How to Dance in the Rain: Another Lesson from My Grandmother

I wake Friday morning. Think: Another day. Another gift.

Full from Thanksgiving, I dress for a jog, or maybe the YMCA. Whim will decide.

A jog would mean fresh air and sunshine and — the big payoff — an expansive ocean view. The gym would mean maybe I pick up some weights, challenge my muscles. That’s important for a woman my age, I hear. I jog toward the gym.

I choose an elliptical at the end of the row, to put some space between me and the other post-indulgence machine-runners. It asks my weight and my age so it can choose how hard I should work. I lie about my age. By a lot. It’s not vanity; this machine doesn’t know how strong 49 can be.

My view from this machine is split: on the right, through the open double doors, I see the elementary school across the street. I am looking directly at the windows of Aaron’s first-grade classroom. I play a trick on myself; I time travel. “Imagine it is 11 years ago,” I tell my brain, “and Aaron is 6 and learning double-digit addition and subtraction, using the newspaper’s box scores to add each quarter of the basketball games.”

The trick makes me nauseous. I can’t sustain it for a second. That little boy is almost 18, graduates high school in months, then will leave for college. Fuck!

It goes so fast.

On the left side, my view is of televisions mounted to the wall. They are there to distract us, keep us pedaling, jogging, climbing, longer. Trying to stay healthy, longer. Trying to make our time here longer. On one TV is a college basketball game, all eyes on the coach. I time travel again, forward this time, and imagine that coach is Aaron, and I am on this same elliptical machine watching him live his dream. I believe in his dream. I smile. Thinking about the future doesn’t make me nauseous like returning to the past did.

The hardest challenge is being right here, now. I once wrote on a rock, “Be here now,” trying to create a reminder to help me stay present. Emmett found my rock and poked fun at my solemnity, writing on the back, “Where? HA! HA!” I found it on my desk. It was so Emmett, I had to laugh. I can take myself too seriously.

At the Y, a man I’ve known all my life walks in. We went to kindergarten together at that school across the street. Then his daughter and Aaron went to kindergarten together there. She’s also on the edge of what’s next. “How’s the college stuff going?” he asks. This can’t be happening, I want to say. They are only five, I want to say. Hell, WE are only five! “Great,” I say.

It goes so fast.

I walk home, it’s time to get ready to leave for the unveiling of my grandmother’s gravestone,. It has been a little more than a year since she died, and her name has been added to join my grandfather’s. We chose Thanksgiving weekend so all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren could be present.

We gather under a white canopy on a picture perfect fall day in Los Angeles. We have no clergy, we only need ourselves. Our memories. Where to beginThere are so many, my sister says. This is not the end of telling stories, my mom reminds us. My aunt shares, “Some people wait for the storm to end, and some people dance in the rain.” Lilli danced in the rain. My cousins tell of the evil eye she gave to anyone who asked her age, including her kids. We laugh. And on we go.

I have brought my “Be here now”/”Where? HA! HA!” rock to leave on her gravestone. I love how it marries her occasional word of wisdom with her abiding need to crack herself up. I have spent hours telling her stories about things my boys had done, hoping to give her a laugh, perhaps a funny anecdote she could retell herself when she needed something to cheer her. I tell my family the story of the rock, from my intention to Emmett’s rewriting. We crack up. It is perfect.

I try to be present now, to cover my ears to the siren call of future and past. I give thanks for a family that holds these memories with and for me, a family connected by shared love and history, by reminders to dance in the rain, and laugh as hard and as often as we can.

We all put rocks on the gravestone. They are decorated and glittered and painted, some with words evoking Lilli, like LOVE and FAMILY and BROOKLYN. We cover every space, we make that gravestone look like a party, the best party you ever went to. We ask each other what will happen to the rocks, noticing that all of the others around here are bare. There is talk of returning with Gorilla Glue, perhaps adding a new story to the canon.

Writer’s Life: Kathryn Taylor

Sometimes a story can save us. Kathryn Taylor’s world turned upside down when her second husband abandoned her. So she did what a born storyteller must do: she wrote about it. Describing her prose as “truthful, dignified, and pragmatic” and “elegantly descriptive and effortlessly precise,” Kirkus Reviews says Taylor’s memoir “speaks tenderly and directly to her readers: ‘You, too, have the ability to regain your confidence, abandon your hopelessness, and realize that you are not a woman to be tossed aside and forgotten.”” Two Minus One: A Memoir is available November 6, 2018.

