A Prayer for Leaders from Dr. King.

I do not know what a prayer is, though I have recited my fair share. I know it is more than a wish, or hope, or thanks. It is outward — a conversation with the universe. And inward — uncovering an intimate truth.

P-R-A-Y. Pop of lips, rip of air, long sigh of an open mouth. Pray. Move the air with your breath in the direction of another being. Will they even know you’ve done it? Can a prayer shrink a tumor? Bring success? Repair a country?

Why pray?

Pray because words exhaled together may shift something too cosmic for our animal brains to know or understand.

Pray because sometimes it is all you can do — when you are not the one who wields the scalpel or sews the sutures or bathes the infirm; when you are not the one placing a hand on a Bible swearing to lead a country out of chaos; when you are on the periphery of your friend’s pain, and it means something to her that you promised to do it.

Pray not because it changes the world, but because it changes you,” my rabbi’s answer. Pray because it focuses your intention. Propels your next steps. Rebuilds your strength. Restores your equipoise.

Pray because it is a love offering. Because nothing is wasted. Because it couldn’t hurt. Pray because it is your impulse and that is reason enough.

This week, pray to fulfill the words the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke 65 years ago:

To do this job we have got to have more dedicated, consecrated, intelligent and sincere leadership. This is a tense period through which we are passing, this period of transition and there is a need all over the nation for leaders to carry on. Leaders who can somehow sympathize with and calm us and at the same time have a positive quality. We have got to have leaders of this sort who will stand by courageously and yet not run off with emotion. We need leaders not in love with money but in love with justice. Not in love with publicity but in love with humanity. Leaders who can subject their particular egos to the pressing urgencies of the great cause of freedom. God give us leaders. A time like this demands great leaders.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Aug 11, 1956, “The Birth of a New Age” Address on the Montgomery Bus Boycott

I do not know how to pray. I cannot proclaim that I believe in its power. I pray anyway. For so much.

Word of the Week: Resilience

A week ago, the word “resilience” might have conjured in my imagination a bowlegged toddler running down the sidewalk, colliding with gravity, and pushing herself back up, scraped knees and all.

Suddenly I am thinking of resilience more expansively. It is every one of us who made it through last year — and, yes, last week — renewing daily our commitment to carry on. Resilience now conjures something as deep and wide as American democracy, maimed but still breathing, still marching.

Resilience is individual and communal. It is the collective decision that what we have inherited — “a republic if we can keep it” — is worth preserving. Resilience is not knowing how to proceed in the face of an unthinkable situation, but committing to figuring it out. It is stepping forward without knowing if you can save what must be saved, or if you have the strength to. Resilience is my friend spending the weekend writing letter after letter to the nation’s elected representatives demanding simply that they tell the truth, because she needed to say that.

Resilience is opening the shutters in the morning and being comforted at the sight of the trees and sky still there.

Resilience is seeking out wisdom, like: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight,” and this excerpt from Optimism, by Helen Keller, found in one of my favorite resources, Brainpickings.

Keller wrote,

I know what evil is. Once or twice I have wrestled with it, and for a time felt its chilling touch on my life; so I speak with knowledge when I say that evil is of no consequence, except as a sort of mental gymnastic. For the very reason that I have come in contact with it, I am more truly an optimist. I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.

Resilience is foundational. Resilience is a struggle. Resilience is an act of faith.

May we remember that resilience is in us.

Word of the Week: Renewal

One of my goals for this new year is to choose one word at the beginning of each week to inspire my thinking, writing, sharing of ideas — and to offer it as some inspiration for a brief writing prompt. My word for this, the first full week of the new year, is RENEWAL.

Last spring when the people went into hibernation, the cars cooling in driveways and school buses quieted, do you recall how the birdsong returned and the skies swept brighter blue? Do you remember the awe of witnessing nature, given the space to return, renewed? There are lessons to be found in this renewal as we reemerge into the world.

When the schools open up and the children reappear, what might it look like to honor their nature, rather than force it back into a tight and narrow place? What might teachers and school boards and pressuring parents reimagine, to honor what our children have been through, and encourage their renewal?

Beautiful answers to those questions are suggested in these words below, attributed to a school principal in Ballard, Washington and shared with me by a friend.

And, if you’re open to a writing prompt, try this:

I wish for renewal of ______.

