Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of the bestselling novel SHELTER US (winner of the 2016 National Indie Excellence Award for Literary Fiction, Independent Publisher Gold Medal for Fiction, and Southern California Independent Booksellers Award Fiction Finalist) and the petite memoir DANCE WITH ME: a love letter. Laura is the editor of the anthology, DELIVER ME: True Confessions of Motherhood, which benefits organizations that help homeless families. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.
Daring to shout your dreams to the world lets others dream, too.
I am posting from a different place than I normally write, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania for my uber-talented sister-in-law’s birthday.
I came to the East early to spend two nights on my own in New York City. I love being alone there, walking wherever I choose, changing my mind when I want, stumbling upon a late-night event, cheeks numb with the cold. For a brief flash of time, I inhabit an alternative “me” — a fairytale where I am young and creative and soaking up art and possibility — not the same-old-same-old person, a lady I like fine but who feels like she exists substantially in reference to the people she loves — mom, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, friend.
On the train from Newark Airport to Penn Station, I found my pen and spiral notebook and wrote about my excitement about the next day’s meetings with “literary people.” The happy flipside of “impostor syndrome” is that meetings like these do not feel banal, but thrilling. They feel like they belong in someone else’s story.
The train slowed to a stop under the Hudson River, waiting for a track to open. I remembered being 16, waiting at an “El” station in Chicago with a group of kids from a summer theater program at Northwestern. We had just seen a play and were heading back to campus, when a woman on the platform shouted to us in excitement, “I just got cast in a Kevin Costner movie!”
She had come from a pay phone, this being 1986, which also explains why she wasn’t texting this news to a friend but screaming it to us, a group of teenage would-be actors, wondering if a creative life might be possible. Here it was in the flesh. I studied her face, telling myself to remember this moment when she someday accepted an Oscar. Did she know that in sharing her excitement she was giving us reason to believe in our whispered dreams?
I saw the movie. She had one line. I don’t recall seeing her in anything else. That’s not the point. These tiny moments of delight may be the beginnings, or they may be all we get. So we may as well blow them up big. Feel our presence in this world.
Most days I feel like gratitude is my superpower, and I can turn away from the crap and orient myself toward reverence for all that is good — as small as a dog offering her tummy for a scratch, or a piano playing in the other room, or as wide as Christopher’s steadfastness, patience and love.
Some days it is harder to find that reverence. There’s a lot of sadness, near and far, and rustling up gratitude feels like a heavier lift than usual. On this day of heightened emotions — both gathering with joy and missing with ache the people we love — from a posture of humility, I go tiny: gratitude for finding my computer charger. Gratitude for finding a matching sock in the laundry. Gratitude for joints that bend and stretch without pain, and the sense of smell when the maple caramel pumpkin pie comes out of the oven.
It occurs to me that these are not tiny at all. Neither are these “tiny stories” (in 100 words or less) of gratitude from around the country I pass along (hoping the link goes past the paywall.)
Wishing you a happy, ample, or (fill-in-the-blank for whatever you need) Thanksgiving.
No matter how we try, can we savor a moment as much as we should?
Did I love it enough?
Those three quick days with our son, popping into his life for a weekend, then back out. Arriving on his doorstep straight from the airport, feeling the moment it takes to reinhabit our connection, then the swoosh that wraps us up like a swaddle in our mother-father-child circle.
His hug, for me, is what resets it. It says more than a love poem. It feels like storing up for winter.
Did I love it enough?
The stepping into his living room from outside, wiping the already wet and leaf-sogged bottoms of my shoes on the small rectangle of cloth at his door. These Oregon trips are always waterlogged. A quick exchange of hellos with his Cherub-faced friend, another mother’s baby graduating from college this year, then the three of us go off to dinner, our route drawn by Google maps to a restaurant we have never been to.
“Are your synapses firing, Mom?”
He’s teasing me about a rant where I said I want to do new things and go new places because it makes our time feel longer (or so said some TV show that I told my family about, which he will not let me forget). Tomorrow we will leave his college town for a new adventure an hour away, two nights with our boy in a cottage on the McKenzie River. But did I love it enough, these familiar streets, his favorite sports bar, playing pool with his friends?