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What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

When my first marriage ended, I had two young daughters to raise on my own. After selecting Virginia from an atlas provided to them, the girls and I boarded a plane in California to begin a new life on the East Coast where we knew no one. I was terrified, but of course did not want my daughters to know that. What I did want them to know, and what I worked hard to instill in them, were two basic things: they were loved unconditionally, and they could be fearless. Life held endless opportunities to be explored and fear would only keep them from tasting all that it had to offer. I had to be fearless in writing my story – in an honest and open way – and was confident in the knowledge that whatever the outcome, I had the unconditional love of my family and friends.

Where do you write? What do you love (or hate) about it?

My writing came directly from journals and scribbled notes which were often written at the beach or scattered throughout the house. For the most part, I am fortunate to have an office where I can pull those random thoughts together into an orderly and sequential – and publishable – product. The most difficult part of writing for me is sitting! As a retired elementary school teacher, I rarely had a moment to sit!

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Never give up!

Who inspires you?

My daughters are my biggest inspiration! They are strong, intelligent, and resilient women unafraid to face life’s challenges and willing to embrace its opportunities. I try always to think of them when I am faced with doubt or adversity. Just the thought of them provides the courage and strength for me to move forward.

Is there a charity or community service are you passionate about?

As a retired elementary teacher, I am passionate about early literacy. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, and its local affiliates – in my area, it is Begin with Books – is important to me. I try to donate my time – and my finances – whenever possible.

What are you reading now (or recently) and/or what book do you recommend?

I have read several great books recently including: Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than We Think, Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdad’s Sing, and T. Greenwood’s Rust and Stardust.

What is the most satisfying part of being an author? What do you least enjoy about being an author?

The most satisfying part about being an author for me is connecting with other people through my story. I have met so many wonderful and collaborative authors, readers, and supporters because of putting my experience on paper. I have been exposed to a world I had only imagined and have a far deeper appreciation for the efforts an author puts into polishing, perfecting, and marketing their work.

The least enjoyable – or at least the most challenging for me – is the technology – especially the social media! It was all completely foreign to me, and I still often feel overwhelmed by the demands. Ironically, those challenges have provided some of the most inspiring connections and deepest rewards.

If you weren’t an author, what would you be?

I retired from my “calling” and teaching career to relocate in support of my second husband. I had adjusted to that retirement when without explanation, he announced he was done with the marriage. I wrote Two Minus One: A Memoir to heal from the unexpected loss and abandonment. If I was not writing, I would return to unstructured retirement days filled with reading lots of wonderful books, friends, travel, and sunshine and sand at the beach.

Follow Kathryn on Facebook and Twitter, and on her website kathryntaylorbooks.com


Kathryn Taylor headshot-grey background_previewKathryn Taylor was born at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago, Illinois and spent much of her life in the Chicagoland area.  She is a retired teacher and had taught in the schools of Illinois, California, and Virginia before her retirement and relocation to South Carolina. It was there where she wrote her book, Two Minus One: A Memoir, following the unexpected abandonment by her second husband. An avid reader, enthusiastic traveler, and incurable beach lover, she resides outside of Charleston, SC, which affords her the opportunity to enjoy all three of her favorite past times. Two Minus One: A Memoir is her first book. She can be found at https://kathryntaylorbooks.com

 

Where to find a muse? Look right in front of you.

Muse. (v) To wonder; (n) A mythical source of creative inspiration.

For years motherhood was all I could feel, think, or write about. It drenched me (though sometimes it felt more like drowning) and consumed me. From the first days of feeding, changing, and tally-marking pees and poops (must make sure the pipes work), to driving tests and college applications, motherhood has been a 100% all-in operation.

But the intensity and shock do give way. We do settle into our skin. We do find a new normal. This is not a bad thing for humans, but not optimal for writers. Faded along with the initial shock and the keeping my head above water, went my muse.

I have been in the market for a new muse. While I wait, I write what’s in my heart. My grandmother’s story has a lot to say. She keeps me company — part guardian angel, part gossip partner. I’ve written about her here, here, and here; I’m sure I will write more.

