Expand (with me, and follow me)

At the end of this post, I am going to ask you a favor. But first, let me set the stage.

The family room was a mess. The dogs had tracked dirt and dead grass from the backyard across the floor and sofas. The “crap counter” was living up to its beloved nickname — filled with mail, homework, textbooks, odds and ends, and our pandemic-purchased air fryer that fit nowhere else in the kitchen. My younger son sat at the table doing homework. I was distracted, looking for a broom, when he looked up and surprised me by talking about lunchtime at high school.

“We stand in a circle,” he said. “And sometimes someone will come late and they’ll be standing behind someone, outside of the circle. And I’ll notice, and say ‘Guys, open up, make the circle bigger, let her in.'”

Well. Need I say that this single moment is better and more important than any grade or achievement? I was proud of him both for noticing, and for acting. How many times have I not noticed someone’s exclusion, or noticed but stayed quiet?

It recalled for me a speech by Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, eight or nine years ago. I sat with my family listening to his homily. Behind Father Greg sat some of his “homies” — former gang members who joined Homeboy Industries to return to society, employment and moral support. “We draw our family circles too small,” Father Boyle said, quoting Mother Teresa. “Imagine a circle of compassion where no one is outside the circle.” Could that have been the seed planted for my son’s expansive thinking?

We live in small circles. Family, friends, colleagues. The global pandemic (incredible how those words roll off the tongue and keyboard so fluidly now) shrank our circles to the size of our rooms and homes. School was a computer screen. Now he has expanded back to school, its lunch area still riddled with boundaries.

Imagine drawing the circle so big that no one is standing outside it. What would that even look like? How can we start in our own ways?

I am drawing my own circle wider in a small way by expanding who can access my posts. Though I have loyal followers here (some more than others — Hi Mom! Hi Joyce!), other spaces offer a potential to reach many more.

So starting today, I am posting on Medium.com, which brings me to the favor: Please read my post on Medium (“How to Write a Memoir”) and “follow” me there.

(Medium lets everyone read a few articles for free each month. Or, you can become a member for $5 per month and gain unlimited access to all of Medium’s content.)

You have loyally read my words in this space and I am so appreciative of your feedback and this relationship with you. I hope you get something from it, too. Let’s keep it going.

Please enjoy this 3-minute read about how I came to be writing a memoir.

P.S. Bonus content: Writing a memoir requires revealing the good, bad and ugly. With that in mind, here’s what I look like when I wrote this.

A new blog! What an exciting announcement!

Shine

I had a WhatsApp message yesterday from a man whose deportation I failed to stop, to my shame. I had not heard from him in a year, since he wished me Happy Thanksgiving from hiding. He said he had some promising news and wanted my advice.

Backing up. He had come to the U.S. on a student visa, graduated from a prestigious California university, and gotten a good job in tech. But he feared that if he returned home he would be killed because he was gay, so he overstayed his visa. He worked and made friends. He bought nice things and paid taxes (I mention these because “contribute to the economy” is how our policymakers tend to measure worth). A fender bender put him in the police gaze, and that was that. They transferred him to ICE and locked him up indefinitely. Without a lawyer, he sought asylum, claiming fear of being tortured in his home country. It was denied. So were his appeals.

When I met him as part of a “chaplaincy” visit, he had been locked up for three years. I knew nothing about immigration law, but he asked me to help. I could do little but be a friend. Inside a locked room, we spent hours discussing books, our childhoods, our shared views of God despite our different religions. I was watching my son play in a basketball tournament when he called me, terrified, because they were deporting him that night. I did not know what to do. And then he was gone. Once he was back in his home country, he sent me a photo over WhatsApp of his bloodied face after a beating the local police had inflicted.

Since then I began to learn asylum law. I still do not know how I could have stopped his deportation.

This weekend I watched “The Infiltrators” (trailer), a true story by this MacArthur Genius winning couple, in which young “Dreamers” in Broward County, Florida turn themselves in to ICE so they can be detained, in order to help get others released. They use public outcry and political pressure to win release for several “low-priority” immigrants. Their bravery, tenacity, and creativity is breathtaking.

When I got that call that my friend was being deported and was on his way to the airport, I did not think to tell him (as the young activists in Florida did with success) refuse to get on the plane. Tell the pilot you refuse. Nearly three years have passed since then. I hope I have acquired some wisdom and experience that can help him restart his life. We made a plan to speak when he can find good WiFi.

Later, I read Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, and messages from the universe aligned as they sometimes do. In her opening essay, she wrote about how the discourse in our country has become so violent, ugly, and cruel.