Set a timer for 11 minutes, and write without stopping, without censoring, just follow your thoughts. (Credit to my friend and writer Dana Childers, and her “Untamed Writing” sessions, for this format.)

May you feel a renewal of whatever it is you need — creativity, compassion, commitment to your goals — in this new year.

Word of the Week

My word for this week, whose opening days hold the closing moments of the year, sounds soft but is filled with power.

Community.

Community is what we have missed so much. Community is what has the power to repair and lift.

The virus that carried destruction into our bodies also carried a clarion truth: we are all in this together. We live in one shared home. We share one biology. We live and die together.

So blast it in the foundation of your house. Scrawl it in freshly poured sidewalk. Dig it into the sandbox at the quiet park. Scar it into the plywood covering the windows of your old favorite restaurant.

Tattoo it on your forehead backwards.

We are all in this together.

May we enter the new year with an expanded sense of who we belong to so that all may be lifted. May we remind ourselves as often as we will forget that we are one human family. May we believe in the possibility of a world where everyone has enough — food, vaccine, love. May we remember the joy and the power of community. If this dying year could at least teach us that, it would be something.

What Will We Remember?

Tomorrow the light takes its first step to returning, a baby step on a six-month journey to the brightest day. We will long remember what was lost this year, but a year from now, will I remember what I gained?

Remember the fullness of my house in spring and summer, the proximity to the energy of young people becoming themselves, unfolding together in a symphony that long ago I conducted but now I sit for as audience.

Remember discovering that my garage was the quietest room in my house.

Remember learning recipes from my niece, planning meals in advance, and finding satisfaction in making things last. Remember baking cookies for no other reason than we wanted to eat cookies.

Remember walking to my parents’ house and ringing the doorbell, knowing they would appear. Remember my dad saying in his never-enough-time-in-a-day way, Let me put on my shoes, like a puppy just told it was time for a walk. Remember his grandchildren’s baby faces on his t-shirts, their college names on his sweatshirts and hats. Remember his white hair, which I still know to be dark brown deep down beneath the skin, sticking out.

Remember my mom, who finally stopped wearing a bra fifty years after that was revolutionary, who filled up her calendar with zoom political meetings, exercise and patience, sighing as he eagerly ties his sneakers, that breath saying only her daughters understand what she puts up with, and how much she loves him and his idiosyncrasies. Remember sitting outside with her addressing postcards to voters, and getting up to dance to Lady Gaga.

Remember wine, and wondering if I would ever go back to old habits of drinking less of it.

Remember walking with Christopher through the neighborhood, down the hidden stairway, making room for people coming up, winding up at the beach and falling asleep on the sand.

Remember the things I wish I had done more of — meals for health care workers, phone calls to friends, quiet afternoons with a novel or backgammon with my son — kindnesses to strangers and loved ones and self — and do more of them.

Remember finally taking the kids on an RV trip a decade after thinking that idea had come and gone. Remember driving it over the Rockies and across the country, taking my husband to his 49th state, and swimming in a lake in our underwear. Remember that there are still so many things we can do. Remember that when our choices were limited, we made new ones.

A placeholder Thanksgiving. Keep it warm.

The memories come all at once, out of order.

Cousin Ken sitting in the middle of my folks’ living room, strumming folks songs on his guitar, offering Puff the Magic Dragon for then-pre-schooler Rebecca…and Kum-bala-laika for his mom Leona and my Grandma Lilli, calling them back to their father singing with his mandolin, bringing them to tears.

Every year, Greg showing up early so as not to miss any of the Dallas game. (Good luck today, by the way.) A football game on the front yard, where everyone but my dad got older, my sister and cousins and me replaced by our children.

If I strain, I can even remember when our grandmother still brought a “second” turkey to accommodate the growing family gathering, before we needed to fix a plate for her and bring it to where she sat. Before my mom eventually decided to leave all the cooking to Chef Ike — but Barbara kept bringing her apple cranberry fruit crumble thing, my favorite.

This year I’m making Barbara’s apple cranberry thing, which turns out to be very easy and will always be my favorite, though it may not taste the same since it won’t be scooped from the same ceramic baking dish.

This year we are apart. Hold the day, keep it warm, and we’ll be together again next year.

The well-loved recipe, by my aunt’s dear friend Susan Goldman.

May we choose to heal

Four years ago I wore white.