And then there is Maria, who joined our family almost four years ago, just after her 18th birthday. Her story, and our joined stories, lately command my mind. She is a refugee and a role model. A college student and a pre-school teacher. She is like a sister and daughter, a cousin, niece and granddaughter; yet she belongs fully to another family. She is a confidante and a sage, a knowledge-sponge and a striver. She is vulnerable and strong, disciplined and determined, and an empathy-conduit between the worlds she straddles. She is a laughing, living, longing reminder that politics is always about real people.

Feels like the motherhood muse may have a new chapter…

 

 

Writer’s Life: Heather Cumiskey

I’m pleased to introduce you to award-winning author Heather Cumiskey, whose novel I Like You Like This was a Finalist in the 2017 USA Best Book Awards and 2018 International Book Awards. Publisher’s Weekly says the main characters’ “unpredictable melting pot of emotions and attempts to find their place resonates.” The novel is the first of two in a YA duology about addiction, sexuality, peer pressure, and first love. Its sequel, I Love You Like That, arrives August 20, 2019. Meet Heather:

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What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

When you’re a new mother, it’s easy to feel under confident and constantly question whether you’re doing the right thing for your child. It’s also tempting to be swayed by other people’s opinions. Then you realize everyone mothers differently and it’s okay if your parenting style is unique. Your kid probably is, too. It’s the same with writing and learning to trust what you’re creating. There’s no perfect formula for either one—which is a good thing.

Where do you write? What do you love (or hate) about it?

I write in the solitude of my home office. Working alone used to bother me because I missed the energy of others and bouncing ideas off of them. Now I prefer the quiet. It helps me hear my characters’ voices.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Leave people and places better off than you found them.

Who inspires you?

All types of artists inspire me, from parents who fit in their craft while their kids are at school and lose out on sleep to meet a deadline, to teens who catch their creative fire early and diligently hone it. Their love for what they do is contagious and a joy to witness.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

I love volunteering with Athletes Serving Athletes, an organization based in Maryland. Its motto: Together We Finish. We train and help special needs athletes to compete in mainstream races, in the process becoming close to the athletes and their families. The group embodies the best of the human spirit and the joy in helping others.

What are you reading now (or recently) and/or what book do you recommend?

A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena. I enjoy stories about characters who aren’t as they seem, especially ones whom others have prejudged and discarded. I like seeing a good backstory unfold. Everyone has one that deserves to be told.

What is the most satisfying part of being an author? 

When readers share with me that a character(s) resonated with them. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment. It encourages me to keep going.

If you weren’t an author, what would you be?

A painter. I love color. I’d be a messy painter. The fun would be in the creating, not necessarily the end result.

Are there moments in writing when you feel like a fraud?

Sometimes. I think that fear lingers in most artists. I use it to work that much harder. I  quiet the inner voice by setting out to play, not to write when I work. It’s a different mindset and it helps me relax and have fun going anywhere with any character I choose.

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Heather Cumiskey is a freelance writer, editor, and author. I Like You Like This is the first book in a poignant YA duology about addiction, sexuality, peer pressure, and first love. It is a bronze recipient of the 2017 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards and a Finalist in both the 2017 USA Best Book Awards and 2018 International Book Awards. She resides in Maryland with her husband and three sons. Visit her at heathercumiskey.com.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest: @HeatherCumiskey

 

Where a Mind Wanders

I am lying prone in the middle of the floor in yoga pants, and yoga socks, on a yoga mat. I am surrounded by friends on their yoga mats, with our life-filled, pony-tailed teacher in front of us. We are in Savasana, “corpse pose,” which means we have made it through to the other side of the rigorous class. Our minds and bodies can rest and be reborn.

It’s hard to quiet my mind, and it goes to you, Grandma, as it does so often. It goes to how I’m ever going to say what needs to be said about you?

My mind goes to how I feel your presence so often, but mostly when I’m at dance class, and how I sometimes feel as if I’m dancing for you, too, as if you have passed a baton and I’m grasping tight.

My mind goes to how I say Kaddish for you, Grandma, saying “Thank you, THANK YOU for this grandmother! Praise whatever power who gave me her!!!!”

