Rituals – Intended and Accidental

The Jewish New Year prompts the annual introspection: how to love our imperfect selves?

Imperfect challah…tastes about like it looks.

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 eatI 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.


Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of Shelter Us: a novel, and Dance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow her on MediumFacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

This is What We Are Given

The author’s family, circa 1972, photographer unknown

This is what we are given.

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.

Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of Shelter Us: a novel, and Dance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Medium, FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Why Do You Write?

One reason is universal: to share our stories and remember.

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

For generations, authors have offered their personal musings in answer to the question, why write? Joan Didion, said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Cormac McCarthy, was less precious: “I don’t know why I started writing. I don’t know why anybody does it. Maybe they’re bored, or failures at something else.”

As for me, I write to try to understand this vast, surprising, and sometimes heartbreaking world. To enter a moment and hold it, examine it up close. I write to make life feel more real — to make the glowing moments shine brighter and to make the painful moments more bearable.

Read the full post at Medium


Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of Shelter Us: a novel, and Dance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow her on Medium, FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

What to Do When the World Goes Mad?

Stand your ground for beauty


Photo credit: Author

My son reads us the headlines aloud from the CNN ticker that updates every few minutes.

“There’s a guy they’re calling the Ghost of Kyiv. He shot down six fighter jets.” 

I understand why this Ghost has captured my son’s (and the world’s) imagination. Like Snoopy’s need to fight the Red Baron, there is a hunger for hope to conquer evil. Or at least to take a swing at it. Most of us feel helpless here on the ground. 

He says that folks are not sure if the Ghost is real, “or if he is an urban legend the people of Ukraine need right now.” Real or not, Twitter users are cheering the real downing of the Russian planes and helicopters. I cannot cheer, though, reflexively thinking of the mothers of those Russian pilots, whose dead bodies are not myths. Who are victims of Putin, too.

He pipes up with another horror story from the news ticker. “On Snake Island, a tiny island, eighty Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded by Russian warships. The warships told them to surrender or die.” They did not surrender

How can this be happening? How can this carnage be real? How can missiles fall and tanks roll while I am ensconced with my family on a weekend trip to the snow, planned when the strangest thing happening in the world was Covid?

“Go to Google Earth,” I say. I need to see our planet looking like a big blue marble, insignificant, with no borders drawn on its curves and swirls. 

I cannot stop madmen from starting wars. (No one can, apparently.) So I try to locate the balance between sorrow, empathy and gratitude, to allow myself to enjoy the rare gift of a conversation with my son while we traipse through fresh snow. For the beauty around us, as fragile and as temporary, as it may be.

My father’s father was born in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1917 before the Soviet Union existed. He died in 2000 after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

“Go back to the view of Earth from space,” I urge. “See if you can find us.”


Laura Nicole Diamond is the award-winning author of Shelter Us: a novel, and Dance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow her on Medium, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and here at LauraNicoleDiamond.com.

Hey Friday, Thank God It’s You.

Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

The weeks do not fly so much as they race. A frantic regatta of days, each one catching a greater gust and passing the others. Before you have a chance to say, Hey, Monday–you again? you are greeting Friday with, Thank God it’s you.

Time is playing its tricks on me.

It feels fluid again. Not as disorienting as at the doldrums of the pandemic, when I felt compelled to share the occasional “PSA: Today is Monday”, but not the same as Before. I have one foot in the pandemic and one out. One foot in retreat, and one standing in the wide world. The mind tries to keep up with these gymnastics; my center is doing the splits.

These trickster days become wicked prankster years. Lying on my side in a colonoscopy recovery room (for goodness sakes!), a purple-grey gown wrapping my body and propofol wearing off, I asked the nurse — a kid half my age, within spitting distance of my own kids’ age — how did I become 52? It was supposed to be my parents in there, and me off at college. He smiled, understanding I was telling him, I was your age once. This is waiting for you, too.