My boys declined my invitation to vote with me; they’d done it before, many times. But Maria accepted. I wasn’t sure if she was being kind, indulging me where my boys wouldn’t, or if she was as interested in seeing American democracy unfold as I was excited to show it to her. Knowing her, it was both.

We stepped out of the house, turned right, and began the familiar three block walk to the park where our polling place was set up. I was giddy, if a bit self-conscious in my all-white attire, until I saw other women approaching the polling place similarly dressed. It was a quiet way to scream how much this vote meant to us.

There is a preciousness to a town, to a country, where the place I cast my vote is the same place I asked my parents to take me on Saturdays. Where I ran through the sandbox barefoot; spun around dizzy on the merry-go-round; and licked ice cream cones bought from the freezer of the small store, not minding the dripping down my wrist. This park is where my own kids rode their first slides and I teared up to see their first shoots of independence. Where they made me chase them through obstacle courses of their design — up the fire engine, around the swings, to the monkey bars, until I begged for a break. Where my father coached my then-7-year-old niece’s basketball team and brought the team snacks. Where my sons played T-ball and baseball and basketball and flag football, and where Christopher and I now walk our dogs and see young families playing, masks on their faces.

As Maria and I approached the park gym four years ago, two little voices rang out from the sandbox, sweet and high in pitch, “Maria! Hi Maria!” She waved and called them by their names, a neighborhood celebrity greeting her fans.  

We entered the gym, basketball rims and hoops pulled out of the way above the folding table where volunteers greeted us, the same elders who showed up every election, the one woman who always thinks I am my sister until I sign my name. In exchange for my signature, she handed me a ballot.

I led Maria to a table, chest-high, with a voting machine. Step by step, I explained every logistic, huddling together to make sure she could see. “You have to press the ink hard so it makes a complete mark,” I instructed, thinking still and forevermore of Florida 2000, of “hanging chads” and recounts.

As we left, we took a picture to mark the historic day. We talked about how she would be able to vote by the time of the next Presidential election, and she said, “I can’t wait.”

The line for naturalization has slowed; still she waits. But about a year ago she told me with pride that during a visit to her cousins she had successfully gotten one, a member of the National Guard, to register to vote. They weren’t sure how to begin, and she suggested they go to the post office. When they got there, unsure of what to do next, she coached him, “Laura says if you don’t know, just ask.” I don’t remember saying that; I think she told herself.

The things our parents teach us. How to roast a turkey. How to make a U-turn. How to think for yourself. How to vote. They teach us the importance of showing up and speaking up, and that our voice is powerful. And, as with that day four years ago when things did not go as I had wanted, they teach us how to grieve and get up again. How to stand up for yourself, and even more importantly, how to stand up for others.

Election day 2020 dawned today. I put up our American flag. I am not as ebullient as I was four years ago — we have been through too much for ebullience. But I am hopeful.

I have hope for our democracy, imperfect and rattled as it is. Maybe seeing where the cracks in our system are shows us what needs shoring up, like just enough of a rainstorm to reveal where our roof leaks, but not big enough to bring the whole thing down.

I have hope for our American family, too, caught up in this crisis. Like any family rift, there comes a time to make a choice: Dig into estrangement, refuse to engage, isolate in pain, write each other off. Or, dig in for the challenge of reconciliation. Resolve to repair. Speak our truth and truly listen. Disagree with compassion. Say, “I don’t see it that way” not “You’re evil.” See each other’s full humanity and flaws. Accept that we may never be in full alignment, but know we are still one family. One country.

(Caveat: I do not know what to do with the dangerous my-enemy-drinks-blood-of-children trope. Maybe lovingly disengage for one’s own mental health. Maybe double down on love?)

I have hope for our country, our democracy. We are scarred, but we are wiser for it. Today, as we make a choice for President, may we choose to heal.

Dance with me: a love letter

“Oh very young, what will you leave us this time

You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while.”

– Yusuf Islam

Dance with me: a love letter

This petite memoir is a love story — love between parents and children, husband and wife, grandparents and grandchildren. Between dancers and dance. Between humans and being.

Maybe this is a love story about love itself.

Written it in staggered moments over the three years since my grandmother Lilli Diamond died, it is no accident that it came to completion during a time of isolation, a time when pandemic sent everyone home and took our cherished gatherings away — for me, my Sunday dance class, a place where I felt my grandmother’s presence so vividly.