My mind goes to my cousins, aunt, uncle, sister and parents, and how the most important thing in the world to you was family. How the most important tribute to you will be us sticking together.

And my mind goes to three weeks after you died, when my baby texted me from a friend’s Bar Mitzvah party. I was certain he would be saying “pick me up, I want to go home,” but instead he sent a photo, an airbrush design he had just requested be painted onto a baseball cap. The kids could ask for anything at all, a favorite team, a logo, their name. I stared at the photo, breathless at what he’d commissioned for his hat: “The Spirit of L.D.”

My mind goes to how I am not the only one with you on my mind.

Writer’s Life: Ellen Notbohm

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I am delighted to introduce you to  Ellen Notbohm, author of The River by Starlight.

An internationally renowned author, Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed, inspired, and delighted millions in more than twenty languages. In addition to her perennially popular books on autism and her award-winning novel The River by Starlight, her articles and columns on such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing and community affairs have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent.

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

To heed the parable that likens words to breaking open a feather pillow on a windy hill—once they’re out there, you can never gather them back in. To understand that we all do and should change as we move through the phases of life, but to carefully consider the permanence of how our words affect others and how that reflects on ourselves.

Where do you write? What do you love (or hate) about it?

My best writing is done pre-dawn, curled up on the bed in our guest room, preferably in nasty weather. It’s cozy, distraction-free and nurtures the muse. Later in the day, I move to my office, which has a lovely view of our towering rhododendrons and outdoor art, but is Distraction Central, where the necessary-tedium business end of being a writer too often dominates.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

A combo of my mother’s 20th century mantra, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” and my 21st century maxim, “Technology is great until it isn’t.” Something like: “Always have Plan B.”

Who inspires you?

People who continue to embody love, humility, generosity, and respect even in the face of adversity and unfairness.

Is there a charity or community service are you passionate about?

In an ideal world I’d have the money to support every humanitarian and artistic endeavor I feel passionate about but since that’s not the case, I focus on the root of all of it—access to food. Without that, nothing more can happen. I support our local food bank, Meals on Wheels, summer lunch programs, and a grassroots organization here called Potluck in the Park that serves an all-donated array of food to our homeless citizens every Sunday, rain or shine, no questions asked. I’ve been involved for 25 years. One year they told me it wouldn’t be Christmas without my ginger cookies. That ensured that I’ll go on another 25 years.

What are you reading now (or recently) and/or what book do you recommend?

My reading sutra is something older, something newer, something foreign, something classic. This rotation helps me read broadly, not just deeply. It makes me a better writer and a more expansive person. Most of the books on my nightstand are by authors I haven’t read before. Right now I’m reading Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. It’s a three-fer: older book, translated from Danish, author new to me. And it’s a wow—I knew ten pages in that I would give it seven stars on a scale of one-to-five.

What is the most satisfying part of being an author? What do you least enjoy about being an author?

I never fail to be deeply humbled by readers who reach out to me from cultures and living conditions all over the world to tell me how my books have touched them. I can’t imagine many rewards greater than knowing you’ve changed lives for the better. You can’t put a price on that, but we all have to pay the bills, so it grinds me no end the extent to which writers and other artists are expected to be grateful for opportunities to work for free because “it’s good publicity” or “exposure.” I’ve learned to cheerfully explain that, gosh darn it, I offered “book plugs” as currency to my mortgage holder, grocery store, and gas station but they insisted on real money. Imagine!

If you weren’t an author, what would you be?

I would still be a person who looks at how to bring together the opportunities available to me at any given time, the responsibilities I must fulfill, and the abilities I have, and the dreams and challenges that matter to me. It’s worked splendidly so far!

 

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For more, visit  www.ellennotbohm.com and on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn

Upcoming appearances:

July 29:  The Book Stall, Winnetka IL
July 31:  RoscoeBooks, Chicago IL
September 27-30:  Montana Festival of Books, Missoula
October 11:  Bloomsbury Books, Ashland OR
November 10: Cannon Beach Library, Cannon Beach OR

Writer’s Life: Laurie Buchanan, PhD

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I typically interview novelists here, but the times call for expansion. What better time to interview Laurie Buchanan, PhD, Board-Certified holistic health practitioner, life coach, and award-winning author, whose two books focus on purposeful living.