The next day, Christopher drives and I soak in the views from the passenger seat. The full rushing river. The steady rain. Forests of Douglas fir. Colors of fall, specifically northwest beautiful — more yellows than browns — so different than the desert beaches of our southern California autumn.
Closer to our destination, the trees wear char marks from last season’s fires. Some are blackened halfway up, yet recover and yield to green at their tops. Others end in shards scraping middle sky. Oregon fires have become a season to themselves, prompting me to check my Weather App for air advisories. When the fires came again last month and my son’s town’s air filled with smoke, I asked if he needed an air purifier and N-95 masks.
“You sent them last year.” (Unspoken, perhaps: they’re still in their boxes.)
Beneath my conscious awareness, but in my bones, is the memory of another drive with just the three of us, headed to the ER near midnight because our son’s breath scraped his lungs and he might not be getting enough. When he fell asleep next to me in the backseat and his breathing eased, we turned around; the ER seemed worse than guarding him through the night, listening for the tightness again. The next day the pediatrician gave us an inhaler and said, as his body grows so will his airways, and this proved to be true.
The rains have washed the air; it smells like life. We walk along a trail it took us three tries to find, then retreat inside to get dry, gaze at the river, read books, and — here’s the most important thing — watch college football. He takes a break to do some work, and we watch the river go by and talk about where to have dinner.
The guy at the diner in the Astros shirt shows us a photo on his phone of a waterfall twenty-six miles away. “This one is visible from the highway. There’s another waterfall, but you have to hike two miles to see it.” And because our son wants to see a waterfall, and also wants his Sunday watching ESPN Redzone on his couch, and because I see how much he works — writing, interviewing, editing, and publishing — I want that for him, too. A waterfall from the road will be plenty.
The snow surprises us as we get closer to the falls. We had not noticed the elevation gain or the temperature drop. There is a small parking lot and a well-marked sign. We step out in too-light rain jackets and follow a steep, slick path.
You might watch a waterfall forever and not be able to decide which is more powerful — the sound or the sight. A million gallons of energy pour, spilling, endless, relentless, backsplashing against the river it is part of. Snowflakes fill the air, thick and fuzzy, and accumulate on the trees. I understand why we say “take your breath away” and that something beautiful is “stunning.” .
“Woooow! This is crazy!” My son’s awe sends a tickle down my neck.
“My synapses, Aaron!”
He tips his head back and sticks out his tongue to catch slushy snowflakes in his mouth, and I think, that is the best idea anyone has ever had and do the same. I see the sky above, the trees tilting toward it, and dancing melting dreamflakes landing on my face and tongue. The waterfall behind us never thinks of slowing down.
Before we go, one of us says, or maybe we both do, “I love that when we go home, this is still here, still happening.”
Did I love it enough, these days with my son? Soaking up time together. Building a fire. Playing Catan. Talking about what keeps him awake at night. Falling asleep to the sound of the river rushing by.
A desk’s drawers give clues to who we are, and who we might become.
This is what life is like now.
The sound of my husband watching television migrates from the living room, through the door, and into the room where I am writing. I turn on white noise to block out the voices on the news channel. Digital nature sounds wash over the commentary by Whatshisname, you know, the journalist from Watergate, whose name will come to me any second.
This is what life is like now.
A digitized monkey (or is it a bird?) interrupts my thoughts, so I lower the volume as I sit at this desk we bought at the vintage store for Maria to do her homework and keep her things. Now that she lives on her own, it is a space for me.
I wonder where this desk lived before we brought it home. Who rested their arms on its surface and what work did they accomplish before it was emptied and restored? If this desk were marooned on a desert island and found in a hundred years, what would its contents say about who we were?
In the top left drawer, Maria’s high school student ID and an old pair of glasses hang out with sticky notes of forgotten ideas scrawled in my handwriting. Hairbands, hers and mine. A pouch of glass totems I made a few years back, with drawings and words of inspiration like, “I have everything I need.” “Write and share the love!” “50 is fun.” Ha.