Today, October 16, 2020, would have been her 105th birthday. Let this be my small gift from the heart to her and to you. Dance with me.

Dance with me: a love letter

How to cure despair? Lady Gaga can help.

Let’s talk about despair for a minute, and then let’s get to joy.

There is a low-grade despair that alternates with joyful moments, a dance of emotion I’ve gotten used to over this period of isolation. But sometimes the despair piles on, and there is a giving up. I retreat to a dark bedroom, disengage, until I become impatient with my own desolation, annoyed by my stillness. Until I say to myself, I do not like this feeling, and I am not going to stay here. I set my mind to find a way out.

A friend once told me: The mind cannot hold despair and gratitude at once.

I start with a breath. I sit up in my sweaty, wrinkled t-shirt, and stand up on solid legs. I feel my feet connect to floor, every dutiful achy bone balancing me, and I thank my legs and feet. I take another breath, another step, and one by one I open the shutters over the windows that line the wall, like cells in a jail opening. When I feel despair, I start with light.

When I feel despair, I go outside. I notice the feeling of air on my skin of my face, my arms. I thank my skin, the air. I look at the wide sky, or walk to where I can see the ocean, anything that can remind me of my smallness.

When I feel despair, I turn on music and dance.

In this I am not alone. An NPR article on loneliness during the pandemic shared:

Dana and Jeanne say they’ve always been very social — Dana with her nightly salsa dance with friends, her mom with trips to the theater, ballet, bridge groups and two book clubs. Stopping those activities was difficult for Jeanne.

“It was very traumatic at first,” she says. “You don’t know what to do with yourself.”

The neighborhood had taken to banging on pots every night at 8 p.m., partly as an affirmation of community, but Dana and Jeanne wanted to do more. Dana said to her mom, “Why don’t we just dance?”

Jeanne, though she always loved to dance, says she initially found the suggestion “a little ridiculous,” but figured it was worth a try. So they put up a sign on their garage door saying they would play recorded music and be out dancing in front of their house every Saturday evening. The sign invited neighbors to join them in the weekly dance party — at a distance.

For the first seven weeks they danced alone. Then neighbors started coming, some to watch, some to dance, some to chat. “Dancing is healing medicine,” Dana says.

It has been more than six months since my Sunday morning dance class was canceled indefinitely. I’ve talked about this class before. It may be called “cardio funk” but it is actually group therapy, or “planned joy,” according to a classmate who once scheduled her chemo treatments around it. We enter the room, join this gathering of persistent dancers, greet our own reflections, leave our outside worries at the door. We enter our sanctuary, knowing we will be rewarded for coming.

Our teacher, our Moses, leads us out of our private thoughts and distractions with pumping music that fills the space, and with the outsized persona he dons for these two hours. We become different people from who we are every day.

I often wished my sons would come and see me dance, as if I wanted them to see who I really am. Not the person in the kitchen asking them to put their dishes all the way in the dishwasher, or who provides them dinner without their second thought, who helps with homework or plunges a toilet, the person they rely on. I am that person, but not only her. I am also the woman standing in the front of the dance studio, learning the steps, sweating and smiling, striving and messing up and doing it again, until the last measure of music. I want my boys to understand the whole of me.

I had tried zoom dance classes in March and April, but the medium shrank the joy, only reminding me of what was lost. But last Saturday night, in a quiet house where only three of us now live, I could no longer ignore the sense of despair slowly seeping into my marrow. I knew the cure I needed.

Christopher and Emmett were in the family room watching NBA playoffs, a welcome opium for our masses so needing of distraction and entertainment.

I took my phone into the dark living room and turned on music, turned the sound all the way up, and set it in a rounded glass to expand its reach, my own personal disco. I sang with Alicia Keys about being girls on fire, and we hit the drumbeats hard. Swirling and singing, legs aching toward exhaustion, a state I have not found these past months of plodding fearfulness, Lady Gaga and I proclaimed that we were born this way: born in bodies needing to move to music, bodies that cannot contain our longing for joy, that we are all of us on the edge of glory.

Christopher, hearing the music and my thumping jumping around, my adamant, breathless, off-key singing, wandered away from the basketball game and into my darkened dance hall. As I kicked and hopped and expelled the last cells of my despair, emptying my vessel and refilling it, he sat on the couch and watched.