An hour earlier, I had texted my friend from the dressing room, “Do I want the twilight or the full knockout?” This is the kind of thing we ask our friends now; this same girl I asked for boy advice at 14, love advice at 27, and parenting advice…well, still.

And maybe it is not all bad, to lose track of days and hours, or even years. To have to pause when you wake up while you figure out what day it is, and what role that means you will play: Am I packing someone’s lunch, or sleeping in? Am I planning my family, or my empty nest? To make dinner plans with a friend, look into her eyes and forget the years, or better yet, to see each of those years, those wisps of gray materializing at our crowns (okay, fine — mine, not hers), like shimmering medals for having arrived at this mile marker, with the finish line (god willing) far from our view.

With love, a few extra deep breaths, and appreciation for your time here,

Laura

P.S. In case you missed it, I think you’ll enjoy my post this week on Medium: How to Structure a Writing Retreat, which pertains to life beyond writing, and could just as easily have been called, “How to Slow Down and Do Whatever the Heck Calls to You.”

And remember you can follow me on Medium for free, or subscribe for unlimited access to all of Medium’s articles, which supports my work and that of other writers.


Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of Shelter Us: a novelDance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow more of her writing on Medium.

Go Slowly: Advice on Writing and Living in 2022

Pearl demands a morning belly scratch

As the days continue to spread their light over more minutes of each new day, the intensity of that light remains gentle. I’ll take that as a message: Go slowly.

Read the full post at Medium.


A question for readers: As you know, I’ve been posting on Medium and providing a link to those pieces here on my website. I would love to know what you think about this. Do you find Medium a good way to read my posts? Is it burdensome? Do you encounter a paywall? (You can read five free articles per month on Medium, or subscribe for unlimited access to all its articles.) Please let me know what you think!


Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of Shelter Us: a novelDance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow more of her writing on Medium.

Finding Fullness

My uncle found a trove of mementos in our grandmother’s apartment after she died, and passed them to my father, who shared them with my sister. This morning we began to look at them.

Read the story at Medium (and follow there to not miss a post).

Love,

Laura


Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of Shelter Us: a novelDance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow more of her writing on Medium.

Sideways

Photo by Ruslan Alekso on Pexels.com

Last night I got stuck in that thin layer beneath consciousness, running through lists and worries. A single consolation prize — an idea for an essay. I did not get up in the dark, pilfer a pen from the mess on my window seat, and tiptoe to the bathroom where I could turn on a light without waking Christopher to write the opening sentence that was speaking itself, as I sometimes do. Sleep might be on its way, and I did not want to scare it off. I had a feeling that this one would stay with me until morning, unlike most nighttime whispers.

I would remember to call it “Welcome,” I told myself, and it would connect two stories: one about welcoming Maria home for Thanksgiving, her first visit after a year and a half; and one about finally welcoming an asylum-seeking family from El Salvador into America. I would write about chalk drawing in rainbow colors with my six-year-old neighbor Winnie, Maria’s former pre-school student, who calls me “Maria’s mom” because that is how Maria introduced me and she accepted it as an uncontroversial truth. And I would write about the asylum hearing that finally happened the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day Maria arrived home.

Back in June, when the hearing was supposed to have happened, I practiced every question to ask on direct and re-direct as I coasted over pre-traffic freeways on my way to court. I expelled all my anxious fumes back then, and this time my nerves were less ratcheted. I felt confident. Ready. My clients were prepared. I knew where to park. I knew which of the several government buildings housed the court, and on which floor the courtroom was. All these knowns added to my sense of ease and mastery, my sense of control.

Of course, I knew anything could happen. I told myself to expect the unexpected. For sure something would go sideways.

While I drove to court, Maria’s name and number lit up my phone. She wished me good luck and said her cousin would be taking her to the airport soon. We would hopefully have something to celebrate that night.