Bob Woodward! Phew. This is what life is like now.
Beneath that drawer, a deeper one holds my things — filled spiral notebooks, a box of blank cards in case the need arises. Happy Birthday. Thinking of You. With Sympathy. A burnt candle in a small glass jar. A new candle, unlit.
On the opposite side of the desk, like the other half of a brain, a drawer with closed legal files for people I once spent hours with, interviewing them about the violence that made them leave behind everything they knew and owned and touched — all the things that told their stories until the moment they ran to seek refuge. Folders with research on the basics of asylum law as I learned it. This drawer is heavier, and harder to slide open.
I open the last drawer, the wide shallow space in the center, holding the last scattered clues to who I am, or who I have been until now: two glue sticks — one old, one new. A charger that doesn’t fit. Soft ear plugs (forgotten). A Shutterfly photobook coupon (unused). The empty red box for a fancy pen with my name engraved on it, a gift from a friend that reminded me that in her eyes, I am a writer. Blank 3×5 cards at the ready. A recently rediscovered photo of my then-three-year-old niece riding my back like a pony in my parents’ living room, her arms and eyes lifted in joy. Closest to my hand, the last thing I put inside: this year’s birthday card from my husband, bright yellow and in bold all-caps: YOU ALWAYS BRING THE SUNSHINE.
This is what life is like. Opening drawers, physical and emotional. Examining mementos and discovering which ones still stir something. What will we keep and what do we throw away? Are we content with the contents as they are, or is a purge coming? Does one drawer call to us more than another? The answer to these questions answering the persistent one: who do we want to be now?
At our Thursday morning zoom writing group, a poem is read, a timer is set, and we write without stopping. Moving the pen in this way can loosen us up and let out the juicy stuff, surprising us at times with where the subconscious may lead.
Except minutes into the session, my son’s “G’morning” as he rouses himself from bed breaks my focus. Is it a little gravelly? Is he sick? Even as my pen moves, my mind starts ticking through “should do’s”: I should ask if he is feeling okay. I should offer him lozenges. I should find a Covid test.
No, that’s not it. I should keep writing.
I should. But one quick reply to let him know I am here can’t hurt. Checking that my zoom is muted, I shout upstairs, “I can help you in thirty minutes.” Good for me! Protect my writing practice. This is a revolution! My declaration of independence!
The next thirty minutes will be my internal civil war.
Because, I mean, I haven’t made his lunch yet, something I do most days — not because I think he can’t do it, of course, but well, we both like me to do it. And he does not know that I bought the good bread for sandwiches yesterday.
No, no, no. I am not stopping to make his lunch.
Except now I hear him say something to Christopher, who is out of commission with Covid, and my brain tunes out my inner voice and tunes into theirs. A vector pulls hard on me to get me off my chair to see what they need.
No, no, no. No getting up. But maybe just one text? There is good bread in the pantry, and sliced turkey, and yogurt, and apples.
Ahhh. A hit of helping settles me down. Now I can focus on the writing.
Except was that a sneeze? Now half my brain (more than half, let’s be honest) is occupied with, who was that? do we have tissue? and shouldn’t I go buy a Covid test this very instant?
No, no, no, no, no. Stay here with your pen, your notebook, your fellow writers, creating collective energy. Stay until the timer says you are done.
It takes more strength than it ought to, resisting the reflex to jump away from my work into what I think they need. Running around doing for others feels like home base — extra points if I have to give up my own thing to do it!! The martyr game is myjam!
Next time, I think, just tell them in advance that I will be unavailable for ninety minutes. But it is only me I need to tell: Stay put. Atta girl.
If it takes scribbling garbage until the timer beeps to keep my butt in this chair and break the impulse to jump into everyone else’s business, well then let that be one more way writing saves me.
My arm is getting tired. Good. Keep going. Keep writing like your life depends on it, every word showing you how strong you can be.
The unpredictable bliss of salvaging a memory from a (sometimes) fruitless writing practice.