“We who believe in dignity, decency, kindness, equality, and love have to get louder, braver, and bolder. We have got to come out of the shadows and start using our voices in every forum possible to highlight the need for those values in our public arena. The bottom line is that we would never accept in our homes what we currently accept in our social media feeds or public forums or from certain public officials. We can do better. We must do better. We can’t step back and simply allow those who are raging, screaming, lying, and undermining to own the main stage.”

We do not have to agree on everything, but we must not lose sight of each other’s human dignity in the process of disagreeing.

She concludes: “Each of us is a light. Each of us has tremendous power to highlight the good and to be an example of the good. Each of us can talk openly about the values we uphold and be examples of how to model successful conflict resolution.” Her prayer for the week echoes this: “Dear God, Please help me be an agent of change. Please help me be a light of love. Whenever I’m tempted to be frustrated by the other, remind me that love—not shame—is the key to bringing us closer. Amen.”

Reading her prayer, some Indigo Girls lyrics that always lift my heart and strengthen my spine came to my lips: “If the world is night, shine my life like a light.” They call me back to the basic truth of what we are here to do: try to shine some light. If only I can figure out how to do it as bright as these times call for.


“Let it Be Me,” by The Indigo Girls

Sticks and stones
Battle zones
A single light bulb
On a single thread for the black
Sirens wail
History fails
Rose-colored glass
Begins to age and crack
While the politicians shadowbox
The power ring
In an endless split decision
Never solve anything
From a neighbor’s distant land
I heard the strain of the common man

Let it be me
(this is not a fighting song)
Let it be me
(not a wrong for a wrong)
Let it be me
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light

Well the world seems spent
And the president
Has no good idea
Of who the masses are
Well I’m one of them
And I’m among friends
We’re trying to see beyond
The fences in our own backyards
I’ve seen the kingdoms blow
Like ashes in the winds of change
But the power of truth
Is the fuel for the flame
So the darker the ages get
There’s a stronger beacon yet

Let it be me
(this is not a fighting song)
Let it be me
(not a wrong for a wrong)
Let it be me
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light

In the kind word you speak
In the turn of the cheek
When your vision stays clear
In the face of your fear
Then you see turning out a light switch
Is their only power
When we stand like spotlights
In a mighty tower
All for one and one for all
Then we sing the common call

Let it be me
(this is not a fighting song)
Let it be me
(not a wrong for a wrong)
Let it be me
If the world is night
Shine my life like a light.

Songwriter: Emily Ann Saliers

Let It Be Me lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Dangerous

“I feel most alive when I’m doing something dangerous.” Powerful words, if somewhat concerning when spoken by your then-10-year-old. His middle name is Sage for a reason — no less than Eleanor Roosevelt counseled, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face….You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I am re-reading Rabbi Naomi Levy’s memoir, Hope Will Find You, a decade after first reading it. In her quest “to learn how to live with less fear,” she attends a Buddhist meditation class, in which the leader drops this doozy: “‘Today we’re going to learn the death meditation.’ [I]t was important to see that we could die at any moment.” The teacher proceeds to list many ways they might die that very day — aneurism, car crash, choking on their post-meditation lunch.

This caused her initial panic, but then Rabbi Levy writes, “Embracing a death sentence was extraordinarily liberating. Small-level fears were beginning to seem inconsequential and irrelevant. I felt free to take risks and to speak my mind. I was more open to change and to trying new things.” Just like my son had known.

“I am not afraid” — words from the Yom Kippur liturgy, Adonai Li — lodged in my head this week. I found myself reverting to an old way to process feelings: I wrote a poem. I am no poet (just ask my cringe-y teenage journal). And I had no intention of sharing it with anyone, let alone everyone. But as Rabbi Levy spoke to me from pages written years ago: Liberate yourself. Take risks. Try new things. A poem may not be the kind of danger my son had in mind those years ago, but going beyond one’s comfort zone can take many shapes. This week, maybe find a way to exceed one of yours?

I am not afraid
of death
I know people who live there

To be clear
(Whomever may be listening)
I am in no rush

Whenever I get there
(early or late)
The party is in full swing
The sounds of a shindig
Favorite songs and longed-for voices
Laughing!

The unmistakable hush
as the guests pause to look
who is arriving
The rush to embrace
The loving reunion.

Slow

Monday morning. Here we go! Clean slate! Another week, another chance to start strong! Exercise! Writing! I will make meaningful strides in the revisions! I will get this book done!

Good intentions are slippery suckers; I know/fear that how this morning goes will set the tone for the rest of the week. So I pick a podcast to listen to as I sit on my yoga mat – multitasking, baby! — something to motivate me, light a fire.