In the courtroom, we faced a raised “bench” where the judge would sit, a desk for the interpreter, and two rectangular tables, one for the government and one for my clients and me. Ours was set with two pairs of headphones for them to listen to the interpreter and two microphones for us to speak into. Their four daughters, ages 6, 12, 13, and 19, waited in the hallway so as not to be exposed to their parents’ testimony about why they fled their home — the multiple death threats from gangs because the father was a police officer. On the right, an empty table where the government attorney should be. The judge called our case, then dialed a conference line.

The government attorney’s voice materialized. Present by phone, a Covid option.

We began. And the sideways detour arrived: the judge asked if we could skip my direct exam (all those questions I had practiced!). “In light of the voluminous and detailed record” I had submitted – hundreds of pages including my clients’ written testimony, psychological evaluations to prove their trauma, personal references, police reports corroborating their persecution, expert government reports and news stories – “could we proceed to any clarifying cross-examination, and then any redirect, if necessary?” I understood that we had made our case. I agreed to skip direct, sparing my clients the rehash of their trauma.

The government attorney launched into his cross-examination, something he had not expected to do for a couple hours. He began with the husband, pushing him as to why he did not “do more” to get the police to investigate the death threats against him and his family. The lawyer’s tone grew increasingly hostile as he warmed up. Besides making the police reports, what else did you do? What else? What else? My client held his ground, explaining the steps he had personally taken to protect his family when the police would do nothing. Reinforced bars on the home. Extra ammunition in his gun. Sleepless nights watching out windows. Pulling his kids out of school to keep them safe at home.

Finally, his composure broke and his wife sobbed as the memories of her family’s danger flooded her. I interjected once. After forty minutes, the judge stopped his questioning. “You cannot see their demeanor,” she said to the disembodied government voice, “but they are…affected.” A weak word, I thought, to communicate to the official who could not see his prey, that they were wounded, distraught. He finally understood the outcome as much as I did. When the judge asked, he said the government would defer to the court’s decision (i.e. he would relinquish his right to appeal if she granted them asylum).

Under this circumstance, the judge then asked me if I needed to ask any questions on redirect. It was apparent from her expression that she did not need any more information.

“No re-direct, your Honor.”

The judge indicated that I should go get the daughters. The detour had found its conclusion. I knew in my gut good news was coming.

The girls flowed into the room and sat together, four in a row behind their parents.  

The judge looked into my clients’ eyes, and spoke slowly enough for the interpreter to state without a stumble:

I find the Respondent to be credible.

I find that he has suffered past persecution

And has a well-founded fear of future persecution

Based on his political opinion.

A grant of asylum is merited.

Welcome. I do not know if the gasp I felt at the ridgeline of my heart is audible in the recorded transcript.

We took a photograph in the courtroom after the judge left, the mother telling her eldest daughter to be sure she got the flag in it. I turned to see an American flag standing at attention that I had not noticed the whole time we had sat facing it.

Six days later, my family and theirs met for a picnic celebration at the park. Emmett taught the dad to throw an American football. Christopher entertained the six-year-old with his unique antics. Maria told the teen girls and their mom about her path from asylee to Legal Permanent Resident. The 13-year-old daughter interrupted to ask Maria, Wait, so how are you related to these people?

“Son mis padres,” she answered with a smile. Unlike little Winnie next door, who had taken our relationship at face value, this teenager’s face twisted into a universal expression of, what in the hell are you talking about? Maria laughed and added an explanation. We are her extra parents.

So yes, these are the things I wanted to write about this morning, about welcoming someone home with a gorgeous sign made of chalk and love, and of welcoming a family with sandwiches and football into our country’s safe harbor.

But my story turned sideways this morning when my high schooler texted at 9:40 a.m.

Hey guys, apparently there’s a rumor of a kid with a gun that might be on campus.

It’s probably BS but about half the student body left.

Oh hold up

They found the kid

He had a gun

He was tackled

I have a Spanish quiz

But I think I’ll leave just in case.