These sagging couches, broken with the weight of brother-wrestling, and binge-watching, stained with old chocolate and fresh dog lick. They were once pristine, even measured to fit the room, with cushions like single beds, not broken up in twos or threes, representing my hope for kids’ sleepovers, now the soft landing for teenage boys sleeping late..
These dogs, scratching on the glass door to be let in and not taking no for an answer. Can’t they see my pen is moving across these lines? Don’t they know I am trying to drop into a memory or uncover a turn of phrase that could make my day, if only they would bug off?
These drugstore notebooks, not so precious, filling up with last week’s bad ideas and false starts, the same stuff from the week before, maybe a good paragraph waiting to be rediscovered, reshaped, and repurposed.
What is the point of all these scribblings that come to nothing? Is it simply in the exercise, writing as sit-up or squat, their value in how they may have strengthened me?
Or could there be buried treasures hiding, as ordinary as beach glass, to pick up from time to time, maybe bringing back a memory of an ocean’s spray, or the time a wave knocked me over and I got up laughing and soaked, wholly forgotten until I revisited the page where I wrote it?
These things. These decisions to etch in ink for my own muscle memory, later to be remembered, something found and forgotten and found again.
Like this morning, flipping through pages, finding something written at a different desk in a different city, a memory stirred by the view from the airport shuttle bus from San Franciso to Marin. As we passed Stern Grove, a memory comes alive — just for a second, like flash paper — of being twenty-six and with a friend in a grove of redwoods. And though I can’t remember the specifics, I remember there was music playing.
There is a moment when you can feel the rain before you can see it. When an unconscious glance at the sidewalk reveals gathering polka dots of grey, and you are flooded with relief for this confirmation that your skin still tells the truth, and the world still operates as you expect it to.
There are moments when your phone ringing at night makes you jump, the sound too sharp for nighttime, the pulling back of sheets, the silky cool of them against your skin, the weight of blankets on your legs, the dog encroaching on your hip.
You set down your book (and your newest pharmacy-rack readers), and your distracting thoughts, and answer the phone. You know who will be calling. Your son, asking if you can mend something that has broken. A heart, say.
Not so long ago, he brought home a torn sweater and asked if you could sew it. It was a jagged tear in the fabric, not on a seam, like it caught on something rough. It was a favorite sweater — its perfect softness, weight, warmth, color — and he wanted nothing short of full restoration. You knew at a glance that what he wanted was not possible.
You said: What if we patch it?
He answered: Can’t you please just sew it?
You loved that he believed you had some special skill to make it like new, so you did not want to tell him what he wanted was impossible. You wanted to believe it, too. You and your inexpert hands went in search of your grandmother’s sewing kit, with its yellowed quilted fabric and basketweave, the one she had brought with her when you were laid out with the chickenpox for two weeks and made pink satin overalls for your teddy bear.
In the sewing kit, the spools of thread her hands put in it half a century ago and a needle. Hoping he knew something you didn’t about mending, you brought the sides of the torn fabric together, stitch after uneven stitch. Maybe it would work? In the end, the best you could do, was a scar across the sweater’s surface. He thanked you, and even wore it like that for a while.
Now he reaches out from the distance of another state. You answer the call, and in the pause before he speaks, you rummage through the kit of your experience, gather your thoughts and wisdom to prepare for whatever might need stitching, hoping the world still operates the same as when you were young, and knowing scars are inevitable, and beautiful in their own way.
It is college application season. You and your friends are being asked to condense your whole beings into 650 words, the grades you have earned, and a list of activities that caught your teenage interest. Is it any wonder you drag yourself to the desk? Who could go with grace to this task whose stakes feel so high?
Before you submit yourself for inspection to a committee that will decide if you are “worthy,” and before these schools with the big names that look so good on sweatshirts have their chance to pronounce your worth—allow me to answer:
Yes yes yes.
My dear heart—you who did not patent an invention, or work in a cancer research lab, or get elected president of, well, anything— you areamazing.
You excel at kindness, and making your parents laugh. You have a philosopher’s mind, a nurturer’s soul, and a prankster’s sense of humor. You notice when someone is standing outside the circle, and say, let’s make the circle bigger. You know how to stop a bully with a look.