I need inspiration. I have been castigating myself for how long I am taking to revise my work in progress. Draft 6 already, with more drafts needed. I suffer from a case of the “shoulds” – I should be done with it already. My comparing brain lights upon every author who writes faster. I have begun to say aloud that maybe it will never see the light of day. I wonder if I should prepare my heart for an “ambiguous loss,” like this author whose novel has not been bought and is wondering if it is over.

Is ever the right time to call “time of death” on an unrealized dream? Or do some dreams need to sit dormant, put away for safekeeping, until your unconscious directs you to open them again?

I pick a TEDTalk podcast called Things that Take Time. The host, Manoush Zomorodi, draws me in:

“We live in an era of instant gratification, a culture that prizes efficiency over patience, but some things, to reach their full potential, they simply cannot be rushed.”

Okaaaay. Go on…

“Optimizing or speeding them up is impossible….A more deliberate pace can be productive, if we revel in it.”

We hear from a zoologist who is over the moon about the evolutionary brilliance of the sloth, the only animal that “comes with a built-in philosophy.” We hear from a sleep scientist that we cannot rush sleep; Mother Nature has evolved our bodies to need what it needs. We hear from an architect investigating ancient, indigenous technologies, like rain forest “bridges” made from trees that were planted fifty years earlier for that eventual purpose.

I sooo want to cross the finish line with this book. I feel antsy, judgmental of my progress, and ready for a sense of completion.

But as much as I want to complete it, I want it to become what it is supposed to be. I may not even know yet what that is. So I am listening to it. I am showing up and straining to hear. I am giving it the time it takes. I will try like hell to revel in its deliberate pace.

I come back to the Mary Oliver poem that always helps me slow my breath, “Don’t Worry.”

Things take the time they take. Don’t
worry.
How many roads did Saint Augustine follow
before he became Saint Augustine?

Felicity

Rituals (or Goodbye to all that)

We sat around our dining room table in mid-August. Summer was ending. Our younger son would start 11th grade in a day or two, his first time back in a classroom since the early spring of 9th grade. A few days later his brother would head back to college for his junior year in person.

Before we eat, I said, I want to do something. Four half-melted candles, a hodge-podge of what I could find in the kitchen drawer, stood up in the center of the table, anchored to the bottom of a glass jar by their own melted wax. Next to that, the last four matches of a box. I thought that each of us could light a candle and say something, whatever you want, maybe a wish or hope for the new year. Anything.

I needed this. I needed to pause and acknowledge that we had been through something extraordinary these past 17 or so months. I needed to mark the end of one phase before we rushed headlong into the next without a breath. I needed to call it out for what it was – an aberration, a valley, a trial – in order to face and welcome the “new normal” if not the grand “Woo Hoo, It’s Over!” we all wanted.

I expected eye rolls, but they did not come.

So I lit my candle and told my boys I was proud of how they had weathered this strange and unprecedented challenge, isolated from friends and the rituals of high school and college life, and that they had shown remarkable resilience and good humor, as well as grief and mourning. We went around the table and each took a turn, match-lighting glitches and all. It do not know that it changed anything measureable, but it did give us a moment to take a step back and honor what we had been through.

The instinct to mark time is a hallmark of being human. “One of the most important features of rituals is that they do not only mark time; they create time. By defining beginnings and ends to developmental or social phases, rituals structure our social worlds and how we understand time, relationships, and change.” – Rebecca J. Lester, Ph.D

As Jews, every Friday evening we are invited (I guess “commanded” would be a more traditional way to go) to light Shabbat candles to separate the work and school week from a time to renew, rest, and recharge. (Unexpected bonus: during the pandemic, having such rituals helped keep track of what day of the week it was.)

Tonight we mark the beginning of a new Jewish year. Some of our “normal” rituals – gathering together, getting dressed up (i.e. out of sweatpants), driving to our synagogue or the larger hall rented to accommodate the large crowds who show up this time a year — are still not back. Instead we will meet our synagogue community outside in a park. (Still better than last year, when the park was shut down and empty of the sounds that animate it, the human energies filling and colliding, reducing it to a plot of sand, grass, metal, bricks. It is the people who make it a park.)

Apart from the novel location, the practicing of other rituals will ground us — the prayers themselves and the fact that we know to gather at all. Rituals are meant to be done in community. “Rituals anchor community in the body. We physically feel the community.” – Byung-Chul Han.