Any day can go sideways.

My morning drowned in fielding texts from him, talking to him to hear he was safe, texts from other parents, replying in a daze, chasing down more rumors:

They were locked down.

They were not “on lockdown” but they were locked in, no one allowed in or out.

They were not locked in, they were just processing departures slowly due to demand.

Another local high school had been threatened and kids had fled it, too.

The school sent a message to parents after 11 am, long after the exodus of our children: There were no “credible threats” to campus. There had been rumors among students about threatening social media posts. All information has been reported to LAPD, which continues to investigate and monitor. Extra security had been requested as a precautionary measure.

So those texts from my son? Pure rumors. No kid, no gun, no tackle. But there had been enough concern that the school had requested “precautionary measures.” Was there a real threat, or were they being (thankfully) responsible in light of last week’s abhorrent breach of duty in Michigan?

The school had left us without any information. My son and his peers were left to decide whether to stay put or flee. I had no information to help guide him. What was their conversation as hordes of students flooded out the gates? Did they wonder if their teachers would let them make up tests and quizzes? Did they wonder what might be in the backpack of the kids leaving with them?

My son’s voice was light when we spoke soon after. He was with friends, going to one of the girl’s houses. A free pass for a day. I was taking this harder than he was, at least that was what it seemed. Who is to say? Maybe he walks around in a ball of anxiety because this could happen any day.

I left the house to take a walk and I found myself across from the school. A bell rang and kids materialized in the quad and the paths. Easy targets. One local news station had set up a camera on a corner, pointed at the school as if to capture a moment no one wanted to happen but would be a great scoop if it did, fellas! I kept walking, a stray thought that I could take a bullet for my chosen path. When I got to the bluffs, I sat on a bench and cried, though not enough to release all my clenched fear. Maybe the body needs to hold some of it to remain alert.

My client stood at the window of his house while his family slept, looking out for danger, locked down in his house waiting for bad guys to come. What else did you do to protect your family? What else?

What do we do in the face of this constant threat to our children? We text them, Be safe, Don’t leave the classroom. Or Do leave. Trust your gut. Forget the quiz. Nothing matters. We are scared for our kids. We are tired. At the end of the day, he went back to school for a play rehearsal. I let him. There had been no real threat, after all. Just rumors. What about tomorrow?


Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of Shelter Us: a novelDance with Me: a love letter, and editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood. She is at work on a memoir about becoming a foster mom to a teenage asylum-seeker. Follow more of her writing on Medium.

Possibilities

Photo by Wayne Evans on Pexels.com

The notebook paper is warped and stained with coffee from the mug I knocked over when I pushed my laptop screen away from my “maturing” eyes. An accident, though you may tell me there are no such things.

I blot the paper dry, and the mark it leaves on it does not obscure what is written in my 17-year-old’s hand: “College Possibilities.” His list, unnumbered, stretches more than halfway down the horizontal blue lines, in penmanship neater than years past. He is thinking about his future.

I time-travel backward, and sit at this same table writing a list of names for the baby who is still a part of my body, who at 17 will still be part of my body in a way he will never understand until he is a parent. I try out the sound of each name, closing my eyes to envision what each collection of syllables and histories and meanings might predict for this as-yet unmet soul, how he might live into the sound of them.

Over the next 12 months, he will do much the same with his list, trying on each for fit as best as he can. If time is not linear, the lists sit side by side.

I could find that list of baby names if you gave me an hour, folded into a journal or photo album or baby book. I could place my hands on it, wipe its spine coated with dust, particles of our skin and sweat that have collected these past 17 years.

In the end, none of the names on my list rang true. Days after he was born, it was my sister’s suggestion that wrapped him lightly like a cloud, wide enough to allow any adventure he might choose — artist or clown, athlete or sage — wherever his big heart may lead. I hope his list of possibilities does, too.