I smiled an invitation. Get up and dance with me.

P.S. Stay tuned for the release later this month of a short and sweet e-book,

“Dance With Me: a love letter to my grandmother.”

A New “New Year” (aka Pandemic Rosh Hashana)

Yesterday I stepped into adulthood: I pre-ordered a round challah from the Gelson’s bakery. As I ordered on the phone, I lingered over the idea of ordering my favorite, one with sweet raisins dotting the soft, airy middle, but resisted and instead asked for plain, what my boys like best.

Of course, our older son won’t be having any challah with us. He is in Eugene, finally released from the confines of pandemic shutdown with his parents and brother, only to have to lock himself in with his roommates to avoid unbreathable air from nearby fires. We are now familiar with the government’s Air Quality Index. He texted me today: “70 air quality this morning!” Seventy is almost “healthy,” down from an off-the-scale high of 496! I reply, “Woot woot! Just in time for the freakin new year…things are looking up!”

Such promising news prompts me to search Yelp for take-out/delivery brisket near him, hoping to delight him with a favorite taste of the Jewish new year. The best I can find is a food truck, and I direct him to its location. I say, take your friends, my treat. Only later does he ask me when is Rosh Hashana, not realizing that my offer relates to it beginning today. Who can blame him? Does anyone really know what day or month it is?

His younger brother, adjusting to life as the only child home — which means home all the time with his parents — asks if he can go to his friend’s house tonight to hang out in the backyard.

I pause to think. Friends are important. Especially in this remote year. Then, to make his case, he says, “I’m just not religious.”

He knows that this assertion will be met with a lecture, or what I think of as parental wisdom. I say, “You don’t have to believe in God. It’s about the ritual, and the communal self-reflection, and asking yourself what kind of a world you would like to live in, and how can we help create that in the coming year.”

I know this must sound like “mwa mwa mwa mwa,” but I also know this: This child is a close listener. He misses nothing. I have sighed at my desk across the long hall that separates where I do my work from where he is doing virtual school, and his voice has returned to me with a gentle, “Mom? Are you okay?” He hears what I am telling him. I know it sticks.

“Sure, you can be with friends tonight.” But I issue an asterisk: in non-pandemic years you will have dinner with your family on Rosh Hashanah. Also, I tell him I will send him with some apples and honey and, yes, some of the plain challah I’ve ordered, and to make sure he remembers the meaning of all this sweetness.

Before I run out to the bakery to pick up the challah, the doorbell rings with what I can only describe as a New Year’s miracle: a friend bearing a Rosh Hashanah gift bag — yellow tulips, sweet apples, a jar of honey, and a challah fresh-baked from her oven. She is a talented chef and hostess, and I know she feels the loss of being able to gather loved ones around her table and nurture and nourish them. I see how she created a new outlet to express her love, and that we are her lucky recipients.

Yes, we helped ourselves to a hunk of the plain challah, though I’ve tried to disguise here!
I mentioned it was fresh out of the oven, didn’t I?

Two challahs; it’s as if abundance multiplies itself! As I head to the store I wonder if there’s anyone without? I call one friend to see if she’s in need. Nope, challah abundance everywhere.

At the bakery I run into friends who are also there for challahs. The challah line is the only place we will gather in person this Rosh Hashanah.

I give my name to the bakery man, and as he searches for my plain challah — the very last one — I share with my friends how proud I was to have acted like my mother and mother-in-law rather than the juvenile I usually am in these matters. I had assumed everyone was more grown up than I, but it turns out I’m not the only late bloomer. One of them had not pre-ordered; she was stuck, unhappily, with raisins.

When the bakery man comes with my plain challah, we already know this was meant to be. The trade is made. He brings me her raisin challah that is so warm from the oven he advises me not to seal the bag yet. As I go to check out, Maria calls to say Happy New Year. Miracles multiply.

Both challahs sit side by side on the kitchen counter now, tempting me. In a little while, we will send our son off to his friend’s house with some of the tastes he loves, symbols of rituals that he may come around to some later day or year. Christopher and I will head to my parents’ house, and along with my sister and niece, we will sit outside on either end of a table recently wiped of ash, and taste the sweetness of choosing to be together, of everyone getting a little something they wanted, and pray for a new year with the healing and repair the world so deserves.