One ritual of the Jewish High holidays that I love because it involves being in nature and letting go of regrets is Tashlikh. We will gather at the beach and throw bread crumbs or birdseed into the sea, to symbolically cast our “sins” into the ocean. I will cast away my sky-high fear. I will cast away washing my groceries when I come home from the market. I will cast away telling my teenager and 20-year-old to wash their hands every time they come home. I will cast away the grief of seeing caution tape on the monkey bars. I will cast away the anguish for all that was missed or lost in the past year and a half. Harder, though just as necessary, I will cast away the silver lining of having my kids home, the false-comfort of thinking I can protect them, and try to adjust to their being out in the world where they belong. I will cast away the clenching and shrinking we needed to practice, and try to open to what will be born in the year to come.

Medium

“I want to know if he’s okay,” she says, heartbroken.

I think, but do not say, but he is in the ground. A part of me understands. She’s his mom. She needs to know.

She calls a man and says her name. The medium asks her nothing. He describes what he is sensing and seeing and hearing. He describes her son. He describes that behind him are a man and woman, her parents. They welcomed him, he tells her. He says, “I love you, Mom.” He is whole again. And he is with her all the time.

Saturday I walked with my friend along the beach, catching up and comparing notes as we have done since our sons were babies. There are novel challenges, mothering young men emerging into adulthood. There are challenges of restarting careers we left for a decade (or two), ready now to stretch in that direction, going back at lower pay and less experience than we would have had if we had stayed in them all along, but not regretting the departure.

Our skin moves against the sand, our feet and calves and quads propelling us across it. We do not believe this is temporary, I say, trying hard to feel the urgency of being in the moment. We keep thinking it is endless. What are the magic words I can utter to wring the energy out of every hug, every song, every cup of coffee? “This too shall pass.” “I love you.” “I am here,” like Moses and God looking for each other. Hineni.

We say goodbye. She is off to pick up her son from the SATs, but I have more time to myself. I am not ready to go yet.

I ride my bike to another spot on the beach. I follow my instinct to a place I’ve never stopped, buy a coffee and a snack and sit in one of the orange sling-back chairs. My grandmother sits next to me. She leans back in her chair and closes her eyes, reveling in the air on her face, the sound of a casual family volleyball game ahead of us. Clouds keep the heat of the sun at bay. In her later days, it would have been impossible for her to be here physically, to step over the sand and sink into a low chair. But now she gets here just fine, like Samantha or Endira in “Bewitched,” appearing when beckoned or on her own whim. My quiet companion. I savor this moment. I wonder who met her when she passed over. Maybe my grandfather, handsome and young and knowing. Whole again.

I sit here for a while, sinking into the peace of having nowhere else I need to be, waiting for some inner cue to tell me it is time to go home.

Adaptability

Summer is over, if you did not know. One sure sign: our son left today. He is somewhere on I-5, threading through the northern towns of California, past large suburban sprawls and endless agricultural valleys, toward his for-now college home in Oregon. A call last night from his roommate informed him of bad news: a friend’s fresh Covid diagnosis, and the roommates’ possible exposure.

#collegelife2021 #Partay.

He informed me of this news with admirable poise and equanimity. I would have thrown a full-blown woe-is-me tantrum. Maybe as the mom, such news brings back all the stress of trying to protect my family — the wiping-down, the curling in, the lifting up of the drawbridges. I dread these rituals as much as I don’t want anyone to be sick. Or maybe it is that 18 months of online college has taught him how to deal with setbacks.

He was disappointed, sure, but he swung with the news. Found a place to stay for a couple nights until they know for sure his house is clean.

But what if they’re positive, kiddo? I guess we can find a motel, or Airbnb, or…

Mom, stop.

Right. One day at a time, and all that jazz.

Living in this startling age of a global pandemic, its losses and its victories, the up of getting vaccinated, the down of too few people taking it to shut the virus down, and the still dawning discovery that things are going to be different for a while, has gifted him the elusive superpower of adaptability. I am learning it along with him, once again his student.

Calling

I stood at the foot of my bed folding laundry, listening to a podcast to take my mind somewhere else, past clean t-shirts and shorts and the search for matching socks, away from the images in my head of yesterday’s funeral for an old friend.

“Everyone has a vocation,” the podcast voice said. “I mean, the most fundamental vocation is to become the person whom God created. And it’s both the person you already are and the person that God calls you to be. And I think we find that out through our desires. What moves us? What touches us? What are we drawn to? Part of that’s career. But only part of it. I mean, it’s really who you are called to be.”

To be in touch with our desires is harder for some of us than others. Sometimes it is hard to hear the call, but other times we make it hard — we know our desires but resist.

Adam Sadowsky, whose life we celebrated yesterday, followed what moved him to create a unique and brilliant life, his journey modeled on no one but himself, his own curiosity, talents, and love. He loved people and ideas and creating. He loved connection and family. He loved love.

