replaced by fast quarter horses as an adult. A trainer for more than 20 years now, he knows the dark side of the race world and it lights a fire in his belly.

“I’ve seen horses drop dead at the finish line. There’s no reason for the horse to drop dead at the finish line…”

Mistreatment of these animals is something he can’t tolerate, and he doesn’t mince words.

“…unless they got shit in him that they ain’t supposed to have in him. That will kill him. I’ve had them come back after they finish the race, and they drop dead right there when they unsaddle them.

“That-should-not-happen! That’s cruel and inhumane and downright un-Christian-like, if you want to know the truth — do an animal that way.” He leans in and locks his eyes on mine. “If you train your animal, and you feed that animal, and you take good care of that animal, they’re gonna wanna run.”

He wants me to understand that no amount of drugs will change a horse’s potential, and he uses racing lingo to make his point: “You can hang every drug in the world in me, and I can’t play basketball like Michael Jordan. You understand? You only got so much speed in that horse.”

You Gotta Have Heart

We sat down over a pot of coffee at his Grazing Bull restaurant in Capitan, New Mexico, and I asked him if he had a philosophy he lives his life by. I could not have hoped for a better response. You might want to sit down.

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“I love setting goals every day to accomplish something. If I’m 80 years old, I’ll still be getting up and going to accomplish something, because you never get too old or too tired to do something.

“No matter what disappointments you have in life, no matter how many failures you have in life, you never quit. Because sooner or later, you’re going to do something that fits. And you will be successful at it.

“But if you are going to say ‘I can’t’, ‘I’m sick’, ‘I don’t feel good’, you’re not gonna accomplish nothing. You gotta get up.

“You gotta have a lot of HEART in this world. Even if you’re going to an eight-to-five job every day, you gotta have heart. That’s all there is to it. So, if you’re gonna have heart, plan a big thing. You show me a dreamer, and I’ll show you a guy that landed on the moon!

“You gotta set goals and you gotta have BIG goals. ‘Cause God will help you accomplish being President of the United States of America as he would the Mayor of Capitan. You set the stage in your mind right there. But you cannot be a quitter. You have got to keep going no matter how many times you fall down. ‘Cause that’s the only way to make it. I’m telling you, you fall down, get up, dust your pants off, and say ‘I’m gonna do it.’

“And I had to do that a lot. I still do it a lot. And a lot of people wonder why I’m doing it at my age, but I don’t ever want to quit. I like LIVING, I like LIFE.

“Be a CAN-do person, not a CAN’T-do person.  No matter what your goal is, the same energy is flowing through you to do a big goal as it is to do a little goal. So set your sights high.

“Get up and say you feel good, ‘I am healthy, I am well, I’m beautiful, I’m talented, I’m empowered.’ You say that every day, and it will work.

“You know, your words are so creat–ive.” He breaks the word, lending it new meaning.

“Life and death are in the tongue. I think it’s Proverbs 18:21. ‘Life and death are in the tongue. And you will reap the fruits thereof.’ LIFE and DEATH. POSITIVE and NEGATIVE. And what your words are are creat–ive.  It’s no question about it.

“If you speak words long enough, I GUARANTEE that’s what’s going to happen. If you want to look at the way your life’s going to be five years from now, see how you’re speaking right now and it’ll be exactly that way.

“You’ve got to fill your brain with the positive. Somewhere in the Bible, ‘think of things that are NOT as if they WERE.’ It’s in there. It’s in the Bible. Job said ‘the thing that I feared has come upon me.’ So if you’re sitting around thinking about negative, fearful things, that’s what you’re creating and breeding in your mind, and it’s going to manifest in your life. I done see it happen too many times!

“It takes EFFORT to be positive. It takes effort to ACCOMPLISH. It takes effort. It takes effort every morning to get up and to FEEL good. But you gotta TELL yourself. Hey, when I feel bad, ‘I feel good.’ The Bible says ‘let the weak say they’re strong.’ Same thing!”

Greg fills our coffee cups again and as he does, he continues.

“If I don’t have somebody around that I can help do something, I feel like I’m lost a lot of times,” he says.

“I like young people. I like youth, and I wish I could just open their brains sometimes and pour into them what I already know.”

Greg’s words draw his 23-year-old waitress and friend Kalyn over to join us at the table. Greg thinks of her like another daughter.

“I’m gonna tell you something else,” he said to me. “And I’ve never told Kalyn this.

“Kalyn’s an inspiration to me. I see such high qualities in her. And if I can do something to motivate her to be more than maybe she’s thinking sometimes, I’ll feel like I hung the moon.”