Laurie’s first book, Note to Self: A Seven-Step Path to Gratitude and Growth won six literary honors including the coveted Foreword INDIES Book of the Year.

Laurie recently published her second book, The Business of Being, which blends business and spirituality. In it, Buchanan “demonstrates how to stand in alignment with your core values how to thrive, soul-side out, in and out of the workplace.” In the words of KIRKUS REVIEWS, “This book is a lucid, step-by-step guide to personal and professional success — with vichyssoise mixed in.” And who doesn’t need that?

1.  What have you learned from parenting that you bring to your work as a writer?

One of the most important things I learned as a parent is to admit my mistakes. In the world of writing, that same quality comes into play when my editor or writing mentor tell me that I need to change something.

2. Where do you write? What do you love (or hate) about it?

As a minimalist, I live in a small space—the 500 square foot carriage house of the Russell Mansion in the historic district of Boise, Idaho. There’s nothing that I dislike about it. What I particularly love are the almost floor to ceiling windows in my writing studio that overlook the beautifully landscaped lawn of the mansion’s backyard.

3. If you had a motto, what would it be?

I do have a motto. It came to me about ten years ago on a writing hermitage in Taos, New Mexico. It’s this: “Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.”

4. Who inspires you?

Jane Goodall is one of my s/heroes. Not only is she the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees, but her book, Harvest for Hope, A Guide to Mindful Eating has made a global impact on people and corporations by showing us how we can positively impact the world by changing our eating and producing habits.

5. Is there a charity or community service are you passionate about?

I ran away from home when I was fifteen years old. With that in mind, one of the charities I’m passionate about is Covenant House. Their bottom line? (From their website): “Knowing the challenges homeless teens face, supporting them every step of the way and uniting in a movement to help them off the streets. Join us in this fight to save our kids.”

6. What are you reading now (or recently) and/or what book do you recommend?

If you haven’t read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, I highly recommend it. I just finished reading Widowmaker by Paul Doiron. I’m about to start reading The Girls on the Train by Paula Hawkins.

7. What is the most satisfying part of being an author? What do you least enjoy about being an author?

In addition to keeping my mind active, another satisfying part about being a writer is that it justifies the amount of reading that I do. After all, it’s part of the job description! Then there’s working in my pajamas. Ya gotta love it!

8. If you weren’t an author, what would you be?

I wear two other professional hats. I’m a holistic health practitioner board certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, and I’m a transformational life coach. As a nonfiction writer, I get to weave aspects of these roles into my writing. But since childhood I’ve wanted to be a magician, international spy, or a mad scientist. There’s still time.
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To learn more about Laurie Buchanan, go to https://tuesdayswithlaurie.com.

Writer’s Life: Bonnie C. Monte

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There’s nothing like a good mystery to take your mind off a heatwave. So find some shade under a palm, or close the shutters and turn up the A/C, and allow me to introduce you to author Bonnie C. Monte and her new mystery novel, The Sleeping Lady.

You can hear Bonnie read at The Mysterious Bookshop (pre-order signed copies) in Manhattan July 24 and meet her at Copperfield’s Books in Santa Rosa, CA, August 26.

  1. What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

I attribute my love of mystery novels to my father. He was an avid reader of all genres of books, but he especially loved the challenge of puzzling out a good mystery. What I most absorbed from my mother, and which my sleuth embodies, is a sense of fair play, a love of animals, and an abiding kindness.

  1. Where do you write? What do you love (or hate) about it?

I must confess that I write in a rather messy space. My desk is in my bedroom, which is small — as are all the rooms in my house. I do have a pleasant view of my front garden, but I dream of having a spacious, uncluttered writing studio in my backyard. Perhaps that would make me more productive. Or maybe that’s just a convenient excuse for why it takes me so long to write.

  1. If you had a motto, what would it be?

Don’t believe everything you think.

  1. Who inspires you?

Anyone who devotes their life to safeguarding the earth and its residents. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Rachel Carson. And my new hero is John Urschel, ever since I heard him interviewed on NPR. He played professional football in the NFL at the same time he was getting a Ph.D. in Math at MIT. Now that’s multi-tasking!

  1. Is there a charity or community service are you passionate about?

World Wildlife Fund and In Defense of Animals.