May his memory be a blessing, and a reminder to follow our own compass. To take time out to get quiet and listen for it, if need be. Here is a glimpse of his beautiful life, well lived, in a Ted Talk he created about engineering a viral music video for OK Go. The song, aptly titled, This Too Shall Pass.

Heated

My sister says she does not think her kids should have children. We are sitting at the beach under an umbrella, our feet in the sand, the small but persistent waves blocking out the sound of cars on the highway behind us so completely that I forget the road is there. I can tell by her tone she is serious; it is not hyperbole. “Don’t say that,” I say, but my silent thought is, “she is not wrong.”

Her statement is the opposite of her biological urge. And it is perhaps the most generous position a baby-loving person could have when faced with the evidence.

The scientists are telling us that by 2040 it will be too late if we do not act with drastic urgency. But they have been telling us, and telling us, and the collective we have not yet heeded them. The drought, floods, tornadoes, heat, and fires have gotten worse, gathering strength like a snowball becomes an avalanche, so what hope is there that we will act now?

I hate when my sister is right about bad things. I push back against her statement, try to convince myself that she is overreacting, as opposed to being the one of us willing to say the awful truth. My way is to try to convince myself that something not-great is actually fine. This can be a helpful, adaptive quality: Plan goes sideways? Oh, now it is a new plan! A better plan! But it is a fine line between making peace with what is or cultivating a positive attitude, and denying reality and suppressing emotions.

It feels easier to look away from the data, to numb ourselves with busy-ness and good TV and what’s for dinner and making vacation plans. And yes, these are pleasures that still exist and we must delight in them.

But to deny reality and suppress emotions is not sustainable — not for our earth or our bodies.

I would like my children to experience the human miracle of raising children if they want to. Selfishly, I want to hold those babies. And, pollyanna wishing, maybe those babies will become people who help fix things.

Maybe this is what life has always been, knowing that living is hard and carrying on with it anyway, trying to make it better. Maybe this time there are glimmers of, “oh shit, this thing IS real” that will spur a collective effort. (And smart VOTING.) Maybe that collective effort will bring about other unforeseeable benefits (less war?), seeing that we do not have a choice but to save the world and that it takes all oars rowing together.

We get up and walk toward the shoreline, stand on the cooler darkened wet sand and wait for the first rush against our feet and ankles. It is icy and elicits a shriek, a shudder, a resistance. “Stay there,” I say. “It gets better.” The wave recedes and returns, again and again, until it feels like we are a part of the ocean, that we are meant to be standing here, like the seaweed and the sandcrabs and the shells, and the water feels so good we have to drag ourselves away.


[Wondering what can we do? Read Emily Atkins’ article, “What Can I Do? Anything” and PICK SOMETHING. As she writes:

Some people may read this and believe it is pointless. That we are too late. That none of it matters. The fossil fuel industry knows this is not true. Their fear of a determined, pissed off public is why they promoted campaigns of climate denial and “individual responsibility” in the first place. They knew if people were unsure about the problem, they’d waste time fighting about it instead of mobilizing to fix it. They knew if people were confused about the solution, they’d waste time trying to change themselves and each other instead of the system.

However worse the climate crisis gets now depends on how quickly society transforms. How quickly society transforms depends on how many people demand it. The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.

Beckon

“Beckon the lovely.” Words I am remembering today from the late Amy Krouse Rosenthal, an author who memorably sought a good wife for her husband in her waning days “as a person on this planet.”

I discovered her a few years ago in a newspaper story about her life, death, and legacy. I had just finished reading about a Syrian war documentary and felt gutted. I wondered then, in a world of war and drowning children, could a person living a loving, generous, gracious, wise, creative life make any difference? The question is still pressing.

Back then, I googled her and got lost in her work. I found children’s books and memoirs and videos of her making beauty and fun. A Tedx Talk that said, “Whatever you decide to look for you will find.” If you look for the dark and disappointing, that is what you will notice. So you may as well look for the good. Beckon the lovely.

I try but it is not easy. I cannot sustain it. I see the dirty dishes left in the sink by my kids for someone else (guess who?) to deal with, and let annoyance set my mood. This “beckoning of the lovely” business takes practice.

In our garage, a mess of junk piled up over the years, owing to my hoarding tendencies. It must have been not long after I read about her that I retrieved a slat of wood from a broken bookshelf, saved because I thought it might become something. I wiped the dust and cobwebs off, found some old house paint, and in a once-a-year type inspiration, set out to make something.

A sign to remind me of that elusive but important aspiration. What you look for, you’re gonna find.

Sometimes when I sit outside, the air touches my skin like a smile.