Forgive my hyperbole; it’s about to get extra: you are the shining light of God’s eyes. I know you don’t believe in God, but can you think of a word that better captures the beauty of your unique soul? (If you can, use it in that essay.)
What I’m telling you is, Yes yes yes.
Before the envelopes, thick or thin, begin to arrive; before you even submit your requests; what I am telling you is you have all you need inside you to craft a life that fills you.
I am not saying, my sweet kiddo, that it will be smooth sailing. There will be times in life when you will question your worth. I tell you this from experience. Impostor syndrome comes to everyone, myself included. (Even the Queen of England, I am sure of it, had her moments of looking around Westminster Abbey, feeling the weight of the crown and sceptre, and pinching herself.) You will wonder, Who am I fooling? Who am I to write a book? To stand at an Open Mic? To dream of greatness?
What I’m telling you in a voice that is loud and clear and bold: you are everything.
So, when you do, you know, eventually, hopefully before the deadlines, send off those applications, know that your worth is not waiting to be decided. It is already as steadfast, whole, and unassailable as my love.
The Jewish New Year prompts the annual introspection: how to love our imperfect selves?
Last year at this time, we were taking steps to re-emerge from the pandemic. For me, that meant sending my kids back to in-person high school and college. I’m not gonna lie; it was bittersweet. I liked having my babies close.
On the eve of that transition, we sat around our dining room table and I said, Before we eat, I want to do something.
I needed to pause and acknowledge that we had been through something extraordinary over the last 18 months, before we rushed headlong into the next season of our lives without a breath. I needed a ritual to close that time, in order to welcome what was coming next — a “new abnormal,” if not the grand “Woo Hoo, It’s Over!” we all wanted.
So that night I had scrounged and found four half-melted candles in the kitchen’s junk drawer and anchored them to the bottom of a glass jar with their own melted wax. I know: better humans than I would have thought ahead, bought new candles, maybe even placed them in real candleholders, and set a vase of flowers in the center, with a carefully crafted playlist humming in the background. While I admire and appreciate people who make those efforts, touches that make everyone feel special, that is not me. When I get an idea, I ruminate on it for a while, reject it, change my mind at the last minute and decide to commit to it, and then scramble to make it happen. I am who I am.
Gathered around the dining room table, I said, 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 expected double eye rolls; they did not come. I guess my family needed something like this, too.
I lit the first candle and said to my boys, “I am so proud of how you weathered this strange and unprecedented time. You’ve shown resilience and humor, in addition to grief and mourning.”
Around the table, we each took a turn, match-lighting glitches and all. I do not know if my little ritual changed anything measurable, but it gave us a moment to take a step back and honor what we had been through.
Rituals are a necessary part of the human condition.
I have been thinking about rituals this week we celebrate the High Holidays. On Erev Rosh Hashanah last week, our rabbi spoke with utmost gratitude to his mother, who made sure that his family knew without fail that every Friday at 6 pm, they would be gathered around the Shabbat table.
As I thought about my own family’s haphazard Shabbat rituals, I felt that familiar second-guessing, comparing-mind, regret rising in my belly — if only I had done that better! I really meant to and now it’s too late!
In a perfect world, I would have created a beautiful and reliable Shabbat ritual for my family. My kids would have come home to the smell of fresh Challah baking, roasted chicken, and potatoes in the oven. Not only did I not possess the domestic discipline to plan ahead, but I also lacked the iron will to enforce that weekly ritual against the competing interests of flag football practices, basketball games; or social events of our own. Rather than make a beautiful, attendance-mandatory dinner each Friday night, I made the decision that keeping my kids from doing what they loved because of Judaism — was the surefire way to kill any fondness for those rituals and create a lifelong resentment to carry forward into the next generation
I sometimes wonder, like when the Rabbi is talking about his treasured childhood memories of Shabbat each week — what rituals will my kids keep? Which will they pass down? Which will they abandon? Which have I taught them, and which have I unwittingly handed down?
One ritual I love is casting away regrets.