  1. What are you reading now (or recently) and/or what book do you recommend?

I’m just finishing Flunk. Start., a memoir by Sands Hall about her years (and recovery) as a Scientologist. It’s especially fascinating because she came from a marvelously creative family of free-thinkers. Next on my reading list is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.

  1. What is the most satisfying part of being an author? What do you least enjoy about being an author?

It’s so gratifying to hear from readers who enjoyed my book. I consider it a huge privilege to be able to entertain people and provide them with a bit of pleasure. The part I enjoy least is promoting my own work. I’m basically a shy person.

  1. If you weren’t an author, what would you be?

A veterinarian or a landscaper.

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For more about Bonnie, including upcoming events, go to http://bonniemonte.com

Follow Bonnie on Facebook @BonnieMonte

While our government breaks apart families, we built a bigger one.

In light of our current national heartbreak of our government breaking apart families in our names, I want to share a simple message: the antidote to heartbreak is to give more love.

Here’s how my family was given a chance to do that.

Maria was seventeen when she fled the violent gangs of Guatemala. She had already suffered their brand of torture, and if she stayed it was only a matter of time before it happened again.

Still, the only alternative to staying was also unimaginable: leave everything she knew – her mother, father, siblings, grandparents, friends, school, chores – her whole world. Leave not only her childhood but her future – she had planned to attend medical school. Funds for tuition went instead to a coyote. She traveled through harrowing dangers – both nature-made and human – and arrived in Texas as an “unaccompanied minor.” She asked America for asylum. 

During a year of waiting, she was temporarily housed in a detention center for youth in Texas, then transferred to the care of an aunt in Los Angeles. She lived with her aunt, went to high school, did homework, made friends, and met with her pro bono lawyer to pursue her asylum case.

When her aunt’s illness prevented her from caring for Maria, her lawyer took steps to find her another home. That e-mail came to my inbox. “Is there someone out there who might foster this teenage girl?”

To be sure, I was not sure that I was up to the task. I knew it would be challenging, would up-end our family dynamic, impact my two sons, and involve responsibilities I couldn’t yet fathom. (It actually helped that I couldn’t fathom them, they were too abstract to dissuade me.) But louder than all of these challenges was a singular truth: If I were in her mother’s shoes, if I had been forced to send one of my children across the world to keep him alive, I would do it. And then I would pray with every cell in my body that some mother across the world would receive him into her care, would say, “I’ll take care of him.” We said yes.

The day Maria moved in, she did not speak a word of English. I was the only person in our family who spoke Spanish. But the moment she stepped over our threshold, our then-10-year-old son melted the language barrier by asking her to build Legos with him. We all played card games and Rummy Cube (numbers being universal) and I translated to bridge the gaps. Our younger son has referred to her as his sister from the get-go. Our then-14-year-old son had a longer arc to accepting the new normal of our family. Admittedly, so did I.

A few weeks after she joined us, she received the letter saying that asylum had been granted; America had said Yes. She doubled over with tears of relief, and perhaps tears for what was lost. She would be able to apply for citizenship after five years. But it also would be at least that long before she could see the family she left behind. I had only known her a little while, but I cried with her.

She went to high school and took ESL, along with Algebra, World History, and more. My husband confirmed his sainthood by tutoring her every night. When summer came, a job as a camp counselor at the local YMCA pushed her to try out the sounds of her adopted language, and she flourished. She became the local YMCA’s most-loved and most-sought after caregiver. Walking around our neighborhood with her is like walking with the Pied Piper, as children and their parents call out, “Hi, Maria!”

She worked hard in school, got good grades, enrolled in community college, and recently completed a Pre-school Teacher Certificate on her path to getting her B.A. All of this in her second language. She applied for and was hired to be a pre-school teacher at our synagogue, and starts in August. She’ll continue her schooling to graduate from college. This is a young woman who indisputably makes our community an even greater place. Under Jeff Sessions’ new rules, she likely would not have been granted asylum; that might have been her death sentence.

Being Maria’s American family has given our extended family a personal connection to the stories of immigrants coming to our border. When our government talks about building a wall to keep “them” out, we need only look across the dinner table and know they are talking about Maria, and countless other kids like her who have gifts to offer our country, if only we would let them.