One of my favorite rituals is Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of sins. I did not encounter this ritual until I was an adult (which feels important to remember as I flay myself for failing to instill rituals in my kids). I love Taschlich both because it involves being in nature and because it is about letting go of regrets.
Lucky to live by the ocean, in our community we gather at the beach and throw bread crumbs or birdseed into the sea, symbolically casting our “sins” into the ocean. As I throw the seeds toward the water, I think about the qualities and feelings I want to shed, and the thought and the physicality of it make me feel lighter, at least for the day.
Last year, I cast away fear. I let go of washing groceries when I came home from the market, and of reminding my sons to wash their hands the second they walked in the door. I cast away the grief of seeing caution tape wound around monkey bars. I cast away having my kids home and the false comfort of thinking I could protect them. I cast away the clenching and shrinking we had had to do then.
This year, I stood at the edge of the ocean thinking about what to let go of. The same stuff as always comes up (hello, worry, you old friend!), along with the unnamed boulders that keep me from lifting higher. Maybe regret.
My son called from his college town while I was there. He had not been to services, but he and his girlfriend had taken a hike on a trail they had never been on before.
“I told her about Tashlich.”
To be honest, I was surprised he knew the word.
“We took two rocks each,” he said, “and threw them off the mountain. One for something we wanted to let go of and one for something we hoped would come in the year.”
My heart filled. He had taken a ritual I love and had never consciously taught him, and made it his own. Like my half-melted candles, he had improvised and made a meaningful moment and shared it with someone he loved.
What will our kids take from us? What will they pass along to someone new?
Maybe what my kids have learned from my omissions, my failure to impose order and instruct them in perfect rituals and maxims, is that there is room in our traditions for them to draw out meaning. That perfection is not the goal, but the intention you bring. That what matters is showing up with what you may cobble together, and marking the moment.
So what if I did not keep an iron grasp on my family’s Friday nights, as tradition proscribed? I gave us what we needed, the freedom from “must do’s” that pinched rather than added joy; the value of adaptability; and a core faith that the bonds of family — built on trust, stability, and presence — were built all week long in a million other ways.
It would take centuries, and a truckload of birdseed to cast every regret and moment of second-guessing into the sea. A handful a year is a good start.
It is Friday afternoon as I write this. Wishing you a peaceful and perfection-free day of rest.
An invitation — to write, to meet, or maybe to listen — and the discernment to accept or reject.
Hunches, gut reactions steering us toward yes or no, if we can get quiet enough to listen.
I heard a doctor on a podcast describe being in a sensory deprivation tank, floating in total darkness and silence, in water that matched her body temperature so that even her sense of touch was numbed. In that space, she discovered the ruckus going on inside her body. So much more than heartbeat and breath, she heard the orchestra of her organs at work. Seduced by their surprising song, she spent an hour listening and could have stayed longer.
This is what we are given.
The pumping heart, the growing (or decaying) bones, the flesh and ligaments connecting head all the way to feet — ours to use until we cannot.
The rituals of fall, the birthday of the world, reminding us that we can set and reset intentions. The chance to forgive ourselves and others for forgetting. The awareness that we will have to do it all again next year because we are human, and forgetting is what we do best.
We are given a planet that holds all the remedies to what ails us — ways to capture carbon, or cure diseases — if only we can harness our minds to find them, a treasure hunt for survival.
This is what we are given.
Foaming soap. Soft rugs. Baby powder. Washcloths.
A mother who sang a lullaby with the words changed, so that her baby will never fall from a broken bough; and a father who told the story of my birth as “Oh good! Another girl!”
Parents who let a seven-year-old design a t-shirt proclaiming in simple black letters on a light blue field, “Laura the Great,” worn in rotation with a YMCA t-ball team shirt.
I was given almost zero athletic ability, and a sports-loving dad who taught me to play football and baseball, and every arcane rule governing them. I was given a sister who could launch a football in a perfect spiral across our lawn, farther than I ever could hope to throw it, and the chance to see that I did not have to be good at everything to be cherished in the world.
If I could give you anything, it would be this: To know your greatness is complete, and it is non-negotiable.