If the antidote to heartbreak is to give more love, we need to open our hearts wider. Opportunities for kindness abound. It can be as big as opening your home to foster an unaccompanied minor, or as small as bringing a toy to a shelter. It can be a donation of money or a donation of time. It is doing a just little more than you’ve done before. It’s taking action so that when you look back on these times, you can say you helped cure the world of a measure of heartbreak. Starting with your own.

 

Oh happy happy happy happy birthday.

I squinted my eyes open and, before I fully woke, I saw the sunlight filling my bedroom, brightening my pink quilt, gleaming against the stack of books piled on the floor next to me. My family still slept in the quiet of their rooms. As I registered the meaning, the magnitude of the date, from my twin bed I shouted:

“MOM!!!! Today I’m FIVE!!!!!”

This milestone marked a transition, a blooming of my true self, my coming of age — in a word: Kindergarten. I was maturing from the babyhood of pre-school. Soon I would belong to that big schoolyard I had only watched from the sidewalk below, a place where girls spun upside down on a horizontal bar and tied their own shoelaces. I was overjoyed.

Last week, I turned 49. Exactly 44 years after that memorable birthday, I opened my eyes to a dark room, books still piled next to me, a different assortment of family members sleeping down different halls. Before I registered the date, however, I registered the red numbers on the clock. I had overslept. I needed to make lunches, stat. I sat up, rubbed my face and uttered my first word of that day: “Shit.”

When I realized it was my birthday, however, I made myself start over. I flopped back on my soft pillow and warm mattress, and pulled my (inexplicably not-pink) blanket over me. I took a deep breath in and let it out slowly. In that re-do moment, the memory of my joyful fifth birthday bubbled up.

Instead of seeing myself as an extension of who I was the day before – a woman late to rise, needing to do laundry and walk the dogs and call the vet about said dogs’ (ahem) digestive difficulties and make an optometrist appointment because print had gotten indefensibly small — instead, I saw myself through five-year-old Laura’s eyes. That little girl didn’t ask: What have I accomplished? Shouldn’t my career be more advanced? Shouldn’t I have written more books or won some landmark cases? Shouldn’t my house be less messy, with fewer spiders lurking in corners? Shouldn’t I have forced my kids to play instruments they hated because they’d thank me one day? Is it too late for me to be a Tiger mom?

Five-year-old me didn’t care about any of that. She sang out with joy: Look at this life! You have beautiful children! You have the most wonderful husband! Your big sister? She’s still practically down the hall, a few blocks away! You have nieces who bring you joy! Your friends are true! Your parents? Still here, still close, still loving! Wow. Wow. Wow. What a lucky girl you are.

What a relief, and how forgiving, to allow yourself to be astonished and delighted by your life. To see yourself through loving eyes, as though your five-year-old self had time-traveled decades forward, and was pleased. She could never be as hard on you as your adult self is.

Beckon the lovely,” instructed author Amy Krouse Rosenthal, before her life closed (you may have read about her here). Our eyes are drawn to what we’re looking for, she explained, so we may as well look for the lovely. It’s not a natural human tendency; it takes practice and reminding. So after my abrupt birthday wake-up, I made myself give thanks. For the mundane to-do lists that tell me I am still needed, for the dull throbbing ache in my shoulder that reminds me I still go to a dance class. For music. For kisses. For wind. For books. For stretching and yawning. For laughter. For the daily brilliant miracle of waking up.

Later that day, I listened to a voicemail message from my grandmother, saved from an earlier birthday. “Laura, I want to wish you a happy happy happy happy happy happy birthday,” she enthused. This was my first birthday without her, and I let myself cry for missing her. In her final year, she had her share of bumps and pains, but she always let her blessings win out. Let music and dancing and laughter and family win out. Asked by a crotchety nurse what her secret was, she told her pointedly, “I’m not a pill.”

She saw miracles in mundanity. She beckoned the lovely, and it arrived full throttle. That’s the legacy I’m trying to honor, and what I wish for you. Or as my friend Chloe expressed, I wish for you “a very happy day that makes you feel special and grateful to be alive and just the age you are.”

When was the last time you felt happy to be a year older? “Mom, today I’m 49!!!!!!”

Oh happy happy happy happy happy happy birthday.